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June 19, 2017

PARIS (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron is poised to rearrange his Cabinet after his new centrist party swept parliamentary elections. Government spokesman Christophe Castaner said Monday on RTL radio that Prime Minister Edouard Philippe would resign “in the coming hours” and a new government would be named in the coming days. It’s a largely symbolic move required after legislative elections.

Since Macron’s Republic on the Move! Party won an absolute majority in the 577-seat National Assembly, Castaner said the government reshuffle would be “technical and not far-reaching.” He refused to say whether ministers who have come under corruption suspicions would keep their jobs.

Many victorious parliament members have never held office before. They started arriving Monday at the National Assembly to learn their way around before the first parliament session next week.

June 22, 2017

BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union leaders are gathering Thursday to weigh measures to tackle terrorism, closer defense ties and migration, convinced that anti-EU sentiment and support for populist parties are waning.

Ahead of the two-day meeting in Brussels, summit chairman Donald Tusk trumpeted the resurgence of the EU, even as Britain launched talks this week on leaving. Tusk told the leaders in an invitation letter that after a series of election defeats for anti-migrant parties, notably in France, the EU is “slowly turning the corner.”

“We are witnessing the return of the EU rather as a solution, not a problem,” he wrote. French President Emmanuel Macron, attending his first summit, warned countries against defying Europe’s principles and values, as some eastern European states challenge the bloc’s refugee-sharing scheme, which was adopted with a legally binding majority vote.

“Europe is not a supermarket. Europe is a common destiny. It gets weaker when it allows its principles to be rejected. European countries that don’t respect the rules have to draw all the political consequences,” Macron said in an interview with eight European newspapers ahead of the summit.

Prior to these meetings, government leaders and heads of state usually meet in their political groupings to prepare. Macron is breaking with tradition and plans to hold talks with the leaders of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, most of whom have challenged the refugee plan.

On migration, the leaders will acknowledge the need to boost support and training for the coast guard in Libya — the main jumping-off point for people from Africa seeking better lives in Europe. “Further efforts shall also be made to achieve real progress in return policy,” so that unauthorized migrants can be sent home in greater number and more efficiently, according to a draft of their final summit statement.

British Prime Minister Theresa May is also due to praise the good atmosphere at Monday’s Brexit talks, and explain how to protect the rights of citizens hit by Britain’s departure. Britain is set to become the first country to leave the EU by late March 2019, but Tusk held out hopes Thursday that it might not come to pass.

Ahead of private talks with May Thursday, Tusk said he had been asked by British friends if he could see a way of Britain still staying in. “I told them that in fact the EU was built on dreams that seemed impossible to achieve,” Tusk said.

“So who knows? You may say I am a dreamer but I’m not the only one,” he added, quoting John Lennon’s popular hit “Imagine.” Relations with Russia are also on the summit menu. The leaders are not expected to raise any objections to prolong a number of sanctions against Moscow for destabilizing Ukraine.

June 26, 2017

LONDON (AP) — The leader of a Northern Ireland-based party struck a 1.5 billion pound ($1.9 billion) deal with British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives on Monday to support her minority government in a crucial vote on her legislative package later this week.

Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster said the funding would “address the unique circumstances” of Northern Ireland. As part of the deal, funds will be provided to boost Northern Ireland’s economy and offer investment in new infrastructure, health and education.

May said that the two parties “share many values.” “We also share the desire to ensure a strong government, able to put through its program and provide for issues like the Brexit negotiations, but also national security issues,” May said. “So the agreement we have come to is a very, very good one.”

But the figure is certain to raise questions at a time of funding pressure to support police and security services following several extremist attacks as well as a national housing crisis following a devastating fire in a London high-rise that killed at least 79 people. The other parts of the United Kingdom are also certain to object to special consideration for Northern Ireland.

Foster’s party had demanded tangible benefits for Northern Ireland in terms of jobs and investment in order to offer its support for May, who lost her majority in the House of Commons in a snap election earlier this month. The prime minister needs the DUP’s 10 lawmakers to back her legislative program in order to stay in power.

As part of the deal, money will be earmarked to address a bottleneck between three busy roads in Northern Ireland, and to open up “new opportunities for growth and connectivity” in digital infrastructure.

In an annex outlining the deal, the government said it “recognizes that Northern Ireland has unique circumstances within the United Kingdom, not least as a consequence of responding to challenges of the past,” and would therefore allocate 50 million pounds a year for two years “to address immediate pressures in health and education.”

But critics, including members of May’s Conservatives, have objected to any kind of alliance with the DUP because of some of its views, including opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion. Northern Ireland’s other political parties have also objected to any kind of alliance with the DUP, as it jeopardizes the government’s pledge to be a neutral arbiter as part of the Good Friday agreement, which brought peace to Northern Ireland after decades of sectarian strife.

