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EU’s growing role as a “soft power" aids Human Rights in #Morocco

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A report on human rights and democracy in Morocco shows the EU’s growing role as a “soft power” - writes Colin Stevens. The report, by Human Rights Without Frontiers Int’l, a leading Brussels-based rights organisation, was published in the European Parliament on Tuesday.

A conference where it was dissiminated was hosted by S&D and ALDE groups in the European Parliament. Ilhan Kyuchyuk, a Bulgarian MEP from the ALDE  group, said it illustrated the EU role as a “soft power” in helping to bring positive change to countries like Morocco.

The report “Human Rights in Morocco: Achievements and Challenges Ahead” comes after an extensive study by the NGO.

Kyuchyuk, a keynote speaker, said, “The EU does have a real voice and influence in helping to leverage the sort of  improvements this report is recommending."

The exhaustive report commends the Conseil National des Droits de l’Homme (CNDH), an independent body set up in March 2011, as a potential model for other countries in the region looking to improve human rights.

HRWF director Willy Fautre welcomed significant progress in the country in some areas of civil society but cited the freedom of association as being an issue of "concern."

There are 4,500 human rights associations in the country but Fautre told the conference that the notification process before an association can gain legal status, as required by the government, was often prohibitive.

Fautre praised Morocco for “real progress” but noted that the report highlights areas which “still need to be tackled.”

“The CNDH has been instrumental in bringing about real and positive change in Morocco but, as is outlined in the report, further progress is needed.” According to Fautre, The CNDH fully complies with the Paris Principles and holds constructive dialogue without concessions with authorities.

Fautre added, “The fact finding mission in Morocco was designed to identify the most urgent issues and this report seeks to analyse these in detail. It also shows that EU soft power can contribute to promoting human rights in this country and elsewhere.”

Colin Forber, a researcher at HRWF, said one deficiency was in education, pointing to a 28 per cent illiteracy rate among Moroccan children. Other problem areas, he said, include child marriage rates, particularly high in rural areas, and the use of corporal punishment.

Elisa Van Ruiten, a gender specialist at HRWF, also reported significant progress as well as problems in the field of gender equality and violence against women. The constitution revised in 2011 allows for equality of male and female Moroccan citizens and the Moudawana (Family Code) revised in 2004 allows for improvement of women’s rights, making it easier for women to get divorced and providing more rights regarding the custody of children, she added.

Dr Ahmed Herzenni, a human rights export who helped draft the 2011 constitution in Morocco and once served a 12 year prison sentence for defending human rights,  welcomed the reservations the report makes saying he is “optimistic” these will be taken on board by the authorities in the country.

He said, "Remember, this is still a relatively young democracy so there is still some way to go."

Cancer

Lifestyle choices and beating cancer

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On 21 October, the Kangaroo Group organized an online debate on Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan, Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides’ flagship initiative. The webinar, chaired by Michael Gahler MEP, President of the Kangaroo Group, involved a presentation by Professor David Nutt of Imperial College London and featured Deirdre Clune, MEP and Tomislav Sokol, MEP.

The event discussed the potential of harm reduction to help EU citizens make healthier lifestyle choices and how that could help prevent cancer.

The following is a summary of the webinar, from Professor Nutt’s presentation, to the contributions by MEPs Clune and Sokol and the Q&A session.

Panel

  • Professor David Nutt, Imperial College London
  • Deirdre Clune, EPP MEP
  • Tomislav Sokol, EPP MEP
  • Michael Gahler, EPP MEP

Introduction

  • Michael Gahler introduced the event, saying that 40% of cancers in Europe can be prevented and incentivising European citizens to choose healthier options can go some way towards helping prevent these cancers, such as the ones caused by alcohol and tobacco.

