France Starts New Chapter in National Debate Aimed to End Yellow-Vest Crisis

After wrapping up thousands of town hall meetings, France starts a new chapter of its “great debate,” aimed to address longstanding public grievances and offer solutions to the yellow vest protest movement.

But the broader crisis lingers, seen with upsurge of violence in Paris Saturday, where about 10,000 yellow vests marked their 18th straight week of protests.

Demonstrators smashed and looted businesses on the iconic Champs Elysees and hurled cobble stones at police, who responded with tear gas and water cannons. Others participated in a peaceful climate march that brought together tens of thousand of people—underscoring the diffuse, unorganized complexity of the leaderless protest movement.

Eight weeks of citizen debates, launched in January by an embattled President Emmanuel Macron, have received mixed reviews. Some consider them a groundbreaking experiment in participative democracy. Others dismiss them as a public relations stunt.

The bigger question is whether and how Macron’s centrist government plans to transform the public feedback into tangible policy change that can address pent-up resentments and find an exit to the unrest.

“The problems start now” said analyst Jean Petaux of Sciences-Po Bordeaux University. “To totally finish with the yellow vests, the government has to address at least part of their demands, which are very disparate. And give the sense it is offering credible solutions.”

For Macron, the immediate takeaways have been largely positive. Up to half-a-million French participated in 10,000 town-hall-style meetings nationwide that tackled pre-set topics, ranging from taxes and pubic services, to democracy and the environment. Organizers also received more than 1.4 million online comments outlining other issues of public concern, including jobs and immigration.

“People are learning that politics and how to change a system is a very difficult process,” said Bernard Reber, an expert on participative citizenship at the Paris-based National Center for Scientific Research, citing one early achievement.

A mixed review

The debates have also given the president and his government some breathing room — time that will last through the current “phase two,” which ends in April. Citizens are being randomly selected to participate in regional meetings aimed to prioritize the myriad demands.

Surveys show the majority of French have broadly given the national debates a thumbs up. More than eight in 10 respondents said the meetings gave citizens an opportunity to express themselves, while smaller majorities said they addressed their personal problems and those aired by the yellow vests, according to a Harris Interactive-Agence Epoka poll published this week, echoing others.

But many appear skeptical that all the talking will amount to much. Another survey found roughly two-thirds doubt the government will ultimately take the public feedback into account.

France’s leading Le Monde newspaper, however, gave the effort a careful, initial thumbs up. Critics who dismissed the debates as a diversion “were misguided,” it wrote in an editorial, while the yellow vests “were eclipsed and marginalize by this exercise in democracy.”

“Macron has not yet won,” it added, “he needs to show he hasn’t just listened but heard the country.”

Government members insist that will happen.

“The idea we have to do things differently is obvious,” Territorial Collectives Minister Sebastien Lecornu, who helped to organizing the debates, told the weekly Le Journal du Dimanche. “We may beef up certain themes, accelerate or correct others.”

But Prime Minister Edouard Philippe offered a more cautionary note, those expecting a flurry of government measures emerging from the debates were misguided.

The months of yellow vest protests have slowed Macron’s reformist agenda. The protest movement, named after the fluorescent jackets French keep in their cars, has morphed well beyond its initial opposition to a planned fuel tax hike, to embrace a hodgepodge of grievances of a largely rural and working class France left behind.

The French president took an initial step back by repealing the fuel tax increase. Then in December, he went further, announcing billions of dollars of aid for the most vulnerable and laying out plans the debates. Yellow vests dismissed the announcements as insufficient, the most extreme calling for Macron’s resignation.

“Emmanuel Macron now has to show that his statements — that there is a before and and after the yellow vests — are translated into acts,” says analyst Petaux. “Otherwise, it’s just talk.”

The next step?

So far, there are at least stylistic changes. Often dismissed as arrogant and aloof, Macron has rolled up his sleeves — literally — and participated in roughly a dozen public debates, in a style reminiscent of his presidential campaign.

Political opponents grumble the French leader has hogged media coverage ahead of May European Parliament elections. And indeed, polls show Macron’s approval rating jumped eight points by early March, to reach 28 percent, and his Republic on the March party inching up to overtake the far-right opposition National Rally.

Still, some observers note the debates ultimately involved only a small slice of the population — including many elderly, with time on their hands. “The great majority of French stayed home,” said analyst Petaux. “It’s not that they were sidelined. It’s that they don’t care. They have other things to do.”

But analyst Reber, who attended roughly 30 of the town hall meetings, believes the debates should not be underestimated. “They’ve been unprecedented in every sense,” he said.

A few months ago, he said, many would have dismissed the idea that French would show up and hash out often deeply divisive issues. “But that’s not been the case,” Reber added. “People mobilized — and stayed for a long time. I don’t know many countries in the world that allow citizens to participate in hours-long debates.”

Macron is expected to announce the after-debate roadmap next month. So far, the French president has given little indication of his long-term exit strategy. Some believe he doesn’t yet have one.

 “I’m not sure the government has a clear idea of what it’s going to do with this mass of information” Reber said. “But it has all kinds of options.

