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#Coronavirus and the 'Merkel moment' for multilateralism

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In January, 2020 looked set to be a decisive year for Germany. In addition to a seat on the UN Security Council, the country would hold the rotating presidencies of two key European institutions: the Council of the European Union and the Council of Europe’s Council of Ministers. The government saw this alignment as an opportunity to assert its position and vision on major European and international issues, writes Jean-Christophe Bas.

This determination was reinforced by the willingness of the new President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, a close associate of Angela Merkel, to lead a "geopolitical commission" more proactive in its approach to European security.

However, fine ambitions soon fell victim to domestic and international events. Despite a strong turnout of world leaders, the Berlin Conference on Libya was ignored by the two main protagonists in the conflict, Fayez al-Sarraj (head of the National Accord Government) and Khalifa Haftar (leader of the Libyan National Army). The final communiqué’s call for "the parties to redouble their efforts for the suspension of hostilities, de-escalation and a permanent ceasefire" read like wishful thinking.

Soon afterwards, the Munich Security Conference’s newly minted concept of “Westlessness” – a world no longer dominated by Western powers – left many participants perplexed. Faced with China's rise and America's retreat, Emmanuel Macron said he wanted to go "faster and further on the elements of sovereignty at the European level" and hinted at frustration regarding Germany’s reluctance to embark on a European recovery, which he considered essential.

More serious for Merkel was the domestic political crisis that followed the election in Thuringia in February of a Minister-President with support from the far-right AfD as well as the backing of Merkel’s own CDU. This broke a taboo in German post-war politics and crossed one of Merkel’s red lines. Her putative successor, fragile CDU boss Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, was forced to resign. Months of efforts to achieve a succession in line with the Chancellor's wishes went to waste, and the race was thrown wide open and out of her control.

Against a backdrop of economic stagnation and the prospect of the German economy entering recession, speculation in Berlin swirled that the Chancellor would leave before her term ends in 2021. Many major media outlets said it was time for her to go.

However, the Covid-19 crisis changed everything, and gave Merkel the opportunity to re-assert authority in Germany and – above all – her leadership on the international scene. Germans have re-embraced "Mutti", whose management of the crisis with scientific rigour, empathy and pragmatism stands in stark contrast to the erratic, dramatic and chaotic approaches of many leaders. In announcing precautionary measures in mid-March , she had the wisdom to stand alongside the Minister President of Bavaria and the Mayor of Hamburg, underscoring the decisive role of local authorities and her own ability to act collectively. During a G7 conference call, she had no hesitation in strongly denouncing Donald Trump’s decision to suspend US financial contributions to the WHO, and call instead for stronger international cooperation in response to the pandemic. Speaking at the Petersberg Climate Dialogue in April, Merkel said economic stimulus plans must place particular emphasis on combating climate change. Her voice carries weight both at home and abroad, and her handling of the crisis has put her at the top of the polls for the first time since 2017.

With Chinese and American leaders weakened by the pandemic and an almost total lack of leadership on the international scene, Merkel has a unique opportunity to be the voice of reason and moderation in the necessary reinvention of the mechanisms of international cooperation and the re-composition of global order. The crisis has created a "Merkel moment" to promote a new, fair and balanced internationalism capable of addressing the common challenges facing humanity, and appealing to everyone committed to values of equality, balanced development and dialogue and cooperation. This includes the major task of reforming the UN and laying the lasting foundations for a “Globalization 2.0” serving the interests of the many. The challenge is to take advantage of this moment, when the whole of humanity faces the same threat, to develop a sense of common belonging, shared responsibility and common destiny.

Although narrow, the window of opportunity is very real for Merkel as she takes over the Presidency of the EU in July. She has 18 months left to complete this mission and take her place in history alongside the leaders who 75 years ago were able to overcome their differences following  World War II and develop a vision to put the world back on track.

Jean-Christophe Bas is the CEO of the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute, an international think tank based in Berlin. The DOC’s annual Rhodes Forum on 2-3 October seeks to contribute to building a new multilateralism and draw up concrete recommendations to this end.

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Dutch PM condemns lockdown riots as 'criminal violence'

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Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (pictured) on Monday (25 January) condemned riots across the country at the weekend in which demonstrators attacked police and set fires to protest against a night-time curfew to slow the spread of the coronavirus, calling them “criminal violence”, writes .

The police said hundreds of people had been detained after incidents that began on Saturday evening and lasted until the early hours of Monday, including some in which rioters threw rocks and in one case knives at police and burned down a COVID-19 testing station.

“This has nothing to do with protest, this is criminal violence and we will treat it as such,” Rutte told reporters outside his office in The Hague.

Schools and non-essential shops in the Netherlands have been shut since mid-December, following the closure of bars and restaurants two months earlier.

Rutte’s government added the curfew as an additional lockdown measure from Saturday over fears that the British variant of COVID-19 may soon lead to an increase in cases.

There have been 13,540 deaths in the Netherlands from COVID-19 and 944,000 infections.

The police trade union NPB said there could be more protests ahead, as people grow increasingly frustrated with the country’s months-long lockdown.

“We haven’t seen so much violence in 40 years,” union board member Koen Simmers said on television program Nieuwsuur.

Police used water cannon, dogs and officers on horseback to disperse a protest in central Amsterdam on Sunday afternoon. Nearly 200 people, some of them throwing stones and fireworks, were detained in the city.

