May: Back My Brexit Deal, Let Britain ‘Turn a Corner’

British Prime Minister Theresa May urged lawmakers on Monday to back her Brexit deal, promising that it would allow the country to “turn a corner” and let the government focus on solving domestic problems such as housing and a skill shortage.

May made the appeal in a New Year’s message little more than two weeks before a make-or-break vote in parliament on her plan for Britain’s exit from the European Union which is due to happen on March 29.

The vote, which May postponed in December to avoid defeat, will be a pivotal moment for the world’s fifth-largest economy: it will determine whether Britain follows her plan for a managed exit and relatively close economic ties, or faces massive uncertainty about the country’s next step.

“New Year is a time to look ahead and in 2019 the UK will start a new chapter. The Brexit deal I have negotiated delivers on the vote of the British people and in the next few weeks MPs (members of parliament) will have an important decision to make,” May said in a video released by her office. “If parliament backs a deal, Britain can turn a corner.”

Conservative Party

Attempting to appeal to those within her Conservative Party who have criticized her leadership, and responding to criticism from opponents that Brexit has stalled her domestic agenda, May stressed her desire to move beyond the EU exit debate.

“Important though Brexit is, it is not the only issue that counts,” she said, highlighting policies to address a lack of housing, skills shortages and strengthen the economy. “Together I believe we can start a new chapter with optimism and hope.”

The vote on May’s Brexit deal with the EU is scheduled to take place in the week beginning Jan. 14.

May is still seeking reassurances from Brussels that a deeply unpopular fallback arrangement within her proposed deal, over the Northern Irish border, would only be temporary.

Northern Ireland

It seeks to prevent the return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland if a better solution to keep trade flowing freely cannot be agreed.

The so-called backstop is the main obstacle between May and a victory in parliament, costing her the support of dozens of members of her own party and the small Northern Irish party that props up her minority government.

The government and businesses are ramping up preparations in case a deal cannot be reached to smooth Britain’s exit from the bloc, amid warnings of delays at borders and disruption to supplies of medicines, food and components.

 

France’s Macron Pledges More Reform Medicine in ‘Decisive’ 2019

France’s embattled president, Emmanuel Macron, vowed on Monday to press on with his reform agenda in 2019 despite a spate of “yellow vest” protests that have challenged his government and extended a plunge in his approval ratings.

Promised overhauls of France’s unemployment benefits, civil service and public pensions will be undertaken in the coming year, Macron said in his televised New Year message.

Unapologetic tone

Confounding some expectations of a more contrite message, Macron struck an unapologetic note as he urged voters to face up to economic realities underpinning recently enacted reforms of French labor rules, and others yet to come.

“In recent years, we’ve engaged in a blatant denial of reality,” Macron said in the address, delivered — unusually —  from a standing position in his Elysee Palace office.

“We can’t work less, earn more, cut taxes and increase spending.”

In a veiled attack on the far-left and hard-right groupings active on the fringes of the often violent protests, Macron also decried self-appointed “spokespeople for a hateful mob” who he said had targeted foreigners, Jews, gays and the press.

Popularity at all-time low

Almost 20 months after he became France’s youngest president, Macron’s popularity is at the lowest level recorded in modern French history.

It stood at just 24 percent in late December compared to 47 percent a year earlier, according to a Journal du Dimanche aggregate of polls, as he struggled to draw a line under numerous setbacks.

The current wave of demonstrations, which have brought disruption and destruction to Paris and other major cities, has yet to abate despite fiscal giveaways and an increase in the wage for the poorest workers.

Protesters were expected to join the New Year crowds thronging Paris’s Champs-Elysees Avenue overnight, amid a heavy police presence.

Bodyguard scandal

A scandal over Macron’s former bodyguard Alexandre Benalla, who was eventually fired after video emerged of him beating protestors, has resurfaced with the revelation that he continued to travel on diplomatic passports and exchange messages with Macron long after his dismissal.

