Tag Archives: European Union

Europol investigating 5,000 organized crime groups

Some 5,000 organized crime groups are active in Europe, with more than one-third of the rings involved in illicit drug trade, the EU law enforcement agency Europol said in a large-scale report Thursday.

Drug trade generates 24 billion euros (25 billion dollars) in profits every year.

The groups are also engaged in counterfeiting currency, migrant smuggling, arms trafficking and an array of cybercrime, including child sexual exploitation and bank fraud.

Continue reading Europol investigating 5,000 organized crime groups

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EU threatens UK with astronomical £500BILLION Brexit DIVORCE BILL

THE EUROPEAN Parliament’s top Brexit negotiator has said Britain could face a £500billion (€600bn) Brexit divorce bill – ten times the figure initially expected.

Late last year it was widely reported Eurocrats were planning on slapping the UK with a £50billion (€60billion) exit bill as punishment for voting to abandon Brussels in the June referendum.

The EU defended the demand as it argued Britain had unpaid budget commitments, pension liabilities and loan guarantees to honour.

Continue reading EU threatens UK with astronomical £500BILLION Brexit DIVORCE BILL

Hungary’s Orban: Migrant crisis is German, not European problem

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban insisted Thursday the migrant crisis was a German problem, not a European one as he defended his government’s handling of thousands of refugees flooding into his country.

“The problem is not a European problem, the problem is a German problem,” Orban told a press conference with European Parliament President Martin Schulz in Brussels.

“Nobody wants to stay in Hungary, neither in Slovakia, nor Poland, nor Estonia. All want to go to Germany. Our job is just to register them.”

Orban’s comments came as hundreds of refugees and migrants stormed a train at Budapest’s reopened main international railway station, which has become a flashpoint for people trying to head to western Europe via Hungary.

“We have clear cut regulations at the European level. German Chancellor (Angela Merkel) … said yesterday that nobody could leave Hungary without being registered,” he added.

“If the German chancellor insists that we register them, we will, it is a must.”

Orban has taken a consistently hard line on the migrant crisis engulfing Europe, refusing to accept an EU plan for compulsory quotas for asylum seekers and building a razor wire fence along the border with Serbia in a bid to halt the influx.

Syrian refugees and migrants walk along a railway line as they try to cross from Serbia into Hungary...

Syrian refugees and migrants walk along a railway line as they try to cross from Serbia into Hungary near Horgos, on September 1, 2015

The fence has done little to stem the flow and Hungary remains a key arrival point for tens of thousands of migrants entering the European Union, with some 50,000 arriving in the country in August alone.

Orban was due to hold talks with European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker and with EU president Donald Tusk, who warned earlier Thursday that divisions between EU member states threatened to scupper efforts to find a common response.

Schulz also warned that the 28 member states had to act as one.

“The European idea is of solidarity; what we see at the moment is egoism and to my mind, this is a real threat to the EU,” he said.

Putin’s Espionage Offensive Against France

One of the major themes of my work is how Russia, drawing on decades of rich experience with espionage, aggressively employs intelligence in what I term Special War to defeat, dissuade, and deter its enemies without fighting.

As I’ve reported many times, Russian espionage against the West has been rising since the mid-2000’s and has returned to Cold War levels of effort and intensity — and in some cases, more so. In recent years, the Kremlin has endorsed aggressive espionage against a wide range of Western countries, members of NATO and the European Union (often both), to learn secrets and gain political advantage.

This is simply what the Russians do, as Vladimir Putin, the former KGB officer, understands perfectly. Such things are well known to counterintelligence hands the world over, but are seldom discussed in public.

What this looks like up close has recently been exposed by the Parisian newsmagazine Le Nouvel Observateur, in an exclusive report that draws on deep research and interviews with a wide array of in-the-know French intelligence officials. The world-weary French are a pretty unflappable bunch in matters of espionage, but the piece, which has caused worried discussion in Paris, makes clear that Moscow’s spies are aggressive, indeed “hyperactive,” in France, representing a serious threat to the country’s security and well-being.

The story begins with the case of Colonel Ilyushin, who was ostensibly the deputy air attache at the Russian Embassy in Paris, but in reality was an officer of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian General Staff (GRU), who was discovered to be peeking a bit too closely into President Francois Hollande. Specifically, Ilyushin was detected by French counterintelligence trying to recruit one of Hollande’s senior aides; in other words, GRU was seeking a mole at the president’s side. Ilyushin wanted information not just regarding matters of state, but about the president’s salacious personal life too. Fortunately, French counterspies were onto the GRU officer, and surveilled him for months, cutting short his secret plan. But the French were impressed by the colonel, only thirty years of age and a diligent case officer; unlike many of his predecessors dispatched to Paris by the Kremlin, particularly in Cold War days, Ilyushin was neither a drunkard nor a slacker.

