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Covid-19 recovery fund must be embedded in EU long-term budget

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MEPs discuss plans to reboot Europe’s economy in light of Covid-19 on Wednesday and vote on a resolution later in the week. Learn more in our interview.

The coronavirus outbreak is testing the EU in ways that would have been unthinkable only months ago. Along with the human cost of lives lost, the hit to the EU economy has been severe. Ahead of a vote on plans to revise the EU’s post-2020 budget, the chair of Parliament’s budget committee Johan Van Overtveldt warned the economic recovery would be “slow and gradual” and that the prediction of a 7.5% decline in economic activity this year is a “mild forecast”.

EU response to the coronavirus

In an interview on Parliament’s Facebook page, the Belgian ECR member noted there is still a great deal of incertitude: “Not even in wartime has economic life come to a halt with such suddenness. There is so much uncertainty: will there be a relapse? Will there be a second round of lockdowns? What will the mood of investors and consumers be?”

Since the outset, the EU has been mobilising all means available to help member states reinforce their health sectors and mitigate the socio-economic impact of the virus. Parliament has also called for a larges-cale recovery package to support Europe’s economy after the crisis. Van Overtveldt stressed that this must be embedded in the EU’s long-term budget: “The recovery fund should be substantial but it should also be part of the next [ budget], for 2021-2027 and not something apart.”

Need for contingency plans

With the EU’s current long-term budget set to end in December, Van Overtveldt underlined the importance of a contingency plan in case of failure to reach agreement on the post-2020 budget in time: “When we get into June, time becomes short to get the [budget] approved and up and running in time and a discontinuity of current EU programmes would be very bad for citizens and for the reputation and political coherence of the EU.”

The budget committee chair urged other EU institutions to take note of Parliament’s stance: “The consent of Parliament has to be obtained and that surely is much less a sure thing than it was with the outgoing [long-term budget], so the Commission and Council should take notice of what the Parliament is aiming for. In the interest of citizens, Parliament will ensure that the [long-term budget] and recovery fund are the best possible responses to the severe crisis we see now and that will have consequences for many years.”

Solidarity and responsibility

Commenting on comparisons between the Covid-19 recovery and the post-war Marshall Plan, Van Overtveldt said: “At this point, what has been done by Europe and certainly when the recovery fund to the tune of let’s say €1 trillion comes on top, we will be doing more than was done with the Marshall Plan.”

The European Commission is expected to table proposals on the recovery fund shortly, but there are already deep divisions on, for example, whether countries should be given loans or grants. In order to find a solution that can be agreed by all sides, Van Overtveldt said there must be a compromise: “There has to be solidarity, certainly, vis-à-vis the countries hardest hit by Covid-19, but there also has to be responsibility. Just throwing money around is never a solution. The big challenge will be to find the right balance.”

Greening the economy

The need for a significant stimulus to reboot the EU economy comes at a time when voices calling for increased green investment are also on the rise. Parliament is insisting that climate action is at the core of the post-pandemic recovery. Van Overtveldt described the Commission’s Green Deal as “a start”, but warned that the proposals are “incomplete and dangerously underfinanced”.

He also referred to the potential for “greening” the EU economy through agriculture and cohesion funding which account for roughly two thirds of the EU budget. He stressed the importance of improving the resilience of the EU economy, and making it better equipped to deal with emergencies like Covid-19: “What it’s all about at the end of the day is what you can achieve to increase the wellbeing and welfare of EU citizens. That’s the only relevant issue.”

Parliament votes this week on a resolution on the EU’s planned new long-term budget. To ensure democratic scrutiny and accountability, MEPs will insist on safeguarding Parliament’s role.

MEPs are also expected to request that the Commission prepares a contingency plan to avoid disruption for farmers, companies and organisations counting on EU funds in the event that approval of the long-term budget is delayed.

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Zimbabwean peacekeeper selected as UN Military Gender Advocate of the Year 2021 Award

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Following reports of sexual and gender-based violence against women collecting firewood in Rubkona, South Sudan, Captain Irene Wilson Muro and and Major Winnet Zharare (2nd from the right) reached out to local women to discuss ways to stem the abuse. Photo: UNMISS

A Zimbabwean peacekeeper who recently completed her assignment with the UN Mission in South Sudan, will receive the 2021 United Nations Military Gender Advocate of the Year Award. 

Military Observer Major Winnet Zharare, 39, served in Bentiu, South Sudan in 2021-2022, and will receive the award from the Secretary-General António Guterres during a ceremony marking the International Day of UN Peacekeepers on Thursday, 26 May 2022.

Created in 2016, the United Nations “Military Gender Advocate of the Year Award” recognizes the dedication and efforts of an individual military peacekeeper in promoting the principles of UN Security Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, as nominated by Heads and Force Commanders of UN peace operations.

Secretary-General António Guterres commended Major Winnet for her award. “Major Zharare is a role model and a trailblazer. Through her service, she has demonstrated the invaluable role that women play in building trust, advocating for change and forging peace,” he said. “Her example shows how we will all gain with more women at the decision-making table and gender parity in peace operations,” Mr. Guterres added. 

Major Zharare expressed her gratitude and pride in receiving  the award which, she said, “motivated [her] to maintain [her] course towards gender equality.”

“My parents gave us equal opportunities with my brothers, so I believe that equal opportunities should be given to both men and women in all aspects of life,” she added.

Major Winnet Zharare deployed to UNMISS in November 2020. Throughout her 17-month-long service, she advocated for gender parity and women’s participation, within her own ranks, among local military counterparts, and in host communities.