Macron said efforts to bolster international controls on immigration and tax evasion would be at the heart of European Union proposals he plans to announce in “coming weeks” — to be pursued in parallel with a domestic agenda reconciling ambitious reform with France’s commitment to social solidarity.

“This is the line I have followed since the first day of my mandate, and which I plan to keep following,” he said. “This coming year, 2019, is in my view a decisive one.”

Frenchman Makes Progress Crossing Atlantic in Barrel

French adventurer Jean-Jacques Savin is several days into his attempt to cross the Atlantic in a specially-built orange barrel.

With no engine, sails or paddles, the unusual craft relies on trade winds and currents to push him 4,800 kilometers from the Canary Islands to Caribbean in about three months.

Shortly after casting off, he reported good weather and a speed of 2-3 kilometers an hour.

He described his journey as a “crossing during which man isn’t captain of his ship, but a passenger of the ocean.”

Savin spent months building his bright orange, barrel-shaped capsule of resin-coated plywood that is strong enough to withstand battering waves and other stresses.

The barrel is 3 meters long and 2.10 meters across, has a small galley (kitchen) area, and a mattress with straps to keep him from being tossed out of his bunk by rough seas.

He is also carrying some wine and other treats for New Year’s Eve and his birthday in January.

Portholes (sturdy, water-tight windows) on either side of the barrel and another looking into the water provide sunlight and a bit of entertainment. The unique craft also has a solar panel that generates energy for communications and GPS positioning.

As he drifts along, Savin will drop markers in the ocean to help oceanographers study ocean currents. Savin himself will be studied by doctors for effects of solitude in close confinement.

He will also post daily updates including GPS coordinates tracking the journey on a Facebook page. 

Savin’s adventure, which will cost a little more than $65,000, was funded by French barrel makers and crowdfunding.

At the end, Savin hopes to end his journey on a French island, like Martinique or Guadeloupe. “That would be easier for the paperwork and for bringing the barrel back,” he told AFP.

Campaigning Starts in Ukraine’s Hard-to-Predict Presidential Race

A 90-day political campaign period has opened in Ukraine, where the incumbent president’s future is uncertain.

President Petro Poroshenko hasn’t yet announced whether he plans to run in a March 31 election, although he is expected to seek re-election. Monday marked the official start of campaigning.

A poll of 2,017 eligible voters published last week put Poroshenko’s approval rating at just over 14 percent. Another likely candidate, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, had support from 16 percent of those surveyed.

Other presidential hopefuls trailed behind the two. The Razumkov Center poll had a margin of error of 2.3 percentage points.

Ukraine has been hit hard by the tug-of-war with Russia, which annexed Ukraine’s Crimea and backed a separatist insurgency in the country’s industrial heartland in the east.

 

The Euro Currency Turns 20 Years Old on Tuesday

The euro currency turns 20 years old on January 1, surviving two tumultuous decades and becoming the world’s No. 2 currency.

After 20 years, the euro has become a fixture in financial markets, although it remains behind the dollar, which dominates the world’s market.

The euro has weathered several major challenges, including difficulties at its launch, the 2008 financial crisis, and a eurozone debt crisis that culminated in bailouts of several countries.

Those crises tested the unity of the eurozone, the 19 European Union countries that use the euro. While some analysts say the turmoil and the euro’s resilience has strengthened the currency and made it less susceptible to future troubles, other observers say the euro will remain fragile unless there is more eurozone integration.

Beginnings 

The euro was born on January 1, 1999, existing initially only as a virtual currency used in financial transactions. Europeans began using the currency in their wallets three years later when the first Euro notes and coins were introduced.

At that time, only 11 member states were using the currency and had to qualify by meeting the requirements for limits on debt, deficits and inflation. EU members Britain and Denmark received opt-outs ahead of the currency’s creation.

The currency is now used by over 340 million people in 19 European Union countries, which are: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain.

Other EU members are required to join the eurozone when they meet the currency’s monetary requirements.

