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Critics question China’s right to host Winter Olympics – POLITICO

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Critics of China’s human rights record have a new sanction in mind for Beijing: stripping the city of the 2022 Winter Olympics.

Lawmakers in a number of major Olympic countries, including the Netherlands, Canada and the U.S., have recently said the 2022 Games should be taken away from China because of its repression of its Uighur Muslim minority in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. The Dutch and Canadian parliaments have officially labeled that repression a “genocide,” as has the U.S. State Department.   

In an interview, Sjoerd Sjoerdsma, a Dutch MP from the ruling coalition’s D66 party, pointed to “the largest detention of an ethnic minority since World War II” and highlighted stories of forced sterilization and rape as evidence that China should be stripped of the Olympics.

Sjoerdsma, whose social liberal party initiated the Dutch motion to call the treatment of the Uighur minority a genocide, said athletes should decide for themselves whether to go to Beijing, but he would prefer that the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which organizes the games, assigned the event to another country. 

“The major sport organizations, whether it’s the Olympics or football, should consider much more thoroughly the human rights situation in a possible host country, and if it’s already allocated … see how the situation develops,” he said. 

In early February, a group of seven Republican U.S. senators, including Rick Scott of Florida, all called for the Beijing Games to be moved. In mid-February, Canadian opposition Conservative leader Erin O’Toole made a similar demand.

This isn’t the first time the location of a looming Olympic Games has sparked debate. Ahead of the 1936 Games in Nazi Germany, teams from a number of countries, including the U.S., considered staying away. In 1980, the U.S. team boycotted the Moscow Olympics after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

What effect the bubbling resistance has to Beijing as 2022 host remains to be seen. Protests also erupted ahead of the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008 over China’s policies in Tibet, observers note, but the event went ahead as planned.

Ties Dams, a China researcher at the Clingendael Institute, a Dutch think tank, said the idea of pressuring the Chinese government to change its treatment of the Uighur minority by threatening to boycott the Olympics was unlikely to happen and “naive.”

However, he said that the motion in the Dutch parliament to label the treatment of the Uighur people a genocide might at least force the new government, which will be elected on March 17, to pick sides and either support the hawkish stance on China taken by U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration or the more cooperative approach taken by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.

Taking a European lead?

The Netherlands, a traditional Winter Olympics powerhouse thanks to its dominance in speed-skating events, has emerged recently as an advocate of using sporting events to hold host nations to account for their human rights policies.

Dutch lawmakers last month adopted a motion calling on the Dutch king and prime minister not to attend the football World Cup in Qatar if the Netherlands qualifies for next year’s tournament, citing the “appalling conditions” for migrant workers building the stadiums.

A similar motion for the Olympics was rejected, but lawmaker Sjoerdsma said he was hopeful it might still pass in the coming weeks, with some parties likely to change their position.

However, the Netherlands’ Olympic Committee sounded a note of caution about how far the country might be ready to go. In response to questions about a potential Dutch boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics, a spokesman for the committee said: “In the Netherlands, we have the policy that a sports boycott is only talked about if the Netherlands as a country participates in a larger international boycott involving several sectors. That is not the case.”

Canadian Olympic bosses, prior to the national parliament’s genocide declaration, also said they will not support a boycott.

In an opinion piece from early February — which remains their position — the chiefs of the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic committees wrote that sporting boycotts amounted to “little more than a convenient and politically inexpensive alternative to real and meaningful diplomacy.”  

Chinese pushback 

China, which was angered by the pro-Tibet protests ahead of the 2008 Games, has made clear it is taking any threats of a 2022 boycott very seriously.

“It is very irresponsible for anyone to attempt to interfere with, obstruct or disrupt the organization and operation of the [Winter] Olympics, out of political motives,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said last month, responding to calls for an international boycott.

“We believe such moves would not be supported by the international community, and are doomed to failure,” Wang added.

Shortly afterwards, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell that the two sides should “take the opportunity of the Beijing Winter Olympics of next year to enhance exchanges on winter sports” and “foster new highlights” in bilateral cooperation.

In the same call, Wang also said China “opposes fabrication and dissemination of lies and fake news” on Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

For its part, the IOC has tried to remain on the political sidelines, telling POLITICO that it remains “neutral” on all global political issues. 

“Awarding the Olympic Games to a National Olympic Committee (NOC) does not mean that the IOC agrees with the political structure, social circumstances or human rights standards in its country,” it said.  

It is a position that has attracted its own criticism. Jules Boykoff, a professor at Pacific University who has written extensively on the Olympics, accused the IOC of “hypocrisy.” 

“The IOC has shown an unfortunate propensity for turning away from human rights atrocities in order to make sure that the games go on,” Boykoff said.

“The Olympic Charter is full of powerful ideas about equality and anti-discrimination, but the IOC ignores its own Charter when it is convenient for them to do so,” he said.   

But what effect does the geopolitical maneuvering have on the real stars of any Olympics?       

The Olympic competitors have been put in a difficult position, said Rob Koehler from Global Athlete, an athlete-led sports movement. 

