EU-Serbia: EU accession, but not overnight
23 April 2013
“Berlin and Paris put the brakes on Serbian accession to the EU,” headlines Die Presse, in the wake of a European Commission decision to recommend the opening of accession negotiations with Belgrade and association negotiations with Pristina — a decision that closely followed the signing of an agreement on the normalisation of relations between between Serbia and its former province.
The next step will be to set a date for the start of negotiations, which will likely take some time. Between now and then, “everything that has been agreed must be implemented,” pointed out Germany’s Guido Westerwelle at an EU foreign ministers’ meeting in Luxembourg on April 22. On that occasion, notes Die Presse —
… it was obvious that EU heavyweights like Germany and France will not bow to pressure for the rapid launch of negotiations with Serbia.
Although it does not guarantee that “Serbia’s accession is only a matter of time” — which, according to Die Presse, is the view in Brussels — the agreement between Serbia and Kosovo, signed under the auspices of the Union, nonetheless offers what the EUobserver believes to be tangible proof of the utility of the European External Action Service (EEAS). It has also given —
Catherine Ashton the kind of diplomatic victory she so badly needed to show the added value of the (EEAS) as a new EU foreign policy actor. […] The agreement between Belgrade and Pristina presents a clear-cut and resounding diplomatic success for the EEAS, which will enable it to dispel some of the criticism and questions about the value added by the new European diplomatic service. [...] It sends a strong signal to the countries in the region, but also the UN, US, Russia, China, and other global players that the EU is serious about stabilising its immediate neighbourhood, and a worthy laureate of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize.
Scotland: UK cashes in on independence fears
24 April 2013
Financial Times, The Herald
A new report published on April 23 by the UK Treasury on what currency Scotland would use should Scots choose to separate from the rest of Britain in the forthcoming independence referendum “marks the start of a new skirmish on one of the most important policy battlegrounds over which next year's historic referendum will be fought,” writes the Financial Times.
The report said that if Scotland chose independence, it would then have to choose between joining the euro, launching its own currency or keeping the pound – the favoured option for the governing pro-independence Scottish National Party. The FT continues –
The Scottish government wants to stick with the pound, arguing that monetary union would promote stability for businesses and the economies on both sides of the border. But George Osborne, chancellor of the exchequer, has suggested the UK would not want a euro-style monetary union with a foreign government – even if the state was Scotland. [...] If the pound continued to be used in Scotland, [Scottish First Minister Alex] Salmond would find his ability to tax and spend severely curtailed. The Bank of England would rightly demand significant fiscal and regulatory control as the price for taking on risk as lender of last resort.
For The Herald’s columnist, Ian Bell, “the argument over the currency that might be used in an independent Scotland is essentially political, not economic.” He writes –
Choose independence and hope for a formal currency union, says Mr Osborne, and we will demand control over the essentials of your economy. In fact, we will demand more control than the Germans exert over the Eurozone. [...] In some circles, it's known as a threat.
04/23/2013 04:59 PM
Health Be Damned: Denmark Hopes Cheaper Soda Will Boost Economy
High value-added taxes and easy border access have long drawn Danish consumers to German grocery stores. Now, the government in Copenhagen hopes that repealing a tax on soft drinks and beer will reduce cross-border shopping and boost the domestic economy.
The Danish government is abandoning a beverage tax that it says is costing the country millions of euros as consumers cross the border to shop in Germany instead.
The tax on soft drinks is to be halved by July and completely abolished by next year, making a 1.5-liter bottle of soda three kroner (€0.40) cheaper in the end. The lesser tax on beer is to be cut by 15 percent by July.
Finance Minister Bjarne Corydon told public broadcaster DR on Monday that the tax's repeal, which has broad support in parliament, would provide a "powerful growth spurt" to the Danish economy.
Cross-border shopping is nothing new to Denmark, as many goods have long been more affordable in Germany and much of the population lives a short trip away from Schleswig-Holstein, Germany's northernmost state. However, the tax on soft drinks and beer, implemented to encourage healthier drinking habits, dramatically increased the traffic.
A report commissioned by the Danish grocers' association DSK last year found that 57 percent of Danish households had crossed the border into Germany to buy beer or soft drinks over the past year -- the highest number ever measured in the regularly conducted study.
'Fat Tax' Also Abandoned
Lothar Raasch of the Chambers of Commerce and Industry in Schleswig-Holstein told news agency DPA the changes would have "substantial implications" on cross-border trade, and that soda and beer are "the core business." However, he added that German businesses have long adapted to attract Danish consumers, stocking greater varieties of goods and diversifying the products they can offer at cheaper prices.
The decision comes months after the government in Copenhagen repealed a similar tax on foods with high concentrations of saturated fats -- dubbed the world's first "fat tax." The measure was introduced with the intent to incentivize healthier eating, but authorities said it ultimately just drove up food prices and put jobs in jeopardy.
The soda tax repeal is part of a broader plan by the center-left government of Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt to make the Danish economy more competitive. She also plans to cut local business tax and tax credits for apartment and home renovations, coupled with reductions in spending on social welfare and state aid to university students.
04/23/2013 05:37 PM
Uniquely Poor Management: Report Skewers Top EU Diplomat Ashton
By Christoph Schult
Catherine Ashton, Europe's top diplomat, has failed to provide the clout her office requires, a report by the European Parliament has concluded. Her successors are already jockeying for a position in the race to snag the EU's most important foreign policy post.
Catherine Ashton likes to deal personally with the important matters affecting the European External Action Service (EEAS). Recently Ashton, the European Union's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, took the elevator to the ground floor of her agency's Brussels headquarters and marched into the building's inner courtyard.
A pavilion there allows smokers to stay dry even on rainy days. On this particular one, though, it wasn't raining in Brussels for once, and a few EU employees stood smoking outside the structure. They were more than a little surprised when Ashton appeared in front of them and asked that they please step inside the pavilion, because otherwise their cigarette smoke would waft into the offices on the building's upper floors.
This was one of the rare moments when the diplomats of the European External Action Service (EEAS) laid eyes on their boss in person. Ashton is usually so busy that even her spokesperson, when asked about the high representative's whereabouts, once answered, "We don't know, but she's definitely working."
When Ashton, a member of Britain's Labour Party, took office three and a half years ago, the idea was for her to lend weight to EU foreign policy. Instead, the EU finds itself still struggling to gain diplomatic influence. Employees within Ashton's own agency complain that the high representative is unable to delegate and has no political agenda.
The European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, which oversees the newly created EEAS, has similar criticism for the way the agency is run. On Tuesday, committee chair Elmar Brok presented a paper that describes a structure that is "too top-heavy and marked by too many decision-making layers." The paper adds that Ashton often reacts too late and allows EU member states to dictate her staffing policy. The report suggests a general review of the agency, with Ashton receiving one or more deputy representatives to assist her.
There is considerable dissatisfaction with the EEAS within the European Parliament. According to the Lisbon Treaty, the EU's new diplomatic service should work to formulate a common EU foreign policy, yet not even the high representative believes this is actually possible. "The EEAS is not a European foreign ministry designed to replace Member States' foreign ministries," Ashton wrote in an internal position paper, but rather "something new and unique."
It's certainly under uniquely poor management, or so the parliamentary report suggests, with its long list of the agency's shortcomings. Wherever crises have cropped up over the past two years, the EU has reacted too late. When the Arab Spring broke out, Ashton had to be asked several times before she finally flew to Cairo. Even with an ongoing crisis brewing in Mali, it was France that ultimately intervened to keep the country from falling completely to Islamic fundamentalists.
"Operational decision-making and implementation in the area of the Common Foreign and Security Policy / Common Security and Defense Policy (CFSP/CSDP) are too slow because of structural and procedural reasons," criticizes the parliamentary report. It goes on to state, "It has become apparent that the EU is unable to ensure, in the short term, a reallocation of resources, including staff, to match new political priorities."
The European Parliament also finds fault with the fact that key areas of foreign policy -- such as climate change, trade and energy policy -- are out of Ashton's hands, limitations that the high representative accepts without complaint. Since she's simultaneously vice president of the European Commission, Ashton could certainly take a stance on any and all issues, yet she has not made any memorable statements even on the all-consuming matter of the euro-zone debt crisis. When her staff reminds her that China and Japan are highly interested to know how stable Europe's currency is, the high representative replies that the subject is not her area. The one point on which all parties can agree is the high representative's talent as a negotiator -- Serbia and Kosovo have Ashton to thank for an agreement reached last Friday to normalize relations between the two countries.
The EU Versus the Baroness
The EU member states don't make things easy for the British baroness. The larger countries in particular prefer to reach their decisions unilaterally. The individual member states also intervene in EEAS staffing decisions whenever they can, preferring to send their own representatives when it comes to posting EU ambassadors to other countries. Forty percent of these positions went to candidates from the member states, much to the displeasure of long-serving Brussels-based diplomats, some of whom describe it as a "hostile takeover."
Ashton has raised no objections on the matter, and to make things worse, some of the new EU representatives quickly turned out to be a poor fit for their posts. In Libya, a second ambassador resigned after just a few months, unable to cope with the job. Yet Ashton herself had declared, in announcing that ambassador's appointment, "The opportunity to represent the EU in the world clearly continues to attract the very best diplomats."
