Ramallah commends Spanish plan to recognize Palestine

By Qais Abu Samra

RAMALLAH, Palestine (AA) – Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyadh al-Maliki on Friday hailed Madrid’s stated intention to officially recognize Palestine.

“We are deeply gratified by Spain's recent announcement that it plans to recognize Palestine,” a ministry statement quoted al-Maliki as saying.

“The recent remarks by Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell are very encouraging,” he added.

On Wednesday, Borrell announced his country's intention to officially recognize the state of Palestine, saying Madrid was now awaiting a unanimous EU resolution in this regard.

According to Borrell, his government plans to set a deadline by which the EU should reach consensus on the issue.

If the deadline passes without consensus being reached, the prime minister said, Madrid will unilaterally acknowledge the state of Palestine.

Palestine embarked on its current strategy of seeking international recognition as an independent state in 1988 with its declaration of independence.

In 2009 and 2010, a second phase of this strategy began, during which a number of capitals formally recognized Palestine as a country.

In 2012, the UN General Assembly voted to upgrade Palestine’s status at the world body to “non-member observer state”.

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Brexit talks stall as EU rejects Chequers plan

By Ahmet Gurhan Kartal

LONDON (AA) – With just over six months left before the UK exits the European Union, uncertainty is high, with the terms of a new relationship between the two sides still being negotiated.

Talks between EU leaders and British Prime Minister Theresa May on reaching a deal have had their high and low points since the UK triggered divorce proceedings from the bloc in March 2017, but neither side has been completely satisfied with the progress made.

May, who is quite keen to strike a deal with EU leaders before the end of this year, has been accused of making too many concessions to European negotiators — not only by those who voted to leave the union but also by some members of her cabinet, who are also unhappy with the latest British proposal dubbed Chequers, named after the prime minister's country retreat.

The Chequers plan caused an immediate stir in May’s cabinet and prompted two key officials to resign — Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit Secretary David Davis. In the House of Commons, meanwhile, the number of Tory MPs who are against the latest plan to adopt a common rulebook with the EU as part of Chequers is on the rise.

– Salzburg summit

May’s Chequers plan hit a new low this week when it was openly rejected by EU officials and leaders of some member countries at an informal summit in Salzburg, Austria.

May told the summit the UK would not seek to delay Brexit or hold a second referendum and asked the EU to be more flexible in future talks over her plan, which she presented to the EU for the first time.

She underlined that Britain would not agree to any extension for negotiations and that a deal should be reached or the UK would leave the EU without one on March 29, 2019.

At a heated press conference, May said there is a “willingness for a deal", but “let nobody be in any doubt that we are preparing for no deal”.

Both the UK and the EU would like to see a deal signed before the end of the year, as it would leave probably just enough time for it to be ratified in the House of Commons and by the parliaments of the bloc’s 27 member countries before the exit date.

"We all recognize that time is short, but delaying or extending these negotiations is not an option,” May told EU leaders in Salzburg.

"I know that for many of you, Brexit is not something you want. But it's important to be clear: there will be no second referendum in the UK.

"The public has delivered its verdict, and I as prime minister will deliver upon that – the UK will leave on the 29th of March next year…I believe I have put forward serious and workable proposals. We will of course not agree on every detail, but hopefully you will respond in kind.

"The onus is now on all of us to get this deal done."

– Irish Border

The border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland will become the only land border between the UK and EU after Brexit.

Since the 1998 Belfast Agreement, there has been an invisible border between the two sides.

But no one would like to see a hard border there with checkpoints and customs officers due to sensitivities in the region, and a solution that would work for the UK, the EU, Ireland and Northern Ireland – all of whom prefer the status quo – must be found.

May’s proposal under her Chequers plan is to adopt a common rulebook for goods and services and keep the standards within the UK the same with the EU’s so trade is not disturbed and it would not necessitate any checks on the border.

She has rejected a solution where checks could be done away from the border on both sides, saying it would still be a hard border.

– Under pressure

Now that the Salzburg summit is over with no support for May’s Chequers plan, the negotiators are expected to work on a deal that is acceptable for both the UK and the EU.

At home, the already heavy pressure on May will continue to build as she defends the government’s Brexit White Paper at the Conservative Party Conference from Sept. 30-Oct. 3.

Surely her Brexit team will again look to the Chequers plan for solutions to sticking points. But it is unclear whether she can make more concessions to EU demands, especially their insistence that she accept a “backstop” plan that would come into play if all options fail but which many think would damage the UK’s integrity as it aims to keep Northern Ireland in the customs union under EU rules.

