The far-right swing in European Parliament elections | Explained

The story so far:

As 51.1% of nearly 400 million Europeans voted in marathon polls held across 27 member states of the European Union (EU) from June 6 to 9, the conservative centre-right bloc of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen managed to retain its status as the biggest political group in the European Parliament (EP). However, right-wing and far-right parties clocked their best performance in the legislative body’s history with liberals and Greens being delivered humbling blows. The result caused French President Emanuel Macron to call for snap elections in his country on June 30, with the move being seen as a political gamble to stop in its tracks the rise of the far-right firebrand Marine Le Pen’s party, with the latter eying a Presidential term in the 2027 elections.

Which countries led the far-right gains?

While the far-right wave predicted by exit polls did not materialise, far-right parties managed to make significant and historic gains in key member states — France, Germany, and Italy. In France, Ms. Le Pen’s nationalist, anti-immigration Rassemblement National (RN) became the biggest party nationally winning 31.5% of the vote and 30 of France’s 81 seats in the EP, more than double the vote captured by Mr. Macron’s centrist Renaissance party, which finished a distant second.

In Germany, the results directly brought the ruling coalition’s legitimacy into question with just 30% of German voters still supporting it. Chancellor Olaf Schulz, whose own disapproval ratings are as high as 70%, however, ruled out early national elections. The extreme right Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) party, despite being marred by a string of scandals involving espionage and bribery allegations and facing nationwide protests, came in second with a record 16% of the vote, winning more seats than Mr. Schulz’s Social Democrats (SPD), part of the ruling coalition with the Greens and the Free Democratic Party, who were also left behind by the AfD in terms of vote share numbers. Former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its sister party Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU), finished first securing 30% of the vote.

Italy also saw Prime Minister Georgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy Party with neo-fascist roots consolidating its grip by capturing a quarter of the vote, while far-right parties also made gains in Austria, Hungary, and Spain.

While national political parties contest elections to the 720-seat EU body every five years, they join the transnational political groups of the EP after the polls. As of 9:00 pm, June 12, provisional results indicate a fairly strong showing of centre-right parties across Europe, with the European People’s Party group, including the CDU/CSU, emerging as the leading bloc with 189 seats. While the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), having Germany’s SPD among others, managed a narrow consolidation with 135 seats, the Renew Europe (RE) group with Mr. Macron’s Rennaissance, suffered huge losses finishing at 79 seats compared to last time’s 102. The pro-climate action Greens saw their seats reduced to 53 down from 71, becoming the sixth largest block instead of fourth. The hard and far-right European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR) and the Identity and Democracy Group (ID), including Ms. Meloni and Ms. Le Pen’s parties, respectively, now collectively hold 131 seats in the chamber, up from 118. The other far-right lawmakers are in the non-attached (NI) group including AfD (which was expelled from the ID in May) with 15 seats and Hungarian PM Viktor Orban’s Fidesz with 10 seats.

What can the right’s gains be attributed to?

In 2019, with youth protests across Europe calling for climate action, the EP elections delivered a Green wave, which shaped Brussels’ five-year agenda and brought about the ambitious ‘Green Deal’, laying a roadmap for the EU’s 2040 and 2050 net-zero targets. But that was before the COVID-19 pandemic; before pan-continent farmers protests; and the Russian attack on Ukraine sending energy prices skyrocketing, leading to the worst cost-of-living crisis Europe has faced in years. Besides, the steady rise of Eurosceptic, populist, and anti-immigrant parties, some of whom deny climate change, across Europe also contributed to this year’s rightward shift.

In Germany, for instance, which sends 96 seats to the EP, national surveys saw voter priorities shift significantly with peace, social security, and immigration issues bagging the top spots and climate change dropping from first to fourth place. The far-right AfD capitalised on voter anxieties related to a spike in migration numbers in 2023, as migrants and asylum seekers from war-hit Ukraine, Africa, and West Asia were at Germany’s doorsteps. While West Germany saw anti-extremist protests against the AfD, East Germany emerged as its natural voter base where many voters have felt left behind by the establishment after the 1990 reunification. Another area where the party seems to have tapped into the voter discontent was the ruling coalition’s 2023 clean energy law asking homeowners to replace fossil fuel boilers with expensive heat pumps, with Afd promising to stop the transition.

The EU’s climate policy became another bone of contention for a section of voters: European farmers, who have held a record 4,000 different protests so far this year. The EU’s Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), which provides subsidies and protects farmers from foreign competition, is a decisive voting issue with large farmer lobby groups. But farming emissions, which haven’t gone down since 2005, account for 10% of the EU’s total emissions with its farm sector accounting for a quarter of global pesticide use. Farming only contributes 1.3% to Europe’s GDP.

Protesting farmers have balked at the policies in the Green Deal which call for redesigning the EU’s emission-heavy food systems and carving out land for biodiversity restoration. Right-wing parties like RN, have termed such measures as ‘punitive ecology’.

Has the balance of power in the European Parliament shifted?

In the outgoing Parliament, Ms. von der Leyen’s EPP, the Socialists and Democrats, and Mr. Macron’s Renew Europe groups often termed the ‘Grand Coalition’, which together held 417 seats, managed to make and push deals amongst themselves often with support from the Greens. While the EPP and S&D will still largely maintain their old numbers, weakened RE and Greens blocs mean the European Commission President may collaborate with the right-wing ECR and possibly even the ID on issues like migration, restrictions on climate policy and defence issues.

However, nationalist right-wing parties who have made gains this election hold different positions on a spectrum of issues and are unlikely to become a strong and collective decisive force.

The immediate playout of the election results could be seen in the deals Ms. von der Leyen strikes with the blocs to get re-elected as the European Commission President in a secret ballot vote in July. While she could gather enough number of votes from the Grand Coalition, there has historically been a 10% defection margin, which means she could be courting the right’s MPs for votes.

How will the results affect EU policy?

While political analysts don’t anticipate an immediate drastic shift in EU policy, an overtime rightward pivot of the EU agenda, which was already manifesting before the election, remains of concern. Centre-right parties in some member states have been turning to a strategy of integrating the right’s agenda into their own to counter the far-right’s popularity. Ms. von der Leyen had already declared that she would be open to working with Italy’s Ms. Meloni in the EP.

The strengthened centre-right, as reiterated by EPP President Manfred Weber, is already aiming to overturn the 2035 EU ban on the sale of combustion engine cars.

Earlier this year, the EU parliament also voted to remodel its immigration and asylum policy, which has clauses for expedited deportations and the contentious issue of relocation of asylum seekers. In fact, the European Commission President last year, along with Ms. Meloni signed a pact with Tunisia to receive financial aid for stopping asylum seekers at its borders from entering Europe.

The author is a former staff writer with The Hindu and is interested in geopolitics, global inequality, and history.

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EU Elections: Voter turnout was just 50% last time – will it rise?

According to the Euronews Polls Centre young voters could raise the turnout in France and Germany.

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Over 350 million voters are eligible, but how many will actually vote this time?

In 2019 the majority of them voted, but only just. The official figure was 50.66 percent across all the 27 states, which was the highest since the 1994 elections.

The abstention rate is closely followed as, to some extent, it can indicate what the level of apathy and disenchantment with EU politics might be.

And if it falls below the all-important 50 percent figure this year it would be a blow to the EU and those who support it.

