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Human rights in Russia: Pressure is on

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Opposition hold protest rally in MoscowDeep concern over the pressure on civil society organizations and LGBT rights in Russia just two weeks before the Winter Olympics in Sochi was expressed by many participants at an EP hearing, on 23 January. Earlier Members discussed communication surveillance in Russia, as part of Parliament´s inquiry into the NSA scandal. All communication in Sochi will be “completely transparent to the secret services”, journalist Andrei Soldatov cautioned.

The Russian approach is more flexible and effective in terms of surveillance because services have direct access to the information without needing to go through operators or legal channels, but “NSA has a natural advantage because everybody uses American software”, said Russian journalist Andrei Soldatov, when questioned by Civil Liberties Committee members on the differences between the Russian and US surveillance programmes. Participating via videoconference, Soldatov said that the Russian System of Operative-Investigative Measures (SORM) has been used to spy on members of the opposition and that there is no parliamentary oversight of the country´s security services.

Rapporteur, British Socialist and Democrat Group MEP Claude Moraes reminded Members that there are concerns around Sochi Olympics safety and potential actions of the Russian secret services. Soldatov believes that in Sochi “all communication will be completely transparent to the secret services”.

“We are very concerned about with the restrictive laws, including the foreign agents law and the controls performed abruptly by Russian officials on the office of several domestic and foreign NGOs and institutions,” stressed Human Rights subcommittee chair, German Green MEP  Barbara Lochbihler, during a hearing on the Human Rights situation in Russia. Under the Foreign Agent Law every no-governmental organisation that receives funds from abroad, have to register in the ministry as “foreign agents”. “That means a spy in Russia, since the word’s introduction in the 1930s,’” explained Kirill Koroteev, Senior lawyer, of the Sakharof laureate Memorial society.

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Human Rights MEPS also discussed the LGTB rights in the country and Michael Cashman (S&D, UK) attacked the new law in Russia forbidding 'Propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations': “It is incredible to suggest that information is propaganda. Information protects. Information informs”, he said. Wanja Kilder from Russian LGBT organisation Quarteera reminded that “homosexual and transsexual young people in Russia are ten times as likely to commit suicide.” as others their age.

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Week ahead: The state we’re in

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The big set piece of this week will be European Commission President von der Leyen’s ‘State of the EU’ (SOTEU) address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg. It’s a conceit borrowed from the US, when the President of the United States addresses Congress at the start of each year laying out his (and it has always been a he to date) plans for the year ahead. 

I am always amazed by American self-confidence and almost indestructible belief that America is the greatest nation on earth. While thinking you’re just great must be an enjoyable state of mind, the parlous state of the US on so many levels at the moment makes me think that the excessively critical eye Europeans cast on their lot may be a healthier perspective. Still, sometimes it would be nice if we could acknowledge the many pros of the EU and be a bit more ‘European and proud’.

It’s hard to gauge how much interest SOTEU exerts outside those most engaged in the EU’s activities. As a rule Europeans, other than a small group of the most devout, don’t go around bumming about how just bloomin’ great the EU is, or generally being enthused about its direction. While we might have mused on the counterfactual, the UK has provided every EU citizen with a very stark look of “what if?” 

Looking at where the world, the EU looks like it is in a healthier state than most - this also has a literal meaning this year, we are probably the most vaccinated continent on earth, there is an ambitious plan to turbo charge our economy out of its pandemic slump and the continent has stuck its chin out and decided to do nothing short of lead the world on tackling climate change. I personally feel a great surge of hope from the fact that we appear to have collectively decided enough is enough with those within the EU who want to backslide on democratic values and the rule of law. 

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Several proposals will be coming from the Commission this week: Vestager will be presenting the plan for ‘Europe’s Digital Decade’; Borrell will lay out the EU’s plans for links with the Indo-Pacific region; Jourova will outline the EU’s plan on protecting journalists; and Schinas will present the EU’s package on health emergency response and preparedness. 

It is, of course, a plenary session of the Parliament. Other than SOTEU, the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan and the EU’s relations with the Taliban government will be debated; media freedom and the rule of law in Poland, the European Health Union, the EU Blue Card for highly skilled migrants and LGBTIQ rights are all up for discussion.

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Week ahead: Forewarned is forearmed

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Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič will present the Commission’s second annual strategic foresight report on Wednesday (8 September). The report comes a week ahead of the annual ‘State of the EU’ address by the Commission president. The initiative is part of an effort to ensure that the EU is resilient in the face of challenges, but also able to prepare itself by embedding foresight into all aspects of policy making. The 2021 Report will look at structural global megatrends towards 2050 that are set to affect the EU, and will identify areas where the EU could boost its global leadership. 

On Tuesday (7 September) Commissioner Hahn will hold a press conference on the adoption of the Green Bonds Framework, the EUGBS (the European Green Bond Standard) aims to be a “robust tool to demonstrate that they are funding legitimate green projects aligned with the EU taxonomy”.

Parliament

Europe fit for the Digital Age Executive Vice President and Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager will meet (6 September) with the chairs of five committees (INGE, ITRE, IMCO, LIBE, AIDA) in the parliament for an exchange of views on the digital agenda. 

