Tracking cookies

To make our website even easier and more personal, we use cookies (and similar techniques). With these cookies we and third parties can collect information about you and monitor your internet behavior within (and possibly also outside) our website. If you agree with this, we will place these tracking cookies.

Yes, I give permissionNo thanks

Asia is thinking about tolerance and the EU wants to provoke an earthquake in the Netherlands

22-8-2022 |

Fresh - freshly squeezed news from the international press. We prepare it 3 times a week.

Politico: The ghost committee: where budgets go in the EU

he European Parliament is — once again — questioning the worth of an EU committee meant to gather advice from trade unions, employers and NGOs.

It’s the EU institution that keeps on taking hits — years of accusations of staff harassment, overspending, “mafia-style” ruthlessness and, frankly, irrelevance — but won’t fall over.

The institution, formally called the European Economic and Social Committee, or EESC, is one of the EU’s oldest, formed in 1958 as a forum for trade unions, employers and civil society groups to offer advice to the bureaucrats crafting Europe’s nascent single market.

But over half a century later, the EESC is limping along amid nearly a decade of upbraiding from seemingly all sides. Staffers have complained of harassment going unaddressed, the European Parliament is questioning the institution’s spending and many are wondering whether its advice even offers value to EU institutions that now talk separately with EESC members.

Now, the EESC is primed for further embarrassment. On September 26, Parliament’s Committee on Budgetary Control is expected to vote on whether to approve the institution’s budget, which was €150 million in 2021, before sending the issue to the full Parliament. MEPs previously withheld EESC budget approval in 2020 and did so again earlier this year — and they are indicating they may do so once again next month.

“Something is wrong,” said MEP Tomáš Zdechovský, the committee’s vice chair and a member of the center-right European People’s Party group, when a “zombie committee” costs the EU tens of millions. “I see no reason why we should keep alive ossified committees whose importance is marginal.”

Buried under years of calls for it to be axed, the EESC is vigorously making the case it should keep breathing.

EESC President Christa Schweng told POLITICO the organization was “vital,” arguing that its “influence is more often of a strategic nature” and tough to quantify, given the organization is essentially “a network of networks.”

EESC President Christa Schweng

The institution, Schweng said, has strengthened its code of conduct and adopted a “zero tolerance” policy on harassment — a key concern for Parliament. And, Schweng stressed, any delays in addressing harassment complaints were only to better help staff.

“It is true that the process took time, but there is a reason for this, namely the search for the best solutions for the victims even beyond pure legal obligations,” she added.

Over the years, the EESC has offered thoughts on everything from saving bees, to “space traffic management,” to the “geopolitical impact of energy transition.” Its reports are produced with input from several hundred unpaid EESC “members,” who represent civil society, trade unions and employer groups from across Europe.

The EESC itself is also home to 700 permanent staff members that support the EESC members and their process.

But since at least 2014, it’s been the EESC’s workplace conduct and spending, not its actual work, that has grabbed attention.

“It has no added value,” said one former EESC staff member who left after settling a harassment case.

“Both the [European] Commission and the Parliament today liaise directly with civil society and have consultations,” the former staffer noted. “The opinions of the EESC are costly, rarely timely and with their consensus methodology have nothing to add.”

The committee issued 131 non-binding “opinions” in 2020, a year in which its budget was €142.5 million — a ratio its detractors say it out of whack.

Another former staff member told POLITICO the EESC was considered a joke by other institutions and had become a “mafia-style” organization rewarding loyalty with promotions and punishing staff who raised basic complaints.

In Parliament’s decision not to release the EESC budget earlier this year, MEPs called for an external probe into EESC’s handling of several harassment complaints that prompted investigations in 2018 and 2019 from the EU’s anti-fraud office, known as OLAF.

One of the four women who complained of their treatment at the EESC told POLITICO the matter still remains unresolved despite requesting “non-financial compensation,” including an investigation into the root causes of the EESC’s systemic mismanagement.

Parliament also stated that two of the people involved in the complaints are still unsatisfied with their compensation.

One point of contention is that Jacek Krawczyk, a target of an EESC workplace bullying investigation, is still an EESC member. Schweng, EESC’s president, said she could not remove him because members are political appointees controlled by EU members.

