Europe/Americas update: July 5 2018

Well, we’re back. As usual when I’ve been gone for a while this update will mostly stick to things that happened today with some pieces I flagged while I was gone in there for good measure.


If you like bananas, I’m afraid I have some bad news:

A wild banana that may hold the key to protecting the world’s edible banana crop has been put on the extinction list.

It is found only in Madagascar, where there are just five mature trees left in the wild.

Scientists say the plant needs to be conserved, as it may hold the secret to keeping bananas safe for the future.

The Madagascar banana is believed to have genetic properties that render it immune to the Panama Disease that’s threatening the global supply of Cavendish bananas. Unfortunately deforestation has caused the Madagascar’s numbers to dwindle to almost nothing. If it goes, and Panama Disease spreads out of Asia to the Americas, that could be it for the world banana supply.



Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin are planning to meet later this month in Finland, and as with Trump’s June 12 summit with Kim Jong-un in Singapore those plans include a one-one-one (with interpreters, of course) session. They’re expected to discuss Russian election shenanigans, arms control, Ukraine, and Syria among other things, though with Trump alone who knows what they’ll actually cover. Maybe he’ll agree to give back Alaska. I kid, but he might actually agree to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea. It’s particularly unlikely that Putin will make any concessions to Trump on the issue of minimizing Iran’s role in Syria. For one thing, there’s no upside to Putin in helping Trump contain Iran. For another, it’s not clear that Russia actually the leverage to accomplish what Trump wants.


More good environmental news:

The coastal waters of the Baltic have been starved of oxygen to a level unseen in at least 1,500 years largely as a result of modern human activity, scientists say. Nutrient run-off from agriculture and urban sewage are thought to be to blame.

“Dead zones” – areas of sea, typically near the bottom, with a dearth of oxygen – are caused by a rise in nutrients in the water that boosts the growth of algae. When these organisms die and sink to the seafloor, bacteria set to work decomposing them, using up oxygen in the process.

The resulting lack of oxygen not only curtails habitats for creatures that live on the seafloor, but also affects fish stocks and can lead to blooms of toxic cyanobacteria.

But it is not a problem confined to the Baltic. Earlier this year a study revealed that ocean dead zones have quadrupled in size since the 1950s, and are found the world over in coastal regions of high population, from Europe to North America and China.


The Carnegie Endowment’s Thomas de Waal says that the conflict in eastern Ukraine is defrosting and argues that the Trump administration is partly to blame:

The conflict, as the international officials still monitoring and mediating it emphasize, is not sporadic and intermittent, but permanent and ongoing. Since April there has been a new spike in fighting with use of heavy weapons. Officially, there were 81 civilian casualties—19 killed, 62 injured—in the three months mid-February to mid-May. There have been many more since then.

Why the deterioration? Both sides, it seems, have given up on the peace process as the campaigns crank up for Ukraine’s presidential and parliamentary elections next year. That does not mean the Minsk agreements are dead. Something akin to them will undoubtedly form the eventual deal. It means there is no political will to pursue them on either side. And the huge uncertainty about what U.S. policy toward Russia means under Donald Trump does not help.

The rebels of the two “People’s Republics” and their backers in Moscow have every reason to provoke Ukrainian government forces, knowing they pay a smaller price for doing so. They evidently want to play for time and see if the elections deliver them a more favorable government in Kiev—or indeed chaos that they can exploit.


Earlier this week Poland’s right-wing government purged the country’s Supreme Court, forcing as many as 27 of its 72 justices to retire and creating a “judicial disciplinary chamber” to, I guess, keep other judges in line. It’s the biggest step the Polish government has taken yet to undermine judicial independence, a program that’s put Warsaw on a collision course with the European Union and that has brought thousands of Poles out into the streets to protest the government’s actions. On Thursday, the crisis escalated when seven of the 15 judges on Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal (Poland’s other “supreme court,” which deals with questions of constitutional interpretation) released a letter saying that their body has become “politicized and dysfunctional” because of government interference.


The Macedonian parliament on Thursday approved, for the second time, changing the country’s name to the “Republic of North Macedonia,” per a deal reached last month between the Macedonian and Greek governments. The second approval was necessary because North (?) Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov refused to sign the measure. Now that it’s passed parliament a second time Ivanov is compelled to sign it into law. The name change still has to be approved by the Greek parliament as well as in a referendum of the Macedonian people.


