Posts Tagged ‘Czech Republic’

Immigration: a deeply divisive topic in Europe

June 20, 2018

The arrival of massive numbers of migrants in Europe over the past few years has stirred fierce debate in many EU member states, and a number of governments have started to take a much tougher line as public opinion becomes increasingly hostile to the new arrivals.

Meanwhile, the number of migrants arriving via the Mediterranean has tailed off. After peaking at more than one million in 2015, the number fell to 362,000 in 2016, 172,000 in 2017 and just 37,000 so far this year, according to EU and UN figures.

© AFP/File | The Aquarius, carrying 630 rescued migrants, sparked a major migration row in Europe

Another point of friction is how the burden can be shared across the EU — especially when large swathes of the population are increasingly hostile to the idea of taking more migrants.

– Germany –

German Chancellor Angela Merkel allowed more than one million asylum seekers into the country in 2015, a decision that was welcomed at the time but has fuelled anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe’s biggest economy.

Merkel’s CDU party suffered stinging losses in last year’s general election, and she only just managed to hang on to power, while the far-right anti-immigrant, anti-Islam AfD party won seats in parliament for the first time.

The CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the CSU, has since threatened to shutter German borders if Merkel does not adopt a harder position on migration, an impasse that could topple her government.

An opinion poll last week showed that nearly 90 percent of Germans favour a tougher stance on migration.

– Italy –

The main gateway into Europe for refugees arriving by sea, Italy is struggling under the burden placed on it by the so-called Dublin rules, which require migrants to apply for asylum in the first country they enter.

An anti-migrant coalition between Italy’s far-right and anti-establishment parties was sworn in to government earlier this month after March’s election.

One of its first decisions was to refuse to allow the Aquarius rescue ship carrying 630 migrants to dock in Italy.

Italy has seen around 700,000 migrants arrive since 2013. Since January 1, the number of new arrivals has fallen by 78 percent to just over 15,600, according to data compiled by the interior ministry.

– France –

France, one of the countries where many migrants have said they would most like to settle, has also experienced tensions, particularly at its border with Italy which authorities have attempted to close.

The majority of French people have said they are opposed to illegal immigration, with 56 percent saying they were against the Aquarius being allowed to dock in France.

Nearly half of the 630 migrants on board, mostly of African origin, want to apply for asylum in France.

Last year asylum applications in France rose to more than 100,000, a 17.5 percent increase.

– Austria –

Conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who claims to have helped shut down the so-called Balkan route for migrants in 2016, said Tuesday the debate in Germany could help accelerate efforts to find a Europe-wide solution.

Austria received 200,665 applications for asylum between 2013 and 2017, equivalent to 2.3 percent of its population of 8.7 million.

After peaking at 88,160 in 2015, the annual figure fell to 24,715 in 2017.

– Belgium –

Belgium awarded refugee or equivalent status to around 40,000 people between 2015 and 2017, according to official data.

The government has toughened its stance, particularly under the state secretary for asylum and migration, Theo Francken, who recently said he was opposed to all illegal immigration in the EU and that only refugees who have been sent from UN-administered camps in war zones should be allowed in.

– Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia –

The four so-called Visegrad countries are opposed to any refugee quota system that the EU has tried to impose on them in the two years since the migrant influx peaked at more than 1.26 million in the entire bloc in 2015.

– Spain –

Spain is the third main point of arrival after Italy and Greece, but seems to be one of the few countries within the bloc where public opinion is not deeply divided. And more than 9,300 migrants have arrived on the Spanish coast since the beginning of the year, double the number for the same period in 2017.

The new Socialist government under Pedro Sanchez agreed to allow the Aquarius to dock and to handle the migrants’ applications for asylum. He argued that the crisis over the boat should help “nudge” other countries within the bloc.

– Sweden –

Sweden, which previously had a very open refugee policy, has toughened its stance since the end of 2015.

According to the official figures, it awarded asylum to more than 144,000 people, primarily from Syria, between 2015 and 2017, compared with an overall population of under 10 million.

Immigration is one of the main issues in legislative elections being held in September. The populist anti-immigration hard right is currently polling at 18-20 percent in the opinion polls.

AFP

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Kremlin: permanent U.S. military presence in Poland would harm European security

May 28, 2018

The Kremlin expressed concern on Monday over media reports that Poland has requested a permanent U.S. military presence on its soil, saying NATO’s expansion towards Russia’s borders undermined stability in Europe.

Image result for AEGIS ashore, Poland

Part of Europe’s missile defense system, a U.S. AEGIS ashore facility in Poland.

Warsaw could offer up to $2 billion in funding for such a military presence, according to a Polish Defense Ministry proposal reported by Polish media.

A government source in Poland confirmed to Reuters such a proposal had been made. The Polish Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Asked about the move, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was every country’s sovereign right to take such decisions, but that it would harm the overall atmosphere on the continent.

“When we see the gradual expansion of NATO military structures towards our borders…, this of course in no way creates security and stability on the continent,” Peskov told reporters on a conference call on Monday.

“On the contrary, these expansionist actions of course lead to counter-action from the Russian side in order to balance the parity which is violated every time in this way,” Peskov said.

Poland joined NATO in 1999 along with Hungary and the Czech Republic, and since then many other former communist states – including the three Baltic republics bordering Russia – have joined in successive waves, despite Moscow’s strong opposition.

Reporting by Tom Balmforth and Pawel Sobczak; Editing by Gareth Jones

Reuters

Czech leader admits Novichok nerve agent handling: “The Czech Republic produced and tested Novichok, though in a small amount, and then destroyed it,”

May 4, 2018

 Pro-Russian Czech President Milos Zeman said the Czech Republic had tested the substance Britain says was used to poison a former Russian spy on its soil.

© AFP/File / by Jan FLEMR | Former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned in March in an English city

Zeman’s statement Thursday countered previous claims by the Czech government rejecting Moscow’s allegations that the EU and NATO member state had produced the Novichok nerve agent that was allegedly used to poison Sergei Skripal and his daughter in an English city in March.

The Kremlin said the substance had been produced by the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Sweden when denying allegations by London and its allies that Moscow was behind the March 4 incident.

“The Czech Republic produced and tested Novichok, though in a small amount, and then destroyed it,” Zeman, a 73-year-old veteran leftwinger, said in a television interview on Thursday.

Zeman cited a military intelligence report but acknowledged that the country’s civilian intelligence and a military history institute denied that Novichok was produced on Czech soil.

Zeman said “a paralytic poison marked A230 was tested” in the Czech Republic last November but for reasons that are unclear later cited the report as “explicitly labelling A340 as Novichok.”

