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European Union Geopolitical Watch – from April 2 to April 8, 2022

European Union Geopolitical Watch Team : Sara Brouwers, Victor Martin, Madara Lange, Audrey Moisan, Teodora Subotic, Louis Harand, Leo Caget, Etienne Mathieu

04/02/2022: Baltic countries stop Russian gas imports. -Léo Caget-

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauséda declared on Saturday 2 April: “From this month on – no more Russian gas in Lithuania“, an announcement quickly confirmed by a press release from the Ministry of Energy of this Baltic country. This statement was quickly taken up by its Estonian and Latvian neighbors. While Lithuania can afford this decision to be long-term – with its LNG carrier Independence inaugurated in the port of Vilnius in 2014 and the opening of the gas pipeline with Poland scheduled for May 2022 – Estonia and Latvia must quickly turn to a diversification of their supplies and a necessary investment in new infrastructure, otherwise they run the risk of once again asking the question of Russian gas when it comes to replenishing stocks for the winter.

The announcement by the Baltic States follows Russia’s energy blackmail in the context of the war in Ukraine, to which the European Union had responded by a desire to take the path of total independence from Russian gas imports. The Lithuanian president made an appeal to other EU countries that are now facing complex choices: “If we can do it, the rest of Europe can do it too!

04/02/2022: Elected as the new leader of the right, Alberto Núñez Feijóo comes to restore calm and courage to the militants. -Sara Brouwers-

Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the only candidate to succeed Pablo Casado, was elected leader of the Popular Party with 98% of the votes cast by his party’s activists at the end of an extraordinary congress held in Seville on Friday, which was organised to put an end to the crisis triggered by the fratricidal war between Pablo Casado and Isabel Díaz Ayuso, president of the Madrid region. He is, in fact, considered by his party to be the only candidate capable of bringing the main force of the Spanish opposition not only its unification but also victory over the Socialist Party of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez in the next elections, scheduled for the end of 2023. “I have come here to win and to govern“, he said in his speech presenting his candidacy.

President of the region of Galicia (north-west) for 13 years, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, with his electoral successes (four consecutive elections won with an absolute majority) will now have to try to repeat these victories on a national scale in order to bring back to power a right-wing traumatised by the overthrow in 2018 of Mariano Rajoy by the Parliament following the tabling of a motion of censure by the current socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez after the conviction of the Popular Party in a corruption scandal. In addition to winning against the Socialists, he will have to assert the position of the right in the face of the growing power of Vox, the Spanish far right, with which he must nevertheless deal in order to have a majority at national level.

04/03/2022: Viktor Orban’s Fidesz wins the legislative elections in Hungary. -Etienne Mathieu-

The Hungarian legislative elections were held on April 3. They were marked by the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Hungarian government, reputedly close to Russia, certainly condemned the invasion, but was criticized for its reservations – in particular the refusal to allow arms intended for Ukraine to transit through its territory.

The election is a disappointment for the United for Hungary opposition coalition. The motley group, from the left to the far right, garners just 35% of the vote, less than the combined total of votes obtained separately by the six parties in the previous election in 2018, before their coalition. Fidesz, the ruling party, won 53% of the vote, and retained a two-thirds majority in the unicameral Parliament. This qualified majority allows him to modify the Constitution alone. On the other hand, the Mouvement Notre Patrie enters Parliament. This far-right party, openly homophobic, racist and anti-Semitic, is the result of a split from Jobbik, an extremist party that joined the United for Hungary coalition.

On the same day, Hungarians were invited to vote in a referendum for a so-called child protection law, considered by the opposition to be transphobic and homophobic. But the referendum failed to meet the quorum needed to become binding.

04/04/2022: Three years to act: the verdict of the sixth IPCC report. -Audrey Moisan-

This Monday, April 4, the IPCC (for Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) published the third volume of its sixth synthesis report on limiting climate change, following the previous one published in February.  The purpose of this report is to take stock of the forecasts announced in the previous syntheses, as well as in the annual and special reports.

Four major points have been identified in this volume.