A referendum may be the most obvious path, many analysts say. But it carries risks — not only in terms timing, notably whether to schedule such a vote during May European Parliament elections — but also the chance French may vote against it.

The next steps for the yellow vests are also unclear. A number of analysts believe the movement will slowly die out.

Some diehards will likely continue and harden the protests, Petaux believes, while another group will be absorbed into existing politics parties — mostly on the far right and far left.

A third “will relive the nostalgia of the Republic of roundabouts,” he said, remembering the solidarity and friendships struck during the protests.

Build a better website in under an hour. Start for free at us!

UK Leader to Lawmakers: Back my Deal or Face Lengthy Delay

British Prime Minister Theresa May warned Sunday that it would be “a potent symbol of Parliament’s collective political failure” if a Brexit delay meant that the U.K. has to take part in May’s European elections — almost three years after Britons voted to leave the bloc.

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, May also cautioned that if lawmakers failed to back her deal before Thursday’s European Council summit, “we will not leave the EU for many months, if ever.”

 

“If the proposal were to go back to square one and negotiate a new deal, that would mean a much longer extension… The idea of the British people going to the polls to elect MEPs [Members of the European Parliament] three years after voting to leave the EU hardly bears thinking about,” she wrote.

 

May is expected to try to win Parliament’s approval of her withdrawal agreement for the third time this week. After months of political deadlock, lawmakers voted on Thursday to seek to postpone Brexit.

 

That will likely avert a chaotic withdrawal on the scheduled exit date of March 29 — though power to approve or reject an extension lies with the EU. The European Commission has said the bloc would consider any request, “taking into account the reasons for and duration of a possible extension.”

 

By law, Britain is due to leave the EU on March 29, with or without a deal, unless it cancels Brexit or secures a delay.

 

May is trying to persuade opponents in her Conservative Party and its parliamentary allies to support the withdrawal agreement, which Parliament has already resoundingly defeated twice.

 

Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said Sunday his party is against May’s deal — but indicated that it would back an amendment that supports the deal on condition it is put to a new referendum.

 

Corbyn has written to lawmakers across the political spectrum inviting them for talks to find a cross-party compromise.

 

He also told Sky News that he may propose another no-confidence vote in the government if May’s deal is voted down again.

Build a better website in under an hour. Start for free at us!

Brazil Reportedly Weighing Import Quota for US Wheat

Brazil is considering granting an import quota of 750,000 metric tons of U.S. wheat per year without tariffs in exchange for other trade concessions, according to a Brazilian official with knowledge of the negotiations ahead of President Jair Bolsonaro’s visit to Washington. 

That is about 10 percent of Brazilian annual wheat imports and is part of a two-decade-old commitment to import 750,000 metric tons of wheat a year free of tariffs that Brazil made — but never kept — during the World Trade Organization’s Uruguay Round of talks on agriculture. 

Bolsonaro is scheduled to arrive in Washington on Sunday and meet with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House on Tuesday.

Farm state senators have asked that wheat sales be on the agenda, in a letter to Trump seen by Reuters. They estimate such a quota would increase U.S. wheat sales by between $75 million and $120 million a year. 

Brazil buys most of its imported wheat from Argentina, and some from Uruguay and Paraguay, without paying tariffs because they are all members of the Mercosur South American customs union. Imports from other countries pay a 10 percent tariff. 

The Brazilian official, who asked not to be named so he could speak freely, said the wheat quota could be sealed during a meeting between Brazil’s Agriculture Minister Teresa Cristina Dias and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue on Tuesday. 

In return, the Brazilian government is hoping to see movement toward the reopening of the U.S. market to fresh beef imports from Brazil that was shut down after a meatpacking industry scandal involving bribed inspectors. 

Brazil is also seeking U.S. market access for its exports of limes that are facing phytosanitary certification hurdles. 

The world’s largest sugar producer also wants tariff-free access to the U.S. market. But Washington is not expected to budge on that issue until Brazil lifts a tariff it slapped on ethanol imports when they exceed 150 million liters in a quarter. 

That is a major demand by U.S. biofuels producers, who are the main suppliers of ethanol imported by Brazil. 

Build a better website in under an hour. Start for free at us!

Iran’s Oil Minister Blames US for Market Tensions 

Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh said on Saturday that frequent U.S. comments about oil prices had created market tensions, the ministry’s news website SHANA reported. 

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has made the U.S. economy one of his top issues, has repeatedly tweeted about oil prices and the Organization of the Petroleum Producing Countries. He has expressed concern about higher prices, including last month and ahead of OPEC’s meeting in December.

“Americans talk a lot and I advise them to talk less. They [have] caused tensions in the oil market for over a year now, and they are responsible for it, and if this trend continues, the market will be more tense,” SHANA quoted Zanganeh as saying. 

U.S. crude futures briefly hit a 2019 high on Friday but later retreated along with benchmark Brent oil as worries about the global economy and robust U.S. production put a brake on prices. 

OPEC and its allies including Russia, an alliance known as OPEC+, agreed last year to cut production, partly in response to increased U.S. shale output.

