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Arrrgh! Pirate party takes Berlin

GlobalPost, Oct. 7, 2011

BERLIN, Germany — They arrived at Berlin’s imposing parliament building, mostly wearing hoodies and sneakers, carrying orange pirate flags, the symbol of their party.

As they tried to enter the city-state’s legislature the day after their historic win, a stern woman at the security desk told them, “nein,” those party symbols are strictly “verboten.”

And so began the first day of the Pirate Party’s newly changed status as legislators, after an unexpected election result that has shaken up the staid world of German politics.

The band of internet-freedom activists shocked themselves and pretty much everyone else when they won close to 9 percent in the Berlin state election on Sept. 18, allowing them to send 15 very unconventional new politicians to the regional parliament. Continue reading

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German politician loses doctorate for plagiarism

The Guardian, 14 July, 2011

Another high-profile German politician has been stripped of a doctorate for plagiarism. This time the culprit tried to explain away his bad habit, blaming it on a stint at Oxford in the 1990s.

On Wednesday, the faculty of philosophy at the University of Bonn announced that it was annulling the doctorate awarded to MEP Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, a member of the liberal Free Democrats (FDP).

The scandal is the latest political plagiarism case exposed in recent months, following those of former defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg and MEP Silvana Koch-Mehrin. Continue reading

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Hope Shines Despite Soggy Arab Spring

Washington Times, May 9, 2011

A cold rain is falling on the Arab Spring, as autocrats violently cling to power; but many pro-democracy advocates still hope for the change inspired by the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia that toppled long-term rulers.

Western observers of the region remain worried about the civil war in Libya and the brutal crackdowns on peaceful protests in Syria and Yemen.

“It’s just not clear yet how it is going to turn out,” said Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian-American professor of Arab studies at New York’s Columbia University. “It’s early … I wouldn’t say that it’s not necessarily going to be successful in Yemen, or Syria.”

In spite of the see-saw pattern of most of the protest movements, some observers say there is a good chance that the seeds from the Arab Spring eventually will put down deep roots in the entire region.

“I think it’s a matter of time,” said Maha Azzam, an Egyptian-born Middle East specialist at London’s Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House.

“While each country has its own circumstances, the grievances of protesters are very similar – the demands for greater accountability and greater participation are not going to diminish.” Continue reading

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Merkel Walking an Electoral Tightrope

The Sunday Business Post, April 10, 2011

The reaction in the political corridors of Berlin to the fact that Portugal has finally faced the music and asked for a bailout has been one of relief.

This is tinged with determination that this will be the last country to require a lifeline from its eurozone partners.

The German government, battered by a string of losses in key regional votes since the beginning of the year, is loath to be seen by the electorate as wasting yet more of taxpayers’ money on their profligate neighbours.

With just two years to go to federal elections, the ruling coalition of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) is fully aware that any further bailouts – of, say, Spain, Italy or Belgium- could spell electoral doom. Continue reading

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The Right Wing and the Roma: EU Presidency a Test for Tolerance in Hungary

By Siobhán Dowling in Budapest, Hungary

Hungary will assume the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union in January and the government is pledging to forge a policy for addressing the Roma in all of Europe. But the country has its own troubling history with the Roma, who have been deeply impoverished and pushed to the margins of society since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Csaba Csorba is standing in scrubland beside the burned-out shell of a small house. He points to the spot amid the tall grass where he found his son Robert bleeding in the snow almost two years ago. Nearby lay the body of his four-year-old grandson Robi. The small boy had been shot through the head, his face was unrecognizable.

The murders of Feb. 23, 2009 saw the Hungarian village of Tatárszentgyörgy become synonymous with hate, hatred towards Europe’s Roma people. Robert Csorba, a 27-year-old father of three, had gathered up his young son in his arms and ran out to escape the flames that engulfed his house, the last one on the edge of the village. Unknown assailants had attacked under the cover of night, throwing Molotov cocktails at the door and then opening fire when those inside tried to flee. Robert was shot in the lungs and lived for another hour, dying on the way to the hospital. His six-year-old daughter Bianka was injured but survived, while his wife Renata and younger son escaped the blaze. Continue reading

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Letter from Berlin: Star Candidate’s Gaffes Have Berlin Greens Jittering

The Greens had assumed that a high profile candidate like former minister Renate Künast would assure them of victory in next September’s state elections in Berlin. However, a series of gaffes has led the party’s once soaring popularity to plummet.

At one end of Berlin’s central boulevard Unter den Linden stands the Rotes Rathaus or Red Town Hall, the seat of Berlin’s city-state government. Just over two kilometers to the west, beyond the Brandenburg Gate, is Germany’s federal parliament, the Bundestag.

