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EU-Australia Leaders’ Virtual Meeting

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The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and the Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison, held a Leaders’ Virtual Meeting on 26 November 2020.

The leaders reconfirmed their resolve to work together to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and underlined their commitment to take effective measures to protect health and build more innovative, sustainable, inclusive and resilient economies.

The leaders reaffirmed the shared values that underpin the bilateral relationship as enshrined in the EU-Australia Framework Agreement. The EU and Australia share a commitment to democracy, the rule of law, the protection and promotion of human rights, and gender equality. They are strong supporters of the international rules-based order and an effective multilateral system with the United Nations at its core. The leaders discussed enhancing cooperation in international fora.

Underscoring that global cooperation is vital in overcoming COVID-19, the leaders welcomed the outcomes of the G20 Leaders’ Summit on 21-22 November. They referred to the significant contributions the EU and Australia have made towards the global response to COVID-19. They welcomed the support provided to each other’s citizens affected by travel disruptions.

The EU and Australia are committed to ensure universal, equitable and early access to safe, effective and affordable COVID-19 vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics. Both sides have notably committed substantial funding to the almost €16 billion (A$26 billion) raised through the EU-led Coronavirus Global Response pledging marathon. The leaders stressed the importance of continued international support for the Access to COVID-19 tools (ACT) Accelerator and its COVAX Facility. They agreed to strengthen bilateral research and innovation cooperation and to share research data to combat the pandemic.

The leaders agreed that the EU and Australia will continue to work together to strengthen the World Health Organisation and global preparedness and response to health emergencies. They called for continued and timely implementation of the World Health Assembly resolution of 19 May 2020, including with respect to the independent evaluation of the international response to the pandemic.

The EU and Australia are stepping up cooperation on post-pandemic socio-economic recovery and are implementing the G20 Action Plan. They will also discuss the recovery at the next Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Summit. The leaders committed to recovery plans that accelerate emissions reductions, and ensure communities and institutions are more resilient and able to adapt to future impacts of climate change, as well as accelerating the digital transformation. They emphasised that global supply chains need to be more resilient and sustainable. They agreed to further cooperate on critical raw materials and on the promotion of diverse critical technology markets.

Both sides reconfirmed their commitment to open and fair trade. They underlined the need to support the multilateral rules-based trading system and to render it fit for current challenges. The EU and Australia will continue to work together, including in the Ottawa Group, to reform and strengthen the WTO, including its negotiating and monitoring function, in particular with regard to level playing field. On reform of the WTO’s dispute settlement system, the two sides reiterated their desire that the WTO membership collectivelyfind a timely and long-lasting solution that would restore a binding, two-tier and independent dispute settlement system in the WTO. The EU and Australia will engage constructively in areas of common interest on the WTO agenda, including sustainable development, e-commerce and fisheries subsidies.

The Leaders noted good progress in the negotiations for an ambitious and comprehensive bilateral trade agreement. The timely conclusion of such an agreement would create growth opportunities, deepen economic integration and reinforce our shared support for rules-based trading arrangements.

The leaders agreed to enhance cooperation to promote shared interests in security and prosperity in Asia and the Pacific, spanning the Indian and Pacific oceans. They recognised the importance of the principles of regional engagement set out in the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, including openness, transparency, a rules-based framework, good governance and respect for sovereignty and international law. In this regard, they agreed to work together in the ASEAN Regional Forum and also to continue their dialogue on cooperation in other ASEAN-led processes. The leaders expressed serious concern about the unilateral and destabilising actions in the South China Sea and underlined the importance of upholding international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. They underlined that dialogue is the only way to achieve peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and urged the DPRK to comply with all relevant UN Security Council resolutions. 

The leaders stressed that other regional issues should also be resolved through peaceful dialogue and in accordance with international law, including in relation to Belarus and the Eastern Mediterranean.

Underlining the importance of assisting the most vulnerable countries, including in Africa, the leaders welcomed the extension of the G20/Paris Club Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI) and the recently endorsed Common Framework for Debt Treatment beyond the DSSI.

The leaders emphasised their commitment to working with Pacific Island countries and Timor-Leste to build resilience in line with the Agenda 2030. In 2020 the EU has committed €120 million in support of the COVID-19 response in these countries and will continue to provide development assistance to them. Australia has made an allocation of €188 million to assist the region respond to COVID-19 over the next two years as well as separate funding to support vaccine access.

