Billions in EU misspending eyed as group faces budget talks

SemetaBillions of dollars were erroneously spent by the European Union last year, paid out to projects that didn’t meet the exacting rules for getting the money, an audit released Tuesday found. The annual report estimated the total amount of misspending topped $6 billion.

The European Court of Auditors “found too many cases of EU money not hitting the target,” the court's president, Vitor Caldeira, said in a speech Tuesday in Brussels.

“These problems matter more than ever,” he added.

The spending mistakes included financial subsidies for pasture land going to forested areas, money for training electronics employees going to other kinds of workers, and excessive costs claimed for research projects, Caldeira said. Only two areas of the budget were totally free from mistakes.

The European Commission pointed out that despite the striking sum, the rate of spending errors is under 4% -- an overall drop from five years earlier when errors were estimated to exceed 7%. Outright fraud remains rare.

But even the accidental misuse of EU money is under the microscope as Europe scrapes through a financial crisis. Members of the international body contribute money to be invested across the region. Wealthier nations in the bloc are pushing to freeze or pare back its spending as they suffer cuts at home; others want a budget hike.

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Greece hit by 48-hour nationwide strike on eve of key austerity vote

Greek workers launched a 48-hour nationwide strike to protest proposed new austerity measures that would slash pay, raise taxes and increase the retirement age
ATHENS -- Shopkeepers rolled down shutters, transport screeched to a halt and state agencies were closed Tuesday as millions of Greeks walked off their jobs to protest the toughest measures yet unveiled by the government in its bid to slash the nation's deficit and jump-start the stalled economy.

The 48-hour nationwide strike, affecting the public and private sector, comes on the eve of a crucial parliamentary vote on $17 billion in added austerity measures that Athens needs to approve to unlock $39 billion in bailout funds from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

Without that cash infusion, Greece would have enough money to pay pensions, salaries and other expenses only until Nov. 16, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has warned. After that, this Mediterranean nation, the epicenter of the euro debt crisis, would be bankrupt.

But three years of piled-on austerity and five years of recession have unleashed a wave of public unrest.

Union workers have pledged to flood Athens with protesters in two days of demonstrations and strike action, keeping schools closed, hospitals operating with only emergency staff, and road, rail and air services suspended.

Thousands of police have been deployed in Athens, and huge steel barriers have been erected around Parliament to shield the sprawling ochre-colored building from potential attacks ahead of Wednesday's scheduled vote.

The new measures include further pay cuts, tax hikes and an increase in the average retirement age by two years, from 65 to 67. The plan would also sack thousands of public employees and slash severance payments in a society where unemployment has already hit 25%.

Samaras' government says the measures are necessary in order to bring down Greece's deficit and squeeze out a primary budget surplus -- that is, before interest payments -- by 2014. But the prime minister is having trouble keeping his wobbly coalition together.

On Monday, the Democratic Left, the smallest party in the coalition, said it would stay in the power-sharing government but would refuse to vote for labor reforms that would cut wages by 10% and eliminate a series of severance payments. The about-face could leave Samaras with barely enough votes to eke out a majority in Greece's 300-seat Parliament.

"He'll get his victory," said George Kirtsos, a leading political commentator in Athens. "But implementation will be a problem. The government will have been seriously impaired."

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Photo: Protesters march to the Greek Parliament on Tuesday during a 48-hour nationwide strike to protest proposed austerity measures. Credit: Dimitri Messinis / Associated Press


Spain puts off burning all of its 'bridges'

Spain has put off a promised reduction of its number of pubic holidays and a rewriting of the work calendar because of objections from interested parties such as the Roman Catholic Church and unions
MADRID -- As Spain's economy sputters, the 2013 calendar is helping the country do what its politicians can't: cut down the number of public holidays.

In a move to boost productivity, the cash-strapped Spanish government announced earlier this year that it would eliminate Spaniards' beloved puentes, or "bridge" weekends. That's when a holiday falls on a Tuesday or Thursday and, to make a long four-day weekend, workers take off the Monday or Friday in between. Many employers tacitly acquiesce to an extra vacation day, and some close their offices altogether.

With Spain's economy ailing, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has called the puentes a luxury his country simply can't afford. So with some exceptions, such as Christmas or New Year's Day, most holidays will be moved to the nearest Monday, creating a three-day weekend instead.