The foreign ministry confirmed on Friday that Czech labs had tested substances similar to Novichok through micro-synthesis, a process which it insisted is not regarded as production under international agreements.

“The paralytic poison used in the attack in Britain is marked A234 and so it’s a different variety from that tested by the Czech Military Research Institute,” it said, adding that the substance was immediately destroyed.

The Kremlin hailed Zeman’s comments.

“The Czech Republic has acted honestly and courageously, officially recognising and revealing this information,” Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters.

Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for President Vladimir Putin, said Zeman’s words highlighted the “inconsistency” of the British government’s claims that Russia was behind the Skripal attack.

“It’s a new confirmation that the entire Skripal story is an absolute provocation,” Peskov told reporters.

Josef Mlejnek, a political analyst at Charles University in Prague, said Zeman’s claim reflected his staunchly pro-Russian stance.

“They (Russia) have already started using Zeman’s claim in a media battle,” he told AFP, going so far as to argue that “this confirms that he (Zeman) is working for the Kremlin”.

burs-frj/mas/txw

by Jan FLEMR
AFP

Prague extradites Russian hacker to US for alleged cyberattacks

March 30, 2018

AFP

© AFP | Yevgeniy Nikulin, who is also sought by his native Russsia on fraud charges, was in a Prague prison before being extradited by the US

PRAGUE (AFP) – The Czech Republic on Friday said it had extradited a Russian hacker to the United States where he is wanted for alleged cyberattacks on social networks.

Yevgeniy Nikulin, who is also sought by his native Russsia on fraud charges, had been in a Prague prison since he was arrested in the Czech capital in 2016 in a joint operation with the FBI.

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The case comes amid accusations by Washington that Russia tried to “interfere” through hacking in the 2016 US election won by Donald Trump, charges the Kremlin has dismissed.

The Czech justice ministry “confirms the extradition of Russian citizen Y. Nikulin to the United States,” ministry spokeswoman Tereza Schejbalova said on Twitter.

The extradition “took place overnight,” she added.

A US government plane left Prague soon after midnight Thursday and landed nine hours later near Washington, according to the website flightaware.com.

Following Nikulin’s arrest, Moscow accused Washington of harassing its citizens and vowed to fight Nikulin’s extradition.

It then issued a separate arrest warrant for him over alleged theft from the WebMoney settlement system.

The US has charged Nikulin with hacking into social networks LinkedIn and Formspring and into the file hosting service Dropbox, Nikulin’s lawyer Martin Sadilek told AFP at the time.

He also said Nikulin alleges that FBI investigators had tried twice to persuade him to confess to cyberattacks on the US Democratic Party.

Last year, a Prague court ruled that Nikulin could be extradited to either Russia or the United States, with the final say left to the Czech justice minister.

See also:

Alleged hacker held in Prague at center of ‘intense’ US-Russia tug of war

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jan/27/us-russia-hacking-yevgeniy-nikulin-linkedin-dropbox#img-1

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jan/27/us-russia-hacking-yevgeniy-nikulin-linkedin-dropbox

Facebook has gotten too big for Mark Zuckerberg — “In over his head…”

March 23, 2018

Mark Zuckerberg is not comfortable with the enormous influence he has over the world.

During his apology tour this week for the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, Zuckerberg lent support to the idea of regulating Facebook and admitted he’d rather not be the person making content policy decisions for the world.

But he pushed back on one thing: Facebook’s immense power.

Image result for Mark Zuckerberg, photos

When CNN’s Laurie Segall asked if Facebook (FB) had become “too powerful,” Zuckerberg responded: “I don’t think so.”

“The reason why we’ve succeeded as a company is because we serve people and give people power,” Zuckerberg said. “The day that we stop doing that, we’ll stop being a relevant company.”

Zuckerberg argued that history shows any list of “the biggest [companies] in any given industry” will inevitably change “ten years later, or ten years after that.”

And yet, at this moment, Facebook isn’t just on the list, but nearly unrivaled in its dominance. It has billions of users and tremendous influence over the media and advertising industries. It also has no obvious direct competitor who can take it down thanks to years of acquiring and cloning newer social media companies.

“It influences how more than 2 billion around the world people see, think, and feel. I can’t think of an institution that has close to that power, with the possible exception of Google,” says Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media studies professor at the University of Virginia and author of a forthcoming book on Facebook’s impact on democracy.

“For Mark Zuckerberg to deny that,” he added, “is insulting.”

Related: Zuckerberg opens the door to testifying before Congress

Facebook is widely considered one of the “big four” tech companies, along with Apple (AAPL), Amazon (AMZN) and Google’s parent company, Alphabet (GOOGL). Like others in this group, Facebook has the ability to upend new industries overnight — and perhaps upend society itself.

News broke last weekend that Cambridge Analytica, a data firm with ties to President Donald Trump’s campaign, reportedly accessed information from about 50 million Facebook users without their knowledge.

Facebook has faced other controversies over user data and privacy, but the stakes have grown with the platform’s influence. This time, it wasn’t simply a matter of selling ads, but potentially swaying an election.

Once again, Facebook was forced to account for its role in the 2016 election after what was already a bruising year full of stories about fake newsforeign election meddling and filter bubbles.

“Any company that can influence a US presidential election without being aware that it is doing so is demonstrably too powerful,” Roger McNamee, Zuckerberg’s former mentor and a venture capitalist, told CNN by email.

Brian Wieser, an analyst who tracks Facebook for Pivotal Research Group, says the real issue plaguing the company may not be whether it’s too powerful so much as whether it became powerful too fast.

“It looks like a problem that has emerged is that they may have become big and powerful too quickly, without ensuring their foundations were solid enough to withstand the growth they have had,” Wieser told CNN.

Dex Torricke-Barton, a former speechwriter for Zuckerberg and former executive communications manager for Facebook, disagrees that the company is too powerful. But the idea that it is does create a genuine challenge for Facebook, he said.

“The perception that Facebook is all-powerful places an unfair burden on the company,” he said. “The challenges of misinformation, fake news and bad online actors didn’t begin with Facebook, and can’t be solved by Facebook alone.”

CNN Exclusive: Zuckerberg apologizes
CNN Exclusive: Zuckerberg apologizes

Zuckerberg may play down how powerful Facebook is, but his interviews this week highlight his clear discomfort with the responsibility he now has, not just to make products, but to make policies with global impact.

“I feel fundamentally uncomfortable sitting here in California in an office making content policy decisions for people around the world,” Zuckerberg told Re/code. “[The] thing is like, ‘Where’s the line on hate speech?’ I mean, who chose me to be the person that did that? I guess I have to, because of [where we are] now, but I’d rather not.”

