Trans-Atlantic rebuke for Trump downgrade of EU ambassador; There was no about-face in the US government after DW broke news that the EU ambassador’s status had been downgraded. But one expert has said lawmakers’ responses show the trans-Atlantic network still operates – a bit. The Trump administration’s recent downgrading of the EU ambassador’s status without prior notice, first reported by Deutsche Welle, has led to parliamentary action on both sides of the Atlantic. In a strongly worded letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, 27 congressional Democrats denounced the diplomatic downgrade. “Disturbingly, this step, which appears to have taken place late last year, occurred without congressional consultation or apparent notification to the European Union,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter published this week. Led by the new chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Representative Eliot Engel, the group slammed the unannounced demotion. “Both the substance of this decision and the undiplomatic way in which it was carried out needlessly denigrate trans-Atlantic relations.”
Major powers ‘largely absent’: HRW wants more from Merkel; The head of Human Rights Watch appeals on DW for Germany and Angela Merkel to do more for rights abroad. Kenneth Roth noted that “the traditional powers” on the world stage, the US and UK, “were largely absent” of late. Human Rights Watch (HRW) Executive Director Kenneth Roth had good reason to present his organization’s annual report in Berlin on Thursday. Roth told DW, “If you look around the world, the traditional powers were largely absent” when it came to championing human rights over the past year. Roth praised German Chancellor Angela Merkel, however, noting her work on applying pressure on rights abuses in Hungary and ending arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Most importantly he said that Merkel had helped prevent a bloodbath in Syria: “In a step that probably saved more lives than anything else, Chancellor Merkel was at the forefront of pressing Russian President Vladimir Putin to agree to a ceasefire in the Idlib Province in Syria, where 3 million civilian lives were at risk because Russia and Syria were about to begin an indiscriminate bombardment there.”
As UK’s EU withdrawal nears, Germany steps up Brexit prep; The Bundestag has ensured that Brits in Germany can still apply for citizenship even after Brexit. But opposition politicians warn that customs officials are not ready for the impending bureaucratic nightmare. On Thursday, the German parliament passed a new law in preparation for Britain’s impending withdrawal from the European Union. The Brexit transition legislation was passed unanimously by almost all political parties in the Bundestag — only the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) voted against the plan. The law, which would come into force when Britain formally leaves the EU and the so-called transitional phase begins, is supposed to create clarity for people likely to be affected by Brexit, especially British nationals living in Germany and Germans living in the UK. Perhaps most relevant for the almost 120,000 British people registered in Germany, the measure means that UK citizens would still be able to apply for citizenship during the transitional phase, which is expected to last until the end of 2020, with the date of their applications taken into special consideration. After that, however, the obstacles to becoming German will be significantly greater. Authorities have recorded a massive increase in the number of British people keen to take German citizenship since the 2016 Brexit referendum.
German media made Frank Magnitz the new face of the AfD; Reaction to the attack on Frank Magnitz, a Bundestag member for the far-right Alternative for Germany, reveals just how polarized the country has become. The AfD has received a clear boost from the media hoopla. According to press reports, in an internal party document circulated by members of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), Frank Magnitz says it was his intention to dramatize the recent attack on him to stir up “attention” and “media outrage.” That’s why Magnitz, a member of the Bundestag and AfD’s party leader in the state of Bremen, distributed a press release and images of his bloodied face — making sure to implicate the German left in his detailed account of the attack. Since then, however, details have emerged that contradict Magnitz’s account. Surveillance footage does show three men attack him from behind, but exactly how he sustained a massive wound on his face remains inconclusive. (The injury is visible in the video, and one assessment suggests that it may have been caused by his fall.)
