U.S. sees strong shared interests with European Union on Iran concerns

FILE PHOTO: A gas flare on an oil production platform in the Soroush oil fields is seen alongside an Iranian flag in the Persian Gulf, Iran, July 25, 2005. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi//File Pho

WASHINGTON/BERLIN (Reuters) – The United States on Sunday said it hopes to use strong shared interests that have emerged with its European Union partners in recent months to move forward on addressing Iran’s nuclear program, missile development and role in regional conflicts.

A State Department official said the shared interests could form a “foundation to continue to work together moving forward.”

Iran said on Sunday that it would join a meeting with diplomats from Britain, Germany, France, China and Russia in Vienna on Friday to discuss next steps after the May 8 decision by U.S. President Donald Trump to exit the 2015 nuclear accord.

It said Washington would not participate in the meeting of the joint commission set up by the six world powers, Iran and the European Union to handle any complaints about the deal’s implementation.

The German newspaper Welt am Sonntag cited an unnamed senior EU official as saying there were also discussions about a possible new pact between Iran and world powers that would cover the same ground as the 2015 deal but with some additions to appease the United States.

These could include provisions to address U.S. concerns over Iran’s ballistic missile program and Tehran’s support of armed groups in the Middle East, the source said.

“We have to get away from the name ‘Vienna nuclear agreement’ and add in a few additional elements. Only that will convince President Trump to agree and lift sanctions again,” the senior EU official told the paper.

Such an agreement could in the future include financial aid for Iran, the report said.

The State Department official said Washington hoped the EU would focus “on the central issue here:  Iran’s multiple set of malign behaviors with regard to its nuclear program, missile development, terrorism, regional conflicts, and other issues.”

Three EU sources who were part of negotiations to keep Trump from quitting the nuclear deal said Friday’s meeting would address only the implementation of the 2015 deal, but not offer Iran financial aid in exchange for concessions.

In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi rejected reports of a proposed new agreement as “irrelevant claims”, the semi-official Tasnim news agency reported.

“A meeting set for the next few days for the first joint commission without the United States … will only cover issues of the nuclear accord between Iran and the other members,” Qasemi said.

Earlier, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi said on state television that the “joint commission … will be held at Iran’s request, and without the United States, to discuss the consequences of America’s withdrawal, and how the remaining countries can continue their commitment to the deal.”

On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will outline a “diplomatic roadmap” and call for broad support from European and other allies to apply pressure on Iran to force it back to the negotiating table, as well as their support to address “the totality of Iran’s threats”.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal in Berlin and Damon Darlin in Washington, Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Ankara, Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky, Dale Hudson, William Maclean)

Maersk latest company to shun Iran as EU scrambles to save nuclear deal

FILE PHOTO: The Maersk ship Adrian Maersk is seen as it departs from New York Harbor in New York City, U.S., June 27, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Phot

COPENHAGEN (Reuters) – Shipping group A.P. Moller-Maersk on Thursday joined a growing list of companies preparing to call a halt to doing business with Iran, casting doubts on whether European leaders can keep alive a nuclear deal with Tehran.

Maersk’s move comes a day after French energy group Total and other European companies signaled they could exit Iran ahead of a reimposition of sanctions following the United States’ decision to pull out of the Iran accord.

French President Emmanuel Macron said on Thursday that the European Union must protect European Union companies doing business with Iran from U.S. sanctions.

But Macron, joining EU leaders for a summit in Bulgaria, also said he recognized that big companies would want to protect their own interests.

“International companies with interests in many countries make their own choices according to their own interests. They should continue to have this freedom,” he said.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to abandon the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran means European countries that have since invested in the country will be at risk once new sanctions come into effect.

Maersk Chief Executive Soren Skou said: “With the sanctions the Americans are to impose, you can’t do business in Iran if you also have business in the U.S., and we have that on a large scale.”

“I don’t know the exact timing details, but I am certain that we’re also going to shut down (in Iran),” Skou told Reuters in an interview following Maersk’s first-quarter earnings.

MSC, the world’s second biggest container shipping group after Maersk, said on Wednesday it would stop taking new booking for Iran.

Other companies which have warned they would wind down business in Iran following reinstated sanctions include German insurer Allianz, Siemens and Danish oil product tanker operator Maersk Tankers, previously owned by the Maersk conglomerate.

