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EU needs to step up espionage defences, experts warn

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Experts on Thursday (9 September) warned MEPs that the EU should step up its defences against espionage and foreign interference as it is currently a weak and attractive target.

Margarita Robles Carrillo, professor of public international law at the University of Granada told the special committee on foreign interference that the EU has only seen the “tip of the iceberg” in terms of foreign interference.

She said the EU is also vulnerable also because it has fewer means of defence, limited scope of power, and there needs to be a consensus and agreement between EU institutions and member states for decisions to happen.

It is also an attractive target because any action against the EU will have greater consequences and a bigger impact in member states too, she added.

Carrillo called for a coordinated EU policy, and not to rely on member states.

“We must recognise the scope and the nature of the problem, as a problem that effect the structure of member states, the heart of the EU, the spinal column of the EU,” she said.

“We need to understand the need for a clear legal basis and necessary authority and legitimacy,” she added.

She said that there needs to be an intergovernmental commitment to denounce activities within the EU.

The discussion in the committee on Thursday came after a group of journalists in July, with the help of Amnesty International, uncovered an Israeli-made spy software, Pegasus, being used by various governments to target journalists, politicians, activists and politicians – including French president Emmanuel Macron.

Journalists Laurent Richard and Sandrine Rigaud, who participated in uncovering Pegasus, said the tool was used against people considered to pose a threat to powers in place, and there is no mechanism to protect citizens against it.

US help or hindrance

The special committee is tasked with coming up with suggestions on how the EU could better equip itself with tools against foreign interference. However, such a task is very difficult, as member states have to agree on any new tools that the bloc could use against foreign actors.

Robert Dover, head of criminology and sociology at the University of Hull, pointed out that EU member states themselves also participate in spying within the bloc.

He cited the example of Danish cooperation with the US National Security Agency between 2012 and 2014, as the NSA was allowed to use a Danish routing station in an operation that also targeted high-profile politicians, such as Germany’s Angela Merkel.

Dover said member states cooperate with the US, sometimes in return for short-term trade-offs.

He said that it is not only the “highly capable adversary, not only classic adversaries, Russia, China for example but also competitive friends” such as the US, that has been party to foreign interference.

“It has relied EU members cheating on each other, taking the short-term pay off for the benefit of information,” he told MEPs.

He suggested the way to de-incentivise member states from such acts is to reduce the reliance on the US, and the attraction of US capabilities, by developing the EU’s own.

‘Surveillance capitalism’ model

Dover also said intelligence work nowadays is mostly data warehousing of information to “improve the behavioural models how state and individuals will act and behave” – and how to encounter that.

He pointed out that social media platforms and large US tech giants such as Alphabet, the owner of Google, and Facebook are in the same business of surveillance capitalism.

Answering questions from MEPs, he said the “so-called ‘hybrid warfare tools’ have been incredibly successful”, where adversaries target the weak point of the other actor.

“We have seen strategic shocks, such as Brexit,” he cited an example.

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‘My future is overseas’: Tunisians look to Europe as Covid hits tourism | Global development

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The seafront along the town of Hammamet in Tunisia is deserted. Looking out at the bright empty coast from his souvenir shop, Kais Azzabi, 42, describes the crowds that would stroll along the broad boulevards. Today, there is nobody.

“It was very busy here,” he says, gesturing to the street and the Mediterranean Sea beyond. “Since the corona started, everything stopped.”

Blasted by revolution, terror attacks and political instability, the pandemic has all but delivered a death blow to Tunisia’s embattled tourism sector, a former economic staple. Many of its employees are now looking across the sea for opportunities to build new lives in Europe.

Beyond the resorts, recent political events have done little to instil confidence in hotel workers. A presidential power grab in July, which suspended parliament, ousted the chief of government (prime minister), and put former constitutional law professor and political independent Kais Saied into office, has yet to deliver a new long-term vision for the country.

Amine*, 20, sits on the empty beach outside one of the resort’s imposing white hotels. The lifeguard from nearby Tazerka pushes a half-dead fish around a bucket as his friend wades into a lively sea in search of more.

“There were some Tunisian guests here earlier, but it’s dead now,” he says, through an interpreter, looking to the empty beach huts and stacks of unused loungers. “My future is overseas,” he says, remaining vague on how he might get there. “All my friends have gone [to Europe],” he says. “Tazerka is empty. All the nearby towns are empty. Everyone has gone.”

In August, migrant arrivals in Italy from Tunisia were up about 75% on the previous year. According to the International Organization for Migration, this marked “the highest number of departures since the aftermath of the 2011 revolution”. Among them, were 502 unaccompanied minors, as well as a further 138 travelling with at least one member of their family, suggesting that these were not temporary relocations.

