EU summons Russia envoy over blacklisting of its officials

EU summons Russia envoy over blacklisting of its officials

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Associated Press

Monday, May 3, 2021

BRUSSELS (AP) – The European Union has summoned Russia’s ambassador after Moscow blacklisted eight EU officials in retaliation for the bloc’s decision to impose sanctions over the imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

The Russian list announced Friday includes European Parliament President David Sassoli and Vera Jourova, a vice president of the European Commission whose brief includes rule of law issues and disinformation.

European Commission spokesman Peter Stano said that Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov would meet in Brussels later Monday with senior EU officials who “will convey to him our strong condemnation and rejection of this decision.”

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Stano said the Russian-imposed travel bans are “obviously very politically motivated and lack any legal justification. They are groundless.” He said that “this all shows that Russia is determined to continue the hostile track of confrontation.”

Russia’s foreign ministry has accused the EU of wanting to punish Moscow for its “independent foreign and domestic policies” and of trying to limit its development with “unlawful restrictions.”

EU foreign ministers will discuss tensions with Russia when they meet on May 10. The 27-nation bloc’s heads of state and government will also take up the issue at their summit on May 25.

The EU in March imposed sanctions on six Russian officials involved in the imprisonment of Navalny, who is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most vociferous opponent.

Navalny was arrested in January upon his return from Germany where he spent five months recovering from a nerve agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin – accusations that Russian officials reject. European labs have confirmed that Navalny was poisoned.

EU accuses Apple of antitrust breach over App Store rules

EU accuses Apple of antitrust breach over App Store rules

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In this Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, file photo, European Commissioner for Europe fit for the Digital Age Margrethe Vestager speaks during a news conference on a European project in battery value chain at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels. European … more >

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By

Associated Press

Friday, April 30, 2021

LONDON (AP) — European Union regulators are accusing Apple of violating the bloc’s antitrust laws, alleging that the company distorts competition for music streaming through rules for its App Store.

The EU‘s executive Commission said Friday it objected to how Apple applies rules in its App Store to music streaming services competing with its own Apple Music service, saying that it ends up costing consumers more and limiting their choices.

One of the main concerns outlined by the EU centers on Apple‘s practice of forcing app developers selling digital content to use its in-house payment system, which charges a 30% commission on all subscriptions.

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The EU‘s investigation, which followed up on a complaint from the popular music-streaming service Spotify, found that fees end up being passed on to consumers.

A second EU concern is that Apple prevents developers from telling users about cheaper ways to pay for subscriptions that don’t involve going through an app.

Apple rejected the charges, saying it was proud of its role in helping Spotify grow into a music streaming giant. The company also noted that Spotify doesn’t pay Apple a commission for most of its subscribers.

“Once again, they want all the benefits of the App Store but don’t think they should have to pay anything for that,” Apple said in a statement. “The Commission’s argument on Spotify’s behalf is the opposite of fair competition.”

The EU’s competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, said while Spotify had grown despite Apple‘s rules, smaller music streaming players like Deezer and Soundcloud appeared to be hurt by them.

“Our concern is that Apple distorts competition in the music streaming market to the benefit of its own music streaming service, Apple Music,” she told reporters in Brussels.

Vestager noted that Apple Music isn’t subject to the same rules, which hurts rivals by raising their costs, reducing their profit margins and making them less attractive on the App Store.

Apple has 12 weeks to respond to the EU‘s objections. Under EU competition law, companies could offer to make changes – Vestager indicated she thought “Apple should end the infringement” and not do anything that would have the same effect. Or else, companies could be fined up 10% of their annual revenue for breaches, which in Apple‘s case could run into billions of euros, since the 27-nation bloc is a trading behemoth of 450 million people.

Ensuring that Apple operates fairly is an “urgent task with far-reaching implications,” Spotify’s head of global affairs and chief Legal Officer Horacio Gutierrez said in a statement.

The European Commission’s move “is a critical step toward holding Apple accountable for its anticompetitive behavior, ensuring meaningful choice for all consumers and a level playing field for app developers,” Gutierrez said.

