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Russia and EU far apart on security talks

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Russia has continued to talk over Europe’s head to America about its threat of war, but the EU says it cannot be marginalised.

Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov addressed the US in his latest remarks on the Ukraine security crisis on Monday (20 December).

“I think they [the US] will try to turn this into a slow-moving process, but we need it to be urgent, because the situation is very difficult, it is acute,” he told Russian media.

He spoke after Russia recently demanded that Nato pulled out forces from the Baltic states and Poland and revoked ties with Georgia and Ukraine.

When asked if the EU would have a role to play in any talks on the new security guarantees, Ryabkov said he “took note” of its request to be involved.

But he added: “We propose that the United States should conduct bilateral negotiations on this topic”.

“We will simply drown it all in debate and verbiage” if the EU took part, he also said last Friday.

Russia’s Nato demands were so outrageous that some EU diplomats saw them as a red herring, designed to distract attention from the real problem – Russia’s menacing military build up around Ukraine.

Others saw them as propaganda cover in case Russia chose to invade Ukraine once again.

“It would help Moscow to say: ‘Look. We tried to talk with the West, but they wouldn’t listen’,” an EU source said.

For all the scepticism, the US and EU have said they were open to discussions with Russia on de-escalating the Ukraine situation.

But these would have to respect previous European peace accords and include all those concerned, they said.

“The Helsinki Final Act and the Paris Charter have already offered us key principles around which to build European security,” an EU foreign-service spokesman told EUobserver on Monday, referring to a 1975 non-aggression pact.

“Every country is sovereign in its own foreign policy and security choices while at the same time respecting the territorial integrity of each other. This is something Russia has to understand and respect,” the EU spokesman said.

“And, of course, the EU must be at the table of any discussion about European security architecture,” he added.

It remained speculative on Monday whether any new transatlantic security talks would go ahead or which format they might take place in.

But for his part, Russia’s EU envoy, Vladimir Chizhov, was more accommodating than Ryabkov, saying it would be “necessary” to include EU countries that were military powers.

“The EU as a non-military organisation can play [a] supporting role,” Chizhov added.

That left open the questions which EU states would be taken seriously as mediators by both sides and what the EU foreign-affairs chief, Josep Borrell, would do.

France and Germany have, for years, represented the EU in ‘Normandy Format’ summits with Russia on the Ukraine conflict.

But Warsaw and other Russia-hawkish EU capitals fear Berlin and Paris have their own best interests at heart.

They also say Russia has been trying to cultivate EU friends to sow division.

“That [a Franco-German tandem] would be a dream scenario for Moscow, but it won’t fly. The EU and Nato are more than France and Germany,” an EU diplomat said.

“Russia is counting on a new ‘Yalta’,” he said, referring to the Soviet Union and Allied powers’ division of Europe into spheres of influence after World War 2 at a meeting in Crimea.

“The West has to play this calmly, not to rush into anything, and to set the conditions [for any new security talks],” he added.

“Russia’s trying to turn things upside down … It’s trying to hide its aggression against Ukraine behind its narrative about Nato’s threat to Russia,” the EU diplomat said.

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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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