In the Balkans, winter cheer is darkened by a toxic smog

On Tuesday, the Macedonian capital Skopje was ranked the third most polluted city in the world, according to the monitor AirVisual. (File/AFP/Robert Atanasovki)
Updated 06 December 2018
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In the Balkans, winter cheer is darkened by a toxic smog

  • Five Balkan cities with coal or lignite-based industries are among Europe's top ten most polluted cities
  • The pollution levels reached alarming heights in early December

SARAJEVO: Winter is here and coal is burning, enveloping the Balkans in a toxic smog and turning its cities into some of the most polluted on the planet.
As hundreds of nations gather in Poland for the UN’s COP24 climate summit this week, residents in this corner of Europe are wondering when their governments will do anything to address an annual plague that is killing thousands.
The pollution levels reached alarming heights in early December.
On Tuesday, the Macedonian capital Skopje was ranked the third most polluted city in the world, while Sarajevo was fifth, according to the monitor AirVisual.
Pristina, the capital of Kosovo which relies on two coal-fired plants for more than 95 percent of its electricity, was not far behind.
“In three decades of teaching, I have never seen so many children cough and get sick,” said Vesna Delevska, a 56-year-old teacher in Skopje.
“On the worst days, many parents don’t even send their children to school,” she told AFP, describing the conditions as “unbearable.”
Lignite-fired power plants across the region, many of which are old and pollute heavily, plus the burning of coal to warm individual homes, pump the air with toxins.
In Skopje and Sarajevo, a ring of mountains helps trap the hazardous air in valleys where residents live, shrouding them in a grey fog.
An October UN report said fossil fuel emissions must be slashed by half in the next 12 years to limit global temperature rises.
But Balkan governments are bucking the European trend by boosting their investment coal, with plans to build new power plants across the region.
The effects are plain to see. Five Balkan cities with coal or lignite-based industries are among Europe’s top ten most polluted cities, according to a 2017 World Health Organization (WHO) report.
They include Tuzla (Bosnia), Pljevlja (Montenegro), Skopje, Tetovo and Bitola (Macedonia).
The only ones benefiting from the pollution are those selling air purifiers, which one vendor in Macedonia’s capital said are flying off the shelves “like hot cakes.”
“People are emptying their wallets to breathe clean air,” said Vanco, who runs a store in Skopje and declined to give his last name.
An air purifier costs about 400 euros ($450) — close to the average monthly salary in Macedonia and several of its Balkan neighbors.
But residents are digging into their savings, “even borrowing to buy the purifiers,” said Vanco. “Especially families with children,” he added.
The economic and human costs are high in a poor region with little extra cash to spare.
According to a WHO study, pollution cost the Western Balkans countries more than $55 billion in 2010.
It also caused more than 36,000 premature deaths that year across the region, which is home to 23 million people — a proportion six times higher than in a country like France.
Since then, there have been no major efforts to curb pollution.
This winter the Macedonian Ministry of Health has announced the distribution of masks to 43,000 chronically ill people.
But Jane Dimeski, an activist with the citizen group “STOP air pollution,” sees it as a “short-term response...more than a serious fight against pollution.”
In Bosnia, the hazardous air shaves “44,000 years of life” off the country’s population every year, according to a 2018 UN report.
It costs the poor nation nearly a fifth of its GDP through lost work and school days, plus health expenses and fuel costs, the UN said.
Fuad Prnjavorac, a 69-year-old Sarajevo resident who suffers from asthma, tries to escape the city for cleaner air on Mount Trebivic, which overlooks the capital.
From that view, the city was completely obscured by the dense grey smog this week.
“It’s terrible in town at this time of year, impossible to breathe,” he told AFP.
In early December, the air had an average of 320 micrograms per cubic meter of fine particles, with peaks above 400.
Anes Podic, who runs as Bosnian environmental organization Eko-Akcija, blames the government for ignoring the problem.
“Someone has judged that the lungs of Sarajevo residents are five times more resistant than those of Paris,” she said with sarcasm at a recent press conference, referring to how French authorities set 80 micrograms per cubic meter of fine particles as their alert level.
“When the problem appears, as it does every year, authorities ignore it at first, then seem to work on it, and finally, their only measure is to wait for a gust of wind,” she added.


