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Grenfell – All Fall Down

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There are moments in the life of a nation when a sudden event illuminates with stunning clarity an essential part of its character. The effect is most powerful when the trait exposed is at variance with the long established image. Such a moment has arrived in Britain with the Grenfell affair.

None can now avert their gaze from what post-Thatcher society has degenerated into.  It is a “so, this what we have become” moment. Less dramatic than the installing of Donald Trump in the White House, Grenfell has torn away the veil from an unbecoming national visage.

The revealing truth is portrayed in graphic pictures and shameful words.  A tower block going up in flames like a papier-mache construction; close to a hundred killed – and still counting; no assistance whatsoever from the responsible Kensington & Chelsea Council; an insulting absence of concern or commitment to redress failings by the same authorities; a curtain of secrecy on initial plans to scatter the survivors across the length and breadth of England;  offers  of supposed long-term relocation in basement apartments on heavily trafficked roads or other towers slated for demolition; many families split up and/or shuffled from one temporary accommodation to another; a self-absorbed Prime Minister refusing to meet them; revelations that the flammable cladding material installed in a refit just three years ago comes with warnings not to use in high-rise buildings, that the Council out-sourced management company and the outfit doing the work knowingly went ahead in order to save a few thousand pounds (K. & C. is the wealthiest council in the U.K. – with a cash reserve fund close to half a billion dollars).

 That there had been serial warnings from the London Fire Brigade authorities and parliamentary committees as well as the residents association about the imminent, high risk of existing practices in thousands of similar public-build blocks around the country (hundreds with the same cladding material have now failed belated inspections). They also lack sprinkler systems, alarms or fire doors, and a mandatory secondary route of egress. (By contrast, all these systems have been legally required in NYC since 1967 – and were de facto norms for decades previous, e.g. the ubiquitous external fire escapes).The Tory government buried them all. That negligent behavior conformed to their boastful commitment to removing burdensome regulations from an unduly constrained economy and society.    

Survivors were shut out of a special Council meeting scheduled to plot a strategy for handling the crisis – so, too, the press. When a judge ordered the Council to rescind the ban, it summarily cancelled the meeting. Victims’ relatives and Grenfell residents who escaped the fire also were denied an opportunity to ask questions in person at a coroner’s hearing.  Council member and official spokesperson Catherine Faulks told a BBC interviewer that the press demand was just a “stunt,” and that the residents clamoring to attend were professional agitators rather than Grenfell victims.

 This past Wednesday, the Council’s abject incompetence was officially confirmed when the Westminster government announced that key services will be taken over by a specialist “taskforce” made up of outside experts. Phased in gradually, this privitization of public services will not be charged to the K. & C.’s burgeoning account.  It is not known whether the specialist consultants will include a public relations adviser – perhaps  someone recommended by David Cameron from his old firm, Carlton Communications, where he honed his skills.

The deeper, self-evident truth is that the (relative) poor are viewed as a nuisance in the tony precincts of K. & C. Race has added to the distasteful mix. Many residents are of South Asian, Caribbean or African origin – although a large fraction from that background are British born. Those origins were played up in initial coverage. In fact, it seems that about a third are white – most of those Brits. Very few are on ‘welfare;’ many residents have purchased or pay quite high rents for their apartments (up to 2,000 pounds a month). They are ordinary working people. They do stand out in a posh district.

The statements of public officials etch these realities

There is Sir Eric Pickles, Communities and Local Government Secretary under David Cameron, who received the parliamentary group’s urgent appeal in in March 2014: “Surely… when you already have credible evidence to justify updating… the guidance … which will lead to the saving of lives, you don’t need to wait another three years in addition to the two already spent since the research findings were updated, in order to take action?” He did nothing. Interviewed after the Grenfell tragedy, he unashamedly blustered that the government judged it a sounder policy to encourage manufacturers of safe cladding to promote the product more actively rather than go down the dangerous path of imposing state regulation. (No exaggeration).[1]

There is Liberal Democrat Stephen Williams, who was a government minister at the time (a result of Nicholas Clegg leading his party into the fateful Coalition with the Tories), received a warning that “without automatic sprinkler protection, we cannot ….afford to wait for another tragedy to occur to amend this weakness” (referencing a tragic 2015 fire in another tower block). He replied: “I have neither seen nor heard anything that would suggest that consideration of these specific potential changes is urgent and I am not willing to disrupt the work of this department by asking that these matters are brought forward.”