The leaders agreed that resolute and coordinated action is key to tackling the urgent challenge of climate change and environmental degradation. The EU and Australia underlined their commitment to the full implementation of the Paris Agreement and to step up global action to tackle climate change in the lead up to COP26 in 2021. The EU highlighted its commitment to achieve climate neutrality by 2050, while Australia will also demonstrate significant ambition on reducing emissions and pursuing a low emissions development strategy in order to achieve climate neutrality as soon as possible in accordance with the Paris Agreement. The leaders recalled the request by UNFCCC COP21 to communicate or update their Nationally Determined Contributions reflecting the highest possible ambition. The EU and Australia have agreed to collaborate on international technology partnerships. The leaders also underlined their commitment to move towards the circular economy and called for an ambitious global biodiversity framework at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity COP15 in 2021.

Committed to promoting digital transformation based on shared values, Australia and the EU have initiated a digital economy and technology dialogue and agreed to cooperate on artificial intelligence, blockchain, the use of digital tools to address climate change and disaster resilience, quantum technology and the role of platforms. Recognising the importance of a fair and sustainable international tax system, the leaders reaffirmed their commitment to reach by mid-2021 a global solution that addresses the tax challenges arising from the digitisation of the economy.

The leaders welcomed the recent UN resolution on responsible behaviour in space. They also welcomed the establishment of a bilateral space dialogue to advance collaboration.

The leaders restated their commitment to promote sustainable, comprehensive and rules-based connectivity and to implementation of the G20 Principles for Quality Infrastructure Investment. They agreed to explore synergies between their cooperation on connectivity with third countries, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region. They confirmed their resolve to launch in the near future an EU-Australia Transport Dialogue.

On security and defence issues, the leaders looked forward to strengthened cooperation in areas such as counterterrorism and prevention of radicalisation leading to violent extremism and terrorism, cyber and critical technology issues, countering disinformation and foreign interference, protection of critical infrastructure and maritime security. They agreed to continue engagement in crisis management as provided for in the EU-Australia Framework Participation Agreement.

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EU Politics

Conditions worsen for stranded migrants along Belarus-EU border

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At least eight people have died along the border between Belarus and the European Union, where multiple groups of asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants have been stranded for weeks in increasingly dire conditions. 

The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCRappealed for urgent action on Friday, to save lives and prevent further suffering at the border with Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. The latest casualty was reported within the past few days. 

UNHCR warned that the situation will further and rapidly deteriorate as winter approaches, putting more lives in danger. 

For the Agency’s Regional Director for Europe, Pascale Moreau, “when fundamental human rights are not protected, lives are at stake.” 

“It is unacceptable that people have died, and the lives of others are precariously hanging in the balance. They are held hostage by a political stalemate which needs to be solved now,” he said. 

According to media reports, the EU regards the increase in asylum seekers at the border, a direct result of Belarus, in effect, weaponizing migrants, in retaliation for sanctions placed on the Government over the suppression of the protest movement following last year’s disputed re-election of President Lukashenko.  

International group 

Among those stranded are 32 Afghan women, men and children. They have been left in limbo between Poland and Belarus since mid-August, unable to access asylum and any form of assistance. They do not have proper shelter and no secure source of food or water. 

A group of 16 Afghans tried to cross into Poland this week, but they were apprehended and not allowed to apply for asylum. They were also denied access to legal assistance. Within a few hours, they were pushed back across the border to Belarus. 

So far, UNHCR has not been granted access to meet with the group from the Polish side, despite repeated requests, and only met them a few times from the Belarusian side to deliver life-saving aid. 

International law 

The Agency has been advocating for the group to be granted asylum, since the Afghans have expressed their wish to settle either in Belarus or in Poland. 

The request has been ignored by both sides. For UNHCR, that is “a clear violation of international refugee law and international human rights law.” 

“We urge Belarus and Poland, as signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention, to abide by their international legal obligations and provide access to asylum for those seeking it at their borders.  

“Pushbacks, that deny access to territory and asylum, violate human rights in breach of international law”, said Mr. Moreau. 

UNHCR urges the authorities to determine and address humanitarian and international protection needs, and find viable solutions. The agency also stands ready to support refugees, together with other relevant stakeholders. 

“People must be able to exercise their rights where they are, be it in Belarus or in Poland or other EU States where they may be located. This must include the possibility to seek asylum, access to legal aid, information and appropriate accommodation”, Mr. Moreau concluded. 

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EU Politics

Focus on the recovery from the pandemic at the 19th EU Regions Week

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The annual European Week of Regions and Cities has shown how the EU and national and regional governments can support European citizens and their local communities with public policies aimed at investing in a fairer, greener and more digital future for recovery. Under the theme ‘Together for Recovery’, more than 300 sessions, including debates with high-profile officials, regional and local representatives, an inspiring Citizens’ Dialogue, various workshops as well as an Award for outstanding young journalists, celebrated the EU values of cohesion and solidarity.

