As Merkel exits, Germans debate famed budget discipline

Political leaders Annalena Baerbock, Armin Laschet and Olaf Scholz join a televised debate of the candidates to succeed Angela Merkel as German chancellor on Sept. 12, 2021. (REUTERS/pool)
Political leaders Annalena Baerbock, Armin Laschet and Olaf Scholz join a televised debate of the candidates to succeed Angela Merkel as German chancellor on Sept. 12, 2021. (REUTERS/pool)
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Updated 16 September 2021

As Merkel exits, Germans debate famed budget discipline

As Merkel exits, Germans debate famed budget discipline
  • European member states watching the election and hoping for a transformation of German debt attitudes may be disappointed

FRANKFURT: When Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government smashed its debt taboo and opened the money taps to help the German economy weather the pandemic crisis, it vowed to return to fiscal rigour as soon as possible.
But as the post-Merkel era beckons, voters may have other ideas.
In the closing stretch before September 26 polls that will see Merkel bow out after 16 years, surveys show her CDU-CSU alliance trailing the center-left Social Democrats (SPD).
Hoping to turn the tide, the conservatives have returned to their favored attack lines.
The SPD’s candidate for the top job, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, would be a “debt chancellor,” warned CSU leader Markus Soeder.
Conservative millionaire Friedrich Merz, the CDU’s economic policy spokesperson, said taxpayers would end up footing the bill for an SPD-led government’s “free beer” policies.
Scholz himself has said he wants higher taxes for top earners and the reintroduction of a wealth tax to help fund much-needed investments in Europe’s biggest economy.
Whoever wins, any future German government will be presented with a “difficult choice” between “changing budgetary rules” to match the economic reality, or “sharply reducing the public deficit,” says Patrick Artus, chief economist at Natixis.
Germany’s cherished balanced finances have been turned upside down during the pandemic, with Merkel’s government taking on 370 billion euros ($438 billion) of new debt in 2020 and 2021.
Total public debt is expected to exceed 70 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) this year, up from 59.7 percent before the pandemic.

Merkel’s Germany is well-known for its budgetary discipline — and at times for enforcing it on fellow Europeans — but the pandemic spending forced it to suspend the “debt brake” written into the constitution in 2009.
The rule forbids the government from borrowing more than 0.35 percent of its GDP, other than in “exceptional circumstances” approved by parliament.
Between January and March this year, the public deficit exceeded 80 billion euros, equivalent to 4.7 percent of GDP.
It’s a long way from Germany’s vaunted “black zero” budget — the shorthand name given to the achievement of balancing the books and a target the country consistently met between 2014 and 2019.
The crisis also saw Merkel spearhead the European Union’s 800-billion-euro coronavirus recovery fund, which will be financed through joint borrowing for the first time — crossing a German red line on EU debt pooling.
But European member states watching the election and hoping for a transformation of German debt attitudes may be disappointed.
As a battle looms on whether to loosen the EU’s strict budget rules, Scholz ruled out any changes at a recent meeting of EU finance ministers.
The pandemic had shown that the bloc’s fiscal rules already had enough flexibility, he said.

By Merkel’s own admission, Germany will have to “spend gigantic sums of money in the coming years.”
The country’s biggest challenges — energy transition, climate protection and digital infrastructure — mean that “40 to 50 billion euros of public investment a year, between 1 and 1.5 percent of GDP, will be needed for the next 10 years,” said Marcel Fratzscher president of the economics think-tank DIW.
To solve this budgetary equation, it will be necessary to “reform” the debt brake to reflect EU norms, which tolerate deficits of up to three percent of GDP, Fratzscher said.
The catch: any change to the debt rule would have to be approved by a two-thirds super majority in the German parliament.

“The ruling parties will have to find another way to get around the rule,” Fratzscher said.
Much will depend on the balance of power between the parties in Germany’s next coalition.
Sticking to the debt brake will be “impossible without tax rises,” Fratzscher said — something the conservatives have ruled out.
The left-wing Greens, who fancy their chances of being part of the next government, want to adapt the debt brake to allow 50 billion euros of borrowing for investment annually until 2030.
The SPD are open to more public spending, but within the limited scope allowed by the constitutional brake.
 