EU launches legal action against vaccine-maker AstraZeneca

EU launches legal action against vaccine-maker AstraZeneca

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In this Monday, March 22, 2021, file photo medical staff prepares an AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine during preparations at the vaccine center in Ebersberg near Munich, Germany. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader, File) more >

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By Lorne Cook

Associated Press

Monday, April 26, 2021

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union‘s executive branch said Monday that it has launched legal action against coronavirus vaccine-maker AstraZeneca for failing to respect the terms of its contract with the 27-nation bloc.

The AstraZeneca vaccine has been central to Europe’s immunization campaign, and a linchpin in the global strategy to get vaccines to poorer countries. But the slow pace of deliveries has frustrated the Europeans and they have held the company responsible for partly delaying their vaccine rollout.

European Commission spokesman Stefan De Keersmaecker said that Brussels launched the legal action against AstraZeneca last Friday “on the basis of breaches of the advance purchase agreement.”

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He said the reason for the legal action was that “some terms of the contract have not been respected” and that “the company has not been in a position to come up with a reliable strategy to ensure a timely delivery of doses.”

AstraZeneca’s contract with the EU, which was signed by the Commission on behalf of the member countries last August, foresaw an initial 300 million doses for distribution among member countries, with an option for a further 100 million.

The British-Swedish drugmaker had hoped to deliver 80 million doses of that in the first quarter of 2021, but only 30 million were sent. According to the Commission, the company is now set to provide 70 million doses in the second quarter, rather than the 180 million it had promised.

AstraZeneca said in a statement that it “regrets” the Commission’s decision to take legal action and that it will “strongly defend” itself in court.

“We believe any litigation is without merit and we welcome this opportunity to resolve this dispute as soon as possible,” AstraZeneca said. It said deliveries are improving “following an unprecedented year of scientific discovery, very complex negotiations, and manufacturing challenges.”

“We are making progress addressing the technical challenges and our output is improving, but the production cycle of a vaccine is very long which means these improvements take time to result in increased finished vaccine doses,” it said.

The company said it wants to continue “working constructively with the EU Commission to vaccinate as many people as possible. Many thousands of our employees working around the clock have been driven by a passion to help the world at no profit.”

The AstraZeneca vaccine is cheaper and easier to use than rival shots from Pfizer and Moderna and has been endorsed for use in over 50 countries, including by the 27-nation EU and the World Health Organization. U.S. authorities are still evaluating the vaccine.

The Commission has publicly criticized the company on several occasions, and last month it launched a dispute resolution mechanism aimed at amicably addressing their differences. Brussels said that its focus is to ensure timely deliveries of vaccines.

It since said that its option for extra AstraZeneca doses will not be taken up.

Last week, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced that a new vaccine contract is set to be concluded with BioNTech-Pfizer for 1.8 billion doses for the 2021-23 period. She said the deal will ensure doses for booster shots, vaccines adapted to new variants, and, potentially, vaccines for children and teenagers.

Von der Leyen said that the EU, home to around 450 million people, has “already passed 123 million vaccinations” and is on track to have vaccinated 70% of all adults by July. Previously the target had been September.

___

Pan Pylas in London contributed to this report.

EU, Britain clash again in latest post-Brexit spat

EU, Britain clash again in latest post-Brexit spat

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Associated Press

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

BRUSSELS (AP) – The European Union said Wednesday that Britain’s “unilateral action” on trade rules will breach international law and is threatening legal action as post-Brexit tensions continue to escalate between the two sides.

Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič said in a statement that UK’s decision to unilaterally extend a grace period on checks for goods moving between Britain and Northern Ireland amounts to “a violation” of the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol.

The Protocol was designed to ensure an open border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic after Brexit.

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“This is the second time that the UK government is set to breach international law,” Šefčovič said. “This also constitutes a clear departure from the constructive approach that has prevailed up until now.”

The EU‘s anger was sparked by the British government’s decision to extend until October a grace period for checks on agri-food entering Northern Ireland that was set to expire at the end of the month.

In September last year, the UK had already upset the 27-nation bloc when it considered – then backpedaled – legislation that would have given Boris Johnson’s government the power to override part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement relating to Northern Ireland.

The sensitivity of Northern Ireland’s status was underscored earlier this year when the EU threatened to ban shipments of coronavirus vaccines to Northern Ireland as part of moves to shore up the bloc’s supply. That would have drawn a hard border on the island of Ireland – exactly the scenario the Brexit deal was crafted to avoid.

