Moldova ramps up EU membership push amid fears of Russia-backed coup

CHIȘINĂU, Moldova — Tens of thousands of Moldovans descended on the central square of the capital on Sunday, waving flags and homemade placards in support of the country’s push to join the EU and make a historic break with Moscow.

With Russia’s war raging just across the border in Ukraine, the government of this tiny Eastern European nation called the rally in an effort to overcome internal divisions and put pressure on Brussels to begin accession talks, almost a year after Moldova was granted EU candidate status.

“Joining the EU is the best way to protect our democracy and our institutions,” Moldova’s President Maia Sandu told POLITICO at Chișinău’s presidential palace, as a column of her supporters marched past outside. “I call on the EU to take a decision on beginning accession negotiations by the end of the year. We think we have enough support to move forward.”

Speaking alongside Sandu at what was billed as a “national assembly,” European Parliament President Roberta Metsola declared that “Europe is Moldova. Moldova is Europe!” The crowd, many holding Ukrainian flags and the gold-and-blue starred banner of the EU, let out a cheer. An orchestra on stage played the bloc’s anthem, Ode to Joy.

“In recent years, you have taken decisive steps and now you have the responsibility to see it through, even with this war on your border,” Metsola said. “The Republic of Moldova is ready for integration into the single European market.”

However, the jubilant rally comes amid warnings that Moscow is doing everything it can to keep the former Soviet republic within its self-declared sphere of influence.

In February, the president of neighboring Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, warned that his country’s security forces had disrupted a plot to overthrow Moldova’s pro-Western government. Officials in Chișinău later said the Russian-backed effort could have involved sabotage, attacks on government buildings and hostage-taking. Moscow officially denies the claims.

“Despite previous efforts to stay neutral, Moldova is finding itself in the Kremlin’s crosshairs — whether they want to be or not, they’re party of this broader conflict in Ukraine,” said Arnold Dupuy, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington.

“There’s an effort by the Kremlin to turn the country into a ‘southern Kaliningrad,’ putting in place a friendly regime that allows them to attack the Ukrainians’ flanks,” Dupuy said. “But this hasn’t been as effective as the Kremlin hoped and they’ve actually strengthened the government’s hand to look to the EU and NATO for protection.”

Responding to the alleged coup attempt, Brussels last month announced it would deploy a civilian mission to Moldova to combat growing threats from Russia. According to Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, the deployment under the terms of the Common Security and Defense Policy, will provide “support to Moldova [to] protect its security, territorial integrity and sovereignty.”

Bumps on the road to Brussels

Last week, Sandu again called on Brussels to begin accession talks “as soon as possible” in order to protect Moldova from what she said were growing threats from Russia. “Nothing compares to what is happening in Ukraine, but we see the risks and we do believe that we can save our democracy only as part of the EU,” she said. A group of influential MEPs from across all of the main parties in the European Parliament have tabled a motion calling for the European Commission to start the negotiations by the end of the year.

But, after decades as one of Russia’s closest allies, Moldova knows its path to EU membership isn’t without obstacles.

“The challenge is huge,” said Tom de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe. “They will need to overcome this oligarchic culture that has operated for 30 years where everything is informal, institutions are very weak and large parts of the bureaucracy are made viable by vested interests.”

At the same time, a frozen conflict over the breakaway region of Transnistria, in the east of Moldova, could complicate matters still further. The stretch of land along the border with Ukraine, home to almost half a million people, has been governed since the fall of the Soviet Union by pro-Moscow separatists, and around 1,500 Russian troops are stationed there despite Chișinău demanding they leave. It’s also home to one of the Continent’s largest weapons stockpiles, with a reported 20,000 tons of Soviet-era ammunition.

“Moldova cannot become a member of the EU with Russian troops on its territory against the will of the Republic of Moldova itself, so we will need to solve this before membership,” Romanian MEP Siegfried Mureșan, chair of the European Parliament’s delegation to the country, told POLITICO.

“We do not know now what a solution could look like, but the fact that we do not have an answer to this very specific element should not prevent us from advancing Moldova’s European integration in all other areas where we can,” Mureșan said.

While she denied that Brussels had sent any official signals that Moldova’s accession would depend on Russian troops leaving the country, Sandu said that “we do believe that in the next months and years there may be a geopolitical opportunity to resolve this conflict.”

Ties that bind

Even outside of Transnistria, Moscow maintains significant influence in Moldova. While Romanian is the country’s official language, Russian is widely used in daily life while the Kremlin’s state media helps shape public opinion — and in recent months has turned up the dial on its attacks on Sandu’s government.

A study by Chișinău-based pollster CBS Research in February found that while almost 54 percent of Moldovans say they would vote in favor of EU membership, close to a quarter say they would prefer closer alignment with Russia. Meanwhile, citizens were split on who to blame for the war in Ukraine, with 25 percent naming Russian President Vladimir Putin and 18 percent saying the U.S.

“Putin is not a fool,” said one elderly man who declined to give his name, shouting at passersby on the streets of the capital. “I hate Ukrainians.”

Outside of the capital, the pro-Russian ȘOR Party has held counter-protests in several regional cities.

Almost entirely dependent on Moscow for its energy needs, Moldova has seen Russia send the cost of gas skyrocketing in what many see as an attempt at blackmail. Along with an influx of Ukrainian refugees, the World Bank reported that Moldova’s GDP “contracted by 5.9 percent and inflation reached an average of 28.7 percent in 2022.”

“We will buy energy sources from democratic countries, and we will not support Russian aggression in exchange for cheap gas,” Sandu told POLITICO.

The Moldovan president, a former World Bank economist who was elected in 2020 on a wave of anti-corruption sentiment, faces a potentially contentious election battle next year. With the process of EU membership set to take years, or even decades, it remains to be seen whether the country will stay the course in the face of pressure from the Kremlin.

For Aurelia, a 40-year-old Moldovan who tied blue and yellow ribbons into her hair for Sunday’s rally, the choice is obvious. “We’ve been a part of the Russian world my whole life. Now we want to live well, and we want to live free.”

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Putting health back in health care

Advances in medical science and technology are rapidly changing and as we saw with the pandemic, diagnostic tests play a pivotal role in health care decision making. They inform treatment decisions, save costs and, most importantly, deliver better outcomes for patients. Unfortunately, these life-changing innovations are all too often not available to many of the people who need them most. Currently, 47 percent of the global population and 81 percent of people in low and lower-middle income countries have little or no access to life-saving diagnostics.

If you’re following the policy trend at large — or even if you’re not — this is where we inevitably turn to discussions of the role of Universal Health Coverage (UHC) in the pursuit of better access to screening and diagnosis. Population health is not only in the best interest of individual countries, but as evidenced by a global pandemic, it is important to global health as well. UHC — ensuring people can access the health care they need, when they need it, without financial hardship — is foundational to improving world health care.

Currently, 47 percent of the global population and 81 percent of people in low and lower-middle income countries have little or no access to life-saving diagnostics.

So, where do we start? With better access to diagnostics.

