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Belgium goes into three-week ‘lockdown light’

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Belgium is to go into a three-week ‘lockdown light’, following a meeting of federal and regional governments on Friday (26 November).

“We have to admit that we have been ambushed by the virus and that the situation is much more serious than we saw a few weeks ago”, Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo told a lunchtime press conference.

De Croo added that “the pressure on our hospitals is seriously increasing and that the situation is not tenable. We have to action now.”

The Belgian concertation committee of federal and regional governments decided that social life will be restricted in a variety of ways for the next three weeks.

Nightclubs will be closed, and indoor concerts where people are not seated will be cancelled. This measure will go into effect on Monday (29 November).

Bars, restaurants and night-shops will need to close their doors at 11PM. The number of people on one table in restaurants will be restricted to six, except for families larger than six. These measures will go into effect on Saturday (27 November).

Private parties will be forbidden, with an exception for weddings and funerals. However, it is still allowed to have guests at home.

At work and school, on the other hand, there are no upgraded restrictions. The last committee decided that teleworking is mandatory four days a week, and that people can only go to the office one day a week.

Schools will remain open, as will universities.

De Croo reiterated that these “measures will only makes sense if everyone follows them.”

The committee decided to accelerate the vaccination campaign. Regional governments will organise test centres where people can get tested for free.

The committee decided to meet urgently after hospitals and doctors said they could no longer handle the situation. From 16 to 22 November, on average 16,100 people tested positive for Covid daily. On 22 November that number was already 25,365 .

Currently, 669 intensive-care beds are filled with Covid patients, well over the emergency threshold of 500, and in the worst-case scenario, 1,250 intensive-care beds, a maximum capacity, would be filled by Christmas.

Belgium has not been able to organise roll-out of the booster jab in time to prevent the fourth wave. De Croo announced that on Saturday (27 November) a plan will be made to accelerate the booster jab for every adult.

Before the Belgian governments met, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen announced the bloc will take the initiative to block all air travels from Southern Africa, where a new variant of Covid-19 has been found.

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Lawyers threaten action over new EU gas and nuclear rules

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Environmental lawyers are threatening to take legal action against the European Commission if gas is included in the new EU guidelines for sustainable energy investment.

The draft proposal, controversially released late on 31 December, would see certain investments in gas and nuclear included in the so-called EU taxonomy, under the category of “transitional economic activities”.

But a legal analysis carried out by ClientEarth found that such a move would clash with several EU laws — the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, the EU Climate Law and the Taxonomy Regulation itself — and international commitments under the 2015 Paris Agreement.

“Failing to take these legal obligations into account puts the commission at serious risk of legal challenge,” environmental lawyer Marta Toporek from ClientEarth warned on Friday (21 January).

The London-based NGO said that they are exploring all legal avenues, including an internal review request.

Under the Aarhus regulation, NGOs have the right to ask EU institutions to assess their own decisions — with a right to appeal before the Court of Justice of the European Union.

The commission must respond to such requests within 22 weeks.

“While it is a lengthy process, it is an important right for environmental NGOs, and in very limited cases individuals, to ensure that EU institutions and bodies comply with EU laws that are meant to protect the environment and human health,” ClientEarth told EUobserver.

The draft taxonomy has triggered discontent not only among environmentalists but also among some EU member states, MEPs and some financial institutions.

Spain, Austria, Denmark and Luxembourg united to reject the draft proposal, ahead of an informal meeting with EU environment ministers taking place on Friday (21 January) and Saturday — where EU countries can tell the commission what they think about including gas and nuclear into the EU taxonomy.

“This draft sends the wrong message to financial markets and seriously risks being rejected by investors. It jeopardises the purpose of the taxonomy to create a common language,” the group of four countries said in a statement earlier this week.

They argue that natural gas and nuclear power do not meet the legal and scientific requirements to be qualified as sustainable activities.

Vienna previously said it would sue the EU executive if it goes with its plans to include gas and nuclear in the EU taxonomy.

And the Dutch parliament said this week that it will not accept the inclusion of gas, because “‘green’ should really be green”, as Dutch Green MP Suzanne Kröger put it.

No impact assessment, no public consultation

Similarly, centre-right MEP Sirpa Pietikäinen and Green MEP Bas Eickhout, who lead the European Parliament’s work on this file, have said that the draft proposal fails to live up to the co-legislators expectations.

They see the selection criteria used for gas power plants, co-generation and district hearing as being in breach of the “principle of technological neutrality”.

Scientists from the EU Commission expert group concluded that for gas power plants a threshold of 100g CO2e/kWh of electricity should be applied to be compatible with a 1.5°C pathway under the Paris Agreement.

