The EU’s top negotiator will meet his counterpart from Tehran this week in Brussels for talks on restarting negotiations over Iran’s nuclear deal, a spokesman for the bloc said on Monday.
The EU and world powers are scrambling to try to get negotiations in Vienna aimed at reviving the 2015 accord back on track after the election of a hardliner in Tehran.
Iran’s chief negotiator on the deal, Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri, wrote on Twitter that he would be in Brussels on Wednesday “to continue our talks on result-oriented negotiations”.
EU spokesman Peter Stano said the meeting would involve the bloc’s lead negotiator Enrique Mora, who visited Tehran earlier this month to push Iran to restart full negotiations.
Stano said the EU’s diplomatic service was “sparing no efforts to resume talks of all parties in Vienna”.
The agreement between Iran and world powers to find a long-term solution to the now two-decade-old crisis over its controversial nuclear programme has been moribund since former US President Donald Trump walked out of the deal in May 2018.
His successor Joe Biden has said he is ready to re-enter the agreement, so long as Iran meets key preconditions including full compliance with the deal whose terms it has repeatedly violated by ramping up nuclear activities since the US left the pact.
But the Vienna-based talks through intermediaries made little headway, before being interrupted by the election of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi as Iran’s president and suspended for the last four months.
The EU acts as coordinator for the deal that also involves Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia.
The European Union has exported “over one billion” doses of Covid-19 vaccines in the past 10 months, the bloc’s chief Ursula von der Leyen said on Monday.
“Very clearly, the European Union is the largest exporter of Covid-19 vaccines,” she said, announcing the “important milestone” in a brief broadcast and statement.
Von der Leyen said that 87 million of the doses had been funnelled through the WHO-led Covax scheme to mid- and low-income countries.
Most of the exports are orders paid for by other countries for Covid-19 vaccine doses manufactured in the EU.
Von der Leyen said that, separate from the export figure, “the EU will donate in the next months at least 500 million doses to the most vulnerable countries”. She urged other countries “to step up, too”.
Her declaration comes in the context of a sharp divide between wealthier regions and poorer ones in terms of Covid vaccination rates.
The European Union, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Singapore and Japan all among those to have more than half of their populations fully vaccinated.
Meanwhile many countries in Africa and other places such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Myanmar and Syria have less than 10 percent of their people inoculated.
The European Union, which has 65.6 percent of its population fully inoculated according to an AFP tally of official statistics, has been stepping up exports of vaccines.
So too is the United States, which has 57 percent fully jabbed. President Joe Biden said last week his government was raising its donations to Africa to a total 67 million doses.
G20 countries have pledged to fairer distribution of Covid-19 vaccines after WTO chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala pointed out early this month that, of more than six billion vaccine doses administered worldwide, only 1.4 percent of people in poor countries have been fully vaccinated.
The European Union has in place a vaccine export control mechanism under which doses to be sent abroad have to be first approved by Brussels and the member state in which they are produced.
Only one shipment — a 250,000-dose consignment of AstraZeneca meant for Australia — has been blocked under the scheme, back in April.
“We have always shared our vaccines fairly with the rest of the world,” von der Leyen said.
“We have exported as much as we delivered to EU citizens. Indeed, at least every second vaccine produced in Europe is exported.”
She added: “Together with President Biden, we aim for a global vaccination rate of 70 percent by next year.
The EU on Tuesday pledged a one-billion-euro ($1.2-billion) aid package for Afghanistan, “to avert a major humanitarian and socio-economic collapse,” the bloc’s chief Ursula von der Leyen said.
The money adds 250 million euros to a 300-million-euro sum the EU previously announced for urgent humanitarian needs, with the remainder going to Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries taking in Afghans fleeing Taliban rule, a statement said.
Von der Leyen made the pledge at a virtual G20 summit hosted by Italy dedicated to discussing the humanitarian and security situation in Afghanistan.
Her statement stressed that the EU funds are “direct support” for Afghans and would be channelled to international organisations working on the ground, not to the Taliban’s interim government which Brussels does not recognise.
EU development aid — different from humanitarian aid — remains frozen.
“We must do all we can to avert a major humanitarian and socio-economic collapse in Afghanistan. We need to do it fast,” von der Leyen said, observing that winter was approaching.
“We have been clear about our conditions for any engagement with the Afghan authorities, including on the respect of human rights. So far, the reports speak for themselves. But the Afghan people should not pay the price of the Taliban’s actions,” she said.
EU countries are wary at the prospect of a surge of Afghan asylum-seekers trying to enter the bloc, as happened in 2015 with Syrians fleeing their war.
