This week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe traveled to Brussels, Belgium, in order to continue discussions of free trade with Angela Merkel, Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, leaders from the European Union. The discourse has been ongoing since 2013, but it has faced a number of roadblocks.

Abe has promised to proceed with a deal as soon as possible in hopes of strengthening Japan-EU relations, specifically in terms of political and economic cooperation.

Japan-EU relations have generally sustained good-natured bilateralism. Tokyo maintains strong business connections and investment ties in many EU member nations such as Italy, Germany, France and the Netherlands. Additionally, Japan remains the EU’s sixth-largest trading partner, accounting for more than $133.7 billion in trade during the 2016 fiscal year alone.

Diplomatic Relationships Needed Now More Than Ever

The sense of urgency surrounding the dialogue of free trade has been catalyzed by Japan’s growing geopolitical instability. With the developing turmoil between North and South Korea and China’s regional dominance, Abe’s administration has prioritized stronger political relationships, specifically security ties, with its allies.

For this reason, one major point of contention in Japan-EU relations in the past has been with respect to the weight and significance of security dynamics within the relationship at large. Japan has maintained concern that Europe is inflexible when it comes to investing in a substantial militaristic and diplomatic presence in Asia.

This stipulation is of particular importance to the Abe administration as it would establish the EU’s commitment to a strategic and cooperative response to international violations — specifically, freedom of navigation as China continues to increase its control over the East and South China Seas.

Japan’s fear is that the European Union has not yet decided how it will balance its trade relations with China, while still being able to condemn the nation for its invasive activities in Southeast Asia.

Nonetheless, both leaders in Japan and the European Union agree that a free trade agreement is the most conducive approach to strengthened political and economic ties.

Overall, a free trade agreement promises to strengthen Japan-EU relations by increasing market access and lowering tariffs for both regions and improving Japan’s political influence in Europe.

Jaime Viens

Photo: Flickr

German Healthcare: A Broken System for Asylum Seekers?
The German healthcare system continues to grapple with the challenge of the recent influx of about 1.1 million refugees in 2015 alone. Escaping poverty, war and repression, as well as family reunification are among the main reasons people attempt to enter Germany both legally and illegally.

Despite having opened its doors to more refugees than any other European country since 2013, Germany restricts asylum-seekers’ healthcare access to emergency care, treatment for acute diseases and pain, maternity care and vaccinations. Additional care can be provided, however, patients must file various petitions before gaining approval to proceed.

The aim of restricting asylum-seekers’ access to German healthcare dates back to the 1990’s when rising numbers of asylum-seekers from former Yugoslavia created a need to reduce Germany’s pull factor. However, it is evident from various studies that this policy has done nothing to bring down the number of people seeking asylum in the country.

In spite of limiting access to healthcare, the socio-medical system is crumbling with news reports about vaccines not being available for German citizens till 2017 in the normal quantities. Doctors are having to undergo courses in screening and treating diseases like tuberculosis, scabies and psychological trauma.

In addition, there is the cost of material resources like medicines and hospital beds, diagnostic and surgeries that have spiraling economic repercussions. The siphoning of medical services, even in their most basic form, to asylum-seekers, is resented by many German citizens.

However, despite this backlash, there are many reasons for the country to consider providing full access to German healthcare, both for asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants. The most obvious of these is that any communicable disease can skyrocket the economic cost to the country due to a loss in productivity.

In addition, according to experts such as David Ingleby from the University of Amsterdam, research has shown that “denying easy and early access to healthcare not only ignores the right to health but actually increases costs: a new study estimated that since their introduction, these restrictive policies have increased the cost of healthcare by 376-euros per year for each asylum seeker.”

Some states like Bremen and Hamburg have been providing their asylum-seekers with health insurance cards like those used by the general population. These enable direct access to doctors and hospitals without having to apply for a certificate of entitlement.

Officially, the restriction on acute and emergency services remains, but the decision is now moved to the doctor’s medical discretion and no longer made by a municipal administrator.

