The World Today for December 20, 2019

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The Lamest of Ducks

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is the most powerful woman in the world, according to Forbes.

From there, the only way is down.

Once firmly in control of the economic powerhouse of Europe, Merkel is facing tough times lately. Following a series of electoral setbacks, she announced last year that she would step down as chancellor in 2021 when her term ends. She quit the helm of her party, the conservative Christian Democratic Union, a year ago.

Now she’s discovering that being a lame duck leader isn’t easy.

First, the new even more leftist leaders of the Social Democratic Party are big trouble for Merkel, says Euractiv: They are considering pulling out of their current coalition with Merkel’s party, a move that would potentially bring down her government.

The Social Democrats are particularly sick and tired of Merkel’s austere fiscal policies. They want to boost spending to head off a recession. Even Merkel’s most important supporters in the business lobby are siding with the Social Democrats.

Restraining borrowing and spending was wise after the 2008 financial crisis when budgetary discipline was necessary, Federation of German Industries head Dieter Kempf said in Fortune magazine. But today the economy is slowing, private investment is falling and the government can borrow at negative interest rates to make up for the gap.

Bloomberg editorial board member Andreas Kluth agreed. “The current government of the European Union’s largest economy has been inexcusably mediocre, and is badly in need of change,” Kluth wrote in an opinion piece. “Name almost any major challenge facing Europe today, and German flexibility and leadership is as needed as it is absent.”

The new leader of the Christian Democrats, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, also sometimes called “Mini-Merkel,” appears to be standing by the chancellor and resisting calls for new spending. But Kramp-Karrenbauer also recently told a German newspaper that she didn’t see any “red lines” in talks with the Social Democrats, or policies that she would never consider in order to keep the coalition together.

Other challenges are emerging, too.

Social Democrats and Christian Democrats in parliament want to stop Chinese telecommunications company Huawei from building a 5G mobile network in Germany (where even 4G lags behind). They fear the company might help China with espionage. But, as the Financial Times reported, Merkel fears such efforts could backfire if Beijing imposes similar restrictions on German companies that depend on exports to the world’s biggest market.

British voters also thumbed their noses at Merkel and other European leaders who hoped Brexit critics would win, not lose, in recent elections in the United Kingdom, Reuters reported.

Politics is not kind to those whose time has passed.




No Comment

Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed support for Donald Trump on Thursday in the wake of the US president’s impeachment a day before, saying that Democratic lawmakers had “invented” the charges, the Washington Times reported.

“The party that lost the (2016 American presidential) election is continuing the fight by other means…dreamed up charges,” Mr. Putin, 67, said during his annual press conference in Moscow.

Meanwhile, unlike Putin, most world leaders stayed silent on the matter, USA Today reported.

European leaders from the UK, Germany and elsewhere said nothing. Even so, Michael Wohlgemuth, an analyst specializing in European affairs at the Foundation for Economic Governance and Public Law in Lichtenstein, said he believes most Germans are happy to see Trump impeached.

“Trump is most unpopular in Germany. Only 10 percent of Germans trust the American president – compared to 35 percent who actually trust (Russia’s) Vladimir Putin, ” he told USA Today. “… 86 percent of Germans used to trust in the leadership of President Obama.”

Ukraine, which has been at the center of the investigation, refrained from commenting. Officials want to avoid being seen as a pawn of the US.

US allies who have a favorable view of Trump such as Saudi Arabia and Israel – whose leader is under indictment on corruption charges –  also stayed silent about the impeachment. The list also includes Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, who has wooed Trump with excessive flattery and the promise of U.S. military bases. “Brazil is deeply polarized and seized with the daily dramas of their own president,” Robert Muggah, co-founder of the Igarapé Institute, a Brazil-based think tank, told USA Today.

Even China and North Korea, which have their own disputes with the US government, stayed quiet, with Iran only noting the impeachment vote was occurring.

Meanwhile, Foreign Policy magazine pointed out that when President Bill Clinton faced impeachment in 1998, world leaders at a United Nations General Assembly meeting greeted him with a standing ovation.


Blackouts and Rage

Indian protesters hit the streets of several cities on Thursday, despite authorities banning large gatherings in cities across the country and shutting down internet services, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Demonstrations began earlier this week after India’s parliament passed the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, which would grant citizenship to non-Muslim immigrants in India.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government argues that the law will help protect religious minorities persecuted in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, the BBC reported.

Protesters, however, demand the law be repealed because it excludes Muslims and is against India’s constitution. India’s top court has agreed to hear arguments against the law, Bloomberg reported Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the protest ban was followed by another order to shut down internet services in several cities, including the capital New Delhi – for the first time.

So far, India has cut off access to the internet over 90 times this year — more than any other country in the world — according to India’s advocacy group.


Full Steam Ahead

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson put the UK’s departure from the European Union at the top of the parliamentary agenda during the opening ceremony of parliament Thursday, Agence France-Presse reported.

Following snap elections last week, Johnson’s Conservative Party secured a comfortable majority in the 650-seat House of Commons and now the leader hopes to fulfill his election campaign to “Get Brexit Done” by Jan. 31, 2020.

The highlight of the speech was Johnson’s proposed Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) which aims to ratify the terms of Brexit and will be put to a first vote among lawmakers Friday.

The proposed law will cover issues such as the UK’s financial obligation to the EU, new arrangements for Northern Ireland, as well as a transition period that will keep EU-UK relations unchanged until Dec. 31 2020.

The bill will also suggest plans to allow British courts to overturn European Court of Justice rulings, to ensure Britain can quickly detach itself from European case law.

EU officials cautioned that the timeframe is extremely tight, while Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon warned that the current events might encourage another vote for Scottish independence.


Plants Talking Back

Previous research has shown that plants can see, hear and smell, but a new study revealed that they can also “talk” – although “screaming” would be a more fitting definition.

Scientists at the Tel Aviv University in Israel discovered that tomato and tobacco plants made airborne, high-pitched sounds – too high for humans to hear ­– when they needed water or when their stems were cut, New Scientist reported.

The researchers used microphones, placed about four inches away from the plants, to record sounds in the ultrasonic range of 20 to 100 kilohertz.

Only insects, some mammals and possibly other plants could pick up those cries for help, however.

The team observed that tomato plants made 35 sounds an hour when they were thirsty, while tobacco made 11. Unstressed plants produced fewer than one sound per hour.

Although the study only looked at tobacco and tomatoes, the team was also able to record sounds from a spiny pincushion cactus and the weed henbit dead-nettle in a preliminary study.

The researchers speculate that other plants are capable of “talking,” but said they need to further test that theory.

The scientists hope their results can be used to “open a new direction in the field of precision agriculture” where farmers listen for water-starved crops.

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