June 20, 2017

LONDON (AP) — The family of the suspect arrested in a van attack on a London mosque says they are “massively shocked” and that “their hearts go out to the injured.” British media identified the suspect as Darren Osborne from the Welsh city of Cardiff. He was arrested on suspicion of the commission, preparation or instigation of terrorism including murder and attempted murder.

Relatives and acquaintances have described him as “complex” or “troubled” in comments to the British media. Witnesses said Osborne claimed he wanted to “kill all Muslims” after he drove into a crowd leaving a mosque early Monday morning. One man who was receiving first aid at the time of the attack died; it’s unclear if his death was a result of the attack or from a previous condition.

Nine people were hospitalized after the attack and one person has since been discharged. Two others were treated for minor injuries at the scene. In a statement on behalf of the family, Osborne’s nephew Ellis Osborne said they were devastated for the families of the victims but said that his uncle was not a racist.

Darren Osborne’s sister Nicola said her brother had been “troubled for a long time.” His mother, Christine, described him as a “complex” person. “I’m not going to defend him, but he’s my son and it’s a terrible, terrible shock,” she told ITV.

“It’s not just robbing a bank, it’s an atrocity. And at this moment in time, I can’t cope with it, I can’t. I don’t want to say anything more.” Police were searching an address where Osborne was said to be living before the attack. British media reported that there was no evidence Osborne belonged to any far-right organization and said he was not known to the security services.

One of Osborne’s neighbors in Cardiff, Khadijh Sherazi, told the Guardian newspaper she had never had any problems with Osborne or his family until this weekend. Sherazi said her son, Nadeem, 12, said Osborne came up to him while he was on his bike and called him an “inbred.”

“At this stage in the investigation, it is believed that the suspect acted alone but we are of course investigating all the circumstances leading up to the attack,” the Metropolitan police said in a statement. “All the victims were from the Muslim community and we will be deploying extra police patrols to reassure the public, especially those observing Ramadan.”

June 20, 2017

LONDON (AP) — When Britain voted to leave the European Union a year ago, proponents argued Britain’s economy was being held back by the slow-growing, dysfunctional bloc. A year on, and with the Brexit divorce talks finally starting, the situation is radically different.

Britain’s economy is growing more slowly than Greece’s, its households are getting poorer as inflation rises and the government is struggling to stay in power. The remaining 27 members of the EU, meanwhile, appear to have pushed into a higher gear and found renewed vigor from the election of pro-EU governments like that of France.

“The tables have turned somewhat,” said James Nixon, chief European economist at Oxford Economics. “The European economy is now enjoying a solid upswing and sentiment, especially towards the EU, is improving.”

The situation could embolden the EU negotiators in the Brexit talks and weaken the British side, though it is still far from certain how the talks, which are due to last two years, will play out. For Britain, it’s a role reversal, having been buoyed by strong growth in recent times — even after the momentous vote on June 23, 2016 to leave the EU.

Rather than fall into recession in the wake of the Brexit vote, as many economists had predicted, Britain last year was one of the fastest-growing economy among the Group of Seven industrial nations. That was largely due to the sharp fall in the value of the pound in the wake of the Brexit vote, which made British exports cheaper in international markets.

The EU, and the 19-country eurozone in particular, was still reeling from a debt crisis that raised questions over the future of its euro currency and was struggling to cope with a flow of refugees seeking sanctuary from the war in Syria. The Brexit vote had raised questions about the future of the EU and its detractors, including many political parties, were looking to deliver it blows in key elections in France and elsewhere.

For Britain, things have clearly gotten worse this year. Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May failed spectacularly to achieve a majority for her Conservative Party in the general election she called for earlier this month, undermining confidence in her ability to remain in the top job. And the economy started showing clear signs of worsening.

A 15 percent drop in the pound against the dollar has pushed up inflation as it makes imports more expensive, causing living standards to fall as wage increases fail to keep up pace. The consequence of that is households are spending less — retail sales are growing at their slowest rate in four years.

Uncertainty surrounding the outcome of the Brexit talks — such as the possibility that Britain crashes out of the EU with no deal — is also likely to make consumers cautious. As will the prospect of higher interest rates from the Bank of England. Last week’s policy meeting showed that three of eight rate-setters surprisingly backed the first increase in nearly a decade.

The pound’s fall has helped exporters by making their goods cheaper around the world. But the impact of the depreciation doesn’t last long and credit ratings agency DBRS says that whatever the shape of the Brexit deal, uncertainty “is likely to adversely impact the economy and the fiscal accounts.”