There is the failure to make any acknowledgement of the Tories’ 40% cuts to local authorities since 2010.

There is David Cameron who pronounced just last week that those accusing the government of misplaced austerity budgets are “selfish” – unlike the rich and the corporate interests who at the same time have received substantial tax reductions and the financial wheeler-dealers who are welcomed to Britain’s ‘off-shore’ accommodating environment.

There is Sir Martin Moore-Bick,[2] the former High Court Judge, who has been appointed by May to head a board of inquiry. Fears of a protracted inquiry producing an anodyne report were aroused when Moore-Bick went out of his way to declare that the scope of the investigation would be severely limited to determining the immediate cause of the fire and why it spread so rapidly. Answers to both questions already are known. The point of origination was a Hotpoint refrigerator that apparently shorted; the rapid spread was due to the combustible cladding facilitated by the lack of sprinklers, fire doors, etc.

So a narrowly drawn inquiry should last less than a week. Even a glacial board of inquiry should be able to figure out in a few days time who in the apartment left the door of the fridge open overnight.  The many months foreseen are simply time to allow the public outrage to die down and plans made as to how far the cover-up should extend. Moore-Bick seems well suited to the task. He was the magistrate in a controversial case wherein he determined that is was entirely fair and proper that a displaced recipient of social assistance (handicapped) should be housed 60 miles from her previous residence, family, doctors and friends. She was black.  His ruling was overturned by an appeals court judge who found his reasoning without merit.

The Sir Inquisitor-to-be has given the game away in adding that “I do not expect everyone to be pleased by the conclusion of the inquiry” – yet to begin. Moore-Bick’s unprompted utterance shows just how pervasive is the Americanization of British political culture. Unnecessary, embarrassing ejaculations like this have become impulsive – defying the dictates of prudent restraint.

No one is confused as to who the “everyone” he has in mind refers to.  An impression reinforced by the denial of the residents’ right to ask questions in person as to the scope and form of the inquiry. The only open question is the exact tint that the whitewash will take (stitch-up in British dialect).

The first testimony will not be heard until mid-September when panel members, as yet unnamed, get back from their holidays.

Then, there is the K. & C. Tory Council – about which there is nothing at all to say in the way of excuse or amelioration. Two weeks after the immolation, the Council was still withdrawing rental checks from the residents’ bank accounts – living or dead. Ms Faulks told an interviewer that this was a “tiny” matter undeserving of attention. All the aggrieved party had to do was file an appeal either in person or on the Internet. Evidently, she is a devout believer in the afterlife.

This is an ugly picture. Why focus a sharp light on it – especially by a foreigner.  There are two reasons. First, this phenomena of unspeakable social callousness, undergirded by doctrines aggressively and successfully promoted across the Western world, is becoming pervasive. In addition, the Grenfell affair demonstrates that the United States is not alone in its tolerance for actions that should be a national disgrace but are slighted by a political class incapable of feeling shame.

The callous, off-hand treatment given the Grenfell victims is reminiscent of how colonial administrators dealt with expendable natives. If a proper criminal process were undertaken, a reasonable verdict would be Involuntary Manslaughter. Criminal negligence could be another charge both for the calculated failure to act on warnings of mortal risk – and for any harm as might be caused survivors of the fire who have been denied appropriate care. 

[1] This is an exact replica of the attitude taken by the yahoos who rule the state of Texas in the wake of the catastrophic explosion of a fertilizer plant in 2013 (killing 35 and destroying an entire section of the town of West). The company’s practices had violated already weak rules and no inspection had taken place for years. The Republican governor and legislature rejected calls for a tightening of regulation in arguing that the far greater danger to public welfare (Freedom and liberty) was setting a precedent that could favor a more active government role in regulation generally.

