Fiat Chrysler Proposes Merger With Renault

Fiat Chrysler proposed a merger Monday with Renault, a union that would create the world’s third biggest automaker.

The merger, if it happens, would vault the new company, with annual sales of 8.7 million vehicles, into a position ahead of General Motors and behind only Volkswagen and Toyota, both of which sell about 10.6 million.

The merger could give the combined companies a better chance in the battle among auto manufacturers to build new electric and autonomous vehicles.

Investors in both companies showed their initial approval of the announcement, with Renault’s shares jumping 15 percent in afternoon trading in Paris and Fiat Chrysler stock up more than 10 percent in Milan. The proposal calls for shareholders to split ownership of the new company.

Fiat Chrysler said the deal would save the combined companies $5.6 billion annually with shared payments for research, purchasing and other expenses. The deal does not call for closure of any manufacturing plants but the companies did not say whether any employees would lose their jobs.

The deal would give Fiat access to Renault’s electric car technologies, allowing it to meet the strict carbon dioxide emission standards the European Commission is enacting.

For its part, Renault might be able to gain ground in the U.S. market because of Fiat’s extensive operations in North America.

The French government owns 15 percent of Renault and said it supports the merger, while adding that “the terms of this merger must be supportive of Renault’s economic development, and obviously of Renault’s employees.”

 

Russia Set to Host Taliban, Afghan Politicians

Prominent opposition politicians from Afghanistan and representatives of the Taliban insurgency will meet in Russia on Wednesday for discussions on promoting a negotiated settlement to the Afghan war that continues to cause dozens of casualties every day.

The intra-Afghan conference comes as months of direct peace negotiations between the United States and the Taliban appear to have slowed down, if not deadlocked, over insurgents’ refusal to cease hostilities until all U.S.-led international forces withdraw from Afghanistan.

Washington has linked its troop withdrawal move to counterterrorism assurances by the Taliban, a comprehensive cease-fire and the insurgent group’s participation in a peace dialogue with the Afghan government and other groups to end years of hostilities.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said that prior to Wednesday’s peace-related talks, Taliban and Afghan delegates are scheduled to attend a meeting on Tuesday, marking the 100th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Moscow and Kabul. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will deliver the welcome address, it said.

That special gathering will be attended, among others, by former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and Mohammad Karim Khalili, the head of Afghanistan’s official High Peace Council (HPC), which is tasked with promoting reconciliation with armed opposition groups. Afghan diplomats in Moscow will also be in attendance.

A Taliban spokesman announced Monday the head of its Qatar-based “political office,” Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, will lead the 14-member team of senior insurgent officials at this week’s meetings in Moscow.  

“The delegation of Islamic Emirate (Taliban) will also hold closed-door meetings with senior officials of the Russian Federation,” said Zabihullah Mujahid, without giving further details.

It was not immediately known whether Khalili and other members of the HPC will be part of Wednesday’s intra-Afghan discussions because the Taliban refuse to engage in any peace talks with anyone associated to the U.S.-backed Kabul government.

The intra-Afghan talks would mark the second time Taliban officials have met with Afghan opposition politicians in Russia. The first such interaction took place in February, but no government representatives were present because of objections by the insurgents

Russia has stepped up its diplomatic involvement in pushing a peaceful settlement to the Afghan war, using its growing influence and contacts with the Taliban. Russia, the U.S. and China announced at a meeting last month that the three countries had reached a consensus on a framework for a peace deal the U.S. is negotiating with the Taliban. They did not elaborate.

 

Smaller Pro-EU Parties Surge in European Elections; Centrists Lose Seats

Smaller European parties saw a surge of support in continent-wide elections for the European Parliament in what politicians and analysts agree will likely be seen as the most consequential since 1979, when European Union voters first began casting ballots for the bloc’s legislature.

Early results Sunday suggested the 751-seat parliament will be more fragmented than ever before. Smaller parties, both euroskeptic and pro-EU ones, fared well at the expense of their more established and bigger center-right and center-left rivals.

Pro-EU Liberals and Greens will hold the balance of power in the new parliament, which will sit for five years. Philippe Lamberts, leader of the Greens group, said: “To make a stable majority in this parliament, the Greens are now indispensable.”