“We can’t forget that we’re not talking about one European election, but 27 national ones,” Tomasz Kanievcky, a Euronews Polling Center analyst, told Euronews.

“Therefore, the approach to abstentionism will certainly differ according to the countries in which these elections occur, and according to the current issues at stake.”

According to the Euronews Polls Centre, young voters could raise the turnout in France and Germany. But these young voters could be tempted to vote for the far right. Another example is Italy, where abstentionism could be significant.

Voters in six European Union countries were casting their ballots on Saturday: Italy, Slovakia, Latvia, the Czech Republic, and Malta the EU’s smallest member.

Voting has now finished in the Netherlands, and Ireland but the first results will only begin to come in from Sunday evening.

The Netherlands’ public broadcaster NOS’s poll of 20,000 voters has already predicted that the centre-left alliance would secure eight out of 31 European Parliament seats in the country.

Observers say approach to abstentionism will ‘certainly differ’

In Cyprus, concern is growing over people who are not voting as well as an increase in blank and invalid ballots from those who do vote.

The issues are linked to a local government reform that requires voters to cast between six to ten ballots, a complexity that has frustrated both voters and election participants.

In response, Cypriot President Nicos Christodoulides encouraged voters to turn out. “The European elections concern us all. A massive turnout will send a strong message about the importance we attach to a stronger, more resilient, more strategically autonomous, more united, and of course more efficient Europe,” he stated.

In the last European elections in 2019, the highest abstention rate was recorded in Slovakia. It remains to be seen whether, following the assassination attempt on anti-European left-wing populist Prime Minister Robert Fico, the trend will be reversed.

Far-right, populist parties set to see significant gains?

The elections are set to be one of the most controversial and contested in its history by Eurosceptic, populist, and far-right parties.

“It will be an existential fight,” said Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister and outgoing free-market liberal member of parliament who has been in the thick of EU politics for over a quarter century.

It will pit “those who want less Europe and, then, those political forces who understand that in the world of tomorrow, you need a far more integrated European Union to defend the interests of the Europeans” Verhofstadt added.

Since the last EU election in 2019, populist, far-right, and extremist parties have taken over governments in three EU nations and are part of governing coalitions in several others.

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Far-right parties in France, Belgium, Austria, and Italy are seen as frontrunners in the EU elections.

The vote is the second-biggest exercise in democracy behind the elections in India, as the 27-nation bloc will be picking 720 parliamentarians to serve them over the next five years with decisive votes.

Germany

A shift in German law has granted voting rights to Germans as young as 16 which is a two year drop in the age requirement.

This expands the pool of potential voters by roughly 1.5 million. Traditionally, the Greens and the Free Democratic Party performed best with younger voters.

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However, a shift has been underway of late in Germany, as in much of Europe, which has seen young voters move towards right-wing parties.

The shift and trove of new voters could give AfD a boost after scandals have dropped them in recent polling.

Many speculate that EU and domestic issues will increase voter turnout in Germany. The polarized political situation, if it drives turnout, will likely negatively affect the government-leading SPD, as well as the Greens, while boosting the opposition CDU-CSU.

Turnout for EU elections has traditionally been lower than national elections in Germany. Many expect a significant increase in participation but still don’t expect it to match the 2021 national vote.

France

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In France, the vote is between Europe and France—a uniquely French perspective for a European Parliament election.

More than half of French voters will be casting ballots based on domestic issues, largely a product of motivations from the right.

Meanwhile, President Macron has been a key voice in the greater pro-European movement, putting him drastically at odds with many French voters.

Key to the turnout count will be young French voters, who have polled consistently in favour of Macron’s rival RN.

If the youth vote turns out, then expect RN to match what the polls have been telling us: a resounding victory with double the support of Macron’s Renew list.

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Italy

Italy has one of the fastest-growing rates (relative to previous elections) of voter abstention from EU elections, after Portugal.

Increased Euroscepticism in Italy could further lower the vote count. However, the position of Prime Minister Girorgia Meloni as a European force could slow the rate of decline among right-wing, Europe-hesitant voters.

Hungary

Relative to National votes in Hungary, lower participation is expected for the EU vote. Lower turnouts in Hungary traditionally benefit Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, who maintain a motivated base with strong mobilisation capabilities.

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The centre and left, however, could see a boost from Budapest, home to more than 10 percent of the population.

Budapest voters will be also casting ballots for their mayor.

Greece

While Greece has “compulsory voting,” the law is unenforced. How Greeks plan to vote is not clear.

The postal ballot implementation was not a success in Greece, casting doubts on participation rates.

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One set of voters to track in Greece are young voters, who have lately broken out strongly in favour of the centre-right (ND/EPP). If their turnout continues to grow, ND could be in for another successful election.

Portugal

Portugal had Western Europe’s lowest turnout rate in 2019, just 30% Following a snap parliamentary election in March in which only 59% participated, weary would-be voters may stay at home.

But those who voted for the Socialist party’s last time, and only narrowly lost, might just be more motivated to vote. The Democratic Alliance won with 80 seats and the Socialist party was a close second with 78 seats.

Poland

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Poland is set to vote for the third time in less than a year—following national and regional elections since October.

In the more recent regional elections, voter turnout was lower than expected, especially in urban districts.

If this trend continues, it could most negatively impact the centre-right, government-leading Civic Coalition (KO).

Any blow in turnout to the KO is an automatic boon for their far-right rival, the Law and Justice party. PiS barely edged out KO in the regional elections voting share.

With polls showing a neck-and-neck race, any drop in turnout could give PiS the boost it needs.

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Slovakia

Slovakia had the lowest share of voter turnout in 2019, with just 22.7% of voters participating. But in 2023’s Slovakia’s parliamentary election, more than 68% of eligible voters turned out.

With polarisation at a peak in Slovakia following the assassination attempt on Prime Minister Robert Fico, many expect turnout to be higher than the 2019 mark.

Still, given the subdued nature of the campaigns following the assassination attempt, voter excitement isn’t very strong in Slovakia.

Don’t expect over 60% participation but expect a better showing than 2019.

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Czech Republic

Czech voters have historically not turned out well for EU elections. The country is largely considered a Eurosceptic one, leading to a drop in turnout relative to their national votes.

However, 2024 could shift things in Czechia. Campaigns are reporting stronger than usual interest in European affairs and politics.

Meanwhile, opposition campaigns are launching strong attacks on ruling coalition parties, trying to make the European vote a referendum on the national leaders.

Romania

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Interest in European politics is at an all-time high with young voters in Romania. According to the EU’s barometer survey this spring, more than 75% of under 30-year-olds in Romania intend to vote—the highest rate of any country in Europe.

Right-wing parties have become social media focal points in Romania. If young voters do indeed turn out as expected, it could be a massive gain for the far-right AUR and other right-wing parties. 

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The bonds that bind: Our adversarial sovereign bond habit

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

No one is obligated to help China fund its war machine. The decision to buy Chinese sovereign bonds should reside with informed investors, Elaine Dezenski and Joshua Birenbaum write.

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In Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Serbia, he extolled bonds “forged with blood” between the two countries from NATO’s bombing of Belgrade. 

Yet, it is concerns over future aggression, not past wars, that have the world focused on China. 

The Biden administration, the US Congress, and other governments have raised alarms about China’s military build-up, arguing that Western investors should not be sending money to Chinese companies that are helping to support the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). 

