EU news focus

EU news focus: 23-29.08.2013 – Minorities, free-trade, future of EU, Syria, press freedom

EU News Focus

In this week’s issue, we talk about xenophobia and hatred against minorities in some Member States (internal affairs), expectations of new free-trade agreements with various American countries (economics), debates between Commissioners and citizens (citizenship), the answer to Syria’s use of chemical weapons (foreign affairs), and the UK government pressures on The Guardian following disclosures on spying by the NSA and its UK equivalent (media).

Internal affairs 

Xenophobia and hatred against minorities

In Germany, the Parliament’s inquiry commission on neo-Nazi crimes published its report at the end of last week. The paper focused on the acts of the NSU (National-Socialist Underground, in English), a group of three individuals who committed several crimes, most of them directed against people with Turkish origins, including several murders and attacks. The President of this inquiry Commission declared that the case constituted “an unprecedented disaster” for German authorities. It seems that the police and the justice failed to study the hypothesis of racial crimes and were informed by unreliable sources. Some victims’ relatives suspect an “institutional racism” within the security forces, but the parliamentary commission dismissed this claim, though admitting that some mentality changes were necessary. The commission’s work itself was said to have been slowed down by a lack of cooperation from other public bodies. The MPs also put forward several suggestions for improvement: a much more careful monitoring of the activities of neo-Nazi groups, a better cooperation between police and justice, and the recruitment of more ethnic minorities in the police. The CDU, the SPD and the FDP (liberals) have, however, dismissed the idea put forward by the Greens and The Left (Die Linke) of suppressing the internal secret services, preferring a reform aimed at preventing the repetition of such a clamorous failure.

In the neighbouring Czech Republic, several hundred far-right activists participated in anti-Roma marches across the country. In some cities, demonstrators tried to reach areas populated mostly by Romas. The NGO Amnesty International has warned about a growing anti-Roma climate in the country, characterised by “discrimination against Roma reaching new heights”. Several people were arrested following clashes with the police.

Sources: El Pais, BBC (on Germany and on the Czech Republic), Le Monde.


Prospective free-trade agreements

The Canadian Minister in charge of International Trade declared that discussions about a free-trade agreement with the EU would restart in September and that the two parties were close to concluding the deal. “Only a few issues” would still need to be solved – sources mention financial services, some agricultural products, medicines and provincial government’s procurement. Discussions have already been taking place for more than four years. Bilateral free-trade agreements with other countries and economic areas are seen as a way to overcome the absence of progress in the WTO’s Doha round of negotiations.

Meanwhile, the discussions between the USA and the EU, which are due to start soon, received a threat from Germany: Peer Steinbrück, the candidate of the SPD (social-democrats), declared that if he becomes Chancellor he will delay the talks until the spying of German and European officials is fully explained and stopped. Indeed, Germany is particularly sensitive to violations of privacy, and the SPD would like to weaken Angela Merkel, who claimed that German laws had been respected by foreign secret services acting in Germany. A German privacy watchdog also claimed that the NSA action violated a pact between the EU and the USA aimed at protecting cross-border data.

Finally, news emerged that Brazil and Uruguay may start negotiating a free-trade agreement with the EU without waiting for their peers of the Mercosur. Normally, unanimity is required within the Mercosur to start negotiations with other countries, but the solution contemplated is a ‘two-tier agreement’ allowing Brazil and Uruguay to go quicker than the others. Indeed, talks between the EU and the Mercosur have been lingering for over a decade. Reaching an agreement is important for the two South American countries, as the Mercosur represents less than 2% of the world trade and other free-trade areas may emerge between Eastern Asia and countries on the West coast of South America. Although the move is supported by Brazilian industrials, things are not clear as some highly ranked officials have said that some declarations had been misinterpreted, and John Clancy, the spokesperson of Karel de Gucht, the EU Commissioner for Trade, has indicated that no country had yet officially asked for bilateral trade negotiations.

Sources: La Presse (Canada), Wall Street Journal blog (article published on August 2nd, 2013), The Guardian, El Observador (Uruguay), El País (Uruguay).

Note: Progress in reaching free-trade agreements with other countries must be welcomed. Difficulties shall not be underestimated, and negotiations can be quite hard to preserve the interests of both parties, but it is in the general interest to facilitate commercial exchanges between different zones of the world, as it shall stimulate growth. Of course, there are always losers within each party to a free-trade agreement, but the solution should be to find ways of helping these “losers” overcome a difficult transition; it should not be giving up an agreement. As to the threat expressed by Peer Steinbrück, I believe it is inappropriate. Of course, the United States shall not spy on the European negotiators (and other officials), but it would be disproportionate to suspend the negotiations.