The upshot is that Britain is now at the bottom of the G-7 growth table. Even Greece, which is just coming out of an economic depression and is operating under an international bailout, is doing better, with quarterly growth of 0.4 percent, double Britain’s.

Philip Hammond, reappointed as Chancellor of the Exchequer by May after the election, is increasingly arguing for the need for business to be front and center in the Brexit discussions, over and above any other consideration, such as reclaiming sovereignty or clamping down on immigration.

“When the British people voted last June, they did not vote to become poorer, or less secure,” Hammond said Tuesday. “They did vote to leave the EU. And we will leave the EU. But it must be done in a way that works for Britain. In a way that prioritizes British jobs, and underpins Britain’s prosperity.”

While the situation in Britain has clearly worsened, it has gotten brighter in the rest of the EU. Populist, Euroskeptic politicians in Austria, the Netherlands and France failed to make the headway they may have anticipated in recent elections, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel is widely expected to win again in elections this autumn. Meanwhile, the region’s debt crisis doesn’t look like it’s going to flare up again anytime soon as Greece got the money it needed to meet a big summer repayment hump.

“The second half of the year now looks far less threatening,” said Simon Derrick, chief markets strategist at BNY Mellon. Perhaps the most important development for the economy has been the election of Macron as France’s new president, and his party’s big success in legislative elections on Sunday.

Macron was elected on a mandate to deeply reform France’s economy, such as making it easier to hire and fire workers. The French economy is performing better than at any time in years, which could make it more palatable for people to accept the changes.

All the signs are that the French economy, for years a laggard in Europe, has pushed into a higher gear. The same can be said for the wider eurozone economy, which grew by 0.6 percent in the first three months of the year.

Investors are getting more confident about its prospects, with some funds, including Blackrock and Morgan Stanley, recommending clients to go “overweight” on European stocks. It’s still unclear how this divergence in performance between the two sides of the Brexit negotiating table will play out. The worry for Britain is that the EU will be able to tough it out a bit more than it could have done a year ago.

June 16, 2017

LONDON (AP) — It’s been called a “tale of two cities”: London’s Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, with its billionaires’ homes, neat rows of embassies and a royal palace, is known around the world as the wealthiest place in Britain. Yet it’s also home to some of the capital’s poorest, most ethnically diverse neighborhoods — including the one where an apartment block went up in flames this week, leaving at least 17 dead and whole families missing.

The shock of that tragedy, the worst of its kind London has seen in decades, has mobilized residents to set aside the extreme inequalities of the borough and come together in an outpouring of grief and support.

Churches and mosques near Grenfell Tower were inundated with donations for victims of the fire, many piled so high with boxes they had to turn away a steady stream of residents who kept appearing with food, clothing and other supplies. Strangers stopped each other in the street to catch up on which items needed to go where, offering their bikes for transporting donations.

“We’ve all got compassion. We’ve all got children who went to school with the kids who lived in that building,” said Kirsteen Malcolm, who has lived in north Kensington for 20 years. Malcolm was helping at a makeshift collection station under an overpass, where affluently dressed Britons and headscarf-covered Arab women alike jumped in as volunteers, forming a spontaneous human chain to load cases of bottled water into a van. Other volunteers sorted through mountains of donation boxes and bags. A local restaurant closed for business Thursday, instead setting up a stall at the station to serve free meals to all.

“The community is just rallying. People have just shown up to help,” said Sinead O’Hare, a volunteer working at another donation point. “When I arrived last night it was so busy, but a stranger put me up in her house. It’s amazing.”

Those trapped and unaccounted for in Grenfell Tower, a 24-story government-owned block, included many migrant families from the Middle East and northern Africa. A wall of prayers and condolences outside a local community church reflects the diverse backgrounds of local residents, with hundreds of messages left in English and Arabic. “Allah, make it easy for everyone,” one read.

Suhad Adam, who works with a local charity helping Somali communities, said she felt the atmosphere of solidarity defied the impression that London was tense from community divisions in the wake of the recent extremist attacks on the city.

“It’s the first time I’ve seen London come together like this, Muslims, Jews, Christians,” she said. “The message now is a strong one. We are together.” While Kensington commands the most expensive property prices in the country, its northern tip, where the blaze took place, includes neighborhoods ranking among the 10 percent most deprived in England, according to official data.

Just blocks away, toward the south of the borough, are the glamorous houses and restaurants of Notting Hill, an area favored by investment bankers and wealthy expatriates, and mega-mansions owned by the likes of Russian tycoon Roman Abramovich. Kensington Palace, the home of Prince Harry, Prince William and his wife Kate, is also close by.

