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Archive for August, 2018

French president pushes for new changes as criticism grows

August 22, 2018

PARIS (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron is back from summer vacation and he plans to launch a new push for economic changes as he faces growing criticism at home. The 40-year-old leader holds a Cabinet meeting Wednesday at the Elysee presidential palace.

Macron hopes his break will help give his policies new impetus after a nightmare political scenario in July. His government survived two no-confidence votes last month following a scandal over a top Macron security aide, Alexandre Benalla, identified in a video as acting violently toward a protester while wearing police equipment.

While the centrist leader promised transparency and an exemplary government before his election, the scandal has raised questions about his team’s working methods and actions. Benalla, who initially stayed in his job before a public uproar led to his dismissal, has since faced initial charges, including committing violent acts and impersonating a police officer.

The latest public opinion polls at the end of July have seen Macron’s popularity rate at its lowest level since he was elected in May 2017. Opponents commonly describe Macron as “Jupiter,” the Roman king of gods, or “Napoleon” —in a reference to his authoritarian style and tendency to use special powers to pass some key measures without a parliamentary debate. In addition, critics often portray him as the “president of the rich,” for tax cuts for the wealthy.

Similar comments have been recently revived by his request to build a 34,000-euro ($39,200) swimming pool in the presidential summer residence on the French Riviera. The French leader took 15 days of vacation, reading books and enjoying the view of turquoise waters. He made only a few public appearances.

He invited British Prime Minister Theresa May for dinner, with Brexit discussions on the agenda. He also had phone calls with several world leaders, including President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

An official at the French presidency said Macron’s international agenda in the coming weeks will focus on showing a united European front in Brexit negotiations. Macron seeks to strengthen ties between pro-European governments, seen as opposed to rising populism in the European Union. He’s notably planning to visit Denmark and Finland at the end of the month and meet with Merkel in early September. The official spoke on customary condition of anonymity.

Macron is likely to face a tough task in domestic politics. The government is preparing the country’s budget for next year as the economic growth forecast is lower than previously expected at an estimated 1.8 percent, compared with 2.2 percent last year.

Macron is planning to focus on pursuing further labor changes with a bill focusing on helping small businesses to grow by removing some financial and bureaucratic barriers. Over the past year, the government struggled to pass labor measures and a plan to revamp national railway company SNCF.

The changes have been rejected by unions as weakening workers’ hard-won protections, prompting big protests last autumn and spring, and months-long rolling strikes from railway workers. The government will also detail next month a sweeping overhaul of the costly health care system, including hospital financing. The plan will be closely monitored as the French are attached to preserving the system, widely considered one of the best in the world.

Meanwhile, key constitutional changes were delayed because the Benalla scandal interrupted the debate at parliament in July. The changes were aimed at fulfilling some of Macron’s campaign promises like decreasing the number of lawmakers and accelerating the process to make laws. The government hopes to be able to revive the plan this autumn.

In addition, Macron wants to reorganize the structure of the Elysee Palace and its 820 workers, especially in the fields of security, communication, transportation and logistics. The changes may be sensitive since they would challenge decades-old traditions and ways of working.

Macron’s office stresses that it needs to be modernized to be more reactive and efficient. For example, the military command unit ensuring security inside the Elysee is also in charge of mundane tasks like printing invitation cards, while Macron’s highly trained bodyguards are also responsible for carrying the luggage of the president’s aides during official trips.

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UK govt says ‘no-deal’ Brexit would mean red tape, expense

August 23, 2018

LONDON (AP) — Businesses could face red tape at the border, customers could see higher credit card fees, patients could endure delays to medical treatment and there could even be a sperm shortage if Britain leaves the European Union next year without a deal, the U.K. government acknowledged Thursday.

But Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative government vowed it would limit the instability that could be triggered by a disorderly Brexit, releasing documents outlining its plans to cope. Even if Britain crashes out of the bloc next year without a trade deal, its plans include unilaterally accepting some EU rules and giving EU financial services firms continued access to the U.K. market.

Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab said Britain was determined to “manage the risks and embrace the opportunities” of Brexit. “We have made clear that if negotiations don’t achieve the optimum outcome, we will continue to be a responsible European neighbor and partner,” he said in a speech Thursday to business leaders in London.

With seven months until Britain leaves the EU on March 29, negotiations on divorce terms and future trade have bogged down amid infighting within May’s divided government about how close an economic relationship to seek with the EU.

The government insists it’s confident of getting a deal, but is preparing for all outcomes. On Thursday it published the first 25 of more than 70 papers covering “no-deal” planning for sectors including financial services, medicines and nuclear materials. The rest are to be released by the end of September.

The documents urge people and businesses not to be alarmed, and say the government will work to “minimize any disruption to the economy.” The papers say Britain will allow EU financial services firms continued “passporting” rights to operate in the U.K. for up to three years, even if no agreement is reached with the EU — although it can’t guarantee that the bloc will let U.K. companies operate there. That could leave British retirees living in EU countries unable to receive their pensions.

Raab said Britain would take “unilateral action to maintain as much continuity as possible” and insisted that “for the vast majority of consumers in this country, there’s not going to be much change at all.”

He dismissed alarming headlines suggesting the U.K. could run out of sandwich supplies and other staples because of economic barriers between Britain and the EU, its biggest trading partner. “You will still be able to enjoy a BLT after Brexit,” Raab said.

But the documents reveal the possible scale of disruption to the British economy and daily life that could follow Brexit. Britain will need new regulatory bodies to carry out functions currently done by the EU, and British businesses that now trade freely with the bloc will face new paperwork if there is no deal.

For goods going to and coming in from the EU, “an import declaration will be required, customs checks may be arrived out and any customs duties must be paid,” one document says. And one of the thorniest questions — how to maintain an open border, free of customs posts, between EU member Ireland and the U.K.’s Northern Ireland — remains unanswered.

“We will provide more information in due course,” is all the documents say. The government said the U.K. will recognize EU standards for testing medicines, so drugs from the bloc won’t need to be re-tested in the U.K. But new drugs and treatments would still need approval from the U.K. medicines regulator before they could be sold in Britain.

Steve Bates, chief executive of the U.K. Bioindustry Association, said that meant British patients “would get access to new therapies later than other countries in Europe.” Brexit could also affect the supply of semen for fertility treatment, the papers say. Almost half of Britain’s donor sperm currently comes from EU member Denmark. If there’s no deal, Britain will be outside the EU’s directive on organs, tissues and cells, and U.K. fertility clinics will need to strike new written agreements with their suppliers.

The papers reveal that British organic farmers won’t be able to export their produce to the EU unless the bloc certifies U.K. standards — a process that can’t start until after Brexit and takes nine months. And the widely recognized organic logo plastered across everything from vegetables to beef belongs to the EU, so U.K. producers will no longer be able to use it.

Cigarette packaging also will have to be redesigned, because the EU holds the copyright on the photos of diseased lungs and other off-putting images emblazoned on the packs. And millions of Britons could find online shopping more expensive. The documents note that in the event of no deal “the cost of card payments between the U.K. and the EU will likely increase” and the EU-imposed ban on firms charging extra for credit-card payments will no longer apply.

Keir Starmer, Brexit spokesman for the opposition Labour Party, said the government’s “vague papers” wouldn’t reassure anybody. European Commission spokesman Alexander Winterstein said the bloc was “working constructively to reach a deal.”

But, he said, “it is also clear that the withdrawal of the U.K. is going to lead to disruption, regardless, with a deal or without a deal.” “That’s why everybody, and in particularly economic operators, need to be prepared,” he added.

Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this story.

