Popcorn to hand, EU watches Brexit show but frets for own future

BRUSSELS/PARIS (Reuters) – EU Brexit negotiators are “watching the BBC and eating popcorn”, in the words of one of them, as Britain’s domestic rows over leaving make for compelling TV but frustrate Europe’s hopes for a clean break.

Unsure whether Britain will crash out of the European Union 10 weeks from now, prolong the agony in the hope of salvaging an orderly divorce or even change its mind and stay, its neighbors are torn between “Brexit boredom” and a worry it is distracting from their own pressing problems as campaigning gets under way for EU parliament elections in May.

Hours after a packed and rowdy House of Commons tore up the deal Prime Minister Theresa May spent two tortuous years arguing over, only a few dozen of their 751 counterparts in Strasbourg showed up on Wednesday to hear EU negotiator Michel Barnier tell them all he could do is wait for Britons to make up their minds.

Several in the debate praised Britain’s democratic history and were bemused by its poisonous meltdown over Brexit. Among them was Dutch conservative Esther de Lange: “Collectively, they don’t know what they want,” she said of watching the Commons in action. “But, boy, do they hold great speeches about it.”

Compared to a full house to mark the 20th anniversary of the euro, the EU currency Britain snubbed, the hundreds of empty seats around her were a mark of Europe’s weariness with Brexit.

But it also belied anxiety that paralysis in London will distract and divide leaders on other EU problems, from a slowing economy amid global trade disputes to deep divisions over money, migrants and Brexit-inspired Brussels-bashing by many members.

French President Emmanuel Macron says he does not want to “waste time” on Brexit as he presses to reshape the euro zone and the broader Union after the European elections in four months’ time.

His EU affairs minister Nathalie Loiseau said Brexit took up a third of her time: “It’s too much,” she said, “Because we have many other things to do in Europe than dealing with a divorce.”

“TIME TO MOVE ON”

Manfred Weber, an ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel who is leading the center-right campaign, said that “Europe’s door is still open” should Britain decide to stay. But he told Reuters: “It is now time to move on and get Brexit over with.”

Weber complained that a “never-ending Brexit process” had taken “huge amounts of time, money and expertise” from the EU.

“It has consumed valuable political energy, especially in this election year,” he said, “And has held us back from shaping a real positive European agenda for the future.”

Nearly three years after Britain’s shock referendum vote to leave put supporters of European integration on the back foot, a push to regain momentum lies behind a summit of the remaining 27 leaders to be held in the Romanian town of Sibiu on May 9.

It was intended by EU chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker to focus minds on a future without one of Europe’s three biggest economies and two nuclear military powers, and be the culmination of efforts to end divisions threatening EU cohesion.

During last month’s EU summit, which they hoped would be the last on Brexit, leaders were visibly weary of it: “The fatigue was palpable,” said one diplomat in the room. “They don’t want to be bothered with it. They want to get it over with.”

UNITED ON BREXIT, DIVIDED ON EUROPE

If there has been a positive from Brexit, leaders say, it has been the exceptional unity the 27 have shown in negotiation — though a scary end-game could yet test that togetherness.

Many also believe turmoil in Britain has dampened appetites to follow suit, with European voters warming to the Union and euroskeptic governments, such as in Italy, Hungary and Poland, stressing their criticisms of the EU do not presage an exit.

Yet Sibiu and the EU elections on May 26 are set to expose continuing schisms on how to move the Union forward. Founders France and Germany disagree over tightening monetary union, as do Italy and its northern neighbors over sharing out migrants arriving by sea. Rich contributor states and the ex-communist east are split over filling a Britain-sized hole in the EU budget and over some eastern governments’ maneuvering to stifle their opponents.

“On Brexit, the EU has shown exceptional unity — if only we could show the same kind of unity on everything else,” lamented one diplomat involved in preparing the summit.

One result of May’s troubles could be that Britain is still a member come Sibiu and the EU elections — a new headache that makes some wary of extending the Brexit deadline. Few, however, seem willing to force Britain out against its will — yet.

