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Merkel, Algerian officials discuss migration, Libya

September 17, 2018

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — German Chancellor Angela Merkel has met with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika on Monday during a one-day visit to the country to discuss migration and the situation in neighboring Libya.

Algeria’s official APS news agency reported the meeting happened in the presence Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia and other government members. The discussions take on particular significance before April’s presidential election in Algeria. No candidate has yet emerged because everyone is waiting to learn whether Bouteflika, 81, partially paralyzed from a stroke and rarely seen in public, will seek a fifth term.

Bouteflika travelled to Switzerland earlier this month for medical check-ups. Algerian television channels showed images of Merkel and Bouteflika talking together. In a joint news conference, Merkel and Ouyahia said they agreed on a process to send about 700 Algerian migrants identified as illegally staying in Germany back to their country.

Ouyahia suggested that German airline Lufthansa should help with their transfer in addition to Air Algeria. Algerian authorities requested that no special flight is chartered, he said. “Algeria will take back its children staying irregularly in Germany,” he said.

Merkel said they also discussed the situation in neighboring Mali and Libya, without providing details. Before the talks, Merkel visited the hilltop memorial to “martyrs” who died in Algeria’s war of independence with France that ended in 1962.

Germany was Algeria’s fourth-largest commercial partner in 2017, with 200 German companies working in various sectors in the North African country. This was Merkel’s first visit to Algeria in a decade. Initially set for February 2017, it was postponed because Bouteflika was stricken with the flu.

Both countries also sought to deepen their economic cooperation. Mohamed Saidj, professor of political science in Algiers, told The Associated Press that Merkel’s meeting with Bouteflika provided the Algerian president an occasion to “show his adversaries that he keeps assuming normally the prerogatives of his office.”

Saidj stressed that Algeria has strong economic links with Germany especially in mechanical engineering, the auto industry, renewable energy, the chemical sector and pharmaceuticals.


Greece to move 2,000 out of overcrowded Lesbos migrant camp

September 18, 2018

MORIA, Greece (AP) — Some 2,000 asylum-seekers will be moved out of a severely overcrowded migrant camp on the Greek island of Lesbos this month, a Greek official said Tuesday as charities slammed conditions at the camp, which has raw sewage running out of its main entrance.

Government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos said those being moved out of the Moria camp, which houses 9,000 people in a facility built for 3,100, will be sent to the mainland so their asylum claims can be examined.

“The situation in Moria is indeed difficult, it is indeed at the limit,” Tzanakopoulos said. Regional governor Christina Kalogirou had threatened to shut down the facility unless the Greek government improves conditions at Moria.

Camp resident Ali Sajjad Faizy, a 19-year-old from Afghanistan, said conditions at Moria have steadily worsened and anyone who wants food has to stand in line for many hours. “It’s completely full,” he said.

Doctors Without Borders has called for the emergency evacuation of vulnerable people at the camp to the mainland and other European Union countries, citing an increase in suicide attempts and self-harm among children in Moria and cases of sexual attack.

“This is the third year that (we) have been calling on the Greek authorities and the EU to take responsibility for their collective failures and to put in place sustainable solutions to avoid this catastrophic situation,” said Louise Roland-Gosselin of Doctors without Borders. “It is time to immediately evacuate the most vulnerable to safe accommodation in other European countries and to stop this never-ending cycle of emergency decongestions and the horrendous conditions we continue to witness in Moria.”

Thousands of people fleeing violence and poverty at home are still arriving at Greek islands from the nearby Turkish coast. Between Friday and Sunday, more than 600 reached Lesbos alone. Under a 2016 deal between the EU and Turkey designed to halt the flow of refugees and migrants into Europe, those arriving on Greek islands are held in detention camps there and face deportation back to Turkey unless their asylum applications are approved.

But the massive backlog of applications has led to severe overcrowding on the Greek island camps, even as authorities move hundreds of vulnerable people to the mainland. “What the Greek government is trying to do is to reduce the time required for a decision to be issued granting — or rejecting — asylum … but there is always reality,” Tzanakopoulos said.

Tzanakopoulos said anti-immigration policies being pursued by Hungary, Poland and several other EU members had limited Greece’s options to deal with the overcrowding problem. “We must all understand that the only way for an overall solution to the immigration crisis is (to achieve) an equal and proportional sharing of refugees throughout Europe,” he said.

Further to the east, Cyprus has been seeing an increase in the number of people arriving there to claim asylum. The EU’s migration commissioner, Dimitris Avramopoulos, said Tuesday that the EU’s new, upgraded border police could be dispatched to Cyprus.