“As governments call for a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympic and Paralympic Games, once again athletes are being used as pawns,” Koehler said. “The IOC and IPC first and foremost are to blame for putting athletes in this position.” 

“It is the IOC and IPC who decided to award the games to a country with an abysmal human rights record,” he said.

POLITICO’s China Direct will explore Europe’s diplomatic and commercial relationship with China, delivering expert reporting and analysis every week in your inbox. Sign up today.**

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EU and US slap sanctions on Russia over Navalny – POLITICO

Brussels and Washington imposed new sanctions against senior Russian officials on Tuesday, delivering a one-two punch at the Kremlin over the poisoning attack and jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

The Council of the EU formally imposed penalties on the head of Russia’s investigative committee, Alexander Bastrykin; the prosecutor-general, Igor Krasnov; the head of the national guard, Viktor Zolotov; and the head of the federal prison service, Alexander Kalashnikov, for “their roles in the arbitrary arrest, prosecution and sentencing of” Navalny, according to a statement, “as well as the repression of peaceful protests in connection with his unlawful treatment.”

The U.S. Treasury, State and Commerce departments, meanwhile, imposed somewhat broader sanctions that also included penalties for the assassination attempt on Navalny last summer in which he was poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent. The U.S. measures include sanctions on seven senior Russian officials — whom the White House did not identify — as well as an expansion of sanctions under the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act, new export restrictions on items that could be used for biological agent and chemical production, and visa restrictions, Biden administration officials said.

While the same-day announcement of the new measures sent a symbolic message of Western unity against malign activities by President Vladimir Putin’s government, the Western powers notably did not grant a request by Navalny and his supporters to impose penalties against wealthy Russian oligarchs who are connected to the Kremlin but maintain sizeable assets outside of Russia.

EU officials have said they were precluded legally from taking such a step because they could not directly tie the prominent oligarchs to the repressive actions taken against Navalny and his supporters.

As part of its move to punish Russia, the Biden administration also declassified intelligence that implicated Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB, in carrying out the assassination attempt against Navalny last summer, in which he was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent. Putin has personally mocked the accusations that the Russian government carried out the attack, saying that if the security services wanted Navalny dead, they would have finished the job.

The Bellingcat news site, working with partners, also implicated the FSB in the attack, and even identified individual agents who trailed Navalny on the trip to Siberia during which he was poisoned. Navalny, impersonating a government security official, later telephoned one of those agents who confessed his role in the attack during their 49-minute conversation.

The EU sanctions represent the first time that Brussels is using a new legal framework for penalizing human rights violations. The penalties against the four officials include a travel ban and asset freeze.

Transatlantic effort

One senior U.S. official characterized the coordinated announcement of the measures as “a demonstration of transatlantic unity.” Biden and his Secretary of State Antony Blinken have committed to working closely with the EU.

“From his first phone call with President Putin, President Biden has been clear that the United States will respond to a number of destabilizing Russian actions,” a senior administration official said Tuesday in a press call previewing the new measures. The official said the administration had requested “new or declassified intelligence community assessments in four such areas, and plan to respond to each of them in the coming weeks. Today is the first such response, and there will be more to come.”

Navalny’s poisoning by Russian security forces last August and his jailing in Moscow was deemed urgent enough to warrant a quicker response, even if the broader review of U.S.-Russia policy — launched by the administration in January — is still ongoing, people familiar with the deliberations told POLITICO last month.

Navalny was jailed immediately upon his return to Russia earlier this year from Germany, where he was treated and recovered from the poisoning attack. While he was recovering, he was accused of violating the terms of his parole connected to a fraud case in which he had received a suspended sentence. Navalny contested the alleged violations, telling a judge he did not check in with parole officers because he was in a coma. Both the underlying fraud case and his current imprisonment have been condemned by the European Court of Human Rights.

As part of the U.S. measures, the Commerce Department also added 14 parties to its entity list on Tuesday that were determined to be involved in “various aspects of biological agent production and chemical production,” one official said. The move will severely restrict exports to nine commercial entities in Russia, three in Germany, one in Switzerland and a separate government research institute.

And in yet another sign of the West’s stand against Moscow, European Council President Charles Michel was in Ukraine on Tuesday where he visited the war zone in the eastern Donbass region and declared the EU’s support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Michel also said that sanctions against Russia would remain in place until the full implementation of the Minsk 2 peace accord.

In Washington, a Republican senator from Nebraska issued a statement denouncing the Russian president and calling for additional steps.

“Putin is a coward who hires hitmen to keep his grip on power, but the Russian people are tired of living under a paranoid despot,” Senator Ben Sasse said in his statement. “These sanctions and the addition of Russian entities to the Commerce Department’s blacklist send a clear message to Moscow, but we can’t stop here. The U.S. and our allies should invoke the provisions of the Chemical Weapons Convention to demand inspections of Putin’s facilities that produced the nerve agents involved in Navalny’s poisoning. We need to kneecap all financial support to Putin’s corrupt regime.”