Prolonging the process, though, is bad news, said an envoy to Brussels from a non-EU country. Leaders have tried to drive it down their list of priorities and ring-fence the negotiations in Barnier’s task force: “But Brexit sits around like a bad penny,” he said. “You can’t ignore it. It’s in your face and will continue to be in your face until it’s resolved.”

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Germany, China to sign pacts during finance minister's Beijing visit

BEIJING (Reuters) – Germany welcomes progress in cooperation with China, especially in the financial sector, and aims to spur further development, its finance minister, Olaf Scholz, said in Beijing on Friday.

Trade between the two nations has softened amid uncertainty caused by the U.S. tariff dispute with China, but both have shown willingness to demonstrate that the world remains multilateral.

Germany is expected to sign pacts with Chinese financial regulators during Scholz’s visit, and its Bundesbank may also conclude an agreement with China on trading yuan-denominated financial products in Europe.

“It is important that, contrary to recent trends that we can observe elsewhere, we are seeing progress in our cooperation,” Scholz said.

Market access for banks and insurance companies on a level playing field and in the context of reciprocity is important, added Scholz, who is set to hold talks with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He.

“As the world economy slows, market volatility rises, creating greater risks,” Liu told reporters before the talks at the Diaoyutai State Guest House in the Chinese capital, welcoming the results of the two nations’ cooperation.

Berlin stresses its “close and advantageous” trade ties with China, whose rise has displaced Germany from its ranking as the world’s third-biggest economy to the fourth.

At the same time, it increasingly seeks to better protect and strengthen sensitive German and European business sectors from China’s state-backed acquisitions overseas in strategic industries.

“If you work closely together, you learn to appreciate similarities, but also to know differences,” Scholz said.

“And we have a lot of common interests in financial matters, and then we need to bring different perspectives together. I believe that is the very important task of this financial dialogue.”

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Apple, Amazon called out for 'incorrect' Taiwan, Hong Kong references

TAIPEI/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – One of China’s top government-linked think tanks has called out Apple Inc, Amazon.com Inc and other foreign companies for not referring to Hong Kong and Taiwan as part of China in a report that provoked a stern reaction from Taipei.

The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) said in a report this month that 66 of the world’s 500 largest companies had used “incorrect labels” for Taiwan and 53 had errors in the way they referred to Hong Kong, according to China’s Legal Daily newspaper. It said 45 had referred to both territories incorrectly.

Beijing considers self-ruled Taiwan a wayward province of China and the former British colony of Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 and operates as a semi-autonomous territory.

China last year ramped up pressure on foreign companies including Marriott International and Qantas for referring to Taiwan and Hong Kong as separate from China in drop down menus or other material.

The report was co-written by CASS and the Internet Development Research Institution of Peking University. An official at the Internet Development Research Institution told Reuters that it had not yet been published to the public and declined to provide a copy.

A spokesman for Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said Taiwan would not bow to Chinese pressure.

“As for China’s related out-of-control actions, we need to remind the international community to face this squarely and to unite efforts to reduce and contain these actions,” Alex Huang told reporters in Taipei.

Beijing has stepped up pressure on Taiwan since Tsai, from the pro-independence ruling party, took office in 2016.

That has included rising Chinese scrutiny over how companies from airlines, such as Air Canada, to retailers, such as Gap, refer to the democratic island in recent months.

Nike Inc, Siemens AG, ABB, Subaru and others were also on the list. Apple, Amazon, ABB, Siemens, Subaru and Nike did not immediately respond to Reuters’ requests for comment.

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Germany stops arms exports to Yemen combatants

Germany will halt all arms exports to countries involved in the ongoing war in Yemen as coalition talks continue.

    Germany will stop all arms exports to countries involved in the ongoing war in Yemen, a government spokesperson has announced.