A Brexit deal could still be within reach with more flexibility from all sides, in what May described as ‘negotiation tactics’, and the next opportunity will be at the European Council Summit in October.

If progress can be made there, the EU will call an emergency Brexit summit in November. Otherwise, there will be a "no deal" scenario at the end of next March.

Mental health center for refugees opens in Ankara

By Fatih Hafız Mehmet and Ahmet Furkan Mercan

ANKARA (AA) – A new mental health center for refugees opened in Turkey’s capital Ankara on Thursday.

The center was opened by Relief International with funding from the European Union and will be run by the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM).

It will primarily serve Syrian refugees who are experiencing mental health disorders.

Speaking at the opening ceremony, EU Ambassador in Ankara Christian Berger noted that there are around 3.5 million refugees in Turkey, voicing gratitude for Turkey’s efforts on the issue.

Berger said 20 percent of these people live through mental disorders like anxiety and depression, and the health center will strengthen resilience among Syrian refugees.

He added that they are thankful and appreciate Turkey providing services to Syrian refugees.

Also speaking at the ceremony, French Ambassador in Ankara Charles Fries said the center will provide an extraordinary example of solidarity among refugees living in Ankara.

Around 800 people are expected to benefit from the center through February 2019 and will be served by the center’s mental health specialists, including psychiatrists, psychologists, and counsellors.

The project contributes to building a more resilient refugee community in Turkey by improving their mental well-being, at the same time reducing the burden on the Turkish health care system.

Relief International’s existing mental health center in Gaziantep — in the southeast, near the Syrian border — also funded by the European Union, serves patients with a wide range of disorders, including anxiety, psychosis, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

A third mental health center for refugees is also planned to be opened in Istanbul.

INFOGRAPHIC – ANALYSIS – New 'iron curtain' falls across EU over migrant crisis

By Serife Cetin

BRUSSELS (AA) – A new "iron curtain" has descended across the EU since 2015, when member countries started taking divergent stances in the face of the immigration crisis.

An east-west axis has emerged between the EU member states who want to follow a more moderate path versus those who pursue stricter anti-immigrant policies.

While Italy and Austria are getting close to Eastern European countries seeking strict anti-immigration policies under new governments, Western European countries are trying to find solutions by signing agreements.

– Visegrad Group makes new friends

Greece and Italy are among the countries playing a key role in EU immigration policy, as they are often at the front line of immigrants seeking entry to the union.

Although the 2016 migration pact between Turkey and the EU in 2016 lightened Greece's burden, immigrants coming from Libya continue to push Italy’s limits.

Until its parliamentary elections this March, Italy followed a policy of taking joint decisions within the EU to stop the immigration flow. But after the new center-right bloc formed a government, Italy changed its point of view on the issue.

It appears that with its new government, Italy is getting closer to the Visegrad Group — a cultural and political alliance that includes the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia — a bloc notorious for its anti-immigration policies.

The Visegrad Group, with its refusal to take in immigrants under an EU-wide resettlement quota scheme, offers Italy an attractive alliance option.

Under the scheme, a total of 160,000 asylum-seekers are supposed to be distributed across the 28-nation bloc, mainly from the most-affected countries such as Italy and Greece, to other EU member states.

But despite the agreement, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have refused to accept any refugees.

Matteo Salvini, Italy’s anti-immigrant deputy prime minister and interior minister, previously said Rome would do anything to prevent illegal immigrants coming to Italy.

After Salvini took his post, he called for an anti-immigration alliance across Europe and tried to forge an alliance with Hungary on this.

At a joint news conference with Salvini in late August, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said the most important issue in Europe was migration and added that Hungary is the country which has proved that migration can be stopped.

"He [Salvini] is highly respected because he has taken on the historic mission to prove that migration can also be stopped at sea," Orban was quoted as saying in a statement from the Hungarian government.

“So far no one else in any other maritime country has undertaken to do this; he is the first and so far only one, and Europe’s security depends on his success.”

Also, Salvini supported the idea, saying Italy will work with Hungary to change the EU’s rules.

– Bonds over opposition to immigration

The other EU member country moving closer to the Visegrad Group is Austria.

Since Austria took over the rotating European Union Council presidency from Bulgaria in late June, the country has vowed to “fight illegal immigration by securing external borders” during its time at the EU helm.