But under the draft proposal, instead, gas power plants would be taxonomy-compliant if their emissions are lower than 270g CO2e/kWh of electricity.

“We see no legal ground for the commission to create an exemption to this principle of technological neutrality,” the two MEPs said in a letter, regretting the lack of an impact assessment.

Earlier this week, MEPs Irene Tinagli and Pascal Canfin, chairs of the parliament committees for economy and environment, also deplored the lack of public consultation “in the light of the controversial nature of the subject”.

Meanwhile, civil society organisations and academia have warned the commission that the EU taxonomy, as it stands, would damage Europe’s reputation and ambitions to climate leadership.

Last year was marked by “a string of intense political rows, backroom deals and manoeuvring over how to bypass scientific evidence and classify fossil gas and nuclear energy as sustainable,” said Tsvetelina Kuzmanova from NGO E3G.

Experts had until Friday to provide feedback on the EU taxonomy. The EU executive will now analyse their contributions and it is expected to formally adopt the proposal before the end of the month.

A majority of EU countries, or the European Parliament, could still object and revoke the decision, after four months of scrutiny.

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Taliban launch raids on homes of Afghan women’s rights activists | Women’s rights and gender equality

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Taliban gunmen have raided the homes of women’s rights activists in Kabul, beating and arresting female campaigners in a string of actions apparently triggered by recent demonstrations.

Tamana Zaryabi Paryani and Parawana Ibrahimkhel, who participated in a series of protests held in Kabul over the last few months, were seized on Wednesday night by armed men claiming to be from the Taliban intelligence department.

Shortly before Paryani and her sisters were detained, footage was posted on social media showing her screaming for help, saying the Taliban were banging on her door.

“Help, please, the Taliban have come to our home … Only my sisters are home,” she says in the clip.

Associated Press footage from the scene on Thursday showed the apartment’s dented metal front door sitting slightly ajar. A witness said the armed men went up to Paryani’s third-floor apartment and began banging on the front door ordering her to open it.

The spokesman for the Taliban-appointed police in Kabul, Gen Mobin Khan, tweeted that Paryani’s social video post was a manufactured drama. A spokesman for the Taliban intelligence, Khalid Hamraz, would neither confirm nor deny the arrest.

He tweeted that “insulting the religious and national values of the Afghan people is not tolerated any more”, a reference to Sunday’s rally during which the protesters appeared to burn a white burqa, the head-to-toe garment that only leaves a mesh opening for the eyes.

Hamraz accused rights activists of maligning Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers and their security forces to gain asylum in the west.

Similar raids were reported across homes of female protesters in Kabul. In another case, an Afghan protester whose name has been concealed to protect her, said she was physically assaulted and injured. She told the Guardian that the Taliban visited her house and “attacked” and “severely beat” her. Her whereabouts are now unknown.

“The Taliban had been patrolling near our homes since [Wednesday] afternoon. I talked to Tamana in the evening and then around 9pm I saw the video of her asking for help. We tried calling her from our burner phones, but her phone was switched off,” said Wahida Amiri, 33-year-old librarian and a fellow demonstrator, who is also on the run. “When we realised that they were raiding our homes one by one, the rest of us decided to go into hiding,” she added.

Since sweeping to power in mid-August, the Taliban have imposed widespread restrictions, many of them against women. They have been banned from many jobs outside the health and education field, their access to education has been restricted beyond sixth grade and they have been ordered to wear the hijab. The Taliban have, however, stopped short of imposing the burqa, which was compulsory when they ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s.

At Sunday’s demonstration, women carried placards demanding equal rights and shouted: “Justice!” They said they could be forced to wear the hijab. Organisers of the demonstration said Paryani attended the protest, which was dispersed after the Taliban fired pepper spray at the crowd.

Paryani belongs to a rights group called Seekers of Justice, which has organised several demonstrations in Kabul, including Sunday’s. Members have not spoken publicly of Paryani’s arrest but have been sharing the video of her.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch said that since taking over, the Taliban “have rolled back the rights of women and girls, including blocking access to education and employment for many”.

“Women’s rights activists have staged a series of protests; the Taliban have responded by banning unauthorized protests,” HRW said in a statement after Sunday’s protest.

The Taliban have increasingly targeted Afghanistan’s rights groups, and local and international journalists covering demonstrations have often been detained and sometimes beaten.

