NATO to Receive First Northrop Surveillance Drone, Years Late

NATO is to receive the first of five Northrop Grumman high-altitude drones in the third quarter after years of delays, giving the alliance its own spy drones for the first time, the German government told lawmakers.

Thomas Silberhorn, state secretary in the German Defense Ministry, said the NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) drone would be delivered to an air base in Sigonella, Italy, followed by four additional systems, including drones and ground stations built by Airbus, later in the year.

NATO plans to use the aircraft, a derivative of Northrop’s Global Hawk drone, to carry out missions ranging from protection of ground troops to border control and counter-terrorism. The drones will be able to fly for up to 30 hours at a time in all weather, providing near real-time surveillance data.

Northrop first won the contract for the AGS system from NATO in May, 2012, with delivery of the first aircraft slated for 52 months later. However, technical issues and flight test delays have delayed the program, Silberhorn said.

Andrej Hunko, a member of the radical Left opposition party, called for Germany to scrap its participation in the program, warning of spiraling costs and the risk that it could escalate the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

“The drones are closely linked to a new form of warfare,” he said. “They stand for an arms race that will see existing surveillance and spy systems replaced with new platforms.”

Silberhorn, in a previously unreported response to a parliamentary query from Hunko, said NATO had capped the cost of the program at 1.3 billion euros ($1.47 billion) in 2007.

Germany, which is funding about a third of system, scrapped plans to buy its own Global Hawk drones amid spiraling costs and certification problems, and is now negotiating with Northrop to buy several of its newer model Triton surveillance drones.

Fifteen NATO countries, led by the United States, will pay for the AGS system, but all 29 alliance nations are due to participate in its long-term support.

Germany has sent 76 soldiers to Sigonella to operate the surveillance system and analyze its findings, Silberhorn said.

He said a total of 132 German soldiers would eventually be assigned to AGS, of whom 122 would be stationed in Sigonella.

NATO officials had no immediate comment on the program’s status or whether Northrop faced penalties for the delayed delivery.

No comment was available from Northrop.

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UK Prime Minister in Last-Minute Push to Win Brexit Support

British Prime Minister Theresa May was making a last-minute push Monday to win support for her European Union divorce deal, warning opponents that failure to approve it would mean a long — and possibly indefinite — delay to Brexit.

Parliament has rejected the agreement twice, but May aims to try a third time this week if she can persuade enough lawmakers to change their minds. Her aim is to have the deal agreed before EU leaders meet Thursday for a summit in Brussels.

 

May’s goal is to win over Northern Ireland’s small, power-brokering Democratic Unionist Party. The DUP’s 10 lawmakers prop up May’s Conservative government, and their support could influence pro-Brexit Conservatives to drop their opposition to the deal.

 

Still, May faces a struggle to reverse the huge margins of defeat for the agreement in Parliament. It was rejected by 230 votes in January and by 149 votes last week.

 

Influential Conservative Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg said he would wait to see what the DUP decided before making up his mind on whether to support May’s deal.

 

“No deal is better than a bad deal, but a bad deal is better than remaining in the European Union,” he told LBC radio.

 

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Monday he saw “cautious signs of encouragement” that the deal might make it through Parliament this week.

 

After months of political deadlock, British lawmakers voted last week to seek to postpone Brexit. That will likely avert a chaotic British withdrawal on the scheduled exit date of March 29 — although the power to approve or reject a Brexit extension lies with the EU, whose leaders are fed up with British prevarication.

 

May is likely to ask for an extension at the Brussels summit, and EU leaders say they will only grant it if Britain has a solid plan for what to do with the extra time.

 

“We have to know what the British want: How long, what is the reason supposed to be, how it should go, what is actually the aim of the extension?” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters in Brussels. “The longer it is delayed, the more difficult it will certainly be.”

 

Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders agreed, saying: “We are not against an extension in Belgium, but the problem is — to do what?”

 

Opposition to May’s deal centers on a measure designed to ensure there is no hard border between the U.K.’s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland after Brexit.