Another solution being considered is granting anonymous insurance certificates that allow refugees without citizenship proof to see medical personnel without legal repercussions like deportation. In Berlin alone, up to 250,000 people live without any personal identity documents essential to get full medical treatment, making this idea almost a necessity.

In order to provide funding for these and other such policies for less restrictive healthcare, the European Union Health Program released a statement pledging fund actions supporting member states under particular migratory pressure in January this year. Hopefully, with this positive impetus, the German healthcare system will move to a more inclusive model, both for both asylum-seekers and undocumented immigrants.

Mallika Khanna

Photo: Flickr

Two separate grant agreements between Seychelles and the European Union were signed on December 10. The two agreements will provide as much as $6.4 million in order to help foster sustainable development and fight the effects of climate change in the archipelago nation.

The two agreements come on the heels of warnings from both the UN and the World Bank Group about the potential of climate change to exacerbate poverty in coastal communities. Seychelles’ economy—dependent chiefly upon tourism and tuna hauls—is particularly vulnerable to effects of climate change.

Recently, Seychelles has become something of a regional leader in the fight for sustainable development. Seychelles has already reached the majority of the UN Millennium Development Goals, and is now advocating the adoption of “blue economy” principles, which emphasize the protection of maritime resources and the economic potential of the Indian Ocean’s fishing, shipping, energy and tourism sectors.

Seychelles Foreign Affairs Minister John-Paul Adam believes that the development of the blue economy could allow the Indian Ocean to become a hub of sustainable ocean management and resiliency in the face of a changing climate. Adam, speaking at the 38th annual ministerial meeting of the G77 plus China, said, “The blue economy provides a blank canvas to many developing countries to charter a completely new sustainable development pathway that is to their best interest.”

In a press statement at the same meeting, Adam called for cooperation amongst southern hemisphere nations in science and technology in order to bolster blue economy sectors. Seychelles is also doing its part in building regional cooperation, strengthening bilateral ties with Fiji in the fisheries sector.

Seychelles’ efforts to sustain development and mitigate the compounding effect of climate change on poverty exemplify the kind of regional leadership that will be necessary in meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Similarly, the EU grants will need to be replicated by wealthy nations in order to provide developing nations with the financial resources necessary to not only continue developing, but to do so in a sustainable and climate-conscious way.

– Parker Carroll

Sources: Chatham House, Seychelles News Agency 1, Seychelles News Agency 2, Ventures Africa
Photo: Seychelles News Agency

eurozoneThe European Union has been in an economic recession for the second decade in a row. Some speculate that growth in the more stable economies such as Germany could pull the other countries out of turmoil.

However, the German economies’ growth rate recently shrunk to 0.1 percent. This is an unwelcome figure because it was projected to be much higher.

The problem remains. The European Union has yet to bounce back after the 2008 financial crisis. Many countries are still lagging behind with slow growth rates. The European Central bank is at the forefront of the problem.

It is often cited that the European Central Bank fails to boost economic growth. Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU Commissioner, recently revealed a new plan to pump 300 billion Euro into the EU member states in order to stimulate growth.

France and Italy are two big countries that run large deficits and decrease economic growth within the EU. The French government was able to boost their economy through spending, which has propped it up for the time being. However, France’s private sector has continued to perform dismally and bring down the economy.

One of Europe’s major issues continues to be trade. Because the EU relies heavily on exports for revenue, decreased commerce with trading partners has negatively affected their economy. Policymakers believe that the low price of gas will drive down energy costs and have consumers buying more goods.

Germany champions austerity measures while other EU member states and policymakers cringe. Strict control over the financial markets of other countries has done little to benefit the economy. Meanwhile, some people look toward investment as the way the EU could escape from the current economic turmoil.

Lack of private investment in businesses is also a major problem for the EU, and it is something the ECB is looking to address with the 300 billion Euro investment plan.

For the time being, it does not look like the ECB has the ability to pull the EU out of its long-standing recession. Economic growth could be possible with the new spending measures to boost investment; however, the diversity of the Northern economies versus the Southern member states’ economies remains to be a distressing issue for the EU.