After the world faced a global pandemic and pulled together, we all learned vital lessons which must not be forgotten. First and foremost, we saw that by working together and sharing information early, we could develop diagnostics and vaccines faster. This learning must extend beyond times of crisis.

We also saw that health systems with well-developed diagnostics infrastructure were more effective at containing and controlling the pandemic. And they were better able to continue providing essential diagnostic tests and treatment monitoring for patients with other diseases such as cancer.

Normally, it would take years to bring a new test to market. Here — through focus and collaboration — we managed to do so in months.

As the world responded to urgent calls for better access to COVID-19 tests, hopes were also expressed that this would spark innovation leading to widespread testing, vaccines and treatments, which ultimately would reduce the spread of the pandemic.

After the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 as a public health concern, the urgency galvanized companies to work at full speed. The first Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests for SARS-CoV-2 were available for limited laboratory use within eight days. Only 64 days later PCR tests were authorized for use and available for scaled-up testing in major health centers.[1]

Normally, it would take years to bring a new test to market. Here — through focus and collaboration — we managed to do so in months.

As reported by the Lancet Commission, investing in diagnostic capabilities has been shown to lead to fewer misdiagnoses, better use of resources, and better patient care.

Driven by necessity, countries invested in diagnostics capabilities to fight the virus and, as reported by The Lancet, real change was seen at a pace that would previously have seemed impossible.

Why stop there? 

Ann Costello, Global Head of Roche Diagnostics Solutions | via Roche

The recommended WHO Resolution on strengthening diagnostics capacity represents an important step toward recognizing access to diagnostics as a policy priority as well as establishing concrete policy measures, to ensure equitable and timely access. It would pave the way for a considerable shift in strengthening our health care systems, driving progress toward global health equity and global health security.

As reported by the Lancet Commission[2], investing in diagnostic capabilities has been shown to lead to fewer misdiagnoses, better use of resources, and better patient care.

Early diagnosis is the cornerstone of sustainable, efficient and resilient health care systems. This in turn would reduce late-stage health care expenditures, including long-term costs of chronic disease management and disability, and better manage costs for patients, payors and governments.

Increasing access to diagnostics is crucial to controlling and potentially even eradicating certain diseases like cervical cancer, HIV, tuberculosis, viral hepatitis and malaria.

Laboratories are an essential component of a sustainable, efficient and resilient health system. But only if there’s enough of them and trained staff to run them.

The crux of the matter is that staff shortages in both high-income countries and low- and middle-income countries continue to create a barrier to diagnostic services.

How short-staffed are we? Well, to put a number on it, an estimated shortage in diagnostic workforce capacity saw a need for an additional 480,000-576,000 staff to support diagnostic testing.[2] And who loses when we don’t have enough skilled laboratory professionals? Patients.

Investment in diagnostics such as improving laboratory infrastructure and workforce development must also be supported by smart local regulatory approaches. This will ensure that patients, regardless of where they live, have timely access to innovation and safe, effective diagnostics.

Health care could enter a new golden age, shifting our focus from primarily treating disease to preserving health through prevention and by helping people live longer, more healthy lives.

This can be through adherence to international best practices, such as those created by International Medical Device Regulators Forum and implementation of regulatory reliance models — where one regulatory body (or the WHO) relies on the decisions, such as marketing authorizations, inspections and product changes, already made by trusted authorities and recognized institutions.

Governments should prioritize expansion of professionals with expertise in pathology and laboratory medicine[3] and introduce laboratory personnel as a key component of workforce initiatives to address the needs of currently over-burdened health care systems.

A new golden age for health care?

Roche is building partnerships to increase access to diagnostic solutions in low- and middle-income countries and to strengthen targeted laboratory systems through workforce training classes. In May 2022, Roche entered a partnership with the Global Fund to support low- and middle-income countries in strengthening critical diagnostics infrastructure. The aim is building local capacity to tackle infrastructure challenges to improve diagnostic results and manage health care waste. This is in line with Roche’s ambition to double patient access to innovative, high-medical-value diagnostics for people around the world.

Health care could enter a new golden age, shifting our focus from primarily treating disease to preserving health through prevention and by helping people live longer, more healthy lives.

To achieve the golden age we need to learn from the past. All public and private stakeholders have a duty to work together to ensure diagnostics continue to improve health outcomes around the world by bringing this important resolution to life.

Where a person lives should no longer be the key determining factor in their health. We have a tremendous opportunity here, let’s take it.

[1] Accelerating diagnostic tests to prevent a future pandemic. Bill Rodriguez. Cepi. Available at: (Accessed 04.04.2023)

[2] The Lancet Commission on diagnostics: transforming access to diagnostics. Fleming, Kenneth A et al.The Lancet, Volume 398, Issue 10315, 1997 – 2050.

[3] (Accessed: 04.04.2023)

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The EU greenwashed fossil gas. Today, we are suing.

Last July, EU policymakers decided to greenwash fossil gas. Today, the WWF European Policy Office, Client Earth, BUND and Transport & Environment are taking them to the European Court of Justice.

We are doing it to reassert a basic truth: all fossil fuels are dangerous for the planet. Only last summer, European cities baked under fierce heatwaves, rivers across our continent ran dry, and whole swathes of France, Spain, and Portugal were burned by unprecedented wildfires. In the midst of this devastation, the EU approved a new chapter of its supposed green investment guidebook — the EU Taxonomy — which stated that fossil gas-fired electricity is ‘green’. In fact, fossil gas is a fossil fuel that can cause plumes of methane that harm the climate just as badly as coal.

However, under the guise of climate action, the gas Taxonomy could divert tens of billions of euros from green projects into the very fossil fuels which are causing those heatwaves, droughts, and wildfires. This is while scientific experts at the International Energy Agency and the United Nations continue to stress that we must halt any expansion of fossil fuels and invest exclusively in developing clean energy sources. Even the EU’s own experts have said we must use much less gas by 2030. The gas Taxonomy is not just at odds with the science: it also flies in the face of market dynamics. Renewable investments across the world reached $500 billion last year, which shows that there is already a massive, readily available alternative to gas-fired power.

For all these reasons, having previously filed a request for the Commission to review the gas Taxonomy, we are filing a case at the CJEU today. We will argue that the gas Taxonomy, and the Commission’s refusal to review it, clash with the European Climate Law, the precautionary principle, and the Taxonomy Regulation — the law on which the Taxonomy is built. It also undermines the EU’s obligations under the Paris Agreement. We expect a judgment within the next two years.

Fossil gas at the heart of two European crises

Europe faces two interlocking crises: an inflation crisis and a climate crisis. Fossil gas is at the heart of both. Had we decided to invest with more determination in renewables and energy efficiency even just 10 years ago, our continent would not have been so dependent on energy imports. We would not have faced such great spikes in energy and food prices, which disproportionately hurt our poorest citizens. We would be closer to meeting our Paris Agreement goals.

