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While Scotland demands independence, Boris Johnson flirts with Europe

29-6-2022 |

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

AP: Turkey lifts its objections to Sweden, Finland joining NATO

Turkey agreed Tuesday to lift its opposition to Sweden and Finland joining NATO, ending an impasse that had clouded a leaders’ summit opening in Madrid amid Europe’s worst security crisis in decades, triggered by the war in Ukraine.

After urgent top-level talks with leaders of the three countries, alliance Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that “we now have an agreement that paves the way for Finland and Sweden to join NATO.”

He called it “a historic decision.”

Among its many shattering consequences, President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted Sweden and Finland to abandon their long-held nonaligned status and apply to join NATO as protection against an increasingly aggressive and unpredictable Russia — which shares a long border with Finland. Under NATO treaties, an attack on any member would be considered an attack against all and trigger a military response by the entire alliance.

NATO operates by consensus, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had threatened to block the Nordic pair, insisting they change their stance on Kurdish rebel groups that Turkey considers terrorists.

After weeks of diplomacy and hours of talks on Tuesday, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö said the three leaders had signed a joint agreement to break the logjam.

Turkey said it had “got what it wanted” including “full cooperation ... in the fight against” the rebel groups.

Stoltenberg said leaders of the 30-nation alliance will issue a formal invitation to the two countries to join on Wednesday. The decision has to be ratified by all individual nations, but he said he was “absolutely confident” Finland and Sweden would become members, something that could happen within months.

Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said the agreement was “good for Finland and Sweden. And it’s good for NATO.”

She said completing the process of membership should be done “the sooner the better.”

Turkey hailed Tuesday’s agreement as a triumph, saying the Nordic nations had agreed to crack down on groups that Ankara deems national security threats, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and its Syrian extension. It said they also agreed “not to impose embargo restrictions in the field of defense industry” on Turkey and to take “concrete steps on the extradition of terrorist criminals.”

Turkey has demanded that Finland and Sweden extradite wanted individuals and lift arms restrictions imposed after Turkey’s 2019 military incursion into northeast Syria.

Turkey, in turn, agreed “to support at the 2022 Madrid Summit the invitation of Finland and Sweden to become members of NATO.”

Details of exactly what was agreed were unclear. Amineh Kakabaveh, an independent Swedish lawmaker of Kurdish origin whose support the government depends on for a majority in Parliament, said it was “worrisome that Sweden isn’t revealing what promises it has given Erdogan.”

Andersson dismissed suggestions Sweden and Finland had conceded too much.

Asked if the Swedish public will see the agreement as a concession on issues like extraditions of Kurdish militants regarded by Ankara as terrorists, Andersson said “they will see that this is good for the security of Sweden.”

U.S. President Joe Biden congratulated the three nations on taking a “crucial step.”

Amid speculation about a U.S. role in ending the deadlock, a senior administration official said Washington did not offer any concessions to Turkey to coax it to accept a deal. But the official said the U.S. played a crucial role in helping bring the two parties closer together, and Biden spoke with Erdogan Tuesday morning at the behest of Sweden and Finland to help encourage the talks.

CNBC: Europe’s plans to replace Russian gas are deemed ‘wildly optimistic’

The European Union’s best shot at replacing Russian gas imports this year is likely to miss the mark, analysts predict, exerting further pressure on the region’s economy.

The EU plans to replace two-thirds of Russian gas imports by the end of the year, as Russia’s war in Ukraine continues to wage on.

The shift away from the country’s gas supplies became even more urgent after the country’s state-backed Gazprom reduced flows to Europe by 60%, citing a delay to repairs on the Nord Stream 1 pipeline that runs to Germany beneath the Baltic Sea.

The European Commissioner for Energy, Kadri Simson, will meet with EU energy ministers on Monday to discuss potential coordinated measures, including demand reduction and contingency plans should the situation deteriorates further.

However, the EU’s current plan to replace Russian gas looks to fall short.

