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EU washes hands of alleged migrant abuse
by Nikolaj Nielsen

The European Commission says it cannot be held responsible for alleged abuses of asylum seekers at hotspots in Italy where arrivals are screened and identified.

"Stop shooting the commission, this applies across the board," its chief spokesperson Margaritis Schinas told reporters in Brussels on Thursday (3 November).

Hotspots are also found in Greece and are run by national authorities in both countries.

Schinas made similar comments last week after the UN refugee agency said that Syrians had been illegally returned to Turkey from Greece under a deal signed with the EU in March.

The torture allegations surfaced earlier on Thursday in a report by Amnesty International, which detailed testimonies of asylum seekers who said Italian police had subjected them to electronic shocks and other forms of violence.

The asylum applicants had resisted having their fingerprints taken as part of an EU policy to regain control over immigration.

The commission last December urged the Italian authorities to speed up national laws "to allow the use of force" on anyone that resisted fingerprinting at the hotspots.

"The target of a 100% fingerprinting rate for arriving migrants needs to be achieved without delay," the commission noted in a December progress report .

Amnesty said such moves and the commission's threats of court action to get the Italians to fingerprint everyone helped trigger the abuse.

No reports of torture, says EU commission
The commission rejected the link and shed doubt on the veracity of the NGO's report.

"From our side we have no reports from any of the EU agencies working on the ground in the hotspots of any such wrong-doings as stated in the said report did in fact take place," said commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud.

She said use of force is allowed but only when it was "proportionate" and respected people’s “fundamental rights”.

"For examples of what proportion use of force are, we've made this very clear in a full handbook on fingerprinting," she said.

When pressed for details, she said she was "not going to read some 200-page document here" in the press room.

What she called the EU commission's 200-page handbook was, it later transpired, a five-page working document that only provides broad legal statements on coercion and force but gives no specific examples.

The European Agency for Fundamental Rights, an EU agency in Vienna, has said it was difficult to imagine any case where force could be justified.

The migrants’ prints are being entered into Eurodac, an EU-level database used by authorities to help identify asylum seekers.

Plans are also underway for it cover stateless people others who are not asylum seekers.

Broader concerns over law enforcement access to the database have been raised. How that information is used and with whom it is shared may have dire consequences on people who fled regimes or persecution.

The commission views Eurodac as part of wider efforts to return people not entitled to international protection.

Coercion bias
Eurodac is also part of wider EU asylum reforms that critics say is increasingly based on coercion.

Among them are the Dublin system, a key EU asylum regulation, that determines which member states is responsible for processing asylum claims.

The commission in May proposed to reform the law with an automated system that includes a so-called "fairness mechanism".

Violeta Moreno Lax, a lecturer in Law at Queen Mary, University of London, says "coercion bias underpins the entire mechanism”, however.

Lax told MEPs in October that the system leant toward deterrence rather than providing protection to people in need.

Francesco Maiani, associate professor at the University of Lausanne, made similar comments.

He said the commission's reform proposals on Dublin would not solve the problem.

The reforms, he said, included the same threat of sanctions already applied elsewhere by member states that have had little affect on preventing people from absconding.

No new ideas
"There is no game changing simplification, you generally stay with the same scheme," he said.

Maiani, who drafted a report on EU asylum reform for the European Parliament, said the current Dublin system had resulted in slowing down the asylum application process at a large expense to the taxpayer.

The regulation saw its best year in terms of transfers in 2013 when around 17,000 people were sent to another EU state out more than 58,000 requests.

"Most of these [outgoing transfers] are agreed but then less than one-third are implemented," he pointed out.

Bulgaria warns of Russian attempts to divide Europe
by Gordon Corera

The president of Bulgaria has told the BBC that Russia is trying to divide and weaken Europe.

Rosen Plevneliev warned of Russian influence in his country and across the continent and said Europe needed to take a stronger line.

Elections to pick a new president take place in the country on Sunday, with a run-off a week later if no candidate wins an outright victory.

Mr Plevneliev, who is not standing for re-election, will step down in January.

He also said his country had come under a cyber attack during a referendum and local elections last year, which he said was almost certainly linked to Russia.

'Cold Peacetime'

Europe has not returned to the Cold War, the Bulgarian president believes, but instead is involved in a new "dangerous and unpredictable" confrontation which he calls "Cold Peacetime".