Krawczyk was once the leading candidate to be the next EESC president, but the institution’s leadership requested he withdraw his application after a probe into his behavior uncovered reports of him shouting at, belittling and maliciously criticizing staffers, causing mental health problems.

Krawczyk, who has denied any wrongdoing, claimed he was the target of an orchestrated campaign to undermine his EESC presidential bid. Belgian prosecutors eventually opened a criminal probe into his behavior.

Yet Krawczyk remains one of the EESC’s official members.

Krawczyk did not respond to numerous efforts to reach him via Lewiatan, a Polish business and employers’ organization that he represents as vice-president.

Parliament also raised concerns about EESC spending during the pandemic when it previously refused to release the institution’s budget.

MEPs flagged nearly €1.5 million that the EESC spent in allowances for its most active members to make IT upgrades during the pandemic — and they expressed concern that the larger-than-average allowances were doled out as a flat rate and not based on actual expenses.

Isabel García Muñoz, a socialist MEP from Spain, is preparing to deliver to the Parliament’s budget committee a report on September 5 detailing whether the EESC has made enough improvements to justify receiving a sign-off on its budget.

CNN: A test of strength: winter will show the price of European support for Ukraine

Six months since Russia invaded Ukraine, the West's response to the crisis has remained strong and largely united -- to the surprise of many.

Despite years of fractured relations during the era of former US president Donald Trump and the Covid-19 pandemic, the trans-Atlantic alliance has managed to pull together and reach agreements on financial support and the donation of weapons to Kyiv, agreements to stop using Russian energy as well as sanctions designed to hit President Vladimir Putin and his cronies.

However, as the crisis reaches its half-year anniversary, officials across Europe are worried that the consensus could fall apart as the continent enters a bleak winter of rising food prices, limited energy to heat homes and the real possibility of recession.

For the purposes of this article, CNN spoke with multiple Western officials and diplomats who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

In a possible taste of more draconian measures to come, German capital Berlin turned off the lights illuminating monuments in order to save electricity, while French shops have been told to keep their doors shut while the air conditioning is on, or else face a fine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has captured the West's imagination and put heat on countries to support his war effort, might find it harder to get the attention of his fellow European leaders as the conflict drags on.

A Ukrainian national flag hangs from a balcony of a civilian destroyed buildings in Irpin, Ukraine, on June 16, 2022.

"The challenge for Ukraine is the same as it was on day one: keeping the West on side as the costs of supporting Kyiv hit home -- not just Putin's gas and grain blackmail but also the cost of economic and humanitarian support," says Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow at think tank Chatham House.

"That may well be why Zelensky said he wanted the war over before Christmas, because the real issues will be getting the West to stick to its promises in the long run."

The winter fuel crisis is something that European officials and diplomats are thinking about daily, with Russia accounting for about 55% of Europe's total gas imports in 2021.

European countries also have a thirst for Russian oil, with almost half of Russian oil exports going to the continent. The EU reportedly imported 2.2 million barrels of crude oil per day in 2021.

"Within the European Union, it will be very difficult and we must try to stick to our promise to cut off Russia when it comes to any profits from gas and other sources," says a senior European diplomat, referring to a deal struck between the EU member states to cut their use of Russian gas by 15%.

However, the agreement has been criticized for being voluntary, and officials fear that when push comes to shove, some EU countries simply won't play their part.

"There is the blob of Western Europe that is protected by distance and could not be convinced that becoming dependent on Russian energy was a catastrophic self-inflicted vulnerability, and even now hopes for a return to 'normality' with Russia," says Giles.

Multiple Western officials say they fear that at some point political leaders might decide the best thing is to broker for a peace deal in Ukraine.

Officials also fear that the Western strategy of arming the Ukrainians is becoming a short-term solution to a long-term problem: a war with no clear end point.

French weapons are currently on the battlefield in Ukraine, while Germany broke decades of pacifist policies to both increase its own defense spending and send weapons, though it was criticized for the delivery of those weapons taking longer than needed.

"At the start, the Western response was harder than Russia expected. Tactically the Kremlin got a lot wrong. It was politically quite easy to rally behind Ukraine and make the case for donating weapons and cash," a NATO official tells CNN.

