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Archive for January, 2019

Greek defense minister resigns over Macedonia name change

January 13, 2019

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece’s conservative defense minister, who leads the junior partner in the country’s coalition government, resigned Sunday over the Macedonia name deal, which he opposes. Panos Kammenos announced his resignation after meeting with Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on Sunday morning. He said his party is quitting the government.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said, in response, that he will ask for a vote of confidence in Parliament in the coming week. He added he had a “frank discussion” with Kammenos, whom he thanked for his government partnership.

Tsipras also announced that Admiral Evangelos Apostolakis, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will replace Kammenos as defense minister. Greece and Macedonia agreed last June to a deal that would change the name of Greece’s northern neighbor to North Macedonia. In exchange, Greece would lift its objections to the country joining NATO. The deal ended a dispute that had been going on since the early 1990s.

Macedonia’s parliament ratified the deal on Friday and the Greek parliament now needs a majority for its ratification, but Greek conservatives believe that Tsipras gave too many concessions in agreeing to the deal.

Tsipras’ left-wing Syriza party has 145 deputies in the 300-member Greek Parliament. With the departure of his coalition partner, Tsipras would need opposition help to pass the Macedonia name deal. In a press conference that followed his resignation, Kammenos made it clear that he and his party, the right-wing populist Independent Greeks, will vote against the government confidence motion, as well as the Macedonia name deal, when it comes up for ratification, and the protocol approving Macedonia’s NATO membership.

Kammenos claimed that ratifying the Macedonia name deal by a simple majority vote is unconstitutional. He admitted, however that he is only assured of three votes, his own and that of two other lawmakers, one of whom, Maria Kollia-Tsaroucha, the deputy defense minister, will resign along with Kammenos.

Two other lawmakers, one an ally who is not a party member, have long declared they will vote for the Macedonia name deal. Kammenos harshly criticized the remaining two allied lawmakers, Tourism Minister Elena Kountoura and Deputy Agriculture Minister Vassilis Kokkalis, who are both on trips abroad. Neither one has stated their position on the confidence motion but Kokkalis has said he will vote against the name change deal. Kammenos implied that both would do anything to keep their jobs.

In the Macedonian capital of Skopje, Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov told a press conference Sunday that he has been “assured” by a Greek government official that Athens remains “strongly committed” to completing its part of the name change deal,

Konstantin Testorides contributed from Skopje.

Germany, France renew friendship treaty, warn of nationalism

January 22, 2019

AACHEN, Germany (AP) — German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned Tuesday against rising nationalism in Europe and called for a revival of cross-border cooperation as she and her French counterpart signed a pact renewing their countries’ decades-long friendship.

The new accord was inked in the ancient western German city of Aachen exactly 56 years after the 1963 Elysee Treaty, which set the tone for the two countries’ close relationship following centuries of conflict that ended with World War II.

“Populism and nationalism are strengthening in all of our countries,” Merkel told French, German and European officials gathered in Aachen’s town hall. Citing Britain’s departure from the European Union and the growing protectionist tendencies around the world, Merkel noted that international cooperation is going through a rocky time.

“Seventy-four years, a single human lifetime after the end of World War II, what seems self-evident is being called into question again,” she said. “That’s why, first of all, there needs to be a new commitment toward our responsibility within the European Union, a responsibility held by Germany and France.”

Her words were echoed by French President Emmanuel Macron, who noted that France and Germany no longer pose a threat to each other. “(The threat) comes from outside Europe and from within our societies if we are not able to respond to the growing anger,” he said.

Outside the Gothic town hall, protesters staged noisy rallies — some in support of the treaty, others against. Among those opposed were dozens of people wearing yellow safety vests, which have become the signature outfit of anti-government protesters in France.

The Treaty of Aachen aims to boost cross-border cooperation along the 450-kilometer (290-mile) Franco-German frontier, and also improve coordination between the two nations when it comes to tackling international problems such as climate change and terrorism.

One long-standing bone of contention has been the issue of military action outside Europe. Berlin’s traditional hesitancy to send troops abroad — rooted in Germany’s grim history of militarism — has softened somewhat in recent years.