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Sarkozy corruption conviction rocks French conservatives – POLITICO

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PARIS — Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was convicted Monday on corruption charges, shaking his conservative allies and pouring cold water on hopes for a political comeback.

Sarkozy, who served as president from 2007 to 2012, was accused of having offered a judge a plum job in exchange for confidential information related to another trial he was facing. He has denied all allegations.

The Paris court sentenced him to three years in jail, two of them suspended — although it’s unlikely he will be moved to prison as the term can be served under conditions such as house arrest.

This is the first time a former French president has received a jail sentence (Jacques Chirac received a suspended sentence in 2011 over a fake job case), and Sarkozy’s lawyer said they would appeal.

“The president is calm, he is determined,” his lawyer Jacqueline Laffont told TV channel CNews. “We will appeal, he is presumed innocent. We don’t doubt the appeal court will overturn the sentence.”

The conviction deals a blow to his allies in the conservative Les Républicains party, who had regularly hinted that although Sarkozy had officially retired from politics, the 2022 presidential vote could offer them a chance at a comeback with his already established name.

The president of Les Républicains, Christian Jacob, said the sentence was “absolutely disproportionate and exposes the judicial system’s persecution [of Sarkozy].”

Michel Barnier, the EU’s former chief Brexit negotiator who is making a return to French politics, tweeted: “I simply want to reiterate my friendship with President Sarkozy. His decision to appeal is completely legitimate.”

Bruno Retailleau, head of the conservative group in the Senate, referred to the ruling as “an extremely harsh sentence in a strikingly empty case” on Twitter.

In private, however, some of Sarkozy’s associates had acknowledged before the decision came out that a guilty verdict would likely nip his new presidential ambitions in the bud.

“If he is sentenced, there is no more talking about it,” one of them told POLITICO’s Playbook Paris.

During the court hearings, which took place last fall, Sarkozy and his supporters argued that the trial was built on “lies” and politically motivated. 

Corruption allegations against the ex-president surfaced after investigators wiretapped conversations between Sarkozy and his lawyer Thierry Herzog as they were looking into allegations of Libyan financing in Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign. 

The recordings showed Sarkozy and Herzog had discussed contacting Gilbert Azibert, a magistrate at the Court of Cassation, France’s court of last resort for criminal cases, to try to gain information about a separate investigation into whether the ex-president had received donations from L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.

Prosecutors said Sarkozy and his lawyer discussed offering a prestigious post in Monaco to Azibert in return for information about the Bettencourt case, which was eventually dropped.

Herzog and Azibert were also on trial with Sarkozy and similarly charged with corruption and influence peddling. They were also sentenced to jail terms.

The corruption trial is just one of several cases in which Sarkozy is involved. Next March, the former president is due in court over accusations of violating campaign finance rules during his failed 2012 reelection bid. 

This article has been updated.

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Trapped in Germany’s COVID nightmare – POLITICO

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Matthew Karnitschnig is POLITICO’s chief Europe correspondent.

BERLIN — As the coronavirus pandemic raged through the United States last summer, an old school friend from Arizona wrote me full of admiration for Germany’s handling of the crisis.

For years, he, along with other American friends and my family, drew boundless schadenfreude imagining the daily difficulties I must face as an American among the supposedly humorless “krauts.”

But now, as the U.S. struggled to cope with the pandemic, they looked across the Atlantic with envy, even humility. In contrast to the U.S., where politicians had fumbled the pandemic response from the beginning, Germany appeared to many Americans to have done everything right. By any measure, from the availability of PPE to the infection rate, to total deaths, Germany’s handling of COVID-19 was far superior to the U.S.’s.   

How “crazy” it must be, my friend wrote, to be “an American journalist in Germany watching from afar as the U.S. basically falls apart.” 

My German friends agreed. I was lucky, they told me, to reside in a country that functions, one led by a trained scientist and not an “incompetent lunatic.”  

But six months later (most of them spent in the confines of my home), I don’t feel so lucky.  

This week, Germany will enter its fifth-straight month of lockdown with no end in sight. Though infection rates have declined in recent weeks, it remains unclear when schools and shops, not to mention restaurants and bars, will reopen. Amid the uncertainty, small businesses across the country are facing ruin. Such fears, coupled with frustration over the seemingly neverending restrictions, have soured the national mood.  

The U.S., meanwhile, is turning the corner. Schools are slowly reopening, unemployment is falling and the economy is slowly rumbling back to life. America’s visceral optimism, which has always befuddled Europeans, has also begun to reemerge. 

The reason for this reversal of fortune can be explained in a single word: vaccines. 

As of Friday, the U.S. had administered about 68 million doses of coronavirus vaccine, reaching about 14 percent of the population with at least one shot. For its part, Germany had delivered about 5.7 million jabs, covering about 4.5 percent of the population. In other words, less than a third the rate of the U.S. The problem isn’t that Germany doesn’t have enough vaccines but rather that it has been slow to get them into people’s arms. Of the 8.5 million doses Germany has received so far, it has only used 68 percent. That compares to a rate of 75 percent in the U.S.