Inge Grässle, a member of the European Parliament's budgetary control committee, also criticizes the fact that no other EU institution has so many high-level officials overseeing so little staff, pointing out that there are directorates with just 22 employees and director-generals who oversee as few as 44 staff members.
No less questionable is the increasing number of so-called special representatives. When she first took office, Ashton intended to disband these posts, which come with generous travel budgets. Instead she has appointed more special representatives than ever before. At the same time, the exact responsibilities that fall to these positions are unclear. Grässle believes their primary purpose is "aimless foreign policy action."
One Foot out the Door?
Ashton comes across as clearly weary of her position, and recently announced she will step down in 2014. She knows she has no chance of a second term. Ashton arrived in Brussels in 2009 on behalf of Great Britain's Labour Party, but current Prime Minister David Cameron heads the Conservative Party and is hardly going to support a candidate from his opposition.
In other words, the race to see who will succeed Ashton has begun. A great deal here depends on the results of the European Parliament elections in May 2014 and on who gets Brussels' two other top jobs -- the European Commission president, who runs the EU's executive, and the European Council president, the head of the powerful body that represents the leaders of the member states. Still, two candidates -- Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski and his Swedish counterpart Carl Bildt, both of whom have many years of foreign policy experience -- are already warming up for the race. The two politicians are known to have no shortage of self-confidence and, unlike Ashton, are unlikely to be content with simply compiling the opinions of the member states' foreign ministers.
Even Ashton has come to concede her weaknesses. At a recent conference of the German Marshall Fun in Brussels, the top diplomat said she had laid the foundations for the EEAS, but it was time for someone else to take over. "There are people who can do things with this that probably I couldn't do, so it'll be good to hand it over," she explained.
Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
04/23/2013 06:09 PM
Rebel in the Ranks: Gutsy Minister Gives Glimpse of Life After Merkel
By Markus Dettmer, Peter Müller and René Pfister
German Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen has angered Germany's conservatives by openly challenging Chancellor Angela Merkel's authority with her fight for a gender quota. Yet with her bold, risk-taking approach to politics, she also offers an alternative to the chancellor's hesitant style.
Ursula von der Leyen knows what she wants. At this particular moment, it's a photo with Chancellor Angela Merkel.
It is last Tuesday, shortly after 3 p.m., and the German labor minister has just taken a seat in the first row of the room where lawmakers from the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), meet. They're expected to support a change in policy on the gender quota issue, and the newspapers are writing that von der Leyen has outmaneuvered Merkel. The minister is about to issue a denial, complete with a photo op.
Merkel averted a potentially embarrassing defeat in parliament last week when rebel members of her center-right coalition, led by von der Leyen, accepted a compromise plan to require German companies to put more women on their boards. Under the deal, the CDU will include in its campaign platform a pledge obliging big firms to raise the proportion of women on supervisory boards to 30 percent in 2020.
Now the victorious von der Leyen is chatting with journalists in the midst of the commotion, but her eyes are darting around the room. Where is the chancellor?
Then she spots Merkel. The chancellor usually comes in through a door on the right, to avoid walking past the waiting cameras. But today Merkel enters the room from the other side, together with Minister of Family Affairs Kristina Schröder. Everyone in the room, including von der Leyen, understands the move in the way it was intended: as support for the stumbling Schröder and as a veiled reprimand of the labor minister.
Von der Leyen jumps up, mumbles that she has something to take care of, and then makes her way through the crowd. Merkel has already left Schröder behind, as von der Leyen meanders toward her. She places her hand on the chancellor's arm, smiles and behaves as if she had something urgent to discuss with her.
Merkel goes along with her little performance. What good would it do her if the papers reported photos of a grouchy chancellor the next day? Instead, the two women smile at each other and chat amiably as the cameras click and buzz around them.
It is a lesson in the art of political stagecraft. Since last week, it's evident that von der Leyen is no longer the chancellor's underling. For a brief moment, she challenged Merkel's authority. She imposed her stamp on the party and pushed through the gender quota -- against the will of the pro-business wing of the party, against the will of the grumbling CDU governors of Germany's regional states and against the will of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party of Merkel's CDU.
Merkel Has Been Made to Look Vulnerable
Is von der Leyen trying to topple the queen? Not quite. She won a victory, but she did not emerge from the battle unscathed. She has alienated many in her party. Some were grumbling last week that she had blackmailed the party. She has also disappointed all those women who had indulged in the illusion that the minister would eventually sacrifice herself for the quota.
Von der Leyen has got people in the CDU thinking about what life may look like after Merkel. At present, the chancellor remains unchallenged. Some 68 percent of Germans are satisfied with Merkel. In the CDU, she's seen as a guarantor that the party will remain in power for a third term. But von der Leyen has demonstrated that it is possible to diverge from the policies of the chancellor, who is so fond of saying that there are no alternatives to those very policies.
Who might succeed Merkel one day? On the one hand, there is the rebellious von der Leyen, who unsettles the CDU and its officials but has the ability to fascinate voters. On the other hand, there is the reliable Thomas de Maizière, the defense minister, who can soothe the soul of the party but also has the tendency to put voters to sleep.
Most of all, the dispute over the gender quota has revealed that Merkel's system of power is vulnerable; that Merkel, whose success is based on minimizing risk and drama, can be forced to do something by a woman who does not shy away from risks and knows how to exploit the dramatic side of politics.
The relationship between Merkel and von der Leyen is complicated. They are rivals, and yet they complement each other. Von der Leyen has expressed things that the chancellor didn't dare say, as with the expansion of public daycare and, most recently, the gender quota. In this sense, the dispute over the quota issue is reminiscent of the story of the sorcerer's apprentice. Merkel and von der Leyen toyed with the gender quota, and in the end they were unable to rid themselves of the spirits they had conjured up.
The drama began in mid-September 2012, when European Union Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding proposed a guideline designed to prescribe a mandatory women's quota for supervisory boards in all EU countries. Reding and von der Leyen are on good terms, but Merkel made it clear to her labor minister that she would not support the Brussels venture.
Vote Came About by Accident
Merkel wanted to avoid a dispute on the issue. Her coalition was already fractious enough, and she knew that the Free Democratic Party (FDP), the junior partner in the coalition with Merkel's conservatives, regarded the quota as devilish red tape. At the same time, she was sympathetic with von der Leyen, who had publicly outed herself as a supporter of the quota. Although Merkel could not openly support her labor minister, she had nothing against the impression being created that the CDU was slightly in favor of the quota, knowing that it also had the potential to generate a few more female votes.
According to sources close to von der Leyen, in her conversations with Merkel, the minister eventually gained the impression that in future votes on the quota, she would no longer have to vote against her convictions. However, both women assumed that there would be no further movement on the quota until after the general election in September.
It was a miscalculation.
On the evening of Sept. 20, Merkel met with the CDU/CSU state governors at the permanent representation of the western state of Hesse in Berlin. The Bundesrat, the legislative body that represents the German states, met the next morning. A motion for a gender quota by the senate of the city-state of Hamburg, controlled by the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), was on the agenda. The chancellor approached Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the governor of the southwestern state of Saarland, who wanted to vote for the draft legislation. This could become dangerous, Merkel hissed, but Kramp-Karrenbauer was undeterred. The Hamburg motion was accepted in the Bundesrat.
Now Merkel was playing for time, trying to delay a debate on the quota. With their majority in the Bundestag, the CDU/CSU and the FDP had enough options at their disposal to delay unwanted proposals with endless hearings and meetings.
But a serious mishap occurred on March 15, 2013. The Hamburg motion was being reviewed by the judiciary committee of the Bundestag. Apparently no one had filled in the committee members about Merkel's delay tactics, and so the CDU members did what they always do: They organized a majority in the committee against the SPD motion.
But this meant that, according to the party statutes, the path was now clear for a vote in the Bundestag. If the committee had wanted to delay the matter, it should not have adopted a resolution. Even before the Easter recess, it was clear that the quota would be on the parliament's agenda on April 18.
Now the supporters of the quota within the CDU/CSU started getting into position, led by von der Leyen. She let it be known that she could imagine siding with the opposition in the Bundestag vote. Elisabeth Winkelmeier-Becker, a CDU Bundestag member from the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, got on the phone and tried to convince fellow female members to vote yes on the Hamburg motion.
Merkel was still on her Easter vacation on the Italian island of Ischia, but she must have anticipated the kind of problem she was about to face. If von der Leyen publicly campaigned for the quota, it could lead to a collapse of the entire coalition.
'I Have My Convictions'
On April 10, Merkel's confidant, CDU/CSU parliamentary group chairman Volker Kauder, took the labor minister to task. During a breakfast attended by CDU/CSU ministers prior to the cabinet meeting, Kauder took von der Leyen aside and appealed to her conscience. "You can't do this," he protested. "A cabinet member cannot vote with the opposition." Von der Leyen was not about to be intimidated. "I have my convictions," she replied. When Merkel entered the room, she saw Kauder and von der Leyen and knew immediately what they were discussing. "We have a meeting at noon," she said to von der Leyen.