It is a journey Green Party heavyweight Renate Künast made almost 10 years ago, when she went from being a state representative to an increasingly influential presence in the halls of federal power. Now, though, she is hoping to return to the Rotes Rathaus — as Germany’s first-ever state premier from the Green Party.

Until recently, it looked as if she would have little trouble. When she announced her candidacy with much fanfare at Berlin’s Communications Museum on Nov. 7, her party was eight percentage points ahead of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) in the opinion polls. A third term for Klaus Wowereit, the SPD mayor who has led Berlin since 2001, seemed unlikely. Continue reading

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The World from Berlin: ‘The Irish Should Stop Bashing Those Who Want to Help Them’

The Irish government insists it does not require a bailout, even as a team of EU and IMF experts heads to Dublin for talks. Yet aid could also come from another quarter, in the form of Ireland’s neighbor Britain. Meanwhile, the German press is divided on whether Berlin shares some of the blame for Ireland’s woes.

On Tuesday, embattled Irish Finance Minister Brian Lenihan fended off pressure from other euro-zone member states to seek a bailout package from the stability fund established by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund earlier this year. Yet Dublin may not be able to hold out for much longer.

The imminent arrival of IMF and EU experts in Dublin for what are being described as “short and focused discussions” starting on Thursday could see Ireland eventually tap into the fund, though on Tuesday night, following a meeting of euro-zone foreign ministers in Brussels, Lenihan was still insisting that such a bailout was “not inevitable.”

Speaking to public broadcaster RTE on Wednesday morning, Lenihan said Ireland would accept EU support if the banking crisis was too big for the country to fix on its own. “Ireland is a small country and if the banking problems in the country are too big for this small country to manage, Europe is making it clear that they will help and help in every possible way to secure the system,” Lenihan said. Continue reading

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After Minarets, the Germans: The Swiss Populists’ New Enemy No. 1

Having succeeded in its referendum campaign against minarets in Switzerland, the populist SVP is now focusing on a different threat — this time from the north. The party is targeting Germans ahead of a local election in Zurich. Worringly it seems that its German-bashing is becoming respectable.

The far-right Swiss People’s Party (SVP) is not content to wrest on its laurels after its spectacularly successful campaign against minarets. Now the populist party has a new enemy in its sights: Germans.

Ahead of local elections in March, the party has been waging a campaign against the many Germans who have settled in the German-speaking city of Zurich. And the SVP has chosen to hone in on what it claims is a hogging of academic jobs in Switzerland by German professors. While the attacks on what it calls “German sleaze” in the Swiss ivory towers fits into the party’s populist rhetoric, the tendency towards German bashing — like the rejection of the minarets — looks like it may be going mainstream. Continue reading

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Inquiry into Kunduz Bombing: Guttenberg Accused of Lying by Top General

As a parliamentary inquiry is launched into the deadly air strike near Kunduz, the top general fired over the scandal has called Defense Minister Guttenberg a liar. With Germany braced for requests for more troops in Afghanistan, Chancellor Merkel’s government is coming under increased pressure over its handling of the attack.

The German government is struggling to contain a scandal over its handling of a deadly air strike called in by a German officer in Afghanistan in September. In particular, Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Defense Minister Karl-Theoder zu Guttenberg are coming under fire for the way they handled information about the strike.

Both are to be called as witnesses to face a parliamentary inquiry into the air strike in January just as they prepare for an Afghanistan conference in London later that month, where Berlin is likely to face pressure to commit more troops to the NATO mission. The country’s involvement in the conflict is highly unpopular at home. Continue reading

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Berlin Clears One of its Last Remaining Squats

One of the last remaining squats in Berlin was cleared on Tuesday. After a long-drawn out legal battle, 600 police descended on Brunnenstrasse 183 to evict the occupants. Berlin’s days as a squatter’s paradise and alternative mecca are long gone.

Berlin is a city that has marketed itself on its edgy alternative image, but in reality the German capital is increasingly becoming like many other European cities. One of the hallmarks of its vibrant alternative culture had been the city’s many former squats. But on Tuesday another one of these self-styled “house projects,” or experiments in alternative living, bit the dust.

On a mild November afternoon around 600 police officers descended upon the alternative house project at Brunnenstrasse 183, clearing out a total of 21 people from the dilapidated five-story house in central Berlin. The expected outbreak of violence by left-wing extremists didn’t happen. The closest it came to a showdown was when a few of the occupants climbed onto the roof and waved Anti-Fascist flags. Continue reading

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