MS Risk Blog

EU Top Negotiator Warns of Possible Delay in Brexit Talks

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Late last month, the European Union’s (EU) top negotiator warned that talks between Britain and the EU on their future relationship are now less likely to begin in October, with EU officials disclosing that this is due to a lack of progress on Brexit divorce issues so far.

The EU’s top Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier briefed ambassadors from the 27 countries that will remain in the EU after Britain leaves in March 2019 on the outcome of the July round of the monthly divorce talks with London. According to one EU official involved in the Brexit talks, “he said the likelihood of starting the future relationship talks in October appeared to be decreasing.”

Barnier had initially hoped that sufficient progress on the key divorce issues, which includes a financial settlement, citizens rights and a solution for a non-physical border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, could be made by October. This would effectively allow EU leaders to give their consent to begin talks with London on the main aspects of the relationship after Brexit – a discussion that Britain is keen to begin as soon as possible to provide more clarity to businesses. However with no progress on the financial settlement, with the exception of Britain’s general admission that it would owe the EU an unspecified amount, and little to no real progress on other issues, the odds of a future trade relationship discussion beginning in two months are rapidly declining.

EU officials have noted that progress was difficult not because Britain had unacceptable demands, but that it had no position at all on many issues. According to a second EU official, “Barnier expressed concerns that sufficient progress in October looked difficult now. Mainly because Britain has no position on finances, but also because they don’t have positions on other issues as well,” adding “the more they drag on, the less time is left for second phase and special relationship they want.”

The EU has roughly estimated that Britain may owe it around 60 billion euros after it leaves in various legal commitments that London has made as a member to the bloc. However talks are to focus on the methodology of calculation rather than the sum itself. According to a third EU diplomat, “there has still been no kick-off on money, Britain still refuses to accept anything – either the methodology, or the sum. This blocs everything else, there wont be any real progress over the next two months, clearly that wont create grounds for reopening phase two on trade,” adding “on citizens’ acquired rights, it’s a mixed picture. We have a list of things we agree on, disagree on and are some way in between. But that at least allows us to negotiate.” Diplomats have also disclosed that in regards to Ireland, talks have not moved beyond restating positions that have already been presented in public, with a fourth official disclosing that “they have actually not discussed the Irish border in any detail, there were no technical talks at all.”

The next round of talks has been scheduled for late August.

Spain beset again by Jihadi terrorism

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Spain suffered last Thursday 17 August the largest terrorist attack since 11-M, which left 192 dead and 2,057 injured. A double attack shook the cities of Barcelona and Cambrils (Tarragona).

The first attack took place at 16:50 on La Rambla, Barcelona’s most tourist and commercial street. A van hurled itself against the pedestrians and ran for 500 meters running over in a zigzag. The driver and author of the attack, Younes Abouyaaqoub, fled through La Boqueria market, whose multiple entrances and exits served him to sneak out and remain on the run until Monday, when he was discovered thanks to citizen collaboration in an area of vineyards in Subirats, where he was shot down by the police after pouncing on them with a false explosive vest.

The second attack occurred at one in the morning in the town of Cambrils, Tarragona. A car with five people escaped a police control, running over six civilians and wounding a policeman; the occupants then left the vehicle to continue their slaughter using knives, an axe and wearing fake explosive vests, but four of them were instantly shot down by the police, while the fifth ran part of the boardwalk stabbing several passers-by before being dejected.

The attacks have resulted in the death of 15 people and more than a hundred wounded. Among the dead are six Spanish citizens, three Italians, two Portuguese, one American, one Belgian, one Canadian and one Australian. Among the wounded are citizens of 34 nationalities from different parts of the globe. The events have been linked to an explosion that occurred in the early hours of Wednesday to Thursday in the town of Alcanar, Tarragona, in which a house was destroyed and later it was discovered that the cause was the accidental explosion of 120 gas bottles the terrorists were going to use as an explosive to attack the basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

The police investigation determined that the attacks were linked to each other and were planned by a terrorist cell composed of 12 people, which has been dismantled this week. Four terrorists are in detention, five died in Cambrils, the author of the Barcelona attack died in Subirats, and two bodies were found among the debris of the Alcanar house.

