The EU will launch its new naval mission to enforce an arms embargo on Libya by the end of the month, after member states agreed its terms on Thursday.
Diplomatic sources told AFP that ambassadors from the 27 EU countries approved the mission, dubbed Operation Irini after the Greek word for peace, after clearing last-minute objections.
Greece has agreed to be the landing point for any migrants rescued in the course of the mission, though its primary purpose is to enforce the embargo.
An effective arms embargo is seen as crucial to stabilising Libya, where the UN-recognised Tripoli government is under attack from the forces of strongman Khalifa Haftar, who controls much of the country’s south and east.
The new mission replaces Operation Sophia, set up in 2015 to fight people-smuggling across the Mediterranean at the height of Europe’s migrant crisis.
What to do with any migrants picked up during Irini’s operations was the last major sticking point, with Italy earlier this week insisting it would not receive them.
EU naval vessels, provided and crewed by member state navies, will operate in the eastern Mediterranean with the authority to board ships suspected of delivering arms, a diplomatic source said.
Irini will start when Sophia ends on March 31, with a renewable one-year mandate, though ministers will review it every four months to check it is not having a “pull effect” — encouraging migrants to set out on risky crossings over the Mediterranean.
The agreement in February was finally reached over objections from Austria and Hungary, which feared that reviving the mission would create a de facto rescue fleet that would ferry migrants across the sea to Europe.
Teenage eco-warrior Greta Thunberg branded the EU’s grand plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 inadequate on Wednesday and said Europe is falsely claiming to lead the world on climate.
The European Union must stop “pretending that you can be a climate leader and still go on building and subsidising new fossil fuel infrastructure,” the Swedish activist told a committee hearing at the European Parliament.
Thunberg was addressing MEPs as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced a new draft law that Brussels has hailed as the cornerstone of Europe’s “Green Deal” to fight climate change.
The 17-year-old said that despite “disregarding” science, the EU was hoping its plan “will somehow solve the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced”.
“This must come to an end,” she said.
Earlier, Thunberg had been a guest at a meeting of top EU officials that approved a proposal to enshrine into law the EU’s ambition of net zero carbon emissions by mid-century.
This would bind the EU’s 27 member states to balance polluting emissions and the removal of greenhouse gases — such as by using carbon capture technology or reforestation — within the next 30 years.
The law, once ratified, would also give the EU executive new powers to impose emission targets on member state governments.
“When your house is on fire, you don’t wait a few more years to start putting it out,” said Thunberg.
“When the EU presents this climate law and net zero by 2050 you indirectly admit surrender, that you are giving up,” she said.
British and EU trade negotiators held the first day of what could be months of talks aimed at forging a new post-Brexit relationship on Monday, with timing tight and the sides far apart on key issues.
The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier and UK counterpart David Frost met in Brussels, launching several months of intense closed-door negotiations involving around 100 officials on each side.
“We approach these negotiations in a constructive spirit. We want to agree an ambitious and fair partnership,” Barnier tweeted after the talks, at which the negotiators did not shake hands because of fears of the novel coronavirus.
“We will respect our prior joint commitments. We will close the round on Thursday and I will debrief the press afterwards,” he said.
A UK spokesman said Frost and members the UK delegation met Barnier and his task force for around two hours.
“The UK will engage constructively to reach a free trade agreement which fully respects the UK’s political and regulatory autonomy,” he said.
The negotiations began just over a month after Britain left the EU, and are meant to wrap up by the end of this year — an exceedingly tight timeframe that few see as feasible for anything but a bare-bones accord.
The deadline is effectively December 31, the end of the UK’s current transition period during which it trades like an EU member with no tariffs or other barriers.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ruled out extending the transition and both sides are looking to an EU-UK summit in June to decide whether talks are worth continuing.
The negotiations have been clouded by mistrust and weeks of chest-beating as each side has accused the other of reneging on high-ambition goals set out in a political declaration struck last year.
This week’s talks in Brussels are to end on Thursday, after two days in which the teams will divide to cover 11 key topics for the future relationship. The next round is to take place in London, and thereafter alternate between the two capitals.
Mandates published last week highlighted the EU’s aim of securing a “level playing field” to prevent Britain from undercutting European standards on labour, tax, environment and state subsidies.
Meanwhile the UK is insisting on setting its own rules in the name of “economic and political independence”.
The acrimony pushed the British pound 1.3 percent lower against the euro on Monday owing to fears that Britain’s hard-line stance would hurt the economy.
Experts warned that the two sides are on a collision course, with a deal highly unlikely without concessions.
“A deal between the EU and the UK by the end of the year is still possible, but it will require both parties to drift away from their opening positions,” said Sam Lowe, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.
“In practice, it requires the UK to move a lot, and the EU to move a little,” he said.