Brussels’ calculation is that donating money to help stabilise Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and help out countries between it and Europe could stem any flow.
Von der Leyen has said EU countries — especially those that participated in the NATO mission that hastily decamped in August as the Taliban swept to power — have a “moral duty” to help Afghans.
The one-billion-euro aid package announced will boost spending in health in Afghanistan. In the neighbouring countries it will go to help with migration management and promote cooperation in fighting terrorism, crime and migrant smuggling.
EU leaders will have a hard discussion on Europe’s place in the world at a summit on Tuesday, as they seek unity on how to deal with superpowers China and the United States.
The 27 heads of state and government will meet at Brdo Castle in Slovenia, the country that currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency.
While no concrete outcome is expected, it is the first leaders meeting since June, one senior EU diplomat commenting that “with everything that has happened, that seems ages ago”.
The dinner takes place on the eve of an EU-Western Balkans summit in which countries to the bloc’s east will seek assurances they will one day be admitted to the European Union.
Leaders will have a “strategic discussion on the role of the Union on the international stage”, according to an invitation letter sent out by EU Council chief Charles Michel.
France is still smarting over a decision last month by Australia to cancel a French submarine deal worth tens of billions of dollars in favour of a US offer.
With anger still raw, French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to again warn at the talks that Washington’s close allegiance to Europe is no longer a given.
“It would be a mistake to pretend that nothing happened,” said a French presidency source.
Although some EU nations have backed France, others like Baltic and Nordic countries are reluctant to criticise the US, which they deem their ultimate protector against Russia.
US President Joe Biden stressed the bloc was a “fundamental partner” for Washington in a call on Monday with EU chief Ursula von der Leyen, the White House said.
An EU official said the call — which covered China, EU defence efforts, and trade — showed Biden wanted to “strengthen dialogue” with Europe.
Next week, the bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell will head to Washington for talks with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The submarine row came weeks after the US withdrew from Afghanistan and the Taliban swept to power, catching the Europeans off guard.
The Europeans had provided troops for NATO-led missions in the country and were major donors to the overthrown government.
The collapse in Afghanistan and the submarine fallout has given fresh impetus to those pushing for the EU to develop a separate military capability, with France leading the charge.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the dominant EU leader for the past 15 years, will attend the summit as coalition talks rumble on in Berlin to come up with a government that will replace hers.
Merkel’s cautious, pro-US strategy has dominated Europe and her imminent departure will see leaders like Macron, Italy’s Mario Draghi and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte seeking to make their mark.
As leader of the EU’s export powerhouse, Merkel has always encouraged close ties with China, but this has also proven harder to defend as Chinese President Xi Jinping’s leadership turns more centralised and hard line.
The relationship with Beijing grew even more complicated when an EU-China investment deal wanted by Germany was put on indefinite standby after both sides exchanged tit-for-tat sanctions over the treatment of the Uyghur Muslim minority in China.
Spain will highlight more immediate concerns, calling for a bold EU answer to focus on the sudden rise in energy prices, with France, Greece, and Poland also seeking action.
The issue is to be given more in-depth discussion by leaders at a summit in Brussels on October 21-22.
EU leaders will get together in three weeks to discuss soaring energy prices and how to mitigate their impact on European consumers, European Council President Charles Michel’s office said on Thursday.
The “important topic” has been added to the agenda of a summit taking place on October 21 and 22, said Michel’s spokesman, Barend Leyts.
While the short-term impact being felt by households and businesses is primarily for individual EU countries to tackle, “we need to discuss how the EU can help,” Leyts said in a statement.
A surge in energy prices across Europe, driven largely by a three-fold jump in wholesale gas prices, is exacerbating fears of high inflation as the EU’s economy bounces back strongly from the Covid-19 pandemic.
It also threatens to undermine an EU push towards a low-carbon future that entails a profound transformation of many sectors — and with it, bigger costs for Europeans.
EU envoys and representatives have already been addressing the issue, which they deem “critical”, and the European Commission has also taken it up.
Some lawmakers in the European Parliament accuse Russia, which accounts for much of the gas imported into the EU, of manipulating prices in an effort to get Germany to activate the newly completed Nord Stream 2 pipeline across the Baltic, bypassing Ukraine.
Russia’s gas giant Gazprom denies that but has allowed its gas tanks in Europe to drop to nearly empty.
The EU is considering short-term measures such as cutting value-added tax and excises on energy, in a bid to protect its medium- and long-term plans for more renewable energy sources and better energy efficiency.