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The Women’s Rights Committee and the delegation for relations with Afghanistan will meet to discuss the situation of women and girls’ rights.

The Special Committee on Beating Cancer will meet on Thursday (9 September) will meet to discuss the exchange of health data and the digitization in cancer prevention and care, as well as an update on the implementation of the EU’s chemicals strategy for sustainability in the context of cancer prevention.

The Subcommittee on Security and Defence will discuss the situation in Afghanistan, as well as a study on ‘EU preparedness and responses to Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) threats’ and Sven Mikser MEP (S&D, EE) draft report on ‘Challenges and prospects for multilateral Weapons of Mass Destruction arms control and disarmament regimes’. 

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Court

European Union Court of Justice will give its opinion on the recovery of €2.7 billion from the UK for its failure to put in place a risk-based approach to customs control, despite repeated warnings from OLAF, the EU’s independent anti-fraud office. The failure to address this issue also meant that EU manufacturers had to compete with undervalued goods coming into the EU via the EU. OLAF’s figure covers the years 2011-2017. Other important judgements are expected in the field of Asylum (C-18/20, C-768/19).

Council

Agriculture and fisheries ministers will be meeting informally from 5-7. Economic and Finance ministers will have an informal meeting by video conference on 6 September, and will have another informal meeting on 10-11. As usual the Eurogroup will be meet ahead of the inclusive meeting on 10. 

ECB

The European Central Bank will have its regular monthly meeting on Thursday, with inflation now exceeding 2% target, all eyes will be fixed on what the ECB will do next.

Tunisia

EU High Representative Josep Borrell will visit Tunisia on Friday (10 September). In July the Tunisian President Kais Saied dismissed the Prime Minister and suspected the parliament invoking emergency powers in the face of demonstrations over economic hardship and a rise in Covid-19 cases, The EU has called on Tunisia to respect its constitution and the rule of law. 

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Back to School, EU Reporter’s look at the week ahead

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To those of you who managed to get away for a restorative summer break, well done, you’ll need it. The next term is going to be (another) busy one. 

Much legislation has started its legislative journey through the EU’s complex decision-making machine, with lots of very meaty proposals on their way to being sliced, diced and spiced, and finally thrown into the conciliation committee frying pan to be presented at five am by a bleary-eyed politician as a hard-won Presidency triumph. Among the biggies are the Digital and the ‘Fit for 55’ climate proposals. The climate proposals promise to be particularly bruising given that the ‘Climate Law’ fixing carbon commitments has already been agreed; finding a final balance between the proposals is going to require horse-trading of a hitherto unknown scale.

The Brussels beltway was quite dormant in August until the catastrophic events in Afghanistan brought 20 years of Western intervention to a less than triumphant panic-filled and inglorious exit. The ‘West’ lies in a tattered mess, with trust at an all-time low. The von der Leyen Commission presented itself as a “geopolitical” one, Biden’s administration declared ‘America’s back!’ - and yet here we are. One thing I have learned is that things are never so bad that they can’t become any worse. The triumph of the Taliban and the brutal reminder that ISIS haven’t gone away will give succour to those who support their ideals elsewhere. It’s not a pretty picture, but Europe and the wider ‘West’ need to have the courage of its better self that defends rights, democracy, the rule of law and prosperity both at home and abroad. 

Next week Foreign and Defence ministers will gather for informal councils to discuss the aftermath of recent events. The grave instability closer to home in North Africa, Lebanon and Belarus - among others - and, of course, Afghanistan.

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The defence ministers will be meeting to discuss the EU’s Strategic Compass, the aim is to have a complete document by November; recent events have shown that the EU needs to take more responsibility and concerted action in security and defence.

On Tuesday (31 August) there will be an extraordinary meeting of Justice and Home Affairs ministers who will gather to discuss how they will deal with the inevitable movement of people from Afghanistan, resettlement in the EU, and also supporting those neighbouring countries who have already taken in millions of refugees who will need more financial support.

Rule of law

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It’s hard to be a beacon for the rule of law abroad, if your own constituent parts are happily tearing up norms, which brings me to Poland and Hungary where the state of stasis has remained during the summer.

Von der Leyen rebuffed MEPs and legal experts in a five-page letter that listed how Hungary had breached six of eight rule-of-law principles linked to the spending of the EU budget and should therefore trigger the recently minted ‘rule of law conditionality’ mechanism to prevent the misuse of funds. Von der Leyen wrote that MEPs had not provided enough evidence of the breaches and that the Commission “has not been properly called upon to act".

Poland’s day of reckoning on 16 August was a non-event, with further prevarication from Commission HQ. One can’t help but think there is someone in the Commission legal service who has the Douglas Adams quote framed on their wall: “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

The Commission kicked the can down the road as they “read and analyse” Poland’s response. Vice President Jourova will visit Poland on Monday (30 August). The noises coming from Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro are not encouraging, recently tweeting that the EU is engaged in a “hybrid war” against the EU. 

In the meantime, Slovenia continues to stall on nominating prosecutors to the European Public Prosecutor's Office, with Slovenian Prime Minister Jansa blocking nominations.

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