A Moroccan solar project worth some €6.6 billion aimed at turning desert sun into lucrative power exports to Europe could be at risk as international lenders balk at plants planned for the disputed Western Sahara.
Morocco drew up plans in 2009 to build solar plants and wind farms to generate 4 gigawatts of power by 2020 but much of that output is to come from sites planned in Western Sahara, the focus of a decades-old territorial dispute.
Morocco has controlled most of Western Sahara since 1975 and claims the sparsely populated stretch of desert, which has offshore fishing, phosphate reserves and oilfield potential, as its own.
However, the Algeria-backed Polisario Front seeks independence and a United Nations mission was formed more than 20 years ago ahead of an expected referendum on Western Sahara's political future which has never taken place.
The dispute was rekindled in October when Morocco recalled its ambassador from Algeria after that country's president upset Rabat by calling for human rights monitors to be sent to the region.
Western Sahara has also drawn scrutiny as European and U.S. authorities worry that damaged relations between Morocco and Algeria could hurt cooperation against Islamist militants who are active across the Maghreb.
Morocco's plans call for building five solar power plants, including two in Western Sahara - a 500 megawatt (MW) plant at Foum El Oued and a 100 MW plant near Boujdour. Another 500 MW project is planned at Sabkhat Tah which borders Western Sahara.
Yet lending sources at German state-owned bank KFW, the World Bank, the European Investment Bank, and the European Union have told Reuters they will not finance projects based in Western Sahara.
"If we support those investments, it would look like we are supporting the Moroccan position. We are neutral regarding that conflict," one senior bank source said.
A second source said: "We have never supported any project in that territory (Western Sahara), and we won't, although the Moroccan solar plan means a lot for us."
All the sources declined to be named because of the political sensitivity of the matter.
Progress on the solar projects has so far been limited to one site within Morocco where Saudi Arabia's ACWA > is building a 160 MW solar plant in the city of Ouarzazate.
MASEN, Morocco's solar energy agency, plans to launch tenders soon for construction of two more plants worth €1.7 billion - one of 100 MW and another of 200 MW - also near Ouarzazate.
Germany's KFW backed a €654-million loan in October to part-finance these.
Mines and Energy Minister Abdelkader Amara said Morocco dismissed concerns over financing though he acknowledged plans for Western Sahara were not yet finalised.
"In the initial plan, three solar power plants of five are based in the southern provinces (Western Sahara), but we have not yet decided all those areas yet," he said.
"If those institutions say that they would not finance them, we will see at the time."
Sources say Morocco may seek alternative bilateral financing from Arab Gulf states already invested in the kingdom if KFW and others balk at backing the sites planned for Western Sahara.
But they say these investors may also be skittish over such investment and would be unlikely to finance the whole of it.
While rights groups such as Amnesty International accuse Morocco of continuing to use excessive force against activists and repressing political freedom in Western Sahara, Rabat invests heavily there hoping to calm social unrest and independence claims.
Yet any investment involving international firms stirs protests over the legitimacy of Moroccans to negotiate on behalf of the Western Saharan population.
EU lawmakers approved a fisheries agreement with Morocco last month, allowing European ships into Moroccan and Western Saharan waters, two years after rejecting a similar deal out of concern it might strengthen Rabat's control over Western Sahara.
Morocco's official media portrayed the EU fishing deal as a political victory while the Polisario Front dubbed it a violation of international law.
Kosmos Energy and Cairn Energy last year also started seismic surveys off Cap Boujdour in Western Sahara and plan to drill an exploration petroleum well.
"We respect international laws. We have started oil exploration and have signed a fishing agreement with the European Union," Amara said.
"So I don't see why we could not get the financing needed for those solar power projects."
Moroccan lawmakers drew up a renewable energy law in 2009 which helped attract foreign investors including German industrial and financial firms which set up the north Africa-focussed Desertec Industrial Initiative (DII).
However, some members have since quit the DII, including manufacturers Siemens and Bosch, and European efforts to bolster production of renewable energy have reduced Europe's need for potential North African imports.
Morocco has domestic demand for such power, however, as the country remains heavily reliant on energy imports.
Italian centre-left leader Matteo Renzi called on Thursday (2 January) for swift reform of an electoral system blamed for the country's bouts of political deadlock and said he expected an agreement could be completed within weeks.
Renzi is not in the government but as head of the Democratic Party, the biggest party in Prime Minister Enrico Letta's left-right coalition, he will have a decisive role to play in shaping the agenda and has already called for quicker action on reforms.
Earlier on Thursday, Renzi suggested that moves to fix the economy and political system might lead to an easing of European Union deficit limits that have forced austerity measures on a resentful Italian public already coping with a long recession.
Electoral reform has been one of the thorniest issues facing the coalition, formed after an inconclusive election last year prevented any side from forming a government on its own.
It has been seen as a vital requirement if Italy is to elect a government capable of taking clear choices and pushing through reforms but agreement has long been held up by party bickering.
Italian system creates unstable majorities
The current system, which has been overturned in part by the Constitutional Court, makes it difficult for any party to form a stable majority in the two houses of parliament. It also gives voters no say over their individual representatives, who are appointed to fixed electoral lists by party bosses.
Renzi proposed three different models which he said could be the basis of discussion, adding that all three proposals would give voters a clear choice and do away with the need for parties to cobble together ad-hoc coalitions to form a government.
"It has to be clear who has won on the day of the election. Whoever wins has to be in government for five years without any fudges or grand coalitions, and it has to possible to change governments," he said at an event in Florence.
"The cards are on the table. We can wrap it up in two weeks or a month if the will is there."
One model would divide the country into 118 constituencies each electing four to five deputies, with the largest party taking a premium of 15 percent.
French model under consideration
A second would be based on a reworked version of the previous electoral law, with three quarters of deputies elected directly and the remainder divided between the largest party, which would take a 15% winner's bonus, and a 10% slice reserved for some smaller parties.
Finally, a third version would include a French-style two round system with a run-off vote, along the lines of the model already used in mayoral elections in large Italian towns.
Under Renzi's proposals, the Senate would lose its status as a chamber with equal powers to the lower house and become an assembly for local politicians including regional presidents and the mayors of big towns and cities.
Doubt over the status of the electoral law has dampened speculation over a possible early return to the polls and it was not clear how quickly the other parties would be willing to move or whether a change made new elections more or less likely.
Angelino Alfano, head of the small centre-right group in Letta's coalition, welcomed the proposals and said he favoured the two round system used in mayoral elections.
"The structure is clear and it works. There's not much need for more talking," he said in comments which suggested that the coalition partners at least should be able to reach an accord.
Change could open door to relaxation on deficit rule
Silvio Berlusconi, head of the centre-right Forza Italia party which pulled out of Letta's government last year and who has been pushing for an early election, welcomed the proposals "among which there is certainly a reasonable solution".
All parties have pressed for a reform of the electoral law for years but agreement has been blocked by fears that any change could favour an opposing party. However pressure for change has grown and Letta has promised a new law in time for the European parliamentary elections in May.
Separately, Renzi said Italy could negotiate a relaxation of European Union deficit limits if it shows it is serious about effective reforms to its economy and political system.
"If there's a leadership with a vision, I can't see a problem with passing the deficit ceiling, although we'd have to have a battle to change the rules," he told the daily Fatto Quotidiano in an interview published on Thursday.
Crisis-ridden Greece took over the reins of the European Union on Wednesday (1 January) with a record low budget dedicated to its EU presidency of €50 million set as the “absolute maximum” the presidency is planning to spend in the forthcoming six months.
Aided by a shorter calendar due to the European Parliament elections in May this year, the Greeks are nonetheless making a few significant cuts, hoping to “set a trend” for future presidencies.
Unlike their predecessors and their own previous presidencies, the Greeks are hiring only national civil servants and will outsource no activities.
