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Europe’s Danse Macabre With the Pandemic and the Vaccine Wars Geoeconomics

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It has not been that long since Europe was experiencing a more relaxed Christmas period only to kick start 2021 with more lockdown restrictions related to the finding of a new variant of the virus, which has been fundamental in reshaping our human existence since early 2020.

The threat posed by the new strain of COVID-19 is only adding fuel to the frustration felt by many across the continent, which only complicates those in Brussels and national governments across the world.

Italy may serve as a good example, as the country’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte decided to hand in his resignation to President Sergio Mattarella on 26 January 2021, after being faced with two confidence votes and losing the governing majority in the Senate due to Matteo Renzi’s Italia Viva withdrawal from the coalition on the ground of the alleged mismanagement of the pandemic and recession.

Currently, it is the former President of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, who has been tasked by President Mattarella with forming a new government and solving political crisis in Italy.

Another deeply divided EU member state is Spain, where the health minister, Salvador Illa, resigned from his post the same day as Conte – partly out of fear of his fellow citizens, and partly due to personal motives to try his hand as the Socialist party’s candidate in Catalan regional elections taking place in February.

In Holland, tensions over recently introduced night-time curfews led to massive and violent riots sweeping across the country by “virus deniers, political protesters and kids who just saw the chance to go completely wild,” as leading Dutch criminologist, Henk Ferwerda, argues.

“Member States should introduce additional measures to ensure that travel into the EU takes place safely. This concerns those travelling to the EU for essential reasons, EU citizens and long-term residents as well as their family members, and those travelling from countries for which the non-essential travel restriction was lifted,” the European Commission announced in January, in a desperate attempt to curb the further spread of COVID-19-related infections on its territory.

Following the EC’s recommendations, several EU member states have already announced new travel and entry regulations, each of them maintaining its very own standards for entry rights, as well as further measures implemented to curb the spread of the virus.

In order to help travellers to Europe navigate the pandemic, the EU has introduced a traffic light system, where the bloc has been divided into four zones: green, orange, red, and grey.

An interesting point to note is that according to the latest survey done for Oxford University Europe’s Stories research project led by Professor Timothy Garton Ash, 74% of Europeans believe the EU is not worth having without free movement.

By now, although the bloc with its 450 million inhabitants is undoubtedly wielding important economic and political power in the world, it is clear that it is struggling to keep up with others in COVID-19 vaccinations rollouts, as University of Oxford’s global vaccination tracker suggests.

The future seems to be looking even grimmer when we take into account that the EU has a target of vaccinating 70% of its population by the end of August 2021, in addition to the widely publicised political issues and shortage of vaccines in the bloc.

It is clear that the EU is going to have a serious problem with vaccines supply, as Pfizer-BioNTech have announced temporarily halting the deliveries and AstraZeneca informed of reduction of the previously agreed supplies to the bloc by up to 60%.

Bearing in mind that the European Commission signed a contract with the latter in August to secure 300 million doses of the vaccine (with the option to purchase an additional 100 million) on behalf of all member states, the EU’s huge dissatisfaction with the AstraZeneca’s flimsy pretext of putting the blame on “supply chain problems” should not come as a surprise.

After paying more than €300m (£265m or $364m) to help the British-Swedish company to develop the vaccine by the EC, Ursula von der Leyen made clear that the “best-effort” clause invoked by AstraZeneca, referred to the vaccine development period, not when it comes to its supply after referring to the published version of their contract.

Further rubbing salt into to the wounds are statements like the one made by AstraZeneca’s CEO, Pascal Sariot, who has declared with confidence in his recent interview with Italian newspaper La Repubblica that “by March, the UK will have vaccinated maybe 28 to 30 million people,” as well as arguing that his company will be able to supply the EU once it fulfils its obligation towards the UK. Unfortunately, the UK refuses to publish details of its supply contract due to national security reasons.

Furthermore, as data gathered by Duke University suggests, AstraZeneca has plenty of orders from countries outside Europe, with the second-biggest deal struck with the U.S. Similarly, Pfizer has also managed to close multiple deals with non-EU countries, including the U.S. and China.

