Seven Days in Europe

The EU is to add the Syrian leader’s wife, mother, sister and sister-in-law to its blacklist at a foreign minister’s meeting in Brussels on Friday diplomatic sources say. The new visa ban and asset freeze also covers eight members of President Bashar Assad’s government and two oil firms.

Ireland’s former EU commissioner Padraig Flynn has been found guilty of taking bribes during his time as an environment minister, at the conclusion of a 15-year-long investigation into the Bertie Ahern government. The 3,200-page fact-finding study led by judge Alan Mahon said corruption was “endemic and systemic” at every level of government in Ireland in the late 1990s when Ahern was prime minister. Flynn was a minister between 1987-1993 before switching over to the EU commission. The report found he had acted “wrongfully and corruptly” in 1989 during his term as an environment minister when he accepted a 50,000 Irish pound ‘donation’ from property developer Tom Gilmartin which he used to purchase a farm in the west of Ireland. The tribunal found that Mr Ahern failed to truthfully account for a number of financial transactions, but did not make a corruption finding against him. Mr Ahern said he had never “received a corrupt payment”. However, Irish political party Fianna Fail has said it will seek to expel its former leader and prime minister.

Ireland ended last year in recession, according to figures released on Thursday, dealing a blow to the policy of economic austerity being forced on struggling eurozone countries by the European commission and the IMF. A dip of 0.2% in GDP in the last quarter of 2011 followed a steep fall in the third quarter, after an export drive was undermined by the slowdown in global demand. A recession is defined as two consecutive quarters of economic contraction. Ireland, which had become a poster child for austerity when its economy pulled out of its nosedive earlier last year, joins fellow eurozone countries Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Portugal and Greece in recession.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday said the eurozone crisis is “not over” yet, but merely in one of its “various phases,” even as investor confidence seems to be returning to troubled euro-countries. “Concerning the development of the crisis, we cannot say today that it is over, we still find ourselves in one of the various phases of the crisis,” she told a meeting organised by her Christian Democrat parliamentary group. Investor confidence seems to be returning to countries like Italy and Spain, who have seen their borrowing costs shrink, while the ‘safe-haven’ German bund – whose value was boosted in the past years by the lack of trust in southern countries – is slightly depreciating.

A former Lutheran pastor and civil rights activist has been elected as Germany’s new president. Joachim Gauck, from the former East Germany, won 991 votes out of 1,232 at a special assembly of MPs. The 72-year-old has no party affiliation, but has gained a reputation as an eloquent speaker not afraid to address controversial issues. He will replace Christian Wulff, who resigned last month in a scandal over financial favours.

Member states will pay 50 percent less into the general EU budget by 2020 if they agree to implement a financial transactions tax (FTT), the EU commission has said. In a last-ditch attempt to undermine government opposition to both this specific ‘Robin Hood’ levy and the general idea of Brussels raising taxes, EU budget commissioner Janusz Lewandowski put some concrete savings figures on the table. By the commission’s estimate, Germany would pay €10.7 billion less to the EU budget by 2020, Poland €1.8 billion, Italy €6.4 billion and Latvia €81 million. The UK, the Netherlands and Sweden – the strongest opponents of the FTT – would save €7.6bn, €2.6bn and €1.6bn respectively.

France has seen an unprecedented security clampdown after a lone gunman killed seven people, including three children, in three separate attacks in the south-west of the country. Police tracked down the main suspect, Mohammed Merah, after investigating the movements of a stolen scooter used by the killer to make his escape following shootings in Toulouse and nearby Montauban. Merah, of Algerian descent, was shot by a police sniper after he opened fire on police commandos storming his flat after a 32-hour siege on Thursday morning. Security services have been criticised since it emerged that Merah had been under surveillance for months. Prime Minister Francois Fillon said there was no single element to suggest a threat.

The European Union has agreed to expand its mission against Somali pirates, by allowing military forces to attack land targets as well as those at sea. In a two-year extension of its mission, EU defence ministers agreed warships could target boats and fuel dumps. Several EU naval ships are currently on patrol off the Horn of Africa. They police shipping routes and protect humanitarian aid. The EU says the main tasks of the mission are the protection of vessels of the World Food Programme delivering food aid to displaced people in Somalia, and the fight against piracy off the Somali coast.

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