02 12 / 2013
It all looks eerily familiar. Throngs of anti-government demonstrators controlled parts of downtown Kiev on Monday morning, while the police are in a holding pattern and the president of the country tries to figure out how to handle the situation.
The reason for the protests? President Viktor Yanukovych has walked away from a treaty with the European Union and turned toward Moscow instead, presumably under pressure from Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin.
It is the same fight as in 2004. Back then, Ukraine was torn between being a western-oriented country with close ties to the European Union and the United States or an ally of the regional power, Russia, and a bulwark against EU and NATO expansion.
Now, the EU will clearly be siding with the demonstrators. And German chancellor Angela Merkel has already appealed to Yanukovych to “do everything to ensure that the right to freedom of speech and peaceful protests is always protected.”
Nine years ago, Ukraine’s so-called Orange Revolution was about a stolen election when pro-Moscow candidate Yanukovych — the same president as today — was declared the winner of the presidential election, while most Ukrainians thought the pro-Western candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, had won.
After weeks of massive protests under the orange banner of the Yushchenko camp, a re-vote under international observation gave the presidency to Yushchenko.
It was the end of a bitter and violent campaign between the two Viktors, which included the macabre accusation that there had been an attempt to poison Yushchenko with dioxin.
Yushchenko’s eventual win was widely perceived as a triumph of the pro-Western half of the country over the influence of its powerful Russian neighbor. Putin’s man lost and, presumably, Ukraine would now join NATO and the European Union.
Except, it turned out to be slightly different. The third player in the Orange Revolution was a woman called Yulia Tymoshenko. The “Ukrainian Joan of Arc” sided with Yushchenko in 2004 and was instrumental in keeping the protests going. She eventually became prime minister, but then didn’t get along with President Yushchenko, who fired her in 2005.
The beneficiary of the fall-out was Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Moscow candidate from 2004. He ran against Tymoshenko and won — though Tymoshenko accused Yanukovych of rigging the election and she did not recognize the result.
But instead of leading another Orange Revolution, Tymoshenko became the target of a criminal case and she’s been in custody since August 2011.
It all smelled of Byzantine intrigue. The European Union, the United States, and even Russia voiced concern that the charges against Tymoshenko were politically motivated.
Now, in the latest twist of the story, Yanukovych was all set to sign an agreement with the EU in November and then abruptly changed his mind. He said the economic ties with Russia were too important for the country. And Putin made it clear he was unhappy with a Ukraine-EU trade link.
Once again, Yanukovych has a lot of his people against him. Protesters are demanding the government step down. The question now is whether they will be able to turn Yanukovych back a second time.
07 11 / 2013
Germany will not grant NSA intelligence leaker Edward Snowden asylum – at least for now.
"We will stick to our decision from the summer that Mr Snowden has no right to asylum in Germany because he is not a political refugee," said the interior minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich on Wednesday.
Clearly, the anger over the alleged NSA spying in Europe only goes so far.
But that anger has been rekindled over and over since the spring. The latest flare-up: Britain stands accused of operating a secret listening post from its embassy in Berlin, just yards from the German parliament and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s offices.
This follows hot on the heels of allegations that the American National Security Agency hacked into Merkel’s cell phone.
To some extent, Germans feel betrayed by their closed allies.
In an interview with Germany’s main daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, former Vice-Chancellor Frank-Walter Steinmeier sums up what many Germans think:
“The data hunger of the NSA seems to be boundless. The massive surveillance of innocent citizens and EU offices seemed bad enough, but until now we couldn’t even image that there would be spying on members of allied governments. We can’t just go back to business as usual now. “
Washington is getting at least a little bit nervous about the spying allegations. After President Obama assured Merkel that her cell phone is currently not being tapped by the US, Secretary of State John Kerry urged Europe not to let NSA surveillance concerns thwart the current trade talks between the EU and Washington.
The second round of negotiations over the ambitious Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is scheduled to begin in Brussels on Monday, despite calls in Europe to suspend those talks.
Both sides hope for a significant stimulus to their job markets and economies — and both sides can clearly need that while their economies still struggle with poor employment and sluggish growth in consumer spending.
But a wide ranging trade deal requires good faith on all sides and the distrust of the United States is growing in Germany. Steinmeier for one foresees great difficulties for the trade talks if there is no clarification of American surveillance methods in Europe.
24 10 / 2013
The political rift between the United States and Europe just got a little wider.
German news magazine Der Spiegel reported that the NSA had hacked into Merkel’s cell phone. Understandably, Ms Merkel was not pleased and called Washington to clarify the issue. President Barack Obama assured her, the US was not monitoring her calls and would not in future, according to the White House.
However, it was left open, whether calls had been listened to in the past. This is what Germans call ‘Lauschangriff’ or ‘listening attack’.
Leading politicians and media commentators in Germany expressed serious concern on Thursday following these new allegations.
Germany’s foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle called US ambassador John B Emerson to a personal meeting to discuss the allegations.
"The decision to call in Emerson, who has only been the US representative in Berlin since mid-August, is an unusually drastic measure," writes Philip Olterman in the Guardian.
Merkel’s probable new coalition partner, the SPD, is already calling for the suspension of talks about a free trade zone with the US which started in July.
Elsewhere in Europe, the French Le Figaro called the news "a warning shot in the direction of the US and a call for a resolute response from the EU. Europe is not discovering the NSA wiretapping scandal now but with a personal accusation from Angela Merkel, the matter takes on a spectacular new scale.”
On Monday, France also summoned its US ambassador over reports that the NSA had spied on millions of French phone calls. French President François Hollande has called for the issue to be put on the agenda of the next EU summit.
