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Poor but Proud

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The next meeting of the European Council, set to take place on June 28, 2018, promises a certain level of intrigue. One reason for this is the expectation that the new Italian government, formed on the basis of the March 4 elections after 80 days of coalition talks and conflict between the president and parliament, will present an ultimatum to Brussels.

The ultimatum is expected to include the following points:

1) The cancellation of Italy’s €250-billion debt to the European Central Bank (ECB);

2) The abolition of the financial and budgetary restrictions established by the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht, which Italy and several other EU countries have been ignoring for years. These restrictions include setting the maximum allowable budget deficit, national debt, public bond rates, etc. Even France, which today lays claim to being the main driver of European integration, has gone beyond the allowable level of national debt by 60 per cent;

3) A revision of the Dublin Regulation, which obliges first-port-of-call countries to deal with the registration of refugees and the arrangement of the necessary infrastructure for them, which entails significant financial expenditure;

4) The lifting of sanctions against Russia, which have caused serious damage to European export industries.

The new Italian government also does not support the sanctions against Russia. Giuseppe Conte has repeatedly confirmed the desire to take more active steps towards normalizing relations with Moscow. However, Italy did not officially oppose the sanctions imposed against Crimea, which were extended just last week. This gives cause to believe that it will not oppose the rest of the sanctions package and will likely use it as a bargaining chip for other items on its agenda – items that have far greater significance for Italy than increasing trade with Russia.

At the end of the day, work according the “done with Russia” paradigm is reasonably well established and has made it possible to restore half of the trade that was lost following 2013. But the threat of default, and the risk of being left alone to cope with ships coming in from Africa, are very real.

A sovereign yet unemployed and starving Italy is unlikely to think first and foremost about sanctions against Russia.

The next meeting of the European Council, set to take place on June 28, 2018, promises a certain level of intrigue. One reason for this is the expectation that the new Italian government, formed on the basis of the March 4 elections after 80 days of coalition talks and conflict between the president and parliament, will present an ultimatum to Brussels.

The ultimatum is expected to include the following points:

1) The cancellation of Italy’s €250-billion debt to the European Central Bank (ECB);

2) The abolition of the financial and budgetary restrictions established by the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht, which Italy and several other EU countries have been ignoring for years. These restrictions include setting the maximum allowable budget deficit, national debt, public bond rates, etc. Even France, which today lays claim to being the main driver of European integration, has gone beyond the allowable level of national debt by 60 per cent;

3) A revision of the Dublin Regulation, which obliges first-port-of-call countries to deal with the registration of refugees and the arrangement of the necessary infrastructure for them, which entails significant financial expenditure;

4) The lifting of sanctions against Russia, which have caused serious damage to European export industries.

A Country of “Limited Sovereignty”

It would make no sense for Brussels to ignore this ultimatum or to attempt to isolate the new Italian government as a group of radical populists, politicians who do not want to repay their debts and who are under the thumb of their own voters for the sole purpose of strengthening their positions. Italy is not a new EU member state, one that does not yet quite understand the “rules of civilized conduct” within the European family and can thus act like an impetuous teenager. On the contrary, it is one of the original members of the European Union, having laid the foundations for European integration along with Germany and France. Furthermore, the results of the general election held on March 4 clearly demonstrated the legitimacy of the people who have come to power and the level of public support for the ideas they have offered. This is why there is every reason to discuss the issues that have “accumulated” over time, and a serious discussion is now unavoidable. Essentially, the discussion should revolve around the most deep-seated problem of European integration – namely, the problem of sovereignty – because financial and economic policy, the right to carry out independent foreign economic activity, and border security are issues that directly affect the problem of balancing the national and the supranational.

The revival of national sovereignty, understood as the right of a country to pursue its own national interests, has become the main leitmotif of the Italian populists. The most outspoken critic of the policies that have led to the loss of Italy’s sovereignty has been the Federal Secretary of Lega Nord (the “Northern League”) Matteo Salvini. When the country’s president refused to approve the cabinet proposed by Giuseppe Conte, for example, Salvini commented, “I am convinced that we are not a free country and that we have limited sovereignty… We have a principle, which for us is absolutely key, and that is that Italians should decide their own destiny, not the people of Germany, Portugal or Luxembourg. First and foremost, we are talking about the right of the Italian people to employment, security, and happiness. For several weeks we toiled, day and night, to set up a government that is capable of protecting the interests of the Italian people. But someone (under pressure from someone else, perhaps) is telling us ‘no.’

