EU adds eight businessmen and two companies to Syria sanctions list

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epa06760151 An elderly man hangs up the photo of Syrian President Bashar Assad on a damaged wall at the recently-seized al-Hajar al-Aswad neighborhood in south Damascus, Syria, 24 May 2018. According to media reports, a mass celebration was held at al-Najmeh Square in the adjacent al-Hajar al-Aswad neighborhood. The Syrian government of President Bashar Assad on 21 May said it took full control of the capital, the suburbs and the outlying countryside for the first time since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011. EPA-EFE/YOUSSEF BADAWI

European Ministers added on Monday 8 Syrian individuals and 2 companies to the Syria sanctions list, whose activities directly benefited the President’s Bashar al-Assad’s regime, including through projects located on lands expropriated from persons displaced by the conflict.

The sanctions list now includes 277 persons and 71 entities targeted by a travel ban and an asset freeze, with the list being reviewed annually.

EU sanctions against Syria, first imposed in 2011, foresee an oil embargo, restrictions on certain investments, a freeze of the assets of the Syrian central bank held in the EU, and export restrictions on equipment and technology that might be used for internal repression, as well as on equipment and technology for the monitoring or interception of internet or telephone communications.

Relations with the Syrian government have been suspended since 2011, following an escalation of the conflict and grave violations of human rights in the country.

Kazakhstan presents draft of new geological exploration programme

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epa08181189 (L-R) Kazakh Prime Minister Askar Mamin, Kyrgyz Prime Minister Mukhammedkaliy Abylgaziyev, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and Moldovan Prime Minister Ion Chicu pose for a family photo prior to a meeting of the Eurasian Intergovernmental Council (EIC) in Almaty, Kazakhstan, 31 January 2020. EPA-EFE/ALEXANDER ASTAFYEV / SPUTNIK / GOVERNMENT PRESS SERVICE POOL MANDATORY CREDIT

NUR-SULTAN, Kazakhstan – The draft concept of the state geological exploration programme for 2021-2025 was presented at a government meeting on 18 February.

“For the implementation of the programme, it is planned to allocate about 200 billion tenge ($530 million) from the state budget, as well as attracting about 800 billion private investment ($2 billion),” the prime minister’s website said.

“Existing deposits are gradually being depleted. At the same time, the knowledge of the territory of Kazakhstan is a little over 25%,” said Kazakhstan’s Prime Minister Askar Mamin said.

Effective implementation of the state geological exploration programme will attract additional private investment of up to four tenge per tenge invested, Mamin added.

“At the discovery of the fields, new production complexes will be created, which will attract up to six trillion tenge of investments and create about 20,000 additional jobs,” Mamin said.

The head of government instructed the Ministry of Ecology, Geology and Natural Resources to ensure the introduction of the draft state programme to the government by 31 May 2020.

Michel’s budget proposal for 1.074% of EU’s GNI “disappointing” says Chair of EP’s Budget committee

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epa08222585 European Council President Charles Michel arrives for the Informal meeting between the EU and Western Balkans at the European Council headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, 16 February 2020. The leaders from the six Western Balkans countries will join Eu Council Presidents Michel and Eu Commission President von der Leyen with Croatian Prime Minister Plenkovic and High Representative Borrell for an informal meeting to prepare the EU-Western Balkans summit in Zagreb in May 2020. EPA-EFE/JULIEN WARNAND

With EU leaders expected to gather in Brussels for an emergency meeting on 20 February aiming at resolving EU’s 2021-2027 budget stalemate, debate around the bloc’s long-term budget has been heated up after Charles Michel, EU Council’s President proposed to set national contributions at 1.074% of GNI.

“The proposal on the MFF just released is disappointing,” said European Parliament’s Chair of the Budget Committee, Johan Van Overtveldt on Friday.

Lawmakers have heavily criticised Michel’s budget proposal, supporting that it “fully disregards parliament’s position and prevents the EU from achieving its objectives.”

They also cited a considerable gap between the Parliament’s request for 1.3% of EU27 GNI and Michel’s proposal, which undermines the credibility of the EU institutions’ agenda.

“I call on President Michel and the Leaders to think beyond narrow, short-term national interests, and substantially improve this proposal in the interest of Europe as a whole,” van Overtveldt added, also warning that in case EU leaders conclude on any agreement based on Michel’s budget proposal, the EP will reject it.

While the parliament has expressed its support for a quick MFF deal, it is denying to sacrifice many of the bloc’s regions – struck by an insufficient long-term budget for the Cohesion Funds and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

 

Amazon founder launches $10bn fund to fight climate change

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epa07853660 Founder and CEO of Amazon Jeff Bezos participates in the unveiling of an Amazon environmental initiative entitled 'The Climate Pledge', in Washington, DC, USA, 19 September 2019. Amazon's new environmental initiative aims to meet the goals of the Paris environmental agreement ten years early, or in 2040. Amazon has acquired one hundred thousand new electric delivery vehicles as part of that aim. EPA-EFE/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, announced he was committing $10 billion to a new fund, aimed at fighting climate change. He added the foundation would begin issuing grants this summer.

The new Bezos Earth Fund would “fund scientists, activists, NGOs – any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world”, Bezos said in an Instagram post.

Bezos is also the world’s richest person. His net worth is estimated to be around $130 billion. Bill Gates is second with $119 billion.

“Climate change is the biggest threat to our planet”, Bezos said, and added: “I want to work alongside others both to amplify known ways and to explore new ways of fighting the devastating impact of climate change on this planet we all share”.

Amazon relies on fossil fuels to power the vehicles that ship its packages. It has pledged to become net zero carbon by 2040. It also said that it would order 100,000 electric delivery trucks.

Its employees have often been protesting about some of its practices, in particular, over creating large amounts of waste from the packaging it delivers its products in, as well as for the emissions from huge fleets of delivery vehicles.

WHO warns against coronavirus overreaction

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epaselect epa08184452 Medical staff of Concorde hospital transfer medical supplies from a helicopter in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, 01 February 2020. Hospitals in Wuhan and other parts of China are facing a shortage of protective masks, clothing and medical supplies as the novel coronavirus outbreak claimed so far 259 lives and infected close to 12,000 people worldwide. EPA-EFE/YFC CHINA OUT

The World Health Organization has warned against a global overreaction to the new coronavirus epidemic following panic-buying and event cancellations.

The death toll from the outbreak in China neared 1,900 on Tuesday. More than 72,000 people have been infected in China and hundreds more abroad. France on Saturday reported the first coronavirus death in Europe.

The outbreak has had a major impact on global economy, with China paralyzed by quarantine measures and major firms warning it could damage bottom lines.

The WHO stressed that the mortality rate remains relatively low:  “This is a very serious outbreak and it has the potential to grow, but we need to balance that in terms of the number of people infected. Outside Hubei this epidemic is affecting a very, very tiny, tiny proportion of people”, said Michael Ryan, head of WHO’s health emergencies program.

The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention published a study, which finds that more than 80% of people infected had mild illness and the number of new infections seem to be falling since early this month.

WHO chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has warned, however, that it was too early to tell if the decline would continue. UN chief Antonio Guterres on Tuesday said the outbreak is not yet out of control, but it is a “very dangerous situation”.

Trade fairs, sports competitions and cultural events have also been disrupted. Many countries have banned travelers from China and major airlines have suspended flights.

Turkey seeks 695 arrests over Gulen links

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epa05928674 Members of the Turkish police escort suspects of the Gulen movement during nationwide operations, in Kayseri city, Turkey, 26 April 2017. According to reports on 26 April 2017, Turkey has conducted raids across the country, one of the largest operations in months, arresting over 800 people suspected of being connected to the movement loyal to US-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen that lead to a failed coup in July 2016. EPA/OLCAY DUZGUN TURKEY OUT

Turkish prosecutors have issued detention warrants against 695 people suspected of links to the to US-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen’s network, which is blamed by Ankara for plotting a 2016 coup attempt.