Popularity

Today, the euro is the most popular than it has ever been over the past two decades, despite the rise of populist movements in several European countries that express skepticism toward the European Union.

In a November survey for the European Central Bank, 64 percent of respondents across the eurozone said the euro was a good thing for their country. Nearly three-quarters of respondents said they thought the euro was a good thing for Europe.

In only two countries — Lithuania and Cyprus — did a majority of people think the euro is a bad thing for their nation.

That is a big contrast to 2010, the year that both Greece and Ireland were receiving international bailout packages, when only 51 percent of respondents thought the euro was a good thing for their country.

Challenges

The euro faced immediate challenges at its beginning with predictions that the European Central Bank (ECB) was too rigid in its policy and that the currency would quickly fail. The currency wasn’t immediately loved in European homes and businesses either with many perceiving its arrival as a price hike on common goods.

Less than two years after the euro was launched — valued at $1.1747 to the U.S. dollar — it had lost 30 percent of its value and was worth just $0.8240 to the U.S. dollar. The ECB was able to intervene to successfully stop the euro from plunging further.

The biggest challenge to the block was the 2008 financial crisis, which then triggered a eurozone debt crisis that culminated in bailouts of several countries.

Tens of billions of euros were loaned to Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Cyprus and Spain, either because those countries ran out of money to save their own banks or because investors no longer wanted to invest in those nations.

The turmoil also highlighted the economic disparity between member states, particularly between the wealthier north and the debt-laden southern nations.

Poorer countries experienced both the advantages and disadvantages to being in the eurozone.

Poorer countries immediately benefited from joining the union, saving trillions of euros due to the lowering borrowing costs the new currency offered.

However, during times of economic downturn, they had fewer options to reverse the turmoil.

Typically in a financial crisis, a country’s currency would plunge, making its goods more competitive and allowing the economy to stabilize. But in the eurozone, the currency in poorer countries cannot devalue because stronger economies like Germany keep it higher.

Experts said the turbulent times of the debt crisis exposed some of the original flaws of the euro project.

However, the euro survived the financial crisis through a combination of steps from the ECB that included negative interest rates, trillions of euros in cheap loans to banks and buying more than 2.6 trillion euros in government and corporate bonds.

Future

ECB chief Mario Draghi was credited with saving the euro in 2012 when he said the bank would do “whatever it takes” to preserve the currency.

Some experts say the flexibility of the bank proves it is able to weather financial challenges and say the turmoil of the past two decades have left the ECB better able to deal with future crises.

However, other observers say that the 19 single currency nations have not done enough to carry out political reforms necessary to better enable the countries to work together on fiscal policy and to prepare for future downturns.

Proposals for greater coordination, including a eurozone banking union as well as a eurozone budget are still in the planning phases.

2nd Child Dead in US Custody Mourned in Guatemala Village

White flowers and flickering candles sat atop a low table inside the simple wooden home in remote, rural Guatemala. Nearby was a small pair of rubber boots, sized to fit an 8-year-old.

Taped to the wall were three photos, alternately smiling and serious, bearing a simple epitaph for the boy whose memory the makeshift altar honored: “Felipe Gomez Alonzo. Died Dec. 24 2018 in New Mexico, United States.”

On Christmas Eve, Felipe became the second Guatemalan child this month to die while in U.S. custody near the Mexican border. The deaths prompted widespread criticism of President Donald Trump, who has foisted blame on Democrats even as his Homeland Security secretary vowed additional health screenings for detained migrant children.

In the boy’s village of Yalambojoch, in western Guatemala, the political fallout in the United States seemed a world away and there was only deep sadness over his death. Relatives said they had no idea that such a tragedy could occur. Nor had they heard about U.S. policies that led to thousands of migrant children being separated from their parents earlier this year.

“We don’t have a television. We don’t have a radio,” said Catarina Gomez, Felipe’s sister. “We didn’t know what had happened before.”

The hamlet, set on a plain and surrounded by spectacular, pine-covered mountains, is a place of crushing poverty and lack of opportunity, home to a single small school, dirt roads that become impassible during the rainy season and rudimentary homes without insulation, proper flooring, water or electricity.