    The decision, announced on Friday by a spokesperson for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, comes as political parties including Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) continue to hold talks about forming a coalition government following the German federal election last September.

    Germany “isn’t taking any arms exports decisions right now that aren’t in line with the results of the preliminary talks”, Steffan Seibert, a spokesperson for Merkel, said in a post on Twitter.

    The move is expected to affect Germany’s weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, which totalled almost 450 million euro ($550m) in the third fiscal quarter of 2017, according to German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

    Saudi Arabia has been at war in Yemen since March 2015, when a coalition led by the oil-rich kingdom launched a campaign of aerial bombardment aimed at countering Houthi rebels, who are widely believed to be backed by Iran, and reinstating the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

    Amnesty Gulf, a branch of the Amnesty International rights group, praised Germany’s decision and called on other countries to do the same.

    “Good news! Germany halts arms exports to parties to the conflict in #Yemen. [The] US, UK, France and all other states selling arms to the #Saudi-led coalition must halt arms sales now!,” the organisation said Friday in a post on Twitter.

    The UK has licensed more than 4.6 billion pounds ($6.3bn) worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since the war in Yemen began, according to the UK-based Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT).

    A recent UN report on human rights abuses related to foreign intervention in Yemen documented a number of civilian casualties inflicted by Saudi-led coalition bombing.

    The panel examined 10 air attacks in 2017 that killed 157 people and found that the targets included a migrant boat, a motel and five residential buildings, according to a copy of the report seen by Al Jazeera.

    According to the Geneva-based SAM Organisation for Rights and Liberties, some 450 civilians were killed in Yemen during December 2017.

    The killings were part of 1,937 violations committed throughout the country during December, including physical assaults, violation to press freedom, torture and arbitrary detention, a January 17 report by the organisation said.

    The violations were perpetrated by “Houthis militia, Arab Coalition air force, military formations and groups loyal to the legitimate government”, the report said.

    The group condemned “all crimes included in this report which are considered as gross violations of the international humanitarian law and human rights law”.

    To date, more than 10,000 people have died during the war in Yemen and more than two million people have been displaced since fighting broke out, according to the UN.

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    Germany hints at warming relations with Turkey

    German foreign minister says Berlin intends to have ‘better negotiations’ with Ankara.

      German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel has said that Berlin intends to have “better negotiations” with Ankara in a sign which might be seen as a thawing of bilateral relations.

      “Of course, we have the intention of having better negotiations with Turkey again. This will be for the benefit of Turkey, Germany and Europe,” Gabriel told reporters at a news conference on Wednesday, following a meeting with his Polish counterpart Jacek Czaputowicz.

      His remarks came in response to a question on whether the revival of intergovernmental negotiation may be seen as the first step towards normalisation of ties between the two countries.

      Senior officials from Turkey and Germany are starting a two-day high-level meeting in Berlin to discuss security and counter-terrorism issues, and measures against the “terrorist” Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and FETO, diplomatic sources told Anadolu Agency.

      Speaking about the release of some German citizens by Turkey, he said they are being followed by reciprocal visits between the two countries.

      Last month, an Istanbul court released German citizen Mesale Tolu, pending trial.

      Tolu, who was arrested in April on charges of spreading “terrorist propaganda”, was lately working as a translator for a small Istanbul-based news agency, which Turkish authorities suspect had ties to an outlawed far-left organisation.

      Five other suspects were also released under judicial control and are forbidden to travel abroad.

      “If we really are endeavouring for good relations with Turkey, both countries should respect and approach each other at the same level,” Gabriel noted.

      Emphasising Turkey’s NATO membership, Gabriel said Germany has responsibilities towards its NATO partners in the defence industry.

      Ties between Ankara and Berlin were strained as Turkish politicians blasted their German counterparts for not taking serious measures against outlawed groups and terrorist organisations which use Germany as a platform for their fund-raising, recruitment, and propaganda activities.

      German politicians, on the other hand, criticised Ankara – especially before their general elections in September – over the arrest of around a dozen German citizens, including a reporter, a translator, and a human rights activist, on suspicion of aiding and abetting “terrorist groups”.