The EU on Wednesday announced it plans to tighten visa requirements for Belarus officials in retaliation for Minsk “instrumentalising” irregular migration flows and putting pressure on the bloc’s external borders.
“We’re addressing a new worrisome form of smuggling, which is the increasing role of state actors in artificially creating and facilitating irregular migration using people as tools for political purposes,” European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas told a media conference.
“The latest tactics by the Belarus regime against the EU and our member states require a united response,” he said.
The proposed restrictions would add to sanctions the European Union already imposes on Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and 165 of his closest aides, which include banning them from travelling into the EU’s 27 member countries.
Brussels is increasingly pressuring Lukashenko and his regime over its crackdown on protests sparked by his proclaimed victory in last year’s election, deemed fraudulent by the West.
Further sanctions were imposed when Minsk forced a Ryanair jet flying through Belarusian airspace to land in May to arrest a dissident journalist on board.
Belarus has responded by encouraging a flow of thousands of migrants — particularly from Iraq and Afghanistan, but also from Cameroon and Bangladesh — to the borders of neighbouring EU countries Lithuania, Poland and Latvia.
The latest EU restrictions would partly suspend an EU-Belarus visa facilitation agreement where it comes to national and regional Belarusian officials, making EU visas more expensive and requiring more documentary proof to support applications.
The EU’s home affairs commissioner, Ylva Johansson, said the step was to curb “this new phenomenon of state-sponsored smuggling”.
Lukashenko, she said, “is trying to destabilise the European Union, by bringing in migrants and facilitating them and pushing them into the European Union”.
He “is desperate — he is really hurt by the economic sanctions and the sanctions that Europeans are putting on him,” Johansson said.
EU pressure has halted flights carrying migrants from Iraq to Belarus, but Johansson told reporters that Lukashenko was likely turning to other countries for his tactic.
Greece on Saturday inaugurated the first of five new “closed” migrant camps, opposed by rights groups who say the strict access measures are too restrictive.
A double barbed wire fence surrounds the 12,000 square metre camp on the island of Samos, which is also installed with surveillance cameras, x-ray scanners and magnetic doors.
The EU has committed 276 million euros ($326 million) for the new camps on Greece’s five Aegean islands — Leros, Lesbos, Kos, Chios as well Samos — that receive most of the migrant arrivals by sea from neighbouring Turkey.
Within the camp is a detention centre, set up for migrants whose asylum claims have been rejected and who are to be sent back to Turkey.
The Samos camp, which will serve as a pilot for the other so-called closed and controlled access facilities, has a detention centre and asylum seekers will only be able to enter via fingerprint scans and electronic badges.
Gates will remain closed at night and disciplinary measures await those who return after eight pm.
The camp boasts sports and games areas, as well as shared kitchens.
Dormitories have five beds each and a cupboard, with shared toilets and showers, an AFP team saw.
“The new closed-controlled access centre will give back the lost dignity to people seeking international protection, but also the necessary conditions of safeguarding and restraint for illegal migrants who are to be returned,” Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said at the opening.
– Living conditions –
The Leros camp is expected to be finished next month, while on Lesbos — home to Moria, Europe’s largest camp, which was destroyed by fire last year — work has yet to begin.
With better quality accommodation, running water, toilets, separate areas for families and more security, the Greek government says that the camps will meet European standards.
They replace facilities that became infamous for their living conditions.
On Samos, the facility near the port of Vathy had been designed for 680 people but at one point was home to nearly 10 times that number.
Asylum seekers still live there — rats, improvised wooden barracks without heating and a lack of toilets and showers continue to be part of their daily lives.
But from Monday, more than 300 residents will be transferred to the new facility five kilometres (three miles) from Samos’s main town of the same name.
Τhe old camp is to be closed by month’s end.
“This is a promise to the local community, but also a commitment of our ministry,” Mitarachi has said, responding to anger among the local community who, for years, watched as the camp ballooned.
– ‘Camps should be open’ –
NGOs and aid groups however have raised concerns about the new camps’ structure in isolated places and residents’ confinement.
Dozens of NGOs, including Amnesty International, accused Greece of pursuing “harmful policies focused on deterring and containing asylum seekers and refugees”.
They urged the EU and Greek government to abandon plans to restrict the movement of people in the camps.
The UN refugee agency’s representative in Greece, Mireille Girard, also voiced reservations, expressing particular concern at the term “closed camp”.
“We have discussed that with the authorities, it was repeated to us this morning that indeed these will be open centres, she added.
“It is very important that in the new facility people are able to move freely in and out of the camp”.