Šefčovič held discussions Wednesday with cabinet minister David Frost, the former chief Brexit negotiator now responsible for EU relations.

“Lord Frost explained that the measures announced today, following official-level notification to the Commission earlier this week, were temporary technical steps, which largely continued measures already in place, to provide more time for businesses such as supermarkets and parcel operators to adapt to and implement the new requirements in the Protocol,” a UK government spokesperson said.

Before their talks, Šefčovič said he would tell Frost “the European Commission will respond to these developments in accordance with the legal means established by the Withdrawal Agreement and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.”

EU tightens vaccine export rules, creates post-Brexit outcry

EU tightens vaccine export rules, creates post-Brexit outcry

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The AstraZeneca office building in Brussels, Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. Amid a dispute over expected shortfalls, the European Union is looking at legal ways to guarantee the delivery of all the COVID-19 vaccine doses it bought from AstraZeneca and other … more >

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By SAMUEL PETREQUIN and RAF CASERT and LORNE COOK

Associated Press

Friday, January 29, 2021

BRUSSELS (AP) – The European Union introduced tighter rules Friday on exports of COVID-19 vaccines that could hit shipments to nations like the United Kingdom, deepening a dispute with London over scarce supplies of potentially lifesaving shots.

But amid an outcry in Northern Ireland and the UK, the European Commission made clear the new measure will not trigger controls on vaccines shipments produced in the 27-nation bloc to the small territory that is part of United Kingdom bordering EU member Ireland.

Under the post-Brexit deal, EU products should still be able to travel unhindered from the bloc to Northern Ireland.

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“In the process of finalization of this measure, the Commission will ensure that the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol is unaffected,” the EU‘s executive arm said in a statement late Friday.

Amid a dispute with Anglo-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca, EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and British leader Boris Johnson had an unexpected phone call, during which the UK prime minister “expressed his grave concerns about the potential impact which the steps the EU has taken today on vaccine exports could have,” a statement from the British government read.

The EU unveiled its plans to tighten rules on exports of coronavirus vaccines produced inside the bloc amid fears some of the doses it secured from AstraZeneca could be diverted elsewhere. The measure could be used to block shipments to many non-EU countries and ensure that any exporting company based in the EU will first have to submit their plans to national authorities.

The UK and Northern Ireland governments immediately lashed out at the move, saying the bloc invoked an emergency clause in its divorce deal with Britain to introducing controls on exports to Northern Ireland. Goods are supposed to flow freely between the EU and Northern Ireland under special arrangements for the U.K. region designed to protect the peace process on the island of Ireland.

But the EU later said it was not invoking Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol allowing either side to override parts of their deal.

“The Commission is not triggering the safeguard clause,” it said in its statement, adding that the restricting regulations have yet to be finalized and won’t be adopted before Saturday.

The phone call between von der Leyen and Johnson somewhat eased what was quickly becoming a diplomatic flashpoint.

“We agreed on the principle that there should not be restrictions on the export of vaccines by companies where they are fulfilling contractual responsibilities,” von der Leyen said in a statement.

The EU hit out at AstraZeneca this week after the company said it would only supply 31 million doses of vaccine in initial shipments, instead of the 80 million doses it had hoped to deliver. Brussels claimed AstraZeneca would supply even less than that, just one-quarter of the doses due between January and March – and member countries began to complain.

The European Commission is concerned that doses meant for Europe might have been diverted from an AstraZeneca plant on the continent to the U.K., where two other company sites are located. The EU also wants doses at two sites in Britain to be made available to European citizens.

“The UK has legally-binding agreements with vaccine suppliers and it would not expect the EU, as a friend and ally, to do anything to disrupt the fulfilment of these contracts,” the UK said.

AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot told Germany’s Die Welt newspaper this week that the U.K. government helped create the vaccine developed with Oxford University and signed its contract three months before the EU did. Soriot said that under the British contract, vaccines produced at U.K. sites must go to the U.K. first.

To head off similar disputes and allay fears that vaccines might be diverted, the Commission introduced the measures to tighten rules on the exports of shots produced in EU countries. The “vaccine export transparency mechanism″ will be used at least until the end of March to control shipments to non-EU countries.