Ilyushin was a busy man, always on the lookout for recruits. He regularly made his presence felt at a wide array of French defense establishments and think tanks, where he constantly tried to “bump into” senior officials, researchers, and journalists, especially those working on security affairs. As a French counterintelligence official explained about Ilyushin’s efforts to recruit influential Parisian reporters,

 “Before approaching them, he learned everything about them: their families, their tastes, their weaknesses too.” He would invite promising targets to lunch at an expensive restaurant and continue to do so every two weeks, per usual GRU practice. During these meetings, Ilyushin would volunteer juicy insider information about Russian defense matters and ties between Moscow and Paris.

At first, he asked for nothing in exchange. Au contraire, Ilyushin was a generous man, and eventually he would offer his quarry a nice gift, an expensive pen or high-end bottle of liquor: “standard first gifts from the former KGB, sufficiently expensive for being a little compromising, but not expensive enough to be considered corruption,” as Le Nouvel Observateur noted. If the gift was accepted, Ilyushin would move forward to full-fledged recruitment of the source. What followed conforms to standard Russian practice in such matters:

Then Ilyushin asked for information, initially anodyne, then less and less so. He put forward to them some small pre-written article, part of a disinformation campaign conceived in Moscow. In exchange, he offered more substantial gifts: for example, a family trip to some sunny paradise. If the interlocutor accepted, he entered into the murky world of espionage. Like in manuals, Ilyushin moved to phase three, the handling (“manipulation”) of his agent, with clandestine meetings abroad and stacks of cash.

One of the journalists whom Ilyushin was seeking to recruit became wary, and he turned to French counterintelligence just in time, as the man had access to Hollande’s inner circle, just as GRU wanted. When the journalist realized he was soon to be a paid Russian agent, he told his story to Parisian counterspies (DCRI, since May termed DGSI), specifically their H4 team that conducts counterintelligence operations against the Russians in France, which already was aware of who the “deputy air attache” really was. Ilyushin was summoned for a meeting and told by French officials to cease his espionage. When he did not do so, a few months later Ilyushin was sent packing back to Moscow, where he was promoted to general, presumably as a reward for his excellent clandestine work in Paris.

The never-before-revealed Ilyushin case represents, in the words of Le Nouvel Observateur, “but the tip of the iceberg that is the broad offensive by Russian spies in Europe, in particular in France.” As a senior French official explained, “In the last few years, particularly after Putin’s return at the Kremlin, they are increasingly numerous and aggressive.” Another added, “They are twice as active as during the Cold War.” The Ukraine crisis has only made Russian spies in France more zealous, and they are seeking everything: political secrets, military secrets, nuclear secrets, economic secrets, plus anything to do with French relations with NATO, the EU and the UN. Hence DGSI’s H4 team is very busy and has been increased to meet this new threat, but today they only number thirty, including secretaries, versus more than eighty when the Berlin Wall fell.

French counterintelligence is aware that several members of the French parliament have been approached by Russian intelligence over the last two or three years; the Russians especially look for unwitting sources who inadvertently reveal too much about defense and security matters. DGSI recently detected one such seeker of “soft” intelligence, Vladimir F., ostensibly a press attache at the Russian Embassy but actually an officer of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). Once detected, he was discreetly sent back to Russia.

SVR officers try to recruit politicians and also influence-shapers in Paris: “Some MP’s agree to relay information supplied by these spies, most of the time without realizing it, acting like ‘useful idiots’ … Some give diplomatic cables to their new ‘Russian friends’.” Think tanks represent another common SVR and GRU target, with prominent researchers reporting many approaches from suspected Russian intelligence officers, while French counterintelligence has tried to keep known Russian operatives away from prominent think tanks, not always successfully.

Industrial espionage is a perennial Kremlin interest, having been a major source of Soviet technology during the Cold War, since it is always cheaper and easier to steal cutting-edge technology than to develop it, but it is now perhaps less tempting than in the past:

These days, the Russian secret services, obsessed as they are with political and military matters, are less effective as regards economic intelligence than their counterparts.”

Nevertheless, there are Russian successes in this arena too. Last year, according to DGSI, the Russian company Rosatom sold a nuclear reactor to a European country because the SVR had been secretly informed about the offer made by its French competitor, Areva.