Underlining tensions, Barnier, in an uncharacteristic display of podium-thumping, has warned Britain that any backsliding on its EU divorce terms would torpedo trade talks.
The Brexit deal notably requires checks on British goods crossing the Irish Sea into the UK territory of Northern Ireland that Johnson now says are unnecessary.
“Clearly, at the beginning of any negotiation, there’s a bit of posturing. Both sides want to state the strongest possible case,” said Fabian Zuleeg, head of the European Policy Centre.
Experts see a deal limited to goods as the most likely outcome, but that would still require customs checks for products crossing the Channel and lacks the ambition called for by businesses.
But fishing — of relatively minor economic importance but of totemic significance to Britain and EU states such as France and Spain — could be the flashpoint that scuppers a deal.
Barnier has emphasised that fishing is “inextricably” linked to the whole agreement. The EU demands that its fishing boats continue to have access to British waters in return for British fishermen being able to sell their catches to their biggest and closest market.
If there is no broad trade deal, economic pain will be felt on both sides — but especially in Britain and in Ireland, the EU member most dependent on trade with the UK.
Without a deal, UN economists calculate the UK would lose export revenues of up to 29 billion euros ($32 billion) a year. The EU buys nearly half of all British exports.
The African Union chief on Thursday highlighted “differences” over topics such as international justice and gay rights at a meeting with the European Union intended to deepen the partnership between the two continents.
Thursday’s talks marked the second visit by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to AU headquarters in the Ethiopian capital in less than three months.
“Certainly, we have our differences. International criminal justice, sexual orientation and identity, the death penalty, the centrality of the African Union in certain crises, etcetera,” Moussa Faki Mahamat, chair of the African Union Commission, said in remarks opening a meeting between AU and EU leaders.
Calling these differences “normal”, Faki said they could be overcome only with “recognition and acceptance”.
In December von der Leyen chose to visit the AU on her first trip outside Europe after taking her post, a decision she said at the time was intended to send a “strong political message” about Europe’s partnership with Africa.
Von der Leyen is in the process of preparing a new “Africa Strategy” for the EU, due to be unveiled in early March.
In her own remarks Thursday, she said the two continents were “natural partners” and stressed areas of cooperation like trade and the fight against climate change.
Later at a press conference she said she believed the two blocs could work through the disagreements Faki had pointed out.
“This is what the essence of a good partnership and a good friendship is. You build on a solid foundation with common projects you can work on, and you’re able to mark very clearly where differences are,” she said. “We try to convince but we acknowledge that there are different positions.”
“We should not follow the notion of expecting the African Union to adapt to the European Union,” she added.
The majority of African countries criminalise same-sex sexual acts.
Various African countries have resisted efforts to try African leaders at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. In 2017, Burundi became the first country to pull out of the court altogether.
-Contrasts with China-
Europe was expected to use Thursday’s talks to promote trade and economic cooperation in response to “the flood of Chinese investment in the continent”, said Mikaela Gavas, senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, an international non-profit foundation.
But the question of human rights remains a major potential barrier to deeper cooperation, Gavas said.
“African countries will not want to be lectured on governance and human rights,” she said.
Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign affairs minister, drew a distinction between European and Chinese engagement in Africa, saying that China “gives nothing” while Europe is “a big donor”.
“We have a development vision that’s different from the Chinese vision,” he told AFP, adding that EU leaders stressed political freedoms, human rights and other topics to which the Chinese are “not as attentive”.
Borrell was set to stay on in Ethiopia Friday to meet with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who is trying to steer the country toward landmark elections in August.
He will then head to Sudan, which is going through its own transition after longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir was toppled last year.
“Ethiopia and Sudan are two big lights of hope” for Europe, Borrell said. “We have a great interest that the Ethiopian and Sudanese experiences do not shatter.”
EU envoys on Monday finalised a mandate for chief negotiator Michel Barnier to lead what promise to be stormy talks with Britain on its future relations with the bloc starting next week.
The text, setting out the European Union’s demands and red lines, is to be formally adopted Tuesday at a meeting of the bloc’s ministers.
Britain is working on its own negotiating mandate, which it is expected to be published on Thursday.
Britain ceased to be part of the EU at the end of last month under the terms of a Brexit deal that ushered in a transition period for the big negotiations to take place on trade, security and defence.
The extent to which Britain will align with EU rules on environmental, labour, health, taxation and other standards is set to be one of the thorniest issues.
One EU source told AFP that the ambassadors adopted the mandate by consensus, adding: “It’s good news.”
The text “specifies that the agreement should allow us to have fair competition conditions over the long term,” the source added.
Another source said the mandate was “clarified on all necessary points”.
– Playing hardball –
Both London and Brussels have employed increasingly tough rhetoric in recent weeks.
