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Archive for February, 2017

US and Polish troops hold first joint training in Poland

January 30, 2017

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — The first joint training exercises in Poland for freshly deployed U.S. troops and their Polish counterparts are underway. A U.S. armored brigade of 3,500 troops from Fort Carson, Colorado arrived this month in Zagan, southwestern Poland, as a deterrence force on NATO’s eastern flank.

Exercises that started Monday at the Zagan Military Training Area involved land troops, tanks and armored vehicles of the U.S. and Polish armies. Polish President Andrzej Duda and the U.S. Ambassador Paul Jones observed the training. They stressed that the U.S. troops’ presence was strengthening the region’s security and also bilateral ties.

Duda said: “God bless Poland, God bless America, God bless American soldiers.” Jones noted that the armored brigade is among the best of the U.S. armed forces. The force comes as reassurance to nations in the region that are nervous about Russia’s growing military activity.

Court allows Polish government to take over WWII museum

January 24, 2017

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — A Polish court ruled Tuesday in favor of the government in its standoff with a major new World War II museum fighting for its survival. The conflict revolves around the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk, which has been under creation since 2008 and was scheduled to open within weeks.

The decision by the Supreme Administrative Court is a victory for the populist and nationalistic Law and Justice ruling party, allowing it to take control of one of the last public institutions that had remained independent following the party’s rise to power in 2015.

“This is very bad,” the museum’s director, Pawel Machcewicz, said. “This ruling means that the Museum of the Second World War will be liquidated on the last day of January. It means that I will be gone and that the new director can try to change the exhibition or delay the opening.”

The ruling party opposed the museum because it takes an international approach to telling the story of the war, focusing on the civilian suffering of the many nations caught up in the global conflict. Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski had for years vowed that if he ever had power he would change the institution to focus it exclusively on Polish suffering and military heroism.

The move is in line with what the ruling party calls its “historical policy” of harnessing the state’s power to create a stronger sense of national identity and pride. After assuming power in late 2015 Culture Minister Piotr Glinski moved to try to take control of the museum by merging it with another museum that exists only on paper, the Museum of Westerplatte and the War of 1939 — a legal maneuver aimed at pushing Machcewicz out.

That sparked months of legal wrangling as Machcewicz resisted the merger. After the court’s decision Tuesday, the Culture Ministry issued a statement saying that it would move ahead with its merger and that on Feb. 1 “a new cultural institution will be created — the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk. The combination of both Gdansk institutions with a similar business profile will optimize costs … and strengthen their positions on the museum map of Poland and the world.”

Machcewicz says that even though he is losing his job he still plans to keep fighting for the survival of the exhibition, one created with the help of some of the world’s most renowned war historians.

“The culture minister can come with heavy equipment and destroy an exhibition that cost 50 million zlotys ($12 million). But he can’t just change some elements, because the exhibition is like a book that is protected by copyright laws,” Machcewicz said. “And I am ready to sue the minister if he tries to change the exhibition.”

On Monday the museum was presented to a group of reporters, historians and others to let the world get a glimpse of the nearly finished museum before it is too late.

Italy’s Tajani poised to lead EU parliament

17 January 2017 Tuesday

Italy’s Antonio Tajani, an ally of former premier Silvio Berlusconi, moved closer to being elected the new European Parliament president Tuesday after two key groups formed a “pro-European” alliance against rising populism.

The 63-year-old center-right politician comfortably won the first round of voting with 274 ballots but failed to secure a majority in the 751-seat parliament based in Strasbourg, France.

The silver-haired Tajani is a former European commissioner who has faced criticism over the Volkswagen “Dieselgate” emissions scandal and previously served as spokesman for scandal-plagued Berlusconi.

If confirmed, he will replace Germany’s Martin Schulz, a socialist who during five years in office made the office of European Parliament president far more prominent than it had ever been before.

Early on Tuesday the head of the parliament’s Liberal group, former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, pulled out of the race and threw his support behind Tajani, the candidate of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) grouping.

“It is absolutely necessary. With Trump, with Putin, with many other challenges Europe faces, it is key we cooperate to reform our union,” said Verhofstadt.

