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Posts tagged ‘Europe Section’

Irish PM: Brexit is undermining N. Ireland’s peace accord

November 03, 2018

LONDON (AP) — Brexit is undermining Northern Ireland’s hard-won peace by creating tensions between Catholic and Protestant communities, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said Saturday, even as hopes rose for a solution to the Irish border problem that has deadlocked negotiations.

“Brexit has undermined the Good Friday Agreement” — the 1998 peace deal that ended three decades of violence in Northern Ireland — “and it is fraying relationships between Britain and Ireland,” Varadkar said.

“Anything that pulls the two communities apart in Northern Ireland undermines the Good Friday Agreement and anything that pulls Britain and Ireland apart undermines that relationship,” he told Ireland’s RTE radio.

Negotiations between Britain and the European Union over Britain’s departure from the bloc have stalled over the issue of the border between EU member Ireland and the U.K.’s Northern Ireland. Both sides agree there must be no customs posts or other barriers that could disrupt businesses and residents or undermine Northern Ireland’s peace. But they haven’t agreed on how to guarantee that — and Britain is due to leave the bloc on March 29.

The border impasse has heightened fears that the U.K. might crash out of the EU without a deal on divorce terms and future relations, leading to chaos at ports and economic turmoil. The EU has proposed keeping Northern Ireland inside a customs union with the bloc to remove the need for border checks on the island.

But Britain’s Conservative government and its Northern Irish ally, the Democratic Unionist Party, won’t accept that because it would mean customs and regulatory checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.

Britain wants instead to keep the whole U.K. in an EU customs union, but only temporarily. Although there has been no outward sign of a Brexit breakthrough, Irish and British officials say they are increasingly optimistic that a solution can be found.

After meeting Friday with Irish Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney in Dublin, British Prime Minister Theresa May’s deputy David Lidington said negotiators were “very close” to an agreement. Coveney agreed there had been “a lot of progress.”

“I think it is possible to get a deal in November,” he said.

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Merkel ally proposes Europe entry ban for serious crimes

November 09, 2018

BERLIN (AP) — A close ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel is proposing a lifelong entry ban to Europe for asylum-seekers convicted of serious crimes. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer told daily FrankfurterAllgemeine in an interview published Friday that such a sanction should be considered for migrants who are deported after serving their sentences.

Kramp-Karrenbauer, the general secretary of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, is one of three high-profile candidates vying to succeed her as party leader next month. A former state governor, Kramp-Karrenbauer suggested the entry ban should cover Europe’s entire 26-nation Schengen zone, where passport-free travel is possible.

Kramp-Karrenbauer cited the case of an alleged gang rape in the southwestern city of Freiburg last month, in which several Syrian men are among the suspects. The main suspect in the case was also wanted on drugs charges.

Hitler in war, Merkel in peace: A train car for history

November 07, 2018

COMPIEGNE, France (AP) — Adolf Hitler went in wartime for revenge. Angela Merkel plans a pilgrimage in the name of peace. Two German chancellors, with opposite aims and the same destination: a train car in a French forest.

Hitler tried literally to rewrite history in 1940 when the Nazi leader commandeered the dining coach to serve France the same humiliation Germany suffered there on the last day of World War I. This time, Merkel will have the French president by her side as she visits what remains of the Wagon of Compiegne, the carriage-turned-office where the Allies and Germany signed the armistice on Nov. 11, 1918.

An unusual journey took Wagons-Lits Co. carriage 2419D from serving sauteed veal and boeuf bourguignon to passengers in the seaside town of Deauville to serving as a crucible for world peace while stopped in the middle of a forest in Compiegne.

Puzzled tourists often ask Bernard Letemps, the curator of the Armistice Museum, why the Allies signed the cease-fire agreement that ended the atrocities of the Western Front in that humble setting instead of a grand military building or a glittering palace.

At the time, the official headquarters in Senlis of the Allied commander, French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, would have been the expected place to sign a cease-fire. But the town had endured a brutal German assault. Its inhabitants were taken hostage and its mayor shot in September 1914, before the first Battle of the Marne. How the bruised townspeople would react to the presence of a German delegation, even one coming with the goal of peace, was a serious concern.

