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EU summit: Poland told to ‘respect the rules’ of the club in rule-of-law row | World News

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The argument now distracting and dominating the European Union is an unequal battle with the potential for far-reaching consequences. 

On one side is Poland, enthusiastically supported by Hungary, and determined to prove that one of the fundamental tenets of European solidarity isn’t so fundamental after all.

On the other side is, well, just about everyone else. Some of them pressing for a conciliatory “let’s not be too harsh” debate; others wanting to go in hard.

The cause of all this anger is one of those bits of domestic news that sounds dry but has explosive potential.

Belgium's Prime Minister Alexander De Croo
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Belgium Prime Minister Alexander De Croo speaks to journalists at the summit

In short, the country’s top court, acting on a request from Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, declared that, in some areas, the national constitution took precedence over European law.

And that has set great, big alarm bells ringing. Because the golden rule of EU Club is that EU Club laws always come first. They must take primacy, to coin a phrase that has popped up a lot over the past few days.

“If you want to have the advantages of being in a club, then you need to respect the rules,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo said. “You can’t be a member of a club and say ‘the rules don’t apply to me’.”

The Polish Prime Minister does not agree, accusing the EU of “blackmail” because of suggestions that Poland could now face sanctions. He said his country was “ready for dialogue” but refused to distance himself from the controversial court ruling.

There is no mechanism for throwing Poland out of the EU (not that anybody would want to go anywhere near that far) and, realistically, Poland has no desire to leave, either. So instead, the question is whether the EU wants to levy a punishment.

That could mean withholding financial payments, for instance, or curtailing the country’s rights as a member state.

It wouldn’t be unprecedented – Poland is already facing daily fines of half a million Euros for continuing to extract lignite from a mine near the border with the Czech Republic in defiance of a court order. There is a suspicion that Mr Morawiecki is rather relishing his battle with Brussels.

Morawiecki at a round table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels
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Mr Morawiecki at a round table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels

But he is not alone. Viktor Orban, the populist Prime Minister of Hungary, has repeatedly infuriated the EU with his own policies. Here, he came to town ready to leap to Poland’s defence.

“Poland – the best country in Europe – there’s no need to have any sanctions,” he said.

“We are not building fronts here, we are fighting for issues which are important for our own nations. So we make an alliance and fight together – this is the logic we are doing here. It’s not like the cold war or something like that, creating blocs.”

So, I asked Mr Orban, did he agree – did he think that Hungarian law held primacy over EU law?

He smiled. In fact, he almost laughed. “The fact is very clear that the primacy of EU law is not in the treaty at all. So the EU has primacy where it has competences. The question is about the competences.

“What’s going on here is that – regularly – European Institutions circumvent the rights of the national parliament and government and modify the treaty without having any legitimate authority to do so. So the Polish are right.”

He told me there was no schism between the east and west of Europe, but rather “between common sense and non-common sense”. With a shrug, he declared that the idea of levying sanctions against Poland was “ridiculous”.

So we are heading for a proper row. Is it worth it – the EU going into a political battle with one of its own members? It’s a question I put to the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte
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Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte says Poland has to take ‘the necessary steps’

“I think we have to be tough but I think the question is how do you get there,” he told me. “My argument will be that the independence of the Polish judiciary is the key issue which we have to discuss and we have to settle.

“Poland has to take the necessary steps – that is non-negotiable. This has to do with the foundations of our democracy in this part of the world. So here we cannot negotiate.”

Of course, the EU has plenty of form at creating a crisis, only to then come up with a way to solve it. But this doesn’t feel stage-managed. It feels awkward and painful – the Germans, for instance, don’t seem to want to interfere, but nor do they want to be seen as too passive.

But Poland has popped up repeatedly in recent missives from Brussels. Its border with Belarus has been the site for migrants being pushed towards Europe by President Lukashenko, only to be stopped in their tracks by the Polish police.

Its rules on LGBTQ+ rights have been widely criticised, as have the country’s laws on equality.

And, just like Mr Orban, Poland’s prime minister seems to see political capital in having a row with other EU leaders (especially ones from the west) while retaining the financial advantages of EU membership.

