But those problems are not going anywhere in 2021.
To some extent, the crises of 2020 have masked a debilitating lack of unity across the EU. For all Brussels’ lofty ambitions of greater integration and becoming a global force in its own right, it faces pushback on issues ranging from internal adherence to the rule of law to a coordinated strategy for dealing with China.
Rule of law is probably the most immediate problem to solve.
After months of painful negotiation, the bloc’s member states agreed on both a long-term budget and a Covid recovery package that totaled nearly $2 trillion. The nations that have been worst affected by the pandemic desperately need those funds.
However, two member states spent a good chunk of 2020 objecting to the release of those funds: Hungary and Poland.
The governments of Viktor Orban and Mateusz Morawiecki objected to the funds being tied to adherence to the rule of law, which is unsurprising as both are being investigated for breaches at an EU level. The charges levelled at both countries range from suppression of government critics to undermining the independence of the judiciary.
During the coronavirus crisis, concerns have also been raised about the use of emergency measures in numerous EU nations — including Hungary and Poland — that curb the fundamental rights of citizens.
It had long been speculated that Brussels would attempt to tie the EU’s budget to the rule of law as a way of bringing delinquent states to heel.
Unfortunately, trying to do so during a pandemic and the subsequent recession has strengthened the impact of the veto to which every member state is entitled.
In this particular instance, intransigence in Budapest and Warsaw ultimately led to a compromise in Brussels in which both sides gave ground, which in the grand scheme of things could be interpreted as the EU fudging on one of its key principles.
“Hungary and Poland might be the most extreme cases. But lots of other nations have backslid on civil liberties in the past few years,” says Jakub Jaraczewski, legal officer at Democracy Reporting International.
“Tying rule of law directly to EU money is not in itself a bad idea,” he explains. “But if more than one nation is pushing the boundaries by curtailing freedoms and undermining judges, you will inevitably find these states backing each other at an EU level, undermining the whole thing.”
Several influential voices in Brussels had previously suggested approving the Covid recovery funds without Hungary and Poland, moving forward as 25, rather than 27. That approach, though, would have carried the risk of opening another fraught debate within the EU: Precisely how united the Union should be.
Before Brexit, it wasn’t just the UK which had populist movements agitating to leave the EU. Four years on, Europe’s Euroskeptic parties are no longer looking to leave the bloc — now they want to take it over instead.
“It’s clear that our electorate does not currently seek an exit from the EU, so instead our focus is to build enough Euroskeptic support to steer it away from the looming disaster of ever closer unity,” says Gunnar Beck, a member of the European Parliament for Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party.
Beck believes that the European Euroskeptic movement has the potential to grow, even as normality is restored post-Brexit and Joe Biden, a supporter of the EU, replaces Trump.
“The EU has been in perpetual crisis since 2010 and hasn’t solved any of the problems these crises have caused, be it the eurozone crisis, the migration crisis or now the Covid crisis,” he says.
2021 will see several opportunities to prove him right or wrong.
Elections are to take place in several member states, including in Germany and the Netherlands — two influential nations in Brussels. Both countries have strong Euroskeptic populist movements. AfD is the official opposition in Germany, while in the Netherlands Geert Wilders — a man often described as the Dutch Trump — will be defending his position as leader of the largest opposition party.
The fear for Europhiles isn’t that these extreme parties get into power, but that they spook mainstream politicians to the degree that they end up borrowing the populists’ rhetoric. This, as they are well aware, is exactly what happened in the UK, as Nigel Farage cranked up the pressure on Conservatives to the point they had no choice but to call the Brexit referendum.
This sensation is nothing new in the Netherlands. Incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte caused controversy during the 2017 election when he wrote an open letter critical of Islam and immigration. In 2020, Rutte was critical too of the EU’s spending plans, demanding that money not be wasted — an unusual move for a European liberal.
“Rutte’s shift to the right can only be understood when you look at how dangerous the prospect of Wilders eating into his vote might be,” says Sarah De Lange from the department of political science at the University of Amsterdam. “Wilders is still a big force. Many have predicted his demise, but he is still here with a huge following.”
It’s a pattern that has been repeated in many other EU countries including France, Germany, Czech Republic and Austria.