Barnier, who has stood firm on EU positions, declined Monday to be drawn on the latest skirmish: a UK newspaper report alleging that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was seeking to undermine the Brexit withdrawal agreement.
He told AFP he believed and hoped that deal would be “respected by the United Kingdom — I don’t have any reason to think otherwise”.
The Sunday Times report, citing an unnamed British government “senior source”, said Johnson’s negotiating team was looking at ways aimed at “not obeying the Northern Ireland protocol” in the Brexit deal.
That protocol requires checks on goods between Britain and its Northern Ireland territory in the interest of maintaining economic integrity between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.
The measure effectively puts a border for goods in the Irish Sea.
Johnson has repeatedly insisted that no checks would be needed, while his office said the UK “will comply with our obligations” under the withdrawal agreement.
On the other side of the table, France took the lead in injecting hardball conditions into successive drafts of the EU negotiating mandate.
Drafts of the text insist on a “level playing field” that “will stand the test of time”. That essentially demands Britain maintains standards equal to European ones, even if they change in the future.
That speaks to EU fears that Britain might try for a competitive edge by doing away with costly environmental, labour and tax norms.
It also says the EU alone will determine what British financial services will be deemed equivalent enough to be offered in the bloc.
And it says EU fishing boats should continue to be able to have access to British waters.
With Britain threatening to walk away and instead trade on only the most basic terms with the EU if necessary, the result of the negotiations — due to start next week and be completed by the end of the year — is uncertain.
French President Emmanuel Macron warned at the weekend he was “not sure” a deal would be struck by the end of December.
– No extension –
A “no deal” Brexit, with its heavy implications for the UK economy, does not seem to frighten the British government.
Johnson is asking for a simplified deal similar to those the EU has struck with Canada, Japan and South Korea that reduce tariff barriers to near zero, but which have less strict controls on standards.
“There is no reason that our proximity to the EU should mean extra restrictions on trade,” his spokesman said Monday.
“Proximity is not a determining factor in other FTAs (free trade agreements) between other neighbouring states with large economies.”
He insisted: “We will not accept alignment with the EU.”
London has until the end of June to ask for a deadline extension should the talks fail to make headway in the coming months.
But Johnson has ruled out asking for more time, a stance that raises the prospects of a “no deal” or only a bare-bones deal which could also bring major disruption.
The European Commission has announced the allocation of €80,000 (N32 million) in humanitarian funding to assist families affected by the outbreak of Lassa Fever in Nigeria.
The commission announced this in a statement by a press officer with the Delegation of the European Union to Nigeria, Modestus Chukwulaka.
According to the statement, the funds will go towards supporting the Nigerian Red Cross in promoting hygiene practices and disease transmission control, as well as contribute to the identification of suspected cases, supporting contact tracing, and providing psychosocial support.
The commission was hopeful that the humanitarian aid would directly benefit communities in areas most affected by the outbreak.
It explained that the funding formed part of the EU’s overall contribution to the Disaster Relief Emergency Fund (DREF) of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).
“In the two most affected states, Ondo and Edo, the main actions will focus on health education on signs and symptoms, prevention measure and behavioural change in food storage and handling; pest control activities, such as the distribution of rat traps/rat glues; and psychosocial support to affected people and their families.
“In another four states (Bauchi, Ebonyi, Taraba and Kano), awareness-raising initiatives will be launched for the general public, including the distribution of educational material and informative radio messages,” the statement read.
Lassa fever is an acute viral haemorrhagic fever (VHF), transmitted by rodents to humans, who become infected through contact with the excreta of infected rats, contaminated surfaces or food, and body fluids of infected persons.
While about 80 per cent of the infections go with no symptoms, other patients develop severe multi-system disease, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said.
Since the first week of January 2020, no fewer than 680 suspected cases have been reported by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), of which over 250 were confirmed as positive.
While Nigeria is prone to Lassa fever outbreaks during the dry season (November to April), the number of affected people – both suspected and confirmed – in 2020 is higher than in previous years.
Google and the EU have a big day in court Wednesday as the search engine giant enters a new phase of a legal saga that began a decade ago.
The Silicon Valley juggernaut is appealing a 2.4 billion euro ($2.6 billion) fine from 2017 that was the first in a series of major penalties from the European Commission, the EU’s powerful anti-trust regulator.
Google has paid the fine and changed its behaviour, but the company will strongly condemn the decision in the EU’s General Court as ill-founded and unfair.
“We’re appealing the European Commission’s 2017 Google Shopping decision because it is wrong on the law, the facts, and the economics,” the company said in an email.
“Shopping ads have always helped people find the products they are looking for quickly and easily, and helped merchants to reach potential customers,” it added.
The case opens what will certainly be a long season of court dates for Google and the EU, with two other fine decisions also under appeal at the Luxembourg-based court.