Maersk’s Skou said higher oil prices which followed the U.S. withdrawal were hitting its container shipping business because of higher bunker fuel prices.

Oil prices hit their highest level since November 2014 on Thursday, with Brent crude creeping ever closer to $80 per barrel. [O/R]

(Reporting by Stine Jacobsen and Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen; Editing by Jon Boyle and Jane Merriman)

Remove barriers to membership talks, Turkey tells EU before summit

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, accompanied by Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Minister of European Union Affairs Omer Celik, speaks during a news conference at Ataturk International airport in Istanbul, Turkey March 26, 2018. Kayhan Ozer/Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.

By Alissa de Carbonnel and Tuvan Gumrukcu

ANKARA/VARNA, Bulgaria (Reuters) – Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan said he will seek the removal at a summit with the EU on Monday of all obstacles to a stalled membership bid, which the bloc however believes are of Ankara’s own making.

Criticism from European Union governments of what many view as Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism at home and his intervention in Syria’s war has created an uneasy backdrop to the gathering in the Black Sea port of Varna.

Some countries had called for an end to long-stalled accession talks and had hesitated to agree to meet him.

But Erdogan said it was time for the EU to “keep its promises” to Turkey, which started formal membership negotiations in 2005 that stalled five years and have now effectively collapsed.

“EU membership continues to be our strategic goal,” Erdogan told reporters before departing for the summit. “In today’s EU summit, we will convey our expectations about the lifting of the obstacles our country has faced.”

Erdogan, who has alarmed the West with a massive purge since a failed coup attempt in July 2016, remains an important ally in the U.S.-led NATO alliance and the fight against Islamic militants, and the destination for many Syrians fleeing war.

Turkey shares a border with Iraq, Syria and with Russia in the Black Sea, and the EU is its biggest foreign investor and trading partner.

CASH ONLY

EU leaders are likely to provide Erdogan with 3 billion euros ($3.7 billion) in fresh cash to extend a 2016 deal on Turkey taking in Syrian refugees.

They will go no further than that, as Brussels considers the EU membership bid a separate process focused on rule of law, press freedoms and economic reforms.

But Erdogan on Monday appeared to conflate the two.

“Our country has fulfilled all responsibilities as part of the 2016 migrant deal, but the EU has not shown the same sincerity in keeping its promises and still does not do so,” Erdogan said.

“In terms of counter-terrorism, we will convey that we expect unconditional support and cooperation from the EU.”

EU officials say Turkey’s post-coup crackdown on civil rights has taken it further from complying with EU membership criteria.

“The differences in views between the EU and Turkey are many,” said European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who will represent the bloc along with European Council President Donald Tusk.

“(Varna)…will be a frank and open debate, where we will not hide our differences but will seek to improve our cooperation,” Juncker said after a two-day EU summit that condemned what they said were Turkey’s illegal actions in a standoff over Mediterranean gas with Greece and Cyprus.

DIALOGUE OR CONDEMNATION?

Turkey’s EU membership process is not formally frozen, but talks have not taken place for over a year.

Host Bulgaria, which also shares a border with Turkey holds the EU’s rotating presidency, is eager to keep ties as positive as possible.

“The meeting in Varna is likely to be one of the last opportunities to maintain dialogue,” Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said.

Meanwhile Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of Austria, the country the most opposed to Turkey’s EU membership aspirations, called in an interview in Die Welt newspaper for the EU to condemn Ankara for escalating the seven-year-long war in Syria.

(Additional reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels and Tulay Karadeniz in Varna; Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel @AdeCar and Robin Emmott; editing by John Stonestreet)

Inspectors analyze toxin used on Russian spy, EU backs Britain

A police notice is attached to screening surrounding a restaurant which was visited by former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia before they were found on a park bench after being poisoned in Salisbury, Britain, March 19, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nichol

By Alex Fraser and Peter Nicholls

SALISBURY, England (Reuters) – Inspectors from the world’s chemical weapons watchdog on Monday began examining the poison used to strike down a former Russian double agent in England, in an attack that London blames on Moscow.

