102 villagers, 750 refugees, one grand experiment

Ben Mauk writes: There is no cinema in Sumte. There are no general stores, no pubs, gyms, cafes, markets, schools, doctors, florists, auto shops or libraries. There are no playgrounds. Some roads are paved, but others scarcely distinguish themselves from the scrub grass and swampy tractor trails surrounding each house – modest plots that grade into the farmland and medieval forests of Lower Saxony. There is no meeting hall. All is private and premodern.

One day in October, after a thousand years of evening gloom, a work crew arrives and lines the main avenue with LED street lamps. The lights are a concession to the villagers – all 102 of them – from their political masters in the nearby town of Amt Neuhaus, who manage Sumte’s affairs and must report to their own masters in Hanover, the state capital of Lower Saxony, who in turn must report to their masters in Berlin, who send emissaries to Brussels, which might as well be Bolivia, so impossibly distant do the villagers find that black hole of tax euros and goodwill.

It’s this vague chain of command that most alienates the people of Sumte. They are pensioners and housepainters. They are farmers, subsistence and commercial. They are carpenters, clerks and commuters who cross the River Elbe by ferry every morning, driving to jobs in Lüneberg or Hamburg, 90 minutes away. More than a few are out of work. Nobody tells them anything.

Which is not to suggest anyone here is unaware of what’s going on in the world in 2015. The people of Sumte are not hicks (or hinterwälder, as the Germans say). Word has reached Dirk Hammer, the bicycle repairman, and Walter Luck, the apiarist, about the capsizing trawlers, the panic in Lampedusa. They watch the nightly news. They’ve heard of this crisis. And they wonder where these people – more than a million of them – are headed. The streetlights, a long-standing request now mysteriously granted, make them suspicious.

Only Reinhard Schlemmer watches the workmen and knows for sure. A grizzled figure with a wild nest of silver hair, Schlemmer was once an officer in the East German army. These days he sells painting supplies out of the detached shed behind his house, a nominal business that mostly serves as an excuse to chat with neighbours. He may have lately fallen into the role of odd old man on the margins – the unreformed communist with his cans of primer – but he was Sumte’s mayor when the border came down, a decorated party member, and his bearing still suggests something of the phrase “pillar of the community”.

After reunification, as farming collectives dissolved and unemployment rose, Schlemmer came up with a shrewd plan to save Sumte from extinction. He convinced a rich businessman in Hanover to invest in the construction of a huge complex on its outskirts, a private village-within-the-village where East German women would train to become caseworkers for a debt-collection agency.

The plan worked. The office opened in 1994 and for almost 20 years, the agency provided jobs for 250 women from Sumte and neighbouring towns in Lower Saxony and Mecklenburg, becoming the area’s largest employer. But the 2008 financial crisis razed the debt market, and in 2012 the agency, now called Apontas, decided to consolidate its operations in Hanover. A few women moved with them. The rest lost their jobs. The complex has stood empty ever since.

Now Schlemmer thinks back to the moonless night a month ago when he was out in his yard, looking across the weedy lot at the blackness where the darkened Apontas buildings eclipsed a wedge of stars. He thought of that pitiful infant body lying in the Turkish surf. “All the children out in the dirt,” he remembers thinking. “And all of our halls standing empty.” He asked himself: what is to be done?

It’s an oddly warm October morning when Grit Richter, sitting in her modest mayoral office in Amt Neuhaus, gets a phone call from the interior ministry in Hanover. An administrator explains to her that Sumte will receive 1,000 asylum seekers starting at the end of the month, to be housed in the Apontas office complex. Richter isn’t sure she’s heard correctly. Yes, the administrator says, they know that Sumte is small. They also know that the complex is empty and disused. But the village has something that no other town in the area can boast: 21,000 square feet of dry shelter. Her options, she’s told, are to say “yes” or “yes”.