      The two countries took steps in recent weeks towards normalisation, and intensified talks to address their political differences on a number of issues.

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      Far-right politician converts to Islam, quits AfD party

      Social media users note irony of Wagner converting to Islam after being member of Islamophobic party.

        A leading politician from the Alternative for Germany (AfD) has converted to Islam and resigned from his position with the anti-Muslim party, the party has confirmed.

        Arthur Wagner, a leading member of the far-right party in Germany’s eastern German state of Brandenburg, stepped down for “personal reasons”, a party spokesperson confirmed, according to state broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

        Wagner, who has been a member of the party since 2015, refused to comment to Tagesspiegel, the daily newspaper that first broke the news of his conversion.

        “That’s my private business,” he told the daily.

        On the party’s Brandenburg state committee, Wagner’s work focused on churches and faith communities, according to Deutsche Welle.

        The AfD has campaigned against refugees and migrants and made history when it won 12.6 percent of the vote in federal elections in September 2017, entering the Bundestag for the first time.

        The party became the third largest party in the Bundestag.

        The news sparked derision on social media, with many Twitter users pointing to the irony of Wagner converting to Islam after being a high-ranking member of a party that has railed against the presence of Muslims in Germany.

        Emily Dische-Becker said: “Creeping Sharia picks up speed as politician from Germany’s islamophobic AfD converts to Islam.”

        Mark Berry said: “I really don’t understand Nazis.”

        ‘Islam is a foreign entity’

        The AfD has long denied accusations that it is Islamophobic. 

        Originally founded in 2013 as a Eurosceptic party, the AfD took the lead as the most aggressive anti-refugee voice in the country while nearly a million asylum seekers arrived in Germany in 2015.

        In the party’s first bill since its electoral success in September, the AfD proposed amending Germany’s Residence Act by barring refugees from bringing their relatives from the war-ravaged countries they fled.

        She had written: “What the hell is happening in this country? Why is an official police site tweeting in Arabic? Do you think it is to appease the barbaric, gang-raping hordes of Muslim men?”

        The party has also sought to ban the construction of mosques in Germany. 

        In March 2016, the party’s Bavaria branch published a policy statement calling for an end to the “construction and operation” of mosques in the region, Deutsche Welle reported at the time. 

        In February of that year, then party leader Petry Frauke sparked outrage when she proclaimed that German border guards should “use fire arms if necessary” in order to prevent “illegal border crossings” by refugees and migrants. 

        In April 2016, the AfD’s Alexander Gauland proclaimed that Germany must remain “a Christian country” and “Islam is a foreign entity”. 

        The rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric has also coincided with a spike in violence against asylum seekers.

        The German interior ministry documented 3,533 attacks on refugees and their accommodations – nearly 10 a day – in 2016.


        Al Jazeera World

        Islamophobia in the USA

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        We must still strive for orderly Brexit, Germany's Merkel says

        BERLIN (Reuters) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Wednesday that it was necessary to keep trying to secure an orderly Brexit but she stressed that Germany was prepared if Britain did end up exiting the European Union in a disorderly fashion.

        She said she regretted that the British parliament had rejected a Brexit deal negotiated with the European Union and said British Prime Minister Theresa May needed to say how Britain would proceed.

        “We think now it is up to the British side,” Merkel said. “We want to keep damage to a minimum, and there will be damage with the departure of Britain.”

        “We will of course try to find an orderly solution but we are also prepared for the scenario that there may not be an orderly solution,” Merkel added.

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        UK government must provide Brexit clarity to avoid further damage: German bank body

        BERLIN (Reuters) – The British economy will likely slow due to uncertainty over Brexit and that will negatively impact the German economy, Germany’s cooperative banking association said, urging London to provide clarity to avoid further damage for trade and the economy.