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for both attacks on the same day, and the investigation points to the imam of the Ripoll mosque, Abdelbaki Es Satty, who died in Alcanar, as the ideologue of the attacks and the culprit of radicalizing the other members of the cell, all young people between 17 and 34 years. Es Satty had already gone through prison for drug trafficking and had friends involved in the 11-M bombings in Madrid. The imam gathered the youths he considered most prone to radicalization outside the mosque, and shortly before the bombings disappeared altogether.

With the death of Younes Abouyaaqoub and the dismantling of the terrorist cell, the most urgent tasks of the anti-terrorist unit are put to an end, but the police keep the investigation open, as there are many questions surrounding the case. Among them, the reason why Abouyaaqoub went to the town of Subirats, where he was seen whistling near a house in which formerly lived a family of Moroccan origin; a trip to Paris carried out by four members of the cell five days before the attacks, or the reason why no one noticed that they were occupying the house of Alcanar, seized by a bank, and that served as the place to prepare the attacks.

Condolences to the largest terrorist attack in Spain since 11-M came from all over the world, Donald Trump, Barack Obama, Theresa May, Angela Merkel, Enrique Peña Nieto, Emmanuel Macron, Pope Francis, Justin Trudeau, Vladimir Putin, the King of Morocco, Mohamed VI, and many others sent their condolences to the victims of the attacks, which follow the trail of other attacks in other European cities such as Berlin, London, Nice, Paris or Stockholm, and whose victims belong to nationalities from all over the world, which has made Barcelona the world capital against terrorism.

US To Respond by 1 September To Russia’s Expulsion of Diplomats

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While the Trump administration has not yet decided how it will respond to Russia’s move to expel hundreds of American diplomats, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson disclosed last month that the administration is planning to deliver a response to Moscow by 1 September

Mr Tillerson made the announcement just a day after sitting down in the Philippines with Russia’s top diplomat. During the meeting, Mr Tillerson disclosed that he had asked “clarifying questions” about the Kremlin’s retaliation, which was announced last month following new sanctions that were based by US Congress and signed by US President Donald Trump. Fearing that President Trump might move inappropriately to ease sanctions on Russia, Congress in July passed new legislation that both added more sanctions and made it harder for the president to lift them. While both President Trump and Mr Tillerson opposed the legislation, President Trump begrudgingly singed the bill as he was faced with a likely veto override. Moscow’s response to the sanctions was to announce that it would force the US to cut its embassy and consulate staff in Russia by 755 people. That move stoked confusion in Washington, given that the US is believed to have far fewer than 755 American employees in Russia. The Trump administration has now struggled to determine how the move will affect the US diplomatic presence in Russia, as well as the broader implications for the troubled relationship between the two states.

Despite the Russia’s decision, which effectively seems to have plunged the two countries even further into acrimony, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov emerged from the meeting declaring a readiness for more engagement with the US on topics including North Korea, Syria and Ukraine, amongst other issues. This sentiment was further echoed by Mr Tillerson, who disclosed that the two countries had critical national security issues to discuss despite deep disagreements on some matters. Mr Tillerson further disclosed that Russia has been showing “some willingness” to start discussions about a resolution to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, which has been devoid of real progress for years. That assessment came as Mr Lavrov announced that the Trump administration had committed to sending its new special envoy for Ukraine negotiations, Kur Volker, to Moscow to discuss next steps.

However several obstacles remain and are likely to impact achieving a more functional US-Russia relationship. These include the new US sanctions that have been imposed, Russia’s retaliatory move to expel American diplomats, and of course the ongoing US Justice Department investigation into Russia’s election meddling and potential Trump campaign collusion.

The Trump administration has argued that there is good reason for the US to seek a more productive relationship with Russia. Mr Tillerson has cited modest signs of progress in Syria, where the US and Russia recently brokered a ceasefire in the country’s southwestern region, as a sign that there’s fertile ground for cooperation. The Syrian ceasefire effectively reflected a return of US-Russia cooperation to lower violence there. The US had looked warily at a series of safe zones in Syria that Russia had negotiated along with Turkey and Iran – but not the US.

Italy Gives Go-ahead to Libya Naval Mission

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Italy’s Parliament on Wednesday 2 August authorized a limited naval mission to help Libya’s coastguard curb migrant flow, which have become a source of growing political friction in the south European nation ahead of national elections expected to take place early next year.