She hangs up. Like a lot of Germans, Richter is sceptical, pragmatic, stolid. Not much escapes her when it comes to the 4,700 constituents living in border hamlets from Stiepelse to Wehnigen, but she can’t keep track of everything. She doesn’t yet know that Reinhard Schlemmer has been busy making phone calls of his own, offering up the Apontas complex and setting this new idea in motion. [Continue reading…]

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Bank that lent $300m to Trump linked to Russian money laundering scam

The Guardian reports: The German bank that loaned $300m (£260m) to Donald Trump played a prominent role in a money laundering scandal run by Russian criminals with ties to the Kremlin, the Guardian can reveal.

Deutsche Bank is one of dozens of western financial institutions that processed at least $20bn – and possibly more – in money of “criminal origin” from Russia.

The scheme, dubbed “the Global Laundromat”, ran from 2010 to 2014.

Law enforcement agencies are investigating how a group of politically well-connected Russians were able to use UK-registered companies to launder billions of dollars in cash. The companies made fictitious loans to each other, underwritten by Russian businesses. [Continue reading…]

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Stopping the advance of the right-wing populists

In an editorial for Der Spiegel, Ullrich Fichtner writes: Populists like to claim that they alone have the courage to tell the truth. That only they are bold enough to say what the aloof elite and the politically correct mainstream deliberately hold back. The result are truths such as Mexicans are rapists and North Africans are gropers. And that no upstanding German wants a neighbor with dark skin. And more such nonsense.

Convicted racist Geert Wilders sought to win the Dutch election last week with the truth that Moroccans are “scum.” And now those who don’t share Wilders’ view are relieved that only 13 percent of voters agree with him.

But while Wilders’ election defeat may be pleasing, it is still too early to sound the all-clear. This election too delivered plenty of evidence that right-wing populists dominate the public debate.

As things currently stand, the multimedia circus frequently delivers absurdly distorted images of political reality, particularly here in Europe. In the weeks leading up to the Dutch election, a Geert Wilders festival was celebrated in print, radio, television and internet outlets, almost as though the other 27 parties participating in the Dutch vote didn’t even exist. The same can currently be said of France, where the press makes it seem as though only Marine Le Pen’s ideas are up for debate. And there is hardly an article about Italian politics that doesn’t include images of the slobbering populist Beppo Grillo. Here in Germany, entire media seminars could be held focusing on the hysterical attention being paid to the ups and downs of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

The dual shock of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election may have magnified the tendency to exaggerate the ugly. In both cases, the inability to see what was coming increased the media’s self-doubt, shook the political classes and unsettled entire societies. But it would be a cardinal error to conclude from Brexit and Trump that the theories and tirades of right-wing troublemakers automatically represent the “voice of the people” and are thus the expression of justifiable concerns. [Continue reading…]

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Russia ‘stoking refugee unrest in Germany to topple Angela Merkel’

The Observer reports: Russia is trying to topple Angela Merkel by waging an information war designed to stir up anger in Germany over refugees, Nato’s most senior expert on strategic communications has claimed.

The attempt to provoke the removal of the German leader, who has been a strong supporter of sanctions against Vladimir Putin’s regime, is said to have been identified by Nato analysts.

Jānis Sārts, director of Nato’s Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, based in Riga, Latvia, told the Observer that Russia had a track record of funding extremist forces in Europe, and that he believed there was now evidence of Russia agitating in Germany against Merkel. [Continue reading…]

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Germany rejects Trump’s claim it owes NATO and U.S. ‘vast sums’ for defense

The New York Times reports: President Trump criticized Germany on Saturday for paying too little to both NATO and the United States for security support, a day after he held a chilly meeting at the White House with Chancellor Angela Merkel that showcased the two leaders’ disagreements.

“Despite what you have heard from the FAKE NEWS, I had a GREAT meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel,” Mr. Trump wrote in a post on Twitter as he began his weekend at Mar-a-Lago, his estate in Palm Beach, Fla.

“Nevertheless, Germany owes vast sums of money to NATO & the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany!” he continued.