Washington granted waivers to eight major buyers of Iranian oil after the U.S. reimposed sanctions on Iran’s oil sector in November, after withdrawing from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. 

“We do not know whether U.S. waivers would be extended or not. We will do our job but they [the U.S.] say something new every single day,” Zanganeh said. 

South Pars

Zanganeh was speaking at a news conference ahead of the planned inauguration on Sunday of four development phases at South Pars, the world’s largest gas field, by President Hassan Rouhani. 

He said Iran had invested $11 billion to complete the phases 13 and 22-24 of the giant field, which Tehran shares with Qatar, and expected to operate 27 phases by next March, SHANA reported. 

France’s Total and China National Petroleum Corp suspended investment in phase 11 of South Pars last year after the United States threatened to impose sanctions on companies that do business in Iran. 

But Zanganeh said talks with CNPC were continuing. 

“Negotiations are ongoing. A senior delegation from China is due to come to Iran for talks. They have promised to come to Iran soon,” said Zanganeh, according to the semiofficial news agency ISNA. 

Build a better website in under an hour. Start for free at us!

Brexit: What Now?

Veteran Conservative lawmaker Nigel Evans has been in Britain’s House of Commons for more than a quarter-of-a-century and, like most of his parliamentary colleagues, is stunned at the turn of Brexit events.

“I got elected in 1992 and I don’t know if I have known any time more uncertain than now,” he told VOA.

He’s flummoxed at what the next move should be for a Conservative government that has lost control of the Brexit process.

As a committed Brexiter, he fears Britain will end up staying in the European Union because of an impasse in the Commons that has seen the ruling Conservative government repeatedly rebuffed by lawmakers, including by a third of its own MPs, in a series of historic votes without precedent for the storied House of Commons.

Parliament is not alone in being hopelessly divided: Theresa May’s Cabinet is, too, with the British prime minister lurching between pro-EU rebel ministers and their pro-Brexit counterparts, trying to resuscitate a government that appears to be in terminal decline.

Divorce delayed

More than 20 ministers have resigned in the past two years — and at least another half-dozen are on the cusp of quitting. Midweek another minister resigned and four declined to vote with their own government — an unprecedented defiance left unpunished.

Britain’s newspaper headline writers are running out of superlatives and metaphors to describe the political havoc. “We’re becoming the laughing stock of the World,” fumes Andrew Pierce, the Daily Mail’s associate editor, in College Green, the patch of grass outside parliament which has become a media encampment of tents, wires and cameras besieged by chanting, dueling placard-waving protesters.

Britain was due to exit the EU in 16 days’ time, on March 29.

On Wednesday, the House of Commons voted against Britain exiting the EU without a deal — in effect delaying Brexit until further notice. That followed Tuesday’s crushing parliamentary defeat of Theresa May’s Brexit withdrawal agreement — the second time pro-EU and hardline pro-Brexit lawmakers have combined to reject it. Lawmakers Thursday are expected to pass a measure seeking formally to delay Brexit, at least to June 30. EU leaders are divided about accepting a request for delay.

Donald Tusk, the president of the EU Council, tweeted Thursday: “I will appeal to the EU27 to be open to a long extension if the UK finds it necessary to rethink its #Brexit strategy and build consensus around it.”

The Remainers hope to either block Brexit altogether or at least steer it in a gentler direction with Britain still closely aligned although not a member of its political institutions. Hardline Brexiters want a no-nonsense sharp break with the EU, ready to accept the economic damage to Britain that will wreak, at least in the medium term.

That Evans feels unable to predict what happens next is instructive. He is no junior lawmaker, but a so-called “Tory grandee”, and he helps to direct the 1922 Committee, of which all backbench Conservative lawmakers are members.

When the bosses of the 1922 Committee tell a Conservative leader to quit, their word has the force of the Lord High Executioner. The last time the 22, as its nicknamed, deposed a party leader was in 2003, ousting one of Theresa May’s predecessors for losing a general election.

Are they close to giving May the push now? Evans is guarded but makes little secret he thinks the time is close at hand. “Her authority is greatly weakened,” he says grimly.

Replacing May

Pro-Brexit Conservative bloggers and columnists are in vituperative mood, blaming May for mishandling the negotiations with the EU and, from their viewpoint, giving too much ground to Brussels. Gridlock has been the result, they say.

“I can see no scenario where she is the answer for taking the country forward. She should by rights go now. At some point in the next two or three weeks it will even dawn on Mrs. May that it is time to go,” Conservative blogger Iain Dale tells VOA.

WATCH:  British Leadership Change Possible in Wake of Brexit Chaos

Then what?

The vultures are circling. Half-a-dozen would-be replacements from inside May’s Cabinet have in effect been auditioning already for the job, delivering speeches carving out their vision for the country. Some contenders have advanced plans, including printing up campaign material for what they expect is an inevitable leadership election.

A Conservative grassroots favorite, Boris Johnson, the former foreign minister, has had a modern makeover and dispensed with his trademark tousle-haired slapdash look and is now sporting a stylish boyband haircut.

But it is not clear that replacing Theresa May will solve anything or break the political impasse, which is why the 1922 Committee has stayed its hand.