Greece was the main point where more than one million asylum seekers — mainly Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans — entered Europe in 2015.
The crisis in Afghanistan has prompted fears of a new migration wave.
According to Mitarachi, the flow of new arrivals has been reduced by 90 percent compared to 2019.
However, humanitarian organisations say the drop is due to illegal pushbacks of migrants by Greek authorities, which the conservative government has repeatedly denied.
EU Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis on Thursday pleaded for urgent reform of the World Trade Organization, saying it was high time for change at the global trade body.
Dombrovskis said he was ready to consider a major shake-up of the WTO’s dispute settlement system.
He visited the WTO headquarters in Geneva for a meeting with the organisation’s director-general, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.
He then set out the European Union’s priorities for the future of the WTO, two months before the trade body’s ministerial conference, which is to be held in Geneva from November 30 to December 3.
“The face of trade has changed considerably since the foundation of the WTO” in 1995, Dombrovskis said.
“Meanwhile, the rules that govern the organisation have not.
“In its current form and state, the WTO is caught between a rock and hard place. Its negotiating function is paralysed. Its dispute settlement system is frozen.”
And he said there was an absence of common purpose among its 164 member states.
“The WTO is in urgent need of reform,” said the EU commissioner.
Diplomats and experts alike agree that the global trade body — which only takes decisions by consensus — has been stuck in a rut for years and unable to conclude large-scale negotiations.
Former US president Donald Trump’s administration neutered the organisation’s legal arm by blocking the appointment of any new judges.
His successor Joe Biden has yet to put an end to the paralysis.
Dombrovskis called for reform of the WTO’s investment facilitation and subsidy rules, including industrial and agricultural subsidies.
The former Latvian prime minister said trade must play its part in addressing the “big tests of our time — from health issues to climate change to digital”.
He said the EU was open to considering “major reforms” of the WTO’s Appellate Body dispute settlement system, provided that they make it “more effective and legitimate”.
Dombrovskis said the forthcoming 12th ministerial conference must start a serious process of negotiations on reforming the Appellate Body, to be completed before 13th conference.
“We need the United States on board for a meaningful WTO reform,” he added.
Revitalising the dispute settlement system is one of Okonjo-Iweala’s top priorities.
She also hopes to present the forthcoming ministerial conference with an agreement on fisheries subsidies to show that the WTO can still conclude tricky negotiations.
Dombrovskis said an agreement on the matter was “doable”, but stressed that countries which had very large fishing fleets “like China should not be claiming special and differentiated treatment”.
He was confident that the November-December meeting in Geneva could achieve “meaningful outcomes”, saying there was “good momentum” thanks to the new WTO leadership of Okonjo-Iweala and a Biden administration which seems “much more committed to multilateralism” than Trump.
Europe will seek to boost its own military capacity after the collapse of the US-backed government in Afghanistan, EU Chief Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday, announcing a defence summit.
“It is time for Europe to step up to the next level,” von der Leyen told the European Parliament, in her annual State of the European Union address.
France’s President Emmanuel Macron will convene the “summit on European defence” during France’s six-month presidency of the bloc, starting at the New Year, she said.
Paris has been leading the push for the 27-nation union to develop more autonomous military capacities alongside the Western alliance, which is traditionally led by the US.
And the rapid collapse of Afghanistan’s government at the end of the 20-year-old US-led mission in Afghanistan has intensified debate in Brussels’ about the EU’s role.
But most EU nations are also members of the NATO alliance and some, particularly eastern states more exposed to threats Russia, do not want to undermine ties with the United States.
“Witnessing events unfold in Afghanistan was profoundly painful for the families and friends of fallen servicemen and servicewomen,” von der Leyen said.
“We have to reflect on how this mission could end so abruptly. There are deeply troubling questions that allies will have to tackle within NATO.
“But there’s simply no security and defence issue where less cooperation is the answer.”
Von der Leyen vowed to work with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on a new EU-NATO joint declaration to be presented before the end of the year.
The EU’s video feed of von der Leyen’s address showed a picture of standing side-by-side and smiling with the NATO leader, but Stoltenberg has expressed scepticism over an autonomous EU strategy.
“Any attempt to establish parallel structures, duplicate the command structure, that will weaken our joint capability to work together,” Stoltenberg told UK daily The Telegraph last week.
In the short term, the EU Chief pledged an additional 100 million euros ($118 million) in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan as the bloc grapples with the immediate fall-out of the Taliban’s takeover.
“We must do everything to avert the real risk that is out there of a major famine and humanitarian disaster,” she said, insisting Europe “stands by the Afghan people”.