The two women met, and Merkel tried to make it clear to von der Leyen that the situation had changed considerably since their last conversation about the quota. At the time, both women had assumed that it wouldn't come to a vote. Now the fate of the coalition hinged on von der Leyen's vote. Merkel was in a difficult position. She could simply fire von der Leyen. The chancellor certainly doesn't lack the necessary cold-bloodedness, as she demonstrated when she abruptly sacked Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen last year.
But Merkel doesn't want to forfeit von der Leyen. The minister has the ability to attract young, modern women to the CDU, people who in the past wouldn't have dreamed of voting for the conservatives. What good would it do Merkel to fire von der Leyen?
The two women left their meeting without reaching an agreement, but then the situation became increasingly dramatic. Female CDU/CSU members of the Bundestag quietly prepared a joint motion with the opposition, and von der Leyen was kept in the loop. The motion called for 30 percent of supervisory board members to be women in the future. Renate Künast, the head of the Green Party's parliamentary group, had the document reviewed by her legal advisors to prevent the CDU/CSU leadership from finding out about it. She assumed that the deal was on with the conservative rebels.
On Friday, April 12, Merkel made a call to CSU Chairman Horst Seehofer. With a sigh, she told him that all appeals to von der Leyen had been in vain. Seehofer was alarmed. He had already made it clear that his party would vote no on the quota, but now he decided to become more flexible on the issue. A victory by the opposition would cause, said Seehofer. "The damage would extend beyond this one vote," he warned Merkel.
Merkel spent much of the weekend on the phone, weighing and then discarding possible compromises. This is what the solution looked like in the end: Her party would vote against the quota in the Bundestag, but in return the gender quota would be included in the joint election platform of the CDU and CSU. Merkel and Seehofer expected that the compromise would defuse the vote on Thursday and that the quota debate would come to an end in the CDU/CSU for the foreseeable future. Both politicians made a virtue out of necessity. Seehofer consulted with the CSU leadership, and in the end he told Merkel: "We'll support the solution."
Now von der Leyen had to be convinced. On Sunday, she attended a regional CDU meeting in Berlin. Merkel contacted von der Leyen, who told her colleagues: "A solution is taking shape."
But she still wasn't convinced, fearing that the CSU could back away from the compromise. Merkel asked von der Leyen to speak with Seehofer. The minister sent the CSU chairman a text message late Sunday evening, but he had already turned off his mobile phone. The next morning he replied: "Am just seeing your text message. Am available to talk." He was on the phone with von der Leyen before long and said to her: "I'll stick to my agreement."
But the battle wasn't won yet, as far as von der Leyen was concerned. She wanted the leadership to openly express its commitment. Only after Kauder had defended the compromise in the conservative parliamentary group meeting on Tuesday was the labor minister satisfied.
It was a victory, but there was nothing to celebrate, as von der Leyen realized when she addressed the meeting. It was eerily quiet, hardly a hand was lifted in applause, and a few attendees couldn't help but laugh cynically when von der Leyen said: "I'm struggling with this." After all, it was von der Leyen who was imposing her will on the entire parliamentary group. "In politics, you're not self-employed," Family Minister Schröder blurted out. Merkel thought it was a fitting remark.
The story of the two women is also a story of political estrangement. When Merkel brought von der Leyen into Berlin politics 11 years ago, the two got along famously. It was precisely their effective division of labor that made the team so successful. As family minister, von der Leyen opened doors that Merkel didn't want to touch, for fear of risking conflict with the traditionalists in her party.
But their relationship changed with the 2009 parliamentary election. Merkel did not appoint von der Leyen to the post of health minister, a position she had coveted. When President Horst Köhler resigned in 2010, Merkel led von der Leyen to believe that she would be his replacement, only to nominate Christian Wulff instead.
For the first time, von der Leyen spoke of emancipating herself from Merkel. And yet she did nothing that could be perceived as disloyal. It would never have occurred to her to ponder Merkel's deficits and shortcomings in a semi-public manner, as Röttgen had had a tendency to do.
Still, she began to distance herself from Merkel. One of von der Leyen's strengths is to use her own story to validate her policies. When she opened an exhibition on immigration in Germany last Wednesday in Berlin, she talked about her experiences as a young academic at Stanford University in the United States. "They used to say: We're happy that you're here," she said, to the delight of the young women in the audience. Von der Leyen has achieved something they too want to achieve: to prevail in a men's world.
But her approach no longer works as well since von der Leyen became labor minister. Issues like pensions for low-income workers and the Hartz IV welfare reforms have little to do with von der Leyen's life. The medical doctor has seven children, was born in Brussels and lived in Britain and the United States. Her father, Ernst Albrecht, was a CDU state premier for Lower Saxony from 1976 to 1990.
Von der Leyen has an extremely committed approach to politics. It worked well when she sought to expand public daycare. But it can also go wrong, as it did last summer when she fanned fears of poverty among the elderly and proposed an inadequate solution in the form of a life achievement pension.
The chancellor doesn't shape her biography into a big political narrative. At a forum hosted by the German business newspaper Handelsblatt at the German Historical Museum in Berlin last Thursday evening, the guests expected her to comment on images from the last 20 years of her career. It promised to be an interesting experience, especially when the legendary photo of Merkel speaking to fishermen in their hut on the Baltic Sea island of Rügen appeared on the screen. But Merkel said little about the images and only began talking more when the conversation switched to the debt crisis in Japan.
Von der Leyen Takes Risks -- Merkel Doesn't
Merkel differs from her labor minister in that she doesn't treat politics as an adventure playground. She once took a risk, in the 2005 election campaign, when she promised the Germans a tough reform program, including tax hikes. It almost cost her the election. She has steered clear of such experiments ever since.
Von der Leyen, on the other hand, sees politics as a game, at least in part, not unlike Seehofer and former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. She loves making a big splash, knowing that she could either end up looking like a wet poodle or setting off the right kind of wave.
The final outcome of the dispute over the quota isn't clear yet. Of course, Seehofer has promised that the CSU will also vote for it. "The chancellor can depend on the CSU standing behind its commitment," he says. But the critics are already coming forward. "We don't feel that the issue is resolved. I expect lively debates within the party leadership," says CSU Bundestag member Max Straubinger. "The question of how many women work in a company is up to the company." Former party leader Erwin Huber says: "It is part of the basic principle of the conservative parties that we strengthen self-reliance within industry and do not boss businesses around. This applies to setting wages, and it should also apply to the quota."
It's last Thursday, and von der Leyen is sitting in her office with a bouquet of tulips on the table. She is exhausted. The struggle has sapped her strength, and she still isn't sure how the issue will end for her.
Will she be a winner or a loser? Von der Leyen has no illusions, knowing that she hasn't made any friends in the party. On the other hand, she hopes that the party's support for the quota will generate votes in the upcoming national election. She is also receiving more and more requests for election campaign appearances. The same people who are now complaining about her are also eager to be associated with her come election time. In other words, she can't exactly be that unpopular.
At the weekend, CDU lawmaker Erika Steinbach, incensed at rumors that von der Leyen had struck a secret deal with the opposition to browbeat her party into submission on the gender quota, called on the minister to resign. So far, no one else in the CDU has publicly followed suit. Von der Leyen's spokesman has vehemently denied reports that she agreed to side with the opposition. And in a sign that Merkel still stands by von der Leyen, government spokesman Steffen Seibert said on Monday that the chancellor's faith in von der Leyen "remains unbroken."
Her goal now is to look to the future. She has taken the weekend off. Politics isn't on the agenda, but her daughter's confirmation is.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
April 23, 2013
Amid Much Tumult, France Approves ‘Marriage for All’
By SCOTT SAYARE
PARIS — With a definitive vote by the lower house of Parliament, France on Tuesday became the world’s 14th nation, and the third in just two weeks, to approve marriage rights for same-sex couples.
The legislation is expected to be approved by the Constitutional Council and signed into law by President François Hollande in time to allow the country’s first same-sex weddings this summer.
Passage of the “marriage for all” law, sponsored by Mr. Hollande, a Socialist, came after months of sometimes angry debate and a series of major protests, rallies that drew Roman Catholics from France’s rural regions and received the backing of Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders, as well as the conservative political opposition. Homophobic violence had risen in recent weeks, with a handful of attacks on gay couples reported across the country.
The legislation was approved by a vote of 331 to 225 in the National Assembly, the lower house, where the left holds a strong majority. Eleven legislators from the center and right broke with party lines to support the law, though there were indications that some of those votes may have been cast by mistake. There were 10 abstentions.
“It is a generous text that you’ve voted for today,” Justice Minister Christiane Taubira told legislators on Tuesday evening, calling the law a “very beautiful reform.”
Opposition to the law, which also opens adoption to same-sex couples, remained strong and vocal even after the vote. Members of Parliament from the country’s main opposition party, the center-right Union for a Popular Movement, had earlier announced that they would challenge the legality of the new law before the Constitutional Council, a high court that rules on matters of constitutionality. And organizers for an opposition movement called La Manif Pour Tous, or Protest for All, said they intended to continue to demonstrate.
