Connect with us

International

EU Leaders Agree to $859 Billion Coronavirus Relief Package Under Larger Economic Budget Deal

Published

on

  • After talks ran long at a European Union summit, EU leaders agreed to a massive $859 billion stimulus plan which will address economic impacts from the coronavirus.
  • The plan will provide a mix of grants and loans over the next four years to help businesses recover, roll out new measures to reform economies, and invest in protecting against “future crises.”
  • The original plan would have provided more grant money to struggling countries, but richer nations rejected that idea and only agreed to the current plan after an additional series of concessions.
  • Those concessions include cuts made to projects covering health, refugees, and the climate.

What’s in the Deal?

The European Union agreed to a massive $859 million stimulus package on Monday meant to address the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The package is part of a $2.1 trillion budget the EU approved for 2021-2027. While $1.3 trillion of that goes directly to the EU’s budget and is part of its normal negotiations every seven years, the portion provided for coronavirus relief is quite extraordinary. 

In fact, this package is so important that it’s expected to help Europe avoid what could be its worst economic blow since World War 2.

According to the final agreement, the package will largely be spent over the next four years and will include both loans and grants that will be sent to member nations. It will also focus on providing funding in three main ways: helping businesses recover, rolling out new measures to reform economies, and investing in a goal to protect against “future crises.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she had “no regrets” on the concessions given to reach an agreement, saying, “We think we’ve acted responsibility in agreeing to these compromises,”

Others, however, were less pleased, and one anonymous official described the agreement as a “bittersweet victory” because, in order to reach a compromise, cuts were made to projects covering healthcare and refugees. The finished deal also doesn’t include expenditure on many research and climate projects.

Long Road to Reaching This Deal

While EU leaders have lauded the passage of the deal, the process of reaching an agreement was tedious at best. 

For one, talks ran long. The summit to discuss the package began on Friday and was only scheduled to last through the weekend, but it ended up stretching into Monday.

That’s because a number of rich, northern countries known as the “Frugal Four” slowed down those talks after opposing the EU’s original plan. The “Frugal Four” include the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, and Sweden. Over the weekend, Finland also allied with their opposition to the original plan.

That plan would have allocated €500 billion in grant money, meaning the “Frugal Four” would have had to pay in more as net contributors to the EU.

Their main objection was over how much should be given to countries like Italy and Spain—countries that have been hit inordinately hard by the coronavirus. They also questioned how much control those countries should have over how the funds distributed to them will be spent. 

During the summit, Dutch leaders argued that Italy and Spain were to blame for struggling to recover because they had other economic difficulties prior to the pandemic. The Dutch then added that they did not want to send money to those countries without guarantee that such a move would provide economic reform to the EU in the long run.

Much of the specifics of the debate boiled down to two questions: How much should be given in grants, and how much should be given in loans? 

More grant money, for example, would mean less debt for countries receiving aid as they wouldn’t have to repay the money given to them. On the other hand, countries would be expected to repay loans. 

After denouncing the original plan, the “Frugal Four” returned with a counter-offer that proposed only handing out €375 billion in grants.

The situation in itself was already quite unique. Typically, in times of crisis, the EU has only offered loans. Still, Spain argued that the EU couldn’t afford to give out less than €400 billion in grants for this specific emergency. 

As a basis for that argument, it said that any failure to reach an agreement would result in a “two-speed” economic recovery, with richer countries bouncing back faster than struggling countries. In turn, Spain stressed that such a failure would place further strain on the EU as a whole. 

From there, European Council President Charles Michel proposed a compromise of €390 billion in grant money ($446 billion USD).

The rest of that overall $859 billion would then go to low-interest loans.

Notably, the compromise also included billions in rebates to the “Frugal Four” for their contribution and with that, the four agreed to the deal. 

EU Leaders Praise the Deal

Michel described the agreement, which was the single-biggest joint borrowing plan ever agreed to by the EU, as the first time that EU member countries were “jointly enforcing our economies against the crisis.”

“We did it! We have reached a deal on the recovery package and the European budget,” he said. “This is a strong deal. And most importantly, the right deal for Europe right now.” 

French president Emmanuel Macron describing the deal as a “historic day for Europe.” 

Hard hit countries like Spain, Italy, and even Portugal also appeared to be content with the final grant figure.

