The civil war in Yemen began five years ago in 2015, when Shiite rebels named Houthi took control of its capital city Sana’a after negotiations with the government failed. In March, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and support by the United States launched air strikes against the insurgents. Since then, numerous attempts at installing peace – including peace talks facilitated by the UN – failed, and regional powers such as the Gulf states and Iran continuously intervene in the conflict.
Meanwhile, the toll on Yemen’s population has been enormous. According to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, “four out of every five people” need lifesaving aid, which makes the number of Yemeni people dependent on relief efforts 24 million in total. More than eight million directly rely on UNICEF for water, and their operations in Yemen are so short of money that some are at risk of being shut down, which would leave millions without soap and water. Additionally, the war has displaced millions from their homes, many of them fleeing to neighbouring countries such as Djibouti.
And not only do precarious sanitary conditions and floods increase the risk of older diseases like malaria, dengue fever and cholera, but COVID-19 now poses an even bigger threat to the population of Yemen. Since the country recorded its first case on April 10th, the number has risen into the thousands. But considering the low testing rates and the disorganised situation in the country, the real numbers are likely to be much higher – and according to Guterres, it is likely that community transmission has already begun in Yemen. Mortality rates are among the highest in the world, which is not surprising given that trying to improve the country’s health services (such as hospital’s supplies of electricity and oxygen) is difficult when half the population does not have access to clean water.
What Yemen lacks is about 2 and a half billion US dollars in aid. The EU has given almost 500 million in humanitarian aid to Yemen, mostly focused on food, healthcare and hygiene measures. Nevertheless, Yemen is still in dire need of lifesaving aid, and according to UN Humanitarian Coordinator Mark Lowcock, gathering the money necessary to deliver aid is the biggest problem. But what Yemen needs most is peace. In October 2018, after the death of Saudi-Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the European Parliament called on its member states to stop weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. Germany responded with suspending all its arms exports to Saudi Arabia, but after pressure coming from the United Kingdom and France, where companies depend on German-made components to build their arms, the decision was revoked.
In the EU, the Common Position on arms export controls defines the criteria by which potential export licenses must be judged – including respect for human rights. But although it is legally binding, there is no mechanism to enforce it, and since defence policy lies with the member states’ sovereignty, it is often ignored in favour of commercial interests. And since EU-made arms have allegedly already been used in multiple strikes that involved civilian casualties and at the very least enabled Saudi Arabia to launch military intervention in Yemen in the first place, this begs the question how the EU can justify this next to its commitment to human rights and the rule of law. In France, minister Florence Parly first claimed that French weapons were not directly used in the war. When evidence of the contrary surfaced, she claimed there was no evidence that these weapons had been intentionally used against civilians. To hold onto its values and promote peace in the region, the EU needs to start enforcing its Common Position on export controls.
When Germany’s constitutional court ruled that the European Central Bank (ECB) had violated the German constitution, the effects were immediate – the value of the Euro as well as the debt ratings of the eurozone countries fell. Next to being unprecedented, the decision also came at a time at which it puts pressure on the coronavirus relief package of the ECB – and the response among policymakers and legal experts was accordingly urgent.
Though the court issued its decision on the 5th of May, the case had been going on for much longer. It goes back to 2015, when the ECB established its public sector purchase programme (PSPP), which was supposed to stabilise the eurozone after the financial crisis by buying government debt.
In the years that followed, the German constitutional court asked the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for a judgement on the bond-buying program of the ECB twice, and twice did the ECJ issue its permission to the ECB. Now, on the grounds that the ECB was overstepping its mandate and failed to incorporate political oversight into the purchases of the bonds, the German constitutional court has ruled the ECB has violated the German constitution.
EU law still remains superior to national law, and the ECB is not a subject of German national law. The German central bank (Bundesbank) however, is bound by the decision of the German constitutional court. The ECB now has three months to explain why their bond purchases are proportionate to their mandate – otherwise, the Bundesbank, which is the biggest shareholder of the ECB, would have to pull out of the PSPP. And this is the crux of the issue: although the German constitutional court recognises the EU’s exclusive competence in monetary policy, it has still put forward a judgement on whether or not the ECB and the ECJ are operating within their mandate. It could set, as many have argued in the following weeks, a dangerous precedent.