Instead,  largely due to decades of industry pressure — the gas lobby spends up to €78 million a year in Brussels alone — our continent has remained extremely dependent on destructive fossil fuels. That dependency must end. It is high time to direct billions of euros into installing more renewables more quickly, with a focus on secure, cheap wind and solar power. It is time to expand the technologies to back them up, such as building insulation, energy storage, and strong grids. And above all, it is time to stop the lie that putting money into any fossil fuel will help the green transition. That is the purpose of our legal case.

Policymakers and financial institutions beware

EU policymakers are increasingly inserting references to the EU Taxonomy into other policies. If our case is successful, and the Taxonomy’s gas criteria are overturned, any legislation tying gas financing to the Taxonomy would become inapplicable.

Policymakers beware: the Taxonomy is on shaky ground, and you should not use it to justify new gas investments. Fossil fuel companies that get hooked on green funding will face a rude awakening if our legal case cuts that support off. They may even incur steep losses if they have made investments based on EU policies only to find that gas has been struck out of them.

Fossil fuel companies that get hooked on green funding will face a rude awakening if our legal case cuts that support off.

Financial institutions also face real reputational, financial and legal risks from the gas Taxonomy. Fossil gas is excluded from the global green bond market. Leading institutions such as the European Investment Bank or the Dutch pension federation have openly criticized the Taxonomy’s greenwashing. What is more, taxonomies in several other countries exclude fossil gas-fired power, so the European one lags behind. Any financial institution that uses the EU Taxonomy to justify investing in fossil gas assets therefore risks direct, robust and repeated attacks on its reputation.

The inexorable public policy shift towards energy efficiency and renewables, and the plummeting price of wind and solar power, have made fossil gas-fired power uncompetitive. Investments in more fossil gas, even if encouraged by the EU Taxonomy, would quickly result in stranded assets and could even cause billion-euro losses. Financial institutions must guard against these risks by stopping their support for gas expansion now.

Finally, if our case is successful, financial institutions could find they have purchased or sold products mislabeled as ‘green’. They must be careful to verify the legal consequences of such an event, particularly for its impact on any climate claims they have made.

Our message to the EU

Policymakers and financial institutions should note that the Taxonomy faces four further court cases: one from the governments of Austria and Luxembourg, one from Greenpeace, one from the Trinational Association for Nuclear Protection (ATPN) and another from MEP René Repasi. The EU’s greenwashing is now being discredited from all sides – amongst scientists, in financial markets, and soon, we expect, by the judiciary.

Our message to the EU is simple: do not help fossil lobbyists to block our continent’s move to clean, cheap and secure energy. If you do, we will meet you head-on.

Victor Hugo once said that nobody can stop an idea whose time has come. Today, despite much fossil fuel lobbying, denial and delay, it is the turn of the green transition. Our message to the EU is simple: do not help fossil lobbyists to block our continent’s move to clean, cheap and secure energy. If you do, we will meet you head-on.

See you in court.

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AI policy needs to bring the public with it

Press play to listen to this article

Voiced by artificial intelligence.

Seb Wride is director of polling at Public First.

Do you think an AI that’s as smart as a human and feels pain like a human should be able to refuse to do what it’s asked to? Like so many other issues, the answer to this question may well depend on one’s age.

At Public First, we recently ran polling on AI in the United Kingdom, and found that the youngest and oldest in the country have very different attitudes toward AI. According to our findings, it’s likely that those under 35 in the U.K. will be the first to accept that an AI is conscious and, further, the first to suggest that the AI should be able to reject tasks.

AI has very rapidly become a hot topic in the last few months, and like many others, I’ve found myself talking about it almost everywhere with colleagues, family and friends. Despite this, the discussion on what to do about AI has been entirely elite-led. Nobody has voted on it, and in-depth research into what the public thinks regarding the immense changes to our society AI advancement could bring is practically non-existent.

Just last week, some of the biggest names in tech, including Tesla and Twitter boss Elon Musk, signed an open letter calling for an immediate pause on the development of AI that’s more powerful than the newly launched GPT-4 program, out of concern for the risks of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) — meaning, AI on par with human cognition capabilities, particularly when it comes to being able to pick up any task it’s presented with.

However, if these threats start to shape policy, it hardly feels fair that the public should be left out of the debate.

In our polling, we found the public to be broadly aligned on what it would take for an AI to be conscious — namely, it should feel emotions and feel pain. However, while a quarter of those aged 65 and over said that an AI can never be conscious, only 6 percent of those aged 18 to 24 thought the same.

What’s particularly interesting is how these age groups differ if we then postulate that an AI as smart as a human or that feels pain were to be developed. Almost a third of 18 to 24s who were polled agree that an AI “as smart as a human” should be treated equally to a human, compared to just 8 percent of those aged 65 and over.

And when we instead suggested an AI that “felt pain like a human,” more 18 to 24s agreed that it should be treated equally than not (46 percent to 34 percent), while a majority of the oldest age group believed it still shouldn’t be (62 percent).

Pressing this issue further and providing examples of ways in which an AI could be treated equally, we then found that over a quarter of those under 25 would grant an AGI the same legal rights and protections as humans (28 percent), over a quarter would give the AI minimum wage (26 percent), and over a fifth would allow an AI to marry a human (22 percent) and to vote in elections (21 percent).

The equivalent levels among those over 65, however, all remained under 10 percent.

Most starkly, by 44 percent to 19 percent, those aged 18 to 24 agreed that an AI as smart as a human should be able to refuse to do tasks that it doesn’t want to do, while an outright majority of those over 45 disagreed (54 percent).

an AI as smart as a human should be able to refuse to do tasks that it doesn’t want to do | Image via iStock

We’re still a long way off from these discussions of AGI becoming political reality, of course, but there is scope for dramatic shifts in the way the public thinks and talks about AI in the very near future.

When we asked how the public would best describe their feelings toward AI, the words “curious” (46 percent) and “interested” (42 percent) scored top. Meanwhile, “worried” was the highest scoring negative word at 27 percent, and only 17 percent described themselves as “scared.” And as it stands, currently, more people describe AI as providing an opportunity for the U.K. economy (33 percent) than posing a threat (19 percent) — although a good chunk are not sure.

But this could all change very quickly.

Awareness and public-facing use-cases of AI are growing rapidly. For example, 29 percent of those polled had heard of ChatGPT, including over 40 percent of those under 35. Additionally, a third of those who had heard of it claimed to have already used it personally.

There is, however, still a lot of scope for AI to surprise the public. 60 percent in our sample said they would be surprised if an AI chatbot claimed to be conscious and asked to be freed from its programmer. Interestingly, this is more than the proportion who said they would be surprised if a swarm of autonomous drones was used to assassinate someone in the U.K. (51 percent).

Based on this, I would suggest that many of the attitudes we see the public currently expressing toward AI — and AGI — are premised on a belief that this is all a far-off possibility. However, I would also argue that those who are just starting to use these tools are only a few steps away from an “Eerie AI” moment, when the computer does something truly surprising, and one feels like perhaps there’s no going back.