The EU insisted that’s not an export ban, although it could be used to block shipments to the UK or many other non-EU countries. Many poorer nations and close neighbors are exempt.

Officials said it is intended to ensure EU member nations get the shots they bought from producers. The World Health Organization criticized the new EU export rules as “not helpful.”

Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and other WHO officials warned of supply-chain disruptions that could ripple through the world and potentially stall the fight against COVID-19.

The “advanced purchasing agreement” with the EU was signed in August, before the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine had been properly tested. The European Medicines Agency approved the vaccine on Friday, making it the third authorized for use by EU nations.

Earlier, the 27-nation bloc and AstraZeneca made public a heavily redacted version of their vaccine deal that’s at the heart of a dispute over the delivery schedule.

The contract, agreed to last year by the European Commission and the drugmaker, allows the EU’s member countries to buy 300 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, with an option for a further 100 million doses. It’s one of several contracts the EU’s executive branch has with vaccine makers to secure a total of more than 2 billion shots.

As part of an “advanced purchase agreement” with companies, the EU said it has invested 2.7 billion euros ($3.8 billion), including 336 million ($408 million) to finance the production of AstraZeneca’s serum at four factories.

Much of the 41-page document made public was blacked out, making it very difficult to establish which side is in the right. Details about the price of the vaccine were notably redacted. The U.K. is thought to be paying far more for the vaccine than EU countries.

___

Associated Press writers Danica Kirka in London, Nicole Winfield in Rome, Jamey Keaten in Geneva and Thomas Adamson in Paris contributed to this report.

EU gives upbeat assessment of state of Brexit trade talks

EU gives upbeat assessment of state of Brexit trade talks

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FILE – In this file photo dated Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020, European Commission’s Head of Task Force for Relations with the United Kingdom Michel Barnier, centre, leaves the Conference Centre in London with unidentified members of his team. The Brexit … more >

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By RAF CASERT and JILL LAWLESS

Associated Press

Friday, November 20, 2020

BRUSSELS (AP) – The European Union on Friday issued one of its most upbeat assessments of the state of post-Brexit trade negotiations, as the talks face an ever tighter deadline for a deal to enter into force for the start of the new year.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said “we’ve seen in the last days better progress, more movement on important files.”

“This is good,” von der Leyen told reporters, in comments that contrast sharply with previous statements over the talks that have dragged on with little progress for months.

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Her comment came a day after a member of the EU negotiating team tested positive for the coronavirus, which led to the high-level talks being suspended. She said that because work on legal texts had made such progress, further discussions by video over the next days could progress too “since there is now substance where you can go through line by line.”

Over the past few months, the talks have failed to make much headway on some key issues, notably over fishing rights, business regulations and state aid.

“Progress … has been made on the question of state aid,” von der Leyen said, in reference to a key EU demand that the U.K. does not excessively subsidize products that could undercut local EU products.

Despite the upbeat assessment, von der Leyen sought to temper any excessive optimism that may be generated.

“There are quite some meters to the finish line,” she said. “Indeed, time pressure is high without any question at the moment.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman, Jamie Davies, confirmed that negotiations will continue next week, well past the mid-November date previously seen by the two sides as a deadline. He said talks would continue remotely and resume in person “as soon as it’s safe to do so.”

Davies wouldn’t say whether the U.K. side shared von der Leyen’s upbeat assessment. “We will continue to work hard to reach an agreement and we will continue that work today and next week,” he said.

Though the U.K. left the EU on Jan. 31, it remains within the bloc’s tariff-free single market and customs union until the end of this year. A trade deal would ensure there are no tariffs and quotas on trade in goods between the two sides, but there would still be technical costs, partly associated with customs checks and non-tariff barriers on services.

However, a trade deal needs to be sorted out soon given that the EU will need about 4 weeks to vet, translate any agreement into all languages and get the necessary approvals from member states and the European parliament.

Though both sides would suffer economically from a failure to secure a trade deal, most economists think the British economy would take a greater hit, at least in the near-term, as it is relatively more reliant on trade with the EU than vice versa.

To guard against any failure to get a deal, France and Belgium, two close neighbors of Britain, asked an EU summit Thursday to speed up preparations for a no-deal scenario on Jan. 1 when the sudden change of the end of a transition period without a trade deal could cause immediate disruptions in commerce and chaos at borders.

