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Covid-19 crisis: Spain’s coronavirus recovery plan gets green light from Brussels | Economy and Business

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The European Commission on Wednesday endorsed Spain’s €69.5 billion coronavirus recovery and resilience plan, giving it top scores on 10 out of 11 criteria under evaluation. Spain will receive €37 billion over the next year-and-a-half, subject to a series of reforms. But Brussels has accepted that Madrid will not provide specifics about pension and job market reform until after the government sits down for talks with unions and employers.

“This plan will deeply transform Spain’s economy, make it greener, more digital, more resilient,” said the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who traveled to Madrid to celebrate the news with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.

Under the plan, €3 billion will go towards the digitalization of small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and another €3.4 billion to transform the tourism sector, which has been devastated by the coronavirus crisis. A further €3.4 billion has been earmarked for measures that promote a green economy, such as renovating buildings with poor energy efficiency.

This plan will deeply transform Spain’s economy, make it greener, more digital, more resilient

President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen

Brussels believes the plan could lead to a 2.5% rise in Spain’s gross domestic product (GDP).

In other news, millions of euros in European aid will be suspended for member states that “prevent an effective judicial review of administrative decisions” involving the use of EU funds, according to draft guidelines by the European Commission that EL PAÍS has seen. The text sets out ways to apply a mechanism that links EU funding to respect for the rule of law. It warns that there will be case-by-case investigations and that any deterioration of the rule of law that might endanger proper management of EU funds “could justify proposing measures that would entail a significant financial impact for the concerned member state.”

For some members such as Poland or Hungary, EU funds make up around 60% of public investment. The mechanism was approved late last year with these countries in mind, following their drift into authoritarianism. But for the sake of consensus, its application was restricted to violations of the rule of law with a direct impact on the EU’s financial interests, not on broader violations. Even so, Brussels is hoping that the mechanism will be effective against a range of challenges across the EU, from attacks on judicial independence to conflicts of interest (a case in point being the prime minister of Czech Republic, whose business empire receives EU funds), as well as cases of corruption tied to the management of European money, including the new coronavirus recovery fund.

Erosion of the rule of law

While the EU agreement reached in late 2020 already envisioned suspending fund transfers when “the independence of judges is in danger,” the new draft guidelines make judicial independence a pillar of the system, and they also detail the kinds of violations that could lead to a loss of funds.

The guidelines take aim at “national laws that prevent an effective judicial review of administrative decisions to implement the EU budget,” and at countries that take steps to obstruct the review of relevant cases by the EU Court of Justice.

This latest move by Brussels reflects growing concern by many member states over the transfer of significant amounts of money to countries experiencing a gradual erosion of the rule of law and separation of powers. These concerns have grown with the EU’s new €1.8 trillion long-term budget for 2021-2027, including the €750 billion NextGenerationEU recovery instrument.

But Brussels insists that the mechanism is not aimed at any state in particular. Disciplinary measures have been taken in the past against unexpected members: Germany was once nearly sanctioned for exceeding the 3% public deficit limit, a move it finally averted despite years of breaches. And after Greece was found to have manipulated its public accounts to conceal its own soaring deficit, the EU introduced a series of sanctions that were first used against Spain, where the regional government of Valencia had engaged in similar activities.

In October 2020, Spain received a warning from the European Commission over the issue of judicial independence, due to a planned reform of the way members are elected to a regulatory body known as the General Council of the Judiciary (CGPJ). Spain’s minority government, led by a center-left coalition of the Socialist Party (PSOE) and Unidas Podemos, eventually dropped the plans. Brussels said it would continue to watch developments closely, and recommended that Spain seek advice from the Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe that supervises sensitive reforms to ensure democratic quality and best practices.

English version by Susana Urra.