Britain says Sergei Skripal and his daughter, who are critically ill in hospital, were targeted with the Soviet-era military-grade nerve agent Novichok. It accuses Moscow of stockpiling the toxin and investigating how to use it in assassinations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who easily won another six-year term on Sunday, said the claims were nonsense and that Russia had destroyed all its chemical weapons. While the Kremlin told Britain to back up its assertions or apologize, Britain’s fellow EU members offered it “unqualified solidarity”.

Skripal, a former colonel in Russian military intelligence who betrayed dozens of Russian agents to Britain, was found collapsed along with his daughter on a bench in the small southern city of Salisbury two weeks ago.

The identification of Novichok as the weapon has become the central pillar of Britain’s case for Russia’s culpability. Each has expelled 23 of the other’s diplomats as their relations have sunk to a post-Cold War low.

On Monday, inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) began running independent tests on samples taken from Salisbury to verify the British analysis, said an OPCW source speaking on condition of anonymity.

“The team from The Hague will meet with officials from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory and the police to discuss the process for collecting samples, including environmental ones,” Britain’s Foreign Office said.

Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson arrives at an European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, Belgium, March 19, 2018. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson arrives at an European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, Belgium, March 19, 2018. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

“ABSURD DENIALS”

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said on Monday, before meeting his European Union counterparts in Brussels, that Russian denials of responsibility were “increasingly absurd”.

“This is a classic Russian strategy of trying to conceal the needle of truth in a haystack of lies and obfuscation. They’re not fooling anybody any more,” Johnson told reporters.

“There is scarcely a country around the table here in Brussels that has not been affected in recent years by some kind of malign or disruptive Russian behavior.”

EU diplomats cautioned there was no immediate prospect of fresh economic sanctions on Russia, but the assembled EU foreign ministers did offer strong verbal support.

“The European Union takes extremely seriously the UK government’s assessment that it is highly likely that the Russian Federation is responsible,” said their statement.

They said using a nerve agent for the first time on European soil for 70 years would be a clear violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which the OPCW safeguards, and that it represented a “security threat to us all”.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam and Robin Emmott and Alistair MacDonald in Brussels; Writing by Michael Holden; editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Kevin Liffey)

Turkey should again consider criminalizing adultery, Erdogan says

ILE PHOTO: Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan looks on ahead of a meeting at the EU Parliament in Brussels, Belgium October 5, 2015. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/File Photo

By Gulsen Solaker

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey should again consider criminalizing adultery, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday, revisiting an issue that caused outrage among secular Turks and warnings from the European Union when his party raised it more than a decade ago.

The Islamist-rooted AK Party floated the idea in 2004, two years after it first came to power, as part of a broad overhaul of the Turkish penal code. But the proposal caused a backlash from the secular opposition and EU officials said it could jeopardize Turkey’s efforts to join the union.

While Turkey is still technically a candidate to join the union, its accession talks were frozen in the wake of a widespread crackdown that followed a failed coup in 2016. In return, Erdogan has been angered by what he sees as EU stalling of the bid and has threatened to walk away from the talks.

“I think it would be very, very well-timed to again discuss the adultery issue, as our society is in a different position with regards to moral values,” Erdogan told reporters following a speech in parliament.

“This is a very old issue, far-reaching. It should be discussed. It was already in our legal proposals (in 2004) in the first place. At that time we took a step in accordance with the EU’s demands, but we made a mistake,” he said.

Erdogan’s comment that by meeting EU standards Turkey made a mistake underscores the growing divide between Ankara and Brussels and may not bode well for a coming summit with the bloc in March.

Turkey decriminalized adultery for women in the late 1990s. It had long been legal for men.

Erdogan, who is accused by critics of crushing democratic freedoms with tens of thousands of arrests and a clampdown on the media since the failed coup, has previously spoken of his desire to raise a “pious generation”.

He has spent his career fighting to bring religion back into public life in constitutionally secular Turkey and has cast himself as the liberator of millions of pious Turks whose rights and welfare were neglected by a secular elite.

Last year, the government announced a new school curriculum that excluded Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, feeding opposition fears that Erdogan was subverting the republic’s secular foundations.

A Reuters investigation last month showed that while students at religious schools make up only 11 percent of the total upper school population, they receive 23 percent of funding, double the spending per pupil at mainstream schools.

