This month, diplomats and MPs struck a deal to end an internal EU dispute, which will result in the EU soon letting Ukrainians and Georgians visit the bloc without needed a visa. The dispute had been holding up the promised measures.
Agreement on a mechanism to suspend such visa waivers in emergencies has effectively ended mounting embarrassment for those EU leaders who felt that the bloc was reneging on pledges to former Soviet states that it has promised to help as they try to move out from Moscow’s shadow. The move came after the European Council President warned that the EU was risking its credibility by failing to reward Georgia and Ukraine for painful reforms. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has since hailed the move as “encouraging news from Brussels.”
The prospect of easier travel to Western European countries has been used by governments in Kiev and Tbilisi in order to win popular backing for painful, EU-sponsored reforms. However EU leaders got cold feet about opening doors to 45 million Ukrainians after the public backlash that followed last year’s refugee crisis in Europe. Furthermore, facing strong challenges from anti-immigration parties in elections next year, leading powers France and Germany demanded strong controls before any visa agreement was signed. Late-night talks have since resulted in the European Parliament conceding that governments can reimpose visa requirements quickly, with MPs’ approval.
Georgia, which has only 5 million citizens, has long been seen as being ready for visa liberalization. However many believe that its failure to achieve such as agreement has been due to the EU’s hesitation over Ukraine, which is bigger, closer and currently stuck in conflict with Russia. A similar plan to ease travel for Turkey’s 75 million citizens, which is part of a deal whereby Ankara has helped the EU shut out Syrians and other people seeking asylum, has added to political sensitivities in Brussels about the issue. The process with Turkey has been frozen because of Ankara’s failure to fulfil all the EU conditions, coupled with anger across Europe at Turkey’s crackdown on opponents following a coup attempt in July.
The bloc has disclosed that any new visa waivers can only come into force after the EU has increased an emergency brake to suspend any free-travel deals in emergencies. However talks on exactly how that “snap-back” mechanism would work have dragged on for months. It will now allow the executive European Commission or a majority of EU states to suspend swiftly a country’s visa exemption for nine months if there is a sharp rise in its citizens overstaying their permitted time in the EU making multiple asylum requests or other problem for th European. The EU would be able to extend the suspension period for a further eighteen months in some cases, however through amore complex procedure that would also give a say to the European Parliament.
Germany’s plan of conducting security investigations of all military recruits appears to be more and more a concrete reality.
German media reported on 5 November that the military counter-intelligence service (MAD) identified 20 Islamists in the country’s armed forces. An agency’s spokesman confirmed the figure later, adding that other 60 potential cases are under investigation for suspected links to Islamist militants.
Early in 2015, MAD had already warned that extremists could have potentially taken advance of the German Military to gain skills that they could then take to groups such as the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Reportedly, in fact, Daesh and other terrorist organizations were actively encouraging their followers to join states military forces to get training. This seemed to be confirmed, according to MAD President Christof Gramm, by the fact that, for example, the killers who launched an attack on the Paris magazine Charlie Hebdo had military skills.
Two months after this attack, Gramm proposed for the first time an initial check for applicants to armed services.
After multiple Islamist militant attacks that shook Germany in July this year, the German government decided in August to allow preliminary background checks on recruits to be done starting in July 2017. At that time it was reported that more than 300 German soldiers were being investigated for some forms of suspected extremism: 268 suspected right-wing extremists, 64 suspected Islamists and six suspected left-wing extremists.
According to MAD it has been decided to speed things up after recruitment offices across the country have reported increasing individual inquiries from applicants expressing a commitment request to join the German Military (Bundeswehr) of only few months and expressly interested in intensive weapons and equipment training.
Currently, under German military law, recruits only need to present their police records and formally agree to comply with the German constitution to enlist; moreover just service members that have already enlisted, including soldiers and officers, are vetted.
The new measure, if adopted, would allow conducting comprehensive background checks on all applicants as of January 2017 and it would result in at least 20,000 screenings annually, causing some €8.2 billion in additional expenditures.
The German army is regarded as one of Europe’s most capable in terms of training. During army boot camp, recruits are taught shooting and marksmanship skills, map reading and topography, and the fundamentals of woodland and urban warfare, as well as to give emergency aid. Having said that, it is evident that Islamic infiltrations in the national army constitute a serious risk not only for insider attacks in country but also for the rest of Europe.
