Macedonian Court Rejects Bids to Scrap Name Referendum

Macedonia’s constitutional court has rejected two bids to declare illegal and unconstitutional the upcoming referendum on renaming the country “North Macedonia.”

The vote on Sept. 30 has been hailed by western officials as a major chance for the small Balkan country to launch the process of joining NATO and the European Union.

Judges voted 7-2 on Wednesday to reject the two bids, filed by the World Macedonian Congress, a Skopje-based diaspora group, and the small, left-wing Levitsa party.

Renaming Macedonia is a key element of a deal with neighboring Greece to end a decades-old dispute. Greece says Macedonia’s current name implies claims on its own northern province of Macedonia, and on its ancient heritage.

If the deal goes ahead, Greece will lift objections to Macedonia joining NATO and the EU.

 

EU’s Tusk Says Will Call Special Brexit Summit Mid-November

European Council President Donald Tusk said on Wednesday he would call an extra Brexit summit of European Union leaders around mid-November to finalize a deal with Britain.

Tusk told a news conference before chairing a summit of all 28 EU leaders in the Austrian city of Salzburg later on Wednesday: “The Brexit negotiations are entering their decisive phase. Various scenarios are still possible today but I’d like to stress that some of Prime Minister May’s proposals from Chequers indicated positive evolution in the UK’s approach.”

Tusk said that went for the UK’s readiness to work closely with the EU on security and foreign policy after Brexit but stressed that Chequers proposals from premier Theresa May for the future Irish border and economic cooperation between the EU and Britain “will need to reworked and further negotiated”.

“Today there is perhaps more hope but there is surely less and less time,” Tusk added. “Every day that is left we must use for talks. I’d like to finalize them still this autumn,” he said. He would propose that the EU leaders hold another extra summit on Brexit around mid-November.

Dissonant Notes as EU Leaders Try to Harmonize in Mozart’s Hometown

Another European Union leaders’ summit and more big decisions to make — on Brexit, migration and the future direction of the bloc. Or more likely there will be a postponement in making them.

This time the gathering is in the hometown of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Austria’s Salzburg, overlooked by the Alps.

Mozart’s music was classical in style but full of contrapuntal complexities and at the Salzburg summit the EU leaders will once again grapple with “melodic” lines pulling against each other but without the skill of the composer to gather them into overall harmony.

Competing views

Two opposing camps will lock horns in Salzburg: one headed by French President Emmanuel Macron, who will lobby for ambitious reforms to boost integration between member states and to centralize economic governance, and the other headed by Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and like-minded nativists from Austria, Italy and Poland, championing an end to immigration from outside Europe’s borders and insisting on greater flexibility for national governments on how they govern and with less meddling from Brussels.

Clouding the meeting will be embarrassing revelations that former European politicians, including a former Austrian chancellor and a former Italian prime minister, were recruited after they left office by President Donald Trump’s former campaign chief, Paul Manafort, to lobby covertly in the U.S. on behalf of Ukraine’s Kremlin-backed Viktor Yanukovych before a popular uprising ousted him.

Manafort, who pled guilty last week to two criminal charges filed against him by special counsel Robert Mueller, pulled together European politicians secretly in what has become known as the Hapsburg Group.

The lobbying effort has become part of Mueller’s legal case against President Trump’s former campaign chief, but it also raises questions in Europe about the integrity of what some analysts describe as the EU’s “establishment class” characterized by the readiness of some its members to cash in on their careers and to line their pockets by lobbying on behalf of interests they opposed when in office, adding to populist disdain of the EU.

Brexit deadlock

The British are holding out hopes that the Salzburg summit will break the Brexit deadlock and mark a way station in their efforts to secure a departure deal from the EU that Prime Minister Theresa May can sell to her divided Conservative Party and fractious House of Commons.

Discord has been the major theme of the long-running and often stalled Brexit negotiations, but in recent days EU negotiators have appeared to soften their tone in an apparent bid to give May a helping hand just days away from a likely feisty British Conservative conference, where the seeds of a challenge to her leadership could be sown by among others her former foreign minister Boris Johnson.