The threat now is less about Russian tanks invading Europe and more about Russian influence dividing the Continent, he argues.

"The game in Europe today is not to have a full-scale war and to shoot against your enemy, but the game of Mr Putin is to make other countries dependent," he said.

"What today Russia is trying to achieve is to weaken Europe, to divide Europe and to make us dependent."

The streets of Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, bear witness to the strong Russian influence in a country which was once part of the Soviet-bloc but which is now a member of both the EU and Nato.

Which direction the country should face is a key issue in the election and the current president has angered some in his country with his criticism of Moscow.

Between 20% and 25% of the Bulgarian economy is linked to Russia, according to Martin Vladimirov, an analyst at the Center for the Study of Democracy in Sofia who co-authored The Kremlin's Playbook, a report on Russian influence in the region.

"Russia has been able to leverage its economic influence to capture key institutions in the country," Mr Vladimirov said, arguing that Russian money had been used to finance protests and directly affect laws as well.

'Attack on democracy'

The president believes Russia's main tools across Europe include the funding of populist political parties and movements from the political extremes, extensive propaganda and also cyber attacks to destabilise opponents.

Last October, Bulgaria was subject to a major cyber attack. "That was the most heaviest and intense cyber attack that has been conducted in south-east Europe," he said.

The denial of service attack - which tries to make websites inaccessible - targeted the electoral commission, presidency and other government institutions on the day of a referendum and local elections.

"I consider it an attack on the Bulgarian democracy," he told the BBC, arguing it was designed to cause confusion around results, something which some in the US fear could be possible in their elections next Tuesday also.

The assistance of Nato allies has left the Bulgarian president with little doubt as to who was responsible.

"The same organisation that has attacked the Bundestag- stealing all the emails of German members of parliament - the same institution that has attacked Nato headquarters, and that is the same even that has tried to influence American elections lately and so in a very high probability you could point east from us."

'Fancy Bears'

The group linked by the US administration and Western private security groups to those incidents is a group of Russian hackers known as "Fancy Bears" or APT 28, which the US administration said was likely acting with the support of senior Kremlin officials in targeting the US political system.

"I just say it is the same address, the same signature and the same approach we have seen also here in Bulgaria," Mr Plevneliev said.

"This is an attack on the Bulgarian state and the Bulgarian democracy and its conducted with a high probability from Russia."

Bulgaria has since drawn up a new cyber security strategy which he believes will leave it with better protection against any renewed attempts in the forthcoming vote.

Electronic voting machines are used in some areas but these are not connected to the internet, and so the main risk remains one of spreading confusion rather than altering the outcome.

Ensuring a strong consistent line from the EU on Russia was vital, Mr Plevneliev said.

"Nato is strong, I also wish the European Union also could be stronger and united on the problems we have today."

Europe, he acknowledged, was facing a range of other crises with migration and refugees as among the most significant, and one which could split the EU.

Mr Plevneliev told the BBC he was "saddened and shocked" by the British vote to leave the EU. "This was a very tragic moment," he says. "Brexit is a crisis and a very serious one."

One reason for his concern is that Britain leaving the EU may make it harder to pursue a stronger line on Russia, since it has supported his more robust position on European security.

Ensuring the process of separation was not painful was a priority, he added.

"If Brexit is going to be a divorce, we should stay the best possible and the closest friends."

Brexit: Theresa May insists government 'getting on with it'

Theresa May has insisted the government is "getting on" with Brexit, following a High Court ruling that Parliament must vote on when the formal process of leaving the EU can get under way.

The prime minister urged MPs and peers to "remember" the referendum result.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage warned of protests on the streets if the decision in favour of Brexit was ignored.

But the campaigner who brought the High Court case said it would stop ministers acting like a "tin-pot dictatorship".

Judges ruled on Thursday that Parliament should vote on when the government could trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

Mrs May has promised to get this done by the end of next March.

The government argues ministers already have the powers - under the Royal Prerogative - to trigger Article 50 without MPs and peers having a vote. It has vowed to fight to get the ruling overturned next month in the Supreme Court.

Speaking on BBC One's Andrew Marr Show, Gina Miller, the investment manager who was the lead claimant in the High Court case against the government, said: "Everyone in this country should be my biggest fan, because we have used our own money to create certainty about the way ahead."

