Events & News


News and Views on Europe – 8 Aug 2019

Seeking to strengthen ties with Vietnam and ASEAN, EU expressed concern for the “militarization” of South China Sea
In her visit to Vietnam this week, the EU High Representative and Vice President of the Commission, Federica Mogherini expressed concern over the “militarization” of the South China Sea (SCS). China has been accused by the US and other claimants of SCS for deploying warships, arming outposts and aggressively ramming fishing vessels leading to increased tensions and threatening peace in the region.

Welcoming the EU’s interests in the Southeast Asian region, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc told Mogherini that Vietnam will spare no efforts in promoting bilateral ties between EU. At the same time he expected EU-ASEAN ties to be further enhanced in 2020 when Vietnam assumed the chair of ASEAN. Vietnam will also be a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for the 2020-2021 tenure and will work with EU to make significant contributions to regional peace and stability.

Mogherini was in Vietnam to strengthen ties following the signing of the EU-Vietnam FTA (EVFTA) and the EU-Vietnam Investment Protection Agreement (EVIPA). Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc expressed hope that the two agreements would be ratified soon so that both sides can realize the economic potential and opportunities and affirm their commitments to free trade. He also wanted the EU to continue assisting Vietnam in implementing measures to remove the “yellow card” warning on Vietnamese seafood and fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

Reflecting this desire to strengthen ties is the moves to finalise the EU-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership and Cooperation Framework Agreement (PCA) and the EU-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue. And in the sphere of crisis management, EU and Vietnamese officials have just concluded the negotiations of the Framework Participation Agreement (FPA) which would allow Vietnam to participate in the EU’s crisis management activities.

Mogherini also met with the Vietnamese Minister of National Defence, General Ngo Xuan Lich, who pledged to enhance partnership in defence and security on the basis of international law and common commitments. Vietnam and the EU will also beef up collaboration in UN peacekeeping operations and intensify their engagement in protecting freedom of navigation and cooperation in other non-traditional security challenges.

Speaking highly of Vietnam’s efforts to improve ties with the EU across all fields, Mogherini and her officials expressed desire to coordinate more effectively with Vietnam in regional and international issues and pledged to support the ASEAN-led regional security architecture. In turn the Vietnamese Ministry of National defence said that they backed the EU’s wish to participate in Asia-Pacific defence and security architectures.


UK joins US mission in Straits of Hormuz over tensions with Iran
The outlook of the Iran nuclear deal (also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) remains bleak as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated that Iran was ready for the worst in the uphill battle to salvage the deal. Rouhani said that Iran was “not acting on the assumption (they) will get results through talks and accords”, suggesting the leader was not hopeful about the success of the deal. The comments come amidst increasingly tense US-Iran relations after a British-flagged tanker was seized in the Strait of Hormuz. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard recently seized a third vessel on suspicions of carrying smuggled fuel.

The UK announced that it would join the US in its naval mission to “protect oil tankers in the Gulf from seizure by Iran”, a shift away from previous plans for a European-led mission. Two Royal Navy ships will join two US warships. Foreign secretary Dominic Raab urged other European countries to join in. However Germany and France had refused to join the US-led mission, fearing it would incite greater tensions in the region.

On Monday (5 Aug), Iran told European powers it intended to reduce compliance with the nuclear deal in a month should they fail to shield Iran from the crippling US sanctions. Iran threatened to block all energy exports out of the Strait of Hormuz if it is unable to sell oil as set out in the deal. Tehran had previously warned “it could reactivate centrifuge machines and ramp up enrichment of uranium to 20% fissile purity”, when the enrichment ceiling set out in the deal was only 3.67%.

An opinion piece in the EU Observer urged Europeans to “resist the pressure to back the US approach as long as Iran’s expansion of its nuclear activities remains limited and easily reversible”. Reinstituting sanctions may risk pushing Iran into resuming a full nuclear programme, which in turn risks US military intervention. The op-ed urged Europe to use diplomacy and financial incentives to move Iran into compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.


Migration and refugee issues continue to vex the EU
According to a joint investigation by German public broadcaster ARD, non-profit investigative journalism site Correctiv and The Guardian, the EU’s border force Frontex had allegedly ignored the ill treatment of refugees by guards stationed at EU external borders. The Warsaw-based agency was also “accused of violating the human rights of refugees during deportations”. Local guards were accused of using intimidation tactics to return migrants back across external borders, denying the basic right to seek asylum. Frontex denied the accusations, stating that “so far, no complaint has been filed against any Frontex officer”. A spokesperson for the European Commission said it would follow up with Frontex to determine the veracity of the allegations.