With a more deadly variant of COVID-19, known as the B117 type, in the background, as well as immunisation program’s setbacks and critically low supplies of available vaccines, many European countries were forced to cancel or delay first dose injections to make sure that those already-vaccinated get their second jab within an appropriate timeframe.

Brussels, on its own part, decided on 29 January 2021 to push for more transparency by introducing a new export mechanism, which requires from all vaccine suppliers to notify any intent to export vaccines produced at its territory to countries not exempted by the EU, and equips its members with powers to reject any application detrimental to the bloc’s own supplies. On the other hand, the European Commission has reserved the right to issue binding opinions concerning the very matter.

As it was confirmed, the said mechanism would not impact (along with countries like Switzerland, Norway, Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Syria, or Ukraine) humanitarian aid or COVAX, the global initiative intended to distribute vaccines to less fortunate countries around the globe. Nevertheless, it puts in an inconvenient position vis-à-vis Europe countries like UK, U.S., Canada, Russia, or Turkey, as they are not exempted from the EU’s list due to their level of development.

Moreover, as the EU’s trade chief Valdis Dombrovskis informed at the press conference on 29 January 2020, “companies applying for export authorisation will also have to provide information on their exports and export destinations, quantities and so on, for the period covering three months prior to entering into force of this regulation.”

It is perfectly understandable, as opposed to what some critics may argue, that in its race against time (and most certainly the death of European citizens) the EU took extra measures due to the fact that “the protection and safety of our citizens is a priority and the challenges we now face left us with no other choice but to act,” as Dombrovskis stated.

Putting money where its mouth is, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) approved AstraZeneca’s vaccine on 29 January 2021, which makes it the third vaccine to be cleared for use in the EU’s territory. What more, while the virus definitely knows no boundaries and is further taking its toll around the world, Germany’s Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn argued on 31 January 2021 that vaccines from China (already approved by Serbia) and Russia (already approved by Hungary) could be used in Europe to overcome the current deficit of doses.

“Regardless of the country in which a vaccine is manufactured, if they are safe and effective, they can help cope with the pandemic,” Spahn told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper.

Although the mentioned move could have potentially caused further frictions between the EU and the U.S., or UK, it is good if we become honest with ourselves about the severity of the current state of pandemic affairs and put (sometimes) blinding realpolitik aside in order to take into account the following objective factors.

Let’s face it, the longer it takes us to bring the pandemic under control, the more lives will be lost.

As of today, according to the Johns Hopkins’ live dashboard, the current global COVID-19-related infection cases have reached 103,523,528 with 2,241,147 deaths.

Knowing that a successful vaccination effort is the only sustainable way to help the economic recovery globally—the aim extremely difficult, as Oxford Economics’ “baseline forecast already assumes the crisis will cut the long-term level of world GDP by around 2%, or USD 2.1 tn” (with a “long-term GDP losses of 5%, or USD 4.9 tn”)—all countries realistically capable of helping themselves (including, despite what Liz Truss disappointingly argues, also the UK) and others should try to resist vaccine nationalism or even vaccine wars. Doing otherwise could cost the West about $4.5 trillion and the global economy $9.2 trillion, as commissioned by the International Chamber of Commerce study estimates.

Without any doubt, the current situation and the unquestionable power of big pharma compromises the health of millions around the globe, and will definitely prove to be a litmus test for the integrity of governments but most importantly of human unity.

Having said that, the West (for health-care, economic and security reasons) will be well advised to remember the prophetic wisdom of President Harry S. Truman, in that “selfishness and greed, individual or national, cause most of our troubles.”

From our partner RIAC

London-based foreign affairs analyst and commentator, who is the founder of AK Consultancy and editorial board member at the peer-reviewed Central European Journal of International and Security Studies (CEJISS) in Prague.