Superdry founder gives $1.28 million to anti-Brexit campaign

August 19, 2018

LONDON (AP) — The co-founder of the fashion brand Superdry said Sunday he has donated 1 million pounds ($1.28 million) to a group seeking a new referendum on Britain’s departure from the European Union, as the U.K. government prepares to publish its assessment of the impact of leaving the bloc without an agreement on future relations.

Julian Dunkerton, whose streetwear brand has outlets in 46 countries, wrote in the Sunday Times that he is backing the People’s Vote campaign because he predicts Brexit will be a “disaster” and “we have a genuine chance to turn this around.”

With only seven months until Britain is due to leave the EU, exit talks have stalled and both sides say the chances of the U.K. crashing out without a deal are rising. That has energized those calling for a new vote on the departure terms, who sense that public opinion in Britain shifting against Brexit.

Pro-Brexit advocates, meanwhile, plan a campaign to ensure the British government goes through with the decision to leave, which was made by voters in a 2016 referendum. Former U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage announced Saturday that he would join a cross-country bus tour by the group Leave Means Leave to oppose Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan for future ties with the EU, which he branded a “cowardly sell-out.”

May is proposing to stick close to EU regulations in return for free trade in goods. The plan has infuriated Brexit-backers such as Farage and former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who say it would leave the U.K. tethered to the bloc and unable to strike new trade deals around the world.

Britain and the EU aim to hammer out an agreement on divorce terms and future trade by October — or, at the latest, December — so that it can be approved by all individual EU countries before the U.K. leaves the bloc on March 29.

But talks have bogged down amid infighting within May’s divided Conservative government. Last week Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics put the chances of getting a Brexit deal at 50-50. U.K. businesses have warned that leaving without a deal could cause mayhem for trade and travel, bringing higher food prices, logjams around U.K. ports and disruption to everything from aviation to medical supplies.

The U.K. government says it remains confident of reaching a deal, but is preparing for all outcomes. On Thursday it plans to publish the first in a series of technical reports outlining the effects a no-deal Brexit would have on various sectors and offering advice to businesses and the public on how to prepare.

Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab said the planning is “the responsible thing for any government to do, to mitigate the risks and make sure the U.K. is ready to make a success of Brexit.”

UK’s right-wing Farage vows to end Brexit ‘sell-out’

August 18, 2018

LONDON (AP) — In Britain, there is a growing sense of Brexit deja vu. Two years after the country voted to leave the European Union, emotional arguments about membership in the bloc are raging as fiercely as they did during the 2016 referendum.

With seven months until Britain officially leaves the bloc, negotiations faltering, chances are rising of an acrimonious divorce — and the one thing that pro- and anti-EU forces have in common is that they are both unhappy.

Former U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage announced Saturday that he was returning to political campaigning in a bid to derail British Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan for future ties with the EU.

Farage, the right-winger who helped lead the successful “leave” campaign in 2016, wrote in the Daily Telegraph that he would join a cross-country bus tour by the group Leave Means Leave to oppose May’s “cowardly sell-out.”

Referring to U.K. politicians and civil servants, he said “unless challenged, these anti-democrats will succeed in frustrating the result” of the referendum. Negotiations on future relations between the U.K. and the bloc have faltered, largely due to divisions within May’s Conservative government over how close an economic relationship to seek with EU.

Last month the government finally produced a plan, proposing to stick close to EU regulations in return for free trade in goods. That infuriated Brexit-backers such as Farage and former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who say it would leave the U.K. tethered to the bloc and unable to strike new trade deals around the world.

Opponents of Brexit say that, even if the EU accepts May’s plan — which appears unlikely — it would still erect barriers between Britain and the EU, its biggest trading partner. Meanwhile, time is running out. Britain and the EU say they aim to hammer out an agreement on divorce terms and future trade by October — or, at the latest, December — so that it can be approved by all individual EU countries before the U.K. leaves the bloc on March 29.

This week Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics put the chances of getting a Brexit deal at 50-50, a figure echoed by other EU leaders. U.K. businesses, however, have warned strongly that leaving without a deal could cause mayhem for trade and travel, bringing higher food prices, logjams around U.K. ports and disruption to everything from aviation to medical supplies.