The reactions to this ruling were widespread and mixed – in Poland for instance, prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki called the decision one of the most important rulings in the history of the EU, as it reaffirms the agency of member states. President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen meanwhile is considering starting a treaty violation proceeding against Germany. Monetary policy is an exclusive EU competence, she reasoned, and the ruling therefore posed questions that touched the heart of the EU’s sovereignty. Members of the European Parliament called for all EU institutions to support the decisions of the ECJ, to avoid putting the integrity of the EU’s court and the eurozone in jeopardy. In the end, not even legal experts share a consensus on what this decision means for the future of the ECB and, by extension, the EU. While some theorise it could lead to the break-up of the eurozone, others see the decision itself as a threat to the ECB’s independence. This is especially interesting since – though formally, the ruling has no effect on this – the ECB’s coronavirus relief package is a €750bn bond-buying program, which could now also be called into question.
“Nature is healing!” After several images showing how nature was positively responding to the absence of people due to isolation and lockdown measures, this saying became recurrent in many countries. Pictures of wild animals reclaiming urban spaces and even dolphins swimming in the Venetian channels were shared on social media. Although most of these reports were fake news (including, for our misfortune, the dolphins replacing the gondola in the Gran Canale), two questions gained place: Did the Coronavirus crisis have any positive impact on nature? And if so, will this effect be long-standing?
As a matter of fact, social isolation and the fall of industrial production massively impacted the emission of greenhouse gasses. While two-thirds of the global air fleet are at standstill, in cities such as Rome and Milan the traffic fell by 85% from its normally expected levels (a pattern which is mirrored around the world), and the amount of coal used in the power industry plummeted. In fact, the International Energy Agency announced that the global energy demand will fall by 6% in 2020, causing serious damage to the gas and oil industry, while for coal the value hits 8% (a number that was not seen since World War II). Already considering the possible economic recovery in the second semester, this would lead to a decrease of 0.3% in the global carbon emission. In comparison, the great financial crisis of 2008/2009 led to a dip of 1.3% in anthropogenic emissions. By 2010, however, with many countries investing in their industries at levels never seen before, the emission of anthropogenic gases went off. The situation became so critical that in many Chinese cities, people were recommended to use masks due to poor air quality.
From now on, governments will and should do anything to recover their economies as efficiently as possible, as well as foster transnational cooperation for this being essential in dealing with growing global problems i.e. global warming. Nevertheless, it is necessary that both officials and citizens take this moment of society restructuring as an opportunity to cause a real and long-standing positive impact on the environment. Particularly, recent actions by the European Union institutions toward this goal should be given attention, so as to give an example of how economic and environmental recovery can be joined in an integrative manner.
In April, the European Parliament indicated that the Commission should propose a recovery and reconstruction package which had the Green Deal at its core. Namely, the European Green Deal is a proposal issued by the European Commission in December 2019 that aims to turn Europe into a climate-neutral continent by 2050. Much more than a target, it envisages a thorough transformation of the economy by changing, for instance, industrial tools, promoting clean mobilization means, and renewable energy sources. Furthermore, its strategies, such as the Biodiversity Strategy, plan to restore by 2030 damaged ecosystems, protected habitats and species, and European forests (the goal is to plant more than three billion trees). On March 4th, the European Climate Law proposal, which seeks to legally bind countries to the European Green Deal, was presented in the European Parliament and is already endorsed by a vast number of MEPs.
Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, pointed out that one should face the challenge of rebuilding the economy as an opportunity of making it more sustainable and resilient. She also called attention to the importance of individual changes of actions such as buying sustainable products, re-using old materials, buying electric cars, and even renovating each one’s house by adding ecological systems. The European Green Deal is being called ‘the motor for Europe’s recovery’ and needs to be treated as such from the individual, to the governmental, to the international domain. The nations of the world should plan their own green strategies while reconstructing their economies because nature is at a breaking point. Based on the practical idea that all industries depend greatly on nature, the economy will never heal toward a sustainable stage, if nature itself does not.
The COVID-19 pandemic has left the European Union a region that is not only hit differently by the virus, but also dealing with diverse economic outlooks. Some countries went into a strict shutdown for months and others started relaxing their measures after just a few weeks. Bound together in the European Union, these countries now have to find a way to keep the region from spiralling into a recession – and provide financial support for the states hardest hit.
In early April, after three days of difficult negotiations, the Council of Ministers decided on a €540 billion relief package – but this is far from where the story ends. For one, experts are suggesting the EU might need another €500 billion to mitigate the effects of the shutdowns. And for another, not all member states are happy with the initial package.
“Italy doesn’t need the ESM,” was Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte’s comment on the decision, effectively refusing €39 billion in aid. Next to support for installing short-time work and loans from the European Investment Bank, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) was decided to be the third part of the EU’s relief package. First installed in 2012, its purpose is to support member states who are highly in debt – but its money is bound to strict conditions. Italy’s Five-Star Movement had threatened to end the coalition government should Conte say yes to the ESM – out of fear the country would be put under similar controls as Greece was during the debt crisis. Regardless of the fact that the EU had abandoned all conditions that are usually bound to the ESM out of respect for Italy’s difficult situation, and against initial resistance from the Netherlands.
But Italy is not the only country that wants to move away from the ESM, and install the so-called Coronabonds instead. Next to Italy, France has also expressed their support, with Macron telling the British media that they were “necessary” as otherwise eurosceptic populists in Italy, France and elsewhere would win. Their support has been met with heavy resistance from the northern countries, particularly the Netherlands, Germany, Austria and Finland, which sparked a debate that Conte warned could threaten the existence of the bloc.
“Coronabonds” are essentially the new application of an old idea: joint debt that would be collectively guaranteed. Which would, as countries like Italy are hoping, lead to lower borrowing costs and more favourable terms. But on the other side, the northern countries are hesitating to sign loans for countries whose spending they cannot control – fearing it will lead to their taxpayers paying the bill; with neither side ready to give, which way the EU will go is still uncertain. And during the summit on the 23rd of April, the European Council passed the initial relief package that was put forward by the EU’s finance ministers – putting the topic of a recovery fund in the form of Coronabonds off for another day.
Boffey, D. (2020, April 9). EU strikes €500bn relief deal for countries hit hardest by pandemic. The Guardian. Retrieved fromhttps://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/apr/09/eu-risks-break-up-over-coronabonds-row-warns-italian-pm
Hell, the first part of the Divine Comedy, portrays Dante´s journey through its nine circles. Today, the whole world appears to be going through such reality, and the conductor has no face but a name, COVID-19. Three weeks changed the course of history, according to Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe. As of 13 March 2020, Europe was declared the new pandemic center of the disease that came about in Wuhan (China), only five days before all countries within Europe had a confirmed case of COVID-19. From the registered cases in Europe, which due to logistical reasons are massively underestimated, more than 77% are concentrated in France, Germany, Spain, and Italy. In this text, I will shortly analyze the situation in each of these countries and conclude with a reflection on what we can do to mitigate the ongoing situation.
On the 24th of January of 2020, the first European case of the new coronavirus was registered in Bordeaux. In a few weeks, the registered number of cases reached nearly all French departments, leading to the impactful declaration of president Macron on March 16, “We are at war”. The announcement involved a national lockdown for fifteen days and the closure of land borders. As of 26 March, over 29 thousand cases and 1.696 deaths were confirmed. To relieve hospitals in the heavily affected Eastern France, the government established adapted hospitals in high-speed trains, aiming to take mild patients to less impacted hospitals in the Western. Furthermore, president Macron announced the army operation “Resilience”, designed to support the population and assist the public health system. The plan entails deploying helicopter carriers equipped with hospitals on board to French territories in the Caribbean and Indian Ocean, easing the shipping of medical supplies from one region to another, and support of law enforcement mainly in sensitive regions.