The first one assesses the current state of the climate, highlighting a global increase in the frequency of extreme temperature events between 1850 and 2020 (1850 being a reference to the pre-industrial period).

The second point elaborates on 5 scenarios of greenhouse gas concentration and analyzes their results at different times. The verdict is: that the planet should see global warming ranging from +1.5 to +4°C. 1.5° C is the objective to be maintained according to the IPCC but seems unattainable if no action is taken at the moment.

The third point specifies the impacts of these changes on specific geographical areas: tropical cyclones, sea-level rise on the ⅔ of the world’s coastlines, desertification…

Finally, the last point aims to encourage the reduction of emissions, by stating possible ways to reduce GHGs, such as increasing carbon sinks. According to the IPCC, this reduction must take place within 3 years, if the objective of 1.5°C and the minimum consequences are to be guaranteed.

This report has been covered in many media, and its publication could raise many political issues, as the presidential elections are imminent in France.

Finally, it should be noted that the final report is not expected to be published until September, as the Covid-19 crisis has slowed down the meetings of the scientific groups working on this issue.

04/04/2022 : Greece repays its debt to the International Monetary Fund. -Sara Brouwers-

On Monday, Greece repaid its entire debt to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) “two years early” – as promised on 14 February by Greek Finance Minister Christos Staikouras.

Greece’s economic turmoil dates back to October 2009, when the newly elected government of George Papandreou lifted the veil on major “public deficit fudging“. On 23 April 2010, Greece acknowledged that it could no longer afford to support itself and, faced with the risk of bankruptcy, called for international assistance. It was the first country to benefit from international aid plans (2010, 2012 and 2015). In May of the same year, the country found itself under financial assistance: three aid plans were granted for a total of €380 billion, in exchange for unprecedented austerity – and social breakdown.

The funds lent by the eurozone countries to Greece were not at zero interest. Initially, the rate agreed was Euribor (an average European interest rate) 300 basis points. At that time Euribor was 1.6%, so Greece borrowed at 4.6%.

At the end of March, Greece received approval from the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) and the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) for the final payment of €1.85 billion to the IMF, thereby clearing its debt and saving €230 million in interest. This is a positive sign for Greece, which could see the rating of its sovereign debt upgraded by the rating agencies in the coming months, with Fitch having already mentioned at the beginning of the year the possibility of a stronger than expected improvement in the Greek economy thanks to a higher growth rate in 2022.

04/05/2022: The European Union is slow to ban Russian gas imports, preferring to focus on sanctions against coal. -Madara Lange-

On 5 April, the European Commission made public a package of sanctions against Russia. This included a ban on the import of Russian coal, the supply of which had cost around 4 billion euros per year. However, the share of Russian coal in the EU’s mineral fuel imports was very small compared to gas and oil.

Ukraine and other Eastern European states such as Poland supported a total embargo on the supply of Russian energy sources because they would directly finance the war in Ukraine. In return, Germany has said that it is impossible to substitute Russian oil imports in the country. On the other hand, it would have promised to stop importing coal.

The sanctions package is expected to be approved by EU ambassadors on Wednesday 6 April. The President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, would not exclude a fifth part of the sanctions, aimed at targeting the important oil and gas sectors.

04/05/2022: Several EU member states expel Russian diplomats. -Léo Caget-

On Monday, April 4, the German Foreign Minister announced the mass expulsion of Russian diplomats who constituted “a threat to those who seek protection here“. On the same day, French diplomacy announced similar measures against 35 Russian diplomats. Many European Union states followed suit: Italy, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Sweden, Romania, and Slovenia. From March, several countries had already sent back Russian diplomats, including the three Baltic States in a concerted decision, followed at the end of the month by similar announcements from Poland, Belgium, Ireland, Slovakia, and the Netherlands. Lithuania has even announced this week the dismissal of the Russian ambassador, a strong gesture that is part of the pursuit of sanctions against it in the context of war in Ukraine. These successive statements support the recent accusations of “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity” against Russia, following the withdrawal of its troops from the region of Kiev and the discovery of atrocities committed on civilians, particularly in Boutcha, a small suburban town of the Ukrainian capital. Russia denies for the moment these accusations and promises an identical response, according to the words of former Russian president and deputy head of the Security Council Dimitri Medvedev: “Everyone knows the answer: it will be symmetrical and destructive for bilateral relations.