As the UK non-profit Hong Kong Watch explained in a statement before the House of Lords: “China’s strategy of military-civil fusion ensures that unchecked institutional investment could directly counter Britain’s national security interests if British pensions funds and other major players are funding firms in partnership with the Chinese military.”

Direct investment in private Chinese companies supporting the PLA is a serious risk. Yet a far larger pool of Western investments is flowing directly to the state budget of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) through the purchase of Chinese sovereign bonds, funding whatever the PRC budget may prioritise — from Chinese battleships and EV subsidies to concentration camps.

How do sovereign bonds contribute to China’s defence spending?

Chinese defence spending, which has doubled since 2015, is paid for from the state budget, which is, in turn, funded by numerous sources, including the issuance of sovereign bonds. 

Those bonds are often passively purchased by global investors based upon their default inclusion in funds that follow key benchmarks, sending vast quantities of money to China with little oversight or awareness of China’s military benefits.

Chinese sovereign bonds are bought by major institutional investors and individual mutual fund owners alike. These investors are rarely making an intentional choice to invest in China. Rather, huge swaths of the market passively base their portfolio composition on aggregated benchmarks. 

The default options on many retirement plans, for instance, are target date plans based upon predetermined mixes from established indexes — one of the risks of what The Wall Street Journal has described as “retirement funds on autopilot”. Indeed, one of the purported benefits of so-called “passive investing” — which now makes up the majority of the market — is its strict adherence to the benchmarks.

Until relatively recently, China’s sovereign bonds were excluded from the global indexes. Then, starting in 2017, a handful of index providers began adding Chinese government bonds to their bond benchmarks. In 2018, MSCI changed its equities index to include Chinese stocks. 

As The Wall Street Journal noted at the time, “In 2018, more than $13.9 trillion (€12.85tr) in investment funds had stock portfolios that mimic the composition of MSCI indexes or used them as performance yardsticks, and nearly all investments by US pension funds in global stocks are benchmarked against MSCI indexes.”

Benchmarks, which are designed to give a representative and diversified slice of the market, have become the unelected arbiters of whether given stocks or bonds are held by all funds that are pegged to the index. 

This decision to add Chinese investments to global benchmarks caused a cascade effect as passive investment funds and others who tied their portfolio to the benchmark followed suit, sending billions of dollars directly to the Chinese state. 

FTSE Russell, a global provider of benchmarks, explained the issue this way: “Fund managers seeking to match, or outperform, benchmark indexes are therefore obliged to increase the weightings in Chinese bonds.”

What is the role of index providers in all of this?

Index providers are for-profit companies, with those profits inextricably linked to the decision of what to include in the benchmarks. 

When MSCI, one of the world’s largest index providers, initially resisted adding Chinese stocks to its benchmark, Beijing threatened to cut off MSCI’s access to critical pricing data in a move described as “business blackmail.” MSCI relented and included the Chinese stocks.

Index providers aren’t motivated only by threats. Bloomberg, Citigroup, and others garnered benefits for adding Chinese bonds to their benchmarks, including receiving a bond settlement license from China. 

That pivot, made on behalf of millions of investors, fundamentally realigned capital toward authoritarian regimes. As The New York Times said at the time about Citigroup’s decision to lead the pack into the Chinese sovereign bond market, “That is a propaganda victory for Beijing, which has struggled to entice foreign investors. For Citigroup, it is a relatively low-risk diplomatic win.”

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When Bloomberg and other companies added Chinese bonds to their indexes, it was estimated that Chinese securities would account for just over 5% of Bloomberg’s $53tr (€49tr) Global Aggregates bond index, but those numbers have substantially increased since then. 

Today, the Bloomberg index allocates nearly 10% of its $65 trillion Global Aggregates benchmark to Chinese bonds.

No one is obligated to fund Beijing’s war machine

The adversarial bond issue is a market problem with market solutions. Numerous indexes already exclude Chinese bonds (called “ex-China” indexes), but those are limited products that are marketed to clients who must proactively direct their fund managers to include them. Rather, ex-China benchmarks should be the default.

Clients could be permitted, consistent with sanctions and other restrictions, to add those bonds in, but passive investment flows should not be blindly directed to adversarial regimes. Similarly, default options for retirement plans and passive investments should not be funnelled to the Chinese war machine.

Improving the hygiene of financial markets is a necessity, starting with a much deeper discussion about how key decisions — like the inclusion of adversarial bonds in benchmark indexes — impact investors, the global financial system, and the economic security of democratic governments.

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No one is obligated to help China fund its war machine. The decision to buy Chinese sovereign bonds should reside with informed investors.

Elaine Dezenski is Senior Director and Head of the Center on Economic and Financial Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). She was formerly an acting and deputy assistant secretary for policy at the US Department of Homeland Security. Joshua Birenbaum is Deputy Director of the Center on Economic and Financial Power at the FDD.

At Euronews, we believe all views matter. Contact us at [email protected] to send pitches or submissions and be part of the conversation.

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Timeline: Which countries have recognised Palestinian state and why?

After three European countries said on Wednesday they would recognise Palestinian statehood, Euronews looked at why recognition is such a polarising issue, who has recognised Palestine so far, and under what circumstances.

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All eyes are again on the Middle East and some 5.5 million Palestinians following coordinated announcements by Spain, Ireland and Norway on Wednesday they would recognise Palestine as a state. 

The Palestinian state’s road to recognition and participation in international institutions has been arduous and pockmarked with major roadblocks.

For the Palestinian people, each diplomatic victory came at the cost of heightened tensions, significant pushback and outright conflict on the ground.

As Dublin, Madrid and Oslo all announced their decision on Wednesday — with Slovenia, Malta and Belgium expected to follow suit — Israel continued its months-long military campaign in Gaza prompted by the 7 October Hamas attack.

The bombing campaign and incursion into the enclave are reported to have caused more than 35,000 Palestinian deaths, according to the United Nations. Most casualties have been women and children. 

Why is recognising the Palestinian state such a polarising issue? And who has recognised it so far, and under what circumstances?

Foreign mandate turns sour

The UN and its predecessor, the League of Nations, have been at the centre of the issue. After the latter handed it over to Great Britain as a former Ottoman territory in 1922, Palestinians found their demands for an independent state repeatedly rejected by London, leading to an open rebellion in 1937.

Unable to find a solution, the UK returned the territory — with all its predicaments — back to the UN a decade later, in 1947.

The UN settled on scrapping the British Mandate altogether and proposed to split the Palestinian lands into two states, one Palestinian and another Israeli.

However, two wars — the 1948 Palestine war and the resulting Arab-Israel War — led to Israel controlling not only the territory earmarked by the UN for its homeland but also some two-thirds of the proposed Palestinian state, resulting in more than half of Palestinians fleeing or getting expelled.

Further hostilities in 1967 and 1973 saw Palestinian territories reduced even more. 

While the UN and its General Assembly acknowledged Palestinians’ rights to sovereignty and independence, it wasn’t until 1988 that the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) officially declared the State of Palestine within the borders recognised by 78 countries.

For the territory including the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, the recognition troubles were only beginning.

Decades of conflict and peace accords

While gaining recognition from communist and non-aligned countries, including the Soviet Union, China, India, Greece and Yugoslavia, major Western actors remained staunchly against Palestinian statehood.

A US-led initiative of actively discouraging countries from recognising Palestine meant that little more was on the table aside from the Egypt-brokered 1977 Camp David Accords, granting Palestinians the right to self-govern in their territories.