There is no obvious unity candidate to succeed her. A new leader will face the same splits inside the Conservative party between Remainers, Brexiters and the those who favor a so-called soft Brexit modeled on Norway’s relationship with the EU, which would see Britain remain in the bloc’s single market and customs union as well as accept freedom of movement.

And the deadlocked parliamentary arithmetic will remain the same.

Another try

In a final throw of the dice, May is planning to bring her contentious deal back to the Commons for a third time, hoping that she will prevail by sheer persistence. It is the continuation of her strategy of brinkmanship — to run the clock down and force Conservative Brexiters and a handful of allied Northern Irish lawmakers to give in, prompted to do so by the fear that otherwise Britain might never leave the EU in any form.

It is not clear that the pro-EU Speaker of the House, John Bercow, will allow her to do so — under parliamentary rules a government is not meant to keep asking the House to vote repeatedly on the same measure. “If she can pull it off, it will be the political equivalent of Lazarus rising from the dead,” admits a Downing Street official.

Some believe she has a chance of succeeding in this high-stakes game of chicken. Evans does not think so. “For some of the rebels it would be better to stay in the EU than accept this deal, which would have us at the beck and call of Brussels without any power,” he says. Another key Brexiter, Steve Barclay, says he and many of his colleagues will keep voting the deal down “whatever the pressure we’re put under.”

Keeping calm and carrying on?

Beyond Westminster, there is fear, exasperation and anger. And clear Brexit fatigue. BBC Radio Five Live has seen the volume of Brexit-related call-ins tail off recently. There are signs, according to some opinion polls, that the mood of the country may have shifted slightly in favor of remaining in the EU, suggesting that a second referendum would deliver a narrow win for Remain.

As yet there is no majority in the House of Commons for holding a re-run referendum. Nor are lawmakers keen on holding a snap general election, for fear that might result in an equally deadlocked parliament afterwards.

Business leaders were already fuming at all the Brexit uncertainty before this week’s upheaval. “Enough is enough. A new approach is needed by all parties. Jobs and livelihoods depend on it,” said Carolyn Fairbairn, the director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, a major business association.

Build a better website in under an hour. Start for free at us!

China Investment Law Fails to Deliver, Raises Concerns

China’s top legislature is expected to pass the country’s first Foreign Investment Law this week at a time when negotiators from Beijing and Washington work to hammer out a trade deal.

Analysts and business groups say the legislation is a step in the right direction, but still falls short. In some ways, they add, it even raises new concerns that negotiators need to address before the two sides reach a deal.

For decades, China has been grappling with the question of just how far and how fast it should open up its state directed economy, and steps — while always welcome — have long lagged behind expectations. The Foreign Investment Law is not different.

In a statement, the American Chamber of Commerce in China (AmCham China) said it welcomes the law and appreciates the effort to improve the investment environment.

“We are concerned, however, that such an important and potentially far-reaching piece of legislation will be enacted without extensive consultation and input from industry stakeholders, including Foreign Invested Enterprises,” the statement said.

An earlier version of the law was put together in 2015, but later stalled during the review process, only to resurface more recently. When it did, the wording was more general and more vague, analysts note. By contrast, the first version had 171 articles, the new one has 41.

This some argue, helped pave the way for the bills speedy passage. NPC Observer, a website that closely follows China’s legislature or National People’s Congress, notes that by keeping the legislation vague, the government will have more room and time to craft implementing regulations after the law is enacted.

“The law is phrased and drafted with very general provisions. There are a number of things that are not covered in there, such as what percentage of foreign investment qualifies as foreign invested,” said Lester Ross, who heads AmCham China’s policy committee. “Another major concern is the requirement for security assessments even for non-mergers and acquisitions, even for greenfield investments, which seems unnecessary.”

Subsidies still an issue

The newer version of the law was fast-tracked as Washington and Beijing work to hammer out a trade deal. While the provisions in the legislation address some persistent concerns, such as forced technology transfers, equal access to government procurement and national treatment, it does not address other issues, such as subsidies for state owned enterprises.

Clearly though, the legislation was pushed through the system in part to address what is being discussed at the negotiation table, said Mats Harborn, president of the European Chamber of Commerce in China.

“It is more than a law, it is a document that states principles and it is a document that states principles that we [foreign investors] would like to hear. And it also states the principles that U.S. negotiators want to have on paper from China,” Harborn said. “But the proof in the pudding will be the implementation.”

National security concerns

And while the law echoes concerns that are part of what trade negotiators are discussing, issues such as the broad application of national security reviews and the mention of national security in the law are cause for concern, argues Austin Lowe, a Washington D.C.-based consultant and analyst.

In a recent article on the legal and national security website Lawfare, Lowe highlighted provisions in the legislation that foreign companies should not “harm national security or the public interest” and that businesses that affect national security should be subject to a review.

“Together, these provisions essentially give the state — and, in turn, the Chinese Communist Party — free rein to intervene in a wide range of investment activity, signaling to foreign investors that they are better off avoiding any investment in an area that may be construed as politically sensitive or threatening,” he wrote.