Three days after the first case appeared in Southeastern France, Munich registered Germany’s first case. Since then, cases outnumbered 39.000 and deaths exceeded 220. German chancellor Angela Merkel took never-before-seen measures in the country’s post war period and declared a shutdown of many establishments and addressed the nation to stay indoors. Meanwhile, many states imposed drastic lockdown measures to stem the spread of the coronavirus outbreak. The chancellor said that the expectation was that about 60-70% of the population would get infected. So far, Germany experienced a low death-rate to which contention measures such as the widespread testing to detect those infected and isolate them certainly contributed (so far more than 410.000 tests have been conducted across the country). A relevant factor, however, is that more than 77% of the infected are out of the risk-group. Moreover, Prof. Dr. Lothar H. Wieler, President of the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin, explained that this is only the beginning for Germany, as other countries are simply further in the progression curve of the pandemic. When it comes to the biggest European economy, Germany is planning to increase borrowing by as much as 150 billion euros this year, to avoid what the chief economist at ING Germany, Carsten Brzeski, characterized as an “inducive coma”.
In the last week of March, Spain overtook China in terms of mortal victims from COVID-19 with over 4 thousand deaths and 40 thousand infected, 5.400 of whom are health workers. As a recommendation of the Ministry of Health, the government established full lockdown and is enforcing it through up-to thirty thousand-euro fines and arrests of recurrent offenders. Meanwhile, Spain has asked NATO for urgent help with personal protective equipment and announced the incorporation of fast tests to detect the coronavirus. David Noguera, president of MSF Spain, said that their focus lies on establishing temporary hospitals, reducing infections and protecting the elderly and vulnerable. On 17 March, the government announced a 200-billion-euro package to back companies and protect workers and other groups affected.
Italy holds over 80.589 confirmed cases and 8.215 deaths, which is the highest mortality rate worldwide. In early March, prime minister Conte expanded the quarantine from Lombardy to all Italy, the first measure of its kind in Europe. Although Northern Italy has one of the best public health systems in the Western world, it is being pushed to a breaking point. Not only are beds and materials falling short, but several front-line health care professionals are continuously being contaminated. Intensive care units and field hospitals are being built, and experts from all over the world (mainly China) are helping the government. Some analysts point out the slow introduction of gradual and regional procedures instead of serious nationwide measures as a reason behind the quick spread of the novel coronavirus. As late as the 1st of March, when the epidemic clusters of Lombardy and Veneto were already well-known, only some municipalities had declared quarantine, while in the rest of the nation minor prevention measures were carried out. By now, Italy conducted over 360 thousand tests, issued a 25 billion euros aid plan, and drafted the military to enforce the lockdown.
It remains clear that the European Union is going through one of the greatest challenges of its existence. This is not only a humanitarian and economic crisis but also a social catastrophe when it comes to public safety. Quoting Jonathan Whittall (MSF Spain), “How are you supposed to wash your hands regularly if you have no running water or soap? How can you implement ‘social distancing’ if you live in a slum or a refugee camp? How are you supposed to stop crossing borders if you are fleeing from war? How are those with pre-existing health conditions going to take extra precautions if they already can’t afford or access the treatment they need?” Recalling Dante´s Hell, one can say that inequality has an enormous impact on defining who goes to the limbo (a place where souls do not cry, but sigh) and who is condemned to the circles of hell. Vulnerable groups tend to fall in the second category. Therefore, more than ever, it is important to spread a brotherhood and solidarity spirit. Those who can, should stay at home, help the elderly and vulnerable on doing groceries, buying medicines or hygiene materials, make company to each other, be conscious not to overbuy things and assist the authorities to find optimal and efficient solutions. Above all, one must always remember that after hell and purgatory, comes heaven.