Even in electoral defeat, the populists can claim political victories.
“When populists go down, mainstream parties see an opportunity to pick up those votes and control the right-wing of their own parties. When they adopt far-right ideas, eventually, that filters through to EU level and changes the dynamic in Brussels,” says Catherine De Vries, professor of political science at Milan’s Bocconi University.
While populists may not be expecting to win power in Germany or the Netherlands any time soon, they do see opportunities to work with colleagues elsewhere in Europe. “France, the Netherlands, Germany — none of us will be the catalyst for change, we are just too brainwashed,” says Beck.
“But if you look to our colleagues in central Europe who are free from the pro-Brussels neurosis, you find countries who are willing to stand up to the EU in a way Germany isn’t,” adding that there’s “no nation that has ever been as effectively castrated when it comes to asserting itself.”
The degree to which member states are willing to assert themselves plays a crucial role in the other key issue that will trouble Brussels in 2021: Where should the EU sit on the international stage?
The Trump presidency forced Europe to think seriously about its relationship with the US. The fact that someone so willing to be a disruptive force in Europe occupied the office of Europe’s most important ally was obviously troubling.
The loosely-defined term “strategic autonomy” has been thrown around in Brussels for the past couple of years. In short, it is the EU’s drive to be more self-reliant in areas such as security, economics, supply chains and climate change, to name a few.
In reality, it is a naked attempt to emerge as one of the three major powers, alongside the US and China.
“Europeans are under no illusion that the US is going to take a radically different approach to China — Trump has permanently changed the narrative on that,” says Erik Brattberg, director of the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
“While they are relieved that the White House is going to be more predictable on China and keen to coordinate with partners, they are still going to resist becoming a chip in the Beijing-DC tug of war,” he says.
This will become complicated for European nations when Biden demands that Chinese companies be banned, or that Europeans speak out against human rights abuses.
Indeed, the EU’s intent to behave independently of the US was hammered home this week, as the leadership of the bloc signed an investment agreement with China that would be unthinkable to any US president.
“Lots of European countries, especially Germany, export huge amounts to China and will not want to cut off that revenue stream,” adds Brattberg.
If a common policy on diplomacy wasn’t tough enough, the drive from Brussels for a common security and defense policy is likely to cause even greater division.
It’s no secret that French President Emmanuel Macron would like to see Europe take greater control of its own security. It’s also no secret that the leadership in Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal and many others are deeply uncomfortable at the prospect of building up huge military capabilities across the continent.
In short, lots of EU nations are quite happy with their security being subsidized by NATO and the US, while also having deep economic relations with China and Russia.
And, as Brussels has found thus far in these discussions, it’s very difficult to negotiate with those who have become accustomed to having their cake and eating it.
2020 was a very difficult year for the EU, there’s no other way of putting it. Through fudges and arm-twisting, it navigated around the cracks of division, and it will likely do so throughout 2021.
Whether it has the political will or talent to do so without widening those cracks is another matter entirely.
Pelosi to move forward with impeachment if Pence doesn’t act to remove Trump
“In protecting our Constitution and our Democracy, we will act with urgency, because this President represents an imminent threat to both,” Pelosi said in the letter to Democrats on Sunday night laying out next steps.
The House will try to pass a measure on Monday imploring Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment, through which he and the Cabinet declare Trump “incapable of executing the duties of his office, after which the Vice President would immediately exercise powers as acting president.” If Republicans object, as is virtually certain, Democrats will pass the bill via a roll call vote on Tuesday.
“We are calling on the Vice President to respond within 24 hours,” Pelosi wrote. “Next, we will proceed with bringing impeachment legislation to the Floor.”
But it’s not clear when exactly the Senate will take up the House’s measure. The Senate isn’t scheduled to return until Jan. 19, but will hold pro forma sessions on Tuesday and Friday. In theory, a senator could try to pass the House resolution by unanimous consent, but as of now it appears unlikely that it would pass.
On Monday, multiple House Democrats plan to introduce impeachment resolutions that would become the basis of any impeachment article considered by the House later this week.
Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who will introduce an article of impeachment against Trump on Monday, said on Sunday that roughly 200 Democrats have co-sponsored the measure.