 

The mechanism, known as the backstop, is a safeguard that would keep the U.K. in a customs union with the EU until a permanent new trading relationship is in place. Brexit supporters in Britain fear the backstop could be used to bind the country to EU regulations indefinitely, and the DUP fears it could lead to a weakening of the bonds between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.

 

Talks between the government and the DUP are aimed at reassuring the party that Britain could not be trapped in the backstop indefinitely.

 

May has said that if her deal is approved by Parliament this week, she will ask the EU to delay Brexit until June 30 so that Parliament has time to approve the necessary legislation. If it isn’t, she will have to seek a longer extension that could mean Britain participating in May 23-26 elections for the European Parliament.

 

May said in an article for the Sunday Telegraph that failure to approve the deal meant “we will not leave the EU for many months, if ever.”

 

“The idea of the British people going to the polls to elect MEPs (Members of the European Parliament) three years after voting to leave the EU hardly bears thinking about,” she wrote.

 

But May suffered a setback Monday when former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson refused to support her deal.

 

Johnson, a staunch Brexiteer, used his column in the Daily Telegraph to argue that the backstop left the U.K. vulnerable to “an indefinite means of blackmail” by Brussels.

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EU May Push China to Open Economy at April Summit

The European Union will seek Beijing’s agreement for deadlines to open up China’s economy at an April 9 summit in Brussels, according to a draft leaders’ statement, trying to coax it into making good on promises to deepen trade ties.

China and the EU will “agree by summer 2019 on a set of priority market access barriers and requirements facing their operators,” according to a six-page joint communique drafted by the EU, which still requires Chinese approval.

The statement, seen by Reuters, said the two trading blocs would set “deadlines for their swift removal by the next EU-China summit 2020 at the latest.”

The statement, which is likely to change, also sets 2020 as the goal for a special treaty to increase investment flows that has been under negotiation for almost a decade.

The communique reflects European frustration over China’s reluctance to allow foreign companies to set up without restrictions while taking full advantage of the EU’s openness, EU diplomats say.

A surge of Chinese takeovers in critical sectors in Europe and an impression in Brussels that Beijing has not kept its promise to stand up for free trade and globalization have given the April meeting new urgency.

Despite an agenda dominated by Britain’s imminent departure from the EU, leaders will use a March 21 summit to discuss China policy, a first for many years.

It is part of a flurry of high-level meetings before President Xi Jinping travels to Italy and France from this week and the bloc holds a summit with China on April 9.

The joint draft statement is set to be formally released at the summit between Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk.

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France Starts New Chapter in National Debate Aimed to End Yellow-Vest Crisis

After wrapping up thousands of town hall meetings, France starts a new chapter of its “great debate,” aimed to address longstanding public grievances and offer solutions to the yellow vest protest movement.

But the broader crisis lingers, seen with upsurge of violence in Paris Saturday, where about 10,000 yellow vests marked their 18th straight week of protests.

Demonstrators smashed and looted businesses on the iconic Champs Elysees and hurled cobble stones at police, who responded with tear gas and water cannons. Others participated in a peaceful climate march that brought together tens of thousand of people—underscoring the diffuse, unorganized complexity of the leaderless protest movement.

Eight weeks of citizen debates, launched in January by an embattled President Emmanuel Macron, have received mixed reviews. Some consider them a groundbreaking experiment in participative democracy. Others dismiss them as a public relations stunt.

The bigger question is whether and how Macron’s centrist government plans to transform the public feedback into tangible policy change that can address pent-up resentments and find an exit to the unrest.

“The problems start now” said analyst Jean Petaux of Sciences-Po Bordeaux University. “To totally finish with the yellow vests, the government has to address at least part of their demands, which are very disparate. And give the sense it is offering credible solutions.”

For Macron, the immediate takeaways have been largely positive. Up to half-a-million French participated in 10,000 town-hall-style meetings nationwide that tackled pre-set topics, ranging from taxes and pubic services, to democracy and the environment. Organizers also received more than 1.4 million online comments outlining other issues of public concern, including jobs and immigration.