While European leaders have robustly criticized Turkey for what they see as rapid backsliding on democracy and human rights, especially the crackdown, Europe still relies on Turkey as a NATO ally on Europe’s southern flank.

Perhaps more immediately, European countries need Turkey to hold up its end of a deal to halt the mass influx of Syrian refugees into the bloc.

(Writing by Ezgi Erkoyun; Editing by David Dolan and Hugh Lawson)

Soros donation to halt Brexit causes storm in Britain

Business magnate George Soros arrives to speak at the Open Russia Club in London, Britain June 20, 2016.

By Guy Faulconbridge

LONDON (Reuters) – News that billionaire financier George Soros is a backer of a campaign group seeking to keep Britain in the EU added fire to Britain’s Brexit debate on Thursday, with supporters of quitting the bloc accusing opponents of plotting a “coup”.

The Best of Britain campaign group confirmed it had received 400,000 pounds from Soros. Soros, best known in Britain for earning billions betting against the pound in the early 1990s, is the target of a hostile media campaign by the nationalist government in his native Hungary and a hate figure for rightwing campaigners in eastern Europe and the United States.

Best of Britain said it had obeyed all rules on political funding in accepting the donation from Soros.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s office repeated its long-standing position that the decision to leave the EU in 2019 after a vote in 2016 was final and would not be reversed. It also defended the right of campaign groups to accept donations.

The Daily Telegraph newspaper, which first reported Soros’s involvement, said the 87-year-old former hedge fund manager was backing a “secret plot” to stop Brexit. The article was written by Nick Timothy, a former chief of staff to May.

Mark Malloch-Brown, a former British diplomat who is chair of the Best for Britain campaign group, said the group had never hidden its aims, which include staying in the EU.

“George Soros’s foundations have along with a number of other major donors also made significant contributions to our work,” Malloch-Brown said in a statement, confirming Soros had contributed 400,000 pounds through his charitable foundations.

May’s spokesman said: “There are many political and campaign groups in this country, that’s entirely right and as you would expect in a democracy.”

“The prime minister’s position on this matter is clear, the country voted to leave the European Union, that’s what we are going to deliver and there won’t be a second referendum.”

BREXIT REVERSED?

In the United Kingdom’s 2016 referendum, 51.9 percent, or 17.4 million people, voted to leave the EU while 48.1 percent, or 16.1 million people, voted to stay. Both sides accepted large donations from wealthy individuals.

Ever since the shock vote, supporters of EU membership have been exploring an array of different legal and political methods to prevent what they see as the biggest mistake in post-World War Two British history.

Brexiteers say such efforts threaten political stability as they go against the democratic will of 17.4 million people. They have vowed to fight any attempt to stop Brexit.

“The new Soros-led coalition is planning a coup in Britain, against the democratic will of the people,” Richard Tice, who chairs the Leave Means Leave campaign group, told Reuters. “They have been outed and will be defeated.”

May, whose government and party is divided over Brexit, has just eight months to strike a deal with the EU on the terms of Britain’s withdrawal.

Opponents of Brexit hope to focus their efforts on blocking British parliamentary approval for the exit deal, a step that if successful could sink May’s premiership. There is, though, little sign so far of a change in opinion among voters, and the supporters of EU membership lack a popular leader who could unite the disparate groups opposed to Brexit.

Brexiteers such as Nigel Farage say public opposition to Brexit from the likes of former Prime Minister Tony Blair and Goldman Sachs Group Inc <GS.N> Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein are unlikely to sway British public opinion.

With no deal, Britain would face a disorderly Brexit that many investors fear would imperil Britain’s $2.7 trillion economy, disrupt trade across the world’s biggest trading bloc and undermine London’s position as the only financial centre to rival New York.

($1 = 0.7209 pounds)

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Peter Graff)

European Union leaders to host Turkey’s Erdogan, the estranged uncle they can’t shut out

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan greets his supporters during a meeting of the ruling AK Party in Corum, Turkey January 28, 2018.

By Gabriela Baczynska and Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union leaders are so discomfited by their relationship with Turkey these days that they relegated their summit next month to Varna, a Bulgarian Black Sea port, rather than hold it in Brussels.

But despite their wariness over President Tayyip Erdogan, who has cracked down hard on critics at home and lashed out at the West, they need him too much to turn their backs.