        From an economic perspective, the best solution would be for Britain to unilaterally withdraw its Brexit declaration, the BVR said on Wednesday after the British parliament rejected the Brexit deal negotiated with the European Union.

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        Fresh strike hits major German airports

        FRANKFURT • Hundreds of flights were cancelled at eight German airports yesterday, including at the nation’s busiest travel hub Frankfurt, as security staff walked off the job in a deepening row over pay.

        Germany’s powerful Verdi union said the strike would last from 2am until 8pm local time (9am Tuesday to 3am Wednesday, Singapore time) at Frankfurt airport, with walkouts in Munich, Hanover, Bremen, Hamburg, Leipzig, Dresden and Erfurt following roughly the same schedule.

        At least 220,000 travellers will be hit by cancellations and delays, the ADV airport association said, in a calculation that includes knock-on effects at other airports.

        Frankfurt airport operator Fraport, which has axed 610 out of around 1,200 scheduled flights, urged passengers not to come to Europe’s fourth-busiest airport during the strike. At Munich airport, Germany’s second largest, a spokesman said around 100, mainly domestic, flights were cancelled.

        The coordinated industrial action marks a major escalation in Verdi’s dispute with employers, following walkouts at Berlin’s airports last Monday and in Stuttgart, Cologne/Bonn and Duesseldorf last Thursday.

        Germany’s flagship carrier Lufthansa accused Verdi of ramping up tensions “to an unacceptable extent”.

        The ADV airport association blasted the wave of strikes as “irresponsible”. “Verdi is unjustifiably carrying out these strikes on the backs of travellers, airlines and airports,” ADV head Ralph Beisel said in a statement.

        Verdi, which represents some 23,000 aviation security workers, said it was forced to ramp up pressure because talks with the BDLS employers’ association were deadlocked. “Employers did not respond to last week’s warning strikes at all; they haven’t come up with an improved offer,” Verdi board member Ute Kittel told public broadcaster ZDF.

        The union wants to see wages raised to €20 (S$31) an hour for workers carrying out passenger, freight, personnel and goods checks at all German airports.

        Rates currently vary nationwide, with staff in some airports in eastern Germany earning around €14 hourly, compared with just over €17 for their peers in the capital and western parts of the country.

        The BDLS has baulked at the proposed wage hike, instead offering pay increases of up to 6.4 per cent. The next round of talks is slated for Jan 23.

        Lufthansa, among the airlines worst hit by the strikes, said Verdi “has no interest in making its contribution to improving Germany as an aviation location”.

        “We already have the lowest quality security checks at the highest costs, compared to Europe and other countries around the world,” said Lufthansa board member Detlef Kayser.

        The dispute is the latest upheaval for air travellers in Germany, after a series of strikes by Ryanair cabin and cockpit crew in the second half of last year, including two pan-European walkouts, caused huge disruption.

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        Franklin Templeton's Zahn sees no ECB rate rise until 2021

        LONDON (Reuters) – The European Central Bank (ECB) won’t make its first move on pushing up interest rates until 2021, David Zahn, head of European fixed income at Franklin Templeton Investment Management said on Tuesday, adding he had pushed back his forecast from the previous 2020.

        He told Reuters he remained optimistic on the euro zone growth outlook because of domestic consumption but added:

        “I don’t see the ECB moving on interest rates until 2021, previously I thought they would hike in 2020.”

        While the ECB has been flagging a rate rise in the second half of 2019, money markets now price only a 40 percent probability of a 10 basis-point move by end-2019 following deteriorating economic data in recent months.

        Zahn also said Brexit uncertainty had led him to change his position on British government bonds. The UK is set to leave the European Union on March 29, but there is little clarity on the manner or its exit or even whether it will actually do so.

        “We moved to “Neutral” from an “Underweight” position on gilts in the fourth quarter, and it feels like most other managers are doing so,” Zahn said.

        He added he was neutral on sterling and believed that the currency is fundamentally undervalued.

        (This story has been refiled to change day in first paragraph)

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