On Tuesday night, hundreds of demonstrators converged on the National Assembly, where opponents have held daily protests. Several dozen violent protesters, some wearing balaclavas, clashed with the riot police there, French news media reported, but most remained peaceful.
Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have marched across France to protest the law, with much of their attention focused on adoption by gay couples; opponents have deplored what they call a threat to the foundations of French society and an injustice for children who will be raised by parents of the same sex. The tagline for La Manif Pour Tous reads, “All born from a man and a woman.”
“This democratically approved law is unjust and, by not respecting the rights of the most vulnerable citizens, it harms democracy,” said Tugdual Derville, a spokesman for La Manif Pour Tous. Mr. Derville vowed to continue opposing the law — but also homophobia — with “peaceful firmness.”
Backers of the legislation said it rectified an unjust and discriminatory status quo without impinging upon the rights of heterosexuals.
“It’s rare that equality and love win out in such a clear manner,” said Guillaume Bonnet, a French spokesman for All Out, an international gay rights group. Watching the vote on television on Tuesday, “I felt that my children, my grandchildren were going to remember this,” said Mr. Bonnet, who is gay.
While rapid enactment seems almost certain, there is precedent for the Constitutional Council to reject a legal text prepared by Mr. Hollande’s government. In December, the court rejected legislation that would have created a 75 percent marginal tax rate on incomes of more than one million euros, or about $1.3 million; that legal text failed to account for the fact that French income tax is levied on households, not individuals.
Mr. Hollande’s junior minister for the family, Dominique Bertinotti, said Tuesday that the government had been careful to avoid any “legal fragility” in the text of the marriage bill. In a 2011 decision, the court found that it was not its role to rule on the legal boundaries of marriage.
Some conservative lawmakers have suggested overturning the law should they find themselves with a parliamentary majority, but it remains unlikely that they will try to do so, despite their recent vocal opposition. Opinion polling has consistently shown that a strong majority of French support marriage rights for same-sex couples, though the country remains more evenly split on the matter of adoption.
April 23, 2013
Fearing Price Increases, Iranians Hoard Goods
By THOMAS ERDBRINK and RICK GLADSTONE
TEHRAN — Iranians rushed to supermarkets to buy cooking oil, red meat and other staples on Tuesday, stockpiling the goods over new fears of price spikes from a change in the official exchange rate that could severely reduce the already weakened purchasing power of the rial, the national currency.
The change, less than two months before critical national elections, appeared to cause widespread concern even among Iranians accustomed to chronically high inflation and other problems — a result, economists here say, of a combination of severe Western sanctions and what many call the government’s economic mismanagement.
Prices of staples long deemed essential are set to increase by as much as 60 percent because of the currency change, which nearly doubles the mandatory exchange rate for importers of goods like medicine, chicken and sugar, but also machinery spare parts and some chemicals.
Under Iran’s complicated system of multiple exchange rates, the importers had been paying a rate of 12,260 rials to the dollar, but will now have to pay 24,500 rials to the dollar. The new exchange rate is much closer to the rial’s actual market value, which currency traders estimate to be 35,500 rials to the dollar.
The Iranian news media said it would take up to a week for consumers to feel the change, which appeared to accelerate many people’s efforts to buy what they could as soon as possible.
In a Sepah department store in downtown Tehran, shoppers could be seen loading dozens of bottles of cooking oil into carts.
“I’m hoarding now, so that I don’t lose money later,” explained a homemaker who identified herself by only one name, Zahra. “Again, the prices of everything will go up.”
Hassan Davari, a representative of a vegetable oil distribution company, visiting a grocery near Palestine Square in Tehran, found that his product had been swept off the shelves. “Any goods we have handed over to shops this morning have vanished in a couple of hours,” he said.
The value of Iran’s national currency has fallen by half over the past few years. It has been especially pummeled by the Western sanctions, which have severely curtailed Iran’s international banking capabilities and halved its overseas sales of oil, the most important Iranian export. Many economists consider the rial’s problems at least a partial cause of Iran’s inflation, which is officially around 30 percent but widely believed to be far higher.
Iran’s economics minister, Shamseddin Hosseini, acknowledged on Tuesday that inflation was a problem and that the sanctions played a role. But in a briefing for reporters while on a visit to his country’s United Nations mission in New York, Mr. Hosseini said the sanctions had also created a contrarian and beneficial result by forcing Iran to become less reliant on imports and more self-sufficient.
“We have no doubt our growth rate is positive,” he said. The imposition of sanctions, he said, “forces you to find new ways to be creative.”
The minister also said that Iranians fully supported the government’s resistance to the sanctions, imposed in response to Iran’s nuclear energy program, which Western nations suspect is a guise for Iran to develop a nuclear weapons capability. Iran contends that the program is peaceful.
The minister maintained that the sanctions were designed to deny Iran the right to develop a broad new range of knowledge-based industries that the big Western powers would like to monopolize. New technologies, he said, “are forbidden frontiers, other than for themselves — no one else has permission to cross the threshold.”
Mr. Hosseini also disputed reports that some consumers in Iran had already found that the price of meat had doubled in the latest round of increases. “I don’t know what butcher shop they went to. They must have gotten a raw deal,” he said. “Foodstuffs have increased across the board, but not that much.”
The decision to end the preferable exchange rate for “essential” products was taken last week by the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which says it wants to move toward a single foreign exchange rate.
The government’s decision is likely to further weaken the rial against the dollar, experts said. But it also appeared to have some internal political motivations.
Mr. Ahmadinejad has been pressuring Parliament to increase the monthly cash distributions given to most Iranians to help cushion the blow of rising prices, which have been caused in part by his effort to phase out subsidies on food and fuels. Mr. Ahmadinejad has called his subsidy overhaul the “most successful economic plan in the history of Iran.”
But many lawmakers have resisted Mr. Ahmadinejad’s pressure, saying they would agree to increase the monthly cash distributions only after the June 14 elections, fearing that doing so beforehand could strengthen Mr. Ahmadinejad’s popularity.
The president, who has served the maximum two terms and cannot run again, appears poised to support the candidacy of his close adviser Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, who is much hated by clerics and commanders in the security forces who fear he wants to undermine their power.
Thomas Erdbrink reported from Tehran, and Rick Gladstone from New York.
April 23, 2013
Dozens Killed in Battles Across Iraq as Sunnis Escalate Protests Against Government
By TIM ARANGO
BAGHDAD — Gun battles erupted in cities with Sunni majorities across Iraq on Tuesday after security forces from the Shiite-led government stormed a Sunni protest encampment in a village near the northern city of Kirkuk. The clashes left dozens dead and wounded, and raised fears that the sectarian civil war that is roiling Syria might spill into Iraq.
The fiercest fighting was at the encampment in a town called Hawija, where Sunni gunmen fought government forces throughout the day. At least 42 people were killed, 39 of them civilians, and more than 100 wounded.
As evening fell, sporadic fighting continued there and in Ramadi in the Sunni homeland of Anbar Province, where protesters set fire to two military vehicles and tribal sheiks called on young men to take up arms against the government.
The fighting represented the deadliest turn yet in a Sunni-led protest movement against the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. By the end of the day, the country was on edge as Sunni tribesman mobilized, declaring jihad, or holy war. Adding to the tensions, an influential Iraqi religious leader who lives in Amman, Jordan, Sheik Abdul Malik al-Saadi, seemed to endorse the call to arms by saying, “Self-defense has become a legitimate and legal duty.”
By nightfall, however, Iraq’s leaders on both sides of the sectarian divide were scrambling to calm the situation. After first defending the fighting as a necessary operation against Al Qaeda and Baath Party sympathizers, the Maliki government promised to compensate victims, provide medical treatment to the wounded and hold military leaders accountable for mistakes.
Osama Nujaifi, the Sunni speaker of Parliament, said, “What happened this morning is a disaster by any measure.” He added that the fighting “has opened the door to great strife.”
“Now there are clashes taking place between Iraqi tribes and the Iraqi Army,” he said. “We call on the armed forces not to obey the orders to attack the demonstrators or shoot Iraqis, and we call on the tribes to cease fire and be calm.”
Iraq’s Shiites and Sunnis fought a brutal civil war from 2005 to 2007, but while violence has declined, there has never been a full reconciliation. The civil war in Syria, which pits a Sunni-led rebellion against a government dominated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, has hardened differences here, as each sect takes sides.
The fiercest fighting group in Syria, Jabhet al-Nusra, has been fostered by Al Qaeda in Iraq, a Sunni insurgent group. Iraq’s government has lined up on the side of the Syrian government, allowing its territory to be a transit corridor for the supply of weapons — mainly from Iran — to the forces of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.
As the war in Syria grinds on, analysts and American officials are increasingly worried about its spreading into Iraq. Barham Salih, the former prime minister of Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region in the north, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday after the violence in Hawija that “Iraq, Syria dynamics” could merge into one fight with “dire consequences.”
The American Embassy released a statement in the evening condemning “the actions that resulted in the death and injury of civilians and security personnel in Hawija.”
“We regret that this violence took place before ongoing efforts to reach a peaceful resolution of this situation were given sufficient time to succeed,” the statement said.
