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Brexit to dominate the European Union summit

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Great Britain has voted to leave the European Union. The country is set to leave the bloc by the end of March 2019.  British Prime Minister Theresa May offered an agreement on residency for the citizens of the EU countries as well as employment rights in the country.  British and EU negotiators officially started Brexit talks.

EU will have a summit on October 24 – 26 at Dublin. Brussels’ attempts in getting a quick Brexit is probably of no use. The Brexit negotiations, which started last year, will be the ghost at the feast of the two-day European Union summit that opens in Brussels: ever-present, looming over all the decisions, but not officially on the agenda. Europe’s leaders are divided over how to negotiate Brexit and reports say that the U.K. is apparently reluctant to initiate formal talks on leaving. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi called Brexit a “great opportunity” for Europe. “More growth and more investment, less austerity and less bureaucracy, this is the line we have proposed for two years, at the beginning in isolation,” Renzi said.

The EU may refuse to hold informal talks with the U.K regarding Brexit till the country officially triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the procedure that governs how a member state leaves the bloc. There are two ways it can be triggered. The first is by the head of the country in question sending a formal letter to the President of the European Council, and the second by formally stating so during a Council session. Finland’s ex-Prime Minister Alexander Stubb advised the EU not to push Britain too fast into invoking article 50.

The UK will not be able to conclude a trade deal with the EU until it has left the union. European Council’s President Donald Tusk even appointed Didier Seeuws to lead a “Brexit taskforce” of EU negotiators. The European Union would try to show a united front during the summit considering many countries are toying with the idea of holding similar referendums.

Last Brussels summit marked the debut on the EU stage of French President Emmanuel Macron. On the eve of the summit, Macron reaffirmed his belief in a Europe capable of transforming the world with France as a driving force. In the face of the threats of extremism, inequality and authoritarian regimes, it is up to the European Union to “win the battle” for “freedom and democracy… to ensure social justice and preserving the climate of our planet,” Macron said

Brexit will be the main theme, however, of the series of bilateral meetings with his fellow leaders that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, attending his first summit, will be having. He has already spoken to the new French president, Emmanuel Macron, and to Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, and has met the British Prime Minister, Theresa May. Varadkar will meet the European Council president, Donald Tusk, at Thursday morning’s meeting of the leaders of the centrist European People’s Party, and officials expect him to have a series of other encounters on the fringes of the summit.

EU leaders are considering going some way to meet one of the UK’s demands, signaling a minor breakthrough in Brexit talks after three months of scant progress. While the European Parliament will call on leaders not to move talks on to the crucial trade deal at a summit next month, according to a draft resolution, European leaders are considering bringing forward talks on the transition period that will follow Brexit, according to people familiar with the situation.

The concession from the EU, while minor, would break the deadlock and make it easier for the UK to discuss the contentious divorce bill. It would also be a sign that Prime Minister Theresa May’s speech last week in Florence, where she pledged to continue paying into the EU’s budget for two years after leaving, hit some of the notes her European counterparts were hoping for.

At the dinner Theresa May will get her only chance to present an assessment of where the talks may be heading in the wake of the UK election. At the dinner, after discussions of the leaders’ recent encounters with the presidents of the United States, Donald Trump, and Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan – which may not do much for their digestion – May will get her only chance to present an assessment of where the talks may be heading in the wake of the British general election. She is expected to use the opportunity to outline for the first time the United Kingdom’s position on the rights of UK and EU citizens residing in each others’ territories after Brexit. The issue is one of the three priority discussions for the Brexit negotiations in the preliminary “divorce” talks.

After dinner, perhaps as a pousse-café, the 27 other leaders will meet without May to discuss a contentious but now agreed methodology for deciding where the plum prizes of the UK-based EU institutions will be relocated. Ireland has a particular interest in the European Medicines Agency, but there is fierce competition for that and for the European Banking Authority.

Brussels rumours, fiercely denied, suggest that the French and Germans have already carved out a deal for them, but some 20 bids are expected for the two agencies, and an elaborate mechanism has been devised to decide where they will go.