“We will no longer exist in servitude. Italy is not a colony… You must give us our voice back!”

Italians for an Independent Italy and an Independent World

The ideology of this “revival of sovereignty” is underpinned by a relatively solid set of public fears and expectations – fears and expectations that are reflected in the results of opinion polls and which, if ignored by the authorities, would be tantamount to political suicide. According to research, the share of Italians who see the key national interest as ensuring the security of the country’s borders and establishing control over migrant flows grew from 30 per cent in 2013 to 66 per cent in 2017. The majority of Italians do not approve of the immigration policy pursued by the previous government. They see a direct link between illegal migration and terrorism and demand more decisive action on the part of the authorities to stem the flow of migrants.

There is a lack of understanding in Brussels of the fact that, against the background of Italy’s record national debt and youth unemployment levels that are higher than anywhere else in the European Union, the endless stream of refugees flowing into the country is actually a matter of existential significance.

A meeting of the EU Heads of State was scheduled for June 24 at the European Commission, where the issue of migration will surely be at the top of the agenda. The meeting will be attended by the heads of France and Germany (as the two countries most involved in “putting out the fires” related to European integration), Austria and Bulgaria (the co-Presidents of the European Commission for 2018), the four Mediterranean countries that took the “first blow” of the migrant wave (Italy, Spain, Greece and Malta), and the two most popular “secondary destination” countries (countries where migrants eventually head after arriving in the European Union) – Belgium and the Netherlands. The purpose of the meeting is clearly to snuff out the flame before it turns into a fire in the run-up the summit, which is to be held on June 28–29. This will consist of convincing the Mediterranean states to adopt a new plan to reduce the flow of refugees in return for them dropping the idea of repealing the Dublin Regulation. According to the Italian media, the plan involves stepping up control over the external contour of the European Union and “refining” the procedures for arranging the necessary infrastructure in territories outside the European Union (such as Libya, among other countries). The Italian side will have to guarantee greater control over the movement of refugees outside the country – that is, prevent them from moving into other EU countries. We do not know the details of the plan right now, but we can assume that the Italian side is sceptical of the capacity of the European Union to control the external contour and establish order in Libya. The Prime Minister of Italy is determined to present his own plan in Brussels.

The Italian people feel that decisions are being made for them, without their direct participation. According to polls, 82 per cent of Italians believe that the country has no influence on international relations or European policy. This is despite the fact that in the late 1990s, Minister of Foreign Affairs Gianni De Michelis declared that Italy had to become a “global protagonist” and conduct a more independent foreign policy. The growing partnership of France and Germany is calling for deeper European integration and for countries to welcome refugees (although France is in no hurry to accept the refugees it promised to take from Italy). This, along with growing uncertainty in U.S. foreign policy and Washington’s ostentatious disregard for the views of European states in resolving global problems that have appeared during the Trump administration, pours water on the idea of “limited sovereignty” that is firmly entrenched in the minds of the Italian people.

The number of people who believe that Italy and the European Union member states need to develop more independent foreign and security policies while remaining within NATO has grown from 35 per cent in 2012 to 62 per cent in 2017. Italy is becoming increasingly irked by the desire of the Germany–France partnership to speak on behalf of the entire European Union, whether it be on issues of migration, financial discipline within the association, or U.S.–Russia relations.

The new Italian government also does not support the sanctions against Russia. Giuseppe Conte has repeatedly confirmed the desire to take more active steps towards normalizing relations with Moscow. However, Italy did not officially oppose the sanctions imposed against Crimea, which were extended just last week. This gives cause to believe that it will not oppose the rest of the sanctions package and will likely use it as a bargaining chip for other items on its agenda – items that have far greater significance for Italy than increasing trade with Russia.