Dieselgate: Four Audi managers charged in the US over emissions scandal; Four German managers at carmaker Audi were the latest to be charged in the United States as part of a diesel emissions cheating scandal. The company has already paid an €800 million fine as part of a case in Germany. A US grand jury in Detroit has indicted four Audi engineering managers from Germany on allegations of conspiracy, wire fraud and violations of the Clean Air Act. The indictment alleges the four men took part in nearly a decade-long conspiracy to deceive the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by cheating on emissions tests for 3-liter diesel engines. Audi tests showed emissions were up to 22 times higher than the allowed US limit, the indictment added. Read more: Why veering Germans away from cars is tough The indictment said the employees realized there was not enough room in the vehicles to meet VW design standards for a large trunk and high-end sound system while still holding a big tank for fluid to treat diesel emissions, which led the four to design software to cheat on the emissions tests so they could get by with a smaller tank for the fluid. None of the men are in custody, and they are believed to be in Germany, a US Justice Department spokesman said. Audi is a luxury brand owned by German automaker Volkswagen. VW pleaded guilty in 2016 to criminal charges in the scandal and will pay more than $30 billion (€26.3 billion) in penalties and settlement costs.
Former Macron bodyguard in French custody over misuse of diplomatic passports;
Alexandre Benalla, who was fired last July after he was filmed beating a May Day protester, has been taken into custody in Paris. Prosecutors say he illegally used diplomatic passports to travel to Africa and Israel. French President Emanuel Macron’s former bodyguard and security adviser Alexandre Benalla was taken into custody by officials on Thursday for his misuse of diplomatic passports. The Paris Prosecutor’s Office said that Benalla had used diplomatic passports to facilitate his consultancy work in Africa. Additionally, prosecutors are investigating possible forgeries and the unlawful acquisition of administrative documents. Benalla initially denied that he had used the passports, only to confess last week that he had. On Wednesday, Patrick Strzoda, Macron’s chief of staff, informed the French Senate that Benalla had begun traveling on his two diplomatic passports within a week of his firing on July 22. Benalla lost his job after he was filmed attacking a May Day protester in Paris.
Norway forms first conservative majority government in 30 years; A cycle of minority governments had plagued Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s tenure. The Conservative Party leader reached a deal with the Christian Democrats, agreeing to their demand for changes to Norway’s abortion law. Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg reached a deal with the small Christian Democratic Party on Thursday to form a center-right majority government. The move is set to strengthen Solberg, who has been in power since 2013 and was re-elected in 2017. “This is a historic day. Norway is getting its first non-socialist majority government since 1985,” said Solberg, who has led Norway’s Conservative Party since 2004. “We had tough negotiations,” Solberg said, celebrating the deal alongside leaders of the Christian Democrats and her existing governing partners of the Progress Party and the Liberal Party. But the new majority did not come without a cost, as the deal involved caving to demands by the Christian Democrats to amend Norway’s abortion law. The parties in Solberg’s coalition agreed to end so-called “selective abortions,” a woman’s right to abort a fetus in a multifetal pregnancy, which can be done to limit the number of births. But Solberg stopped short in the most controversial Christian Democrat proposal, which sought to end the right to late-term abortion, in cases where a fetus is diagnosed with Down’s syndrome or other genetic conditions.
UN health organization to investigate racism, misconduct allegations; Among the allegations are charges of “systematic racial discrimination against Africans” working at the World Health Organization in Geneva. Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus ordered a probe last year. A series of anonymous emails that circulated within the UN World Health Organization (WHO) has triggered an investigation into “allegations of misconduct,” the agency said Thursday. The allegations depict the WHO as an organization is rife with racism, sexism and corruption. As a result, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus ordered an internal oversight office to carry out a probe. Tedros, a former health minister of Ethiopia and WHO’s first African director-general, did not speak about the details of the allegations. The WHO stressed that since he took office in 2017, he had “championed openness, transparency and diversity”.
The UN agency is “working consistently to increase geographical diversity and improve gender balance at all levels as part of its ongoing transformation process,” an organization statement added.
African Union calls on Congo to hold off election result announcement; The African Union says “serious doubts” remain over Democratic Republic of Congo’s election results. The AU isn’t alone in expressing qualms about the outcome of the presidential election. The African Union (AU) on Thursday called on the Democratic Republic of Congo to suspend the release of the final results of its disputed presidential election due to its doubts over the provisional results. The AU’s call came after a meeting of the bloc’s leaders in Addis Ababa, where AU Commission Chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat said “serious doubts” remained after Felix Tshisekedi was declared the presidential election winner. “The heads of state and government attending the meeting concluded that there were serious doubts on the conformity of the provisional results as proclaimed by the National Independent Electoral Commission with the verdict of the ballot boxes,” the AU said in a statement.