“It was out of the question to receive the plenipotentiary Germans in (such a) town,” Letemps said. A moveable train carriage in the nearby Compiegne forest was deemed ideal: The isolated location would deter intruders and the calm and secrecy offered a measure of respect to the defeated Germans.

As it happened, Foch had fitted out a mobile office just the month before — a dining car chosen at random from the French passenger train fleet. And so 2419D became known as the “Wagon of Compiegne.” The Armistice was signed just after 5 a.m., but officials held out six hours to put it into effect out of a sense of poetry — the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918. That delay, rather unpoetically, cost lives on both sides at the end of a war that had already left 17 million dead.

“The train car represents the end of fighting. The end, when people found peace,” Letemps said. He added, smiling: “It fulfilled its role of dining car before becoming famous.” The Armistice Museum lays on the train tracks on the site of the signing in the middle of forest.

Foch was immortalized in statues ubiquitous across France and gave his name to one of the broad, leafy avenues radiating out from the Arc de Triomphe. The same reception was not reserved for the losing side: One of the Germans to sign the document, Matthias Erzberger, was vilified for his role in the surrender. He was assassinated in 1921.

The story of dining car 2419D and Compiegne didn’t end with the war. For throngs of French mourners in the post-war years, the dining car became a shrine to peace and catharsis. The car was taken to Paris for display in the courtyard of the Invalides, the final resting place of Napoleon, before it went back to Compiegne in 1927 to sit in a specially-made memorial constructed on the site of today’s museum.

Letemps said the wagon received over 190,000 visitors in one year alone in the 1930s as it became a focus for mourning France’s 1.4 million fallen soldiers. For Hitler in those same years, it became a rallying cry during his ascent to power as he exploited the German public’s contempt for the punitive terms of surrender.

The Nazi leader visited the site in 1940 when his armies conquered France. The Fuhrer ordered the dining car brought out of the memorial and returned to the tracks in the spot in the forest it occupied in 1918.

What ensued was Hitler’s surreal theatrical restaging of the 1918 armistice, one of history’s most famous events, with literally the tables’ turned. The 1940 Armistice was dictated in that train — with Germany the victor and France the loser.

“General (Wilhelm) Keitel read the conditions for the Armistice in the car, with Chancellor Hitler sitting in the place of Marshal Foch,” Letemps said. Hitler then ordered the car to be hauled to Germany and displayed, like a notorious prisoner of war, at the Berlin Cathedral.

The dining car was destroyed at the end of World War II, though how that happened has been lost to time. Some accounts blame members of the Nazi SS, others a random airstrike. In 1950, French manufacturer Wagons-Lits, the company that ran the Orient Express, donated a car from the same series to the museum — 2439D is identical to its ravaged twin from its polished wooden finishes to its studded, leather-bound chairs. It is parked beside the display of the original car remains: a few fragments of bronze decoration and two access ramps.

On Saturday, Merkel becomes the first German chancellor in 78 years to visit the forest clearing where the end of the globe’s first conflict was written. She will be joined by French President Emmanuel Macron in a scene reminiscent of 1984 when Chancellor Helmut Kohl poignantly held President Francois Mitterrand’s hand at an ossuary near Verdun.

On the centenary of the conflict’s end, this visit will make for soul-searing images of its own.

Former Nazi SS camp guard, 94, goes on trial in Germany

November 06, 2018

MUENSTER, Germany (AP) — A 94-year-old former SS enlisted man went on trial Tuesday in Germany, facing hundreds of counts of accessory to murder for alleged crimes committed during the years he served as a guard at the Nazis’ Stutthof concentration camp.

Johann Rehbogen was pushed into the Muenster state court trial in a wheelchair, a wooden cane at his side and briefcase on his lap. He appeared alert and attentive as presiding judge Rainer Brackhane asked him questions, answering in slow, concise sentences.

Rehbogen is accused of working as a guard at the camp east of Danzig, which is today the Polish city of Gdansk, from June 1942 to about early September 1944. There is no evidence linking him to a specific crime, but over 60,000 people were killed at Stutthof and prosecutors argue that as a guard, he was an accessory to at least hundreds of those deaths.