At the end of the day, work according the “done with Russia” paradigm is reasonably well established and has made it possible to restore half of the trade that was lost following 2013. But the threat of default, and the risk of being left alone to cope with ships coming in from Africa, are very real.

A sovereign yet unemployed and starving Italy is unlikely to think first and foremost about sanctions against Russia.

What Does This Mean for Russia?

For Russia, this means that there is no need to shout about the conflict that is brewing between Italy and the European Union any louder than the Italians are themselves. The temptation to support a friendly country in its rush to fight for its sovereign national interests is more than understandable, especially if we take into account the role of the concept of sovereignty in Russian political discourse. The desire to tell the whole world that one of the founding members of the European Union is actively promoting the idea of lifting the sanctions against Russia is similarly understandable. However, if Russia’s goal is still to patch up relations with the European Union, particularly with Germany and France, then it is worth taking into account just how important European solidarity is for Paris and Berlin and stop counting on a split forming within the Union. It is worth remembering, too, that Italy has something to offer in return for its vote against the Russian sanctions, while Paris and Berlin, in an effort to save European solidarity, could attempt to make Rome an offer it cannot refuse.

First published in our partner RIAC

PhD in Political Science, RIAC Program Manager, Research Fellow at Centre for Global Problems Studies, MGIMO-University

Europe

Recovery action plan of the Union: On Next Generation EU & a New Independent authority?

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The first address of the European Commission since the pandemic was one highly anticipated by all the citizens of the EU block. On September 16, President Ursula van der Leyden took it upon herself to reveal the EU’s roadmap for a post-Covid world following the approval of the recovery funds last July which constituted a breakthrough and sent a welcome signal in terms of cohesion and solidarity on the part of the 27 members.

Aside from paying tribute to our frontline workforce and praise the courage and human spirit showed by all in the face of virus spread, van der Leyen set out what she called NexGenerationEU; a movement to breathe new life into the EU but also and most importantly to adapt and lead the way into shaping tomorrow’s world. Through her speech, the president highlighted roughly 8 key themes which will be at the centre of this new European era’s agenda for the next 12 months, in accordance with the cardinal principles of trust, tolerance and agility. In other words, the 750 billion recovery funds raised extra-ordinarily will be directed towards the following areas:

1° Economy: the Union members must all breed economies that offer protection, stability and opportunities in the face of the continuous health crisis with a specific wish expressed for a stronger Health union – and thereby an extension of the Union’s competencies on the matter – but also the advent of European minimum wages.

2° Green Revolution: the Union will adopt more radical attitudes towards mitigating climate-change and safeguarding our planet, starting with the ambitious aim of becoming the first climate-neutral continent by 2050 through the EU’s Green Deal. So called ‘lighthouse’ high-impact and hydrogen-based projects will become an additional focus.

3° Technology: Europe has to step up its game and become a digital leader through securing industrial data and using it to support innovation. Delineating the use of AI by regulating the field, creating a secure EU e-identity and ensuring connectivity deployment so as to fully cover rural areas are also high on the list.

4° Vaccine management: The Union praises the open approach followed up until now in facing the virus whilst many others have opted for withdrawal and undercutting of cooperation. Having served as an example regarding vaccines research and funding, the EU must uphold its policy all the way to the finish line and ensure its accessibility for every citizen around the world.

5° Multilateralism: the current international order system needs some rethinking and international institutions need reform in order to de-paralyze crucial decision-making in urgent situations. This starts with the EU taking faster univocal positions on global issues (Honk-Kong, Moscow, Minsk, and Ankara) and systematically and unconditionally calling out any HR abuses whilst building on existing partnerships with EU’s like-minded allies.

6° Trade: Europe will be made out as a figure of fair-trade by pushing for broker agreements on protected areas and putting digital and environmental ethics at the forefront of its negotiations. Global trade will develop in a manner that is just, sustainable, and digitized.

7° Migration: A New Pact on Migration will be put forward imminently as to act on and move forward on this critical issue that has dragged for long enough; in that regard every member state is expecting to share responsibility and involvement including making the necessary compromises to implement adequate and dignifying management. Europe is taking a stand: legal and moral duties arising from Migrants’ precarious situations are not optional.