The clashes reverberated across the country in seething Sunni communities, where protesters have set up encampments like those established in Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution.
Sunni mosques were bombed in the mixed Baghdad neighborhood of Dora and the volatile city of Diyala, killing 10 people. In Saddam Hussein’s hometown, Tikrit, the authorities imposed a curfew after gunmen twice attacked security forces.
In Falluja, where clashes between the army and protesters in January killed at least seven protesters, thousands of citizens took to the streets demanding that the international community stop what they described as the “massacres of the government.” Near Hawija, Sunni gunmen briefly took control of some government checkpoints.
“The peaceful demonstrations are over, due to what happened today,” said Saddoun al-Obaidi, a tribal leader in Hawija who is a leader of the protest movement. “Now we are going to carry weapons. We have all the weapons we need, and we are getting support from other provinces.”
Protest leaders in other Sunni cities vowed solidarity with their brethren in Hawija. “The demonstrators in Mosul left the sit-in area to take up arms in support of demonstrators in Hawija and take revenge for them,” said Salim al-Jabouri, a spokesman for the Sunni movement there.
In Baghdad, security forces blockaded the Sunni-dominated neighborhood of Adhamiya, allowing entry only to those who proved they were residents. Two Sunni government ministers said they had resigned their positions, and leaders of Iraqiya, a largely Sunni bloc of lawmakers, announced they were suspending their participation in Parliament.
The raid by government forces followed days in which the army and the police had surrounded the protest camp, demanding that its leaders turn over the gunmen who the authorities said had sought refuge there after attacking a government checkpoint, killing one soldier and wounding three others.
A statement released by the Ministry of Defense said that gunmen on Friday had “attacked a joint checkpoint of the police and army that led to the death and injury of our fighters, and they also took our weapons and then disappeared among the protesters.”
On Tuesday morning, after the protesters refused to turn over the gunmen, soldiers and police officers stormed the protest camp, the Defense Ministry said.
“The security forces did their duty to impose the law,” the statement said. “They faced heavy weapons and snipers, and the clashes resulted in the death of a number of our forces and the killing of a number of Baathists and Al Qaeda members that have been coordinating with the protesters.”
The ministry said security forces had seized 40 Kalashnikov rifles and other automatic weapons, hand grenades and swords and knives.
Martin Kobler, the United Nations’ representative in Iraq, rushed to Kirkuk on Tuesday to meet with local officials, urge an end to the fighting and demand that detainees rounded up by security forces be treated humanely. “It’s up to the leaders of this country to sit together in dialogue in order to avoid further bloodshed,” Mr. Kobler said in an interview.
The violence occurred days after Iraq held local elections, which were largely peaceful and carried out under extraordinary security measures. The elections, though, were postponed in two largely Sunni provinces, Anbar and Nineveh, and were never scheduled in Kirkuk, which is rich in oil and disputed by Arabs and Kurds.
Yasir Ghazi and Duraid Adnan contributed reporting from Baghdad, and employees of The New York Times from Kirkuk, Anbar, Nineveh and Salahuddin Provinces, Iraq.
April 23, 2013
In Hard Times, Open Dissent and Repression Rise in Vietnam
By THOMAS FULLER
HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — His bookshelves are filled with the collected works of Marx, Engels and Ho Chi Minh, the hallmarks of a loyal career in the Communist Party, but Nguyen Phuoc Tuong, 77, says he is no longer a believer. A former adviser to two prime ministers, Mr. Tuong, like so many people in Vietnam today, is speaking out forcefully against the government.
“Our system now is the totalitarian rule of one party,” he said in an interview at his apartment on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City. “I come from within the system — I understand all its flaws, all its shortcomings, all its degradation,” he said. “If the system is not fixed, it will collapse on its own.”
The party that triumphed over American-backed South Vietnamese forces in 1975 is facing rising anger over a slumping economy and is rived by disputes pitting traditionalists who want to maintain the country’s guiding socialist principles and a monopoly on power against those calling for a more pluralist system and the full embrace of capitalism.
Perhaps most important, the party is struggling to reckon with a society that is better informed and more critical because of news and opinion that spread through the Internet, circumventing the state-controlled news media.
Since unifying the country 38 years ago, the Communist Party has been tested by conflicts with China and Cambodia, financial crises and internal rifts. The difference today, according to Carlyle A. Thayer, one of the leading foreign scholars of Vietnam, is that criticism of the leadership “has exploded across the society.”
In an otherwise authoritarian environment, divisions in the party have actually helped encourage free speech because factions are eager to tarnish one another, Dr. Thayer said.
“There’s a contradiction in Vietnam,” he said. “Dissent is flourishing, but at the same time, so is repression.”
As dissident voices have multiplied among Vietnam’s 92 million people, the government has tried to crack down. Courts have sentenced numerous bloggers, journalists and activists to prison, yet criticism, especially online, continues seemingly unabated. The government blocks certain Internet sites, but many Vietnamese use software or Web sites to maneuver around the censorship.
“Many more people are trying to express themselves than before, criticizing the government,” said Truong Huy San, an author, journalist and well-known blogger. “And what they are saying is much more severe.”
Mr. San, who is on a fellowship at Harvard, is the author of “The Winning Side,” perhaps the first critical, comprehensive history of Vietnam since 1975 by someone inside the country. Widely read in Vietnam, the two-volume work, written under the pen name Huy Duc, was printed without a permit from the government and describes such acts as the purges of disloyal party members and the seizure of south Vietnamese business owners’ assets.
For casual visitors to Vietnam, surface evidence of economic progress may make it hard to understand the deep pessimism that many express in the country. Millions of people who a decade ago had only bicycles now speed around on motor scooters past factories and office towers.
The economy blossomed in the 1990s after reforms gave birth to Vietnam’s awkward mix of a market economy closely chaperoned by the Communist Party. Even now, the Vietnamese economy is still projected to grow at about 4 percent to 5 percent this year, thanks in part to strong exports of rice, coffee and other agricultural products.
But the real estate market is frozen by overcapacity, banks are saddled with bad loans, newspapers are running articles about rising unemployment, and the country is ranked among some of the world’s most corrupt by Transparency International, a global corruption monitor. (The country ranks 123rd on a list of 176, in which those with low numbers are the least corrupt.)
Vietnamese business people complain of overbearing government regulations imposed by a party that believes it can be the vanguard of capitalist enterprises.
And many say that Vietnam is directionless, despite its seemingly irrepressible industriousness and youthful population.
“In my 21 years here I’ve never seen this level of disenchantment with the system among the intelligentsia and entrepreneurs,” said Peter R. Ryder, the chief executive of Indochina Capital, an investment company in Vietnam. “There’s very meaningful debate within the business community and within the party — people who are superconcerned about the direction that the country is going.”
At the Spring Economic Forum, a conference held in early April that is organized by the economic committee of the National Assembly, participants “were fighting to have a chance at the microphone,” according to Le Dang Doanh, a leading economist who attended the forum, which he described as “stormy.”
He said there was widespread criticism that although the economy needed profound restructuring, “almost nothing has been implemented.”
“It’s a crisis of trust,” Mr. Doanh said. “Better times have been promised every year, but people don’t see it.”
At the center of the political storm is Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who has been in power since 2006. Mr. Dung’s brash style and ambitious program for the economy initially won him supporters because he broke from the mold of the stodgy party apparatchik.
But he alienated many party members by dismantling an advisory board that had been a leading force behind the reform program (and that board included Mr. Tuong, the Marxist scholar, among many other senior party members).
More important, Mr. Dung’s trademark policy, his forceful push to build up state-run companies along the lines of South Korea’s private conglomerates, backfired.
Run by executives with close ties to the Communist Party hierarchy, the enterprises expanded into many businesses they were unqualified to manage, economists say, and speculated in the stock market and in real estate. Two of the largest state enterprises nearly collapsed and remain close to insolvency.
Mr. Tuong, the Marxist scholar, says the tensions in the Communist Party have been heightened by the troubles with the economy.
In February, he helped write an open letter to the party’s general secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, urging changes to the country’s Constitution that would “ensure that real power belongs to the people.” He has yet to receive a response.
Mr. Tuong says he has been eager to promote change since his days as adviser to Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet, who helped overhaul the economy in the 1990s.
But today he feels the pressure of time. He has cancer, though it appears to be in remission, and he talks about the disease as a sort of intellectual liberation spurring him to tell what he now views as the truth.
“In a nutshell, Marx is a great thinker,” he said. “But if we never had Marx it would have been even better.”
New bird flu strain 'more easily caught by humans' than 2003 outbreak
WHO official says H7N9, which has infected more than 100 people in China, is one of most lethal flu viruses
Reuters in Beijing
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 24 April 2013 09.30 BST
A new strain of bird flu that has killed 22 people in China is "one of the most lethal" of its kind and is more easily transmissible to humans than an earlier strain that has killed hundreds around the world since 2003, a top World Health Organisation (WHO) official has said.
The H7N9 virus has infected 108 people in China since it was first detected in March, according to the Geneva-based WHO. Although it is not clear exactly how people have been infected, WHO experts see no evidence so far of the most worrisome scenario – sustained transmission between people.