“The aim is to work more closely with third countries in order to ensure effective return policies and to provide assistance to those in need of protection before they enter the EU while, on the other hand, preventing those not in need of protection from setting off on the dangerous crossing to Europe," the country's EU Presidency said in a statement.

Austrian Deputy Prime Minister Heinz-Christian Strache has said he wants Vienna to become a member of Visegrad Group.

Countries such as Hungary and Poland have also welcomed joint alliances among EU member states opposed to immigration.

Hungary’s Orban said that unlike France, "which supports migration," his country wants to stop illegal migration.

Orban said he would like to stand with the European people who oppose illegal migration, according to a statement from the Hungarian government.

His remarks highlight the disunity among EU member states on the migration issue.

– Ties with western bloc tense

While Italy, pursuing anti-immigrant policies, is growing closer to Eastern European countries, at the same time it is moving away from member states such as Spain and France.

Relations between Paris and Rome grew tense this June after French President Emmanuel Macron denounced Italy's "cynicism" and "irresponsibility" for denying entry to a ship carrying hundreds of migrants rescued in the Mediterranean.

The ship, the Aquarius, rescued around 230 migrants, and more than 400 were transferred to the ship by Italian military and merchant ships in the area. They were originally set to dock in Italy, but Italy’s newly formed government turned the ship away.

Spain’s new Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez later offered to provide safe harbor, saying on Twitter, “it is our obligation … We comply with international commitments regarding humanitarian emergencies.”

After Spain’s offer, Salvini celebrated, tweeting “VICTORY! 629 immigrants abroad the ship Aquarius headed for Spain, primary goal achieved!”

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte also accused France of "hypocrisy."

– Bilateral deals in the west

Western European countries tend to support a more moderate migration policy and favor a single EU policy to tackle the issue.

After the immigration problem threatened Germany’s coalition government, member countries looked for bilateral or trilateral deals.

In June German Chancellor Angela Merkel managed to clinch an agreement with EU member states at a summit in Brussels which envisaged setting up “migrant camps” inside and outside the EU, where asylum-seekers would be forced to stay when their applications are examined by officials.

Merkel also pledged to conclude bilateral agreements with European partners such as Greece and Spain, with the goal of returning asylum-seekers who first entered the EU soil from these countries, but later arrived in Germany.

Germany has received more than a million refugees in the last three years, mostly from Syria and Iraq.

Merkel’s decision in 2015 to open Germany’s doors to refugees fleeing conflicts and persecution was widely criticized by conservatives, and exploited by far-right and populist parties.

In addition, in Sweden, right now it is a key concern what kind of migration policy the Democrats pursue after they are able to form a new government.

– Migration policy buffeted by political winds

The disagreements and nascent alliances that have recently arisen among EU member states are mainly due to the fact that for several years the EU has been unable to find a solution to immigration policy.

Although the EU, which has been trying to solve the problem with ad hoc solutions since the peak of the migrant crisis in 2015, has seen a reduced immigrant flow to the continent, political changes in member countries are still sowing division.

The EU states, which have difficulty agreeing on even the simplest issues, cannot agree on a single immigration policy. This leads member states to produce immigration policy according to the political tendencies of their ruling parties.

That's why we cannot ignore the possibilities of the "anti-immigrant alliance" that Italy and Austria have been forming with the Visegrad Group, or the end of deals among Western European countries facing changing political winds.

* Diyar Guldogan from Ankara contributed to this story

EU: Passenger car demand surges 6.1 pct in Jan-Aug

By Muhammed Ali Gurtas

ANKARA (AA) – Demand for passenger cars in the European Union in January-August this year surged 6.1 percent year-on-year, the European Automobile Manufacturers' Association (ACEA) reported on Wednesday.

In the eight-month period, passenger car registrations in the 28-member EU bloc totaled 10.8 million units, "largely boosted by the unusually strong performance during the summer months," the association noted.

"Looking at the major markets, demand went up in Spain [14.6 percent], France [8.9 percent] and Germany [6.4 percent], while car sales remained stable in Italy [down 0.1 percent] and contracted in the United Kingdom [down 4.2 percent]," the ACEA said.

This January to August, the lion's share — 25.1 percent in passenger car sales in the EU — was held by the VW Group, of which major brands are Volkswagen, Audi, Skoda, Seat and Porsche.

Sales of the VW Group saw an annual hike of 12.9 percent, reaching 2.7 million units in first eight months of the year.

