Inside the Hong Kong protests

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epa07793280 A protester holds a poster in front of a row of riot police during in an anti-government rally in Tsuen Wan, Hong Kong, China, 25 August 2019. The protests were triggered in June by an extradition bill to China, now suspended, and evolved into a wider anti-government movement with no end in sight. EPA-EFE/JEROME FAVRE

Whether it happens now or in 28 years, when the “one country, two systems” framework is set to expire, millions of people in Hong Kong want to stave off the inevitable: the city’s forced integration into mainland China. And yet there are deep divisions within Hong Kong about how to prevent that outcome. On one side are those, like Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed leader, Carrie Lam, who would prefer to reach some kind of settlement with the Chinese government; on the other are those who have taken to the streets this summer. Each side believes it has grounds to tar the other as traitors.

For her part, Lam is a known quantity: the model imperial governor who wants to do right by the people, but who ultimately must do as she is told by those who appointed her. The young protesters, however, represent something unique. Earlier this month, I was among them during two of the most intense episodes thus far – on August 11, when the police wounded a young woman in the eye, and more recently when masked protesters occupied Hong Kong’s airport for two days in the face of police brutality.

At first blush, the demonstrators seem to be in a situation similar to that of Ukraine’s Euromaidan protesters five years ago. Both episodes involve a “province in revolt” and a larger neighbour with the power to overwhelm the demonstrations by force. And in both cases, the government of the larger power hired the local lumpenproletariat and various criminal elements to attack the protesters.

But in more important ways, the Hong Kong protests are nothing like the Euromaidan. Ukraine’s protesters had recognised leaders, an organisational structure, and a clear agenda, which is why they were able to negotiate with the authorities when the time came. The Hong Kong protests, by contrast, are largely leaderless and have coalesced around an innovative form of civil disobedience bordering on hybrid warfare. Oscillating between non-violence and violence, the protests have taken on a liquid form and still do not even have a name.

The protesters are known simply as the people in black. Because they wear masks, they are faceless. And because they themselves do not know what they will do next, they are completely unpredictable. They can materialise in multiple places at once, rapidly assembling and then dispersing. The police cannot catch them, let alone count them or detain any identifiable leaders. The authorities can neither negotiate with them nor attempt to divide them because they are already divided. They are anonymous even to one another. They communicate through the encrypted messaging app Telegram and make decisions spontaneously on a majoritarian basis.

Still, the Hong Kong protesters have plenty in common. They are mostly twentysomethings who speak Cantonese and grew up in the free world (precisely because undercover policemen do not speak Cantonese, they have been easily unmasked). And they adopted their hybrid-war tactics not as a first choice, but because the peaceful, centrally led “Umbrella Movement” in the city in 2014 yielded no results. Its leaders were arrested, and the movement quickly dissipated.

This time, without leaders to target, the authorities retreated as soon as they saw the rocks in protesters’ hands. But although Lam has suspended the controversial bill that triggered the demonstrations – which would have allowed criminal suspects in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China – she has not withdrawn it. Nor can the Chinese government afford to be perceived as having given in, as that would merely invite more “terrorism” from other potentially insubordinate provinces.

Instead, the Chinese propaganda machine, after mostly ignoring the Hong Kong protests, has begun to depict them as a threat, in order to rile up the Chinese people. And on 17 August, pro-China activists held a demonstration in Hong Kong that they claim drew nearly 500,000 people(according to the police, the turnout was closer to 100,000). These propaganda efforts have been so outrageous that Facebook and Twitter have closed down some 1,000 mainland Chinese accounts that were generating false reports.

These efforts to foment Chinese nationalism are clearly intended to prepare the ground for an intervention and the use of force. Chinese media have circulated videos of Chinese paramilitary forces mobilising in Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong. “The chances of [Chinese President] Xi [Jinping] deciding to send in the People’s Liberation Army to quell the unrest are rising by the day,” writes Jamil Anderlini of the Financial Times, “and I suspect are already higher than 50%.”

But even if the Hong Kong protests were to subside, they would soon pick up again. As one protester told the Hong Kong Free Press, “We will continue to cause disturbances and start non-cooperation movements until the government responds.” No one in Hong Kong can even imagine their semi-autonomous region becoming just like any other Chinese city, prosperous but subject to censorship. For the city’s young people in particular, the idea that anyone who wants to get ahead professionally must join the Communist Party of China is absurd.

But the CPC cannot simply give in. Hong Kong may serve China’s business interests and attract foreign investors, but as long as the city is free, it will be an unacceptable temptation to mainlanders. Hence, the Chinese government has tried to smear the protesters as “terrorists.” Yet anyone who has observed the demonstrations firsthand knows that this is cheap propaganda. The overwhelming majority are young idealists who would rather be doing something else but have been forced into the streets by the Chinese government’s increasing authoritarianism.

In 2014, Hong Kong’s youth demonstrated peacefully and were ignored. Now, they sometimes reach for stones. If the Chinese government continues to give them no other choice, its false claims about them might just become a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is what happened with the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland and the Basque separatist group ETA in Spain. If something similar happens in Hong Kong, the CPC will have only itself to blame.

Russia’s influence in Georgia has grown since the 2008 war

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epa04846436 80-year-old local David Vanoshvili stands behind the barded wire of the border between the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia and Georgia in the village of Khurvaleti, some 60 kms from Tbilisi, Georgia, 14 July 2015. According to media reports, protesters came out in protest against what they called 'creeping annexation' after Russia border guards allegedly altered border markings, encroaching on Georgian territory. EPA/ZURAB KURTSIKIDZE

At exactly the same time that French President Emmanuel Macron was hosting his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, at his summer home in the south of France this week, Russian soldiers were busy building barbed wired fences deep inside Georgian territory.

One of Macron’s predecessors, Nicolas Sarkozy, negotiated on behalf of the European Union and brokered a ceasefire that obliged Moscow to pull its ground forces out of Georgia, but more than a decade later Russia still occupies over 20% of Georgia’s territory.

This particularly important fact was nowhere to be found on the agenda of the recent meeting between Macron and Putin.

The EU-brokered ceasefire agreement – which was signed by the presidents of Georgia, Russia, and France – also obliged the Kremlin to grant the European Union’s Monitoring Mission (EUMM) access to the areas that are now occupied by Russia. To this day, the EUMM can only monitor Russia’s “borderisation” from government-controlled areas of Georgia.

One reason why Georgia did not come up at the meeting is that Georgia, itself, did not specifically ask for the issue to be included in the talks. There have been no loud statements or op-eds by the current Georgian Government that were addressed to world leaders – including Macron – which demanded that the topic of Russian occupation be added to the EU-Russia agenda.

This passivity of a country that is supposedly trying to escape Moscow’s grip looks puzzling. On the surface, Georgia has been doing more or less fine. Officials from the ruling Georgian Dream – the party of oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, a man who made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s – present well-prepared talking points to the West on Georgia’s “progress” towards NATO and the EU. Compared to some other countries in the former Soviet space, it is hard not to admit that Georgia is in comparatively better shape. And yet, the thousands of Georgians that have demonstrated in the streets of Tbilisi to condemn Russia’s growing influence in the country has shown how superficial this view is.

In the seven years since Ivanishvili has been in charge, it is time to recognise that the Kremlin has been able to slowly, but steadily, rebuild its influence in Georgia. It is this erosion – largely below the radars of the West – that has worried Georgians. Seeing a parliamentarian from Russia’s Communist Party presiding over a meeting in the plenary hall of Georgia’s Parliament merely convinced many Georgians that their concerns were right. This triggered a mass protest that was eventually brutally dispersed by Ivanishvili.

Some of the lesser-known, but publicly acknowledged, key examples of this erosion need to be known by the outside world.

The government of the Georgian Dream freed all individuals who were convicted of spying for Russia, declaring them “political prisoners” without ever declassifying their cases. Many of the distinguished counterintelligence officers credited for rooting out Russian intelligence networks were instead removed from office and some even prosecuted, while individuals with a background in the Soviet law enforcement apparatus and the KGB were recycled into senior positions. Most recently, a former KGB officer – Dimitri Lezhava – was appointed as defence and security adviser to French-born President Salome Zurabishvili.

Following the Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine and Russia’s subsequent invasion of the country, the Georgian Government has consistently continued to distance itself from Kyiv – a traditional ally of Georgia. Not a single Georgian Prime Minister has visited Ukraine since the Georgian Dream came to power in 2012.

With increased global awareness, particularly in the West, of the Kremlin’s goals following its invasion of Ukraine, the situation presented itself as an obvious opportunity for Georgia to draw attention to the continued Russian occupation of whole swathes of Georgian territory and the Kremlin’s blatant disregard for fulfilling the 2008 EU-brokered Cease Fire Agreement.

The Georgian Government has remained passive and shunned proposals to include a demand that the US and EU include in their sanctions against Moscow, that a provision be included which directly states that Russia must honour the 2008 agreement.

Ivanishvili’s government has de facto completely abandoned any serious diplomatic and political effort to obtain a NATO Membership Action Plan, while it has engaged in joint political campaigns with radical anti-Western groups, including during the 2018 presidential election. These groups have gradually moved to the political mainstream and have largely gotten away with using violence to amplify their message.

One of their standard-bearers, Emzar Kvitsiani, a former warlord from the 1990s who led an armed rebellion against the democratically elected Georgian Government in 2006, subsequently fled to Russia and occasionally appears on Russia’s state propaganda with outlandish anti-American conspiracy theories. The Georgian Dream has overturned Kvitsiani of his high-treason conviction and absolved him by invited him back to the country.

The question is, why would a supposedly pro-Western government do any such thing unless it wanted to signal a shift to Russia? Kvitsiani now has a mandate in the Georgian Parliament from an openly pro-Russian party that allies itself with Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream.

Ivanishvili has also tried to undermine the development of the Anaklia deep sea port project on the Black Sea. This project is openly opposed by Russia due to the fact that it is backed by the US and would be a significant boon to the economy and make Georgia a major independent player when it comes to the east-west shipment of goods between Europe and Asia.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently expressed Washington’s frustration with the Russian attempt to influence the Georgian Dream and have the government abandon the project altogether when he told Georgia’s Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze, “I expressed the hope that Georgia will complete the implementation of the (Anaklia) project. Its implementation will strengthen Georgia’s ties with free economies and will not allow Georgia to be under the economic influence of Russia or China. These imaginary friends are not driven by good intentions.”

A pragmatic undertaking needs to be enacted to prevent Russia’s free ride in frontline states like Georgia, particularly as Moscow tries to undermine the US-led Euro-Atlantic security architecture in the hope that it weakens Western democracies through disinformation and presents itself as a defender of “traditional values”. The continued “Oligarchisation” of Ivanishvili – what Transparency International calls “state capture” – makes Georgia and other countries in the region more vulnerable to the Kremlin’s meddling and the task of fulfilling its democratic and pro-Western ambitions increasingly difficult.