[2]Hyphenated names are fairly common in England. They formerly were limited to aristocratic families. They conveyed nobility of lineage and character. These days, quite common, one-syllable names are hyphenated. Example: Moore-Bick. Doubtless, we soon will be reading references to a Cecil Smith-Jones or a Neville Black-White. This plebian turn began with Mandy Rice-Davies, the partner in cabinetmaking of the famous Christine Keeler who was implicated in the notorious Profumo affair half a century ago.  Coincidentally, rumors were circulating in Whitehall just last year that Keeler’s posthumous autobiography was about to be published bearing the title My Three Years Under the Tories. That has proven apocryphal.

Europe

Iceland’s Historic(al) Elections

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The morning of September, 26 was a good one for Lenya Run Karim of the Pirate Party. Once the preliminary results were announced, things were clear: the 21-year-old law student of the University of Iceland, originating from a Kurdish immigrant family, had become the youngest MP in the country’s history.

In historical significance, however, this event was second to another. Iceland, the world champion in terms of gender equality, became the first country in Europe to have more women MPs than men, 33 versus 30. The news immediately made world headlines: only five countries in the world have achieved such impressive results. Remarkably, all are non-European: Rwanda, Nicaragua and Cuba have a majority of women in parliament, while Mexico and the UAE have an equal number of male and female MPs.

Nine hours later, news agencies around the world had to edit their headlines. The recount in the Northwest constituency affected the outcome across the country to delay the ‘triumph for women’ for another four years.

Small numbers, big changes

The Icelandic electoral system is designed so that 54 out of the 63 seats in the Althingi, the national parliament, are primary or constituency seats, while another nine are equalization seats. Only parties passing the 5 per cent threshold are allowed to distribute equalisation seats that go to the candidates who failed to win constituency mandates and received the most votes in their constituency. However, the number of equalisation mandates in each of the 6 constituencies is legislated. In theory, this could lead to a situation in which the leading party candidate in one constituency may simply lack an equalisation mandate, so the leading candidate of the same party—but in another constituency—receives it.

This is what happened this year. Because of a difference of only ten votes between the Reform Party and the Pirate Party, both vying for the only equalisation mandate in the Northwest, the constituency’s electoral commission announced a recount on its own initiative. There were also questions concerning the counting procedure as such: the ballots were not sealed but simply locked in a Borgarnes hotel room. The updated results hardly affected the distribution of seats between the parties, bringing in five new MPs, none of whom were women, with the 21-year-old Lenya Run Karim replaced by her 52-year-old party colleague.

In the afternoon of September, 27, at the request of the Left-Green Movement, supported by the Independence Party, the Pirates and the Reform Party, the commission in the South announced a recount of their own—the difference between the Left-Greens and the Centrists was only seven votes. There was no ‘domino effect’, as in the case of the Northwest, as the five-hour recount showed the same result. Recounts in other districts are unlikely, nor is it likely that Althingi—vested with the power to declare the elections valid—would invalidate the results in the Northwest. Nevertheless, the ‘replaced’ candidates have already announced their intention to appeal against the results, citing violations of ballot storage procedures. Under the Icelandic law, this is quite enough to invalidate the results and call a re-election in the Northwest, as the Supreme Court of Iceland invalidated the Constitutional Council elections due to a breach of procedure 10 years ago. Be that as it may, the current score remains 33:30, in favor of men.

Progressives’ progress and threshold for socialists

On the whole, there were no surprises: the provisional allocation of mandates resembles, if with minor changes, the opinion polls on the eve of the election.

The ruling three-party coalition has rejuvenated its position, winning 37 out of the 63 Althingi seats. The centrist Progressive Party saw a real electoral triumph, improving its 2017 result by five seats. Prime-minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s Left-Green Movement, albeit with a slight loss, won eight seats, surpassing all pre-election expectations. Although the centre-right Independence Party outperformed everyone again to win almost a quarter of all votes, 16 seats are one of the worst results of the Icelandic ‘Grand Old Party’ ever.