For Washington at the time, recognition was a no-go matter. 

The PLO’s participation in the conflict in Lebanon, open acts of violence against Israeli civilians, and Arafat’s friendly relations with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and the regime in Tehran alike all compounded the issue further.

An earlier pledge by former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to stay away from recognising Palestine until the Yasser Arafat-led group gave up on its rejection of Israel’s right to exist also hindered any diplomatic efforts that would involve softening Israel’s stance on the matter.

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Further violence in the 1980s by PLO factions and Israeli settlers’ increasing ruthlessness towards Palestinians added fuel to the belief that peace in the Middle East was unattainable and that an independent Palestinian state would only make matters worse.

The US ended up designating PLO as a terrorist group in 1987, representing a major red flag for its allies that was extended to any debate over Palestine’s recognition.

Although numerous Arab League and developing countries in Asia and Africa pledged their support, by February 1989, only 94 countries officially recognised Palestine as an independent state.

Meanwhile, the thawing of relations towards Arafat and the PLO and the US-led Oslo Accords in the 1990s gave hope that a two-state solution could finally see Palestine gain full sovereignty.

Yet, the assassination of Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 and the death of Arafat almost a decade later saw Israel toughening its stance once again and PLO’s political authority on the wane alike.

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European countries divided

In the following years, the number of states officially recognising Palestine grew slowly but steadily, but due to some countries’ ambiguity on the issue, the total is often reported as being between 122 and 146.

Some countries have established diplomatic relations with the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, seen by many as the de facto government of the Palestinian state. 

However, today, the Palestinian Authority only has administrative control over the West Bank, with Hamas ruling in Gaza since the 2006 elections.

At the same time, the UN still only recognises the PLO as the representatives of the Palestine people.

EU countries remain divided on the issue, and some have changed their position dramatically over the years.

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Ireland, one of the leading countries in the renewed push to recognise Palestine today, was the first EU member state to endorse its establishment in 1980.

Sweden recognised Palestinian statehood in 2014, but its officials have since walked back on the pledge, with former Foreign Minister Tobias Billström calling it “unfortunate and premature” in 2022.

Romania has maintained close diplomatic relations with the PLO and was one of the first countries to recognise the Palestinian Authority in 1988. 

Hungary also recognised Palestine as a sovereign state in the same year, while both European countries were still part of the Soviet bloc.

Meanwhile, Budapest was one of just nine countries voting against Palestine’s UN membership earlier this month, and many consider the central European country to be one of Israel’s closest allies in Europe.

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North Macedonia and Greece shook hands in Prespa. Don’t give up on it

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

The agreement is a welcome reality, even among many of its opponents, because reopening the dispute would be much worse. I plead for a display of leadership in both countries, Greece and North Macedonia, to face this reality and stop playing petty politics with this issue, Nikola Dimitrov writes.

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The swearing-in ceremony of the newly elected President of North Macedonia, Gordana Davkova Siljanovska, caused an uproar in Athens, Brussels, and many other European capitals.

Not because she is the first-ever female president of the country or because she just won a landslide victory. It also wasn’t about something she said. Actually, it was about what she did not say.

While taking her oath of office, President Davkova omitted the directional adjective “North” and said just “Macedonia” despite signing a formal oath under her country’s constitutional name on the same day.

Yet, given that she campaigned on a pledge to respect but not pronounce the full constitutional name of the country she now leads, citing her personal right of self-determination and taking into account her criticism of the Prespa Agreement, her gesture alarmed neighbouring Greece.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis warned that any deviation from the agreement would have severe consequences for the relations between the two and the European integration path of us here in North Macedonia.

The now infamous name issue strained the relationship between Skopje and Athens for 27 years, ever since the independence of the then-Republic of Macedonia in 1991, until it was resolved with the signing of the Prespa Agreement in 2018.

It also blocked North Macedonia’s NATO membership and EU accession for over a decade.

‘You are my hero, may you rot in hell’

I have personally spent 15 years trying to solve the problem: initially as a diplomat and chief negotiator, then as a co-agent before the ICJ on a related case, and finally serving as foreign minister. 

Together with my Greek colleague Nikos Kotzias, we achieved what had previously seemed impossible and succeeded where Sisyphus couldn’t.

Meeting half way took time for both nations. Kotzias and I both received threats and hate mail on one side and praise on the other.

“You are my hero” and “May you rot in hell” were the starkly contrasted greetings I received in Skopje on a daily basis back in 2017 and 2018.

The agreement we signed is a good compromise, addressing the critical concerns of both sides. It calmed bilateral relations at the time and kickstarted renewed connections between our peoples, opening the door for friendship and cooperation.

You can’t please everyone

Prespa has elements that are difficult for both countries. The Macedonian language, for instance — an expression of the right of self-determination of ethnic Macedonians — is something many Greek politicians struggle to accept or pronounce.

The same goes for the country’s international codes: we can still use MK and MKD, except on vehicle license plates.

Yet, although the international traffic rules say otherwise, these codes are not found on the road signs to Skopje across Greece. You wouldn’t even see “North Macedonia” beside the signs directing you towards Bulgaria or Turkey.

On our end, using “North” remains a stumbling block for many Macedonian politicians, especially when they have to say it back home.

However, if we had not accepted the use of the compound name North Macedonia for all official purposes and at all times, there would have been no deal because this was a critically important issue for the Greek side.

For many in Greece, even the compound name is unacceptable, as they would prefer their neighbouring country not to have the word Macedonia in its name at all.

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All this shows is that no agreement could be reached that would completely satisfy both sides.

Yet, the Prespa Agreement, globally praised as a triumph of diplomacy and the most significant agreement in the Balkans — the region has an abundance of disputes but few solutions — since Bosnia’s 1995 Dayton Peace Accord, was hampered by various sides.

How many blows can you take before collapsing?

The first blow came from VMRO-DPMNE, the landslide winner of the recent elections. In 2018, the party, in essence, boycotted the referendum on the compromise.

While the Macedonian citizens (or the citizens of North Macedonia, if you prefer) voted “yes” in huge numbers, the “no” votes — expected to come from VMRO-DPMNE’s supporters — were too few, and the required turnout was not reached. 

The boycott kept the national wound half-open. The people did not decide.

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The second blow — and this may come as a surprise to many readers not familiar with our pains in the Balkans — came from the EU itself.

Before the referendum on the Prespa Agreement, many European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel (France’s President Emmanuel Macron sent a video message), came to Skopje and made a public promise to the people: support the agreement and we will open accession talks with your country.

Well, that promise was broken. France first walked it back in 2019, with another neighbour, Bulgaria, proudly taking over the veto torch ever since.

Politics of humiliation prove costly

Worse still, Bulgaria adopted a formal hostile stance against one of the two fundamental pillars of the Prespa Agreement — the Macedonian language and identity.

As Bulgaria got away with its indecent and counterproductive policy on its smaller neighbour and managed to pave the European path for North Macedonia with Bulgarian demands, the EU as a whole became complicit in undermining the agreement it loudly praised, as well as its own enlargement policy.

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Not surprisingly, only about one-third of the Macedonian public today believes that the EU is serious about enlargement — an embarrassing defeat for Brussels, considering that an overwhelming majority of Macedonians trusted the EU just a few years earlier.