An EU team will arrive in Cyprus shortly to determine what kind of help the country needs. “Cyprus is not alone. Europe is at its side,” Avramopoulos said after meeting with Cyprus’ interior, foreign and justice ministers. “Cyprus is on Europe’s borders and on the front line of the migrant and refugee crisis.”

Avramopoulos said the EU’s new border police will be “more advanced and upgraded” from the current body, Frontex, and will have an estimated 10,000 staff within a few years. Interior Minister Constantinos Petrides said it’s “impossible” for Cyprus, a divided island nation with just over 1 million people, to absorb large numbers of migrants.

Menelaos Hadjicostis in Nicosia, Cyprus, and Nicholas Paphitis in Athens contributed to this report.

Macron announces changes to France’s health care system

September 18, 2018

PARIS (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday unveiled plans to make France’s health care system, considered one of the best in the world, more efficient and sustainable for the next 50 years.

Macron announced organizational changes at hospitals, in the recruitment of doctors, and a better use of digital technologies to provide health care to patients across the country, regardless of where they live.

Macron said “a lot of our neighbors envy the excellence of our health care system. We are attached to our model which associates hospital medicine — public and private — and private medical practice.”

France came out number 1 in a World Health Organization report comparing 191 countries in 2000. But the country’s health care system is struggling with increasing costs and lack of doctors in some rural region and poor neighborhoods.

One short-term measure consists in hiring 400 family doctors — paid by the state— in so-called “medical deserts.” The current rule that sets quotas on the number of students in medicine, dentistry and pharmacy will be abolished in 2020.

Hospitals will be classified into in three categories: local health care, specialized care and ultra-specialized care — each focusing on its priorities, to optimize patient care. Private doctors and other health care professionals will be required in the coming years to organize themselves into “communities” to be able to respond to daily emergency calls from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day in their geographic area — leaving hospitals for only the most serious cases.

The set of measures is estimated to cost 3.4 billion euros ($4 billion) by 2022. “My ambition is clear: I want what we call the health care system to be one of the pillars of the welfare state of the 21st century,” Macron said. “A health care system that prevents and protects against today’s and tomorrow’s health risks.”

France’s health care system involves a state-funded health insurance that reimburses patients for most medical interventions and medicines prescribed by a doctor. France’s health insurance budget in 2018 is 195.2 billion euros ($229 billion) — financed by taxes.

In addition, the French can also apply to private insurance to increase their health coverage.

US, EU and China vie for influence in Eastern Europe

September 17, 2018

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — President Donald Trump on Monday reaffirmed Washington’s support for a business summit that aims to boost connectivity in Eastern Europe and improve ties between the region and the U.S. and European Union.

But the West is not the only major player in the region. Shortly before European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry arrived in Bucharest for the two-day Three Seas Initiative Business Forum, Romanian Prime Minister Viorica Dancila met a top Chinese official, saying Romania wanted to export more to China and attract more investment from there.

The timing of the visit by Shen Yueyue, a senior official in the National People’s Congress, may raise eyebrows in the light of one of the biggest summits Romania has hosted in recent years. Yet it shows how Romania and its neighbors are using regional leverage to attract the best deal for the less developed part of the bloc. It’s something the EU is watching closely.

Regional analyst Radu Magdin said Central and East European countries are “bold enough to know what they want and self-aware enough to use great power competition to their advantage.” He said Hungary was adept at playing “a multiple game involving the EU, some conservative circles in the U.S. as well as China and Russia.”

Romania has traditionally good relations with China, dating back to the communist era, but has failed to capitalize on Chinese pledges such as building a rail network, Magdin said. As a result, China has done more business with Hungary, Serbia and Ukraine.

Setting the tone for the summit which is headlined “Enhancing European and Trans-Atlantic cooperation,” Trump sent a letter Monday to President Klaus Iohannis saying the 12-member Three Seas Initiative could expand infrastructure, business connections, strengthen energy security and reduce trade barriers.

“The United States remains a proud partner in these efforts …. in this strategically important region,” Trump wrote. The Bucharest summit comes two months after Chinese Premier Li Keqiang met central and eastern European leaders in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, for the seventh “16+1” summit, with countries hoping for state-backed Chinese investment.

Magdin said that “everyone is paying attention to competing (regional) initiatives, but Brussels is the most attentive … as the biggest risk is an EU divide” between Eastern and Western Europe. He added that the EU may introduce legislation that would prohibit major non-EU investments in the future.

Meanwhile in Bucharest, Juncker, Perry, Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic and other heads of state arrived to discuss about 40 government-approved projects that aim to boost regional connectivity in transportation, energy and the digital fields.

Joining them were officials and bankers from the European Investment Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the World Bank. The Thee Seas initiative is a cooperation of European Union members located between the Adriatic, Baltic and Black Seas. Austria is the only member that wasn’t formerly communist. The first summit was held in 2016. Trump attended the second summit in 2017 in Warsaw, Poland.