An international team of experts led by the WHO and the Chinese government conducted a five-day investigation in China, but said they were no closer to determining whether the virus could become transmissible between people.
Keiji Fukuda, WHO's assistant director general for health security, said at a briefing: "The situation remains complex and difficult and evolving. When we look at influenza viruses, this is an unusually dangerous virus for humans." Fukuda also named the previous H5N1 strain that killed 30 of the 45 people infected in China between 2003 and 2013.
Although the H7N9 strain in the current outbreak has a lower fatality rate to date, he added: "This is definitely one of the most lethal influenza viruses that we've seen so far."
Fukuda stressed that the team was still at the beginning of its investigation and that "we may just be seeing the most serious infections" at this point.
The team of experts said what was mystifying about the latest virus was the absence of visible illness in poultry, "making it harder to track and control".
Fukuda also said that based on the evidence, "this virus is more easily transmissible from poultry to humans than H5N1", which has killed 371 people globally since 2003.
Ho Pak-leung, an associate professor in the department of microbiology at the University of Hong Kong, noted in the British Medical Journal that in the two months since it was first detected, the H7N9 flu had already resulted in almost twice as many confirmed infections in China as H5N1 caused there in a decade.
Besides the initial cases of H7N9 in and around Shanghai, others have been detected in Beijing and five provinces.
Samples from chickens, ducks and pigeons from poultry markets have tested positive for the H7N9 virus, but those from migratory birds have not, said Nancy Cox, director of the influenza division at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"At least we can now understand the likely source of infection is poultry," Cox said.
The experts also looked at poultry samples from farms but found nothing, said Malik Peiris, a clinical virologist at the University of Hong Kong.
Liang Wannian, the director general of the office of health emergency at the National Health and Family Planning Commission, warned that more sporadic cases would probably emerge "before the source of infection has been completely confirmed and effectively controlled".
There has been a "dramatic slowdown of cases" in the commercial capital of Shanghai, which has recorded most of the deaths, said Anne Kelso, the Melbourne-based director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza.
"This is very encouraging at this stage of the outbreak," she said.
After Shanghai closed down its live poultry markets in early April, "almost immediately there was a decline in detection of new cases", Kelso said.
"The evidence suggests that the closing of the live poultry markets was an effective way to reduce the risks of infection of the H7N9 virus," she said.
Even so, the WHO's China representative, Michael O'Leary, issued figures last week showing that half of the patients analysed had no known contact with poultry.
Greenpeace activists board ship carrying Australian coal
Activists stage climate change protest on board MV Meister, carrying export coal from Abbot Point in Queensland
Oliver Laughland in Sydney
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 24 April 2013 06.52 BST
Link to video: Greenpeace activists board coal ship off Australian coasthttp://www.guardian.co.uk/world/video/2013/apr/24/greenpeace-australia-coal-ship-video
Six activists from Greenpeace have boarded a coal ship leaving Australian waters in a direct action aimed at curbing coal exports.
The activists, from several different countries, boarded the Korean-owned MV Meister at 7am on Wednesday. The ship is carrying thermal coal loaded from Abbot Point in Queensland.
Speaking to the Guardian from on board the ship, 34-year-old Greenpeace activist Emma Giles said: "We've taken the action today because Australia is on track to almost double its coal exports in the next decade. Both major political parties have no solutions on the table. It is time to slow down the coal boom.
"Our leaders are failing us so it's up to us to take civil disobedience and to slow down and stop these coal ships. We are set to stay here as long as it takes."
The activists boarded the ship from inflatable boats at sunrise and had previously been on board the Rainbow Warrior, Greenpeace's own purpose-built ship. They presented a letter to the captain explaining the action and have set up camp at the bow of the ship.
A spokesman for Greenpeace on the Rainbow Warrior said: "We are calling on the rest of Australia to take whatever action is possible to ensure that we do not double our coal exports. We cannot deal with the climate change that will result from that."
According to research commissioned by Greenpeace, Australia's coal export expansion is the second-largest of 14 proposed fossil fuel enterprises. "We cannot pretend Australia is playing its part to avoid dangerous climate change if these shipments continue," said Greenpeace senior climate campaigner Dr Georgina Woods.
Greenpeace say the coal export expansion planned in Queensland will further threaten the Great Barrier Reef through dredging, coastal construction and increased shipping.
A Queensland customs and border protection spokeman said: "Border Protection Command has deployed aerial surveillance aircraft to the area and is liasing with Queensland state police in response to this incident."
The department of climate change declined to comment.
************Australia originally settled by 1,000-3,000 people 50,000 years ago
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, April 24, 2013 5:26 EDT
Australia was first settled by between 1,000 and 3,000 humans around 50,000 years ago, but the population crashed during the Ice Age before recovering to a peak of some 1.2 million people around five centuries ago, a study said on Wednesday.
Estimating the early population of Australia is a source of debate in anthropology, partly because it touches on how European colonisation affected the country’s indigenous people.
In an paper published by Britain’s Royal Society, Alan Williams of the Australian National University in Canberra took a fresh look at investigations into ancient settlements where charcoal and other sources have been carbon-dated.
Using this data as a telltale of population change, Williams believes the first inhabitants of Australia arrived around 50,000 years ago and comprised a “founding group” of between 1,000 and 3,000 people.
This number is somewhat higher than previous estimates and suggests the first settlements were a result of deliberate migration rather than straggling, he says.
The newcomers crossed via a land bridge from Papua New Guinea, across a continental shelf that is now flooded, according to a common theory.
The numbers grew but then fell by as much as 60 percent between 21,000-18,000 years ago during the peak of the last Ice Age, when Australia became cooler and far drier than it is today, Williams believes.
At the end of the Ice Age, the population grew in fits and starts, reaching a peak of around 1.2 million 500 years ago.
It then went into slow decline to reach between 770,000 and 1.1 million by 1788, the start of British colonisation.
Europeans brought with them smallpox, measles, flu and other diseases that proved catastrophic for an indigenous population without immunity.
Information about the demographic impact of colonisation is sketchy, but anthropologists say a starting point is to have a reliable figure of the population before European contact.
Past attempts to chart Australia’s population size before contact have given hugely varying figures. They include a founding population of fewer than 150 people, and by 1788 as few as 250,000 and as many as 1.2 million.
The study appears in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
April 24, 2013
South Korea and U.S. Fail to Reach Deal on Nuclear Energy
By CHOE SANG-HUN
SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea said on Wednesday that it had failed to reach a compromise with the United States on its civil nuclear energy program, forcing the two allies to delay the deadline for a deal by two years.
Secretary of State John Kerry had called for an agreement before the planned summit between President Obama and his South Korean counterpart, Park Geun-hye, on May 7. But the differences between the allies remained deep over South Korea’s demand that the United States lift a ban on enriching uranium and reprocessing spent nuclear fuel. The United States had South Korea commit itself to the ban in a treaty signed in 1972 when Washington transferred nuclear material and technical expertise to help build South Korea’s nuclear energy industry.
As the allies negotiated to revise and renew the treaty, which expires in March 2014, South Korea demanded that the ban be lifted so that it can enrich uranium to make its own nuclear fuel. Currently, it imports all its nuclear fuel. It also wanted to reprocess spent nuclear fuel to reduce its almost-full nuclear waste storage and turn the waste into a new fuel for the next generation of reactors it is developing.
But the same technologies are also used to make material for nuclear weapons. Washington feared that allowing South Korea to engage in either enrichment or reprocessing technologies would undermine its global efforts to curb nuclear proliferation. That would also complicate Washington’s diplomacy to persuade North Korea and Iran to give up their nuclear programs, American officials said.
“We are at a delicate moment with respect to the situation with the North, and we are also dealing with Iran and are very concerned at this time about not having any ingredients that could alter our approach with respect to either of those,” Mr. Kerry said in the South Korean capital, Seoul, on April 12.
But President Park made securing American concessions on the issue one of her top campaign pledges for her December election. She has repeatedly appealed for such concessions since talking office in February.
Her foreign minister, Yun Byung-se, said the negotiations will be an important test of “trust” between the allies.
“Washington does not seem to trust South Korea as much as it reiterates blood-tight relations with Korea are as important as a linchpin, since it does not agree to revising the pact,” the mass-circulation daily JoongAng Ilbo said in an editorial last Saturday, when the postponement of a deal was first leaked to the media. “Just because the pact has been extended for two years does not assure that the two will narrow their differences. It is merely a makeshift move to avoid a dispute.”
The South denied any intention of developing nuclear weapons. But a few members of the South Korean governing party grabbed Washington’s attention by urging their government to consider building nuclear weapons to counter North Korea’s nuclear threat.
On Wednesday, Cho Tai-young, a spokesman of the South Korean Foreign Ministry, said the two allies agreed to extend the expiration date of the nuclear treaty by two years until 2016 so their negotiators have more time to sort out “the complexity of details and technologies.” But he said there has been “some meaningful progress” over South Korea’s need to manage its spent nuclear fuel and secure a stable supply of nuclear fuel.
