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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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Delta COVID Variant Reportedly Draws Biden’s Attention, Resources Away From Other Priorities

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Despite high overall rates of vaccinations in the US, more and more Americans are getting infected with the new, rapidly spreading ‘delta’ variant of the coronavirus, once again testing the limits of hospitals and reportedly sparking talks about new mask-up orders from authorities.

The rapidly increasing number of new COVID-19 cases in the US caused by the more infectious delta strain of the virus is frustrating the Biden administration, as the problem draws attention and resources away from other priorities that the White House would like to concentrate on, the Washington Post reported, citing several anonymous sources. Among the problems that the administration reportedly had to de-prioritise are Biden’s infrastructure initiatives, voting rights, an overhaul of policing, gun control and immigration.

The White House reportedly hoped that the pandemic would be gradually ebbing by this time, allowing it to focus more on other presidential plans. Instead, the Biden administration is growing “anxious” about the growing number of daily COVID-19 cases, the newspaper sources said. The White House press secretary indirectly confirmed that Biden is currently preoccupied with the pandemic the most.

“Getting the pandemic under control [and] protecting Americans from the spread of the virus has been [and] continues to be his number-one priority. It will continue to be his priority moving forward. There’s no question,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on 22 July.

The administration had reportedly expected new outbreaks in the country, but not as many as they’re seeing. Current analytical models predict anything between a few thousand new cases and 200,000 new infected daily, the Washington Post reported. Washington also fears that daily deaths might reach over 700 per day, up from the current average of 250. However, the White House doesn’t expect the pandemic numbers to return to their 2020 peak levels.

At the same time, the Biden administration is trying to find scapegoats to blame for the current shortcomings in fighting the coronavirus pandemic in the country. Namely, Biden  last week accused the social media platform of failing to combat the spread of disinformation on COVID-19 and thus “killing people”. The statement raised many eyebrows since many platforms mark COVID-related posts and insert links to reliable sources of information regarding the disease and the vaccination efforts aimed at fighting it. The White House also hinted that the Republican-controlled states became the main sources of new COVID cases, while often underperforming in terms of vaccination rates.



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Sierra Leone abolishes death penalty | Global development

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Sierra Leone has become the latest African state to abolish the death penalty after MPs voted unanimously to abandon the punishment.

On Friday the west African state became the 23rd country on the continent to end capital punishment, which is largely a legacy of colonial legal codes. In April, Malawi ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional, while Chad abolished it in 2020. In 2019, the African human rights court ruled that mandatory imposition of the death penalty by Tanzania was “patently unfair”.

Of those countries that retain the death penalty on their statute books, 17 are abolitionist in practice, according to Amnesty International.

A de facto moratorium on the use of the death penalty has existed in Sierra Leone since 1998, after the country controversially executed 24 soldiers for their alleged involvement in a coup attempt the year before.

Under Sierra Leone’s 1991 constitution, the death penalty could be prescribed for murder, aggravated robbery, mutiny and treason.

Last year, Sierra Leone handed down 39 death sentences, compared with 21 in 2019, according to Amnesty, and 94 people were on death row in the country at the end of last year.

Rhiannon Davis, director of the women’s rights group AdvocAid, said: “It’s a huge step forward for this fundamental human right in Sierra Leone.

“This government, and previous governments, haven’t chosen to [put convicts to death since 1998], but the next government might have taken a different view,” she said.

“They [prisoners] spend their life on death row, which in effect is a form of torture as you have been given a death sentence that will not be carried out because of the moratorium, but you constantly have this threat over you as there’s nothing in law to stop that sentence being carried out.”

Davis said the abolition would be particularly beneficial to women and girls accused of murdering an abuser.

“Previously, the death penalty was mandatory in Sierra Leone, meaning a judge could not take into account any mitigating circumstances, such as gender-based violence,” she said.

Umaru Napoleon Koroma, deputy minister of justice, who has been involved in the abolition efforts, said sentencing people on death row to “life imprisonment with the possibility of them reforming is the way to go”.

Across sub-Saharan Africa last year Amnesty researchers recorded a 36% drop in executions compared with 2019 – from 25 to 16. Executions were carried out in Botswana, Somalia and South Sudan.

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[Ticker] EU to share 200m Covid vaccine doses by end of 2021

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The European Commission announced it is on track to share some 200 million doses of vaccines against Covid-19 before the end of the year. It says the vaccines will go to low and middle-income countries. “We will be sharing more than 200 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines with low and middle-income countries by the end of this year,” said European commission president Ursula von der Leyen.

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