“Only nine people were recruited for the Athens office,” spokesman Alexandros Vidouris explained, adding that there would also be "very few people" in the permanent representation in Brussels: "156 persons compared to the usual 250 for presidencies.”
“Everything is done in-house, by local companies and employees,” Vidouris said. Athens has launched a sponsorship programme to cover a great deal of the expenses. Local private companies will sponsor vehicles for presidency-related transport and the national Aegean Airlines will sponsor air tickets for the traditional presidency trips.
The Greek EU logo, a sailboat symbolising Europe’s “common quest and journey” and hinting at one of their central priorities – maritime policies, was designed by local young entrepreneurs and cost €12,500 as opposed to the average of €150,000 usually spent on presidency logos, Vidouris claimed.
Athens will also be sober when it comes to hosting various informal ministerial meetings, an opportunity that national governments usually seize on to promote their country by holding the reunions in colourful places.
“Don’t expect meetings in exotic islands," said Vidouris, "all informal meeting will be held in the same venue in Athens, a conference centre, where everything is already in place and doesn’t require important extra costs.”
Only the informal foreign affairs ministers meeting, Gymnich, will be hosted in the outskirts of Athens, in a different venue, at the request of the High Representative, Catherine Ashton, who is presiding over the Council.
Athens has however not renounced the usual “presidency trip” for journalists, a tradition that allows media representatives to visit the host country’s prime minister and ministers twice a year.
“It will be an informative trip without much tourism, except for a visit of the Acropolis museum. A number of journalists are paying for themselves, the rest of the tickets are sponsored by Aegean airlines and the hotel is the one used by the presidency,” the spokesman for the Greek rotating presidency assured.
Gifts labeled with the presidency logo should not be expected either, following the firing of a Greek official in connection with a tender for the traditional ties and scarves, Reuters reported.
“We want to keep the costs down and focus on substance,” said Vidouris.
In terms of substance, the highlight for the first half of the year is without any doubt the European elections to be held in all 28 countries. In May, 375 million EU citizens are expected to cast their vote to elect their new representatives for the European Parliament.
The major European political families are expected for the first time to nominate their candidate for the job of European Commission’s President. This will shorten the calendar of activities for the Greek rotating presidency considerably.
All trilogues – the name for the legislative negotiations between the three main EU institutions – will have to be held in the first trimestre of 2014, with the last plenary session of the European Parliament taking place on 17 April.
The most important part of the work will have to be done in the following three and a half months, the rest will be left to Italy who will take over the EU reins on 1 July and will be the first presidency to welcome the new members of the Parliament and the Commission.
Germany and France have already sketched out the future division of jobs in the EU institution, but Germany appears to be at an advantage. EurActiv France reports.
Months before the next European elections, the French political class on both right and left, is pondering whether it should lend support to the current EU Commissioner, Michel Barnier, in the race for the EU Commission presidency.
For the first time, the next president of the EU executive will be chosen from among the candidates proposed by the main political groups in the European Parliament, and most probably between the European People’s Party (EPP) on the right and the Socialist Party (PES), on the left.
The other political groups will also propose candidates but have little if any chance of winning. The European left has already chosen Alexis Tsipras from Greece and the Greens are expected to select MEPs José Bové and Rebecca Harms. The Liberal Democrats are still hesitating between Guy Verhofstadt and Olli Rehn.
Martin Schulz uniting the left
The European Socialists started the campaign early by proposing Martin Schulz as candidate, the current president of the European Parliament. His position allows him to create alliances that could be strategic after the elections.
“He’s a skilled politician, who can already count on the support of the Liberals from the centre and probably the Greens. And who knows maybe the United Left?” a source from the French socialist party has said.
The weariness of the left, even the far-left, towards an EU Commission that has been very liberal economically for the past eight years, could lead those groups to support Martin Schulz’s candidacy, which in turn could help the PES win against the EPP, even with fewer MEPs.
“We showed in practice that as leftist groups we were able to work together and make progress on specific issues like the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD) or the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund (EGF),” a communist MEP stressed.
The centre-left could therefore win the EU Commission presidency even if the EPP wins the next elections in the EP, where it currently holds the most seats with 275 MEPs out of 754.
No consensus on Barnier
The French centre-right party, UMP, admits that this scenario could happen as “we are incapable of finding a candidate for Europe,” a French MP from the party commented.
Indeed, no right wing candidate is emerging so far. Michel Barnier, currently the Commissioner in charge of the internal market, has made it clear that he is available.
Barnier is appreciated in Brussels and well considered in Paris but much less among the UMP.
Jean-François Copé who leads the French centre-right party, does not prioritise EU affairs and would like to convince Bruno Le Maire, a competent and fervent pro-European politician, to run for the position. The right considers Barnier too much of a European federalist for the UMP, a Gaullist party where anti-EU sentiments sometimes prevail.
But Barnier is also the target of many other critics.
“In Brussels he is criticised for his level of English, not sufficient to be the EU’s number one,” an MEP commented. In fact Barnier speaks the language of Shakespeare sufficiently to use English terms in his French speeches.
On the far left, there is no support for Barnier's liberal views and criticism against the Commission is strong for not having helped many countries avoid the economic downturn. The Commissioner is also blamed for not having spearheaded a more social response to the crisis.
Another reason for the lack of enthusiasm for his candidacy is domestic, one socialist MEP warned. If Hollande was to support Barnier, who is originally from the UMP party, the collaboration of the two parties could be exploited by the extreme right, which regularly attacks traditional parties.
Asked by a French newspaper in mid-December about his ambitions, Barnier remained prudent: “I’m waiting to see if the EPP, where I am the vice-president, will need me. I cannot say now.”
The candidacy of the former Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Jean Paul Juncker could be game-changer. In an interview for the French paper Le Monde on 19 December, he said he was “ready if asked to”. He is a credible candidate even though Germany has not yet given him official support.
Juncker led his country for 18 years and spent five years at the head of the Eurogroup, which allowed him to build political alliances and European credibility. France is unenthusiastic however since it considers German influence over the renewal of the EU institutions to be overwhelming.
Angela Merkel wants to impose the Polish politician Radosław Sikorski in the post of Catherine Ashton as the High Representative for foreign affairs and for Lithuanian President and former EU Budget Commissioner Dalia Grybauskaitė to get a top job in the EU. Merkel wants a woman to get a high level post, and Luxemburger Viviane Reding, a popular politician in Europe, is also in the race.
“Angela Merkel can’t have the last word on the president of the Commission, too, let’s not exaggerate!” said one MEP.
France at the head of the Eurogroup?
The influence of Germany over the European institutions seems to be dominant however. As things stand , the president of the European Commission might be either a German – Martin Schulz whose party, SPD is part of the current German government, or a Luxembourger – Jean-Claude Juncker, who campaigned for Merkel’s CDU at the last German elections.
This situation could convince Paris to support Barnier’s candidacy more seriously.
If it does not, France will only be able to hope to get the presidency of the Eurogroup, the Finance Ministers’ group. The current president, Jeroen Dijsselbloem from the Netherlands, recently replaced Juncker after he stepped down mid-term. France has criticised Dijsselbloem for not having participated in some meetings and is pushing to give the job more gravitas by making it a full-time position, possibly aimed at Pierre Moscovici, a former MEP and current French Finance Minister.
Wolfgang Schäuble, the German minister for finance recently displayed his support for Moscovici in an interview. If Michel Barnier is not nominated by the EPP, the presidency of the Eurogroup looks like the only consolation prize for France.
Catalonia's president has called on European Union prime ministers for support as the region seeks a vote on independence in November this year, the source of an increasingly bitter fight with Spain's central government.
In letters dating from December and made public on Thursday, Artur Mas urged European powers to encourage a referendum that the centre-right government of Mariano Rajoy says is unconstitutional and it will not allow.
The Catalan struggle is likely to dominate the political agenda this year in Spain, which is slowly emerging from a recession and heading towards a general election in 2015.