“People are learning that politics and how to change a system is a very difficult process,” said Bernard Reber, an expert on participative citizenship at the Paris-based National Center for Scientific Research, citing one early achievement.

A mixed review

The debates have also given the president and his government some breathing room — time that will last through the current “phase two,” which ends in April. Citizens are being randomly selected to participate in regional meetings aimed to prioritize the myriad demands.

Surveys show the majority of French have broadly given the national debates a thumbs up. More than eight in 10 respondents said the meetings gave citizens an opportunity to express themselves, while smaller majorities said they addressed their personal problems and those aired by the yellow vests, according to a Harris Interactive-Agence Epoka poll published this week, echoing others.

But many appear skeptical that all the talking will amount to much. Another survey found roughly two-thirds doubt the government will ultimately take the public feedback into account.

France’s leading Le Monde newspaper, however, gave the effort a careful, initial thumbs up. Critics who dismissed the debates as a diversion “were misguided,” it wrote in an editorial, while the yellow vests “were eclipsed and marginalize by this exercise in democracy.”

“Macron has not yet won,” it added, “he needs to show he hasn’t just listened but heard the country.”

Government members insist that will happen.

“The idea we have to do things differently is obvious,” Territorial Collectives Minister Sebastien Lecornu, who helped to organizing the debates, told the weekly Le Journal du Dimanche. “We may beef up certain themes, accelerate or correct others.”

But Prime Minister Edouard Philippe offered a more cautionary note, those expecting a flurry of government measures emerging from the debates were misguided.

The months of yellow vest protests have slowed Macron’s reformist agenda. The protest movement, named after the fluorescent jackets French keep in their cars, has morphed well beyond its initial opposition to a planned fuel tax hike, to embrace a hodgepodge of grievances of a largely rural and working class France left behind.

The French president took an initial step back by repealing the fuel tax increase. Then in December, he went further, announcing billions of dollars of aid for the most vulnerable and laying out plans the debates. Yellow vests dismissed the announcements as insufficient, the most extreme calling for Macron’s resignation.

“Emmanuel Macron now has to show that his statements — that there is a before and and after the yellow vests — are translated into acts,” says analyst Petaux. “Otherwise, it’s just talk.”

The next step?

So far, there are at least stylistic changes. Often dismissed as arrogant and aloof, Macron has rolled up his sleeves — literally — and participated in roughly a dozen public debates, in a style reminiscent of his presidential campaign.

Political opponents grumble the French leader has hogged media coverage ahead of May European Parliament elections. And indeed, polls show Macron’s approval rating jumped eight points by early March, to reach 28 percent, and his Republic on the March party inching up to overtake the far-right opposition National Rally.

Still, some observers note the debates ultimately involved only a small slice of the population — including many elderly, with time on their hands. “The great majority of French stayed home,” said analyst Petaux. “It’s not that they were sidelined. It’s that they don’t care. They have other things to do.”

But analyst Reber, who attended roughly 30 of the town hall meetings, believes the debates should not be underestimated. “They’ve been unprecedented in every sense,” he said.

A few months ago, he said, many would have dismissed the idea that French would show up and hash out often deeply divisive issues. “But that’s not been the case,” Reber added. “People mobilized — and stayed for a long time. I don’t know many countries in the world that allow citizens to participate in hours-long debates.”

Macron is expected to announce the after-debate roadmap next month. So far, the French president has given little indication of his long-term exit strategy. Some believe he doesn’t yet have one.

 “I’m not sure the government has a clear idea of what it’s going to do with this mass of information” Reber said. “But it has all kinds of options.

A referendum may be the most obvious path, many analysts say. But it carries risks — not only in terms timing, notably whether to schedule such a vote during May European Parliament elections — but also the chance French may vote against it.

The next steps for the yellow vests are also unclear. A number of analysts believe the movement will slowly die out.