Join the Conversation on the future of the EU

Did you know that the Commissioners participate in open debates on the future of the EU with citizens all over Europe this year? More than a dozen have yet to take place (click here for more information). Interested people can participate in person or by posting questions online. The Commission also set up a website where you can read interviews with and speeches by European leaders, in which they express their vision of the future of the EU on a wide array of issues. Finally, remember that 2013 is the European Year of Citizens, it is our year!

Source: European Commission’s website.

International Relations

Responding to Syria’s use of chemical weapons

The Syrian case has made the headlines this week, as the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime against civilians and rebels in some areas of Damascus seems to become certain. The French and British governments have been particularly quick in claiming to have proofs of Assad’s guilt and have strongly condemned the Syrian regime, on the basis of testimonies. These two European countries were later followed by the USA, which will once more be the main protagonist in determining whether to launch a foreign military intervention or not. Barack Obama first consulted David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, and then other European leaders as well. François Hollande, the French President, and Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, are also in close contact in these hours of uncertainty. Germany is not very keen on an intervention – while acknowledging there must be consequences and that Human Rights and international law have been violated, it prefers a political and diplomatic solution and called for the UN inspection mission to be given access to the required sites as quick as possible –, and neither is Italy, whose foreign minister, Emma Bonino, declared that even a UN mandate would not guarantee an Italian participation in the intervention. As to the EU diplomacy, it is literally inaudible…

After some delays, a UN mission has been allowed to access the sites where chemical weapons were allegedly used and Ban Ki-Moon, the UN Secretary General, has successfully asked a delay of any operation until the end of the inspection mission (apparently, Saturday). While they insisted on having a UN mandate at the beginning, the French, English and American leaders now seem ready to intervene without the green light of the UN Security Council, because of the obstruction caused by Russia. Indeed, a resolution drafter by the UK and which would have allowed the use of military force in Syria was blocked by the Russian government, which even refuses to admit the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government. Therefore, the precedent of Kosovo, where the NATO intervened without UN mandate, is regularly invoked. Furthermore, the UK government claims that an intervention would be legal even without a resolution from the UN Security Council. However, there was a new turn of events when the British Parliament narrowly rejected an intervention on Thursday August 29th, 2013.

Syria, on the other side, has threatened France and the UK (among others) with retaliation. It has announced it would sue the people responsible for an intervention in UK courts and, more worryingly, has predicted terrorist attacks by extremist rebels on French and British territory.

An intervention looks likely, as a matter of credibility, but it will be limited, as the UK and the USA do not want to renew the experience of the war in Iraq, and it will not be without risks (both for Western military and for the Syrian civil population).

Sources: BBC (also live on Syria crisis, and quotes from the parliamentary debate), Le Monde, Corriere della Sera (early doubts, German reaction, UK reaction, Syrian declarations), El País (general link, Kosovo precedent).

Note: A first remark is that the silence of the European diplomacy is astonishing. I cannot recall seeing any mention of Catherine Ashton in the multiple newspaper articles I read during the week. As to the opportunity of an intervention, we will publish on Sunday an article raising several questions that need an answer before a potential intervention. Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own population has violated human dignity and breached international law. Therefore, it cannot remain unpunished. However, the type and the aim of an intervention need to be clearly defined, and the consequences (both in the short and the long run) need a careful assessment.

Business, Technology and Media

London’s pressure on newspapers in NSA affair

The Guardian revealed that the UK government had threatened it with legal proceedings if it refused to delete or hand over the documents leaked by Edward Snowden, in particular those concerning the GCHQ, the British equivalent to the National Security Agency (NSA). In order to continue publishing articles based on the leaks, the Guardian decided to partner with the New York Times, which is immune from pressure from the British government and protected from American interference by the first amendment of the Constitution which guarantees freedom of speech. The pressure exercised by the government, combined with the detention of David Miranda (the partner of Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian’s journalist who received the documents from Snowden) during nine hours (maximum under British terror law) at Heathrow Airport on doubtful terrorist suspicions, led the British newspaper to warning that freedom of press was threatened in the UK. The UK claimed that two USB sticks and a hard disk carried by Miranda could represent “a grave threat to national security”, but Greenwald asserts that the UK wanted to send him a message. The conditions of the detention have been criticised as well. However, it seems that the leaks will not be stopped and further articles are announced for the coming weeks.

Sources: Le Monde, The Guardian, El País.

Next week…

An EU citizens’ rights fair will be organised in the Lithuanian city of Druskininkai. Its slogan is “Be an active European, know your rights!” Events related to the European Year of Citizens will also take place in the province of Córdoba (Spain) and in Austria (both in Wien and in Linz).

As to the institutional activities, there will be an informal meeting of the 28 Defence Ministers in Vilnius on September 5th and 6th. There will also be the yearly conference of the regional and local authorities for the Eastern partnership (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine).

Source: Website on the European Year of Citizens, Lithuanian Presidency of the Council.

Pierre-Antoine KLETHI

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