So this won’t end with Poland leaving, or being dismissed from the club. But we may be heading for an almighty row, that leads to… we don’t know where.

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COVID-19: Second night of violence in The Netherlands as rioters clash with police over new rules | World News

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Seven people have been arrested after rioters clashed with police in The Hague for a second night of violence in the Netherlands, sparked by protests over new COVID-19 restrictions.

The unrest came a day after police opened fire on protesters in Rotterdam amid what the port city’s mayor called “an orgy of violence”, leaving three people seriously injured after they were hit by bullets. Police said investigations are under way to establish if the shots were fired by officers.

In The Hague on Saturday night, young people set fires in the streets and threw fireworks at officers.

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Clashes in Rotterdam on Friday night over COVID rules

Police said in a tweet that seven people were arrested and five officers were injured, while one needed treatment in a hospital following the clashes.

Elsewhere in the Netherlands, two soccer matches in the top professional league had to be briefly halted after fans – banned from matches under a partial lockdown in force in the country for a week – broke into stadiums in the towns of Alkmaar and Almelo.

There was a heavy police presence in several other major towns after social media calls to riot followed the Rotterdam clashes, but any further violence was largely contained, Dutch media reported.

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Thousands protest new lockdown in Austria

Demonstrations have been taking place on the streets of several European cities this weekend, in protest against new lockdown measures.

Tens of thousands have voiced their anger in the Austrian capital after the government announced a nationwide lockdown and said coronavirus vaccinations would become mandatory by law next year, blaming the country’s high infection numbers on those who have failed to take up the jab.

The nationwide lockdown will start on Monday and will initially last for 10 days, before being re-assessed, and will last a maximum of 20 days.

Demonstrators light flares during a demonstration against COVID lockdown measures in Vienna, Austria. Pic: AP
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Demonstrators light flares during a demonstration against COVID lockdown measures in Vienna, Austria. Pic: AP
A demonstrator holds a banner during a protest in Brussels
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A demonstrator holds a banner during a protest in Brussels

Most shops will close and cultural events will be cancelled. People will only be able to leave their homes for certain reasons, including food shopping, going to the doctor, or doing exercise.

Austria’s infection rate is among the highest on the continent, with a seven-day incidence of 971.5 per 100,000 people – and daily cases keep setting records.

Around 65% of Austria’s population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, one of the lowest rates in western Europe. In the UK it is about 68%.

Protest against COVID-19 measures in Amsterdam
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There was also a protest against COVID-19 measures in Amsterdam on Saturday
Police officers stand guard as demonstrators gather in the Austrian capital
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Police officers stand guard as demonstrators gathered in the Austrian capital

Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg has apologised to all vaccinated people, saying it was not fair they had to suffer under the renewed lockdown restrictions when they had done everything to help contain the virus.

“I’m sorry to take this drastic step,” he said on public broadcaster ORF.

While Austria so far stands alone in the EU in making vaccinations mandatory, more and more governments are clamping down.

From Monday, Slovakia, where just 45.3% of the 5.5 million population is fully vaccinated, is banning people who have not been from all non-essential stores and shopping centres.

They will also not be allowed to attend public events or gatherings and will be required to test twice a week just to go to work.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said: “It is really, absolutely, time to take action.”

A man is detained in Vienna
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A protester is detained by police in Vienna
A demonstrator faces the riot police in Brussels
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A demonstrator faces the riot police in Brussels
People gather at the Bois de la Cambre/Ter Kamerenbos park in defiance of Europe's coronavirus social distancing measures and restrictions in Brussels
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People gather at the Bois de la Cambre/Ter Kamerenbos park in defiance of Europe’s coronavirus social distancing measures and restrictions in Brussels

With a vaccination rate of 67.5%, her nation is now considering mandatory vaccinations for many health professionals.

Greece is also targeting the unvaccinated. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has announced new restrictions for the unjabbed, including stopping them entering venues such as bars, restaurants, cinemas, theatres, museums, and gyms, even if they have tested negative.

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Demonstrations against coronavirus restrictions have also taken place in Switzerland, Croatia and Italy.

