Saturday, November 8, 2008

Afghanistan set to benefit from Obamania in Europe

Afghanistan will stay on top of the list of priorities of US President-elect Barack Obama as he taps into the post-US election euphoria in Europe, reaching out to grass root level European sentiments to coax Europe to do more to help defeat the Afghanistan insurgency, political pundits observed in Brussels last week.

David Ignatius, associate editor and columnist for the Washington Post said, “Obama has to deliver on his promise to end war in Iraq along with, to move early on Arab-Israeli conflict so as not to lose momentum,” adding, “intensity of enthusiasm of Obama supporters can be tapped into to get much needed support for Afghanistan policies.”

Addressing a select audience of journalists, diplomats and civil society representatives, Ignatius said, “The essence of Obama’s style is that he is Mr. Cool to an unusual level and is not yet knocked off from center point ... I have never seen a campaign better run than this one.”

“Depending on the recommendations of US General (David) Petraeus coming later, I have the impression from Obama’s advisors at this moment that the policy will be go for a surge and then negotiations,” Ignatius told an event titled, “Transatlantic Relations after the US elections: What now?” organised by the German Marshall Fund of the United States on November 7 in Brussels.


On relations with militants and Iran, he said, “Saudi Arabia is trying to meditate with Taliban and it seem there will be talks with reconcilable elements of Taliban. There can also be broad dialogue with Iran but on the assumption that Iran may not be ready for yes yet,” adding, “Obama has an unusually gifted sense of timing.”

Warning, “The clock is ticking,” Ignatius asked Europeans to be prepared to impose tough sanctions if diplomatic efforts fail, saying, “We need to make tougher sanctions - much to what really hurts.”

Citing the upcoming “renewal of NPT (nuclear non-proliferation treaty),” Robert Cooper, Director General for External and Politico-Military Affairs at the Council of the European Union said, “If we wish to maintain it, its not just about dealing with Iran but its also about providing all countries with nuclear options for peaceful uses.”


“With Russia and China,” there is a “need to have a fundamental relationship,” Ignatius stressed.

Cooper called the events in Georgia, “a profound shock,” saying, “that changed the context of relations with Russia.” He, however, ruled out the military solutions saying, “solutions to problems are always political and that involves talking to people.”


On the issue of fight against climate change the speakers agreed that the US will be able to take the lead as the recent falling apart of the EU consensus on the issue was pointed out.

In a lighter tone, Cooper said, “Europe is always divided on something then agrees and then gets divided on something else but in Europe being divided means Europe is in the process of making a decision.”

Ignatius pointed at the “intensity of enthusiasm of young supporters of Obama,” with their passion and suggested that this can be involved both in the US and Europe,” along with Asian giants China and India, to address the climate change on a global scale.

Commission announces plans for sale of Polish shipyards

European Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes today (Nov 6) announced plans for sale of the Polish yards saying, "Clearly, today's decision is not the one which the shipyard workers would have liked. This is without a doubt one of the hardest proposals to the Commission that I have had to make as Competition Commissioner."

Blaming the Polish authorities for the present state of affairs the competition commissioner said, "The sad reality is that the very large subsidies received were consistently used for day to day operations, to keep the yards going in the short term rather than invested to make the yards viable in the long term," adding, "...even though shipbuilding has been booming worldwide and prices for new ships rising, the yards in Gdynia and Szczecin were still making a loss on every ship they produced."

"In particular, despite further large amounts of state aid and substantial job losses, the plans would not ensure the yards' commercial viability," the Commissioner lamented.

Asked if she will go to Poland to fulfill the promise of delivering the plans to the Polish shipyard workers in person, Commissioner told journalists, "I am planning to go to Poland and visit three shipyards as soon as possible (to present the plans as promised by me)," adding, "It will be in early December but earlier the better."


