October 02, 2020

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NEED TO KNOW

CZECH REPUBLIC

East and West in the East and West

The president of the Czech senate kicked a hornet’s nest early this month when he delivered a speech in Taiwan that harked back to President John Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in Germany at the height of the Cold War in 1963.

“Kennedy said freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free,” said Senator Milos Vystrcil. “Then he used the sentence ‘I am a Berliner’ to pledge support to the people of Berlin and the highest value of freedom. Please allow me to pledge support to the people of Taiwan in the same way. I am Taiwanese.”

The last three words Vystrcil spoke in Mandarin Chinese, eliciting a standing ovation from the crowd, the South China Morning Post reported.

Needless to say, Chinese leaders in Beijing were not happy, accusing the Czech Senate president of crossing a “red line” and vowing retribution, reported Reuters. The Chinese government views Taiwan as a breakaway province that will at some point rejoin the mainland. But, as the Associated Press noted, Vystrcil, who is a member of the opposition Civic Democratic Party, was not only speaking to the Taiwanese people. He was also leveling criticism against his country’s leaders.

Czech President Milos Zeman, a rightwing populist who opposes immigration and is skeptical of the European Union’s power, has sought to improve ties with China, wrote Balkan Insight. He’s one of a handful of conservative leaders in the region: Austria, Hungary, Poland and others are part of the so-called “illiberal” belt of countries in Central Europe.

Zeman’s office is largely ceremonial. But he is an ally of Prime Minister Andrej Babis, a billionaire and former businessman whom Zeman has shielded from corruption investigations, Bloomberg explained. Babis is also a critic of migration into Europe. As Euronews wrote, he and other illiberal leaders oppose a new EU plan to spread out migration throughout the bloc, taking pressure off frontline countries like Italy, Greece and Spain.

Such issues are sure to be among those debated by voters before they head to polls on Oct. 2 and 3 to elect regional leaders as well as one-third of the seats in the Senate.

Meanwhile, Vystrcil’s visit to Taiwan didn’t just evoke Kennedy. It was also a reaffirmation of the liberal, democratic tradition of Vaclav Havel, the playwright hero who lead the Velvet Revolution that overturned Soviet control of what was then Czechoslovakia, noted World Politics Review. Havel was the first president of the newly liberated nation. Havel’s image has been revived recently as opponents of Zeman and Babis express their desire for a more liberal country that doesn’t cozy up to communist dictatorships.

The voters will determine which vision becomes a reality. And maybe, just maybe, Havel will look down and give a nod of approval.

WANT TO KNOW

IRELAND

Bread By Any Other Name…

Ireland’s Supreme Court ruled that bread used in Subway’s sandwiches does not fit the legal definition of “bread” due to the high level of sugar it contains, ABC News reported Thursday.

The case was a tax dispute between Irish authorities and Subway’s franchise owner Bookfinders Ltd. over whether the US food chain owed value-added tax (VAT) on its bread.

Bookfinders maintained it was exempt from the levy since its bread qualifies as a “staple food” under Irish taxation laws, which is taxed differently than candy or other non-staple goods. It demanded a refund for the VAT it paid between early 2004 and late 2005.

The court, however, said that for bread to be defined as a staple food, the sugar content needs to be less than two percent of the total weight of the flour in the dough.

All of Subway’s bread contains about 10 percent sugar.

The judges noted that Ireland’s Value-Added Tax Act of 1972 defined “bread” in that manner to establish a distinction between bread and other baked goods such as cookies and pastries.

LEBANON

Baby Steps

Lebanon and Israel agreed to start the process for US-brokered talks aimed at resolving a decades-long maritime border dispute between the two nations that remain formally at war, Reuters reported Thursday.

Lebanese Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri said the framework for the talks will fall under the United Nations’ mandate and will focus on the land and maritime boundary with Israel. Israeli officials, meanwhile, said the talks will occur later this month and only include the maritime border.

US officials welcomed the announcement and said the step toward talks had taken three years of diplomacy to achieve.

Berri’s announcement comes less than a month after the US imposed sanctions on his top aide for corruption and for providing financing to Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which is labeled a terrorist organization by the US and the European Union. The speaker denied rumors that he was pressured to make the announcement.

Regardless, it comes as Lebanon is facing a severe economic and political crisis exacerbated by a huge explosion that rocked the capital in August.

It also follows deals signed last month between Israel and two Gulf Arab states to normalize relations.

GERMANY

Unfinished Business

The former chief of Volkswagen’s Audi division and three other company officials went on trial this week over their role in helping the company to cheat on emissions tests, the Associated Press reported.

Rupert Stadler and the three co-defendants appeared before a Munich court, marking the first criminal trial in Germany over the scandal that erupted five years ago and has cost Volkswagen more than $35 billion in fines and settlements.

The defendants are charged with fraud, false certification and criminal false advertising and could face a maximum of 10 years in prison if convicted. The trial is expected to last until December 2022.

The Volkswagen emissions scandal broke in September 2015 after the US Environmental Protection Agency accused the company of rigging thousands of vehicles with a software that would increase emissions controls when they were being tested.

This resulted in higher nitrous oxide pollution, which is harmful to humans.

Meanwhile, VW former CEO Martin Winterkorn faces two separate criminal trials in Germany for his role in the scandal. He has also been charged in the US, but cannot be extradited.

DISCOVERIES

Anything for Love

The band Meat Loaf once sang about the lengths some can go to in its iconic ballad, “I’d Do Anything for Love.”

It seems the male funnel-web spider took the lyrics to heart.

Australia’s funnel-web spiders are one of the deadliest arachnids in the world thanks to their highly toxic venom, which can kill an adult in a matter of hours. The males have the most potent venom. And they developed it as a defense mechanism in the search for a mate.

Analysis of the venom in a new study shows that when males reach sexual maturity, they have to take dangerous journeys to find a female and face the risk of being eaten by other vertebrates, such as birds or rodents, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

“Unluckily for us, we’re a vertebrate species which copped it in the process,” said co-author Bryan Fry.

But evolution often comes with a twist: The venom is not deadly to non-primate vertebrates such as dogs, mice and birds.

Fry said that this was an unfortunate evolutionary accident, and added that the study could help develop better anti-venoms against the spider’s bite.

COVID-19 Global Update

More than 180 nations worldwide have confirmed cases of the coronavirus. The following have the highest numbers worldwide as of 4 a.m. ET*:

  1. US: 7,278,385 (+0.61%)
  2. India: 6,394,068 (+1.29%)
  3. Brazil: 4,847,092 (+0.75%)
  4. Russia: 1,179,634 (+0.75%)
  5. Colombia: 835,339 (+0.68%)
  6. Peru: 814,829 (+0.38%)
  7. Spain: 778,607 (+1.22%)
  8. Argentina: 765,002 (+1.86%)
  9. Mexico: 748,315 (+0.69%)
  10. South Africa: 676,084 (+0.26%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours