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.”
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
Aliku Ogorchukwu: Wife of Nigerian killed in Italy demands justice
The wife of a Nigerian street trader who was killed in Italy has told the BBC she is seeking justice following his “painful death”.
Aliku Ogorchukwu, 39, was reportedly selling handkerchiefs in the seaside town of Civitanova Marche on Friday when he was chased and beaten to death.
A 32-year-old Italian has been arrested on suspicion of murder and robbery.
A video circulating online shows a man on top of Ogorchukwu, punching him with his bare hands.
None of those who witnessed the broad daylight attack appeared to intervene.
“This is a form of wickedness I don’t know,” Ogorchukwu’s wife, Charity Oriachi, told the BBC’s Focus on Africa.
Ms Oriachi said she had received help in coming to terms with her husband’s death but was tired of “talk”. Now, she was only interested in justice, she insisted.
Her family had lived in Italy for a long time, she said, stressing that her husband had never sought any trouble.
The killing has sparked outrage in the local community, including Nigerians, who took to the streets over the weekend and are planning another demonstration soon.
The Nigerian government has asked Italian authorities to quickly “bring the perpetrator of the heinous act” to justice.
Suspect not released
The suspect – a white man named as Filippo Claudio Giuseppe Ferlazzo – has been ordered to remain in jail as the investigation continues.
His defence lawyer told the media the suspect had said he was sorry and that there was “no racial element” involved.
A police investigator said Ogorchukwu was attacked after the trader’s “insistent” requests to the suspect and his partner for spare change.
The partner, identified as Elena D, told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that Ogorchukwu had touched her arm, but that did not bother her.
Ms Oriachi now wants to see the suspect “face to face”, to understand why he killed her husband, the family’s lawyer told the Associated Press.
Ukrainian widow confronts Russian soldier accused of killing her husband
In the very first days of this invasion a 62-year-old unarmed civilian was shot dead on a village street outside his Ukrainian home. His name was Oleksandr Shelipov.
Three months later and the captured Russian soldier accused of killing him is in Kyiv being tried for a war crime.
Standing up in court to confront the 21-year-old defendant on Thursday was Kateryna Shelipova, the widow of the man killed.
Did he repent his crime, she asked?
The Russian tank commander, Vadim Shishimarin, replied that he admitted his guilt and asked for her forgiveness. “But I understand you won’t be able to forgive me,” he added.
Kateryna Shelipova hadn’t finished. “Tell me please, why did you [Russians] come here? To protect us?” she asked, citing Vladimir Putin’s justification for the invasion of Ukraine.
“Protect us from whom? Did you protect me from my husband, whom you killed?”
The soldier had no answer to that.
This landmark trial marks the first time a Russian serviceman has been put on the stand for war crimes since the invasion of Ukraine was launched in February.
And perhaps such raw encounters are what such trials are about, at least in part. Forcing a soldier – who ignored all the rules of war – to face up to exactly what he has done and the suffering he has caused.
Sgt Shishimarin has pleaded guilty and Ukrainian prosecutors are asking for him to be sentenced to life imprisonment.
On Wednesday, Ms Shelipova told me she actually felt sorry for the soldier, but she could not forgive him for this crime.
She heard the shots that killed her husband, then saw Sgt Shishimarin through her gate – holding his weapon.
Five minutes later she says she saw her husband’s body: “He was dead with a shot in his head. I started screaming very loudly.”
“The loss of my husband is everything for me,” Ms Shelipova said, adding: “He was my protector.”
‘It killed him’
Recalling the events of 28 February, Vadim Shishimarin said he and a small group of other Russian soldiers had become separated from their unit and hijacked a car in order to return to it.
“As we were driving, we saw a man. He was talking on the phone,” the defendant said.
He claimed that he hadn’t wanted to fire the fatal shots, that he was following orders – threatened by another soldier if he refused to do as he was told.
“He said I would be putting us in danger if I didn’t. I shot him at short range. It killed him,” the 21-year-old tank commander told the court.
Interestingly, his defence lawyer – appointed by the state – told me that no Russian official has been in touch with him, including from its defence ministry.
There is no Russian embassy in Kyiv these days, so no contact from there either.
President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman yesterday told the BBC that the Kremlin has “no information” about this case.
All in all, it feels rather like the young soldier has been abandoned to his fate by the commanders who sent him to war and continue to deny that their forces commit crimes here.
We also heard from a second Russian soldier who witnessed the killing in February and later surrendered to Ukrainian forces.
Ivan Maltysev, another slight and young-looking 21-year-old, told the court how the Russian soldiers spotted Oleksandr Shelipov while they were driving the stolen car.
Mr Maltysev claimed that Vadim Shishimarin was then ordered to shoot the victim because he was on the phone.