The U.K. government says it remains confident of reaching a deal, but is preparing for a “no deal” scenario. Anti-Brexit campaigners are urging a second referendum on whether to accept any agreement that is reached. The idea is opposed by the government but supported by a growing number of politicians, trade unions and groups including the British Medical Organization.

Bob Kerslake, a former head of Britain’s civil service, said Saturday that the consequences of leaving the EU without a deal were so serious that Brexit should be put on hold if agreement wasn’t reached.

“If the government can negotiate a good deal, then so be it,” he told the BBC. “But if they can’t and we end up in this position, then we have to reopen the question of whether we go forward with Brexit at all. It is not too late to do that.”

Tourist bus crashes in Bulgaria; 16 reported killed

August 25, 2018

SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) — Bulgarian authorities say a tourist bus has flipped over on a highway near Sofia, the capital, killing at least 16 people and leaving 26 others injured. Police said a bus carrying tourists on a weekend trip to a nearby resort overturned and then fell down a side road 20 meters (66 feet) below the highway. The accident happened at 5:10 p.m. Saturday about 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of Sofia.

Ambulances rushed to the scene and took the injured to Sofia hospitals. Doctors said some of them were in critical condition. Health Minister Kiril Ananiev gave an initial death toll of 15, but doctors from Sofia’s emergency hospital said another bus victim died Saturday night.

The major of Bozhurishte, north of Sofia, told reporters that all the passengers were from his village. The government declared Monday a national day of mourning for the victims.

Brussels highlights sun-splashed summer with flower carpet

August 16, 2018

BRUSSELS (AP) — Brussels is highlighting its sun-splashed summer with a Mexican-themed carpet of over half a million flowers on its historic Grand-Place. The UNESCO World Heritage site on Thursday opened up the cobblestones of its market square for a giant display of flowers depicting scenes and symbols from Guanajuato, a Mexican region with an exceptionally rich culture and flower tradition.

The city lays down such a flower carpet every two years but the extreme heat of this summer posed special challenges. Brussels Culture alderwoman Karine Lalieux says that beyond the traditional use of Belgian begonias, dahlias also were used “as this year was very, very hot.”

The carpet, measuring 75 by 24 meters (246 by 79 feet), will be on view until Sunday.

Belorussian leader Lukashenko fires Cabinet as economy sinks

August 19, 2018

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Belorussian President Alexander Lukashenko has fired his Cabinet, emphasizing the need to strengthen the economy to preserve the nation’s post-Soviet independence. Lukashenko said he fired Prime Minister Andrei Kobyakov’s Cabinet for failing to execute his orders and for paying too little attention to the country’s social needs. He appointed banker Sergei Rumas to succeed Kobyakov.

Lukashenko has ruled Belarus with an iron hand for 24 years, maintaining rigid Soviet-style controls over the economy and showing little tolerance for dissent or independent media. He said Saturday that Belarus won’t turn into a “vassal” of its giant neighbor, Russia, even though he underlined the importance of close ties with Moscow.

Belarus has long depended on cheap energy and other subsidies from Russia, which is facing its own economic woes and warned that it would scale down assistance to its ally. Lukashenko criticized Russia for failing to honor its agreements with Belarus.

“We will never become a vassal to anyone,” he said, warning against any attempts to encroach on Belarus’ independence. “We will remain independent for as long as our economy develops as needed,” the Belorussian leader said, adding that “we won’t be able to maintain our independence if we ruin the economy.”

Observers noted that the Belorussian leader was facing pressure to reform the economy as Russia’s assistance dries up. “It doesn’t mean that the country is going to have full-fledged free-market reforms, but some movement is possible,” independent Minsk-based analyst Alexander Klaskovsky said. “Lukashenko hasn’t turned into a reformer, but he realizes that Moscow is turning off the taps and he needs to raise money himself and turn to the West.”

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