The retired civil servant showed no reaction as prosecutor Andreas Brendel read the accusations against him, detailing the horrific way prisoners at Stutthof were killed. Some were given lethal injections of gasoline or phenol directly to their hearts, shot or starved. Others were forced outside in winter without clothes until they died of exposure, or put to death in the gas chamber.

“Anyone who heard the screams from outside the gas chamber would have known that people were fighting for their lives,” Brendel said. Rehbogen, a former SS Sturmmann — roughly equivalent to the U.S. Army rank of specialist — does not deny serving in the camp during the war, but has told investigators he was unaware of the killings and did not participate in them.

No pleas are entered in Germany and Andreas Tinkl, one of Rehbogen’s attorneys, would not comment on his client’s defense. He said Rehbogen would address the court at some point during the trial, which is scheduled into January.

Rehbogen lives in Borken, near the Dutch border. In deference to his age and health, the trial is being restricted to a maximum of two hours a day, on no more than two non-consecutive days a week. At the same time, because he was under 21 at the time of his alleged crimes, he is being tried in juvenile court and faces a maximum 10 years in prison if convicted.

Seventeen Stutthof survivors or relatives of victims have joined the trial as co-plaintiffs, but Brendel said it was unclear whether any would testify in person due to their ages. In one of several statements read by their attorneys, survivor Judy Meisel remembered being forced by the Germans into a ghetto at age 12, where she said she endured hunger, daily humiliation and terror.

“But I was not prepared for what came next,” said Meisel, who today lives in Minneapolis. “Next came Stutthof and I experienced the unimaginable, the hell organized and executed by the SS.” Rehbogen, who was given headphones so he could clearly follow the testimony, showed no reaction as Meisel said the last time she saw her mother, they were both standing among a group of naked women about to be forced into the gas chamber, before she herself was able to break away.

“Stutthof was organized mass murder through the SS, made possible through the help of the guards,” she said. Ben Cohen, Meisel’s grandson who came from New York to attend the trial, said hearing her statement with one of her former captors in the same room was both important and moving.

“I know her story so well it is emotional every time I hear it, but it takes on more importance than my own emotions now,” he said. The Simon Wiesenthal Center, which helped locate Stutthof survivors for the case, stressed that even more than 70 years after the end of World War II it is not too late to pursue justice.

“The passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of Holocaust perpetrators and old age should not afford protection to those who committed such heinous crimes,” said the center’s head Nazi hunter, Efraim Zuroff.

Even though the number of suspects is dwindling, the special federal prosecutor’s office that investigates Nazi war crimes still has multiple cases ongoing. The legal reasoning that being a camp guard is itself enough to be found guilty of accessory to murder, even without specific evidence of a crime, was first used successfully against former Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk in 2011.

Demjanjuk was convicted on allegations he served as a Sobibor death camp guard. He denied the accusation and died before his appeal could be heard. The 2015 conviction of former Auschwitz guard Oskar Groening using the same argument, however, was upheld by Germany’s top criminal court on appeal.

The Stutthof case is the first use of this reasoning for a concentration camp guard instead of a death camp guard. But prosecutors have expressed confidence it can be applied, since tens of thousands of people were killed in Stutthof even though its sole purpose was not murder.

Stutthof was established in 1939 and was initially used as the main collection point for Jews and non-Jewish Poles removed from nearby Danzig. From about 1940, it was used as a so-called “work education camp” where forced laborers, primarily Polish and Soviet citizens, were sent to serve sentences and often died. Others incarcerated there included criminals, political prisoners, homosexuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

From mid-1944, it was filled with tens of thousands of Jews from ghettos being cleared by the Nazis in the Baltics as well as from Auschwitz, and thousands of Polish civilians swept up in the brutal suppression of the Warsaw uprising.

Merkel won’t seek a 5th term as German chancellor

October 29, 2018

BERLIN (AP) — Angela Merkel set off Monday on what could be a three-year countdown to the end of her leadership of Germany, a stint that has made her the European Union’s longest-serving leader and a key figure in facing the continent’s many crises.