"Contrary to some reports, there are a number of legal and constitutional options which allow this referendum to take place in Catalonia," Mas wrote in a 20 December to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, which was reproduced on his official website and is one of 27 sent to European leaders.
"I am confident I can rely on you to encourage the peaceful, democratic, transparent, and European process to which I and a vast majority of the Catalan people are fully committed," he wrote.
Scotland is due to vote on independence this year, though Mas made no mention of the British parallel in his note.
Other than embarassing Spain's central government, the international campaign also has a tactical aim, with Catalan's ruling party and citizens groups eyeing an end-game possibly played out in an international tribunal.
With Rajoy and Mas showing no signs of reaching a political negotiation, Rajoy is expected to use the national parliament and Supreme Court to block any move to hold a referendum.
In that case, Mas may well have to call early elections, likely to be won by the more radical independence party the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), opinion polls show. ERC leaders say they will take their battle for a referendum to an international court if need be.
Separately from the letters to EU leaders, the regional government also sent 45 memorandums to foreign countries in December listing its attractions as an export-led economy at the heart of the EU - of which it wants to remain a member.
Opinion polls have shown mixed support for Catalan independence within the region, with some recently showing only 35% would vote for a full break-away from Spain while others have shown support of close to 50%.
But polls have shown overwhelmingly that Catalans want the right to decide and believe that Rajoy should authorise a vote.
On 22-25 May, all 28 EU member states will hold elections for the European Parliament. Across Europe, parties are gearing up to go head-to-head on unemployment, euroscepticism and the future of the union. Follow the latest news on what's happening in the member states, sourced from our EurActiv Network across 15 European countries.
Before Christmas (19th-20th December), European heads of state and government met in Brussels for the European Council, to discuss plans for a “genuine” Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). But what started as a promising plan appears to have been stripped-down intensively in scope, writes Björn Hacker.
Björn Hacker is a political analyst focusing on European economic policy at the International Policy Analysis Unit of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Berlin
The EMU crisis unexpectedly offers, in the face of the possible collapse of the common currency, an opportunity to deepen integration through a banking union, fiscal capacity, common debt management and a social union. This is as clear in the first plans drawn up in June 2012 as in a revised version of December 2012 and the Commission’s Blueprint.
However, within only a few months the proponents of a “stability union”, who are counting on a continuation of the unilateral course of budgetary controls and competitiveness, have been able to dismiss, marginalise or put on the backburner what is compelling about a fiscal union, as well as the opportunities it would offer.
Again and again, specific proposals for improving the EMU architecture founder on fundamentally divergent approaches to the question of joint liability between member states. That applies both to the controversy about the restructuring and resolution mechanism of the banking union and to plans for common debt management or a fiscal capacity for the eurozone.
All that remains is the technocratic elements for gradual adjustments of the existing governance structure. And because, with the European Semester, the Fiscal Compact and other instruments, reshaping what is already in place constitutes the lowest common denominator of member states.
First and foremost, this means: structural reforms, budgetary consolidation, tightened controls and sanctions. The elements of ex ante coordination of economic-policy reforms, direct contractual arrangements between each member state and the EU and financial rewards for faithfully implementing structural reforms by means of a solidarity instrument, which remain for a ‘genuine’ EMU are basically already part of the coordination cycle of the European Semester or at least imaginable.
Now the range of subjects of coordination is to be extended and the compulsory elements of common objectives are to be tightened up. Anything beyond that, which could really contribute to change capable of correcting the barely discussed bias in EU economic governance, is scarcely discernible.
And the urgently needed project of a banking union will never come to fruition unless progress is made in fiscal and political integration.
The last German government was enormously successful in Brussels, suppressing almost everything that did not conform with its model of a ‘stability union’, in which each state helps itself and thus a transnational community cannot emerge. Thus the fiscal capacity has been remodelled into the unambitious solidarity mechanism; the banking union is coming to grief or largely degenerating into mere routine coordination by national authorities; and Community bonds have become a dead letter. On the latter, the Commission produced a green book back in 2011. However, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made her position absolutely clear around the time of the European Council in June 2012 when she said: “No eurobonds as long as I live,” since when the topic has been taboo.
Since the change of government in France, supporters of a ‘stability union’ around Germany, Finland and the Netherlands have encountered stiffer opposition. This is due to the obvious failure of austerity policy.
The attempt by the French government, together with representatives of the European Commission, to shoehorn the social dimension – which was not mentioned until the December summit of 2012 – into the negotiations on ‘genuine’ EMU is commendable and, in principle, correct.
The EU has for too long been perceived solely as a common economic area and positive, market-shaping integration has fallen too far behind negative, market-creating integration. It is thus high time to bolster and further develop the European Social Model. However, this process will miscarry if there is not also a clear correction of the reparation mode that EMU has pursued thus far.
As things stand today and with the current alignment of the instruments of economic governance all social aspects will remain in the shadow of budgetary consolidation and measures to increase competitiveness.
An ex ante coordination of economic policy reforms and contractual arrangements would only exacerbate the dependency of progress in the social realm on financial conditions, thus forcing it to justify itself and cementing the hierarchical subordination of social policy.
The work-in-progress of the European Social Model can continue successfully only if the original plans for a fiscal capacity, common debt management and a completely integrated banking union are realised. Only the consistent correction of the defective Maastricht currency architecture can clear the way for Europe’s social dimension. Unfortunately, there appears to be no prospect of that at present.
The commemorations this year of the centenary of World War I – still known as the “Great War” (see background) – are likely to reawaken the ghosts of nationalism and highlight stark differences in how Europeans remember the conflict.
Europe was devastated by four years of warfare unleashing the military application of industrial advances, but its nations – whilst equally traumatised by the conflict – remember it differently.
Britain and France, allied through the Triple Entente with Russia, see the conflict as a ruinous but necessary action to forestall the militaristic ambitions of Germany’s “unbalanced” leader, Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Both countries – whose schoolchildren have long been taught to consider the war as resulting in victory for their nations – have organised hundreds of commemorative events and media coverage.
Germany sees the centenary as a chance to promote European integration and arrive at a shared remembrance of the disaster, and is keen to play down national sentiments, in common with its former Triple Alliance partners Austria/Hungary – whose empire collapsed in the aftermath of the conflict – and Italy, which ultimately joined the war on the side of the Entente powers.
In her New Year message, German Chancellor Angela Merkel looked back to the past, though, noting that the year would be the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, the 75th anniversary of the start of World War II and a quarter of a century since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“This was the beginning of the end of divisions of Germany and of Europe," she said.
At the last EU summit on 19 December Merkel said that she had read the book “The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914” by Australian historian Christopher Clark.
“They [the European countries’ leaders] failed everything, and this brought World War I," she said.
Merkel used the historic reference speaking about the divisions among EU countries as a touchstone on how to handle the eurozone crisis. But diplomats told EurActiv that Germany does not want the anniversaries to make the communication between capitals even more difficult.
Some joint events are carefully planned, including a “peace demonstration” on Bastille Day, 14 July, in Paris.
Leaders set to join together for reflection
The presidents of Germany and France, Joachim Gauck and François Hollande, will stand side by side in France on August 3 to mark the start of the war “with gravity and reverence”.
An Anglo-German ceremony is planned the following day in Belgium, invaded by German troops on the first day of the war.
Tensions have simmered below the surface however. UK journalist Max Hastings called on commemorations to be unflinching in their apportionment of blame for the conflict with the Triple Alliance.
Meanwhile in August last year, Norman Walter, press attaché at the German embassy in London, said “it would be easier” for Britain to adopt a “less declamatory tone”.
“The biggest single contribution to the start of the First World War was Germany, but others played a part. Whether it was a win or not, it wasn’t worth it,” he said.
These tensions have been most pronounced in the Balkans, where the collapse of the Ottoman empire combined with Serbian nationalist sentiment to light the touch-paper of the war, with the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian crown prince, Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.