In the CNN interview, Zuckerberg said if anyone had told him when he founded Facebook in 2004 that he’d one day be battling state actors, “I wouldn’t have really believed that that would be something I’d have to work on 14 years later.”

 http://money.cnn.com/2018/03/23/news/companies/facebook-power-data/index.html
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How Facebook and Google threaten public health – and democracy

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/nov/11/facebook-google-public-health-democracy

Cambridge Analytica whistleblower: ‘We spent $1m harvesting millions of Facebook profiles’

March 20, 2018

For more than a year we’ve been investigating Cambridge Analytica and its links to the Brexit Leave campaign in the UK and Team Trump in the US presidential election. Now, 28-year-old Christopher Wylie goes on the record to discuss his role in hijacking the profiles of millions of Facebook users in order to target the US electorate

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The first time I met Christopher Wylie, he didn’t yet have pink hair. That comes later. As does his mission to rewind time. To put the genie back in the bottle.

By the time I met him in person, I’d already been talking to him on a daily basis for hours at a time. On the phone, he was clever, funny, bitchy, profound, intellectually ravenous, compelling. A master storyteller. A politicker. A data science nerd.

 Cambridge Analytica whistleblower: ‘We spent $1m harvesting millions of Facebook profiles’ – video

Two months later, when he arrived in London from Canada, he was all those things in the flesh. And yet the flesh was impossibly young. He was 27 then (he’s 28 now), a fact that has always seemed glaringly at odds with what he has done. He may have played a pivotal role in the momentous political upheavals of 2016. At the very least, he played a consequential role. At 24, he came up with an idea that led to the foundation of a company called Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm that went on to claim a major role in the Leave campaign for Britain’s EU membership referendum, and later became a key figure in digital operations during Donald Trump’s election campaign.

Or, as Wylie describes it, he was the gay Canadian vegan who somehow ended up creating “Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare mindfuck tool”.

In 2014, Steve Bannon – then executive chairman of the “alt-right” news network Breitbart – was Wylie’s boss. And Robert Mercer, the secretive US hedge-fund billionaire and Republican donor, was Cambridge Analytica’s investor. And the idea they bought into was to bring big data and social media to an established military methodology – “information operations” – then turn it on the US electorate.

It was Wylie who came up with that idea and oversaw its realisation. And it was Wylie who, last spring, became my source. In May 2017, I wrote an article headlined “The great British Brexit robbery”, which set out a skein of threads that linked Brexit to Trump to Russia. Wylie was one of a handful of individuals who provided the evidence behind it. I found him, via another Cambridge Analytica ex-employee, lying low in Canada: guilty, brooding, indignant, confused. “I haven’t talked about this to anyone,” he said at the time. And then he couldn’t stop talking.

https://interactive.guim.co.uk/embed/article-embeds/Sidebar-ca/embed.html

By that time, Steve Bannon had become Trump’s chief strategist. Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL, had won contracts with the US State Department and was pitching to the Pentagon, and Wylie was genuinely freaked out. “It’s insane,” he told me one night. “The company has created psychological profiles of 230 million Americans. And now they want to work with the Pentagon? It’s like Nixon on steroids.”

He ended up showing me a tranche of documents that laid out the secret workings behind Cambridge Analytica. And in the months following publication of my article in May, it was revealed that the company had “reached out” to WikiLeaks to help distribute Hillary Clinton’s stolen emails in 2016. And then we watched as it became a subject of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible Russian collusion in the US election.

The Observer also received the first of three letters from Cambridge Analyticathreatening to sue Guardian News and Media for defamation. We are still only just starting to understand the maelstrom of forces that came together to create the conditions for what Mueller confirmed last month was “information warfare”. But Wylie offers a unique, worm’s-eye view of the events of 2016. Of how Facebook was hijacked, repurposed to become a theatre of war: how it became a launchpad for what seems to be an extraordinary attack on the US’s democratic process.

Wylie oversaw what may have been the first critical breach. Aged 24, while studying for a PhD in fashion trend forecasting, he came up with a plan to harvest the Facebook profiles of millions of people in the US, and to use their private and personal information to create sophisticated psychological and political profiles. And then target them with political ads designed to work on their particular psychological makeup.

“We ‘broke’ Facebook,” he says.

And he did it on behalf of his new boss, Steve Bannon.

“Is it fair to say you ‘hacked’ Facebook?” I ask him one night.

He hesitates. “I’ll point out that I assumed it was entirely legal and above board.”

Last month, Facebook’s UK director of policy, Simon Milner, told British MPs on a select committee inquiry into fake news, chaired by Conservative MP Damian Collins, that Cambridge Analytica did not have Facebook data. The official Hansard extract reads:

Christian Matheson (MP for Chester): “Have you ever passed any user information over to Cambridge Analytica or any of its associated companies?”

Simon Milner: “No.”

Matheson: “But they do hold a large chunk of Facebook’s user data, don’t they?”

Milner: “No. They may have lots of data, but it will not be Facebook user data. It may be data about people who are on Facebook that they have gathered themselves, but it is not data that we have provided.”

Alexander Nix
 Alexander Nix, Cambridge Analytica CEO. Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images

Two weeks later, on 27 February, as part of the same parliamentary inquiry, Rebecca Pow, MP for Taunton Deane, asked Cambridge Analytica’s CEO, Alexander Nix: “Does any of the data come from Facebook?” Nix replied: “We do not work with Facebook data and we do not have Facebook data.”

And through it all, Wylie and I, plus a handful of editors and a small, international group of academics and researchers, have known that – at least in 2014 – that certainly wasn’t the case, because Wylie has the paper trail. In our first phone call, he told me he had the receipts, invoices, emails, legal letters – records that showed how, between June and August 2014, the profiles of more than 50 million Facebook users had been harvested. Most damning of all, he had a letter from Facebook’s own lawyers admitting that Cambridge Analytica had acquired the data illegitimately.

Going public involves an enormous amount of risk. Wylie is breaking a non-disclosure agreement and risks being sued. He is breaking the confidence of Steve Bannon and Robert Mercer.

It’s taken a rollercoaster of a year to help get Wylie to a place where it’s possible for him to finally come forward. A year in which Cambridge Analytica has been the subject of investigations on both sides of the Atlantic – Robert Mueller’s in the US, and separate inquiries by the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner’s Office in the UK, both triggered in February 2017, after theObserver’s first article in this investigation.

It has been a year, too, in which Wylie has been trying his best to rewind – to undo events that he set in motion. Earlier this month, he submitted a dossier of evidence to the Information Commissioner’s Office and the National Crime Agency’s cybercrime unit. He is now in a position to go on the record: the data nerd who came in from the cold.