France commemorates the 1961 massacre of Algerians in Paris

France commemorates the 1961 massacre of Algerians in Paris
Updated 40 sec ago

France commemorates the 1961 massacre of Algerians in Paris

France commemorates the 1961 massacre of Algerians in Paris
PARIS: A tribute march was organized on Sunday in Paris for the 60th anniversary of the bloody police crackdown on a protest by Algerians in the French capital, during the final year of their country’s independence war with its colonial power.
The commemoration comes after French President Macron acknowledged that “crimes” committed on Oct. 17, 1961 — which authorities have sought to cover up for decades — were “inexcusable for the Republic.”
“The repression was brutal, violent, bloody” under orders of Paris police chief Maurice Papon, Macron said in a statement released Saturday. About 12,000 Algerians were arrested and dozens were killed, “their bodies thrown into the Seine River,” the president’s office said.
Historians say at least 120 protesters died, some shot and some drowned, according to Macron’s office. The exact number has never been established as archives remain partially closed.
Papon later became the highest-ranking Frenchman convicted of complicity in crimes against humanity for his role in deporting Jews during World War II.
Human rights and anti-racism groups and Algerian associations in France staged a tribute march in Paris on Sunday afternoon. They called on authorities to further recognize the French state’s responsibilities in the “tragedies and horrors” related to Algeria’s independence war and to further open up archives.
Earlier Sunday, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo attended a tribute ceremony at the Saint-Michel bridge, in the capital’s city center.
Macron paid tribute to victims on Saturday at the Bezons bridge over the Seine River in the northwest of Paris. He was the first president to attend a commemoration event for the massacre.
Earlier this year, he announced a decision to speed up the declassification of secret documents related to Algeria’s 1954-62 war of independence from France. The new procedure was introduced in August, Macron’s office said.
The move was part of a series of steps taken by Macron to address France’s brutal history with Algeria, which had been under French rule for 132 years until its independence in 1962.
In 2018, Macron formally recognized the responsibility of the French state in the 1957 death of a dissident in Algeria, Maurice Audin, admitting for the first time the French military’s use of systematic torture during the war.

Russia’s reports record-high daily COVID-19 infections

Russia’s reports record-high daily COVID-19 infections
Updated 17 October 2021

Russia’s reports record-high daily COVID-19 infections

Russia’s reports record-high daily COVID-19 infections

MOSCOW: Russia reported 34,303 cases of new coronavirus infections in the past 24 hours, a record-high number since the start of the pandemic, data from the state coronavirus task force showed on Sunday.
It also reported 997 deaths from the disease, five fewer than the daily record-high of 1,002 reported the previous day.
The latest coronavirus deaths brought the official national death toll to 223,312, with a total of almost 8 million cases.
Russian authorities blame a slow vaccination campaign for the sharp rise of infections and deaths, which forced the health ministry to ask retired, vaccinated medics to return to hospitals. 


Activists arrested in Athens for protesting Beijing Winter Olympics

Activists arrested in Athens for protesting Beijing Winter Olympics
Updated 17 October 2021

Activists arrested in Athens for protesting Beijing Winter Olympics

Activists arrested in Athens for protesting Beijing Winter Olympics
  • Detained activists are members of the ‘No Beijing 2022’ campaign
  • The Beijing Winter Games are scheduled to run from Feb. 4-20, 2022

