EU urged to share refugees as boat tragedies mount
A nucleus of four EU countries was trying Tuesday to coax more reluctant member states to take a share of rescued asylum-seekers, a day after another Mediterranean migrant boat tragedy.
Germany, France, Italy and Malta were seeking support from colleagues in an EU interior ministers’ meeting in Luxembourg for an agreement they worked out September 23 in Malta meant to serve as a six-month, stop-gap plan pending a long-delayed reform of the EU’s asylum policy, AFP reported.
The meeting came after a boat packed with around 50 migrants capsized Monday off Italy’s island of Lampedusa, resulting in the drowning deaths of at least 13 women, some of them pregnant.
The aim of the so-called Malta declaration is to avoid such tragedies in the future, and to find a solution for NGO rescue ships filled with migrants often being refused entry to EU waters for weeks.
“Listen to me, we cannot continue like this, with what is happening in the Mediterranean,” the EU commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, Dimitris Avramopoulos, said as he arrived for the meeting in Luxembourg.
He added, however: “We cannot try to find only ad hoc solutions, we need a permanent mechanism.”
The temporary agreement wants to ease the burden of first-call countries such as Italy and Malta which currently are required to host the migrants arriving by sea while their asylum cases are looked at.
Under the deal, France and Germany have volunteered to host a share of the asylum-seekers.
It also wants to find a way of breaking the business model of people-smugglers who push flimsy, overcrowded boats of migrants from North Africa headed towards Europe in the hope of rescue or landfall – a risky bid with sometimes fatal consequences.
Monday’s capsizing off Lampedusa added to a litany of migrant boat tragedies.
Since 2016, at least 19,000 migrants have drowned or gone missing while making the perilous Mediterranean crossing, according to the UN’s International Organization for Migration.
Yet some EU states are wary that the Malta declaration will act as a “pull” factor, encouraging more boat crossings.
Others argue they are already taking on a disproportionate number of asylum seekers relative to their populations.
Bulgaria, Cyprus, Denmark, Hungary and the Netherlands are opposed or extremely reluctant to join the temporary scheme, according to diplomats.
Others, including Finland, Ireland and Luxembourg, are said to be considering it, but only if a significant number of other states sign on, and as long as there are no quotas for how many migrants are taken in.
Spanish Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said his country wanted to see the Malta accord widened to all Mediterranean crossings, which would include the short journeys from Morocco to Spain, another major migration route.
German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, on arrival, acknowledged the concerns – and the fragility of the Malta agreement.
“If this solution ends up being abused, so that hundreds (of asylum-seekers) become thousands, then tomorrow I can say that the emergency mechanism is finished,” he said.
France’s minister for European Affairs, Amelie de Montchalin, told AFP as she attended the meeting that there was a hope that other EU countries would step up on humanitarian grounds.
“We cannot solve this issue as just four countries,” she said.
“We can’t have countries that are resigned or indifferent in the EU. This is an issue that concerns all of us.”
Ecuador ‘open’ to foreign mediation to end protests
Ecuador’s government said on Tuesday it would be open to international mediation via the United Nations or the Catholic Church on a sixth day of violent anti-austerity protests, which it said had led to 570 arrests.
“The only response is dialogue and firmness at the same time,” presidency secretary Juan Sebastian Roldan told local radio. “We have no problem accepting mediation suggested by the United Nations, some members of the Church, and (university) rectors,” according to Reuters.
Protesters clashed with Ecuadoran forces Monday as they marched toward the capital to demonstrate against soaring fuel prices, with the government announcing three oil facilities had been seized, slashing production by 12 percent.
Riot police and the military used tear gas to try to disperse marchers in the town of Machachi on the outskirts of Quito after they blocked roads with burning tires and barricades ahead of a protest set for Wednesday.
“More than 20,000 indigenous people will be arriving in Quito,” said Jaime Vargas, leader of the umbrella indigenous organization CONAIE.
In 2000, CONAIE was key to driving then-president Jamil Mahuad from office during another economic crisis.
Other protesters attempted to force their way into the National Legislative Assembly in the capital, and committed “acts of vandalism in the vicinity,” the body said in a statement.
The clashes came as Ecuador’s Energy Ministry announced that activities in three oil fields in the Amazon region – one operated by private firm Petrobell and the others by state company Petroamazonas – had been suspended “due to the seizure of the facilities by groups of people outside the operation.”
The seizures affected 12 percent of the country’s oil production, or 63,250 barrels of crude per day, the ministry said in a statement that did not identify the groups responsible.
In a radio and television address, President Lenin Moreno accused his predecessor and ex-ally Rafael Correa and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro of an “attempted coup d’etat” and of “using some indigenous groups, taking advantage of their mobilization to plunder and destroy.”
He added that government business had temporarily moved to the port city of Guayaquil.
Protesters from southern Andean provinces, some armed with sticks and whips, were traveling to the capital in pick-up trucks and on foot, according to CONAIE, while other indigenous groups were set to arrive from the north.
The protests – the largest in a decade in Ecuador are being led by transport unions but include students and others.
The country has been rocked by days of demonstrations after increases of up to 120 percent in fuel prices came into force on October 3.
They have so far left one civilian dead and 77 people injured, the majority of them security forces, the government said. A total of 477 people have been detained.
Moreno scrapped fuel subsidies as part of an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to obtain loans despite Ecuador’s high public debt.
On Sunday, the president had called for dialogue with the indigenous groups.
Nelson Erazo, the leader of the Popular Front of workers and students, has said “the people’s actions will not stop here if the government does not change its policy.
The subsidies were costing the government $1.3 billion a year.