The results of the Social-Democrats, almost 10% versus 12.1% in 2017, and of the Pirates, 8.6% versus 9.2%, have deteriorated. Support for the Centre Party of Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, former prime-minister and victim of the Panama Papers, has halved from 10.9% to 5.4%. The centrists have seen a steady decline in recent years, largely due to a sexist scandal involving party MPs. The populist People’s Party and the pro-European Reform Party have seen gains of 8.8% and 8.3%, as compared to 6.9% and 6.7% in the previous elections.

Of the leading Icelandic parties, only the Socialist Party failed to pass the 5 per cent threshold: despite a rating above 7% in August, the Socialists received only 4.1% of the vote.

Coronavirus, climate & economy

Healthcare and the fight against COVID-19 was, expectedly, on top of the agenda of the elections: 72% of voters ranked it as the defining issue, according to a Fréttablaðið poll. Thanks to swift and stringent measures, the Icelandic government brought the coronavirus under control from day one, and the country has enjoyed one of the lowest infection rates in the world for most of the time. At the same time, the pandemic exposed a number of problems in the national healthcare system: staff shortages, low salaries and long waiting lists for emergency surgery.

Climate change, which Icelanders are already experiencing, was an equally important topic. This summer, the temperature has not dropped below 20°C for 59 days, an anomaly for a North-Atlantic island. However, Icelanders’ concerns never converted into increased support for the four left-leaning parties advocating greater reductions in CO2 emission than the country has committed to under the Paris Agreement: their combined result fell by 0.5%.

The economy and employment were also among the main issues in this election. The pandemic has severely damaged the island nation’s economy, which is heavily tourism-reliant—perhaps, unsurprisingly, many Icelanders are in favor of reviving the tourism sector as well as diversifying the economy further.

The EU membership, by far a ‘traditional’ issue in Icelandic politics, is unlikely to be featured on the agenda of the newly-elected parliament as the combined result of the Eurosceptics, despite a loss of 4%, still exceeds half of the overall votes. The new Althingi will probably face the issue of constitutional reform once again, which is only becoming more topical in the light of the pandemic and the equalization mandates story.

New (old) government?

The parties are to negotiate coalition formation. The most likely scenario now is that the ruling coalition of the Independence Party, the Left-Greens and the Progressives continues. It has been the most ideologically diverse and the first three-party coalition in Iceland’s history to last a full term. A successful fight against the pandemic has only strengthened its positions and helped it secure additional votes. Independence Party leader and finance minister Bjarni Benediktsson has earlier said he would be prepared to keep the ruling coalition if it holds the majority. President Guðni Jóhannesson announced immediately after the elections that he would confirm the mandate of the ruling coalition to form a new government if the three parties could strike a deal.

Other developments are possible but unlikely. Should the Left-Greens decide to leave the coalition, they could be replaced by the Reform Party or the People’s Party, while any coalition without the Independence Party can only be a four-party or larger coalition.

Who will become the new prime-minister still remains to be seen—but if the ruling coalition remains in place, the current prime-minister and leader of the Left-Greens, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, stands a good chance of keeping her post: she is still the most popular politician in Iceland with a 40 per cent approval rate.

The 2021 Althingi election, with one of the lowest turnouts in history at 80.1%, has not produced a clear winner. The election results reflect a Europe-wide trend in which traditional “major” parties are losing support. The electorate is fragmenting and their votes are pulled by smaller new parties. The coronavirus pandemic has only reinforced this trend.

The 2021 campaign did not foreshadow a sensation. Although Iceland has not become the first European country with a women’s majority in parliament, these elections will certainly go down in history as a test of Icelanders’ trust to their own democracy.

From our partner RIAC

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EU-Balkan Summit: No Set Timeframe for Western Balkans Accession

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From left to right: Janez JANŠA (Prime Minister, Slovenia), Charles MICHEL (President of the European Council), Ursula VON DER LEYEN (President of the European Commission) Copyright: European Union

On October 6, Slovenia hosted a summit between the EU and the Western Balkans states. The EU-27 met with their counterparts (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo) in the sumptuous Renaissance setting of Brdo Castle, 30 kilometers north of the capital, Ljubljana. Despite calls from a minority of heads of state and government, there were no sign of a breakthrough on the sensitive issue of enlargement. The accession of these countries to the European Union is still not unanimous among the 27 EU member states.