There are many points where this story could begin. One is in 2012, when Wylie was 21 and working for the Liberal Democrats in the UK, then in government as junior coalition partners. His career trajectory has been, like most aspects of his life so far, extraordinary, preposterous, implausible.

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Wylie grew up in British Columbia and as a teenager he was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia. He left school at 16 without a single qualification. Yet at 17, he was working in the office of the leader of the Canadian opposition; at 18, he went to learn all things data from Obama’s national director of targeting, which he then introduced to Canada for the Liberal party. At 19, he taught himself to code, and in 2010, age 20, he came to London to study law at the London School of Economics.

“Politics is like the mob, though,” he says. “You never really leave. I got a call from the Lib Dems. They wanted to upgrade their databases and voter targeting. So, I combined working for them with studying for my degree.”

Politics is also where he feels most comfortable. He hated school, but as an intern in the Canadian parliament he discovered a world where he could talk to adults and they would listen. He was the kid who did the internet stuff and within a year he was working for the leader of the opposition.

“He’s one of the brightest people you will ever meet,” a senior politician who’s known Wylie since he was 20 told me. “Sometimes that’s a blessing and sometimes a curse.”

Meanwhile, at Cambridge University’s Psychometrics Centre, two psychologists, Michal Kosinski and David Stillwell, were experimenting with a way of studying personality – by quantifying it.

Starting in 2007, Stillwell, while a student, had devised various apps for Facebook, one of which, a personality quiz called myPersonality, had gone viral. Users were scored on “big five” personality traits – Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism – and in exchange, 40% of them consented to give him access to their Facebook profiles. Suddenly, there was a way of measuring personality traits across the population and correlating scores against Facebook “likes” across millions of people.

An example of the visual messages trialled by GSR’s online profiling test.
 Examples, above and below, of the visual messages trialled by GSR’s online profiling test. Respondents were asked: How important should this message be to all Americans?

The research was original, groundbreaking and had obvious possibilities. “They had a lot of approaches from the security services,” a member of the centre told me. “There was one called You Are What You Like and it was demonstrated to the intelligence services. And it showed these odd patterns; that, for example, people who liked ‘I hate Israel’ on Facebook also tended to like Nike shoes and KitKats.

“There are agencies that fund research on behalf of the intelligence services. And they were all over this research. That one was nicknamed Operation KitKat.”

The defence and military establishment were the first to see the potential of the research. Boeing, a major US defence contractor, funded Kosinski’s PhD and Darpa, the US government’s secretive Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is cited in at least two academic papers supporting Kosinski’s work.

But when, in 2013, the first major paper was published, others saw this potential too, including Wylie. He had finished his degree and had started his PhD in fashion forecasting, and was thinking about the Lib Dems. It is fair to say that he didn’t have a clue what he was walking into.

An example of the visual messages trialled by GSR’s online profiling test. Respondents were asked: How important should this message be to all Americans?

“I wanted to know why the Lib Dems sucked at winning elections when they used to run the country up to the end of the 19th century,” Wylie explains. “And I began looking at consumer and demographic data to see what united Lib Dem voters, because apart from bits of Wales and the Shetlands it’s weird, disparate regions. And what I found is there were no strong correlations. There was no signal in the data.

“And then I came across a paper about how personality traits could be a precursor to political behaviour, and it suddenly made sense. Liberalism is correlated with high openness and low conscientiousness, and when you think of Lib Dems they’re absent-minded professors and hippies. They’re the early adopters… they’re highly open to new ideas. And it just clicked all of a sudden.”

Here was a way for the party to identify potential new voters. The only problem was that the Lib Dems weren’t interested.

“I did this presentation at which I told them they would lose half their 57 seats, and they were like: ‘Why are you so pessimistic?’ They actually lost all but eight of their seats, FYI.”

Another Lib Dem connection introduced Wylie to a company called SCL Group, one of whose subsidiaries, SCL Elections, would go on to create Cambridge Analytica (an incorporated venture between SCL Elections and Robert Mercer, funded by the latter). For all intents and purposes, SCL/Cambridge Analytica are one and the same.

Alexander Nix, then CEO of SCL Elections, made Wylie an offer he couldn’t resist. “He said: ‘We’ll give you total freedom. Experiment. Come and test out all your crazy ideas.’”

An example of the visual messages trialled by GSR’s online profiling test. Respondents were asked: How important should this message be to all Americans?
 Another example of the visual messages trialled by GSR’s online profiling test.

In the history of bad ideas, this turned out to be one of the worst. The job was research director across the SCL group, a private contractor that has both defence and elections operations. Its defence arm was a contractor to the UK’s Ministry of Defence and the US’s Department of Defense, among others. Its expertise was in “psychological operations” – or psyops – changing people’s minds not through persuasion but through “informational dominance”, a set of techniques that includes rumour, disinformation and fake news.

SCL Elections had used a similar suite of tools in more than 200 elections around the world, mostly in undeveloped democracies that Wylie would come to realise were unequipped to defend themselves.

Wylie holds a British Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa – a UK work visa given to just 200 people a year. He was working inside government (with the Lib Dems) as a political strategist with advanced data science skills. But no one, least of all him, could have predicted what came next. When he turned up at SCL’s offices in Mayfair, he had no clue that he was walking into the middle of a nexus of defence and intelligence projects, private contractors and cutting-edge cyberweaponry.

“The thing I think about all the time is, what if I’d taken a job at Deloitte instead? They offered me one. I just think if I’d taken literally any other job, Cambridge Analytica wouldn’t exist. You have no idea how much I brood on this.”

A few months later, in autumn 2013, Wylie met Steve Bannon. At the time, he was editor-in-chief of Breitbart, which he had brought to Britain to support his friend Nigel Farage in his mission to take Britain out of the European Union.

What was he like?

“Smart,” says Wylie. “Interesting. Really interested in ideas. He’s the only straight man I’ve ever talked to about intersectional feminist theory. He saw its relevance straightaway to the oppressions that conservative, young white men feel.”

Wylie meeting Bannon was the moment petrol was poured on a flickering flame. Wylie lives for ideas. He speaks 19 to the dozen for hours at a time. He had a theory to prove. And at the time, this was a purely intellectual problem. Politics was like fashion, he told Bannon.

“[Bannon] got it immediately. He believes in the whole Andrew Breitbart doctrine that politics is downstream from culture, so to change politics you need to change culture. And fashion trends are a useful proxy for that. Trump is like a pair of Uggs, or Crocs, basically. So how do you get from people thinking ‘Ugh. Totally ugly’ to the moment when everyone is wearing them? That was the inflection point he was looking for.”