However, this measure has received critics from several parts of the public opinion, both in Germany and outside. The Measure is, in fact, considered in line with the questioned new state defence plan put in place in August, which entails for citizens to stockpile food and water enough to last for at least ten days, in the event of a major disaster or armed attack.
According to its critics, the German government seems concentrating its efforts just on radical Islam, when the country is relatively safe in comparison to France and other nations. There would be instead other areas that need particular attention like right and left wing extremists.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban announced on 26 August that the country is planning to build a second fence on its southern border with Serbia that would effectively enable it to keep out any major new wave of migrants.
Orban told public radio that the new barrier, which is to be built alongside the existing one, would strengthen defences to respond if Turkey’s policy on migration changed, adding that if that occurred, hundreds of thousands could appear at Hungary’s border. He noted that “technical planning is under way to erect a more massive defence system next to the existing line of defence, which was built quickly (last year).” Orban also disclosed that Hungary had to prepare for the eventuality of a deal between Turkey and the European Union (EU) to clamp down on migration into Europe via the Balkans unravelling, adding, “then if it does not work with nice words, we will have to stop them with force, and we will do so.” He also indicated that Hungary would increase its police presence to 47,000 from 44,000, of which 3,000 will be constantly deployed on the southern border.
A razor-wire fence built along Hungary’s southern border with Serbia and Croatia has sharply reduced the flow of migrants. Last year, hundreds of thousands of migrants moved up from the Balkans towards northern Europe. That flow however has since been reduced to no more than a steady trickle.
Under the existing agreement between Turkey and the EU, Turkey has agreed to help stem the tide of illegal migrants into the bloc in exchange for aid and visa-free travel for Turkish nationals. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan however has repeatedly stated that European leader are not living up to their side of the pact.
On Friday, Orban and other prime ministers of Central European EU member states, the Visegrad countries, met in Warsaw along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Orban stated that the task for politicians was to change a decision by the EU to let in migrants and distribute them based on quotas among member states. Oran stated that “the question is whether Angela Merkel will be willing to change this flawed Brussels decision together with us. Whether she is willing to fight with us for this, or not.” Hunger is due to hold a referendum on 2 October on whether to accept any future EU quota system for resettling migrants.
Police operations carried out in Mons and Liege last week resulted in two brothers being arrested on suspicion of carrying an attack on the country.
One of the men arrested, named only as Nouredine H, 33, has ben charged over an alleged plot to attack Belgium. He is accused of attempting to commit a “terrorist murder” and participation in the activities of a terrorist organization and was arrested along with his brother Hamza H. Hamza H. has since been released from police custody without charge. The raids were carried out by federal police in the cities of Mons and Liege, with officials disclosing that no weapons or explosives were found during the operations. In a statement, the federal prosecution office disclosed that “based on provisional results from the investigation, it appears that there were plans to carry out an attack somewhere in Belgium.” The French version of the statement referred to “planning attacks” in the plural.
Belgium is currently on security alert level three, of four, effectively meaning that the threat is considered serious, possible and probable. In March, thirty-two people were killed after attacks were carried out on Brussels Airport and a metro station in the city. Last month, Belgian police disclosed that they had received warning that a group of so-called Islamic State (IS) fighters had recently left Syria and were heading to Europe to plan attacks in Belgium and neighbouring France.
On 16 June, a Belgian court cleared the extradition to France of two suspects who are currently under investigation in connection with Islamist militant attacks that occurred in Paris last November.
A statement released by the Belgian government disclosed that a Brussels appeals court “declared enforceable” European arrest warrants issued by France for Moahmed Amri and Ali Oulkadi. The prime surviving suspect of the 13 November Paris attacks, which killed 130 people, is Salah Abdeslam, a French citizen who was born and raised in Belgium. He was captured in Brussels on 18 March, after a four-month manhunt, and was handed over to French authorities on 27 April. In May, France sought the extradition of Amri. According to investigators, Amri drove to Paris shortly after the attacks to fetch Abdeslam and bring him to Belgium. Oulkadi, a Frenchman who lived in Brussels, has ben accused of driving Abdeslam on 14 November.
The Paris bomb and shooting attacks were claimed by the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, as were the 22 March bombings at Brussels airport and a metro station, which killed 32 people.