Some diehards will likely continue and harden the protests, Petaux believes, while another group will be absorbed into existing politics parties — mostly on the far right and far left.

A third “will relive the nostalgia of the Republic of roundabouts,” he said, remembering the solidarity and friendships struck during the protests.

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UK Leader to Lawmakers: Back my Deal or Face Lengthy Delay

British Prime Minister Theresa May warned Sunday that it would be “a potent symbol of Parliament’s collective political failure” if a Brexit delay meant that the U.K. has to take part in May’s European elections — almost three years after Britons voted to leave the bloc.

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, May also cautioned that if lawmakers failed to back her deal before Thursday’s European Council summit, “we will not leave the EU for many months, if ever.”

 

“If the proposal were to go back to square one and negotiate a new deal, that would mean a much longer extension… The idea of the British people going to the polls to elect MEPs [Members of the European Parliament] three years after voting to leave the EU hardly bears thinking about,” she wrote.

 

May is expected to try to win Parliament’s approval of her withdrawal agreement for the third time this week. After months of political deadlock, lawmakers voted on Thursday to seek to postpone Brexit.

 

That will likely avert a chaotic withdrawal on the scheduled exit date of March 29 — though power to approve or reject an extension lies with the EU. The European Commission has said the bloc would consider any request, “taking into account the reasons for and duration of a possible extension.”

 

By law, Britain is due to leave the EU on March 29, with or without a deal, unless it cancels Brexit or secures a delay.

 

May is trying to persuade opponents in her Conservative Party and its parliamentary allies to support the withdrawal agreement, which Parliament has already resoundingly defeated twice.

 

Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said Sunday his party is against May’s deal — but indicated that it would back an amendment that supports the deal on condition it is put to a new referendum.

 

Corbyn has written to lawmakers across the political spectrum inviting them for talks to find a cross-party compromise.

 

He also told Sky News that he may propose another no-confidence vote in the government if May’s deal is voted down again.

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Brazil Reportedly Weighing Import Quota for US Wheat

Brazil is considering granting an import quota of 750,000 metric tons of U.S. wheat per year without tariffs in exchange for other trade concessions, according to a Brazilian official with knowledge of the negotiations ahead of President Jair Bolsonaro’s visit to Washington. 

That is about 10 percent of Brazilian annual wheat imports and is part of a two-decade-old commitment to import 750,000 metric tons of wheat a year free of tariffs that Brazil made — but never kept — during the World Trade Organization’s Uruguay Round of talks on agriculture. 

Bolsonaro is scheduled to arrive in Washington on Sunday and meet with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House on Tuesday.

Farm state senators have asked that wheat sales be on the agenda, in a letter to Trump seen by Reuters. They estimate such a quota would increase U.S. wheat sales by between $75 million and $120 million a year. 

Brazil buys most of its imported wheat from Argentina, and some from Uruguay and Paraguay, without paying tariffs because they are all members of the Mercosur South American customs union. Imports from other countries pay a 10 percent tariff. 

The Brazilian official, who asked not to be named so he could speak freely, said the wheat quota could be sealed during a meeting between Brazil’s Agriculture Minister Teresa Cristina Dias and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue on Tuesday. 

In return, the Brazilian government is hoping to see movement toward the reopening of the U.S. market to fresh beef imports from Brazil that was shut down after a meatpacking industry scandal involving bribed inspectors. 

Brazil is also seeking U.S. market access for its exports of limes that are facing phytosanitary certification hurdles. 

The world’s largest sugar producer also wants tariff-free access to the U.S. market. But Washington is not expected to budge on that issue until Brazil lifts a tariff it slapped on ethanol imports when they exceed 150 million liters in a quarter. 

That is a major demand by U.S. biofuels producers, who are the main suppliers of ethanol imported by Brazil. 

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Iran’s Oil Minister Blames US for Market Tensions 

Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh said on Saturday that frequent U.S. comments about oil prices had created market tensions, the ministry’s news website SHANA reported. 