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Russia to lose Swift access, pipeline if it invades Ukraine

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“Work is already underway for … disconnection of Russia from the Swift banking system, sanctions on the Russian gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 [to Germany],” if it invades Ukraine, Latvian foreign minister Edgars Rinkēvičs said in The Guardian Tuesday. “If [Russian president] Vladimir Putin wants to see gas flow through that pipeline, he may not want to take the risk of invading Ukraine,” US national-security adviser Jake Sullivan told Reuters.

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Can artistic freedom survive in Sudan? The writing’s on the wall… | Global development

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In the new dawn of a heady post-revolutionary era, Suzannah Mirghani returned in 2019 to the country of her birth for the first time in years. Her mission was to shoot a short film on Sudanese soil. It proved unexpectedly straightforward.

“When the revolution happened, there was this exuberance,” she says, from her Qatari home. “When we came to make our film, we were given the green light. We were told: ‘Anything you want’.

“Nobody harassed us. Nobody told us what to do. Nobody asked us for the script. I call this time in the history of Sudan ‘the honeymoon’,” says Mirghani.

Sudanese director Suzannah Mirghani at this year’s Tribeca film festival in New York.
The Sudanese director Suzannah Mirghani at this year’s Tribeca film festival in New York. Photograph: Michael Loccisano/Getty

More than two and a half years after the toppling of the longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir, Mirghani fears the honeymoon is over, at least for her. The turmoil into which Sudan has again been plunged means she feels unable to return safely.

On 31 October, as her film, Al-Sit, won the latest of many awards, Mirghani had to give an acceptance speech that was anything but celebratory.

Six days before, the military had seized power in a coup, detaining the civilian prime minister and bringing the country’s fragile transition to democracy to an abrupt halt.

In a video address from Qatar to the Africa in Motion film festival in Scotland, Mirghani said “the only reason” she and her crew had been able to make Al-Sit was the active encouragement given by the civilian-military partnership government. “Now,” she added, “we’re in very serious danger of going back to the bad old days of military rule and stifling creative expression.”

Since the coup, a lot has happened: huge pro-democracy protests thronged through Khartoum and other cities, with at least 40 demonstrators killed.

After almost a month, the prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, was released as part of a deal struck with the coup leader, Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.

A still from a film, with a young girl talking to her grandmother as they sit next to a lamp at night
A still from Mirghani’s film, Al-Sit, about a young girl’s arranged marriage in Sudan. Photograph: Courtesy FilmFreeway

But the protesters, who want the military out of politics for good, are not convinced, and even less so as security forces fire teargas into the crowds that continue to gather despite Hamdok’s return. With the creative gains made after the revolution now hanging in the balance, Sudanese artists feel they have to speak out.

“We artists will be the first to be targeted if the military government continues in power,” writes Aamira*, a painter, in an email from Khartoum. “We are demonstrating in the streets, facing guns, unarmed. There is nothing to fear any more.”

In an interview with the Financial Times last week, Hamdok defended his decision to strike a deal with the military, saying it was essential to stop the bloodshed and “preserve the achievements of the last few years”.

It may not have been uppermost in his mind, but one of those achievements was the flowering of an artistic community that had long been harassed, censored and forced into the shadows. Assil Diab, a street artist, says: “I painted Omar al-Bashir as the [face of] coronavirus in a stadium in Bahri during the daytime, which would have been just impossible; my whole family could have been killed two years ago.”

Street artist Assil Diab’s depiction of former dictator Omar al-Bashir as the face of coronavirus on a stadium wall in Bahri, Khartoum.
The street artist Assil Diab’s depiction of the former dictator Omar al-Bashir as the face of coronavirus on a stadium wall in Bahri, Khartoum. Photograph: Assil Diab

Feeling compelled to return amid the revolutionary fervour, Diab returned to Sudan in 2019 and made her name painting the faces of the revolution’s “martyrs” on the outside of their families’ homes, with a getaway car close by in case the notorious paramilitary Rapid Support Forces saw her.