Finally, the outgoing government in Skopje’s gross incompetence in organising the replacement of the citizens’ ID cards, passports and driver’s licenses under the constitutional name — forcing citizens into a situation where they can’t travel, drive, or even go to the bank to get their paychecks or pensions — caused humiliation and aggravated the problem to the extreme.

On the other side of the border, the New Democracy government did not invest much political energy in implementing the Prespa Agreement. It simply tolerated it. I recently wrote that the incoming government of North Macedonia should do the same. It looks like I was wrong.

A plea for reason to prevail has to be made

What we need instead of tolerance is leadership. The agreement is a welcome reality, even among many of its opponents, because reopening the dispute would be much worse.

And I plead for a display of leadership in both countries, Greece and North Macedonia, to face this reality and stop playing petty politics with this issue.

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Face those within your respective constituencies who would only accept maximalist solutions for their side and who are nostalgic for disputes and antagonisms.

Remind them that they have lost. And push forward with the full implementation of the Prespa Agreement, including the challenging and sometimes painful steps.

Leadership is also desperately needed on the EU side. Deliver on your promise, limit the ridiculous number of veto opportunities in the accession process, and do not fall prey to the domestically driven past-century whims of any single member state on things that truly matter.

Be a force for good, and do not undermine but rather amplify the efforts of those who have invested political capital in solving intractable disputes.

Nikola Dimitrov is a diplomat, think-tanker and political activist from North Macedonia. As Foreign Minister, he negotiated and signed the Prespa Agreement in 2018.

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Nicolas Schmit: S&D won’t do deals with far right after elections

The S&D’s lead candidate in the European elections outlined his views on revising the Migration Pact and opposing the far right to Global Conversation’s Isabel da Silva Marques.

For the past five years, Nicholas Schmit has held the Jobs and Social Rights portfolio in the Ursula von der Leyen-led European Commission. Why has he decided to run for the presidency of the EU’s executive body? 

“I think that after the five years where we tried to put social [agenda] at the centre, I thought that there was still more to be done. I think this is the right moment for social democracy to get the Commission [presidency] after such a long period, because we had for 30 years, well for 25 years, conservative presidents of the Commission. It’s time for change.”

Schmit believes EU citizens are living through a time of great instability and insecurity, and that that has fuelled the rise of the extreme right:

“We are living in a very uncertain period. It’s uncertain for different reasons. We are coming out of major crisis: the COVID crisis was not so far away, the financial crisis. We had difficult moments for many, many European citizens due to inflation. We have a war in Europe. So, I think this uncertainty, plus the topic of migration, has now being focus of the debates. And finally, the extreme right are playing on fear. They are not proposing anything, but they are playing on fear. And I think this creates this special situation. But we still have a few weeks to go and to show that it’s not about fear, it’s about building confidence.”

To save the Green Deal, support farmers

A major undertaking of the next five years will be building confidence in the Green Deal, according to Schmit. The future of the EU’s landmark strategy to achieve net zero climate goals has been called into question by angry farmers’ protests in recent months. 

“We have seen during the last years and decades that farmers’ income has gone down,” Schmit says. “We have seen immense hikes in their production cost but their income, their prices have not reflected these increases. I think we have to reflect about how far also the idea of a pure market functioning is adequate, because it penalises, finally, many, many farmers. In many cases, smaller and medium sized farmers have big difficulties.”

“This another fact: how to support the transformation of our farming industry, of our farming. Also introducing technology, obviously is important. We are developing artificial intelligence. How can farmers be supported by artificial intelligence or other technological means? And, at the end, it’s also about bureaucracy. I agree that if the farmer spends more time in the office than on the field, this is something which is not normal. But, at the end, farmers have a big interest in the success of a fair, socially fair and economically fair Green Deal.”

Deep concerns about Migration Pact

The EU’s groundbreaking Migration Pact is another transformative piece of legislation from the current parliament. Years in the making, it centres on bilateral agreements with Tunisia, Egypt and Mauritania. But Schmit views it as a work in progress:

“I am quite reluctant about these deals, which have still to be prove efficient. We are spending now huge amounts of money, giving these money to different regimes or governments like the Tunisian government. We know that the authorities there are really treating very badly the refugees. We have still the problem in Libya, where there is no real… there is a government there, even two governments. We have the question in Egypt. So I’m quite reluctant with this kind of, deals. […] 

“I think we have to revise them and see what can be done. How can we do it differently? Because we do not know exactly also how the money is used. That’s another issue. I’ve heard now that there has been a deal with Lebanon too, to keep the Syrians away from Europe. Nobody knows exactly how the money which has been announced will be spent in Lebanon, given the situation of the Lebanon’s government, which is in some way a very weak government. And the Hezbollah and other influences, being there.”

Countering a resurgent far right

Migration is among the main issues of the European election campaign and one that far-right parties seek to capitalise on. Polls suggest they will make major gains in June and become a substantial force within the next parliament. Schmit believes the conservatives of the European People’s Party may be willing to negotiate deals with the hard right on the legislative agenda, but he is adamant that his Socialists and Democrats bloc will not.    

“There is no way. I’m very clear on that. There’s no way to have any arrangement, deal or whatever with the extreme right. Because I noticed that, with EPP, they make some very special distinction between extreme rights; the ‘decent’ extreme right and the pariah extreme right. Well, when I look at the so-called decent extreme right, who are these people? They are Vox. They are Franco admirers. They are Mussolini admirers. They are PiS party, who was about to abolish the rule of law in Poland and was sanctioned by the commission. So where is the decent extreme right? There is none. And that’s why there is no way to have any arrangement to just buying votes. Because the extreme right is intelligent, they will not give their votes for nothing. So, they will ask concessions on the way how European policy will be defined.

“Their [the far right] idea, their conception of Europe is fundamentally different from ours, social democrats. But I suppose, I suppose now I am not sure anymore of the EPP conception, because the EPP conception is very much linked to the former Christian Democrats. Now, I know that for real Christian Democrats, there’s no way to have an alliance with whichever form of the extreme right. And that’s our position too. I’m very clear. No way to have any understanding here.”

To see more on this and on Nicolas Schmit’s views on supporting Ukraine, dealing with China, and other issues, click on the video above.

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It’s time to take a step back from the brink of a divided world

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

We think that our vision of connectivity is essential for Europe’s ability to become strong again — and that cooler heads will soon have a chance to prevail. During our presidency, we intend to show how, Balázs Orbán writes.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping’s trip to Europe this week is his first visit to the continent since the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic disrupted exchanges between Europe and China, making President Xi’s visit crucial in restoring links with European countries.

The first visit of a Chinese president in 20 years to Hungary also marks the 75th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between Hungary and China. 

One might find it curious why Budapest has emerged as the only EU capital President Xi is visiting other than Paris. 

The simple answer is that Hungary has transformed into a pivotal state for all concerned — a promoter of peace and national sovereignty, a leader of new industries, a crucial player in bridging East and West, and a gateway to the European Union. The Chinese president’s choice reflects this fact.

This is what we mean by ‘Hussar Cut’

Hungary’s foreign policy strategy, centred on connectivity, is attracting global attention.

While many nations across the world are closing in on themselves, Hungary stands out by actively cultivating ties with a wide array of countries and market players across various sectors, from trade to infrastructure, as well as cultural and scientific exchange.

We believe that this strategy is essential for escaping the middle-income trap and positioning ourselves to thrive in an increasingly complex geopolitical landscape.