The deal secures Verhofstadt’s important role as parliament’s chief negotiator in talks over Britain’s departure from the European Union.

EPP party chief Manfred Weber said: “Our partnership is based on content and on reforms for Europe.”

Source: World Bulletin.

Link: http://www.worldbulletin.net/headlines/183278/italys-tajani-poised-to-lead-eu-parliament.

Hungary’s Orban renews attack on influence of George Soros

February 10, 2017

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Hungary’s populist prime minister on Friday lashed out against billionaire financier George Soros, claiming he and groups backed by him want to secretly influence the country’s politics.

In his annual state of the nation speech, Viktor Orban said groups partly funded by Soros, who was born in Hungary, needed to be made transparent and identifiable. “Large-bodied predators are swimming here in the waters. This is the trans-border empire of George Soros, with tons of money and international heavy artillery,” said Orban, who received a Soros-funded scholarship as Hungary was transitioning from communism to democracy in the late 1980s.

“It is causing trouble … that they are trying secretly and with foreign money to influence Hungarian politics,” Orban said. He did not cite evidence backing his claims, and did not identify the groups he mentioned. Government officials had earlier taken aim at corruption watchdog Transparency International and rights groups like the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union.

In 2014, Orban ordered a crackdown on civic groups supported in part by Norway, but extensive investigations and audits did not uncover any financial irregularities of note. In an email to The Associated Press, a Soros representative said they were “proud to support Hungarians who insist on having a voice in their democracy.”

“The Open Society Foundations for over 30 years have supported civil society groups in Hungary who are addressing profound problems in education, health care, media freedom and corruption,” said Laura Silber, the organization’s chief communications officer. “Any attacks on this work and those groups are solely an attempt to deflect attention from government inability to address these issues.”

Orban also claimed that Soros’ organizations were still working on bringing hundreds of thousands of migrants into Europe, contrary to the wishes of Hungarians and their government. Orban has been outspoken about his strong opposition to taking in refugees and migrants, and in 2015 ordered fences built on Hungary’s southern borders with Serbia and Croatia to stop the migrant flow.

On Friday, he reiterated a government plan to keep migrants in border camps built from shipping containers while their asylum applications are being processed. The proposal drew strong criticism from local and international rights groups, which said it was clearly against EU law and the United Nations Refugee Convention.

Amnesty International said the plan was “yet another disturbing move in a pattern of demonizing” refugees. “Rounding up all men, women and children seeking asylum and detaining them months on end in container camps is a new low in Hungary’s race to the bottom on asylum seekers and refugees,” said Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Europe.

Orban also painted a bleak picture of Western Europe, saying its “future is casting a long and dark shadow on its present.” He joked that Hungary was ready to take in Western Europeans, whom he said are suffering from globalization’s effects.

“Naturally, we will take in the real refugees,” Orban said to laughter and loud applause. “The panicked German, Dutch, French and Italian politicians and journalists, Christians forced to leave their countries who want to find here the Europe they lost at home.”

Orban, who returned to power in 2010, will seek another four-year term in April 2018.

Could ‘Nexit’ follow Brexit after Dutch elections?

February 19, 2017

ROTTERDAM, Netherlands (AP) — For a small nation that has grown hugely wealthy thanks to centuries of doing business far and wide, the political mood in the Netherlands has turned surprisingly inward.

As a March 15 parliamentary election looms in the Netherlands — one of the founding members of the European Union — popular lawmaker Geert Wilders is dominating polls with an isolationist manifesto that calls for the Netherlands “to be independent again. So out of the EU.”

After Britons voted last year to divorce from the EU, could a Dutch departure — known here as “Nexit,” after “Brexit” — be close behind? “I see the European Union as an old Roman Empire that is ceasing to exist. It will happen,” Wilders said in an interview with the Associated Press.

Wilders’ Party for Freedom is a serious contender to win the popular vote, with most polls a month out from the election showing it ahead of all other parties. Over the past dozen years, the Dutch have already voted in referenda against EU proposals twice.