Ross notes that while security reviews have been in place since 2011, they have, so far, been used very selectively and largely for mergers and acquisitions.

“Now it looks like this is an additional hurdle that will apply across the board,” he said.

While it doesn’t mean that every investment could face such scrutiny, there are no bounds to how it can be applied, and in some cases that would require revealing a company’s intellectual property, Ross added.

“When you put national security into any document it creates a great deal of arbitrary judgement on what is national security and what is not,” notes the EU Chamber of Commerce’s Mats Harborn. “It is a very wide definition that creates uncertainty.”

Not only does it create uncertainty, but the questions the new law raises will add to the issues negotiators will need to resolve going forward, Ross said.

“While on the one hand it is a good thing that they are showing some significant degree of intention to reduce barriers to foreign investment and actually making some substantive changes, once the law is in place it may actually be more difficult to make departures from that in the course of the negotiations,” he said.

Build a better website in under an hour. Start for free at us!

Trump Says He is in No Rush to Complete China Trade Deal

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday he was in no rush to complete a trade pact with China and insisted that any deal include protection for intellectual property, a major sticking point between the two sides during months of negotiations.

Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping had been expected to hold a summit at the president’s Mar-a-Lago property in Florida later this month, but no date has been set for a meeting and no in-person talks between their trade teams have been held in more than two weeks.

The president, speaking to reporters at the White House, said he thought there was a good chance a deal would be made, in part because China wanted one after suffering from U.S. tariffs on its goods.

But he acknowledged Xi may be wary of coming to a summit without an agreement in hand after seeing Trump end a separate summit in Vietnam with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un without a peace deal.

“I think President Xi saw that I’m somebody that believes in walking when the deal is not done, and you know there’s always a chance it could happen and he probably wouldn’t want that,” Trump said.

China has not made any public comment confirming Xi is considering going to meet Trump in Florida or elsewhere.

The president, who likes to emphasize his own deal-making abilities, said an agreement to end a months-long trade war could be finished ahead of a presidential meeting or completed in-person with his counterpart.

“We could do it either way. We could have the deal completed and come and sign, or we could get the deal almost completed and negotiate some of the final points. I would prefer that,” he said.

Trump decided last month not to increase tariffs on Chinese goods at the beginning of March, giving a nod to the success of negotiations so far.

But hurdles remain, and intellectual property is one of them. Washington accuses Beijing of forcing U.S. companies to share their intellectual property and transfer their technology to local partners in order to do business in China. Beijing denies it engages in such practices.

Asked on Wednesday if intellectual property had to be included in a trade deal, Trump said: “Yes it does.”

He indicated that from his perspective, a meeting with Xi was still likely.

“I think things are going along very well – we’ll just see what the date is,” Trump told reporters at the White House.

“I’m in no rush. I want the deal to be right. … I am not in a rush whatsoever. It’s got to be the right deal. It’s got to be a good deal for us and if it’s not, we’re not going to make that deal.”

‘Maintaining contact’

China’s Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday that Xi had previously told Trump that he is willing to “maintain contacts” with the U.S. president.

Over the weekend, Vice Commerce Minister Wang Shouwen, who has been deeply involved in the trade talks with the United States, did not answer questions from reporters on whether Xi would go to Mar-a-Lago.

Two Beijing-based diplomatic sources, familiar with the situation, told Reuters that Xi would not be going to Mar-a-Lago, at least in the near term.

One said there had been no formal approach from the United States to China about such a trip, while the second said the problem was that China had realized a trade agreement was not going to be as easy to reach as they had initially thought.

“This is media hype,” said the first source, of reports Xi and Trump could meet this month in Florida.

Though Trump said he is not in a hurry, a trade deal this spring would give him a win to cite as an economic accomplishment as he advances his 2020 re-election campaign. The trade war has hurt the global economy and hung over stock markets, which would likely benefit from an end to the tensions.

In addition to smoothing over sticking points on content, the United States is eager to include a strong enforcement mechanism in a deal to ensure that Beijing can be held accountable if it breaks any of its terms.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who has spearheaded the talks from the American side, said on Tuesday that U.S. officials hoped they were in the final weeks of their talks with China but that major issues remained to be resolved.

Build a better website in under an hour. Start for free at us!

Democrats Cool Toward NAFTA Replacement, Question Labor Standards

Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives gave a cool reception to the replacement for the North American Free Trade Agreement on Wednesday as the top U.S. trade negotiator opened a  campaign to win broad support for the accord in Congress.

Several Democrats said a closed-door meeting between United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and their caucus failed to ease their concerns about the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement’s (USMCA) provisions on labor, biologic drugs and some other issues.

A USTR spokeswoman declined to comment on the meeting.

The support of Democrats, who control the House, is considered important to passage of the USMCA, and Wednesday’s meeting at the U.S. Capitol signaled that the Trump administration has a lot of work to do to address the party’s concerns.

Democrats questioned whether new labor standards aimed at ensuring workers have the right to organize can be adequately enforced, as this depends partly on Mexico passing new labor laws.