Russian lawmakers vote to keep up Council of Europe boycott; The Russian parliament has agreed not to send representatives back to the Council of Europe and not to resume funding of the organization. Human rights advocates fear Moscow may leave the organization completely.Russian lawmakers on Thursday voted against sending a delegation to the Council of Europe (CoE) and to not resume funding of the body. Deputies in the Russian parliament, the Duma, accused the council of “grossly” violating the rights of Russia by stripping their delegation of voting rights over the Crimea crisis. “As a result of the lengthy anti-Russian campaign, the activities of Russia in the Council of Europe were actually suspended along the parliamentary line, and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe itself, violating the basis of parliamentarism, found itself in a deep systemic crisis,” the lawmakers said in a statement published on the Duma website. The Strasbourg-based council is a non-EU organization aiming to uphold human rights across the continent. It incorporates 47 European states. The body is in charge of electing judges for the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
Sweden’s Social Democratic PM set for second term; Sweden will end a four-month political vacuum Friday when lawmakers elect Prime Minister Stefan Lofven to a second term, after he elbowed out the far-right to save one of Europe’s few left-wing governments. Lofven, 61, may have won a victory, but the former welder emerges weakened by months of wrangling after September’s election forced him to concede to centre-right parties to win their support. Members of parliament are due to vote at 9am (0800 GMT) on the speaker’s nomination of Lofven as prime minister for a four-year term. His minority centre-left government, comprising his Social Democrats and the Greens, will be one of the weakest in Sweden in 70 years, with just 32.7 percent of voters having cast ballots for the two parties. Lofven has secured the support of the Centre and Liberal parties — until now members of the four-party centre-right opposition Alliance — with whom he has signed a political policy document. Together, the four parties hold 167 of 349 seats in parliament, eight fewer than the 175 that constitutes a majority in the Riksdag. The ex-communist Left Party had backed Lofven’s previous minority government since 2014, providing key support to pass legislation in parliament. But this time, the Left, which now holds 28 seats, was excluded as Lofven shifted his government toward the centre. To block the far-right Sweden Democrats from wielding any influence in parliament, the Left announced it would still allow Lofven to be elected.
Davos assembly faces Brazilian populism and Brexit; Government and business leaders trek to the freezing Swiss Alps next week for the annual Davos conclave, taking heat from a populist wave encapsulated in Brazil’s new far-right leader, trade conflicts and the looming onset of Brexit. US President Donald Trump stole the show at last year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) with a tax-cutting agenda that harmonised with the corporate priority-list, even if many in the audience were agog at his more outspoken rhetoric on trade and the media. But Trump ruled out a repeat visit, and on Thursday cancelled any representation by US officials at this year’s forum as a government shutdown drags on due to a funding row over his demand for a border wall with Mexico.
US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had been slated to join Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan in Davos, as the two countries try to negotiate a truce to a punitive tariff war. That leaves the stage clear for Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro to steal the spotlight on his first trip abroad since taking office earlier this month. The high-powered week of networking and socialising kicks off Monday and will feature an eclectic lineup of discussions devoted to issues such as mindful parenting in the digital age, chronic loneliness, and harnessing artificial intelligence without destroying jobs. The week is expected to draw some 3,000 political and business figures, including 65 government leaders from Germany, Israel, Zimbabwe and elsewhere.
France will remain ‘militarily engaged’ in Middle East through 2019; “The retreat from Syria announced by our American friends cannot make us deviate from our strategic objective – eradicating Daesh,” Macron said in a speech at an army base near Toulouse, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group. “We are staying invested to participate in the stabilisation of the region,” Macron said, adding: “Any rush to withdraw would be a mistake.” Macron also expressed condolences for “our four American friends killed on Syrian soil” in a bomb blast claimed by the Islamic State group on Wednesday.
Several killed in suspected car bomb blast at Bogota police academy; The defense ministry said the “terrorist act” was carried out using a vehicle packed with 80 kilograms (around 175 pounds) of explosives. “Unfortunately, the preliminary toll is 21 people dead, including the person responsible for the incident, and 68 wounded,” Colombian police said in a statement, adding 58 of those injured had been discharged from hospital. The defense ministry had previously reported 11 dead and 65 injured. “All Colombians reject terrorism and we’re united in fighting it,” President Ivan Duque tweeted in the aftermath.