For Mirghani, the “absolute elation” of the revolution yielded creative results. Al-Sit is the beautifully observed story of a Sudanese village girl whose parents want her to marry the sharp-suited son of a wealthy cotton trader in Qatar. “To finally be able to express yourself, to say what you had wanted to say to these people for 30 years: it’s amazing.

“My film is about women’s rights. It’s social commentary on arranged marriage. I don’t think we could have said that a few years ago,” says Mirghani.

The “honeymoon” was not without its challenges. The dictator was gone, but social and religious conservatism – and a reluctance to champion the arts – remained. Artistic freedom was patchy: in 2020, the renowned film-maker Hajooj Kuka and several others were detained during a theatre workshop.

Asim*, a documentary film-maker in Khartoum, says that, although in the capital the “direct censorship” of the Bashir era has eased, the rest of Sudan is not as relaxed. “It’s partially freedom and partially censorship,” he says. “It is a battle about 10% won.”

Khalid Albaih, a political cartoonist based in Qatar, returned after the revolution to launch the Sudan Artist Fund (SAF), to provide budding creatives with money and mentors, and with an ambitious plan to create a public art and design library. He says: “I thought: this is it. All doors were open and this is what we were going to do.

a cartoon of a protester draped in Sudan's flag painting a red line through a street sign showing a U-turn
The political cartoonist Khalid Albaih makes his point about the recent coup attempt. Photograph: Khalid Albaih

“I took all my papers, and for the first time in 10 years I’m in Sudan walking around, not scared of any police, or secret police, or anything. I went to every business owner in Sudan and everyone that can donate money to these causes. And I got nothing but rejection – for a library and for an artists’ fund.”

Finally, Albaih secured $7,000 (£5,300) from CultuRunners, a cultural exchange organisation, and the SAF awarded its first grant of $500 in October – just before the coup. “It was incredible because the internet cut out [after the coup leaders imposed a nationwide online blackout] so the artist didn’t even know he had won. We had to call him. It took two or three weeks to send the money to him,” says Albaih.

The cartoonist knows there will not be any more funding for a while. “Now everything is rocky. No one knows how things will go. It’s going to be really hard for artists and these kinds of initiatives to move forward.

Women walk past a hoarding with graffiti of silhouetted protesters
Women walk past graffiti reading in Arabic: ‘Freedom, peace, justice and civilian’ in the Burri district of Khartoum in 2019. Photograph: Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters

The coup, says Diab, left the creative community feeling “disappointed and just broken down … because we finally thought we were free and then this happened.” She intends to apply for political asylum in the US, where she is studying, feeling she “can be of better use to Sudan” from overseas.

Those in the thick of it cannot afford to give up hope. Asim was at a protest in Khartoum against the post-coup deal last week and was “teargassed the entire afternoon” amid chants of “no partnership, no negotiation, no legitimacy”. He is realistic about future challenges but knows that people have made up their minds.

“I feel like there is a grip on power and it will not end today; it will not end tomorrow. Whether those power-hungry authoritarians will roll with democratic transition and allow people to express their freedoms, allow journalists and film-makers to operate or not, that is something that is still [up in] the air, because you never know with the ever-changing dynamic of power in this country,” he says.

The momentum towards democracy is undeniable, he says. “I believe that is possible and I believe there is hope. The people will not stop asking for what they really want. [Will] that future come tomorrow? The day after? In two years? In five? We never know. But it seems like the consensus is that people agree it has to happen.”

*Names have been changed to protect their identity

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EU agrees to sanction Russian mercenaries

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EU diplomats have provisionally agreed to blacklist three Russian nationals and one entity, the ‘Wagner Group’ mercenary outfit, on grounds of human rights abuses in Africa and the Middle East, diplomatic sources said. The decision will be formalised by foreign ministers next Monday. The move comes amid Wagner’s increasing presence in Mali, threatening French interests in the region. Europe earlier sanctioned a Russian oligarch, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said to fund Wagner.

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