Taking place in a hybrid format, with sessions both physical and virtual, the 19th EU Regions Week had one main mission: highlighting the role of EU investments in the recovery from the pandemic and in facing common challenges. The event kicked off with a press conference with Apostolos Tzitzikostas, President of the European Committee of the Regions (CoR) and Elisa Ferreira, Commissioner for Cohesion and Reforms, who underlined that “Cohesion Policy was one of the first responders in the emergency phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, driven by the core value of EU solidarity”.

The second annual local and regional barometer was presented by Apostolos Tzitzikostas, followed by a debate with members of the European Committee of the Regions. The report confirmed that the pandemic related measures put at risk regional and local finances, resulting in a 180 billion budget cut for local and regional authorities across Europe. At the same time, 1 in 3 local and regional politicians want regions and cities to become more influential in EU policy-making on health issues.

Unless we measure the state of our regions and cities, we cannot understand the state of our Union” said Apostolos Tzitzikostas, President of the European Committee of the Regions. “Only by taking the pulse of our communities, we can decide how effective the EU has been on the ground, and what the EU needs to do to help its people”.

Further taking stock of the EU cohesion policy response to the coronavirus pandemic as well as informing the general public, various workshops touched upon life before and after the pandemic, including explanations regarding the role of regions and cities for a Green Transition, the Cohesion Policy 2021-2027 and NextGenerationEU, as well as the CRII, CRII+, React-EU support packages for regional and local healthcare services and equipment.

Young journalists were also invited to take part in the EU Regions Week 2021, getting the opportunity to debate with Elisa Ferreira at the Citizens’ Dialogue. In the Youth4Regions programme for aspiring journalists, Irene Barahona Fernandez from Spain and Jack Ryan from Ireland won the 2021 Megalizzi-Niedzielski prize for aspiring journalists.

About the event

The European Week of Regions and Cities (#EURegionsWeek) is the largest EU-wide event on regional development. It is co-organised by the European Commission and the European Committee of the Regions.

In total, more than 12 000 participants and 900 speakers joined the 4-day event either physically or online, showing engagement in all corners of EU society – from our vibrant youth to our high-profile officials, local and regional representatives, academic experts and professional specialists, displaying a common readiness to tackle what the future holds, together.

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EU Politics

EU and Qatar sign landmark aviation agreement

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The European Union and the State of Qatar today signed a comprehensive air transport agreement, upgrading rules and standards for flights between Qatar and the EU. The agreement sets a new global benchmark by committing both sides to fair competition, and by including social and environmental protection. The signing means new opportunities for consumers, airlines and airports in Qatar and the EU.

Qatar is an increasingly important aviation partner for the EU. It was the 15th largest extra-EU market in 2019 with 6.3 million passengers travelling between the EU and Qatar. Ensuring open and fair competition for air services between both is therefore crucial, also for routes between the EU and Asia.

Adina Vălean, Commissioner for mobility and transport, said: “This agreement, the first one between the EU and the Gulf region, is a global benchmark for forward-looking aviation agreements. It is testimony to our shared commitment to economically, socially and environmentally sustainable aviation, based on a modern framework covering fair competition and closer cooperation on social and environmental matters. This agreement will bring new opportunities, more choice and higher standards for passengers, industry and aviation workers.”

Today’s agreement creates a level playing field that is expected to result in new air transport opportunities and economic benefits for both sides:

  • All EU airlines will be able to operate direct flights from any airport in the EU to Qatar and vice versa for Qatari airlines.
  • EU airports in Germany, France, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands will be subject to a gradual build-up of capacity until 2024. For more details on this, see the Q&A.
  • Strong provisions on open and fair competition will guarantee a level playing field.
  • The parties recognised the importance of social matters, agreed to cooperate on these and to improve their respective social and labour laws and policies as per their international commitments.

The agreement will facilitate people-to-people contacts and expand commercial opportunities and trade. Going beyond traffic rights, the EU-Qatar agreement will provide a single set of rules, high standards and a platform for future cooperation on a wide range of aviation issues.

Background

Qatar is a close aviation partner for the European Union; more than 6 million passengers travelled between the EU and Qatar per year under the existing 26 bilateral air transport agreements with EU Member States prior to the pandemic. While direct flights between most EU Member States and Qatar have already been liberalised by those bilateral agreements, none of them include provisions on fair competition, or social and environmental issues, which the Commission considers essential for a modern aviation agreement.

In 2016, the European Commission obtained authorisation from the Council to negotiate an EU-level aviation agreement with Qatar, which started on 4 March 2019. While the agreement still needs to be ratified by the parties before formally entering into force, it will start being applied from today’s signature.

Similar EU comprehensive air transport agreements have been signed with other partner countries, namely the United States, Canada, the Western Balkans, Morocco, Georgia, Jordan, Moldova, Israel and Ukraine. Further air transport agreements with Armenia and Tunisia are expected to be signed in the coming weeks.

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