The community is populated by families who fled to Mexico during the bloodiest years of Guatemala’s 1960-1996 civil war but returned after the signing of peace accords. There are no jobs, and people live off meager subsistence farming and local commerce. Residents say the Guatemalan government has turned a blind eye to their plight, a complaint that can be heard in other impoverished villages in the country.

Felipe’s sister, Catarina, said that in recent years “everyone started heading for the United States,” so much so that a local project to boost education financed with Swedish help was abandoned because there were practically no more young people to take the classes.

It was extreme poverty and lack of opportunity that drove Felipe’s father, Agustin Gomez, to decide that he and the boy would set off for the United States. Others from the community had been able to cross the U.S. border with children, and he figured they would have the same luck. Felipe was chosen because he was the oldest son. It didn’t occur to anyone that the journey could be dangerous.

“I didn’t think of that, because several families had already left and they made it,” the boy’s mother, Catarina Alonzo said, speaking in the indigenous Chuj language as her stepdaughter translated into Spanish.

Felipe was healthy when they left, according to the family. The last time he spoke with his mother was a day before they were taken into detention by border agents. Felipe told her he was well, that he had eaten chicken, that the next time they talked would be by phone from the United States.

Instead, the call that came Christmas Day was from her husband, who said Felipe had died the day before.

The two had been apprehended a week earlier, on Dec. 18, near the Paso del Norte bridge connecting El Paso, Texas, to Juarez, Mexico, according to border officials. Father and son were held at the bridge’s processing center and then the Border Patrol station in El Paso before being transferred on Dec. 23 to a facility in Alamogordo, New Mexico, about 90 miles (145 kilometers) away.

After an agent noticed Felipe coughing, father and son were taken to an Alamogordo hospital, where Felipe was found to have a 103-degree fever (39.4 degrees Celsius), officials have said.

Felipe was held for observation for 90 minutes, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, before being released with prescriptions for amoxicillin and ibuprofen.

But the boy fell sick hours later and was admitted to the hospital on Christmas Eve. He died just before midnight.

New Mexico authorities said late Thursday that an autopsy showed Felipe had the flu, but more tests need to be done before a cause of death can be determined.

The other Guatemalan child, 7-year-old Jakelin Caal, died Dec. 8 in El Paso. She showed signs of sepsis, a potentially fatal condition brought on by infection, according to officials.

On Saturday, Trump claimed that Felipe and Jakelin were “very sick” before they reached the border and sought to pin blame for their deaths on Democrats, though both young migrants passed initial health screenings by Border Patrol.

Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said last week that prior to this month, no child had died in the agency’s custody in more than a decade.

On Sunday he called for a “multifaceted solution” on immigration, including not only better border security and new immigration laws but more aid to the Central American countries the migrants are fleeing from.

Referring to the U.S. pledge earlier this month of $5.8 billion in development aid for Central America, McAleenan called it “a tremendous step forward.”

“There are green shoots of progress both on security and the economic front in Central America. We need to foster that and help improve the opportunities to stay at home,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”

Outside the Gomez family home in Yalambojoch, women gathered wearing lavender skirts in the intricate patterns typical of indigenous garb in Guatemala. Colorful tapestries hung on a clothesline above the muddy yard.

Taped to the door were a pair of Felipe’s artworks. One was a rendering of a blue balloon with a green string; in the other, a white horse jumped over a fence against a yellow sun and tangerine sky.

Among the villagers grieving Felipe’s death was his 7-year-old best friend, Kevin. Two days before Felipe and his dad left, the two boys quarreled.

“They were crying because they had fought,” said Felipe’s sister, Catarina.

By the time Kevin came back to look for his friend, he had left for the United States. Kevin now knows that Felipe has died, the family said.

Trying to fight back tears, Catarina Alonzo said her son promised before leaving that when he was grown, he would work to send money home. Felipe also wanted to buy her a cellphone so she could see pictures of him from afar.