Plans for a meeting of leaders of all sides in Sarajevo have had to be dropped due to a lack of international consensus.
Origins, result of the conflict remain sensitive
The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra is planning to hold a concert in Sarajevo on the anniversary of the assassination, carried out by Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb and member of the nationalist “Black Hand” group.
Princip’s legacy remains extremely controversial in the Balkans. During the Yugoslav era, he was celebrated as the liberator and streets in Belgrade still bear his name.
Meanwhile Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dačić last year told media sources he feared that commemorations of the war would "lead again to Serbian people being accused of triggering the biggest armed conflict in the history of humanity". Serbia prefers to lay responsibility for the outset of the conflict squarely with the Austro-Hungarian empire.
The European Commission’s approach to the commemoration reflects the fractured memory of the war amongst its combatant nations, now united within the bloc.
“As such we will not organise commemoration events, as 2014 means very different things to different countries but we do not exclude that the President and Commissioners may attend specific events, if invited,” a spokesman for the EU executive told EurActiv.
Latvia's capital Riga and Umeå in Northern Sweden have been chosen as European Capitals of Culture for 2014.
The 'European Capital of Culture' is considered as one of the most successful and high-profile cultural initiatives of the EU (see background). Every year cities are selected by an independent panel on the basis of a cultural programme. The programme must have a strong European dimension, engage local people of all ages, and contribute to the long-term development of the city.
"The European Capital of Culture has been a fantastic success story for almost 30 years," said Androulla Vassiliou, Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth.
She added that the title offered "a unique opportunity" to make the most of a city's cultural assets and boost its long-term development, with important benefits for tourism and job creation.
The opening of festivities in Riga will include special events at museums, cafes and other venues, as well as exhibitions on Baltic amber and on the impact of the First World War on culture.
Vassiliou and EU Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs will participate in various events such as the launch of 'Taste and Feel 2014!' which will offer the public a taste of the year's cultural programme.
The launch of Umeå 2014 will take place over the weekend of 31 January to 2 February with the opening 'Burning Snow' ceremony on Saturday as a high point.
The main events will be held on and around the Umeälven River, with a choreographed festival of light, music, song and movement.
"This is the moment that Riga and Umeå have been preparing - and waiting for - since their selection as the European Capitals of Culture. The opening events will mark the beginning of what will be a tremendous year of cultural activities, aimed not only at people from the city and surrounding region, but also at those coming from much further afield," Vassiliou said.
“The future of Ukraine lies in our hands, not in yours”, civil society activists told Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich in an unusual New Year video message.
More than fifty Ukrainians of all walks of life addressed Yanukovich in a video message, in an unprecedented response to the annual televised message of the head of state.
“Every year it’s the President who addresses the people on New Year’s Eve. But judging from his scarce statements made lately, he has nothing to say. Now it’s the time of the people to speak,” said the authors of the video.
“The future of Ukraine lies in our hands, not in yours. We are Europeans. We will be in the EU. With you or without you,” participants said in the video message.
Since Yanukovych refused to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union in late November, tens of thousands of Ukrainians have taken to the streets of Kyiv and other cities calling for Yanukovych and his government to resign.
Yanukovych issued a televised message calling for national unity in 2014 after what he called possibly "the most difficult" year in the history of independent Ukraine.
The President even appeared to make appeasing sounds to the protestors, saying that 2013 had been also “a year of progress through Maidans [protest squares] and national roundtable talks, political disputes and honest dialogue".
Yanukovych also said Kyiv would deepen ties with the EU, Russia, and China, and vowed that Ukraine's national interests would not be harmed. "We are continuing to work on an Association Agreement with the EU and we have renewed good, brotherly relations with Russia. We have achieved true progress in our relations with China, we are establishing a balance between the East and the West without giving up our national interests," Yanukovych pledged.
He added that he hoped that the Greek EU Presidency which started on 1 January would help his country sign the Association Agreement (AA) which he himself put on ice last November.
According to Ukrainian media sources, Yanukkovich wrote to the President of Greece Karolos Papoulias, saying: "I hope that the Hellenic Republic will contribute to the further development of cooperation between Ukraine and the EU aimed at the conclusion and effective implementation of the Association Agreement."
It is difficult to say to what extent Yanukovich's EU ambitions are genuine, and whether his statements are not simply an attempt to calm the protests.
Hours after Yanukovych's address was broadcast on TV, at least 100,000 people sang the Ukrainian national anthem in Kyiv's main square in a show of support for European integration.
Organisers quoted by Radio Free Europe said they were trying to set a world record. Earlier, the leader of Ukraine's opposition UDAR party, Vitali Klitschko, said opposition parties and their supporters will continue their peaceful demonstrations across Ukraine after the winter holidays. Klitschko, who is a former world heavyweight boxing champion, said on 31December that the opposition's next step will be a nationwide strike.
"Our next step - just to remind you that we are peacefully protesting and everything we pursue will be done legally - is to call for a national strike, an all-Ukrainian strike," Klitschko said.
"The first time it will last just for five minutes, then the next time for an hour, then for a day. With this we will demonstrate that we don't want to live or work under this government and by their rules," he said.
An opinion poll published last week by the local Democratic Initiative foundation showed that Yanukovich would lose a second round runoff to Klitschko if presidential elections were held now. The poll also found Yanukovich losing to other opposition leaders including Arseniy Yatsenyuk, leader of the Batkivshchyna, or "Fatherland" party.
Klitschko, who previously announced his intention to run for president in 2015, added that the opposition will have a single presidential candidate.
The EU didn’t realise for years that the only motivation of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in pretending to negotiate an association agreement with the EU was to raise the price that Russia would have to pay to keep Ukraine in its strategic orbit. This EU blunder demands explanation, writes Joschka Fischer.
Joschka Fischer was German Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor from 1998-2005, a term marked by Germany's strong support for NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999, followed by its opposition to the war in Iraq. This article was first published by Project Syndicate.
“The European Union has probably never experienced anything like it before: Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s government pretended to negotiate an association agreement, only to back out at the last minute. EU leaders felt duped; in Moscow, however, the mood was celebratory.
As we now know, Yanukovych’s real motivation for the negotiations was to raise the price that Russia would have to pay to keep Ukraine in its strategic orbit. Only a few days later, Yanukovych and Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a Russian loan worth $15 billion, a cut in natural-gas prices, and various trade agreements.
From Yanukovych’s point of view, this agreement made sense in the short run: the gas deal would help Ukraine survive the winter, the loan would help keep it from defaulting on its debt, and the Russian market, on which the economy depends, would remain open. In the medium term, however, by rejecting the EU and embracing Russia, Ukraine faces the risk of losing its independence – on which the post-Soviet order in Europe depends.
In terms of its strategic orientation, Ukraine is a divided country. Its eastern and southern regions (especially Crimea) want to return to Russia, whereas its western and northern regions insist on moving toward Europe. For the foreseeable future, this domestic conflict can be resolved, if at all, only with a lot of violence involved, as the ongoing mass protests in Kyiv suggest. But no sensible person can seriously desire such an outcome. Ukraine needs a peaceful, democratic solution, and this will be found only within the status quo.
The EU’s behavior demands explanation. Yanukovych had always been the Kremlin’s ally. Indeed, his election in 2010 marked the end of Ukraine’s pro-European Orange Revolution, which had defeated his effort to steal the presidential election in 2004 and keep Ukraine in the Russian camp. So why did the EU press for an association agreement, without being able to offer Ukraine anything comparable to what Russia offered?
The answer can be found in the relationship between Europe and Russia. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia not only lost its status as a world power; within Europe, it was forced to withdraw toward a frontier that it had extended westward since Peter the Great – ultimately to the Elbe and Thuringia. After Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin as President of the Russian Federation, he followed three strategic goals, which he continues to pursue: an end to post-Soviet Russia’s strategic submission to the West; reestablishment of sovereignty over most of the ex-Soviet republics, or at least enough control over them to stop NATO’s eastward expansion; and gradual recovery of Russia’s status as a global power.