Outlining the sale procedures, the Commissioner said, "The assets have to be sold at market price to the highest bidder. The tenders must be non-discriminatory, ensuring access to all types of potential buyers, irrespective of the purpose of their investment. No conditions can be attached to the tenders (for example, a requirement that a bidder purchases all the assets of a given yard)."

"The sole award criterion for the selection of the winning bid will be revenue maximisation for the benefit of the yard's creditors," said the Commissioner adding that investment companies and real estate developers will also be allowed to bid in these tenders.


Trying to sooth the frayed nerves of shipyard workers, Commissioner Kroes told journalists, "The Commission can help workers at these yards to find alternative employment. My colleagues Commissioners Vladimir Spidla and Danuta Huebner have offered assistance in devising flanking measures under existing EU programmes to find solutions for the shipyards' workers and these regions that will help them through the potentially difficult times ahead."


Regarding the Gdansk shipyard, the Commissioner said, "we have not yet taken a decision. Gdansk is in a slightly different situation than the two other yards because it is smaller, it is already privatised and the level of subsidies received is considerably lower than in the case of Gdynia and Szczecin. Moreover, the new owner has already invested considerable sums in the Gdansk yard."

Throwing the ball back into the court of Warsaw, Kroes said, "The Polish authorities now have an opportunity to submit a restructuring plan for Gdansk alone for the Commission to examine."


Since 2002, Gdynia Shipyard benefited from various aid measures (in particular capital injections, loans and tax write-offs) amounting to 700 million Euro and from production guarantees of 916 million Euro, the Commission stated, adding, "Szczecin Shipyard received aid of one billion Euro as well as production guarantees of 697 million Euro."

The Commission concluded, "the decisions require that Poland recovers from the yards all state aid unlawfully granted since May 2004."

Adding his voice to the decision, Commission President José Manuel Barroso said in a statement, "We have worked long and hard to find a solution that is fair and sustainable. For the workers and businesses in Poland, but also for people working and doing business elsewhere. The solution that we have agreed with the Polish authorities offers the best possible prospects for future jobs and viable activities at these historic sites."


Comparing the decision with the approvals that the Commission has given to rescue aid in the banking sector, the Commissioner said, "we have been authorising rescue aid for banks whose failure could have had catastrophic knock-on effects on Member States' financial sectors, and in turn Member States' economies as a whole, potentially harming seriously every citizen and every business in Europe."

"The rescue aid for banks has been authorised for relatively short periods. If the banks concerned receive aid going beyond pure rescue, they too will have to undergo restructuring to restore their viability, just as the shipyards were supposed to do," Kroes, the competition Commissioner concluded.

Opportunity to air opinions on state funding for public service broadcasting

The European Commission today (Nov 4) opened public consultations on a draft Communication laying down the rules that it intends to apply to state funding of public service broadcasting.

Announcing the proposals, Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes said in a statement: "I am pleased to submit the draft Broadcasting Communication for public consultation. My goal is to help stakeholders in the broadcasting sector to meet the challenges of the new media environment, allowing a high quality and modern public service, while at the same time maintaining a fair level playing field between the different actors."

Putting the deadline of submissions at January 15, 2009, the Commission invited member states and stakeholders to submit their views on the proposed text, listing the key issues for discussion as, "more flexibility for public broadcasters to meet the challenges of the new media environment, the principles underpinning the definition of the public service remit by the member states as well as supervision of public service activities at national level."

On the basis of the comments received, the Commission is expected to adopt a modernised Broadcasting Communication in the first half of 2009.

According to the submitted draft there would be "increased flexibility for public service broadcasters to build up reserves to help them deliver on their public service mission and to withstand cost fluctuations." "At the same time, the suggested rules would require reinforced control mechanisms at the national level to avoid overcompensation and cross-subsidisation of commercial activities," the draft added.

Citing that the media sector is an important area for the Commission's state aid policy, the Commission stated, "Public broadcasters receive more than 22 billion Euro annually from license fees or direct government aid, placing them third, after agriculture and transport companies, among recipients of state aid."