The bloc has accused Britain of wanting to retain access to the EU’s lucrative markets, much like any EU country, without agreeing to follow its rules. The EU fears Britain will slash social and environmental standards and pump state money into U.K. industries, becoming a low-regulation economic rival on the bloc’s doorstep.

Britain says the EU is making unreasonable demands and is failing to treat it as an independent, sovereign state.

____

Lawless reported from London

EU files antitrust charges against Amazon over use of data

EU files antitrust charges against Amazon over use of data

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A Boeing 737-800 rolls over the runway at Leipzig-Halle Airport in Schkeuditz, Germany, Friday, Nov. 6, 2020. The plane is flying for the online retailer Amazon. (Sebastian Willnow/dpa via AP) more >

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By

Associated Press

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

LONDON (AP) — European Union regulators have filed antitrust charges against Amazon, accusing the e-commerce giant of using data to gain an unfair advantage over merchants using its platform.

The EU’s executive commission, the bloc’s top antitrust enforcer, said Tuesday that the charges have been sent to the company.

The commission said it takes issue with Amazon’s systematic use of non-public business data to avoid “the normal risks of competition and to leverage its dominance” for e-commerce services in France and Germany, the company’s two biggest markets in the EU.

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The EU started looking into Amazon in 2018 and has been focusing on its dual role as a marketplace and retailer.

In addition to selling its own products, the U.S. company allows third-party retailers to sell their own goods through its site. Last year, more than half of the items sold on Amazon worldwide were from these outside merchants.

Amazon faces a possible fine of up to 10% of its annual worldwide revenue, which could amount to billions of dollars. The company rejected the accusations.

“We disagree with the preliminary assertions of the European Commission and will continue to make every effort to ensure it has an accurate understanding of the facts,” the company said in a statement.

The company can, under EU rules, reply to the charges in writing and present its case in an oral hearing.

It’s the EU’s latest effort to curb the power of big technology companies, following a series of multibillion dollar antitrust fines against Google in previous years.

France tightens security amid fallout from teacher beheading

France tightens security amid fallout from teacher beheading

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Supporters of the religious student group, Islami Jamiat Tulba, hold a representation of the French flag with a defaced image of French President Emmanuel Macron and Urdu writing which reads, “Down with France,” during a protest against the publishing of … more >

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By ANGELA CHARLTON

Associated Press

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

PARIS (AP) – France is increasing security at religious sites as the interior minister said Tuesday that the country faces a “very high” risk of terrorist threats, amid growing geopolitical tensions following the beheading of a teacher who showed his class caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.

French diplomats are trying to quell anger in Turkey and Arab nations amid anti-France protests and calls for boycotts of French goods in response to President Emmanuel Macron’s firm stance against Islamism in the wake of the Oct. 16 beheading. European allies have supported Macron, while Muslim-majority countries are angered by his defense of prophet cartoons they consider sacrilegious.

France’s national police have called for increased security at religious sites around the All Saint’s holiday this coming weekend, particularly noting online threats from extremists against Christians and moderate French Muslims.

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Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said on France-Inter radio that the terrorist threat remains “very high, because we have a lot of enemies from within and outside the country.”

He reiterated plans to try to disband Muslim groups seen as peddling dangerous radical views or with too much foreign financing. He accused Turkey and Pakistan in particular of “meddling in France’s internal business.”

“There is a battle against an Islamist ideology. We must not back down,” he said. But he insisted that “the Muslim faith has all its place in the republic.”

Some members of France’s largely moderate Muslim community are calling for calm, and defending the freedom of expression that the beheaded teacher was seeking to demonstrate.

The prophet cartoons deeply upset many Muslims around the world. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has led the charge against France, questioning Macron’s mental state, and France recalled its ambassador to Turkey for consultations, a first in French-Turkish diplomatic relations.

Tensions between the two countries have mounted in recent months over Turkish actions in Syria, Libya and the Caucasus Mountains region of Nagorno-Karabakh. But this new spat has quickly spread to other countries in Europe and the Muslim world.

Anti-France protests have been held from Bangladesh to the Gaza Strip, Kuwaiti stores pulled French yogurt and bottles of sparkling water from their shelves, Qatar University canceled a French culture week, and Pakistan’s parliament passed a resolution condemning the publication of cartoons of the prophet.