Merkel announced that she will give up the leadership of her conservative Christian Democratic Union in December and won’t stand for a fifth term as chancellor — signaling the beginning of the end at the helm for the woman many had labeled the “leader of the free world.”

That’s a title she herself objected to, saying leadership is never up to one person or country. But she has been a stalwart face of Western democracy through turbulent times, including the European debt crisis, the migrant influx of 2015, Britain’s decision to leave the EU and escalating trade tensions with the United States.

With her announcement, she indicated she has no intention of shirking from the “major foreign policy challenges” ahead, suggesting by taking the question of her future out of the picture her often rancorous coalition might govern better.

“With this decision, I am trying to contribute to allowing the government to concentrate its strength, finally, on governing well — and people rightly demand that,” Merkel said. Merkel, 64, has led the CDU since 2000 and Germany since 2005. She governs Germany in a “grand coalition” of what traditionally has been the country’s biggest parties — the CDU, Bavaria’s conservative Christian Social Union and the center-left Social Democrats.

She announced her decision the day after voters punished both her CDU and the Social Democrats in an election in the central state of Hesse. It came two weeks after a similar debacle for the CSU and Social Democrats in neighboring Bavaria.

Her announcement comes amid growing concerns about far-right nationalist parties making inroads in Europe, including Germany. Sunday’s result in Hesse means that the Alternative for Germany party now holds seats in every state legislature and federal parliament.

Many in Europe also have looked to Merkel as U.S. President Donald Trump has increasingly called into question traditional trans-Atlantic ties with his announcements of trade tariffs, repeated criticism of European contributions to NATO, and other issues. Merkel has walked a fine line, criticizing some of Trump’s decisions while emphasizing that a good relationship with Washington is “central” to her government.

At the moment, it is still too early to tell whether she will be able to govern effectively as a lame-duck chancellor, or if it will strengthen her coalition, said Thorsten Faas, political science professor at Berlin’s Free University.

“The pressure obviously was so great that there was no other solution left,” he said. “It will be interesting to see what happens now, because this is initiating a dynamic, the outcome of which is unforeseeable today.”

For her part, Merkel said she sees “many more opportunities than risks for our country, the German government and also my party” in setting a transition of power in motion. She said she hopes to open the way for “new success for the CDU” by letting it prepare for her departure as chancellor, and she won’t interfere with the choice of a successor.

Carsten Brzeski, an economist at ING-DiBa in Frankfurt, said Merkel’s move “holds the potential for positive developments.” “Not so much because new is always better but rather because it could give Merkel the freedom and the tail wind — freed from party ties — to put a final stamp on her legacy, possibly with bolder steps to reform the German economy and the monetary union,” he said.

Merkel will now concentrate on smoothing over the differences in her government to keep it running until the end of the parliamentary term in 2021, which is far from guaranteed. The Social Democrats only reluctantly joined her coalition in March, and another crisis or an already-agreed midterm review next fall could spell its end.

The Social Democrats’ leader, Andrea Nahles, said she hopes the CDU leadership contest will end arguments within Merkel’s bloc about its direction and leaders. If things go well, “it could have a positive effect for us and our work together.”

Two prominent candidates immediately threw their hats in the ring: Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, 56, the party’s general secretary, who is viewed as a Merkel ally and largely backs her centrist approach; and Health Minister Jens Spahn, 38, an ambitious conservative who has talked tough on migration and has criticized Merkel.

Another more conservative figure, Friedrich Merz, also reportedly planned to seek the leadership. Merz lost his post as the party’s parliamentary leader to Merkel in 2002 and has been absent from front-line politics in recent years.

It had been widely assumed this would be Merkel’s final term in office, but the comments were the chancellor’s first public confirmation. Merkel’s predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, stepped down as leader of his Social Democrats in 2004 but remained chancellor until narrowly losing a re-election bid 18 months later.

Merkel said she has been mulling her decision for months. Her one-time mentor, Helmut Kohl, sought a fifth term in 1998 and lost power after 16 years. Merkel has dragged the CDU to the political center, dropping military conscription and abruptly accelerating the shutdown of Germany’s nuclear power plants following Japan’s Fukushima disaster in 2011.