She added: "Do we want a country where we have no process?"

"The case is that [Mrs May] cannot use something called the Royal Prerogative to do it because we do not live in a tin-pot dictatorship," Ms Miller said.

But Mr Farage said the court's decision meant the country was faced with "half Brexit", adding that the "reach of the European Union into the upper echelons of this country makes it quite difficult for us to trust the judgement".

He warned: "If the people of this country think that they're going to be cheated, they're going to be betrayed, then we will see political anger, the likes of which none of us in our lifetimes have ever witnessed."

Asked if there was a danger of disturbances in the street, he replied: "Yes, I think that's right."

Mr Farage said: "The temperature of this is very, very high. I'm going to say to everyone who was on the Brexit side, 'Let's try and get even. Let's have peaceful protests and let's make sure, in any form of election, we don't support people who want to overturn this process.'"

The row has escalated in recent days, with several newspapers being highly critical of the judges who made the decision, the Daily Mail branding them "Enemies of the people".

Mrs May insists the government will not be put off its Brexit timetable. Under this, the two years of negotiations with the EU are due to end in 2019, when the UK will leave the 28-member organisation.

Speaking at Heathrow Airport as she left for a trade mission to India, Mrs May said: "I think we all have to remember, and what MPs and peers have to remember, is that we had a vote on 23 June.

"The British people, the majority of the British people, voted to leave the European Union. The government is now getting on with that."


She added: "I want to ensure that we get the best possible deal for the UK as we leave the EU, that's the best possible deal for trading with and operating within the single European market.

"But alongside that, the UK will be a confident, outward-looking nation, taking its place on the world stage, looking to build relationships around the globe."

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt told The Andrew Marr Show said Mrs May had to be allowed "latitude" when negotiating with the EU over Brexit.

He said: "The impact on the economy will be far worse if through some parliamentary mechanism Theresa May is forced to lay out her entire negotiating strategy."

'Spanner in the works'

Meanwhile, Labour deputy leader Tom Watson told BBC 5 Live's Pienaar's Politics: "We are not going to hold this up. The British people have spoken and Article 50 will be triggered when it comes to Westminster."

He added: "Ultimately when the vote comes, Labour will support Theresa May to trigger Article 50."

It comes after Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told the Sunday Mirror: "The court has thrown a big spanner in the works by saying Parliament must be consulted. We accept the result of the referendum.

"We are not challenging the referendum. We are not calling for a second referendum."

But he said Labour would push for the party's "Brexit bottom lines", which include access to the European single market.

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said political leaders had a "duty to calm tempers, heal division and work together to keep Britain open, tolerant and united".

Defense Union? EU Flexes Military Muscles in Shadow of NATO

Members of the European Parliament have approved plans to create an "advanced European defense policy" with plans for an "EU operational headquarters" to plan, command and manage operations in what is seen by critics as an attempt to undermine NATO, which is currently hosting a meeting of defense ministers.

The Foreign Affairs Committee in the European Parliament has approved a key report on the European Defense Union (EDU), calling for more systematic defense co-operation between EU Member States. The resolution asks the European Council to lead the creation of a "common Union defense policy and to provide additional financial resources ensuring its implementation."

It also advocates setting up an EU operational headquarters to plan, command and control crisis management operations. MEPs urged EU member states to aim to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense and to establish "multinational forces within the Permanent Structured Cooperation and make these forces available to the common security and defense policy."

The vote comes weeks after European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called for closer EU defense cooperation. In his annual State of the Union speech, September, he said:

"We have separate headquarters for parallel missions, even when they happen in the same country or city. It is time we had a single headquarters for these operations.

'Wishful Thinking'

However, critics — such as Colonel Bob Stewart, now a British member of parliament, who was the Military Assistant to the NATO and Colonel as Chief of Policy to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe — say the idea that Brussels is centralizing EU military assets under its own headquarters will undermine NATO.

"NATO is perfectly adaptable and can deploy in a European configuration if necessary as it has done on several occasions. Many of our European Union partners are very 'wobbly' on paying for defense. They don't contribute their proper dues to NATO already and I certainly don't think they would not do so properly for any EU Army. Finally, I believe any EU Army would be 'Trojan Horse' in the drive to reach a European Union super state which I certainly do not want."
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