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Has Europe finally lost patience with its imported oligarchs?

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EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell’s disastrous trip to Russia in early February has cast a long shadow over the continent. It’s not the first time that a top European diplomat has failed to stand up to the Kremlin, but the humiliating scenes from Moscow—from Borrell’s conspicuous silence while Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called the EU an “unreliable partner” to Borrell finding out via Twitter that Russia had expelled three European diplomats for attending demonstrations supporting opposition leader Alexei Navalny—seem to have struck a particular nerve among European policymakers.

Not only are calls multiplying for Borrell’s resignation, but the diplomatic dustup seems to have whetted European politicians’ appetite for new sanctions on Putin’s inner circle. Navalny himself laid out the blueprint for fresh sanctions before he was jailed, composing a target list of oligarchs. A number of the names under consideration, such as Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich, have long skirted Western scrutiny despite serious allegations against them and tight ties to Putin. Indeed, European policymakers have shown a remarkable tolerance for the business dons who’ve flocked to their shores—even as they have utterly failed to integrate into European societies, scorning Western court rulings and remaining in lockstep with the cronyist networks that prop up Putin’s regime. In the wake of the Navalny saga and Borrell’s catastrophic journey to Moscow, have Western lawmakers finally run out of patience?

New targets after Navalny affair

Russia’s relations with both the EU and the UK have come under increasing strain since Alexei Navalny was poisoned last August with the Soviet nerve agent Novichok, and have plunged to new lows in the wake of his arrest in January. Even before Borrell’s ill-fated trip, there was growing momentum for imposing fresh restrictions on Russia. The European Parliament voted 581-50 in late January to “significantly strengthen the EU’s restrictive measures vis-à-vis Russia”, while opposition MPs have challenged the UK government to draw up fresh sanctions. The pressure to take a tough line has reached a fever pitch after Borrell’s humiliation in Moscow, with even the Russian ambassador in London admitting that the Kremlin is expecting new sanctions from the EU and the UK.

Britain and the European Union already rolled out some sanctions last October, targeting six Russian officials and a state-run scientific research centre believed to have been involved in deploying the banned chemical weapon against Navalny. Now, however, Navalny and his allies are not only calling for a second wave of consequences but are advocating for a strategic shift regarding which pressure points the sanctions are aimed at.

Navalny believes that the oligarchs and ‘stoligarchs’ (state sponsored oligarchs like Arkady Rotenberg, who recently claimed that the opulent “Putin Palace” Navalny profiled in an exposé was actually his) whose funds freely move throughout Europe should be the target of fresh sanctions, rather than the mid-ranking intelligence officials who have historically shouldered the consequences. “The main question we should ask ourselves is why these people are poisoning, killing and fabricating elections,” Navalny told an EU hearing in November, “And the answer is very very simple: money. So the European Union should target the money and Russian oligarchs.”

A swipe at Putin’s regime, but also long-awaited retribution

The opposition leader’s allies, who have picked up the fight for fresh sanctions after Navalny was handed a two year and eight month jail sentence, have argued that personal sanctions against high-profile oligarchs with assets in the West could lead to “intra-elite conflicts” which would destabilise the network of wealthy allies that enables and legitimates Putin’s criminal behaviour.

Taking a tougher line on oligarchs with a chequered past, however, would have benefits above and beyond putting direct pressure on Putin’s administration. Just as Borrell stood by silently as Sergei Lavrov lambasted the European bloc he was supposed to represent, the West has sent a troubling message by rolling out the red carpet for oligarchs who have repeatedly tried to sidestep the European rule of law.

Just take the case of tycoon Farkhad Akhmedov. A close friend of Abramovich’s, Akhmedov was ordered by the British High Court to hand over 41.5% of his fortune—adding up to £453 million—to his ex-wife Tatiana, who has lived in the UK since 1994. The gas billionaire has not only refused to cough up the divorce payment, but has embarked on a no-holds-barred attack against the British legal system and has concocted what British judges described as elaborate schemes in order to evade the UK court decision.  

