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Europe’s Longtime Powers Unite Behind EU’s COVID-19 Rescue Package

PARIS – When European Union leaders meet virtually for a summit Friday, a familiar duo will again gr..

PARIS – When European Union leaders meet virtually for a summit Friday, a familiar duo will again grab the spotlight.

COVID-19, which has battered European economies, is also giving a new boost to Europes traditional economic engines, France and Germany, and possibly the so-far underwhelming relationship between their leaders.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron have found common cause in pushing for a massive coronavirus recovery plan for the 27-member bloc — one that flouts Germanys traditional budgetary orthodoxy and puts Berlin at odds with other frugal states.

But whether the newfound unity opens a new chapter for the two countries to power other joint European initiatives is less certain. Key hurdles still face the coronavirus rescue package, framed in an $843 billion proposal of grants and loans the European Commission unveiled last month.

“I think we can look ahead to a big dogfight,” said Daniel Gros, director of the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies, or CEPS, of the opposition facing the package.

Still, Gros added of member states, “They will have to come together — thats quite clear.”

Members of the European Council are seen on the screen during a video conference call at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Thursday…

FILE – Members of the European Council are seen on the screen during a video conference call at the Elysee Palace in Paris, March 26, 2020.

Germanys EU presidency: Brexit and budget

Fridays summit is a key marker in other ways. Next month, Europes biggest economic power, Germany, takes over the rotating six-month EU presidency that will also tackle thorny Brexit negotiations. On the menu, too, will be discussions about the blocs next seven-year budget running through 2027.

It comes as Merkel, the EUs longest-serving leader, prepares to leave office next year.

Tara Varma, head of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Paris office, believes Merkel is looking toward her legacy.

“She knows she has a massive, critical role to play,” Varma said, particularly on establishing European health sovereignty, after the pandemic found the bloc heavily dependent on medical imports from China and India. “She sees the necessity for the EU to be able to protect itself and its citizens.”

But the immediate task Friday may be finding consensus on money.

Europes “Frugal Four,” who generally oppose big spending — Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark and Austria — have reiterated their concerns about the commissions COVID-19 bailout plan, aimed primarily at helping more economically strapped southern countries.

“How can it suddenly be responsible to spend €500billion [$562 billion] in borrowed money and to send the bill into the future?” they wrote in a letter published in the Financial Times this week, noting European taxpayers would have to shoulder the burden.

The four have instead called for loans, rather than grants that would not have to be paid back.

Germany has traditionally shared such spending concerns. But last month, Merkel joined Macron in proposing a $562 billion recovery plan for the bloc, which was rolled into the commissions broader proposal.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a news conference after a video conference with EU leaders at the European Council building in Brussels, April 23, 2020.

FILE – European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a news conference after a videoconference with EU leaders at the European Council building in Brussels, April 23, 2020.

Announcing it last month, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen — Merkels former defense minister — called the plan “Europes moment,” that would see the bloc recovering from the pandemic together, rather than “accepting a union of haves and have-nots.”

French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire is offering a broader take.

“We are seeing a turning point in Franco-German relations,” Le Maire told Der Spiegel in an interview, sketching other areas for potential joint initiatives, including industrial projects.

Analyst Varma is also hopeful about a reboot.

“At the beginning of the relationship, there were expectations on both sides that werent met,” Varma said of Merkel and Macron, who took office in 2017.

Macron had big ideas for Europe; Merkel was weakened by a divided coalition.

“He was expecting her to meet him halfway and build this Franco-German moment,” Varma added. “And from the German side, there were different expectations.”

Old disagreements

Berlin has not shared Macrons push for closer EU fiscal and defense integration. But this week, Bloomberg reported the two countries are now pushing for tighter European defense ties.

The call is backdropped by U.S. President Donald Trump’s confirmation of plans to withdraw 9,500 American troops from Germany, which he has criticized for failing to spend enough on defense.

FILE - A convoy of U.S. troops, a part of NATOs reinforcement of its eastern flank, drive from Germany to Orzysz in northeast Poland, March 28, 2017.

FILE – A convoy of U.S. troops, a part of NATO’s reinforcement of its eastern flank, drive from Germany to Orzysz in northeast Poland, March 28, 2017.

“Germany used to look at the U.S. and the transatlantic relationship for security issues,” Varma said. “And I think were seeing a shift here, too.”

“Germany is now coming to terms that it will need the EU to protect not only its economic interests but its security interests,” she said “which is a position France has been holding for a long time.”

But other analysts believe the current unity over the COVID-19 rescue package may be a one-off.

“Macron is overwhelmed by his domestic concerns,” said Gros of the CEPS policy center. “And Merkel knows theres only so far she can take Germany along” in other EU areas.