Kim Jong Un’s close aide arrives in US; A close aide to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has arrived in the United States, apparently to discuss a second summit between the two countries’ leaders. Kim Yong Chol, who is in charge of high-level talks with the US, arrived at an airport near Washington on Thursday evening via Beijing. A crowd of reporters was awaiting him. He walked through the terminal building and left in a car. Kim Yong Chol is expected to meet with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to lay the groundwork for the summit. Speculation is rife that the summit may be held in an Asian country such as Vietnam, a country that Washington sees as a possible model for North Korea’s future development. Attention is focused on whether the two sides can reach an agreement on the summit’s venue and timing. Just before the first US-North Korea summit last June, the high-ranking official visited the White House to deliver a letter from Kim Jong Un to US President Donald Trump. Whether he will meet with Trump on this trip is also being closely watched.
N.Korea’s suspected violations reported to UN; NHK has learned that the Japanese government filed a report with the UN Security Council on North Korea’s suspected violations of sanctions resolutions. Sources close to the Security Council say that last November the Japanese government informed the Council’s sanctions committee in writing of two apparent ship-to-ship transfer cases in which North Korea’s involvement was suspected. The document said a North Korean-registered tanker was detected alongside a Singaporean-flagged tanker in high seas of the East China Sea from the night of September 12th to the next morning. The document said a hose between the two vessels raised the possibility that refined petroleum products were being transferred between them. It also said a tanker subject to the sanctions and a Singaporean-registered tanker were spotted alongside each other in the same area on October 28th. The sources close to the Security Council say these cases will be included in a report by the sanctions committee that is due to be released as early as March. The Security Council will likely convene talks to discuss the possible violations of the sanctions resolutions.
Indonesia presidential candidates in first debate; Indonesia’s two presidential candidates sparred in their first TV debate on Thursday, ahead of the election in April. Incumbent President Joko Widodo and former military leader Prabowo Subianto discussed terrorism and human rights, among other issues. On measures against terrorism, Prabowo said people develop extreme ideas because they are poor or think society is unfair. He said he will resolve these problems by investing in education and creating jobs. In response, Joko, who is aiming for his second term, stressed his achievements. He said he has been stepping up anti-terrorism measures by revising laws. Joko said his efforts to reform former Islamic extremists are serving as a model for other nations. A series of terrorist bombings last year in Indonesia’s second largest city of Surabaya targeted Christian churches. The two candidates will hold three more TV debates to exchange views on poverty, economic policy and other issues. In the latest opinion poll, Joko leads Prabowo by about 20 percentage points.
Workers in Tunisia go on strike; Public servants in Tunisia staged a nationwide strike on Thursday to demand higher salaries in the economically struggling country. About 670,000 public sector workers, except those who work in emergency medical treatment, left their offices after 10 AM to go on strikes throughout the day. Workers marched through the capital Tunis. Some were calling for the administration’s resignation. Tunisia is called the only country to succeed in the “Arab Spring” democracy movement. But the people are increasingly frustrated with the government as rising prices erode their living standard. Tunisian workers staged similar strikes in November, but the government did not meet their demands. The government has been avoiding spending increases because the International Monetary Fund has been helping the country deal with its economic crisis. The workers union leading the strikes says it is considering stepping up its actions against the government.
Ghosn’s defense team requests bail again; The defense team of former Nissan Motor chairman Carlos Ghosn has again asked the Tokyo District Court to grant bail to their detained client. The attorneys filed the second request for bail on Friday. On Thursday, the court rejected the appeal filed by his lawyers over its decision to deny bail. Ghosn was charged with aggravated breach of trust a week ago. Prosecutors allege the auto tycoon inappropriately transferred about 15 million dollars from a Nissan subsidiary to a Saudi Arabian businessman’s company after he helped Ghosn to cover personal investment losses. Ghosn denies the charges. Under the Japanese legal system, an accused person can be kept in custody for up to two months after indictment. Lawyers can file bail requests repeatedly. Sources close to the matter say the defense team is willing to accept conditions for bail, such as requiring Ghosn to stay in Japan. Ghosn had earlier wanted to travel to France if he was granted bail.