Just the other week, our research showed how much beliefs that an artist’s job could be automated by an AI could shift, simply by showing individuals some examples of art produced by AI. If we see this sort of shift play out with Large Language Models — like GPT — then suddenly, the concern expressed by the public on this issue will shoot up, and it might start to matter whether one tends to believe that these models are conscious or not.

Now, however, it all feels like a “which will happen first” scenario — the government curbing AI development in some way, an AI model going rogue or backfiring horrendously, or the appearance of a public opinion backlash to rapid AI development.

In essence, this means we need a rethink of how AI policy develops over time. And personally, I’d be a whole lot less worried if I felt I had at least some say over it all — even if that’s just with political parties and government paying a bit more attention to what we all think about AI.

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Can Laws Be Medicines?

During a 5-year span between 1970 and 1975, 29 states in the United States lowered the legal age for drinking alcohol from 21 to 18, 19, or 20. Advocates for changing the minimum age noted that a person old enough to vote or fight in a war was old enough to drink. Those against it worried about accidents, as car crashes – then as now – were the leading cause of death for teenagers. Then, over the next several years, some states began to raise the minimum drinking age again.

Alex Wagenaar, PhD, now a research professor at the Emory University Rollins School of Public Health in Atlanta, recognized the situation as a natural experiment – something that divides a population into one group exposed to experimental conditions, and one unexposed. “You had 29 examples of experiments, basically each with changing legal ages,” he says. Starting in the late 1970s, while a fledgling graduate student, Wagenaar compared data from those two populations in states that had changed the law, controlling for variables like seat belts and traffic laws, to assess how raising the drinking age affected the rate of alcohol-related car crashes.

He found a decrease in crash-related deaths among teens in states that had raised the drinking age. In 1984, the federal government raised the minimum age to 21, and the rates normalized again.

Wagenaar has spent decades in a field now known as “legal epidemiology,” which uses rigorous scientific methods to investigate how laws impact public health. 

Health risk factors are often described and researched in terms of readily identifiable exposure. They may be environmental, like smoking as a risk factor for cancers, or inherited, like mutations in the BRCA gene that increase a person’s risk of breast or ovarian cancer. But a central argument in legal epidemiology is that laws themselves can be risk factors, too.

For most laws, those effects aren’t well understood or studied. “We can think of the law as a treatment, as some kind of pill that we apply to hundreds of millions of people,” says Scott Burris, JD, who leads the Center for Public Health Research at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law.

“But new medical treatments go through all sorts of advanced testing. There’s surveillance after marketing to make sure no unexpected side effects show up.” That’s not the case for many new laws, which are often not evaluated for health risks before they’re passed or surveilled after they’re implemented. 

He says it’s no surprise that laws affect health. What is surprising is that so many are proposed and passed without considering those health effects. “It’s crazy that we don’t demand more information about what laws work,” says Burris. “Evidence is important because it’s there if we’re willing to see it. But if you don’t want to see it, you’re not going to see it.”

Finding ways to analyze and use that evidence is central to legal epidemiology. Legal epidemiologists are investigating the health effects of COVID-19 regulations and abortion access laws, but they look at other connections, too, like the one between minimum wage and infant survival, or between housing laws and life expectancy. Researchers in legal epidemiology study the health impact of existing laws and develop new tools to help lawmakers and public health authorities at every level assess or predict the efficacy of a law. Their ongoing goal is to advocate for laws informed by public health evidence and to avoid laws that might lead to adverse public health outcomes. 

“Law is one of the most significant determinants of health,” says Matthew Penn, JD, who leads the CDC’s Office of Public Health Law, which was established in 2000. “It also impacts conditions that result in health inequities and negative health outcomes.”

The Science of the Law

Some laws have effects that are easier to recognize than others, says Burris, who has led studies on seat belt laws, how criminalization laws affect people with HIV, and the impact of drug syringe laws on injection drug users.

Some are low-hanging fruit. Seat belts have been required by law in cars since 1968, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that they’ve saved more than 300,000 lives. Compulsory vaccinations for smallpox and polio led to the eradication of those diseases from the U.S. population in the 20th century. During the federal assault weapons ban from 1994 to 2004, homicides due to mass shootings declined, and after the ban was lifted, they rose again.

Other findings are less obvious – and more surprising. A 2016 study in the American Journal of Public Health tied minimum wage increases at the state level to higher birth weight and fewer infant deaths. Previous studies have found that low birth weight is tied to a raft of other problems, from worse health in childhood to lower high school graduation rates, so the 2016 study, which Wagenaar worked on, points to raising minimum wage as a legal action that could improve health across the board.

Housing laws also have some surprising effects. Homeownership is the largest component of personal wealth, and people build wealth by inheriting homes from earlier generations. Myriad studies have linked homeownership to better health and even a longer life expectancy. Overall wealth has the same effect; in July 2022, in a paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers from Northwestern University and other institutions analyzed death and financial records of hundreds of thousands of people. They found a gap of more than 15 years between the life expectancies of the wealthiest and poorest individuals studied.

“We know there’s a direct correlation between health outcomes and wealth,” says Georges C. Benjamin, MD, former secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and current executive director of the American Public Health Association, which focuses on public health problems including how laws affect health and access to health care. Racist housing laws offer one example. After his father died 10 years ago, Benjamin was going through paperwork when he found a surprise on the back of the title for his dad’s house – the same one where he’d grown up. “It basically said this home cannot be sold to African Americans,” says Benjamin, who is African American.

Although such racial “covenants” were outlawed in 1968, they still show up in older houses and cause complications for families trying to pass property from generation to generation. “Many of us are now in the process of moving property along, but when you go to pull those titles, you’ll find overt redlining.” Today, studies show, redlining has been linked to higher risk of heart diseaseasthma, and other health problems.

A rich subfield of studies has also examined the health effects of criminalization laws. One of the earliest, a 1928 study, reported that mortality rates in children and women declined during the 5 years of the Prohibition era, but rose in men over 35. (The author noted, however, that many causes beyond the law likely contributed to this effect).

More recent investigations look at the connection between criminalization laws and drug overdoses. “It is always important when we use law as an intervention” for a public health crisis like opioid abuse, says Burris. “Overdose is a major killer.” Many states have enacted Good Samaritan laws, which may, for example, protect a person who helps a victim of overdose from prosecution of low-level drug offenses. But “by and large individual studies don’t show very robustly that [these laws] are working,” Burris says. In a paper published earlier this year in the American Journal of Public Health, legal epidemiologists argued that a range of complicating factors, including competing laws, likely blunt the effectiveness.

“It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try them,” Burris says. “But we have to realize that when we try the law to solve a problem, we’re not finishing the job.” Right now, he says, legal epidemiology studies are woefully underfunded by the National Institutes of Health, but with more financial support researchers could identify – and even predict – which overdose laws could have the biggest impact, both in terms of lives saved and financial investment.

Other recent studies have looked at larger trends to try to identify policies that promote health. A study published in 2020 in The Milbank Quarterly connected state policies including higher tobacco taxes, stricter gun control, and access to abortion to longer life expectancy. If all states were to adopt policies based on gains in life expectancy, the authors estimated that life expectancy in the country would rise by more than 2 years.

