EU Sanctions Russian Mercenary Outfit, Warns Against Invasion Of Ukraine

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European foreign ministers slapped sanctions on Russian mercenary outfit Wagner on Monday and touted what they warned would be an unprecedented economic response to any military assault on Ukraine.

Following a meeting of G7 ministers in Liverpool at the weekend, where the US and major allies warned the Kremlin of “massive” consequences if it invades, the 27 EU ministers met Monday in Brussels.

They first approved a list of eight names and three companies associated with Russia’s private military company Wagner to be added immediately to existing sanctions regimes.

Next, they signalled their readiness to impose huge new measures targeting Russia’s economy if a troop build-up near the Ukrainian border leads to direct military action.

“Allow me to say, once again, firmly that the European Union is standing united in support of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Borrell told reporters after the talks.

“The ministers — all of them — have been very clear today that any aggression against Ukraine will come with political consequences and with a high economic cost for Russia.

“We are globally coordinating with our transatlantic and like minded partners,” he added,

Before the talks Lithuania’s Gabrielius Landsbergis stressed that the sanctions threat was a deterrent but that, if they proved necessary, they would have to be on an “unprecedented scale”.

The meeting on Monday was the first EU foreign affairs council for Germany’s new foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, a Green politician who came to office last week in Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s new coalition.

Pipeline warning

Berlin holds one of the most important cards in the sanctions deck, if it decides that President Vladimir Putin’s actions warrant blocking the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.

Asked about the threat to Ukraine before heading to Brussels, Baerbock told ZDF television that “in the event of further escalation, this gas pipeline could not come into service.”

After the Brussels meeting, Baerbock insisted that Germany’s position on the pipeline had been made clear, without repeating it, and said “any action by Russia would have severe diplomatic consequences.”

Separately, in a sign of Brussels’ determination to address what it sees as the Kremlin’s efforts to “destabilise” Ukraine, Syria, Libya and several African countries, sanctions were slapped on Wagner.

Wagner is said to be financed by 60-year-old Saint Petersburg businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has already been hit with EU and US sanctions for destabilising Libya and meddling in US elections.

In addition to the Wagner firm and three linked companies, the sanctions list targeted eight individuals, including the group’s alleged commander.

Those sanctioned included:

Dmitry Utkin, a 51-year-old former lieutenant colonel in Russian military intelligence, once decorated by Putin and now said to be Wagner’s commander and responsible for mercenary operations in Ukraine.

Utkin is accused of extrajudicial killings, including allegedly ordering a Syrian deserter to be tortured to death and filmed.

Alexander Kuzentsov, a 44-year-old Russian said to lead Wagner’s 1st Attack and Reconnaissance Company under the call sign “Ratibor”, accused of threatening the peace and security of Libya.

Retired colonel Andrei Roshev, 68, a founding executive director of Wagner now commanding mercenary troops in Syria in support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime under the call sign “Siedoy”.

United front

The talks on Monday will also help prepare for the EU leaders’ meeting with the “Eastern Partnership” — Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia and Azerbaijan — on Wednesday.

Belarus left the group after the EU accused strongman Alexander Lukashenko of rigging his re-election, but opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is in Brussels.

The EU wants to present its eastern neighbours with a united front against what it sees as Russia’s destabilising meddling in the region, a senior European diplomat told AFP.

But on the question of China — accused of persecuting the Uyghur minority, threatening Taiwan and cracking down on freedoms in Hong Kong — there is less agreement between EU capitals.

The United States and some of Washington’s allies have announced that they will not send diplomats or top officials to the Winter Olympics in Beijing, in protest against China’s actions.

But Europe is divided — with France dismissing talk of a diplomatic boycott as a small and useless measure — and in the end the ministers did not find time to address the issue.

Time To ‘Think About Mandatory Vaccination’, Says EU Chief

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen reacts as she attends a meeting with chairman of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s tripartite presidency Zeljko Komsic (unseen) and member of the presidency Sefik Dzaferovic (unseen), in Sarajevo, on September 30, 2021. (Photo by ELVIS BARUKCIC / AFP)

 

It is time for the European Union to “think about mandatory vaccination” against Covid, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday, while stressing member state governments would decide.

“My personal position is… I think it is understandable and appropriate to lead this discussion now,” she told a media conference, underlining that a third of the EU population of 450 million was still unvaccinated.