Based on an earlier public consultation between January and March 2008, on the general principles of the Broadcasting Communication, Commissioner Kroes announced in July her intention to modernise the current Communication, which dates back to 2001.

Commission proposals outline raw material policy

The European Commission today (Nov 4) launched a "long term sustained" approach to make sure that the raw material supplies to Europe do not suffer for different reasons.

Stressing that the EU industrial sector is facing a decline in the global supply of raw materials, Gunter Verheugen, the European Commissioner for Enterprise and Industry said, "We must act, to ensure that access to raw materials for enterprises will not be hampered. We need fair play on external markets, a good framework to foster sustainable raw materials supply from EU sources as well as improved resource efficiency and more use of recycling."

Presenting the proposals to journalists in Brussels, Verheugen, Vice President of the European Commission said, "It is our aim to make sure that Europe's industry will be able to continue to play a leading role in new technologies and innovation."

Talking to New Europe later after the press conference, Commissioner Verheugen said, "I stressed integrated approach from the beginning. As the there are two groups of the European Commission involved: External Relations group and Competitive group, we will need co-ordination structure."

Commissioner further said, "As the instruments needed to are not in my hands, there is a strong support I have from the other commissioners on the subject."

"I have agreed with my colleagues, notably Cathy Ashton, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, Louis Michel and Stavros Dimas, to closely cooperate to implement the proposed strategy," Verheugen earlier told the press conference.

In his presentations, Commissioner Verheugen said, "Americans and Japanese have a stockpiling policy," adding that the Europeans, who lack such a policy, will have to develop it over the coming years. "We are committed to improve the conditions of access to raw materials, be it within Europe or by creating a level playing field in accessing such materials from abroad," the Commissioner said.

Moreover, the importance of recycling got due attention as the Commission said, "Recycling presents a huge opportunity to reduce import dependency for raw materials," lamenting that many end-of-life products are "illegally shipped outside the EU and are hence not recycled within the EU."

Outlining the three major pillars for its policy development, the Commission listed:

"Access to raw materials on world markets at undistorted conditions;

The right framework to foster sustainable supply of raw materials from EU sources;

Increase resource efficiency and promoting recycling in the EU."

Earlier presentation by the Commission of a "European strategy for the sustainable use of natural resources" had met with strong criticism in the European parliament and now the Commission, the executive arm of the EU, has the mandate from the Competitiveness Council of the EU to develop a "coherent political approach" to address the raw material problems in different sectors.

EU leaders call for international financial reform

By Tejinder Singh

Brussels, Nov 8 (IANS) European Union leaders have agreed that next week's emergency summit in Washington must lead to a reformed international financial system, declaring: "We cannot fail'.

Meeting ahead of the Nov 15 summit, leaders of the 27-nation EU agreed to "defend the common vision for restructuring the financial system", French President Nicolas Sarkozy, current holder of the rotating EU Presidency, told journalists.

Leaders of 20 of the world's richest nations and biggest emerging economies, including India, are set to attend the summit in Washington DC to discuss how to prevent a financial crisis happening again.

Addressing a joint press conference with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso Friday, Sarkozy said: 'We should be able to come up with answers to the crisis. The international summit must pave the way for reform of the international financial system."

Barroso added: 'We cannot fail. It has to be a historic meeting."

"Apart from financial issues, global challenges also should be integrated,' he said, listing them as food shortages, the fight against poverty, climate change, and the relaunch of Doha Round of world trade negotiations.

'We have to look beyond the financial crisis, to the economic crisis. We need specific measures to cope with the slowdown and maintain growth and employment,' Barroso said.

The EU leaders agreed to four guiding principles:

- No financial institution, market segment and/or jurisdiction must escape proportionate and adequate regulation or at least supervision;

- The new international financial system must be based on principles of accountability and transparency;

- The new international financial system must allow risks to be assessed so as to prevent crises;

- The International Monetary Fund (IMF) must be given a central role in a more efficient financial architecture.