German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán met in Berlin on Thursday and then held a tense press conference in which they disagreed with one another about the best way to cope with migrants and asylum seekers. Merkel argued that Europe “must not close itself off” if it is to retain its “humanity,” while Orbán of course wants Europe to close its borders to eliminate the “pull factor” driving migrants there, and help reduce the “push factor” by offering aid and investment to struggling African and Asian countries.


Merkel, meanwhile, appears to have avoided the collapse of her governing coalition over immigration. Christian Social Union boss Horst Seehofer, Merkel’s interior minister, has agreed to a deal that would speed up the process of returning migrants who have already registered for asylum in other EU countries back to those countries if they show up in Germany. Seehofer had threatened to unilaterally start rejecting those migrants at the border without a deal, a move that could have provoked the breakup of the coalition. He wanted border transit centers to be set up to process migrants at the border but has settled for having them processed by German police within 48 hours of their arrival.


Seehofer said on Thursday that he’ll be meeting with the interior ministers of Austria and Italy next week to come up with ways to close off trans-Mediterranean migration routes. Italy and Greece are key to the German deal’s implementation because most migrants request asylum in the country through which they enter the EU, which for most of them is either Greece or Italy. Those countries have to agree to take those asylum seekers back when German authorities expel them. But Italy’s right-wing government in particular has little interest in accepting returned migrants, and if it refuses to play ball Seehofer is suggesting that Germany and Austria could take unspecified “measures” against Italy.


Several people, including an Iranian diplomat, are being held in Belgium on allegations that they were involved in a plot, possibly perpetrated by Iran, to bomb a National Council of Resistance of Iran meeting in Paris last weekend. This is a weird story because, for one thing, outside of the prominent Western politicians it’s bought, the NCRI (a front group for the Mojahedin-e Khalq) doesn’t really have much of a constituency and it’s not clear why the Iranian government would target them. Indeed, with European countries trying to salvage the Iran nuclear deal and Iran still holding out some hope that it could reap benefits from the deal despite the US withdrawal, it makes little sense for the Iranians to provoke Europe by trying to carry out an attack like this. So there are definitely some “false flag” possibilities here. On the other hand, hardline elements in Iran that might welcome the total collapse of the nuclear deal could have attempted an attack like this intending to speed that process up, I guess? Like I say, weird story.


Two more British citizens have been exposed to Novichok, the nerve agent used in March in an attack on double agent Sergei Skripol and his daughter Yulia back in March. The two new victims apparently handled a contaminated item at or near the site of the March attack, in Salisbury. At least that’s the best explanation British authorities seem to be able to come up with, since neither of the two new victims has any apparent connection to anything that would suggest they were deliberately targeted. The cases raise new concerns about the March incident and about whether there are other Novichok-tainted items out there that could affect additional people.



If you had “Venezuela” in your “Donny’s First Major War” office pool, you may want to start making plans to spend your winnings:

As a meeting last August in the Oval Office to discuss sanctions on Venezuela was concluding, President Donald Trump turned to his top aides and asked an unsettling question: With a fast unraveling Venezuela threatening regional security, why can’t the U.S. just simply invade the troubled country?

Why not indeed? Apparently H.R. McMaster, still National Security Advisor at the time, and Rex Tillerson, still Secretary of State, tried to explain why invading Venezuela would be a monumentally bad idea. I’m not sure we should discount the fact that both of these guys have since been canned. Trump then apparently raised the issue with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and again at a meeting with Latin American leaders on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session last fall, even though his advisers warned him against mentioning it. So this is clearly on his mind.


As expected, leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador won Mexico’s presidential election on Sunday, taking in around 53 percent of the vote in a landslide victory that even surpassed most of the very López Obrador-favorable pre-election polling. On top of that, his National Regeneration Movement party looks like it will come away with majorities in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. In keeping with his lefty populist nature, López Obrador has already renounced his presidential bodyguard and said that he will eschew living in Mexico’s presidential mansion and cut his own salary as well as the salaries of other public officials.

López Obrador now inherits Mexico’s out of control drug war and and its corruption problem (the two are interrelated to say the least). He also takes on the challenge of building a working relationship with Donald Trump, who keeps threatening to abandon NAFTA and still seems to think Mexico is going to pay for his border wall.

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