The rise of new parties appears to have smashed the duopoly of control of the parliament traditionally enjoyed by the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D).

National populist parties

As the results came in, nationalist populists were on course to win just under a quarter of the seats in the parliament, but they had set their sights on snatching a third of them. In France, President Emmanuel Macron’s La Republique En Marche was defeated, coming in second to Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally. Le Pen welcomed the win, saying it had delivered a serious blow to the authority of the French president.

In Italy, too, nationalist populists led by Matteo Salvini, the deputy prime minister, made important gains. And eurosceptic hard-right parties topped the polls in Britain, Poland and Hungary.

But the bigger takeaway from the election was how well pro-EU Greens and Liberals did. In several countries Green parties saw their support jump from five years ago. In Germany, the Greens made major gains at the expense of country’s left-wing Social Democrats, making a historic breakthrough by securing more than 20% of the vote.

Carsten Schneider, a German Social Democrats lawmaker, acknowledged it was a “bitter result, a defeat for us.”

“I think the main issue was climate change and we didn’t succeed in putting that front and center, alongside the big social issues,” he added.

In Ireland, too, Greens were celebrating, clinching three of Ireland’s 13 seats. The sudden crest in support for the Greens comes amid rising anxiety across Europe over the impact of climate change and biodiversity loss.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Eric Varadkar tweeted: “I want to congratulate the Greens on a very good election. It’s a very clear message from the public that they want us to do more on climate action — and we’ve got that message.”

Voters in 21 countries went to the polls Sunday. In seven other nations, including Britain, voters cast their ballots last week with the results being held back until all countries had completed the balloting.

Bloc gaining power

The European Parliament has become more powerful in recent years — for much of its existence it was just a talking shop (an unproductive bureaucratic agency). Now it helps pick the president of the European Commission and contributes to the shaping of trade and digital regulations. Seats are allocated under a form of proportional representation.

For years, the center-right EPP and the center-left S&D, both pro-EU parties, have together commanded an absolute majority in the parliament and its leaders have more often than not been able to settle disagreements in behind-the-scenes meetings.

In Britain, in an election that wasn’t meant to have been — the country was due to have left the EU by now — the newly formed Brexit Party of Nigel Farage trounced both of Britain’s two main established parties, the Conservatives and Labour, signaling it will likely be a threat to the pair in a general election, which many observers think will have to be called this year.

Both the Conservatives and Labour had been braced for a backlash from voters over Brexit, with the Brexit Party and pro-EU Liberal Democrats expected to do well. The predictions turned out to be right, with the ruling Conservatives recording their worst election performance in their history. The turnout in Britain was higher than previous European polls — as it was across all of the bloc where it averaged 50%, the highest rate since 1994.

British Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan blamed British Prime Minister Theresa May’s reluctance to resign from office for the defeat. On Twitter, he said: “Had the PM announced her resignation even 24 hours earlier, something might have been salvaged.”

Still a strong pro-EU majority

The reduction in the power of establishment parties could potentially make it more difficult for the bloc to agree on collective action when it comes to economic, trade and foreign policies, but EU officials were breathing a sigh of relief Sunday night when it became clear there would still be a strong pro-EU majority in the parliament.

The center-right EPP will likely hold on to 173 seats in the EU parliament, down from 221 in 2014, while the Socialist group will fall from 191 to 147 seats. The Liberals were expected to rise from 67 seats to more than 100; the Greens increased from 50 to 71.

Socialists looked set to top the poll in Spain. And traditional left parties fared better than had been predicted in Italy and the Netherlands.

 

Imprisoned PKK Leader Calls For End to Hunger Strikes

Thousands of prisoners in Turkey ended their hunger strikes Sunday that had been mounted to force Turkey to end jailed militant leader Abdullah Ocalan’s isolation at Imrali Island prison.

Earlier Sunday, Ocalan’s lawyers read a statement from their client calling for an end to the strikes.

“I expect the action to come to an end…” Ocalan said in a statement read by one of his lawyers at a press conference in Istanbul.

An estimated two to three thousand detainees throughout Turkey’s prison system had participated in the strikes.

Twice this month, Turkey allowed the 70-year-old imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to meet with his lawyers after an eight-year hiatus.

PKK had been designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union and the United States.

Ocalan’s call for an end to the strikes and the resumption of a lawyers’ visits comes ahead of an election in Istanbul.