In 2021, the EU imported around 155 cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas from Russia. The bloc’s proposed gas replacements by the end of 2022 – which include LNG (liquefied natural gas) diversification, renewables, heating efficiency, pipeline diversification, biomethane, solar rooftops and heat pumps – amount to around 102 bcm annually, according to data from the EU Commission’s REPowerEU, aggregated in a recent report from economic consultancy TS Lombard.

Christopher Granville, managing director for EMEA and global political research at TS Lombard, said in the report that the European Commission’s aims to replace Gazprom’s gas this year look “wildly optimistic.”

The share of Russian gas imports to the EU has already decreased from 45% in April 2021 to 31% in April 2022, with the share of pipeline gas alone falling from 40% last year to 26% this year.

However, total LNG imports have hit record levels, with 12.6 bcm imported in April alone, representing a 36% year-on-year increase despite the reduced share coming from Russia. This would indicate that Europe’s diversification efforts are beginning to bear fruit.

The European Commission and member states’ efforts to diversify away from Russian fossil fuels saw them last week sign a Memorandum of Understanding with Egypt and Israel for LNG exports from the eastern Mediterranean.

A European Commission energy spokesperson told CNBC on Thursday that Gazprom and Moscow were using energy supplies as an “instrument of blackmail.”

“Following Gazprom’s earlier unilateral decision to stop delivering gas to several Member States and companies, and the below average level of its gas storage facilities in Europe over the past year, the latest moves remind us once again of the unreliability of Russia as an energy supplier,” the spokesperson said.

However, TS Lombard’s Granville predicted that there could be significant cost implications for Europe as it looks elsewhere for gas supplies.

″[The EU] will pay more on average for its [non-Russian] oil and gas than its peers. Asian countries will buy more Russian oil at discounted prices,” Granville projected.

“LNG imported by Europe from the U.S. will cost more than the price paid by U.S. consumers owing to transport and liquefaction/re-gasification costs.”

This could hit Europe’s economy hard, at a time when it’s already struggling, given so-called “forever sanctions” on Russia, as the war drags on.

More broadly, the International Monetary Fund has indicated that escalations to existing sanctions against Russia from major industrialized nations — particularly if entailing severe restrictions to Russian energy exports — could cascade into even steeper energy price increases, deteriorating corporate and household sentiment and financial market disruption.

Reuters: Scottish government seeks independence vote in Oct. 2023

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced plans on Tuesday for a second referendum to be held on Scottish independence in October next year, vowing to take legal action to ensure a vote if the British government tried to block it.

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

Sturgeon spoke as the Scottish government, which is led by her pro-independence Scottish National Party, published a referendum bill outlining plans for the secession vote to take place on Oct. 19, 2023.

She also said she would be writing to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson for permission to hold a consultative referendum, but had already set in motion plans to get the legal authority should he try to block her.

"The issue of independence cannot be suppressed. It must be resolved democratically. And that must be through a process that is above reproach and commands confidence," Sturgeon told lawmakers in the devolved Scottish Parliament.

"What I am not willing to do, what I will never do, is allow Scottish democracy to be a prisoner of Boris Johnson or any prime minister."

Voters in Scotland, which has a population of around 5.5 million, rejected independence in 2014.

But Scotland's semi-autonomous government says Britain's departure from the European Union, which was opposed by a majority of Scots, means the question must be put to a second vote.

Pro-independence parties won a majority in the elections last year and Sturgeon, under pressure from some in her own party, had promised to hold a vote by the end of 2023. Polls suggest a vote would be too close to call.

Johnson and his ruling Conservative Party, which is in opposition in Scotland, strongly oppose a referendum, saying the issue was settled in 2014 when Scots voted against independence by 55% to 45%. Polls in 2022 vary, with some showing a similar split, and others showing the gap narrowing.

Johnson has previously refused to issue a "Section 30" order, which gives authority to the Scottish parliament to hold a referendum, and said earlier on Tuesday the main priority for Britain was the economic pressures the country faced.

Sturgeon said that the legality of a referendum without permission from the British government was contested, and so she had already asked the Lord Advocate, the senior Scottish Law Officer, to refer the question to the UK's Supreme Court.

