The World Today for November 29, 2022
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On The Fence
The Schengen Area is one of the European Union’s most popular innovations: A travel zone where citizens of 26 nations can cross each other’s borders without passports. It was a big deal, then, when the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, recently announced that the EU members Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania were ready to join the Schengen Area.
The three former communist countries had proven they were ready to adopt border rules common to all area members, manage their borders according to proper standards, share security info and demonstrate good cooperation between police agencies, Euronews wrote.
The commission issued its announcement despite opposition from Dutch and other EU leaders who don’t want to make it easier for citizens from the three relatively poor East European countries to migrate to the affluent West, EUObserver added.
For Bulgaria, located along one of the great European east-and-west crossroads, the announcement was especially significant because it demonstrated a real move forward in European integration, the country’s greatest diplomatic priority for more than 20 years. The hurdles that remained to access the Schengen Area were a reminder, however, of how far the country had to go to shed its communist past and the criminal bosses who assumed power after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Power struggles between former communists, crime bosses and their cronies, pro-democracy politicians, and pro-capitalist politicians have dominated Bulgaria’s politics for years, explained Bulgarian political scientist Dimitar Bechev in Politico. Recently, no single group has been able to secure and sustain power. In elections in October, the fourth held since April 2021, the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria political party (GERB) won a quarter of the vote – but they are still negotiating with other parties to form a coalition, wrote Balkan Insight.
GERB leader Boyko Borissov, a former prime minister, has ruled out running for the job again. As Miami University of Ohio professor of political science Venelin Ganev wrote for the NYU Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia, however, Borissov has threatened to undo reforms launched by the previous prime minister, Kiril Petkov, including reducing Bulgaria’s dependence on Russian energy.
Bulgaria is traditionally a Russian ally. Now a NATO member, however, it has suffered an energy crunch for refusing to pay Russia for energy in rubles, Reuters noted. Bulgaria has also welcomed Ukrainian migrants, SEE News wrote. It is starting to send military aid to Ukraine, too, Euractiv reported, over the objections of President Rumen Radev, a former socialist who has shown a tendency to sympathize with Russia, as the Modern War Institute at West Point concluded.
The country teeters on the edge of east and west in Europe as Russia, an aggressive nation ruled by oligarchs, hopes to make that continental division as stark as ever.
THE WORLD, BRIEFLY
The Venezuelan government and opposition politicians agreed this week to create a United Nations-managed fund to finance programs for the country’s poor, as both sides are holding talks to resolve the ongoing crisis in the South American nation, the Associated Press reported.
Signed in Mexico’s capital, Mexico City, the new agreement will establish a social fund to support food, health, and education programs for Venezuelans, three-quarters of whom live in extreme poverty.
Diplomats said that Venezuelan assets held in the international financial system will be directed to the fund. But they did not confirm whether the US or European governments had agreed to allow frozen assets to be funneled to the new mechanism.
The agreement marks the resumption of talks between representatives of President Nicolas Maduro’s government and the opposition – including factions supported by the US and led by Juan Guaido – which stalled last year.
In 2019, Guaido declared himself interim president of Venezuela, claiming that his position as president of the country’s National Assembly entitled him to organize a transitional administration after Maduro was re-elected in a sham election in late 2018.
Under the then-Trump administration, the US imposed sanctions against Venezuela and recognized Guaido as the country’s president. It also gave him control of the Venezuelan government’s bank accounts at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and other US-insured banks.
But following the restart of talks, the Biden administration agreed to ease some oil sanctions on Venezuela.
The move will allow the California-based Chevron company to resume limited energy production in Venezuela following years of sanctions that have drastically reduced oil and gas profits flowing to Maduro’s regime.
Officials noted that the policy will only ensure that profits from the sale of oil would be directed to paying down debt owed to Chevron, rather than providing profits to Venezuela’s state-run oil company Petroleos de Venezuela S.A.
The Black Gold
Ghana is planning to buy oil with gold rather than its US dollar reserves, a move aimed at tackling the West African country’s dwindling currency reserves as it grapples with economic upheaval, Reuters reported.
Vice President Mahamudu Bawumia said the new policy “will fundamentally change our balance of payments and significantly reduce the persistent depreciation of our currency.”
He explained that using gold would prevent the falling exchange rate for the Ghanaian cedi currency from having a direct impact on utility prices, because domestic sellers would no longer require foreign currency to buy oil products.
The government plans to implement the new payment method in the first quarter of 2023.
Observers said the plan is unusual because oil-producing nations usually trade their fossil fuel for non-oil goods rather than the opposite.
Although Ghana produces crude oil, it has relied on imports of refined oil products after its only refinery shut down in 2017 following an explosion.
Meanwhile, the country’s Gross International Reserves were valued at roughly $6.6 billion at the end of September 2022, representing less than three months’ worth of imports. This was a steep drop from roughly $9.7 billion at the end of last year.
Amid fears of a spiraling debt crisis and depreciating currency, the government has introduced a series of measures to cut spending and boost revenues.
The resource-rich nation is also negotiating with the International Monetary Fund for a relief package as it handles its worst economic crisis in a generation.
Only The Best
Foreign students may be barred from studying in the United Kingdom unless they have secured a spot at a “top university,” a move observers say is part of the Conservative government’s efforts to curb migration to the country, CNBC reported.
A report by the Times newspaper said the new rules aim to limit the number of international students coming to the UK, including barring students that plan to study “low quality degrees.”
The restrictions also affect how many family members the students can bring with them to the UK. The report notes that the measures will only apply to foreign students who aren’t already living in the UK.
The proposal was unveiled as ministers are debating how to reduce migrant flows to the UK after record levels of net migration were reported last week.
The Office for National Statistics found that nearly 1.1 million people arrived in Britain in the year to June, with around 560,000 emigrating in the same period, leaving net inward migration at a record 504,000 people.
Observers noted that the proposal goes against the government’s International Growth Strategy from 2019, which aims to “support the UK education sector to access global opportunities.”
Officials planned to increase the number of international students studying in the UK each year to 600,000 by 2030 – a target that was reached during the 2020-2021 academic year when more than 605,000 foreign students enrolled in British universities.
University bodies criticized the proposal, saying the move would be “an act of economic self-harm.”
But Home Secretary Suella Braverman countered that the high migration numbers have put pressure on accommodation and public services in the UK, adding that authorities are continuing to keep immigration policies under review.
I Got Rhythm
People bob their heads and tap their feet when following a beat from a song, which scientists describe as beat synchronicity.
While humans are naturally good at it, a research team found that rats can also follow a beat, Cosmos magazine reported.
In a new study, researchers attached an accelerometer to the heads of 10 rats and played them 60-second excerpts of Mozart’s ‘Sonata for Two Pianos’ in D major. The tune was played at four different tempos, including the normal speed of 132 beats per minute (BPM).
The team also conducted a similar experiment on human participants to see how each species would detect beats.
The findings showed that the 132 BPM version was the beat the rodents understood the most, and their beat synchronicity was clearest.
This came as a surprise for the scientists because rats are “faster” than humans in terms of heartbeat, breathing rate, and circulation time. They believed that rats would do better at speedier tempos.
Instead, the identical BPM result suggests that the speed is regulated by something called the brain’s ‘time constant,’ implying that our capacity to keep the beat has been conserved in both human and rat brain waves.
The study is another example of animals feeling rhythm: A previous paper spotted this behavior in cockatoos.
The authors noted that the findings can help scientists understand why music is important to humans – and animals, too.
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