Analysts say the moves could foreshadow a new peace process, four years after government talks with Ocalan collapsed.

Israeli President Shocked by German Skullcap Comment

Israel’s president said Sunday he is shocked by a German official’s comment that he wouldn’t advise Jews to wear skullcaps in parts of the country, which is drawing mixed reactions at home.

Felix Klein, the government’s anti-Semitism commissioner, was quoted Saturday as saying: “I cannot recommend to Jews that they wear the skullcap at all times everywhere in Germany.” He didn’t elaborate on what places and times might be risky.

“The statement of the German government’s anti-Semitism commissioner that it would be preferable for Jews not wear a kippa in Germany out of fear for their safety, shocked me deeply,” Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said in a statement.

He added that “we will never submit, will never lower our gaze and will never react to anti-Semitism with defeatism – and expect and demand our allies act in the same way.”

Government statistics released earlier this month showed that the number of anti-Semitic and anti-foreigner incidents rose in Germany last year, despite an overall drop in politically motivated crimes.

Germany’s main Jewish leader, Josef Schuster, told news agency dpa “it has long been a fact that Jews are potentially exposed to danger in some big cities if they can be recognized as Jews.” He added that he pointed that out two years ago, “so it is to be welcomed if this situation gets more attention at the highest political level.”

Others were sharply critical of Klein’s comment. Michel Friedman, a former deputy leader of Germany’s main Jewish group, said it was an admission of failure and that “the state must ensure that Jews can show themselves everywhere without fear.”

Bavaria’s state interior minister, Joachim Herrmann, said that wearing a skullcap is part of religious freedom. “Everyone can and should wear his skullcap wherever and whenever he wants,” he said.

Klein himself told dpa that his statement had been “provocative” and he “wanted to initiate a debate about the safety of the Jewish community in our country.”

“Of course I believe that there must not be no-go areas anywhere in Germany for Jews or members of other minorities,” he said.

Anti-Semitic Attacks on the Rise in Germany

Germany’s anti-Semitism commissioner has advised Jews that it may be dangerous in certain parts of the country to wear the kippahs, also known as skullcaps, traditionally worn by Jewish men. He did not specify which areas of the country he was referring to.

“I cannot advise Jews to wear the kippah everywhere all the time in Germany,” Felix Klein told the Funke press group in an interview published Saturday.

Klein’s warning comes amid a rising number of anti-Semitic attacks in Germany.

The commissioner said “the lifting of inhibitions and the uncouthness which is on the rise in society” has contributed to the growing number of attacks. “The internet and social media have largely contributed to this, but so have constant attacks against our culture of remembrance.”

Anti-Semitism is “deeply rooted” in German society and “has always been here,” Claudia Vanoni, Germany’s top legal expert on anti-Semitism told AFP, the French news agency. “But I think that recently, it has again become louder, more aggressive and flagrant.”

In an interview with Handelsblatt newspaper, Justice Minister Katarina Barley said the attacks are “shameful for our country.”

Commissioner Klein has blamed the far right for the majority of anti-Semitic attacks. Another contributing factor, he said, is the arrival of a number of Muslim asylum seekers in Germany who may also be influenced by some television stations “which transmit a dreadful image of Israel and Jews.”

Ireland Votes to Make Divorce Easier

Irish voters have overwhelmingly endorsed a plan to liberalize the country’s constitution to make it easier for couples to divorce.

Election officials said Sunday a constitutional requirement that couples be separated for four years before being allowed to divorce will be removed.

It will fall to Ireland’s Parliament to come up with new legislation to govern divorce.

Officials say more than 82% of voters endorsed the change, which follows liberalization of abortion laws approved in a referendum last year.

Culture Minister Josepha Madigan told RTE News voters had shown compassion by “humanizing the system.”

Voter turnout on the referendum vote was just more than 50%.

Local election results are still being tallied.

Voters Elect EU Parliament as Nationalism Mounts

Pivotal elections for the European Union parliament reach their climax Sunday as the last 21 nations go to the polls and results are announced in a vote that boils down to a continentwide battle between euroskeptic populists and proponents of closer EU unity.