EU officials warn that Turkey’s stance could further damage its relations with key trading partners and its long-stalled efforts to join the EU.

“A boycott will only move Turkey even further away from the EU,” European Commission spokesman Balazs Ujvaris said Tuesday, insisting that Turkey needs to respect the terms of its trade deal on merchandise and goods with the EU.

___

Samuel Petrequin in Brussels and Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed.

U.S. citizens likely to be left out as Europe reopens borders

U.S. citizens likely to be left out as Europe reopens borders

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A TUI X3 2312 Duesseldorf-Mallorca flight passenger talks to the press at Son Sant Joan airport in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, Monday, June 15, 2020. Whether its German holidaymakers basking in Spain’s sunshine or Parisians renewing their love affair with … more >

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By Lorne Cook

Associated Press

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

BRUSSELS (AP) — Americans are unlikely to be allowed into Europe when the continent reopens its borders next week, due to how the coronavirus pandemic is flaring in the U.S. and President Donald Trump’s ban on Europeans entering the United States.

European nations appear on track to reopen their borders between each other by July 1, and their representatives in Brussels are now debating what virus-related criteria should apply when lifting border restrictions to the outside world that were imposed in March.

In recommendations to EU nations on June 11, the European Commission said “travel restrictions should not be lifted as regards third countries where the situation is worse” than the average in the 27 EU member countries plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland.

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That is likely to rule out the United States, where new coronavirus infections have surged to the highest level in two months, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University. After trending down for well over a month, new U.S. cases have risen for more than a week.

The U.S. on Tuesday reported 34,700 new cases of the virus, bringing its total to more than 2.3 million and over 121,000 dead – the most anywhere in the world. The virus outbreaks in Brazil, India and Russia are remarkably high too, and it’s also unlikely that the EU will let their citizens in.

In contrast, aside from a notable new outbreak tied to a slaughterhouse in western Germany, the virus’s spread has slowed notably across the EU and particularly in the 26 nations that make up Europe’s visa-free travel zone known as the Schengen area, which more than 15 million Americans visit each year.

For the EU’s executive arm, the key criteria for opening up to the outside world should include the number of new infections per 100,000 population – the exact ceiling is up for debate – and the country’s overall response to the pandemic, in terms of testing, surveillance, treatment, contact tracing and reporting cases.

But more than this, the country should lift its own travel restrictions for Europeans from all EU and Schengen nations, the commission said, adding “it cannot be applied selectively.”

Brussels fears that opening up to countries outside in ad hoc way could lead to the reintroduction of border controls between nations inside the Schengen area, threatening once again Europe’s cherished principle of free movement, which allows people and goods to cross borders without checks.

This principle of reciprocity on its own should rule out U.S. citizens, at least initially. The aim is to revise the list of acceptable countries every two weeks based on developments.

In a decree on March 11, Trump suspended the entry of all people in the Schengen area. More than 10 million Europeans visit the United States each year.

“The potential for undetected transmission of the virus by infected individuals seeking to enter the United States from the Schengen Area threatens the security of our transportation system and infrastructure and the national security,” Trump’s proclamation said.

EU lawmakers seek probe of fund misuse on summit day

EU lawmakers seek probe of fund misuse on summit day

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Prime Ministers of Slovakia Igor Matovic, left, Poland Mateusz Morawiecki, 2nd left, Czech Republic Andrej Babis, 2nd right, and Hungary Viktor Orban, right, hold a press conference after the V4 summit at the Lednice Chateau in Lednice, Czech Republic, Thursday, … more >

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By LORNE COOK

Associated Press

Friday, June 19, 2020

BRUSSELS (AP) – European Union lawmakers called Friday for an investigation into the alleged misuse of EU funds in the Czech Republic and warned of a possible conflict of interest involving Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis on a day when he and the bloc’s other leaders debated their next multi-billion-euro budget.

A leaked EU audit last year concluded that the populist billionaire might have had a conflict of interest over subsidies involving his former business empire. More than 100 million euros ($112 million) could be involved. Babis denies any wrongdoing and has accused the EU of trying to destabilize his country.