This bold masterstroke, a “Hussar Cut” as we call it in Hungarian, appears to be paying off. Since 2010, the Hungarian government has transformed the economy into an open, export-oriented model capable of robust growth.

This has resulted in a remarkable 38% increase in GDP per capita over the past 13 years. 

Our efforts have propelled Hungary from the 23rd to the 11th most complex economy according to the Harvard Economic Complexity Index, boasting a highly diversified export portfolio. 

Additionally, we’ve fostered a work-based society with record-low unemployment, complemented by a flat-rate income tax of 15% and a corporate tax rate of just 9%.

It’s all about best technology, globally

Hungary has been focused on bolstering domestic companies such as MOL, Richter, OTP Bank, and 4iG to help them emerge as dominant regional players. 

Our efforts to expand energy connections, repurchase the Budapest Airport, renovate the Budapest-Belgrade railway and establish a port in Trieste capable of handling 2.5 million tonnes of goods a year further our commitment to enhanced connectivity across all fronts. 

Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Hungary has nearly doubled since 2010, with a more geographically diverse investor base. Last year, compared to 2010, the share of Asian investors surged from 19% to 34%. Meanwhile, European investments accounted for 56%.

We actively encourage foreign companies to establish headquarters here, as we aim to make Hungary a regional hub and a global meeting point. Alongside this, we invest significantly in culture and sport relative to GDP, outstripping European averages.

On the industrial front, Hungary seeks to strengthen its military, information technology, energy, and banking sectors while also emphasising the development of industries such as food, pharmaceuticals, and automotive — all pivotal for global connectivity.

As part of our strategy, we seek to partner with countries and companies that offer the best technology globally, which is why China is a natural partner for us. Hungary’s strength is growing, particularly in the electric vehicle sector. 

BYD, China’s top electric vehicle manufacturer, has announced plans to build its first European passenger car facility in Hungary, which is a direct result of building strategic partnerships over the years. In doing so, we’re betting against the current trends toward decoupling and de-risking.

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Europe’s place in this increased global competition is under threat. In recent years, European GDP growth has lagged in both the Us and China. Europe’s import dependency is five times higher than that of the North American continent, according to the Hungarian Institute of International Affairs, and decoupling would come at a very high cost. 

Keep cool, calm and connected

In this situation, Europe must also recognise that the evolving geopolitical environment requires a strategy of prudent connectivity. When global tensions between China and the US arise, Europe’s open economic framework will pay the price.

The increasing logic of bloc formation we witness today poses a number of clear dangers. 

From our perspective in Budapest, these dangers include the worsening of existing dependences, the loss of our sovereignty, economic decline, consignment to the geopolitical periphery, and exposure to conflicts affecting all bloc members.

Our proposed solution is for Hungary to become a keystone state — a pivotal hub in the interconnected global landscape. By doing so, we can mitigate one-way dependencies, safeguard our sovereignty, ensure economic prosperity, and maintain internal and external security.  

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Doing so is crucial not only for our sovereignty but also for the success of the region and of Europe as a whole.

In the second half of this year, Hungary will exercise the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU. 

We think that our vision of connectivity is essential for Europe’s ability to become strong again — and that cooler heads will soon have a chance to prevail. During our presidency, we intend to show how. 

It’s time to take a step back from the brink of a divided world. In Hungary, we are already reaping the benefits.

Balázs Orbán is a member of the Hungarian parliament and political director for Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

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A weak, Kremlin-influenced Libya is a threat to NATO and EU security

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

Russia’s pursuit of a naval presence in Libya’s eastern region, likely to culminate into a base for its nuclear submarines, provides Moscow with more than just a strategic outpost looking towards the entire EU, Hafed Al-Ghwell writes.

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With the gaze of much of the world fixed on the wars unfolding in Gaza and Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to expand his country’s reach in Africa.

He is now using Libya as a stepping stone to position Russian submarines in the central Mediterranean and place nuclear weapons on Europe’s southern flank.

Enrico Borghi, a centrist MP and member of the Italian parliament’s intelligence committee, recently warned that Russia’s interest in Tobruk in Libya is no mystery, which could be a preamble for sending its nuclear submarines there, much like the Soviet Union sent its missiles to Cuba in 1962.

It is clear that having submarines a few hundred kilometres from NATO states would not be good for security. 

In light of this, Washington’s move to reopen an embassy in Libya a decade after suspending its operations in the country is significant. 

Not only is a strong Russian presence in Libya, a security threat to NATO and Europe — Libya’s geographic location, linking Niger, Chad and Sudan to North Africa and Europe, makes it of vital strategic importance.

Russian footprints all over

The Russian footprint in Libya has grown substantially, alongside an evolving military presence evidenced by a recent delivery of military supplies to the port of Tobruk. 

This strategic eastern city saw the arrival of armoured vehicles, weapons, and equipment — the fifth such shipment within a brief span, indicative of a systematic build-up. 

The supplies, presumed to have been dispatched from Russia’s naval facility in Tartus, Syria were transported by vessels of its Northern Fleet, reflecting an unyielding commitment to Moscow’s Mediterranean gambit that has survived the impacts of the war in Ukraine.

The shipment and what it entails are not an isolated development but part of a broader Russian pattern to establish a perpetual military presence akin to its nearly decade-long posture in Syria. 

Such an expansion is a direct challenge to NATO’s southern flank. 

The introduction of advanced air defence systems by Russian operators in Libya that threaten Western “over-the-horizon” counter-threat operations across North Africa and the Sahel shifts the regional balance of control in the air, while also threatening freedom of navigation since the delivery of anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities will negate NATO’s operational reach in its own backyard.

How prepared is the West for Lybia’s further decline?

The entrenchment in Libya also serves as a gateway for deeper inroads into Africa where Moscow is astutely exploiting a partnership void, offering African regimes military and economic collaboration devoid of the conditionalised engagements favoured by Western patrons. 

Furthermore, Russia’s pursuit of a naval presence in Libya’s eastern region, likely to culminate into a base for its nuclear submarines, provides Moscow with more than just a strategic outpost looking towards the entire EU. 

It adds a frustrating layer of complexity to NATO’s security calculus now weighing steady Russian gains in Ukraine, and the long-term impacts of the US pullout from Niger and potentially Chad.

Simply put, Moscow’s playbook in Libya is changing from the usual fusion of military engagement with political influence in Libya, partly facilitated by the alignment with regional strongman Khalifa Haftar. 

By supplanting Western influence, Russia’s opportunism and leveraging of geopolitical fault lines have helped enhance its stature even at the height of a needless war in Ukraine. 

The cascading impact of Moscow’s manoeuvring raises serious questions about the West’s preparedness for the declining prospects of a stable, secure and sovereign Libya.

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This is why Washington’s decision to reestablish a diplomatic presence in Libya is a strategic bid aimed at countering Russia’s growing presence, while simultaneously bolstering the United Nations Support Mission. 

The US is back in town, however

The move comes after a palpable hiatus pointing to recalibrated approaches in Washington’s Libya file to embody a strategic calculus that transcends traditional diplomacy, for a re-engagement that can effectively counteract Russia’s growing inroads into Africa.

It is the clearest reflection yet of the interplay between geopolitical rivalry and the urgency of stabilising a paralysed country on Europe’s southern periphery. 

