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A tale of two truces broken: Azerbaijan and Western Sahara

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Over the past few months, EU diplomats have seen a disturbing trend rejecting diplomacy in the wider European neighbourhood. On the surface, Azerbaijan’s surprise offensive to retake territories occupied by arch-rival Armenia since the 1990s seems to share a number of commonalities with the Polisario Front’s resumption of hostilities against Morocco in Western Sahara this month, breaking a 29-year truce brokered by the United Nations.

Both the Caucasus and North Africa have now seen the collapse of decades-old ceasefire agreements amid frustration with stalled peace negotiations, with the failure of international intermediaries to broker permanent settlements pushing at least one protagonist to unfreeze conflicts left in limbo after the end of the Cold War.

The timing also appears less than coincidental, with Azerbaijan pushing for victory on the battlefield at the precise moment the United States was most distracted with its presidential election – and agreeing to a ceasefire just as America finalized the results. The aforementioned European diplomats scarcely had time to look away from the conflict in the Caucasus before the Polisario decided to blockade trade in Western Sahara and declare war on Morocco on 14 November, forcing Rabat to respond.

That, however, is where the similarities appear to end. As EU countries weigh whether and how to intercede in the newest round of fighting between Sahrawi separatists and Moroccan security forces in the disputed territories, they will ultimately need to view the two conflicts through very different lens.

Fundamentally different dynamics

Azerbaijan’s primary objective, above Nagorno-Karabakh itself, was to retake seven ethnically Azerbaijani raions (districts) of its own territory that had been forcibly seized by Armenian forces after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and whose residents had been forced to flee as refugees within Azerbaijan.

Diplomatic initiatives by the Minsk Group (chaired by Russia, the United States, and France) never succeeded in convincing Armenia to return those territories, primarily because the status quo allowed Yerevan and its ethnic Armenian allies in the self-declared Republic of Artsakh to maintain supply lines and defensive positions in the ‘security zone’ between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia proper. In abandoning diplomacy, Azerbaijan was nonetheless recapturing its own territory from foreign occupation.

The status of Western Sahara, by contrast, has posed a more complex question since the UN-brokered ceasefire first came into effect in 1991. Both the Polisario Front, which wants to see the whole of Western Sahara become the ‘Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic’, and the Kingdom of Morocco, which controls most of Western Sahara and sees the region as an integral part of its own territory, previously agreed to proposals to organise a referendum on make good on the inhabitants’ right of self-determination. That referendum, however, was never carried out, in large part because of a disagreement between the two sides over who should be allowed to vote.

The Polisario has taken an exclusionary view of the question, demanding the choice not be offered to many of the people currently living in Western Sahara, including hundreds of thousands of people who have moved there in the years since independence from Spain. Recognizing the impasse around the referendum, the Moroccan government has put forward a plan for Western Saharan autonomy within a united Morocco that has received a warm international reception. American diplomats have consistently described the Moroccan approach as “serious, credible, and realistic” phrasing first used by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and echoed by a number of Obama and Trump administration officials since then.

The Moroccan government has also invested billions of dollars to develop the economy of the region, expanding the world-leading phosphate industry but also major municipal projects for the city of Laayoune, where a large part of the territory’s population lives. Morocco’s development policies have helped sharply drive down Western Sahara’s poverty rate, and Western Sahara enjoys higher ratings in terms of human development even than other areas of Morocco.

Some foreign backers better than others

In the case of Azerbaijan and Armenia, the regional balance of forces was firmly in Baku’s favour for perhaps the first time since the two countries regained their independence from the collapsing Soviet Union. Unlike in previous rounds of conflict, where Armenia was able to count on substantial support from both its Russian benefactors to the north and its Iranian neighbours to the south, Azerbaijan’s 2020 offensive enjoyed full-throated diplomatic and material support from Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, as well as substantial assistance from Israel in the form of drones and other cutting-edge military hardware.

Armenia, on the other hand, was left isolated. Moscow declined to make good on its mutual defence pact with Yerevan so long as Azerbaijan’s incursions did not cross Armenia’s own borders. Tehran dared not defy its own Azeri minority’s vocal support of Baku.