The new promise comes after the European Commission — the EU executive — already quadrupled its humanitarian aid to Afghanistan for this year to 200 million euros as the country struggles to stave off collapse after the Taliban’s takeover.
Brussels has said that none of the aid will go to Afghanistan’s new rulers and has demanded the Taliban ensure access for humanitarian workers in the country.
Von der Leyen said the EU would set out in full its “new, wider Afghan support package” in the coming weeks.
In a wide-ranging speech, von der Leyen focused on bloc’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and effort to boost inoculations around the globe.
She said the EU would donate another 200 million Covid-19 vaccine doses to low-income countries, more than doubling its present pledge.
“With less than one percent of global doses administered in low income countries, the scale of injustice and the level of urgency is obvious,” she said.
On the economic front, von der Leyen insisted that the bloc would not repeat the mistake of the 2007-2008 financial crisis by imposing sudden budgetary austerity as it emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Noting that last time it took the EU eight years to get back to pre-crisis levels, Ursula von der Leyen told the European Parliament in her annual State of the European Union address: “We will not repeat that mistake.”
She called the financial crisis “a cautionary tale” in which “Europe declared victory too soon and we paid the price for that”.
European Union ambassadors on Wednesday agreed to remove six countries, including Japan, from the bloc’s covid safe travel list, meaning tourists entering could face restrictions, diplomats said.
The move targeting non-essential travel from Japan, Serbia, Azerbaijan, Albania, Armenia, and Brunei — set to be formalised this week — is the latest step by Brussels to tighten up on arrivals as concern mounts over rising infection numbers.
At the same time, envoys agreed to add Uruguay to those countries for which restrictions are not recommended.
The list is not binding on the EU’s 27 nations, which may choose to allow fully vaccinated travellers from any destination to visit.
Most EU members have followed Brussels’ travel advice during the crisis so far.
Brussels late last month recommended that capitals reimpose restrictions on non-essential travel from the United States over rising covid figures there as its vaccination drive has stalled.
Once the latest changes come into force, there will be around a dozen countries on the EU’s covid-safe list.
EU defence ministers on Thursday weighed proposals for a European rapid reaction force after the bloc was sidelined during the US-led evacuation from Afghanistan.
Calls have grown for the 27-nation group to develop its own joint military capability to respond quickly to crises in the wake of the chaotic scenes at Kabul airport after the Taliban seized power.
“Afghanistan has shown that deficiencies in our strategic autonomy come with a price and that the only way forward is to combine our forces and strengthen not only our capacity but also our will to act,” EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell told journalists after the meeting in Slovenia.
“If we want to be able to act autonomously and not be dependent on the choices made by others, even if these others are our friends and allies, then we have to develop our own capacities.”
Among the propositions is a plan, first aired in May, to set up a 5,000-strong force as part of a review of the EU’s overall strategy due to be presented in draft form in November.
But the proposal is yet to gain EU-wide support and there are major doubts over whether there is the political will to engage such a force. The bloc, for instance, never used a system of so-called battlegroups it set up in 2007.
“The EU and its Member States must carry greater weight in the world — to defend our interests and values and to protect our citizens,” European Council President Charles Michel wrote in an online post.
“The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan forces us to accelerate honest thinking about European defence.”
– ‘Autonomous’ Europe –
Slovenian Defence Minister Matej Tonin — whose country holds the EU’s rotating presidency and hosted the meeting at the state-owned Brdo Castle estate northwest of the capital Ljubljana — estimated that a rapid response force could number “5,000 to 20,000” personnel.
He called for a new system that would see troops from “willing countries” dispatched in the name of the EU if just a majority of members states agreed, rather than the unanimity required for the battlegroups.
German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said the lesson from Afghanistan was that Europe must be able to “act more independently” to be a credible actor.
But she insisted “it is very important that we don’t act as an alternative to NATO and the Americans”.
She appeared to push back against the idea of a standing force, saying on Twitter that “coalitions of the willing” among members states could come together to tackle future crises.
Latvian minister Artis Pabriks said the bloc needed to show it had the “political will” to use any force if the plan was to lead anywhere.
He noted that the battlegroups programme has been around for over a decade as part of the EU’s common defence policy but asked, “have we ever used it?”.
Debate has raged for decades over what role Brussels should play on defence. EU member nations — most of which are also NATO allies — have often been reluctant to agree moves to integrate military capabilities.
Ambitions on common defence have gathered steam in recent years in part due to the exit from the bloc of Britain, which was opposed to anything that might lead to a European army or dilute support for NATO.