Brexit in turmoil as May postpones Parliament vote on it

The pound, already foundering Monday amid rumors that the vote would be postponed, sank further on the news, hitting a 20-month low against the dollar of $1.2550 (AFP)
Updated 18 min 4 sec ago
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Brexit in turmoil as May postpones Parliament vote on it

  • May said she would seek “assurances” from the EU and bring the Brexit deal back to Parliament
  • May insisted that her Brexit deal was still “the best deal that is negotiable,” and said rejecting it raised the chances of Britain crashing out of the EU with no agreement

LONDON: British Prime Minister Theresa May on Monday postponed Parliament’s vote on her Brexit divorce deal with the European Union, acknowledging that lawmakers would have rejected it by a “significant margin.”
The move averted a humiliating defeat for the government in a vote that had been scheduled for Tuesday. But it throws Britain’s Brexit plans into disarray, with the country’s departure from the EU just over three months away on March 29.
In an emergency statement to the House of Commons, May accepted that British lawmakers had “widespread and deep concern” about some aspects of the divorce deal agreed upon last month between May and EU leaders.
“As a result, if we went ahead and held the vote tomorrow, the deal would be rejected by a significant margin,” she said. “We will therefore defer the vote.”
May said she would seek “assurances” from the EU and bring the Brexit deal back to Parliament, but did not set a new date for the vote.
Many lawmakers were scathing in their comments about both May’s actions and the Brexit deal, and derisive laughter erupted when May claimed there was “broad support” for many aspects of the plan.
“The government has lost control of events and is in complete disarray,” said opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
The pound, already foundering Monday amid rumors that the vote would be postponed, sank further on the news, hitting a 20-month low against the dollar of $1.2550.
May insisted that her Brexit deal was still “the best deal that is negotiable,” and said rejecting it raised the chances of Britain crashing out of the EU with no agreement. That could bring logjams to British ports and plunge the country possibly into its deepest recession in decades, according to reports by the government and the Bank of England.
“For as long as we fail to agree a deal, the risk of an accidental ‘no deal’ increases,” May said, adding that her government would step preparations for such an outcome so as to mitigate its worst effects.
Delaying the Brexit vote is a bracing new blow for May, who became prime minister after Britain’s 2016 decision to leave the EU. She has been battling ever since — first to strike a divorce deal with the bloc, then to sell it to skeptical British lawmakers.
May’s Conservative government does not have a majority in the House of Commons, and opposition parties — as well as dozens of Conservative lawmakers — said they would not back the divorce deal. The Brexit disarray leaves both her and her government on shaky ground.
“Why has it taken the prime minister this long to face up to the reality?” SNP deputy leader Kirsty Blackman asked Monday.
May said she would hold talks with EU leaders ahead of a summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, seeking “further reassurances” over the backstop.
“Nothing should be off the table,” she said.
The Labour Party has said previously that it may call for a no-confidence motion in the government. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said her Scottish National Party would support an attempt to topple the government and trigger a new election.
“This shambles can’t go on — so how about it?” Sturgeon tweeted at Corbyn.
Corbyn stopped short of calling a no-confidence vote Monday, but said if May could not renegotiate with the EU, “then she must make way.”
Pro-Brexit lawmakers say the deal keeps Britain bound too closely to the EU, while pro-EU politicians say it erects barriers between the UK and its biggest trading partner and leaves many details of the future relationship undecided.
The main sticking point is a “backstop” provision that aims to guarantee an open border between EU member Ireland and the UK’s Northern Ireland after Brexit. The measure would keep Britain under EU customs rules, and is supposed to last until it is superseded by permanent new trade arrangements.
Critics say it could leave Britain tied to the EU indefinitely, unable to strike new trade deals around the world.
Pro-Brexit lawmakers said they wouldn’t support May’s agreement unless she renegotiated it to remove the Irish backstop. Steve Baker, a leading Conservative Brexiteer, said Monday that May should “go back to Brussels and demand a better deal.”
But EU leaders insist the Brexit withdrawal agreement can’t be changed.
“The deal is the deal,” Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said Monday. “It’s taken two years to put together. It’s a fair deal for both sides.”
In the EU, there was exasperation at Britain’s indecision.
Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit Coordinator, tweeted : “I can’t follow anymore. After two years of negotiations, the Tory government wants to delay the vote. Just keep in mind that we will never let the Irish down.”
In another twist in the Brexit tale, the EU’s top court ruled Monday that Britain can change its mind over Brexit, boosting the hopes of British people who want to stay in the EU that the process can be reversed.
The European Court of Justice ruled that when an EU member country has notified the bloc of its intent to leave, “that member state is free to revoke unilaterally that notification.”
Britain invoked Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty in March 2017, triggering a two-year exit process. But Scottish legislators had asked the ECJ to rule on whether the UK could pull out of the withdrawal procedure on its own.
The Luxembourg-based ECJ said that, given the absence of any exit provision in Article 50, countries are able to change their mind in line with their own constitutional arrangements.
May has repeatedly said the government will not seek to delay or reverse Brexit. She said Monday that Parliament had a duty to “get Brexit done and get it done right. “
“Does this House want to deliver Brexit?” May asked. “If the answer is yes, and I believe that is the answer of the majority of this House, then we all have to ask ourselves whether we are prepared to make a compromise.”