State media said prosecutors were seeking the detention of 467 alleged Gulen followers suspected of cheating in a police superintendent promotion examination in 2009. Warrants were also issued against 157 non-commissioned military officers. At least 101 of the military personnel were still on active duty in the Air Force or Navy.

In 2016, a group of officers attempted a coup to overthrow president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Some 250 people were killed in the failed attempt.

Since the coup, some 80,000 people have been arrested and around 150,000 others have been fired from state jobs in the crackdown. Gulen has lived in self-imposed exile in the US since 1999. He denies involvement in the coup attempt.

However, operations against his network are regularly performed in Turkey, as the authorities say the group remains a national security threat.

New leak reveals secrets of China’s notorious Xinjiang camps

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epa08051229 Uyghur women cry during a protest against China in Istanbul, Turkey, 07 December 2019. The protest aims to highlight the critical situation of alleged human rights abuses of the Uyghur people and many other minority groups across the Xinjiang (East Turkestan) area in China. EPA-EFE/ERDEM SAHIN

According to a newly leaked document from the Xinjiang camps, China is tracking every family and every movement of Muslim minority Uighurs.

The document shows that Chinese authorities are using high-tech surveillance to keep track of identities, locations and habits of individual Uighurs. It reveals that people have been arrested for growing beards, fasting, having “too many” children, applying for a passport, or even clicking on a link to a foreign website.

According to a newly leaked document from the Xinjiang camps, China is tracking every family and movement of the Uyghurs, the region’s largest Muslim indigenous minority.

The document shows that China’s intelligence services are using high-tech surveillance methods to keep track of the identities, locations, and habits of individual Uyghurs. The leaks also reveal that people have been arrested for growing beards, fasting, having “too many” children, applying for a passport, or even clicking on a link to a foreign website.

The Chinese Communist Party has for the last three years forced the Uyghur community into re-education camp in Xinjiang, an autonomous region in China that borders the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Beijing has labelled the camps as “help centres”, which the Communist Party claims are designed to combat religious extremism.

In November, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists published the first leak of classified documents revealing that detailed of China’s oppression of the Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang. The leaked documents contained a manual with instructions on how to prevent escapes, maintain secrecy about the camps’ existence, and when to let detainees see relatives or use the toilet.

According to the documents, which were guides for the camp’s guards, the staff members are banned from having personal interactions with the detainees, all doors are to be double-locked, and surveillance cameras are to remain active at all times. The inmates get points for following rules and for how well they speak Mandarin. Earning points makes it possible for the detainees, which Chinese authorities classify as “students”, to “graduate” from the camps.

The leaks also list the full names and identification numbers of more than 1,800 family members, neighbours, and friends of 311 detainees.

There are at least five official “vocational training centres” in Xinjiang. The leaked database is known as the “Karakax list”, named after the Xinjiang province county where it was compiled.

HSBC to begin massive layoffs

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epa08225295 (FILE) - A pedestrian walks by the entrance of a Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) bank branch in London, Britain, 21 February 2017 (reissued 18 February 2020). According to the bank's interim CEO Noel Quinn, HSBC is set to slash some 35,000 of its global workforce and shed around 100 billion US dollar in assets by 2022 in a major overhaul prompted by a dramatic drop in profits, which plunged by about one-third in 2019. EPA-EFE/ANDY RAIN

The UK’s HSBC Holdings announced around 35,000 job cuts as part of a major restructuring project.

The bank said it would shed $100 billion in assets. It also said it is targeting a $4.5 billion of cost cuts by 2022, as its profits for 2019 fell by a third. The bank reported annual profit before tax of $13.35 billion. HSBC said the fall in profits was mainly due to $7.3 billion in write-offs related to its investment and commercial banking operations in Europe.

Noel Quinn, HSBC’s interim CEO, said that, over the next three years, the bank would decrease its number of employees from 235,000 to 200,000, which is about 15% of the workforce. Analysts had expected about 10,000 jobs to be cut.

HSBC added it will reduce its sales and research coverage in European cash equities. In the US, it announced it would close about a third of its branches and will target only international and wealthier clients. The bank currently operates in North America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. It has more than 40,000 employees in the UK, where its headquarters are.

Quinn also warned that the coronavirus epidemic has significantly impacted its staff and customers: “Longer term, it is also possible that we may see revenue reductions from lower lending and transaction volumes, and further credit losses stemming from disruption to customer supply chains”, he said.

Britain tells EU that Supervision is ‘not acceptable’ in post-Brexit deal

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epa07921811 David Frost, British Chief Negotiator for Exiting the European Union, arrives at the European Commission ahead of a meeting with officials in Brussels, Belgium, 15 October 2019. EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ

The UK’s chief Brexit negotiator David Frost said during a visit to Brussels that the EU has totally missed the point of Britain’s decision to quit the European Union if the EU thinks that its own bureaucrats will continue to retain some supervision over London’s actions now the United Kingdom is no longer a part of the bloc.

“To think that we might accept EU supervision on so-called level playing field issues simply fails to see the point of what we are doing,” Frost said while adding, “It is central to our vision that we must have the ability to set laws that suit us and to claim the right that every other non-EU country in the world has.”

The EU insists on being the driver’s seat when negotiation trade terms with the UK. Frost said, however, that the point of Brexit was to deny the EU the ability to have any say over the internal affairs of the United Kingdom and dismissed the idea that an EU court would have a role in future trade disputes, saying, “We only want what other independent countries have.”

Frost said British Prime Minister Boris Johnson would not need more than 11 months to reach a trade deal.

The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has insisted that Brussels will not agree to any trade deal for the sole purpose of avoiding a costly “no-deal” agreement after the deadline.

US House speaker Pelosi warns allies against working with Huawei

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epa08223925 Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi speaks during a NATO Parliamentary Assembly at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, 17 February 2020. EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ

US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi warned NATO allies against allowing Chinese tech giant Huawei into their 5G networks.

During her visit to Brussels, where she met with leaders of the EU and NATO, the Democrat lawmaker said integrating Huawei into Europe’s 5G networks would be “like having the state police, the Chinese state police, right in your pocket”.

“While some people say that it’s cheaper to do Huawei – well yeah – it’s a People’s Liberation Army initiative using reversed engineering from Western technology. So, of course it’s going to be cheaper to put on the market. And if it’s cheaper, then they get the market share and then they bring in their autocracy of lack of privacy”, Pelosi said.

“You cannot sell the privacy of the people of your country down the river”, she added.

Washington added Huawei to its trade blacklist in May, amid concerns that its 5G equipment enables the Chinese government to spy on other nations.

Despite the warning, the UK government last month allowed limited use of the tech giant into its 5G networks. It announced that Huawei, as a “high-risk vendor”, will be excluded from sensitive geographic locations, such as nuclear sites and military bases.

A group of House Republicans introduced a resolution denouncing the UK’s decision: “Huawei equipment is absolute poison, providing them access to any aspect of a 5G network compromises the integrity of the entire system and will result in network data being sent back to Communist Party leaders in Beijing”, the lawmakers said.

Huawei has repeatedly denied the allegations, saying it operates independently of the ruling party of China. However, last year, two US senators pointed out that private Chinese companies are required to adhere to Chinese law.

The senators expressed their concerns over China’s “vague patchwork of intelligence, national security, and cybersecurity laws”, that compel Chinese companies to cooperate with intelligence work controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. They warned that there is no legal mechanism for Chinese companies to appeal if they disagree with a request by the government.