Professor David Nutt

  • Professor Nutt presented to the webinar on the principles of harm reduction, particularly in relation to alcohol and tobacco.
  • He outlined that preventative measures such as increasing taxation, educating on harms, increasing the age for use of alcohol and tobacco, restricting the locations where they can be bought and the times they can be purchased can all help to reduce the harm caused by alcohol and tobacco.
  • He also said that enabling access to safer alternatives such as snus and e-cigarettes for smokers as approaches that can reduce smoking-induced cancers.
  • On tobacco, Nutt said: “What causes cancer in smokers, is not the nicotine, but the tar.” He presented an analysis of the level of harms associated with different ways of delivering nicotine showing how very different they were, with cigarettes the most harmful compared with snus and vaping.
  • Nutt pointed to Sweden’s experience with snus as an example of how less harmful alternatives to smoking can reduce smoking-induced cancers, saying: “Snus really does reduce cancer.”
  • Nutt pointed out that cigarette use in Norway has fallen while consumption of snus has risen, showing that Norwegians are giving up smoking for snus in increasing numbers.
  • Nutt also pointed out that: “e-cigarettes are extraordinarily low in carcinogens.” He said that “we can say, almost certainly, that e-cigarettes will reduce mouth and lung cancers compared with smoking.”
  • Nutt showed evidence from the USA that tobacco smoking in young people has fallen despite the fact that more are vaping. This, he said, confirms that there is no “gateway effect” from vaping to smoking.
  • Nutt said that in heavy drinkers by reducing your alcohol intake by 25 grams a day could be reducing your risk of oral cavity cancer by a third.
  • Nutt pointed out that alcohol taxation increases are predicted to reduce the prevalence of alcohol induced cancers.

Deirdre Clune, MEP

  • Clune stated that the European Parliament’s Special Committee on Beating Cancer (BECA) recognises that “people have habits, their way of life and their lifestyle,” and that the committee will focus on all areas of cancer, across prevention, early diagnoses, treatment and care
  • She stressed that a coordinated approach is needed, with BECA focusing on prevention as a key area as 40% of cancers are preventable.
  • Clune pointed out the example of snus in Sweden as something that BECA could “hold on to.” She said that smokers most often start smoking when they’re young, and it is very rare for smokers to take it up later in life.
  • Clune said that people need to understand that smoking is an addiction and that safer alternatives can be a way forward. She pointed out that most people associate smoking just with lung cancer, while it in fact causes many others.
  • She pointed out a similar fact with alcohol and liver cancer. She recognised that restricting the sale of alcohol can be effective and that the sale of alcohol for young people should be looked at.
  • Clune pointed to restrictions on alcohol advertising and particularly restrictions on advertising on television and in sports as having changed changed lifestyle behaviours.
  • She said she hopes BECA’s report will be ambitious and recommend action on alcohol and tobacco. She recognises that BECA has a lot to do, and input from experts like Nutt will help them in their work. She stressed that prevention is certainly an area where BECA hope to play a role.

Tomislav Sokol, MEP

  • Said Nutt’s presentation was interesting, in terms of the evidence presented. Sokol said that decisions need to be made strictly on the available evidence and that something that is lacking. He pointed out that conversations with academics and researchers is extremely important to the Parliament.
  • Sokol referenced the previous court ruling in Europe on snus. He said that often, the European courts rely on impact assessments made by the Commission, as the courts themselves are not equipped in these areas to decide by themselves.
  • Sokol stressed the importance of harmonised rules across the EU and said evidence must be fed into the Commission.
  • Sokol pointed out that people can often decide for themselves on healthy lifestyle choices, but they need to get the most information possible to do so, and said this is one area where the EU can play an important role.
  • He said he hopes that BECA’s report that will be sent to the Commission will be ambitious and evidence based.

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Croatia

As Croatia moves into the eurozone, corruption and banking issues remain unaddressed

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Croatia is now approaching the endgame for its entry into the Eurozone. Last month, the European Central Bank (ECB) put out a list of five Bulgarian and eight Croatian banks that it would be directly supervising starting on October 1st, including the Croatian subsidiaries of Unicredit, Erste, Intesa, Raiffeisen, Sberbank, and Addiko, writes Colin Stevens.

The announcement followed Croatia’s official admittance to the Eurozone’s exchange rate mechanism (ERM II) in July, and fulfils ECB regulatory requirements that all of Croatia’s major banks be placed under its supervision. To move forward and officially join the eurozone, Croatia will now need to take part in ERM II “for at least two years without severe tensions,” and especially without devaluing its current currency, the kuna, against the Euro.

Of course, this being 2020, severe fiscal tensions have become a fact of life for European governments.