Natural Experiments and the Future

Interest in the connection between the law and health effects started to gain momentum around 2000, says Penn, when researchers in public health began to recognize the “centrality of law” in a way they hadn’t before. “Public health law really crystallized between 2000 and 2010,” he says. The term “legal epidemiology” was introduced in 2010 as researchers focused on the idea that a law’s impact on health should be a primary consideration, ideally before it passes but even after it’s put into place.

Wagenaar has spent his entire career in the field. Right now, he says, experts in the field are developing tools that can not only find causal connections between law and health outcomes but also be widely and readily deployed, usable by any public health agency and able to produce results ready for lawmakers’ consideration. He says that unlike medical researchers, legal epidemiologists usually don’t have randomized clinical trials – the current gold standard in evaluating the efficacy of new treatments – to rely on. But that doesn’t mean laws can’t be rigorously scrutinized for how they affect health.

“Randomization is a very good tool, but when it’s impossible to randomize, there are all these other tools that are very helpful,” he says. 

He says that many investigations could start by looking at natural experiments unfolding in real time – not unlike the case of lowering the minimum drinking age in the 1970s. At that time, critics of his work claimed that without randomization it revealed only a correlation that could have arisen through other causes, but Wagenaar says he stood by his methods and conclusions. They were rigorously replicated and accurately predicted long-term effects.

“If you’re thoughtful about how you design your study, you can get high levels of causal confidence,” he says.

Now, researchers are working to broaden the reach of legal epidemiology by designing tools that any public health official can use. “Any time you put a new policy in place, health has to be part of the conversation,” says Benjamin.

Legal epidemiology “is applicable to almost anything,” says Wagenaar. And there’s plenty of data – about plenty of policies and laws – to be scrutinized. “Lawmakers are experimenting on us as a society all the time, with everything they pass,” he says.

The COVID-19 pandemic offered a clear case study. In a 2021 perspective published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Wagenaar and others pointed out that decades of scientific research into mRNA vaccines made it possible to quickly develop, manufacture, and distribute enormous quantities of a vaccine. Those decades were built on both basic science research and advances made in the wake of the first SARS virus. But there was no body of research into the health effects of regulations like mask-wearing, stay-at-home orders, travel restrictions, and school closings. The result was a confusing and inconsistent hodgepodge of rules.

He also points to the country’s current tangle of marijuana regulations and sees the current approach to laws and policies as a missed opportunity. The United States has developed strategies, over decades, for using the law as a health intervention to reduce risks associated with drinking and smoking, but he thinks current discussions around new laws for marijuana fail to take that experience into consideration. “We have all that tobacco knowledge and all that alcohol knowledge, and we’re not paying any attention to the lessons we’ve learned,” he says. “That’s an example that’s frustrating.” In other words, decades of practical research has taught us how to regulate substance use to promote public health; putting those lessons into effect is a thorny political matter rather than a medical one.

But in some cases, says Benjamin, legal epidemiology can reveal a simpler solution. In the case of redlining and other racist practices that blunt the accumulation of wealth and impair health, the way forward is obvious, he says. “In some cases, it means going back to the books, and taking those laws off the books.”

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No silver bullet: Ensuring the right packaging solutions for Europe

When most people think of McDonald’s they likely think of quality food, good value and consistently reliable convenient service. But I hope they also think about our values.

At McDonald’s, we care deeply about our impact on the world. Our purpose is to feed and foster local communities. We are always striving to use our influence and scale to make a positive impact on the planet and in the communities we serve across Europe and globally. We are on a journey to help implement and accelerate solutions to keep waste out of nature and valuable materials in use.

Our purpose is to feed and foster local communities.

During my trip to Europe, I’ve seen some of these solutions in action. While in Brussels I had the opportunity to visit one of our restaurants at the forefront of advancing our circularity goals. McDonald’s is the first major partner of a pioneering initiative ‘The Cup Collective’. It is a great project by Stora Enso and Huhtamaki to collect cardboard beverage and ice cream cups in and around our restaurants and recycle them on an industrial scale into paper fiber. At our busy  restaurant in Brussels-North station, I saw the initiative firsthand. This is a fantastic example of several stakeholders working together to solve a problem through their expertise and innovation.

I know policymakers across the EU are trying to solve many of the greatest challenges we face today, including Europe’s growing packaging waste problem, and we at McDonald’s fully support this, as the example above demonstrates. The problem is, history itself is littered with examples of the unintended consequences of well-meaning policies and laws. I believe the current Packaging and Packaging Waste proposal by the EU is one such regulation. By focusing solely on reusable packaging, we at McDonald’s and many of our partners and competitors in the informal dining out sector believe that Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) will actually be counterproductive to the overall goals of the Green Deal. And we support the goals of the Green Deal, which is why this concerns us.

The informal eating-out sector is particularly complex and is not well understood. We feel the impact study the EU commissioned ahead of the PPWR proposal did not necessarily reflect that as much as it could have. We want such important decisions to be based on science, facts, and evidence, which is why we commissioned a report with the global management consultancy Kearney to assess environmental, economic, hygiene and affordability impacts of various packaging solutions. As a result of this, we firmly believe the proposal will be damaging not only for the environment, but also for the economy, food safety and for consumers.

Of course, the idea of reusing something over and over again as opposed to only once seems like the obvious solution — but it’s more complicated than that. For reuse models to have a positive impact on the environment, consumers need to return the reusables. A reusable cup needs to be returned and reused 50 to 100 times — whether for takeaway or dine-in — to make it environmentally preferable to a single-use paper cup.

Reusables by their very nature also need to be washed every time they’re used. For an industry like ours, serving millions of customers every day, that requires significant energy and water. Europe’s water infrastructure is already under stress, and the Kearney study shows reusable packaging requirements for dine-in restaurants would increase water use — and could require up to 4 billion liters of additional water each year. Washing also requires more energy resulting in increased greenhouse emissions. The study shows that a shift to 100 percent reusable packaging by 2030 would increase greenhouse emissions by up to 50 percent for dine-in and up to 260 percent for takeaway. They also require specialist washing to ensure they meet hygiene standards.

The study shows that a shift to 100 percent reusable packaging by 2030 would increase greenhouse emissions.

When it comes to plastics we are particularly concerned. McDonald’s has made huge progress when it comes to reducing plastic in our supply chain and restaurants. In the European Union, more than 90 percent of our packaging is locally sourced, primarily from European paper packaging suppliers. We are shifting packaging materials to more sustainable alternatives to ensure easier recovery and recycling. 92.8 percent (by weight) of McDonald’s food packaging in Europe is wood fiber and 99.4 percent of that fiber packaging comes from recycled or certified sources.

Worryingly though, the study we commissioned says that reuse models will lead to a sharp increase in plastic materials in Europe.Reuse targets proposed in the PPWR will create four times the amount of plastic packaging waste for dine-in, and 16 times for takeaway. That’s a lot more plastic instead of recyclable paper and cardboard and is the opposite of what the EU wants to achieve.