“How we can encourage and potentially think about mandatory vaccination within the European Union? This needs discussion. This needs a common approach. But it is a discussion that I think has to be led,” she said.

Several EU countries have already taken steps in that direction.

Austria has announced compulsory Covid-19 vaccinations from February 1 next year and Germany is mulling following suit.

READ ALSO: International Migration Rose Despite COVID-19 Curbs, Says UN

Greece on Tuesday said jabs would be mandatory for over-60s, while France has said Covid passes would be deactivated for all adults who have not had booster shots six months after their last jab, starting January 15.

Von der Leyen also said that the EU’s main Covid vaccine provider, BioNTech/Pfizer, would have jabs available for children in the bloc in two weeks’ time.

She said she had spoken with the German-US joint venture about the issue the day before, and they said “they are able to accelerate — in other words children’s vaccines will be available as of December 13.”

She noted that “if you look at the numbers we have now, 77 percent of the adults in the European Union vaccinated, or if you take the whole population, it’s 66 percent — and this means one-third of the European population is not vaccinated, these are 150 million people”.

The EU’s vaccination drive is very uneven across the 27-nation bloc.

Portugal, Malta, Spain, Italy, Ireland, France and Belgium have all vaccinated more than three-quarters of their populations, while eastern member states Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Croatia all have jabbed less than half.

“We have the vaccines, the life-saving vaccines, but they are not being used adequately everywhere,” von der Leyen said.

While the European Commission pre-purchased Covid vaccines for use in the EU, von der Leyen emphasised that the individual countries had the responsibility on how their vaccination programmes were done.

Poland Detains 100 Migrants At Border

Migrants aiming to cross into Poland camp near the Bruzgi-Kuznica border crossing on the Belarusian-Polish border on November 17, 2021. PHOTO: Maxim GUCHEK / BELTA / AFP

 

The Polish army on Thursday said it had detained a group of about 100 migrants who crossed the Belarus border during the night, accusing Belarusian forces of leading the operation.

The incident came as Belarus, which has said it wants to defuse the crisis, prepared a first repatriation flight for migrants to Iraq that will have between 200 and 300 people on board.

Thousands of migrants, mainly from the Middle East, are camped out or staying close to the Poland-Belarus border in dire conditions aiming to cross into the European Union, in a crisis that began over the summer.

The EU says Belarus engineered the crisis in retaliation for sanctions on the ex-Soviet country. Minsk and its main ally Russia have rejected the charges and have criticised the EU for not taking in the migrants seeking to cross over.

In the latest border incident, the Polish defence ministry said that Belarusian forces had first carried out reconnaissance and “most likely” damaged the barbed wire fence along the border.

READ ALSO: 15 Shot Dead In Crackdown On Sudan Anti-Coup Protests

“Then the Belarusians forced the migrants to throw stones at Polish soldiers to distract them. The attempt to cross the border took place several hundred metres away,” it said.

“A group of about 100 migrants was detained,” it said, adding that the incident happened near the village of Dubicze Cerkiewne.

“Belarusian special forces led yesterday’s attack,” it said.

Video footage released by the defence ministry appeared to show Polish soldiers surrounding a large group of migrants crouched down in a wooded area at night next to some barbed wire.

– EU-Belarus ‘technical talks’ –

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled with an iron fist for nearly three decades, has spoken to German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the crisis twice in recent days.

Lukashenko’s press service on Wednesday said the Belarus leader and Merkel “agreed that the problem as a whole will be brought up to the level of Belarus and the EU.

Migrants aiming to cross into Poland camp near the Bruzgi-Kuznica border crossing on the Belarusian-Polish border on November 18, 2021. PHOTO: Maxim GUCHEK / BELTA / AFP

 

“Relevant officials, to be determined from both sides, will immediately start negotiations to resolve the existing problems,” it said.

Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said the German leader had “underlined the need to provide humanitarian care and return options for the affected people”.

An EU spokesman said there were “technical talks” and urged Minsk to grant humanitarian access to the border area.

Aid groups say at least 11 migrants have died since the crisis began in the summer.

They have called for a de-escalation and a humanitarian response to the problem.

 

– Repatriation flight –

Poland estimates there are between 3,000 and 4,000 migrants along the entire border, with the largest group staying close to the shut down Bruzgi-Kuznica border crossing.

The Belarusian Red Cross says around 1,000 migrants are staying in a warehouse near that crossing and 800 more are camped nearby.