Trouble on multiple fronts

According to the World Bank, Croatia’s overall GDP is now expected to plummet by 8.1% this year, admittedly an improvement over the 9.3% annual drop the Bank had predicted in June. Croatia’s economy, heavily reliant as it is on tourism, has been buffeted by the ongoing pandemic. Worse still, the country’s attempt to make up for lost ground with a post-lockdown rush of summer holidaymakers has seen it blamed for jumpstarting the surge in Covid-19 cases in several other European countries.

Nor is the Covid-driven downturn the only economic issue facing prime minister Andrej Plenković, whose Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) held onto power in the country’s July elections, and the independent finance minister Zdravko Marić, who has been in his post since before Plenković took office.

Even as Croatia receives a coveted endorsement from the other economies of the Eurozone, the country continues to be rocked by corruption scandals – the most recent being the salacious revelations of a secret club in Zagreb frequented the country’s political and business elites, including multiple ministers. While the rest of the population endured strict confinement measures, many of Croatia’s most powerful people flouted lockdown rules, exchanged bribes, and even enjoyed the company of escorts brought in from Serbia.

There is also the ongoing matter of how Croatia’s government in 2015 forced banks to retroactively convert loans from Swiss francs to euros and pay out over €1.1 billion in reimbursements to customers it had lent money too. The issue continues to roil Zagreb’s relationships with its own banking sector and with the European financial industry more broadly, with Hungary’s OTP Bank filing suit against Croatia at the World Bank’s International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) this month to recoup approximately 224 million Kuna (€29.58 million) in losses.

Croatia’s endemic corruption problem

Much like its counterparts in other parts of the former Yugoslavia, corruption has become an endemic issue in Croatia, with even the gains made after the country acceded to the EU now at risk of being lost.

Much of the blame for the country’s perceived backsliding lies at the feet of the HDZ, in no small part on account of the ongoing legal saga surrounding former premier and HDZ party boss Ivo Sanader. Whereas Sanader’s 2010 arrest was taken as a sign of the country’s commitment to uprooting corruption as it worked to join the EU, the country’s Constitutional Court nullified the sentence in 2015. Today, only one of the cases against him – for war profiteering – has officially been concluded.

The inability to effectively prosecute past wrongdoing has driven Croatia down Transparency International’s rankings, with the country how earning just 47 of 100 points in the group’s “perceived corruption” index. With civil society leaders such as Oriana Ivkovic Novokmet pointing to corruption cases that languish in the courts or never get brought at all, the decline is hardly surprising.

Instead of turning a corner, the current members of the HDZ government face allegations of their own. The Zagreb speakeasy frequented by Croatian leaders included transportation minister Oleg Butković, labour minister Josip Aladrović, and economic minister Tomislav Ćorić amongst its clientele. Andrej Plenkovic himself is currently locked in a war of words over the country’s anticorruption efforts with his chief political opponent, Croatian president Zoran Milanović. The former leader of the rival Social Democratic Party and Plenkovic’s predecessor as prime minister, Milanović was also a club patron.

Zdravko Marić between a rock and a banking crisis

Finance minister (and deputy PM) Zdravko Marić, despite operating outside the established political groupings, has been dogged by questions of potential misconduct as well. Earlier in his term, Marić faced the prospect of an investigation into his ties with food group Agrokor, Croatia’s largest private company, on conflict of interest grounds. Despite being a former employee of Argokor himself, Marić nonetheless undertook secret negotiations with his former company and its creditors (primarily the Russian state-owned bank Sberbank) that exploded into the local press in March 2017.

Weeks later, Agrokor was put under state administration on account of its crippling debt load. By 2019, the company had been wound down and its operations rebranded. Marić himself ultimately survived the Agrokor scandal, with his fellow minister Martina Dalić (who headed the economy ministry) forced out of office instead.

Agrokor, however, has not been the only business crisis undermining Plenkovic’s government. Going into Croatia’s 2015 elections, in which Zoran Milanović’s Social Democrats lost power to the HDZ, Milanović undertook a number of populist economic measures in a bid to shore up his own electoral position. They included a debt cancellation scheme for poor Croatians who owed money to the government or municipal utilities, but also sweeping legislation that converted billions of dollars in loans made by banks to Croatian customers from Swiss francs to euros, with retroactive effect. Milanović’s government forced the banks themselves to bear the costs of this sudden shift, prompting years of legal action by the affected lenders.