But Wylie wasn’t just talking about fashion. He had recently been exposed to a new discipline: “information operations”, which ranks alongside land, sea, air and space in the US military’s doctrine of the “five-dimensional battle space”. His brief ranged across the SCL Group – the British government has paid SCL to conduct counter-extremism operations in the Middle East, and the US Department of Defense has contracted it to work in Afghanistan.

I tell him that another former employee described the firm as “MI6 for hire”, and I’d never quite understood it.

“It’s like dirty MI6 because you’re not constrained. There’s no having to go to a judge to apply for permission. It’s normal for a ‘market research company’ to amass data on domestic populations. And if you’re working in some country and there’s an auxiliary benefit to a current client with aligned interests, well that’s just a bonus.”

When I ask how Bannon even found SCL, Wylie tells me what sounds like a tall tale, though it’s one he can back up with an email about how Mark Block, a veteran Republican strategist, happened to sit next to a cyberwarfare expert for the US air force on a plane. “And the cyberwarfare guy is like, ‘Oh, you should meet SCL. They do cyberwarfare for elections.’”

U.S. President Trump’s former chief strategist Bannon walks in Piazza Navona in Rome
 Steve Bannon: ‘He loved the gays,’ says Wylie. ‘He saw us as early adopters.’ Photograph: Tony Gentile/Reuters

It was Bannon who took this idea to the Mercers: Robert Mercer – the co-CEO of the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, who used his billions to pursue a rightwing agenda, donating to Republican causes and supporting Republican candidates – and his daughter Rebekah.

Nix and Wylie flew to New York to meet the Mercers in Rebekah’s Manhattan apartment.

“She loved me. She was like, ‘Oh we need more of your type on our side!’”

Your type?

“The gays. She loved the gays. So did Steve [Bannon]. He saw us as early adopters. He figured, if you can get the gays on board, everyone else will follow. It’s why he was so into the whole Milo [Yiannopoulos] thing.”

Robert Mercer was a pioneer in AI and machine translation. He helped invent algorithmic trading – which replaced hedge fund managers with computer programs – and he listened to Wylie’s pitch. It was for a new kind of political message-targeting based on an influential and groundbreaking 2014 paperresearched at Cambridge’s Psychometrics Centre, called: “Computer-based personality judgments are more accurate than those made by humans”.

“In politics, the money man is usually the dumbest person in the room. Whereas it’s the opposite way around with Mercer,” says Wylie. “He said very little, but he really listened. He wanted to understand the science. And he wanted proof that it worked.”

And to do that, Wylie needed data.

How Cambridge Analytica acquired the data has been the subject of internal reviews at Cambridge University, of many news articles and much speculation and rumour.

When Nix was interviewed by MPs last month, Damian Collins asked him:

“Does any of your data come from Global Science Research company?”

Nix: “GSR?”

Collins: “Yes.”

Nix: “We had a relationship with GSR. They did some research for us back in 2014. That research proved to be fruitless and so the answer is no.”

Collins: “They have not supplied you with data or information?”

Nix: “No.”

Collins: “Your datasets are not based on information you have received from them?”

Nix: “No.”

Collins: “At all?”

Nix: “At all.”

The problem with Nix’s response to Collins is that Wylie has a copy of an executed contract, dated 4 June 2014, which confirms that SCL, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, entered into a commercial arrangement with a company called Global Science Research (GSR), owned by Cambridge-based academic Aleksandr Kogan, specifically premised on the harvesting and processing of Facebook data, so that it could be matched to personality traits and voter rolls.

He has receipts showing that Cambridge Analytica spent $7m to amass this data, about $1m of it with GSR. He has the bank records and wire transfers. Emails reveal Wylie first negotiated with Michal Kosinski, one of the co-authors of the original myPersonality research paper, to use the myPersonality database. But when negotiations broke down, another psychologist, Aleksandr Kogan, offered a solution that many of his colleagues considered unethical. He offered to replicate Kosinski and Stilwell’s research and cut them out of the deal. For Wylie it seemed a perfect solution. “Kosinski was asking for $500,000 for the IP but Kogan said he could replicate it and just harvest his own set of data.” (Kosinski says the fee was to fund further research.)

Dr Aleksandr Kogan
 An unethical solution? Dr Aleksandr Kogan Photograph: alex kogan

Kogan then set up GSR to do the work, and proposed to Wylie they use the data to set up an interdisciplinary institute working across the social sciences. “What happened to that idea,” I ask Wylie. “It never happened. I don’t know why. That’s one of the things that upsets me the most.”

It was Bannon’s interest in culture as war that ignited Wylie’s intellectual concept. But it was Robert Mercer’s millions that created a firestorm. Kogan was able to throw money at the hard problem of acquiring personal data: he advertised for people who were willing to be paid to take a personality quiz on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and Qualtrics. At the end of which Kogan’s app, called thisismydigitallife, gave him permission to access their Facebook profiles. And not just theirs, but their friends’ too. On average, each “seeder” – the people who had taken the personality test, around 320,000 in total – unwittingly gave access to at least 160 other people’s profiles, none of whom would have known or had reason to suspect.

What the email correspondence between Cambridge Analytica employees and Kogan shows is that Kogan had collected millions of profiles in a matter of weeks. But neither Wylie nor anyone else at Cambridge Analytica had checked that it was legal. It certainly wasn’t authorised. Kogan did have permission to pull Facebook data, but for academic purposes only. What’s more, under British data protection laws, it’s illegal for personal data to be sold to a third party without consent.

“Facebook could see it was happening,” says Wylie. “Their security protocols were triggered because Kogan’s apps were pulling this enormous amount of data, but apparently Kogan told them it was for academic use. So they were like, ‘Fine’.”

Kogan maintains that everything he did was legal and he had a “close working relationship” with Facebook, which had granted him permission for his apps.

Cambridge Analytica had its data. This was the foundation of everything it did next – how it extracted psychological insights from the “seeders” and then built an algorithm to profile millions more.

For more than a year, the reporting around what Cambridge Analytica did or didn’t do for Trump has revolved around the question of “psychographics”, but Wylie points out: “Everything was built on the back of that data. The models, the algorithm. Everything. Why wouldn’t you use it in your biggest campaign ever?”

In December 2015, the Guardian’s Harry Davies published the first report about Cambridge Analytica acquiring Facebook data and using it to support Ted Cruz in his campaign to be the US Republican candidate. But it wasn’t until many months later that Facebook took action. And then, all they did was write a letter. In August 2016, shortly before the US election, and two years after the breach took place, Facebook’s lawyers wrote to Wylie, who left Cambridge Analytica in 2014, and told him the data had been illicitly obtained and that “GSR was not authorised to share or sell it”. They said it must be deleted immediately.