05/04/2022: Volodomyr Zelensky asks the UN Security Council to exclude Russia. -Etienne Mathieu-

Volodomyr Zelensky addressed the UN Security Council on April 5. In a videoconference from Kiev, the Ukrainian president questioned the international institution on its inability to stop the Russian invasion. This speech took place the day after Volodomyr Zelensky’s visit to Boutcha, a town recently evacuated by the Russian army; faced with signs of civilian massacres, the head of state spoke of “genocide“.

The President of Ukraine called on the Council to exclude Russia. Russia is one of the five permanent members of the Council, having inherited the seat from the Soviet Union. Like the other four permanent members, Russia has a veto on the decisions of the Council, which paralyzes any resolution opposed to the Kremlin. Volodomyr Zelensky also called for reform of this system inherited from the Second World War, saying that if the United Nations could not impose respect for international law, “it would have to close down” and dissolve the Security Council.

04/05/2022: The European Commission activates for the first time the conditionality mechanism on the rule of law. -Victor Martin-

On April 5, two days after Viktor Orban’s landslide re-election as head of Hungary, Ursula Von Der Leyen, President of the European Commission, announced that the Commission would activate the rule of law conditionality mechanism against him.

This mechanism was put in place as part of the recovery plan adopted in 2020 after the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. This conditionality makes it possible to suspend the payment of recovery plan funds in the event of a member state’s failure to respect the rule of law. This measure was pushed by the so-called frugalcountries (mainly Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden) with Poland and Hungary as the main targets.

The latter is therefore faced with the possibility of not having access to its share of the 2020 recovery plan. However, the procedure takes between 6 and 9 months and 15 out of 27 countries must vote in favor.

The European Commission has been much more accommodating towards Poland, which remains unaffected despite accusations from the EU that it is not respecting the rule of law. To justify this stance, the vice-president of the European Commission, Valdis Dombrovskis, said there has been “clear progress” in Poland regarding the rule of law.

04/06/2022: EU Council approves proposal for immediate payment of 3.5 billion euros in aid to Member States hosting Ukrainian refugees -Teodora Subotic-

Following a proposal made by the European Commission, the Council of the European Union (EU) has approved this April 6, 2022 immediate access to pre-financing to assist EU Member States in hosting Ukrainian refugees.

This is a payment from the REACT-EU fund, which totals 3.5 billion euros. A larger sum should be paid to Member States ready to receive a number of Ukrainians greater than 1% of their population, that is to say, a tranche of up to 45%.

The countries bordering Ukraine should benefit from the 45% pre-financing, including Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia, as well as countries that have already taken in more than one percent of their population: Bulgaria, Austria, the Czech Republic and Lithuania.

In addition, the proposal also included a unit cost per person, set at 40 euros per week for a maximum of 13 weeks after arrival on European soil.

04/06/2022: Bulgaria buys new fighter planes from the US. -Louis Harand-

The US government approved on 5 April an offer to sell eight additional F-16 Block 70 fighter jets to Bulgaria for $1.673 billion (2.97 billion leva) to “enhance the security” of NATO members in the face of the war in Ukraine. This price, which is indicative and negotiable, will depend on the equipment and weapons that will be included in the final version of the aircraft. In 2019, Bulgaria has already acquired 8 F-16 aircraft for more than 2.1 billion leva, paid in advance because the state did not have the required credit history for a deferred payment. Commenting on the new US proposal, Prime Minister Kiril Petkov said that no offer had yet been received, but that when one did arrive, it would be examined in detail and in a transparent manner, unlike the way it had been done during the Borissov government.