The message was misleading because no nation actually “owes” money to NATO; its direct funding is calculated through a formula and paid by each of the 28 nations that are members.

Mr. Trump may have been referring to the fact that Germany, like most NATO countries, falls short of the alliance’s guideline that each member should allocate 2 percent of its gross domestic product to military spending, but that money is not intended to be paid to NATO or to the United States. [Continue reading…]

Reuters reports: German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen on Sunday rejected U.S. President Donald Trump’s claim that Germany owes NATO and the United States “vast sums” of money for defense.

“There is no debt account at NATO,” von der Leyen said in a statement, adding that it was wrong to link the alliance’s target for members to spend 2 percent of their economic output on defense by 2024 solely to NATO.

“Defense spending also goes into UN peacekeeping missions, into our European missions and into our contribution to the fight against IS terrorism,” von der Leyen said.

She said everyone wanted the burden to be shared fairly and for that to happen it was necessary to have a “modern security concept” that included a modern NATO but also a European defense union and investment in the United Nations. [Continue reading…]

The way Trump talks about NATO suggests he has the wrong model in his mind. He seems to view the international organization as an American-run club who members pay fees in order to enjoy services provided by the U.S., but it doesn’t work like that.

Perhaps Trump’s suspicions about getting “ripped off” are further reinforced by the fact that this club (for which the U.S. in reality only pays 22% of the organizational operating costs) is based in Brussels and led by a Norwegian.

For more details on NATO funding, it’s worth reading NATO’s own explanation. If Trump had the slightest interest in educating himself — he clearly doesn’t — he could learn a lot simply by reallocating 30 minutes of his time away from Fox News to Nato.int. On funding, the site even includes a Trump-friendly summary of “highlights” reduced to six bullet points.

(Just in case Trump and the other conspiracy theorists in the White House are perplexed by NATO’s logo which shows “NATO” and beneath that those letters in reverse, OTAN is not a secret code — it stands for Organisation du Traité de l’Atlantique Nord (NATO in French).)

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Turkish referendum casts a shadow over Germany

Der Spiegel reports: A man in a long, black beard stops and spins around. “What did you say?” he screams in Turkish over the heads of the Hamburg police officers. His adversary leans over a metal barricade and screams again: “You dog!” Behind him, fellow protesters chant: “Murderer Erdogan! Murderer Erdogan!” They hold signs in the air reading “Hayir,” or “No.” The reference is to the upcoming April referendum in Turkey on proposed amendments to the country’s constitution.

The liberal Alevi Cultural Center, along with several other organizations, was behind the demonstration, called to protest the appearance of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu in Hamburg. In response, dozens of people gathered in the northern German city late last Tuesday afternoon to heckle supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The bearded man is furious. “You are the dog,” he screams towards the demonstrators. He then adds: “Are you Christians or what?!” His face is contorted in anger as though he has just uttered the worst curse he can imagine.

When asked about it later, he says he doesn’t have anything against Christians, but he does add that they are weak and don’t have true faith. “Germany is going to the dogs. Should I let my children grow up in such a country? I can hardly bear the Islamophobia anymore.” The man was born here and speaks perfect, accent-free German. “Yeah,” he says, “we’re not stupid. We understand everything that is going on here, including German hypocrisy. That’s why we are going to emigrate to Turkey soon.”

He’s standing next to a white metal fence at the entrance to the Turkish consulate-general’s residence in Hamburg. People waving Turkish flags are streaming into the front yard of the elegant building on Alster Lake. Some have wrapped themselves in the banners or wound them around their heads. For the neighbors in this Hamburg neighborhood, it is a strange scene: on the one side are the demonstrators calling out “Erdogan! Dictator!” On the other are 300 supporters of the president chanting “Allahu akbar!”