The IMF agreement, signed in March, allowed Ecuador to borrow $4.2 billion.
Moreno – who blames the deterioration in the country’s finances on Correa – declared a state of emergency on Thursday.
It allows the government to restrict movement, to use the armed forces to maintain order and to censor the press.
Indigenous leaders claimed they were holding several dozen soldiers since Sunday.
Hong Kong leader does not rule out Beijing help, as economy suffers
Hong Kong’s embattled leader Carrie Lam on Tuesday did not rule out asking Beijing for help, as the Asian financial hub struggles to deal with months of often violent anti-government protests that are damaging its economy.
Lam said Beijing wanted Hong Kong to solve its own problems, but under its mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law, Hong Kong could ask Beijing for help, Reuters reported.
“If the situation becomes so bad, then no options could be ruled out, if we want Hong Kong to at least have another chance,” Lam said at weekly news conference after a long weekend of violence crippled the city.
“But at this moment, I and my team, we are still very committed in making sure we can use our own instruments ... to try and restore calm and order in Hong Kong,” she said, adding there were no plans to expand emergency laws introduced on Friday. “But I would appeal (to) everyone in society to join hands to achieve this objective.”
The protests, which show no sign of abating, pose the biggest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012 and are Hong Kong’s thorniest political crisis since Britain returned it to China in 1997.
Lam said protests were severely damaging the economy.
“Hong Kong’s various sectors will enter a severe winter season,” she said.
Tens of thousands of protesters, many families with children, took to the streets of Hong Kong over the weekend wearing face masks in defiance of colonial-era emergency laws invoked on Friday which ban masks at public rallies. Protesters use masks to shield their identities.
But the rallies, which started out peaceful, spiraled into some of the most violent clashes since protests started four months ago, forcing the unprecedented shutdown of the city’s metro after stations were torched.
Police said on Tuesday 77 people had been arrested for violating the anti-mask law.
On Tuesday, hundreds of school and university students attended class wearing masks in protest at the emergency law.
Since Friday, more than 200 shops and public utilities had been damaged and police fired 367 tear gas rounds, said a police spokesman.
US envoy barred from impeachment hearing by State Department
The State Department barred Gordon Sondland, the US European Union ambassador, from appearing Tuesday before a House panel conducting the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump, his lawyer said.
Attorney Robert Luskin said his client was “profoundly disappointed” that he wouldn’t be able to testify, AP reported.
Luskin did not give a reason, and the State Department had no immediate comment.
A whistleblower’s complaint and text messages released by another envoy portray Sondland as a potentially important witness to allegations that the Republican president sought to dig up dirt on a Democratic rival in the name of foreign policy.
On Tuesday, Sondland had been scheduled to face questions about the episode, the second time in as many weeks that lawmakers would have privately interviewed an ambassador about the president’s push to get Ukraine to investigate Democrat Joe Biden ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
Until last week, Sondland was far better known in his home state of Washington than in the nation’s capital, where he finds himself embroiled in an impeachment inquiry centered on a July 25 call between Trump and the Ukrainian president. But even if not accustomed to the global spotlight, the wealthy hotelier, philanthropist and contributor to political campaigns has long been comfortable around the well-connected on both sides of the political aisle.
“He very much enjoyed having personal relationships with those in power,” said David Nierenberg, a Washington state investment adviser who has known Sondland for years. “Some people collect books. Some people collect cars. He collected those relationships.”
Text messages released by House Democrats show Sondland, the US ambassador to the EU, working with another of Trump’s envoys to get Ukraine to agree to investigate any potential interference in the 2016 US election and also probe the energy company that appointed Biden’s son Hunter to its board. In exchange, the American officials dangled the offer of a Washington meeting with Trump for Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. There has been no evidence of wrongdoing by Biden or his son.
The messages also show Sondland trying to reassure a third diplomat that their actions were appropriate, but that they should take precautions by limiting their text messages.
“The president has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind. The president is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelenskiy promise during his campaign,” he wrote, adding, “I suggest we stop the back and forth by text.”
Like the president who picked him, Sondland cut an unconventional path to becoming a Washington power broker.
“Mr. Trump’s statements have made it clear that his positions do not align with their personal beliefs and values,” Buska told the publication. “Neither of them will be hosting or attending any fundraisers for the Trump campaign in Seattle or Portland.” Buska did not return a call Monday from The Associated Press.
Nierenberg, who recalled Sondland working with him to promote Bush’s presidential campaign, said he was perplexed to learn that Sondland had contributed to Trump’s inaugural committee but suspected that it might have had something to do with an ambition to get an ambassadorship.
“I’m profoundly troubled by something that is a lot bigger than Gordon’s text messages,” he said. “People who try to help the president wind up being thrown under the bus and soiled by their association with a person who is so profoundly narcissistic and ungrateful. Many good people have been hurt by their association with him. I’m saddened to see this happening to Gordon, as it happened to so many people before him.”
In his role as the Trump administration’s representative to the EU, Sondland has articulated the president’s agenda through forthright, occasionally abrasive statements.
Len Bergstein, a Portland, Oregon, political consultant who had worked with Sondland, described him as “a self-made man who had gotten where he was by putting together complex deals.” But he said he remained puzzled about how and why Sondland became entangled in the Ukraine matter.
“The arc of Gordon’s story is of a guy who’s tremendously successful in everything he touches, reaches for the stars here, and gets in the middle of a little bit of a scandal,” Bergstein said.
Austrian conservative leader Sebastian Kurz opened talks with potential coalition partners on Tuesday after his People’s Party (OVP) fell short of the majority needed to form a government in last month’s snap parliamentary election, Reuters reported.