Europe/Americas update: October 17-18 2017



Russian socialite Ksenia Sobchak, daughter of former St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak and possibly Vladimir Putin’s goddaughter, announced that she’s running for president next year. She, like all Russian opposition candidates, is definitely a legitimate candidate who has as good a shot at winning the election as Putin or anybody else in Russia’s totally fully functional democratic political system.


The likelihood that Andrej Babiš is going to be the next Czech prime minister is being treated as a potential threat to the European Union. And it is–Babiš is another bored plutocrat cosplaying as a populist and seems inclined toward the same kind of illiberal democracy that’s characterized the right-wing governments of Hungary and Poland, both of which are constant thorns in Brussels’ side. But Babiš isn’t a known quantity ideologically, and it’s likely that the Czech Republic’s future relationship with the EU will be determined in part by his coalition partners–and by Czech President Miloš Zeman, who is a genuine authoritarian bigot who’s on very friendly terms with Vladimir Putin.


The leaders of Austria’s Freedom Party, the ultra-right nationalist party whose electoral success in, ah, Austria should not have you worried about anything at all, are going to demand control of the Austrian Interior Ministry as the price for their participation in a coalition government. Austria’s Interior Ministry oversees counter-terrorism work and immigration/asylum matters, so putting it in the hands of a party founded by ex-Nazis just seems like a really good idea.


Matthew Carauna Galizia, the son of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was killed in a car bombing on Monday, is saying publicly what we’re all thinking privately: that she was killed for her work on corruption and, specifically, the Panama Papers. He also says that Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat is “complicit” in his mother’s death. When she was killed Galizia was working on a story linking Muscat to payments from Azerbaijan via Panama, but Matthew Galizia is blaming Muscat for “demonizing” his mother, not accusing him of direct involvement in her murder.


Emmanuel Macron’s reforms are connecting with the commoners:

Nathalie and Pascal Dilard were forced to give up their flat after they lost their jobs. With their teenage son, they now reside with Pascal’s elderly parents, living off 400 euros a month.


“Anti-poverty? I‘m sorry, but when I see our situation, that makes me laugh,” Nathalie, 50, said as anti-riot police pushed back protesting unionists during Macron’s visit.


“My problem with him is that he helps the rich, not the little people like us. We can just die,” she said.


Six months into his presidency, Macron, 39, is moving fast with his drive to re-shape France’s social and economic model.


That has won him praise from international investors, euro zone allies and billionaires such as Bernard Arnault, the head of luxury giant LVMH, who say his pro-business policies will win new investments and create jobs.

If more billionaire commoners like Arnault throw their collective support behind Macron’s stringent campaign of taxing pensioners to pay for the elimination of wealth taxes, then maybe a few of these fat cat welfare recipients like the Dilards–oh, wow, your parents have a house you can move into, ooo la la–will have to wake up and see that what’s good for the people–the billionaire people–is good for France.


With its deadline for the Catalan government fast approaching (about 3 and a half hours away as I write this), Madrid is making plans to exercise its constitutional authority to assume direct rule over the region. The Catalan government, which sort of declared independence but then suspended the declaration and is now operating in a theoretical dimension between independence and non-independence, says it will definitely declare independence, no more ambiguity, if Madrid goes through with it. Should be a fun Thursday in Spain!


Theresa May is preparing to lead off a summit with EU leaders on Thursday by making new concessions about the rights of EU citizens in Britain post-Brexit. Spoiler alert: she’s going to let them stay. May is hoping to use this big announcement like a shiny object to distract EU negotiators away from talking about how much money the UK will owe Brussels when it leaves in 2019. The problem is that this isn’t that big an announcement. Pretty much everybody has expected May to wind up here eventually and so the EU negotiators are highly unlikely to be dazzled by her generosity or whatever. They’re unwilling to start talking about a post-Brexit trade relationship until the “divorce bill” issue is settled or at least close to settled, even though May would really, really like to move on and get to the good part already. As a small good faith gesture to May, EU leaders are expected to announce that they’re prepared to start talking about that post-Brexit trade relationship among themselves, but not yet with London.