The lower house voted by 328 to 113 in favour of the mission. An Italian official has disclosed that Rome planned to send two boats to Libyan waters, with Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti sating that the vessels would only provide technical support and would not infringe on the North African country’s sovereignty. Speaking on 1 August in parliament ahead of Wednesday’s vote, Pinotti disclosed, “(we will) provide logistical, technical and operation support for Libyan naval vessels, helping them and supporting them in shared and coordinated actions,” adding that “there will be no harm done or slight given to Libyan sovereignty, because, if anything, our aims is to strengthen Libyan sovereignty.” She stressed that Italy had no intention of imposing a blockade on Libya’s coast.

The final decision comes after Italy announced the operation late last month, stating that it had been requested by Libya’s UN-backed government. Italy hopes to deploy six ships into Libyan territorial waters, however the plans had to be scaled back following protests from Tripoli.

After a surge in migrant arrivals on boats from Libya at the beginning of this year, the Interior Ministry disclosed on 2 August that the numbers of newcomers has slowed in recent weeks, noting that so far this year, 95,215 people had reached Italy, down 2.7 percent on the same period in 2016. Some 2,230 migrants, most of them Africans fleeing poverty and violence back home, have died so far this year trying to make the dangerous sea crossing. The total number of migrants who have arrived in Italy over the past four years is some 600,000 – effectively putting the country’s network of reception centres under huge strain and causing increasing political tensions.

Italy is due to hold national elections by May 2018, with voting widely expected to take place in early 2018. The migrant issue is expected to top the political agenda. Rightist parties have accused the centre-left government of doing nothing gin order to halt the influx. Speaking to reporters in parliament, Giancarlo Giorgetti, deputy head of the opposition Northern League party, stated “the (migrant boats) will not be pushed back to the Libyan shore so we don’t understand what we are going to b doing there. The Italian government however is hoping that the Libyan coastguard can help prevent flimsy migrant boats from putting to sea and has been at the forefront of efforts to make the small force more effective, including by training its members and upgrading its fleet. Rome has also placed pressure on non-governmental organizations, which have been playing an increasingly important role in picking up migrants off the Libyan coast and brining them to Italy. The government has introduce a code of conduct for the NGOs and has demanded that armed police travel on their boas to help root out eventual people smugglers. However only three out of eight humanitarian groups operating in the southern Mediterranean Sea agreed to the Italian terms earlier this month. While Italy did not specifically indicate the consequences for those that did not sign up, on 2 August the Italian coastguard halted at sea a boat operated by German NGO Jugend Rettet, which had said ‘No’ to the code of conduct. The vessel was searched and then escorted to port, while the crew ID’s were checked.

Latest Poll Shows Majority of Poles Willing to Help Refugees

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According to a European Union (EU) poll released earlier this month, a majority of Poles want their government to help refugees, a result that may be seen as in stark contrast with Warsaw’s opposition to an EU plan to support asylum seekers across the continent.

The nationalist-minded, eurosceptic government in Poland has refused to take in a single asylum seeker under th EU’s plan, which is mean to relocate across Europe refugees who have reached the continent through Italy and Greece after escaping wars and persecution in the Middle East and Africa. Due to its refusal, Poland is now under an EU disciplinary procedure for not applying the EU relocation plan for refugees.

However according to a poll released by the EU on 2 August, 56 percent majority of Polish interviews in a Eurobarometer poll called for Poland to help refugees in reply to a question on whether the country should do so. The figure increased form 53 percent recorded in a pervious poll, which was conducted last autumn. Those who opposed helping refugees decreased to 36 percent from 37. Around 33,000 people were interviewed across Europe for the poll, with some 1,000 being interviewed in Poland. The survey was conducted in May, before the latest friction between Poland and the EU over separate judicial reforms flared up.

Hungary and the Czech Republic are also facing sanctions over the refuges’ relocation plan. Furthermore, Slovakia has also opposed the EU plan, citing security concerns after a number of Islamist attacks in the EU in recent years. Amongst the Eastern European states with governments that are reluctant to take in asylum seekers, Poles are alone in being supportive of refugees, while a broad majority of Czechs, Hungarians and Slovaks say that their countries should not help ease the ongoing migration crisis. On average, 67 percent of EU interviewees stated that their countries should help refugees, with peaks of 90 percent in Sweden, 88 percent in the Netherlands and 87 percent in Denmark.