Christopher Wylie
 Christopher Wylie: ‘It’s like Nixon on steroids’

“I already had. But literally all I had to do was tick a box and sign it and send it back, and that was it,” says Wylie. “Facebook made zero effort to get the data back.”

There were multiple copies of it. It had been emailed in unencrypted files.

Cambridge Analytica rejected all allegations the Observer put to them.

Dr Kogan – who later changed his name to Dr Spectre, but has subsequently changed it back to Dr Kogan – is still a faculty member at Cambridge University, a senior research associate. But what his fellow academics didn’t know until Kogan revealed it in emails to the Observer (although Cambridge University says that Kogan told the head of the psychology department), is that he is also an associate professor at St Petersburg University. Further research revealed that he’s received grants from the Russian government to research “Stress, health and psychological wellbeing in social networks”. The opportunity came about on a trip to the city to visit friends and family, he said.

There are other dramatic documents in Wylie’s stash, including a pitch made by Cambridge Analytica to Lukoil, Russia’s second biggest oil producer. In an email dated 17 July 2014, about the US presidential primaries, Nix wrote to Wylie: “We have been asked to write a memo to Lukoil (the Russian oil and gas company) to explain to them how our services are going to apply to the petroleum business. Nix said that “they understand behavioural microtargeting in the context of elections” but that they were “failing to make the connection between voters and their consumers”. The work, he said, would be “shared with the CEO of the business”, a former Soviet oil minister and associate of Putin, Vagit Alekperov.

“It didn’t make any sense to me,” says Wylie. “I didn’t understand either the email or the pitch presentation we did. Why would a Russian oil company want to target information on American voters?”

Mueller’s investigation traces the first stages of the Russian operation to disrupt the 2016 US election back to 2014, when the Russian state made what appears to be its first concerted efforts to harness the power of America’s social media platforms, including Facebook. And it was in late summer of the same year that Cambridge Analytica presented the Russian oil company with an outline of its datasets, capabilities and methodology. The presentation had little to do with “consumers”. Instead, documents show it focused on election disruption techniques. The first slide illustrates how a “rumour campaign” spread fear in the 2007 Nigerian election – in which the company worked – by spreading the idea that the “election would be rigged”. The final slide, branded with Lukoil’s logo and that of SCL Group and SCL Elections, headlines its “deliverables”: “psychographic messaging”.

Robert Mercer with his daughter Rebekah.
 Robert Mercer with his daughter Rebekah. Photograph: Sean Zanni/Getty Images

Lukoil is a private company, but its CEO, Alekperov, answers to Putin, and it’s been used as a vehicle of Russian influence in Europe and elsewhere – including in the Czech Republic, where in 2016 it was revealed that an adviser to the strongly pro-Russian Czech president was being paid by the company.

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When I asked Bill Browder – an Anglo-American businessman who is leading a global campaign for a Magnitsky Act to enforce sanctions against Russian individuals – what he made of it, he said: “Everyone in Russia is subordinate to Putin. One should be highly suspicious of any Russian company pitching anything outside its normal business activities.”

Last month, Nix told MPs on the parliamentary committee investigating fake news: “We have never worked with a Russian organisation in Russia or any other company. We do not have any relationship with Russia or Russian individuals.”

There’s no evidence that Cambridge Analytica ever did any work for Lukoil. What these documents show, though, is that in 2014 one of Russia’s biggest companies was fully briefed on: Facebook, microtargeting, data, election disruption.

Cambridge Analytica is “Chris’s Frankenstein”, says a friend of his. “He created it. It’s his data Frankenmonster. And now he’s trying to put it right.”

Only once has Wylie made the case of pointing out that he was 24 at the time. But he was. He thrilled to the intellectual possibilities of it. He didn’t think of the consequences. And I wonder how much he’s processed his own role or responsibility in it. Instead, he’s determined to go on the record and undo this thing he has created.

Because the past few months have been like watching a tornado gathering force. And when Wylie turns the full force of his attention to something – his strategic brain, his attention to detail, his ability to plan 12 moves ahead – it is sometimes slightly terrifying to behold. Dealing with someone trained in information warfare has its own particular challenges, and his suite of extraordinary talents include the kind of high-level political skills that makes House of Cards look like The Great British Bake Off. And not everyone’s a fan. Any number of ex-colleagues – even the ones who love him – call him “Machiavellian”. Another described the screaming matches he and Nix would have.

“What do your parents make of your decision to come forward?” I ask him.

“They get it. My dad sent me a cartoon today, which had two characters hanging off a cliff, and the first one’s saying ‘Hang in there.’ And the other is like: ‘Fuck you.’”

Which are you?

“Probably both.”

What isn’t in doubt is what a long, fraught journey it has been to get to this stage. And how fearless he is.

After many months, I learn the terrible, dark backstory that throws some light on his determination, and which he discusses candidly. At six, while at school, Wylie was abused by a mentally unstable person. The school tried to cover it up, blaming his parents, and a long court battle followed. Wylie’s childhood and school career never recovered. His parents – his father is a doctor and his mother is a psychiatrist – were wonderful, he says. “But they knew the trajectory of people who are put in that situation, so I think it was particularly difficult for them, because they had a deeper understanding of what that does to a person long term.”

He says he grew up listening to psychologists discuss him in the third person, and, aged 14, he successfully sued the British Columbia Ministry of Education and forced it to change its inclusion policies around bullying. What I observe now is how much he loves the law, lawyers, precision, order. I come to think of his pink hair as a false-flag operation. What he cannot tolerate is bullying.

Is what Cambridge Analytica does akin to bullying?

“I think it’s worse than bullying,” Wylie says. “Because people don’t necessarily know it’s being done to them. At least bullying respects the agency of people because they know. So it’s worse, because if you do not respect the agency of people, anything that you’re doing after that point is not conducive to a democracy. And fundamentally, information warfare is not conducive to democracy.”

Russia, Facebook, Trump, Mercer, Bannon, Brexit. Every one of these threads runs through Cambridge Analytica. Even in the past few weeks, it seems as if the understanding of Facebook’s role has broadened and deepened. The Mueller indictments were part of that, but Paul-Olivier Dehaye – a data expert and academic based in Switzerland, who published some of the first research into Cambridge Analytica’s processes – says it’s become increasingly apparent that Facebook is “abusive by design”. If there is evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, it will be in the platform’s data flows, he says. And Wylie’s revelations only move it on again.

“Facebook has denied and denied and denied this,” Dehaye says when told of theObserver’s new evidence. “It has misled MPs and congressional investigators and it’s failed in its duties to respect the law. It has a legal obligation to inform regulators and individuals about this data breach, and it hasn’t. It’s failed time and time again to be open and transparent.”