“While it’s true that it could have had a slightly bigger dimension, the recovery plan is robust enough to respond to the current estimates of the coronavirus crisis,” Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa said. 

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (CNN Business) (BBC)

International

New Zealand Considers Banning Cigarettes For People Born After 2004

Published

on

  • New Zealand announced a series of proposals that aim to outlaw smoking for the next generation with the hopes of being smoke-free by 2025.
  • Among the proposed provisions are plans to gradually increase the legal smoking age and possibly prohibit the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products to anyone born after 2004; effectively banning smoking for that generation.
  • Beyond that, the level of nicotine in products will likely be significantly reduced, setting a minimum price for tobacco and heavily restricting where it can be sold.
  • The proposals have proven to be popular as one in four New Zealand cancer deaths are tobacco-related, but some have criticized them as government overreach and worry a ban could lead to a bigger and more robust black market.

Smoke Free 2025

New Zealand announced sweeping new proposals on Thursday that would effectively phase out the use of tobacco products, a move that is in line with its hopes to become a smoke-free country by 2025.

Among a number of provisions, the proposals include plans to gradually increase the legal smoking age and bar anyone born after 2004 from buying tobacco products. Such a ban would effectively end tobacco sales after a few decades. The government is also considering significantly reducing the level of nicotine allowed in tobacco products, prohibiting filters, restricting locations where tobacco products can be purchased, and setting a steep minimum price for tobacco.

“We need a new approach.” Associate Health Minister Dr. Ayesha Verral said when announcing the changes on Thursday. 

“About 4,500 New Zealanders die every year from tobacco, and we need to make accelerated progress to be able to reach [a Smoke Free 2025]. Business-as-usual without a tobacco control program won’t get us there.”

The proposals received a large welcome from public health organizations and local groups. Shane Kawenata Bradbrook, an advocate for smoke-free Maori communities, told The Guardian that the plan “will begin the final demise of tobacco products in this country.” 

The Cancer Society pointed out that these proposals would help combat health inequities in the nation, as tobacco stores were four times more likely to be in low-income neighborhoods, where smoking rates are highest.

Not Without Flaws

The proposals weren’t completely without controversy. There are concerns that a complete ban could bankrupt “dairy” store owners (the equivalent to a U.S. convenience store) who rely on tobacco sales to stay afloat. 

There are also concerns that prohibition largely doesn’t work, as has been seen in other nations with goods such as alcohol or marijuana. Many believe a  blanket ban on tobacco will increase the incentive to smuggle and sell the products on the black market. The government even acknowledged the issue in a document outlining Thursday’s proposals. 

“Evidence indicates that the amount of tobacco products being smuggled into New Zealand has increased substantially in recent years and organised criminal groups are involved in large-scale smuggling,” the document said.

Some are also concerned about how much the government is intervening in people’s lives.

“There’s a philosophical principle about adults being able to make decisions for themselves, within reason,” journalist Alex Braae wrote. 

The opposition ACT party also added that lowering nicotine content in tobacco products could lead to smokers smoking more, a particular concern as one-in-four cancer cases in New Zealand are tobacco-related.

See what others are saying: (Stuff) (Independent) (The Guardian)

Continue Reading

International

Egypt Seizes Ship That Blocked Suez Canal Until Owners Pay Nearly $1 Billion

Published

on

  • Egyptian authorities seized the Ever Given, a mega-ship that blocked the Suez Canal for nearly a week last month, after a judge ruled Wednesday that the owners must pay $900 million in damages.
  • The ship was seized just as it was deemed fit to return to sea after undergoing repairs in the Great Bitter Lake, which sits in the middle of the Suez Canal.
  • The vessel’s owners said little about the verdict, but insurance companies covering the ship pushed back against the $900 million price tag, saying it’s far too much for any damage the ship actually caused.

Ever Given Still in Egypt

An Egyptian court blocked the mega-ship known as the Ever Given from leaving the country Wednesday morning unless its owner pays nearly $1 billion in compensation for damages it caused after blocking the Suez Canal for nearly a week last month.

The Ever Given’s ordeal started when it slammed into the side of the canal and became lodged, which caused billions of dollars worth of goods to be held up on both sides of the canal while crews worked round the clock to free the vessel. An Egyptian judge found that the Ever Given becoming stuck caused not only physical damage to the canal that needed to be paid for but also “reputational” damage to Egypt and the Suez Canal Authority.