Right-wing nationalists who want to slash immigration into Europe and return power to national governments are expected to make gains, though mainstream parties are expected to hold onto power in the 751-seat legislature that sits in both Brussels and Strasbourg.

Salvini vs Macron

Leading the challenge to the established order is Italy’s hard-line interior minister, Matteo Salvini, head of the League party, who is assembling a group of like-minded parties from across Europe.

“We need to do everything that is right to free this country, this continent, from the illegal occupation organized by Brussels,” Salvini told a rally in Milan last weekend that was attended by the leaders of 11 nationalist parties.

Proponents of stronger EU integration, led by French President Emmanuel Macron, argue that issues like climate change and reining in immigration are simply too big for any one country to tackle alone.

Macron, whose country has been rocked in recent months by the populist yellow vest movement, has called the elections “the most important since 1979 because the (European) Union is facing an existential risk” from nationalists seeking to divide the bloc.

Sunday promises to be a long day and night for election watchers — the last polls close at 11 p.m. (2100 GMT) in Italy, but the European Parliament plans to begin issuing estimates and projections hours earlier with the first official projection of the makeup of the new parliament at 11:15 p.m. (2115 GMT).

Right-wing populists top opinion polls in two of the big four member states — Italy and supposedly exiting Britain — and could also win in a third, France, rattling a pro-Union campaign championed by centrist Macron.

Exit polls

However, exit polls in some countries that have already voted have given pro-EU parties some comfort. The Dutch Labour party, all but written off, looks to have finished first, helped by the visibility of having the EU socialists’ lead candidate, current EU deputy chief executive Frans Timmermans.

In the Netherlands pro-Union parties scored 70%, up three points on the last European Parliament vote in 2014, and left the upstart anti-immigration party of Thierry Baudet fourth at 11%.

The Dutch also turned out in bigger numbers, albeit at just 41%, reinforcing hopes in Brussels of reversing a 40-year trend of declining turnout that critics cite as a “democratic deficit” that undermines the legitimacy of European Union lawmaking.

An exit poll after Friday’s vote in deeply pro-EU Ireland pointed to an expected “Green Wave.” Across the bloc, concerns about climate change and the environment may bolster the pro-EU Greens group and could mean tighter regulations for industry and for the terms the EU may set for partners seeking trade accords.

As the dust settles on four days of elections, European leaders will begin the task of selecting candidates for the top jobs in the EU’s headquarters in Brussels. The leaders meet for a summit over dinner Tuesday night.

Current European lawmakers’ terms end July 1 and the new parliament will take their seats in Strasbourg the following day.

Reuters contributed to this report.

Russia Launches Nuclear Icebreaker 

Russia launched a nuclear-powered icebreaker on Saturday, part of an ambitious program to renew and expand its fleet of the vessels in order to improve its ability to tap the Arctic’s commercial potential.

The ship, dubbed the Ural, was floated out from a dockyard in St Petersburg. It’s one of a trio that when completed will be the largest and most powerful icebreakers in the world. 

 

Russia is building new infrastructure and overhauling its ports as, amid warmer climate cycles, it readies for more traffic via what it calls the Northern Sea Route (NSR), which it envisages being navigable year-round. 

 

The Ural is due to be handed over to Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy corporation Rosatom in 2022 after the two other icebreakers in the same series, Arktika (Arctic) and Sibir (Siberia), enter service. 

 

“The Ural together with its sisters are central to our strategic project of opening the NSR to all-year activity,” Alexey Likhachev, Rosatom’s chief executive, was quoted saying.

President Vladimir Putin said in April that Russia was stepping up construction of icebreakers with the aim of significantly boosting freight traffic along its Arctic coast. 

Vying for dominance

 

The drive is part of a push to strengthen Moscow’s hand in the High North as it vies for dominance with traditional rivals Canada, the United States and Norway, as well as newcomer China. 

By 2035, Putin said Russia’s Arctic fleet would operate at least 13 heavy-duty icebreakers, nine of which would be powered by nuclear reactors. 

 

The Arctic holds oil and gas reserves equivalent to 412 billion barrels of oil, about 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates.

Moscow hopes the route that runs from Murmansk to the Bering Strait near Alaska could take off as it cuts sea transport times from Asia to Europe. 

 

Designed to be crewed by 75 people, the Ural will be able to slice through ice up to around 3 meters thick.