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#Malta presidency must address pressing issue of failed asylum seekers

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eu2017mt-logo-for-digital-mediaMalta is gearing up for a first in its history when it assumes the helm of the EU’s rotating presidency in January 2017, writes Martin Banks.

The controversial issue of Mediterranean migration promises to be top of the Maltese government’s EU agenda. One of the key questions concerns how to manage migration flows in the Mediterranean, which have reached record levels in the last three years.

According to the EU border agency Frontex, migration to Europe by Africans has climbed in 2016 as the number of migrants using the Central Mediterranean route from Libya to Italy has increased by 13%.

To tackle this, the last 12 months have seen a flourishing of new initiatives, starting with the EU Trust Fund, plus the Migration Partnerships Framework.

Within this scheme, today the EU today announced financial support to Niger in the amount of € 610 million in 2016. This includes €470m under the 2016 Annual Programme of Action (PAA), comprising six financing agreements, three of which are in the form of budget support. The Emergency Trust Fund for Africa will also be boosted to the tune of €140m. Among the first beneficiaries of the Trust Fund have been priority countries identified by the European Commission. Other than Niger, Ethiopia (€97m) and Mali (€91.5m) are the largest recipients of funds.

Such generous financial support is generally seen as a noble objective. But the respected European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) points out that the danger of “migration partnership funding, despite good intentions, is that the current conditionality, based simply on the exchange between money and keeping migration flows as close to zero as possible, risks creating the circumstances for violations of the human rights of migrants.”

There is also the risk of “refoulment”, or the forced return of refugees or asylum seekers to a country where they could be subjected to persecution.

As the ECFR argues, tying refugee flows to aid is a recipe for potential disaster that will dent the EU’s reputation in Africa and do precious little to address the image that the West is more than happy to work with dictators despite its human rights grandstanding. Worse, throwing money at the problem will do precious little to address the deep structural issues that have created the refugee crisis in the first place, which stem from poor governance, high unemployment, conflict and paltry living conditions.

Accusations don’t end there. The EU’s pursuit of trade deals with the African continent, ostensibly aimed at the betterment of African lives, suffers from similar problems.

Recently, and after nearly a decade of negotiations, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), comprising Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Swaziland, signed the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the 28 member states of the EU. 

The granting of free access to the vast EU market is lauded as a coup for the continued economic progress of the developing nations involved. 

But whether it will have the intended effect is still very much unclear. It is argued that instead of pursuing trade deals, Europe should work to help address the African continent’s deepest structural problems.

The fishing industry in Mozambique, one of the signatories of the EPA, serves as a poignant example. The country is suffering from rampant illegal fishing practices and wracked by civil war.

Mozambique, disproportionately reliant on its fisheries for both foreign reserve income and feeding its citizenry, is losing up to US$65 million from its economy every year because of illegal fishing. The country is currently battling criticism over the way a government financed a deal to buy patrol boats, essential to improving the lives of its coastal communities. An EPA offers little hope of alleviating the plight of fisheries, whereas a joint initiative on fishing would instead have the potential to increase export revenue and serve as a catalyst for job generation. Mozambique’s failure to properly deploy the patrol boats adds to the plight.

Ethiopia is another case in point. The country is one of the largest recipients of donor aid in Africa, receiving almost $3 billion in 2015 despite allegations of human rights abuses associated with some development programmes. Human Rights Watch (HRW) says that in 2015 there were continuing government crackdowns on opposition political party members, journalists, and peaceful protesters, many of whom experienced harassment, arbitrary arrest, and politically motivated prosecutions. A HRW spokesman said: “There are no indications that donors have strengthened the monitoring and accountability provisions needed to ensure that their development aid does not contribute to or exacerbate human rights problems in Ethiopia.”

By bankrolling regimes like Ethiopia, the EU is becoming complicit in keeping in power the very causes that have bolstered the waves of refugees fleeing to Europe.

Niger is in a similar situation. A country rich in natural resources, including uranium and oil, Niger is far from stable, and corruption, food shortages and porous borders remain serious problems. It currently sits in last place on the U.N. Development Program’s Human Development Index. 

Just a few days ago, Malian and EU officials signed a deal to expedite the return of migrants to the North African country. More than 10,000 Malian migrants have so far illegally entered Europe since the start of 2015 and the deal is the first time the EU has established such a precise mechanism with an African country with regards to returning failed asylum seekers.

Leading MEP Gabriele Zimmer, who leads the GUE group in the European Parliament, is critical of the process of relocating refugees and agreements with third countries in stopping people from crossing the Mediterranean.

