Europe

Collapsed government in Netherlands: PM Rutte submits cabinet resignation over child welfare fraud scandal
Europe

Collapsed government in Netherlands: PM Rutte submits cabinet resignation over child welfare fraud scandal

After thousands of families were wronged in an unparalleled way, Dutch government led by Prime Minister Mark Rutte has submitted resignation of the entire Cabinet to the king. 

The decision came at a crucial time during Covid-19 pandemic as thousands of families were wrongfully accused of child welfare fraud and were told to pay the money back. The MPs decided that the families, mostly of the immigrant status, had suffered an “unparalleled wrong” and were left powerless and in dire situation by the tax officials, judges, civil servants and politicians. This led to the families fall into financial instability and ruckus. 

Rutte said, “Innocent people have been criminalized and their lives ruined. The buck stops here.” He added that the responsibility of the scandal laid entirely on his Cabinet. 

The decision was taken unanimously during a cabinet meeting at The Hague. The timing is especially critical as Netherlands is under strict lockdown amid increased cases of Covid-19 infection. Until parliamentary elections take place in March, the government is going to take role of caretaker to tackle the pandemic crisis. Economics Minister Eric Wiebes has, however, resigned with immediate effect due to his significant role in the scandal. 

Child Welfare Fraud was widespread in Netherlands as parents were labeled as ‘fraud’ over trivial errors like missed signatures on paperwork and were then forced to pay back thousands of euros given by government to compensate the childcare cost. Families were left ruined and aidless by the system. 

With families scattered and relationships disintegrated under impact of the fraud, many mothers have shared their plight tearfully of having to face the financial and emotional anguish after they were targeted by the officials. 

Scandal is said to have started in 2012 with as many as 26,000 people being involved. 

Tax department, last year, had admitted that as many as 11,000 people were scrutinized vehemently due to their dual citizenship. This has further questioned the long going speculation that ethnic minorities in Netherlands are discriminated and targeted by those in power. 

Who Is Going To Fit Into Angela Merkel’s Shoes?
Europe

Who Is Going To Fit Into Angela Merkel’s Shoes?

Angela Merkel: It is not going to be easy to step into Angela Merkel’s shoes, who decided in 2018 itself that she would not run for re-elections.  The word is already out that of the three contenders eyeing her the German Chancellor’s role will have to be ‘rookie’. 

A forthcoming virtual voting comprising of 1000 or more delegates will decide the German fate soon. It will also mean new leadership for the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the ruling conservative party that goes into an election mode over the weekend.

As this goes into motion, it will set out a series of events. This will comprise he CDU convention is the opening act to several regional elections in the spring, and the final federal, nationwide, vote in September that will see chancellor Angela Merkel leave office.

The most prominent and promising is millionaire lawyer Friedrich Merz who was shunned by Merkel in 2002, when he exited from the party and his role as she stepped in. Merz is now promising to take the party back to its conservative, neoliberal roots. While the elections for the CDU Convention will not decide the final Chancellor, it set the tones for the nation. 

Also in the race is the 59-year-old Armin Laschet, a state premier of North-Rhine Westphalia, and an establishment CDU figure, who portrays himself as the natural heir to Merkel.

A 55-year-old Norbert Röttgen chairs the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, and has run a digitally-savvy campaign, and espouses a more active foreign policy. There is also Bavarian premier Markus Söder from the Christian Social Union, the sister party to the CDU, and health minister Jens Spahn in the race for the Chancellorship, a position Merkel well held and commanded for over a decade.

The effects of Brexit: products not allowed at the border and no fruit in many shops
Europe

The effects of Brexit: products not allowed at the border and no fruit in many shops

The effects of Brexit: Netherlands border agents confiscated yesterday all the ham and cheese sandwiches an English gentleman arriving by ship from the United Kingdom brought with him. The man asked why and the border officials explained that because of the Brexit, it is no longer allowed to import this type of product. “Sorry, sir. This is Brexit.” One of the agents said. That is an emblematic scene of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union effects. 

The agents strictly but correctly applied the new rules. Because from 11 pm on 31 December 2020, the UK officially left the European single market. And although Boris Johnson snatched a theoretically zero duty tariff-free trade agreement from the last, this still implies a huge number of customs declarations, up to tens of millions per year. But above all, some fresh products can no longer enter the European Union freely from the United Kingdom, now a non-EU country, even if you are a tourist, exactly, as it already happens at the US border. 

The rule applies above all to meat (whether fresh or cured) and cheeses and dairy products, for reasons of safety and health, as similar foods must be checked in advance by the authorities to avoid importing diseases. The United Kingdom, unlike the EU, still allows tourists and ordinary citizens to bring the ham, cheese, and in general dairy products and meats, if these come from the EU, also because however London cannot yet carry out such checks. So, barring a few misinformed British border agents, as the rules are, it is still possible to bring sandwiches, cold cuts, and cheeses from the EU to the UK, a rather common practice for many migrant workers and visitors.