Currently, 211 voting members (plus three nonvoting members) support Cicilline’s legislation, and they are hoping to reach 217 voting members by Monday morning, enough for the House to impeach Trump, one Democratic source familiar with the matter told POLITICO.
A small number of Democrats have opted not to co-sign the bill, but privately say they will vote to support the resolution on the floor, the source added.
The impeachment effort in the House is likely to be bipartisan, with Democrats expecting at least one GOP lawmaker — Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois — to sign on. A handful of other House Republicans are seriously weighing it, according to several sources, though those lawmakers are waiting to see how Democrats proceed, and some are concerned about dividing the country even further.
Among the GOP members whom Democrats are keeping an eye on are Reps. John Katko of New York, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Fred Upton of Michigan, Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington.
Across the Capitol, at least two Republicans — Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — have called on Trump to resign. On Saturday, Toomey told Fox News, “I do think the president committed impeachable offenses,” but told CNN the next day that he does not believe there is enough time to impeach.
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) has also said he would consider articles of impeachment.
Another option has emerged among some Republican and moderate Democratic circles — censuring Trump — though it remains highly unlikely to advance.
A censure resolution would gain far more support in the GOP than impeachment. Some Republicans have privately been pushing for that route and are trying to get Biden on board, according to GOP sources. That group of Republicans is also warning that impeachment could destroy Biden’s reputation with Republicans.
But censure is considered a nonstarter in an incensed House Democratic Caucus, where members see it as a slap on the wrist that gives Republicans an easy out.
The Democrats’ enormous step toward impeachment on Sunday comes after Pelosi and other top Democrats held a private call on Saturday night in which they discussed the potential ramifications that a lengthy impeachment trial could have on Biden’s presidency.
Democratic leaders discussed several options to limit the political effects on Biden’s first 100 days, with one option — floated by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) — for the House to delay the start of an impeachment trial in the Senate by holding on to the article of impeachment.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has sent out a memo to senators explaining that the Senate could not take up impeachment until Jan. 19 at the earliest, absent unanimous consent.
A final decision has not been made, and House Democrats will discuss the matter on a 2 p.m. caucus call on Monday.
Lawmakers are already privately expressing concerns about returning to the Capitol for multiple days this week, worried about both a potential coronavirus outbreak and whether the building is secure, given how easily an armed pro-Trump mob invaded on Wednesday.
The Capitol physician urged House lawmakers and staff to get tested in a memo Sunday, saying they might have been exposed to someone who had the virus while huddling for safety in a large committee room for hours on Wednesday. During the hourslong lockdown, several Republican members refused to wear masks despite being offered them by Democrats worried about the spread of the deadly virus.
Melanie Zanona, Olivia Beavers and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.
Matt Hancock Scraps “Unnecessary Training Modules” Blamed For Slowing Vaccine Rollout
5 min read
Matt Hancock said people will no longer need to undertake training including an anti-terrorism course to give the coronavirus jab after MPs said “bureaucratic rubbish” was delaying mass vaccination.
It comes as MPs called for the government to produce targets for the number of people given immunity before lockdown can be lifted.
The health secretary said a series of “unnecessary training modules” are being scrapped to speed up the process of getting people qualified to deliver the jab.
Speaking in the Commons, Sir Edward Leigh said he was shown by his fellow the Tory MP, a qualified GP, the “ridiculous form” he had filled out to start delivering the vaccine.
“When he’s inoculating an old lady, he’s not going to ask her if she’s come into contact with Jihadis or whatever, so the Secretary has got to cut through all this bureaucratic rubbish,” he said.
In response Mr Hancock said: “I am a man after Sir Edward’s heart and I can tell the House that we have removed a series of the unnecessary training modules that had been put in place, including fire safety, terrorism and others.
“I’ll write to him with the full panoply of the training that is not required and we have been able to remove, and we made this change as of this morning and I am glad to say it is enforced.
“I am a fan of busting bureaucracy and in this case I agree with him that it is not necessary to undertake anti-terrorism training in order to inject vaccines.”
Dr Fox had earlier challenged Boris Johnson to drop the “bureaucracy” and “political correctness” of the forms vaccine volunteers must fill out.