In another part of Tazerka, Ramzi, 20, sells melons from the back of his father’s truck on the roadside. Every day, he travels with his father and cousins 150km (90 miles) from Kairouan to sell fruit. They can only do this during the summer months, surviving the winter on whatever they have saved in the tourist season or from occasional work his father can find in construction. Covid-19 has made a desperate situation worse, Ramzi’s father, Nouredinne, says.

“I only want to go to Europe,” Ramzi says. “I’ve been wanting to go there for five or 10 years.” One of his cousins, Wassim, shouts over that he has never had any goal other than to get to Europe since he was a child.

The only thing stopping them is money. “You need around 3,500 TD [Tunisian dinar], but that’s risky. If you have more, it’s more secure,” Wassim says, through an interpreter.

While coronavirus has hammered Tunisia’s economy, its tourism sector has been hardest hit. Even before the pandemic, the country’s sprawling identikit resorts, relying as they do on package tourism, were in trouble. Battered by revolution in 2011, a devastating terror attack in 2015 and subsequent travel bans, the country’s tourism sector had long ceased to offer the security it promised in the 1960s.

“Before the pandemic, the tourism sector represented around 7% of GDP,” says economist Radhi Meddeb. “Consolidated with the ancillary activities of transport, catering, leisure and crafts, its contribution increases to 14%.”

However, he adds: “If the trends observed so far continue until the end of the year, the contribution of the tourism sector to GDP will probably be negative, around -1% to -1.5% of GDP.”

Despite the best efforts of hoteliers, tens of thousands of jobs have been lost. Before the pandemic, more than half a million people were employed in tourism and its support services. Recent events, not least the travel bans imposed in response to Tunisia’s escalating Covid death rate, have put pay to much of that.

With the economy not expected to recover to pre-pandemic levels for some time, tourism in Tunisia “will never be what it was before the crisis”, says Meddeb, evidenced by the rows of abandoned hotels along the coast at Hammamet, Sousse, Monastir and beyond, signalling an end to the all-inclusive package holidays they once provided. “The Tunisian tourism model will have to reinvent itself.”

Back on the beach, Amine continues to push his solitary dying fish around the bucket. “You can see Pantelleria [Italian island] from my village,” he says. Asked how he’ll get there, he says “I’ll swim”.

* Full names not used to protect identities

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Navalny to get EU human-rights prize

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The European Parliament has formally nominated Russian dissident Alexei Navalny for this year’s ‘Sakharov’ human-rights prize. “It is vital that we in the European Parliament confirm our relentless support for Navalny and stress that his wellbeing is the responsibility of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” Peter van Dalen, a Dutch centre-right MEP said in plenary Monday. Putin tried to kill Navalny with poison then jailed him in a remote penal colony.

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Texas: The dramatic situation of Haitians trapped on US-Mexico border: ‘Why don’t they come help us here?’ | USA

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The border the separates Ciudad Acuña in Mexico from Del Río in the United States has become an open-air prison. Thousands of migrants, the vast majority of them from Haiti, have been surrounded by the authorities on either side of the frontier. On the US side, the Border Patrol is keeping those who have arrived there after crossing the Latin American continent in check: they are packed together under the International Bridge border crossing in a camp that lacks water, food, sanitation or shade. In Coahuila, on the Mexican side, security forces have begun to pressure migrants to accept “voluntary” detention and transfer to Tapachula, in the south of the country. In the middle of a stand-off between both governments for control over the arrival of migrants, thousands of people have become trapped in limbo.

A rope linking the two the banks of the Rio Grande was cut last Thursday, leaving nothing to hold on to when trying to cross. Despite now being fully aware of what awaits them on the other side, many people have been biding their time on the muddy slope that leads down to the water. They are still trying to make the crossing because they are scared and because Mexico will offer them no guarantees over the papers, protection and opportunities they are seeking. At 8pm the river is high, making it even more dangerous to attempt the crossing, but the Haitians clutch their bags tighter, gather up their children in their arms and throw themselves into the river. They are hardly assured a warm welcome on the other side. The administration of Joe Biden has already started an operation to deport thousands of irregular migrants, a practice described as “inhumane” by the US special envoy for Haiti, Daniel Foote, who tendered his resignation to the State Department on September 23.