By re-establishing a physical diplomatic footprint in Libya, the US is taking a rare proactive stance that carries profound implications for Russia’s ascent. The planned facility in Tripoli will facilitate closer monitoring and the ability to challenge Russian narratives and influence on the ground.

Re-introducing US diplomats to Libya is not merely a symbolic act. It will allow for persistent engagement with Libyan actors to maintain key relationships and develop a firm grasp on local dynamics that often elude remote diplomacy. 

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It also represents a tangible commitment to supporting UN-led mediation efforts and laying the groundwork for pivotal elections. A secure and stable Libya is deeply intertwined with broader interests that, when carefully managed, will help immunise the country from a rising tide of instability that could undermine its transition to a post-paralysis era.

The September 2012 attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi cast a shadow over a US return to Libya, stifling any optimism for re-establishing a diplomatic presence.

The memory of the Benghazi attacks also galvanised an evolution in US diplomacy regarding Libya that is predicated on security and sustainability. 

This includes cultivating ongoing on-the-ground engagement with Libyan actors and establishing robust channels for dialogue to address issues before escalations. 

It is a welcome pivot towards pre-empting potential risks, intervening diplomatically to avert crises, and ensuring the Libyan polity is insulated from worsening regional vulnerabilities.

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There’s no time to waste

Libya’s protracted state of fragmentation poses challenges in Brussels’ push to confront migrant surges, as any turmoil between Sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghreb acts as a catalyst for the mass movement of people towards Europe, with implications for security, political cohesion, and safety net systems within the EU. 

Furthermore, the power vacuum in Libya could become a breeding ground for extremism that would be difficult to counteract given the enduring presence of mercenaries and foreign fighters, alongside deeply entrenched local militias across a very complicated security landscape.

To achieve sustainable peace, the US and Europe will have to leverage diplomatic pressure and develop effective strategies to uproot the political economies of Libya’s hybrid actors that are key to their longevity. 

In addition, Western involvement is critical for supporting the UN-brokered political settlement among Libyan actors, by providing an environment conducive to transparent electoral processes and equitable resource distribution. 

Strategic engagement includes recognising Libyan sovereignty and facilitating national reconciliation through initiatives that reflect the “Libyan-owned and Libyan-led” principles, foundational to the UN’s approach and stressed by Libyans themselves.

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Moreover, efforts to establish inclusive national mechanisms for the transparent and equitable management of Libya’s wealth and resources must run parallel with political mediation. 

Failure to do so risks undermining reconciliation efforts and the building of a stable, secure future by addressing long-term economic and political marginalisation, particularly in Libya’s south. 

Therefore, focused efforts on economic integration, accountability, and the rehabilitation of Libya’s tattered social fabric, backed by Western support, will be crucial in restoring stability in Libya.

Hafed Al-Ghwell is the Executive Director of the North Africa Initiative (NAI) and Senior Fellow at the SAIS Foreign Policy Institute (FPI), Johns Hopkins University.

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‘You have a choice,’ says Roberta Metsola ahead of European elections

The President of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, reflects on two and half years in the hot seat, the recent migration pact and explains why voters should go to the ballot box.

Millions of people are expected to vote in the European elections in six weeks time and collectively decide on the future of the European Union. 

Roberta Metsola, the President of the European Parliament, sat down with Euronews Correspondent Méabh Mc Mahon in Strasbourg to discuss her electoral campaign, her achievements and the impact of recent corruption scandals involving MEPs.

To watch this latest episode of the Global Conversation click on the video in the media player above or read the full interview below.

Méabh Mc Mahon, Euronews: President Metsola, thank you so much for being our guest on the Global Conversation. They say when you have small children, the days are very, very long, but the years are short. Do you have the same feeling, perhaps, after two and a half years as president of the European Parliament?

Roberta Metsola, President of the European Parliament: Well, I have four children. Some of them are smaller than others, and I would absolutely agree. If somebody had told me at the beginning of the two and a half years what these two years were going to look like, I would never have been able to predict how much we managed to achieve, but also how many crises and challenges we’ve had to overcome and handle.

Méabh Mc Mahon, Euronews: And on those achievements, what stood out for you? What was your highlight? What are you most proud of?

Roberta Metsola, President of the European Parliament: Well, in terms of an institutional perspective, we have managed to push through a huge amount of reforms, perhaps also to address challenges that we were met with head-on, in terms of how this Parliament will come back in July. I am extremely proud of those reforms, of the effectiveness of the way that legislation will be able to run tomorrow through this Parliament more smoothly. 

From a legislative perspective, I would say the migration pact, which we thought would not see the light of day after almost a decade of being blocked, we managed to push it through, with a sometimes narrow but much-needed majority in this House.

The EU’s migration and asylum pact

Méabh Mc Mahon, Euronews: It was hailed indeed as an achievement by you, wasn’t it – the migration pact – after so many years. But nobody really likes it…

Roberta Metsola, President of the European Parliament: Well, I would say that the extremists don’t like it on both sides of the spectrum. Why? Because it is a balanced package which has solidarity as its focus. Reinforcement of external borders, working on returns. 

Still, a lot to do with how we deal with third countries, that we talk to our neighbouring countries not only about migration, but also about investment, development and possibility, and we never forget that at the very centre of this package are human beings and migrants.

Méabh Mc Mahon, Euronews: Well, indeed, do migrants like the package do you think?

Roberta Metsola, President of the European Parliament: Well, we have to make sure it works for everybody, and that if there is somebody who is looking for a future because there’s none at home, then Europe will be able to look at that person rather than squabble between the countries, and almost face a certain death in the Mediterranean.

Political scandals

Méabh Mc Mahon, Euronews: And just on that note as well, you mentioned, putting out a lot of crises here as well. That was, of course, your job. You did, of course, have last winter that corruption scandal, where allegedly some of your members were under the influence of certain governments. How did it feel, when you got that phone call from the authorities to have to go to investigate, to go to the home of one of your vice presidents of the European Parliament, Eva Kaili?

Roberta Metsola, President of the European Parliament: Well, actually, I went to the home of a Belgian member of the European Parliament. This was a specific, I would say, ‘gut punch’ on that night in December 2022. Now, we had a choice that day, either we say that this is something that would happen in any Parliament or that we look at the party political colour or that we look at the country involved. But I refused to do that. I said this House needs to move on. 

This House needs to make sure that if something like this happens again, then firewalls would be put in place and alarm bells would be sounded. It took a very long time, to go through the motions of what needed to be done. 

This was, I would say unprecedented, and also unexpected. But once we did that, we realised as a house that we need to indeed reform in the way we do things. The status quo was always better. Pushing through that was very hard, but there was no doubt and here I am proud of the response of the members when they said, you know, we do not want this mandate, which is huge in terms of its impact, to be tarnished by the alleged actions of a small number. And I think that’s where we can say we are today.

Méabh Mc Mahon, Euronews: I remember very well, that you called it an attack on the European Parliament. And just moving from that scandal to another, you have just a couple of weeks before the EU elections, the so-called Russiagate, where some of your members here have allegedly been under the influence of people close to the Kremlin in return for money to therefore spread positive messaging about Russia. What more can you tell us about this?

Roberta Metsola, President of the European Parliament: Well, first of all, what I know for now, until now, we have something that we have been discussing, and I have been discussing this with prime ministers for many months now. 

We have been alerted when we looked at national elections, that there would also be a certain amount of unprecedented disinformation, Russian disinformation in some countries more than others. 