So, what should be done? Given that Kearney’s data shows recyclable, fiber-based packaging has the greater potential to benefit the environment, economy, food safety and consumers, we believe the EU should pause and conduct a full impact study before moving ahead. The European Commission’s current impact assessment lacks depth and does not consider economic and food safety aspects. Member countries should not unilaterally introduce legislation before this has been assessed to avoid fragmentation of the single market.

We believe the EU should pause and conduct a full impact study before moving ahead.

In dine in and takeaway, we are looking for equivalence of treatment between recycled and recyclable (paper based) single use packaging and reusable tableware. Any legislation should take into account the specific needs of complex business sectors, and the right packaging solutions.

A rush to a solution for a complicated situation will only make the problem worse. I hope that the report McDonald’s commissioned and launched with Kearney will stimulate the policy debate about the mix of solutions needed. Europe has a proud history of collaboration and pragmatism when it comes to solving important problems and challenges, and I am confident we can draw on that when it comes to this particular issue — because there really is no silver bullet when it comes to solving Europe’s packaging problem.

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Contraception in Europe, why is it only free in some EU countries?

Contraception is known to prevent unwanted pregnancies and, in the case of condoms, protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs). When it comes to contraceptives, male and female condoms are the most effective barriers to STIs including HIV, according to the WHO and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

So, on International Condom Day, 2023, why is there still such disparity in access to contraception around Europe?

The European Parliament encourages safeguarding access to contraception. As recently as 2021, a parliamentary report on sexual and reproductive health stressed that all member states are encouraged to provide universal access to contraceptive methods and address any barriers.

Yet government policies across the European Union continue to vary.

Financial inequality between western and eastern member states is believed to be part of the problem. Neil Datta, Executive Director of the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights told Euronews: “In east European countries, up until the early 1990s, contraception was not very well known, it was not very accessible so, we are still dealing with the legacy of that even today.”


The AIDS Healthcare Foundation has designated 13 February as International Condom Day. It says the event was created to encourage safer sexual practices on an international scale and promote the use of contraception to prevent unintended pregnancies and STIs.

The EU mirrors this message and has also called on public authorities to ensure students in schools are given a rounded education on sexual health. It calls for professional counselling to be provided on a range of contraceptive methods in line with standards set by the World Health Organization.

But, these are recommendations and the 27 Member States are not obliged to act on them.

“Governments have not been very proactive in thinking about their policies in relation to contraception,” said Datta. He went on to explain that some countries are also against wider contraception policies, based on the idea that encouraging the use of contraception will have a negative impact on fertility rates.

‘Best accessibility’

The Contraception Policy Atlas, designed by the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, breaks down contraception policies in 46 countries across Europe. Its findings suggest that France has the best access to contraception, counselling and the highest availability of online information services out of all EU Member States. Accessibility was rated at 93.2%.

France announced its pharmacies would provide free condoms to people aged 18-25 from January 2023 after health authorities discovered that the number of STIs in France increased by 30% in both 2020 and 2021. A programme providing free STI testing and the emergency contraceptive pill has also been rolled out.

In Ireland, free condoms are available to people of all ages through sexual health clinics and some third-level colleges. In addition, from 1 September 2023, free contraception will be given to 16-year-old girls and to women between the ages of 26 and 30 as part of the national budget. The national health service has also announced it will spend €500,000 on condoms and lubricants as part of an ongoing campaign against “crisis pregnancies” and STIs – amounting to 1.5 million free condoms every year.

Germany also announced that it wants to follow France’s lead and finance condoms through its national health insurance. For now, though, contraception comes at a cost through the national health scheme, although special provisions cover birth control pills and emergency contraception for adolescents up to the age of 22.

‘Lowest accessibility’

The Contraception Policy Atlas puts Poland at the opposite end of the scale, with a rating of just 33.5% in terms of public access to contraception. Emergency contraceptive pills need to be prescribed by a doctor and are not available over the counter in pharmacies.

Meanwhile, in Hungary, there is no publicly-funded website for contraception services and a prescription is needed for all contraceptive supplies except condoms and emergency contraception.

Role of politics and religion

“Policies on contraception influence people’s behaviours in accessing contraception. One aspect is whether it is covered by the respective national health system. If it is not covered by the national health systems then it creates financial barriers for individuals who want to use it” said Datta.

Religion is also an important factor, “most religions, Christian religions specifically, do discourage the use of contraception, particularly in the world of Catholicism.

“So where those religions are very strong, the narratives out there which do discourage the use of contraceptives and religious actors can have influence over public policies” he added.

The right kind of sex education

Yet, in Europe as a whole, the unintended pregnancy rate has declined by 53% over the past 30 years, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

Some experts argue that one of the factors behind declining unintended pregnancy rates is the promotion of sex education in schools, which is widely encouraged by the European Parliament and the World Health Organization.

“Comprehensive sexuality education teaches young people both about contraception and about respect and consent within relationships including sexual relationships. This has a very positive knock-on effect on people understanding how to prevent unintended pregnancies and how to protect their own health by being able to empower themselves to avoid sexually transmitted infections” said Datta.

Sex education remains a topical issue. In some countries, such as Ireland and France, it is a compulsory part of school education, but in Italy, for example, sex ed is optional.

Where available, education is often delivered through a variety of school subjects as part of a cross-curricular programme. Various aspects are taught through biology, home economics and social sciences.

Yet sex education does not necessarily provide students with information on contraception methods.

Natalie Picken, an analyst for the RAND Corporation, a non-profit specialising in improving policy and decision-making through research, told Euronews that education on contraception is only included in the sex education curriculum in some EU countries.

“It is likely that the content, nature and extent of these programmes varied considerably between regions, schools, and classes” she added.

Picken’s research found that most EU members have limited teacher training opportunities in sex education, despite its benefits.

“There is strong evidence that sexuality education can lead to reduced risk-taking, delayed initiation of sexual intercourse, and more use of contraception and condoms and generally improves young people’s knowledge and attitudes around sexual health,” she said.

How can EU countries bridge the gap?

Implementing better access to contraception can be costly but there are ways authorities can get up to speed.

“One easy quick fix that is accessible to any government would be to provide government supported information for example via a website which provides authentic, authoritative information… that is within the capacity of each government no matter how strapped it may be”, concluded Datta.

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A plan for competitive, green and resilient industries

We, Renew Europe, want our Union to fulfil its promise of prosperity and opportunities for our fellow Europeans. We have championed initiatives to make our continent freer, fairer and greener, but much more remains to be done.

We are convinced that Europe has what it takes to become the global industrial leader, especially in green and digital technologies. Yet it is faced with higher energy prices and lower levels of investment, which creates a double risk of internal and external fragmentation.

The Russian aggression against Ukraine has shown us that our European way of life cannot be taken for granted. While we stand unwaveringly at the side of our Ukrainian friends and commit to the rebuilding of their homeland, we also need to protect our freedom and prosperity.