French health minister to run for Paris mayor after candidate quits over sex scandal

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epa08222652 French Health Minister Agnes Buzyn issues a statement to media outside the Health Ministry in Paris, France, 16 February 2020. Buzyn will take the candidacy for La Republique En Marche (LaREM) party, replacing former candidat Benjamin Griveaux who dropped his candidacy in the Paris municipal elections on 14 February over publication of sexual imagery allegedly related to him on social media. EPA-EFE/IAN LANGSDON

France’s health minister Agnes Buzyn was named on Sunday as a new candidate for mayor of Paris, after the original candidate suddenly quit following a leak of sex videos on social media.

French president Emmanuel Macron suffered a setback just two days earlier when one of his closest lieutenants, Benjamin Griveaux, pulled out of the race to become mayor, after it was alleged he sent sexual videos to a woman who is not his wife. The videos were published on social media by Pyotr Pavlensky, a controversial Russian performance artist, who claimed responsibility for the leaks.

The presidential Elysee Palace quickly named Olivier Veran, a lawmaker and a doctor, as a replacement for Buzyn as the next health minister.

“I am doing this with my heart, with commitment. I’m doing it to win,” Buzyn said shortly after being named the governing party contender. On Friday, however, she said she would refuse to take Griveaux’s place, as she vowed to fight the deadly coronavirus from China, which has sickened 11 people and killed one in France.

Analysts called the move “mission impossible”. Rival parties blamed Buzyn for “abandoning” her ministerial post amid a health crisis.

Meanwhile, Pavlensky and his girlfriend, who is reportedly the person to whom Griveaux sent the explicit videos, were arrested on charges of invasion of privacy and publishing images of a sexual nature without consent.

Pompeo starts tour of Africa

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epa07521390 US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announces the State Department will not renew sanction waivers for countries importing Iranian oil at the State Department in Washington, DC, USA, 22 April 2019. The increased pressure on Iran comes nearly one year after the Trump administration withdrew from the Iran Nuclear Deal. Pompeo also spoke briefly on the terrorist bombings in Sri Lanka. EPA-EFE/JIM LO SCALZO

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo said the US is working to determine what level of military forces is needed in West Africa to counter the rise of extremist violence in the region.

Following his visit to Senegal, Pompeo said he discussed the issue of the US military presence in West Africa with president Macky Sall amid reports that Washington intends to reduce troops in Africa.

“We did have a lot of conversation about security issues here, about America’s role in those. We’ve made it clear that the Department of Defense is looking at West Africa to make sure we have our force levels right. I was here as CIA director, so I know these security issues very, very well. We’ll get it right, we’ll get it right collectively; I’m convinced of that”, Pompeo told reporters.

“We have an obligation to get security right here, in the region – it’s what will permit economic growth and we’re determined to do that. And I’m convinced that when our review is done, we’ll have a conversation with not just Senegal, but all the countries in the region. We’ll deliver an outcome that works for all of us”, he added.

Senegal’s Foreign Minister Amadou Ba reiterated the country’s as well as the region’s hope for continued military support from the US: “We hope they will continue to support us in training and intelligence. This was discussed with the president of the republic”, he told reporters.

Pompeo left Senegal to go to Angola. After that he will travel to Ethiopia, as Washington seeks to counter the growing interest of China, Russia and other global powers in Africa. As a result of the billions of dollars in loans granted by China for infrastructure projects, Senegal has become Africa’s largest debt holder.

South Sudan rebels reject president’s peace deal

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epa07495759 South Sudan's President Salva Kiir Mayardit during his visit at Chigi Palace in Rome, Italy, 10 April 2019. Kiir is in Rome at the head of a delegation that will participate in a 'spiritual retreat' in the Vatican on 10 and 11 April 2019, according to media reports. EPA-EFE/ANGELO CARCONI

South Sudan rebels rejected the government’s peace offer to reduce the number of states and create three administrative areas in the country, aiming to pave the way for a unity government.

The country’s president Salva Kiir had said he would compromise by cutting the current 32 regional states back down to the original 10, which is one of the major demands of the rebels. The number of states is controversial because the borders will determine the divisions of power in the country.

However, Kiir also included three “administrative areas” of Pibor, Ruweng and Abyei. Rebel chief Riek Machar said he opposed the idea of three areas, saying it “cannot be referred to as reverting to 10 states” and “as such cannot be accepted”: “We therefore call upon President Kiir to reconsider this idea of creating administrative areas”, Machar said.

Kiir said returning to a system of 10 states was a “painful decision but a necessary one if that is what brings peace”. The most controversial of the three proposed areas is the oil-rich Ruweng, in the north.

Kiir and Machar agreed on a peace deal in 2018. However, they now face international pressure, including by the United States, to resolve their differences before a deadline set till 22 February.

Azerbaijani police violently disperse post-election protest

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epa07534704 Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev waves on the podium after the 2019 Formula One Grand Prix of Azerbaijan at the Baku City Circuit in Baku, Azerbaijan, 28 April 2019. EPA-EFE/VALDRIN XHEMAJ

Azerbaijani police have violently dispersed protests following contested parliamentary elections in the country.

Last week, the country started a snap election in an effort to renew its dissolved National Assembly. Azerbaijan’s long-term president Ilham Aliyev and his ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP) won a majority of seats in the election. The elections were boycotted by the opposition, who blames Aliyev and YAP for the country’s economic slowdown.

Critics say Aliyev is seeking a way to stay in power. His father, a Soviet-era KGB leader, passed the presidency to his son. The opposition has accused the governing party of holding the vote in unfair conditions. It has also accused it of attempting to replace old discredited elites with younger candidates.

Protesters gathered in front of the office of the Central Election Commission in Baku, demanding that the results be annulled after independent observers registered cheating, including ballot-stuffing and multiple voting.

“We are protesting total fraud in the country, fraud in the elections”, Rabiyya Mammadova, one of the candidates, said in an interview.

The authorities considered the protest unauthorized, and arrested many of the participants. Several were beaten by the police and sustained injuries. Police later forced all of the protesters on to buses. They were driven around for two hours before being freed on remote locations.

France confirms first coronavirus death outside Asia

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epa08179317 A passenger is silhouetted in a bay window facing Air France airplanes at Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport, outside Paris, France, 30 January 2020. Air France cabin crew unions are calling to halt flights to China in a bid to reduce staff exposure to Coronavirus. Three cases of the Wuhan coronavirus have been identified in France, the Health Ministry announced on 24 January. The coronavirus, called 2019-nCoV, originating from Wuhan, China, has spread to all the 31 provinces of China as well as more than a dozen countries in the world. The outbreak of coronavirus has so far claimed 170 lives and infected more than 8,000 others, according to media reports. EPA-EFE/IAN LANGSDON

France on Saturday reported the first coronavirus death outside Asia. The victim was an 80-year-old Chinese tourist who was initially turned away by two French hospitals and had a serious lung infection.

The man tested positive for the virus in late January and had been in isolated in intensive care at a Paris hospital, the health ministry said. Local media said he arrived in France on 16 January and was hospitalized on 25 January. Other media, however, previously reported that the patient arrived in France on 23 January and quickly fell ill.

The patient was from China’s Hubei province, which includes the epicenter of the outbreak, Wuhan.  All the previous coronavirus deaths outside China were so far in Asia: one each in Japan, the Philippines and Hong Kong.

France’s health ministry said the patient’s daughter also tested positive for the virus and was admitted to a hospital for treatment, but is doing well and should be able to leave soon.

As of Saturday, four of France’s 12 confirmed coronavirus cases were declared cured and were released, while seven others remained hospitalized.