Few analysts think “Nexit” would materialize: Despite his popularity, Wilders will struggle to find coalition partners among mainstream parties, which shun him and his strident anti-Islam, anti-EU rhetoric.

Then again, few observers predicted last year that Britain would vote to become the first country to leave the EU, so the worries are real about the possible effects of a Nexit — or a further disintegration of European unity driven by the rise of nationalist populism throughout the continent.

An exit from the EU would likely deal a huge blow to Rotterdam, a cosmopolitan city known for its port, one of the world’s busiest. The city employs 90,000 people, and a further 90,000 are directly linked to its activities elsewhere in the country.

Port of Rotterdam corporate strategist Michiel Nijdam believed a Dutch exit from the EU seemed unlikely, though not impossible. “Because we are so dependent on our trade with other countries that it would clearly hurt us so much that I don’t think it’s likely,” he said. “But you never know what happens if a lot of people think it’s a good idea and you vote on a party that is pro-Nexit.”

Nijdam was speaking in the port’s imposing Norman Foster-designed headquarters, which commands views over the port and the Nieuw Maas river that bisects the city. Cranes at container terminals can be seen to the west, while low-slung barges glide past, heading eastward along rivers and canals into the heart of Europe.

The port made a profit of 222 million euros last year as it dealt with 461 million metric tons of freight. Some 28,000 sea-going vessels and 100,000 inland waterway barges used the port in 2016. “The effects will be the opposite of the effects we had from the opening of Europe,” Nijdam said. “That means that it’s more difficult to organize your logistics through the Netherlands, so it will clearly have an impact on supply chains that will shift their routes from Rotterdam to other ports.

“The Netherlands will be less attractive that’s for sure. For logistics it’s not a good decision to leave the EU.” Wilders disagrees, pointing to a report his party commissioned that showed the Dutch economy would benefit from an exit. The Netherlands would remain a strong trading nation while saving billions in funding to the trade bloc, it claimed.

“The position of Rotterdam will really be the same after we would leave the European Union,” he said. “It will not be that Rotterdam all of a sudden will have moved to Sweden.” Dutch bank Rabobank published four scenarios this month for the future of Europe and its effects. A scenario in which the bloc disintegrates amid a messy divorce from Britain and growing skepticism about Europe among remaining member states doesn’t look pretty for the Netherlands or Rotterdam. The bank even suggested that a huge new extension to Rotterdam’s port could turn into a “nature reserve.”

One Rabobank economist, Elwin de Groot, said Rotterdam’s port underscores how deeply embedded the Netherlands is in the EU and its single market. “We are the spider in the logistic web of Europe,” he said. “So if that is affected by, for example, a Nexit … that could have significant consequences for our economy.”

A new economic hit is the last thing this nation of 17 million needs. After being pummeled by the global economic crisis in 2007 and 2008, it was struck again around 2012 but is now bouncing back strongly. Figures released this month showed that the Netherlands’ economy grew a robust 2.1 percent in 2016.

Rabobank researcher De Groot says a Nexit could slam the brakes on that growth. If the Netherlands were to leave the EU, he said, “suddenly we are confronted with all kinds of trade restrictions. That could have, you know, a very negative impact on the Dutch economy.”

Greece: Tsipras marks 2 years as PM with no-austerity pledge

January 25, 2017

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece’s prime minister on Wednesday marked two years in office, promising “not another euro” of new austerity measures by his left-wing government, as talks with bailout lenders over deeper cuts remain at an impasse.

Alexis Tsipras , 42, defeated established political parties in elections on Jan. 25, 2015 on a promise to scrap existing bailout agreements and austerity measures. But he eventually negotiated a third major international rescue deal after months of confrontation with lenders from eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund.

In a newspaper interview published Wednesday, Tsipras urged European Union leaders to help Greece’s economy recover from years of recession, arguing it would make the union stronger. “Under no circumstances will we have legislation for any further austerity measures — not another euro — beyond what has already been agreed upon,” Tsipras told the daily EfSyn newspaper.

The IMF is pressing for tougher cuts, arguing that fiscal goals set out for Greece, including an ambitious 2017 growth target, cannot be achieved under current budget plans unless the country is granted more generous debt relief.