Strong economic growth in the U.K. and the U.S. means these countries will be more likely to buy EU exports, which will benefit the EU economy greatly.

Maxine Gordon

Sources: The Guardian, Bloomberg, DW
Photo: Flickr

“If we don’t have the money, people die. Member states must realize that sound financing is not only morally proper but that it is in their own interest to bring down the flames,” said Kristalina Georgieva, the humanitarian aid chief of the European Parliament’s Committee on Development, in a powerful statement against slashing the bloc’s humanitarian aid budget.

The European Parliament is strongly opposing proposed cuts to the European Union’s humanitarian aid budget in a time where many member states are struggling to finance their own domestic crises. The Parliament will negotiate the 2014 and 2015 budgets in October and November with the European Council. Last week, the Committee on Development held several meetings to discuss the crises in Gaza, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Ukraine.

The chairwoman of the Committee on Development, British MEP Linda McAvan, encouraged member states to muster up the 250 million euros necessary to finance humanitarian aid this year, calling on the European Council to demonstrate a true commitment to aid when planning the budget.

“We are in a critical situation. There is a growing backlog on outstanding payments,” said Austrian member of the European Parliament, Paul Rübig, after hearing proposals by member states to slash the aid budget in a committee meeting. “It is unacceptable if the EU cannot pay its bills on time, it would diminish Europe’s stature in the world.”

The Parliament has lamented the red tape stretched out by the E.U. that stops humanitarian aid from reaching its destination in a timely manner, effectively diminishing the impact of the money.

“We need to make our budgetary procedure simpler and faster,” said Elmar Brok, the chair of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, during a debate on the E.U.’s handling of international crises. Brok has spoken out on the imperative nature of a strong E.U. foreign policy to bring stability and mitigate crises on the continent. “Currently, there is too much bureaucracy, and money given too late for humanitarian actions is wasted money.”

There are many political consequences if the proposed budget cuts are approved. Many struggling countries could potentially fail to reach targets set by the International Monetary Fund without the budget support they receive from the European Union. Georgieva has remarked on the “belt of instability” that surrounds Europe, including Ukraine, Gaza and Ebola-ridden West Africa, stating that juggling such complex crises has been a daunting task for the continent.

“Our member states are at their best when there is a clear purpose, then they mobilize well. But the E.U. is not good at dealing with multiple crises or with forgotten crises that have fallen off the media spotlight. Unfortunately, needs are going up in a world of finite resources,” said Georgieva.

The Committee on Development has also had discussions regarding the development agenda for the near future. MEPs from several nations emphasized that the agenda would need to include or strengthen issues like environmental sustainability, gender equality, rule of law and agriculture.

– Annie Jung

Sources: Public Finance International, Devex, European Parliament
Photo: Flickr

As of 2010, 16.4 percent of the European population, 80 million people, was considered poor and lived below the poverty threshold.

The definition of being impoverished (or at high risk of being impoverished) is: households where the household income is less than 60 percent of the total median income.

According to the EU Social Report 2012 statistics, 1.2 million people were at risk of poverty in Austria, meaning that 14.4 percent of the Austrian population was in danger of poverty.

The report also declared that about 1.5 million people were either at risk of poverty in Austria or were in danger of being debarred from society (about 18.5 percent) in Austria. In the European Union, 124.5 million people (24.8 percent of the population) were at risk of poverty or social exclusion.

This 18.5 percent all fit at least one of the following conditions: not able to afford basic expenses, not able to pay their monthly bills, not having funds to eat meat or fish every other day, not able to afford a holiday, not able to pay for a car, not able to afford heating costs, or those who cannot pay for items such as a TV, telephone or washing machine.

Single-parent families are predominantly at risk of poverty, especially single women without an income. 36.9 percent of single-parent households were affected by poverty in 2010. The significant amount of poverty in single-parent families is because of their resources being based on only one income.

In the European Union, the poverty rate of women is higher than of men: it is at 17.1 percent against 15.7 percent for men. Austria has one of the highest gender gaps of poverty in the European Union.

