Events & News


News and Views on Europe – 23 Aug 2019

G7 Summit: pre-talks between Putin and Macron on Ukraine and Syria
On Monday (19 Aug), Russian President Vladimir Putin met French President Emmanuel Macron for talks, ahead of the G7 summit taking place in Biarritz this year. Macron’s party spokesperson on European affairs tweeted “(at) a time when institutions, treaties and even borders are no longer respected, dialogue with Russia is necessary for France and Europe.” However, EURACTIV noted that tensions were still rife between the East and West bloc. Russia was excluded from the G8 in 2014 following the Russian annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. Analysts speculated Macron would seek to revive the 2015 Minsk ceasefire deal during pre-G7 talks.

Addressing media ahead of the talks, Macron urged Russia to respect “freedom of protest, freedom of speech, freedom of opinion and the freedom to run in elections”, adding that he believed in a “European Russia”. Putin countered that he did not want situations like the French Yellow vests movement in Russia and said those guilty of violating protest laws should be held responsible.

Both Macron and Putin discussed the possibility of renewed negotiations to end the conflict in Ukraine but had clashed on Syria and domestic protests. On Ukraine, both leaders expressed hope at renewed negotiations on Crimea, especially with the election of Volodymyr Zelensky as Ukrainian president. Both indicated further talks were to be held to explore a four-party summit with Ukraine and Germany (known as the ‘Normandy Format’).

On Syria, where France and Russia support different sides, Macron and Putin clashed. Macron stated the bombing by regime forces in Idlib was a “profound worry” and emphasised the “urgent” need for a ceasefire. Putin rebuffed the statement, defending their support of the regime and Syrian army as ending “terrorist threats”. They had also clashed over the Russian domestic crackdown on opposition protests.

Separately, US President Donald Trump called for Russia to be re-admitted to the G7. Speaking to reporters at the White House on Tuesday (20 Aug), he stated “It’s much more appropriate to have Russia in. It should be the G8, because a lot of the things we talk about have to do with Russia.” However, his call was immediately rebuffed by Macron who reiterated that Russia would be welcomed back “only when major progress in the conflict in Ukraine” is made.


Boris Johnson appeals to EU to scrap Irish backstop, EU stands firm; UK industries brace for no-deal Brexit
In an open letter on Monday (19 Aug), UK Prime Minister (PM) Boris Johnson appealed directly to European Council President Donald Tusk to scrap the proposed Irish backstop and consider an alternative arrangement. Johnson said the UK could legislate to ensure no infrastructure is established at the border, urging the EU to follow suit. He called for a discussion on alternative solutions and promised to make other “commitments” in the event actions are not ready by the time the UK leaves the EU. Johnson also labelled the backstop plan “anti-democratic”.

Tusk has since dismissed Johnson’s letter, stating that the proposed alternatives were not realistic. According to Tusk, the backstop was “an insurance to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland unless and until an alternative is found.” He added that “(those) against the backstop and not proposing realistic alternatives in fact support re-establishing a border. Even if they do not admit it”. A Commission spokesperson said that Johnson’s letter did not “provide a legal operational solution to prevent the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland”.

Following Tusk’s comments, Johnson told reporters that the EU was being “a bit negative” with regards to reaching a Brexit deal but expressed optimism that it was possible, reiterating his call to remove the backstop and develop an alternative to “maintain frictionless trade at the Northern Irish border”.

Separately, Johnson doubled down on his stance to end freedom of movement on October 31. A spokesperson for the PM said “tougher criminality rules” would be implemented for individuals entering the UK and the settled status scheme proposed by the previous government would remain. The scheme allowed EU citizens residing in the UK before 11pm on October 31 to remain in the UK indefinitely and they had till end 2020 to apply for “settled status”.

The consequences of a no-deal Brexit has also put different industries in the UK on edge. The UK government attempted to downplay a leaked document listing “the dangers to British people of a no-deal Brexit” as “exaggerated” and “scaremongering”. Michael Gove, the minister overseeing “no-deal” preparations said the document was outdated and set out a “worst case scenario” and planning had been “accelerated”. The document warned of fuel, food and medicine shortages in the event of a hard Brexit.

The dossier indicated a no-deal Brexit could adversely affect the UK domestic fuel industry, which would lead to the “closure of two refineries, strikes and disruption to fuel availability.” The Freight Transport Association (FTA) expressed shock at this revelation and called for an urgent clarification by the government on the impact of a no-deal Brexit on the movement of goods in and around the UK. The government’s previously-articulated plan to cut import tariffs to 0% could exacerbate the issue, as the UK Petroleum Industry Association warned it could put UK oil refineries at a competitive disadvantage.

A government press release stated that UK officials would stop attending most EU meetings as of 1 September. Officials and ministers would only “attend EU meetings where the UK has a significant national interest”. The decision was intended to allow UK officials to focus their time on preparing for the UK’s exit from the bloc come 31 October. In order to prevent disruptions to EU decision-making, the UK ceded voting rights to Finland in the meetings it does not attend. The decision follows Johnson’s promise to “unshackle officials from EU meetings in the House of Commons in July.” However, Johnson has indicated he would attend the October European Council meeting. An EU diplomat criticised the move, stating it “underlined the decision of the UK government to go for a no-deal”.