“What you’re hearing is that a lot of people don’t think it’s good enough,” Representative Pramila Jayapal said of USMCA after the meeting, adding that she was concerned the new pact would not solve the biggest shortcoming of NAFTA, which allowed Mexican wages to stagnate.

“We know that when you don’t have strong enforcement provisions, you are essentially facilitating the outsourcing of jobs and bad worker protections and undercutting of U.S. workers,” said Jayapal.

NAFTA dealt with labor provisions in an unenforceable side-letter, allowing unions in Mexico to remain weak and wages low, drawing factories from the United States and Canada.

While USMCA’s labor chapter is part of the trade agreement itself and requires Mexico to adhere to International Labor Organization standards, Democrats questioned whether this could be adequately enforced through a state-to-state dispute settlement mechanism.

The Mexican government expects its Congress to pass a labor bill by the end of April that it says will strengthen the rights of unionized workers and fulfill its commitments under USMCA. Mexico “could say they passed the laws, but the laws could be very weak,” said Representative Judy Chu, a Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee.

She said Lighthizer told Democrats that he believed that Mexico’s labor law would meet the terms of the agreement and that any enforcement issues could be resolved through a subsequent agreement following ratification. Jayapal added that Lighthizer said this could be addressed through implementing legislation.

Some Democrats said that Lighthizer listened closely to their concerns and that he would work to address them. 

“He understands the concerns of our caucus and he knows we’re not there yet,” said Representative Bill Pascrell.

Other Democrats raised concerns about the prospect for higher drug prices resulting from the USMCA’s provision for 10 years of data exclusivity for biologic drugs. The United States allows 12 years currently and negotiated a five-year exclusivity period in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which President Donald Trump declined to join in 2017.

Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat who opposed several previous trade deals, called this an “absolutely unbelievable giveaway to the pharmaceutical industry.”

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, whose panel will handle the USMCA legislation, said the meeting did not provide any further clarity on the timing of the Trump administration’s submission of implementing legislation to Congress, or when a vote might occur.

Build a better website in under an hour. Start for free at us!

Lopez Obrador Rebuts Finance Ministry over $2.5B Mexico Refinery Funding

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Tuesday denied any delay to a flagship refinery project in his home state after the deputy finance minister was quoted as saying $2.5 billion for its construction will be moved to state oil firm Pemex.

The planned investment for the Dos Bocas refinery “can go to exploration and production” for Pemex, Arturo Herrera told the Financial Times in an interview during a trip to London for meetings with investors.

However, Lopez Obrador stood by his plan to build the refinery within three years, saying the tender could be unveiled next week. In answer to a question about whether the $2.5 billion would be spent this year on the refinery, said “Yes.”

The president’s plans to fast-track construction of the new refinery in Tabasco, his home state, have concerned investors that it would take away much-needed resources from Pemex, which is creaking under $106 billion of debt.

His energy minister, Rocio Nahle, said she understood Herrera’s budget concerns but said the project was on track.

“The faster we do this project, the cheaper it will be,” she said on Mexican radio.

The conflicting statements appeared to confuse investors.

Mexico’s benchmark stock index reversed gains and weakened 0.7 percent after Lopez Obrador’s rebuttal of Herrera’s comments, while the peso pared gains.

“Contradictions within the federal government do not help financial markets,” said James Salazar, an economist at bank CI Banco.

The government is under growing pressure to dispel doubts Pemex can successfully manage more than $16 billion of debt payments due by the end of next year, halt the firm’s extended oil output slide and avert a threatened credit rating downgrade to “junk.”

Finance minister Carlos Urzua said last week the government would announce new measures to support the ailing company, after unveiling a $3.9 billion bailout in February that failed to impress ratings agencies.

Herrera said the government was in talks with the International Monetary Fund and other multilateral organizations about structuring a fresh capital injection for Pemex, though he noted that those discussions were technical and no borrowing was involved, according to the Financial Times.

Lopez Obrador said it was very likely the government would make an announcement about tenders for the refinery on March 18, a national holiday that celebrates the 1938 nationalization of Mexico’s oil industry.

He also predicted Pemex would reverse its output decline by next year, with “new wells” coming on line by December under a production plan that allows Pemex to hire service companies to help explore mature fields.

He repeated that the refinery would cost between $6 billion and $8 billion, and said that work for now was focused on preparing the ground at the refinery site and readying the framework for the tender.

The refinery has already hit obstacles after the proposed construction site was cleared of protected mangrove without the correct environmental permits. The government has yet to present an environmental impact assessment for the wildlife-rich site.

Herrera said the tender framework was being prepared, but said the finance ministry needed to see a solid financial plan before releasing funds.

“We will not authorize (construction) until we have a final figure that is not very different from the original $8 billion,” said Herrera.

($1 = 19.3083 Mexican pesos)

Build a better website in under an hour. Start for free at us!

Official: US Plans ‘Very Significant’ Additional Venezuela Sanctions

The United States is preparing to impose “very significant” Venezuela-related sanctions against financial institutions in the coming days, U.S. special envoy Elliott Abrams said on Tuesday.