Sarkozy said he had discussed the summit with US President-elect Barack Obama Thursday, when he apprised him of European leaders' view that since the transition in the US government will take time there needs to be a strong follow-up.

EU leaders say a period of 100 days starting Nov 15 'should be used for drawing up measures to implement the principles' before holding a follow-up summit.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Obama loses grandmother on the eve of elections

Madelyn Dunham, grandmother of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, died today after a battle with cancer. She was 86.

Dunham, who lived in Hawaii, died on the eve of an election in which her grandson was leading in the race to become president.

"She was the cornerstone of our family, and a woman of extraordinary accomplishment, strength, and humility," Obama said in a statement released by his campaign. "She was proud of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren and left this world with the knowledge that her impact on all of us was meaningful and enduring."

Obama flew to Hawaii for two days in the final stretch of the campaign to be with the woman he called "Toot," short for "tutu," the Hawaiian word for grandmother. He has credited her with his success in life, saying she "poured everything she had into me."

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Gurdwara raid casts shadow on Belgian king's visit to India

By Tejinder Singh

Brussels, Nov 2 (IANS) King Albert II of Belgium arrives in India on a nine-day visit Monday amid a row in his country over a raid on a gurdwara by police seeking to bust an illegal immigration racket.

The Belgian monarch, accompanied by Queen Paola, leads a high-powered delegation, including Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht, top business leaders and academics.

The royal visit comes shortly after police raids last month on 19 properties, including a gurdwara, in the Brussels suburbs of Vilvorde and Tubize in connection with an investigation into an illegal immigration racket.

The 5,000-6,000-strong Sikh community in Belgium expressed outrage at the raid on the Vilvorde gurdwara, alleging police went in with their shoes on and forced a priest to stop the continual recitation of the Guru Granth Sahib held to mark 300 years of the Sikh holy book.

Mejindarpal Kaur, legal director of United Sikhs, an international coalition of organisations and individuals, told IANS: 'United Sikhs is writing to the Belgian prime minister, seeking a full investigation of the incident, an apology from Belgian police and changes to the police procedures when handling places of worship of all communities.'

Avtaar Singh, president of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) in Amritsar, has written to the United Sikhs extending his support.

'The Belgian government should seek an explanation and apology from the police department for the action inside the gurdwara. I will write a memorandum to the Indian prime minister and the government of Belgium to investigate the police action in the gurdwara when the 300 years celebrations were going on in Belgium,' he wrote.

Said Resham Singh, president of the Vilvorde gurdwara: 'Our gurdwara is a place of worship open to all. We do not inquire about the immigration status of the people coming to worship at the gurdwara.'

He added: 'Every year on Nov 11, at Ypres (Belgium), we participate in the commemorations for the 35,000 Sikhs who shed their blood here during the two World Wars. How can you expect us to understand the way the police has treated us?'

Ines Wouters, a Brussels-based lawyer who is investigating the matter on behalf of the United Sikhs, said: 'The same result could have been reached in a different way by respecting the feelings and dignity of the Sikh community. A society which does not respect religious belief and sensitivity is losing its fundamental values.'

The Indian embassy in Brussels refused to comment on the incident.

'The (external affairs) ministry in New Delhi is looking into the matter, so we cannot comment on the subject,' embassy spokesman R.K. Goel told IANS.

The mayor of Vilvorde, accompanied by the local police chief and other officials, has visited the gurdwara to meet the management.

The Oct 18 dawn raids led to the arrest of 18 people from properties other than the gurdwara. Police also found 200 illegal Indian immigrants, mostly Punjabis, who were being hidden in safe houses on their way to Britain.

Assistant prosecutor Tim de Wolf told journalists that two of those arrested were 'the brains behind the trafficking operations... They controlled a whole series of little groups. We hope we have broken up the core of the network'.