“It is obvious the Taliban are intensifying their attacks on the civic space, and more specifically on women who are pioneers of the civic space,” said Shaharzad Akbar, chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

“For over a month, we have seen the Taliban stifling dissent and intensifying their attacks on protesters across Afghanistan,” added Akbar. “Earlier we heard reports of protesters in Mazar being detained. There were also allegation of them being tortured, assaulted and harassed while in detention.”

Heather Barr, associate director of the women’s division at Human Rights Watch, said the Taliban’s reaction was a sign of fear. “It might seem hard to understand why the Taliban would have such a violent reaction to 25 women standing on the sidewalk, protesting peacefully. But their fears make sense when you see how powerful and brave these women are, to be stepping out again and again even in the face of escalating violence by the Taliban,” she said.

She urged the international community to step up in support of Afghan women. “The Taliban seem to be struggling on how to respond to this, and seem to have decided now that increased brutality is the answer, and that is a very frightening moment. The international community has to stand by these women.”

Associated Press contributed reporting

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Macron promises strong EU borders

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Obligatory detentions, more security screening, and faster deportations – these are the French EU presidency’s migration priorities, in a right-wing home affairs agenda.

Immigration did not take centre stage in French president Emmanuel Macron’s speech in the EU Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday (19 January).

But what he did say emphasised keeping people out.

“We must protect our external borders, including by developing a rapid-intervention [military] force … to build partnerships with countries of origin and transit, to fight against [human-]smuggling networks, and make our return policy effective,” he told MEPs.

He voiced empathy for people “in great misery … and insecurity”, some of whom had walked from Africa or Asia to Europe, he said.

But Macron’s empathy had its limits. “It’s a horrendous humanitarian situation, but that’s reality,” he said.

And his speech was matched by his priorities on immigration for the next six months.

EU states should agree “common rules” on border “screening”, including “an obligation to ‘keep at the disposal of the authorities’ persons apprehended at the external borders, by increasing detention capacities,” France said in a memo to fellow EU states on 17 January.

Screening should include “health and safety checks” and fingerprinting, the memo said.

“The asylum procedure … would only be provided for in the later stages” of the security process, France noted.

And EU states should step up deportations, by concluding “more readmission agreements with priority third countries” and creating a new “EU Return Coordinator”, France added.

These were the “core” measures France believed EU states could agree on by July, following months of consultations.

France also discussed how EU states could show “solidarity” with front-line countries, such as Greece and Italy, without taking in asylum seekers.

They could pay each other off or send border guards instead, France proposed.

But there was as little in the French memo on protecting migrants’ lives or welfare as there was in Macron’s speech.

The EU should offer “dignified reception and better integration of people in need”, the memo said, in its only words on the issue.

Misery

Record numbers of people drowned last year trying to cross the Mediterranean, while others froze to death in the forests of Belarus and Poland.

At the same time, EU countries carried out thousands of illegal “pushbacks”.

Some built new walls and razor-wire fences, while conditions at many Greek migrant camps remained dismal.

But for all the human “misery” involved, EU migration has become a political weapon ahead of French elections in April, where Macron is running against three right-wing contenders, among others.

“We cannot have a sieve-like Europe,” the centre-right candidate, Valérie Pécresse, said while on a visit to Greece last week.

And one far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen’s party spoke out in Strasbourg.

“Your Europe [the EU] is 60 years old, but our Europe is 3,000 old,” one of Le Pen’s MEPs, Jordan Bardella, told Macron.

“Will Europe still be Europe if refugees are everywhere? Will it still be Europe if people swear allegiance to sultans in Turkey and Morocco?,” Bardella said.

Meanwhile, Macron’s migration agenda comes alongside other EU presidency projects on counterterrorism, antisemitism, and hate speech.

And some of these would also appeal to right-wing voters.

EU countries needed to tackle “the extremely sensitive nature of the notion of blasphemy, which rallies and mobilises all streams of the radical Islamist scene”, such as the lone knife-man who beheaded a French schoolteacher in 2020, France warned in a recent EU memo on terrorism.

It proposed a hawkish definition of antisemitism that was being used to demonise Israel’s opponents.

And for all the French concern on dialling down hatred, Macron’s vision of a secular Europe contained nothing on tackling Islamophobia.

Politics

For his part, French Green MEP Yannick Jadot took the French leader to task in heated, eyeball-to-eyeball comments in the Strasbourg chamber.

Jadot highlighted the death of a young Kurdish migrant in the English Channel.

“All that she wanted was to live and to love, Mr President … Why do you pull down the tents [in Calais migrant camps] every day?”, Jadot said.

But Jadot is also running in April and his intervention was just more French election fever for some MEPs, such as the Spanish leader of the socialist group, Iratxe García Pérez, who asked the Frenchman to cool his tone.

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