September 02, 2019

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NEED TO KNOW

EUROPEAN UNION

Waiting Rooms of History

American actor Richard Gere recently delivered humanitarian supplies to a boat of migrants that had been plying the Mediterranean for more than a week because Italian and Maltese authorities refused to let it dock at their ports.

Gere was trying to lend his celebrity status to a crisis that doesn’t grab headlines like it did a few years ago, reported the Associated Press.

In recent years, more than 1 million migrants reaching Europe have requested safe haven from wars, famines and other disasters in Syria, North Africa and elsewhere. Fewer people are traveling to the continent today. But European governments are still struggling to accommodate the influx.

Today, around 900,000 are seeking asylum, according to Eurostat.

Refugee advocates tried to convey the human toll of waiting for years for an answer to an asylum request.

“Living in limbo is now the norm for those seeking protection,” said German rights advocate Karl Kopp in an interview with the Guardian. “Limbo means living in the miserable (…) EU hotspots, or being trapped and pushed back at borders. It means living in the desperate search for protection and human dignity.”

The asylum seekers are fairly well dispersed across the continent. The largest share, 44 percent, wants to remain in Germany. Italy, at 12 percent, has the second-largest share.

Still, as the Italian and Maltese positions suggest, most Europeans haven’t opened their arms to the newcomers. The EU Observer noted that the rejection rate in asylum cases had increased from 37 percent in 2016 to 64 percent in 2019.

Migration has been common throughout modern European history due to war, population shifts following the end of empires and the need for foreign workers’ cheap labor. Rowan Williams, a former archbishop of Canterbury, lamented how his generation has dealt with the latest iteration of the trend.

“The shameful and tragic thing is not simply the raw statistics but the conspicuous failure of European governments to learn anything from the story,” wrote Williams in the New Statesman, a liberal British news magazine.

French President Emmanuel Macron and the newly elected Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis recently called for the European Union to help coordinate a better response to the crisis. Some point out that this coordination was tried a few years ago: The best Europe could come up with then was forcing other states, such as Turkey, to keep migrants there in exchange for funds and other perks. 

The Financial Times’ Europe Editor, Ben Hall, is also skeptical. Like the ship that Gere visited, European policy is adrift, Hall wrote in a column. Many note that Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini’s popularity has “rocketed” along with his hardline stance against migrants. He’s not inclined to support any reforms that benefit governments or the asylum seekers.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands are stuck in the waiting rooms of history.

WANT TO KNOW

GERMANY

Wir Sind Zwei Volk

Germany’s right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) made strong gains in two eastern state elections Sunday but failed to unseat the mainstream parties as predicted before the votes.

The party, with a staunch anti-immigrant, euro-skeptic stance, came in second in both Brandenburg and Saxony, where the Social Democrats and Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats retained the lead in each state respectively. Even so, both mainstream parties lost significant voter share at the expense of the AfD which nearly tripled its share of the vote in Saxony, the Washington Times reported.

The far-right party’s gains underscore a recent trend in which voters are increasingly straying from Germany’s mainstream parties. Now, all eyes are on the upcoming elections in Thuringia, where the AfD is predicted to double its share of the vote in elections in October.

Since its inception in 2013, the AfD’s support has surged to the double digits, particularly in the eastern states, and especially after Merkel opened the door to one million refugees in 2015.

Meanwhile, the timing of the elections highlight the lingering divisions between east and west Germany as the country prepares to mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In both Brandenburg and Saxony, the AfD campaigned on a platform of finishing the revolution of 1989, often using a slogan, “Wir sind das Volk” (we are the people) in reference to a pro-reunification rallying cry: “Wir sind ein Volk” (We are one people).

HONG KONG

Umbrellas and Weapons

Thousands of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong blocked roads near the airport Sunday, causing delays and cancellations in one of Asia’s busiest airports, while escalating a standoff with China, the Associated Press reported.

Riot police prevented demonstrators from entering the terminal but government officials said protesters threw bricks and other objects at police. Sunday’s demonstrations followed a violent clash between authorities and protesters Saturday, when demonstrators threw gasoline bombs at government headquarters.

A total of 63 people were arrested, including a 13-year-old boy accused of possessing two petrol bombs.

Hong Kong residents have been taking to the streets for nearly three months in response to a proposed bill by China to allow extradition to the mainland. Opponents see the bill as an erosion of the “one country, two systems” framework as well as the liberties promised in a 1997 agreement handing Hong Kong back to China.

Even though the bill has now been suspended, protesters want it completely off the table. They also want the leadership of the island to resign and are calling for new elections.

Meanwhile, the protests are an embarrassment to China’s ruling Communist Party ahead of Oct. 1 celebrations marking its 70th anniversary in power.

UNITED KINGDOM

We’re Not Gonna Take It

Thousands of British protesters took to the streets over the weekend in fury over Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to temporarily suspend the British parliament as the country tries to negotiate a deal before leaving the European Union.

The protesters in London and other cities are particularly incensed by a “no deal” Brexit and say they want to show support for a measure by the opposition to block it, CBS News reported.

Johnson’s decision to shut down parliament last week was followed by a bill by opposition lawmakers to block him from exiting the EU later this yeawr without an agreement, Reuters reported.

Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn told people at a rally in Glasgow that Johnson does not have a mandate to shut down parliament or leave the EU without a deal.

“It’s not on and we’re not having it,” said Corbyn.

The shutdown is also being challenged in three separate court cases scheduled to be heard this week.

DISCOVERIES

In Vino Veritas

Alcohol can help people feel more comfortable in social occasions but too much can also lead to regrettable statements and actions.

That’s because, as scientists say, too much booze lowers a person’s sense of empathy, predisposing individuals to misinterpret social situations and act irrationally.

A loss of inhibitions, however, doesn’t mean that an individual’s moral compass or ability to distinguish right from wrong changes, wrote psychology lecturer Kathryn Francis in the Conversation.

She and fellow researchers recently conducted an experiment by giving vodka shots to study participants in order to better understand how drinking alcohol, empathy, and moral behavior correlate.

The team discovered that too much alcohol can lower a participant’s empathy levels to the point of rudeness but not impact moral decisions.

When researchers asked participants if they would sacrifice an obese man to stop a runaway trolley from killing several construction workers, alcohol didn’t affect their decision – even though they lacked empathy.

Researchers noted that the participants would make the same decision – either sacrifice the person or not – when sober or drunk.

The study essentially shows that people can’t excuse how they act when intoxicated since their personalities don’t change much.

“You’re still the same person after a drink,” said Francis. “Your existing sense of morality (is) left intact.”