Germany isn’t just a laggard compared to the U.S. or international standouts like Israel and the U.K. Other EU countries, including neighboring Denmark, have proved more efficient than the purported home of efficiency.

Germany may have spawned some of the world’s biggest and most successful companies, from software giant SAP to BASF to Mercedes, yet somehow it can’t figure out how to accelerate the rollout of a lifesaving vaccine to its own population.   

So what happened to Germany’s famed organizational and logistical prowess? It would seem to have disappeared down a fax-line somewhere between Berlin and Brussels. 

The reasons for Germany’s vaccination struggle are both structural and political. While the country’s leaders have sought to explain away the problems by pointing to structural hurdles, such as Germany’s decentralized federal structure or the involvement of the EU in procuring vaccines, the most glaring shortcomings are rooted in their own political failures.  

Take the fax machines. A technological dinosaur elsewhere in the West, fax machines remain a mainstay in many medical practices and government health offices. That has made coordination across Germany’s nearly 400 health offices particularly difficult. Health Minister Jens Spahn has spent millions trying to put German health care online, so far with only mixed results. 

The fax is merely a symptom of a deeper problem, however. Angela Merkel has talked for years of the necessity to “digitalize” German society, a goal that many other advanced economies have long made a reality. Indeed, the first thing many new arrivals in Germany notice is its lack of connectivity, from the dearth of free Wifi in cafes and restaurants to slow internet speeds. The fact that the German federal government itself still employs nearly 1,000 fax machines in its various ministries tells you everything you need to know about how successful Merkel’s digital revolution is. 

That said, the 1970s technology is comparatively modern to the pen and paper still in use across Germany’s medical profession. That a government can’t rely on antiquated communications tools to immunize Germany’s 83 million inhabitants quickly should be obvious. 

Yet it’s not, especially to those Germans (a majority of the population) worried about that holiest of all German rights – Datenschutz (data privacy). 

As part of its deal with BioNTech-Pfizer, Israel, which has immunized more than half its population of 9 million, agreed to provide the drugmaker with a wide swath of anonymous data on those receiving the vaccination, including age and gender. The data agreement was one reason Israel was at the front of the line for vaccine deliveries.  

In privacy-obsessed Germany, the idea of embracing such data collection meets a lot of resistance.  

It is important “that we undertake as many confidence-building measures as possible and prioritize Datenschutz in order to build trust in immunizations,” Merkel said earlier this month.

In other words, any German who dies of COVID-19 because they didn’t get a vaccine on time can take solace in the knowledge that her data will be safe and secure in the ever after. 

What’s particularly striking to an outsider like me about Germany’s handling of the pandemic is the amount of energy the country puts into identifying and dissecting the problems, rather than resolving them. 

For months, millions of Germans have tuned into one of the country’s nightly primetime political talk shows to watch their leaders talk about the pandemic, often out of both sides of their mouths. 

The coronaporn attracts an audience with a false promise of fresh insight (the title of one recent such program: “Lockdown instead of a way forward – Is there really no alternative to Germany’s pandemic strategy?”) only to leave the questions unanswered, sending viewers to bed unfulfilled. 

Most of the discussions revolve around the question of who should be held responsible for the mess. 

These days, most fingers are pointing in Spahn’s direction. And while the minister is no doubt guilty of overpromising and underdelivering on everything from the speed of the vaccine rollout to the availability of self-administered coronavirus tests, I’ve been struck by how little criticism his boss has received. 

Just as Germans were confounded by the allegiance of millions of Americans to Donald Trump in the face of his obvious incompetence, I’m mystified by Germans’ willingness to give Merkel a pass on her management of the pandemic. Despite the deep problems with Germany’s COVID-19 response and the uncertain outlook, Merkel remains the country’s most popular politician with an approval rating approaching 70 percent. 

History is unlikely to be so forgiving. 

Merkel’s biggest mistake during the pandemic — arguably of her entire tenure as chancellor — came last June when she agreed to strip responsibility from her own government to procure vaccines and hand it to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. 

Of the many qualities von der Leyen showed in her years in Merkel’s Cabinet, competence was rarely among them. That’s why it should have surprised virtually no one that the procurement process turned into a fiasco, marked by protracted negotiations and delays, which will force Germany and other EU countries to maintain restrictions for much longer than would have otherwise been necessary. Even if Germany had gotten its act together on the logistics of delivering the vaccines to its citizens, it would have quickly run out anyway due to the lack of supply.

A wiser course would have been for Germany, which had formed a negotiating alliance with France, Italy and the Netherlands, to proceed in talks with the drug companies, negotiating and even footing the bill to vaccinate the entire EU in a beau geste of European solidarity. 

Of course, that would have only worked if scientist Merkel had remembered how and where to produce enough vaccine. She need only have listened to Bill Gates who had been raising alarm bells for months over the need to ensure adequate production capacity. 

Instead, Germany and Europe did next to nothing, letting the lull in the pandemic over the summer come and go only to realize early this year that the drug companies faced massive production shortfalls.