In the end, this autumn, each member state will get one vote on each agency – but only after the European Commission has “objectively assessed” the merits of each proposed new home in terms of infrastructure and other capacities. The eastern Europeans have lobbied, apparently unsuccessfully, for “objective criteria” such as geographical spread and “value for money” (an ability to pay lower wages) to be included. An Irish official insists that “we have nothing to fear from an objective assessment”.

The real meat of the summit, however, will be important discussions about enhancing defence co-operation in the face of terrorism and external threats, and a debate on jobs and growth that will focus on trade issues. The leaders will agree on “the need to launch ambitious and inclusive permanent structured co-operation” on defence, putting flesh on treaty provisions that allow for the union, or subgroups of it, to organize a range of military tasks together – anything from enforcing peace to sharing weapons research.

Ireland has been among the states to emphasize “inclusivity”, making clear that it sees itself as a likely part of any group of willing states and that it does not want to see the emergence of two-speed defence co-operation. If two speeds emerge we want to be with the advance guard.

There will be strong encouragement to justice ministers to step up co-operation and information sharing over foreign fighters and those returning from Syria.

Although the EU leaders will certainly endorse a strong declaration in favour of trade and condemning protectionism, they will come under pressure – likely to be unsuccessful – from some states to strengthen their “trade defence instruments” to allow states to prevent what some, including the Germans and French, see as dangerous takeovers by Chinese business of strategic businesses in Europe.

With just 18 months to go before it leaves the club, the UK needs to get the terms of the transition agreed in order to mitigate the uncertainty facing businesses, some of which are already relocating.

Ms May said in Florence she wants a two-year transition during which trading terms remain unchanged. The quid pro quo is that the UK must accept all of the EU’s rules while losing any say in how they are made. The concession on transition would happen at the EU summit in October, where leaders may discuss changing the mandate of chief negotiator Michel Barnier to allow him to talk about the bridging arrangements alongside the divorce, according to the people. EU member governments are also considering whether to add language in their summit statement that assures the UK they are likely to accept a transition period, one of the people said. Initially, Barnier insisted that transition could only be discussed after the separation terms and the outline of the future trade relationship were agreed. He signaled on Monday that his mandate could be revised, but it would be up to EU leaders.

NATO directory guides the EU. Earlier in July 2016, Brexit and Russia dominated a NATO summit wherein uncertainty Brexit continued to worry EU leaders. The uncertainty over Britain, a key nuclear-armed ally, comes as NATO prepares to endorse its biggest revamp since the end of the Cold War in response to Russia’s 2014 intervention in Ukraine. The summit centerpiece is a “Readiness Action Plan” to bolster Nato resources and readiness in the face of a Russia under President Vladimir Putin that the allies now see as more aggressive and dangerously unpredictable.  Nato leaders approved rotating four battalions in eastern Europe — in Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, up to 4,000 troops in all, as a collective tripwire against fresh Russian adventurism.

Russia has said it will examine closely what is decided at the summit for how it affects its security. Moscow bitterly opposes NATO’s expansion into its Soviet-era satellites, which it sees as a threat to its own security. It is even more strident in its opposition to the Ballistic Missile Defence system the United States is building and which the summit is due to declare has reached an initial operating level. Washington says the shield is designed to counter missile threats from Iran or the Middle East but Russia says that once the system becomes fully operational in 2018, it will undercut its strategic nuclear deterrent.

Separately Russia warned that the US deployment of an advanced missile defence system in South Korea would have “irreparable consequences”, echoing warnings by China. The NATO leaders will discuss the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan where the USA kept 8,400 troops into next year to tackle the Taliban. The summit meanwhile will also approve a Nato-EU cooperation accord, laying out how the alliance — which includes 22 of the 28 EU member states — can work with the EU.

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Election Monitoring in 2018: What Not to Expect

Alina Toporas

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This year’s election calendar released by OSCE showcases a broad display of future presidential, parliamentary and general elections with hefty political subjecthoods which have the potential of transforming in their entirety particularly the European Union, the African Union and the Latin American sub-continent. A wide sample of these countries welcoming elections are currently facing a breadth of challenges in terms of the level of transparency in their election processes. To this end, election observation campaigns conducted by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the Council of Europe, the Organisation for American States (OAS), the United Nations Electoral Assistance Division, the National Democratic Institute, Carter Center and even youth organisations such as AEGEE and Silba are of paramount importance in safeguarding the incorruptibility of election proceedings in fraudulent and what cannot be seen with the naked eye type of fraudulent political systems, making sure elections unfold abiding national legislation and international standards.