But the government has been mired in negotiations with the Roman Catholic Church, regional governments and labor unions -- all of which want their holidays celebrated on fixed dates, regardless of the day of the week. So despite an agreement with Spain's largest business federation back in January, the calendar of public holidays was not altered in time for the start of the school year two months ago.

By lucky coincidence for the government, most of Spain's 2013 holidays fall on Monday, Friday or weekends anyway, saving politicians the headache of rejiggering the calendar for now. However, two "bridge" weekends will remain, with more in certain regions.

The holiday shuffle will commence in earnest in 2014, Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría announced Friday. She outlined possible compromises: The Catholic Church, for example, may agree to celebrate All Saints' Day (traditionally Nov. 1) on a Monday, in exchange for having the Day of the Immaculate Conception fixed on Dec. 8. Unions are pushing for Labor Day to remain on May 1, in accordance with most of Europe. Disagreements persist over at least three other holidays.

Spain has an average of 14 religious and municipal holidays per year, 40% more than the United States. Germany has between eight and 11 public holidays, depending on the federal state. France has between 11 and 13, again depending on the region.

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Photo: A swimmer on the beach last week in San Sebastian, Spain. Credit: Juan Herrero / EPA


Deadly Syrian stalemate spurs new diplomacy, little hope

Syrian rebel amid rubble of recent battle near Aleppo
Galvanized by a Syrian death toll that has doubled to 36,000 in little more than a month, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has called for a new rebel hierarchy to direct the fighting against President Bashar Assad and steer Syria back to peaceful ethnic and religious coexistence.

GlobalFocusThe latest proposal for halting Syria's 19-month-old civil war brings little new strategy to the crisis. Rather, it vents frustration with the international community’s own "divisions, dysfunctionality and powerlessness," as the International Crisis Group recently noted, that have prevented brokering an end to the bloodshed.

Like European leaders before her, Clinton acknowledged this week that the West’s reliance on out-of-touch exiles within the Paris-based Syrian National Council has done more harm than good in the effort to have opposition forces speak with one voice on their plans for a post-Assad future.

Clinton told reporters accompanying her on a trip to North Africa and the Balkans on Wednesday that the Obama administration will be suggesting names and organizations it believes should play prominent roles in a reconfigured rebel alliance that Western diplomats hope to see emerge from Arab League-sponsored talks next week in the Qatari capital, Doha.

But the U.S. push to get the opposition’s act together also exudes desperation. In the two months since a failed rebel campaign to take strategic ground around major cities, fighting has ground down to a bloody impasse, giving neither Assad nor his opponents hope of imminent victory on the battlefields.

The rebels’ summer offensive also exposed the widening role of Islamic extremists who have entered the fight, bringing arms and combat experience to the side of Assad’s fractured opponents. But the Islamic militants’ alignment with Syrians trying to topple Assad also gives weight to the regime’s claims to be fighting off terrorists, not domestic political foes.

Clinton reiterated the West’s insistence that Assad have no role in Syria’s future. That prompted immediate pushback by Russia and China, which have opposed what they call foreign interference in Syrian domestic affairs.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was in Paris for talks with his French counterpart when Clinton announced the Obama administration’s latest initiative. A longtime ally and arms supplier to Syria, Russia has blocked three United Nations Security Council resolutions to censure Assad and, along with China, has rejected Western demands that the Syrian president resign and leave the country.

"If the position of our partners remains the departure of this leader who they do not like, the bloodbath will continue," Lavrov warned.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi registered Beijing’s objections by unveiling a "four-point plan" for bringing peace to Syria that reiterates the communist state’s position that the future of Syria be left for Syrians -- including Assad -- to decide.

Beijing has a solid history of blocking international intervention on human rights grounds, apparently fearing China could become a target of such actions because of its harsh treatment of dissent and political opponents.

For some Middle East experts, the solution to Syria’s crisis lies somewhere between the Russian-Chinese "hands-off" policy and the U.S.-led Western view that only regime change will bring about peace.

"This conflict is for Syrians and their neighbors to resolve, with European and Russian involvement. The U.S. should stay one removed," said Ed Husain, senior fellow in Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

He described Clinton’s appeal for a new rebel leadership structure as "laudable, but a year too late."

"She’s driven by a desire to want to help now, but also to ensure a smooth transition in a post-Assad Syria. Sadly, reality on the ground dictates otherwise,” Husain said, alluding to entrenched battles that portend a long standoff.