Merkel said that with the new pact, the two countries pledge to develop “a joint military culture” that includes a Franco-German arms industry and a common stance on weapons exports. “By doing so we want to contribute to the creation of a European army,” she said, noting that this would go hand-in-hand with greater foreign policy coordination in general.

Germany and France are often described as the engine of the European Union — to the occasional annoyance of other members, who feel sidelined by the cozy relationship between Paris and Berlin. The point was made by EU Council President Donald Tusk, Poland’s former prime minister, who told Merkel and Macron bluntly that “Europe needs a clear signal from Paris and Berlin that enhanced cooperation in smaller formats is not an alternative to the cooperation of Europe as a whole. That it is full integration — and not instead of — integration of Europe.”

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said some countries might feel the constant show of amity between France and Germany was “a bit much.” “But it will be very painful as soon as Germany and France are not of one and the same opinion,” he said. “So you should stick to this policy because that means that we others can also forge a position together.”

Jordans reported from Berlin. Raf Casert in Brussels and Sylvie Corbet in Paris also contributed to this report.

Merkel’s Bavarian allies elect new head, ushering in new era

January 19, 2019

BERLIN (AP) — Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Bavarian allies elected a new leader Saturday, a change that offers Germany’s center-right a chance to move past their persistent bickering over recent years. The 52-year-old Markus Soeder was elected unopposed in Munich with more than 87 percent of the votes to lead the Christian Social Union. The CSU is the Bavaria-only sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, an independent-minded and sometimes-awkward ally despite the fact that they have a joint group in Germany’s national parliament.

Soeder replaces 69-year-old Horst Seehofer, the CSU leader for the past decade and the most prominent domestic opponent of Merkel’s welcoming approach to refugees in 2015. The friction between Merkel and Seehofer threatened at one point to bring down the chancellor’s coalition government over Seehofer’s insistence that some asylum-seekers should be turned away at the country’s borders.

Soeder already succeeded Seehofer, now Germany’s interior minister, as Bavarian governor last year. With Seehofer now replaced as head of the CSU, Merkel’s Cabinet now has no governing party leaders as ministers, including from the junior coalition Social Democratic Party.

Last month, Merkel ally Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer took over leadership of the CDU. She and Soeder appear keen to improve relations between the two parties that have frayed at times. Soeder told delegates at the party congress where he was elected that it was “time for a new strength of the CDU and CSU together in Germany.”

“We must open a new chapter of cooperation,” he said. Kramp-Karrenbauer, who was invited to talk at the CSU congress, told delegates the two parties’ differences made them a more effective bloc. “I come from a family of with many siblings. And we are siblings, CDU and CSU, not identical twins,” she said. “We were never that. We are different, and that makes us stronger.”

Avalanche slams into German hotel; no injuries reported

January 14, 2019

BERLIN (AP) — Officials say a large avalanche has slammed into a hotel in southern Germany, damaging the building but causing no injuries. A spokeswoman for Oberallgaeu regional authorities said the hotel’s 100 guests were evacuated to other dwellings in the village of Balderschwang.

Brigitte Kloepf told The Associated Press that about 1,100 people are unable to leave Balderschwang, near the Austrian border, because of an avalanche risk on roads following days of intense snowfall.

Authorities in parts of Austria, Germany and Switzerland have warned that further snow and rainfall is raising the risk of avalanches, and increase the weight on snow-laden roofs. Dozens of people have died in avalanches or weather-related accidents across central Europe in recent days.

Germany’s top security official planned to visit affected areas Monday.

French yellow vests protest despite Macron’s outreach

January 19, 2019

PARIS (AP) — Thousands of yellow vest protesters rallied Saturday in several French cities for a 10th consecutive weekend, despite a national debate launched this week by President Emmanuel Macron aimed at assuaging their anger.

In Paris, about 8,000 protesters started their march at the Invalides monument in Paris, home to Napoleon’s tomb, to remember the 10 people killed in protest-related traffic accidents and the hundreds injured since the movement for economic justice kicked off on Nov. 17.