The evening’s events exposed the deep divisions in Turkish society that have been created by the constitutional referendum campaign. President Erdogan is seeking to tighten his grip on power by making himself head of government in addition to his current role as head of state. But it is by no means clear that he will get his way. Which is why he is also doing all he can to secure the vote of Turkish citizens living overseas, thus making the conflict over Turkey’s future into a German conflict as well — one which is becoming a threat, and deepening rifts within German society as well. [Continue reading…]

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Germany picks anti-Trump president as trans-Atlantic bonds fray

The Washington Post reports: Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the former German foreign minister who was a vocal critic of Donald Trump during the U.S. campaign, was elected Sunday as the country’s 12th postwar president.

The Social Democrat, who served two stints as foreign minister under Chancellor Angela Merkel, emerged as her governing coalition’s candidate in November as their parties sought to avoid a political spat over the appointment in an election year. With the support of Merkel’s Christian Democratic-led bloc and the Social Democrats in a special assembly on Sunday, Steinmeier was elected in the first round to the mostly ceremonial post.

While Merkel steered clear of sharing her views on Trump before his election as president, her top diplomat vociferously derided what he saw as a campaign that broke taboos and threatened trans-Atlantic bonds. At one point, Steinmeier called Trump a “hate preacher.” As head of state, Steinmeier will be Trump’s counterpart, according to protocol, even though the German presidency lacks the political or policymaking power held by the chancellor.

The day after Trump’s surprise election victory, Merkel issued a couched warning that offered the new U.S. president German cooperation based on joint values, including democracy, respect for the rule of law and for human dignity “independent of origin, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political views.” Steinmeier was less diplomatic.

“The result is not what most Germans would have wished,” Steinmeier said Nov. 9. “I don’t want to sugarcoat anything. Nothing will be easier, many things will become more difficult.”

Steinmeier shunned political tension or any mention of Trump in an eight-minute speech after his election, though he cited Germany as an “anchor of hope” in an increasingly unsettled world. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. allies draw close to Trump at their peril

The New York Times reports: A close relationship with any American president is regarded as crucial by allies and foes alike, but especially by intimates like Britain, Canada, Japan and Mexico. Yet like moths to the flame, the leaders of those nations are finding that they draw close at their peril.

While [Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa] May is the latest prominent figure to suffer repercussions for her handling of Mr. Trump, the leaders of those other three close allies have also felt the sting of public anger soon after what seemed to be friendly telephone calls or encounters. They then find themselves facing a no-win situation, either openly criticizing the leader of their superpower ally or pulling their punches and risking severe criticism at home.

One Western leader to escape this fate so far is the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who has kept a cool distance from Mr. Trump. In a telephone call on Saturday, she reminded him of Washington’s obligations under the Geneva Conventions to accept refugees fleeing war, a view underlined by her official spokesman.

The danger of playing nice with Mr. Trump should come as little surprise to his country’s allies. Besides campaigning on an “America First” platform, he has regularly argued that allies have been taking the United States for a ride, in trade, security and financial terms.

While he has been cordial in public settings with the leaders of those allied nations, Mr. Trump has turned on them soon afterward.

“The problem for May is that Trump doesn’t value relationships. He values strength and winning,” said Jeremy Shapiro, the director of research at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a former senior State Department official. “If you rush to the White House to offer a weak hand of friendship, you guarantee exploitation.” [Continue reading…]

Paul Mason writes: We have two choices: we can acquiesce and let this sociopathic sex pest grab our collective hand amid the scary world he has created. We can abase ourselves for special favours – such as exemption for British dual nationals. Or we can reject Trump in his entirety.

Just as Trump is meddling – via Ukip – in the racial politics of Britain, British liberalism and socialism has the duty now to intervene in the social politics of the US. We must bet on Trump’s defeat in 2020, help train and fund lawyers and journalists to hold him in check, and – once he is gone – attempt to rebuild the multilateral order. Yes, and ruin his state visit: through all forms of protest legally possible.

