World

European summit agrees on €1.8 trillion package to provide post-pandemic relief. Indonesia lifting Covid-19 restrictions amid health fears. Britain suspends extradition treaty with Hong Kong. UAE’s Mars probe. By Jonathan Pearlman.

EU seals relief deal for struggling south

German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a visit to the European Parliament this month.
Credit: Thierry Monasse / Getty Images

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

Europe: At 5.15am on Tuesday, a gathering of European Union leaders in Brussels held a final session to try to agree on a package to provide post-pandemic relief across the continent. The 27 heads of state and government had already spent more than 90 hours in one of their longest summits in decades, abandoning their face masks as the talks continued. But, at 5.31am on Tuesday, European Council president Charles Michel tweeted: “Deal!”

The leaders had agreed on a €1.8 trillion ($A2.9 trillion) package, including a €750 billion ($A1.2 trillion) fund to provide loans and grants to hard-hit countries.

France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, said the deal was the most significant moment for the European Union since the creation of the Euro. “I think we can legitimately rejoice,” he said.

The summit was seen as a crucial test for the bloc following Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. Negotiations had stumbled as proposals for large-scale grants were resisted by the four “frugal” states of the Netherlands, Austria, Sweden and Denmark, which tend to blame poorer southern states such as Italy and Greece for failing to reform their economies or reduce spending. But Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel persuaded the frugal leaders to back the package after agreeing to reduce the grant funding from €500 billion ($A810 billion) to €390 billion ($A630 billion).

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who previously described the EU as a “transfer union” of money from north to south, said: “This is a one-off, there is a clear necessity for this given the excessive situation.”

But the post-pandemic recovery will depend on the success of member countries in addressing rising poverty and providing relief to affected workers, businesses and communities. Other nations face a similar problem. In the United States, congress this week began considering a new relief package and will need to overcome differences of frugality between the Republicans and the Democrats.

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

Indonesia: In early June, Indonesia, the world’s fourth-most populous country, began gradually ending social distancing restrictions to try to reboot the nation’s economy.

But the move has led to a sharp increase in the number of Covid-19 cases and raised concerns that the rapid spread of the virus is now beyond control. As of Thursday, Indonesia had 91,751 confirmed coronavirus cases and 4459 deaths, though some analysts believe the actual numbers are much higher. Indonesia’s testing rates are among the world’s lowest – about 2.6 people tested per 1000 people compared with 136 per 1000 in Australia.

Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s president, has been criticised for focusing on the nation’s economic recovery rather than its health. But he has attacked his own ministers for failing to quickly buy protective equipment and medical aid.

An Indonesian epidemiologist, Riris Andono Ahmad, told The Jakarta Post this week the government needed to adopt tougher Covid-19 restrictions to prevent the healthcare system becoming overwhelmed. Indonesia, he warned, was at risk of becoming one of the worst-affected countries in the world.

“There must be tough enforcement from the government and popular awareness if [people] don’t want to prolong the pandemic,” he said.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Britain: On Monday, Britain announced it would suspend its extradition treaty with its former colony, Hong Kong, following China’s imposition of a national security law on the territory. Australia and Canada have also suspended their extradition treaties.

Announcing the decision, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told parliament: “The UK is watching and the whole world is watching.”

Raab also announced that an arms embargo that has been in force against China since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 would be applied to Hong Kong. This will prevent the sale of weapons, ammunition and any item which, Raab said, “might be used for internal repression”.

The move marks a recent hardening of policy towards China by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has described himself as a Sinophile.

Last week, Britain announced that Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei’s equipment would be removed from Britain’s 5G phone networks by 2027 following concerns about the threat of Chinese espionage. Australia and the US had both reportedly urged London to ban Huawei, though Johnson had been open to allowing the firm to participate in “non-contentious” parts of the network.

Johnson said this week that he did not plan to be “a knee-jerk Sinophobe on every issue, somebody who is automatically anti-China”.

Still, some Conservative MPs have been pushing for a harder line, saying Huawei should be removed from 5G networks more quickly and should be barred from existing 3G and 4G networks.

During a visit to London on Tuesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo praised Britain’s tough approach, saying democracies should form a coalition to counter the threat posed by China’s Communist Party.

The British government has also been examining allegations of Russian interference in its domestic affairs, releasing a long-awaited parliamentary report this week examining the role of the Kremlin in the 2016 Brexit referendum. The report found Russia interfered in Scotland’s independence referendum in 2014 but it criticised intelligence agencies for failing to counter possible interference in the Brexit vote. It said Britain was one of Russia’s top Western intelligence targets, behind NATO and the US.

SPOTLIGHT: UAE MARS VOYAGE

On Monday, the United Arab Emirates launched a spacecraft named Al Amal, or Hope, on a voyage to Mars. The craft is due to reach Mars in February 2021 and will then spend at least two years circling the planet, collecting evidence on its weather and atmosphere.

The project joins a growing list of recent Mars missions, including by the US, Russia, Japan, the European Space Agency, China and India. In the coming weeks, both China and the US plan to launch fresh Mars probes.

Beyond the quest for knowledge, all these missions tend to have broader national and geopolitical aims. For the UAE, whose economy depends on its oil and gas exports, the mission is designed to shift the country’s focus towards science and technology. The launch this week, which was conducted from a space centre in Japan, followed collaboration between Emirati and foreign space experts and has already helped to develop the country’s manufacturing base. Enrolments in science and engineering courses at universities have increased by 12 per cent a year since preparations for the mission began.

Al Amal’s arrival at Mars is due to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the UAE in 2021. But voyages to the red planet are notoriously difficult. Since the 1960s, about 60 per cent of the almost 50 attempted journeys have ended in failure. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 25, 2020 as "EU seals relief deal for struggling south".

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Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.

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