The VW Group was followed by the PSA Group — which owns the Peugeot, Citroen, and Opel brands — and the Renault Group with 15.9 percent and 10.9 percent of total passenger car sales, respectively.

In 2017, over 15 million new passenger cars were sold in the EU, up 3.4 percent from the previous year.

The EU is the main automotive export market for Turkey, where the world’s prominent automotive manufacturers including Fiat, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Renault and Toyota are operating.

Last year, nearly 80 percent of Turkey's total automotive exports were made to EU countries amounting to $22 billion, marking a 17 percent year-on-year rise.

EU calls for reforms to World Trade Organization

By Muhammed Ali Gurtas

ANKARA (AA) – The European Commission is seeking a comprehensive modernization of the World Trade Organization (WTO), according to an official statement on Tuesday.

The commission said its reform plan covers three fundamental principles: updating the rulebook on international trade for today's global economy, strengthening the WTO's monitoring role, and overcoming an imminent deadlock on the WTO dispute settlement system.

"The multilateral trading system has for the past decades provided a stable, predictable and effective framework for companies across the world, helping many economies to grow rapidly," Cecilia Malmstrom, trade commissioner, said in a statement.

"Also today, the WTO is indispensable in ensuring open, fair and rules-based trade," Malmstrom said.

"But despite its success, the WTO has not been able to adapt sufficiently to the rapidly changing global economy," she added, saying that as the world has changed the WTO has not.

"It's high time to act to make the system able to address challenges of the today's global economy and work for everyone again," she said. "And the EU must take a lead role in that."

According to the official statement, the EU will continue discussing these first ideas with various WTO partners in the coming weeks with a view to preparing concrete proposals to the global trade body.

European Union to investigate BMW, Daimler, Volkswagen

By Muhammed Ali Gurtas

ANKARA (AA) – The European Commission has opened an in-depth investigation of whether several major automakers colluded to avoid competition, it announced on Tuesday.

"The Commission is investigating whether BMW, Daimler and VW [Volkswagen, Audi, and Porsche] agreed not to compete against each other on the development and roll-out of important systems to reduce harmful emissions from petrol and diesel passenger cars," Margrethe Vestager, commissioner for competition, said in a statement.

"These technologies aim at making passenger cars less damaging to the environment," Vestager said.

"If proven, this collusion may have denied consumers the opportunity to buy less polluting cars, despite the technology being available to the manufacturers," she added.

The commission said the investigation will focuses on information showing those companies — also called the "circle of five" — participated in meetings where they discussed inter alia the development and deployment of technologies to limit harmful car exhaust emissions.

"The in-depth investigation will aim to establish whether the conduct of BMW, Daimler and VW may have violated EU antitrust rules that prohibit cartels and restrictive business practices, including agreements to limit or control technical development," the statement said.

"At this stage, the Commission has no indications that the parties coordinated with each other in relation to the use of illegal defeat devices to cheat regulatory testing.

"The Commission will carry out its in-depth investigation as a matter of priority," it added, noting that the opening of a formal investigation does not prejudge its outcome.

UK: Report suggests 'no preference' for EU workers

By Ahmet Gurhan Kartal

LONDON (AA) – Workers from the EU countries should not be treated differently but as the citizens of any country after Brexit, a new report said Tuesday.

The report published by the Migration Advisory Committee said free movement from the EU should end with the Brexit and the U.K. should adopt a migration system, which would offer no preferential access to the labor market for citizens of any other country.

The report, which came with a set of recommendations to the British government, also says the government should make it easier for high-skilled workers to settle in the country.

Under the EU rules, which the U.K. is still to abide by until Brexit that is to take place on March 29, 2019, or until the end of 2020 should a proposed transition period is agreed as part of the deal still being negotiated between the U.K. and the EU, workers from the 27 EU countries can travel freely and work with no restrictions in the U.K.

"If the U.K. is in a position where it is deciding the main features of its immigration policy, our recommendation is that there should be a less restrictive regime for higher-skilled workers than for lower-skilled workers in a system where there is no preference for EEA over non-EEA workers," the report said.

"Higher-skilled workers tend to have higher earnings so make a more positive contribution to the public finances," it added.

"The estimated labor market impacts, though small, also suggest that higher-skilled workers are of greater benefit as do any impacts on productivity and innovation."

