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IOM says new witnesses provide further details of Mediterranean shipwreck tragedy

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0 International Organization for Migration (IOM) Greece staff in Crete today (17 September) interviewed more survivors of the deliberate shipwreck of migrants heading to Europe from Egypt. The survivors provided corroboration that the traffickers turned violent when the 500 migrants they were escorting to Europe refused to switch to an unseaworthy boat. The survivors told IOM Tuesday that they already had been forced to change boats three times.  When they refused a fourth switch - because they felt the smaller vessel was unsafe – an violent argument ensued. The smugglers threatened that if the passengers did not board the smaller boat they would be returned to Egypt, the survivors told IOM. The migrants persisted saying they would rather return than board the smaller boat. At this stage, according to testimony from four of six survivors, the ten smugglers, said to be Palestinian and Egyptian, began yelling and throwing sticks at the migrants.

The smuggler’s vessel approached the boat with migrants some of whom managed to jump into the smaller boat.  Witnesses say the smugglers forced them in the water and then rammed the bigger boat.  It began to sink immediately while the smugglers stayed in the area until they were certain that the migrant’s vessel had sunk, witnesses said. “After they hit our boat they waited to make sure that it had sunk completely before leaving. They were laughing,” one of the survivors told IOM. “When the boat was first struck, one of the passengers killed himself in despair by hanging,” he added.

The survivors, women among them, included two Palestinian nationals, an Egyptian national and one Syrian.  All the witnesses stated that the smugglers were Palestinian and Egyptian nationals. The two Palestinian survivors in Crete said their voyage began hopefully at what they called a “travel” office in Gaza, which made arrangements to get them to Italy.  The cost of travel for each migrant was US$2000, paid in advance.  The survivors said they had received grants to rebuild their homes and used that to pay the smugglers. The migrants were advised by the “travel” office to be in a particular spot in Egypt so that they could travel onwards by boat.

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According to their statements, they arrived separately at the rendezvous in Egypt where four buses waited to take them to the Port of Damietta near Alexandria.  The survivors estimated that each bus contained up to 100 persons. At the port they boarded a ship, which they estimated was 15-18 metres long with migrants already aboard. “When we got to the port to board it looked like the ship was already half full,” the witness said. The Captain did a headcount, and without including minors under 10 years old, counted 400-450 migrants.  Based on this testimony IOM believes that up to 100 children may have been aboard and are lost at sea.

According to witnesses testimony the ship had two decks with 300 people below and 200 on the upper deck. They were at sea for four days and had to change to smaller vessels three times.  Witnesses stated that the 300 people who were in the lower deck were trapped and drowned immediately.  The survivors say they watched as those thrown in the water clung to each other trying to stay alive. “The rest of us linked arms in a circle so that no one else would be lost,” a survivor told IOM in Crete. Several managed to stay above the water for up to three days.  But on the third day the weather changed: strong winds and waves swept the area and people began to disappear under the water. Sometime later a freighter picked up nine survivors.  Seven of these, including a 2 year-old girl were flown by a Greek military helicopter to hospital in Crete.  One of the survivors perished and a girl remains in critical condition. Survivors in Crete have provided the authorities’ information on the criminal gangs to the Greek Coastguard.

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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?” 

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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. 

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

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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. 

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.

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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’. 

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. 

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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.

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.

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Rule of law

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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