On Tuesday, the government said it was willing to extend an automatic spending reduction mechanism for an additional year — beyond the current 2016-2018 bailout program. Eurozone finance ministers are likely to consider the proposal at a meeting in Brussels on Thursday.

Tsipras’ government is hoping to overcome delays in bailout talks to try to qualify the country to participate in a European Central Bank bond-buying stimulus program. That, it argues, is key to the economic recovery after years of decline and stagnation.

Near his office Wednesday, a small group of state hospital workers held a protest against ongoing health service cuts. Some briefly scuffled with riot police blocking the road. “It’s two years today since the government was formed … and we’ve had two years of false commitments on public health,” protest organizer Michalis Giannakos said.

“Patients are dying on folding beds and on gurneys because the health system is falling apart.”

Srdjan Nedeljkovic and Yorgos Karahalis contributed from Athens.

Germany picks ex-foreign minister Steinmeier as president

February 12, 2017

BERLIN (AP) — A special assembly elected former German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier by an overwhelming majority Sunday to be the country’s new president. Steinmeier was elected in Berlin by the assembly made up of the 630 members of parliament’s lower house and an equal number of representatives from Germany’s 16 states.

He received 931 of the 1,260 votes. Steinmeier succeeds Joachim Gauck, a 77-year-old former pastor and East German pro-democracy activist who did not seek a second five-year term because of his age. The German president has little executive power, but is considered an important moral authority and symbol of the country as its host for visiting dignitaries.

“Let’s be brave, because then we don’t have to be afraid of the future,” Steinmeier said in his acceptance speech. He said the world faces “rough times,” but that Germany, as a functioning democracy, had the responsibility to fight for stability.

“Isn’t it actually wonderful, that this Germany, our difficult fatherland, that this country has become an anchor of hope in the world for many,” after overcoming wars and totalitarianism, Steinmeier said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel congratulated Steinmeier and said she was convinced he would be an excellent president who would have the support of the vast majority of the people. “This is a good day for Germany,” Merkel said.

Steinmeier, a 61-year-old Social Democrat, had the backing in the election of Merkel’s “grand coalition” of center-right and center-left parties. The presidential vote was likely one of the last moments of coalition unity ahead of a parliamentary election in September in which Merkel is seeking a fourth term. Both sides hope to end the “grand coalition.”

A few years ago, Steinmeier took a several-months absence from politics, to donate one of his kidneys to his wife Elke Buedenbender. Buedenbender, who is a judge, will not work during her time as first lady to avoid possible conflicts of interest.

Steinmeier has long been one of Germany’s most popular politicians. As former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s chief of staff, he was a main architect of Schroeder’s 2003 package of economic reforms and welfare cuts.

Under Merkel, he served twice as foreign minister — from 2005 to 2009 and again from 2013 until this year, with a stint as opposition leader in between. Steinmeier is normally studiously diplomatic, but he strongly criticized Donald Trump during the U.S. election campaign.

Asked in August about the rise of right-wing populism in Germany and elsewhere, Steinmeier criticized those who “make politics with fear.” He cited the nationalist Alternative for Germany party, the promoters of Britain’s exit from the European Union, and “the hate preachers, like Donald Trump at the moment in the United States.”

Geir Moulson contributed reporting.

Le Pen refuses headscarf, nixes talks with Lebanon cleric

February 21, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — France’s far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen refused to don a headscarf for a meeting with Lebanon’s top Sunni Muslim cleric on Tuesday and walked away from the scheduled appointment after a brief squabble at the entrance.

Le Pen, who is on a three-day visit to Lebanon this week and has met senior officials, was to meet with the country’s grand mufti, Sheikh Abdel-Latif Derian. Shortly after she arrived at his office, one of his aides handed her a white headscarf to put on. Following a discussion with his aides that lasted few minutes, she refused and returned to her car.

Le Pen has tried to raise her international profile and press her pro-Christian stance with her visit to Lebanon, a former French protectorate. On Monday, she met with President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Saad Hariri. She said Syrian President Bashar Assad was “the most reassuring solution for France,” adding that the best way to protect minority Christians is to “eradicate” the Islamic State group preying on them — not turn them into refugees.