In today’s other good tree-related news, the Brazilian government says that Amazon deforestation was down 16 percent for the 12 month period ending in July 2017, compared to the previous 12 month period. On the downside, the 6624 square kilometers that were deforested in 2016-2017 is four times the size of the city of São Paulo, is still too high from a climate change perspective, and may have been due to Brazil’s economic downturn rather than to any change in government policy.

Meanwhile, a congressional committee voted Wednesday to block yet another corruption case involving President Michel Temer. The full Chamber of Deputies will vote next week but is likely to follow suit. Temer’s continued ability to dodge repeated corruption investigations despite having a low single digit approval rating is really a modern political miracle. Mostly it can be chalked up to two factors: wealthy Brazilians like him because he keeps their taxes obscenely low, and for some reason the huge majority of the Brazilian population that dislikes Temer hasn’t gone out into the streets about it. With the country’s politics in turmoil, the 2018 presidential election may come down to Jair Bolsonaro, an extreme authoritarian who may be the most hateful politician in the Western Hemisphere, and João Doria, the wealthy former mayor of São Paulo who once hosted the Brazilian version of an American reality TV show called O Aprendiz, or, uh, The Apprentice. Jesus Christ.


Nicolás Maduro says Sunday’s state government elections were too legitimate! He’s being bolstered in his claims by the fact that the opposition is a freaking mess at this point. Some are arguing that it was Maduro’s unfair use of state resources that tilted the vote, others are arguing that there was outright fraud (though they’ve been unable to point to any specific cases), still others are acknowledging that many opposition voters boycotted the election, and at least a couple of the opposition gubernatorial candidates have quietly conceded. The five opposition governors who won their races are planning to boycott their swearing in ceremony because it will be administered by Maduro’s constituent assembly, which likely means Maduro will try to keep them from assuming office.


If you were looking for some really terrible environmental news tonight, you’ve come to the right place:

Alberta’s oil and gas industry – Canada’s largest producer of fossil fuel resources – could be emitting 25 to 50% more methane than previously believed, new research has suggested.


The pioneering peer reviewed study, published in Environmental Science & Technology on Tuesday, used airplane surveys to measure methane emissions from oil and gas infrastructure in two regions in Alberta. The results were then compared with industry-reported emissions and estimates of unreported sources of the powerful greenhouse gas, which warm the planet more than 20 times as much as similar volumes of carbon dioxide.

The real worry isn’t so much that these emissions are happening–though that’s bad enough–it’s that a specialized study had to be performed to actually learn about them. If they’re not being measured by usual methods, then it’s likely that this is happening in more places than just these two parts of Alberta, and it means that any Canadian progress on greenhouse emissions has to be measured against the possibility that they’re only measuring a fraction of their actual emissions.


Finally, the Institute for Policy Studies’ Maha Hilal looks at Donald Trump’s plans to expand and loosen restrictions on America’s drone program, and how Barack Obama made it possible:

In fact, the White House apparently didn’t designate many victims as “lawful targets” until after they’d been killed. “It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants,” the Times reported in 2012, “unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”


That’s why government estimates of civilian causalities have been routinely lower than counts by NGOs. For example, the U.S. government estimated civilian deaths at between 64 and 116 in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya combined between January 2009 and December 2015. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s estimate was substantially higher — between 380 and 801, using relatively conservative criteria.


Worse still, there’s been no accountability for the government officials responsible for civilian deaths. “[N]o such amends exist for civilians harmed by US drones in Pakistan,” the Center for Civilians in Conflict reported in 2012. And no one in Pakistan or Yemen had received “apologies, explanations or monetary payments as amends from the U.S. government.”


In other words, not only was the White House’s commitment to avoiding civilian deaths a largely symbolic gesture, there was in fact no apparatus for justice at all. If legality is an assertion, and if breaches of the law have no consequences, what could ever make the drone war illegal?

Obama did a few laudable things in office on the foreign policy front: he ended torture (though that has to be balanced against the fact that he never prosecuted anybody for the Bush torture program), he negotiated the Iran deal, he opened a diplomatic channel with Cuba. But he also wound up handing Donald Freaking Trump a turnkey aerial execution operation that was metastasizing all over the globe with very little oversight and even less accountability. Not a great legacy.

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