“We need a massive state subsidy to build out vaccine production,” Clemens Fuest, the head of the Ifo Institut, a Munich-based economic think tank, said this week.

The immunization delays, he warned, are throttling Germany’s economy, a fact the country’s political class seems to take in stride as they bemoan the inevitability of it all on television. The violations of citizens’ basic rights, be they to run a business, receive an education or simply meet with friends in the park, is only temporary, they assure us. 

This summer, my old school friend was hoping to visit us in Berlin. 

By the look of things, it’s probably better if we go see him in Arizona instead.  

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Facebook’s ‘Supreme Court’ to receive new powers – POLITICO

The outside group with the final say on whether Donald Trump can be reinstated on Facebook is expected to be given greater powers in the coming months to decide which content is allowed on the world’s largest social network, according to Thomas Hughes, administrative director of the so-called Oversight Board.

Speaking to Digital Bridge, POLITICO’s transatlantic tech newsletter, Hughes said the board is in talks with Facebook to receive more powers to review potentially harmful material that remains on the on the platform, as well as to adjudicate on accounts suspended for breaching the company’s community standards.

Currently, the Oversight Board can only review content that has already been taken down from Facebook, as well as when the company refers cases involving suspended accounts to the outside body.

“Facebook has clearly flagged that they intend to increase the board’s powers, and the board fully intends to take those powers,” said Hughes, adding that the changes will come “within the next few months.”

“They’ve flagged that this is coming, we’re actively building it,” he said. “There are multiple other types of pieces of content, like suspensions of accounts and things like that which are coming.”

Technical challenges — including ensuring privacy is protected when data is shared on Facebook posts still on the platform — need to be ironed out before the company can share such data with the outside group, according to the Oversight Board and Facebook.

Critics of the Oversight Board question its independence from Facebook because the company has provided $130 million for the body’s running costs. Others have raised doubts over why the board must negotiate with Facebook to receive greater powers to review content that remains on the platform.

“The rules for the Oversight Board mean they can’t recommend changes to Facebook’s terms and conditions,” said Damian Collins, a British lawmaker and long-time critic of the company’s handling of online content. “What we’re seeing is limited in scope.”

As administrative director, Hughes’ role includes day-to-day operations, and he does not sit on panels that rule on content. He insisted the group had demonstrated its independence in early decisions. So far, the body has ruled against Facebook in five out of six first cases.

“If the board says, ‘well, this particular type of content should be allowed,’ and Facebook disagrees, the board could then construct its selection committee to find every single piece of content of that nature and simply overturn all of the decisions that Facebook takes now,” he added.

A former British human rights and free-speech campaigner, Hughes had criticized the Oversight Board in his previous job as executive director of Article19, a campaigning group.

He declined to comment on the upcoming Trump case, which may be announced by late March. The Oversight Board has received thousands of outside comments on whether to reinstate the former U.S. president on Facebook. The social network removed Trump after his posts around the January 6 riots on Capitol Hill, and the case focuses on whether Trump, as a political leader, should be treated differently on other Facebook users when he posts online.

The board has “already gone out publicly and requested information” about the “applicable standard for political leaders” Hughes said, without reference specifically to the Trump’s case. “Existing in international human right standards is the acknowledgement that there are different types of public figures, and the panel that is looking at this case is going to take those into consideration,” he added.

Each of the group’s decisions only applies to specific content upon which it has ruled and will not set broader policies for how Facebook handles other digital material. Yet, Hughes said the body was trying to create a globally-relevant set of free speech standards that may be applied to reams of future content decisions.

Free speech and human rights campaigners have questioned if it’s possible to create a one-size-fit-all approach to online content when countries often have different cultural standards.

“I do think that they will start to create a clear picture of where the line lies, what the responsibilities are for corporate actors, how they should go about implementing that and what that means for them as companies,” Hughes said in reference to the board’s work. “That’s what the board is going to help answer and it’s going to do it piece by piece by building a picture that’s based on actual context.”

Despite the long shadow hanging over the group ahead of its decision on Trump, Hughes acknowledged the body’s future decisions would likely run up against some countries’ domestic rules about what is allowed online. Governments in Turkey, Vietnam and Russia have all passed laws hampering people’s ability to voice opinions online.

Without naming specific countries, Hughes said the board would likely soon challenge those limits, setting itself up against national governments on the right to determine what was permitted online.

“I foresee that we will come to the point in which the board overturns a piece of content which maybe runs contrary to a country’s national legislation, but which people feel is not compliant with international human rights standards,” he said. “That will be an interesting moment.”

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Coronavirus vaccines cutting hospitalization after first dose – POLITICO

First data from England and Scotland suggests vaccines are reducing hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 and appear to be preventing transmission, English and Scottish public health officials reported on Monday.

Based on the latest data, scientists in England estimate that hospitalization and death rates will fall around 75 percent in those who receive a single dose of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine. And this may be an “underestimate,” according to Mary Ramsay, head of immunization at Public Health England, since the analysis included people vaccinated 14 days ago and therefore doesn’t measure the four weeks it takes to fully account for the increase in protection, especially in older people.