South Korea is now the world’s fifth-largest nuclear energy producer, meeting 35 percent of its electricity needs with its 23 nuclear reactors. Its dependence on atomic energy is projected to grow to 60 percent by 2030. It also believes that easing American restrictions on its nuclear activities is important for its plan to become a global exporter of nuclear power plants.
April 23, 2013
Old Sore Spots Flare Up in China-Japan Disputes
By MARTIN FACKLER
TOKYO — Japanese lawmakers paid their respects at a shrine to those killed in war, including those executed as war criminals, in what the local news media described as the biggest group visit by Parliament members in recent memory.
The visit threatens to exacerbate tensions with South Korea and China, which view the shrine as a symbol of a lack of repentance for Japan’s brutal expansion across Asia. It took place as a territorial row with China flared, with boats carrying Japanese nationalists and Chinese paramilitary ships converging on a group of contested islands.
The 168 mostly low-ranking conservative lawmakers visited the Yasukuni Shrine in central Tokyo just days after a visit by members of the cabinet of Japan’s conservative prime minister, Shinzo Abe. Last year, a group of 81 lawmakers visited the shrine during the same three-day spring festival, when many nationalists say they feel obligated to recognize soldiers’ ultimate sacrifice for their country.
Analysts said the size of this year’s visit was partly a byproduct of December’s landslide victory by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, which installed the hawkish prime minister and an increased number of rightists in Parliament. But the analysts also called it the latest example of how Japanese ultraconservatives have become more vocal in recent years, amid growing unease over China’s rising power and its increasingly forceful stance on the long-simmering dispute over the islands, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in Chinese.
On Tuesday, the Japanese Coast Guard reported that eight Chinese patrol ships had entered waters near the islands, the largest number to appear at one time since the dispute surged last summer. The Coast Guard said the Chinese ships converged from several directions into waters near the uninhabited, Japanese-controlled islands.
The Chinese ships appeared at the same time as 10 boats carrying members of a Japanese ultranationalist group. The boats were followed by Japanese Coast Guard ships apparently seeking to ensure that they did not try a landing, as some nationalists did last year.
Those landings, and the decision in September by the Japanese government to buy three of the islands from their private owner, set off violent street demonstrations in China. Accusing Japan of disrupting the hazy status quo that prevailed before then, China has been sending armed ships from various coast-guard-like civilian agencies on an almost daily basis into or near waters around the islands, apparently to challenge Japanese control.
The tensions were especially fraught earlier this year after several high-profile episodes, including the scrambling of fighter jets by both sides, that raised fears the dispute would continue to escalate.
On Tuesday, the Japanese Foreign Ministry summoned the Chinese ambassador to lodge a formal protest over the latest intrusions, which the top Japanese government spokesman, the chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga, called “unacceptable.”
Mr. Suga told reporters that while he did not know why China sent the ships, he did not think they were meant to protest the round of visits to Yasukuni over the weekend by leading members of Mr. Abe’s government. On Monday, the Chinese government criticized those visits, and the South Korean foreign minister, Yun Byung-se, canceled a trip to Japan to talk about issues that included the nuclear crisis with North Korea.
There was no immediate response by China or South Korea to the lawmakers’ visit to the shrine. The leader of the group, which includes members of the governing Liberal Democrats as well as opposition lawmakers, said they had the right to honor Japan’s war dead without causing an international incident.
“It is common in any country that a parliamentarian offers prayers for the souls of the departed war heroes who gave their lives in defense of their country,” the leader, Hidehisa Otsuji, a Liberal Democratic lawmaker, told reporters after praying at the shrine. “The angry reactions are hard to comprehend.”
Chris Buckley contributed reporting from Hong Kong.
Influx of Chinese goldminers sparks tensions in Ghana
Illegal small-scale mines are an opportunity for poor Chinese immigrants – but are blamed for environmental destruction
Afua Hirsch, west Africa correspondent
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 23 April 2013 15.38 BST
Link to video: The price of gold: Chinese mining in Ghanahttp://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/video/2013/apr/23/price-gold-chinese-mining-ghana-video
Huang Ren Zhong's striped parasol stands out against the muddy cliff of excavated earth. The horizon is fringed with the tall trees of the Ghanaian rainforest, but for Huang, this dilapidated shelter is his only shade from the sweltering tropical sun. He and his Chinese colleagues take turns to sit under it, overseeing the digging and churning of the murky water beneath them, where they are mining a huge pit for gold.
Two years ago, Huang, 40, left his tea farm in China's Guangdong province to seek riches here in west Africa. Since then his work has been hot and arduous, and at times dangerous but, by his standards, the rewards are great. Huang says he makes about 4,000 yuan – £420 – a month. His salary is paid straight to his family in China, after the money he needs to live has been deducted.
"The work is difficult. [But] I came here to make money," said Huang. "In China, I was average or poor. To have the opportunity to travel abroad [and] make more money is fantastic."
Huang works in one of many illegal small-scale goldmines in Ghana, Africa's second largest gold producer. Ghana's minerals commission, which provides permits for small mines, has not authorised the site. Foreigners are banned from working in Ghana's small-scale mining industry, which was formalised in the 1980s to bring much-needed income to poor, rural communities.
Figures for the scale of illegal mining are non-existent because the Ghanaian authorities struggle to address the problem. But 23% of Ghana's gold production is from small-scale mining. Some estimates calculate that 95% of all small-scale mining in Ghana is illegal.
The authorities admit that the influx of Chinese miners and their wealthy backers is causing environmental destruction and social conflict on an unprecedented scale. The Chinese have invested millions of dollars in excavators and industrial equipment.
"The scale [of illegal mining in Ghana] is so vast it is difficult to actually quantify," said Brigadier General Daniel Mishio, chairman of Ghana's national security commission for lands and natural resources. "Apart from the security threat that is posed by the weapons that [illegal miners] wield, we even also have issues of human security," he said. "In certain areas, people don't even get clean drinking water, and in some areas you can see that most of the forest cover has been destroyed. This poses a very big danger to our future."
The work is also risky: last week 17 people were killed at a mine in Kyekyiwere in central Ghana. Mishio leads a taskforce conducting raids on illegal mines. Last month 120 Chinese miners were arrested .
Tensions in Ghana towards immigrants from China – Ghana's biggest trading partner – have led the president to reassure Chinese investors that the west African country remains keen to encourage economic co-operation. Both Beijing and Accra insist that there is no connection between the countries' bilateral agreements, including a recent $3bn China Development Bank loan to Ghana, and the activities of illegal Chinese immigrants. But many blame Accra for failing to prevent the destruction of large swaths of land for illegal mining.
"In Ghana and elsewhere in Africa, small-scale mining is a strategic livelihood alternative for rural communities, and it contributes tremendously to the local economy," said Wilbert Brentum, from Solidaridad, which works to improve safety standards and ethical practices in goldmining. "But we have a situation in Ghana now where there is more illegal small-scale mining than there is legal. This has magnified the environmental degradation and polluted so many of our water bodies. Because it has attracted more people into the small-scale mining sector, without protective equipment, fatalities are also on the increase."
Research by one Ghanaian NGO found that 250 rivers in mining communities had been polluted by cyanide and heavy metals. This month the government expressed its concern about the rate at which water bodies were being contaminated.
"[This illegal mining] doesn't help us at all," said Kweku Gyaminah, 29, a witchdoctor in Manso Abodom, who makes over £1,000 a week from trading gold mined by villagers – many of them children – on the fringes of the illegal Chinese-run mine where Huang works. "Now all our drinking water is all polluted, the farms [are] all gone and we haven't had any benefit from that."
Resentment towards foreigners is widespread. There are frequent attacks by Ghanaians against increasingly heavily armed Chinese miners. The Chinese are also accused of assaulting Ghanaians, whom they employ to operate their machinery. On the site where Huang and his colleagues work, the ground is littered with spent shotgun cartridges. "We have the guns to defend ourselves from the locals," said Huang.
Many of the Chinese guns are said to come from the police, a practice which one senior officer said was indicative of the widespread corruption fuelled by the influx of foreigners propped up by cash from illegally mining gold.
"The Chinese are armed [and] most of the time the guns are sold by policemen," said a senior police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity. There have been several high-profile cases of police corruption in relation to Chinese illegal mining recently. In early April five policemen were arrested for robbing a Chinese miner at gunpoint, after the incident was captured on CCTV.
"It is standard practice for small-scale miners who work illegally with foreigners to pay off the police," one Ghanaian mine owner said. "We have a budget for the police and for the immigration authorities, and every month we pay them to leave us alone."
"Mining has corrupted the people," said the senior officer. "Certain policemen take advantage and profit from these activities. Some prominent men in Ghana, too, are benefiting [and] some traditional rulers."
There have been calls for the whole gold industry to be cleaned up. The government's precious minerals and marketing commission (PMMC), which buys gold produced in Ghana, told the Guardian it did not buy illegally mined gold.
"The PMMC only buys gold from small-scale miners who are Ghanaian nationals, which is in accordance with the mandate setting up the company," it said.
But the Guardian filmed dozens of Chinese miners entering a PMMC-licensed agent in Dunkwa, a gold-producing centre in Ghana's central region, each leaving with plastic bags full of what looked like cash. Inside the shop, called "IndoGhana Gold Agents", the Chinese handed over pieces of gold, which were weighed by staff and placed in a safe.