The German MEP said: “Member states are pushing for agreements and partnerships with third countries modelled on the dirty EU-Turkey deal. This deal is inappropriate if the EU wants to respect its own values and rules like human rights. Furthermore, this is the EU outsourcing its own responsibilities to weaker and poorer countries.”

Looking to the future, Mattia Toaldo, a senior policy fellow on the European Council on Foreign Relations Middle East and North Africa programme, has authored a report on migration and EU funding and has issued a list of five recommendations for the bloc, including:

Increase intra-African mobility and support local absorption capacity;

work towards processing asylum requests in third countries;

allow for some legal circular migration to Europe;

use remittances to promote development, and;

support voluntary rather than forced returns.

All eyes now turn to 1 January and the incoming Maltese presidency of the EU and the actions it will initiate to address what is one of the most pressing issues facing the European Union.

coronavirus

Success for 1 Million Genome Stakeholder Co-ordination Framework meeting, Health Union takes shape, second wave hits Italy and Germany

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Welcome, colleagues, to the European Alliance for Personalised Medicine (EAPM) update, as we assess the success of its recent meeting yesterday (21 October), and how it ties in to the new Commission’s efforts towards “a healthy planet and a new digital world”, writes EAPM Executive Director Denis Horgan.

1 Million Genome

The Beyond 1 Million Genome meeting yesterday (21 October) was very successful, with more than 220 participants, and one of the core aims of the 1 Million Genome Stakeholder Coordination Framework initiative is to support the connection, through stakeholder alignment and implementation, of national genomics and data infrastructures, co-ordinate the harmonization of the ethical and legal framework for sharing data of high privacy sensitivity, and give practical guidance for the pan-European co-ordination of implementing genomic technologies in national and European health-care systems. 

Now, at the close of 2020s, wide-ranging changes are under way in European society and governance, with a European Commission working on an European Health Data governance framework, an European Parliament active on funding allocation for healthcare issue, and a growing conviction among Europe’s policymakers that people must be at the centre of any successful and sustainable strategy to drive forward health care. 

The ambition of new Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is a Europe that ‘must lead the transition to a healthy planet and a new digital world’. Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides acknowledges: “European citizens expect the peace of mind that comes with access to health care… and protection against epidemics and diseases.”

This discussion yesterday of personalised healthcare depicts a Europe where many chances for improvement are not yet fully being taken up. But this is not merely a catalogue of deficiencies. The variations and inefficiencies it presents are an argument for triggering radical rethinking, and for making the most of personalised healthcare. It highlights the endorsement of incentives, innovation, and investment by a new breed of Europe’s leaders that stakeholders can support translation through implementation in health-care systems.

Some meeting recommendations

In yesterday’s meeting, it was felt that secure and authorized cross-border access to genomic and other health data in the European Union is necessary to:

  • Improve patient outcomes and ensure sustainability of health and care provision in the EU;

  • learn to identify and treat cancer at a much earlier stage;

  • advance the understanding of genetic associations that cause or predispose common complex diseases;

  • strengthen the effectiveness of prevention by improving the screening accuracy and reducing its costs.

A more detailed report will follow in November. 

European Health Union en route

To fill gaps exposed by COVID-19 and ensure that health systems can face future threats to public health, an ambitious EU health programme is needed, say MEPs, who want to raise the budget for the programme to €9.4 billion, as originally proposed by the Commission, to enhance health promotion and make health systems more resilient across the EU. COVID-19 has shown that the EU is in urgent need of an ambitious EU health programme to ensure that European health systems can face future health threats. 

Gateway’ arrives just in time for second wave

Italy, Germany and Ireland, all of whom are currently suffering from the second wave of coronavirus, became the first countries to join up their local national COVID-19 apps to a European Commission-backed gateway, which will allow national health services to share data between themselves. 

Is coronavirus undermining German democracy? 

A heated debate is under way over who should decide on COVID-19 regulations in Germany. Critics argue that Chancellor Angela Merkel and the state premiers are bypassing parliament in their bid to fight the pandemic. Repeatedly Chancellor Merkel met with all 16 premiers of Germany's powerful federal states to decide on measures to curb the coronavirus pandemic. After the latest one, last week, politicians across the spectrum began complaining that, for months now, such measures were all decided behind closed doors and without due parliamentary debate or consultation. 