The EU and Google have been locked in battle since 2010 when the commission first looked into accusations that the search engine was squeezing rivals from results in order to promote ads and Google Shopping, a price comparison service.
For several years Brussels and the US giant sought a negotiated settlement, but the EU abruptly reversed course in 2014 after the intervention of member states and the arrival of Margrethe Vestager who took over as EU competition chief.
Vestager, a former Danish finance minister, quickly became known for her relentless pursuit of US tech giants that drew attention worldwide.
She has since racked up a total of $9 billion in fines against Google and has slapped Apple with a 13 billion euro tax bill that boss Tim Cook dismissed as “political crap”.
The appeal hearing is to last three days with a decision not expected for a year. The case can then go to the EU’s highest court, the European Court of Justice.
The EU’s case mirrors similar litigation against Microsoft, a legal labyrinth that ran throughout most of the 1990s and early 2000s and saw the company fined about 1.4 billion euros.
Google is expected to plead that the commission has wrongly applied arguments used successfully against Microsoft and that the company has the right to give advantage to its own services.
The company will also underline that the EU case erroneously failed to account for the spectacular rise of Amazon and eBay in its assessment of Google Shopping.
‘A few crumbs’
The EU commission will give testimony alongside complainants who accuse Google of having smothered their business.
“Our traffic decreased considerably, which created a vicious circle with merchants who no longer saw us as an alternative to Google Shopping,” said Laurent Godfroid, a lawyer for Twenga, a rival to Google Shopping.
He said Google “left only a few crumbs” to its rivals.
Players in other sectors are following the case closely, and hoping that Vestager swoops in on other features such as maps, travel and job ads where Google has yet to face push back from regulators.
More than 30 travel firms — including TripAdvisor and Expedia — wrote to Vestager on Monday complaining that Google was unfairly trying to enter the vacation rental ad business.
The EU has already said it was looking into Google’s similar push into job ads.
Silicon Valley giants Google and Tinder are under investigation over the processing of European users’ data, regulators in Ireland, where both have their regional bases, announced Tuesday.
The Data Protection Commission (DPC) said it had received complaints from various European consumer associations about the lack of transparency in the data processing.
It said its inquiry will set out to establish whether Google and Tinder have “a valid legal basis for processing” user data and whether they meet their “obligations as a data controller with regard to transparency.”.
MTCH Technology Services, the corporate name for matchmaking app Tinder, was in the spotlight over “possible systemic data protection issues”.
For Google, the DPC said it had received complaints over its “processing of location data”.
It is the responsibility of Ireland’s regulators to ensure compliance with the European General Data Protection Regulation, as both companies’ European headquarters are in the country.
Google told AFP it will “cooperate fully” with the investigation, and says it will work closely with regulators and consumer associations across Europe.
“In the last year, we have made a number of product changes to improve the level of user transparency and control over location data,” it said in a statement.
Google has separately been under DPC investigation since May over data protection in the field of online advertising.
The location data case was launched after Google’s parent company Alphabet released mixed financial results for the last quarter of 2019 on Monday evening, causing its share price to fall.
Alphabet and Google chief executive Sundar Pichai has detailed four priority areas for 2020, including improving the privacy and security of users.
The European Union will offer Britain a close post-Brexit trading relationship but demand tough terms on fisheries and a level playing field for businesses, chief negotiator Michel Barnier said Monday.
“We are ready to offer a highly ambitious trade deal as the central pillar of this partnership, including zero tariffs,” Barnier said, but warned Brussels would not accept “unfair competitive advantages”.
Barnier was unveiling his negotiating mandate ahead of talks with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government on the EU’s future relations with Britain after the post-Brexit transition period.
Separately, his boss, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, said the talks should stick to what had already been agreed in a pre-Brexit political declaration between the two sides.
“There will be no surprises. We outlined with the UK already the future parameters we will have in our negotiations in the withdrawal agreement,” she said.
Johnson was expected to present Britain’s negotiating position later Monday. Reports from London suggested he will warn that Britain seeks the right to diverge from EU rule-making.
If that was the case, von der Leyen said, Britain must not expect unlimited access to the EU market.
“The closer the UK wants to be, the easier the access to the single market. But nothing comes for free. So access to the single market is of high value, it’s the largest single market in the world. It’s of utmost importance, and therefore I think it’s only a matter of fairness to also play by the rules,” she said.
Barnier told reporters that disagreement over fishing was likely to be the first and most serious division. British fishermen want to bar EU counterparts from their waters, but want to keep the EU as their main market for fish exports.
“We must now agree on specific and effective guarantees to ensure a level playing field over the long term,” Barnier said.
“That means a mechanism to uphold the high standards we have on social, environmental, climate, tax and state aid matters today and in their future developments,” he warned.
“Our free trade agreement must include an agreement on fisheries. This agreement should provide for continued reciprocal access to markets and to waters with stable quota shares.”