In Western Sahara, the Polisario has no concrete outside backing to speak of besides Algeria, which allows the group to operate from the town of Tindouf in western Algeria and which sees the group as a useful cudgel against rival Morocco. Not that Algiers is in any position to extend active support to the Polisario’s new machinations; President Abdelmadjid Tebboune has failed to win over the ‘Hirak’, Algeria’s mass street protest movement, since replacing longtime leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika last year.

In a particularly inauspicious turn of events, Tebboune was forced to leave Algeria for Germany in late October to undergo treatment for COVID-19, just days before his government put through a controversial referendum on a new constitution.

The untenable insurgency

With the vast majority of Western Sahara already being effectively administered by Morocco, and its traditional patrons in Algeria distracted with their own political challenges, the Polisario’s move to undo the ceasefire and block movement through the territory should be perceived by the international community as an unwelcome act of desperation, at a time when instability in other parts of the Sahel has created serious security concerns for governments in Europe.

In his reaction to the recent events, for example, EU High Representative Josep Borrell insisted on compliance with the ceasefire and a commitment on both side to “uphold freedom of movement and cross-border exchanges” through the Guerguerat buffer zone, the precise area where the Polisario has disrupted traffic. The Turkish government has also insisted on free movement in Guerguerat, all while calling for a ‘just and lasting’ solution.

If it chooses to escalate the situation with further provocations, the Polisario could find itself more internationally isolated than at any point since 1991 – much as Armenia did just a couple of weeks ago.

Economy

EU approves €2.9 billion in state aid for battery project attracting €9 billion

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The Commission has approved, state aid of up to €2.9 billion in funding for an ‘Important Project of Common European Interest’ (IPCEI) to support research and innovation in the battery value chain. The twelve EU countries involved will provide public funding expected to unlock an additional €9 billion in private investments.

The project, called “European Battery Innovation” was jointly prepared and notified by Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland, Slovakia, Spain and Sweden.

Executive Vice-President Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy, said: “For those massive innovation challenges for the European economy, the risks can be too big for just one member state or one company to take alone. Today's project is an example of how competition policy works hand in hand with innovation and competitiveness. With significant support also comes responsibility: the public has to benefit from its investment, which is why companies receiving aid have to generate positive spillover effects across the EU.”

When Vestager was asked if companies from outside the EU, such as Tesla, could benefit from this funding she said that this was possible and showed that the EU was committed to open strategic autonomy and welcomes non-EU firms when they have the right projects.

The Vice-President for Foresight, Maroš Šefčovič, said: “The Commission has given its green light to a second important project of the common European interest in the field of batteries. Technology is vital for our transition to climate neutrality. The figures show what an enormous undertaking this is. It involves twelve member states from North, South, East and West, injecting up to €2.9 billion euros in state aid in support of 46 projects designed by 42 companies, which in turn will generate three times as much private investment. "

The project will cover the entire battery value chain: extraction of raw materials, design and manufacturing of battery cells, recycling and disposal. It is expected to contribute to the development of a whole set of new technological breakthroughs, including different cell chemistries and novel production processes, and other innovations in the battery value chain, in addition to what will be achieved thanks to the first battery IPCEI.

 

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coronavirus

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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EU

Chemicals: EU protects wildlife from negative effects of lead in the environment

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On 25 January, the Commission took firm steps to ensure that wildlife is protected from the negative effects of lead in the environment, by restricting its use in gunshot in or around wetlands. Adopted under the framework of the EU's chemicals regulation, the measure will help to protect the environment by significantly reducing lead pollution while preventing the avoidable death by lead poisoning of around 1 million waterbirds every year. Lead is a highly toxic substance, which released to the environment contaminates both the soil and water.

Every year, 4,000 to 5,000 tonnes of lead are released into wetlands from lead gunshot.  There are affordable alternatives, for example steel gunshots, which currently cost about the same as lead gunshots. The measure adopted today will harmonise and enhance the effectiveness of national legislation limiting the use of lead gunshot in wetlands already in place in 24 member states.

It will start applying in two years' time. The restriction supports the goals of the Chemical Strategy for Sustainability and the Green Deal. It also supports the objectives of the Birds Directive, and is a first concrete deliverable under the new EU 2030 Biodiversity Strategy. More info here.

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