With first Emirati astronaut ready for mission, UAE and Kazakhstan boost space exploration cooperation

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epaselect epa07730189 Soyuz MS-13 spacecraft with members of the International Space Station (ISS) expedition 60/61, NASA astronaut Andrew Morgan, Roscosmos cosmonaut Alexander Skvortsov and ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano lifts off from the launch pad at the Russian leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, 20 July 2019. The launch of the mission is scheduled on 20 July from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. EPA-EFE/YURI KOCHETKOV

In a first for the United Arab Emirates, Hazza al-Mansouri, a 34-year-old aviation engineer, will become the Gulf nation’s first-ever astronaut when he takes part in an eight-day mission aboard the international space station that is set to begin on 25 September.

Al-Mansouri will travel to the station aboard a Russian-made Soyuz-MS 15 after being launched into space from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome.

The UAE and Kazakhstan are currently in the process of discussing addition joint space exploration projects, as well as the creation of a rocket complex at Baikonur, and the possibility of the two working together to modernise the Soyuz launch site, Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister Beibut Atamkulov said.

Baikonur is the world’s first and largest operational space launch facility. Originally built by the Soviet Union in 1955, the spaceport is currently leased by the Kazakh Government to Russia until 2050, and is managed jointly by the Roscosmos State Corporation and the Russian Aerospace Forces.

The facility was a focal point of the Soviet space industry and the site of the launch of both Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite, and Vostok 1, which carried Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space.

Johnson gets two “neighs” and one “maybe” on the Irish backstop

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epaselect epa07785830 French President Emmanuel Macron (L) and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (R) during their meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, 22 August 2019. Johnson is in Paris after a one day visit in Berlin. EPA-EFE/POOL CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON / POOL

In the countdown to the G7 Summit in Biarritz, France, the British prime minister was holding consultations with Germany, France, and Ireland in his effort to rid the UK from the so-called “Irish backstop” clause. Boris Johnson got two categorical “neighs” and one diplomatic “maybe.”

The common message Johnson brought to Berlin and Paris this week was the UK is preparing for the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, although it is in everyone’s interest to avoid it, first and foremost, by giving up on the so-called “Irish backstop” clause.

The backstop negotiated by Theresa May provides for Britain to remain in a temporary customs union with the EU after Brexit, avoiding the need for any ‘hard’ border infrastructure, until a better solution is found. This is thought as necessary to safeguard the 1998 Good Friday agreement, which brought peace to Northern Ireland after more than 3,600 died in a three-decade conflict between unionists and Irish nationalists.

If implemented, the backstop would see Northern Ireland staying aligned to some rules of the EU single market and the UK in a single customs territory with the EU, for as long as it takes to work out an alternative.

The EU 27 and the European Commission have made clear that the deal negotiated with his predecessor, Theresa May, cannot be renegotiated. Therefore, the UK is moving towards the October 31st deadline without an obvious way to avoiding crushing out of the EU.

On Wednesday, Chancellor Angela Merkel told Boris Johnson that he had approximately a month to work out an alternative solution to the backstop. “It was said we will probably find a solution in two years; but we could also find one in the next 30 days, why not?” said Merkel.

Any such solution would have to ensure the EU’s Common Market and Customs Union remain safeguarded, while there is freedom of movement for goods and people in across Northern Ireland and the Republic.

On Thursday, President Emmanuel Macron made clear that he does not believe that in the month ahead it is possible to find “a new withdrawal agreement that deviates from the original,” although he remains open to proposals. However, he did refer to the “Irish backstop” as an “indispensable” clause.

What appears to be the essence of Johnson’s European tour is the beginning of a blame game between London and Brussels. On Thursday, Johnson reiterated in Paris the long-held position that the UK will “under no circumstances” create a land border to check goods on the border with the Republic of Ireland. What that means is that the onus will be on the Republic and, by extension, the EU to safeguard the Single Market and the Customs Union and erect a border infrastructure on the island.

For more than two years, Leave campaigners have argued that it is possible to envisage that a physical border in Northern Ireland is replaced by technical measures, such as trusted trader provisions and electronic pre-clearance. The issue at hand is that such measures have not been tested, the infrastructure is not in place, and such measures could provide scope for smuggling and illegal migration.

Speaking to the public broadcaster RTE on Thursday, Ireland’s Minister for European Affairs Helen McEntee said that Ireland is “willing and ready to listen” to any proposals to the backstop proposed by the UK, but noted that British suggestions thus far are unconvincing. These include previously-mooted trusted trader schemes, technological solutions or a proposal that Ireland align itself with the UK instead of the single market.

A new report released on Thursday by the Human Rights and Equality Commission in Northern Ireland suggests that “no-deal” would also be detrimental to security cooperation in Ireland. North-South police could no longer rely on the European Arrest Warrant, as well as data sharing and prosecution arrangements.

US President Donald Trump and his National Security Adviser John Bolton have come out in support of a no-deal Brexit scenario, promising a speedy follow-up trade deal. However, because any such deal would have to pass both the House of Representatives and the Senate, such a trade deal is unlikely, as Democrats have made clear they would do nothing to undermine the Good Friday Agreement.

The Netherlands join the deficit consensus

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epa07645388 Dutch Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra arrives for the Eurogroup meeting in Luxembourg, 13 June 2019. The Eurogroup will discuss inequality in the eurozone, based on the European Commission analysis and also will have a presention of the outcome of the IMF's Article IV consultation with the euro area. EPA-EFE/JULIEN WARNAND

The Dutch government is considering a deficit-finance stimulus program, prioritizing infrastructure, research, and education the government said on Thursday.

The plan would entail the Netherlands borrowing an additional €50bn on the current historically low or negative interest rates, the Dutch De Telegraaf daily reported earlier on Thursday. Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra said last month he would look at ways to use negative bond rates to increase public investments.

Citing government sources, De Telegraaf suggests that the stimulus program could be incorporated in the 2020 budget law, while the four-party government is looking for ways to guarantee the responsible use of the funds. In this context, the parliamentary debate could open as soon as September 17.

The Dutch export-led economy is feeling the weight of the prospect of a disorderly Brexit and the slowdown of the German economy. Three successive Mark Rutte  Netherlands pursued far-reaching fiscal consolidation measures over the last decade, reducing its debt-to-GDP ratio, but at the cost of higher inequality, political fragmentation and polarization. The  Hague is now following Berlin in reviewing the economic conventional wisdom, planning a stimulus program that could provide a significant boost to the fifth biggest economy in the EU.

The UK is unprepared to end freedom of movement by October 31

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epa05861890 (FILE) - A file photograph showing a border patrol officer stands at the British Border crossing in the new Terminal 2 at Heathrow Airport in London, Britain, 04 June 2014. Media reports on 21 March 2017 state that the British Government is to announce a ban on laptops and other electronic devices on flights from certain Middle East countries following the recent ban from eight countries by the US authorities. EPA/ANDREW COWIE

The UK government cannot deliver on the promise to end freedom of movement from the EU on Brexit day because it has no system to work out who is legally in the country, according to the Oxford-based Migration Observatory.

The Home Office said on August 19 that the UK will end freedom of movement on November 1st, immediately, in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

However, the government’s only way to distinguish between “settled” and “pre-settled” EU citizens with the right to reside in the UK and any new arrival is the official settlement scheme. The deadline for EU citizens to enrol in the scheme is December 2020. Of the 3,3 million estimated EU citizens residing in the UK, only one million have enrolled.

In a letter from the Home Office to EU citizens working across the public sector dated August 21, British authorities confirm that EU citizens and their family members in the UK “still have until 31 December 2020 to apply to the EU Settlement scheme, even in the event of a no-deal exit.” Moreover, the letter offers assurances that they are able to leave and reenter the UK “as they are now,” without demands for additional documentation.

Nevertheless, political tension is already having an effect on migration.

EU net migration to the UK has reached its lowest level since 2013 according to the latest data released by the Office for National Statistics. The ONS estimates that 200,000 EU citizens arrived in the year up to March 2019, of which 92,000 with the intention to work. That is less than half their 2016 peak.

Brazilian Amazon policy jeopardises EU-Mercosur deal

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epa07785125 A view of an area that has been scorched by fire in the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil, 20 August 2019 (issued 22 August 2019). According to media reports, the Brazilian Amazon region is suffering a record amount of fires, with an 84 percent increase on the same period last year. EPA-EFE/ROGERIO FLORENTINO

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro pushed back against his international critics on Thursday, as wildfires consume vast expanses of the Amazon rainforest while he has promised farmers more land to cultivate soybeans and raise cattle.

Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) said that nearly 73,000 forest fires were recorded in the country between January and August 2019, which is a year-on-year increase of 45%. The smoke rising from the Amazon is spreading across Latin America to the Atlantic coast, according to the World Meteorological Organization. Brazilian prosecutors opened a formal investigation on Thursday to examine the cause of these fires.

Brazil is home to about 60% of the Amazon rainforest that generates 20% of the world’s oxygen.

Amid this international crisis, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres merely expressed his concern for the impact on climate change and biodiversity. Amnesty International and the World Wilde Fund blamed the Bolsonaro government for failing to see the magnitude of the damage, the challenge, and to take resolute action.

On Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron was blunt, calling the Amazon wildfires an “international crisis” and “our house,” calling for the inclusion of the subject on the G7 agenda this weekend. Last week, Norway and Brazil withheld $60 million in aid, protesting on the absence of resolute action by the government to protect the rainforest.

Bolsonaro pushed back on criticism on Thursday.

While referring to wildfires as a natural phenomenon that has “always happened in the Amazon,” he turned against media “who want Brazil to end up like Venezuela” and “transnational bureaucrats and NGOs.” Finally, he lashed out against President Macron’s “colonial” mentality.

“The French president’s suggestion that Amazon issues be discussed at the G-7 without participation by the countries in the region evokes a colonialist mentality that is out of place in the 21st century,” Bolsonaro Twitted.

The Brazilian President has also told the German Chancellor Angela Merkel to mind her own country and pointed out that Norway hunts whales.

“Take your dough and reforest Germany, okay? It’s much more needed there than here,” he told Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Beyond political rhetoric, the economic stakes are rising. The deal between the European Union and the South American trading bloc Mercosur requires Brazil to abide by the Paris climate accord, which aims to end illegal deforestation in the Amazon by 2030. The agreement has been criticized precisely because it allows for greater beef import quotas, providing new incentives for deforestation.

Bolsonaro has made clear that he favours the economic exploitation of the Amazon, “reclaiming” the forest “for Brazilians.”

North Korea money laundering in Russia puts European banks at risk

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epa07019787 Russian central bank governor Elvira Nabiullina attends a press conference following the Bank of Russia Board of Directors meeting on monetary policy issues in Moscow, Russia, 14 September 2018. The Russian central bank raised its key interest rate to 7.50 percent. EPA-EFE/SERGEI ILNITSKY

Elvira Nabiullina, the governor of the Russian Central Bank, has reportedly been reforming the bank sector and cracking down on financial institutions engaged in illicit behaviour.

“Nabiullina’s has made some impressive achievements in cleaning up the banking system, which include better monitoring of large banks and withdrawal of licenses from smaller institutions involved in a variety of shady and semi-legal operations,” Vladimir Tikhomirov, the chief macroeconomist at BCS Financial Group in Moscow, told New Europe. “In most cases, the latter were cash and FX dealings with criminal connections.”