"Over time, the types of weapons we are sending have got more complicated, as has the training required to use them effectively. The good news is, these arms are helping the Ukrainians hold out. The bad news is, the longer the war goes on, the shorter on supply these weapons will be, making them harder to give up," the official adds.

On top of the economic and military costs affecting the generosity of the West, there is also serious concern that the world starts to experience war fatigue as the conflict stagnates.

"Back in February, it was easy to jump on the anti-Putin bandwagon. Now the war is in the boring strategic stage. There are fewer daily gains and losses and there are fewer photo opportunities," says a NATO diplomat.

Of course, this won't be as straightforward as countries simply withdrawing their support. But it might involve countries changing the parameters of exactly what outcome they support.

Some Western European countries, most notably Germany and France, have said publicly that dialogue will have to exist between the West and Moscow. French President Emmanuel Macron has repeatedly said that he believes at some point negotiations will need to take place between Russia and Ukraine, while Germany Chancellor Olaf Scholz has come under fire for mixed messaging on Russian gas and most recently on whether or not Europe should ban Russians from obtaining travel visas.

"Do we all still have the same view of the end game? Is it just getting back to the borders of before Russia invaded? Or is it back to pre-2014, before Russia annexed Crimea? And will we deal with Putin after the war or will he need to stand down," says a European diplomat. "These are the long-term questions we need to be asking, but are not. It's better not to ask these questions right now."

The next few months will be the hardest for European nations since the war began. Citizens will feel the cost-of-living crunch across the continent. Some will have to make choices between heating their homes and eating. This crunch comes as many European countries have already played host to thousands of Ukrainian refugees. Against this backdrop, it is hard for political leaders to justify spending money and energy supporting a country far away, especially when some of their citizens may feel that they've been generous enough as it is.

Multiple Western officials told CNN of their concern that at some point, political leaders might decide the best thing is to broker for a peace deal and undercut the Ukrainian preferred end game, which is forcing Russian forces back to the previous borders.

"There is growing concern in some quarters that if Ukraine appears to be losing ground to Russia this may accelerate calls for a negotiated settlement. Zelensky must continue to work his PR magic and promote the message that Ukraine is still making progress, fighting hard and needs weapons," Theresa Fallon, director at the Centre for Russia Europe Asia Studies, tells CNN.

Most officials acknowledge that no one has a clue on how this conflict ends. And while most would like to see Ukraine achieve its goals of standing up to Putin and forcing him out of their country, their true resolve has yet to be fully tested.

The Guardian: Like on a volcano: how much Dutch gas will cost the people of Groningen

As Dutch government weighs resuming gas production in earthquake zone this winter, anxiety is rising in Groningen

Bastiaan Jeroen’s farm in ’t Zandt has columns made of reinforced concrete. “During one earthquake, I saw them twisting,” he said. “If a chip comes off, it will cut you in half. That’s the fear we’re living in.”

Jeroen lives in the province of Groningen, home to a vast gas field and the subject of a parliamentary inquiry into the links between gas extraction and the hundreds of earthquakes and tremors that have traumatised residents. His farmhouse has been shattered by hundreds of cracks from the last decade’s quakes. One outer wall is propped up by several large wooden beams.

“I’m in debt – big time,” said Jeroen. “I make good money as a carpenter but I’m at my fourth or fifth chronic burnout. The doctors say they won’t go away until I stop working but if I stop working, I can’t pay the bills.”

But Jeroen is just one of many.

Groningen’s inhabitants have been affected by the giant gas field for the last few decades. About 80% of houses in villages such as Overschild are being demolished and rebuilt because of earthquake damage. More than 150,000 Groningen residents have suffered earthquake damage to their properties in the last decade, and 10,000 now face stress-related health problems.

When the parliamentary inquiry began, many believed some kind of resolution was at last in sight. But although the province’s gas production had been expected to flatline in 2023, Groningen is also the EU’s largest onshore gas field, and has been increasingly regarded as a last reserve if Russian gas supplies dwindle to nought.

Germany is hungrily eyeing its low-calorific gas reserves, which may have to be extracted under EU solidarity arrangements if there is a major supply disruption. Nato officials such as Lukas Trakimavičius have led calls for Groningen to open its taps before such a crisis.