8° Against hate-inspired behaviours and discriminations: A zero-tolerance policy is reaffirmed by the Union by extending its crime list to all forms of hate crime or speech based on any of the sensitive criteria and dedicating budget to address de facto discriminations in sensitive areas of society. It is high time to reach equal, universal and mutual recognition of family relations within the EU zone.

Granted, the European ‘priorities forecast’ feels on point and leaves us nearly sighing in relief for it had been somewhat longed for. The themes are spot on, catch words are present and the phrasing of each section is nothing short of motivational with the most likely intended effect that the troops will be boosted and spirits lifted subsequently. When looking closer to the tools enunciated for every topical objective, there seems however to be nearly only abstract and remote strategies to get there.

This is because a great number of the decisive steps that the Union wishes to see be taken depend on the participation of various instruments and actors. Not only does it rely for most on the converging interests, capabilities and willingness of nation States (inside and outside the euro zone), but it is also contingent on the many complex layers and bodies of the Union itself. And when a tremendous amount of the proposed initiatives for European reconstruction is reliant on such a far-reaching chain of events, it simply calls into question the likelihood for the said measures and objectives to be attained – or at the very least in which timeframe.

One might then rightfully wonder whether good and strong willpower coupled with comprehensive projections can be enough. And perhaps in the same vein, whether we can afford to wait and let it play out in order to find out? In his recent writing Giles Merritt, founder of the platform ‘friends of Europe’ tends to suggest we most certainly do not have the luxury of waiting it out and not pushing the forward thinking even further. Indeed, according to him, Europe could and should do more. More than a call for action and change that might end up echoing and fading in the depths of the EU’s bureaucracy, the Union would be expected to back up its ambitious intentions with the setting up of an independent planning agency to ‘ensure revolutionary ideas and projects are speedily implemented’, to borrow Merritt’s words.

Whilst van der Leyen’s announcement was promising and efficient in that it sent an important message – the EU is wanting to get in the driver’s seat – only the follow-up with radical motions such as the creation of a readily available tool to implement fast and impactful changes can lend support to a claim that Europe is in a position to resolve current internal and external EU challenges, and more generally to bounce back from conceded decline suffered in the most recent decades.

As a matter of fact, Diplomat Ali Goutali and Professor Anis Bajrektarevic were the firsts to make an analysis in that sense as they articulated their proposal for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) earlier this year. Faced with similar challenges and need for sharper thinking and tools in order to be at the forefront of the economic and technologic challenges ahead, the OIC had relied heavily on its Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation and agenda reform to reinforce its cooperation and innovation capabilities as a global player.

Nevertheless, Goutali and Bajrektarevic already felt months ago that additional steps ought to be taken for the OIC to be able to respond swiftly and reaffirm further its mandate of facilitating common political actions. To that end, it was suggested that a mechanism for policy coordination in critical times – the Rapid Reaction Capacitation – in charge of, primarily, vaccines management and AI applications should be introduced. Furthermore, the stakes behind the urgent need of strengthening our international order through cohesive endeavours are evidently the same for both the EU and the Arab World. That is to permanently leave behind a pseudo-competitive nation-based attitude that is nothing but a relic from the past and has achieved little in the context of the Covid outbreak.

Hence, if such an independent body was to be established, all three authors agree that it could gather the indispensable political power and resources to carry out the desired reforms on multilateralism, cyber and digital infrastructures, Covid recovery measures or geopolitical partnerships. Necessarily streamlined in order to avoid undue blockades, these new regional bodies could be composed of energetic forward thinkers across the private and public sectors empowered to map out and act on adequate strategies for a post-Covid world. This is because we all share the same goal: achieving solidarity not only on paper or as a conceptual motto but in real life and in real time. And after all, didn’t von der Leyen herself concur with that line of thinking as she enjoined Member states to move towards qualified majority voting to avert slow and cumbersome decision-making processes?

It seems pretty clear to me that such discussions in relation to the aggressiveness in actions and potential bureaucratic barriers might raise an old-as-the-world yet still very important questions: Should we, Europe, be ready to risk losing some of the legitimacy or democratic aspects of our political bodies in order to gain in speed and efficiency in times of crisis? And if not, considering the embracement of some of our supra-national entity’s actions is already on shaky grounds, how can we ensure that such bold measures may still be reconciled with maximal legitimacy given our equally urging need for unity?