Earlier Monday, Yueyue and Dancila embraced and held hands tightly, and Dancila said Romania wanted to “intensify economic and commercial relations.”

Thousands march to promote vote for Macedonia name deal

September 16, 2018

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Thousands of people marched in Macedonia’s capital Sunday to promote support for changing the country’s name in an upcoming referendum that also could clear the way for NATO membership.

The referendum scheduled for Sept 30 will seek voter approval of an agreement with Greece to rename the small Balkan nation “North Macedonia.” The deal is designed to end a bitter 27-year dispute over rights to the Macedonia title and to remove Greek objections to its northern neighbor becoming a member of NATO and the European Union.

Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who reached the agreement with Greece’s prime minister in June, addressed the marchers in front of the EU’s office in Skopje. He urged citizens to grasp a historic opportunity and back the name deal, which he described as “fair.”

“The message is: We want the future, we want a European Macedonia! It is our responsibility to secure a future for our children and their children,” Zaev said. Opposition party VMRO-DPMNE staged its own rally Sunday in the eastern town of Stip to encourage voters to reject the name change.

Opposition leader Hristijan Mickoski, who has criticized the government for accepting a deal that in his view prioritizes Greek interests, said, “Citizens have the right to fight until the last breath”.

Despite the forceful words, VMRO-DPMNE and the rest of Macedonia’s political opposition have advised supporters to vote according to their consciences. Voter turnout will be a crucial factor in the referendum: 50 percent plus one of Macedonia’s 1.8 million registered voters must cast ballots for the referendum vote to be valid.

Opinion polls indicate the name change would be approved, but turnout could fall just short of the required threshold.

Western leaders line up to visit Macedonia before referendum

September 13, 2018

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Western leaders have scheduled more visits to Macedonia ahead of an upcoming referendum that would change the country’s name and get it fast-tracked for NATO membership. European Union foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Wess Mitchell plan to be there Thursday.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has a weekend stop planned. The referendum on changing the country’s name to North Macedonia is scheduled for Sept. 30. If voters back the new name, Greece has agreed to stop blocking Macedonia from joining NATO. The Macedonia name has been a source of tension between the neighboring nations for decades.

Greece has a region named Macedonia, and said the use of the same name by the small former Yugoslav republic to its north could imply a claim to the territory and ancient heritage of the Greek province.

The Macedonian government, led by center-left Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, launched its referendum campaign earlier this week, urging people to support the new name. Zaev negotiated the agreement with the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

Macedonia’s conservative opposition vehemently opposes the agreement with Greece, saying it was a national humiliation. The opposition leader, Hristijan Mickoski, reiterated those objections Wednesday but told supporters to vote “with their conscience.”

Westerns governments have been vocal in their support of the deal. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were in Macedonia’s capital, Skopje, last week to urge voters to support the name change.

At a Pentagon briefing Tuesday, Defense Secretary Mattis told reporters he was concerned about alleged acts of “mischief” by Russia to try to block Macedonia’s path to NATO membership. Russia denies claims of interference, but openly opposes NATO expansion eastward.

Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaci endorsed the “yes” campaign at a meeting with Zaev, saying the referendum was “an historic moment that needs to be seized.”

AP Writer Derek Gatopoulos contributed from Athens, Greece.

German police say anti-coal protester ‘holed up’ in forest

September 15, 2018

BERLIN (AP) — Firefighters pumped fresh air into a makeshift tunnel Saturday beneath an ancient German forest that environmentalists are trying to stop from being chopped down for a coal mine, while protesters nearby engaged in a standoff with police.

Aachen police said at least one person was believed to be holed up underground, and authorities ordered journalists out of the area while they investigated the tunnel system beneath Hambach forest, west of Cologne.

Police spokesman Wolfgang Roethgens said officers earlier removed four protesters who had chained themselves to a facility at the Niederaussem coal-fired power station that is supplied by the nearby lignite strip mine, which is being expanded by utility company RWE. Hundreds of protesters tried to enter the forest but were blocked by police.

Police entered the forest earlier in the week to remove protesters who have been living in the forest for months in an effort to stop the cutting down of the woodland, which is believed to be up to 12,000 years old. By Saturday, officers had cleared 13 of about 50 treehouses in the forest.

Environmental groups argue that Hambach forest should be spared while Germany mulls ending the extraction and burning of coal as part of the country’s effort to reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases.

News weekly Der Spiegel reported Saturday that a government-appointed commission examining options for the future of Germany’s coal industry is discussing a phase-out of the fossil fuel by 2038. Environmental groups planned to plant saplings between the forest and the mine Sunday.

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