Now she hopes for only two things: That Felipe’s body is returned as soon as possible for burial, and that her husband can remain in the United States to work off debt and support their other kids.

The Guatemalan Consulate in Phoenix has said that Agustin Gomez was released on a humanitarian license allowing him to remain in the United States for now. Felipe’s body is expected to be sent back to Guatemala around mid-January.

 

 

Putin Tells Trump in New Year’s Letter He’s Open to Meeting

Russian President Vladimir Putin has told U.S. President Donald Trump in a New Year’s letter that the Kremlin is “open to dialogue” on the myriad issues hindering relations between their countries.

The Kremlin published a summary of Putin’s “greeting message” to Trump on Sunday. The summary states the Russian leader wrote: “Russia-U.S. relations are the most important factor behind ensuring strategic stability and international security.”

Trump canceled a formal meeting with Putin scheduled for Dec. 1 at the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires, tweeting “it would be best for all parties” given Russia’s seizure days earlier of three Ukrainian naval vessels.

Since then, the Kremlin has repeatedly said it is open to dialogue.

The message to Trump was among dozens of holiday greetings Putin sent to other world leaders, each tailored to reflect a bilateral theme. The recipients included Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Putin has backed throughout a civil war that started in 2011.

Putin’s message to Assad “stressed that Russia will continue to provide all-around assistance to the government and people of Syria in their fight against terrorism and efforts to protect state sovereignty and territorial integrity,” according to the Kremlin summary.

Moscow hosted talks with Turkey on Saturday in which the two countries agreed to coordinate actions in northern Syria after Trump’s announcement that he was withdrawing U.S. forces from the country.

The main group of Kurdish-led forces fighting against Assad with U.S. support has said the U.S. pullout could lead to the revival of the Islamic State group.

Putin, in his message to Assad, “wished the Syrian people the earliest return to peaceful and prosperous life.”

 

Journalist Group: 94 Slayings of Media Staff in 2018

An international trade association says on-the-job slayings of journalists and news media staff rose again in 2018 following an overall decline during the past half-dozen years.

The International Federation of Journalists said in an annual report set for release Monday that 94 journalists and media workers died in targeted killings, bomb attacks and conflict crossfire this year, 12 more than in 2017.

Before the declines seen in five of the past six years, 121 people working for news organizations were slain in 2012. Since the federation started its annual count in 1990, the year with the most work-related killings, 155, was 2006.

The deadliest country for people who work in the news media this year was Afghanistan, where 16 of the killings occurred. Mexico was next, with 11. Yemen had nine media slayings and Syria eight in 2018.

Beyond the tragedy of lives lost, such killings affect the pursuit of truth and sharing of information in communities and countries where they happen, the president of the International Federation of Journalists said.

“Journalists are targeted because they are witnesses,” the group’s president, Philippe Leruth, told The Associated Press. “And the result of this, when a journalist or many journalists are killed in a country, you see an increase of self-censorship.”

Iraq, where 309 media professionals were killed over the past quarter-century, long topped the federation’s annual list. The federation identified a photojournalist as the one victim in the country this year.

While 2018 brought a worldwide increase, the total remained in the double digits for a second year running. The total of 155 in.

The IFJ connects some 600,000 media professionals from 187 trade unions and associations in more than 140 countries. The group said the new report showed that journalists face dangers apart from the risks of reporting from war zones and covering extremist movements.

“There were other factors, such as the increasing intolerance to independent reporting, populism, rampant corruption and crime, as well as the breakdown of law and order,” the Brussels-based group said in a statement.

Suddenly high on the list, in sixth place, was the United States with five killings. On June 28, a gunman in Annapolis, Maryland, opened fire in the newsroom of the Capital Gazette newspaper and fatally shot four journalists and a sales associate. The man had threatened the newspaper after losing a defamation lawsuit.

The Oct. 2 slaying of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post who lived in self-imposed exile in the United States, had worldwide impact. He went to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to formalize a divorce so he could marry his Turkish fiance, but instead was strangled and dismembered there – allegedly by Saudi agents.