Akhmedov promptly declared that the London High Court decision was “worth as much as toilet paper” and suggested that the divorce judgment was part of a British conspiracy against Putin and Russia writ large—but he didn’t limit himself to inflammatory rhetoric questioning the integrity of the British judicial system. The controversial billionaire apparently enlisted his son, 27-year-old London trader Temur, to help him move and hide assets out of reach. Ahead of a court date to answer questions about the “gifts” his father showered him with, including a £29 million Hyde Park flat and £35 million to play the stock market, Temur fled the UK for Russia. His father, meanwhile, turned to a Dubai sharia law court—which did not recognise the Western legal principle of shared assets between spouses—in order to keep his £330 million superyacht safe from the UK High Court’s worldwide freezing order on his assets.

The extraordinary lengths to which Akhmedov apparently went to thwart the British justice system are sadly par for the course for the oligarchs who installed themselves in European capitals without adopting European values or leaving behind the complex cronyism on which they, and Putin’s regime, depend.

European policymakers have been slow to address this new breed of robber barons. Properly targeted, the next round of sanctions could kill two birds with one stone, ratcheting up pressure on Putin’s inner circle while also sending a message to tycoons who have long enjoyed their assets in the West with impunity.

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Companies should be held accountable for their actions, say MEPs

EU Reporter Correspondent

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MEPs want a new EU law to ensure companies are held accountable when their actions harm people and the planet. On 8 March MEPs debated a report by the legal affairs committee on corporate accountability. The report calls on the European Commission to come up with a law obliging EU companies to address aspects of their value chains that could affect human rights (including social, trade union and labour rights), the environment (for example contribution to climate change) and good governance.

Doing the right thing does not give businesses a competitive advantage at the moment. The lack of a joint EU-wide approach on this matter could lead to a disadvantage for those companies that are proactive regarding social and environmental matters, the report said. The rules would apply to all large undertakings in the EU, as well as to publicly listed small and medium-sized enterprises and those that for example share "risky" supply chains with larger companies.

However, MEPs say the binding rules should also go beyond the EU’s borders, meaning that all companies that want to access the EU's internal market, including those established outside the EU, would have to prove that they comply with due diligence obligations related to human rights and the environment.

In addition, the MEPs want the rights of stakeholders or victims in non-EU countries, who are particularly vulnerable, to be better protected. They likewise want a ban on importing products linked to severe human rights violations such as forced or child labour.

“The European Parliament has the chance this week to become a leader in responsible business conduct,” said report author Lara Wolters (S&D, the Netherlands) during the debate.

“For businesses, we’re creating a level playing field and legal clarity. For consumers, we’re ensuring fair products. For workers, we’re enhancing protection. For victims, we’re improving access to justice. And for the environment, we’re taking a step that is very long overdue.”

In February 2020, the Commission published a study which found that only one in three companies in the EU is currently taking some form of due diligence measures while 70% of European businesses support EU-wide due diligence rules.

Read more on how the EU trade policy helps to promote human rights and environmental standards.

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Coming up: Women’s Day, future of EU, investment and health

EU Reporter Correspondent

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MEPs will mark International Women’s Day, vote on EU investment and health programmes, call for greater corporate responsibility and support LGBTIQ rights during the next plenary session.

International Women’s Day

Parliament will mark International Women’s Day today (8 March) with an address by Parliament President David Sassoli and a pre-recorded video message on women’s leadership during Covid crisis from New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Find out more about other events surrounding International Women's Day organized by the Parliament.

Boosting investment to help recovery

On Tuesday (9 March), MEPs will vote on the InvestEU programme, which aims to boost strategic and innovative investments to help Europe recover from the current crisis as well as achieve its long-term goals of a green and digital transformation.