Poland’s right-wing ruling party supports president’s reelection

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epaselect epa06225844 President of Poland Andrzej Duda speaks during the press conference in the Presidential Palace in Warsaw, Poland, 25 September 2017. President Duda presented his draft legislation to reform the Supreme Court (SN) and the National Council of Judiciary (KRS). In July 2017, Duda vetoed Supreme Court and National Judiciary Council bills voted by the Polish Sejm's majority. Large protests have been held across Poland over rules passed 20 July by the ruling party that would limit the independence of the judiciary. EPA-EFE/Radek Pietruszka POLAND OUT

Poland’s right-wing ruling party endorsed president Andrzej Duda’s reelection in the 10 May presidential vote.

The party’s Political Council met in Warsaw just before Duda launched his re-election campaign. Its leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski called Duda their “dream candidate” and a guardian of Poland’s Constitution.

Law and Justice has been facing criticism for its populist policies ever since it came to power in 2015. Duda, a former member of the party, has backed its policies. The party has been known for its EU skepticism.

Recently, Law and Justice has angered the bloc by approving the controversial law to tighten controls over judges, despite warnings that the law is an infringement of EU treaties. Duda backed the changes, which the party said were designed to fight corruption in the judicial system. However, it was accused of politicizing the judiciary. The move sparked nationwide protests.

Duda is being challenged by deputy parliament speaker Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska from the main opposition Civic Platform party, and other opposition candidates, including Krzysztof Bosak for the far-right Confederation party. According to surveys, Duda is currently ranked as the country’s most popular politician.

EU’s Court of Auditors says Commission should update nuclear-safety rules

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epa08200308 General view of the nuclear power plant in Cattenom, France, 07 February 2020. The Cattenom Nuclear Power Plant is located about 5 km from Thionville (Moselle, north France). The Franco-Luxembourg Joint Nuclear Security Commission held its eighteenth meeting on February 4, 2020 at the headquarters of the Nuclear Safety Authority (Montrouge, France). The two delegations also reviewed the crisis management structures and the means of communication in emergency situations. EPA-EFE/JULIEN WARNAND

The European Commission has met its responsibilities on legislation and oversight of nuclear safety across Europe, but more steps are required to improve the overall legal framework and internal guidelines, the European Court of Auditors said in a report published on February 14.

“The Commission has generally met its responsibilities on nuclear safety,” said João Figueiredo, the member of the Court of Auditors who is responsible for the report. “We recommend updating the legal framework and procedures that are currently being used to assess the transposition of Euratom directives to issue opinions on nuclear investments and the monitoring of radioactivity.”

The Court of Auditors said a strengthening of the bloc’s monitoring procedures is needed if Brussels has any hope that it will be able to fully verify the efficiency of the bloc’s ability to watch over Europe’s nuclear facilities as they are not up to date nor fully configured to reflect recent technological and legislative developments.

 

 

Russia, Belarus ink pricing procedure protocol for gas supplies

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Russian gas monopoly Gazprom and the government of Belarus have signed a protocol outlining the pricing procedure for natural gas supplies to Belarus in 2020, Gazprom said on 14 February.

Gazprom CEO Alexey Miller and Belarus Energy Minister Viktor Karankevich signed the protocol during a meeting in St Petersburg on 14 February where they reviewed issues related to cooperation in the gas sector. Belarus Ambassador to Russian Vladimir Semashko also participated in the meeting.

The contracts between Gazprom and Gazprom Transgaz Belarus for gas supplies to and gas transportation across Belarus are valid until the end of 2020 On 31 December 2019, Gazprom and the Belarus government signed the Protocol on the pricing procedure for natural gas supplies to Belarus in January and February 2020.

Xi Jinping knew about the coronavirus outbreak nearly two weeks before going public

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epa08205106 Men wearing protective face masks talks next to a portrait of the former Chinese leader Mao Zedong (C) at the empty Wangfujing shopping district in Beijing, China, 09 February 2020. The novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), which originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan, has so far killed at least 813 people and infected over 37,000 others, mostly in China. The death toll from the novel coronavirus has surpassed the death toll from SARS epidemic of 2002-2003. EPA-EFE/ROMAN PILIPEY

China’s strongman, Communist leader Xi Jinping knew of the outbreak of the coronavirus in the city of Wuhan almost two weeks prior to publicly acknowledging the epidemic on January 20.

In an internal statement published on February 15, during a January 7 meeting with the Politburo Standing Committee, a group that consists of the top leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi gave orders “for the prevention and control of the new coronavirus pneumonia.” That directive is being seen by many as an indication that Xi was well-aware of the threat that the coronavirus posed to the population and that he intended local officials to deal with the situation before it became a worldwide epidemic.

Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives for the closing of the National People’s Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. According to media reports, the Chinese Communist Party will postpone two major political meetings initially planned to be held in March due to the outbreak of coronavirus. EPA-EFE//ROMAN PILIPEY

The statement came amid pressure from China’s increasingly angry population and the international community over the way Chinese authorities handled the coronavirus outbreak during its early stages.

Earlier in February, two senior Communist officials who were responsible for Hubei province, the hardest-hit region, were fired due to their mishandling of the crisis. 337 other officials in Hubei were also “penalised” for negligence and poor governance.

The fact that high-ranking Communist officials within the Standing Committee knew about the outbreak as early as January 7 and failed to take any measures, raises the question of whether the Chinese national government could have contained the virus before killing over 1,700 people and infecting more than 71,000 worldwide. The leaked documents now reveal that Xi and the Chinese leadership had full knowledge of the deadly potential of the coronavirus two days before any public accounts had been released. It was only on January 9, Xi orders to the Standing Committee indicated that they needed to acknowledge that the outbreak was, in fact, a deadly virus.

According to the World Health Organization, the records published at the time indicate that the Communist Party classified the virus as specific “cases of pneumonia”, with only 44 cases reported; 11 of which were considered critical.

By the time Xi and the Politburo publicly acknowledged that coronavirus was a rapidly spreading epidemic on January 20, there were already 282 confirmed cases – 278 in China, one in Japan, Thailand with two, and one in South Korea.

Facial recognition technology breaches GDPR says Vestager

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epa08033459 European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager during the inauguration of the new interactive visitor center 'Experience Europe' in the Europe House in Gothersgade in Copenhagen, Denmark, 29 November 2019. EPA-EFE/Philip Davali DENMARK OUT

Margrethe Vestager, EU’s tech chief Margrethe Vestager said on Thursday that facial recognition technologies breach the need to give consent, which is stipulated in Europe’s data protection rules (GDPR).

However, the Commissioner backed their use in case of public security, supporting that they should be allowed to automatically identify persons legally.

“China might have data and the US might have money, but Europe has purpose,” the Commission’s VP for a Europe Fit for the Digital Age said.

The use of facial recognition technology remains highly controversial due to fears of China-type surveillance regimes and human rights violations, with Ursula von der Leyen, EC President pledging to distance Europe from these practices and to announcing new AI ethical and human-centred rules in the first 100 days of her mandate.

To this end, Vestager will unveil on Wednesday the Commission’s data strategy and the white paper on artificial intelligence (AI), through which the EU Commission plans to compete with US and Chinese tech giants whilst doing it the “European way,” by promoting European values, such as the right to privacy.

Vestager added that while the Commission will take some time to process the regulation of facial recognition technology in an EU level, this will not prevent national initiatives from using the technology according to existing rules.

 

Macon calls for better EU-Russia relations

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epa08068244 French President Emmanuel Macron arrives at the second day of an European Council summit in Brussels, Belgium, 13 December 2019. EPA-EFE/CHRISTIAN HARTMANN / POOL

French president Emmanuel Macron said the European Union needs to seek better relations with Russia in the long term.