The shape of a Dump Trump foreign policy is clear: Britain must strengthen its alliance with countries whose governments and peoples share our values: France, the Netherlands, Germany, Canada and Greece. Although we are headed out of the EU, the case for the softest possible form of Brexit is only strengthened by the US’s descent into arbitrary government. [Continue reading…]

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Merkel ‘explains’ refugee convention to Trump in phone call

The Guardian reports: Donald Trump’s executive order to halt travel from seven Muslim-majority countries – Iraq, Syria, Iran, Yemen, Sudan, Libya and Somalia – has provoked a wave of concern and condemnation from international leaders and politicians.

A spokesman for Angela Merkel said the German chancellor regretted Trump’s decision to ban citizens of certain countries from entering the US, adding that she had “explained” the obligations of the Geneva refugee convention to the new president in a phone call on Saturday.

“The chancellor regrets the US government’s entry ban against refugees and the citizens of certain countries,” Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said in a statement.

“She is convinced that the necessary, decisive battle against terrorism does not justify a general suspicion against people of a certain origin or a certain religion.

“The Geneva refugee convention requires the international community to take in war refugees on humanitarian grounds. All signatory states are obligated to do. The German government explained this policy in their call yesterday.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s relations with Putin warm unlike those with European leaders

The New York Times reports: President Trump began a new era of diplomacy with Russia on Saturday as he and President Vladimir V. Putin conducted an hourlong telephone call, and vowed to repair relations between the countries after nearly three years of conflict that threatened a new Cold War between East and West.

The two leaders discussed fighting terrorism and expanding economic ties, but barely mentioned the wedge that has been driven between Washington and Moscow since Russia annexed Crimea and sponsored a separatist war in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Still, although Mr. Trump had previously expressed a willingness to lift sanctions against Russia, the issue did not come up, according to officials on both sides.

The tone of the conversation was reported to be warm, indicating a drastic shift after relations had broken down between Mr. Putin and former President Barack Obama. “The positive call was a significant start to improving the relationship between the United States and Russia that is in need of repair,” the Trump administration said in a statement. “Both President Trump and President Putin are hopeful that after today’s call, the two sides can move quickly to tackle terrorism and other important issues of mutual concern.”

In its statement, the Kremlin said: “Donald Trump asked to convey a desire for happiness and prosperity for the Russian people, noting that the people in America relate with sympathy to Russia and its citizens.” Mr. Putin answered that Russians feel the same way about Americans, the statement said. Neither side mentioned the Russian hacking of the American election in their statements.

Over the past two days, Mr. Trump has also had a series of conversations with the United States’ traditional European allies, but those calls were seemingly not as congenial. After a meeting on Friday with Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain, in which she warned against removing sanctions on Russia, Mr. Trump had on Saturday what appeared to be a businesslike call with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, and a testier call with President François Hollande of France.

Mr. Hollande’s office said the French president pressed Mr. Trump not to lift sanctions against Russia and to respect the nuclear agreement with Iran. He asserted the importance of the Paris climate change pact, warned of the consequences of protectionism, and added that democratic values included welcoming refugees — all in reaction to Mr. Trump’s first week of policy moves. Mr. Hollande also emphasized the importance of NATO and the United Nations, both of which Mr. Trump has disparaged. [Continue reading…]

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Russia is targetting French, Dutch and German elections with fake news, EU task force warns

The Telegraph reports: Russia is seeking to influence the outcome of several key elections in European countries this year with fake news, a special task force set up by the European Union has warned.

The EU is reportedly allocating more funds to its East StratCom task force to counter the disinformation, amid fears Russia will target elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands

“There is an enormous, far-reaching, at least partly organized, disinformation campaign against the EU, its politicians and its principles,” a source close to the task force told Germany’s Spiegel magazine.

It is “highly likely” Russia will try to influence European elections “as it did in the US”, the source said.

The number one target is Angela Merkel, who has been subjected to a “bombardment” of fake news over her refugee policy and support for economic sanctions against Russia.