That is why Europe needs an urgent and ambitious plan for a competitive, productive and innovative industry ‘made in Europe’. Our proposals below would translate into many more jobs, a faster green transition and increased geopolitical influence.

We must improve the conditions for companies, big and small, to innovate, to grow and to thrive globally.

1. Reforms to kick start the European economy: A European Clean Tech, Competitiveness and Innovation Act

While the EU can be proud of its single market, we must improve the conditions for companies, big and small, to innovate, to grow and to thrive globally.

  • In addition to the acceleration of the deployment of sustainable energy, we call on the Commission to propose a European Clean Tech, Competitiveness and Innovation Act, which would:
  • While the EU can be proud of its single market, we must improve the conditions for companies, big and small, to innovate, to grow and to thrive globally.
  • In addition to the acceleration of the deployment of sustainable energy, we call on the Commission to propose a European Clean Tech, Competitiveness and Innovation Act, which would:
  • Cut red tape and administrative burden, focusing on delivering solutions to our companies, particularly for SMEs and startups.
  • Adapt state aid rules for companies producing clean technologies and energies.
  • Introduce fast-track permitting for clean and renewable energies and for industrial projects of general European interest.
  • Streamline the process for important Projects of Common European Interest, with adequate administrative resources.
  • Guarantee EU-wide access to affordable energy for our industries.
  • Strengthen the existing instruments for a just transition of carbon-intensive industries, as they are key to fighting climate change.
  • Facilitate private financing by completing the Capital Markets Union to allow our SMEs and startups to scale up.
  • Set the right conditions to increase Europe’s global share of research and development spending and reach our own target at 3 percent of our GDP.
  • Build up the European Innovation Council to develop breakthrough technologies.
  • Deliver a highly skilled workforce for our industry.
  • Deepen the single market by fully enforcing existing legislation and further harmonization of standards in the EU as well as with third countries.

We need to reduce more rapidly our economic dependencies from third countries, which make our companies and our economies vulnerable.

2. Investments supporting our industry to thrive: A European Sovereignty Fund and Reform Act

While the EU addresses, with unity, all the consequences of the war in Ukraine, we need to reduce more rapidly our economic dependencies from third countries, which make our companies and our economies vulnerable.

In addition to the new framework for raw materials, we call on the Commission to:

  • Create a European Sovereignty Fund, by revising the MFF and mobilizing private investments, to increase European strategic investments across the Union, such as the production on our soil of critical inputs, technologies and goods, which are key to the green and digital transitions.
  • Carry out a sovereignty test to screen European legislation and funds, both existing and upcoming, to demonstrate that they neither harm the EU’s capacity to act autonomously, nor create new dependencies.
  • Modernize the Stability and Growth Pact to incentivize structural reforms and national investments with real added value for our open strategic autonomy, in areas like infrastructure, resources and technologies.

While the EU has to resist protectionist measures, we will always want to promote an open economy with fair competition.

3. Initiatives creating a global level playing field:

A New Generation of Partnerships in the World Act

While the EU has to resist protectionist measures, we will always want to promote an open economy with fair competition.

  • In addition to all the existing reforms made during this mandate, notably on public procurement and foreign subsidies, we call on the Commission to:
  • Make full use of the EU’s economic and political power regarding current trade partners to ensure we get the most for our industry exports and imports, while promoting our values and standards, not least human rights and the Green Deal.
  • Promote new economic partnerships with democratic countries so we can face climate change and all the consequences of the Russian aggression together.
  • Ensure the diversification of supply chains to Europe, particularly regarding critical technologies and raw materials, based on a detailed assessment of current dependencies and alternative sources.
  • Use all our trade policy instruments to promote our prosperity and preserve the single market from distortions from third countries.
  • Take recourse to dispute settlement mechanisms available at WTO level whenever necessary to promote rules-based trade.
  • Adopt a plan to increase our continent’s attractiveness for business projects.
  • Create a truly European screening of the most sensitive foreign investments.
  • We, Renew Europe, believe that taken together these initiatives will foster the development of a competitive and innovative European industry fit for the 21st century. It will pave the way for a better future for Europeans that is more prosperous and more sustainable.

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Chairman FAO: Western powers pressure China’s UN food boss to grip global hunger crisis

ROME, Italy — The Chinese head of a crucial U.N. food agency has come under intense scrutiny by Western powers, who accuse him of failing to grip a global hunger crisis exacerbated by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Qu Dongyu, director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization, has alienated the Western powers that are the agency’s main backers with his technocratic leadership style and connections to Beijing that, in their view, have damaged its credibility and capability to mitigate the crisis.

POLITICO has interviewed more than a dozen U.N. officials and diplomats for this article. The critical picture that emerges is of a leader whose top-down management style and policy priorities are furthering China’s own agenda, while sidelining the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February was met with weeks of eerie silence at the FAO, and although the messaging has since changed, Qu’s critics say FAO should be showing stronger political leadership on the food crisis, which threatens to tip millions more people into hunger.

“Nobody actually takes him seriously: It’s not him; it’s China,” said one former U.N. official. “I’m not convinced he would make a single decision without first checking it with the capital.”

In his defense, Qu and his team say a U.N. body should not be politicized and that he’s delivering on the FAO’s analytical and scientific mandate.

Chairman FAO

Qu Dongyu was elected in 2019 to run the Rome-based agency, handing China a chance to build international credibility in the U.N. system, and punishing a division between the EU and the U.S after they backed competing candidates who lost badly. The election was clouded by allegations of coercion and bribery against China.

Now, as he prepares for a likely reelection bid next year to run FAO until 2027, Qu — who describes himself as a conflict-averse “humble, small farmers’ son” — is under intensifying scrutiny over his leadership during the crisis.

After three years of largely avoiding the headlines, Qu drew criticism from countries like France and the U.S. for his sluggish and mealy-mouthed response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a massive exporter of food to developing countries.

The EU and U.S. forced an emergency meeting of the FAO’s Council in the spring in order to pressure the FAO leadership into stepping up to the plate, with Ukraine demanding he rethink his language of calling it a “conflict” and not a war. The communications division was initially ordered to keep schtum about the war and its likely impacts on food supply chains. In May, Ukrainians protested outside FAO HQ in Rome demanding Russia be kicked out of the organization.

At a meeting of the FAO Council in early December, countries like France, Germany and the U.S. successfully pushed through yet another demand for urgent action from FAO’s leadership, requesting fresh analysis of impact of Russia’s war on global hunger, and a full assessment of the damage done to Ukraine’s vast farm system.

China has not condemned Russia outright for invading Ukraine, while the EU and the U.S. use every opportunity in the international arena to slam Moscow for its war of aggression: Those geopolitical tensions are playing out across the FAO’s 194 member countries. Officials at the agency, which has $3.25 billion to spend across 2022 and 2023, are expected to act for the global good — and not in the narrow interest of their countries.

Qu is said still to be furious about the confrontation: “[He] is still upset about that, that really annoyed him,” said one ambassador to the FAO. “He sees the EU as an entity, a player within the FAO that is obstructing his vision.”