Macron attended the Munich Security Conference, where he said that while he isn’t proposing lifting sanctions, they have changed nothing about Russia’s behavior. French companies have been pushing Macron to improve the EU’s relations with Russia and to ease economic sanctions.

Relations between both sides have been strained since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, which led to The US and the EU imposing sanctions on Russia for its actions.

“We need in the long term to reengage with Russia but also emphasize its responsibility in its role” as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Macron said, adding that “it cannot constantly be a member that blocks advances by this council”.

He also said he expects Russia to continue playing a destabilizing role in matters such as other countries’ election campaigns: “I don’t believe in miracles, I believe in politics, in the fact that human will can change things when we give ourselves the means”, he said.

He stressed that Russia’s military buildup is financially unsustainable. According to Macron, an alliance with China would not be durable, because “Chinese hegemony is not compatible with the Russian sense of pride”. He concluded by underlining the need for a “European partnership”.

Top officials reaffirm commitment to uphold Libya arms embargo

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epa08169670 German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas speaks during a press conference with High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell (not in the picture) on the occasion of a meeting at Villa Borsig, the Guest House of the Federal Ministry for Foreign Affairs, in Berlin, Germany, 27 January 2020. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell met for talks. EPA-EFE/CLEMENS BILAN

Top officials from about a dozen countries discussed the Libya crisis at the Munich Security Conference. They reaffirmed a commitment to respect an arms embargo and support a ceasefire in the war-torn country.

Germany and the United Nations hosted the meeting, attempting to cut off external military support for the warring parties in the country, as the UAE and Turkey refuse to stop arming their allies.

Stephanie Williams, the UN Deputy Special Representative to Libya, said that the arms embargo has become a joke. “It’s complicated because there are violations by land, sea and air, but it needs to be monitored and there needs to be accountability”, she added.

Military officers from Libya’s UN-backed government, GNA, led by the prime minister, Fayez al-Serraj, and representatives of the rival militia of warlord Khalifa Haftar, LNA, began meeting earlier this month in Geneva in an UN-sponsored joint military commission aimed at achieving a lasting ceasefire.

The LNA is backed by the United Arab Emirates, France, Russia and Egypt, while the GNA’s main supporter is Turkey. Many arms embargo breaches are occurring by air and by land through Egypt.

“It has been obvious in the last weeks there have been many not insignificant breaches of the weapons embargo,” German foreign minister Heiko Maas said, and added: “There have been decidedly differing explanations offered up from Libya as to what the reasons for this are, but everybody agrees that the path we have taken, which is to separate the conflicting parties from their supporters is still the only path to a possible successful outcome in ending the civil war in Libya.”

UN chief Antonio Guterres has also repeatedly warned that the conflict has to stop beeing fueled by foreign intervention.

EU Ombudsman to investigate Commission’s backing of gas projects

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Workshop for the members of the Committee on Petitions - Conflicts of interest

European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly announced on Thursday she has opened an investigation into the European Commission’s so-called list of Projects of Common Interest (PCIs), as the EC gave last week its formal backing on 32 major gas infrastructure projects.

The inquiry was opened following a complaint by Food & Water Europe, which claimed that gas projects are not sufficiently assessed before being included on the list.

In a letter sent on 10 February to European Commission’s chief Ursula von der Leyen, the EU Ombudsman asked on the ways EU’s executive body ensures that sustainability and climate change impact of fossil fuel projects are assessed before including them on the list of priority energy projects.

O’Reilly said in her letter that “this risks undermining public trust in the EU’s ability to establish the PCI-list in a manner that is in line with the EU’s energy policy and climate objectives.”

Environmentalists and NGOs have been warning that the EU should not be investing in fossil fuel projects, calling EU’s energy policy as “climate hypocrisy,” as for the Green Deal to work, a fossil-fuel free EU is needed.

The EC has until 31 March 2020 to reply to O’Reilly’s letter.

 

 

Zuckerberg calls on Europe to better regulate social networks

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epa08219727 Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg speaks during a Conversation session 'Learn Fast and Fix Things: Social Media and Democracy' at the 56th Munich Security Conference (MSC) in Munich, Germany, 15 February 2020. More than 500 high-level international decision-makers meet at the 56th Munich Security Conference in Munich during their annual meeting from 14 to 16 February 2020 to discuss global security issues. EPA-EFE/PHILIPP GUELLAND

During meetings with European officials in Brussels, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg urged the EU to better regulate political advertisements on social media and take measures that would better guarantee that the privacy and data users is protected from authoritarian governments like Russia and China.

Setting up a common set of rules for regulating information and data privacy o social networks will reassure users that tech giants are being forced to work within an accepted framework.

“Users don’t want private companies making decisions about how to balance social equities without a democratic process,” Zuckerberg said while giving a speech at the Munich Security Conference in Germany. “I believe our responsibility is to build the sort of operational muscle that is needed to enforce policies, fight interference, and have good auditing controls.”

Zuckerberg added that governments should provide more guidelines on political advertising, or “what discourse should be allowed and drawing a line between harmful expression and freedom. Most notably, the 35-year-old American entrepreneur went on to admit that he probably would not agree with all the rules, but that a process needs to be built to improve the Internet’s regulation.

The European Union, in Zuckerberg’s view, must do far more to step up its efforts if it hopes to crack down on the spread of disinformation and prevent the world’s more authoritarian countries from making their values acceptable to the wider public through the internet.

“To encode democratic values, open values, we’ve got to move forward quickly before more authoritarian models are adopted in a lot of places,” Zuckerberg said.

Zuckerberg argued that it is impossible to control what is published on Facebook using the same standards as for newspapers because the sheer volume of material posted on the Internet means that the models are different. However, he agreed that companies operating on social networks cannot be passive when it comes to the transfer of damaging content.

Turkey, Russia to hold talks as Syrian forces seize most of Aleppo province

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epa07791022 A road sign directing to the townds of Khan Sheikhoun, Aleppo, and Idleb is seen on the road leading to Khan Sheikhoun town in northwest Syria, 24 August 2019. Journalists were taken in a government-organized tour to the rebels-held town that was recently liberated by the Syrian army. EPA-EFE/STR

Syrian government forces made major advances yesterday in the country’s northwestern Aleppo province, seizing most of the rebel-held region, state media said.

The advancement comes a day before a new round of Turkey-Russia talks on the situation. Turkey backs rebels looking to oust Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad, whose government forces are supported by Russia, Iran and the Lebanese Shia movement Hezbollah.

Activists reported that Russian warplanes mounted heavy air strikes in Aleppo province, bombing villages and towns including Anadan, which was later seized by Syrian forces. Rebel military sources said opposition fighters had pulled back from the area, including Anadan and the town of Haritan.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said Syrian forces had seized 13 towns and villages in the area: “In day one, they took an area where for eight years they could not take a single village”, it said.

Last week, Assad’s forces seized control of the important M5 highway for the first time in eight years. The M5 links Syria’s capital, Damascus, with the northern city of Aleppo. Sections of the road have been in rebel hands since 2012.

Turkish media reported that Turkey had been deploying hundreds of military vehicles and troops to Idlib, to reinforce its observation posts in the area, established under a 2018 de-escalation agreement with Russia.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu announced that Turkish and Russian officials would discuss the issue in Moscow on 17 February. He added he told his Russian counterpart “that the aggression in Idlib must stop and that a lasting ceasefire has to be achieved now”.

Çavuşoğlu attended the Munich Security Conference, where he warned the US to work on the relations with Turkey: “We told them that we expected a sincere approach from the United States in line with the spirit of our alliance”, he said.

US President Donald Trump called on his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to express concern over the violence in Idlib. The White House said in a statement that Trump conveyed Washington’s desire to see an end to Russian support for Assad’s actions and for a political solution to the conflict.