ATHENS: Two women attempted to hang a banner from the Acropolis in Athens Sunday morning in protest at the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics, and were detained by Greek police.
The activists, 18-year-old Tibetan student Tsela Zoksang and 22-year-old exiled Hong Kong activist Joey Siu, both American citizens, are members of the “No Beijing 2022” campaign, a statement from the New York-based organization Students for a Free Tibet said.
They, and a third person, entered the archaeological site as paying customers and then Zoksang and Siu climbed up some scaffolding, from which they attempted to unfurl the banner.
A security officer rushed to them and took the banner away. The two women remained on the scaffolding and deployed a Tibetan flag and a smaller banner proclaiming, “Free Hong Kong Revolution.” They also chanted slogans including “Free Tibet,” “Boycott Beijing 2022” and “No freedom, no Games.” Police arrived and detained the protesters.
The whole incident lasted about 10 minutes.
“Now it is time for the international community, and all people of conscience, to take a stand and boycott Beijing 2022; anything less will be a clear endorsement of China’s genocidal regime,” Zoksang was quoted as saying in the statement. ”The IOC is sending the world a message that it is ok to turn a blind eye to genocide and crimes against humanity in Hong Kong, Tibet, East Turkestan and Southern Mongolia,” added Siu.
The Olympic flame for the 24th Winter Games will be lit at Ancient Olympia Monday and handed over to the Chinese at a ceremony in Athens’ Panathenian Stadium Tuesday. The International Olympic Committee’s Executive Board met in Athens Saturday. The board will gather at Ancient Olympia later Sunday to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Executive Board’s founding. The dress rehearsal for the Olympic flame ceremony will also take place Sunday.
A protest against the staging of the summer Olympic Games by China previously took place in Athens in March 2008; a couple of dozen Greek and Tibetan activists tried unsuccessfully to interfere with the torch relay for that year’s Summer Olympics.
The Beijing Winter Games are scheduled to run from Feb. 4-20, 2022, with the Paralympics set to follow from March 4-13.


Afghan girls still barred from school: ‘Why should only boys have a future?’

Afghan girls still barred from school: ‘Why should only boys have a future?’
Updated 17 October 2021

Afghan girls still barred from school: ‘Why should only boys have a future?’

Afghan girls still barred from school: ‘Why should only boys have a future?’
  • Vast majority of girls are barred from lessons across the country, including in the capital Kabul

KABUL: Afghan teenager Amena saw dozens of classmates killed when her girls’ school was targeted by a Daesh bomb attack in May, but she was determined to continue her education.
Now, like most secondary school girls in the country, she is banned from lessons altogether after the Taliban’s hard-line government excluded them from returning to class one month ago.
“I wanted to study, see my friends and have a bright future, but now I am not allowed,” 16-year-old Amena said at her home in western Kabul.
“This situation makes me feel awful. Since the Taliban arrived, I am very sad and angry.”
On September 18, Afghanistan’s new Islamist rulers ordered male teachers and boys aged 13 and over back to secondary schools, picking up an academic year already cut short by violence and the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, there was no mention of women teachers or girl pupils.
The Taliban later said older girls can return to secondary schools, which were already mostly split by gender, but only once security and stricter segregation under their interpretation of Islamic law could be ensured.