These goals were not to be enforced by the Red Army, but by Russia’s economic potential, especially a strategic energy policy supported by vast oil and natural-gas reserves. This would require securing control over these resources. It would also require establishing new export routes to Europe that, by circumventing Ukraine, would make the country vulnerable to blackmail, because a cutoff of gas supplies to it would no longer trouble Europe. The ultimate goal would be to regain Russian control over the Ukrainian pipeline network. At that point, Ukraine could be coaxed into joining Putin’s “Eurasian Union,” a Russian alternative to the EU aimed at keeping ex-Soviet countries within Russia’s sphere of influence.
Apart from using the Nord Stream and South Stream pipelines to disconnect Ukraine from Russian energy exports to Europe, the Kremlin successfully blocked European access to the hydrocarbon-rich Caspian Sea and Central Asia. Virtually the only way that countries like Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan can export their output to the West is via Russia’s pipeline network. The sole exception, the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline from Azerbaijan to Turkey, was pushed through by the United States; Europe has done nothing similar.
None of this is exactly a secret in Western capitals; on the contrary, Putin’s ultimate goal – a far-reaching revision of the post-Cold War strategic order in Europe – has become increasingly clear as Russia has moved closer to achieving it. But neither the EU nor the US has been willing or able (so far) to formulate an effective response.
The EU’s Ukraine initiative was supposed to be an attempt to provide such an answer. Europe played for high stakes, because if Ukraine does lose its independence in one way or another, European security will be at risk – a risk nowhere more keenly felt than in Poland and the Baltic states. With Yanukovych’s rejection of the association agreement, the EU has lost its bet.
Putin cannot be faulted for skillfully pursuing his interpretation of Russian interests. The blame for the outcome in Ukraine falls squarely on the EU’s leaders, who represented European interests so badly. Grand gestures and paper-thin statements cannot mask Europe’s neglect of its own strategic interests, which will not be helpful in its relations with Russia. If Europeans want to change this, they will have to invest in their interests and devise an effective approach to ensure that these investments pay off.
This is true not only with respect to Ukraine. At the end of 2013, Russian diplomacy can look back on a year of impressive successes: Syria, the interim nuclear agreement with Iran, and now Ukraine’s rejection of Europe. Whether Europe’s leaders see the connections and understand the consequences remains a serious question. That fact alone gives rise to considerable concern.”
Turkey's government said on 31 December it was fending off a "mini coup attempt" by elements in the police and judiciary who served the interests of foreign and domestic forces bent on humbling the country.
Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan said the ruling AK Party had in the past survived military coup plots and attempts in the courts to outlaw it. It would not now yield to a corruption investigation that he said targeted the government but was already damaging the national economy.
"These latest formations in the judiciary and the police, we can't call it a coup, but a mini coup attempt. This is what interests foreign investors," he told broadcaster CNBC-e, echoing suggestions by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of a foreign interest in the crisis.
"Maybe the clearest indicator of this was the fall in share prices," added Babacan, who is in charge of the economy.
The market value of Turkish listed companies had fallen $49 billion (€35.5 billion) by Monday's market close, he said. The main share index was down 1% on Tuesday.
Erdoğan has, without naming it, accused a movement led by Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen of creating a "state within a state", using influence in the police and judiciary in a campaign to discredit the government.
The "Hizmet" (Service) movement controls a vast global network of schools and businesses. Tensions have grown between the two former allies over elements of foreign and domestic policy and moves to close his private schools in Turkey.
The graft inquiry became public on 17 December with a series of raids and detentions of senior businessmen close to Erdogan and of the sons of three ministers. Since then, the media hostile to Erdoğan has brimmed with tales of police raiding offices or homes and seizing caches of dollar bills.
President Abdullah Gül, seen as unifying figure who has largely stayed out of the furore, made an appeal for unity in a New Year's message, stressing the importance of a clear separation of powers.
"It is the duty of all of us to avoid attitudes that damage the fact and perception of an independent and impartial judiciary," he said in the message on the presidency website.
Erdoğan's supporters argue the graft accusations have so far lacked any substance and were driven by political ambitions.
"We as the government are on the job," Babacan said. "We created this political and economic stability with our own strength. We will not easily allow someone to come and take it away. However many efforts there were until now trying to shake political stability, we overcame them all."
Army out of politics
Erdoğan has overseen strong economic growth and a period of political stability unmatched in modern times since his AK Party was first elected in 2002.
The current corruption crisis is not the first critical moment for Erdoğan, who created the party with the name AK - a word that in Turkish suggests purity and resistance to the corruption that had tainted older established parties.
Hundreds of senior army officers have been jailed on accusations of plotting to overthrow Erdoğan, who has succeeded in banishing from politics a military that had intervened to topple four governments in the second half of the 20th century.
Hardliners in the judiciary tried in 2008 to impose a ban on the AK Party, a coalition of conservative religious elements, centre-right figures and nationalists that was accused of endangering the country's secular order (see background).
As Babacan was speaking, news emerged of a further resignation from the AK Party. A total of seven MPs have resigned from the AKP since the end of November, five since the 17 December police raids.
There is, however, no sign of any large-scale abandonment of the party which dominates Turkish politics. Erdoğan, playing on his still unrivalled popularity, could even call early elections next year to shore up his position.
Erdoğan has responded to the corruption scandal with the purging of some 70 police investigators and blocked a second wave of investigations. Those targeted some of Erdogan's most ambitious infrastructure projects, including a third Bosphorus bridge and a canal allowing passage from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, easing traffic on the Istanbul Strait.
Erdoğan, whose popularity held up through a summer of protests against what critics call an increasingly authoritarian style of government, has broadened Turkish influence in the Middle East and Africa with a vigorous business drive, led often by construction projects.
Certainly, this has been to some extent to the detriment of relations with the United States and European Union.
"There is a very significant and broad mass uncomfortable with the position which Turkey has reached in the last 11 years, the advances it has secured, the power it has created in the region, its resonance in the world," Babacan said.
A former Greek government official who admitted taking €13.7 in bribes more than ten years ago to wave through arms contracts, has returned €7 million of the money to the state, the finance ministry said on 31 December.
Antonis Kantas, deputy armaments chief at the defence ministry between 1997 and 2002, was arrested and charged this month after investigating judges found he had €13.7 million euros of unaccounted-for money in a Singapore bank.
Kantas is the first Greek official to openly admit to taking bribes relating to major arms deals with foreign companies from countries including Germany, France, Russia, Brazil and Sweden.
"We are making every possible effort to return the rest of the money in the coming days," his lawyers said in a statement.
Kantas's testimony to investigating judges, in which he names the arms dealers who he says paid him, has led to a wide-ranging investigation in which two men have been charged and will appear in court in the coming days.
Dimitris Papachristos, 78, one of the two charged, was arrested on Monday. His lawyer said on Tuesday that his client would cooperate with the investigation but that he also suffers from serious health problems, including amnesia.
The case has touched a raw nerve among austerity-stricken Greeks, struggling to come to terms with the fact that their country is teetering on the verge of bankruptcy.
Excessive arms procurement is seen as one reason that Greece borrowed so heavily and then had to be rescued with a €240-billion-euro EU-IMF bailout accompanied by strict conditions that have increased poverty and unemployment.
Greece had the highest defence expenditure in the European Union in terms of economic output over the past decade. Its military spending stood at about 4% of gross domestic output in 2009, when its debt crisis started.
Most contracts were awarded to foreign companies.
Athens has already convicted a former defence minister and Kantas's immediate superior for money laundering.
The European Union sought to calm fears in countries like Britain, France and Germany that they face a mass influx of Romanians and Bulgarians following the lifting of restrictions yesterday (1 January), a change that risks fuelling anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe.