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What to Do with Extraterritorial Sanctions? EU Responses

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One of the important decisions of the new US administration was its revision of the sanctions policy inherited from President Donald Trump. The “toxic” assets of the departed team include deterioriated relations with the European Union. The divisions between Washington and Brussels have existed since long before Trump’s arrival in the White House. The EU categorically does not accept US extraterritorial sanctions. Back in 1996, the EU Council approved the so-called “Blocking Statute”, designed to protect European businesses from restrictive US measures targeting Cuba, Iran and Libya. For a long time, Washington avoided aggravating relations with the EU, although European companies were subject to hefty fines for violating US sanctions regimes.

The situation deteriorated significantly during the Trump presidency. At least three events served as a cold shower for the EU with respect to the bloc’s relationship with the US. The first was the unilateral withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA—the “Iranian nuclear deal”. Trump renewed American restrictions on Iran in full, and then significantly expanded them. His demarche forced dozens of large companies from the EU to leave Iran; they were threated by the American authorities with fines and other coercive measures. Brussels was powerless to convince Washington to return to the JCPOA. The EU authorities were also unable to offer their businesses guarantees of reliable protection against punitive measures being taken by the US Treasury and other departments. The second event was Washington’s powerful attack on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. Trump has openly opposed the pipeline, although the Obama administration was also against the pipeline. Congress has passed two sanctions laws targeting Russian pipeline projects. The US Congress and the State Department directly warned European business about the threat of sanctions for participating in the project. In addition to Iran and Russia, concern in the EU was also caused by the aggravation of US-Chinese tensions. Brussels distanced itself from Trump’s cavalry attack on China. So far, US restrictions against “Chinese communist military companies”, telecoms and officials have minimally affected the EU. However, Washington aggressively pushed its allies to oust Chinese technology companies. It cannot be ruled out that in the future, US foreign policy towards China will become a problem for Brussels.

For the EU, all these events have become a reason to think about protection from extraterritorial US sanctions. The work on them was carried out by both European expert centres and the European Commission. Currently, we can talk about the formation of a number of strategic goals, the achievement of which should allow the European Union to increase its stability in relation to extraterritorial sanctions of the United States and other countries.

Such goals include the following:

Strengthening the role of the euro in international settlements. Already today, the euro ranks second after the dollar in international payments and reserves. However, unlike the United States, the EU does not use this advantage for political purposes. Many transactions between European businesses and their foreign partners are carried out in US dollars, which makes them more vulnerable to subsequent coercive measures. Calculations in euros could reduce the risk of transactions with those partners against whom the sanctions of the United States or other countries are in effect, but the sanctions of the UN Security Council or the EU itself do not apply. Here the EU authorities have laid serious groundwork and have a good chance of achieving their goal.

1.Creation of payment mechanisms, which cannot be stopped from the outside. INSTEX, a payment channel for humanitarian deals with Iran, is often cited as an example of such mechanisms. In 2020, the first transactions were made. However, success in this area raises questions. INSTEX has been widely advertised by EU politicians, but initial expectations were too high. The mechanism has not yet justified itself, even for humanitarian purposes. The Treasury Department can impose blocking sanctions against INSTEX at any time if it considers that the mechanism is being used to deliberately circumvent US restrictions against Iran. Switzerland’s SHTA mechanism, which is used for humanitarian deals with Iran, looks much better. It was created jointly with the Americans and it should not have any problems with functionality. However, regarding payment mechanisms in the EU, there are not only humanitarian transactions. There’s also the matter of plans to create secure transaction mechanisms in the trade of energy or raw materials; the question of what prospects these have for implementation remains.

2.Ensuring the possibility of unhindered settlements and access to other services for individuals and legal entities in the EU that have come under extraterritorial sanctions. In other words, we are talking about the fact that a citizen or a company from the EU, which fell, for example, under the blocking sanctions of the US Treasury, could make payments within the EU. Now European banks will simply refuse such transactions, and the courts are likely to side with them. In fact, the European Union wants to create infrastructure that has already been created, for example, in Russia. Moscow was considering the establishment of a national payment system even before the large-scale sanctions of 2014. Despite the limited weight of Russia in the global financial system, the country has its own sovereign payment system, which allows its own citizens to carry out transactions on its own territory.