Some Russian banks have reportedly been accused of assisting North Korea in evading international sanctions, putting Russian banks and their European customers at risk.

On 19 June, the United States sanctioned Russian Financial Society for allegedly helping North Korea evade financial sanctions by assisting a company linked to Pyongyang’s primary foreign exchange bank, Reuters quoted the US Treasury Department as saying. American officials targeted the Russian financial institution and accused it of opening multiple bank accounts for Dandong Zhongsheng Industry & Trade Co. Ltd, which is owned and controlled by North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank.

“Treasury continues to enforce existing US and UN sanctions against individuals and entities in Russia, and elsewhere, who facilitate illicit trade with North Korea,” the news agency quoted Sigal Mandelker, US Treasury’s Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, as saying.

Justin Urquhart Stewart, director at Seven Investment Management in London, told New Europe on 16 August that the DPRK allegedly uses deceptive tactics to launder money through Russia.

“It’s not just the Russian banks that are doing this high-risk stuff and the Russian banking system is not renowned for its security. I suspect we’re lucky to find a financial system in North Korea, but what is fascinating is that now it has changed over the past few years in terms of the attitude towards Russian companies investing elsewhere. The level of trust is so low and the control of money-laundering operations so tight, that the Russians will find it increasingly difficult to invest in the EU,” he said, adding that some Russian financial entities may be involved in high-risk operations in North Korea, putting Russian banks and their customers at risk.

“It’s shaky, but you have to understand that most Russian banks are effectively being supported by the state. I think it’s highly likely that the Russian banks will act a little like the German banks and allow the government to step in to force a merger or something. They are not developed Capitalists to the extent of being able to manage losing banks. It would not be orderly. It would be very disorderly, so I think they have to be very careful with that,” Urquhart Stewart said.

Russian officials have reportedly taken steps against the DPRK, but the job remains incomplete. “It’s an interesting issue to see what action the authorities will take. The answer I suspect will be very little. What we need to be aware of in the West, in terms of the Russian banks, is that this is only going to get higher, so we could be in a position where we’re heading for another credit crunch. This time around, we don’t have the rescue facilities that we had in 2008. Could we do another round of quantitative easing on that scale, the answer is probably not. That means that if a Russian bank is used, the story is not so much about the banks themselves, but about the effect it would have on the rest of the markets. It’s relatively small, but if it’s handled badly you could end up with a Lehman-type style meltdown,” Urquhart Stewart said.

With some Russian government support, Nabiullina has been reportedly reforming the banking sector, which is critically important. “If they were taking action against other banks that would actually further tarnish the Russian image on lack of compliance and control, the question then would have to be, ‘Do they have the ability to do this in a managed manner to be able to handle this?’, or ‘Do they and let it go?’ The latter would be very dangerous for Europe and the banking system,” said Urquhart Stewart.

When it comes to US sanctions against Russian financial institutions who are allegedly helping North Korea launder money through the Russian and European banking system, the London-based analyst added, “The Russians are masters at that and, of course, they’ve got more alternatives and pipelines now.”

Urquhart Stewart argued that Moscow and Beijing may boost joint “Sino-Russian linkages to combat what they see as an aggressive US policy, but also an aggressive, unreliable, and some times illogical America. They can’t judge the Americans because they don’t know what he is going to do next, which you can say is a good way to try to manage it, but it will destroy the one word that runs any economy – particularly economies trying to recover from 2008 – and that is ‘confidence’. If they don’t have confidence in the banking system structure, and your counterpart’s risk in the banking system is not secure, that’s how you end up with a sudden crisis developing almost overnight.”

Say “No” to a technocratic government

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epaselect epa07782280 A general view of Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (C, standing) as he addresses the Senate in Rome, Italy, 20 August 2019. Conte in his address to the senate called bringing about the government crisis irresponsible. Deputy Premier and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini and his party League pulled out from government and caused a political crisis a week ago. Conte said that the government has come to an end and that he would resign. EPA-EFE/CLAUDIO PERI

The EU’s economy has essentially been flat over the past year. The slump in manufacturing is deepening. Companies are cutting work hours and issuing profit warnings. The dominant mood in the European and international markets today is anxiety. Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse, announced on 14 August that its GDP had contracted by 0.1% in the second quarter of 2019 compared with the previous three months.

This has left many analysts to conclude that Europe is heading for an outright recession.

Whenever there is an economic or political crisis on the horizon, there is one particular pattern…societies often look for a technocratic government to solve their problems. This happened in several European countries in the wake of the 2008 recession and the Eurozone crisis. Caretaker technocrat-led administrations have been historically popular in crisis-prone democracies, particularly in Southern and Eastern Europe.

There are several examples of technocratic cabinets in Italy, Greece, and Bulgaria that were appointed in times of economic difficulties to avert imminent economic disasters. Technocratic cabinets are also often appointed following a major crisis caused by a political scandal or when parties fail either to establish or to keep a partisan cabinet. In Finland, for example, several technocratic cabinets followed the break‐up of a ruling coalition. Since the establishment of the Czech Republic as an independent country in 1993, three of its cabinets were technocratic.

In today’s UK, the mother of parliamentary democracy, there are calls that the post-Brexit shake-up must include apolitical experts who should sort-out the political mess that began in 2016 when Britons voted in favour of leaving the EU. And yet, more than three years on and the Parliament still finds the EU’s terms for the exit to be unacceptable. With the EU showing little willingness to renegotiate, Boris Johnson, the UK’s new prime minister, is pulling his country closer to the cliff of a “no-deal Brexit”, which the Parliament is opposing.

In today’s Europe, traditional political parties are no longer liked or trusted by voters the way they used to be. One reason is that many politicians often cannot deliver after overpromising. Coming to power, they face difficulties in solving major problems and have no political courage to outline either difficult or unpopular choices to their base. Their partisan cabinets often fail to respond to challenges or deal with the consequences.

In the current economic and political climate in Europe, one may expect calls for technocratic cabinets to raise. There will be arguments and the accelerated expectations that apolitical experts can outperform partisan cabinets. Some will even argue that technocrat-led caretaker governments are among the most advanced forms of power-sharing between elected politicians and experts in contemporary European democracies.

I have my share of a technocratic experience. As an international attorney, I left the private sector in 2015 when I was called to join the so-called technocrat-led government of post-revolutionary Ukraine to serve as the First Deputy Minister of Economy. There were several other such technocrats in the Ukrainian government. Some, like me at the time, were expats who had been granted Ukrainian citizenship. The expectation then was, just as it is with any technocratic administration, that the non-partisan experts may set and enact policies that were independent of parties, their political decisions, and elected party representatives.

Those expectations had failed.

More often than not, politicians put unelected and unempowered experts in front to face the public only to hide the politicians’ own incompetence and lack of courage to take political responsibility for not being able to deliver. In the meantime, the politicians continue pulling the strings, not allowing the experts to govern on one hand, and on the other, they let the technocrats assume the responsibility for the politicians’ failures.

From that perspective, technocratic governments erode democracy and keep bad politicians in power. Although such governments have sometimes been long-lasting, they are illegitimate and democratically dysfunctional. They are a symptom of high levels of state exploitation by irresponsible leaders and political parties. Their occurrence in Europe is part of a broader sense of malaise in Western democracy where, instead of being bailed out, politicians need to be held responsible and accountable.  Any claims for having a successful record to defend such technocratic governments and their legitimacy disregards their unfavourable legacy and political conditions to which they are contributing.

Ukraine has not yet completely abandoned the idea of a new technocratic government. Less than a month after convincing parliamentary elections victory, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s party on 20 August called on the other parliamentary parties to contribute names of candidates for building a technocratic government. Ukraine may indeed be a very special and, in some ways, extreme case. As its new president, Zelensky started his entry into the Ukrainian politics earlier this year by impressively winning the presidential election in April. On 21 July, the former entertainer struck again. His party received 247 seats in 450 seats Ukrainian parliament.  Two-thirds of the new MPs are new to politics. Like Zelensky, a number of them are leading stars from show business.

However, what is not unique to Ukrainian politics is that just as Brexiteers were during their campaigns, Zelensky had been avoiding debates with other candidates or being quizzed by journalists on hard policy questions. Today, many modern politicians often dodge complex issues and assume different guises at different times. Being vague about their intentions has become quintessential to their success. Because such politicians are all but clear in their plans, and sometimes even of their true convictions, people use them as a repository for their own. When they cannot deliver, they are looking for technocratic experts to clean their mess.

Ironically, that same day when Zelensky’s party started the conversation about a technocrat government, Italy’s Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, a respected lawyer and an independent in a coalition government of right and left-wing populist parties, announced in frustration his resignation and put an end to his government. Conte found out that being associated with anti-establishment populists and managing the country without a mandate is anything but possible.

The danger of climate doomsayers

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epaselect epa07508182 An activist screams during a performance at a protest in front of the German parliament Bundestag in Berlin, Germany, 15 April 2019. Several activist groups called for a peaceful rebellion under the motto 'Extinction Rebellion'. Demonstrators announced blockade actions in order to point out the urgency of the ecological crisis. EPA-EFE/CLEMENS BILAN

Most people on the planet wake up each day thinking that things are getting worse. It is little wonder, given what they routinely read in the newspaper or see on television. But this gloomy mood is a problem because it feeds into scare stories about how climate change will end in Armageddon.

The fact is that the world is mostly getting better. For starters, average global life expectancy has more than doubled since 1900 and is now above 70 years. Because the increase has been particularly marked among the poor, health inequality has declined massively. Moreover, the world is more literate, child labour is decreasing, and we are living in one of the most peaceful times in history.

In addition, people are better off economically. Over the past 30 years, the average global per capita income has almost doubled, leading to massive reductions in poverty. In 1990, nearly four in ten of the world’s people were poor; today, less than one in ten are. That has helped to transform the way people live. Between 1990 and 2015, for example, the proportion of the world’s population practising open defecation halved to 15%. And in the same period, 2.6 billion people gained access to improved water sources, bringing the global share of up to 91%.

These changes have also improved the environment. Globally, the risk of death from air pollution – by far the biggest environmental killer – has declined substantially; in low-income countries, it has almost halved since 1990. Finally, rich countries are increasingly preserving forests and reforesting, thanks to higher agricultural yields and changing attitudes to the environment.

Of course, many people may hear all of this and still remain convinced that climate change will wipe out the planet. That is understandable, but it says more about the influence of single-minded environmental activists and desperate media than it does about reality.

We are told that global warming will cause extreme weather and climate chaos that will literally put human survival at risk. But this view is not only unfounded; it also contradicts the findings of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

For example, hurricanes are constantly linked to global warming. But only three major hurricanes (that is, Category 3 or greater) have hit the continental United States in the past 13 years – the lowest number since at least 1900. In its most recent assessment, the IPCC – using the term “cyclone” for hurricane – said that there have been “no significant observed trends in global tropical cyclone frequency over the past century.” And NASA’s hurricane-modelling team has concluded that “the historical Atlantic hurricane frequency record does not provide compelling evidence for a substantial greenhouse warming-induced long-term increase.”