Qu featured on a TV screen inside the FAO headquarters in Rome | Eddy Wax/POLITICO

Though Qu has now adapted his language and talks about the suffering being caused by Russia’s war, some Western countries still believe FAO should respond proactively to the food crisis, in particular to the agricultural fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The FAO’s regular budget and voluntary funds are largely provided by EU countries, the U.S. and allies like Japan, the U.K. and Canada. The U.S. contributes 22 percent of the regular budget, compared to China’s 12 percent.

Qu is determined to stick to the mandate of the FAO to simply provide analysis to its members — and to steer clear of geopolitics.

“I’m not [a] political figure; I’m FAO DG,” he told POLITICO in October, in an encounter in an elevator descending from FAO’s rooftop canteen in Rome.

FAO’s technocratic stance is defended by other members of Qu’s top team, such as Chief Economist Máximo Torero, who told POLITICO in May: “You are in a war. Some people think that we need to take political positions. We are not a political entity that is the Security Council — that’s not our job.”


Qu can hardly be said to be apolitical, as he is a former vice-minister of agriculture and rural affairs of the Chinese Communist Party.

On top of his political background he has expertise in agriculture. He was part of a team of scientists that sequenced the potato genome while he was doing a PhD at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. In an email to POLITICO his professor, Evert Jacobsen, remembered Qu’s “enthusiasm about his country,” as well as is “strategic thinking” and “open character.”

Yet Western diplomats worry that many of the policy initiatives he has pushed through during his tenure map onto China’s foreign policy goals.

They say that the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals have been eclipsed by his own initiatives, such as his mantra of the Four Betters (production, nutrition, environment, life), and Chinese-sounding plans from “One Country, One Priority Product” to his flagship Hand-in-Hand Initiative.

Some Western diplomats say these bear the hallmarks of China’s Global Development Initiative, about which Qu has tweeted favorably.

Detractors say these are at best empty slogans, and at worst serve China’s foreign policy agenda. “If the countries that are on the receiving end don’t exercise agency you need to be aware that these are policies that first and foremost are thought to advance China, either materially or in terms of international reputation, or in terms of diplomacy,” said Francesca Ghiretti, an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS).

Insiders say he’s put pressure on parts of the FAO ecosystem that promote civil society engagement or market transparency: two features that don’t go down well in Communist China. The former U.N. official said Qu had subjected the G20 market transparency dashboard AMIS, housed at FAO, to “increased pressure and control,” causing international organizations to step in to protect its independence earlier this year.

The diplomat said Qu was trying to suffocate the Committee on World Food Security, which invites civil society and indigenous people’s groups into FAO’s HQ and puts them on a near-equal footing with countries. “What has he accomplished in two-plus years? You can get Chinese noodles in the cafeteria,” they said.

Flags at the entrance to the FAO headquarters in Rome | Eddy Wax/POLITICO

But at a U.N. agency that has historically been deeply dysfunctional, Qu is popular among staff members.

“Mr. Qu Dongyu brought a new spirit on how to treat staff and established trust and peace between staff and management,” said one former FAO official.

Even his sharpest critics concede that he has done good things during his tenure. He made a point of shaking every staff member’s hand upon his election, even turning up occasionally unannounced to lunch with them in the canteen that he’s recently had refurbished. There’s also widespread appreciation among agriculture policymakers of the high quality of economic work turned out by FAO, and support for his climate change and scientific agenda.

“The quality of data FAO produces is very good and it’s producing good policy recommendations,” one Western diplomat acknowledged.

FAO play

Three years into his term, there’s a much stronger Chinese presence at FAO and Chinese officials occupy some of the key divisions, covering areas such as plants & pesticides, land & water, a research center for nuclear science and technology in agriculture, and a division on cooperation between developing countries. A vacant spot atop the forestry division is also expected to go to a Chinese candidate.

Experts say those positions are part of a strategy. “China tries to get the divisions where it can grow its footprint in terms of shaping the rules, shaping the action and engaging more broadly with the Global South,” said Ghiretti, the MERICS analyst.

The EU Commission is closely monitoring trends in staff appointments and data collection. “He’s hired a lot of young Chinese people who will fill [the] ranks later,” said an EU diplomat.

Mandarin is heard more than before in the corridors of the Rome HQ, a labyrinthine complex built in the 1930s by Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini to house its ministry of overseas colonies.

Western diplomats and staffers past and present describe Qu as a poor communicator, who displays little care about engaging with or being accountable to countries and who tends to leave meetings after delivering perfunctory remarks, all of which leaves space for rumor and suspicion to grow.

Even those who acknowledge that Qu has made modest achievements at the helm of FAO still see his leadership style as typical of a Chinese official being kept on a tight leash by Beijing. The EU and U.S. criticized Qu’s move to push back an internal management review that was meant to be conducted by independent U.N. inspectors, and will now likely not emerge until after the next election.

And although FAO is still receiving bucketloads of Western funding, its fundraising drive specifically for rural families and farmers in war-torn Ukraine is still $100 million short of its $180 million target, a pittance in an international context — especially amid deafening warnings of a global food supply crisis next year.

That’s partly because the U.S. and EU prefer to work bilaterally with Kyiv rather than going through FAO. “This is the time for FAO to be fully funded,” said Pierre Vauthier, a French agronomist who runs the FAO operation in Ukraine. “We need additional money.”

A plaque outside Qu’s fourth floor office at the FAO headquarters in Rome | Eddy Wax/POLITICO

There’s no love lost on Qu’s side, either. In June, he went on a unscripted rant accusing unnamed countries of being obsessed with money, apparently in light of criticism of his flagship Hand-in-Hand Initiative.

“You are looking at money, I’m looking to change the business model because I’m a farmer of small poor, family. You from the rich countries, you consider the money first, I consider wisdom first. It’s a different mentality,” Qu said, before complaining about his own salary being cut.

Asked repeatedly, Qu did not confirm to POLITICO whether he would stand for a second four-year term, but traditionally FAO chiefs serve at least twice and he is widely expected to run. Nominations officially opened December 1. The question is whether the U.S., EU or a developing nation will bother trying to run against him, when his victory looks all but inevitable.

There’s competition for resources between the World Food Programme (WFP), a bastion of U.S. development power, and FAO. A Spaniard, Alvaro Lario, was recently appointed to run the third Rome-based U.N. food agency, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, while WFP’s chief David Beasley is expected to be replaced by another American next year.

In any case, the countries that Qu will likely count on to be re-elected are not so interested in the political machinations of the West or its condemnation of the Russia’s war in Ukraine, which it seeks to impress upon FAO’s top leadership.

“Our relations with the FAO are on a technical basis and not concerned by the political positions of the FAO. What interests us is that the FAO supports us to modernize our agriculture,” said Cameroon’s Agriculture Minister Gabriel Mbairobe.

Other African countries defend FAO’s recent track record: “They’ve been very, very active, let’s be honest,” said Yaya A.O. Olaniran, Nigeria’s ambassador to the FAO. “It’s easy to criticize.”

This story has been updated.

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