Abrams did not elaborate on the fresh measures but his warning came a day after the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on Russian bank Evrofinance Mosnarbank for helping Venezuelan state oil firm PDVSA evade U.S. financial restrictions.

Abrams said Washington was also preparing to withdraw more U.S. visas from Venezuelans with close ties to President Nicolas Maduro.

Washington has taken the lead in recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful president after the 35-year-old Congress chief declared Maduro’s 2018 re-election a fraud and announced an interim presidency in January. Most countries in Europe and Latin America have followed suit.

Abrams’ comments came as Venezuela ordered American diplomats to leave the country within 72 hours.

Washington said it had decided to withdraw the remaining diplomats due to deteriorating conditions in Venezuela, which has been plunged into its worst blackout on record.

Abrams emphasized that the withdrawal of diplomats was not a change in U.S. policy.

“This does not represent any change in U.S. policy toward Venezuela, nor does it represent any reduction in the commitment we have to the people of Venezuela and to their struggle for democracy,” he said, adding that the U.S. intended to keep up pressure on Maduro through sanctions.

“You will see very soon a significant number of additional visa revocations. You will see in the coming days some very significant additional sanctions,” Abrams added.

He said the United States was in talks with other countries that could act as its “protecting power” in Venezuela to ensure the safety of the U.S. embassy’s premises and provide assistance to Americans in trouble.

A “protecting power” is a country that represents another in cases where two countries have broken off diplomatic relations.

Washington, for example, has appointed Switzerland as its “protecting power” in Iran.

“We are trying to decide on a protecting power,” Abrams said.

He said the safety of U.S. diplomats was a key factor in the withdrawal decision reached by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the late hours of Monday night.

Build a better website in under an hour. Start for free at us!

Number of Older US Renters Spikes 43%

Carmen Perry decided to rent rather than buy immediately after she divorced her husband and sold the family home. The 67-year-old realtor sees definite advantages to living in a space owned by someone else.

“If something breaks or something needs to be replaced, water heater or whatever, I just call the company who does the management for the owner and they come and fix it for me,” Perry says. “And that is great, especially when I lived in a very large house with a lot of maintenance. Now, I don’t have any of those responsibilities, and I like that.”

Perry is not alone among older Americans who are opting out of buying. The number of renters over the age of 60 jumped 43 percent in large American cities between 2000 and 2017, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data.

By contrast, the number of renters between the ages of 35 and 59 grew just 17 percent during the same time period, and the number of renters under the age of 34 increased 7 percent, according to apartment search website RENTCafe, which conducted the analysis focusing on cities with populations of at least 100,000.

RENTCafe finds renting is gaining popularity among older Americans for a variety of reasons.

“They might have to do with empty-nesters finding themselves in a big home that they no longer need nor are able to maintain,” RENTCafe researcher Florentina Sarac told VOA via email. “Seniors also appreciate having the possibility to pack their bags and relocate whenever they want or need to in order to be closer to family.”

The American population is aging. Every day for the next decade, 10,000 Americans are expected to turn 65 years old. This 60-plus group is growing so fast that it helped push the national median age to 38.1 in 2017, the oldest it has ever been.

And many rental communities are ready to cater to this older age group. 

“From 24-hour-available maintenance, to social activities and attractive amenities geared toward a healthy and active lifestyle,” says Sarac. “Along with free access to gyms and social clubs, renting also offers security with many properties being gated.”

However, Perry isn’t completely sold on renting despite the advice she recently received from a financial advisor.

“I am divided,” she says. “Maybe because of my age I should not buy anymore is what he advised me. I am personally not convinced that is the best option.”

Perry misses being able to customize her living space, such as choosing her own appliances and fixtures. She also wonders whether she is wasting money.

She says money paid to a landlord provides shelter, but paying a mortgage loan on a property you will own gives you shelter, as well as an investment that often makes money for the homeowner.

While Perry isn’t sure she’ll be in rental housing long-term, RENTCafe believes the older-renter trend will continue, and projects that seniors will make up 31 percent of the total number of renters by 2035.

Those numbers suggest the rental market might have to make adjustments to meet the needs of this older demographic in terms of amenities and affordability.

“Above everything else, safety must take center stage when designing these rental communities and all homes should allow older renters to have an independent life for as long as possible,” says Sarac. “Moreover, renters of all ages would appreciate being within walking distance of entertainment spots, such as restaurants, supermarkets, and shopping centers.”

Build a better website in under an hour. Start for free at us!

As Sanctions on N. Korea Remain, Kim’s Economic Development Goals May Recede

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may not be able to achieve his economic development goals given the divergent ideas over denuclearization exhibited by Washington and Pyongyang after the Hanoi summit, said experts.

After the Hanoi summit broke down last month over discussions of Washington’s demand on denuclearization and Pyongyang’s demand on sanctions relief, Kim made a first public statement emphasizing economic development, a goal he set for this year during his New Year’s Day speech.

If the sanctions are not lifted, North Korea and its citizens will likely to face tougher economic conditions this year.