Among the most vehement critics of this apparent marginalization of parliament is Florian Post, a member of the Bundestag and legal affairs expert with the Social Democrats (SPD), the junior partners in Angela Merkel's coalition government. "For nearly nine months now, regulations have been put in place by local, regional and central authorities which are restricting people's freedoms in a manner unprecedented in post-war Germany," he told the mass-circulation Bild newspaper. "And not even once has an elected parliament been called on to vote on the measures," he complained.

Health passport’ set to fly in

A new digital health passport is to be piloted by a small number of passengers flying from the UK to the US for the first time under plans for a global framework for Covid-safe air travel. The CommonPass system, backed by the World Economic Forum (WEF), is designed to create a common international standard for passengers to demonstrate they do not have coronavirus. However, critics of similar schemes point to concerns over the sensitivity and specificity of the tests in various countries amid fears over greater monitoring over people’s movements.

French run out of flu jabs

The annual flu vaccination campaign in France was only launched last week, yet already pharmacies across the country have sold out of doses. Desperate to avoid hospitals facing the combined pressure of flu patients and Covid-19 patients this winter, the French government launched a greatly expanded flu vaccination programme this year, urging anyone in a risk group to get vaccinated as soon as possible. 

But demand has far outstripped what the government anticipated, and just a week after the campaign was launched on 13 October, pharmacies across the country are declaring rupture de stock (sold out) of vaccines. Around 60% of pharmacies are reporting shortages of the flu vaccine. Gilles Bonnefond, president of the pharmacists union l' Union des syndicats de pharmaciens d'officine (USPO) told France Info: "We have already vaccinated nearly five million people in less than five days. "This is almost half of what was done all last year during the entire vaccination campaign."

President Sassoli seeks prolongation of working methods

European Parliament President David Sassoli says the Parliament has “worked to ensure…that it can continue to perform its core functions”, suggesting a possible prolongation of pandemic working methods. “This is a clear example of how Parliament is adapting and fulfilling its role under even the most challenging circumstances,” Sassoli said.

Coronavirus second wave brings EU summit

European Union leaders will hold a video-conference next week to discuss how to better cooperate against the COVID-19 pandemic as infections rise, European Council President Charles Michel said on Wednesday (21 October). 

The video-summit, to be held on 29 October, will be the first of a series of regular discussions that EU leaders have committed to hold to tackle the pandemic at a time when most of the member countries report alarming figures confirming a second wave. “We need to strengthen our collective effort to fight COVID-19,” Michel said on Twitter. 

The discussion, due to start in the late afternoon, will take place a day after the Commission is expected to announce new plans to strengthen coordination among EU states on testing strategies, contact tracing and quarantine length, officials told Reuters. The EU’s 27 nations fought COVID-19 with different, sometimes contrasting measures, in the first months of the pandemic. The tighter co-ordination is expected to prevent a repeat of the divisions seen after the first wave. 

And that is everything from EAPM for now – do stay safe, enjoy the end of your week, and the weekend.

-- 

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Belgium

Coronavirus likely to affect Belgium Poppy Remembrance appeal

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It is feared that the health pandemic could affect this year's Remembrance Sunday commemorations in Belgium. The coronavirus crisis is likely to have a financial impact on the local Poppy Appeal, given that it is feared the public may well be cautious about the risks of touching collection tins and the poppies themselves. 

Even so, the Legion's Brussels branch plans to go ahead with holding a social distanced/masked ceremony at Heverlee Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Leuven on 8 November (11am).

This will be in the presence of British Ambassador Martin Shearman, UK Ambassador to NATO Dame Sarah Macintosh, as well as top brass from the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Poland, and Belgium.

Belgian rules currently allow for the event to proceed.

The Brussels branch, which celebrates its centenary in 2022, will be represented by Zoe White MBE (pictured), a former major in the British Army and the first female chair in its history.

White joined the international staff at NATO HQ in Brussels as an executive officer in 2017. She said she moved to NATO "to develop my political knowledge of defence and security matters and, most importantly, to continue to serve in an organization whose ethos and values I truly believe in."

She entered the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in 2000, after a short stint in her home unit, the Royal Gibraltar Regiment. She was commissioned into the Royal Signals and served in the Army for 17 years.

White has considerable operational experience. She deployed to Kosovo on Op Agricola, Iraq on Op Telic (three times), Afghanistan on Op Herrick (three times) and Northern Ireland on Op Banner (for two years).

She specialized in providing lifesaving measures to counter radio controlled explosive devices and was awarded the MBE for her work in Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland.

