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Poland won’t bow to EU ‘blackmail’ but seek to solve rows, says PM

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October 21, 2021

By Marine Strauss, Jan Strupczewski and Bart H. Meijer

BRUSSELS (Reuters) -Poland will not bow to European Union “blackmail” but will seek to solve ongoing disputes, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said, as he arrived on Thursday to defend his nation before a meeting of fellow leaders in an escalating ideological battle.

Long-running tensions between Poland’s ruling nationalists and the bloc’s liberal majority have risen sharply since Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal ruled on Oct. 7 that elements of EU law were incompatible with the country’s charter.

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In challenging a central tenet of EU integration the case risks precipitating a new fundamental crisis for the bloc – still grappling with the after-effects of Brexit – as well as Poland losing generous European handouts.

“Some European institutions assume the right to decide on matters that have not been assigned to them,” Morawiecki said at the start of two days of talks among the bloc’s 27 national leaders in Brussels.

“We will not act under the pressure of blackmail, we are ready for dialogue, we do not agree to the ever-expanding competences (of EU institutions), but we will of course talk about how to resolve the current disputes in dialogue.”

His wealthier Western counterparts are particularly keen to prevent their governments’ cash contributions to the EU benefiting socially conservative politicians who they see as undercutting human rights fixed in European laws.

“We in Ireland are very concerned,” Prime Minister Micheal Martin said. “The primacy of EU law… is critical for the protection of citizens all across Europe.”

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HIGH STAKES

French President Emmanuel Macron told Morawiecki to work with the executive Commission to find a solution to the dispute compatible with European principles.

Dutch premier Mark Rutte singled out Poland’s judicial overhaul that put courts under more government control.

“We have to be tough,” Rutte said. “The independence of the Polish judiciary is the key issue we have to discuss. It is very difficult to see how a big new fund of money could be made available to Poland when this is not settled.”

Morawiecki’s Law and Justice (PiS) party has raised the stakes in years of increasingly bitter feuds with the EU over a range of democratic principles from the freedom of courts and media to the rights of women, migrants and LGBT people.

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The Commission has for now barred Warsaw from tapping into 57 billion euros ($66 billion) of emergency funds to help its economy emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The top EU court may also slap more fines on Poland, the largest ex-communist EU country of 38 million people. That is the same court, the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice (ECJ), that Morawiecki has accused of mounting a power grab.

‘POLEXIT’ DISMISSED

For the bloc, the latest twist in feuds with the eurosceptic PiS also comes at a sensitive time.

The EU – without Britain – last year achieved a major leap towards closer integration in agreeing joint borrowing to raise 750 billion euros for post-pandemic economic recovery, overcoming stiff resistance from states such as the Netherlands.

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Morawiecki has dismissed the idea of leaving the EU in a “Polexit”. Support for membership remains very high in Poland, which has benefited enormously from funding coming from the bloc it joined in 2004.

But Warsaw – backed by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban – wants to return powers to national capitals and has lashed out at what it says are excessive powers of the Commission.

“Poland is one of the best European countries. There is no need for any sanctions, it’s ridiculous,” Orban said.

While many have grown increasingly frustrated at failed attempts to convince Warsaw to change tack, German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned against isolating Poland.

“We have to find ways of coming back together,” she said, adding that having multiple legal cases against Poland brought to the ECJ was not a solution.

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Her sway, however, is weakened as the veteran of more than 100 summits during her 16 years in power visits Brussels for what may be her last gathering of EU leaders before she hands over to a new German chancellor.($1 = 0.8584 euros)

(Reporting by Marine Strauss, Bart Meijer, John Chalmers, Gabriela Baczynska, Philip Blenkinsop, Jan Strupczewski, Michel Rose, Andreas Rinke, Sabine Siebold; writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Richard Pullin, Alex Richardson and Andrew Heavens)

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Gambians vote for president using marbles in key test for stability

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December 4, 2021

By Pap Saine and Bate Felix

BANJUL (Reuters) -Gambians cast their votes for president on Saturday using a unique voting system – marbles dropped into each candidate’s ballot drum – to decide a tightly fought election that is seen as a test of stability and democratic progress.