John Springford, deputy director for the London-based Centre for European Reform policy institute, is similarly skeptical.

“Theres a realization shes nearing the end of her term and wants to have been a chancellor that has made Europe stronger,” Springford said of Merkel.

“And so, theres a kind of happy marriage of interests now between her and Macron,” he added of the rescue fund, “which is why weve ended up with something thats actually pretty ambitious.”

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Russian voters back reform allowing Putin to extend rule

Issued on: 01/07/2020 – 22:09Modified: 01/07/2020 – 22:09

Russians appeared to have paved the way ..

Issued on: Modified:

Russians appeared to have paved the way for Vladimir Putin to stay in power until 2036 by voting overwhelmingly for a package of constitutional changes which will also boost pensions, partial results of a nationwide vote showed on Wednesday.


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Results, after almost a third of ballots had been counted, indicated that the former KGB officer who has ruled Russia for more than two decades as president or prime minister would easily win the right to run for two more terms. That means he could remain president for 16 more years.

The Central Election Commission said 74% of votes counted across the world's largest country had supported changing the constitution. Just under 25% had voted no of the 30% of ballots counted.

Russians have been encouraged to vote with prize draws offering flats and an ad campaign highlighting other constitutional amendments in the same reform bundle, such as the pensions protection and a de facto ban on same-sex marriages.

One-off payments of 10,000 roubles ($141) were transferred to those with children at Putin's order as people headed to polling stations on Wednesday, the last day of the vote, held over seven days to try to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

"I voted for the amendments to the constitution," Moscow resident Mikhail Volkov said. "We need radical changes and I'm for them."

Others voted for the changes with less enthusiasm.

"I didn't read about the amendments if I'm honest," another voter, Lyudmila, said. "What's the point of voting if they've already decided for you. It's like that in our country – read something and vote. I voted."

Turnout was around 65%, election officials said. The required turnout is 50% and the amendments will pass if they are backed by a simple majority of voters.

Putin, 67, made no mention of how the changes could affect his own career in an eve-of-vote speech on Tuesday. They would allow him to run for another two six-year, consecutive stints after his current term expires in 2024.

Putin has said he has yet to decide on his future. Critics say they are sure he will run again, but some analysts say he may want to keep his options open to avoid becoming a lame duck.

At 60%, according to the Levada pollster, his approval rating remains high but well down on its peak of nearly 90%.

With Russia reporting thousands of new Covid-19 cases each day, opponents have been unable to stage protests but have mocked the vote online, sharing photographs of polling stations in apartment stairwells, courtyards and the boot of a car.

Small protests

A small group of activists staged a symbolic protest on Red Square on Wednesday afternoon using their prostrate bodies to form the date — 2036 — before being swiftly detained by police, TV Rain reported.

The "No! Campaign," called on supporters to vote against the changes and then discuss the result on Moscow's Pushkinskaya SquarRead More – Source

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The European projects pooling data to defeat COVID-19

Futuris travels to Marseille and Cambridge to look at two European projects pooling and sharing data..

Futuris travels to Marseille and Cambridge to look at two European projects pooling and sharing data to help the scientific community beat COVID-19.

While one part of the scientific world is struggling to fight the SARS-Cov2 virus, institutes like the European Virus Archive in Marseille are making sure pathogens like it still exist.

Twelve years since its launch, the EVA has become one of the most important databases in the world. It holds more than 3000 products, including viruses, test substances and other types of material.

“This collection is a virtual collection. The idea was not to put all the viruses in the same place, like a Fort Knox of virology. The viruses remain in each laboratory,” says Jean Louis Romette, the EVA’s project coordinator.

This non-profit EU project makes it possible to rapidly supply scientists with the knowledge and material they need during a virus-related emergency.

“When the coronavirus appeared in China, our coronavirus researchers in the EVA organisation immediately saw that this virus was one of the SARS family, and they quickly developed a diagnostic system to detect the virus in patient samples,” Romette adds.

The Marseille-based Institute brings together nearly forty cutting-edge labs in human, animal and plant virological research. Its online catalog allows users to have access to genetic material and other various products. The coronavirus pandemic has led to a rise in online traffic: in just two months requests for diagnostic kits and viral strains have matched that which was received in the previous four years.

“When you have an emerging virus and there is very little data available about it, it’s very important to be able to compare it with other existing viruses, from the same family. So the bio-banks are useful in that sense, as they allow us to confront what is new with what already exists,” explains Christine Prat, EVA’s Market Strategy Developer.

The virological material is sent by research centres, laboratories, universities and specialised companies. Once it has arrived, it is tested, certified and filed in an online catalog, along with in-depth information thats key for the scientific community.