Erdoğan, however, said his military will drive back Syrian forces if they do not withdraw out of Idlib “before the end of the month”.

The war in Syria started with a popular movement against Assad’s rule that was brutally repressed. More than 380,000 people were killed in nine years and about half of the country’s population is displaced.

Afghan president says US-Taliban deal to come ‘within days’

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epa07464000 Afghanistan's President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, gives a joint press conference with Federica Mogherini (not pictured), the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs in the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, 26 March 2019. The High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy arrived on a surprise visit to Afghanistan and reaffirmed the EU's support for the peace process. EPA-EFE/STR

Afghanistan’s president Ashraf Ghani said a proper announcement on a US-Taliban deal to end the 18-year war in Afghanistan will be made in a week to ten days. Ghani attended the Munich Security Conference, where he met with top US and NATO officials.

Ghani explained the Afghan government is taking a practical approach to resolving the war. He expressed doubts about the Taliban’s intention, but said that he would to test the group’s commitment: “We are going to take a substantial step forward and test”, he said, and added: “We are not going to solve this conflict on the basis of ‘paper discussions’”.

“We are on the same page. There are risks, but we see an opportunity,” Ghani said, adding that: “there is mutual trust that we can do this together. And because of this, we agreed not to make an announcement yesterday or today. We are going to make an announcement within a week to 10 days in a coordinated and choreographed fashion”, he said.

The announcement of a possible deal comes after the Taliban agreed to a seven-day reduction of violence in Afghanistan. US president Donald Trump said a peace agreement was “very close”. US defense secretary Mark Esper also said that the agreement “looks very promising”.

The Afghan government has so far demanded to be more involved in the US-Taliban peace negotiations in Doha, but the Taliban have rejected the idea, as they do not recognize the government.

Munich Bacchanalian surprises

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epa08219095 French President Emmanuel Macron gestures as he speaks during the Chairman's Interview session at the 56th Munich Security Conference (MSC) in Munich, Germany, 15 February 2020. More than 500 high-level international decision-makers meet at the 56th Munich Security Conference in Munich during their annual meeting from 14 to 16 February 2020 to discuss global security issues. EPA-EFE/PHILIPP GUELLAND

At the Munich Security Conference 2020, two reality-altering messages were sent back to Southeastern Europe, which incidentally was not the core focus of this year’s conference.

One of those shocks was a US-sponsored agreement to work on reopening Kosovo-Serbia road and rail links, while the other was the message that Albania and North Macedonia have been praying, if not dying, for — that the all-important path to opening EU accession talks will likely be offered to them this spring.

 US delivers another “Balkan” step forward

Replaying what the US-sponsored at its embassy in Berlin on January 20 to relaunch Pristina-Belgrade flights, Munich saw another Washington-brokered agreement signed, this time to reopen for public use certain road and rail links that only the UN and select military/diplomatic personnel currently use.

This time the signing ceremony occurred on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference on February 14 in the presence of the Serbian and Kosovar presidents, Aleksandar Vucic and Hashim Thaci, as well as US Special Envoy for Serbia and Kosovo Richard Grenell, who also serves as the American Ambassador to Germany.

Grenell was appointed by President Donald Trump last October as Washington’s Special Envoy to talks to normalise relations between Kosovo and Serbia. The EU-mediated negotiations started in 2011 but have been stalled and have led absolutely nowhere since Kosovo imposed prohibitive 100% tariffs on Serbian goods in 2018.

After the signing, Grenell hailed Thaci and Vucic for their goodwill and cooperation, saying, “What I talked to the presidents about is trying as much as possible to concentrate on economic development, jobs for the future.

There are few details on the practical arrangements available to the public at this time.  Currently, there is a rail link between a small city in central Serbia to a town in northern Kosovo, but nothing to Pristina, Kosovo’s capital.  Most people currently travel by car and bus on poorly maintained roads across the border.

After the signing ceremony in Munich, both Thaci and Vucic thanked Trump for his leadership and the American effort to lead the way after talks with the EU ended in a frustrating stalemate for all sides.

“We feel that this will bring us a better future and that we will ensure peace for decades to come,” the Serbian leader wrote on his Twitter feed.

Thaci tweeted “we will move to new agreements following that on Pristina-Belgrade flights. We will have other engagements for the railway line. We will work as institutions to reach a final agreement as two independent states. It is a fact that we have as US-backed dynamic, things that were not imagined two decades ago are happening.”

Once again, it is clear to all those working on the Western Balkans that US diplomatic engagement is the key driving force in reshaping the political and transport map of Southeastern Europe. A fact that needs to be recognised in Brussels. Most analysts have concluded that it is now a question of when, not if, an agreement to roll back Kosovo’s tariffs on Serbian goods will be reached.

Macron warms to launching Enlargement talks

With the EU seemingly behind the curve in terms of developments in the Balkans, a somewhat unexpected but positive shock was delivered by French President Emmanuel Macron on February 15 when he said his country would be following the Commission’s recommendations regarding the start of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. Since nobody has ever had any question that the only recommendation the Commission would make in the post-Brexit environment was to begin talks on Enlargement as quickly as possible, the message was immediately translated in the aspirant countries as “French veto will be lifted, and France’s few allies on a go-slow approach will fall into line.”

Macron appears satisfied that the Commissions’ proposed new Enlargement rules announced earlier this month, if not watered down further in the process, will provide the all-important “conditionality” and “reversibility” in the Enlargement process that Paris has demanded before moving ahead.

At the Munich Security Conference Macron said that that the question of procedural reform has now been fulfilled. He then said the next step will be a report in March from the Commission on the progress made by the two countries, which all see as a foregone conclusion.

What Macron actually said on record was “we are waiting for the report in March… depending on that, if the results are positive and confidence is established, then we should be in a position to open the negotiations.”

Macron also cautioned that Enlargement was not a panacea for the EU’s problems in speaking with one voice and that more members also meant the need for a larger EU common budget, something richer northern EU members reject.

“It doesn’t work at 27 (EU members) so do you think it will work if we’re 32 or 33? We are incoherent,” Macron added.

Ultimately, the decision on Enlargement will be taken at EU-Balkan summit in the Croatian capital Zagreb in May, before the end of the current Croatian EU presidency.  Macron’s shift makes it more likely that Denmark and the Netherlands, the other two member states who supported France in October in freezing Enlargement, will drop their resistance before the Zagreb Summit.

Zuckerberg meets EU Commissioners ahead of antitrust proposals

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epaselect epa07943756 Chairman and CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg returns from a short break while testifying before the US House Financial Services Committee hearing on 'An Examination of Facebook and Its Impact on the Financial Services and Housing Sectors', on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, USA, 23 October 2019. Zuckerberg faces questions from lawmakers concerned over issues with the cryptocurrecy Libra, financial data and potential misinformation on Facebook surrounding the 2020 US presidential election. EPA-EFE/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

Chairman and CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg will meet on Monday Europe’s tech chief, Margrethe Vestager along with Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton and EU Commissioner for Justice Věra Jourová, days before the EU Commission unveils its antitrust proposals.

Breton and Vestager will present on Thursday their proposals on the creation of a single European data market, aimed at challenging the dominance of U.S. tech giants such as Facebook, Google and Amazon, and will also propose rules to govern the use of artificial intelligence, according to Reuters.

Zuckerberg’s last public appearance in Brussels was in 2018, when he was grilled by MEPs over the use of 2.7 million European Facebook users’ data by the political consultancy Cambridge Analytica.

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference, Zuckerberg said that harmful online content should be regulated and expressed his support to the creation of a global digital tax, while he also stated that Facebook must accept some form of state regulation.