A Home Office spokesperson said the Migration Advisory Committee’s recommendations in the latest report will be "carefully" considered before setting out further details on the country’s future immigration system.

British Prime Minister Theresa May said Monday she is confident of reaching a deal with the European Union based on her Brexit plan — known as Chequers — which she outlined in July.

Speaking on BBC’s Panorama program, May said she would bring the plan to parliament for MPs to vote on probably in November but warned that the alternative to the Chequers plan is a no-deal scenario.

Under the Chequers plan, named after the prime minister's country retreat, where it was hashed out in July, the U.K. would accept a "common rulebook" for trade in all food and goods with the EU after Brexit and the U.K.’s continued harmonization with EU rules would be guaranteed with a treaty to be signed.

A hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland will be avoided, according to the proposal.

On Tuesday, May, with a message on Twitter, insisted the plans explained in government’s Brexit White Paper, would work both for the U.K. and the EU by delivering the 2016 referendum result and maintain good relations with the bloc.

Children in Greek camps attempt suicide, self-harm: MSF

By Meryem Goktas

ANKARA (AA) – Doctors Without Borders (MSF) on Monday called for vulnerable people living in refugee camps on Greek islands to immediately be evacuated to the mainland or within the European Union as attempted suicide and other self-harming is on the rise.

The humanitarian group said in a statement that on the island of Lesbos alone, 9,000 people — a third of them children — live at the Moria refugee camp, which has a maximum capacity of 3,100 people.

MSF said “numerous critical incidents” showed the “significant gaps in the protection of children and other vulnerable people”, calling for the immediate evacuation of these groups.

"These children come from countries in war, where they have experienced very extreme violence and trauma," said Declan Barry, MSF's medical coordinator in Greece.

"Rather than receiving care and protection in Europe, they are instead subjected to ongoing fear, stress and episodes of further violence, including sexual violence," he added.

The MSF observed that between February and June of this year, 18 of the 74 children between the ages of 6-18 who attended a group mental health activity at the Moria camp harmed themselves, attempted suicide or thought about it, while other child patients that MSF has treated suffered from elective mutism, panic attacks, anxiety, aggressive outbursts or constant nightmares.

Due to a lack of accommodations at hospitals on the mainland, including in Athens, children cannot access care, the statement added.

"This is the third year that MSF has been calling on the Greek authorities and the European Union to take responsibility for their collective failures and to put in place sustainable solutions to avoid this catastrophic situation," said Louise Roland-Gosselin, MSF head of mission in Greece.

"It is time to immediately evacuate the most vulnerable to safe accommodation in other European countries," she added.

UK PM: Chequers plan is the way forward

By Ahmet Gurhan Kartal

LONDON (AA) – British Prime Minister Theresa May said Monday she is confident of reaching a deal with the European Union based on her Brexit plan – known as Chequers – which she outlined in July.

Speaking on BBC’s Panorama program, May said she would bring the plan to parliament for MPs to vote on probably in November but warned that the alternative to the Chequers plan is a no-deal scenario.

Under the Chequers plan, named after the prime minister's country retreat, where it was hashed out in July, the UK would accept a “common rulebook” for trade in all food and goods with the EU after Brexit and the UK’s continued harmonization with EU rules would be guaranteed with a treaty to be signed. A hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland will be avoided, according to the proposal.

May rejected any other proposals for Ireland’s border, including one suggesting moving border checks away from the current ‘invisible’ border, where there are no security checkpoints.

“What many of these other plans are based on is moving the border. You don’t solve the issue of no hard border by having a hard border 20km inside Northern Ireland, or 20km inside Ireland. It is still a hard border,” May said.

“What we’ve done is listen to the people of Northern Ireland…They don’t want a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

“The only proposal that has been put forward that delivers on them not having that hard border and ensures that we don’t carve up the United Kingdom is the Chequers plan,” she added.

May also responded to former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who accused her of wrapping a “suicide vest” around Britain with the Chequers plan and handing the “detonator” to Brussels.

May said she would not have chosen this kind of language and said it was inappropriate.

Brexit negotiations between the UK and EU will continue this week as May will travel to the Austrian city of Salzburg for an informal EU leaders’ summit.

With only six months left before the country’s exit from the EU, a deal — which is still to be agreed on by both sides — will need approval from the British parliament as well as the parliaments of the 27 EU member states before March 29, 2019.

The Northern Ireland – Ireland border, citizens’ rights and future trade arrangements have been the stickiest points in the negotiations.