Belarus said it was preparing a voluntary repatriation flight that is planned to take off from Minsk at around 1045 GMT on Thursday and will fly first to Erbil and then to Baghdad.

Several airlines have also said they are trying to stop would-be migrants from travelling to Belarus in the first place.

But officials have warned that the crisis may take time to defuse.

Polish Defence Minister Mariusz Blaszczak said Wednesday: “We have to prepare for the fact that the situation on the Polish-Belarusian border will not be resolved quickly.

“We have to prepare for months or even years,” he told Poland’s Radio Jedynka.

In an interview with AFP, Fabrice Leggeri, the head of the EU border agency Frontex, also said that the EU should prepare for more “hybrid” migrant crises engineered for political ends.

“We have to prepare ourselves for situations like this which can arise quite quickly,” he said, comparing the current standoff to one on the Greece-Turkey border last year.

AFP

EU Leaders To Discuss Rising Energy Prices At Next Summit

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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.

AFP

EU Looks To Tighten Visa Restrictions On Belarus

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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.

AFP

EU Ties Climate Goals To Trade With Developing Nations

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The EU on Wednesday updated its conditions for poorer nations to win privileged access to the European market with a demand they fall in line with the bloc’s green ambitions.

The changes are part of the European Commission’s update to a scheme dating from 1971, known as the Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP), that offers easier access to the EU market for goods exported from developing countries.

The EU executive will now make sticking to environmental safeguards a condition for countries to keep enjoying the smoother GSP access for selling goods into Europe.

Under the GSP, the EU can put pressure on developing countries that veer away from internationally set standards on human rights, labour norms and other issues.

Last year, for example, the EU restored tariffs on goods imported from Cambodia over perceived human rights violations.

“There is no need to overhaul the scheme, as we did 10 years ago. But we have done some fine-tuning… to bring the scheme closer in line with our trade sustainability principles,” said Valdis Dombrovskis, the EU trade commissioner.

In addition, the scheme, which is broken down into several categories of countries, will add six more conventions to the current 27 that countries must comply with to receive the trade advantages.

The EU will also replace the Kyoto Protocol with the Paris agreement on climate change.

AFP

EU Announces Defence Summit, More Aid After Afghan Collapse

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gives a press statement following a phone call meeting with Britain's Prime Minister, at the European Commission in Brussels on December 13, 2020. Olivier HOSLET / POOL / AFP
File photo: Olivier HOSLET / POOL / AFP

 

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.”

Afghanistan Aid

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.

Covid Recovery

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”.

AFP

EU To Donate 200 Million More Vaccine Doses To Low-Income Countries

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The European Union is to donate another 200 million Covid-19 vaccine doses to low-income countries, more than doubling its present pledge, the bloc’s chief said on Wednesday.

The extra doses announced by European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen come on top of 250 million shots the EU has already promised to give to other countries, particularly ones in Africa.

“I can announce today that the commission will add a new donation of another 200 million doses until the middle of next year,” she told the European Parliament in her annual State of the European Union address.

Von der Leyen told the Strasbourg assembly the donation is “an investment in solidarity, and it is an investment also in global health”.

She recognised the disparity that has emerged between economically advanced countries such as the United States and those in Europe, which have pushed ahead in vaccinating the majority of their populations against the coronavirus, and poorer nations that are struggling to get hold of supplies.

“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.

Von der Leyen hailed the Europe Union’s vaccination roll-out, which has seen more than 70 percent of its adult population fully inoculated.

She said Europe had done more than any other region to get vaccine doses to other countries, noting that half of the 1.4 billion vaccines produced on its territory had been exported abroad.

AFP

EU Takes Japan Off COVID-Safe Travel List

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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.

AFP

EU Chiefs Demand Belarus Release ‘All’ Flight Passengers

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Top European Union officials warned Belarus on Sunday that it would be held responsible for the fate of a flight diverted to Minsk and demanded all passengers be released.

“We hold the government of Belarus responsible for the security of all passengers and the aircraft,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell tweeted.

“ALL passengers must be able to continue their travel immediately,” he said, implicitly demanding the release of exiled opposition activist Roman Protasevich.

The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen echoed this call.

“ALL passengers must be able to continue their travel to Vilnius immediately and their safety ensured,” she said, in a separate tweet.

And she warned: “Any violation of international air transport rules must bear consequences.”