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Deciphering EU’s new investment deal with China

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The perceived economic gains of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investments (CAI), which the 27-nation European Union recently struck with the People’s Republic of China, come at the cost of disregarding human rights, which the Western bloc is known for, amid clear and irreconcilable systemic differences.

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The closing days of 2020 saw the European Union and China striking a deal known as the Comprehensive Agreement on Investments (CAI), thereby concluding seven long years of negotiations, as per the year-end deadline. China is also the EU’s biggest trading partner after the United States, but a strategic and systemic rival too.

The European Commission, Brussels-based executive arm of the EU, primarily led the negotiations on behalf of the bloc. Germany, being the holder the EU Council Presidency and led by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s continued push, combined with Beijing’s last-minute concessions, proved instrumental in expediting the process of finalising the CAI before the end of 2020.

However, the deal will still have to wait for a formal ratification by both sides and an approval by the Strasbourg-based EU Parliament, a tougher task, before finally setting it on course to be effective in a couple of years’ time, if not by early 2022.

Better rules, level-playing field for European businesses

The EU, by this deal, aims to widen the access for European companies to lucrative Chinese markets, with billion-plus consumers, on a wide range of sectors, particularly in services such as healthcare, finance, cloud-computing and air travel, among others, that has always been restrictive to foreign players in the past.

The deal could bring in a level playing field in the conduct of European businesses in China wherein Chinese state-owned enterprises will no longer be given preferential treatment through subsidies, thereby promoting fair competition and ensuring transparency in technology transfers. Newer possibilities for the expansion European businesses in China will be opened.

The CAI also promise better rules, investment protection, and an investment dispute settlement mechanism within two years of signing, which will replace all the separate bilateral investment treaties currently signed between China and EU member states. The EU maintains that the main purpose of this new deal is to address the economic imbalance in its relations with China.

However, the most striking aspect of the CAI is that, for the first time, China commits to follow accepted standards on climate and labour aspects, even though in a vague form. And for the EU, the timing of this deal with China is significant as a way of signalling its reengagement with the world in the aftermath of a post-Brexit scenario.

At the same time, the CAI reaffirmed reciprocal access for Chinese companies into European markets, which they always had. So, the deal matters to Europe, more than it matters to China. So, the real question is the extent of compromises which European negotiators had to make to strike the deal with the Asian superpower.

The issue of forced labour in China

Many EU member countries and the US had been apprehensive about the human rights situation in the northern Xinjiang province of China where there have been evidences and investigations on the use of forced labour from the media and elsewhere, which has not been duly factored in while concluding the investment deal.

It has been alleged that in the past several years, the Chinese government has forced over a million Uighur minorities in Xinjiang to perform seasonal labour against their will and are often underpaid. But, the Chinese government has repeatedly denied such allegations.

Many European lawmakers believe that China is not interested in fully complying with international agreements after signing it and is not a responsible and trustable partner. The presence of mass detention camps in this province, as verified by satellite imagery and other documents, is also a human rights concern which the EU was not supposed to ignore, considering its historical commitments to human rights.

US concerns and strategic rivalry

The incoming Biden administration has also raised concerns about the CAI, stating that it would “welcome early consultations” with its European partners on shared concerns surrounding China’s unfair economic practices, hinting at the issue of forced labour and the deal’s lacking on the question of enforcement of human rights.

Being a security and strategic partner of the US and part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), any such deal which EU and its member countries sign with its strategic rival, China, could effectively undermine American-led efforts to counter the strategic and geopolitical threat posed by Beijing’s aggressive and expansionist policies around the world.

It also flies in the face of an incoming Biden administration which is openly committed to mend relations with allies in Europe that had been worsened under Donald Trump. Many experts in the US have felt the EU should’ve waited for a few more weeks until the Biden administration takes charge to form a co-ordinated approach, as it related to their common systemic and strategic rival, China.