Khashoggi wrote critically of Saudi Arabia’s royal regime, and the alleged involvement of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the journalist’s slaying has put the governments of other countries under pressure to sever economic and political ties.

“Jamal Khashoggi was a very well-known figure, but you know, the most shocking statistic is that we know that nine of 10 journalist murders remain unpunished in the world,” Leruth said.

 

 

Putin Tells Trump That Moscow Is Open for Dialogue

Russian President Vladimir Putin told his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump in a New Year letter on Sunday that Moscow was ready for dialogue on a “wide-ranging agenda,” the Kremlin said following a series of failed attempts to hold a new summit.

At the end of November, Trump abruptly canceled a planned meeting with Putin on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Argentina, citing tensions about Russian forces opening fire on Ukrainian navy boats and then seizing them.

Trump and Putin also failed to hold a full-fledged meeting in Paris on the sidelines of the centenary commemoration of the Armistice. The two leaders held their one and only summit in Helsinki in July.

“Vladimir Putin stressed that the (Russia – United States) relations are the most important factor for providing strategic stability and international security,” a Kremlin statement said.

“He confirmed that Russia is open for dialogue with the USA on the most wide-ranging agenda.”

Moscow has said one of the key issues it wanted to discuss with the United States is Washington’s plans to withdraw from a Cold War era nuclear arms pact.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted as saying that now it was up to the United States whether to hold a new meeting in 2019.

“The issue should be addressed to Washington. Both our president and his representatives have said that we are ready for the talks when Washington is ready for it,” TASS news agency quoted Lavrov as saying in televised remarks.

In a separate letter to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Putin pledged continuation of aid to the Syrian government and people in the “fight against terrorism, in defense of state sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

Putin also sent New Year greetings to other world leaders including prime ministers Theresa May of Britain and Shinzo Abe of Japan, as well as Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Putin wished “well-being and prosperity to the British people”, the Kremlin said.

Russia’s embassy in London said on Friday Moscow and London had agreed to return some staff to their respective embassies after they expelled dozens of diplomats early this year.

Britain expelled 23 Russian diplomats over accusations the Kremlin was behind a nerve toxin attack in March on former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury.

Russia, which denies any involvement in the poisoning, sent home the same number of British embassy workers in retaliation.

Sacked Macron Bodyguard Defends Use of Diplomatic Passports

Emmanuel Macron’s former security aide, who was sacked this summer after his violent conduct fueled a political scandal, acknowledged on Sunday he was still traveling on a diplomatic passport, in an affair that has rattled the French presidency.

After he was fired when a video emerged of his beating a May Day protester, Alexandre Benalla returned to the spotlight in France this week, under scrutiny over his recent consultancy work and unauthorized use of diplomatic passports.

The original Benalla scandal became a major headache for Macron just over a year into his tenure, after the president, whose popularity ratings have since slipped, was criticized for acting too slowly in dealing with a member of his inner circle.

Benalla said in an interview with France’s Journal du Dimanche (JDD) on Sunday that he would return the diplomatic passports in the coming days, and rejected that he was somehow trying to profit from his status as a former insider by using them or in his work as a consultant.

“Maybe I was wrong to use these passports,” Benalla said, in a telephone conversation from overseas according to the JDD. “But I want to make it clear that I only did it for my own ease, to facilitate my passage through airports.”

The French presidency has sought to distance itself from the former bodyguard, and the government said it had formally requested the passports be returned on at least two occasions.

Paris prosecutors on Saturday opened a preliminary inquiry into Benalla’s usage of the passports.

Benalla maintained in the JDD, however, that he had initially returned the two ID documents in August, and that they were returned to him along with other personal items by a member of the president’s staff in October.

Scrutiny over Benalla comes at a sensitive time for Macron, who is grappling with a wave of “yellow vest” street protests by disgruntled voters calling for more measures to help lift household incomes.