President Roumen Radev in turn commented on the US offer: ‘If we want the new F-16 fighters to fly in Bulgaria and have trained pilots and technicians, maintenance and armament equipment, the price is 3 billion leva and it cannot be less […] Now the government has to make an extremely difficult decision: do we want to have a squadron [16 aircraft] that, with the infrastructure, will cost Bulgaria 5.5 billion? If Bulgaria can afford it – and it is desirable that it can – you have to know that such a squadron would only become operational around 2030,” explained the head of state, a war pilot and former air force chief.

04/07/2022 : The European Commission has given its green light to the National Recovery and Resilience Plan. -Louis Harand-

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited Sofia today to personally hand over to Prime Minister Kiril Petkov the Commission’s positive opinion on the recovery and resilience plan submitted by Bulgaria. “This plan allows Bulgaria to reform,” said Ursula Von der Leyen at a press conference with the Bulgarian PM. Stressing that the Commission’s approval was an important step and that “this is the beginning of a journey“, Ms Ursula von der Leyen noted that the plan is part of the EU’s ambitious NextGenerationEU programme and has three priorities: green transition, digitalisation and strengthening the resilience of society through reforms. Over the next four years, Bulgaria will receive €6.27 billion (about 12.5 billion leva) from the EU budget for the implementation of 53 projects and 47 reforms, which must be completed by the end of 2026. Describing the Bulgarian plan as “exceptional” in terms of its green ambition (transition to clean and secure energy), which accounts for almost 60% of the investment, the Commission president cited gas interconnections with Romania and Greece, which will make the country energy independent of Russian gas imports, and projects to encourage electric vehicles and modernise the electricity grid, among key projects. Ursula von der Leyen also welcomed the Bulgarian government’s plans to guarantee a minimum income for vulnerable groups, provide additional medical staff, make pre-school education compulsory, and undertake important measures to crack down on corruption, including reform of the Anti-Corruption Commission and the adoption of an accountability mechanism for the public prosecutor. She described the latter two measures as “major steps” towards implementing the requirements of the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, through which Brussels has monitored the fight against corruption and organised crime in Bulgaria since its accession to the EU in 2007.

The National Recovery and Resilience Plan was submitted for assessment to the European Commission on 15 October 2021, and after six months of negotiations during which Sofia requested four extensions, it was assessed as eligible for EU funding under the NextGenerationEU programme. The plan is due to be approved by the member states soon, after which Sofia and Brussels will conclude agreements on the financing and implementation of the plan. The Bulgarian plan is the 23rd plan approved by the European Commission, the first being that of Portugal (July 2021).

04/08/2022: EU Council adopts new package of sanctions against Russia. -Teodora Subotic-

Following new developments in the context of the Russian-Ukrainian war, the Council of the European Union (EU) adopted a fifth package of individual and economic sanctions on 8 April 2022.

Firstly, it concerns the import, purchase and transfer of coal and fossil fuels originating or exported from Russia: this ban should come into force from August 2022.

Secondly, a ban was introduced on access to EU ports for any Russian registered vessel, except for those carrying agricultural and food products, but also those carrying humanitarian aid and energy.

Thirdly, it was decided to prohibit any Russian or Belarusian road transport company from carrying out any movement of goods by road through the territory of the Union. The exemptions concern pharmaceutical, medical, agricultural and food products in the humanitarian field.

As for exports, these are the jet fuel industries but also high-end electronic products that are targeted (software, quantum computers, semiconductors etc.). A ban on the import of wood, cement, fertilizers, seafood and spirits has also been decided.

In addition, there was a ban on the participation of any Russian company in the public procurement of EU Member States, as well as a halt to the financing of any Russian public body. It was also prohibited to sell banknotes and securities in the currency of any member state to Russia or Belarus, as well as to natural or legal persons from both countries.

The Council also adopted the decision to include, in addition to Russian oligarchs and businessmen, also their family members in the individual sanctions lists in order to avoid circumvention of sanctions.

Finally, the Russian banks that were mainly deSWIFTed should now be subject to an asset freeze, with all transactions to the 4 major Russian banks being prohibited.

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