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Auf Wiedersehen: Merkel attends her swan song EU summit – probably

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October 21, 2021

By Johnny Cotton

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union leaders will pause their meeting in Brussels on Thursday for a farewell photograph with Angela Merkel, who is attending what could be the last of more than 100 summits over nearly 16 years as chancellor of Germany.

The doyenne of European politics has sat at the conference table with four French presidents, five British prime ministers and eight Italian premiers since her first EU summit in December 2005.

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Back then, as today with Poland challenging the supremacy of EU law, there was a row blazing between members of the bloc.

French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair had locked horns over the EU budget and the rebate that London received from its contributions.

With the pragmatism which came to define her approach, Merkel told reporters as she arrived then: “We want to start the negotiations now and I think we will make every effort to find an agreement.”

A skilled practitioner of corridor diplomacy, Merkel proved adept over the years at finding vital compromises to defuse EU disputes.

The crisis most closely associated with Merkel herself was the surge in migrant arrivals in 2015 when she threw open Germany’s borders to asylum seekers, mainly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

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As Hungary erected a fence on its border with Serbia to keep the migrants out, Merkel arrived at a special summit that year with a call for European unity, repeating her famous “wir schaffen das”, or “we can do this” mantra.

“Faced with a great challenge, Europe cannot say ‘We can’t handle this’, that would be quite wrong,” she said.

CARICATURED

Earlier in her chancellorship she was at the forefront of the response to the crisis in the euro zone, with austerity politics causing resentment in southern member states such as Greece.

Merkel herself often became a target during street demonstrations, caricatured on placards and posters from Athens to Lisbon, sometimes as a Nazi with a Hitler moustache.

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However, Thursday’s “family photo” of leaders from the EU’s 27 countries to mark Merkel’s departure may prove premature.

German political parties have been in talks since last month’s election to form a ruling coalition and if they don’t succeed by mid-December, the 67-year-old Merkel will be back in Brussels for her 108th EU summit.

(Reporting by John Chalmers; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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Indonesia Semeru volcanic eruption kills 13; 10 evacuated

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December 5, 2021

JAKARTA (Reuters) – Ten people trapped after Indonesia’s Semeru volcano erupted have been evacuated to safety, the country’s disaster mitigation agency (BNPB) said on Sunday, as the death toll from the disaster climbed to at least 13 and with dozens injured.

Semeru, the tallest mountain on Java island, threw up towers of ash and hot clouds on Saturday that blanketed nearby villages in East Java province and sent people fleeing in panic.

The eruption severed a strategic bridge connecting two areas in the nearby district of Lumajang with the city of Malang and wrecked buildings, authorities said.

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BNPB official Abdul Muhari said in a news release that 13 people have been killed after the eruption, two of whom have been identified. Ninety-eight have been injured, including two pregnant women, and 902 have been evacuated, the statement said.

Thoriqul Haq, a local official in Lumajang, said earlier that sand miners had been trapped around their work sites.

BNPB said at least 35 people had been hospitalised, while Lumajang’s deputy head said 41 people suffered burns.

Semeru, more than 3,600 metres (12,000 feet) high, is one of Indonesia’s nearly 130 active volcanoes. It erupted in January, causing no casualties.

Indonesia straddles the “Pacific Ring of Fire”, a highly seismically active zone, where different plates on the earth’s crust meet and create a large number of earthquakes and volcanoes.

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Separately, an earthquake of magnitude 6 struck north of Halmahera on Sunday, the European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre (EMSC) said. Halmahera is about 2,000 km (1,200 miles) northeast of Semeru.

(Reporting by Stanley Widianto and Nilufar Rizki; Editing by Ed Davies)

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Analysis-Modi’s farm reform reversal to deter investment in India’s agriculture

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December 5, 2021

By Mayank Bhardwaj and Rajendra Jadhav

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India’s repeal of agriculture laws aimed at deregulating produce markets will starve its vast farm sector of much-needed private investment and saddle the government with budget-sapping subsidies for years, economists said.

Late last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government introduced three laws meant to open up agriculture markets to companies and attract private investment, triggering India’s longest-running protest by farmers who said the reforms would allow corporations to exploit them.

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With an eye on a critical election in populous Uttar Pradesh state early next year, Modi agreed to rescind the laws in November, hoping to smooth relations with the powerful farm lobby which sustains nearly half the country’s 1.3 billion people and accounts for about 15% of the $2.7 trillion economy.

But by shelving the most ambitious overhaul in decades, Modi’s backtracking now seemingly rules out much-needed upgrades of the creaky post-harvest supply chain to cut wastage, spur crop diversification, and boost farmers’ incomes, economists said.

“This is not good for agriculture, this is not good for India,” said Gautam Chikermane, a senior economist and vice president at New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation.

“All incentives to shift towards a more efficient, market-linked system (in agriculture) have been smothered.”

The u-turn does allay farmers’ fears of losing the minimum price system for basic crops, which growers say guarantees India’s grain self-sufficiency.