“Vadim didn’t do it. So the soldier, whose name I don’t know, turned round in the car and shouted that Vadim had to carry out the order, or we would be informed on.
“At this point, we were almost alongside the civilian and, under pressure, Vadim fired. He fired three or four rounds.”
Ukraine has so far identified more than 11,000 possible war crimes committed by Russia.
Moscow has denied its troops have targeted civilians, but investigators have been collecting evidence of possible war crimes to bring before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.
This trial is Ukraine’s chance to prove, beyond doubt, that a Russian soldier killed a civilian with no regard for the rules of war.
Its prosecutors know they are in the spotlight, proceeding so quickly, and in the middle of a war.
That is why they are keen to be as transparent and thorough as possible – so that this is not seen as a show trial, but part of a vital quest for justice.
Stop matching lone female Ukraine refugees with single men, UK told
The UN refugee agency has called on the UK government to intervene to stop single British men from being matched up with lone Ukrainian women seeking refuge from war because of fears of sexual exploitation.
Following claims that predatory men are using the Homes for Ukraine scheme to target the vulnerable, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) told the Guardian “a more appropriate matching process” could be put in place to ensure women and women with children are matched with families or couples.
The suggestion from the global refugee agency follows reports that Ukrainian refugees, predominantly women and sometimes accompanied by children, are at risk in the UK of sexual exploitation.
Under the government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme, British hosts must link up with Ukrainian refugees themselves, leaving tens of thousands of people to resort to unregulated social media groups to connect.
A government-backed matching service run by the charity Reset offers to match UK hosts with refugees but has been operating for just over a week. Those who want to move to the UK must have a sponsor before applying for a visa.
In a statement, the UNHCR said there was a need for adequate safeguards and vetting measures to be in place against exploitation, as well as adequate support for sponsors. “[The] UNHCR believes that a more appropriate matching process could be put in place by ensuring that women and women with children are matched with families or couples, rather than with single men.
“Matching done without the appropriate oversight may lead to increasing the risks women may face, in addition to the trauma of displacement, family separation and violence already experienced,” a spokesperson said.
Leading refugee charities raised their concerns about the Homes for Ukraine scheme in a letter to Michael Gove, the minister in charge of the scheme. Louise Calvey, the head of safeguarding at the charity Refugee Action, told the Observer it was at risk of being a “Tinder for sex traffickers”.
One 32-year-old woman from Bakhmut, Ukraine, who has been searching for an appropriate person to match in the UK, wrote that she had received suggestive messages from men on Facebook’s Messenger app. “I was approached by one older guy from London who said that I would have to share a bedroom with him, and was asked if I was OK with that,” she said in an email seen by the Guardian.
The Sunday Times reported this week that a journalist posing as a 22-year-old Ukrainian woman from Kyiv found that within minutes of posting a message on the largest Facebook group for UK hosts she was inundated with inappropriate messages.
Some men lied about having several bedrooms in their one-bed homes while another proposed sharing a bed, writing: “I have a large bed. We could sleep together.” Another sent a voice note that said: “I am ready to help you and maybe you can help me also.”
In its statement, the UNHCR also raised concerns about the repercussions should the original UK host prove a potential threat to the safety of the refugee, and the six-month minimum duration on the Homes for Ukraine scheme.
“UNHCR believes that appropriate training and information are needed to ensure that hosts make an informed decision when applying to become sponsors. Housing a stranger in an extra bedroom for an extended period is not, for some people, sustainable,” the spokesperson said.
There is growing public anger over the length of time that Ukrainians are being forced to wait before being given visas from the Home Office amid the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since the second world war.
Priti Patel, the home secretary, apologised on Friday for the time it had taken for Ukrainian refugees to arrive in the UK under two visa schemes, after figures showed only 12,000 had so far reached Britain.
Reports on Tuesday claimed Gove had been accused of bullying Home Office officials by Patel’s permanent secretary, Matthew Rycroft.
Asked to respond to the UNHCR’s request for an intervention on sexual exploitation of Ukrainian women, a government spokesperson said: “Attempts to exploit vulnerable people are truly despicable – this is why we have designed our Homes for Ukraine scheme to have specific safeguards in place, including robust security and background checks on all sponsors, both by the Home Office and local authorities.
“Councils must make at least one in-person visit to a sponsors property and following guests arrival, they have a duty to ensure the guest is safe and well.
“We have also partnered with the charity Reset Communities and Refugees to fund and provide a matching service for sponsors and refugees to ensure that matches made are suitable, safe and successful. This service will vet eligibility, assess needs, and provide training for sponsors to ensure they
ensure they can support the people they host.”
Asked to confirm or deny whether there had been a complaint that Gove had bullied staff, the spokesperson added: “Humanitarian schemes set up in record time by the Home Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities working closely together are helping thousands of Ukrainians find safety in the UK.”