During her last nine-month operational tour of Afghanistan she was embedded with the US Marine Corps and among other tasks, was responsible for mentoring and training the communications directors across the local uniformed services (Army, Police, Border Patrol) in Helmand - a role, she says, that taught her much about the value of authentic dialogue (and left her with a love of cardamom tea and dates).

Looking back at her military career, she says: "I was privileged to command soldiers who were technical experts and absolute forces of nature. It was a joy to serve with them."

A self-confessed "defence geek", Zoe studied Battlespace Technology at Cranfield University where she expanded her knowledge of heavy armour and "exquisite" weaponry.  She is currently studying for an MBA in her spare time.

Zoe, whose husband David is also a retired Royal Signals officer ,was elected Chair of the Brussels branch of the Royal British Legion in September 2020, succeeding Commodore Darren Bone RN. She is the first female chair of the branch since its launch in 1922.

The Prince of Wales and future King Edward VIII met founding members of the branch in June 1922.

White adds, “I am delighted to take custody of the Branch chair role. It is both a way to meaningfully continue my service to veterans and those still serving, and to continue the tradition of Remembrance in a country where so many made the ultimate sacrifice for the lives we live today.”

Branch website & contact details. 

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Anti-semitism

Greek court orders jail for neo-Nazi leaders

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A Greek court today (22 October) ordered neo-Nazi Golden Dawn chief Nikos Michaloliakos and his former top aides to begin immediately serving prison sentences, capping one of the most significant trials in the country's political history, writes Erika Vallianou.

Following the ruling, warrants are to be issued for the immediate arrest of Michaloliakos and several former party lawmakers, the court said.

Several of those convicted including some lawmakers have already turned themselves in, state television ERT said.

Michaloliakos and other former members of his inner circle were sentenced two weeks ago to more than 13 years in prison for running a criminal organization after a five-year trial.

Michaloliakos, a long-term Hitler admirer and Holocaust denier, has rejected his party's prosecution as a political witch hunt.

He remained defiant Thursday after the court ordered his imprisonment.

"I'm proud to be taken to jail for my ideas...we will be vindicated by history and by the Greek people," he told reporters outside his home in an affluent northern Athens suburb.

"I thank the hundreds of thousands of Greeks who stood by Golden Dawn all these years," said the 62-year-old mathematician and former protege of Greek dictator Georgios Papadopoulos.

Those going to jail include deputy Golden Dawn leader Christos Pappas and the party's former spokesman Ilias Kassidiaris, who recently formed a new nationalist party.

But the ruling cannot be immediately enforced in the case of former Golden Dawn lawmaker Ioannis Lagos, who was elected to the European parliament in 2019 and has immunity.

Greek judicial authorities must formally request that Lagos' immunity be lifted by the European parliament before he can be imprisoned.

The court had issued guilty verdicts to Michaloliakos and over 50 other defendants, including his wife, on October 7.

But the conclusion was delayed by a number of legal disputes, including last week when Lagos tried to have the court's three judges recused for bias.

The head judge Maria Lepenioti on Monday also publicly questioned the state prosecutor's demand that most of the convicted be provisionally released pending appeals trials, which could take years to adjudicate.

Modelled on Nazi party

The court has accepted that Golden Dawn was a criminal organization run by Michaloliakos using a military-style hierarchy modelled on Hitler's Nazi party.

The probe was sparked by the 2013 murder of anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas, who was ambushed by Golden Dawn members and fatally stabbed.

Fyssas' murderer, former truck driver Yiorgos Roupakias, has been handed a life sentence.

In a lengthy investigation, pre-trial magistrates outlined how the group formed black-clad militia to intimidate and beat up opponents with knuckle dusters, crowbars and knives.

A search of party members' homes in 2013 uncovered firearms and other weapons, as well as Nazi memorabilia.

Another former Golden Dawn organiser, former death metal bassist Georgios Germenis who is now an assistant for Lagos at the European parliament, on Thursday said his conviction was "absurd" and politically motivated.

"I am 100% innocent. I was just helping people," Germenis said as he turned himself in at his local police station.

For Michaloliakos, the sentence caps a stunning downfall for a man whose party was the country's third most popular in 2015, the year the trial began.

The party won 18 seats in parliament in 2012 after tapping into anti-austerity and anti-migrant anger during Greece's decade-long debt crisis.

It failed to win a single seat in last year's parliamentary election.

Michaloliakos and other former Golden Dawn lawmakers had already spent several months in prison after Fyssas' murder in 2013.

Time served in pre-trial detention will be deducted from the overall sentence.

Under Greek law, they must serve at least two-fifths of their sentence before requesting an early release.

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