Global Europe Brief: Gates of Europe

Welcome to EURACTIV’s Global Europe Brief, your weekly update on the EU in the global perspective from our foreign affairs news team: Georgi Gotev and Alexandra Brzozowski.

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BROKEN BORDER POLITICS

The situation at the Greek-Turkish land border worsened dramatically over the weekend following Ankara’s decision to maintain pressure on Western countries over the Syrian conflict by encouraging refugees on its soil to go to Europe. For many, the dramatic events at the Greek-Turkish border resemble the 2015 refugee crisis, when more than a million refugees, mostly from Syria, crossed into Europe across the Mediterranean or overland. But is this really so? EURACTIV took a closer look.

The 2016 EU-Turkey deal bought Europe some time but it definitely did not prevent Erdoğan from weaponising the plight of refugees, and there is no guarantee that a revamped deal will make a real difference in the future.

Far worse for what is left of Europe’s credibility is that Ankara once again caught the bloc off guard, giving the green light to ‘millions’ refugees and migrants on its territory to head for Europe. Brussels has for years failed to find consensus on a coherent migration policy, largely ignoring the humanitarian catastrophe simmering in Syria as soon it disappeared from the headlines. And the EU’s crisis jet-set diplomacy always seems to come rather too late.

A visit to Ankara by the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell and Crisis Management Commissioner Janez Lenarcic, as well as the three EU presidents’ stroll along the Greek-Turkish border, won’t change that perception, despite the leaders’ intention to send a strong message to Ankara by saying Europe will not bow to the migration pressure at its external borders.

The failure of the EU leadership in addressing the border issue became clear in a peculiar exchange in the European Commission midday press briefing. A rather simple question to Commissioner Margaritis Schinas on whether it is illegal to fire rubber bullets at asylum seekers did not get a direct answer: “I’m not in charge of operations. It’s not for the Commission to offer an operational opinion or judgment on a situation which is exceptional.”

In an extraordinary meeting, EU interior ministers tried to offer emergency support to Greece. Bottom line: The EU will not accept Turkey’s migration pressure at its external borders and will use all necessary measures, in accordance with international law, to stop illegal crossings. While they did not progress on the EU’s dysfunctional migration management system, the EU’s role in tackling the problem at its root in Syria also remains unclear, writes EURACTIV’s Sarantis Michalopoulos.

Leaders from the Balkan region, meanwhile, are bracing for another migration crisis and have urged the EU to take immediate action to prevent a repeat of the 2015 migration crisis. While Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov failed in his mediation mission in Ankara which had aimed to bring Greece, Turkey and EU leaders to a summit in Sofia to prevent a new refugee crisis in Europe, Croatia suggested that the EU-Turkey migration deal should be renewed.

With pressure on the EU mounting, EURACTIV Croatia spoke to EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell in Zagreb, where EU foreign ministers are set to hold an emergency session on Friday to discuss the situation in Syria and migratory pressure at the Greece-Turkey border. Read the full interview here.

IMAGE OF THE WEEK | EU institution presidents Charles Michel, Ursula von der Leyen, David Sassoli and Commissioner Margaritis Schinas in Greece on 3 March 2020. [Europe by Satellite]

EU IN THE WORLD

CORONAVIRUS UPDATE. The Coronavirus puts life on pause in Europe. Italy tops the list of countries taking drastic measures to contain the outbreak, shutting down schools and public institutions.

This week also saw the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the EU institutions. In an internal mail seen by EURACTIV, the European Defence Agency (EDA) confirmed that one of its staff members has tested positive and it therefore cancelled all meetings to be held at its premises until 13 March as a precautionary measure, EURACTIV’s Gerardo Fortuna reports.

The European Parliament set up new rules on entering its premises and cancelled all events involving outside visitors or attendees. Although there were tentative plans to hold more virtual meetings due to the virus, the Strasbourg plenary, however, is set to take place next week. One European Parliament official told EURACTIV, that many EU lawmakers are “mildly put, not very happy with this decision” as it “poses a considerable risk”. “In the end, it was likely just to please the French, as a cancellation would have been perceived as a threat in the single-seat debate,” the officials quipped.

The EU’s Rapid Alert System for monitoring serious cases of disinformation has been put into use following a series of online campaigns surrounding the deadly coronavirus outbreak, the European Commission has confirmed, EURACTIV’s Samuel Stolton reports.
EU finance ministers, meanwhile, promised a coordinated response to address the economic effect of the virus, as members across the bloc fear the impact, but they postponed any decision at least until their formal meeting in mid-March.

EU-AFRICA. The European Commission is pursuing a renewed and ambitious relationship with the African continent, intended to treat Africa as an equal partner to Europe, as opposed to policy priorities being dictated to African partners. However, there is renewed interest in Africa from other international players, and there is no guarantee that the EU will achieve the influence it desires with its southern neighbours, EURACTIV’s Benjamin Fox took a closer look in this video report.