 

In Munich, Tokayev sees increase role of Central Asian region in security

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NUR-SULTAN, Kazakhstan – Central Asia, gaining a new regional identity, plays an increasingly important role in international affairs, Kazakhstan President Kassym – Jomart Tokayev said at 56th Munich conference on 15 February.

“Firstly. Today we are seeing a rapprochement between the countries of the region.  Multilateral political dialogue has increased. Mutual trade and economic ties are developing dynamically. Old regional problems are being addressed. There is a consolidation of forces and the development of common approaches to achieve joint goals,” Tokayev said during his speech “Geography Matters: A talks on Central Asia”.

Speaking about the role of the region, Tokayev expressed the opinion that the place of Central Asia in global geopolitics will only increase.  According to him, Central Asia is one of the key regions for the implementation of the Chinese megaproject “One Belt – One Road”.

He informed the forum participants about the foreign policy priorities of Kazakhstan, the relations of Kazakhstan with Russia, China, the EU, the US, as well as with Afghanistan.

“Secondly. External players are also rethinking their strategy in the region in the context of implementing specific and very promising projects. So, Russia continues to effectively interact with the Central Asian states both on a bilateral basis and through integration initiatives, primarily the EAEU,” Tokayev said.

According to him, a constructive dialogue is being built in the “EU – Central Asia” format. “The United States is also striving to keep abreast. Just a few days ago, the new United States Strategy for Central Asia 2019-2025 was announced. Overall, joint projects of Central Asian countries with Russia, China, the European Union, and the US are aimed at the comprehensive development and strengthening of security in our region,” Tokayev stressed.

Almost all Central Asian countries continue to make great efforts to resolve the Afghan problem, he said.

“Our country is also continuing to implement an educational program worth $50 million for more than a thousand Afghan students. To improve communication on all these issues, a Special Representative of the Republic of Kazakhstan for Afghanistan will be appointed soon,” the Kazakh president said.

He noted an increased role of the region as an international actor. It is expressed through the promotion and implementation of important international initiatives.

“Our region is contributing to the environmental agenda. In 2017, Kazakhstan successfully held a specialised EXPO exhibition dedicated to green energy. Last year, we created the International Centre for Green Technologies and Investments.  Water security issues are of great importance for the region,” Tokayev said and added: “We are grateful to Germany for the Green Central Asia project, which was launched on January 28 this year. Given the growing climate threat, Kazakhstan is proposing to establish a Global Climate Change Fund under the auspices of the United Nations,” Tokayev said.

The President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, also participated in the discussion as a speaker. The meeting was moderated by Richard Nathan Haas, American diplomat and President of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The event was held in the format of a lively discussion, where the speakers, answering the questions of the moderator, shared their vision of resolving security problems in Central Asia.

UK regulators investigate Barclays CEO over ties to Epstein

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epa05563376 (FILE) A file photograph dated 09 February 2009 shows a pedestrian passing a Barclays bank branch in London, Britain. Banking shares across Europe took a dip on 30 September 2016 after Deutsche Bank shares on 30 September 2016 plummeted at the Frankfurt stock market's early trading by more than six percent. EPA/ANDY RAIN

Jes Staley, the boss of the investment bank Barclays, is being probed by UK regulators over his links to the wealthy financier and sex offender, Jeffrey Epstein.

Epstein died by suicide in jail in 2019 while awaiting trial on charges of sex-trafficking underage girls.

The investigation was launched after emails between the two men emerged and were handed to the UK regulators.

“The relationship between Mr Staley and Mr Epstein was the subject of an enquiry from the Financial Conduct Authority, to which the company responded”, Barclays said, adding that the FCA launched an investigation into how Staley had characterized the relationship to Barclays, and how the bank then described it to regulators.

On Thursday, Staley told reporters that he had a “professional relationship” with Epstein going back to 2000, when he was the head of JPMorgan’s private bank, of which Epstein was a client.

Media reported that Staley, managed Epstein’s finances between 2000 and 2013, even after an internal investigation at JP Morgan’s recommended that the bank drop Epstein as a client.

Staley said that he had told the board that he had no contact with Epstein since he joined Barclays in 2015. Their email exchanges suggest they stayed in close touch for seven years after Epstein was convicted in 2008. Staley visited him while he was serving time in Florida. In 2015, Staley and his wife sailed their boat to Epstein’s private island. The same month, Staley was named chief executive of Barclays.

“He was already a client. The relationship was maintained during my time at JPMorgan, but as I left Morgan it tapered off quite significantly. Obviously, I thought I knew him well and I didn’t. And for sure with hindsight of what we all know now I deeply regret having had any relationship with Jeffrey Epstein”, Staley said.

“Mr Staley retains the full confidence of the board, and is being unanimously recommended for re-election at the annual general meeting”, Barclays said.

Tokayev to give speech on regional security at Munich conference

NUR-SULTAN, Kazakhstan – Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has arrived in Munich for a two-day working visit to attend the 56th Munich Security Conference, the spokesman for the head of state, Berik Uali, wrote on his Facebook page on 14 February.

“It is planned that in the margins of the Munich Security Conference, the Kazakh president will take part in panel discussions and hold a series of bilateral meetings with world leaders, heads of international organisations, large German companies and well-known experts in the field of international relations,” the statement read.

Within the framework of the Munich Conference, Tokayev’s speech is planned tomorrow at a parallel panel discussion on regional security on the topic: “Geography Matters: A Conversation on Central Asia.”

US Senate votes to limit Trump’s war powers on Iran

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epa08216094 Democratic Senator from Virginia Tim Kaine (2-L), with Democratic Senator from Illinois Tammy Duckworth (L), Democratic Senator from New Mexico Tom Udall (2-R) and Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (R), delivers remarks on the War Powers Resolution during a press conference in the US Capitol in Washington, DC, USA, 13 February 2020. The Senate approved, with a 55-45 bipartisan vote, a resolution to limit President Donald J. Trump's authority to launch military strikes against Iran. EPA-EFE/SHAWN THEW

The US Senate voted on Thursday to restrain president Donald Trump from attacking Iran, rejecting his foreign policy.

Eight Republican senators joined Democrats in the 55-45 vote. The resolution, which limits US military actions against Iran, will head to the Democratic-led House of Representatives, which passed a similar text last month.

Trump, however, is likely to issue a veto, and two-thirds votes in the House and Republican-run Senate would be needed to overturn it.

“What the American people and the entire world will see from the debate we’re about to have in the Senate is that there is abundant support for the United States taking tough positions with regard to Iran’,’ Republican Senator Mike Lee said. He supports Trump’s foreign policy, but says the Congress has a responsibility to act on matters of war and peace.

“And as part of that, we want to make sure that any military action that needs to be authorised is in fact properly authorised by Congress. That doesn’t show weakness. That shows strength”, Lee added.

Moments before the vote, a rocket slammed into an Iraqi base housing US troops. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

US Navy seizes Iranian-made weapons in Arabian Sea raid

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epa05099359 A handout picture made available by the US Navy on 13 January 2016 shows Riverine command boats from Riverine Detachment 23 operating with the amphibious transport dock ship USS New York (LPD 21) (not pictured) during a maritime air support operations center exercise in the Arabian sea, at sea, 12 June 2012. Two US naval vessels were detained on 13 January 2016 by Iranian forces in the Persian Gulf, but US defense officials said the sailors on board the ships were not in any danger. After losing contact with the 'two small naval craft,' which media reportedly to be two Riverine patrol boats, US officials established communication with Iranian authorities 'who have informed us of the safety and well-being of our personnel,' the Pentagon said. The Pentagon has received assurances the sailors would be allowed to continue their journey promptly. They were en route from Kuwait to Bahrain when they were detained. EPA/US NAVY/ZANE ECKLUND HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY

US troops seized Iranian-manufactured weapons from a sailboat in the Arabian Sea.The US Central Command said the shipment was likely headed to Yemen, and included anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles and other “advanced weapons parts”.