In the southern city of Eindhoven, looters plundered stores at the train station and set cars and bikes on fire.

When police said the demonstrators were violating the country’s current lockdown rules “they took weapons out of their pockets and immediately attacked the police”, Eindhoven Mayor John Jorritsma said.

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Head of French health regulatory body: COVID situation is 'worrying'

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The COVID-19 situation in France is worrying, the head of the country’s Haute Autorite de Sante (HAS) health regulator told France Inter radio on Monday (25 January), as President Emmanuel Macron’s government considers a new lockdown, write Sudip Kar-Gupta and Dominique Vidalon.

France has the world’s seventh-highest COVID-19 death toll, with more than 73,000 deaths.

“It is a worrying moment. We are looking at the figures, day by day. We need to take measures pretty quickly....but at the same time, not too hastily,” said HAS head Dominique Le Guludec.

Jean-François Delfraissy, head of the scientific council that advises the government on COVID-19, had said on Sunday that France probably needed a third national lockdown, perhaps as early as the February school holidays, because of the circulation of new variants of the virus.

French European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune, when asked about this on French radio on Monday, replied that no firm decision had been taken on the matter.

France is currently in a nationwide 18h to 6h curfew, in a bid to slow down the spread of the virus, but the average number of new infections has increased from 18,000 per day to more than 20,000.

Geoffroy Roux de Bézieux, head of the MEDEF French business lobby group, said he would call on the government to keep as many businesses and schools open as possible in any new lockdown, to protect the economy and help children’s education.

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EU urges AstraZeneca to speed up vaccine deliveries amid 'supply shock'

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The European Union has urged AstraZeneca to find ways to swiftly deliver vaccines after the company announced a large cut in supplies of its COVID-19 shot to the bloc, as news emerged the drugmaker also faced supply problems elsewhere, write and

In a sign of the EU’s frustration - after Pfizer also announced supply delays earlier in January - a senior EU official told Reuters the bloc would in the coming days require pharmaceutical companies to register COVID-19 vaccine exports.

AstraZeneca, which developed its shot with Oxford University, told the EU on Friday it could not meet agreed supply targets up to the end of March, with an EU official involved in the talks telling Reuters that meant a 60% cut to 31 million doses.

“We expect the company to find solutions and to exploit all possible flexibilities to deliver swiftly,” an EU Commission spokesman said, adding the head of the EU executive Ursula von der Leyen had a call earlier on Monday with AstraZeneca’s chief Pascal Soriot to remind him of the firm’s commitments.

A spokesman for AstraZeneca said Soriot told von der Leyen the company was doing everything it could to bring its vaccine to millions of Europeans as soon as possible.

News emerged on Monday that the company faces wider supply problems.

Australia’s Health Minister Greg Hunt told reporters AstraZeneca had advised the country it had experienced “a significant supply shock”, which would cut supplies in March below what was agreed. He did not provide figures.

Thailand’s Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said AstraZeneca would be supplying 150,000 doses instead of the 200,000 planned, and far less than the 1 million shots the country had initially requested.

AstraZeneca declined to comment on global supply issues.

The senior EU official said the bloc had a contractual right to check the company’s books to assess production and deliveries, a move that could imply the EU fears doses being diverted from Europe to other buyers outside the bloc.

AstraZeneca has received an upfront payment of 336 million euros ($409 million) from the EU, another official told Reuters when the 27-nation bloc sealed a supply deal with the company in August for at least 300 million doses - the first signed by the EU to secure COVID-19 shots..

Under advance purchase deals sealed during the pandemic, the EU makes down-payments to companies to secure doses, with the money expected to be mostly used to expand production capacity.

“Initial volumes will be lower than originally anticipated due to reduced yields at a manufacturing site within our European supply chain,” AstraZeneca said on Friday.

The site is a viral vectors factory in Belgium run by the drugmaker’s partner Novasep.

Viral vectors are produced in genetically modified living cells that have to be nurtured in bioreactors. The complex procedure requires fine-tuning of various inputs and variables to arrive at consistently high yields.

“The flimsy justification that there are difficulties in the EU supply chain but not elsewhere does not hold water, as it is of course no problem to get the vaccine from the UK to the continent,” said EU lawmaker Peter Liese, who is from the same party as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The EU called a meeting with AstraZeneca after Friday’s (22 January) announcement to seek further clarification. The meeting started at 1230 CET on Monday.

The EU official involved in the talks with AstraZeneca said expectations were not high for the meeting, in which the company will be asked to better explain the delays.

Earlier in January, Pfizer, which is currently the largest supplier of COVID-19 vaccines to the EU, announced delays of nearly a month to its shipments, but hours later revised this to say the delays would last only a week.

EU contracts with vaccine makers are confidential, but the EU official involved in the talks did not rule out penalties for AstraZeneca, given the large revision to its commitments. However, the source did not elaborate on what could trigger the penalties. “We are not there yet,” the official added.

“AstraZeneca has been contractually obligated to produce since as early as October and they are apparently delivering to other parts of the world, including the UK without delay,” Liese said.

AstraZeneca’s vaccine is expected to be approved for use in the EU on Jan. 29, with first deliveries expected from 15 February.

($1 = €0.8214)

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