She swung her conservatives behind bailouts for Greece and other struggling eurozone nations, striking a balance between calls for a strict approach at home and more generosity abroad. In one of her most debated moves, Merkel allowed large numbers of migrants and asylum-seekers into Germany in 2015, many of them fleeing the fighting in Syria, before gradually pivoting to a more restrictive approach.

That decision has led to lasting tensions in her conservative Union bloc, particularly with Bavaria’s CSU, and helped the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party gain support. At the other end of the spectrum, the traditionally left-leaning Greens also have gained.

Death toll up to 6 in Marseille building collapse

November 07, 2018

PARIS (AP) — Marseille firefighters say the death toll has risen to six in the collapse of two dilapidated apartment buildings in the southern French city with the discoveries of two men’s bodies Wednesday.

The fire service has been toiling day and night with cadaver dogs to sift through the pile of rubble and beams. The two buildings, one condemned as substandard and seemingly empty, the other containing apartments, collapsed on Monday. Fire crews deliberately brought down an adjacent third building that was also in danger of collapse.

The fire service says the site remains dangerous. The collapse has provoked soul-searching and criticism about the parlous state of some housing in Marseille, France’s second-largest city.

Voters in Pacific territory choose to keep ties with France

November 04, 2018

NOUMEA, New Caledonia (AP) — A majority of voters in the South Pacific territory of New Caledonia chose to remain part of France instead of backing independence Sunday, a watershed moment that led French President Emmanuel Macron to promise a full dialogue on the archipelago’s future.

Final results had 56.4 percent of the voters who participated in the referendum deciding to maintain ties with the country that has ruled New Caledonia since the mid-19th century and 43.6 percent supporting independence, the high commissioner’s office said.

“I’m asking everyone to turn toward the future to build tomorrow’s New Caledonia,” Macron said, speaking from the presidential Elysee Palace in Paris. “The spirit of dialogue is the sole winner.” More than 174,000 registered voters were invited to answer the question: “Do you want New Caledonia to gain full sovereignty and become independent?”

The referendum attracted record-high turnout of 80.6 percent — so many voters that some polling stations in the capital, Noumea, had to stay open about an hour longer than planned to handle the crush.

The vote itself was a milestone in New Caledonia’s three decades of decolonization, a process prompted by the ill treatment Europeans inflicted on the region’s indigenous Kanak people. New Caledonia, an archipelago east of Australia, has a nickel mining industry as well as sun-kissed lagoons.

The high commissioner’s office reported limited outbreaks of unrest in Noumea as votes were counted, with seven cars set ablaze, some roads closed and two instances of stone-throwing. But otherwise the vote was overwhelmingly peaceful.

Praising both sides for their “responsible” campaigns, Macron said “contempt and violence” were the only losers in the historic poll. French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe is set to meet with New Caledonian officials Monday to discuss the political future of the territory of 270,000 people.

New Caledonia receives about 1.3 billion euros ($1.5 billion) in French state subsidies every year, and many had feared the economy would suffer if ties were severed. Residents of the region include the native Kanaks, who represent about 40 percent of the population, people of European descent, which make up about 27 percent and others from Asian countries and Pacific islands.

Voter Monette Saihulinwa said she opposed independence. “I don’t necessarily want our lives to change,” the 50-year-old said. Others hailed the ballot as historic. “We’ve been waiting for 30 years for this vote,” said Mariola Bouyer, 34. “This vote must demonstrate that we want to live in peace, no matter our race, our roots. It’s building a country together.”

The referendum was the result of a process that started 30 years ago to end years of violence between independence supporters and opponents that had overall claimed more than 70 lives. The two sides agreed upon a 1988 deal and another agreement a decade later included plans for an independence referendum.

The New Caledonia archipelago became French in 1853 under Emperor Napoleon III — Napoleon’s nephew and heir — and was used for decades as a prison colony. It became an overseas territory after World War II, with French citizenship granted to all Kanaks in 1957. Under French colonial rule, the Kanaks faced strict segregation policies and suffered discrimination.

AP writers Thomas Adamson and John Leicester contributed from Paris.

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