On Wednesday (21 Aug), Johnson visited Berlin to convince German Chancellor Angela Merkel to re-open negotiations of the Withdrawal Agreement. His visit is the first in a series of talks with key European and international leaders as the Brexit deadline approaches. He was also slated to speak to French President Emmanuel Macron this week, ahead of the G7 summit over the weekend. Merkel told Johnson that she sees “possibilities to solve the Irish backstop problem” but added that it is up to the UK to come up with a workable plan. She also stuck to the EU position that the Withdrawal Agreement would not be re-negotiated and any changes should come in the political declaration that sets out the future relationship between Britain and the EU.

Johnson next visited Paris and Macron emphasized that any prospect of compromise will depend on UK coming up with detailed proposals to re-write the Irish backstop, and this would have to be done within the next month if any agreement were to be struck to avoid UK crashing out without a deal.

An Op-ed in Politico predicted that the UK would become subservient to the US once the UK leaves the EU. Paul Taylor remarked that there were already signs with Trump’s National Security Adviser, John Bolton’s earlier visit to the UK, enthusiastically supporting a no-deal Brexit and calling on UK to renege on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. He concluded that Brexit Britain “may end up being a less than useful vassal than Washington anticipates – except, perhaps, in assisting with Trump’s strategy of weakening the EU”.


EU member states continue to grapple with the migration issue
Last week, France initiated informal talks with the European Commission to come up with a solution for the Spanish rescue ship ‘Open Arms’, which was stuck in the Mediterranean Sea after being denied entry by Italy and Malta. European Parliament President David Sassoli had urged Italy to allow the ship to dock on the island of Lampedusa and allow over 100 illegal migrants to disembark. Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini permitted 27 unaccompanied teenagers to disembark.

On Sunday (18 Aug), the Spanish government offered to let the rescue ship dock at the nearest Spanish port of Mallorca after being stuck at sea for over two weeks. The ‘Open Arms’ rejected an earlier proposal to disembark in Algeciras – in Southern Spain, citing the long journey in a current “state of extreme humanitarian emergency”. Instead it asked Italy to allow the ship to dock in Lampedusa. France, Germany, Romania, Portugal, Spain and Luxembourg offered to help relocate the migrants. Salvini, however, took to social media to mock the offer made by Spain and accused migrants allowed to disembark in Italy of lying about their age and illnesses.

All the migrants onboard Open Arms were finally allowed to disembark after an Italian prosecutor ordered the ship be seized. The announcement came hours after Spain announced it would send a navy ship to escort the rescue ship to Mallorca. In the midst of this latest rescue ship crisis, an op-ed carried by the EU Observer noted that the ‘Security Decree’ introduced by Salvini – in a bid to close Italian harbours – was still “conditioned by the requirements (of) international law” – which included a duty of rescue upon any captain under UNCLOS. However, Salvini has openly challenged the judiciary when rulings on migrant rescue ships have not been in his favour – a move that the op-ed suggests undermines rule of law.

This has led Spanish deputy prime minister, Carmen Calvo, to call on the European Commission to take legal actions against Italy for breaking the law in refusing to allow the disembarkation of “Open Arms”. Calvo also urged the Commission to coordinate a European response for those rescue at sea. This was echoed by her colleague, Margarita Robles, acting defence minister, that “it is essential that the EU takes action” to address the tremendous political problem resulting from the situation in the Mediterranean. Robles also accused Salvini of putting human lives at risk for ‘electoral reasons”, calling the action “a shame for all humanity”.

As a reflection of the urgent for coordinated action by the Europeans, another 356 people remained stranded on board the “Ocean Viking” operated by SOS Mediterranée and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

Meanwhile, a separate report by New Europe noted that Spain’s investment in cooperation with Morocco had allowed irregular migration to drop 39%. According to the report, “(the) EU (had) formed a strategic partnership with Morocco, extending €140 million in assistance to facilitate the fight against irregular migration, with Spain adding an additional €30 million.”


German central bank warns of impending recession
Germany’s economy is headed towards a recession after the Bundesbank (Germany’s central bank) warned that “a slump in exports during the summer was likely to continue into the autumn”. The decline in orders for cars and industrial equipment would persist, leaving the country “on the brink of a technical recession”. The bank cited Brexit and the US-China trade war among other factors accounting for the 0.1% drop in GDP in the second quarter.

According to Bloomberg, the German government is working on a plan to contain a potential recession, including “fiscal stimuli to bolster the domestic economy and consumer spending in order to avoid a sharp increase in unemployment”.

According to the European statistics office, the GDP grew by 0.2% in the EU as a whole, a figure lower than the 0.5% rate in the previous quarter. The slowdown in the Eurozone was attributed to “weak international trade” that affected”the external and manufacturing sectors” as well as “global uncertainties”.