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has made the U.S. economy one of his top issues, has repeatedly tweeted about oil prices and the Organization of the Petroleum Producing Countries. He has expressed concern about higher prices, including last month and ahead of OPEC’s meeting in December.

“Americans talk a lot and I advise them to talk less. They [have] caused tensions in the oil market for over a year now, and they are responsible for it, and if this trend continues, the market will be more tense,” SHANA quoted Zanganeh as saying. 

U.S. crude futures briefly hit a 2019 high on Friday but later retreated along with benchmark Brent oil as worries about the global economy and robust U.S. production put a brake on prices. 

OPEC and its allies including Russia, an alliance known as OPEC+, agreed last year to cut production, partly in response to increased U.S. shale output.

Washington granted waivers to eight major buyers of Iranian oil after the U.S. reimposed sanctions on Iran’s oil sector in November, after withdrawing from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. 

“We do not know whether U.S. waivers would be extended or not. We will do our job but they [the U.S.] say something new every single day,” Zanganeh said. 

South Pars

Zanganeh was speaking at a news conference ahead of the planned inauguration on Sunday of four development phases at South Pars, the world’s largest gas field, by President Hassan Rouhani. 

He said Iran had invested $11 billion to complete the phases 13 and 22-24 of the giant field, which Tehran shares with Qatar, and expected to operate 27 phases by next March, SHANA reported. 

France’s Total and China National Petroleum Corp suspended investment in phase 11 of South Pars last year after the United States threatened to impose sanctions on companies that do business in Iran. 

But Zanganeh said talks with CNPC were continuing. 

“Negotiations are ongoing. A senior delegation from China is due to come to Iran for talks. They have promised to come to Iran soon,” said Zanganeh, according to the semiofficial news agency ISNA. 

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Brexit: What Now?

Veteran Conservative lawmaker Nigel Evans has been in Britain’s House of Commons for more than a quarter-of-a-century and, like most of his parliamentary colleagues, is stunned at the turn of Brexit events.

“I got elected in 1992 and I don’t know if I have known any time more uncertain than now,” he told VOA.

He’s flummoxed at what the next move should be for a Conservative government that has lost control of the Brexit process.

As a committed Brexiter, he fears Britain will end up staying in the European Union because of an impasse in the Commons that has seen the ruling Conservative government repeatedly rebuffed by lawmakers, including by a third of its own MPs, in a series of historic votes without precedent for the storied House of Commons.

Parliament is not alone in being hopelessly divided: Theresa May’s Cabinet is, too, with the British prime minister lurching between pro-EU rebel ministers and their pro-Brexit counterparts, trying to resuscitate a government that appears to be in terminal decline.

Divorce delayed

More than 20 ministers have resigned in the past two years — and at least another half-dozen are on the cusp of quitting. Midweek another minister resigned and four declined to vote with their own government — an unprecedented defiance left unpunished.

Britain’s newspaper headline writers are running out of superlatives and metaphors to describe the political havoc. “We’re becoming the laughing stock of the World,” fumes Andrew Pierce, the Daily Mail’s associate editor, in College Green, the patch of grass outside parliament which has become a media encampment of tents, wires and cameras besieged by chanting, dueling placard-waving protesters.

Britain was due to exit the EU in 16 days’ time, on March 29.

On Wednesday, the House of Commons voted against Britain exiting the EU without a deal — in effect delaying Brexit until further notice. That followed Tuesday’s crushing parliamentary defeat of Theresa May’s Brexit withdrawal agreement — the second time pro-EU and hardline pro-Brexit lawmakers have combined to reject it. Lawmakers Thursday are expected to pass a measure seeking formally to delay Brexit, at least to June 30. EU leaders are divided about accepting a request for delay.

Donald Tusk, the president of the EU Council, tweeted Thursday: “I will appeal to the EU27 to be open to a long extension if the UK finds it necessary to rethink its #Brexit strategy and build consensus around it.”