From 1 January, seven years after their countries joined the EU, Bulgarians and Romanians are free to live and work anywhere in the 28-nation bloc without applying for work permits.
The long-planned change has caused alarm in wealthier EU countries, where right-wing politicians and media are telling people to brace for a flood of southern Europeans who will take jobs from locals, strain public services and scrounge off the welfare state.
"Benefits Britain Here We Come! Fears as migrant flood begins," said the tabloid Daily Express in a front-page headline on Wednesday.
With continent-wide elections to the European Parliament due in May, the scare about 'benefit tourism' provides ammunition for right-wing parties like France's National Front, the Dutch Freedom Party and Britain's UK Independence Party (UKIP).
Seeking to calm the debate, EU Employment Commissioner László Andor said there were already more than 3 million Bulgarians and Romanians living in other EU states, and ending all restrictions was unlikely to lead to any major increase.
"I firmly believe that restricting the free movement of European workers is not the answer to high unemployment or a solution to the crisis," he said, referring to the EU's lingering economic malaise in the wake of the 2008 global financial meltdown.
Studies have consistently shown the benefits of free movement of workers for the economies of host countries, says Andor in his statement.
“Mobile workers complement host country workers by helping to address skills gaps and labour shortages - in other words they tend not to take jobs away from host country workers,” the Commissioner argues.
The dropping of the curbs was the lead story in nearly all British media on Wednesday, with reporters heading to airports to interview a trickle of people arriving on flights from Bucharest or Sofia.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has rushed out regulations to stop migrants from the EU being able to claim welfare benefits straight away. Under pressure from UKIP, he has said he wants eventually to restrict migrants from poorer EU states relocating to richer ones.
Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev has attacked Cameron's proposals, saying they will damage London's global standing for the sake of short-term political gain.
EU Commissioner Andor said in November that Cameron's suggestions risked "presenting the UK as a kind of nasty country in the European Union", a comment that infuriated the prime minister.
In Wednesday's statement, Andor acknowledged that a sudden large influx of people from other EU countries could strain education, housing and social services in particular regions.
But the solution was to "address these specific problems, not to put up barriers against these workers," he said in a statement that did not single out any EU country for criticism.
Andor said that, in hard times, people who went to work in other EU countries were "all too often an easy target", accused of taking jobs from local people or of abusing social welfare.
The European Commission estimates there are around 2 million unfilled job vacancies in the EU, he said.
Because a greater proportion of people who moved to other EU countries were of working age compared to host populations, they were more likely to be employed and were generally net contributors to the welfare system.
Latvia joined the euro zone yesterday (1 January), banking on its experience of austerity to bring it prosperity in a currency union where other economies have floundered. The 2-million Baltic country adopted the common EU currency on the 15th anniversary of the launch of the euro.
The Baltic country of just 2 million people became the bloc's 18th member at midnight (2200 GMT), taking a step further out of the shadow of neighbouring Russia a decade after joining the European Union and NATO.
Latvia's acting prime minister, Valdis Dombrovskis, who led his country through its worst economic crisis since it left the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s, said euro adoption was an opportunity, but not a guarantee of wealth, and the country should not relax its fiscal policy.
"It's not an excuse not to pursue a responsible fiscal and macroeconomic policy," he said after withdrawing the first euro banknote after midnight from a cash machine in Riga.
The euro switchover ceremony took place at a site where Latvia's crisis began - the former headquarters of the collapsed Parex bank, now headquarters of state-owned Citatele bank, which emerged from Parex's ruins.
Parex, the country's second-biggest bank by assets, went bust at end-2008, forcing the Baltic state to seek an international rescue to keep its currency, the lat, pegged to the euro at the same rate.
Its economy shrank by a quarter during 2008-2010, but then grew at the fastest pace in the EU, expanding by 5.6% in 2012, after the government slashed spending and wages and hiked taxes in one of the harshest austerity programs in Europe.
Latvia's efforts have won praise from EU policymakers, who have pointed numerous times to the Baltic state as an example that austerity can work.
"Thanks to these efforts ... Latvia will enter the euro area stronger than ever, sending an encouraging message to other countries undergoing a difficult economic adjustment," European Commission President José Manuel Barroso said on 31 December.
Still, a few concerns remain. The European Central Bank has warned Latvia that the high level of foreign deposits, mostly from Russia, in Latvian banks, as in Cyprus, was a risk factor.
Latvia also enters the euro zone without a permanent government after Dombrovskis resigned in December, taking political responsibility over a supermarket collapse in Riga that killed 54 people.
Latvia enters the euro zone as the single currency bloc marks its 15th anniversary (see background) , and the euro is now used by 333 million Europeans.
Even so, neighbouring Lithuania is the only remaining EU country showing much enthusiasm for euro admission after the temptations and strains of sharing a currency forced Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Cyprus to seek international bailouts for their government finances or their banks.
Estonia joined the euro zone in 2011, and Lithuania aims to do so in 2015.
Among the ex-Communist EU countries that have yet to adopt the euro, Croatia is stuck in recession while bigger economies such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary have become reticent about currency union.
Latvia, which becomes the fourth smallest economy in the euro zone after Malta, Estonia and Cyprus, expects the euro to lower its borrowing costs and encourage investors by eliminating currency risk.
Both Standard & Poor's and Fitch have raised the country's credit ratings in anticipation of its euro entry.
But opinion polls show ordinary Latvians are divided on the euro's merits, with many worried that its adoption will be an excuse to raise prices.
"In all other countries which had switched to the euro, prices rose. Most likely, they will rise here as well, which is bad," said Oleg Bachurin, 62, a pensioner.
Latvia's central bank expects euro zone entry to lift consumer prices by 0.2-0.3 percentage point in 2014, taking inflation to 2%.
"I'm not worried (about euro adoption). I believe it's progress. We should not look back, we should go forward," said Anita Linde, 57, a retailer.
Croatia arrested yesterday (1 January) a former intelligence chief wanted in Germany, responding to an extradition row that overshadowed the Balkan state's accession to the European Union last summer.
Josip Perković was one of 10 people arrested, state news agency Hina reported, as an amended law took effect that brought the country's extradition laws into line with most of the rest of the bloc.
He is sought in connection with the 1983 murder of a Yugoslav dissident in Bavaria, allegedly orchestrated by communist Yugoslavia's secret services for which he then worked.
He has denied wrongdoing. His lawyer, Anto Nobilo, told state television HRT that Perković would oppose extradition, saying he did not expect a fair trial in Germany and because he had already been investigated and cleared of all charges in Croatia.
Shortly before joining the EU on 1 July, Zagreb changed its laws to prevent the extradition of suspects in crimes committed before 2002, when new EU extradition rules had taken effect (see background).
The government said it wanted to protect veterans of Croatia's 1991-95 independence war from facing potential prosecution elsewhere in the EU, and denied any connection to the Perković case. Some EU member states have the same 2002 time limit.
But the government removed the time restriction in August after the European Commission warned it could face legal action, including the possible loss of EU funds.
The amended law took effect on Jan. 1 and Hina said that in addition to Perković, police had immediately arrested a second Yugoslav era intelligence chief, Zdravko Mustac, and eight others.
"It is now a matter for the police and the judiciary. The new law is applied equally to everyone," President Ivo Josipović said.
Perković had worked for the communist-era secret service, the UDBA, and led the intelligence service in Croatia after the breakup of Yugoslavia.
His lawyer Nobilo said a local court should rule on whether Perković would be extradited within eight days.
Perković, who could not be reached for comment, said last month he was ready to testify before a Croatian court as soon as the new law took effect.
The United States is sending the three remaining ethnic Uighur Chinese inmates at the Guantanamo Bay detention center to Slovakia, the Pentagon said on 31 December, in the latest of a flow of transfers aimed at eventually shutting the controversial prison.