Turkish and European Union officials both expect an uneasy atmosphere at the summit on March 26. But the European hosts will have little choice but to hear Erdogan out as he asks for more money for Syrian refugees, a deeper customs union and progress in talks on letting Turks visit Europe without visas.

On the one hand, European leaders have robustly criticized Turkey for what they see as rapid backsliding on democracy and human rights, especially during a crackdown in the wake of a failed coup in 2016. Some of Erdogan’s hostile rhetoric toward Europe last year, including comparing the Dutch and German governments to Nazis, has been, for EU leaders, beyond the pale.

But on the other hand, European countries still rely on Turkey as a NATO ally on Europe’s southern flank. And an EU deal with Erdogan that halted the mass influx of Syrian refugees into the bloc means the Turkish leader is like an estranged relative that you can’t disinvite from a family dinner, no matter how badly you think he has behaved.

“You intensely dislike the person you have in front of you, but you just cannot do without him,” said Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Turkey and now an analyst at Carnegie Europe think-tank.

Turkey says it is in Europe’s interest to be warm.

“If the EU gives positive signals to Turkey, the more Turkey will do in terms of reforms,” said Ankara’s envoy to the European Union, Faruk Kaymakci.

“But the more the EU isolates Turkey, the more inward-looking and nationalist it will turn,” he told reporters, calling for more “trust and confidence at the top level”.

A senior EU official said Turkey had sought to have the summit in Brussels, but the bloc decided to hold it in Varna instead to lower its profile. Bulgaria, Turkey’s neighbor, has better relations with Ankara than some other EU states and holds the rotating EU presidency for the first half of 2018.

“INCREDIBLY UNCOMFORTABLE”

The senior EU official described European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who will chair the Varna meeting with European Council President Donald Tusk, as furious over Erdogan’s crackdown. Some 50,000 people, including journalists, have been arrested and 150,000, including teachers, judges and soldiers, sacked or suspended from their jobs.

“For the EU, this is incredibly uncomfortable. They are backsliding on everything,” the senior EU official said.

Juncker has warned Turkey that it cannot count on any significant rapprochement with the EU as long as it keeps journalists in jail.

The Netherlands formally withdrew its ambassador to Ankara this month, after 2017 was marked by Erdogan calling German and Dutch officials “fascists” for stopping rallies in support of a referendum in Turkey to grant Erdogan broader powers. Germany is particularly angry that some German citizens are among those arrested in Erdogan’s purge.

Turkey is still a candidate to join the EU, having applied decades ago. But after years of on-and-off progress, including under Erdogan who first took power in 2003, the EU froze the accession talks over the crackdown since the botched coup.

Brussels is deeply skeptical that Ankara would reverse the crackdown to deliver the democratic and judicial reforms that would be required to restart those negotiations.

But Kaymakci, the Turkish envoy, said he still hoped the bloc would commit another 3 billion euros ($3.7 bln) for Syrian refugees in Turkey at the Varna summit, and move forward with talks on letting Turks enter Europe without visas.

EU officials say Turkey does not meet criteria for visa-free travel. When it comes to money for refugees, the bloc is looking at how to accommodate Turkey, acknowledging its role in hosting them and committing to look into funding.

Turkey’s request to deepen its customs union, which already allows tariff-free trade with the EU for most goods, is also likely to be politely rebuffed. Germany in particular has opposed further talks on customs for now.

The price Erdogan will have to pay for being invited to Varna, EU officials say, will be listening to his hosts speak frankly. Just weeks after the summit, the European Commission will release what is certain to be a damning report on the situation in Turkey.

(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans in Ankara; Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Peter Graff)

Abbas wins EU backing for Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem

European High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini shakes hands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Brussels, Belgium, January 22,

By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union assured President Mahmoud Abbas it supported his ambition to have East Jerusalem as capital of a Palestinian state, in the bloc’s latest rejection of U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

At a meeting in Brussels with EU foreign ministers, Abbas repeated his call for East Jerusalem as capital as he urged EU governments to recognize a state of Palestine immediately, arguing that this would not disrupt negotiations with Israel on a peace settlement for the region.

While Abbas made no reference to Trump’s move on Jerusalem or U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to the city on Monday, his presence at the EU headquarters in Brussels was seized on by European officials as a chance to restate opposition to Trump’s Dec. 6 decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.