And in central Hull, around 200 anti-vaxxers marched through the streets, demanding that carers looking after the elderly and vulnerable should not be forced to have the jab.

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France: Pensioner kills bear with rifle after part of his leg torn off in attack | World News

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A brown bear has been shot dead by a man hunting wild boar after it attacked and tore part of his leg off in southwestern France, according to reports.

The 70-year-old is said to have fired his rifle twice in self-defence – killing the female animal instantly.

He was airlifted to hospital by helicopter and is described as being in a serious condition.

The authorities in France have launched an investigation into the incident happened near Seix, in Ariège, on Saturday afternoon.

A member of the local hunting association told the news website La Depeche said: “I was a little further away, I didn’t see what was happening but I heard the call on the radio.

“The bear attacked him and grabbed his leg, he tore his calf off and injured him in the other leg too.

“One person managed to stop the bleeding until the arrival of help.”

He added: “It doesn’t surprise me, they are coming closer and closer because there is nothing left to eat in the mountains.

“But he shot him only for the sake of himself.”

The attack is set to reignite the debate over the reintroduction of brown bears to the Pyrenees.

The move was controversial among farmers who believe the animals pose a threat to their livestock.

In last year’s census, 64 bears were counted across the Pyrenees.

Critics argue as numbers grow they are increasingly finding it more difficult to get food, bringing them into closer contact with people.

Local media report between January and October of this year, bears killed or are thought to have killed 625 sheep, 16 cattle, 17 horses and a dog.

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Peng Shuai: Images of the tennis star are welcome, but we still don’t know if she is free | World News

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Sunday lunch at Beijing Yibin Guesthouse is noisy and busy, with customers queuing for the restaurant’s signature dishes – fiery Sichuan noodles and pig’s elbow.

It’s a popular spot, and the one chosen to reveal Peng Shuai’s whereabouts to the world.

After three weeks of asking “where is Peng Shuai?” – this is China’s attempt at an answer.

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Peng Shuai dines in restaurant

Videos released by state media showed Peng at the guesthouse. Bizarrely, she and her guests mention the date out loud – five times in the short clip.

That’s not usually what friends on a Saturday night out do – more the sort of thing you would expect from a proof of life video.

On Sunday, when Sky News visits, staff confirm Peng was there. “Yes. She has been here for meal. Yes, it’s our restaurant,” a waitress tells us.

Did she see her personally?

“No, I didn’t. Yesterday I was busy with my work here. I didn’t see her. But she had a meal in our restaurant.”

State media followed up the restaurant video with footage of Peng at a junior tennis tournament the next morning at the National Tennis Centre, in the 2008 Olympics zone.

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Missing Peng Shuai seen at tennis final

When we slip into the stadium in the early afternoon, there’s no sign of her.

A staff member spots us in the stands and escorts us out. But he says she was indeed there: “Yes, I saw her. But you can’t be here, sorry.”

It’s the most we’ve seen of Peng Shuai since she accused Zhang Gaoli, a very senior Communist politician, of pressuring her into sex.

But none of this was published by Peng. Chinese state media, not her, is providing the updates.

National Tennis Centre, Beijing
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The National Tennis Centre in Beijing, where Peng Shuai was pictured at a junior tournament

And her Weibo account, on which she first published the allegations, is still blocked.

That has left many unconvinced, including the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), which has been unflinching in demanding more information from the Chinese authorities.

After the restaurant video emerged, Steve Simon, the CEO of the WTA, wrote: “While it is positive to see her, it remains unclear if she is free and able to make decisions and take actions on her own, without coercion or external interference. This video alone is insufficient.

“As I have stated from the beginning, I remain concerned about Peng Shuai’s health and safety and that the allegation of sexual assault is being censored and swept under the rug.”

National Tennis Centre, Beijing
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A member of staff at the stadium said Peng had been there

The question “where is Peng Shuai” has been a shorthand – a rallying cry from the tennis world.

Her appearance is welcome.

But the bigger, trickier questions – about her allegations, about her whereabouts since she made them, about her freedom now – have not been answered yet.

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