The Dutch mining minister, Hans Vijlbrief, believes safety concerns must remain paramount and is frustrated that industry thinks its interests should come before safety in Groningen.

“I don’t agree. It’s clearly a dangerous thing to do,” Vijlbrief said. But he refused to rule out increasing gas production as “a last resort”.

“If we have to shut down industries which would mean a threat to the safety or health of people, then you get a very fine balance with opening up Groningen,” he said.

Hague-watchers believe that while Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, will publicly stick to a “safety first” script in Groningen this summer, he may allow pressure to build for a plot twist in the autumn.

“I have no doubt that if the situation in Germany worsens, pressure will be mounted on the Dutch government – not only from Germany, but from inside the Netherlands – to do whatever is possible in the context of Groningen gas production,” said Hans Grünfeld, the managing director of the VEMW business lobby.

Another senior industry source said: “They will let this go right down to the wire, say ‘now we have to shut down a particular type of industry’. And before there is even a threat of that happening I think they will increase [gas] production in Groningen, and rightfully so.”

Much will depend on the Netherlands’ liquefied natural gas capacity, gas storage levels, ability to reduce demand and the winter’s severity.

The Groningen field contains about 450bn cubic metres of gas – enough to cover Europe’s imports from Russia for three years – buried beneath a soft clay soil, which has the unfortunate quality of amplifying seismic activity.

It is not yet possible to predict what misfortunes await the inhabitants of the region, but the threat of new earthquakes is unlikely to stop gas-starved Europe.

AP: Allowing by prohibiting: how the Singapore government manoeuvres between tolerance and discrimination

Singapore’s gay community Monday hailed a plan to decriminalize sex between men as “a triumph of love over fear” but warned there is still a long way to equality and new bans on same-sex unions could entrench discrimination against them.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong caught many by surprise when he announced in his National Day Rally speech Sunday that the government would repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code, a colonial-era law that made sex between men punishable by up to two years in jail.

Since 2007, when Parliament last debated whether to repeal Section 377A, its position was to keep the law but not enforce it. But Lee said societal norms have shifted considerably and many Singaporeans will now accept decriminalization.

Lee, however, vowed the repeal will be limited and not shake Singapore’s traditional family and societal norms including how marriage is defined, what children are taught in schools, what is shown on television and general public conduct.

He said the government will amend the constitution to “safeguard the institution of marriage” and prevent any constitutional challenge to allow same-sex unions.

The timing of the repeal or the constitutional change was not disclosed.

More than 20 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups — including Pink Dot SG that organizes an annual rally that attracts thousands of supporters — said the repeal was long overdue to show that “state-sanctioned discrimination has no place in Singapore.”

Representatives of the community called it a “hard-won victory, a triumph of love over fear” that will finally enable victims of bullying, rejection and harassment to heal.

However, the groups said the repeal was merely “the first step on a long road towards full equality for LGBTQ people” amid other areas of discrimination they face at home, in schools, workplaces, and in housing and health systems.

They expressed disappointment with the government’s plan to introduce further legislation or constitutional amendments to ban same-sex unions that signal LGBTQ people as unequal citizens.

Such a decision will “undermine the secular character of our constitution, codify further discrimination into supreme law and tie the hands of future Parliaments,” they warned.

Religious groups were guarded in their reaction to Lee’s comments, saying the changes mustn’t hinder their religious freedom to articulate views on public morality nor cause any “reverse discrimination” on those who doesn’t support homosexuality.

Christian and Muslim groups said heterosexual marriage must be protected in the constitution before Section 377A is repealed and that there should be no further liberalization of policies.

“We seek the government’s assurance that the religious freedom of churches will be protected as we continue to teach against same-sex sexual acts and highlight such acts,” the National Council of Churches said in a statement. Pastors and church workers must be protected from charges of “hate speech” and not be compelled to adopt solely “LGBTQ-affirming” strategies in their counselling, it said.

Section 377A was introduced under British colonial rule in the 1930s. Version of the law remain in other former British colonies, including neighboring Malaysia.

Picked and squeezed for you: Irina Iakovleva