What exactly does an election observation mission supposed to accomplish?   

An election monitoring mission consists of operational experts and analysts who are all part of a core team and are conducting their assignments for a period of time varying between 8 and 12 weeks. Aside from the core team experts and analysts, there can be short-term or long-term observers and seconded observers or funded observers. Joining them, there is usually a massive local support staff acting as interpreters and intermediaries. Generally, an election observer does not interfere with the process, but merely takes informative notes. With this in mind, it is imperative of the observer to make sure there isn’t any meddling with votes at polling stations by parties and individual candidates; that the people facilitating the election process are picked according to fair and rigorous benchmarks; that these same people can be held accountable for the final results and that, at the end of the day, the election system put in place by the national and local authorities is solid from both a physical and logical standpoint. Oftentimes, particularly in emerging democracies, the election monitoring process goes beyond the actual process of voting by extending to campaign monitoring.

In practical terms, the average election observer needs to abide by certain guidelines for a smooth and standardised monitoring process. Of course, these rules can vary slightly, depending on the sending institution. Typically, once the election observer has landed in the country awaiting elections, their first two days are normally filled with seminars on the electoral system of the country and on the electoral law. Meetings with candidates from the opposition are sometimes organised by the electoral commission. Talking to ordinary voters from builders to cleaners, from artists to businesspeople is another way through which an election observer can get a sense of what social classes pledged their allegiances to what candidates. After two days in training and the one day testing political preferences on the ground, election day begins. Since the early bird gets the worm, polling stations open at least two hours earlier than the work day starts, at around 7am. Throughout the day, observers ask voters whether they feel they need to complain about anything and whether they were asked to identify themselves when voting. Other details such as the polling stations opening on time are very much within the scope of investigation for election monitors. Observers visit both urban voting centres and rural ones. In the afternoon, counting begins with observers carefully watching the volunteers from at least 3 metres away. At the end of the day, observers go back to their hotels and begin filling in their initial questionnaires with their immediate reactions on the whole voting process. In a few weeks time, a detailed report would be issued in cooperation with all the other election observers deployed in various regions of the country and under the supervision of the mission coordinators.   

Why are these upcoming elections particularly challenging to monitor?  

Talks of potential Russian interference into the U.S. elections have led to full-on FBI investigations. Moreover, the idea of Russian interference in the Brexit vote is slowly creeping into the British political discourse. Therefore, it does not take a quantum physicist to see a pattern here. Hacking the voting mechanism is yet another not-so-classic conundrum election observers are facing. We’re in the midst of election hacking at the cognitive level in the form of influence operations, doxing and propaganda. But, even more disturbingly, we’re helpless witnesses to interference at the technical level as well. Removing opposition’s website from the Internet through DDOS attacks to downright political web-hacking in Ukraine’s Central Election Commission to show as winner a far-right candidate are only some of the ways which present an unprecedented political savviness and sophistication directed at the tampering of the election machinery. Even in a country such as the U.S. (or Sweden – their elections being held September of this year) where there is a great deal of control over the physical vote, there is not much election monitoring can do to enhance the transparency of it all when interference occurs by way of the cyber domain affecting palpable election-related infrastructure.

Sketching ideational terrains seems like a fruitful exercise in imagining worst-case scenarios which call for the design of a comprehensive pre-emptive approach for election fraud. But how do you prevent election fraud? Sometimes, the election observer needs to come to terms with the fact that they are merely a reporter, a pawn which notwithstanding the action of finding oneself in the middle of it all, can generally use only its hindsight perspective. Sometimes, that perspective is good enough when employed to draft comprehensive electoral reports, making a difference between the blurry lines of legitimate and illegitimate political and electoral systems.

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Can Europe successfully rein in Big Tobacco?