Growing fears that extremists are gaining clout with the rebels also complicates diplomacy, as Syria’s Shiite, Christian, Kurdish and other minority sects are wary of how they would fare under a Sunni-dominated government allied with fundamentalist jihadis.

Clinton emphasized that extremist forces should be excluded from any new opposition forum that might emerge from Doha.

"It may seem ironic to call for a broad tent and then say 'except for those guys.' But I think the administration and other countries concerned about the future of Syria know that one of the challenges will be to have an analysis of who is who in the opposition,” said Charles Ries, a career U.S. diplomat now heading Rand Corp.’s Center for Middle East Public Policy.

Ries sees the need for "more movement on the ground in Syria" before Assad or the rebels are ready to submit to negotiations on the country’s future.

He is hesitant to declare the civil war a stalemate or the Russian-Chinese position unchangeable in the long run. But with rebels pinned down in the urban areas they hold and warding off attacks by Assad’s superior armed forces, he said, no one seems to think Assad is in the kind of imminent danger of being ousted that would be the catalyst for negotiation and compromise.

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Photo: A Syrian rebel fighter last month defends territory near Aleppo, one of many urban battlegrounds the opponents of President Bashar Assad are now struggling to hold. Credit: Zac Baillie / AFP/Getty Images


Obama still a winner in Europe, poll shows

Europe favors President Obama over Mitt Romney
LONDON -- The U.S. presidential election remains too close to call, but there’s one place where the polls show President Obama blowing Mitt Romney out of the water: Europe.

A survey of seven European nations, including longtime U.S. allies Britain and France, has found that Obama would win more than 90% of the vote if the respondents could cast ballots in Tuesday’s race. The survey was conducted by YouGov, a respected British-based polling organization that has also tracked Obama’s and Romney’s numbers within the U.S.

“No doubt many Americans are not overly concerned about who Europeans think they should vote for,” said Joe Twyman, YouGov’s director of political and social research. “On the other hand, history has shown that when a president is unpopular with the people of Europe, it can have a far-reaching
effect on how those people view the whole United States.”

The poll, which covered Britain, France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland, found that Romney failed to garner more than 10% support in any of those countries. In Sweden and Denmark, the former Massachusetts governor fared even worse: Only 1 in 20 people named him as their choice.

The results attest to Obama’s enduring popularity on this side of the Atlantic even as he has struggled to maintain support at home.

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Eurozone unemployment figures hit a new high

Greece-protest

 

This post has been corrected. See bottom for details.

LONDON — Europe’s economic gloom deepened Wednesday on the back of news that unemployment in the 17-nation Eurozone hit another record high in September as the region’s debt crisis continued to sap the confidence of business owners, investors and consumers alike.

About 18.5 million people were out of work in the Eurozone in September, adding up to a jobless rate of 11.6%. That figure exceeds August’s record of 11.5% and follows the worrisome trend of the past half-year, during which unemployment has either remained static or worsened with each successive month.

The grim picture painted by Eurostat, the European Union’s statistical agency, comes as the continent’s debt crisis sits on the cusp of entering its fourth year with no full resolution in sight. Lawmakers in Greece, where the crisis began, are still grappling with another punishing round of austerity cuts demanded by international lenders, while Spain is keeping markets on tenterhooks over whether it will become the latest country to seek a bailout from its European partners.

According to Eurostat, there were 2.2 million more people out of work in September than a year ago in the 17 nations that share the euro currency. Since then, a number of those economies have tumbled back into recession, government debt ratios have risen, commercial lending has dwindled and investors have taken flight.

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Scotland Yard may move its famous headquarters

Britain Scotland Yard
This post has been corrected. See the note below for details.

LONDON -– Scotland Yard wants to pull up stakes.

One of the world’s most famous police forces unveiled plans Tuesday to sell off its iconic office tower with the revolving “New Scotland Yard” sign out front, a well-known landmark seen in countless cutaway movie shots and tourist photo albums. London’s crime-fighters are hoping to move into new digs in a smaller building around the corner, closer to government offices.

The reason for the proposed relocation is elementary: to save money.

Times are tough in Britain, which is undergoing its most brutal spending cuts in at least a generation, and the capital’s famous black-hatted bobbies have not been spared. The Yard -- also known as the Met, short for Metropolitan Police Service -- is trying to slash $800 million from its budget over the next 2 1/2  years.