A Haitian man and his son crossing the Rio Grande from Ciudad Acuña (Coahuila) to Del Río (Texas).
A Haitian man and his son crossing the Rio Grande from Ciudad Acuña (Coahuila) to Del Río (Texas).Teresa de Miguel

Dozens of police officers arrived at the makeshift camp on the Mexican side of the border at night and cut off access. Later, border guards joined the deployment and toured the area in an effort to convince Haitian migrants to surrender to “voluntary” detention. In exchange, they offered what until this point neither the US nor Mexican governments have done: water, food, restrooms, medical attention and legal assistance. “Why don’t they come and help us right here?” a woman asked the agents when they offered transportation to Tapachula in order to access these services.

In their scouring of the zone, where migrants make do in tents, tarpaulins fashioned from plastic bags or simply with cardboard to lie on, employees of the National Institute of Migration have been abundantly clear. The migrants have been informed that anyone “who is happy” where they are now is welcome to stay, while warning of the pending arrival of “extremely cold weather.” The area is awash with different police branches, alongside the Criminal Investigation Agency. The National Guard and the Coahuila State Organized Crime Action and Reaction unit are also on hand, with several buses.

“They come here to scare us. They only come to deceive people,” says Jonas Basel, a 31-year-old Haitian who is traveling with his wife and two daughters. Basel passed through Tapachula on his journey north from Chile, where the majority of migrants who have reached this point started out. He sees little point in accepting an invitation to go back to the border with Guatemala. “It’s full of people and the Comar [the Mexican Refugee Aid Commission] has collapsed. I’m not going to get a visa in less than three or more months, and nobody has any money.” Basel has $300 left from the $10,000 he set aside for the journey. “We spent everything to get this far.”

A police officer from Coahuila inside the Haitian migrant camp in Ciudad Acuña on Thursday.
A police officer from Coahuila inside the Haitian migrant camp in Ciudad Acuña on Thursday.Teresa de Miguel

The makeshift camp on the Mexican side was thrown up on federal land controlled by the state government of Coahuila. There, there is a place known as Comedor del Migrante (Migrant’s Diner), which has now been repurposed by its temporary residents as crowded rooms or restrooms in the absence of proper facilities. As of a week ago, the camp had started to take on the appearance of an organized space, with an improvised hair salon, prayer service in the evening, water and food provided by NGOs and private benefactors, as well as tents and a scattering of mattresses. But by Thursday, September 23, the mood had changed. “People are depressed. It’s very stressful,” said a pregnant woman.

The river had already started to swell by the afternoon when two women and a boy around eight years old entered the water. On the far bank, another migrant jumped in to help them because halfway across the child and the small toy truck he was carrying under an arm had almost disappeared under the water level. Also on the US side were a unit of US Border Patrol agents, powerless to assist but a “wall of steel” in the words of Texas Governor Greg Abbott, designed to prevent people from crossing the frontier. Later, another large group of families started to cross. Many carried a bag under one arm and a child in the other. From the far bank, the Border Patrol agents shouted from a launch that “only the children” could climb aboard. The parents handed over their sons and daughters and pleaded for help as the water rose above their chests.

A Haitian man and his son crossing the Rio Grande on Thursday.
A Haitian man and his son crossing the Rio Grande on Thursday.Teresa de Miguel

The International Committee of the Red Cross (CICR) has stated that these migrants are living in conditions of “extreme vulnerability” after months spent traversing Latin America and living rough in the temporary camps set up by the US and Mexican governments in both countries. The CICR has also noted that the situation in Haiti is “complicated” and has called on the authorities to “exercise practices that include humanitarian exceptions to protect people.”

“One way to do this,” says Lorena Guzmán, director of the regional CICR delegation for Mexico and Central America, “could be to provide them with immigration documentation to facilitate a legitimate stay in Mexico, minimizing the risks they face and granting them full access to rights on a temporary or permanent basis.”

The majority of people being held on both sides of the border are Haitians fleeing political and economic instability in their country. The poorest nation in the Western hemisphere suffered a devastating earthquake in 2010 that forced an exodus of thousands of people to countries in Latin America. The humanitarian crisis that unfolded over the past decade in the wake of that disaster has recently been exacerbated by the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in June and another earthquake in August, measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale, that left more than 2,000 people dead and thousands injured.

Having left Haiti years ago, these migrants now face one of two choices: either they will be deported by the United States back to the country they fled from or they will be sent back to Tapachula by Mexican authorities. Almost 15,000 Haitian migrants had gathered under the International Bridge that separates Ciudad Acuña and Del Rio, a number that had fallen to fewer than 5,000 by last Friday, according to the US authorities. Many have opted to retrace their steps and cross the Rio Grande once again into the United States, in what will perhaps be their final attempt and the exact reverse of a journey they made just a week ago.

English version by Rob Train.

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