POST-DIVORCE TALKS. London and Brussels have kicked off talks on how their relationship will shape up after Brexit, with half a trillion euros worth of annual trade and close security ties at stake in what is bound to be a tense negotiation. Meanwhile, the US-UK trade pact offers only slim pickings, Benjamin Fox reports.

RECONCILIATION COMMISSION. The Sámi are the only indigenous people living in the EU, with currently some 75,000 – 100,000 of them spread out in the northern parts of Sweden, Finland, Norway and Russia. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission is now set up to look at both historical injustices and discrimination and also at current issues, Pekka Vänttinen reports from Helsinki.
In a visit to the region last year, EURACTIV examined Northern Europe’s indigenous Arctic people battle to maintain traditions as their culture and age-old way of life, which is increasingly threatened by climate change and globalisation.

DEFENCE CORNER

ARMS CONTROL TALKS. With the 50th anniversary of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in March, the United Nations is preparing to review the accord amid growing signs that divisions and distrust are rife among those countries that possess nuclear arsenals. UN disarmament chief Izumi Nakamitsu warned a UN Security Council meeting, requested by Germany, that “the spectre of unconstrained nuclear competition looms over us for the first time since the 1970s”.

Senior US administration officials confirmed Washington is willing to hold a summit with the leaders of Russia, China, UK and France – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – to discuss arms control. “The United States will use this opportunity to bring both Russia and China into the international arms control framework and head off a costly arms race,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Earlier, Russia’s President Putin had floated the idea of a summit of what is known as the P5 to discuss a variety of global issues, but China repeatedly rejected Trump’s proposal, arguing that its smaller nuclear force is defensive and poses no threat.

Europe, meanwhile, is caught in-between but preparing to take an active role in the upcoming negotiations, with a coalition of 16 countries calling on the EU to come up with a joint position for the upcoming talks in New York.

VIRUS WARGAMING. As the coronavirus spreads in Europe, EURACTIV reported last week that it also threatens to become an issue for Europe’s upcoming military exercises DEFENDER2020, set to take place in May and June, mainly in Germany, Poland and the Baltic States, with the participation of all 29 NATO allies and partner nations, Georgia and Finland.
Asked by reporters on Wednesday whether contingency plans are in place in case the outbreak expands, Andrew Roling, deputy US Army Europe commander, said the exercise by default already involved “robust medical support” coordinated with each individual participating nations and planners are prepared to “wargame medical health and support plans”.

ENLARGEMENT LATEST

REFORM PROTESTS. Thousands of opposition supporters denounced Albania’s government at a protest rally in a move likely to deepen a row between the country’s president and the socialist administration over judicial reforms sought by the West.

EURASIA DIGEST

EURASIAN COOPERATION. The EU would benefit from closer cooperation with the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), Hungary’s Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó said in Minsk last week. The EAEU, whose rotating presidency is currently held by Belarus, is a free trade agreement of some former USSR members under the umbrella of Moscow. “It is very important to build a partnership, and this is why we propose further easing of sanctions against Minsk,” Szijjártó said, adding that the raw materials in the EAEU area could play an important part in Europe’s economic development. Besides, some of the most important energy transit routes cross Belarus.

DOMESTIC TURMOIL. Kazakh police detained dozens of people in the country’s largest city Almaty over the course of last weekend, after the death of an imprisoned civil activist triggered anti-government rallies and diplomatic concerns. The protests were called after Dulat Agadil, a prominent activist, died in detention in the Central Asian country’s capital, Nur-Sultan, in February, hours after he was brought in by police on suspicion of violating the terms of his house arrest.

US ELECTION WATCH

It’s 243 days until the US presidential election and Super Tuesday melted the field of Democrat contenders to a manageable crowd.

What to watch and why it matters: It’s has become a de-facto two-man race for the Democratic presidential nomination, after Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren and Michael Bloomberg threw in the towel in the past few days. Until now, former Vice President Joe Biden was not considered a promising Democratic candidate in the US primaries but secured a surprising victory by winning 10 out of 14 states and became the overnight frontrunner. Fellow contender Bernie Sanders will have a hard time to swing the crowd, especially because the Democrat party establishment is not as keen on having him lead the party into the face-off with Trump.

TRUMPED EU-US RELATIONS. “There might be momentum toward improving our relations on a positive footing,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said. An agreement could be reached “in a few weeks’ time” to improve the bilateral relationship, while the threat of new US tariffs on European exporters is still hanging. EURACTIV’s Jorge Valero has the story.

WHAT ELSE WE’RE READING 

ON OUR RADAR FOR THE NEXT DAYS…

  • EU foreign minister’s meeting + extraordinary session
    | Thu-Fri, 6-7 March 2020 | Zagreb, Croatia
    Besides an update during the regular meeting on the crisis in the neighborhood, the emergency meeting focuses on the situation in Syria and migratory pressure on the EU.
  • European Parliament’s Strasbourg week (tbc)
    | Mon-Thu, 9-12 March 2020 | Strasbourg, France

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