During her final tour of the Balkans three weeks ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that the peninsula’s integration was of “geostrategic” importance. On the eve of the summit, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz backed Slovenia’s goal of integrating this zone’s countries into the EU by 2030.

However, the unanimity required to begin the hard negotiations is still a long way off, even for the most advanced countries in the accession process, Albania and North Macedonia. Bulgaria, which is already a member of the EU, is opposing North Macedonia’s admission due to linguistic and cultural differences. Since Yugoslavia’s demise, Sofia has rejected the concept of Macedonian language, insisting that it is a Bulgarian dialect, and has condemned the artificial construction of a distinct national identity.

Other countries’ reluctance to join quickly is of a different nature. France and the Netherlands believe that previous enlargements (Bulgaria and Romania in 2007) have resulted in changes that must first be digested before the next round of enlargement. The EU-27 also demand that all necessary prior guarantees be provided regarding the independence of the judiciary and the fight against corruption in these countries. Despite the fact that press freedom is a requirement for membership, the NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urged the EU to make “support for investigative and professional journalism” a key issue at the summit.”

While the EU-27 have not met since June, the topic of Western Balkans integration is competing with other top priorities in the run-up to France’s presidency of the EU in the first half of 2022. On the eve of the summit, a working dinner will be held, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, called for “a strategic discussion on the role of the Union on the international scene” in his letter of invitation to the EU-Balkans Summit, citing “recent developments in Afghanistan,” the announcement of the AUKUS pact between the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, which has enraged Paris.

The Western Balkans remain the focal point of an international game of influence in which the Europeans seek to maintain their dominance. As a result, the importance of reaffirming a “European perspective” at the summit was not an overstatement. Faced with the more frequent incursion of China, Russia, and Turkey in that European region, the EU has pledged a 30 billion euro Economic and Investment Plan for 2021-2027, as well as increased cooperation, particularly to deal with the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Opening the borders, however, is out of the question. In the absence of progress on this issue, Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia have decided to establish their own zone of free movement (The Balkans are Open”) beginning January 1, 2023. “We are starting today to do in the region what we will do tomorrow in the EU,” said Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama when the agreement was signed last July.

This initiative, launched in 2019 under the name “Mini-Schengen” and based on a 1990s idea, does not have the support of the entire peninsular region, which remains deeply divided over this project. While Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro are not refusing to be a part of it and are open to discussions, the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, who took office in 2020, for his part accuses Serbia of relying on this project to recreate “a fourth Yugoslavia”

Tensions between Balkan countries continue to be an impediment to European integration. The issue of movement between Kosovo and Serbia has been a source of concern since the end of September. Two weeks of escalation followed Kosovo’s decision to prohibit cars with Serbian license plates from entering its territory, in response to Serbia’s long-standing prohibition on allowing vehicles to pass in the opposite direction.

In response to the mobilization of Kosovar police to block the road, Serbs in Kosovo blocked roads to their towns and villages, and Serbia deployed tanks and the air force near the border. On Sunday, October 3, the conflict seemed to be over, and the roads were reopened. However, the tone had been set three days before the EU-Balkans summit.

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German Election: Ramifications for the US Foreign Policy

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Image source: twitter @OlafScholz

In the recent German election, foreign policy was scarcely an issue. But Germany is an important element in the US foreign policy. There is a number of cases where Germany and the US can cooperate, but all of these dynamics are going to change very soon.

The Germans’ strategic culture makes it hard to be aligned perfectly with the US and disagreements can easily damage the relations. After the tension between the two countries over the Iraq war, in 2003, Henry Kissinger said that he could not imagine the relations between Germany and the US could be aggravated so quickly, so easily, which might end up being the “permanent temptation of German politics”. For a long time, the US used to provide security for Germany during the Cold War and beyond, so, several generations are used to take peace for granted. But recently, there is a growing demand on them to carry more burden, not just for their own security, but for international peace and stability. This demand was not well-received in Berlin.

