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Archive for May, 2014

Swiss cast ballots on world’s highest minimum wage

May 18, 2014

GENEVA (AP) — Switzerland’s citizens voted Sunday on whether to create the world’s highest minimum wage of 22 Swiss francs ($24.70) an hour.

If passed, the Swiss would more than double the existing highest minimum wages in force elsewhere in Europe. Results are expected later Sunday. Trade unions sponsored the wage proposal as way of fighting poverty in a country that, by some measures, features some of the world’s highest prices. But opinion polls indicated that most voters side with government and business leaders, who have argued it would cost jobs and erode economic competitiveness.

Switzerland currently has no minimum wage, but the median hourly wage is about 33 francs ($37) an hour. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development lists the highest current minimum wage as Luxembourg’ at $10.66 an hour, followed by France at $10.60, Australia at $10.21, Belgium at $9.97, and the Netherlands at $9.48. The U.S. minimum wage of $7.25 came tenth on the list. The OECD adjusted figures for spending power.

Voters also faced three other citizen-inspired referendums Sunday. If passed, these would provide the Swiss Air Force with 22 of Saab’s new Gripen fighter jets; impose a lifetime ban on convicted pedophiles working with children; and amend the constitution to support more family doctors in rural areas.

Referendums are a regular feature of democracy in Switzerland, which features a weak central government and strong state governments.

2 drown in Serbia as floods hit across Balkans

May 15, 2014

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Two people drowned in Serbia and the country declared a national emergency Thursday as rain-swollen rivers across the Balkans flooded roads and bridges, shut down schools and cut off power. Hundreds of people had to be evacuated.

In Serbia and neighboring Bosnia, meteorologists said the rainfall was the most since measuring started 120 years ago. Belgrade authorities say the average rainfall of a two-month period hit the city in just 40 hours.

“What we are facing is the biggest water catastrophe in Serbia’s history,” Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said as his government appealed for help from the European Union, Russia and neighboring countries.

Surging water coursed through towns and villages, overflowing across streets and into homes, sweeping bridges off their moorings. Sodden hills crumbled into landslides. Dozens of buses and cars were stranded on flooded roads and two main north-south railway lines in Serbia were impassable.

River levels rose all over Bosnia, including the capital Sarajevo. Maglaj, a town 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of the Bosnian capital, was cut off by water surging into streets. Some 6,000 people asked to be evacuated, with some residents sitting on roofs waiting for help.

“The situation is alarming,” said Mehmed Mustabasic, the mayor of Maglaj. “We have no electricity, the phones are not working. We are cut off from the rest of the world.” Bosnian military helicopters evacuated hundreds of people. The EU troops in Bosnia joined the effort with trucks and helicopters, but many roads remained stuck as snow blanketed higher elevations. Most schools were closed.

In Serbia, emergency officials said more than 600 people were evacuated, some by helicopter, and thousands were left without electricity and phone service. “We have engaged all our manpower,” said Predrag Maric, a Serbian emergency official. “Water is rising everywhere.”

Firefighters say a woman in suburban Belgrade drowned after she refused to be evacuated from her home, and a firefighter died during a rescue operation in central Serbia. Serbian media said at least two more people have been reported missing.

Belgrade authorities closed down schools for Thursday and Friday. The Serbian Orthodox Church said it would hold prayers for the rain to stop. Strong winds and rain also blocked a key road in Croatia and heavy flooding was reported in parts of Romania. Both Croatia and Slovenia were on high alert because of predicted strong winds.

The rain was expected to persist until the weekend.

Cerkez reported from Sarajevo; Dusan Stojanovic from Serbia and Alison Mutler from Bucharest, Romania, contributed.

Greek anti-bailout party vows to topple government

May 22, 2014

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — An anti-bailout party that is leading Greek opinion polls ahead of this weekend’s local government and European elections vowed Thursday to scrap international agreements that rescued the country’s economy from bankruptcy at the cost of harsh austerity.

Three opinion polls also published Thursday found that support for the left-wing Syriza party was 2.5 percent to 3.2 percentage points ahead of the conservative New Democracy party, which leads Greece’s coalition government.

Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras declared at his party’s main election rally in Athens that a Syriza victory in Sunday’s twin polls would force the government to call early parliamentary elections. “We will build a road of social security, and scrap the bailout agreements once and for all, along with the laws brought in to enforce them,” he told thousands of supporters.

The 2-year-old government has ruled out calling early elections regardless of Sunday’s results. But a heavy defeat could rattle parties in the coalition, which has a majority of just two seats in the 300-member parliament, after repeatedly expelling lawmakers who refused to back austerity measures.

The 39-year-old Tsipras is also running as a left-wing candidate for the continent’s top political job, European Commission president. He has promised to provide a pro-growth alternative to austerity in dealing with high levels of national debt in many eurozone countries.

