Macron boosts Merkel ahead of key coalition vote

French president Emmanuel Macron (R) welcomes German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Elysee Palace in Paris on January 19, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 20 January 2018
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Macron boosts Merkel ahead of key coalition vote

PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron said Friday that his ambitious EU plans to reform the European Union need German backing, as Chancellor Angela Merkel gears up for a crucial vote on forming a new coalition government.
“Our ambition cannot come to fruition alone,” Macron told a joint press conference with Merkel before talks in Paris. “It needs to come together with Germany’s ambition.”
Merkel’s immediate focus is domestic, with her political future on the line after more than 12 years in power.
On Sunday, some 600 delegates from Germany’s Social Democrat (SPD) party will be asked to give the green light to a preliminary coalition agreement reached with her conservatives last week.
“I am confident of the path ahead and I believe that at the SPD congress many will be open to the coalition negotiations,” Merkel told reporters in Paris.
“But the decision is for the Social Democrats in Germany alone.”
At Merkel’s meeting with Macron, which appeared aimed at giving her a boost, the German leader said a “stable German government” was crucial for the EU to move forward with its reform agenda.
In November, she was left considerably weakened after her first attempt to form a new coalition government collapsed when the pro-business FDP party walked out.
She then turned to the SPD, her outgoing governing partners with whom she hopes to form another grand coalition.
Macron, who is driving attempts to reform the EU in the wake of Britain’s decision to leave the bloc, refused to be drawn into trying to predict the outcome of Sunday’s vote, saying it could be “counterproductive.”
But he stressed the pro-European credentials of the SPD and said the coalition blueprint showed “true European ambition.”
“The chancellor has ambitions for Europe, SPD leaders have shown they have ambitions for Europe, and the coalition outline has them too,” Macron said.
Macron has made no secret of the fact that he would like to see the SPD, which is enthusiastic about his proposals for closer eurozone integration including a common budget, remain on Germany’s front benches.
Social Democrats are hesitant to renew a right-left “grand coalition” with Merkel’s conservatives, fearing their vote at the next election could plunge yet further from last year’s historic low of 20.5 percent.
In an interview with AFP, German Foreign Minister and SPD stalwart Sigmar Gabriel said both countries “have a joint responsibility to develop all of Europe further” highlighting “reform of the economic and monetary union” as a top priority.
“We have to grasp the historic opportunity that we have with Macron, a convinced European,” Gabriel insisted, “otherwise one day the EU will only exist on paper.”
Some of Merkel’s conservative allies are, however, more reticent about the prospect of closer economic integration.
Last week Macron said a conservative-social democrat tie-up would be “good for Germany, good for France and above all good for Europe.”
Leading economists from both countries on Wednesday published a “blueprint for reform” for the eurozone that calls for new fiscal rules and an independent watchdog to make the currency more resilient against crises.
But the economists declined to specifically back Macron’s idea for a joint budget or eurozone finance minister.


Fury clouds funeral plans for Italy bridge victims

Updated 17 August 2018
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Fury clouds funeral plans for Italy bridge victims

  • The collapse of the Morandi bridge, a decades-old viaduct that crumbled in a storm on Tuesday killing at least 38 people, has stunned and angered the country
  • According to La Stampa newspaper, the families of 17 victims have refused to take part in the state funeral, while a further seven have yet to decide whether they will attend

GENOA: Grieving relatives wept over the coffins of dozens of victims of Genoa’s bridge disaster Friday amid growing fury over a planned state funeral, while rescuers pressed on with their tireless search for those missing in the rubble.
The collapse of the Morandi bridge, a decades-old viaduct that crumbled in a storm on Tuesday killing at least 38 people, has stunned and angered the country, with Italian media reporting that some outraged families would shun Saturday’s official ceremonies.
Italy’s government has blamed the operator of the viaduct for the tragedy and threatened to strip the firm of its contracts, while the country’s creaking infrastructure has come under fresh scrutiny.
Authorities plan a state funeral service on Saturday at a hall in Genoa, coinciding with a day of mourning.
Relatives who gathered at the hall on Friday embraced and prayed over lines of coffins, many adorned with flowers and photographs of the dead.
But according to La Stampa newspaper, the families of 17 victims have refused to take part, while a further seven have yet to decide whether they will attend.
“It is the state who has provoked this; let them not show their faces, the parade of politicians is shameful,” the press cited the mother of one of four young Italians from Naples who died.
The father of another of the dead from Naples took to social media to vent his anger.
“My son will not become a number in the catalogue of deaths caused by Italian failures,” said his grieving father, Roberto.
“We do not want a farce of a funeral but a ceremony at home.”
Despite fading hopes of finding survivors, rescue workers said they had not given up as they resumed the dangerous operation to search through the unstable mountains of debris.
“Is there anyone there? Is there anyone there?” one firefighter shouted into a cavity dug out of the piles of concrete and twisted metal, in a video published by the emergency services.
Between 10 and 20 people are still missing, according to Genoa’s chief prosecutor.
Ten people remain in hospital, six of them in a serious condition.
Hundreds of rescuers are using cranes and bulldozers to cut up and remove the biggest slabs of the fallen bridge, which slammed down onto railway tracks along with dozens of vehicles.
“We are trying to find pockets in the rubble where people could be — alive or not,” fire official Emanuele Gissi told AFP.
Officials say about 1,000 people in all are working on the disaster site, 350 of them firefighters.
The populist government has accused infrastructure giant Autostrade per L’Italia of failing to invest in sufficient maintenance and said it would seek to revoke its lucrative contracts.
Interior Minister Matteo Salvini demanded that the company offer up to 500 million euros ($570 million) to help families and local government deal with the aftermath of the disaster.
The dead also include children, one as young as eight, and three Chileans and four French nationals.
The French nationals, all in their 20s, had traveled to Italy for a music festival, and other victims included a family setting off on holiday and a couple returning from their California honeymoon.
More than 600 people were evacuated from around a dozen apartments beneath the remaining shard of bridge.
On Thursday evening the first residents of some buildings in the affected area were allowed to return home, though others are too badly damaged to save.
The Morandi viaduct dates from the 1960s and has been riddled with structural problems for decades, leading to expensive maintenance and severe criticism from engineering experts.
Its collapse prompted fears over aging infrastructure across the world.
Italy has announced a year-long state of emergency in the region.
Autostrade, which operates and maintains nearly half of Italy’s motorways, estimates it will take five months to rebuild the bridge.
It denies scrimping on motorway maintenance, saying it has invested over one billion euros a year in “safety, maintenance and strengthening of the network” since 2012.
Atlantia, the holding company of Autostrade which is 30 percent owned by iconic fashion brand Benetton, has warned that the government would have to refund the value of the contract, which runs until at least 2038.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said Autostrade “had the duty and obligation to assure the maintenance of this viaduct and the security of all those who traveled on it.”
The disaster is the latest in a string of bridge collapses in Italy, where infrastructure generally is showing the effects of a faltering economy.
Senior government figures have also lashed out at austerity measures imposed by the European Union, saying they restrict investment.
But the European Commission said it had given Rome billions of euros to fix infrastructure.