The president of the European Council Charles Michel, who will host a summit of the 27 EU national leaders on Monday, also spoke out.

“An ICAO investigation of the incident will be essential,” he declared, referring to the International Civil Aviation Organisation, a UN agency.

AFP

Buhari In France: Seeks Debt Relief, More Vaccines For African Countries

President Buhari and other leaders at Grand Palais Éphémère during the Plenary Session of the African Finance Summit in Paris, France on 18th May 2021.

 

President Muhammadu Buhari on Tuesday in Paris, France, called on European countries and global financial institutions to consider loan restructure or complete debt reliefs, and release vaccines to the continent.

This according to the President will reduce the devastating effect of the Coronavirus pandemic on African economies.

The President made this call on Tuesday at the Financing Africa Summit held at Grande Palais Ephemere, Paris.

Presidential spokesperson, Garba Shehu, quoted Buhari to have said African countries need more vaccines to protect the majority of their citizens.

READ ALSO: NECO Reschedules 2021 National Common Entrance Exams

“It is in this vein that we solicit the support of the French government with its influence in the European Union to lend its voice to the efforts being made to mobilize additional resources for developing economies most especially Africa in order to strengthen the quantum of investments to our economies. This financial support should also be extended to the private sector,” he said.

The President urged European Union to encourage fair and equitable distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines in less developed countries, and promote the establishment of manufacturing facilities.

According to him, many African countries were already experiencing debt distress and the Debt Service Suspension by France and G-20 does not go far enough, adding that there was the need for more sustainable and affordable financing solutions, including debt relief and further debt restructuring.

On the Paris Agreement for Climate Change, President Buhari noted that African countries would need financial support for green energy investment and COP-26.

He said Nigeria will refocus on gas, while adopting a Strategic Revenue Growth Initiative.

On the theme of “Africa Private Sector — Reforms – Infrastructure’’, President said Public-Private Partnership (PPP) will be fully explored to ensure more precision in development, cutting down waste and reducing chances of corruption.

“The government intends to leverage on Public-Private Partnership to bolster its job creation and anti-corruption drive. In terms of job creation, Nigeria has an abundant labour force since 30.5 percent of its population is between the ages of 25 and 54.’’

Turkey Must Resume Accepting Migrants From Greece – EU

European Union, Ogbonnaya Onu, Science and technology

 

The EU’s home affairs commissioner said on Monday that Turkey should “urgently” resume accepting hundreds of migrants from Greece, days before EU chiefs were due to hold talks in Ankara.

“I call on Turkey to urgently resume the return of migrants from Greece,” Ylva Johansson said during a visit to the Greek island of Lesbos, which hosts more than 8,000 asylum seekers.

EU chiefs Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen will meet President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey next Tuesday.

There are nearly 14,000 migrants housed on Lesbos and another four Aegean islands — Chios, Samos, Kos and Leros.

Speaking alongside Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi, Johansson pledged 275 million euros ($324 million) of EU money for new camps on all five islands.

She had earlier visited the construction site of the Samos camp, tweeting: “I listened and explained that the migration proposals are designed to Europeanise and help the situation.”

Mitarachi, who has said new migrant camps are expected to be completed on Samos by June, and on Kos and Leros by September, called on Turkey to accept 1,450 migrants whose asylum applications had been rejected.

READ ALSO: Pandemic Blamed For Lack Of VAR In World Cup Qualifiers After Ronaldo Fury

The press conference was delayed by roughly 300 people demonstrating against the planned Lesbos camp, in a protest called by local governor Costas Moutzouris.

“The islanders will not allow the construction of permanent camps on Greek and European borders,” the governor said in a statement.

Moutzouris had also whipped up opposition to the new camp last year. An attempt by the government to force ahead with construction work had prompted days of riots and clashes with riot police.

Greece has toughened its migration policy since conservative Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis came to power in 2019.

Border patrols have increased, asylum processes have been quickened and benefits have been slashed, even for refugees who are granted asylum.

Greece has also been accused by rights groups of repeatedly pushing back migrant boats in violation of international law.

Government officials have repeatedly denied the claims.

“We haven’t returned boats. We have prevented boats from entering European and Greek territory, but this is something allowed by the regulations,” Mitarachi told AFP in an interview earlier this month.

However, Johansson insisted on Monday that Greece “can do more” to investigate pushbacks.

AFP