Back in 2010, then-President Nicolas Sarkozy warned Vladimir Putin about rising Russian espionage. According to one of his top aides, Sarkozy told his Russian counterpart, “almost as if in jest: ‘Instead of spying on our country, you had better deal with terrorists’.” This came after a major spy scandal, never before revealed to the public. A Russian deputy naval attache at the Paris embassy — again, a GRU officer, in reality — sought super-secret information about the sound signatures emitted by new French nuclear submarines.

He developed a French naval officer, gradually, eventually showing up at his house with a suitcase filled with cash to exchange for the desired purloined data. But the French officer had reported the GRU approaches, and French counterintelligence played a trick on the Russians. The “top secret” documents exchanged for cash were fakes. Although Paris hushed up the affair, the GRU officer was declaredpersona non grata and sent home without delay.

Sarkozy’s warning had no effect, and Russian espionage against France is today more robust than ever. According to French counterintelligence, there are some fifty Russian intelligence officers — roughly forty SVR and ten GRU — posing under diplomatic cover at the Paris embassy and the Russian consulates in Nice, Marseille, and Strasbourg. There are also a few officers of the Federal Security Service (FSB)* in France serving undercover as well. The head of SVR activities in France, termed the rezident by the Russians, usually poses as a third secretary at the embassy in Paris, while the GRU rezident masquerades as a TASS journalist or as the senior naval attache.

The Russians also employ Illegals, meaning intelligence operatives who work without benefit of any formal cover. They enter the country under aliases and wholly fake identities, through third countries, following years of training, and are notoriously difficult for even top-notch counterintelligence services to detect. (America got a rare break in 2010 when it rolled up a ten-strong SVR Illegals network in the USA, including the famously photogenic Anna Chapman.)

There is as little contact as possible between the SVR’s “legal” presence, meaning officers serving under various official covers like diplomats and journalists, and Illegals, to protect the identities of these elite spies. French counterintelligence estimates that there are between ten and twenty Russian Illegals currently in the country. How DGSI’s H4 team came to this number was explained by an official:

SVR headquarters in Moscow communicates with Illegals by regularly sending flash high-emission frequencies. They last about half a second and they are encrypted. A spy receives them at their place on an ad hoc receiver-transmitter piece of equipment. The discreet radio-electric DGSI center in Boullay-les-Troux in the Essonne, is capable of intercepting all these emissions. Given that there are some twenty different ones, and that some are probably for training purposes, one can estimate that the clandestine people are between ten and twenty.

Paris believed that there were as many as sixty KGB Illegals in France when the Cold War ended, but French counterintelligence never had much success detecting exactly who they were. Now, however, DGSI claims to have a better handle on Moscow’s Illegals. One official revealed that the Anna Chapman network rolled up in the USA in 2010 had links to an Illegal in France as well:

 “We discovered his apartment, in which there was material for transmissions. We did not arrive in time to arrest him, he had disappeared.” Nevertheless, officials toldLe Nouvel Observateur that DGSI has good information on SVR Illegals in France but is playing the long game: “We are watching them permanently. We learn. We will ‘squeeze’ them at the right time…” 

Cooperation among Western security services is a major help in detecting Russian espionage. Such collaboration has never been better, Parisian officials made clear. Everybody in the West is on a heightened state of alert these days regarding Kremlin espionage:

 “Every time we identify a Russian spy, particularly a rezident, we warn our friends in Berlin, London, or Warsaw,” explained a French official. Top security officials in Germany and Britain have admitted that Russian espionage is at unprecedented levels in their countries as well, while the head of the Belgian security service recently stated that there are “hundreds” of spies operating in Brussels, where NATO and the European Commission are headquartered, “chiefly Russians.”

In contrast, French officials have been more circumspect in public, rarely mentioning the extent of Russian espionage in their country. Indeed, the last time Parisian higher-ups raised a public fuss about such Kremlin activities was way back in 1992, when a French nuclear official was caught passing top secret documents to the Russians. Why this silence persists despite the rising clandestine threat from the East is not difficult to discern. As one Paris official noted wryly:

“How can one explain to public opinion that Russian spies are a threat and, at the same time, that it is necessary to deliver Mistral warships to Moscow?” 

This laissez-faire attitude in Paris about Russian espionage seems unlikely to change soon. The only game-changer potentially on the horizon would be Western reactions in the event Russia actually invades Ukraine with major conventional forces. In that case, the counterintelligence gloves would come off and Russian spies — hundreds of them — who are known to Western counterspies would be expelled en masse.

Unless that happens, Russian espionage in France will continue at a fever pitch. Although DGSI and other French security services are highly professional, and get a great deal of help from Western partners in identifying and blunting SVR and GRU activities to the extent that they can, without political resolve to seriously confront this problem it can only be expected to get worse.