Yusef Abbas, Saidullah Khalik, and Hajiakbar Abdul Ghuper are the last of 22 Muslim minority Chinese nationals to be moved from the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba, Rear Admiral John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement.
"This transfer and resettlement constitutes a significant milestone in our effort to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay," Kirby said in a statement.
Slovakia's interior ministry confirmed that the central European country will take in the three Uighurs.
The European Union and NATO member first accepted three Guantanamo prisoners in 2010, and the ministry said the latest transfer is a continuation of an EU-U.S. agreement aimed at helping President Barack Obama close the prison.
"As in the first case, this is about transporting people who have never been suspected of nor charged with a criminal act of terrorism," the ministry said in a statement.
Kirby said the United States was grateful to Slovakia for its "humanitarian gesture."
Most of the Uighurs at Guantanamo were captured near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in late 2001, and were believed to have trained with the Taliban. But U.S. officials have deemed that they pose no threat to the United States.
In 2008, a U.S. court ordered that they be released; some have been resettled in El Salvador, Switzerland, Bermuda, Albania, and the Pacific island nation of Palau.
China has demanded the Uighurs be returned to China, but the U.S. government says it will not do so because they would face persecution there.
Uighurs come from the restive mainly Muslim region of Xinjiang in the far west of China.
Obama has struggled to fulfill his 2009 promise to close Guantanamo detention center, which for many people symbolizes U.S. excesses in the years following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Obama has been blocked in large part due to restrictions imposed by Congress.
Last week, Obama gave Congress credit for relaxing restrictions on transferring detainees from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay to the custody of foreign governments, but said lawmakers needed to go further.
Congress has retained regulations that prevent the transfer of prisoners to American soil, where they could be tried in federal courts.
There are 155 detainees from various countries remaining at Guantanamo, many of them from Yemen. Most of them have never been charged. The administration has recently become more active in making transfers, sending two detainees each to Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Algeria.
The UK used to be the greatest advocate of EU enlargement. But now its prime minister David Cameron wants to introduce new control mechanisms vis-à-vis future EU member countries. EurActiv Serbia contributed to this article.
The United Kingdom, the historical advocate of an active EU enlargement policy, including towards Turkey, has shown a change of tone at yesterday's EU summit (20 December).
This development may appear as a paradox. For many years, British governments have pushed for an EU enlargement that would gradually transform the Union into a loose federation of member states.
“As we contemplate countries like Serbia and Albania one day joining the EU we must find a way to slow down access to each other’s labour markets until we can be sure this will not cause vast migrations […] I look forward to find a way to continue with enlargement but in a way that regains the trust and support of our peoples,” Cameron said, speaking to the press in Brussels on Friday.
On the eve of the EU summit, the largest British tabloid, The Sun, hijacked the Commission’s Berlaymont building walls to project an anti-immigration message thereby pressuring Cameron to toughen the tone, especially towards impoverished Eastern European countries, waiting in line to join the EU.
“When a new country joins, we have to look into what kind of transition controls we put in place. As I said […], it may be necessary to look at new mechanisms: percent of GDP, rates of wages, I don’t want to see what happened in the past,” he added, calling for a treaty change at the press conference.
But EU diplomatic sources claim this is just empty rhetoric.“If he was serious about changing the rules, the UK would have raised the question at the previous General Affairs Council, whose conclusions on enlargement Cameron endorsed. No other member state is raising this question in such a hysterical way. Enlargement policy is going on as it is without changes.”
Another EU source confirmed there had been no debate on this issue at the Council and that the “UK is isolated on the issue.”
“What Cameron said to the leaders is that he wants a discussion on this topic right before the next enlargement. That’s probably Montenegro in about five years’ time and Cameron will be gone by then. Believe me, comes summer we won’t even talk about this anymore. This is aimed at his domestic audience before 1 January,” he said, referring to the lifting of labour restrictions for Bulgarian and Romanian nationals.
Negotiations with Serbia
The big “winner” of the EU’s timid progress on enlargement is Serbia, who will be starting EU accession negotiations on 21 January 2014, a date determined by the Greek presidency earlier this week. But Serbia’s accession path looks thorny.
Despite the EU leaders’ green light, Serbia’s normalisation of relations with its neighbour Kosovo is still being closely monitored, “so that Serbia and Kosovo can continue on their respective European paths, while avoiding that either can block the other in these efforts.”
Kosovo broke away from Serbia after the 1999 war and proclaimed its independence in 2008, which Belgrade still refuses to recognise. An EU-facilitated dialogue started in 2011 and helped both countries smooth their relations.
Zoran Milanovic, the Prime Minister of the new EU member, Croatia, a former Yugoslav country who fought against Serbia in the early nineties, and whose country now has the power to veto Serbia’s EU membership, warned: “I expect Belgrade’s authorities to behave better on questions such as the heritage of war, minorities’ status […] We have not put barriers so far, we are we well-intentioned, and it is in our interest that Serbia becomes a member of the EU. But we all need to understand that the criteria in the EU are very demanding.”
Tirana’s hopes to get a candidate status with the EU, a first step that precedes the start of the negotiations with the EU bloc, were also dashed.
The Dutch parliament announced prior to the Summit it would block Albania’s progress due to concerns about the level of corruption and organised crime in the country. But the Netherlands were not isolated in their move. The UK, Germany, France and Denmark also said the granting of candidate status to Albania was premature.
“We are not currently supporting a move to candidate status for Albania,” David Cameron confirmed, adding: “There are quite a lot of steps that need to be taken before candidate status would become appropriate. I think we should use these steps to encourage putting in place measures against corruption, organised crime, and in favour of rule of law.”
According to the Commission, Albania has delivered on EU requirements and should be granted the status of candidate country. However, decisions regarding enlargement can only be taken by consensus of the member states.
Other enlargement countries include the tiny states of Montenegro, Macedonia and Bosnia Herzegovina.
EXCLUSIVE / Against the backdrop of completing the six-month rotating presidency of the EU, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė invited Europeans to take note of the protests in Kyiv's Maidan Square ahead of the European elections: “The Ukrainian people want what we have achieved,” she said in an exclusive interview with EurActiv.
“Europe is not a gift, it is responsibility. It takes responsibility to be European. Responsibility to do the reforms which are good for your country. It is fiscal, social responsibility,” she said, adding that it was time to stop taking European peace, prosperity and security for granted.
Lithuania, a country of 3.2 million people, which joined the EU in 2004, assumed its first presidency of the Council of the European Union on 1 July. It started with a huge number of dossiers and ticked boxes on many difficult legislative files.
Marathon and speedy presidency
The Presidency collided with both the end of the political and institutional cycle and the adoption of the European long-term budget which required the adoption of 74 legislative acts.
“A huge workload was pushed to our presidency, because the next one will have to already prepare for the EU elections,” said Grybauskaitė, who reckoned the workload was two-and-a-half times more than that usually dealt with by previous EU presidencies.
“We made it. We passed 61 of the 74 legislative acts so that the EU budget can be operational as of next year,” she cheered.
But it was not only the EU budget. Many dossiers were left over from previous presidencies: posted workers, the tobacco directive, agriculture, rules for Frontex, CO2 on cars. These and others were all successfully brought to agreement.
The greatest achievement, however, is the banking union, said the Lithuanian president.
“In the recent two years we have been creating a number of instruments to fight the crisis (two-pack, six- pack), but the banking union is the additional tassel in the architecture,” she said. “It is important for economic recovery and financial stability in Europe.”
Even though critics argue the compromise is clearly imperfect and some say too complex to ever work effectively, she points at the positive of having managed to reach a deal on a very sovereign issue such as banking resolution.
“The Single Resolution Mechanism was proposed in September and in three months we have an agreement. We have never worked at such speed,” she said.