Scientists think that global warming will in time mean that hurricanes become less frequent but stronger. At the same time, prosperity is likely to increase dramatically over the coming decades, making us more resilient to such events. Once that is taken into account, the overall impact of hurricanes by 2100 will actually be lower than it is today.

Climate change is real, and it is a problem. According to the IPCC, the overall impact of global warming by the 2070s will be equivalent to a 0.2-2% loss in average income. That’s not the end of the world, but the same as a single economic recession, in a world that is much better off than today.

The risk is that outsized fear will take us down the wrong path in tackling global warming. Concerned activists want the world to abandon fossil fuels as quickly as possible. But it will mean slowing the growth that has lifted billions out of poverty and transformed the planet. That has a very real cost.

Rich, well-educated people in advanced economies often ignore or scoff at this cost. From the comfort of the World Economic Forum’s 2017 annual meeting in Davos, former US Vice President Al Gore tut-tutted about plans to build coal-fired power plants in Bangladesh. But Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina slapped that down, pointing out: “If you cannot develop the economic conditions of your people, then how will you save our people? We have to ensure food security; we have to give them a job opportunity.”

Indeed, analysis for the Copenhagen Consensus Center shows that – even when accounting for global climate damage – developing coal power to drive economic growth in Bangladesh is an effective policy. The cost would be $9.7 billion, including the global, long-term climate costs of $570 million, but the benefits would be greater than $250 billion – equivalent to more than an entire year of Bangladesh’s GDP.

On a global scale, our pathways are laid bare by work undertaken for the UN studying five different global futures. It turns out that humanity will be much better off – including in Africa – in a scenario of high fossil-fuel use than it would be even if we succeeded in achieving a benign low-CO₂ world.

We need to solve climate change, but we also need to make sure that the cure isn’t more painful than the disease. A commensurate response would be to invest much more in researching and developing cheaper carbon-free energy sources that can eventually outcompete fossil fuels. That would ensure a smooth transition that doesn’t slow economies down and hurt the worst-off in society.

Doom and gloom distort our worldview and can lead to bad policies. The future is bright, and we need smart decisions to keep it so.

Italy’s opposition wants alternative government following Conte resignation

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epa07785393 Democratic Party (PD) leader Nicola Zingaretti (R), with former Italian premier and PD president Paolo Gentiloni, addresses the media after a meeting with Italian President Mattarella for a second round of formal political consultations at Quirinale Palace, in Rome, Italy, 22 August 2019, following the resignation of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. The Pd considers 'useful' to try to establish a 'turning government' for which 'we have indicated the first non-negotiable principles': first of all the reconfirmation of the 'pro-European vocation' of Italy, Zingaretti said. EPA-EFE/ANGELO CARCONI

Italy’s main opposition party The leader of Italy’s centre-left Democratic Party, Nicola Zingaretti, has called for the formation of a four-year alternative government in order to approve the country’s 2020 budget. This was the initial proposal by former prime minister Matteo Matteo Renzi. However,

Zingaretti also said he is open to forming a coalition government with the 5-Star Movement if the leftist-populist party confirms its commitment to EU membership and the two sides reach a consensus over migration and environmental policy.

The call for a four-year alternative government was initially proposed by former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi after the collapse of a 14-month coalition government of 5-Star Movement and Lega, led by Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, on Tuesday.

Italian President Sergio Matterella has begun consultations over the formation of a government and is due to talk to Zingaretti in the coming days.

5-Star has the most seats in parliament, although polling suggests they have lost over half of their popularity and are polling nationally at only 16%. Salvini and Lega, on the other hand, have regularly topping opinion polls in recent months, having seen their popularity reach nearly 40%

Salvini withdrew his support for the coalition government on 8 August and has called for snap elections by October. Lega’s rhetoric has, since last winter, become increasingly more critical of the EU establishment in Brussels, which has helped boost its popularity with the Italian public, most of who are struggling as Italy continues to experience economic hardship and high unemployment, as well as bearing the brunt of the ongoing European migrant crisis.

Lega’s budget committee chair and economic policy spokesperson, Claudio Borghi, told German magazine Capital that Italy’s exit from the euro “would be a good thing”, but only if the government had the democratic legitimacy to do so, adding that more than 50% of the Italian electorate would have to be behind such a move.

Borghi had earlier confirmed that a Lega government would approve a stimulus programme that would, in part, be deficit-financed. A potential move that has infuriated the European Commission, who contend that such a measure would be a flagrant violation of the EU’s budget policy.

EU opens anti-trust probe against Facebook’s Libra currency

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epa07655885 (FILE) - A person using Facebook on his phone at a cafe in Hanoi, Vietnam, 28 November 2013 (reissued 18 June 2019). US social media giant Facebook announced on 18 June 2019 its plans for their cryptocurrency named Libra. It is scheduled to rolled out in 2020. EPA-EFE/LUONG THAI LINH

The EU has opened an antitrust probe against Facebook’s Libra cryptocurrency plan, with the European Commission actively investigating the company’s potential anticompetitive behaviour amid concerns that the proposed payment system would unfairly shut out rivals.

Brussels is concerned that Facebook could bundle Libra with its popular platforms, including WhatsApp and Messenger, allowing it to have immediate access to Facebook’s 2.38 billion users.

The Switzerland-based Libra Association raised additional concerns, saying EU officials are worried about consumer data protection if they are connected to the cryptocurrency. Facebook is already facing the prospect of a €4.5 billion fine for its role in last year’s Cambridge Analytica scandal.

The US House of Representatives has opened its own probe against the Libra plan, while the Bank of England has also raised additional concerns over the potential use of a Facebook-backed cryptocurrency by organised crime, money laundering, and terrorist networks.

Pompeo threatens to sanction countries that allow Iranian tanker to drop anchor

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epaselect epa07779717 View of the Iranian oil tanker Grace 1 anchored off Gibraltar, southern Spain, 18 August 2019. The ship prepares to depart from Gibraltar, after authorities denied the US request of seizing the ship and its cargo. According to reports, Iran's ambassador to the UK Hamid Baeidinejad said on 18 August that Iran renamed Grace 1 to 'Adrian Darya', to conform to international laws. The oil tanker was held on 04 July on the suspicion it was transporting crude oil to a refinery in Syria against EU sanctions. EPA-EFE/A. CARRASCO RAGEL

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington will take every action it can to prevent an Iranian oil tanker that left Gibraltar on Monday from delivering oil to Syria in contravention of current American sanctions.

The vessel was released from six-week detention off the British territory of Gibraltar on Sunday evening after a local court accepted Iranian assurances that the ship was not bound to Syria. The vessel was taken over by British Royal Marines in July for carrying oil to Syria – a gross violation of EU sanctions.

The tanker is reportedly headed for Greece where the new conservative government said the vessel is not welcome to Greece.

In an interview with ANT1 TV on Wednesday, Alternate Foreign Minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis said Greece was not willing to facilitate the transfer of oil to Syria. He also added that the ship, Adrian Darya 1, is too big to dock in the country’s southern port of Kalamata.

The Greek Foreign Ministry’s state also indicated that Athens does not accept any assurances by the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran that the supertanker is not bound for Syria.

Maritime Affairs Minister Yiannis Plakiotakis confirmed that the Iranian government never officially requested that the ship dock in Greece, comments that came shortly after Pompeo said the White House will slap sanctions on any nation that allows the tanker to drop anchor in their respective harbours.

Although the EU has not completely followed the US in imposing harsh oil export sanctions on Iran, many members of the bloc EU have unilaterally imposed stiff oil sanctions on the Bashar al-Assad regime – the Islamic Republic’s ally.

Washington has linked the supertanker to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – the single-most powerful military and economic entity in Iran that was designated as a terrorist organisation by the governments of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United States for its open backing of radical terrorist groups, including Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Hashd al-Shaabi Shiite militias in Iraq, and Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

Brussels, which has tried to maintain good relations with the theocratic regime in Tehran, has not followed the US’ lead in pronouncing the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organisation, though it does have sanctions in place against the group. The UK, Canada, and Australia are looking into the possibility of listing the Revolutionary Guards, or IRGC, as a terrorist entity following its disruption of international shipping traffic in the Strait of Hormuz.

The US Department of Justice issued a warrant to seize the vessel on Sunday evening, but the court ruled that Gibraltar is not bound by American oil export sanctions.

Danes angered over Trump cancellation following Greenland debacle

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epa07775928 Thule Air Base of the US Air Force in Greenland, 31 October 2018. EPA-EFE/THOMAS LEKFELDT DENMARK OUT

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen admitted on Tuesday that she was “annoyed” after US President Donald J. Trump abruptly announced that would cancel his upcoming official visit to Denmark after being told that Greenland – an autonomous region within the Kingdom of Denmark – was not for sale.

Following a 2008 self-government act, Greenland’s local government has a substantial say in the affairs of the region, a fact that Frederiksen underscored when she noted that Greenland’s leader, Kim Kielsen, flatly rejected Trump’s offer as “absurd” and that the world’s largest island – three-quarters of which is covered by the only permanent ice sheet outside Antarctica – and its 56,000 residents were “not for sale”.

According to Danish legal experts, Denmark could technically sell the island only after Greenlanders hold a referendum on whether they would agree to a sale and a transfer of their national identity.

Trump was scheduled to visit Denmark on 1 September 2 at the invitation of the country’s Queen Margrethe II. Frederiksen underscored that the visit would have been an opportunity to celebrate Denmark’s close relationship with the US, saying that the invitation remains open and adding, “The American president and the American people are and always will be welcome in Denmark.”

Frederiksen, who reiterated that she was surprised and deeply disappointed that Trump called off his visit reiterated her position that the US and Denmark need to further deepen their alliance as developments in the Arctic, including the militarisation of the region by Russia, called for further cooperation.

Trump, however, was less magnanimous in his response and lashed out at Frederiksen by saying she had been “nasty” after she rebuffed his idea of buying Greenland. Trump announced on his personal Twitter account on Tuesday evening that would no longer travel to Denmark because Frederiksen had refused to discuss the sale of Greenland, which had not originally been on the talking points agenda for the meeting.

Taking to Twitter to voice his displeasure, Trump expressed dismay at prime minister Frederiksen’s use of the word “absurd” saying she was foolish to reject such “a large real estate deal.” He later went on to sharply criticise Denmark – one of the largest contributors to counter-terror operations around the world as well as the US-led NATO missions in Iraq and Afghanistan – that it did not meet the 2% NATO defence spending threshold.

Denmark first allowed the US Air Force to establish a strategic radar base for its nuclear early warning system during the Cold War. The US’ Thule Air Base remains the US Armed Forces’ northernmost installation and central to NATO’s northern defence umbrella in the event of a nuclear strike launched over the North Pole.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke with Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod following Trump’s Tweets, which both later described as “constructive” and reaffirming for the close partnership between the two countries.

Greenland is rich in coal, zinc, copper, and iron ore and is rapidly becoming key to an ongoing struggle between the West, Russia, and China over the Arctic’s natural resources

 

US Under Secretary Hale in Kazakhstan for C5+1 summit

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Security in Central Asia was the main topic of discussion during the high-level C5+1 summit in Nur-Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan, on Wednesday.