Bruno Coutard is responsible for collating what the EVA receives.

“We are increasing the amount of information through cell culture techniques. Using cell cultures, we are able to grow the virus, produce it and distinguish it. Distinguishing is what we call sequencing – to get the complete genome sequence of the virus. This enables us to associate this virus with a known virus species,” he says.

“During an epidemic you don’t have much time to work.”

Xavier Lamballerie, the Director of the EVA’s Emerging Virus Unit, says when an epidemic strikes it is important for scientists to be able to quickly rely on updated models and studies.

“During an epidemic you don’t have much time to work. Epidemics are usually short. If people work with different and poorly defined material, were never able to put all the studies together to compare them. The role of a reference collection like EVA is to provide very quickly, to as many partners as possible, the same products, very well identified, so that they can do research with them.”

The French institute has also been able to provide assistance to developing countries by sending reliable and simple to use testing kit.

“The EVA database allows us to prepare and react, to develop diagnostic tools, that are freeze-dried, so they are stable, at room temperature. They can be sent without being refrigerated. They are usable, extremely stable over time and laboratories can use them under conditions that are similar to those that are in the field,” says Virus Collection Supervisor, Remi Charrel.

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How Pandemic Upended Croatias Bold EU Presidency Plans

Among the many things that have been upended by the coronavirus pandemic around the world was Croati..

Among the many things that have been upended by the coronavirus pandemic around the world was Croatias ambitious agenda for its six-month term at the helm of the European Union, which ended Tuesday.

“Despite all our best original plans, related to promoting a whole set of issues most important for Europe’s security and prosperity … our presidency has ended up being a genuine crisis-management presidency,” said Pjer Simunovic, Croatias top diplomat in Washington.

Simunovic said his country took its turn in the rotating office in January with plans to address employment, technology, competitiveness, environment, green energy, EU enlargement, external partnerships, as well as to work toward a smooth and well-regulated Brexit and adoption of the EU’s budget.

Instead, he said in an interview, Croatias presidency has been dominated by “virtual meetings replacing the in-person meetings at all levels, and almost everything getting focused on dealing with the immediacy of the multifaceted danger in front to us.”

“We all had to plan and execute on the fly,” he added.

The role of the EU presidency is to build consensus and facilitate joint decision-making among the blocs nearly 30 members, Simunovic said. Toward that end, he credited the member states for working together to bring home more than 500,000 EU citizens who were left stranded by the pandemic around the world.

Simunovic said his country – an EU member since 2013 – also advocated strongly for the union to open accession talks with two other countries in its southeastern Europe neighborhood – Albania and North Macedonia. An EU-Western Balkans summit in May confirmed the “EUs commitment to the region,” he said.

As another example of solidarity within the EU, the ambassador cited ongoing negotiations on financial rescue packages for the member nations most severely hurt by the pandemic.

“On top of the first EU relief package, adopted in April, of 500 billion euros, complemented by a banking package facilitating lending, the European Commission proposed, in late May, the second relief package, consisting of 750 billion euros, 500 billion in grants, 250 billions in favorable loans,” he said.

Simunovic described that proposal as “fair, balanced and appropriate,” adding that progress towards an agreement was made at the final EU summit of Croatias presidency, including a pledge to finalize an agreement at a summit in July.

Independent analysts also are pleasantly surprised by the EUs success in responding to the pandemic.

“There is some pride along with a sense of shock that Europe has been pulling together,” said Stephen Szabo, a senior fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. But he said the success came only after “a disastrous beginning” in which the member states failed to help the hardest-hit countries, such as Italy.

“Still this is only the first stage of what promises to be a long-term crisis,” he said, adding that the economic effects “will be felt for years and will pose a challenge for European solidarity.”

Simunovic discussed the concept of “strategic autonomy” as the pandemic forces nations to evaluate the strength of their supply chains. The notion is perfectly understandable, he said, but he believes collaboration among the EU members will be critical going forward.

He predicted that ties will be “established and reinforced along the lines of reliability” among what he described as “genuine allies.”

Simunovic said Europe stands ready to work alongside the United States to strengthen transatlantic ties and tackle global challenges, including those posed by state actors playing with different rules – Russia and China most prominently among them.

“Globalization will not disappear, trade and investment will continue to flow around the world, as it is happening, but there will be more caution, more safeguards,” he said.

The ambassador predicted Germany, which assumes the presidency for a six-month term beginning Wednesday, will find itself like Croatia in a continuous “crisis management” mode, with “hard issues remaining to be addressed and resolved.”

“We wish our German friends the best of luck, with our full support and great expectations,” he said. “We are in the same boat amidst the rough seas.”

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