Limiting data to more than four weeks ago “would see an even more profound drop,” she said.

The news comes as the U.K. announces plans to lift lockdown restrictions — in place since before Christmas — including letting all children return to school on March 8, and allowing groups of up to six people meet outdoors starting on March 29.

In the over 80s, the jab is 57 percent effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 three to four weeks after the first dose. This rises to more than 85 percent after the second dose.

In this group, those who become infected after vaccination are around 40 percent less likely to be hospitalized, compared with the non-vaccinated. And they are 56 percent less at risk of dying at least 14 days after receiving the first dose. Hospitalizations and deaths rates are falling fastest in this cohort since the peak in mid-January, suggesting that vaccination is having a positive impact.

The younger vaccinated group — health care workers under 65 — showed a 72 percent protection against infection with a single dose, rising to 85 percent after the second dose. Health care workers in the study are tested every two weeks.

“Reducing the people with infection, both symptomatic and asymptomatic, is the biggest thing that will reduce transmission,” said Susan Hopkins, strategic response director to Public Health England.

While the study hasn’t yet reported data on participants’ viral loads, Hopkins said they also expect to see lower levels of the virus. The study will also follow up contacts of health care workers to see if any become positive.

The data published by Public Health England looks only at the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine, since this has been distributed the longest. It also demonstrates it is effective at protecting against the so-called U.K. or Kent variant (B.1.1.7).

To date, more than 17.5 million people have received a first dose of either vaccine.

Research from Scottish universities and Public Health Scotland, meanwhile, finds that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine reduced the risk of hospitalization by 94 percent four weeks after the first dose, while the BioNTech/Pfizer jab reduced the risk by 85 percent.

Overall, the vaccination program in Scotland has cut hospital admissions by more than 85 percent, according to the study.

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service: Pro Health Care. From drug pricing, EMA, vaccines, pharma and more, our specialized journalists keep you on top of the topics driving the health care policy agenda. Email [email protected] for a complimentary trial.

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UK universities plead to keep EU cash post-Brexit – POLITICO

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LONDON — British universities are lobbying hard to stay fully involved in a flagship EU scheme aimed at bringing higher education institutions closer together.

As Brussels wrestles with the future of education cooperation on the Continent, U.K. institutions fear they could lose both funding and the vital academic links they gain from the European Universities Initiative (EUI).

The initiative has funded 41 alliances of up to 11 universities, working to develop common curricula and research activities, share ideas on issues such as sustainability and equality on campus, and promote student and staff mobility.

At least seven U.K. institutions became full members of alliances before the end of the Brexit transition period in December, with many more taking part as associate partners.

But Britain’s decision to quit the wider EU Erasmus+ mobility scheme, through which the EUI is funded, means they may no longer be able to bid for EU funding to cover the costs of their participation.

“We want to be involved, completely engaged, ideally as a full partner,” said Anthony Forster, vice-chancellor of the University of Essex. “But if that is not possible legally then as an associate partner, playing as full a part as possible.”

His institution is involved in the YUFE alliance, with partners in countries including Belgium, Cyprus, Finland, Germany, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands.

‘Closer and deeper’

EU countries are currently debating the next phase of cooperation in education, and that could affect the participation of non-EU countries including the U.K. and Switzerland in the EUI as well as in other parts of Erasmus+.

Still in a developmental phase, the EUI is part of plans to build a so-called European Education Area, and is expected to receive a substantial funding boost once its pilot ends in 2023. The goal is to develop about 20 “European Universities” by 2024: networks of universities letting students get a degree by studying in several EU countries.

French President Emmanuel Macron laid the foundations in a speech in 2017, when he proposed the creation of “a network of universities across Europe with programs that have all their students study abroad and take classes in at least two languages.” He said these alliances should offer “real European semesters and real European diplomas.”

A draft document prepared by the Portuguese presidency of the Council of the EU, dated January 21 and seen by POLITICO, says EU ministers want the Commission to foster “closer and deeper” cross-border cooperation between universities, and to use Erasmus+ to boost mobility further. They also want the Commission to find ways to help those involved in EUI alliances deliver joint degrees.

But the document does not mention the participation of third countries. Clarity could come this spring, when the Commission is expected to detail the parts of Erasmus+ that will be open for third countries including the U.K.

Thomas Jørgensen, senior policy coordinator at the European University Association, which represents universities including in the U.K., said the EU needs to clarify the purpose of the EUI and make a decision on third countries.

“Is it a program that contributes to European political integration, so universities helping to build Europe, or is it using European resources to enhance quality in universities? If it is the latter, then I think there is no reason why countries like the U.K. and Switzerland cannot [be involved]. It comes down to a very political question,” he said.

British universities say that in the worst-case scenario they will be downgraded from full members to associate partners in the alliances, diminishing their influence and forcing them to contribute their own money at a time in which, according to Forster, all U.K. universities have been hit by the pandemic and “are operating in constraint financial circumstances.”