He told MPs: “As a qualified but non-practising doctor, I volunteered to help with the scheme and would urge others to do the same.
“But, can I ask the Prime Minister why I’ve been required to complete courses on conflict resolution, equality, diversity and human rights, moving and handling loads and preventing radicalisation in order to give a simple Covid jab?”
Mr Johnson said he had been “assured by the Health Secretary that all such obstacles, all such pointless pettifoggery has been removed”.
The government has been attempting to recruit thousands of volunteers to help with a mass vaccination programme, and with the recent approval of the more easily deliverable Oxford/AstraZeneca version has today revealed the location of seven mass vaccination centres set to open next week.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told journalists at a briefing they would be at Robertson House in Stevenage, the ExCel Centre in London, the Centre for Life in Newcastle, the Etihad Tennis Centre in Manchester, Epsom Downs Racecourse in Surrey, Ashton Gate Stadium in Bristol and Millennium Point in Birmingham, and it is expected they will be run with a combination of NHS staff and volunteers.
But so far the government has not said how many people need to be inoculated before it has an impact on the coronavirus restrictions.
Mr Hancock was asked by a number of MPs if the measures could be eased once the top few tiers in the vaccine priority list had been clear.
Former Conservative chief whip Mark Harper said once the top four groups, which includes care home residents and staff, frontline NHS workers, the clinically extremely vulnerable and everyone over 70 “we’ve taken care therefore of 80% of the risk of death”.
Adding: “What possible reason is there at that point for not rapidly relaxing the restrictions that are in place on the rest of our country?”
The health secretary replied: “We have to see the impact of that vaccination on the reduction in the number of deaths, which I very much hope that we will see at that point, and so that is why we will take this – an evidence-led move down through the tiers, when we’ve broken the link, I hope, between cases and hospitalisations and deaths.”
The ex-Tory minister and another doctor, Andrew Murrison, said: “The logic of anticipating what is going to happen in two or three or four weeks’ time from the number of cases we are getting at the moment is that we can do the same in reverse.
“That is to say, when we have a sufficient number of people vaccinated up we can anticipate in two or three or four weeks’ time how many deaths have been avoided.
“That means, since it cuts both ways he will be able to make a decision on when we should end these restrictions.”
Mr Hancock replied: “The logic of the case that Dr Murrison makes is the right logic and we want to see that happen in empirical evidence on the ground.
“This hope for the weeks ahead doesn’t take away, though, from the serious and immediate threat posed now.”
The Cabinet minister said the challenge for the government is to increase the amount of doses available, claiming “the current rate-limiting factor on the vaccine rollout is the supply of approved, tested, safe vaccine”.
He added: ”We are working with both AstraZeneca and Pfizer to increase that supply as fast as possible and they’re doing a brilliant job.”
But Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth called for the government to ramp up its vaccination programme to six million doses a week.
He told the Commons: “The Prime Minister has promised almost 14 million will be offered the vaccine by mid-Feb. That depends on around two million doses a week on average.
“Both [Mr Hancock] and the Prime Minister have reassured us in recent days that it’s doable based on orders.
“But in the past ministers have told us that they had agreements for 30 million AstraZeneca doses by September 2020 and 10 million of Pfizer doses by the end of 2020.
“So, I think people just want to understand the figures and want clarity. Can ministers tell us how many of the ordered doses have been manufactured?”
Mr Ashworth added: “Two million a week would be fantastic but it should be the limit of our ambitions, we should be aiming to scale up to three, then five, then six million jabs a week over the coming months.”
How South African police are tackling pangolin smugglers
Quiet, solitary and nocturnal, the pangolin has few natural enemies, but researchers believe it is the most trafficked mammal in the world. The tough scales covering its body are sought after for use in Chinese medicine, in the erroneous belief that they have healing properties.
The animal has also been of interest to researchers during the coronavirus pandemic. Related viruses have been found in trafficked pangolins, though there is continued uncertainty around early theories that pangolins were involved in the transmission of the virus from animals to humans.
After South African police seized a pangolin from suspected smugglers, BBC Africa correspondent Andrew Harding witnessed how vets tried to save the animal’s life.
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