Italy’s Corriere della Sera has been using the English word ‘datagate’ in its coverage:
“Even if the cell-phone allegation turns out to be false”, writes the Milan-based paper, “it doesn’t change anything […] The real central issue is that a threshold has already been crossed.”
German observers also wryly note how little US media coverage has so far followed this latest revelation:
“Much more important stories are the World Series, the christening of Britain’s Prince George, and life style of Bishop Bischof Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst”, reports Jürgen Schmieder in the Süddeutsche Zeitung.
Ouch! The European honeymoon with President Obama seems only a faint memory now and the trans-Atlantic rift is growing.
12 10 / 2013
Malta’s prime minister Joseph Muscat has said European waters close to Africa are turning into a cemetery, after another boat full of migrants capsized Friday.
Muscat said his country felt “abandoned” by the rest of Europe and urged the EU to take action. This latest incident followed the sinking of a migrant boat off the Sicilian island of Lampedusa on October 3rd which killed more than 300 people.
The flood of illegal migrants pouring into Europe at the moment looks all to familiar to Americans: According to the Pew Research Center, “unauthorized immigrants made up 28% of all US immigrants in 2012.”
In Europe, more than 30,000 migrants reached Italy on boats from North Africa this year alone, according to the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR.
Many in the United States feel that their immigration system is broken and something needs to be done to deal with the approximately 12 million ”undocumented” migrants believed to be in the US.
A lot of Americans think, the answer is to tighten border security - that goes for Europeans, too.
At this point, the European Union is thinking of counteracting the flood of migrants with drones and satellites to track refugees at sea. The emphasis does not seem to be on finding ways to save people like those killed near Lampedusa but to keep them out.
EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem did call for Mediterranean-wide search and rescue patrols to intercept migrant boats.
“But the system for surveilling ‘irregular migratory flows’, as they are called in the official jargon, is precisely the kind of monitoring apparatus America’s NSA intelligence service might dream up”, writes Gregor Peter Schmitz in Germany’s Spiegel news magazine.
Clearly, that doesn’t sound like Europe would like to welcome the huddled, tired masses currently trying to escape crisis-ridden places like Syria, Somalia, Eritrea or Mali.
Interestingly, the gateway into the EU is Libya at this point. The EU’s border agency Frontex says “Libya was the main departure point for migrants heading across the Mediterranean to Italy…because Libya remains plagued by violence, kidnappings and fragmented institutions.”
Pushing for more immigration is fairly unpopular in Europe and will probably lose you votes, just look at the recent election in Austria where the right-wing Freedom Party did well after accusing the ruling coalition of permitting too much immigration.
The refugee crisis has also led to misgivings among EU member nations.
Malta, Greece, and Italy have long made appeals for more assistance for the states that bear the brunt of mass migration.
But northern, more affluent EU nations, such as Sweden, Germany and Denmark, insist they already take a large proportion of migrants. A spokesman in Berlin told German media recently that 65,000 refugees had been taken in last year, compared with 15,000 in Italy.
Echoing the debate in Britain where asylum seekers are often derided as “benefit scroungers”, German interior minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich said most of those trying to cross the Mediterranean were “economic” migrants rather than political refugees.
Immigration might be a problem in the United States but so far, the EU has not even been able to agree a common migration and asylum policy as many members are reluctant to cede authority over immigration issues to Brussels.
Many years ago, I studied a radio play called Schiff Esperanza (The Ship Esperanza) as a student in Germany. It features a sea captain who promises to take immigrants illegally to America only to deliver them to a sandbar miles off shore where they drown.
Now, I have to read about a father watching his son drown in front of his eyes, victims of wars and revolutions, and the European version of ‘coyotes’.
Esperanza is the Spanish word for hope.
01 10 / 2013
In most places around the world, governments only shut down during revolutions, after military defeats or natural disasters. The Assad regime in Syria has managed to pay its bills and employees even while fighting off a major rebellion.
When Belgium was without a new government for over 500 days after an inconclusive election, the national administration didn’t shut down, everybody continued to be paid, no national museum had to close.
That this could happen to the world’s only superpower because one political party disagrees with a law already adopted seems strange and unreal to many Europeans.
“That leaders of one of the most powerful nations on earth willingly provoked a crisis that suspends public services and decreases economic growth is astonishing to many,” reports Anthony Zurcher for BBC News
“America’s financial crisis becomes the Neverending Story,” writes Sebastian Fischer in Germany’s Der Spiegel: “A world power is blocking itself.”
The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung compares the shutdown in Washington to the aftermath of Germany’s federal election. “Should the current negotiations to form a coalition drag on, Germany could be without a budget in 2014. Our public administration would continue without causing too much attention. [..] a shutdown in Germany would be impossible,” assures the FAZ its readers.
That’s because in Germany, the federal government is constitutionally required to use funds to keep its agencies operational - even without a budget.
Both France’s Le Monde and Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung are trying to explain “le shutdown” to its reader with a short Q&A while Britain’s Guardian looks at the economic consequences for the rest of the world:
“Any prolonged shutdown would rapidly start to hit US consumer spending, as hundreds of thousands of public sector workers are furloughed; and that will crimp America’s demand for imports from the rest of the world.”
Nicolas Richter notes in an op-ed on sueddeutsche.de that “it’s easier at the moment for President Obama to talk with a Middle Eastern theocracy than with politicians meeting only a few blocks away from the White House.”
“To some extent Obama’s opponents (in the tea party and Iran) are similar: both regard themselves as revolutionaries and define themselves by resisting a stronger power,” says Richter.
The reaction on European financial markets has been modest so far, despite the bad day on Wall Street yesterday, European markets largely saw the shutdown coming and have been adjusting for it.
The question is now, how long will it last.