The C5+1 format includes the foreign ministers of all five former Soviet Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan – and the US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale.

“At today’s meeting, the first session issued a statement supporting economic security and partnership,” Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister Beibut Atamkulov said following the opening session, who added that significant progress has recently been made when it comes to cooperation between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the region’s two largest economies. According to Atamkulov, this includes,“An ambitious task is to increase bilateral trade between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to $5 billion by the end of 2020.”

Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev also plans to bolster his country’s relationship with neighbouring Kyrgyzstan where he is expected to visit later this autumn.

“In recent years, within the framework of C5+1, a lot of work has been done to strengthen transport and transit corridors, increase the efficiency of processing goods that pass through the border within the region, reduce trade barriers, develop cross-border trade, and also bring goods produced in Central Asia to foreign markets,” said Atamkulov.

The C5+1 was established in November 2015 to address common safety and environmental issues, improve regional trade flows, and boost US trade and investment prospects in Central Asia.

According to the US State Department, Hale will also travel to Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent where he will meet with senior Uzbek government officials and reiterate Washington’s support for Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s reform agenda and encourage deeper bilateral cooperation on issues that include security, education, and trade.

ISIS is reconstituting in Iraq and Syria

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It has been than a year since US President Donald J. Trump took to Twitter to declare victory over the Islamic State, but new reports indicate that the more than 18,000 ISIS fighters are still in the field and are beginning to establish new bases of operation to carry out guerrilla attacks across Iraq and Syria.

ISIS fighters who escaped capture or death have, according to both the New York Times and AI-Monitor, reconstituted and are now capable of carrying out assassinations, ambushes, kidnappings, and sniper attacks. They are thought to have a war chest of $400 million, controlling a string of businesses ranging from fish farming to cannabis plantations.

In August, a high-profile attack occurred in August in northern Iraq when armed men claiming to be ISIS militants publicly beheaded a policeman in a rural village south of the city of Samarra, a “Sunni Triangle” city in Salahuddin Province located north of Baghdad.

A report by the US inspector general concluded that the withdrawal of 1,000 American troops and, in the face of heavy criticism from Turkey, the White House’s decision to drastically reduce its support for the Kurds has created a number of complications.

The Kurdish YPG – the US’ main ally in the four-year fight against ISIS, but a group that the Turks consider to be a terror organisation – currently holds over 10,000 ISIS fighters as prisoners, including 2,000 foreigners, at the Al-Hol camp in northern Syria.

A recent UN report worries that Al-Hol could become a breeding ground for an ISIS, particularly if the YPG are unable to continue holding the prisoners due to a lack of resources and support from the US and Europe.

Washington is currently hampered in its ability to halt ISIS attacks as it continues to draw-down the American presence in both Iraq and Syria, leaving the Kurds, the minority Yazidi community, and the Free Syrian Rebels exposed to ISIS attacks.

Having recognised this, American aerial bombardment operations in Syria against militant positions sharply increased in June and July, despite Trump’s decision to leave few US military advisors on the ground.

With 5,200 troops in Iraq and just under 1,000 in Syria, the American military is faced with an enduring insurgency of a force that remains well equipped and adequately funded, according to US officials.

ISIS appears to have changed tactics from its previous incarnation when it often fought coalition and Kurdish forces in conventional, pitched battles. The group now resorts to traditional guerilla or insurgency modes of operation where they disappear into the local population after every attack rather than attempting to control territory.

Europe honors victims of acts of violence based on religion or faith

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epa07783996 (FILE) - Rohingyas refugees gather near the fence at the 'no man's land' zone between the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Maungdaw district, Rakhine State, western Myanmar, 24 August 2018 (reissued 21 August 2019). Bangladesh is set to start repatriations for Rohingya Muslim refugees on 22 August, media reported. The Bangladeshi refugee commissioner said only 21 families out of 1,056 selected for repatriation were willing to be interviewed by officials about whether they wanted to return. Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh camps are said to fear they will face violence and oppression once back in Myanmar, media added. EPA-EFE/NYEIN CHAN NAING

The European Union marks on 22 August the International Day commemorating the victims of acts of violence based on religion or belief.

“Persecution as a response to religious belief or affiliation, or lack thereof, is a violation of international law and requires joint work to combat it.”, said the Union’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini in a declaration issued on the occasion.

The United Nations’ General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming 22 August as International Day commemorating the victims of acts of violence based on religion or belief, which is coming in a period of rise of violence against religious communities and hate crimes.

The resolution seeks to raise awareness of the importance of respect for religious diversity, to inspire inter-religious, interfaith and intercultural dialogue, to emphasize freedom of expression, and organizations that promote tolerance, and to promote the culture of peace.
“If a society allows for the persecution of one minority, it lays the ground for persecution of any community. An attack on one minority is an attack on all of us. This is why we keep committed to acting all together”, the statement reads.

EU provides new funds to fight deadly Ebola virus in Burundi

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epa04856847 A woman walks through the main market a day after the controversial presidential elections in Bujumbura, Burundi, 22 July 2015. Votes were being counted in Burundi after a controversial presidential election the previous day, boycotted by the opposition, which said President Pierre Nkurunziza's bid for a third term violated the constitution. The results will be announced on 24 July afternoon, Electoral Commission Chairman Pierre Claver Ndayicariye said. EPA/WILL SWANSON

The European Union announced on 21 August that it is stepping up its assistance to Burundi with €465.000 to further strengthen Ebola preparedness measures, as the virus outbreak has a high risk of spreading from the most affected Democratic Republic of Congo into the neighboring countries.

The new funding is supporting preparedness measures, such as infection prevention, coordination, surveillance and response capacities to Ebola in high-risk districts in Burundi, close to the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The funding will be allocated through the World Health Organisation. It complements the existing financial support to the ongoing EU efforts in Ebola surveillance and awareness-raising via NGOs and UN.

Bundesbank warns of technical recession in Germany

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epa05258502 A five-euro collector's coin 'Planet Earth' and a five-euro banknote in Hanover, Germany, 14 April 2016. Starting today, the new five-euro coin is available in branches of the Deutsche Bundesbank and at many other banks. EPA/JULIAN STRATENSCHULTE

Germany’s Bundesbank joined members of the government, think tanks, and business analysts to warn that Europe’s largest economy may be headed towards a recession after suffering through a period of negative growth throughout the summer.

The Bundesbank said industrial production has slowed considerably as a result of the ongoing Sino-American trade war and continued concerns about the long-term effects of a potential no-deal Brexit. According to Deutsche Bank’s Chief Economist Stefan Schneider, the situation is particularly dire for the automotive and chemical industries.

Finance Minister Olaf Scholz has warned that Germany could “fully face up to” a new economic crisis, adding that he is considering a €50 billion stimulus package that more or less resembles the government’s response to the global financial crisis a decade ago.

Germany’s overall debt-to-GDP ratio is expected to fall below the EU’s crucial 60% threshold this year, providing further political justification for fiscal expansion in 2020.

Approximately €12.3 trillion worth of bonds in the world market is currently offering negative yields. The German government on 20 August announced that it is auctioning a 30-year bond maturing in August 2050 with 0% interest. The zero-coupon bond provides security at a moment in time when the European Central Bank is offering negative interest rates. This means that investors have to pay for the security of holding reserves.

The European Central Bank’s deposit rates are expected to slide further into negative territory in September which would put Germany, the world’s fourth-largest economy, in a position to develop a massive stimulus package at minimum cost as bond yields are falling across Europe.

The UK, France, Spain and Italy are all planning their own stimulus packages that are likely to anger Brussels as they will exceed the EU’s threshold for debt-to-GDP.

Johnson takes bilateral track to sidestep the Irish backstop

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epa06829895 A 'Welcome to Northern Ireland' road sign damaged with bullet holes is seen near the Fermanagh - Cavan border in Northern Ireland, 02 June 2018. EPA-EFE/PAUL MCERLANE

Boris Johnson is meeting Angela Merkel on Wednesday in what appears to be more of a quest for assigning responsibility for the failure to reach a new consensus on Brexit rather than substantial negotiations.

In a letter to the European Council late on Monday, Johnson called the Irish backstop “anti-democratic” and “inconsistent with the sovereignty of the UK as a state,” called for its scrapping; in parallel, he called on the EU to commit along with the UK that no border infrastructure would be raised in Ireland.

In substance, Johnson’s letter did not address the practicalities of how the Single Market was to impose its external tariffs and standards after the UK leaves on October 31st, hinting however that in the absence of the Irish backstop the agreement negotiated with Theresa May could potentially be salvaged.

Johnson has called the Irish backstop “unviable,” insisting on the long-held belief held by pro-Leave legislators of the Conservative party that unspecified technologically “creative” solutions can replace the need for a border, despite the fact that there is no global precedent to that effect.

By Monday evening, the Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar called his counterpart to assert the EU red line that neither the backstop nor the agreement concluded with Theresa May are up for renegotiations.

Responding to Johnson’s letter on Tuesday, the President of the European Council Donald Tusk took to Twitter to echo prime minister Varadkar, adding that Johnson’s insistence was in effect an expression of support for a border in Northern Ireland.

“Those against the backstop and not proposing realistic alternatives in fact support re-establishing a border. Even if they do not admit it,” Tusk tweeted.

Johnson was forced to admit that the response by the EU to his letter was “a bit negative.” But he consolidated the UK’s uncompromising position by letting it be known that British officials would begin to unwind engagement with EU institutions from September 1st, except those in which the UK has a “significant national interest.”

Meeting Angela Merkel on Wednesday, Boris Johnson is entertaining a long-held conviction of the Leave campaign that it is possible to bypass Brussels to secure a deal with the most powerful nations in Europe. His counterpart has made clear this is not possible.

Ahead of the meeting on Tuesday, the German Chancellor underscored that the backstop was an interim agreement until a practical solution tested and workable is in place. She also reiterated that there would be no change to the withdrawal agreement.

The EU has long held that until such infrastructure is in place, either Northern Ireland or the UK as a whole should remain in the Single Market and the Customs Union. This position is a non-starter for Johnson’s government.

On Thursday, he is expected to meet the more openly critical French President, Emmanuel Macron.

Johnson is to take part in the G7 Summit in Paris on Saturday, with the participation of US President Donald Trump, perhaps the biggest public supporter of a no-deal Brexit. Sending his National Security Advisor, John Bolton, Washington has expressed support for the new British government, promising a speedy trade deal following the UK’s exit. However, the Democrats have made clear that such a trade deal would be unlikely if it was seen to undermine the Good Friday Agreement.

Markets expect new government rather than snap elections in Italy

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Italian President Sergio Mattarella is beginning a two-day round of consultations with parties on Wednesday to explore whether it is possible to form a government.

Giuseppe Conte resigned on Tuesday, ending a 14-month coalition government between the Five Star Movement (MS5) and Lega, after Matteo Salvini moved on Aug. 8 to withdraw his parliamentary support.

Politicians from MS5 and the Democratic Party (PD) are openly discussing the prospect of a new coalition. Financial markets rallied on Conte’s resignation, hopeful that a 5-Star/PD coalition can keep the prospect of snap polls at bay.