Facebook denies that the data transfer was a breach. In addition, a spokesperson said: “Protecting people’s information is at the heart of everything we do, and we require the same from people who operate apps on Facebook. If these reports are true, it’s a serious abuse of our rules. Both Aleksandr Kogan as well as the SCL Group and Cambridge Analytica certified to us that they destroyed the data in question.”

Millions of people’s personal information was stolen and used to target them in ways they wouldn’t have seen, and couldn’t have known about, by a mercenary outfit, Cambridge Analytica, who, Wylie says, “would work for anyone”. Who would pitch to Russian oil companies. Would they subvert elections abroad on behalf of foreign governments?

It occurs to me to ask Wylie this one night.

“Yes.”

Nato or non-Nato?

“Either. I mean they’re mercenaries. They’ll work for pretty much anyone who pays.”

It’s an incredible revelation. It also encapsulates all of the problems of outsourcing – at a global scale, with added cyberweapons. And in the middle of it all are the public – our intimate family connections, our “likes”, our crumbs of personal data, all sucked into a swirling black hole that’s expanding and growing and is now owned by a politically motivated billionaire.

The Facebook data is out in the wild. And for all Wylie’s efforts, there’s no turning the clock back.

Tamsin Shaw, a philosophy professor at New York University, and the author of a recent New York Review of Books article on cyberwar and the Silicon Valley economy, told me that she’d pointed to the possibility of private contractors obtaining cyberweapons that had at least been in part funded by US defence.

She calls Wylie’s disclosures “wild” and points out that “the whole Facebook project” has only been allowed to become as vast and powerful as it has because of the US national security establishment.

“It’s a form of very deep but soft power that’s been seen as an asset for the US. Russia has been so explicit about this, paying for the ads in roubles and so on. It’s making this point, isn’t it? That Silicon Valley is a US national security asset that they’ve turned on itself.”

Or, more simply: blowback.

 Revealed: 50m Facebook profiles harvested in major data breach
 How ‘likes’ became a political weapon

This article was amended on 18 March 2018 to clarify the full title of the British Columbia Ministry of Education

https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/17/data-war-whistleblower-christopher-wylie-faceook-nix-bannon-trump

Turkey starts efforts to extradite Syrian Kurd leader arrested in Prague

February 25, 2018

Reuters

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey has started efforts to have Syrian Kurdish leader Saleh Muslim extradited to Ankara, the Turkish justice ministry said on Sunday, after the main Kurdish-led coalition party said Muslim had been arrested in Prague.

Muslim was co-chair of the PYD, the major component of the coalition that runs autonomous parts of northern Syria. Ankara sees the PYD as an extension of the outlawed Kurdish PKK, which has waged a three-decade insurgency on Turkish soil.

 Image result for Saleh Muslim, photos, Kurdish
Syrian Kurdish leader Saleh Muslim

“Upon finding the person in question was in the Czech Republic, the necessary contacts were made and it was demanded that he be captured and arrested to be extradited back to our country,” the ministry said in a statement.

Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ercan Gurses; Editing by Dale Hudson

Fast Europe Open: UK retail sales, Czech Republic GDP

February 16, 2018

View From Hong kong

Financial Times (FT)

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Alice Woodhouse in Hong Kong — 0800 GMT, February 16, 2018

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Beware the pollutants in your bathroom cabinet.

Volatile chemicals from everyday consumer items such as cleaning products, aerosols and even perfumes now rival vehicle emissions as a cause of air pollution.

A research team led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reached the surprising conclusion after assessing the source of chemicals that reacted in the air to form fine particles and other lung-damaging pollutants in the US city of Los Angeles.

“As transportation gets cleaner, those other sources become more and more important,” said Brian McDonald, the project leader. “The stuff we use in our everyday lives can impact air pollution.”

In markets, Japanese stocks rallied as the rebound in global equities showed little sign of slowing following the sharp sell off last week. The Topix was 1.2 per cent higher although Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 dipped 0.1 per cent. Markets in China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam were closed for the lunar new year.

Meanwhile, the dollar resumed its downward trajectory with the dollar index, a measure of the greenback against a basket of peers, falling 0.3 per cent to 88.305, a three-year low. The yen strengthened further to ¥105.75, a 15-month high.

Futures tip the FTSE 100 to open 0.5 per cent higher, while the S&P 500 is set to open up 0.2 per cent.

Corporate earnings and updates for Friday include Air France, EDF, Danone, Renault and Allianz. The economic calendar believes three is the magic number (all times London):

08.00: Czech Republic Q4 gross domestic product
08.20: European Central Bank’s Benoit Coeure speaks in Macedonia
09.30: UK retail sales

https://www.ft.com/content/ef966116-12d8-11e8-8cb6-b9ccc4c4dbbb

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Czech Republic

The economy had a strong showing in 2017: Growth picked up pace in three consecutive quarters, and indicators suggest the momentum carried over into the final quarter. Industrial production and retail trade turned in positive results again in November, albeit moderating from the prior month. Furthermore, the manufacturing PMI continued climbing throughout the quarter, clocking a multi-year high in January. However, while consumer confidence improved in January, business confidence slipped. Politically, the sailing is less smooth. President Milos Zeman, an ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin, won a second term on 27 January; he is one of the few allies of Andrej Babiš, who has been prime minister since December. Babiš, who lost a no-confidence vote on 10 January, has been unable to garner majority backing to form a government. However, the Communist Party agreed to restart talks over possible support of a Babiš-government. The combination of Zeman and Babiš could, however, strain relations with the EU further as both men oppose further EU integration.