The elderly in Austria are also at a great risk of poverty. 15.9 percent of Europeans 65 years or older are living in poverty. Austria has a significant gap between the general poverty rate and the elderly poverty rate.

Those who are not citizens are also at risk of poverty in Austria. The poverty rate of immigrants born outside the European Union is at 26.9 percent, versus 14.8 percent for those Europeans living in their country of origin. These differences can be due to many different factors. In some countries, some jobs may be forbidden for foreigners or immigrants.

-Colleen Moore

Sources: Austrian Times, Inequality Watch
Photo: Spiegal

When the world reaches 2015, the target of halving global poverty will only be partially achieved. With the Millennium Development Goals coming to an incomplete finish, politicians and people are debating, what comes next?

In September 2000, 180 leaders joined together at the world’s largest summit to set these MDGs. Among other things, extreme poverty was to be cut in half by 2015 and access to food, water, education and health care was to be exponentially improved. Unfortunately, according to the World Bank, few of the 24 goals have been reached.

Recently, around 5,000 politicians, scientists and aid workers convened at the European Union’s Development Days in Brussels. However, no concrete agreements have been decided on just yet. “It’s just a discussion forum, a kind of family gathering to mull things over,” said E.U. Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs.

E.U. Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso is beginning to set out a post-2015 development. He claims that the progress that has been made already is undoubtedly encouraging and believe that a world without poverty can be achieved if there is an equally strong enough political will. Europe, he said, will be at the forefront of efforts to fight poverty. “For the first time ever, we have what it takes to eliminate poverty in our lifetimes, and to ensure sustainable prosperity within the boundaries of what our planet can provide,” he told delegates at the Development Days.

While it soon will be the end of one era, another one is coming to light… and quickly. Although the MDG’s will almost certainly not be achieved by 2015, perhaps this is even more motivation to succeed in whatever set of objectives follow them in the future. For now, though, it looks as if the E.U. is committed to take a staunch position on this new set of agreements.

– Sonia Aviv 

Sources: Deutsche Welle

At the end of November, an estimated 100,000 demonstrators rallied at Kiev Square in the Ukraine to protest President Viktor F. Yanukovich’s decision to reject long-planned trade agreements with the European Union.

Four years in the making, the trade agreements would have brought Ukraine within the EU’s trade bloc, a crucial step in obtaining EU membership. Such an agreement would have fostered Western political and economic sensibilities as well as making the International Monetary Fund available to the Ukraine. The EU is also in talks with Georgia and Moldova as part of its “Eastern Partnership” plan, a mission to bring in former Soviet Union countries into the EU, although Ukraine was seen as the most significant of all three.

For the moment, the agreements remain in purgatory and will most likely not come to pass. President Yanukovich continues to unsuccessfully assuage the EU and his constituents with grandiose talk of possible future trade agreements with the EU, but the public remains doubtful.

Other tenets of the agreement include the release of jailed Ukranian former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. According to the BBC, Tymoshenko was imprisoned in 2011 for seven years after being contentiously convicted of abusing power over a gas deal with Russia.

For now, Russia seems eager to fill in the gap the EU’s departure left behind. Fearing an Eastern spread of Western Civilization, Russian president Vladimir Putin has been urging Ukraine officials to reject trade agreements with the EU and instead consider a trade bloc with Eurasian countries.

Russia’s influence was a key factor in the Ukranian government’s decision to freeze the EU agreement, for both political and economic reasons. Much of Yanukovich’s voter base hails from the pro-Russia part of the country, an important consideration for the up-coming 2015 election, and the Ukraine may fear further trade restrictions from Russia such as its curb of gas in 2009.

Since the dissolution of the USSR, Ukraine has had an unsteady relationship with democracy as wide-scale corruption remained a prevalent force in the country until 2004 when the Orange Revolution took place. The largest peaceful mass protest in the Ukraine of its kind until that time, the protesters secured the overturning of the results of a rigged presidential election. Their efforts established internationally monitored vote that ushered in a new reformist government.