French police have been criticized for using rubber projectiles that have caused several serious injuries to protesters. “It’s not normal to treat people the way we are being treated. We have injured people every Saturday,” said Juliette Rebet, a demonstrator in Paris.

Protesters marched peacefully in the French capital but clashes erupted at the end of the main demonstration. Some activists wearing masks threw projectiles and knocked down a traffic light before police charged at them, using tear gas and water cannons. Thirty people were arrested in Paris, police said.

Clashes were also reported in Bordeaux, Toulouse and the western city of Rennes. At the Invalides, protesters carrying a banner that read “Citizens in danger” marched at the front of the procession and held coffin-shaped boards in memory of those killed.

Paris deployed 5,000 police around the capital, notably around government buildings and the Champs-Elysees shopping area. About 80,000 police fanned out nationwide. The capital and much of France have endured weeks of protests over economic demands by French workers and students that at times descended into violence. The grassroots protests started two months ago over fuel taxes but became a broader revolt against economic problems.

According to the Interior Ministry, there were 27,000 protesters across France by early Saturday afternoon, down from 32,000 at the same time the week before. Macron is facing a plethora of demands ranging from the re-introduction of France’s wealth tax on the country’s richest people to the implementation of popular votes that allow citizens to propose new laws.

Macron launched his grand debate this week during meetings with mayors and local officials. The three-month-long debate involves a series of meetings organized by citizens, groups and elected officials to enable the French to express their views on the economy and democracy.

Macron has already cancelled a fuel tax hike and released other funds to help French workers. He said he is open to discussions but has warned he won’t give up on his major reforms, including the touchy issue of changing France’s pension system later this year.

“We do not believe in the grand debate,” said Jonathan Gaby, a demonstrator from the Paris suburbs. “We won’t decide, the government will decide, in the end.”

France pledges 1B euros in aid to rebuild Iraq

January 14, 2019

BAGHDAD (AP) — France is committing $1 billion euros ($1.15 billion) to help Iraq rebuild after its war against the Islamic State group, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Monday. Le Drian was in Baghdad on a busy day that also saw Iraq’s top officials receiving King Abdullah II of Jordan.

The French diplomat said the aid would go to rebuilding Iraq’s most devastated areas. He also promised that France would support Iraq’s stability, while seeking a rapid “political exit” from Syria, where France has deployed an estimated 200 troops in the battle against the extremist group.

“The situation in Syria has to stabilize, and we have to eliminate terrorism,” Le Drian said at a press conference with Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohamed Alhakim France is a member of the U.S.-led international coalition that has defeated the group in most of its territory in Iraq and Syria.

U.S. President Donald Trump surprised allies last month when he announced he was pursuing a complete military withdrawal from Syria. On Saturday, the U.S. began pulling equipment, but not troops, out of the country. An estimated 2,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Syria.

Iraq’s Planning Ministry last year estimated the cost of reconstruction at $88 billion. The country was able to raise $30 billion at a donor conference in Kuwait in February. Alhakim thanked France for its assistance to Iraq’s minority Yezidi community. Islamic State militants enslaved and killed thousands of Yezidis during their brief reign in north Iraq earlier this decade.

King Abdullah II met with Iraqi President Barham Salih and Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi. It was his first visit to the country in a decade. The king and prime minister discussed regional and bilateral issues, Abul-Mahdi’s office said in a statement.

Doubts greet Macron letter to quell French yellow vest anger

January 14, 2019

PARIS (AP) — Yellow vest protesters and political rivals say a sweeping “letter to the French” from President Emmanuel Macron doesn’t go far enough to quell national anger at his policies. Macron’s letter explains how he’s addressing the movement’s concerns through a “grand debate” in local meetings around the country starting Tuesday. The debate will focus on taxes, public services, climate change and democracy.

Yellow vest representative Jeremy Clement told BFM television Monday that the letter “settles part of the problem” but doesn’t go far enough to address sinking purchasing power. Protester Jerome Rodrigues told CNews television that Macron failed to recognize “the urgency” of concerns of low-income workers and retirees.

Others criticized Macron for ruling out a restoration of France’s wealth tax. Opposition lawmakers also criticized the letter.

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