Reports have emerged of girls going back to a few high schools — such as in Kunduz province where the Taliban promoted the return with a stage-managed rally.
The de facto Taliban education minister told the UN children’s body that a framework to allow all girls to go to secondary school will be announced soon, a senior UNICEF executive said Friday.
But for now, the vast majority are barred from lessons across the country of about 39 million people, including in the capital Kabul.
Primary schools, meanwhile, have reopened for all children and women can go to private universities, though with tough restrictions on their clothes and movement.
Amena lives just a short walk from her Sayed Al-Shuhada High School, where 85 people — mainly young girls — perished in the May bomb attack.
“Innocent girls were killed,” Amena said, her eyes welling up.
“I saw with my own eyes the dying and wounded girls.
“However, I still wanted to go to school again.”
Amena would be in Grade 10 studying her favorite subjects such as biology, but instead is stuck inside with a handful of books doing “nothing special.”
The teenager said she dreamt of becoming a journalist, but now has “no hope in Afghanistan.”
Her siblings help her at home, and occasionally she gets lessons from a psychologist who comes to see her younger sister, still traumatized by the school attack.
“They say: ‘Study if you cannot go to school — study at home so that you may become someone in the future.’“
“My brother brings home storybooks and I read them,” Amena said. “And I always watch the news.”
But she does not understand why boys are allowed to study and girls are not.
“Half of the society is made up of girls and the other half is made up of boys. There is no difference between them,” she said.
“Why can’t we study? Are we not part of society? Why should only boys have a future?“
After US-led forces ousted the Taliban in 2001, progress was made in girls’ education.
The number of schools tripled and female literacy nearly doubled to 30 percent, but the change was largely limited to the cities.
“Afghan women have made great achievements in the past 20 years,” said Nasrin Hasani, a 21-year-old teacher at a Kabul secondary school who now helps out with primary pupils.
But the current situation has “lowered both our and the students’ morale,” she said, questioning the Taliban’s reasoning.
“As far as we all know, the religion of Islam has never hindered the education and work of women.”
Hasani said she has not experienced any direct threats from the Taliban.
But Amnesty International reported that one high school teacher received death threats and was summoned for prosecution because she used to teach co-educational sport.
Hasani said she was clinging to hope that the Taliban will be “a little different” from their brutal 1996-2001 regime, when women were not even allowed out of their homes unchaperoned.
Born years after 2001, Zainab has no memories of that period and loved going to school until the Taliban directive.
The 12-year-old was stuck looking out of the window with a “terrible feeling” last month when boys went back to school.
“It is quite obvious that things get worse day by day,” said Zainab, whose name has been changed to protect her identity.
Her 16-year-old sister Malalay said tearfully that she had “feelings of despair and fear.”
Malalay, whose name has also been changed, passes her time helping around the house, cleaning, washing dishes and doing laundry.
She said she tries not to cry in front of her mother “because there are a lot of pressures on her.”
The teen had dreams of promoting women’s rights and speaking out against the men depriving her of her rights.
“My rights are to go to school and university,” she said.
“All my dreams and plans are now buried.”