3.Updating the 1996 Blocking Statute. In particular, we are talking about the development of an instrument of compensation for companies that have suffered from extraterritorial sanctions.

4.Creation of information databases in the interests of European companies under the risks of extraterritorial sanctions, as well as the provision of systematic legal assistance to companies that have come under foreign restrictions. In particular, we are talking about assisting European companies and citizens of the EU countries in defending their interests in US courts, as well as using other legal mechanisms, for example, within the WTO.

If necessary—balancing the extraterritorial measures of the United States or other countries with restrictive counter-measures.

However, the EU sanctions agenda is far from limited to the threat of extraterritorial sanctions. Ultimately, the United States is an ally and partner of the EU, which means that the opportunities for smoothing out crisis situations remain broad. Collaboration at the agency level is also highlighted as a recommendation. Moreover, after Trump’s departure, the United States may be more attentive to the concerns of the European Union.

The main priority remains the development of the EU’s own sanctions policy. Here many problems and tasks arise. The main ones include the low speed of decision-making and poor coordination in the implementation of sanctions. The centralisation of sanctions mechanisms in the hands of Brussels is becoming an important task for the European Commission.

The article is published as part of the Valdai Club’s Think Tank project, continuing the collaboration between Valdai and Observer Research Foundation (New Delhi).

From our partner RIAC

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Trinity for Scrutiny: Council of Europe, Human Rights instruments and Citizens

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Building on the tasteful piece written recently by Commissioner Dunja Mijatovic, this article will endeavour to explore further why the Tromsø Convention(Norwegian International Convention on Access to Official Documents)[1], although adopted more than a decade ago, is in fact deserving of much more credit and fuss than it appears to have mustered so far.

To briefly catch everyone up, the Council of Europe (CoE) adopted in 2009 a Convention on Access to Official Documents foreseeing a general and minimal right for all to access public authorities’ official documents. Having entered into force last December, this convention pioneers a uniformed standardised right to obtain official documents and thereby information from official sources.  Evidently, the treaty draws on the pillar values of any and all healthy democracies that are transparency, pluralism and self-development of the individuals making up our civil societies.

Freedom of information, within which the right to access official documents is encompassed, is indeed crucial for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is essential from a somewhat ‘hostile perspective’ in order to oversee public bodies’ conducts and uncover behaviours who clash with Human Rights and might otherwise be sanitized precisely when these call for remediation, sanction and reparation. Secondly, in a ‘friendlier’ outlook, it is indispensable for the purpose of feeding the public debate and thus, allowing for militant democracies, but also to strengthen legitimacy, foster public trust and endorsement of their elected government.

Lastly but perhaps most importantly, it should be pointed out that in a similar manner as the right to life, the freedom of information is in fact a key that opens, if not all, many doors embodied by other ECHR rights such as the freedom of expression and that of thought, procedural guarantees or even the freedom of assembly and association. In effect, without being adequately informed, how could one be aware of their rights and exercise them diligently? Without receiving quality information, how could one forge their convictions and gather with others to share affiliations and work towards a common goal? And without access to verified information, could one really form an educated opinion meant to be expressed freely subsequently?

In addition to being a prerequisite to the proper exercise and enjoyment of other fundamental rights, it also echoes directly with the first article of the ECHR providing for the Contracting Parties’ duty to respect Human Rights – and in reality, render them available to all persons under their jurisdiction. In that sense, the CETS 205 can and should be looked at as a practical example of States fulfilling Human Rights and hence as falling squarely within the same scheme.

Another link certainly worthy of some emphasis is the one that can be made between the advent of such a Treaty and the recent recognition and growing establishment of the right to truth. The right to truth, as devised by Special Rapporteur Louis Joinet in 1996, is made up of several dimensions amongst which there is the right to know. The latter, in turn, involves a right to access archives and historical official documents in order to shed light on past events – and ultimately heal a society. Thus, just like we – the civil society – have a right to know our past so as to reconcile and repair wrongdoings, we also have a right to get acquainted with our present and perhaps prevent wrongdoings at all. Both instruments’ emergence form part of a single reactive movement: the reinforcement and extension of human dignity and a renewed appreciation of individuals through greater access and involvement.