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Photo by Mateo Avila Chinchilla on Unsplash

In what looks set to become the ‘dieselgate’ of the tobacco industry, a French anti-smoking organization has filed a lawsuit against four major tobacco brands for knowingly selling cigarettes with tar and nicotine levels that were between 2 and 10 times higher than what was indicated on the packs. Because the firms had manipulated the testing process, smokers who thought they were smoking a pack a day were in fact lighting up the equivalent of up to 10, significantly raising their risk for lung cancer and other diseases.

According to the National Committee Against Smoking (CNCT), cigarettes sold by the four companies have small holes in the filter that ventilate smoke inhaled under test conditions. But when smoked by a person, the holes compress due to pressure from the lips and fingers, causing the smoker to inhale higher levels of tar and nicotine. According to the lawsuit, the irregularity “tricks smokers because they are unaware of the degree of risk they are taking.”

It was only the most recent example of what appears to be a deeply entrenched propensity for malfeasance in the tobacco industry. And unfortunately, regulatory authorities across Europe still appear unprepared to just say no to big tobacco.

Earlier this month, for instance, Public Health England published a report which shines a positive light on “tobacco heating products” and indicates that electronic cigarettes pose minimal health risks. Unsurprisingly, the UK report has been welcomed by big tobacco, with British American Tobacco praising the clear-sightedness of Public Health England.

Meanwhile, on an EU-wide level, lawmakers are cooperating too closely for comfort with tobacco industry executives in their efforts to craft new cigarette tracking rules for the bloc.

The new rules are part of a campaign to clamp down on tobacco smuggling, a problem that is particularly insidious in Europe and is often attributed to the tobacco industry’s own efforts to stiff the taxman. According to the WHO, the illicit cigarette market makes up between 6-10% of the total market, and Europe ranks first worldwide in terms of the number of seized cigarettes. According to studies, tobacco smuggling is also estimated to cost national and EU budgets more than €10 billion each year in lost public revenue and is a significant source of cash for organized crime. Not surprisingly, cheap availability of illegally traded cigarettes is also a major cause of persistently high smoking rates in the bloc.

To help curtail cigarette smuggling and set best practices in the fight against the tobacco epidemic, the WHO established the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in 2005. The first protocol to the FCTC, the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products, was adopted in 2012 and later ratified by the EU. Among other criteria, the Protocol requires all cigarette packs to be marked with unique identifiers to ensure they can be tracked and traced, thereby making smuggling more difficult.

Unsurprisingly, the tobacco industry has come up with its own candidates to meet track and trace requirements, notably Codentify, a system developed by PMI. From 2005 through 2016, PMI used Codentify as part of an anti-smuggling agreement with the EU. But the agreement was subject to withering criticism from the WHO and other stakeholders for going against the Protocol, which requires the EU and other parties to exclude the tobacco industry from participating in anti-smuggling efforts.

The EU-PMI agreement expired in 2016 and any hopes of reviving it collapsed after the European Parliament, at loggerheads with the Commission, overwhelmingly voted against a new deal and decided to ratify the WHO’s Protocol instead. Codentify has since been sold to the French firm Impala and was rebranded as Inexto – which critics say is nothing but a front company for PMI since its leadership is made out of former PMI executives. Nonetheless, due to lack of stringency in the EU’s draft track and trace proposal, there is still a chance that Inexto may play a role in any new track and trace system, sidelining efforts to set up a system that is completely independent of the tobacco industry.

This could end up by seriously derailing the EU’s efforts to curb tobacco smuggling, given the industry’s history of active involvement in covertly propping up the black market for cigarettes. In 2004, PMI paid $1.25 billion to the EU to settle claims that it was complicit in tobacco smuggling. As part of the settlement, PMI agreed to issue an annual report about tobacco smuggling in the EU, a report that independent researchers found “served the interests of PMI over those of the EU and its member states.”

Given the industry’s sordid history of efforts to prop up the illicit tobacco trade, it’s little surprise that critics are still dissatisfied with the current version of the EU’s track and trace proposal.

