The EU plans to collectively purchase armaments for the first time

European officials have backed growing calls for the EU to start a joint procurement programme for military aid to Ukraine. Defence spending is a national, rather than EU, competency, and under the current arrangement military donors have sent materiel aid to Ukraine individually. However, last week European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen proposed to mimic the EU’s COVID-19 vaccine procurement and distribution programme for defence industries, in a bid to centralise and streamline defence production as the war in Ukraine consumes ever-increasing quantities of ammunition.

During the initial stages of the war, many eastern European states sent large proportions of their stockpiled Soviet-era munitions, predominantly used by Ukrainian forces at the time. However, these munitions are no longer produced by NATO countries, and as the war drew on, Western states began to equip Ukraine with standardised munitions currently used and produced by NATO states. Yet, European defence industries have struggled to keep pace with the intensity of the conflict. Russia is estimated to use 20,000 artillery shells per day, as many as all European manufacturers make in one month. With Ukraine firing around 5,000 shells per day, Western backers worry that their defence industries will fall behind Russia’s war economy.

Arms producers claim they can scale up production to meet Ukraine’s demand, but only if national governments and the EU can ensure long-term demand for armaments. Top EU officials appear to agree, arguing that a centralised arms procurement system would reduce inefficiencies and help reassure producers of long-term demand. Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas’ proposal for a collective EU €3.6 billion fund for the acquisition of one million shells for Ukraine has gained support from the EU’s chief diplomat.

As of January 2023, EU members and institutions have sent a total of €13.79 billion in military aid, and states have pledged to increase defence spending as the continent reevaluates its security. France has promised to increase defence spending by 40%, while Poland intends to double it. Yet this too remains decentralised in nature. Joint spending only makes up 18% of total EU defence spending, far below its 35% target, though the EU has pledged an extra €70 billion in joint defence expenditure over the next two years. As the war in Ukraine passes the one-year mark, Europe has started to come to terms with its new geopolitical reality.

TikTok banned from EU executive staff devices

This week the European Commission, and Council of the EU have banned TikTok from staff devices in order to “protect data and increase cybersecurity”, in a move that highlights Europe’s hawkish shift in its stance towards China. This is the first restriction the EU’s executive bodies have ever placed on staff app usage, and the EU Parliament is looking into enacting a similar ban for MEPs.

TikTok, a Chinese company, has been accused of breaching users’ privacy and influencing their views through its content algorithm. The US government, which has pressured TikTok since Donald Trump’s presidency and continues under Biden, passed a similar ban on government devices in December. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a year ago, China’s ambivalent stance and continued economic support for Russia has soured relations between the EU and China. The European Commission’s ban comes after national European governments have taken an increasingly hard line against the app. The Dutch government suspended the app’s usage by public officials, the UK’s parliament shut down its account, and French President Emmanuel Macron described it as “deceptively innocent”.

The EU is renowned for its strict regulations on large tech firms, heavily fining companies like Apple and Google for anti-competitive behaviour. Increasingly, the EU’s regulatory bodies have investigated TikTok over alleged breaches of EU’s Digital Services Act, as well as over their admitted monitoring of journalists investigating TikTok’s developer company ByteDance. As rising global geopolitical tensions spill into the technology sector, Europe has found itself aligning more with the US’ hawkish stance.

Russia suspends nuclear agreement with US

In a state-of-the-nation address ahead of the anniversary of his invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow would freeze its participation in the New Start agreement with the US that places limits on the two countries’ deployed strategic nuclear weapons, and gives each the power to inspect the other’s. “Our relations have degraded and that’s completely and utterly the US’s fault,” Putin said, in his speech to Russia’s political elite on Tuesday, which came hours before US president Joe Biden offered a sharply different view in his address to the public and a key group of Nato allies in Warsaw, during his recent surprise trip to Ukraine and Poland. 

The US had said in January that Russia was failing to comply with the 2010 treaty after a breakdown in talks on nuclear weapons inspections, halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Russia’s suspension of the treaty means it will share less information with the US about its nuclear arsenal. Russia has said talks on the treaty, which are due to expire in 2026, are unlikely to resume unless the West agrees to hold comprehensive negotiations on Ukraine without Kyiv’s participation, which the US has said is unacceptable. Putin also hinted at resuming nuclear tests, though he claimed Russia would only do so in response to US actions. Most see this as an empty threat from a weakened leader lashing out at his enemy, but as the war in Ukraine enters its second year, it is still unclear how a resolution will be reached.

Death toll rises in Brazil’s deadly floods

At least 48 people have died and dozens are missing after torrential rain brought flooding and landslides to coastal areas of south-east Brazil, as the country geared up for its annual Carnival celebrations. Ongoing heavy rain and an influx of tourists, attracted by the famous Sao Paulo Carnival, have created an emergency situation in the area. São Paulo declared a 180-day state of calamity for six cities after what experts termed an unprecedented extreme weather event. TV footage showed houses flooded with only roofs visible, and small boats being used to carry items and people to higher ground.

The São Paulo state government said more than 60cm (23.6in) of rain had fallen in the region in a single day – one of the highest amounts ever recorded in Brazil in such a short period. Government and private aid groups were scrambling to provide necessities, but the logistics of reaching the isolated towns was creating difficulties. But not all aid has reached its intended destination, with criminals taking advantage of the chaos and looting trucks carrying donations, Brazil’s environment minister said.

Conflict between Israel and Palestine escalates in the West Bank

In the early hours of Thursday morning, the Israeli military conducted airstrikes in the Gaza Strip, in retaliation to six rockets fired at Israel by Palestinian militants. Reports indicate that nobody was hurt, as Israel shot down five of the rockets and the sixth detonated in an unpopulated area.

This comes after Israel agreed to stop building new settlements—deemed to be illegal under international law, despite protests from the Israeli government—in the occupied West Bank earlier this week. The US, who had warned against the building of such settlements, is believed to have played a key role in getting Israel to stall its plans. US officials are also thought to have convinced Palestinian leaders to withdraw a UN Security Council resolution which would have disputed the validity of Israel’s claim to certain areas in the occupied West Bank.

However, the temporary calm these talks seemed to garner has now ended, after Israeli troops killed at least 11 Palestinians and wounded many more during a raid in the occupied West Bank on Wednesday morning, according to Palestinian health officials. The rockets fired from Gaza on Thursday are assumed to have been a response to this attack, though no Palestinian militant group has claimed responsibility for the rocket launches.

Tor Wennesland, the UN’s Middle East envoy, travelled to Gaza on Thursday to meet leaders of the Hamas militant organisation in an attempt to calm the situation and prevent more conflict.

Tax officials raid BBC offices in India

Last week BBC offices in India were raided by tax officials after the release of a documentary that was critical of Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister. Reports suggest a group of officials from India’s income tax department arrived at the BBC offices in Delhi and Mumbai under the pretence of carrying out a survey. The offices were sealed and both phones and documents belonging to BBC journalists were confiscated.

The Indian government attempted to block the documentary from being aired domestically, labelling it as “hostile propaganda and anti-India garbage”. Emergency powers were used to prevent clips from the documentary being shared on social media and a number of students were detained by the police after attempting to screen it in protest.

On Wednesday, Rishi Sunak, the UK prime minister, confirmed that the UK government contacted the Modi administration in relation to the situation. Foreign office minister David Rutley confirmed that the UK government is supporting the BBC, whilst Labour’s shadow minister for peace and disarmament, Fabian Hamilton, expressed concern over the the way the Indian government has been handling the matter.Director-General of the BBC Tim Davie emailed staff in India on Thursday, telling them to continue reporting impartially and praising them for their courage. The BBC has cooperated fully with the tax investigations.