Whilst keeping these elements in mind, let us say a few words about the Convention’s content and characteristics. The project is said to have been guided by the concern of identifying and generalising a core of basic compulsory provisions in a way that will “encourage the Parties to equip themselves with, maintain and reinforce domestic provisions that allow a more extensive right of access, provided that the minimum core is nonetheless implemented.” Hence, this instrument does not purport to be a binding ‘best practice’ guide, but is rather the fruits of a (well-known) compromise resulting in the establishment of a minimum threshold likely to be accepted by the largest majority.

Say we embrace the path taken by the consultative committees and concede that realistic (aka lower) standards will amass more signatures and spread wider its application, what then of an equally realistic rapid examination of the outcome? Indeed, since its adoption in 2009, only ten countries have ratified the Convention whilst the instrument is said to merely reassert what already exists in most internal frameworks of the CoE countries.

The puzzlement does not end there: when looking closer at the contracting parties, one cannot help but notice that the ‘star students’ are MIA. European countries that ranked in 2018 in the top 10 of the world-wide Human Freedom Index[2] such as Switzerland (2nd), Germany (9th), Denmark (4th), or Ireland (7th) are nowhere to be found on the ratification addendum of the Convention. It is hard to imagine why such States that are already doing so well in that area would not want to lead the example and reaffirm principles that match their internal policies.

Commissioner Dunja, for her part, had highlighted that although the majority of CoE’s members have already adopted freedom of information laws on the domestic level, some definite issues remain with regard to their practical enforcement. This referred to disparities in degrees of transparency depending on the public body as well as failures to meet requirements set for proactive disclosure. We may then wonder, provided those trends are correct, if – ironically – there could exist a lack of transparency on those regulations. In other words, if national laws on freedom of information already exist almost everywhere in Europe but they do not satisfy the thresholds put forward by the Convention in practice, civil society should know about it to remedy the situation.

Still, you may wonder: why is it so important that we enquire about, and ensure that, a smooth implementation is possible on the domestic or – if need be – regional level? Because although this article has managed to avoid bringing up COVID-19 so far, the current pandemic only enhances the stakes surrounding an effective freedom of information. As we all know by now, in times of emergency, rapid and impactful decisions have to be taken. These decisions are then in that sense less prone to gather strong consensus and yet more likely to concern the public given the serious nature of the decisions’ object.

The year 2020 has shown that misinformation and somewhat tendentious media coverage of the pandemic’s evolution was damaging enough in terms of civil discontentment and eroding our trust in the Government. But adding to that the withholding of some facts and a lack of transparency on the part of public officials is simply a recipe for disaster.

This can perhaps be better grasped when looking at the cases of France versus Sweden. Civil unrest and vocal dissents have been taking place last year against the French government, said to be lacking transparency on several issues such as shortages of equipment, rationale for measures chosen, allocation of vaccines or even the number of vaccinations. In the fall of last year, a local survey recorded that two-third of the French citizens did not trust their leaders to fight COVID efficiently. The handling of the crisis tainted with obscurity and ambiguities resulted in an unfortunate loss of popularity for President Macron and civil disobedience.

In contrast, the Sweden government remained consistent with its strong stand on, and reputation for, transparency towards its population taking roots notably in a national law favouring public scrutiny adopted in 1766. Their tradition of ‘ultra-transparency’ as is sometimes called is closely related to the country’s culture of shared responsibility and mutual respect between State and citizens. With the national Agency for Public Health taking the lead on the crisis management by remaining very open on the data available and reasons for pursuing collective immunity survey showed in Spring 2020 that nearly 80% of the population entrusted both their health system and the national Agency. Moreover, this ought to be placed against a backdrop where even the King of Sweden did publicly air his reservations regarding the confinement-sceptic management.