New EU health programme

Another important item on Tuesday is EU4Health - MEPs will debate and cast their final vote on the €5.1 billion programme for EU action in the field of health for 2021-2027, aimed at boosting EU readiness for and crisis management of future health threats.

Conference on the Future of Europe

Wednesday (10 March) will bring us closer to the Conference on the Future of Europe when the joint declaration will be signed by the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union and the European Commission. The Conference will be an opportunity for Europeans to express their opinions and get involved in setting the EU’s priorities.

Carbon levy on imports

Today (8 March) MEPs will debate ways of combating climate change by preventing so-called carbon leakage. This is when companies transfer production to countries with laxer greenhouse gas emission constraints than the EU. Parliament is expected to call for a carbon levy on imports from such countries. MEPs will vote on it on Wednesday.

Social and environmental accountability for companies

Parliament is expected to call on the European Commission to introduce new rules holding businesses accountable and liable when they harm human rights, the environment or good governance. MEPs want corporate due diligence and corporate accountability rules to also apply to all companies that want to access the EU market. They will debate today and vote on Wednesday.

Support for LGBTIQ rights

MEPs are expected to express their support for LGBTIQ rights by calling for the EU to be an LGBTIQ Freedom Zone. There will be a debate on Wednesday and a vote on Thursday. This is in response to the so-called ‘free of LGBT ideology zones that have been introduced by some local governments in Poland, a move strongly condemned by the European Parliament.

Media freedom in Poland, Hungary and Slovenia

On Wednesday, MEPs will debate recent action by Polish, Hungarian and Slovenian authorities that could put the situation of independent media at risk.

Also on the agenda

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EU, under pressure over vaccine rollouts, considers switch to emergency approvals

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The European Commission said on Tuesday (2 March) that it was considering emergency approvals for COVID-19 vaccines as a faster alternative to more rigorous conditional marketing authorizations which have been used so far, writes Francesco Guarascio, @fraguarascio.

The move would mark a big shift in approach to vaccine approvals, as it would entail using a procedure that the EU had considered dangerous and that before the COVID-19 pandemic had been reserved for exceptional authorization at national level of drugs for terminally ill patients, including cancer treatments.

The potential change comes as the EU executive and the bloc’s drug regulator come under increasing pressure for what some consider slow vaccine approvals, which have contributed to a slower rollout of COVID-19 shots in the 27-nation union, compared to the United States and former EU member Britain.

“We are ready to reflect with the member states on all possible avenues to indeed accelerate the approval of the vaccines,” an EU Commission spokesman told a news conference.

One option could be “an emergency authorisation of vaccines at EU level with shared liability among member states”, the spokesman said, adding that work on this could start very quickly if EU governments supported the idea.

It was not clear whether an EU-wide emergency authorisation procedure, if agreed upon, would entail the same conditions as emergency approvals granted at national level, the commission spokesman told Reuters.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) cannot currently issue emergency approvals but in exceptional circumstances has recommended the compassionate use of drugs before marketing authorisation.

This procedure was used in April to initially authorise doctors to use Gilead’s antiviral drug remdesivir as a treatment against COVID-19. The drug was later given conditional approval by EMA.

National emergency approvals are allowed under EU laws, but they force countries to take full responsibility if something goes wrong with a vaccine, whereas under the more rigorous marketing authorisation, pharmaceutical companies remain liable for their vaccines.

The EU Commission had said that national emergency authorisations should not be used for COVID-19 vaccines, because faster approvals could reduce regulators’ ability to check efficacy and safety data.

This could also boost vaccine hesitancy, which is already high in some countries, EU officials had said.

One senior EU official said the emergency procedure had so far usually been used at national level for terminally ill patients and the EU had instead chosen the lengthier conditional marketing authorisation because with vaccines “we inject healthy people” and the risk was disproportionate.

The change of tack would come after Eastern European countries, including Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, approved Russian and Chinese vaccines with national emergency procedures.

Britain has also used the emergency procedure to approve COVID-19 vaccines.

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