The manager, Govinda Gupta, said he was unaware it was illegal for his company to buy gold from the Chinese, and that the company buys at least 5kg of gold every week, which it exports to India via Dubai.
"There should be more traceability in gold," said Brentum, who is part of a worldwide initiative to produce gold certified "Fairtrade" and "Fairmined" , and which aims to make 5% of all gold responsibly mined by 2025.
While trade in precious minerals such as diamonds has undergone reforms in recent years to make their origins more transparent, the gold industry remains highly opaque. During refining, gold from different sources is mixed together so that it is impossible to trace.
"There is a growing market for ethical gold, and we foresee a time when all gold will have to be responsibly mined, which would ensure protection for the environment and people who work in mines," said Brentum.
"But if you look at the large-scale industrial mines, they are well aware of their environmental and health and safety obligations, and will have no problem catering to this market. Our concern is that the small-scale and artisanal miners will be left behind.
"Illegal mining is a blot on the image of all small-scale mining. It is the people working in rural communities in Ghana – the very people who were supposed to benefit from the legalisation of small-scale mining – who will suffer the most."
Gold in Ghana
Once named the Gold Coast, Ghana is famous for its gold production, which has been carried out by local people using artisanal techniques since at least the 15th century.
Small-scale mining was legalised in 1989 under the military regime of Jerry John Rawlings to "indigenise" the industry for the benefit of Ghanaians. The law forbids non-citizens from engaging in small-scale mining.
Ghana is the 10th largest gold producer in the world and the second largest in Africa, after South Africa. It produced 4.2m ounces last year, worth $1,668 per ounce.
23% of Ghana's gold exports come from small-scale mining. As many as 95% of small-scale mines in Ghana are believed to be illegal, many operated by Chinese nationals.
• This article was amended on 23 April 2013. The Chinese province is Guangdong, not Guangzhou, as the article originally stated.
Why Zimbabwean voters are deserting Morgan Tsvangirai
The MDC was supposed to trounce Robert Mugabe in upcoming elections, yet polls show the party is haemorrhaging support
Simukai Tinhu for African Arguments, part of the Guardian Africa Network
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 23 April 2013 13.45 BST
Fourteen years ago, the Movement for Democratic Change launched itself onto the scene as Zimbabwe's main opposition party with great local and international fanfare. The MDC gave rise to a new understanding of Zimbabwean politics, which sought to explain the vulnerability of President Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF). Not since independence from British rule in 1980, had an opposition party played such a significant role in the nation's politics.
For the first time, Zanu-PF went on to lose a majority in parliament, and its octogenarian leader was relegated to second place after being beaten by MDC's Morgan Tsvangirai in the first round of the 2008 presidential elections. Many Zimbabweans predicted that the MDC juggernaut would sweep to victory in the next elections, scheduled to take place at the end of the current coalition government.
But recent voter surveys, (notably Afrobarometer and Freedom House) and some not-so-well-attended MDC political rallies (in comparison to 2002 and 2008 election campaigns), suggest the MDC may have indulged in undue optimism. Indeed, the words "MDC" and "lose" are being flung around liberally these days by both local and international analysts.
Why is the MDC losing support?
One suggestion is that, with MDC politicians being caught up in corruption scandals while in government, some voters doubt the party's ability to run the country differently from Zanu-PF. Another is that Zanu-PF's populist policies, such as the campaign for the indigenisation of foreign-owned companies, have won sympathy from many Zimbabweans, who are largely unemployed. The MDC's opposition to this policy has also been used by Zanu-PF to suggest that Tsvangirai's party is against black empowerment.
In addition, the improved performance of the Zimbabwean economy, in comparison to the period prior to the formation of the coalition government in 2008, has been a double edged sword for the MDC. Tsvangirai's party has claimed that, with the finance and industry ministries in its hands, it has successfully transformed the economy from an inflationary nightmare to one that has consistently recorded growth, following years of Zanu-PF's mismanagement and the land grab policy that destroyed the agriculture sector (formerly the backbone of the economy). However, restoring the economic fortunes of the country has led to the end of the worst food shortages and hyperinflation, meaning that the previously successful message on the need to fix the economy holds less weight.
Lastly, it appears the opposition has been unable to counter attacks on the character of its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai. Zanu-PF has successfully turned nasty rumours into political currency, damaging Tsvangirai's political fortunes. His messy romantic life has been criticised, and he has been caricatured as indecisive, leading many Zimbabweans to doubt his sincerity and capacity to lead the country.
Even core voters desert MDC
This goes some way to explain why Zimbabweans in general are deserting the MDC, but not its core supporters. The majority of the party's votes have traditionally come from urban areas and the Matabeleland and Midlands regions. Why is it that the attitudes of voters from these areas have changed recently?
Within the last five years, there has been a mushrooming of urban based Pentecostal churches that target young urbanites. These groups have traditionally been the core of the MDC support. Whereas 10 years ago, the MDC had the capacity to attract 60,000 young urban dwellers to a political rally, today it is the Pentecostal church leaders who get the crowds.
Led by the likes of the charismatic Emmanuel Makandiwa and Hubert Angel, these churches are apathetic about politics and have a tendency towards puritanism. It is not surprising that a promiscuous presidential aspirant will have little chance in winning votes among young born-again believers.
Zanu-PF has also seized on a heightened anti-western mood to intensify its portrayal of Tsvangirai as a front for neo-colonialists. Buoyed by the "Africa Rising" narrative, this message appears to be resonating with mostly young and educated Africans, and Zimbabweans are no exception. Judging from the two most recent elections in Africa; Kenya and Zambia, where Uhuru Kenyatta and Michael Sata ran campaigns based on sustained anti-western rhetoric, the MDC might need to devise a strategy to guard itself against being portrayed as its stooges.
The MDC's alienation of voters from the Mateleland and the Midlands regions appear to have been shaped by a number of factors. First, residents say they are dissatisfied with the party's failure to decentralise the state, both politically and constitutionally. Second the voters, who are predominantly Ndebele speaking, have accused Tsvangirai of not doing enough to ensure that the violence of Gukurahundi, where an estimated 20,000 civilians were allegedly killed by the state, is resolved or at least kept in the limelight. Third, some of Tsvangirai's personal behaviour, such as impregnating a 23-year-old girl from Matebeleland, initially denying responsibility and then admitting that he was the father, seems to have helped reverse inroads that the party had made in this constituency in the last 10 years.
Finally, the Matebeleland and Midlands regions have become targets of competition by the resurrected Zimbabwe African People's Union (Zapu-PF), a party once led by Joshua Nkomo before he was forced into a political union with Zanu-PF, and the smaller MDC formation led by Welshman Ncube, crowding the MDC in the process.
Mugabe's Zanu-PF has its problems too
There are a number of problems within Zanu-PF which the MDC should use to increase its leverage and electoral punch. Most important is Mugabe's age and health, which remain something of a liability for the party. It will be interesting to see how much campaigning Mugabe will be capable of in the run-up to the elections. The younger Tsvangirai should be able to use this opportunity to outdo Mugabe on the campaign trail.
Until recently, it was difficult to deny that Zanu-PF had a disproportionate advantage over the nation's most precious resource; talented politicians, who have masterminded Zanu-PF's stranglehold on Zimbabwean politics since 1980. However, some of these leaders have either recently died (Mujuru; Mudenge) or are now old and frail (Shamhuyarira; Murerwa, amongst others) or have deserted the party (Makoni; Dabengwa). Those who have remained have either been thoroughly discredited (Mahoso; Moyo), or fatigued and have withdrawn to the backstage of politics.
What are the options for the MDC?
There are three possible options for the MDC. The first is to join a "coalition of the opposition" with Zapu-PF and the smaller MDC faction, which would have a chance at retaining votes from the Matabeleland and the Midlands. However, this might be problematic given the enmity that exists between Tsvangirai and Ncube.
The second is to scale back its ambitions and be realistic about what the party can achieve. The MDC must decide if it wants the presidency or a majority in parliament, or both. The reality is that winning the presidency now seems a very difficult task, considering Tsvangirai's tainted leadership. Indeed, based on recent surveys, his chances are much slimmer than in the last two elections. This leaves the MDC with one option; recapturing the majority in parliament, this time with a much wider margin that will give it a shot at pushing for reformist legislation. It seems the party will have to wait for Tsvangirai's svengali, Tendai Biti – probably a more capable leader – to take over if they want to win presidency too.
The third is simply to ignore the polls, which is what the MDC seems to have done so far, based on the premise that they are generally wrong.
The demise of authoritarianism in Zimbabwe will surely come. But there is little reason to think that the day is near, and even less to think that the opposition MDC is the party that will torpedo the current dictatorship. Today the party is more dysfunctional and commands less authority and support than ever before, and it shouldn't come as a surprise when it loses, even in a free and fair election.
Robert Mugabe, right, who blames the west for toppling Arab autocrats, and Morgan Tsvangirai.
Morgan Tsvangirai, left, has seen his MDC lose ground to Robert Mugabe, right. Photograph: Reuters