Now whatever anyone thinks of the Swedish strategy a posteriori, it must be acknowledged that not only did their information and transparency handling maintain its citizens, numbers show it even did as much as increase the legitimacy of their prime minister. To top it off, Sweden is one of the first to have ratified the CETS 205.

To put it plainly: some countries’ tendencies to filter information, strive to maintain composure and showcase confidence in uncertain times simply proves to be more detrimental than an approach where full transparency and efficient dissemination of available information is endorsed at the risk of revealing some inconsistencies or displaying dubiety in the process.

It is hoped that this can serve as a support for reflection around the understatement of international agreements we may take for granted such as the one 2009 Convention on Access to Official Information and the realisation that in our case, having ratified such a document could be a real game-changer in the second phase of our pandemic and rehabilitate good governance where it has been shattered.


[1]hereinafter referred to in the text as ‘CETS 205’.

[2]Which, for the record, encompasses personal, civil and economic freedoms, and is based on indicators in various areas such as the rule of law, the freedom of expression and information, that of association and assembly as well as civil society.

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Laura, for EU-funds crimes please don’t call Bulgaria. We are busy right now

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Laura Codruta Kövesi © CC-BY Flickr/usembassyromania

EU chief prosecutor, Laura Kovesi, rejected almost all of the Bulgarian candidates nominated by Bulgaria’s chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev to serve in the new EU prosecutor office. Most of the proposed candidates have no experience as prosecutors, no experience in pleading, no experience in criminal investigations, and no experience in investigating EU funds. Laura Kovesi is reportedly irritated, and here in Bulgaria we certainly share her frustration with Ivan Geshev, as I have also previously argued for EurActivEuronews and LSE.

The new EU chief prosecutor office is tasked with the very narrow mandate of going after EU funds theft or mismanagement. It has to stick to EU funds related cases only; it does not cover all legal issues as an overarching EU prosecutor service which could potentially correct mistakes at the national level — much to the dissatisfaction of local groups. We’d really much rather have the option to turn to an EU prosecutor for many other cases but the EU system is a la cart, not a free choice menu. That’s why, in her very narrowly defined legal mandate, particular EU-funds experience is key to the new posts that Kovesi is trying to fill.

This is Kovesi’s first blow against the Bulgarian chief prosecutor who was convinced that the Bulgarian institutions are sending their best and brightest to the new high profile EU office. Unfortunately, most of the candidates turned out to be highly inadequate for the very specialized job at hand. Reportedly, no other country had its candidates rejected.

The question — as with any international nominations — persists: couldn’t they really find candidates who will be able to hit the ground running, ready to aggressively suck their teeth in EU funds crimes, which let’s face it, Bulgaria has a lot of? Surely, there must be Bulgarian prosecutors who have criminal, funds-related cases under their belt. Aren’t there any Bulgarian prosecutors who have successfully closed with convictions EU-funds theft, embezzlement, fraud, waste, and mismanagement cases in the Bulgarian system? Surely, these seem like the top candidates and most obvious choices for the Bulgarian chief prosecutor. People like that are the ones that know the nuts and bolts, and the legal tricks in the Bulgarian system. They would be Kovesi’s fiercest hounds in Bulgaria and that would be a good thing, right? Seasoned, fierce hounds ready to turn everything upside down: these are the kinds of people that Ivan Geshev wants as European prosecutors, right? 

But something tells me that these candidates were the first to be struck down by Geshev. Bulgaria is demonstrating from the outset, before the work has even began, that addressing EU funds crimes is the last thing on this Administration’s mind. And the upcoming elections in April will not change that because the Bulgarian chief prosecutor has a mandate of 7 years, and he is the one that decides who gets an EU prosecutor nomination.

As we await the second batch of candidates after this political blow, the message has been sent. Laura, for EU-funds crimes please don’t call Bulgaria. We are busy right now but please be assured that your call is very important to us. We will return your call as soon as we can.

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