Mogherini, in what appeared to be a veiled reference to Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as capital of Israel, called on those involved in the process to speak and act “wisely”, with a sense of responsibility.

“I want to reassure President Abbas of the firm commitment of the European Union to the two-state solution with Jerusalem as the shared capital of the two states,” Mogherini said.

Before Abbas’ arrival, she was more outspoken, saying: “Clearly there is a problem with Jerusalem. That is a very diplomatic euphemism,” in reference to Trump’s position.

Deputy German Foreign Minister Michael Roth told reporters that Trump’s decision had made peace talks harder but said all sides needed to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Abbas also struck a more diplomatic tone than in his recent public remarks, including earlier this month when he said he would only accept a broad, internationally-backed panel to broker any peace talks with Israel.

“We are keen on continuing the way of negotiations,” Abbas said. “We are determined to reunite our people and our land.”

But his call for the European Union to immediately and officially recognize the state of Palestine was unlikely to be answered, two senior EU diplomats said.

SLOVENIAN DECISION?

While nine EU governments including Sweden and Poland already recognize Palestine, the 28-nation bloc says such recognition must come as part of a peace settlement.

Only Slovenia has recently raised the possibility of recognizing the state of Palestine. A parliamentary committee there is due to consider the issue on Jan. 31, but it remains unclear when the parliament could recognize Palestine.

That reflects the European Union’s dual role as the Palestinians’ biggest aid donor and Israel’s biggest trade partner, even if EU governments reject Israeli settlements on land Israel has occupied since a 1967 war – including the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

The European Union also wants the Palestinians to remain open to a U.S.-led peace plan, expected to be presented soon by Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s Middle East envoy and Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner.

Abbas said there was “no contradiction between recognition (of Palestine) and the resumption of (peace) negotiations.”

Instead, France wants to push the European Union to offer closer trade ties through a so-called EU association agreement, an EU treaty covering unfettered access to the bloc’s 500 million consumers, aid and closer political and cultural ties.

“We want to say to Mahmoud Abbas that we want to move … towards an association agreement and to start the process already,” said France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

But offering an EU association agreement to the Palestinians was also fraught with difficulties, diplomats said.

Under EU rules, the agreements need to be agreed with sovereign states. France argues that the EU has an association agreement with Kosovo, whose independence is not recognized by all countries, including EU member Spain.

(Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald in Brussels and Marja Novak in Ljubljana, Editing by William Maclean)

Social media companies accelerate removals of online hate speech

A man reads tweets on his phone in front of a displayed Twitter logo in Bordeaux, southwestern France, March 10, 2016. REUTERS/Regis

By Julia Fioretti

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Social media companies Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube have accelerated removals of online hate speech in the face of a potential European Union crackdown.

The EU has gone as far as to threaten social media companies with new legislation unless they increase efforts to fight the proliferation of extremist content and hate speech on their platforms.

Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube signed a code of conduct with the EU in May 2016 to review most complaints within a 24-hour timeframe. Instagram and Google+ will also sign up to the code, the European Commission said.

The companies managed to review complaints within a day in 81 percent of cases during monitoring of a six-week period towards the end of last year, EU figures released on Friday show, compared with 51 percent in May 2017 when the Commission last examined compliance with the code of conduct.

On average, the companies removed 70 percent of the content flagged to them, up from 59.2 percent in May last year.

EU Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova has said that she does not want to see a 100 percent removal rate because that could impinge on free speech.

She has also said she is not in favor of legislating as Germany has done. A law providing for fines of up to 50 million euros ($61.4 million) for social media companies that do not remove hate speech quickly enough went into force in Germany this year.

Jourova said the results unveiled on Friday made it less likely that she would push for legislation on the removal of illegal hate speech.

‘NO FREE PASS’

“The fact that our collaborative approach on illegal hate speech brings good results does not mean I want to give a free pass to the tech giants,” she told a news conference.

Facebook reviewed complaints in less than 24 hours in 89.3 percent of cases, YouTube in 62.7 percent of cases and Twitter in 80.2 percent of cases.

“These latest results and the success of the code of conduct are further evidence that the Commission’s current self-regulatory approach is effective and the correct path forward.” said Stephen Turner, Twitter’s head of public policy.