“It is a compromise – she stressed – we can later improve it, if necessary steps are needed. But the fact that we were able to reach a compromise should be saluted as an important step. Optimal or not, time will say,” she added, insisting the new instruments must now be properly implemented.
Perfection from the start is only for utopians, hinted the president. “The job is better done by those who stop talking about doing something, but that actually get the job done,” she said.
Ukraine’s turn not a ‘failure’
On the refusal of Ukraine to sign the association agreement with the EU last month, the Lithuanian president argues it is not a failure but rather delivers positive messages.
It was a wake-up call for EU leaders and Europeans at large, but also for the Ukrainian people.
“The Ukrainian political leadership has shown that they are neither committed towards Europe, neither understand what a future in Europe can deliver to its country and what can they gain from it,” she said.
This reality check for everyone was important. The huge anti-government protests in Ukraine’s capital Kiev have shown that the Ukrainian people had woken up, she explained. “They have taken the future of their own life and their own children in their own hand.”
“Now Ukraine and the people of Ukraine have a real choice on whether to come towards Europe and how rapidly they want to do it.”
The Ukrainian rebuttal has also shed light on the success of enlargement for Europe and all member states, insisted Grybauskaitė.
“Compare Poland or Lithuania's GDP per-capita with that of Ukraine today, it is hugely different,” she said.
“The association agreement and then membership with the EU gave us the eagerness to reform faster. Twenty-two years ago we were at the same level with Ukraine. And now we are not comparable by economic development, human rights, legal basis, modernisation—Everything is different.”
Although Lithuania took over 10 years to make the reforms required to join the European Union, Grybauskaitė said, now it has become one of the fastest growing economies in the 28-country bloc, negotiating its entrance to the OECD and seats as a non-permanent member in the United Nations Security Council. “Not bad, I would say,” she said glowing with pride.
The success of countries like Lithuania should give hope to Eastern European countries, she added.
Stand up to Russia?
Asked whether the EU had to reshuffle its strategic ties with Russia and how, Grybauskaitė said the EU had to be open, but ‘very direct’.
She said the EU was deeply concerned by Russian behaviour with third countries both on human rights and the rule of law.
“In recent months, we have seen how Russia is misusing its powers and putting pressure over Eastern partners, including Lithuania. This is unacceptable from a country that has signed obligations with the WTO or European bodies. These cannot be just forgotten. But Russia is still our strategic partner,” Grybauskaitė said, insisting the EU and its values had to be respected.
As 2013 comes to a close, EurActiv looks back at the stories that had the biggest impact and were mostly widely shared on social media.
From the debate about a British exit of the European Union to budget negotiations, banking union but also toilet flushing standards, GMOs and shale gas, here are the stories which most fired up your imagination, below.
GMO debate restarted
Our most read story this year was not an exclusive interview with José Manuel Barroso (which we did not get) but a more sober article about the scientific controversy behind GMOs. Studies linking genetically modified crops with adverse effects on the environment or animal health were based on “contested science”, according to a report by the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC), which received backing from Anne Glover, the EU’s chief scientific advisor.
The interest generated by that story was all the more surprising since it was not the first time that Anne Glover had expressed support for the technology. In an interview with EurActiv the year before, she said there was "no risk" associated with GMOs and called on EU countries impeding GMO use to be put to the proof.
Can Europe repeat the US shale gas boom?
Growing interest in Europe about shale gas was our second biggest story this year. While shale gas is proving to be a "game-changer" in the United States, bringing energy prices to their lowest level in a decade, conditions in Europe were rather different and would not necessarily be replicated, EU officials said.
And the technology continued to stir controversy among scientists. In Germany, the largest and most prestigious research institute pulled out of a Canadian government-funded CAN$25 million research project looking for sustainable solutions to tar sands pollution, citing fears for its environmental reputation.
The debate about Catalonia's attempt to win independence from Spain reached the European level, stirring controversy in Brussels about secessionist movements more generally.
In a blow to the regionalists, the European Commission warned that Catalonia would not be considered an EU member state if it became independent from Spain. The European Commission decided to indirectly set out its position on the Catalan self-determination debate, after it refused to comment on a mass pro-independence protest in Catalonia.
Toilet flushing standards going down the drain?
Our third most read story of the year may have come across like an April fools joke at first. But it dealt with a bog standard (pardon the pun) proposal from the European Commission to set criteria for ecolabels for toilets and urinals. The story unleashed a series of furious comments from readers complaining about EU meddling.
The ecolabel would only be voluntary and was developed by a very serious "stakeholder group" made up of consumers, business and local authorities.
Negotiations over the EU budget for the next seven years (2014-2020) were at the top of our readers concerns this year. Hawks appeared to gain the upper hand in the latest draft presented by European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, cutting back still further a version of the 2014-2020 budget presented two months before.
This one was a blockbuster in August, traditionally a calm period for EU news. Iceland announced that an election that had brought eurosceptic parties to power had been interpreted by constitutional advisors as a signal to stop EU accession talks.
The civil war in Syria was another highlight of the year. Russia joined the EU in its call for an independent UN investigation of the deadly chemical attack that the Syrian government allegedly carried out against civilians. Unverified footage on Youtube released by Syrian rebel groups shocked the international community. The videos showed dead children and civilians suffering from convulsions after the gas shell.
Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was considering running for election as a member of the European Parliament for Estonia, a country where Italian laws prohibiting him from running for office did not apply.
The bilateral agreements for the construction of the Gazprom-favoured South Stream gas pipeline – concluded between Russia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Greece, Slovenia, Croatia and Austria – were all in breach of EU law and needed to be renegotiated from scratch, the European Commission said.
In an unusual visit to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban launched a sharp attack on MEPs after they criticised the state of democracy in Hungary.
After the financial and sovereign debt crisis, state bailouts and budget cuts, this article said that the May 2014 European elections were expected to take the pulse of public confidence towards the European Union. For the first time, voters would also indirectly choose the next president of the European Commission, giving citizens a fresh chance to shape the future of Europe.
With Prime Minister David Cameron having vowed to hold a referendum on UK membership of the EU, Britain's penchant for EU bashing was well publicised. But this in depth report said that there were also political parties in other member states which had their issues with the European project, and whose stance against integration was further hardened by the worsening of the economic crisis.
The German elections brought many European issues to a standstill during 2013. And the outcome probably ended in the most predictable manner, with Angela Merkel re-elected for a third consecutive term.
The election also propelled the firebrand social democrat Martin Schulz, the European Parliament president, into pole position to be the Party of European Socialists candidate to succeed to José Manuel Barroso as Commission President.
US President Barack Obama called for talks on a far-reaching free trade deal with the European Union. Delivering his annual 'State of the Union' speech in the US Congress, Obama supported a bilateral agreement that would encompass half the world's economic output.
Tax haven crackdown
The offshore financial industry was hit by the leak of 2.5 million secret bank accounts of companies and nationals in 170 countries to 86 journalists worldwide, under the leadership of the International Consortium of investigative journalism.
766 MEPs and over 3000 members of staff were travelling every month from Brussels to Strasbourg for the chamber's plenary sessions. MEPs said the monthly shuttle cost over €150 million, approximately 10% of the Parliament's yearly budget and almost 19,000 tones of CO2 emissions. In a bid to save money, time and the environment, European parliamentarians wanted to decide when and where the EU legislature met.
After enlarging to 10 new member states in 2004 and two more in 2007, enlargement fatigue was setting in. In December, the Dutch parliament voted against a government proposal to grant Albania the status of EU candidate country, preventing EU leaders from rubber-stamping the proposal during a summit in Brussels on 19-20 December.
Conscious that enlargement policy had fallen out of grace, Greece even decided to take the subject out of its presidency priority list.
This one was not the most read but probably the most significant for the future shape of the EU. UK Prime Minister David Cameron promised to offer Britons a simple ‘in/out’ referendum choice on whether to stay in the European Union if he won the next general election, scheduled for 2015.