The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier has suggested a deal might be “possible” within two months and has recently talked uncharacteristically in jaunty terms about how opposing negotiators are eighty percent in agreement.

And European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker avoided inflammatory taunts about Brexit in his annual state-of-the-union address to the European Parliament this month.

Angela Merkel reportedly is keen to get a Brexit deal in order for the EU to focus on the even more potentially dangerous issues to the bloc’s cohesion, such as disputes over migration policy and rule-of-law challenges being mounted by populist nationalist leaders in Italy, Hungary and Poland.

Poland was banned Monday from an EU body representing member states’ judicial institutions for the perceived erosion of the independence of country’s judiciary following changes introduced by the right wing Law and Justice (PiS) government.

Brussels has threatened further sanctions over what it terms “systemic threats” to the rule of law in Poland after a purge of the Supreme Court through the forced retirements of one-third of the justices.

Polish President Andrzej Duda rebuffed EU threats telling supporters this week at a rally in the south of Poland, “they should leave us in peace and let us fix Poland.”

According to a readout from German and Austrian officials, Merkel and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who is hosting the summit, discussed Monday ahead of the EU leaders’ gathering the importance of avoiding Britain crashing out of the EU without a trade deal, which would hurt Britain more but would have an adverse impact on some EU states. “We have the same view that we must do all we can to avoid a hard Brexit,” the Austrian Chancellor said.

Brexit plan

The British hope the EU leaders will soften their instructions to Barnier and his team of negotiators, allowing him to make concessions on May’s so-called Chequers Plan. Her plan would see British firms being allowed frictionless access to the EU market in goods, but not in services and in return it would accept some rulings from the European Court of Justice and tie Britain to common standards and manufacturing regulations.

But there’s still considerable resistance from Brussels to May’s plan, which was agreed by her cabinet at the Prime Minister’s country residence known as Chequers. EU officials and member states see her proposal as amounting to cherry-picking, which could serve as an example to other member states to follow suit. They worry also that Britain could end up as a floating assembly plant for non-European manufacturers mainly from Asia, who could locate there enticed by low-tax deals and enjoy privileged access to the bloc.

Officially the Salzburg summit is an informal meeting of EU national leaders without the legal power to make binding decisions. By holding a talking-shop EU leaders hope that non-agreement on migration and the EU’s future shape — as well as on Brexit — will not be seen as a setback, EU officials concede.

“This allows them the opportunity to clear the air and talk more frankly without there being any expectations,” an official told VOA. Any decisions that are ‘informally taken could be rubber-stamped at a scheduled formal summit next month, he added.

Beefed-up border force

On migration, no one expects any breakthroughs. Every time EU leaders discuss migration policy they seem to worsen disputes.

The latest proposals, which include plans for “controlled centers” inside the EU to process migrants as well as the establishment of “regional disembarkation platforms” for migrants in North Africa have earned the scorn of both populists and liberals. Populists argue the centers should be closed camps arguing if they are open, migrants will just wander off. Liberals fear the closed camps will be squalid camps with migrants open to abuse. They point to the centers in operation in the Greek islands, where the poor conditions have been condemned by rights groups and the UN.

The EU Commission is also pushing for the establishment “genuine border police” and a beefing up the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (EBCG), which was created in 2016. But critics say the EU’s border is too large for it to be effectively secured.

Some member states dislike the idea of EU police taking control of the border, preferring national border guards do that without meddling from Brussels. In June this year, the commission proposed strengthening the EBCG with around 10,000 border guards.

Mozart’s most famous piece for string quartet, No. 19, was nicknamed “Dissonance,” because of its unusually slow introduction. It is not listed as one of the pieces to be played at any of the formal events during the Salzburg summit.

WATCH: Henry Ridgwell’s Preview of Summit

Fort Trump? Poland Invites Permanent US Base

President Donald Trump said the United States is considering establishing a permanent military base in Poland. At a joint news conference with President Andrzej Duda at the White House Tuesday, the Polish leader said his country would not only help pay for the military facility, it would also name it “Fort Trump.” White House correspondent Patsy Widakuswara has more.