Moreover, the deal comes at a time when individual EU members such as Germany and the Netherlands have recently released their own outlook on the Indo-Pacific strategy, which is perceivably aimed at containing China’s rise and to ensure balance of power in the region. Meanwhile, France’s outlook is in existence for two years now.

Way ahead for implementation

The deal has now been reached at the technical level, paving way for a final ratification. But, getting the deal through the European Parliament, which attaches far more significance to human rights concerns than the Commission and the Council, is going to be a tough task, as many European legislators are increasingly sceptical of Chinese intentions and commitments to any deal.

The coming months are going to be crucial with regard to how the European legislators will debate and take forward the deal to the next level.

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Hungry for change: An open letter to European governments

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In 2020, the entire world knew what it was to be hungry. Millions of people went without enough to eat, with the most desperate now facing famine. At the same time, isolation took on a new meaning, in which the lonely and most remote were deprived of human contact when they most needed it, while the many victims of Covid-19 were starved of air. For all of us, the human experience fell far short of satisfying even the most basic needs.

The pandemic has provided a taste of a future at the limits of existence, where people are bereft, governments are stymied and economies wither. But it has also fuelled an unprecedented global appetite for change to prevent this from becoming our long-term reality.

For all the obstacles and challenges we face in the weeks and months ahead, I start 2021 with a tremendous sense of optimism and hope that the growling in our stomachs and the yearning in our hearts can become the collective roar of defiance, of determination and of revolution to make this year better than last, and the future brighter than the past.

It starts with food, the most primal form of sustenance. It is food that determines the health and prospects of almost 750 million Europeans and counting. It is food that employs some 10 million in European agriculture alone and offers the promise of economic growth and development. And it is food that we have learned impacts our very ecosystems, down to the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the climate we enjoy, come rain or shine.

Even before the pandemic, 2021 was destined to be a “super-year” for food, a year in which food production, consumption and disposal finally received the requisite global attention as the UN convenes the world’s first Food Systems Summit. But with two years’ worth of progress now compressed into the next 12 months, 2021 takes on a renewed significance.

After a year of global paralysis, caused by the shock of Covid-19, we must channel our anxieties, our fear, our hunger,and most of all our energies into action, and wake up to the fact that by transforming food systems to be healthier, more sustainable and inclusive, we can recover from the pandemic and limit the impact of future crises.

The change we need will require all of us to think and act differently because every one of us has a stake and a role in functioning food systems. But now, more than ever, we must look to our national leaders to chart the path forward by uniting farmers, producers, scientists, hauliers, grocers, and consumers, listening to their difficulties and insights, and pledging to improve each aspect of the food system for the betterment of all.

Policymakers must listen to Europe’s 10 million farmers as custodians of the resources that produce our food, and align their needs and challenges with the perspectives of environmentalists and entrepreneurs, chefs and restaurant owners, doctors and nutritionists to develop national commitments.

We enter 2021 with wind in our sails. More than 50 countries have joined the European Union in engaging with the Food Systems Summit and its five priority pillars, or Action Tracks, which cut across nutrition, poverty, climate change, resilience and sustainability. And more than two dozen countries have appointed a national convenor to host a series of country-level dialogues in the months ahead, a process that will underpin the Summit and set the agenda for the Decade of Action to 2030.

But this is just the beginning. With utmost urgency, I call on all UN Member States to join this global movement for a better, more fulfilling future, starting with the transformation of food systems. I urge governments to provide the platform that opens a conversation and guides countries towards tangible, concrete change. And I encourage everyone with fire in their bellies to get involved with the Food Systems Summit process this year and start the journey of transitioning to more inclusive and sustainable food systems.

The Summit is a “People’s Summit” for everyone, and its success relies on everyone everywhere getting involved through participating in Action Track surveys, joining the online Summit Community, and signing up to become Food Systems Heroes who are committed to improving food systems in their own communities and constituencies.

Too often, we say it is time to act and make a difference, then continue as before. But it would be unforgivable if the world was allowed to forget the lessons of the pandemic in our desperation to return to normal life. All the writing on the wall suggests that our food systems need reform now. Humanity is hungry for this change. It is time to sate our appetite.

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