As the Chief Military Information Officer in UNMISS’  Bentiu field office, she helped ensure that patrols included both women and men to improve protection efforts as well as build trust between host communities and the Mission. Her efforts also contributed to an increase in  gender-aggregated data so that issues raised by local women and girls would gain appropriate attention.

Advocating for gender parity and womens’ participation in an environment where they are traditionally excluded from decision-making, she encouraged local civilian and military authorities and community representatives to involve both men and women in meetings with the UN. Her diligence and diplomatic skills quickly gained her the trust of local military commanders who would systematically reach out to her on issues pertaining to women’s protection and rights. During her patrols and numerous community engagement initiatives, Major Zharare also successfully encouraged men and women to work together in farming and in the construction of dikes around Bentiu town to alleviate food shortages and prevent further displacement.

Major Zharare is the first Zimbabwean peacekeeper to receive this prestigious award.

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‘New dawn’ for Europe as War in Ukraine Strengthens EU and Support for Enlargement

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The European Union surprised the world, and even itself, with the speed, scale and unity of its response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This “new” Europe is ready to project both soft and hard power on the world stage, European leaders told participants at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2022.

Christine Lagarde, President, European Central Bank, on the panel at the session, European Unity in a Disordered World?, said the Ukraine war has revealed how powerful Europe is collectively: “This is a new dawn for Europe.”

The war on Ukraine has also revealed weaknesses – including global supply chain vulnerabilities and over-reliance on Russian energy, she said, but Europe is addressing this and can begin to flex its muscles on the global stage. “Europe has untapped purchasing power, trading power, technology power, pension power and moral power.”

Roberta Metsola, President of the European Parliament, reinforced the point. “This is Europe’s moment,” she said. “Europe can become the global project for peace.”

Mistakes of the past will be rectified, she said. “For way too long we did not seriously consider an energy union where we can rely on each other rather than on a country that can switch us off at any time.”

Referring to the EU’s support and defence of Ukraine, she was emphatic: “This is not the time to talk about face-saving for Russia or appeasement.”

Eduard Heger, Prime Minister of Slovakia, also on the panel, said: “If Ukraine falls to Russian aggression, Slovakia is next.” He added that we must continue to provide military support as well as step up humanitarian aid. “Above all we need to give Ukrainians hope.”

“Let’s not compromise – we must remain faithful to the values of the EU – freedom, rule of law, human dignity and equal rights.”

Micheál Martin, Taoiseach of Ireland, said of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: “The people of Europe have spoken. Enough is enough.” In response there is much stronger unanimity between member states and more support than ever to accept the accession of new members.

He continued: “We see the EU’s future in terms of the green economy and in terms of the digitalization but also in terms of enlargement.”

Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands, called on European member states to continue to raise their defence spending. “The NATO alliance members are inseparable, but Europe must play its part,” he said. “This will help transform Europe from a soft power to a hard power.”

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Geopolitical Crises Forcing Leaders to Face up to Difficult New Realities

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Poland’s President Andrzej Duda delivered a harsh rebuke to Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, pledging “100% support” for President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and calling for Moscow to pay reparations to Kyiv. “I simply cannot accept that Russia can violate international law with impunity.”

Russian aggression against Ukraine has revived unity within the West and highlighted for many Western nations the importance of democratic values. Finland and Sweden, notably, have set aside their longstanding policies of neutrality and applied to join NATO. “We are in a totally new situation and have to wake up to that,” said Pekka Haavisto, Finland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, noting that the collapse of the post-war European security architecture, as well as Russia’s increased appetite for risk, were among the major factors prompting Finland to apply for membership.

Haavisto said that in this “grey time” between the Nordic country’s application to join the alliance and its potential full accession, when it will enjoy mutual security protection under Article 5 of the NATO charter, NATO members have given Finland and Sweden assurances that they will guarantee security. Asked about Turkey’s stated objection to extension of membership to Finland and Sweden, he expressed confidence that Helsinki can address concerns.

Alarmed by an increasingly competitive geopolitical landscape marked by mounting frictions between the United States and China, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia, emphasized the need for cooperation.

“If we learned anything from COVID, it is that we need to focus on cooperation and I think we need to continue to look towards avenues to foster that cooperation. Even when there is difference, when there’s competition, we need to find mechanisms to talk to each other.” He noted that Saudi Arabia, which values both its extensive trade relationship with China and its national security relationship with the US, is well-positioned to facilitate dialogue between the world’s leading powers.

Prince Faisal’s remarks were echoed by Pakistan’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Hina Rabbani Khar, who commented on the “binary choice” that countries with close ties to both China and the US are increasingly asked to make. “We are typically asked this question all the time: Who do you choose? It shows how far we have fallen as a global community,” she said. This is particularly difficult, she noted, for a country like Pakistan, which is already in fiscal crisis and now faces “the superimposition of a food security crisis”.

Gregory W. Meeks, Democratic Congressman from New York’s 6th District and Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign, praised the bipartisan support for a recent Senate bill pledging $40 billion in humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine, as well as the broad international support that Ukraine has received.

He also focused on the potential food crisis, emphasizing the need to break the blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports so Ukrainian grain can be delivered to the many countries that depend on it. “You got to open [the port of Odessa] up because that’s not been just limited to what’s happening in Ukraine; this threatens the entire world.”

Madrid is host to next month’s NATO summit and Spain’s Foreign Minister, José Manuel Albares Bueno, praised the alliance’s response to Russian aggression in Ukraine. But he emphasized the threat that the looming food crisis, if left unresolved, could pose to Europe. Noting that the Sahel – the region of North Africa bordering the Sahara – is not only already deeply food-insecure, he warned that rising cereal prices could set off a potentially destabilizing northward migration. “Unity is our best defence.”

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