Then, the environment around Germany changed and new threats loomed up in front of them. The great powers’ competition became the main theme in international relations. Still, Germany was not and is not ready for shouldering more responsibility. Politicians know this very well. Ursula von der Leyen, who was German defense minister, asked terms like “nuclear weapons” and “deterrence” be removed from her speeches.

Although on paper, all major parties appreciate the importance of Germany’s relations with the US, the Greens and SPD ask for a reset in the relations. The Greens insist on the European way in transatlantic relations and SPD seeks more multilateralism. Therefore, alignment may be harder to maintain in the future. However, If the tensions between the US and China heat up to melting degrees, then external pressure can overrule the internal pressure and Germany may accede to its transatlantic partners, just like when Helmut Schmid let NATO install medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe after the Soviet Union attacked Afghanistan and the Cold War heated up.

According to the election results, now three coalitions are possible: grand coalition with CDU/CSU and SPD, traffic lights coalition with SPD, FDP, and Greens, Jamaica coalition with CDU/CSU, FDP, and Greens. Jamaica coalition will more likely form the most favorable government for the US because it has both CDU and FDP, and traffic lights will be the least favorite as it has SPD. The grand coalition can maintain the status quo at best, because contrary to the current government, SPD will dominate CDU.

To understand nuances, we need to go over security issues to see how these coalitions will react to them. As far as Russia is concerned, none of them will recognize the annexation of Crimea and they all support related sanctions. However, if tensions heat up, any coalition government with SPD will be less likely assertive. On the other hand, as the Greens stress the importance of European values like democracy and human rights, they tend to be more assertive if the US formulates its foreign policy by these common values and describe US-China rivalry as a clash between democracy and authoritarianism. Moreover, the Greens disapprove of the Nordstream project, of course not for its geopolitics. FDP has also sided against it for a different reason. So, the US must follow closely the negotiations which have already started between anti-Russian smaller parties versus major parties.

For relations with China, pro-business FDP is less assertive. They are seeking for developing EU-China relations and deepening economic ties and civil society relations. While CDU/CSU and Greens see China as a competitor, partner, and systemic rival, SPD and FDP have still hopes that they can bring change through the exchange. Thus, the US might have bigger problems with the traffic lights coalition than the Jamaica coalition in this regard.

As for NATO and its 2 percent of GDP, the division is wider. CDU/CSU and FDP are the only parties who support it. So, in the next government, it might be harder to persuade them to pay more. Finally, for nuclear participation, the situation is the same. CDU/CSU is the only party that argues for it. This makes it an alarming situation because the next government has to decide on replacing Germany’s tornados until 2024, otherwise Germany will drop out of the NATO nuclear participation.

The below table gives a brief review of these three coalitions. 1 indicates the lowest level of favoritism and 3 indicates the highest level of favoritism. As it shows, the most anti-Russia coalition is Jamaica, while the most anti-China coalition is Trafic light. Meanwhile, Grand Coalition is the most pro-NATO coalition. If the US adopts a more normative foreign policy against China and Russia, then the Greens and FDP will be more assertive in their anti-Russian and anti-Chinese policies and Germany will align more firmly with the US if traffic light or Jamaica coalition rise to power.

Issues CoalitionsTrafic LightGrand CoalitionJamaica
Russia213 
China312 
NATO132 

1 indicates the lowest level of favoritism. 3 indicates the highest level of favoritism.

In conclusion, this election should not make Americans any happier. The US has already been frustrated with the current government led by Angela Merkel who gave Germany’s trade with China the first priority, and now that the left-wing will have more say in any imaginable coalition in the future, the Americans should become less pleased. But, still, there are hopes that Germany can be a partner for the US in great power competition if the US could articulate its foreign policy with common values, like democracy and human rights. More normative foreign policy can make a reliable partner out of Germany. Foreign policy rarely became a topic in this election, but observers should expect many ramifications for it.

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