The ship’s Japanese owner, Shoei Kisen Kaisha, will need to pay $900 million to free the ship and the cargo it held, both of which were seized by authorities after the ship was transported to the Great Bitter Lake in the middle of the canal to undergo now-finished repairs. Shoei Kisen Kaisha doesn’t seem to want to fight the judgment in court just yet. It released a short statement after the ruling, saying that lawyers and insurance companies were working on the claims but refused to comment further.

Pushing Back Against The Claim

While Shoei Kisen Kaisha put in a claim with insurers, those insurance companies aren’t keen on just paying the bill. One of the ship’s insurers, UKP&I, challenged the basis of the $900 million claim, writing in a press release, “The [Suez Canal Authority] has not provided a detailed justification for this extraordinarily large claim, which includes a $300 million claim for a ‘salvage bonus’ and a $300 million claim for ‘loss of reputation.’”

“The grounding resulted in no pollution and no reported injuries. The vessel was re-floated after six days and the Suez Canal promptly resumed their commercial operations.”

It went on to add that the $900 million verdict doesn’t even include payments to the crews that worked to free the ship, meaning that the total price tag of the event could likely be far more for Shoei Kisen Kaisha and the multiple insurance companies it works with.

See what others are saying: (Financial Times) (CNN) (The Telegraph)

Continue Reading

International

Treated Radioactive Water From Japanese Nuclear Power Plant Will Be Released Into Ocean

Published

on

  • The Japanese government confirmed Tuesday that it will officially move forward with plans to dump millions of gallons of radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean.
  • The government spent a decade decontaminating the water, only leaving a naturally occurring isotope in it that scientists recognize as safe for people and the environment.
  • Despite the safety claims, protesters took to the streets in Tokyo to show disapproval of the decision. Local business owners, in particular, have expressed fears that more municipalities worldwide could ban Fukushima products, including fish, because of distrust in the water.
  • Meanwhile, officials have insisted that the dump is necessary as the water takes up a massive amount of space, which is needed to store highly radioactive fuel rods from the remaining cores at the now-defunct nuclear facility.

Editor’s Note: The Japanese government has asked Western outlets to adhere to Japanese naming conventions. To that end, Japanese names will be written as Family Name followed by Given Name.

Radioactive or Bad Publicity?

After years of discussions and debate, the Japanese government announced Tuesday that it will dump radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean.

Government officials consider the move necessary, but it’s facing backlash from local businesses, particularly fisheries, over potential consequences it could have. Many are especially concerned that the decision will create bad press for the region as headlines about it emerge. For instance, a headline from the Guardian on the issue reads, “Japan announces it will dump contaminated water into sea.”

While the water is contaminated and radioactive, it’s not nearly what the headlines make it out to be. The government has spent the last decade decontaminating it, and now it only contains a trace amount of the isotope tritium. That isotope is common in nature and is already found in trace amounts in groundwater throughout the world. Its radiation is so weak that it can’t pierce human skin, meaning one could only possibly get sick by ingesting more than that has ever been recorded.

According to the government, the decontaminated water at Fukushima will be diluted to 1/7 of the WHO’s acceptable radiation levels for drinking water before being released into the ocean over two years.

Something Had To Eventually Be Done

Over the last decade, Japan has proposed this plan and other similar ones, such as evaporating the water, which the International Atomic Energy Agency said last year met global standards.

The water has been sitting in containers for years, so why is there a push to remove it now? Space and leakage seem to be the primary reasons.

The water containers are slowly being filled by groundwater, and the government expects to run out of space relatively soon. Space is sorely needed, as Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide has pointed out in the past that the government wants to use the space to store damaged radioactive fuel rods that still need to be extracted from the plant. Unlike the water, those rods are dangerously radioactive and need proper storage.

Regardless, Suga reportedly recognizes that removing the water is going to end up as a lose-lose situation.

“It is inevitable that there would be reputational damage regardless of how the water will be disposed of, whether into the sea or into the air,” he said at a press conference last week. As expected, the government’s decision did trigger backlash, prompting many demonstrators to take to the streets of Tokyo Tuesday in protest.

To this day, eleven countries and regions still ban many products from the Fukushima prefecture despite massive clean-up efforts that have seen people returning to the area to live.

See what others are saying: (NPR) (KBS World) (NBC News)

Continue Reading