The prospect of a Lega government is tied to scenarios of a deficit-financed growth policy, which would include corporate tax cuts and infrastructural investment. There is also talk of a parallel currency, in the form of small denomination bonds, without maturity, similar to promissory notes.

“It looks as if a new government, perhaps with a different composition, will emerge,” German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz told German television on Wednesday.

PD’s leadership is holding a meeting on Wednesday to discuss the prospect of joining forces with 5-Star, with former prime minister Matteo Renzi telling France 2 TV ahead of the meeting that a deal is possible.

During his resignation speech, Conte warned that the last thing Italy needs is political volatility as the country is preparing for a difficult 2020 budget. He noted that a new government will find it hard to avert a €23bn VAT hike under the pressure of surging bond spreads. In early August, Italian bonds were selling at 14-month lows.

The president of Italian stock-market regulator (CONSOB), Paolo Savona, called on Tuesday for a preamble to the 2020 budget law that commits to diminishing GDP ratio close to zero. Italy has a debt-to-GDP ratio second only to Greece in the eurozone; in absolute numbers, it is the biggest in Europe

UN warns of worsening crisis in Libya’s Murzuq

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epa07512414 People inspect the damage after overnight shelling on the southern district of Abu Salim, Tripoli, Libya, 17 April 2019. According to media reports, four people were killed and dozens injured in shelling in the Abu Salim district of Tripoli. Forces loyal to Commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) Khalifa Haftar are engaged in a military operation since early April to take control of the Libyan capital Tripoli. EPA-EFE/STRINGER

The United Nations warned on 20 August that intensifying clashes in the southern Libyan town of Murzuq involving air and drone strikes in recent days have left at least 90 people dead and thousands of civilians displaced.

The alert follows reports by local media that the clashes involved tribal opponents of the self-styled Libyan National Army of commander Khalifa Haftar, which began an offensive on the southern outskirts of Libya’s capital, Tripoli, in April.

To respond to urgent needs, the UN and partner humanitarian organizations “are responding with emergency health care, food distribution, shelter and non-food items”, a UN spokesperson said, adding that access remains difficult, “due to the active fighting”, and that the $202 million Humanitarian Response Plan for Libya is currently only 30% funded.

Germany and Kazakhstan to strengthen bilateral relations

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German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and his counterpart from Kazakhstan, Beibut Atamkulov, met in Berlin on 20 August to discuss bilateral relations that including ways to strengthening ties between the two nations.

Maas indicated that Germany was ready to move to a new level of joint strategic cooperation with the new Kazakh government of President Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev which would see the existing economic, security, and educational ties greatly enhanced through closer bilateral coordination that would come to fruition following the implementation of a new EU strategy for Central Asia.

Kazakhstan is Germany’s main partner in Central Asia with trade turnover in 2018 amounting to more than 85% (€4.6 billion) of Berlin’s total volume of trade operations with countries in the region.

In their discussions, Maas and Atamkulov covered issues related to security and ongoing operations in Afghanistan as well as a potential road map for economic and industrial cooperation in the fields of energy, engineering, renewables, tourism, transport, and agriculture.

Maas also took time to thank the Kazakh government for helping to support the more than 180,000 ethnic Germans – the overwhelming majority of whom are Volga Germans that were deported from central Russia to the then-Kazakh SSR by Joseph Stalin during World War II – who still reside in Kazakhstan.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kazakh government has promoted the study of the German language and championed the continued integration of ethnic Volga Germans into society.

EU reacts as Zimbabwe police violently break up opposition protests

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epa05433476 Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe Zanu PF supporters take part in a march in Harare, Zimbabwe, 20 July 2016. The protest comes after President Mugabe verally attacked Pastor Evan Mawarire as the march targeted, #thisflag movement, an opposition movement, started by Pastor Evan Mawarire. EPA/AARON UFUMELI

Hundreds of police armed with automatic weapons and water cannon blocked access to the main opposition Movement For Democratic Change party’s offices on 16 August in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare. The government banned the demonstration against a worsening economy, and the situation escalated with forced arrests of the protesters.

The European Union expressed on 20 August its deep concerns by the intimidation, harassment and physical attacks on human rights defenders, trade union and civil society representatives, and opposition politicians:

“The Heads of Mission call on the authorities to respect the constitutional rights to freedom of assembly, association and expression as well as to peaceful protest, and urge all political party leaders and supporters to abstain from threats and incitement to violence as well as acts of violence or vandalism. The security forces must adhere to their Constitutional mandate and exercise restraint and proportionality while maintaining public order”, reads the statement in which the Union reiterates its calls for the implementation of the government’s political and economic reform agenda, and inclusive national dialogue.

EIB and SG Finans partner up to to increase SME lending

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epa02773681 An exterior view of the European Investment Bank (EIB) Headquarters in Luxembourg, on 10 June 2011. EPA/NICOLAS BOUVY

The European Investment Bank and Norway’s equipment finance company SG Finans, announced on 20 August the signature of a €150 million credit line, the availability of which will be split evenly between Denmark and Sweden.

While 70% of the funding is earmarked for small and medium-sized enterprises, at least 10% of the available funding will be channeled to projects supporting the energy transition of the small and medium-sized enterprises sector.

The operation follows upon the €100 million credit line signed in 2018, which was successfully deployed to support qualified SME entrepreneurs in their efforts to reduce their carbon footprint.

Italian PM Conte resigns

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epa07782513 Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte looks on after he addressed the Senate in Rome, Italy, 20 August 2019. Conte said that the government has come to an end and that he would resign. EPA-EFE/ETTORE FERRARI

After weeks of coalition turmoil between the increasingly popular Lega party and their governing partners, the 5-Star Movement, Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced his resignation on Tuesday afternoon saying, ‘this government ends here”.

Conte’s resignation does not come entirely as a surprise after the ruling coalition has been locked in an increasingly rancorous debate over the future direction of the current government after Lega’s national popularity skyrocketed and the party’s leader, Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, said he would bring a vote of no-confidence in the Conte-led government.

Conte’s resignation will formally be presented to Sergio Mattarella, Italy’s president, by no later than late Tuesday. Mattarella will then be charged with measuring whether there is sufficient support for a new coalition to be put together or whether the country will need to hold fresh elections.

In his address to Italian lawmakers, Conte – who acts as an independent arbiter between Salvini and the 5-Star Movement’s leader, Deputy Prime Minister Luigi di Maio – accused the anti-establishment Lega of intentionally scuttling his negotiations with Brussels over Italy’s substantial budget deficit, saying, “the decisions made by Lega force me to interrupt the government.”

Lega and 5-Star formed a governing coalition in June 2018 following a general election that saw the two anti-austerity parties set aside deep ideological differences in favour of a joint political programme that focused on Italy’s most pressing economic and social issues, including the economy and the ongoing flow of illegal migrants from the Middle East and Africa.

In the 14 months since taking office, the two parties – including their respective leaders – have frequently clashed over the government’s approach to contentious negotiations with Brussels over the former’s spending plans, which the EU says severely violate the bloc’s budget rules.

Salvini’s tough line with the European institutions over the debt burden – the Eurozone’s largest after Greece – and the Italian government’s decision to implement strict rules for illegal migrants, has significantly boosted his and Lega’s popularity amongst the voting public.

Responding to Conte’s accusations that Lega held the lion’s share of the blame for the collapse of the coalition, Salvini said he had “no regrets” and “would repeat everything he had done” up to this point as his popular approach to dealing with issues that voters have cited as being priorities had been repeatedly stymied “by too many Mr No’s” in the government – a thinly-veiled reference to the political opposition and his own governing partners in the 5-Star Movement.

Remembering the Miracle of 1989

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epa04469614 (FILE) A file photo dated 10 November 1989 shows people celebrating the opening of the border between East and West Germany on the Berlin Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany. After the new travel laws went into effect and the border was opened, millions of East Germans streamed across the border into West Berlin. The 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall will be celebrated in Berlin on 09 November 201 EPA/STR

This month marks 30 years since Europe – and human civilisation generally – began to undergo a miraculous transformation that is now etched in the world’s memory. By the summer of 1989, the Soviet Union was already in terminal decline. The only question was whether Communism would disintegrate peacefully, or amid an explosion of violence and devastation.

In the Soviet Union itself, Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika had opened the floodgates of change, but Gorbachev still seemed to believe that the communist system could be salvaged through reform. Meanwhile, on the periphery of the Soviet empire, many feared that a potential collapse of the system would bring Red Army tanks back into streets and city squares. Memories of Soviet crackdowns in Berlin in 1953, Budapest in 1956, and Prague in 1968 remained vivid, as did the severe repression of the Baltic states in the run-up to World War II.

Born in terror, the Soviet Union had been sustained by jackboots and secret police. Nobody knew if it could survive without resorting to brute force once again. It was a nervous time for Europe.

But it was also a time of change. Efforts to suppress Poland’s independent trade union, Solidarity (Solidarność), had failed. Forced to compromise, the Polish communist regime held semi-free elections in June 1989, in which Solidarity won all but one of the freely contested seats. Meanwhile, in the three Baltic republics – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – broad-based “people’s fronts” had already been calling for more autonomy from the Soviet Union, and soon began demanding full independence.

On August 23, 2 million people formed a human chain stretching 600 kilometres through Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, calling for independence. The timing of the so-called Baltic Way was no accident. Exactly 50 years earlier, Hitler and Stalin had entered into a secret non-aggression pact, whereby Eastern Europe was to be divided between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. That paved the way for World War II, and immediately spelt the end of freedom and independence in the Baltics.

But the central, potentially explosive arena in 1989 was the so-called German Democratic Republic (GDR) – that is, Communist East Germany. This was essentially a garrison state, built for the protection of five Soviet armies – spanning 19 divisions and comprising 500,000 soldiers – that had been stationed there ever since 1945. Although the Berlin Wall became a powerful symbol of Europe’s bifurcation after August 1961, it is worth remembering why it was needed in the first place: to prevent the collapse of the GDR, and thus of the Soviet outer empire in Europe.

A few days before the human chain formed in the Baltics, some 600-700 East German citizens had held a peaceful demonstration during which they crossed the barbed wire near Sopron, a small Hungarian town on the border with Austria. What became known as the Pan-European Picnic was the largest escape from behind the Iron Curtain since the building of the Berlin Wall. More to the point, it had been carefully planned to test the reaction of the Soviet authorities.

In the Kremlin, the Soviet leadership – or Gorbachev, at least – continued to believe that the empire was safe and could be reformed. The Baltic Way was tolerated, and the Pan-European Picnic was simply ignored. But the latent potential of those demonstrations soon became apparent. People began to flee the GDR by the thousands. Soon enough, the Hungarian authorities had no alternative but to open the border. Droves of East Germans flooded into Czechoslovakia in search of a route to the West. On November 9, fumbling GDR leaders even opened the Berlin Wall itself.

The East German state would be gone in less than a year. Following democratic elections in March 1990, East Germans decided to merge with the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). With the GDR gone, the collapse of the Soviet empire was all but complete.