On Tuesday (6 Aug), the European Commission stated it was “confident” Turkey would “take any appropriate action” should the accusation that Syrian refugees have been returned to the war-torn country hold true. The statement comes amid reports that Syrian refugees in Turkey have been deported back to Syria. If found to be true, Turkey would be in violation of the principle of non-refoulement, which is explicitly stated in Turkish legislation and affirmed by the EU. The Commission also announced it would provide an additional €127m to assist Syrian refugees residing in Turkey.

On Monday (5 Aug), Cyprus asked for the European Commission’s assistance in relocating 5,000 asylum seekers to other EU countries as it struggles to cope with the influx of migrants. Cyprus Interior Minister Constantinos Petrides wrote a letter to Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, urging “all Member States to submit their pledges for relocating 5,000 persons from Cyrpus.” The letter also highlighted Turkey’s lack of cooperation in managing the arrival of asylum seekers, stating it has not enforced the deal struck with the EU in 2016 – to prevent asylum seekers from reaching its borders – with regards to Cyprus.

Separately, the Italian government won a vote of confidence in the Senate on a decree that toughens sanctions on migrant rescue ships (5 Aug) that attempt to bring migrants rescued in the Mediterranean to Italy. The decree was drawn up by Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, known for his hardline stance against migration. “The decree hikes maximum fines for ships that enter Italian waters without authorisation to €1 million from a previous €50,000. It also provides for the arrest of captains who ignore orders to stay away and calls on naval authorities to seize their boats automatically.” The UN had expressed concern over the approved decree, demanding that humanitarian efforts “not be criminalised or stigmatized”. The decree came after Salvini allowed a coastguard ship containing 116 rescued migrants to disembark, following an agreement between five EU countries and the Roman Catholic Church to take in the rescued migrants. The five EU countries were France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg and Portugal.

Despite increasing resistance by certain EU member states to take in rescued migrants, migrant rescue NGOs have vowed to continue sea rescue operations. Proactiva Open Arms founder Oscar Camps told AFP that they would “continue until the European Union (changed) its migration policy.” The Spanish-operated rescue ship called for a safe port to dock after it rescued over 120 migrants at sea. Although the Spanish government refused the ship, local authorities in Valencia and Barcelona welcomed it.


EU warns of significant disruption from no-deal Brexit as UK seeks to strengthen transatlantic ties in preparation for Brexit; UK snap election may be a possibility
On Monday (5 Aug), European Commission spokesperson Mina Andreeva reiterated the Commission’s willingness to hold talks with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in a bid to avoid a hard Brexit. The Commission also repeated its stance that the previously-agreed upon Withdrawal Agreement was not up for negotiation but was “open to talk about the political declaration.” It warned that a hard Brexit would be more damaging to the UK than the EU-27. Both sides are at an impasse as Johnson seeks to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement. Representatives of the British Prime Minister stated that “(the) prime minister wants to meet EU leaders and negotiate a new deal — one that abolishes the anti-democratic backstop.”

Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar warned that a ‘no-deal Brexit’ seemed increasingly likely but was against the idea of a referendum on Northern Ireland splitting from the UK, calling the idea “divisive”.

Speculation has also arisen as to whether Johnson will call a snap general election. An op-ed carried by EUobserver noted that given the slim majority of the Conservative Party (‘Tories’) in the House of Commons, it would only take two ‘Tory defectors’ to push forward a vote of no confidence against Johnson. This poses a challenge to Johnson’s ability to deliver the promised Brexit come 31st October. The Tories lost the Welsh by-elections in Brecon and Radnorshire, cutting their parliamentary majority to one. A snap general election may allow Johnson a larger parliamentary majority to push forth his Brexit plan.

Rumours of a possible snap election rose after Johnson announced an additional £1.8bn (€1.96bn) funding be given to the National Health Service (NHS), a move expected to appeal to Labour voters. A POLITICO report ventured if Johnson loses a vote of confidence and refuses to leave, the Queen may be involved in dismissing him, although experts suggest this would be highly unlikely.

In preparation for Brexit, the UK has scrambled to build stronger ties with its transatlantic partners. This week, Foreign Minister Dominic Raab travels to Canada, the US and Mexico in a bid to boost relations with non-European countries ahead of Brexit. According to the UK government, the three countries “collectively represent around €244 billion” of annual trade with the UK”. According to a report by Euractiv, the UK was looking to “fast-track” a pivotal post-Brexit trade deal with the US. Trump had previously stated that a bilateral deal with the UK, post-Brexit, could be “three to four, five times” bigger than current trade.

In an interview with the BBC, former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers commented that a post-Brexit UK would be “desperate” to establish a trade deal with the US, however a Brexit deal, hard or soft, would devastate its trade bargaining power. Summers stated that “Britain has much less to give than Europe as a whole did, therefore less reason for the United States to make concessions.” However, he also cautioned that ongoing US domestic politics, the trade war with China and the weakening pound made a trade deal unlikely.