Russia-Turkey Deal Averts Catastrophe in Syria, But for How Long?

The United States says it is close to defeating Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but officials have no plans to withdraw U.S. troops in either country in the near future. A military spokesman said Tuesday the U.S. mission is to maintain peace in some of the areas that have been ravaged by terrorism and conflict. The announcement comes after Russia and Turkey agreed to create a buffer zone between the government forces and rebels in Syria’s Idlib province. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke has more.

Ukrainians Relive Bloodshed of Kyiv’s Maidan in Virtual Reality

A volunteer medic and the man whose life he saved. A lawmaker whose Facebook post calling for protests in Kyiv’s Maidan square helped bring down a president.

These are some of the characters featured in a virtual reality reconstruction of the bloodiest day in the 2013-14 street demonstrations in Ukraine, when dozens of protesters were killed in the final moments of Viktor Yanukovich’s rule.

Ahead of the fifth anniversary of the protests, a group of 14 journalists, designers and information technology engineers developed a program that lets a user to walk through the area around Maidan square.

Videos of people who were there on Feb. 20 — the bloodiest day of violence — pop up to relate their experiences and explain the significance of particular spots. A transparent blue wall marks where Yanukovich’s forces lined up to repel the protesters.

For Alexey Furman, co-founder of New Cave Media, who covered the protests as a photojournalist, the experience of re-creating the event was cathartic.

“It was a very traumatic morning [for me], as it was for hundreds of other people,” he said. “I saw people getting killed.”

“I think the project actually helped fight the PTSD that I had because I’d been on Maidan dozens of times in 2013 and 2014,” he said in an interview, referring to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Painful memories

He used to avoid Instytutska Street, which runs on a hill down to Maidan and was the scene of much of the bloodshed, because of the painful memories.

“But now to be honest, I come to Instytutska and go like, ‘Oh, we still don’t have that 3-D-model. We have to work on it.’ ”

The team said it took around 200,000 images to build the virtual reality model, a project funded in part with a $20,000 grant from Google Labs.

More than 100 people were killed during the protests, and they came to be known locally as the ‘Heavenly Hundred.” A small strip of Instytutska was subsequently renamed after them.

From exile in Russia, Yanukovich has denied Ukrainians’ widespread belief that he ordered his special forces to open fire.

At the end of the experience, the user meets two people whom fate threw together on Feb. 20 — a wounded protester and a medical volunteer who held his hand over the wound “for a good 20 minutes maybe even more,” New Cave Media co-founder Sergiy Polezhaka said in an interview.

“Hiding in a tiny place under the tree … waiting for danger to calm down a little bit, to save this protester’s life — this is the iconic image from that morning for me,” Polezhaka said.

The user will also meet the journalist-turned-lawmaker Mustafa Nayyem, whose Facebook post in November 2013, calling for demonstrations against Yanukovich’s decision to pull out of a deal with the European Union, triggered the Maidan revolt.

The protests in turn lit the fuse Russia’s seizing and annexing of Crimea in March 2014 and the outbreak of Russian-backed separatist fighting in the Donbass region that has killed more than 10,000 despite a notional cease-fire.

Italy: 2026 Winter Olympic Games Bid ‘Dead’

The Italian government said on Tuesday it will no longer back a bid to stage the 2026 Winter Olympics jointly in Milan, Turin and Cortina after the mayors of the three cities failed to unite behind the project.

“The proposal does not have the support of the government so it dies here,” Sports Minister Giancarlo Giorgetti told parliament. “Doubt and suspicion prevailed.”

The government decision will make it almost impossible for the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) to press ahead with the plan, although local media said it might try to recast the proposal in the coming hours to salvage its bid.

There was no immediate comment from CONI.

Three cities have already pulled out of the 2026 race, with Japan’s Sapporo, Switzerland’s Sion, and Austria’s Graz all previously announcing their decision to withdraw.