Some Lebanese officials including, including Hariri, a Sunni, have taken umbrage at what is widely seen as her stigmatization of Muslims, who her followers claim are changing the Christian face of France. There was also apparent displeasure at her comments on Assad.

Christian right-wing leader Samir Geagea said after meeting with Le Pen on Tuesday that “terrorism has no religion.” He described Assad as “the biggest terrorist in Syria and the region.” Walid Jumblatt, a leftist politician in Lebanon, tweeted on Tuesday that Le Pen’s statements in Lebanon “were an insult toward the Lebanese people and Syrian people.”

After walking away from the meeting with the grand mufti, Le Pen said she had previously told the cleric’s office that she would not wear a headscarf. “They didn’t cancel the meeting, so I thought they would accept the fact that I wouldn’t wear one,” she said. “They tried to impose it upon me.”

The office of Lebanon’s mufti issued a statement saying that Le Pen was told in advance through one of her aides that she would have to put on a headscarf during the meeting with the mufti. “This is the protocol” at the mufti’s office, the statement said. It said the mufti’s aides tried to give her the headscarf and that Le Pen refused to take it.

“The mufti’s office regrets this inappropriate behavior in such meetings,” the statement said. Le Pen said she had met in the past with Egypt’s Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, the head of the Sunni world’s most prestigious learning institute, without wearing a headscarf. Photos of Le Pen with Ahmed al-Tayeb in 2015 in Cairo show her with the cleric with her hair uncovered.

Le Pen’s refusal on Tuesday to don a headscarf would be in line with her strong support for French secularism, and a proposal in her presidential platform. French law bans headscarves in the public service and for high school pupils.

Le Pen’s proposal aims to extend a 2004 law banning headscarves and other “ostentatious” religious symbols in classrooms to all public spaces. While the 2004 law covers all religions, it is aimed at Muslims.

Later Tuesday, a group of Lebanese held a small protest in Beirut against Le Pen’s visit. One protester raised a drawing of Le Pen between Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump, with “Neo-fascists” emblazoned underneath.

Associated Press writers Andrea Rosa in Beirut and Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.

Paris protesters decry police abuse; some clash with police

February 18, 2017

PARIS (AP) — Paris police sprayed tear gas at bottle-throwing demonstrators on the margins of a rally Saturday meant to support a young black man who was allegedly raped with a police baton and other victims of police abuse.

Two police officers were injured and 13 people were arrested in the clashes, which involved about 150 of the thousands of mostly peaceful anti-racism demonstrators. The skirmishes marked the latest in a string of protests around the alleged rape that have degenerated into violence.

Police had installed a security perimeter around Paris’ Place de la Republique for the rally. Far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, meanwhile, urged the government to ban the protest out of respect for police.

Demonstrators carried banners reading “Justice for Theo,” the name of the 22-year-old alleged rape victim. The protesters argue that Theo is just one example of many young minority men unfairly targeted by French police in ID checks and sometimes abused.

One officer has been charged with rape in the case, and three others with aggravated assault. All deny intentional wrongdoing. Former French national soccer star Lillian Thuram was among the Paris marchers Saturday calling for justice.

“Living in the public space is not the same, depending on the color of your skin,” he said. “We’re in 2017. This is a real shame.” Theo, whose last name has not been released, was hospitalized for two weeks after the reported attack in his hometown of Aulnay-sous-Bois northeast of Paris..

After an apparent video of the attack circulated online, angry youth torched cars and clashed with police for several days in suburbs around Paris. The violence was reminiscent of riots in 2005 that exposed France’s long-running problems between youths in public housing projects with high immigrant populations and police.

Demonstrator Hamid Djudi, 57, expressed frustration Saturday that successive French governments have failed to prevent abuse and discrimination. “In the 1980s, we were protesting racism … I was 20 years old in the ’80s. I used to face (police) controls four times a day,” he said. “History repeats itself. My own children are facing the same troubles.”