He described Sunday’s vote as a “referendum for our lives, for Greece, and for Europe.” Public support for the once-tiny Syriza has grown roughly five-fold since Greece came to the brink of bankruptcy in 2010, fueling a rapid rise in levels of poverty and unemployment that spurred voters to abandon traditional parties.

Conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras argued during campaigning that a Syriza government would squander sacrifices made to repair the country’s public finances, return the country to excessive borrowing, and jeopardize chances of ending the recession this year.

Samaras will speak Friday at his party’s final rally at Athens’ Syntagma Square.

EU-wide elections could roil politics back home

May 22, 2014

FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) — Several European countries’ commitment to the painful economic reforms meant to cut debt and foster growth could be shaken by this week’s elections to the European Parliament, which are likely to see anti-EU parties buoyed by protest votes against austerity.

While the parliament headquartered in Strasbourg, France, has only limited powers, the outcome of the voting Thursday through Sunday for 751 deputies in 28 countries could shake up politics back at the national level. Parties that are against greater integration among European Union countries or advocate leaving the EU are expected to get up to 30 percent of the seats.

“The results in France, Italy and Greece will be very important as they could again derail national politics and policies, giving rise to renewed discussions and controversies about austerity, reforms and debt sustainability,” said analyst Carsten Brzeski at ING.

Indebted governments are trying to hold down spending and, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, make their economies more business-friendly by clearing away excess regulation, taxation and protections for established workers.

While those efforts — along with easy monetary policy from the European Central Bank and the U.S. Federal Reserve — have helped calm markets, the budget cutbacks and tax increases have also hurt the incomes of ordinary people in the shorter term, raising unemployment and slowing the recovery.

Past elections have been snoozers, especially since the parliament can’t itself initiate legislation and is confined to reviewing and amending proposals from the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch. Economists caution that the impact on the parliament itself is likely to be limited as anti-EU forces will remain in the minority and have struggled to coordinate their policies.

The key is at the national level, they say. Here’s what’s at stake in some of the most important countries. FRANCE Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls is trying to get a stagnant economy moving, pushing unpopular spending cuts so he can lower business taxes. A poor showing by the Socialists in the European Parliament vote could undermine backing from the more left-wing members of his own party and make it harder for him to achieve his aims.

France’s economy, Europe’s second-largest, failed to grow in the first quarter, one reason the continent’s recovery is so muted. ITALY Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of the center-left Democratic Party faces his first major electoral test since taking office in February. Renzi is trying to shake up Italy’s bloated bureaucracy and reform its cumbersome electoral laws.

“His opponents, both within and outside his own party, could use a poor result to water down his reform efforts,” says James Howat, European economist for Capital Economics. Italy’s economy has been a drag on the 18-country euro currency union, where it is the third largest — output declined by a quarterly rate of 0.1 percent in the first three months of the year. Without growth, it will struggle to reduce its massive debt load, which amounts to 133 percent of the country’s annual national income. At the height of the financial crisis, there were fears Italy might default on its debt, a move that could have caused the eurozone to break up.

GREECE The voting gives an opening and a platform for the left-wing Syriza party, which calls Sunday’s vote a referendum on the country’s bailout and conservative-led government. Syriza’s leader, Alexis Tsipras, says he wants to tear up Greece’s bailout deal with the other eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund. He is the Europe-wide candidate put forward by left-wing parties to head the EU’s executive commission.

Greece committed to cut spending to qualify for the disbursement of the bailout loans from its international creditors. The loans prevented the financial collapse of the country and a possible exit from the euro currency. But the austerity policies worsened the recession, which shrank the economy by 25 percent and left unemployment at a miserable 26.7 percent — and an astonishing 56.8 percent for those aged between 15 and 24 years old.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ struggling Socialist coalition partner, Pasok, could perform poorly in local and European elections this week, undermining the government. Opinion polls suggest that Syriza could win a general election.

Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg Bank in London, said that outcome “would create huge political uncertainty with a serious negative impact on the Greek economy and possibly some ramifications around Europe.”

BRITAIN A good showing by the UK Independence Party — normally a fringe presence in mainstream British politics — and its colorful leader Nigel Farage could increase business concerns about Britain leaving the EU over the long term.

Farage’s party has been pushing for a referendum on whether the country should leave the EU. “If everyone shrugs it off” as a protest vote “then the economic impact is zero,” said Schmieding. “If that gets us into a serious debate over, ‘Do we change our domestic policies?,’ then of course that could have an impact.”

UK, Netherlands kick off voting in EU elections

May 22, 2014

LONDON (AP) — Voting began Thursday in Britain and the Netherlands for European Parliament elections in which Euroskeptic parties stand to be the likely beneficiaries of a disillusioned and apathetic electorate.