That has meant looking at selling the family silver, or in this case, some of the force’s large property holdings -- stations, operation centers and the like. The current headquarters, which the Yard has occupied since 1967, costs nearly $18 million a year to maintain and is in need of an $80-million upgrade, making it an “expensive luxury,” Deputy Commissioner Craig Mackey told city officials Tuesday.

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Greek journalist in court for revealing names of potential tax cheats

Kostas Vaxevanis
This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.

ATHENS -- A Greek journalist who was arrested after publishing the names of more than 2,000 fellow citizens believed to have stashed about $2 billion in Swiss bank accounts appeared in court Monday to answer charges of breach of privacy.

Kostas Vaxevanis, a prominent investigative journalist and editor of Hot Doc magazine, was arrested Sunday but released hours later pending trial. In an Athens courtroom Monday, his attorney requested a continuance to prepare for a hearing scheduled for Thursday.

"This is a case of utmost public interest, and we want it to be heard," Harris Economopoulos, Vaxevanis' attorney, said in a telephone interview. "We want the truth to come out. Greeks have endured enormous sacrifices, and they are facing yet a new wave of austerity [measures]. They have the right to know whether there is a case of political coverup."

Vaxevanis insists that the published list, which includes the names of high-profile Greek businessmen and politicians -- even the brother of former Prime Minister George Papandreou -- is the same list that former French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde relayed to her Greek counterpart two years ago to help Athens crack down on rampant tax evasion in Greece. His list, however, included more names than Lagarde reportedly handed over.

Since then, successive governments have been accused of trying to cover up the scandal, with two finance ministers and a number of judicial and tax officials shifting responsibility and blame.

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Italy's Berlusconi vows to take on judiciary 'dictatorship'

Berlusconi
ROME -– Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi came out swinging Saturday after a court sentenced him to four years in prison for tax fraud, vowing to dedicate himself to reforming the Italian justice system, which he said was dominated by a “dictatorship of magistrates.”

“I’m staying in the game,” the flamboyant media tycoon said in an interview early Saturday, appearing to contradict the announcement he made days earlier that he was retreating from Italian political life.

But the combative 76-year-old former leader, who was forced to step down a year ago amid the country’s financial crisis, said later he had not changed his mind on seeking the premiership again but rather would work to change the judiciary “because we cannot go on this way. This is not a democracy.”

He did say, however, that he was revoking his self-imposed exile from television talk shows and print interviews and would resume speaking in public.

On Friday, a Milan court sentenced Berlusconi for what it said were millions of dollars in tax fraud connected to the buying and selling of rights to American television programs and movies. The sentence also barred Berlusconi from holding public office for five years. An appeal appeared certain, and he is not expected to go to prison any time soon.

After the court’s decision, the billionaire mogul said he had been the victim of “judicial persecution” and called the sentence “incredible, intolerable and political.”

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Census sets off fears of politicking in Bosnia-Herzegovina

In much of the world, the census is a mundane and familiar routine. In fractured Bosnia-Herzegovina, the exercise is so touchy that its people have gone uncounted for more than two decades.

Twenty-one years ago, the last census showed a growing share of Muslims in the diverse territory, then a republic of the Yugoslav federation. Serb nationalists pointed to the numbers and argued that their status was in jeopardy.

The next year, after Bosnia declared its independence, a brutal war erupted. It lasted more than 3 1/2 years and claimed an estimated 100,000 lives.

In a country where political power is divided along ethnic lines, local activists and outside observers worry that a new census could be manipulated for political gain. The government is testing out the census on a smaller scale, counting about 9,000 people before launching a complete tally next year.

“There is already pressure on people” over how they choose to identify, said Tija Memisevic, director of the European Research Center, part of a coalition of nonprofit groups and individuals pushing for people to be able to define themselves as they wish to census-takers. “There will be a lot of fear-mongering.”

Bosniak Muslims fear the census will cement the elimination of their people from Serb enclaves, legitimizing Serb control of areas terrorized by "ethnic cleansing." Croats worry their numbers may have diminished as well. Others fear they won’t be fairly tallied and instead shunted into one category or another for political purposes.

In the dizzyingly complex political system that evolved after the war, some government seats are reserved for each of the three “constituent” ethnic groups and some are off limits to minorities -- a barrier that the European Court of Human Rights ruled was discriminatory. Local municipalities afford seats based on the census.

As new numbers are tallied, “politicians will push for more political representation for their group or demand less for the others,” said Doga Ulas Eralp, a George Washington University expert on fragile states. “It’s going to set the tone of the debate.”

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