Volunteers in the sky watch over migrant rescues by sea

Volunteers in the sky watch over migrant rescues by sea
Updated 17 October 2021

Volunteers in the sky watch over migrant rescues by sea

Volunteers in the sky watch over migrant rescues by sea
  • Despite the risks, many migrants and refugees say they’d rather die trying to cross to Europe than be returned to Libya

ABOARD THE SEABIRD: As dozens of African migrants traversed the Mediterranean Sea on a flimsy white rubber boat, a small aircraft circling 1,000 feet above closely monitored their attempt to reach Europe.
The twin-engine Seabird, owned by the German non-governmental organization Sea-Watch, is tasked with documenting human rights violations committed against migrants at sea and relaying distress cases to nearby ships and authorities who have increasingly ignored their pleas.
On this cloudy October afternoon, an approaching thunderstorm heightened the dangers for the overcrowded boat. Nearly 23,000 people have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe since 2014, according to the United Nations’ migration agency.
“Nour 2, Nour 2, this is aircraft Seabird, aircraft Seabird,” the aircraft’s tactical coordinator, Eike Bretschneider, communicated via radio with the only vessel nearby. The captain of the Nour 2, agreed to change course and check up on the flimsy boat. But after seeing the boat had a Libyan flag, the people refused its assistance, the captain reported back on the crackling radio.
“They say they only have 20 liters of fuel left,” the captain, who did not identify himself by name, told the Seabird. “They want to continue on their journey.”
The small boat’s destination was the Italian island of Lampedusa, where tourists sitting in outdoor cafés sipped on Aperol Spritz, oblivious to what was unfolding some 60 nautical miles (111 km/68 miles) south of them on the Mediterranean Sea.
Bretschneider, a 30-year-old social worker, made some quick calculations and concluded the migrants must have departed Libya approximately 20 hours ago and still had some 15 hours ahead of them before they reached Lampedusa. That was if their boat did not fall apart or capsize along the way.
Despite the risks, many migrants and refugees say they’d rather die trying to cross to Europe than be returned to Libya where, upon disembarkation, they are placed in detention centers and often subjected to relentless abuse.
Bretschneider sent the rubber boat’s coordinates to the air liaison officer sitting in Berlin, who then relayed the position (inside the Maltese Search and Rescue zone) to both Malta and Italy. Unsurprisingly to them, they received no response.
Running low on fuel, the Seabird had to leave the scene.
“We can only hope the people will reach the shore at some moment or will get rescued by a European coast guard vessel,” Bretschneider told AP as they made their way back.
The activists have grown used to having their distress calls go unanswered.
For years human rights groups and international law experts have denounced that European countries are increasingly ignoring their international obligations to rescue migrants at sea. Instead, they’ve outsourced rescues to the Libyan Coast Guard, which has a track record of reckless interceptions as well as ties to human traffickers and militias.
“I’m sorry, we don’t speak with NGOs,” a man answering the phone of the Maltese Rescue and Coordination Center told a member of Sea-Watch inquiring about a boat in distress this past June. In a separate call to the Rescue and Coordination Center in Rome, another Sea-Watch member was told: “We have no information to report to you.”
Maltese and Italian authorities did not respond to questions sent by AP.
Trying to get in touch with the Libyan rescue and coordination center is an even greater challenge. On the rare occasion that someone does pick up, the person on the other side of the line often doesn’t speak English.
More than 49,000 migrants have reached Italian shores so far this year according to the Italian Ministry of Interior, nearly double the number of people who crossed in the same time period last year.
Although it is illegal for European vessels to take rescued migrants back to Libya themselves, information shared by the EU’s surveillance drones and planes have allowed the Libyan Coast Guard to considerably increase its ability to stop migrants from reaching Europe. So far this year, it has intercepted roughly half of those who have attempted to leave, returning more than 26,000 men, women and children to Libya.
Sea-Watch has relied on millions of euros from individual donations over several years to expand its air monitoring capabilities as well. It now has two small aircraft that, with a birds-eye view, can find boats in distress much faster than ships can.
Taking off from Lampedusa, which is closer to North Africa than Italy, the planes can reach a distress case relatively quickly if its position is known. But when there are no exact coordinates, they must fly a search pattern, sometimes for hours, and scan the sea with the help of binoculars.
Even when flying low, finding a tiny boat in the vast Mediterranean can strain the most experienced eyes. The three- to four-person crew of volunteers reports every little dot on the horizon that could potentially be people in distress.
“Target at 10 o’clock,” the Seabird’s photographer sitting in the back alerted on a recent flight.
The pilot veered left to inspect it.
“Fishing boat, disregard,” Bretschneider, the tactical coordinator, replied.
In rough seas, breaking waves can play tricks and for brief moments resemble wobbly boats in the distance. Frequently, the “targets” turn out to be nothing at all, and the Seabird returns to land hours later without any new information.
But finding boats in distress is only the first challenge. Getting them rescued is just as difficult, if not harder.
With the absence of state rescue vessels and NGO ships getting increasingly blocked from leaving port, Sea-Watch often relies on the good will of merchant vessels navigating the area. But many are also reluctant to get involved after several commercial ships found themselves stuck at sea for days as they waited for Italy’s or Malta’s permission to disembark rescued migrants. Others have taken them back to Libya in violation of maritime and refugee conventions.
This week, a court in Naples convicted the captain of an Italian commercial ship for returning 101 migrants to Libya in 2018.
Without any state authority, the Seabird can only remind captains of their duty to rescue persons in distress. In this way, Bretschneider recently got an Italian supply vessel to save 65 people from a drifting migrant boat, just moments before the Libyan Coast Guard arrived.
On another mission a few days later, the Seabird returned from its flight without knowing what would happen to the people they had seen on the white rubber boat.
Bretschneider checked his phone at dinner that night, hoping for good news. On the other side of the Mediterranean, 17 bodies had washed up in Western Libya, apparently from a different boat.
The next day the Seabird took off to look for the white rubber boat again, in vain. On their way back, they got a message from land.
The white rubber boat had reached waters near Lampedusa and was picked up by the Italian Coast Guard. The people had made it.