The Remainers hope to either block Brexit altogether or at least steer it in a gentler direction with Britain still closely aligned although not a member of its political institutions. Hardline Brexiters want a no-nonsense sharp break with the EU, ready to accept the economic damage to Britain that will wreak, at least in the medium term.

That Evans feels unable to predict what happens next is instructive. He is no junior lawmaker, but a so-called “Tory grandee”, and he helps to direct the 1922 Committee, of which all backbench Conservative lawmakers are members.

When the bosses of the 1922 Committee tell a Conservative leader to quit, their word has the force of the Lord High Executioner. The last time the 22, as its nicknamed, deposed a party leader was in 2003, ousting one of Theresa May’s predecessors for losing a general election.

Are they close to giving May the push now? Evans is guarded but makes little secret he thinks the time is close at hand. “Her authority is greatly weakened,” he says grimly.

Replacing May

Pro-Brexit Conservative bloggers and columnists are in vituperative mood, blaming May for mishandling the negotiations with the EU and, from their viewpoint, giving too much ground to Brussels. Gridlock has been the result, they say.

“I can see no scenario where she is the answer for taking the country forward. She should by rights go now. At some point in the next two or three weeks it will even dawn on Mrs. May that it is time to go,” Conservative blogger Iain Dale tells VOA.

WATCH:  British Leadership Change Possible in Wake of Brexit Chaos

Then what?

The vultures are circling. Half-a-dozen would-be replacements from inside May’s Cabinet have in effect been auditioning already for the job, delivering speeches carving out their vision for the country. Some contenders have advanced plans, including printing up campaign material for what they expect is an inevitable leadership election.

A Conservative grassroots favorite, Boris Johnson, the former foreign minister, has had a modern makeover and dispensed with his trademark tousle-haired slapdash look and is now sporting a stylish boyband haircut.

But it is not clear that replacing Theresa May will solve anything or break the political impasse, which is why the 1922 Committee has stayed its hand.

There is no obvious unity candidate to succeed her. A new leader will face the same splits inside the Conservative party between Remainers, Brexiters and the those who favor a so-called soft Brexit modeled on Norway’s relationship with the EU, which would see Britain remain in the bloc’s single market and customs union as well as accept freedom of movement.

And the deadlocked parliamentary arithmetic will remain the same.

Another try

In a final throw of the dice, May is planning to bring her contentious deal back to the Commons for a third time, hoping that she will prevail by sheer persistence. It is the continuation of her strategy of brinkmanship — to run the clock down and force Conservative Brexiters and a handful of allied Northern Irish lawmakers to give in, prompted to do so by the fear that otherwise Britain might never leave the EU in any form.

It is not clear that the pro-EU Speaker of the House, John Bercow, will allow her to do so — under parliamentary rules a government is not meant to keep asking the House to vote repeatedly on the same measure. “If she can pull it off, it will be the political equivalent of Lazarus rising from the dead,” admits a Downing Street official.

Some believe she has a chance of succeeding in this high-stakes game of chicken. Evans does not think so. “For some of the rebels it would be better to stay in the EU than accept this deal, which would have us at the beck and call of Brussels without any power,” he says. Another key Brexiter, Steve Barclay, says he and many of his colleagues will keep voting the deal down “whatever the pressure we’re put under.”

Keeping calm and carrying on?

Beyond Westminster, there is fear, exasperation and anger. And clear Brexit fatigue. BBC Radio Five Live has seen the volume of Brexit-related call-ins tail off recently. There are signs, according to some opinion polls, that the mood of the country may have shifted slightly in favor of remaining in the EU, suggesting that a second referendum would deliver a narrow win for Remain.

As yet there is no majority in the House of Commons for holding a re-run referendum. Nor are lawmakers keen on holding a snap general election, for fear that might result in an equally deadlocked parliament afterwards.

Business leaders were already fuming at all the Brexit uncertainty before this week’s upheaval. “Enough is enough. A new approach is needed by all parties. Jobs and livelihoods depend on it,” said Carolyn Fairbairn, the director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, a major business association.

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