Moreover, the same tradecraft employed by Russian spies in France is played out on a daily basis in every Western country, including — perhaps especially — in the United States. American politicians, journalists, researchers, and academics are targeted by the SVR and GRU just as their counterparts in France are and, we can assume, with similar success. This is a SpyWar, and Moscow intends to win.

*Although Le Nouvel Observateur does not state this, these FSB officers working undercover in France are mostly signals intelligence (SIGINT) specialists conducting covert electronic collection from Russian diplomatic facilities, as the FSB is Russia’s civilian SIGINT agency, as well as the domestic security service.

A Test for the European Union — The Opinion Pages

In a speech on Saturday, Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary said his country was done with liberal democracy. Mr. Orban cited Russia, Turkey and China as “successful” examples of the kind of “illiberal new state based on national foundations” that he wants Hungary to be.

He boasted that European Union membership was no bar to building such a state. Long an admirer of Vladimir Putin, Mr. Orban has been thumbing his nose at the European Union since his Fidesz Party won election in 2010.

Since then, Mr. Orban’s government has taken steps to undermine the rule of law, gut press freedom, attack civil society groups and increase executive power. When Hungary’s Constitutional Court in 2012 struck down some of the laws that Mr. Orban’s government introduced, the government simply brought them back as constitutional amendments.

A new law imposing up to 40 percent tax on advertising revenue is aimed squarely at crippling the Hungarian unit of the RTL Group, one of the few channels in Hungary that does not parrot the government line.

In June, Hungary’s Government Control Office put more pressure on civil society groups, seeking financing data from them. The government has also criminalized homelessness and stripped some 300 religious groups of their official status.

President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy (left) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. (Photo: EPA)

The European Union has condemned these actions, and the Venice Commission, an advisory body on rights to the Council of Europe, published a scathing report on Hungary’s constitutional amendments last year.

On Monday, Neelie Kroes, the vice president of the European Commission who is responsible for the digital agenda, harshly criticized the advertising tax, calling it a threat to a free press that is the foundation of a democratic society. Viviane Reding, the European Commissioner for Justice, has said that the European Union should consider suspending Hungary’s voting rights in the European Council, a measure the union has been reluctant to take.

Mr. Orban clearly believes he runs no risk. The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, needs to respond with more than the usual admonitions and hand-wringing. The commission could start by reducing the 21.91 billion euros (about $29.33 billion) the European Union has allocated to Hungary to finance infrastructure development from 2014-20.

It should also begin proceedings to invoke Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, which allows the suspension of voting rights of a member state that is at serious risk of breaching the values listed in Article 2, including the rule of law, freedom, democracy and respect for human rights.

The commission would diminish its credibility if it fails to take steps to sanction Hungary for systematically breaching these values.

Countdown to Grexit deadline day

EU leaders have given Greece until the end of the weekend to reach an agreement with its creditors or face crashing out of the euro.

Athens formally submitted a request for a new three-year bailout to the eurozone’s €500bn bailout fund on Wednesday, the first of many steps it has to complete before eurozone and EU leaders gather in Brussels on Sunday to decide its fate.

Here are the other deadlines it has to meet to salvage its place in the single currency and avert the biggest crisis in the EU’s history.

In their letter to the bailout fund, known as the European Stability Mechanism, Greek authorities vowed to “set out in detail its proposals for a comprehensive and specific reform agenda” by Thursday.

These are the “prior actions” that so bedevilled the bailout talks before Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, walked away from the negotiating table and called a referendum on the creditors’ proposal last month.

Eurozone leaders have warned that these new prior actions must be more comprehensive than those negotiated only two weeks ago — for an obvious reason. The previous bailout talks were over a single, final €7.2bn tranche in Greece’s old bailout.

These reforms will be part of a new, multiyear programme — the kind of thing that is normally negotiated over a period of weeks, if not months.

Under the treaty governing the ESM — Greece’s two previous bailouts were granted before the bailout fund even existed — the European Commission “in liaison with the ECB” must evaluate any request for aid before it goes to national capitals for consideration. With time running out, that evaluation must occur in just 24 hours, on Friday.

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, went out of her way on Tuesday to highlight the issues the commission must consider in its evaluation — including whether there is a “risk to the financial stability of the euro area as a whole”, a line Berlin insisted on during the debate over the ESM treaty. Germany has long argued that bailouts should only be forthcoming if the entire eurozone is threatened.

In many ways, this is a more critical day than Sunday’s summit. Under the ESM treaty, it is the ESM’s board of governors — the eurozone’s 19 finance ministers — who decide whether formal negotiations should begin. Under the timetable agreed by eurozone leaders on Tuesday night, eurozone finance ministers will meet on Saturday to make this very determination.