Of course, having lost the election, these populist moves ultimately turned into a poisoned chalice for Milanović’s successors in government. The loan conversion issue has plagued the HDZ since 2016, when the first suit against Croatia was filed by Unicredit. At the time, Marić argued in favour of an agreement with the banks to avoid the substantial costs of arbitration, especially with the country under pressure from the European Commission to change course. Four years later, the issue instead remains an albatross around the government’s neck.

Stakes for the Euro

Neither Croatia’s corruption issues nor its conflicts with the banking sector have been enough to derail the country’s Eurozone ambitions, but to successfully see this process through to its conclusion, Zagreb will need to a commit to a level of fiscal discipline and reform that it has not yet demonstrated. Needed reforms include reduced budget deficits, strengthened measures against money laundering, and improved corporate governance in state-owned companies.

If Croatia succeeds, the potential benefits include lower interest rates, higher investor confidence, and closer links to the rest of the single market. As is so often the case with European integration, though, the most important gains are the improvements made at home along the way.

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coronavirus

Lockdown part two: Resilience is key

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As lockdowns and travel restrictions are reintroduced around the world, it is essential that businesses, governments and charities work in close co-operation to ensure the protection of the most vulnerable. COVID-19 and its consequences will clearly be with us for some time to come, so building our long-term resilience is fundamental. These measures must be formed in a calm, reasoned manner and with the long-term implications in mind, writes Yerkin Tatishev, founding chairman of Kusto Group.

My generation in the former Soviet countries went through a similar experience of massive economic and social shock in the 1990s when the USSR collapsed. Having grown through those difficult years, we perhaps have a better sense of perspective now. We know that in order to survive a crisis and flourish afterwards, patience and a plan for the future is required.

Quick wins are always in demand, often without any real consideration for their long-term impact. One can see this in business and politics across all societies, only exacerbated in times of crisis. Amid the general panic, the idea that “something must be done, this is something, therefore we must do it” often takes hold.

At Kusto Group, we already had established a charitable foundation #KustoHelp, which enabled us to deliver $2,4 million of aid to at-risk populations during the pandemic. That we had this structure in place was due to long-term thinking and the recognition that our company has a social responsibility to help those less fortunate.

In business you learn that when you have steady processes already ingrained - you have all systems in place, the right leaders, the right specialists, local competencies - you can adapt far better to a disaster or disruption. If anything, a crisis is a perfect moment to remove all unnecessary procedures, meetings, layers and bottlenecks. In other words, companies that have effective structures in good times, are in a much better position to handle the bad times. In many markets I see divisions of Kusto Group, such as agriculture and construction materials, continue to perform well for this very reason.

The same can be applied to governments and public administration. While no country or company has handled the pandemic perfectly, it has been easy to see that those with good governance have come out much stronger than those without. This learning is a perfect illustration of the need to reform structures if we are to be resilient in the long term.

The World Bank’s chief economist warned two weeks ago that countries would have to take on additional debt to help fight the economic impact of the coronavirus. As undesirable as this normally is for public finances, supporting our industries is an essential investment in the long term. Businesses take years to build up, involving massive investments of time, money and effort. The cost of letting them collapse is far greater than supporting them through the crisis. They also of course have a responsibility to support their workforce, local communities and partners through these difficult times.

Helping businesses survive the crisis is one element, but for the longer term we also have to look at areas that provide future resilience. Education and digitalisation are key to this. Young people and their education are key to a society’s fortunes, but it’s always one of the first places that cutbacks are made when the going gets tough.

With schooling and university now largely being held online, poverty has become a greater predictor than ever of success, as good access to the Internet becomes a necessity. The rapid digitalisation of our economies likewise means that those countries, businesses, and workers with poor connectivity will struggle to keep up. Investment in both these areas will be absolutely essential to a durable recovery. With the Yerzhan Tatishev Foundation, focusing on tech and innovation, and the High Tech Academy I have tried to make my own modest contribution to this effort.

This pandemic is a crisis of a scale not seen in recent memory. Mitigating its impact will require an equally unprecedented level of cooperation between stakeholders across our society. Beyond providing vital support to businesses, we have to look to our long-term resilience and growth, through education and digitalization. This pandemic will be with us for some time now. There will be other crises ahead. Are we ready for them?

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