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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.

Economy

Global Europe: €79.5 billion to support development

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The EU is set to invest €79.5 billion on development and international cooperation in neighbouring countries and further afield by 2027, Society.

As part of its 2021-2027 budget, the European Union is overhauling how it invests outside the bloc. Following a landmark deal with EU countries in December 2020, MEPs will vote during June's plenary session in Strasbourg on establishing the €79.5bn Global Europe fund, which merges several existing EU instruments, including the European Development Fund. This streamlining will allow the EU to more effectively uphold and promote its values and interests worldwide and respond more swiftly to emerging global challenges.

The instrument will finance the EU's foreign policy priorities in the coming seven years and support sustainable development in EU neighbourhood countries, as well as in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, the Americas, the Pacific and the Caribbean. Global Europe will support projects that contribute to addressing issues such as poverty eradication and migration and promote EU values such as human rights and democracy.

The programme will also support global multilateral efforts and ensure the EU is able to live up to its commitments in the world, including the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris climate accord. Thirty percent of the programme’s overall funding will contribute to achieving climate objectives.

At least €19.3bn is earmarked for EU neighbourhood countries with €29.2bn set to be invested in sub-Saharan Africa. Global Europe funding will also be set aside for rapid response action including crisis management and conflict prevention. The EU will boost its support to sustainable investment worldwide under the European Fund for Sustainable Development Plus, which will leverage private capital to complement direct development assistance.

In negotiations with the Council, Parliament ensured MEPs’ increased involvement in strategic decisions regarding the programme. Once approved, the regulation on Global Europe will retroactively apply from 1 January 2021.

Global Europe is one of 15 EU flagship programmes supported by the Parliament in the negotiations on the EU's budget for 2021-2027 and the EU recovery instrument, which collectively will allow the Union to provide more than €1.8 trillion in funding over the coming years.

Global Europe 

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Belarus

#FreeRomanProtasevich: EU calls for release of Belarus journalist

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Join the call for the release of Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega, who are being held by Belarus authorities. Find out how you can help. Belarus journalist Protasevich and his girlfriend Sapega were on a flight from Athens to Vilnius on 23 May when the Belarusian government forced the plane to redirect to Minsk where they were detained. Society

The move was immediately met with widespread condemnation from all around the world and led to calls for sanctions against the country.

Parliament President David Sassoli said: “The events in Belarus, with the hijacking of a civil plane to arrest opponents of the regime, require a leap forward in our response in both strength and speed.”

Parliament and other EU institutions are calling for the immediate release of Protasevich and urge everyone to speak up about this blatant breach of fundamental rights.

What you could do to help get Roman Protasevich released

The abuse of human rights can only thrive in silence. Help create a noise by speaking up for Protasevic and Sapega who are currently being silenced and detained.

What you could do online:

  • Use the hashtag #FreeRomanProtasevich and #FreeSofiaSapega on Twitter and other platforms
  • Help us to spread the message by sharing this article and our posts on social media, such as our tweet

You could come up with your own ways to protest. For example, President Sassoli suggested using airports to highlight the cause: “I think it would be a very positive gesture if a photo of Roman Protasevich were to be displayed in the main airports of European Union member states, as a mark of solidarity and to show that we will not fail him.”

What the EU is doing in response to the actions by Belarus

EU leaders met a day after the forced redirection of the Ryanair flight to decide on a common response. President Sassoli opened the summit with a call for action: “Our response must be strong, immediate and unified. The European Union must act without hesitation and punish those responsible. Tonight you have a great responsibility to show that the Union is not a paper tiger.”

EU leaders agreed to ban Belarusian planes from flying in EU airspaces or using EU airports. They also called for the release of Protasevich and Sapega as well as an investigation by the International Civil Aviation Organization. They also agreed targeted economic sanctions and to add to the list of people subject to sanctions.

What the European Parliament has called for regarding Belarus

Parliament’s foreign affairs committee discussed the events in Belarus on 26 May with opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. She told MEPs: "I call on the European Parliament to ensure that the reaction of the international community is not limited to the Ryanair flight incident. The response must address the situation in Belarus in its entirety."

Parliament has regularly called for fair elections in Belarus as well as for respect for human rights and the rule of law.

Last year alone, MEPs called for:

In 2020, MEPs awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to the democratic opposition in Belarus.

Read more about the EU’s links with other countries

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EU

Companies should be held accountable for their actions, say MEPs

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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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