“I hope that we can replace all of the funding, but it is not just an issue of replacing the direct support from the Commission for the European Universities Initiative project. U.K. universities have also lost access to all Erasmus+ funding,” he added.

Global versus European

British university leaders are pressing both the Commission and the U.K. government as they try to secure continued access to public funding for these activities.

Some of those interviewed for this article argued Whitehall had so far shown indifference to their future participation in the EUI, and appeared not to have the bandwidth to address the issue.

They are wary that U.K. ministers might see their lobbying as an attempt to prioritize Europe over the rest of the world, but argue that involvement in EU-funded alliances is a vital part of their international strategies, and believe it lines up with the U.K.’s post-Brexit “Global Britain” agenda.

“We’ve got many partnerships across the world, but what is different about our YUFE European University alliance is the breadth and depth of the relationship we are trying to build in relation to student and staff mobility, common programs, sharing of best practice and strategic alignment,” Forster said.

Seán Hand, deputy pro-vice-chancellor of the U.K.’s University of Warwick said the government “has scarcely had the opportunity to focus on the complexities and specificities” of this issue. His institution is a full member of the EUTOPIA alliance, involving six other universities.

“I have to say that it does occasionally feel as though someone anonymous responded to the demand for a policy clarification by taking the word ‘European’ out of a document and just replacing it with the word ‘global’,” he said.

A Department for Education spokesperson did not address these claims but said the government is “seeking clarity from the European Commission about what projects U.K. institutions may be eligible to participate in the future.”

A spokesperson for the Commission said it “deeply regrets” the U.K. government’s decision not to join the Erasmus+ program after Brexit, adding it remains “open and ready to negotiate any future request” to do so.

Hand said the alliances are vital to stop universities developing “an isolationist perspective” on research and education. “Warwick never regarded the initiative as being ultimately about money or access,” he said. “It would be a shame and a loss to everyone if our campus was to become less international and less cosmopolitan.”

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UK Supreme Court rules Uber drivers are workers – POLITICO

In a blow to the ride-hailing app, the U.K.’s top court unanimously ruled Friday that Uber drivers are workers, upholding previous decisions by lower courts and bringing to a close a years-long legal battle.

Uber drivers must be classified as workers, not self-employed, and are entitled to rights including a minimum wage, working time protections and holiday pay, the court ruled.

The case was brought by former Uber drivers Yaseen Aslam and James Farrar, who argued that the platform effectively controls how they work. In 2016, an employment tribunal in London found that they qualified for workers’ rights — a decision Uber appealed all the way to the Supreme Court.

In setting out its judgment, the court said its decision was based on several key elements: that Uber sets the fare and contract terms; that the company “constrains” drivers’ choice of whether or not to accept a ride request; and that it exercises “significant control” over the way in which drivers deliver their services. The company also restricts communications between the passenger and driver, the court said.

The judgment also upheld that drivers’ working time is not limited to periods when they are driving passengers, but rather includes any period when the driver is logged into the app “in the relevant territory” and ready to accept a ride request.

Aslam, president of the App Drivers & Couriers Union (ADCU), said in a statement he was “overjoyed and greatly relieved” by the decision.

In an emailed press statement, Uber’s regional general manager for Northern and Eastern Europe, Jamie Heywood, said: “We respect the Court’s decision which focussed on a small number of drivers who used the Uber app in 2016.”

He added that the company had since made “some significant changes to our business, guided by drivers every step of the way.” These changes include “giving even more control over how they earn and providing new protections like free insurance in case of sickness or injury,” he said.

An employment tribunal will now decide how much to award the group of 25 drivers involved in the case in compensation. Some 1,000 similar claims against the platform that were pending until after Friday’s ruling may now go ahead.

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EU, US must share coronavirus vaccines with developing countries, Macron says – POLITICO

French President Emmanuel Macron has called for 3 to 5 percent of the European and U.S. vaccine supply to be sent to developing countries to prevent Russia and China from extending their influence over these nations.

In an interview with the Financial Times by video link, he said Moscow and Beijing are offering developing countries, whose vaccination campaigns have barely begun, cheaper vaccines while African countries were made to pay exorbitant prices for Western jabs. This has allowed Russia and China to promote their own vaccines.

“It’s an unprecedented acceleration of global inequality and it’s politically unsustainable too because it’s paving the way for a war of influence over vaccines,” Macron warned.

He said the diversion of a small percentage of doses would not dramatically impact European vaccine rollout campaigns, which have already been criticized for being too slow.

“It won’t change our vaccination campaigns, but each country should set aside a small number of the doses,” he said, adding this should be done “very fast, so that people on the ground see it happening.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel also agrees that this should be a concerted European effort, he said. “It’s not about vaccine diplomacy, it’s not a power game — it’s a matter of public health,” Macron added, saying he welcomed the global provision of Russian and Chinese vaccines provided they were certified by scientists for use against the appropriate variants of the virus.