US officials said that navy personnel from the US cruiser Normandy boarded the vessel in accordance with international law. They also published a video which showed the troops boarding the vessel without apparent resistance.

“The weapons seized include 150 ‘Dehlavieh’ anti-tank guided missiles,” which are “Iranian-manufactured copies” of similar Russian-made weapons, US officials said, adding that many of the seized weapons were “identical” to those seized in a raid by the US in the Arabian Sea in November.

Other weapons allegedly included Iranian-made surface-to-air missiles, thermal imaging scopes, ammunition as well as “Iranian components for unmanned aerial and surface vessels”.

“Those weapons were determined to be of Iranian origin and assessed to be destined for the Houthis in Yemen”, the US Central Command said. A UN resolution bans Iran from selling weapons outside the country without authorization.

A separate UN document also bans supplying weapons to the Houthi leaders. The US accuses Iran for backing the Houthis in their fight against Yemen’s Saudi-backed government. The Houthi rebels have used drones and surface vessels to attack Saudi forces in the past, using equipment that the US says comes from Iran.

Issue 1321: MEPs won’t approve budget cuts (Print Edition)

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Ethiopia approves controversial ‘hate speech’ law

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epa07306599 Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed during a press conference at Chigi Palace in Rome, Italy, 21 January 2019. Abiy Ahmed is for an official visit in Rome. EPA-EFE/ALESSANDRO DI MEO

Ethiopia’s parliament has passed a law that punishes “hate speech” and “fake news”. However, rights groups say it undermines free speech months as it imposes heavy fines and long jail terms.

Nearly 300 legislators voted in favour of the bill, with 23 votes against it. The law defines hate speech as “any discourse that incites prejudice against individuals and groups based on nationality, ethnic and religious affiliation, sex or disabilities”.

The penalties for spreading hate speech include fines of up to $3100 and 2-year prison terms. However, if hate speech or disinformation results in “an attack on individuals or groups”, the jail sentence can be extended up to 5 years.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government defended the law, saying it is necessary because existing legal provisions did not address hate speech. Legislators said it will not affect citizens’ rights, but those who opposed the bill said it violates a constitutional guarantee of free speech.

“Politicians or activists or others will be forced to be cautious, afraid that their speech might fall into the definition of hate speech or can be considered as false information,” said Amnesty International’s Ethiopia researcher Fisseha Tekle.

Human Rights Watch has also warned the law could curtail freedom of expression: “Ethiopia should be removing legal provisions that restrict free expression, not adding more vague provisions that risk stifling critical public debate on important issues”, it said.

Europe’s rising homeless problem

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epa08091685 Homeless people are seen in the daytime accomodation of Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta in Budapest, Hungary, 26 December 2019 (issued 27 December 2019). EPA-EFE/Marton Monus HUNGARY OUT ATTENTION: This Image is part of a PHOTO SET

Social exclusion across the European Union is following a declining trend but inequalities persist that expose less advantaged residents to various economic and social risks.

Homelessness, a phenomenon that leaves no country unaffected, is among the most crucial challenges that the European Commission has to manage. Brussels’ lack of a concrete EU-wide policy that directly addresses the issue could seriously jeopardise and call into question the European Union’s already wildly ambitious social cohesion goals. 

The Commission has pledged that an affordable housing programme should be part of an integrated policy that would address Europe’s growing homelessness issue. As homelessness rates increase, MEPs and the Commission agreed during the first European Parliament Plenary Session of the year that an urgent intervention is needed to tackle the issue.

Fighting homelessness through housing

Housing costs are rising all across Europe and households are now forced to spend more than 40% of their income on housing costs; a phenomenon that is becoming widespread across the EU. According to data provided by Eurostat, one in 10 EU residents was overburdened by rising housing costs in 2018.

Accordingly, the number of homeless people in Europe has increased substantially over the last decade. According to calculations presented by the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless in its 2019 overview, at least 700,000 people sleep on the streets or are in emergency accommodation on any given night, a 70% increase from 10 years before.

Finland is the only member of the EU member where homelessness is falling steadily thanks to its Housing First policy. Similar initiatives have been adopted by some European government of the national and local level. The Finnish model provides immediate housing to those without any pre-conditions and offers support services to empower the tenants in all aspects of their lives. 

An example of a housing-led approach to homelessness is the Tivoli project, developed by the Brussels Regional government, in which 70% of the houses are for conventional rent while 30% is for social purposes. 

NGO’s, the private sector, and housing associations are working to address the shortage of affordable housing observed across the EU by investing in social housing. The latter, however, appears to be generally underfinanced and according to data published by Council of Europe Development Bank, the overall spending by governments on social housing in 2017 represented only 0.66% of the European Union’s GDP, a percentage that continued to fall.

The importance of having access to affordable housing by people that are at risk of poverty was acknowledged during the first European Parliament Plenary Session of 2020 in January where Nicolas Schmit, the Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, said then that increased housing prices and the lack of social housing are key factors to the homeless problem in Europe.

The EU tools at the disposal of member states

Housing and assistance for the homeless remain among key principles the European Pillar of Social Rights, but a lack of cohesion in the bloc has badly hindered the EU’s ability to enforce these rights. 

In the first European Parliament Plenary Session of 2020, Schmit underlined that the EU’s role would be to work alongside all levels of government by offer support and coordination.

The Commission provides policy support, guidance, and orientation on how to design efficient national policies for accessible social housing and microeconomic imbalances. Brussels has also stressed that it is ready to support the EU’s 27 members ‘‘when and where possible’’ to help tackle homelessness. 

That pledge has come into question, however, as there is no data about the exact numbers of homeless people in Europe, while national figures are collected in different ways and dates which makes it difficult to have a clear picture of the state-of-play in the bloc. Given the complexity and magnitude of the homeless problem in the EU, a concrete EU action plan that directly addresses the problem is needed more than ever to help prevent the issue being exacerbated by rising costs and an increase in the size of the homeless population.

Ireland’s Fianna Fáil party rules out coalition with Sinn Féin

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epa08202308 Opposition Fianna Fail Leader Micheal Martin (2-L) with his wife Mary O'Shea (C) and children daughter Aoibhe (L) and sons Micheal (2-R) and Cillian (R) cast ballots in general elections in Cork City, Ireland, 08 February 2020. Voters go to the polls in the Irish general elections. EPA-EFE/GERARD MCCARTHY

Ireland’s center-right Fianna Fáil party will attempt to form a government without the left-wing nationalist Sinn Féin, a party member told the media.

“We gave the party leader license to speak to whoever he needs to speak to, with the exception of a Sinn Fein,” senior Fianna Fáil lawmaker Niall Collins said.

Ireland held a general election on 8 February, just one week after neighboring Britain’s departure from the European Union.

Fianna Fáil won the most seats in the election, with Sinn Féin, the former political wing of the IRA, closely behind. Sinn Féin secured the most votes, but its total of 37 seats is one fewer than Fianna Fáil’s 38 seats in the 160-seat parliament.

In order to form a government, 80 seats are required, and no single party has that number. Even if both parties join forces, they would still need to coalesce with other parties or independents.

Prime Minister Leo Varadkar’s centre-right Fine Gael, who was third by the number of votes it won in the election, has already ruled out governing with Sinn Féin.

Sinn Féin managed to successfully win the public sympathies, promising to address the shortage of housing, rocketing rents and homelessness crisis, issues that Fine Gael was criticized for not solving.