See more:

https://www.focus-economics.com/countries/czech-republic

Palestinians search for alternatives to US-led peace process

January 29, 2018

A Palestinian student from the Balata refugee camp near Nablus in the Israeli occupied West Bank protests against the reduction of the services of the UN agency and against US president’s decision to cut aid, on Sunday. (AFP)
AMMAN: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has triggered a frantic search for a new strategy toward ending Israeli occupation and establishing a Palestinian state.
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During the Palestine Central Council meeting earlier this month, Abbas angrily declared that US-brokered negotiations were over after President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
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Abbas’ two-hour speech in front of the 80-member council was followed by a boycott of the visiting US Vice President Mike Pence.
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The Palestinian leadership has triggered the pursuit of a more even-handed mechanism to handle negotiations with Israel.
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Hani Al-Masri, a Ramallah-based Palestinian analyst, described Abbas’ speech as having delved “deep into history, passed quickly over the present, and largely — almost totally — ignored the future.”
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But Abbas did give some hints about possible options ahead.
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Palestinians have long claimed the talks were biased in favor of Israel and Abbas called for any further discussion to be brokered by an international committee.
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He also said they would pursue Israel at the International Criminal Court for war crimes, encourage popular resistance and continue to work with Israeli peace activists.
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International sponsors
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Abbas dispatched emissaries to Russia and China soon after Trump broke with decades of US policy with his Jerusalem declaration last month.
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But the focus of Palestinian diplomatic strategy has been on Europe where the hope is that Brussels can provide balance to the pro-Israel US role.
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Abbas visited Belgium last week and urged European countries to respond by recognizing the state of Palestine with its capital in East Jerusalem. But the plea was met with a muted response.
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Slovenia’s foreign minister said he hoped his country would later this year become the 10th European nation to recognize Palestine. Sweden is the only country to have recognized Palestine while being part of the EU. Countries like the Czech Republic and Hungary did so before joining the bloc. Ireland, Portugal, Luxemburg and Belgium are debating whether to follow suit.
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While the EU assured Abbas of its commitment to a two-state solution with Jerusalem as a shared capital, there was little support during his visit for his call to immediately recognize the Palestinian state, Reuters reported.
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The EU is the biggest donor of aid to Palestinians but it is also the largest trade partner with Israel.
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In a meeting in Washington on Wednesday, the head of Palestine’s mission to the US, Husam Zomlot told a delegation of European diplomats that the issue is no longer one of the negotiations but of implementation.
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“The time is ripe for the activation of the international community led by Europe to take a lead role in a peace implementation process that is based on international law,” he said.
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While efforts in Brussels and other international moves will continue, it is not expected that this alone will lead to significant progress in the near future.
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Non-violent resistance
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For many Palestinians, the only realistic and possible alternative to US-led peace talks is what Abbas referred to as “peaceful popular resistance.”
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The Palestinian president praised the tactics deployed during the first intifada, which started in 1987, and made it clear that he abhors violence.
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Mubarak Awad the founder of the International Center for Nonviolence told Arab News that peaceful resistance must be a dedicated strategy, not a short-term tactic.
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“We are requesting many groups, organization, colleges, universities, and churches to boycott, divest and sanction Israel yet we eat Israeli products.”
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He suggested that Palestine begin forming local communities to take care of people in preparation for an economic struggle against Israel that will inevitably lead to a cut in the Palestinian budget.
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“Local bodies need to organize, prepare and help their members to be prepared for the cost and sacrifice that will come with the struggle for freedom and independence. They need to work towards bringing unity and self-reliance.”
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At the present time, Awad and others are aware that neither Abbas nor most of his Fatah movement are capable of leading a physically demanding national non-violent campaign.
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The majority of Fatah activists are deeply embroiled in the Palestinian government and most of its leaders are over 65.
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Awad also suggested that Palestinians should consider using a different currency than the Israeli Shekel, such as the Jordanian dinar, Egyptian pound, or create a Palestinian currency.
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There is also the challenge of political apathy among Palestinian parties and factions, especially in Gaza where living conditions are the worst and people feel they have been pawns in the hands of local and regional powers and ideologies.

Eastern EU states tell Brussels to back off — Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia want talks talks among all EU leaders on how to reform the bloc following Britain’s departure

January 26, 2018

BUDAPEST/BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The four eastern European Union states who are often at loggerheads with the bloc’s executive told Brussels on Friday not to overstep its mandate in policing national capitals.

Image may contain: 2 people, people standing

Czech Republic’s Prime Minister Andrej Babis, Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban attend a Visegrad Group panel discussion in Budapest, Hungary, January 26, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

Meeting in Budapest, the leaders of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic agreed a joint stance for talks among all EU leaders on how to reform the bloc following Britain’s departure next year.

The four ex-communist countries are pushing back as leading, western EU powers Germany and France, backed by the European Commission in Brussels, are floating proposals for more integration among the remaining 27 EU states.

“Europe needs a new blueprint. We must speak about an alliance of free nations,” said nationalist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

He was echoed by Polish counterpart Mateusz Morawiecki who said a “strong, integrated Europe” should be based on a group of sovereign, national member states rather than an increasingly centralised federation as some western states want.

Warsaw and Budapest have become the enfants terribles of the EU under right-wing populist leaders who promote Catholic, conservative values and often clash with Brussels as it singles out deviations from EU standards on democracy and rule of law.

Poland has drawn the sharpest criticism from Brussels since the conservative, nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party won election in late 2015 and swiftly acted to tighten control over publicly-owned media, as well as the judiciary.

The bloc has taken unprecedented punitive steps against Warsaw, the largest, ex-communist EU state, for violating the rule of law and democratic principles. Warsaw has lashed back, accusing Brussels of double standards and saying its judicial overhaul is ridding Poland of lingering communist influence.

All four Visegrad countries have repeatedly rebuffed requests from Brussels and western EU states to host some of the hundreds of thousands of mostly Muslim refugees that have streamed into the EU since 2015. The bitter row has undermined trust between the bloc’s members and weakened their unity.

Such differences were redolent in a joint document issued by Bratislava, Prague, Budapest and Warsaw on Friday.

“EU institutions should treat all member states equally and act strictly within the remits of their respective… competencies. The right of member states to carry out domestic reforms within their competences should be respected,” it said.

On migration, the four restated their focus on “effective, responsible and enforceable (EU) external border protection to avoid obligatory quotas (being) applied, which are ineffective and have already divided Europe.”

NO COMPLIANCE, NO MONEY?

All parties in the EU agree the quotas have proven divisive but have stuck to sharply divergent views on how to mend the bloc’s failed asylum system by a June deadline.

The four Visegrad premiers also said they should not be punished for having different opinions within the bloc.

“I reject any criticism of us just because we have a different opinion … about the (migration) quotas. We are not black sheep,” said Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico.

They called for preserving generous EU spending on agriculture and development to help the poorer, ex-communist east catch up with wealthier peers in the west of the bloc.

But, as negotiations in the EU are starting to heat up on the bloc’s next budget for 2021-27, Brussels and other EU states say they want to link EU handouts to upholding the rule of law and assigning extra funds for managing migration.

While the details are in the making, such decisions could cost Poland and Hungary billions of euros in the future if their nationalist-tinged feuds with Brussels are not resolved.

“We are discussing preparing the definition of what conditions must be fulfilled by member states to be able… to receive the money of European taxpayers,” EU Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova said on Friday in Sofia.

“The definition will be a more precise description of what we understand by the rule of law … For me, it is a functioning system of independent judiciary, which should be in place in member states.”

Editing by Mark Heinrich