Disinformation is “part of state policy” and a “military tool” for the Kremlin”. [Continue reading…]

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Europe’s far-right leaders unite at dawn of the Trump era

Time reports: After a few weeks of reading online about Donald Trump’s transition to the presidency, Marco Kopping, a 36-year-old apprentice at a car-parts supplier near Frankfurt, decided to get involved in German politics. He had never sympathized with a political party before, let alone joined one. But in December he received his glossy membership card from Alternative for Germany (AfD), one of the far-right movements now riding the updraft from Trump’s ascent. What drove him, Kopping says, “was the feeling of a revolution.” He didn’t want to be left behind.

Across the European Union, politicians on the right-wing fringe have been invigorated by Trump’s victory, which has given them a chance to attract new supporters, build coalitions and argue that, despite the often-glaring differences between them, they are all part of a movement with seemingly unstoppable momentum.

The most striking proof yet of that movement came on Saturday in the cross-section of far-right populists who met for the first time, at the AfD’s invitation, at a convention in the German city of Koblenz. A day after Trump’s Inauguration, the stars of the European right drew a direct line between Trump’s success at the ballot box and their own looming electoral battles. [Continue reading…]

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Donald Trump threatens the existence of the Western alliance

Alex Massie writes: It is, remarkably, no exaggeration to say that almost everyone in Europe awaits the presidency of Donald Trump with a sense of dread. Almost everyone, that is, save for the resurgent parties of the populist far-right who see, in Trump, an example they dearly wish to emulate.

The European mainstream, however, shrinks from Trump as it has never shrunk from any previous American president. No, not Ronald Reagan and no, not even George W Bush either. Trump has not even taken office and he is already the most dangerous U.S. president in living memory. Perhaps, even, of all time.

Whatever else they were, Reagan and Bush were both men of some political experience. Trump, as he told the Times of London and Germany’s Bild, is “not a politician” and that is precisely the point. The generous assessment of the president-elect’s potential allows that his less than conventional approach to international affairs ensures that America’s foes will not easily be able to fathom or predict his intentions. [Continue reading…]

The Associated Press reports: With eager anticipation, the Kremlin is counting the days to Donald Trump’s inauguration and venting its anger at Barack Obama’s outgoing administration, no holds barred.

Careful not to hurt chances for a thaw in U.S.-Russia relations, President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials have deferred questions about their plans for future contacts with Trump and any agenda for those talks until he takes office on Friday.

Trump’s open admiration of Putin has brought wide expectations of improved Moscow-Washington relations, but Trump has not articulated a clear Russia policy. His Cabinet nominees include both a retired general with a hawkish stance on Russia and an oil executive who has done extensive business in Russia.

At the same time, Russian officials are blasting the outgoing U.S. administration in distinctly undiplomatic language, dropping all decorum after Obama hit Moscow with more sanctions in his final weeks in office.

Moscow calls Obama’s team a “bunch of geopolitical losers” engaged in a last-ditch effort to inflict the maximum possible damage to U.S.-Russia ties to make it more difficult for Trump to mend the rift. [Continue reading…]

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‘Europe’s fate is in our hands’: Angela Merkel’s defiant reply to Trump

The Guardian reports: Angela Merkel has responded curtly but defiantly after Donald Trump cast further doubt on his commitment to Nato and gave strong hints that he would not support EU cohesion once in office.

“We Europeans have our fate in our own hands,” the German chancellor said after the publication of the US president-elect’s interviews with The Times and Bild. “He has presented his positions once more. They have been known for a while. My positions are also known.”

In the Times interview, Trump complained that Nato had become “obsolete” because it “hadn’t taken care of terror” – a comment later welcomed by the Kremlin. He also suggested that other European countries would follow in Britain’s footsteps and leave the EU.

Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said the criticism of Nato had caused concern in the political and military alliance. “I’ve spoken today not only with EU foreign ministers but Nato foreign ministers as well and can report that the signals are that there’s been no easing of tensions,” he said. [Continue reading…]

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Germany hits back at Trump criticism of refugee policy and BMW tariff threat

The Guardian reports: Berlin has mounted a staunch defence of its policies after Donald Trump criticised the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, for her stance during the refugee crisis and threatened a 35% tariff on BMW cars imported into the US.

Germany’s deputy chancellor and minister for the economy, Sigmar Gabriel, said on Monday morning that a tax on German imports would lead to a “bad awakening” among US carmakers since they were reliant on transatlantic supply chains.

“I believe BMW’s biggest factory is already in the US, in Spartanburg [South Carolina],” Gabriel, leader of the centre-left Social Democratic party, told the Bild newspaper in a video interview.

“The US car industry would have a bad awakening if all the supply parts that aren’t being built in the US were to suddenly come with a 35% tariff. I believe it would make the US car industry weaker, worse and above all more expensive. I would wait and see what the Congress has to say about that, which is mostly full of people who want the opposite of Trump.” [Continue reading…]

In 2014, Automotive News reported from Spartanburg: BMW will invest $1 billion in its factory here by 2016 to expand capacity by 100,000 units and add production of a fifth crossover, the X7 — making the plant its biggest worldwide.

Norbert Reithofer, CEO of BMW AG, said Spartanburg’s annual production will top that of BMW’s Dingolfing, Germany, plant, which can build 350,000 vehicles a year.

BMW’s current capacity has just been boosted to 350,000 units. Last year, the plant produced 297,326 vehicles.

Reithofer said building 450,000 vehicles a year will mean the equivalent of “a whole new plant” of output beyond last year’s total.

“This is the fifth expansion since production began 20 years ago and represents another major investment,” said Manfred Erlacher, president of BMW Manufacturing Co.

The plant has begun building the new X4 crossover, which is to go on sale in June in the United States. Spartanburg also produces the X3, X5 and X6.

Harald Krueger, BMW board member for production, said the group has 28 factories in 13 countries. More than 70 percent of the plant’s production is exported to more than 140 countries worldwide, he said.

“And we are really proud that this plant annually exports vehicles valuing over $7.5 billion — which, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, makes BMW the largest U.S. vehicle exporter by value to non-NAFTA countries. ‘Freude am Fahren’ — made in America,” Krueger said. [Continue reading…]

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Watch out, Europe. Germany is top of Russian hackers’ list

Natalie Nougayrède writes: One year ago in Berlin, Lisa F, a 13-year-old German-Russian girl, disappeared for 30 hours. When she returned to her parents, she claimed she had been kidnapped and raped by “Arab” men. This was a lie – as she later admitted. She had fallen out with her parents and invented the whole story. But that did little to stop the episode from becoming the centrepiece of a whirlwind Russian disinformation campaign aimed at destabilising Angela Merkel and German institutions.

Russian state media and pro-Russian websites in Germany immediately swirled with reports. Merkel was already under pressure for her open-door policy on refugees. Now German far-right groups and representatives of Germany’s ethnic Russian community held demonstrations. The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, described Lisa (a dual German-Russian citizen) as “our girl” and accused German authorities of a cover-up and “whitewashing reality to make it politically correct”.

A diplomatic spat ensued, with the German foreign minister accusing Russia of “political propaganda”. Berlin officials struggled to counter the Russian campaign. But Moscow’s overt meddling in Germany’s domestic politics seeped into the public consciousness – for a while, at least.

Fast-forward to January 2017. The fallout from the Trump-Russia dossier has now placed Vladimir Putin and his power structure at the centre of American politics. For Europeans, a question arises: what could this all mean for the old continent, as it approaches key elections? This year, voting will take place in France, the Netherlands and in Germany. Remembering the Lisa scandal is important, for it says something about what may lie ahead.

Now that Russia’s covert activities are being so intensely discussed in the US, it is high time Europe placed as much attention on what it might, in turn, be confronted with – and to prepare itself. [Continue reading…]

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