We continue to wait for information to be received from national authorities because this would require any waiver of immunity being adopted by this House. Investigations that would need to take place like we had, like had happened in the past and would require national authorities to ask. We’re waiting for that. And if that happens, we will do our job as we’ve always done.

Méabh Mc Mahon, Euronews: So you don’t know how many MEPs could be involved and some could be potentially running for office. They want to sit again in this chamber.

Roberta Metsola, President of the European Parliament: So far no names have been communicated to us. And we are waiting. We are waiting.

Why are the European elections important?

Méabh Mc Mahon, Euronews: And meanwhile, of course, as I said, these elections are coming up. Why should people vote? I mean, I know in this Parliament everyone will be voting. Everyone’s excited about the elections, but why should our viewers care?

Roberta Metsola, President of the European Parliament: Well, look at the chairs. They’re empty, but in a few minutes, they will be filled with, 705 today. 720, in just over a month, where those 720 are going to be making decisions for you. Now you have a choice. You either decide who you want to sit in these chairs, or you let others decide for you. 

Those people sitting there from your country are going to be your country’s ambassadors
They’re going to be taking decisions that affect your everyday life, whether it is on decisions to do with climate, or on social issues. We adopt, for example, the Violence Against Women directive, a very, very big, let’s say pillar of legislation that we’ve been working on for many, many years. This is something you can affect with your vote every five years. Don’t miss out on that opportunity.

Méabh Mc Mahon, Euronews: And you’re on TikTok, right? I’ve seen you just joined TikTok.

Roberta Metsola, President of the European Parliament: Yes, my kids are not so happy going back to the first question.

Méabh Mc Mahon, Euronews: How’s it going for you? Are you managing to get the message out to the people and bring this Parliament that feels so abstract, closer to the people?

Roberta Metsola, President of the European Parliament: Well, there was a choice to have made. Do we go on to social media platforms that I say my children have been saying for a very long time, please don’t go on it, Mom. Four countries vote at the age of 16 and one country will vote at the age of 17. 

We have seen and this is what I’ve done, going from one country to another, asking young people, where do you get your news? What I don’t want is for those young people to get their news potentially from propaganda or misinformation sources. So we said, let’s get on there, let’s get our message through. And hopefully, once those kids are scrolling through, they get something that says, oh, I like this, I’ll go vote.

Méabh Mc Mahon, Euronews: Okay. You pique their curiosity. And what about you? What’s your future looking like? Would you like one day to be the president of the European Commission or to run your country?

Roberta Metsola, President of the European Parliament: Well, this has been a privilege of a lifetime, to be able to have this responsibility that my colleagues have entrusted to me in the past two and a half years. I’m now working pretty hard back home because I need to run for my seat. And that’s my aim in order to be elected once again to represent the citizens of Malta and Gozo.

Méabh Mc Mahon, Euronews: And which elections are more important? The ones taking place in June in Europe or the ones taking place on the other side of the pond in November.

Roberta Metsola, President of the European Parliament: Well, all democracies deserve a good election and a good campaign. There are more people in the world who can’t choose their leaders, and there are who can. So we will be very much looking, to the November elections. But first, we have pretty big ones here, and I’m hoping that those big ones will return a group of members who will come here and say, we want to work for more Europe. We want to work for the better lives of our citizens.

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Will going digital really simplify applying for a Schengen visa?

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

Digitalisation, although well-intentioned, may well lead to more complexity for the applicant and more of a workload for consular staff, Michel Dejaegher writes.

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The European Parliament is developing plans to reform visa application procedures in the Schengen area by moving from a system where travellers are required to apply in person to get physical visa stickers to a digital system instead.

The idea is that no longer will travellers apply for individual visas; instead, they’ll apply for an EU visa through one EU visa platform, which will allow them to download an e-visa directly to their smartphone.

All applicants will be required to do is to upload electronic copies of their travel documents along with other supporting materials, followed by the payment of the visa fees.

This has the potential to streamline the visa application process immensely for travellers and it is to European governments’ credit that they have reached an agreement on this in principle.

And, in theory, it sounds like a seamless visa application process. But in practice, I can foresee a number of difficulties.

Different countries, different rules

When you have one country on its own introducing a digitalisation process, you apply one set of rules and regulations and there is a single national authority harmonising and checking the practice of consulates. 

It is not an easy task, but it does not reach the level of complexity encountered when such a digitalisation process must be implemented across nearly 30 different countries.

In theory, the Schengen visa system is based on identical rules and regulations. It is mainly true, and it is quite an achievement, as national policies can be very different. However, there are still many exceptions, which a digitalisation platform will have to integrate.

First, the platform will have to inform applicants whether they need a visa or not. Most visa waivers are common. 

However, there are national exceptions such as employment (some Schengen member states do not apply the visa waiver if the third-country national is due to take employment), for airline and ship crews, holders of diplomatic or service passports and school children.

Second, a harmonised list of supporting documents needs to be displayed. To date, common consular lists have been established, but when you examine them, you realise that these lists are generic and rather vague — whereas if those supporting documents must be uploaded by applicants, they have to be very precise and limited.

Varying requirements might lead to confusion

Supporting documents are not always the same, either. For example, French consulates require a formal and secured invitation by a family member or a friend whereas other member states accept different types of invitations. 

It’s the same for the financial resources: the daily minimum amount is not the same for every Schengen member state. 

And as a traveller may visit several countries during his short stay, the platform will have to check not only which Schengen country is competent to examine the visa application (considering the rather vague concept of “main destination” where there is room for appreciation), but also record the number of days spent in each country so that the amount of financial resources may be calculated.

A related issue is because the platform intends to require the applicant to pay the Schengen visa fees online, national exceptions to the common fees will have to be integrated.

In short, the online application process will mean lots of questions being asked of the applicant which makes it very confusing for them.

Some countries already ask (or intend to ask) external service providers — such as outsourcers — to scan all pages of the travel documents of visa applicants in three different colours as a security precaution. 

The EU regulation, as it is now, provides for only a copy of just the identity page in one colour. However, I don’t believe Schengen governments will want to reduce this level of security.

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The road to Schengen is paved with good intentions

My sense is that digitalisation, although well-intentioned, may well lead to more complexity for the applicant, meaning consulates could be inundated with queries, which will create more of a workload for consular staff.

So, either Schengen governments could allow unregulated commercial intermediaries to assist applicants at a high price without any control — or, as I foresee, continue to regulate external service providers to provide controlled visa processing and support services, reducing the burden on the applicant and the consulate.

Indeed, many countries already use outsourcing services for providing logistic non-judgmental assistance to issuing visas, passports, and consular services. 

The introduction of external service providers was aimed at solving the problem of the time pressures on consulates and embassies from a growing number of applicants and the need to record their biometric data, together with increasing security measures in consulates. 

The time-consuming task of receiving applicants, accepting, and managing visa applications, checking applicants’ documentation is correct and collecting their biometric data is transferred to external service providers. 

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This has allowed consular services to focus on the essential task — granting or refusing the application — rather than getting bogged down in the administration or queries in processing the application.

In the era of smartphones and technological progress, digitalisation can certainly be an advance. But it will almost certainly require external service providers to make the process work smoothly.

Michel Dejaegher is a former head of the French Central Visa Department and former French consul general in Algeria, Canada and Japan. He represented France in the Schengen visa working group and is a co-writer of the European Union Visa Code.

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