If the court found the Scottish parliament could not hold an independence referendum without the prime minister's consent, Sturgeon said the SNP would instead fight the next UK election on a platform of whether Scotland should be independent.

Politico: Boris Johnson looks for love on the world stage

As Boris Johnson departed London last week for an epic foreign tour spanning two continents and three world summits, he already seemed weary of the baggage he was carrying with him.

Addressing the traveling U.K. press pack at the start of the eight-day trip, the British prime minister lacked some of his familiar spark. The usual verbal hand grenades were not deployed.

By that stage Johnson knew the first leg of his journey, to a Commonwealth Heads of Government summit in Rwanda, would be overshadowed by two scenes of domestic conflict: an ugly row between Downing Street and Clarence House — the home of Prince Charles — over Johnson’s flagship immigration policy, and a double helping of by-election defeats for the Conservative Party back in the U.K.

On the plane an aide articulated what many suspected, that Johnson wanted to use the CHOGM, G7 and NATO summits to return to a heavy focus on Ukraine — a foreign policy area which has been his safe space in a year dominated by questions over his personal integrity.

But the fallout from the disastrous by-election losses — the defeat in Tiverton, south-west England, being the heaviest his party has ever suffered — has dogged him throughout the trip, with rumors swirling back home of an organized attempt by rebel Tory MPs to force a second challenge to his leadership.

As a consequence, Johnson’s battle to keep the focus off his dire domestic troubles has met with varying degrees of success.

Arriving in Madrid Tuesday for a summit of NATO leaders — the final leg of his journey — Johnson walked straight into a fresh domestic row, this time with members of his own Cabinet over the U.K.’s defense spending commitments. Aides said he will spend the rest of the week trying to switch the focus on to the need for NATO partners to increase their own spending.

On paper, a long-delayed Commonwealth leaders’ summit had looked like the perfect chance for Johnson to shine on the world stage. The 54-member organization, many of which have historical ties to the U.K. as former colonies, hold a particular attraction for a leader politically invested in international cooperation outside the EU.

Discussing the Africa free trade area in a speech to African foreign ministers, Johnson could not resist a swipe at the trading bloc Britain recently left behind.

“I remember the U.K. helped to found the European free trade area many years ago,” he said. “(It) then got taken over by something called the European Union … but never mind that.”

Johnson’s diplomacy, such as it is, relies heavily on personal magnetism; a legendary ability to draw people in when up close.

Yolande Makolo, a Rwandan government spokesperson, suggested the dynamic still holds true. “Of course,” she said. “Everybody knows Boris.”

But if the prime minister was hoping for an endless love-in on his escape from domestic duties, he would be disappointed.

In Kigali, one of Johnson’s first engagements was an audience with Prince Charles, an awkward prospect after the future monarch privately condemned the U.K.’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda as “appalling.”

At the G7 summit in Bavaria earlier this week, Downing Street had seemingly sought ‘strongman’ headlines following Johnson’s meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, briefing journalists that the PM had delivered clear warnings about not bowing down to Russia.

Photo: Stefan Rousseau via Getty Images

But in truth the meeting was more of a love-in, with a back-slapping Johnson turning on the charm and avoiding all difficult subjects — even nodding along with Macron’s plan for a two-speed Europe that might one day see Britain join an outer circle. 

“Prime Minister Johnson showed lots of enthusiasm,” the Elysse said afterward. “He was just being polite,” Downing Street sources quietly explained.

British tabloids dubbed the meeting “Le Bromance.”

And while Johnson chases adulation on the world stage, his climate-focused policy agenda risks being left on the sidelines.

Certainly Johnson wasn’t pushing the agenda forward, despite the U.K. being the official U.N. climate presidency for most of this year. On Sunday evening, Johnson skipped the relaunch of a major green infrastructure push he himself had fostered as G7 chairman the year before. While seven out of the nine leaders attended, Johnson was busy trying to patch up his relationship with Macron.

As a result, the active involvement of the British Prime Minister in foreign policy looks more and more like a good game with a bad hand and a persistent attempt to distract the attention of others from domestic problems.

Picked and squeezed for you: Irina Iakovleva