The tower blaze has brought out long-simmering anger about that stark divide. When approached by reporters, a local resident railed about gentrification projects that knocked down low-income housing in the area, saying no one in government had paid attention to their plight. Another man at the scene said that only better-off people “with a cut-glass accent” have any hope of being taken seriously by officials.

“The people who died and lost their homes, this happened to them because they are poor,” rap musician Akala told Channel 4 television. “Repeated requests were ignored. There is no way that rich people live in a building without adequate fire safety.”

Still, the overall feeling at the scene was one of a community united — for now — in its determination to help in whatever way it could. Volunteer Joy Ebere, who was handing out free pastries, cakes and fruit, said: “The food is for everyone. They have shown their love.

“We’ve seen many tears — my colleague here was just crying,” she added. “But at the same time we are trying to use good to overcome the pain.”

June 26, 2017

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — It’s back to Switzerland for Cyprus peace talks. This time the rival leaders of the ethnically-divided island will be meeting at the secluded Swiss resort of Crans-Montana. Previous summits were held in Mont Pelerin and Geneva.

The talks kick off Wednesday and are due to last at least a week. They will likely determine whether a deal to reunify Cyprus, which is divided into a breakaway Turkish Cypriot north and an internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south, is possible or not.

The key issue is how security will be overseen if and when Cyprus is reunified as a federation. Other issues still to be resolved include how much territory the Greek and Turkish Cypriot federated states would be made up of and the process for allowing tens of thousands of displaced people to reclaim lost homes and property.

Here’s a look at what will be at play at the peace summit:

MILITARY MUSCLE

The issue is one of the toughest in the complex negotiations that officials say have made significant headway in the last two years and has been left to be tackled last.

It revolves around the 35,000-plus troops that Turkey has kept in place since 1974 when it invaded Cyprus following a coup aimed at union with Greece. Turkey mounted the military action, invoking intervention rights that were granted under Cyprus’ 1960 constitution to the island’s “guarantors”: Turkey, Greece and ex-colonial ruler Britain.

Cyprus’ Greek Cypriot president, Nicos Anastasiades, and the leader of the Turkish Cypriots, Mustafa Akinci, both tackled the security conundrum in Geneva during January talks. The foreign ministers of the “guarantor” nations also took part.

But that meeting dissolved relatively quickly amid recriminations that neither side was unwilling to put its cards on the table and get down to hard bargaining.

TROOPS, NO TROOPS

The Greek Cypriot side wants military intervention rights expunged and Turkish troops gone to eliminate what is sees as an existential threat and Ankara’s instrument of control over the island. Its argument is that no European Union member country would ever need third-country security guarantees.

Anastasiades has proposed an international police force to oversee post-reunification security with the U.N. Security Council using its clout to back it up.

The minority Turkish Cypriots see Turkey’s troops as their sole assurance of protection in case a peace deal unravels and want them to stay.

Akinci has said a rethink over the need for troops could happen around 15 years after reunification. Turkish Cypriot and Turkish officials insist a Greek Cypriot call for a full troop withdrawal is a non-starter.

An alternative proposal that’s been floated unofficially would see small contingents of Greek and Turkish troops deployed on the island after a deal, while intervention rights would be amended to remove any clause for unilateral action.

GO-BETWEEN

Any compromise on security must pass muster with Greek and Turkish Cypriots who will vote on any peace accord in separate referendums before it would be implemented.

U.N. envoy Espen Barth Eide told The Associated Press in April that the world body has helped put together a compromise formula to overcome the security hurdle. He said the formula was the result of consultation with the Cypriot leaders, the European Union and the “guarantors.”

The Greek Cypriot side has insisted on prioritizing a security deal before other issues are tackled. Turkish Cypriots said all issues must be discussed concurrently as part of an overarching bartering process.

To accommodate both sides, negotiations at Crans-Montana will be split into two rooms — security in one, and everything else in the other.

TIMING IS EVERYTHING

The aim at Crans-Montana is for the two sides to achieve a breakthrough on an agreed peace accord framework. More work will be needed over the weeks and months ahead to fill in the gaps and prepare the ground for putting the completed deal to a vote.

Although it’s said the talks will be open-ended, officials say it’ll likely last a week to 10 days. And timing is essential.

The Cyprus government is set to start promising exploratory oil and gas drilling off the island’s southern shore in mid-July amid strong opposition from Turkey, and the Turkish Cypriots who warn of a potential “crisis” if drilling proceeds.

Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots say a “unilateral” Greek Cypriot search for gas flouts their rights to the island’s offshore mineral wealth. The Cypriot government insists drilling is it’s sovereign right and that any hydrocarbon proceeds will be shared after a peace deal is sealed, signed and delivered.

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