Calgary, Stockholm and Turkey’s Erzurum are the only three definitely left in the running, with the International Olympic Committee next month due to name the city or cities which will enter the one-year candidature phase.

Tuesday’s announcement was particularly embarrassing to CONI because it was the third time in six years that an Italian drive to host the Olympics has ended in failure.

Rome withdrew from the race to stage first the 2020 and then the 2024 Summer Games because of financial concerns and political opposition respectively.

CONI announced its 2026 Winter Olympics bid in August, pulling together separate proposals from three cities into a joint effort.

However, the idea ran into immediate trouble thanks to strong political differences between the mayor of Milan, who is from the center-left, and the mayor of Turin, who is from the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement.

With the official bid apparently now dead, the northern Italian regions of Lombardy and Veneto suggested pooling their resources to put forward a new, revised offer and Italian media said CONI was working on the idea.

Giorgetti said such a project would not have government backing.

Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio, who is head of the 5-Star Movement, blamed CONI for the impasse.

“The truth is that we have unfortunately paid the price of CONI’s decision. In an attempt to make everyone happy, it did not have the courage to make a clear decision from the start, creating an unsustainable situation in which, as usual, they wasted state money,” he said.

EU Enlargement Chief Urges Macedonians to Back Name Deal

Macedonia will take a big step to joining the European Union if the country supports a name change to “North Macedonia,” the official in charge of the bloc’s enlargement negotiations said Tuesday.

Following talks with Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev in the capital Skopje, Johannes Hahn said the September 30 vote is a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity for Macedonians to improve their daily lives.

A vote to authorize the name change would be an important step towards resolving a long-standing dispute with neighbor Greece, which has raised objections to Macedonia’s EU accession as well as blocking its NATO membership.

Greece has long sought a name change because it says the current one implies claims on its own northern province of Macedonia, and on its ancient heritage.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas also voiced hope that the country will be able to start EU accession talks next June.

But he also called on the Macedonian leadership to continue with reforms that the EU has been requesting for years to bring the country in line with `EU criteria.

“More reforms are needed on all topics — rule of law, fighting organized crime and corruption,” Maas said after talks with his Macedonian counterpart, Nikola Dimitrov in Skopje.

Dozens of western officials including German chancellor Angela Merkel, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, and U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, have visited Skopje in recent weeks to encourage turnout in the vote — which will only be valid if just over fifty percent of registered voters participate.

Commissioner Hahn said the deal is “appreciated” by the international community, because it would solve a long-running dispute.

“It is a proof for everybody that so-called frozen conflicts can be resolved if [leaders] have a determination to solve the issue,” Hahn said.

“This agreement has an impact [that] goes far beyond the EU.”

If Macedonians vote for the deal in the referendum, the country’s parliament must then amend the constitution to adopt the new name. For the deal to come into effect, Greece’s parliament would then have to ratify it.

Pope Gives Bishops More Decision-Making Options

Pope Francis decreed on Tuesday that ordinary Catholics should be consulted about issues facing the Catholic Church and that bishops gathering for periodic meetings can make binding decisions on church teaching.

Francis issued new rules reforming the Synod of Bishops, the consultative body established 50 years ago to give popes an organized way of bringing bishops together to debate problems facing the church.

In the past, synods have been talkfests by churchmen who made nonbinding proposals to the pope to consider in a future document. The new rules say the bishops’ final document becomes part of his official church teaching, or magisterium — but only if the pope approves it.

The pope can help guarantee the outcome another way, by appointing members of the synod secretariat, drafting committee as well as the synod itself, whose members are only required to come to a “moral unanimity” in voting for their final document, but no numerical threshold.

Francis has sought to encourage greater debate at synods, and his 2014 and 2015 editions on family issues became controversial over the issue of whether divorced and civilly remarried Catholics can receive Communion.

Many conservatives accused Francis of going beyond even what the synod participants had agreed to in his subsequent document opening the door to letting these Catholics receive the sacraments.