Current protests are the largest in the country since the Orange Revolution, and continue to be supported on a mass scale, including three former presidents of the Ukraine.

Emily Bajet

Sources: NY Times 1, 2, BBC 1, 2, CIA
Photo: The Guardian

On October 1, the European Union (EU) passed a resolution ending caste-based discrimination. Calling for action at multiple levels, the resolution demanded that the governments of the affected countries work to end discrimination towards people in lower castes, as well as limit the dangerous workloads often given to lower-caste employees.

Castes differentiate members of the population into different social groups, so that those in lower castes are often looked upon as “unclean,” and forced to work in unpleasant and dangerous conditions that activists say resemble slavery.

The EU’s statement helps to define caste systems as an issue that affects not only South Asian countries, but the international community as well.  The initiative has the European community, as well as South Asian human rights activists, hoping that talks on the issue of caste will proceed between the EU and caste-based nations such as Nepal, India and Sri Lanka.

According to the International Labor Organization, most of the people put under situations of forced labor in South Asia belong to lower castes. This kind of treacherous work occurs in many different sectors including agriculture, mining and retail production. The companies who subject their employees to this kind of work often supply products to multinational corporations, making caste discrimination an international problem.

Some South Asian nations have taken steps to solve the human rights issues inherent in current caste systems. For example, India has affirmative action initiatives to support Dalits, Indian citizens who belong to the lowest castes and who are subject to bonded labor.

Unfortunately, caste systems are still prevalent throughout Asia. Experts estimate that about 260 million people are affected worldwide.

Despite the EU’s recent attempt to tackle the issue, many government officials do not think the organization is doing enough, citing the high numbers of people still affected by caste discrimination as an indication of the EU’s failure. These officials stress the importance of specifically briefing the European Parliament on caste-based discrimination, so that the EU can take appropriate steps. Such measures would also aid the effectiveness of parliament members visiting South Asian countries on business, economic and development trips.

– Elisha-Kim Desmangles
Feature Writer

Sources: The New York Times, The Guardian
Photo: Live Science

EU GMOs_opt
Despite understandable concerns in regards to genetically modified (GMOs) foods and the possible long term effects they have on consumers, the ability of GMOs to withstand the catastrophic consequences of pest infestation is unmatched by conventionally farmed crops. Furthermore, as the world population rises and global food demands continue to swell, scientists are becoming more concerned that current EU agriculture production will be inadequate for meeting the demands of the developing world. In an effort to both bolster current crop production and change the narrative concerning GMOs, researchers are claiming that the EU needs genetically modified crops in order to stay competitive in the technologically driven international agricultural industry.

Brought to the forefront of discourse surrounding current EU agricultural policy, scientists from Trends in Plant Science Magazine cited the considerable amount of data showing that although the cultivation of GMOs is banned – or severely limited – in the EU, the region still imports genetically modified crops from countries that have embraced the technology. EU farmers stymied by current laws regarding GMOs are unable to compete with overseas producers, thus requiring the region to import an ever-increasing percentage of their crops. In light of this, researchers are claiming that the EU needs genetically modified crops in order to maintain their own agricultural sustainability and that of their considerable humanitarian obligations abroad.

In regards to the claim that the EU needs genetically modified crops, University of Lleida Agrotecnio Center researcher Paul Christou comments that the EU is being surpassed by other nations because it hasn’t adopted technology which is deemed unpopular. “Ultimately the EU will become almost entirely dependent on the outside world for food and feed and scientific progress,” said Christou.

The issue of identifying realistic solutions to future food security problems is garnering greater and greater attention from academics, agricultural officials, and farmers looking to mitigate the problem while simultaneously bolstering their own market competitiveness and sustainability. Although stating that the EU needs genetically modified crops might upset those uncomfortable with anything but conventionally sourced food, policy changes must be enacted today in order to combat the food security problems of tomorrow. “Realizing this is the only way to achieve sustainable agriculture,” said Christou.

Brian Turner
Source: Science Daily
Photo: Novinite