“One of them is an engineer, the other is a doctor, and my daughter is at the Institute of Political Studies. And they are controlled by police every time they go out of our building,” he lamented. “This is not normal. That’s why I decided to come here. To protest for my children.”

Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.

Centrist upends French presidential race in era of extremes

February 15, 2017

PARIS (AP) — France’s presidential race this year is upending every political assumption that has governed the country for decades. And now Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year-old former economy minister who is running an independent, centrist campaign, has a real chance to become France’s next president in the country’s two-round April-May vote.

Among the startling events: an incumbent president is not running. His prime minister did not win the Socialist primary. The far right is surging. The conservative front-runner who vowed to slash government spending has seen his chances plummet after giving his wife and children well-paid jobs for years.

Jealous rivals call Macron a guru with no substance. Macron, who plans to present a budget for the five-year presidential term next week and a platform later, mostly promises the French a better future — and that may be enough.

“Some people think we are a sect. Welcome,” Macron joked in front of hundreds of supporters at the Bobino theater in Paris. Recent polls show Macron could be among the two top contenders to emerge from the April 23 ballot and advance to the presidential runoff on May 7, where he would be in a good position to win against his expected opponent, Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front.

A former investment banker with impressive academic credentials, Macron is young, outspoken and sometimes theatrical. He speaks fluent English and is very familiar with social media. Macron backs free-market, pro-European policies and litters his speeches with references to mythology, philosophy or literature.

Macron became Socialist President Francois Hollande’s economic adviser in 2012 and two years later, his economy minister. Last year he launched his own centrist political movement En Marche (“In Motion”).

Conservative rival Francois Fillon and far-right politician Florian Philippot of the National Front recently compared Macron to a “guru.” Fillon, the former favorite, has seen his popularity sink following revelations about well-paid — and possibly fake — political jobs that he gave his wife, son and daughter. Fillon admits the practice was legal at the time but is “unacceptable” now. Prosecutors are investigating.

Fillon has criticized Macron’s “political adventure without a program” but Macron told the Journal du Dimanche that politics are “mystical.” “It’s an error to think the program is at the core of a campaign,” he said.

Macron has proposed to cut taxes for businesses, wants to reduce by half the number of pupils per class in poor neighborhoods. He traveled to Algeria, a former French colony, this week to boost his international stature. He has also visited the United States, Germany and Lebanon in the last few months and will hold a rally in London next week.

In a video on Twitter, Macron urged researchers, entrepreneurs and engineers working on climate change in the U.S. to leave for France. “You are welcome … we like innovation, we want innovative people!” he said in English, in a bid to capitalize on U.S. President Donald Trump’s doubts about global warming.

Macron has also laughed at rumors about his sexuality. He said having a gay affair while also being married would come as news to his wife, Brigitte. “Since she shares my life from morning to night, her only question is how, physically, I would manage,” he joked at the Bobino theater.

Brigitte Macron-Trogneux, who was his secondary school theater teacher, is 24 years older than her husband. While French politicians traditionally keep their private lives private, she acts more like an American political spouse, attending her husband’s rallies and public events. The couple appears hand-in-hand on the front page of celebrity magazine Paris Match for the fourth time.

“You’ll be hearing the worst things about me. It’s unpleasant, it’s discourteous and sometimes it’s hurtful,” Macron told his supporters. “I am who I am. I’ve never had something to hide.” The polling institute Ifop says Macron tends to be popular among educated people from the upper and middle-class — and unpopular in the working class.

This illustrates the dividing line between the winners and the losers of globalization, wrote Jerome Fourquet of Ifop. “By designating each other as their main rival, Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron pursue a common interest: substitute the traditional confrontation between the left and the right by this new division,” Fourquet wrote.

Macron calls the divide “progressives against conservatives” while Le Pen “the pro-globalization against the patriots,” he said. Political scientist Thomas Guenole says Macron’s rising popularity has been aided by the media. Last year, the proportion of articles about him in French newspapers was oversized compared to his relatively low profile, Guenole told The Associated Press.

“Nobody can detail his program … yet people have sympathy for him,” he said, adding that what he called Macron’s “doped” popularity is likely to lead to real results in the presidential election.

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