On his way into today’s Eurogroup meeting, Irish Finance Minister and Eurogroup President Paschal Donohoe thanked fellow finance ministers for their solidarity and support following the UK’s proposal to override commitments made in the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement.
Donohoe said that as an Irish citizen and as a European the two major events that had shaped his public life were Ireland’s membership of the European Union and the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). He went on to say:
“The withdrawal agreement was an agreement negotiated by the European Union that brought (the EU membership and the GFA commitments) together. An agreement that was reached after years of intense effort on behalf of the European Union, dealing with the government of the United Kingdom. The European Union is a project that is based on the rule of law. It's based on respect. It's based on honoring agreements of the past and building on them in the future. As the United Kingdom looks, to what kind of future trading relationship it wants with the European Union, a prerequisite is honoring agreements that are already in place.”
Following an extraordinary meeting of the EU-UK Joint Committee yesterday (10 September) on the draft of the United Kingdom’s Internal Market Bill, Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič restated that the UK must fully implement the Withdrawal Agreement, including the Protocol on Ireland / Northern Ireland – which Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government agreed to, and which the UK Houses of Parliament ratified, less than a year ago – is a legal obligation.
The European Union reminded the UK that violating the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement would break international law, undermine trust and put at risk the ongoing future relationship negotiations.
The Withdrawal Agreement entered into force on 1 February 2020, neither the EU nor the UK can unilaterally change, clarify, amend, interpret, disregard, or disapply the agreement.
Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič stated: “The EU does not accept the argument that the aim of the draft Bill is to protect the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement. In fact, it is of the view that it does the opposite.”
The UK has been given to the end of the month to withdraw the draft legislation. The British government has already tabled the bill for debate and adoption before the end of the month. Šefčovič stated that the EU would not be shy of using all mechanisms and legal remedies should the UK violate its legal obligations.
Hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan have erupted again in Nagorno Karabakh after simmering for years, proving again that rolling back to the status quo of occupation and pretending to negotiate whilst maintaining the status quo is not only dangerous, it just does not work. The fighting is the heaviest seen in the region since 2016. National passions are riding high and both Armenia and Azerbaijan have blamed each other for starting the fighting.
The number of casualties is not known, but is estimated to be over 100, including civilians. According to the Office of Azerbaijan’s Attorney General a total of 35 civilians have been hospitalised with various injuries, and 12 people have been killed as of yesterday. At the time of writing the fighting appears to be spreading beyond Nagorno Karabakh, a mountainous area that is recognised as part of Azerbaijan, but which has been under Armenian occupation since the war of the early 1990s which erupted soon after the break-up of the former Soviet Union.
There is international concern that other countries may get sucked into the conflict. Russia is a major supplier of weapons to Armenia, and has a military base there. Turkey has already openly backed Azerbaijan, followed by some other countries. The EU has an important role to play. However, the voices rising from the European Union so far are not enough to contribute to a lasting solution to the conflict. In fact, the solution seems simple - as in the case of other conflicts in its neighbourhood, to support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the occupied side, urge for withdrawal of armed forces from the occupied territories and restore peace negotiations. Otherwise, diplomatic statements which fall short of addressing the root causes of the conflict will not bring a sustainable solution to the region.
However, a number of voices from Europe over the past two days have raised more questions on the conflict than answers. The members of the European People’s Party (EPP) Political Assembly met via video-conference on 28 September and ended with a weird statement calling to “withdraw troops to the positions they had before 27 September 2020.” Such a bizarre call by the largest political party in the European Parliament has once again demonstrated how alien most European politicians are to the real political and security landscape in their neighbourhoods.
However, the main danger here is not ignorance itself, but deliberate attempts to give an ethnic and religious tone to this territorial conflict. The immature reaction of some European spokespersons, however, is reminiscent of the call for new crusades, necessitating strong opposition to these sorts of politicians who use Europe's freedom of speech and expression for hatred purposes. Even some mainstream news agencies highlighted the religious affiliation of these two confronting countries in their reports. These calls make it clear that the Armenian new “peace” concept of “new war for new territories” is purely propaganda.
This kind of destructive rhetoric from some EU politicians only provoked an immediate response from the Organization of Islamic Countries, Turkic Council, Pakistan, even Afghanistan. There are of course significant Armenian minorities in many EU member states – but the EU should resist allowing ethnic and religious colours to become implicated in this conflict. Does Europe need new dividing lines next to its borders?
If the EU wants to secure stability and peace on its frontiers, it should not stand idly by. It should be motivated to take a more proactive role in line with its international commitments and act as an honest broker to find a sustainable solution without emotion, but through an insistence to adhere to the principles of international law.
“The first Annual Rule of Law Report is a welcome step forward to protecting the rights of our citizens. It now needs to be backed up with action and consequences to effectively prevent breaches,” said Roberta Metsola MEP, EPP Group spokeswoman for the Civil Liberties Committee in the European Parliament.
Today’s (30 September) publication assesses the state of the rule of law across the 27 member states and raises serious issues that cannot be ignored, according to Metsola: “The rule of law is about protecting fundamental rights and civil liberties which relies on an independent judiciary, democracy and accountability and a strong, free media. It is the pillar upon which every one of our treaties is based.
“The issues raised here cannot be ignored. The EPP Group has repeatedly called for an EU-wide mechanism that is fair and non-discriminatory in monitoring the state of the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights in every member state, where each member state is assessed on an equal footing.
“The aim of this report is to act as a warning system, it is designed to help member states address any deficiencies or potential problems. The focus should be on ensuring improvement and protection. However, the EU also needs to be equipped with adequate tools that are consistently used to thoroughly and fairly investigate and impose sanctions against any clear, repeated breaches of the rule of law when necessary,” she underlined.
The EPP Group strongly supports the inclusion of a conditionality clause in the next Multiannual Financial Framework on democracy, rule of law and fundamental rights, linking EU financing to respect for the rule of law.
On 29 September, historian and human rights activist Yuri Dmitriev had his sentence increased by the Supreme Court of Karelia from three years and six months to 13 years’ imprisonment in a high security penal colony. Other charges for which he was already acquitted by the first instance court were turned back for reconsideration in the Petrozavodsk City Court.
Dmitriev has already spent over three years in detention. In a statement, the European Union make clear that it believes that Mr Dmitriev’s prosecution was triggered by his human rights work and his research on political repression in the Soviet period: “This unsubstantiated and unjust verdict will inevitably contribute to a worsening of the human rights situation and shrinking space for civil society and independent voices in Russia. This is yet another blatant example of unjustified and unacceptable legal pressure on human rights defenders in violation of international commitments.”
The European Union reiterates that Dmitriev should be released immediately and unconditionally. Given Dmitriev’s age and state of health in the light of the coronavirus pandemic, the EU also expect him to be released on humanitarian grounds.