Some 400 million Europeans are eligible to vote, with national polls being held Thursday through Sunday. Results will be announced late Sunday. More than 16,000 candidates from 953 parties or lists — from greens to feminists to the far-right — are vying for the legislature’s 751 seats.

Continent-wide voter turnout was 43 percent at the last election in 2009 but could slump even lower this time. Many voters are weary after several years of economic crisis and austerity, and increasingly skeptical of efforts to unite the continent into an economic and political superpower.

In Britain, the anti-EU U.K. Independence Party could gain the largest share of votes. “If we get what we like things will never be quite the same again,” said its leader, Nigel Farage, as he prepared to vote at a school near his southern England home.

Prominent Euroskeptic Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, voted early Thursday at a school in a residential neighborhood on the outskirts of The Hague. He said “a vote for my party is a vote for national sovereignty, for less immigration, for less Brussels.”

Former Belgian Premier Dehaene is dead at 73

May 15, 2014

BRUSSELS (AP) — Former Belgian Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene, who worked as hard to keep his linguistically divided nation together as he did to give Europe more unity, has died. He was 73.

Dehaene, a Dutch-speaking Christian Democrat, had been diagnosed with cancer earlier this year, but died following a fall in France, his party said. Belgium has lost “an exceptional statesman,” current Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo said Thursday. “Jean-Luc was a special companion.”

As Belgian prime minister from 1992 to 1999, Dehaene pushed through constitutional changes to turn a nation of 6.5 million Dutch-speakers and 4.5 million French-speakers into a federal state with sizable amounts of regional autonomy. Yet, it had enough glue to stay united.

He also made sure Belgium would become a founding member of the common-currency eurozone despite a massive national debt. After he lost the 1999 elections, he turned his focus on Europe. He had been key in brokering an EU constitution but after referendums in two member states rejected it, many parts of the plan were taken up by the treaty of Lisbon that currently sets policy for the 28-nation EU.

“It made me proud,” he said. EU President Herman Van Rompuy was a close party colleague throughout his career and only emerged from his shadows after he took on the biggest job in the EU in 2009. “Only 10 days ago, I told him ‘if I have been able to achieve something in Europe, it is because I learned it from you,” Van Rompuy said on VRT television.

Throughout his career in Belgian and European Union politics, Dehaene excelled in the minutiae of legislative work, which made him the master of complicated compromise agreements that few outside the upper echelons of politics fully grasped.

Because of endless intricacies, it produced agreements between parties that would never have put a signature on the same piece of paper had it contained just plain text. They called him “the plumber” because he was able to fix the seemingly unfixable. And if it took 100 days to do, he would persevere, relentlessly. That trait earned him the moniker “draft horse.”

Portly and unapologetic for his gruff demeanor, his best known quote to the media was “no comment” — often followed by a menacing glare. Many politicians, though, loved his style. “Very direct and straight-forward. Everyone loved to work with him,” said Belgian Liberal Guy Verhofstadt, who succeeded him as prime minister.

Combining his love of soccer with his knowledge of finances, he also took the lead in UEFA’s campaign to control excessive spending by Europe’s top clubs. “He was a statesman and a man of conviction,” UEFA President Michel Platini said. “Through his love of football, he accepted to play a key role in the setting up of Financial Fair Play … We are all going to miss his passion, simplicity, irreproachable professionalism and great sense of duty.”

Incumbent favorite in Lithuania presidential vote

May 10, 2014

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — Hard-nosed incumbent Dalia Grybauskaite is widely expected to win a second term in Lithuania’s presidential election amid security concerns linked to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

Polls give the 58-year-old former European Union commissioner and karate black belt a comfortable lead heading into the first round of voting Sunday. It’s unclear, however, whether she will get the more than 50 percent of votes needed to avoid a runoff on May 25.

In a country ruled by Moscow during the Cold War, Grybauskaite’s approval ratings have risen after her strong-worded rejection of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and her staunch support for boosting NATO forces in Lithuania.

A survey last month showed her getting 47 percent support, with about 10 percent for each of her closest rivals: Labor lawmaker Arturas Paulauskas and European Parliament member Zigmantas Balcytis, a social democrat.

The margin of error in the April 4-9 survey of 1,001 people by pollster Vilmorus was 3.5 percentage points. “Europe must understand that Russia is trying to redraw the post-war map and borders,” Grybauskaite told reporters recently. “First, it’s Ukraine, Moldova will be next and, finally, it can reach the Baltic states and Poland. This is serious threat to our region.”

An economist who was educated both in the Soviet Union and the United States, Grybauskaite served as Lithuanian finance minister and EU budget commissioner before becoming her country’s first female president in 2009.

With her re-election seen as all but certain, critics say Grybauskaite’s lead has sucked all the energy out of the race. “I have never seen in any country such a dull election campaign,” former president Valdas Adamkus told lawmakers in parliament.

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