North Korea’s main state media outlet, Korea Central News Agency (KCNA), reported on Saturday that Kim stressed last week “the need to concentrate all efforts of information and motivation on accelerating socialist economic construction.” KCNA added that Kim emphasized the [North] Korean people should “further display their might in the spirit of self-reliance.”

Ahead of the report, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton told Fox Business Network last week the U.S. is looking to increase sanctions if Pyongyang is not willing to denuclearize.

“They’re not going to get relief from the crushing economic sanctions that have been imposed on them,” Bolton said. “We’ll look at ramping those sanctions up in fact.”

A State Department official said on Thursday that the U.S. is not looking to provide exemptions to South Korea to resume joint economic projects with North Korea, which Seoul has been pushing for since the first inter-Korean summit in April.

Missile sites

Based on commercial satellite imagery, North Korea appeared to be rebuilding the Sohae Satellite Launching Station at Tongchang-ri last week. Pyongyang began to dismantle the largest missile engine test site in the country after the first summit with the U.S.in Singapore in June.

Movements around the Samundong facility near Pyongyang were also detected last week, suggesting North Korea might be preparing for a missile launch.

Built in 2012, the Samundong facility’s mission is the development of long-range missiles and space-launch vehicles, such as the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile, which analysts agree is capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. 

Experts said Kim will not be able to develop North Korea’s economy, one of the world’s most opaque, without a sanctions lift from the U.S.

According to South Korea’s central bank, North Korea’s economy shrank 3.5 percent in 2017, a year after the United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions banning North Korea’s key exports including coal, textiles and fisheries and limited its imports of oil. Without the income derived from selling those export commodities, the North Korean economy is likely to face limits on its growth. 

“Sanctions are really serious obstacles to the prospects for North Korea to fully develop its economy,” said Scott Snyder, director of the U.S.-Korea policy program at the Council of Foreign Relations. 

Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said the North Korean economy is likely to dwindle as the result of sanctions. 

“Kim’s economy is in difficult shape, squeezed by sanctions,” Manning said. “Some think it is likely to contract in 2019.”

Snyder said North Korea will likely continue to look for ways to bypass sanctions, and turn to Russia and China, which have been willing partners in that effort in the past. But, he thinks that Pyongyang is unlikely to get very far with Moscow and Beijing. 

Since the U.S.-North Korean summit process started in June, Snyder said China has eased off enforcing sanctions in the past two months.

“But I believe that China is willing to continue to apply sanctions up to a point, and that the level of relaxation on the part of China is not going to be sufficient to meet North Korea’s desire toward its needs,” he added.

Joshua Stanton, a Washington-based attorney who helped draft the North Korea Sanctions Act in 2016, thinks the consequence of sanctions are not rigorous enough at the current level to deter evasions by North Korea.

“So far, they are not,” Stanton said. “You need to go out to Chinese banks that continue to launder money for North Korea. And although the Trump administration threatened that, it hasn’t followed through with that threat.” 

US legislation

A day before the Hanoi summit that took place Feb. 27-28, Congressman Brendan Boyle, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, introduced a bill calling for the prohibition of lifting sanctions on North Korea. 

Stanton said Congress will likely look for ways to make sanctions stronger now that North Korea has demonstrated its unwillingness at the Hanoi summit to agree to U.S. demands on denuclearization. 

Ken Gause, director of the International Affairs Group at the Center for Naval Analyses, said North Korea is most likely to turn to South Korea for concessions and look to resume inter-Korean projects, such as the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mount Kumgang tourism, which South Korea has been planning to discuss with the U.S. prior to beginning preparatory work because of potential sanctions violations.

​The Kaesong Industrial Complex that opened in 2004 included factories where South Korean manufacturers could employ North Korean workers for low wages. It was shut down in 2016 following a North Korean nuclear test. South Korean tours to the venerated Mount Kumgang ended in 2008 after a South Korean tourist was shot by a North Korean guard. 

Gause said, “It will definitely make it more difficult for [South Korean President Moon Jae-in] to just provide concessions to North Korea with the United States taking a hardline following Hanoi.”

Snyder thinks “the inter-Korean projects cannot go ahead under current circumstance because they would pursue contrary to the sanctions efforts,” and if South Korea tries to resume the projects with North Korea, “it would definitely create tension.” 

“So I believe South Korea is going to get essentially a red light on the idea of large-scale economic cooperation,” he added. 

Gause, on the other hand, thinks inter-Korean economic projects could help U.S. negotiate denuclearization with North Korea.

“If the South Koreans were able to get some sanctions relief and provide North Korea with some resources, maybe reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex or Mount Kumgang, that could actually lay the path for better negotiations with the United States down the line than if we just take a hard line against North Korea, and they go into a shell,” said Gause. 

After the Hanoi summit, Snyder said North Korea is looking for a way to boost its leverage over the U.S. position by making a preparation to resume testing. 

“One leverage that North Korea can use to push back on the U.S. position is the idea of making preparations for possible resumption of testing,” he said. “It’s kind of logical move for North Korea to make as a means by which to send the signal that the North Koreans also have some leverage and they’re not just going to roll over.” 

Build a better website in under an hour. Start for free at us!