Of the hate speech flagged to the companies, almost half of it was found on Facebook, the figures show, while 24 percent was on YouTube and 26 percent on Twitter.

The most common ground for hatred identified by the Commission was ethnic origin, followed by anti-Muslim hatred and xenophobia, including expressions of hatred against migrants and refugees.

Pressure from several European governments has prompted social media companies to step up efforts to tackle extremist online content, including through the use of artificial intelligence.

YouTube said it was training machine learning models to flag hateful content at scale.

“Over the last two years we’ve consistently improved our review and action times for this type of content on YouTube, showing that our policies and processes are effective, and getting better over time,” said Nicklas Lundblad, Google’s vice president of public policy in EMEA.

“We’ve learned valuable lessons from the process, but there is still more we can do.”

The Commission is likely to issue a recommendation at the end of February on how companies should take down extremist content related to militant groups, an EU official said.

(Reporting by Julia Fioretti; Additional reporting by Foo Yun Chee; Editing by Grant McCool and David Goodman)

Syrian opposition calls on Trump and EU to put pressure on Russia and Iran

Nasr Hariri, chief negotiator for Syria's main opposition, poses for a photograph in central London, Britain January 16, 2018.

By Guy Faulconbridge

LONDON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump and European Union leaders should increase pressure on President Bashar al-Assad and his allies Russia and Iran to return to talks to end Syria’s civil war, Syria’s chief opposition negotiator said on Monday.

Nasr Hariri said that unless the West forced Assad and his big power allies to seek peace then Syrian civilians would continue to be killed.

“I would like to ask all those countries that promised they would support the Syrian people and their aspirations for democracy and peace: why didn’t they fulfil their promises?” Hariri, speaking in English, told Reuters in London.

The chief negotiator for Syria’s main opposition grouping, Hariri called for Trump and EU leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May to get tougher with Assad.

All diplomatic initiatives have so far failed to yield progress in ending the war, which is now entering its eighth year having killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven 11 million from their homes.

The map of Syria’s conflict has been decisively redrawn in favor of Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies during the past two years. They have recaptured major population centres in western Syria from rebels seeking to overthrow him and pushed back Islamic State in the east.

In the face of the collapse of rebel-held territory, most Western countries have quietly softened their positions that Assad must leave power as part of any peace deal. But the opposition entered the last formal talks last month without softening its demand Assad go, prompting the government to declare the talks pointless.

Nevertheless, Hariri suggested Western powers still had enough influence to push the government to negotiate.

“It is time for President Trump, Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister May to say: ‘Stop’,” the former cardiologist said.

“It is time for Trump, Merkel and May to increase pressure and bring the international community together to get a genuine and just political situation in Syria.”

Hariri represents the Saudi-backed umbrella group of Syrian opposition groups which are opposed to Assad and supported by the West. He said the next round of the so-called “Geneva talks” on the fate of Syria would take place in late January, probably around Jan. 24-26 in Vienna.

A spokesman for Hariri said the opposition would attend those talks.

MORE TALKS?

Hariri said discussions in Washington, including with White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster, had been positive and that the Trump administration understood the situation.

“Iran and Russia are trying to deprioritise the transition,” he said. “We need the international community’s help to put pressure on the regime and their backers, Russia and Iran.

“The Americans want to test the Russians and the regime in the next round of talks. They want to move the Geneva process forward,” Hariri said.

When asked about U.S. plans to help support a 30,000-strong force dominated by the mainly Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), he said it could lead to Syria’s partition.

“What are the benefits of establishing such an army?” he asked. “It will open the door wide for a future struggle in the region. It could open the door to the future partition of Syria.”

Assad has responded to the plan by vowing to drive U.S. troops from Syria. Turkey has called the force a terrorist army and vowed to crush it. Iran said on Tuesday creation of the SDF force would “fan the flames of war”, echoing the vehement response of Syria, Turkey and Russia.

Hariri said it was very unlikely that the Syrian opposition would attend a meeting on Syria organized by Russia in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. The opposition had received no invitation so far, and no final decision on attendance had been made.

“We have not been invited yet,” he said. “The general mood is not to go to Sochi. My personal view is that in its current shape, it is unacceptable to attend Sochi.”

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Michael Holden and Peter Graff)