If the board of governors decide there is enough in the Greek proposal to start talks, they then task the trio of bailout monitors — the European Commission, ECB and “whenever possible” the IMF — to start talks over a new “memorandum of understanding”, a politically poisonous phrase in Greece that has come to stand for the tough austerity measures the country has lived under for the last five years.

If eurozone finance ministers agree to start bailout talks, Sunday’s summit of EU leaders may not even be needed, according to eurozone officials.

After all, despite Mr Tsipras’ repeated insistence that a “political agreement” was needed at the highest levels, almost all bailout decisions are delegated to finance ministers.

But if no deal is struck on Saturday, leaders from all 28 EU countries have been summoned to Brussels to sort out the mess on Sunday.

According to EU officials, one of the most important things they will be asked to decide on is a humanitarian relief programme for Greece, something that may be needed amid rising shortages of medicines and, potentially, food and fuel.

This day will look very different depending on whether Grexit has been avoided or not. If a deal gets the green light from finance ministers on Saturday, there are several countries — including Germany, Finland and the Netherlands — which still need parliamentary approval before such permission is officially granted.

This has always been a concern in Germany, where Ms Merkel’s own Christian Democratic bloc has grown increasingly restive.

The Bundestag, which is currently on a month-long July recess, will have to be called back into session on Monday, to vote on any agreement. If no deal is agreed at the weekend, Monday’s focus instead turns to the ECB.

With the prospect of a major Greek government default and bankruptcy imminent, the central bank’s governing council will in all likelihood be convened to withdraw the €89bn in emergency loans currently keeping Greek banks alive. Grexit would ensue.

Greece and all of Europe are in uncharted waters

alex tsipras angela merkel
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras during Tsipras’ first official trip to Germany in March

Greece has voted “No” to its international creditors’ bailout proposal, supporting the left-wing Syriza Government in a high-stakes referendum.

The Sunday poll, in which Greece voted “No” to its international creditors’ bailout proposal, showed a clear rejection of creditor terms: 61% voted “No,” and just under 39% voted “Yes.” What this result will mean politically, however, is a rather more open question.

One reason has to do with the main actors of the German elite who seem to have presented a conflicted and confused response to the result.

For instance, the German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel told the Tagesspiegel newspaper that “the Greek Government is leading the Greeks on a path of bitter sacrifice and hopelessness.”

Yet Germany’s hardline finance minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, stated rather surprisingly that Greece could exit the eurozone “temporarily.”

Similar cautious remarks were also reiterated by the German foreign minister Frank Walter Steinmeier, who stated in Tagesspiegel am Sonntag that a Grexit would be a “disastrous signal to countries outside the European Union.”

Angela Merkel on her part made no public statements, yet her awareness of the negative geopolitical consequences of a Grexit is well-known.

The Chancellor is also aware of the fact that a Grexit will end the dream that eurozone membership is irrevocable. But again, how Germany’s leadership especially Angela Merkel will respond is still a puzzle, despite the Chancellor’s track record on managing the passing of unpopular legislation.

This last point is especially relevant in case Greece requires a new bailout.

But there is another reason behind the uncertainty. If Greece exits the euro, it will most likely be what the Economist Intelligence Unit calls a “de facto” exit as opposed to a de jure exit.

A de facto exit means that a “No” vote would increase the likelihood of Greece defaulting on the ECB on July 20th.

Greece would then be cut off from the ECB’s ELA program, default on private creditors, and issue a parallel currency which will circulate alongside the euro.

With an increasing need to print domestic scrip, Greece will have exited the monetary union, at least in de facto terms.

Such a scenario can be reversed, since it is up to the Greek government to set a conversion rate between the euro and the scrip and re-denominate contracts. Consequently, whether Greece will be in or out of the euro will be an open question.

Yet the uncertainty does not end here. Even if a de facto exit occurs, Greece would continue to be legally (de jure) a member of EMU, and may face significant uncertainty over its status.

This is due to the fact that the nation could use treaty provisions to argue that it was illegally forced out of the euro by its peers, while its peers could accuse Greece of violating treaty provisions by issuing a parallel currency.

Consequently, the legal debate will be protracted and its outcome will be highly uncertain, to say the least.

In conclusion, if there is one concept that sums up the road ahead for Greece and Europe it is that of uncertainty. The latter is even more true due to the current polarized nature of Greek politics.

Such polarization will embolden the radical voices within Syriza to harden their stance towards Tsipras, and by consequence his stance towards the creditors.

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