It is Gambia’s first democratic election since former President Yahya Jammeh was voted out of office in 2016.

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Jammeh, who was defeated by an opposition coalition that backed current President Adama Barrow, fled to Equatorial Guinea in 2017 after refusing to accept defeat https://reut.rs/31oknjP.

Barrow, a 56-year-old former security guard and property developer, cast his vote in a crowded polling station in the capital, Banjul, accompanied by his two wives.

“I’m happy to see a large turnout from Gambian voters,” he said after voting, adding that he was confident of victory.

Barrow is facing five rivals including his former political mentor, Ousainou Darboe, 73, seen as his main challenger.

Darboe called for calm after the vote, urging his supporters in the tourism-dependent nation not to respond to any provocation.

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“Remember, we are in the tourism season, the slightest disturbance in this country will drive away all the tourists,” he said.

Nearly 1 million people from a population of 2.5 million are registered to vote in Gambia, mainland Africa’s smallest country. Turnout is expected to be high, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has said.

“I want to see a better Gambia, a far better Gambia than the previous years,” said civil servant Bubacarr Kanteh, 39, outside the polling station.

Before the polls opened, officials carried the voting drums outside to show the queues of voters that they were empty.

Gambians are comfortable with using glass marbles to vote, said Mamadou A. Barry, an official at the IEC.

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The system, which was introduced in the 1960s to avoid spoilt ballots in a nation with a high illiteracy rate, is “transparent and fair”, Barry said.

Results are expected by Sunday under the simple majority system.

Other candidates https://reut.rs/3EqrXsH include Essa Mbye Faal, who served as chief counsel of Gambia’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission that chronicled the abuses of Jammeh’s rule, and Mama Kandeh, who came third in 2016 and is backed by Jammeh.

As campaigning wrapped up on Thursday, hundreds of jubilant Barrow supporters gathered in downtown Banjul for a final rally, hoping another Barrow term would secure stability as Gambia seeks to put 22 years of Jammeh rule behind it.

Critics, however, say Barrow has broken his promises, pointing to how he backtracked on a pledge to serve only three years after winning in 2016. Barrow has argued the constitution requires him to serve out a full five-year term.

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(Reporting by Pap Saine and Bate FelixWriting by Bate Felix and Alessandra PrenticeEditing by Sandra Maler and David Clarke)

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Thousands protest over Dutch coronavirus restrictions

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December 4, 2021

UTRECHT, Netherlands (Reuters) – Several thousand people gathered in the central Dutch town of Utrecht on Saturday to protest against new coronavirus restrictions that came into force last weekend.

Protesters walked through the streets of the town carrying banners saying “Medical Freedom Now!” and waving Dutch flags. A heavy police presence was visible along the route of the march.

It is the first major demonstration in the Netherlands against the measures, which include a nighttime closure of bars, restaurants and most stores to stem a record-breaking wave of COVID-19 cases that is threatening to overwhelm the country’s healthcare system.

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The Netherlands saw violent protests two weeks ago after the government announced plans to ban most people who have not been vaccinated from public places. Those plans face widespread opposition in parliament, including from parties in the governing coalition and have not been put into place yet.

(Reporting by Stephanie van den Berg; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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Germany’s Social Democrats back coalition agreement

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December 4, 2021

BERLIN (Reuters) – Members of Germany’s Social Democratic party (SPD), which narrowly won a federal election in September, voted on Saturday to back a coalition agreement with the Greens and Free Democrats that should allow the three-way alliance to take over next week.

The coalition, the first at federal level between the ideologically disparate Greens, the libertarian Free Democrats (FDP) and Olaf Scholz’s centre-left SPD, will end 16 years of conservative governments led by Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Greens and the FDP also need the approval of their members for the deal that the three parties agreed last month. They hope the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, will vote Scholz in as chancellor on Wednesday.

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The “traffic light” alliance, named after the parties’ respective colours, will usher in a new era of relations with Europe, and plans to speed up digitalisation of the continent’s biggest economy and put a focus on fighting climate change.

(Reporting by Emma Thomasson; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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