Some think that the momentous change that began in 1989 was inevitable. They would do well to remember that in June of the same year, China’s elderly rulers had deployed tanks to  (literally) the peaceful freedom movement in Tiananmen Square. And there were plenty of communist leaders urging a “Chinese solution” for the demonstrations of 1989. In fact, at the Soviet command post just south of Berlin, which had served as the command centre for the German Army during World War II and which had been seized from Hitler decades earlier, Red Army marshals were awaiting orders to march in and save the empire by whatever means necessary.

No one can know what would have happened if more conservative forces within the Kremlin had prevailed. Most likely, there would have been widespread disorder and violence across much of the region, which would have put the West under substantial pressure to intervene. An open war would have been a distinct possibility. After all, large empires throughout history have generally gone out with a bang. If anything, the Soviet experience was an exception.

Thankfully, that order to the Red Army was never issued. Part of the reason was that Soviet leaders believed, mistakenly, that a crackdown was unnecessary, and that the system would survive. But it was also because democratic forces were starting to assert themselves within Russia itself. The rising leader in Moscow was Boris Yeltsin, who held no attachment to the nostalgia of an overextended and unsustainable empire.

Thirty years ago, Europe experienced a truly miraculous few months. Today, we should honour not only those who fought for change but also those who refused to send out the tanks. Blood could have flowed through the streets of Europe once again, but it did not.

© Project Syndicate

Sri Lanka’s newly appointed army chief accused of war abuses

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epa07519739 A police officer stands guard in Katuwapitiya St. Sebastian church in Negombo near Colombo, Sri Lanka, 21 April 2019. According to police at least 207 people were killed and more than 400 injured in a coordinated series of blasts during the Easter Sunday service at churches and hotels. EPA-EFE/STR

The European Union expressed on 20 August its concerns by the appointment of Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva as Army Commander.

Silva’s name was mentioned in the resolution passed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2013, alleging rights abuses by the Sri Lankan Army, which the country’s army has denied.

“We fully share the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet‘s serious concerns about the appointment of Lieutenant-General Shavendra Silva as Commander of the Sri Lankan Army, given the allegations of grave human rights and humanitarian law violations against him”, reads the joint statement issued by the Delegation of the EU in agreement with the Embassies of Germany, Italy, Netherlands, the UK High Commission, the Embassies of Norway and Switzerland.

“The promotion of Lieutenant-General Silva to the post of Army Commander calls into question Sri Lanka’s commitments to the UN Human Rights Council, as recently as March 2019, to ensure justice and accountability. “, the statement reads.

Greece restores financial stability with EU support programme

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epa04814592 A protester waves a Greek flag (background) in front of the parliament during a rally demanding that Greece remains in the Eurozone, in Athens, Greece, 22 June 2015. The Eurozone's 19 national leaders hold an emergency summit in Brussels to discuss the crisis. Fears are mounting that Greece is about to run out of money, with the country facing a 1.6-billion-euro IMF repayment deadline on June 30. EPA/YANNIS KOLESIDIS

20 August marks one year since Greece successfully concluded its European Stability Mechanism 3-year programme. Indicators confirmed that the efforts are delivering tangible benefits: the unemployment rate dropped, the growth is steady and public finances have improved.

The stability support programme tackled structural issues that contributed to Greece experiencing an economic crisis. The reforms have laid the foundations for a successful economic recovery.

In total, Greece’s European partners provided €61.9 billion in loans in return for the Greek authorities implementing the reform package. The continued delivery of agreed reforms is being monitored under the Enhanced Surveillance framework.

Eurozone inflation nosedives

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epa000345876 The building of the European Central Bank (ECB) towers behind the Euro sign logo by the artist Otmar Hoerl in Frankfurt, Germany on Thursday 13 January 2005. The prime rate which supplies the credit services sector in the euro zone with money from the ECB is at 2,0 percent. A change of the prime rate is not expected. EPA/ARNE DEDERT

Inflation in the eurozone slowed to 1% in July according to Eurostat, against a 2% target pursued by all G7 central banks.

Inflation dropped by 0,3% compared to June.

In June 2018 inflation in the Eurozone hit 2,2%, which triggered a decision to unwind the ECB’s quantitative easing policy. This policy is now in reverse and speculation abounds of the ECB slashing interest rates and expanding its bond-buying program.

Fears of the Sino-American trade war, US protections, and the threat of a disorderly Brexit weigh heavily on the export-driven EU economy. Currently, the ECB’s marginal lending rate stands at 0.25% and its deposit carries a negative interest of -0.4%.

Decisive day for the Italian political crisis

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epa07110960 Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte waves as he arrives for a press conference at the foreign press association headquarters in Rome, Italy, 22 October 2018. Media reports were citing Conte as saying before the recent EU Summit that there was 'no room for changes' for the controversial Italian state budget draft and that German Chancellor Merkel had been 'very attentive, very interested, very impressed' by the reform proposals. EPA-EFE/RICCARDO ANTIMIANI

Italy’s prime minister Giuseppe Conte will address the Senate on Tuesday, for the first time since his government’s junior coalition partner withdrew its support.

There is now speculation that elections may not be inevitable, as the opposition Partito Democratic (PD) has signalled its willingness to consider supporting the formation of a time-limited new government that would pass a new budget before the government goes to the poll. In turn, the senior coalition partner – the Five Star Movement (MS5) – wants to pass a law that would cut 345 seats from both chambers of parliament before the next elections.

Conte’s speech is expected to take place at 15:00 local time, followed by a visit to President Sergio Mattarella, who will now decide on whether to call new elections or deliver a mandate for the formation of a new government.

The leader of Lega and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini is calling for snap elections. Salvini is willing to support the MS5 proposal for the reduction of parliamentary seats but insists elections should take place by October 2019.

As Salvini sees the prospect of an alternative government, there is now speculation that he may also abandon his insistence on snap elections. The leader of MS5, Luigi Di Maio, has accused Salvini of opportunism, as he tries to capitalize on favourable polls.

While Salvini dismisses the prospect of a new coalition government within the current parliament as “fascist” and “anti-democratic,” there is also resistance within PD and MS5.

The leader of PD Nicola Zingaretti does not appear to favour an alliance with MS5, but former prime minister Matteo Renzi is pushing for an interim government that will vote for a budget and prevent the escalation of political volatility. Citing a PD source, Reuters suggests that talks with are ongoing and progressing well.

Meanwhile, there is also resistance within MS5.

Labour minister and leader of MS5 Luigi Di Maio, the minister for relations with parliament, Riccardo Fraccaro, and justice minister Alfonso Bonafede have referred to the prospect of forming a coalition government with PD “fake news.”

Formerly detained Iranian tanker leaves Gibraltar for Greece

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epa07775043 The Iranian oil supertanker Grace 1 is seen in the Strait of Gibraltar, southern Spain, 15 August 2019. According to reports, Gibraltar has released the impounded Iranian oil tanker which was held on the suspicion it was transporting crude oil to a refinery in Syria against EU sanctions. A Gibraltar court has ruled on the release of Grace 1, despite a last minute effort by the US government asking for further detention of the supertanker. EPA-EFE/A.CARRASCO RAGEL

An Iranian tanker captured by Royal Marines and detained by Gibraltarian authorities since July 4 was released late Sunday and sailed for Greece on Monday.

The final destination is unknown.

The Grace 1 tanker was carrying 2.1 million barrels of oil that the British government believes was initially bound to Syria, that is, a country that is under EU sanctions. Grace 1 is now renamed the Adrian Darya 1.

The US Department of Justice issued an injection on Sunday, attempting to prevent the release of the tanker. However, Gibraltar’s high court ruled that there was no legal grounds to keep the vessel in custody after Iran issued assurances that the cargo would not end up in Syria.

The US injunction was founded on the grounds that the tanker was allegedly linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which Washington has listed as a terrorist organization. The EU does not consider the IRGC a terrorist organization.

While the US has imposed an embargo on Iranian oil exports, the EU has not, although EU member states steer away from Iranian imports to avoid secondary sanctions. Therefore, no EU member state has legal grounds to detain the vessel.

The US Justice Department has issued a warrant for the supertanker’s seizure; on Monday, Tehran’s foreign ministry spokesman warned Washington against any unilateral action aiming to detain the vessel that is now believed to be bound for the port of Kalamata.

On Tuesday morning the Greek Maritime Affairs Ministry noted that “the vessel is cruising at low speed and there is still no formal announcement that it will arrive at Kalamata.”

EU warns Turkey over dismissing three Kurdish mayors

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epa06076557 Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responds to a question at the closing press conference of the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, 08 July 2017. The G20 Summit (or G-20 or Group of Twenty) is an international forum for governments from 20 major economies. The summit is taking place in Hamburg 07 to 08 July 2017. EPA/CLEMENS BILAN

The European Union expressed its concerns about the Turkish government’s decision to replace the newly elected mayors of Diyarbakır, Mardin and Van, three key provinces in the country’s predominantly Kurdish southeast. Hundreds of people have also been detained as part of a major terrorism-related investigation.

“The replacement of Selçuk Mızraklı, Bedia Özgökçe Ertan and Ahmet Türk by state governors is of serious concern as it puts the respect of the democratic outcomes of the 31 March elections into question. Dismissals and detentions of local politicians and appointment of trustees deprive voters of political representation at local level, and seriously risk damaging local democracy.”, the Union warned.

Turkey’s president Tayyip Erdogan warned before the March elections that mayors from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party could again be dismissed for alleged ties to militants.

Swiss justice charges tax avoidance whistle-blower with industrial espionage

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A whistle-blower responsible for uncovering one of the biggest cases of tax avoidance in Germany is now prosecuted by Swiss authorities for industrial espionage, the daily financial newspaper Handelsblatt reported on Monday.

Echart Seith is a lawyer that contributed to uncovering a Swiss bank mechanism that deprived German taxpayer of €12bn. Seith testified on how Swiss banks advised customers to buy shares in a company on borrowed money just before it pays out a dividend, selling it shortly afterwards, and recovering losses and making a profit due to a series of tax exemptions.

The 61-year old Seith has now been charged with industrial espionage e and his case goes to trial on March 26. If found guilty, he is facing three-and-a-half years in prison. His testimony closed the tax loophole exploited by the Swiss banking industry in 2011.

The testimony has exposed the Swiss industry to litigation in Cologne, Munich, Stuttgart, Frankfurt and Düsseldorf, where Swiss bank customers made a profit at the expense of the German taxpayer. As part of the ensuing investigation in Germany and Switzerland, there have been hundreds of arrests in Germany and other jurisdictions.

The question at hand is how Seith got internal bank documents that allowed him to make the case against the Swiss banking system. In 2013, the Swiss bank J. Safra Sarasin filed a criminal complaint to Swiss authorities, alleging espionage, which led to the arrest of one of the bank’s employees, the customer adviser Bernhard V., accused of leaking internal company documents. He is to face the stand with Echard Seith.

UK to end freedom of movement for EU citizens on October 31st

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epa05861890 (FILE) - A file photograph showing a border patrol officer stands at the British Border crossing in the new Terminal 2 at Heathrow Airport in London, Britain, 04 June 2014. Media reports on 21 March 2017 state that the British Government is to announce a ban on laptops and other electronic devices on flights from certain Middle East countries following the recent ban from eight countries by the US authorities. EPA/ANDREW COWIE

Should the UK leave the EU without a deal on October 31, freedom of movement for EU citizens would seize effective immediately, the government spokeswoman announced on Monday.