In the reform, Francis also codified a process of consulting the faithful before a synod, as he did informally for the family meeting and the upcoming synod on youth.

Not only were questionnaires sent out asking ordinary faithful to chime in on a host of issues, including sexuality and homosexuality, the Vatican organized a pre-synod conference for young people in Rome so the Vatican could have in-person input before the October 3-28 meeting.

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, who heads the synod office, said the changes were consistent with Francis’ efforts to make the church more “synodal” and in decentralized unity with bishops around the world. At the same time, the changes reflect the fundamental role of the “people of God” in the church, he said.

However, Vatican officials confirmed that while women can attend synods as nominated experts and take the floor to speak, they can’t vote. And the “people of God” can’t watch the proceedings, which are held behind closed doors.

EU Investigates German Carmakers for Possible Collusion

European Union regulators have opened an in-depth investigation into whether automakers BMW, Daimler and Volkswagen colluded to limit the development and roll-out of car emission control systems.

The EU Commission said Tuesday that it had received information that BMW, Daimler, Volkswagen, and VW units Audi and Porsche held meetings to discuss clean technologies aimed at limiting car exhaust emissions.

 

The probe focuses on whether the automakers agreed not to compete against each other in developing and introducing technology to restrict pollution from gasoline and diesel passenger cars.

 

“If proven, this collusion may have denied consumers the opportunity to buy less polluting cars, despite the technology being available to the manufacturers,” said EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager.

 

The Commission said its probe was focused on diesel emission control systems involving the injection of urea solution into exhaust to remove harmful nitrogen oxides. The probe follows a report in Der Spiegel magazine last year that the automakers had agreed to limit the size of the tanks holding the urea solution.

 

The case is another source of diesel trouble for German automakers in the wake of Volkswagen’s emissions scandal.

 

The Commission said, however, there was no evidence the companies had colluded to develop so-called defeat devices _ computer software that illegally turns off emissions controls. Volkswagen in 2015 admitted using such devices and has set aside 27.4 billion euros ($32 billion) for fines, settlements, recalls and buybacks. Former CEO Martin Winterkorn was criminally charged by U.S. authorities but cannot be extradited; Audi division head Rupert Stadler has been jailed while prosecutors investigate possible wrongdoing.

 

The automakers said they were not able to comment on details of the case but pointed out in statements that opening a probe does not necessarily mean a violation will be found. Daimler and Volkswagen said they were cooperating with the probe; BMW said that it “has supported the EU commission in its work and will continue to do so.”

 

Daimler noted that the probe only applied to Europe and did not involve allegations of price-fixing. BMW said it supported the Commission in its work from the start of the investigation and would continue to do so. “The presumption of innocence continues to apply until the investigations have been fully completed,” Volkswagen said in a statement.

 

After the Volkswagen scandal broke, renewed scrutiny of diesel emissions showed that cars from other automakers also showed higher diesel emissions in everyday driving than during testing, thanks in part to regulatory loopholes that let automakers turn down the emissions controls to avoid engine damage under certain conditions. The EU subsequently tightened its testing procedures to reflect real-world driving conditions for cars being approved for sale now. Environmental groups are pushing in court actions to ban older diesel cars in German cities with high pollution levels.

 

The Commission probe also is looking at possible collusion over particulate filters for cars with gasoline engines.

 

The Commission said that it did not see a need to look into other areas of cooperation among the so-called “Circle of Five” automakers such as quality and safety testing, the speed at which convertible roofs could open and at which cruise control would work. It said anti-trust rules leave room for technical cooperation aimed at improving product quality.

 

Anti-trust fines can be steep. In 2016 and 2017 the Commission imposed a fine of 3.8 billion euros after it found that six truck makers had colluded on pricing, the timing of introduction of emissions technologies and the passing on of costs for emissions compliance to customers. Truck maker MAN, part of Volkswagen, was not fined because it blew the whistle on the cartel. The others were Volvo/Renault, Daimler, Iveco, DAF and Scania, also owned by Volkswagen.