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“It appears the government realised that there’s merit in the farmers’ argument that opening up the sector would make them vulnerable to large companies, hammer commodities prices and hit farmers’ income,” said Devinder Sharma, a farm policy expert who has supported the growers’ movement. 

But the gruelling year-long standoff also means no political party will attempt any similar reforms for at least a quarter-century, Chikermane said.

And, in the absence of private investment, “inefficiencies in the system will continue to deliver wastage and food will continue to rot,” he warned.

COLOSSAL WASTE

India ranks 101 out of 116 countries on the Global Hunger Index, with malnutrition accounting for 68% of child deaths.

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Yet it wastes around 67 million tonnes of food every year, worth about $12.25 billion – nearly five times that of most large economies – according to various studies.

Inadequate cold-chain storage, shortages of refrigerated trucks and insufficient food processing facilities are the main causes of waste.

The farm laws promised to allow private traders, retailers and food processors to buy directly from farmers, bypassing more than 7,000 government-regulated wholesale markets where middlemen’s commissions and market fees add to consumer costs.

Ending the rule that food must flow through the approved markets would have encouraged private participation in the supply chain, giving both Indian and global companies incentives to invest in the sector, traders and economists said.

“The agriculture laws would have removed the biggest impediment to large-scale purchases of farm goods by big corporations,” said Harish Galipelli, director at ILA Commodities India Pvt Ltd, which trades farm goods. “And that would have encouraged corporations to bring investment to revamp and modernise the whole food supply chain.”

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Galipelli’s firm will now have to re-evaluate its plans.

“We have had plans to scale up our business,” said Galipelli. “We would have expanded had the laws stayed.”

Other firms specialising in warehousing, food processing and trading are also expected to review their expansion strategies, he said.

PERISHABLE PRICES YO-YO

Poor post-harvest handling of produce also causes prices of perishables to yo-yo in India. Only three months ago, farmers dumped tomatoes on the road as prices crashed, but now consumers are paying a steep 100 rupees ($1.34) a kg.

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The laws would have helped the $34 billion food processing sector grow exponentially, according to the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), an industry group.

Demand for fruits and vegetables would have gone up. And that would have cut surplus rice and wheat output, slicing bulging stocks of the staples worth billions of dollars in state warehouses, economists said.

“Crop diversification would also have helped rein in subsidy spending and narrow the fiscal deficit,” said Sandip Das, a New Delhi-based researcher and farm policy analyst.

Food Corporation of India (FCI), the state crop procurement agency, racked up a record 3.81 trillion rupees ($51.83 billion) in debt by last fiscal year, alarming policymakers and inflating the country’s food subsidy bill to a record 5.25 trillion rupees ($70.16 billion) in the year to March 2021.

However, while the federal government now has limited scope for change, local authorities “can opt for reforms provided they have the political will to do so,” said Bidisha Ganguly, an economist at CII.

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Similarly, venture capital-funded startups have also expressed interest in India’s agriculture sector.

“Agritech, if it is allowed to take root, has the potential to enable a better handshake of farmers and consumers through their technological platforms,” Chikermane said.

(1 = 74.83 rupees)

(Reporting by Mayank Bhardwaj and Rajendra Jadhav; additional reporting by Aftab Ahmed; editing by Gavin Maguire and Kim Coghill)

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Orthodox priest shouts ‘Pope, you are a heretic’ at Francis in Athens

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December 5, 2021

By Philip Pullella and Karolina Tagaris

ATHENS (Reuters) -An elderly Greek Orthodox priest shouted “Pope, you are a heretic” as Pope Francis was entering the Orthodox Archbishopric in Athens on Saturday and was taken away by police, a reminder of the lingering distrust between the two divided churches.

Video showed the man, who was dressed in black robes and black hat and had a long white beard, shouting the words in Greek outside the building before police bundled him away.

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Witnesses said he shouted loud enough for the pope to hear the commotion. The man appeared to have fallen while being taken away and was lifted up by police.

Francis arrived in Greece on Saturday for a three-day visit that Greek Catholics hope will bring the Eastern and Western churches closer together.

Christianity split into the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches in 1054 in what is referred to as the Great Schism, and for centuries relations were rocky.

In his address to the archbishop, Beatitude Ieronymos II, Francis asked forgiveness in the name of the Roman Catholic Church for its part in the historical wrongs that led to the breakup.

“Tragically, in later times we grew apart. Worldly concerns poisoned us, weeds of suspicion increased our distance and we ceased to nurture communion,” Francis told Ieronymos, whom he met during his first trip to Greece in 2016.

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“I feel the need to ask anew for the forgiveness of God and of our brothers and sisters for the mistakes committed by many Catholics,” Francis said.

Pope John Paul II first asked forgiveness for the Catholic role in the break-up when he visited Greece in 2001.

Catholics and Orthodox have been involved in dialogue aimed at eventual reunion for decades and cooperate in many social initiatives but the two sides are still far apart theologically.

“We believe you have the courage and the sincerity to examine the failures and omissions of your fathers,” Ieronymos told Francis. “Between those who want to be called Christian brothers, the best language is, and always will be, honesty.”

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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