In a resolution, adopted by 510 votes to 53, the lawmakers deplored that Babis “was and continues to be actively involved in the implementation of the EU budget in the Czech Republic in his position as Prime Minister … while still controlling the Agrofert Group as a founder and the sole beneficiary of two trust funds.”

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The resolution called on the European Council, the forum for the leaders of the EU’s 27 member nations, “to take all necessary and appropriate measures to prevent conflicts of interest in the context of the negotiations for the future EU budget.”

The leaders held inconclusive video talks Friday on a massive coronavirus rescue package that could total around 750 billion euros ($841 billion) and which would be tied to the EU’s next long-term budget, expected to stand at more than 1 trillion euros ($1.1 trillion).

The parliament resolution also called on the European Commission, which proposes EU laws and ensures they’re enforced, to rapidly conclude its own audit and make the findings public.

The conservative European People’s Party, the biggest bloc in the parliament, said that “the distribution of EU funds in the Czech Republic is neither fair nor transparent but designed to favor the private interests of Prime Minister Andrej Babis.”

The resolution follows a fact-finding mission to Prague in February by the parliament’s budgetary control committee, which has no legal power to investigate national budgets or even oversight of the budget of the European Council.

Committee Chairwoman Monika Hohlmeier said the information gathered “points to the intentional establishment of rules in the Czech Republic which hide real beneficiaries of subsidies, favor big conglomerates and prevent controlling authorities from carrying out checks on this system.”

Hohlmeier and other members of the fact-finding mission said they were routinely threatened while in the Czech Republic, and since, including by individuals in high government office.

Czech EU lawmaker Thomas Zdechovsky said he and his family received thousands of threats through social media, email and messaging apps during the coronavirus lockdown. He, his wife and four children were placed under police protection. Police detained a number of people and charged some of them, he said.

“They even said if we go outside they would find us in the street. They described how we would be murdered and what they would do to me and my family,” Zdechovsky told reporters Thursday. “This is the result of Mr. Babis calling me and (Czech Greens lawmaker Mikulas Peksa), traitors to the nation.”

Babis apologized soon after suggesting that the men were traitors.

Holhmeier said the group was “confronted with a situation of aggressivity we never have faced before” over the mission. She said that while members of the ground are used to some hostility as politicians, the attacks from the top level of government were of “a new dimension.”

“We’re only doing something normal, just checking whether the taxpayer’s money has been correctly disbursed,” Holhmeier said.

Britain: ‘Very little’ progress made in U.K., EU post-Brexit trade talks

Britain: ‘Very little’ progress made in U.K., EU post-Brexit trade talks

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In this Monday, March 2, 2020, file photo, European Commission’s Head of Task Force for Relations with the United Kingdom Michel Barnier, right, speaks with the British Prime Minister’s Europe adviser David Frost during the start of the first round … more >

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By Lauren Meier

The Washington Times

Friday, May 15, 2020

Key trade talks between the United Kingdom and the European Union in the wake of Brexit appear to be crumbling after the U.K. on Friday said there has been “very little” progress made.

Britain’s chief negotiator David Frost said the “major obstacle” with negotiations is the EU’s repeated demand to include a set of new proposals, which he called “unbalanced,” aimed at leveling the playing field between the two sides.

“We made very little progress towards agreement on the most significant outstanding issues between us,” Mr. Frost said in a statement.

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His EU counterpart, Michael Barnier, meanwhile said the negotiations have been “disappointing.”

“We’re not going to bargain away our values for the sake of the British economy,” Mr. Barnier said during a briefing. “Why should we help British businesses provide their services to Europe when we’d have no guarantee that our businesses would get a fair play treatment in the U.K.?”

Britain finalized its protracted and contentious divorce from the EU on Jan. 31, more than three years after the referendum in which voters chose to split by a 52% to 48% margin.

Britain and the EU have entered a “transition period” through the end of the year to negotiate their relationship, which will have to resolve a host of long-standing agreements and rules.

Mr. Frost insisted that the U.K.’s primary demand is a standard free trade agreement, similar to the existing agreement between the EU and Canada, and it will not be coerced into agreeing to additional conditions, Bloomberg reported.

“As soon as the EU recognizes that we will not conclude an agreement on that basis, we will be able to make progress,” Frost said. “The EU continues to insist on fisheries arrangements and access to U.K. fishing waters in a way that is incompatible with our future status as an independent coastal state.”