Now, the CNCT’s lawsuit against four major tobacco firms gives all the more reason to take a harder line against the industry. After all, if big tobacco can’t even be honest with authorities about the real levels of chemicals in their own products, what makes lawmakers think that they can play a viable role in any effort to quell the illegal cigarette trade – one that directly benefits the industry?

Later this month, the European Parliament will have a new chance to show they’re ready to get tough on tobacco, when they vote on the pending proposal for an EU-wide track and trace system. French MEP Younous Omarjee has already filed a motion against the system due to its incompatibility with the letter of the WHO. Perhaps a ‘dieselgate’ for the tobacco industry might be just the catalyst they need to finally say no to PMI and its co-conspirators.

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Bureaucrats’ Crusade: The European Commission’s Strategy for the Western Balkans

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The European Commission set a target date of 2025 for some of the Balkan countries to join. However, Brussels sees only Serbia and Montenegro as actual candidates. The door formally remains open to Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Macedonia, but these countries have been put into a grey zone with no time frames and road maps. They have been put on hold with no tangible prospects for membership, left without any explanation of what makes them less valid candidates than Serbia and Montenegro, with these two being as poor, illiberal and undemocratic as the remaining four.

With a dose of instant cynicism, one might conclude that Serbia and Montenegro have been rewarded for their military aggressions on Bosnia and Kosovo, and Serbia’s permanent pressures on Macedonia, whereas the latter ones have been punished for being the former’s victims. However, a more careful look at the population structure of the four non-rewarded countries reveals that these, unlike Serbia and Montenegro, have a relative excess of Muslim population. So far, there have been dilemmas whether the European Union is to be regarded as an exclusive Christian club, bearing in mind the prolonged discriminatory treatment of Turkey as an unwanted candidate. After the European Commission’s new strategy for the Balkans, there can be no such dilemmas: the countries perceived by Brussels bureaucrats as Muslim ones – regardless of the actual percentage of their Muslim population – are not to be treated as European.

The resurrection of this logic, now embodied in the actual strategy, takes Europe back to its pre-Westphalian roots, to the faraway times of the Crusades or the times of the Siege of Vienna. It also signals the ultimate triumph of the most reactionary populist ideologies in the contemporary Europe, based on exclusion of all who are perceived as „others“. It signals the ultimate triumph of the European ineradicable xenophobia. Or – to put it in terms more familiar to the likely author of the strategy, the European Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn – the triumph of Ausländerfeindlichkeit.

Now, what options are left to the practically excluded Balkan countries, after so many efforts to present themselves as valid candidates for EU membership? There is a point in claims that some of their oligarchies, particularly the tripartite one in Bosnia-Herzegovina, have never actually wanted to join the EU, because their arbitrary rule would be significantly undermined by the EU’s rule of law. It is logical, then, that the tripartite oligarchy welcomes the strategy that keeps the country away from the EU membership, while at the same time deceiving the population that the strategy is a certain path to the EU. Yet, what about these people, separated into three ethnic quarantines, who believe that joining the EU would simply solve all their political and economic problems, and who refuse to accept the idea that the EU might be an exclusive club, not open to them? What are the remaining options for them?

They cannot launch a comprehensive revolution and completely replace the tripartite oligarchy by their democratic representatives. Still, they can press it to adopt and conduct a multi-optional foreign policy, oriented towards several geopolitical centers: one of them may remain Brussels, but  Washington, Moscow, Beijing, Ankara, Tehran, and others, should also be taken into account. For, a no-alternative policy, as the one which only repeats its devotion to the EU integrations without any other geopolitical options, is no policy at all. In this sense, the presented EU strategy has clearly demonstrated the futility of such a no-alternative approach: regardless of how many times you repeat your devotion to the EU values, principles and integrations, the EU bureaucrats can simply tell you that you will never play in the same team with them. However, such an arbitrary but definite rejection logically pushes the country to look for geopolitical alternatives. And it is high time for Bosnia-Herzegovina’s people and intellectual and political elites to understand that Brussels is not the only option on the table, and that there are other geopolitical centers whose interests might be identified as convergent with the interests of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Still, all of them should first demonstrate the ability to identify the interests of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which means that they should first recognize it as a sovereign state with its own interests, rather than someone else’s proxy.

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