“Freedom of movement as it currently stands will end on 31 October when the UK leaves the EU,” making specific reference to students and those seeking employment.

Theresa May’s government was also committed to ending free movement “as soon as possible” and not before a transition period had elapsed. However, Boris Johnson’s government is committed to delivering on ending EU immigration effective immediately.

The question now is how immigration officers will distinguish between EU citizens with EU Settled and pre-Settled status, come October. There are roughly one-million EU citizens that have subscribed to the program, with the deadline being 2020. There are approximately 3,6 EU citizens eligible for this status, which means that 2,6 million must subscribe prior to October 31st.

“Details of other changes immediately on 31 October for a new immigration system are currently being developed,” the government said, which means the civil service must now address this challenge prior to October 31st.

Johnson has rhetorically endorsed an Australian-style, skills-based immigration regime that was favoured by the Leave campaign.

The UK is exempting Irish citizens from the provision, which is governed by a bilateral regime known as The Common Travel Area that predates their respective membership of the EU. British and Irish will retain the right to move freely and reside in either jurisdiction and enjoy associated rights and entitlements to employment, healthcare, education, social benefits, and the right to vote in certain elections.

British media speculated that this is part of the prime ministers’ hardline stance, designed to put pressure on the EU to reopen negotiations.

“Now, of course, our friends and partners on the other side of the Channel are showing a little bit of reluctance at the moment to change their position. That’s fine – I’m confident that they will – but in the meantime, we have to get ready for a no-deal outcome,” Johnson told the BBC on Monday.

Kazakhstan to increase its fight against corruption

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epa07638804 Presidential candidate Kassym-Jomart Tokayev speaks at a press conference in Akorda after the presidential elections in Nur-Sultan (formerly known as Astana, Kazakhstan, 10 June 2019. According to reports, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev candidate supported by former president Nazarbayev, has won presidential elections in Kazahstan on 09 June. Hundreds of opposition supporters were detained by Police during the nationwide protest for free and fair elections. EPA-EFE/IGOR KOVALENKO
Alik Shpekbayev, the head of Kazakhstan’s anti-corruption agency, has been given the green light by the country’s president, Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, to begin cracking down on civil servants who take part in graft schemes or who accept bribes.
Part of Tokayev’s decree included a provision that all civil servants will be required to publish income and expense declarations.
Several subordinates within Kazakhstan’s state structures may have to be dismissed under the new anti-corruption drive if they are found to be in violation of the country’s illicit enrichment legislation.
Since coming into office earlier this year after succeeding Nursultan Nazarbayev, Tokayev has led a concerted effort to root-out corruption in the state bureaucracies.

What can be done to save Hong Kong?

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epaselect epa07763520 Protesters rally inside the arrivals hall of Hong Kong International Airport in Hong Kong, China, 09 August 2019. Protesters were gathering at the airport for a three-day sit-in to protest against a now-suspended extradition bill and call for universal suffrage, and to raise awareness among international visitors to Hong Kong of claims of police brutality. EPA-EFE/JEROME FAVRE

It is becoming increasingly clear, as the Hong Kong protests continue, that the Chinese Communist Party will be forced to make a choice – either a bloody, military crackdown (the more likely of the two) or conceding to the protestors’ demands. A concession, in the eyes of Beijing, would be unthinkable as it would an obvious admission from China’s invulnerable Communist Party that it miscalculated and was completely outmanoeuvred by a legitimate grassroots, pro-democracy movement – a prospect that hardline President Xi Jinping simply could not countenance either domestically or internationally.

If the Communist Party decides to deploy military assets against the Hong Kong protesters, what then? A key British colony until 1997, Hong Kong is not politically, economically, and – most importantly – psychologically controlled by China’s Central Committee. It is, despite reunification under the “one country, two systems” doctrine, a special administrative district with deep-rooted traditions of personal freedom, open trade, and independent courts.

Because of these very particular variables, which are specific to Hong Kong, Beijing’s response to any further escalation in either the size or the impact of the protests is likely to spark a crackdown that will result in far higher casualties than what was seen in Tiananmen Square 30 years ago.

Xi and the Communist Party have been telegraphing for some time after Beijing proved that it is more than willing and fully capable of the most egregious Maoist-style human rights violations when it recently unleashed the most despicable authoritarian methods in Xinjiang Province that targets Uyghurs, the region’s indigenous Turkic-speaking Muslim community, hundreds of thousands of who have been forced into re-education/concentration camps.

Ruthless methods like these do not bode well for the pro-democratic forces in Hong Kong.

The international community cannot sit idly by and allow the Chinese Communist Party to commit yet another slaughter in the name of consolidating its iron-fisted grip on power. That, however, seems to be the exact trajectory that the situation seems to be heading towards that result if swift and decisive action by the US, the European Union, and the UK is not taken to defend the people of Hong Kong.

The question remains, however, what sort of action can be taken by the international community to help avoid a bloody crackdown? Threats of a no-fly zone, International Criminal Court charges, and sanctions – similar to those that were used against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad after his genocidal campaign to snuff out anti-government resistance in Aleppo – are nearly unthinkable for China as it is the world’s second-largest exporter and trails only the United States in terms of the size of its economy.

Further complicating matter is that, despite the ongoing trade war with the United States, the Chinese economy is still deeply enmeshed with both the American and European economies. The weakening of the yuan not only keeps Chinese goods safe from US President Donald J. Trump’s tariffs, which are aimed at reigning in Beijing’s stranglehold on the world’s production and export industries, but also allows China to continue consolidating its control of key energy and economic sectors in Africa and cultivate ever-closer relationships with like-minded authoritarian regimes and developing countries across the whole of Eurasia as those governments have little interest in taking the Chinese Communist Party to task for their human rights violations due to the fact they hope to see major political and financial gains by being included in China’s Belt-and-Road Initiative.

Unlike in Syria, where the regime survives solely because of the combined military might of Russia and the financial backing of Iran, China’s 2 million-strong People’s Liberation Army is more than up to the task of holding its own against NATO-standard opponents – including the United States – as it did during the Korean War nearly seven decades ago. Most importantly, none of the key players in the ongoing Hong Kong crisis –  be it Washington, Beijing, London, Brussels, or Moscow – wants to see the situation escalate to the point of starting World War III.

Harsh sanctions that would closely resemble those imposed on Iran and North Korea are also likely out of the question as far too many Western companies rely on Chinese labour money to truly allow for punitive measures to be employed that could be potentially crippling for their own operations.

The US’ trade war could be ramped up and expanded to include Britain and Europe, but it is hard to imagine that the Communist Party leadership in Bejing wouldn’t come to the conclusion that it could threaten to retaliate in a way that would be designed to take a heavy toll on an EU economy that is far more fragile and uncertain than that of the United States.

By doing this, China could easily scare off potential European support for a harsher EU response to Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong as several Kremlin-friendly governments in Europe are hoping for a lifting of Brussels’ sanctions against Russia, one of their largest trading partners.

The pro-democracy elements within the international community, for the time being, appear to have resigned themselves to the likelihood that the Chinese Communist Party will eventually unleash the full might of its military and security services on Hong Kong’s protestors. There also seems to be little real effort to put pressure on Xi and the rest of the Chinese government to back down. This could leave one to speculate that the West has privately hoped for a stand down from the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement if Beijing agrees to some small concessions that would bring the dreaded defanging concept of “quiet stability” back to the city, while simultaneously saving face for the Central Committee of the Communist Party and preserving the legitimacy of the protest movement.

Despite the pessimistic outlook, there are concrete steps that the international community can take to help save Hong Kong and keep it from coming under the direct rule of the Communist Party in Beijing.

The aircraft carrier group led by the USS Ronald Reagan, which is currently in the western Pacific, would send a clear message to Xi and the Chinese government that the United States will not remain neutral if they opt to quash the pro-democracy movement by resorting to mass bloodshed on the streets of Hong Kong.

A show of force would also embolden the US’ Southeast Asian allies – including Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia – who have been increasingly alarmed by Chinese expansion in the South China Sea, to take a tougher stance against Beijing.

Taking the bold move to position a carrier group to within close proximity of Hong Kong’s shores would further reassure Taiwan about the White House’s commitment to protecting its independence from mainland China and quiet those in the Taiwanese capital Taipei who have grown increasingly worried that the Trump administration was willing to look the other way during trade negotiations with Beijing just as the Chinese military built up a potential invasion force in the Formosa Strait.

The West must and should have a contingency plan for a Berlin Airlift-like relief mission for Hong Kong that would plan ready to go at a moment’s notice if the People’s Liberation Army cuts attempts to blockade the region. Not unlike the near-legendary American and British effort to save West Berlin from Soviet strangulation in 1948-49, the job of supplying Hong Kong’s 7.3 million people would be a herculean task. But despite the difficulties and the massive cost, the West can, and must, see to it that the effort is carried out.

Taking on and successfully fulfilling this type of mission would be a powerful message to the world’s dictators and authoritarians – many of who have begun to openly question whether the West’s model of liberal democracy is on the decline – that they are no match for the Free World when it consolidates all of its resources for the purpose of protecting one of its own.

Any attempt by the Chinese Communist Party to order a violent suppression of the protest movement must be met with a public response from the West that such a move is an illegitimate military occupation of Hong Kong that fundamentally and legally violates the “one country, two systems” model that was set in stone when the UK agreed to hand the region back over to China. By doing this, Western leaders like Trump and the UK’s Boris Johnson will have the ability to take the moral high-ground in the eyes of the international community if it hopes to exude enough pressure on Beijing to potentially back down.

The international community’s ability to forcefully push back to the point that Beijing backs down will only come enough of the world’s leading nations view the Communist Party’s actions as an illegal and unlawful occupation. The consequences of not getting a wide consensus would result in a similar situation as to what was seen after Russia’s illegal occupation and annexation of Crimea. Not enough countries agreed on how to respond.  This doomed the international reaction to being utterly ineffective and left Moscow with the ability to act with unchecked impunity in the region.

And what of the Chinese Communist Party, itself? Its officials must be given a way to retreat from Hong Kong without losing face – a concept thus far ignored by most of the West’s analysts. Individual sanctions, International Criminal Court charges, and other targeted measures may be less effective in China than otherwise. The chances for a conciliatory response is antithetical to Xi’s hardline regime and the vast majority of the Communist Party’s stalwarts. Any response must focus on a robust principled opposition to Beijing’s actions and less on personal attacks against the Party leadership. The later might otherwise empower the hardliners in Xi’s administration.

Xi’s embrace of Mao-like powers has made the risk of a bloody showdown in Hong Kong all the most possible. Recent photographs of People’s Liberation Army convoys massing in nearby Shenzhen are not proof that Beijing is planning a Tiananmen-style massacre, but the signs are obviously ominous.

There is no easy solution for Hong Kong, but allowing the Communist Party and the Chinese military to proceed unimpeded may truly spell the end of the Western democratic liberal order.