EU official’s remarks stir Italian political storm

Updated 30 January 2013
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EU official’s remarks stir Italian political storm

MILAN: A European official’s criticism of former Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s response to the 2011 economic crisis has spurred allegations of defamation from Berlusconi backers and rare public discord within the European Commission.
Olli Rehn, the European monetary affairs commissioner, told the European Parliament on Tuesday that Berlusconi did not “respect commitments” to get Italy’s fiscal house in order as Italian borrowing costs rose to dangerous levels in the fall of 2011. Berlusconi resigned as premier in November 2011 under market pressure, making way for Mario Monti’s technical government.
Berlusconi’s actions “led to a drying out of lending which suffocated economic growth and led to a political dead-end in Italy and the formation of the new government of Mario Monti, which then later on was able to stabilize the situation,” Rehn told the European Parliament on Tuesday. “This is clearly an example of the confidence effect in play.”
A key Berlusconi supporter, Renato Brunetta, swiftly accused Rehn of “defamatory statements” and demanded an official inquiry.
“Commissioner Rehn intentionally lies. We call for an official inquiry by the European Parliament,” Brunetta said in a statement outlining responses by the Berlusconi government to the crisis. Brunetta was a minister in the Berlusconi government.
Berlusconi is heading a center-right coalition in the Feb. 24-25 national elections, although he has been unclear if he will seek the premiership if they win. Currently, center-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani is leading opinion polls, with Berlusconi’s alliance in second followed by center-right parties supporting a Monti agenda.
Rehn tried to calm the storm with a statement saying that his comments should be seen in the context of his responsibilities for fiscal and economic oversight within the European Commission. But his remarks also drew criticism from within the commission, the European Union executive body where discord is rarely aired in public.
“I regret and dissociate myself from the statement on Italy of my colleague Olli Rehn, which risks raising the appearance that the EU Commission is not independent,” said Industry Commissioner Antonio Tajani, an Italian.
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Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this report.


After Afghan cease-fire gamble, prospects rise for US-Taliban talks

Updated 14 min 7 sec ago
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After Afghan cease-fire gamble, prospects rise for US-Taliban talks

KABUL/WASHINGTON: Prospects have risen for negotiations between the Taliban and the United States after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called a cease-fire and allowed militants to roam into cities in a gamble to encourage peace talks.
The Taliban, ousted from power in 2001 by US-led troops, insist that any negotiations with what it calls the “puppet” Afghan government on a peace plan can begin only after talks with the United States about withdrawing foreign forces.
Analysts and Western diplomats said Ghani’s offer to hold unconditional peace talks had set the stage for US officials to open backchannel negotiations with the Taliban, despite Washington’s policy that peace talks be Afghan-led.
“Ghani has done his bit,” said Thomas Ruttig, co-director of Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent think tank.
“It is now for the US to cut through this blockade,” he said, although that would be a departure from US policy that talks to end the 17-year-old war must be wholly Afghan-led.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared ready to tweak the policy when he welcomed Ghani’s 10-day extension of a cease-fire that is currently due to end on Wednesday. The Taliban said its cease-fire ended on Sunday.
“As President Ghani emphasised in his statement to the Afghan people, peace talks by necessity would include a discussion of the role of international actors and forces,” Pompeo said. “The United States is prepared to support, facilitate, and participate in these discussions.”
Richard Olson, former US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, described the statement as significant “in that it signals that the US is prepared to ultimately discuss the issue that is paramount to the Taliban, which is the withdrawal of foreign forces.”
A senior US official, speaking on the condition of anonymity before the start of the cease-fire, however said there were a number of issues that made direct talks between the Taliban and the United States unlikely in the short-term.
The official said there was a substantial gap in knowledge about the Taliban — for instance as to who had the authority to negotiate on the their behalf. “There is not enough intelligence or resources on this issue,” the official said.
A second official said there was still a question of what would happen with hard-line elements of the Taliban. “There are Taliban that won’t come to the table,” the official said.
Taliban call
The Taliban, in a statement marking the end of their cease-fire on Sunday, said the organization was unified and called on “the invading American party” to “sit directly for dialogue with the Islamic Emirate to find a solution for the ongoing imbroglio.”
A senior diplomat with knowledge of the negotiations leading to the cease-fire estimated the chances of eventual talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government at “50-50.”
“The Taliban want to talk to the US directly on withdrawal (of foreign forces) because they do not want to share the credit of withdrawal with the government,” the official said.
And while Washington has long resisted direct talks with Taliban, the official said that recent developments indicate “the US now seems less and less averse to it.”
In August, US President Donald Trump unveiled a more hawkish military approach to Afghanistan, including a surge in air strikes. Afghan security forces say the impact has been significant, but the Taliban roam huge areas of the country and, with foreign troop levels of about 15,600, down from 140,000 in 2014, there appears little hope of outright victory.
Ghani, never widely popular, met his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, on Sunday to secure support for peace talks. He visited a restaurant in Kabul where he met diners and took selfies with children, trying to capitalize on the unprecedented party atmosphere created by the cease-fire to mark last weekend’s Eid Al-Fitr festival.
But Amrullah Saleh, the former head of intelligence and head of a political party, said Ghani had committed a blunder by allowing insurgents to pour into government-controlled areas.
“Thousands of Taliban fighters were allowed to enter with guns and some of them could be hiding in civilian areas, planning attacks,” Saleh told Reuters.
Ghani has also come in for praise.
“Now we can say that our president is making an absolute honest attempt” for peace, said Anwar-ul-Haq Ahadi, the chairman of the outspoken New National Front of Afghanistan.