However, when asked by POLITICO, an Elysée adviser said: “I cannot so far tell you in what measure and in what volumes France will give doses. The decision has not been formally taken yet. So, we will inform you evidently when the time comes. But obviously, France is at the forefront when it comes to vaccine solidarity.”

COVAX — the global mechanism put in place to equally distribute vaccines — admitted that the majority of first-round deliveries would only start in March. In response, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called for leaders to increase their countries’ contributions to COVAX.

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Biden takes the EU back to the future – POLITICO

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BERLIN — Joe Biden may be riding high at home with approval ratings Donald Trump could only dream of, but that’s unlikely to help him much this week as he tries to win over a notoriously ornery constituency for any U.S. president: Europe.

Biden will address Europeans directly for the first time since taking office with a keynote scheduled for Friday at the Munich Security Conference. He’ll have a lot of convincing to do.

The virtual appearance will be a homecoming of sorts for Biden, who for decades has been a regular at the annual affair — the Western security wonk’s answer to the World Economic Forum in Davos.  

“I promise you … We’ll be back. We’ll be back,” Biden famously told the conference two years ago, speaking after then-Vice President Mike Pence. Biden was rewarded with a standing ovation, even though many in the audience doubted him.

Biden may have proved his skeptics wrong, but the doubts remain. The biggest fear is that Trump too will be back.

“Who’s to say we won’t end up right where we were four years from now?” asked one senior German defense official.

Misgivings like that one have been apparent ever since the November election that brought Biden’s triumph over Trump.

Pressured by Germany, the EU forged ahead with an investment deal with China in December, ignoring requests by the incoming Biden administration to at least wait a few weeks until it was up and running.

The bloc has also pursued its own course on Russia, dispatching its foreign policy chief to Moscow just days after Russia sentenced opposition leader Alexey Navalny to nearly three years in a penal colony. The trip, which turned into a PR disaster for the EU, came just as Biden wanted to show that his administration could build a united Western front against Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

The worsening spat between Washington and Berlin over Germany’s pursuit of the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline coupled with Biden’s “Made In America” initiative to protect U.S. industry from foreign imports have also put a damper on relations between the new administration and Europe. 

In his Munich speech, Biden, who will also take part in a video conference with G7 leaders on Friday, will try to steer the transatlantic relationship off the rocky road it has been on and coax the Europeans back onside.

Worry about a Trump redux isn’t the only reason that the undertaking will be difficult.

The world has changed since Biden was last in power as then-President Barack Obama’s vice president. Europe has deepened its dependence on China, for example, to a degree that once seemed unthinkable. Last year China even surpassed the U.S. as the EU’s largest trading partner (the U.S. remains Europe’s largest export market, however). In recent weeks, calls have gotten louder in many EU countries for the bloc to approve China’s coronavirus vaccine, a further sign that trust in the authoritarian country is on the rise across the Continent.

Indeed, while there’s bipartisan consensus in the U.S. that China represents a fundamental threat to Western democracy, Europeans are much more sanguine. That’s due in large part to Europe’s desire to maintain and expand commercial ties with China.

Germany, with its auto and engineering sectors deeply vested in the country, is often the driver of Europe’s China push. But many smaller countries are happy to go along for the ride, particularly those in Central and Eastern Europe, which Beijing has wooed with the promise of investment.

Yet those same countries are torn between a desire to explore economic opportunities with China and their dependence on the U.S. for security. Those competing interests were on display last week at a meeting of the so-called 17+1, a forum created by Beijing to build ties with 17 Central and Eastern European countries. Half of the 12 EU national leaders invited to the club failed to show up to pay homage to Chinese President Xi Jinping, who hosted the event. But the other half did participate, perhaps concerned about the consequences of not doing so. 

Biden is likely to be sensitive to those pressures for the simple reason that they also exist for the U.S. For all of Washington’s suspicions about China, America’s economic entanglement with China is no less profound.

A life-long believer in America’s role as the world’s organizing power, Biden has signaled in past speeches his conviction that the U.S. and Europe can quickly turn the page on the Trump era and return to the halcyon days of transatlantic cooperation.

For the U.S., Europe represents not just America’s most important trading partner, but a strategic linchpin in confronting global adversaries from Russia to China to Islamic terror. That’s why bringing Europe back onside is essential for Biden if his foreign policy agenda is to succeed.

His challenge will be to convince Europe that despite the economic opportunities China represents, opening Europe’s door too wide to Beijing risks undermining the EU itself, as China uses its economic leverage to drive a wedge in the bloc as it pursues its own agenda.

The good news for Biden is that while Europe may have drifted closer to China, it has yet to pull away from the U.S. Notwithstanding recent rumblings in Paris and some other European capitals that Europe should pursue “strategic autonomy” — that is to effectively decouple from Washington — such initiatives have so far gone nowhere, mainly as a result of the EU’s own divisions.

Indeed, perhaps the main lesson of the Trump years in Europe was that without U.S. leadership, it was left adrift in the world, pulled in different directions by competing powers and its own fissures.

That’s why Biden’s biggest challenge this week isn’t to prove that a return to the past is in America’s interest, but in Europe’s. 

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