Meanwhile, fruit and vegetables are starting to run out in an increasing number of UK supermarkets, as explained by an alarmed Daily Mail, one of the country’s most pro-Brexit newspapers. In Britain, the cause of the problem is the long lines of trucks seen in Dover in late December. When French President Emmanuel Macron closed the borders to stop the English coronavirus variant. The blockade and the long waiting discouraged many factories from shipping goods and merchandise at the Brexit beginning.

In Northern Ireland too, goods are starting to run out. The problem here is that, in turn, goods from Great Britain to and around Belfast have to undergo customs checks and declarations, although this takes place within the UK. According to the Brexit agreement between the Boris Johnson government and Brussels, London has to check many products before crossing the Irish Sea to Northern Ireland.

The latter remained in the customs union and EU single market. The decision came to avoid re-installing the border between the two Irish countries and to preserve peace between them. Therefore, all goods from the UK must be checked and selected as if crossing an EU country border.

French politics is set to witness return of Michel Barnier
Europe

French politics is set to witness return of Michel Barnier

French politics: EU’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier says he is going to return to French politics in coming weeks

Former European Commissioner and EU’s chief Brexit negotiator is planning to return to French politics. Weeks after the EU and UK agreed on the much-awaited post-Brexit trade deal, Barnier has expressed his intentions to go back to France and take his place in the Les Républicains party. The 69-year-old politician, who had previously served the French government as a Foreign Minister and agriculture fisheries minister, has been a member of the party for over 55 years now.

For the last five years, Barnier has been leading the EU’s team in numerous rounds of negotiations with Britain with the aim of reaching a Brexit trade deal. 

In a recent video interview, Barnier stated that he will go back to his home country in a few weeks to take back his place in French politics. The veteran politician also confirmed that he will not be joining President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist movement La République en Marche (LREM), instead would return to the right-wing Les Republicains. 

“I will try to add my stone to my political family which needs to be rebuilt, and to the French political debate,” he told French radio. 

However, he chose not to answer a question related to speculations that he is looking to challenge Macron in the 2022 presidential elections. 

With France’s presidential elections less than two years away, President Macron’s popularity has suffered a substantial downfall in recent months. Amid this development, he is seeking re-election in 2022 after his LREM defeated Les Républicains in the 2017 presidential polls. Notably, the main center-right party of the European nation, Les Républicains, has been in chaos in the absence of a prominent leader. 

After years of working on Brexit, Barnier is all set to retire from the European Commission on January 31. However, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen can reportedly ask him to stay back to carry out parliamentary ratification of the Brexit deal, noting that MEPs are yet to approve the trade agreement in the coming weeks. Ursula von der Leyen and Barnier have not yet discussed when the final ratification can take place.

Meanwhile, EU and UK negotiators concluded the long-running talks and agreed on a post-Brexit trade deal on December 24. With a trade deal in place, Britain left the single market and customs union of the EU on December 31.

Mutated Virus Strains NHS Scares EU Bloc Again
Europe

Mutated Virus Strains NHS Scares EU Bloc Again

NHS Scares EU Bloc: As the UK becomes one of the first countries in Europe to undertake a massive Covid-19 immunization drive, its hospitals are still swamped with virus-infected numbers. 

The new virus strain is spreading faster than the previous one. It has only one agenda on its mind- how to wipe out human race. Now, Europe is wearier than ever. The Pfizer- BioNTech vaccine is said to be able to combat the new vaccine strain. But the numbers are consistently piling up in the UK, while the country vigorously immunizes 200,000 people a day.  

According to Arnaud Fontanet, an epidemiologist who sits on the scientific council that advises the French government on Covid, “the new virus strain is an epidemic inside an existing epidemic. It is spreading faster than the earlier one.”

Currently, the strain of the new virus is being seen in 31 countries outside UK. The spread rate is unclear. The way it has put pressure on the National Health Services (NHS), is raising red flags everywhere in Europe. 

In comparison to the UK, Germany and France has way behind schedule to administer the vaccine. The UK has already covered over 2 million people per day since December 08, when it started its immunization drive. It has the goal of covering as many as 15 million people till the mid of the February. 

However, the new strain is coming with its own challenges. The spread rate is faster. According to the British government’s scientific advisers, the mutated Covid-19 is infecting people faster. Numbers of those infected is running to 100,000 a day. This has (probably) exceeded the spread rate of the first wave in the spring of 2019. ICU beds are reportedly filling rapidly and British PM Boris Johnson has said that oxygen supplies are running short in some areas.

Keeping in mind that the rest of the Europe has taken longer to even approve and then secure the requisite vaccine doses, its ability to handle the smarter mutating version of Corona virus is suspect. Worry is spreading to medical services in the rest of Europe already. 

Since December 2020, In Spain, the number of Covid patients in ICUs in Spain has climbed to 24 percent. Italian ICUs are also seeing more Covid patients, after a drop at the end of last month. In Germany too, intensive-care beds had never emptied — and while hospital admissions are down 8% from a peak at the beginning of the year, officials worry the new strain could quickly refill wards.

How various European nations are faring in their vaccination drives?
Europe

How various European nations are faring in their vaccination drives?

Vaccination Drives: As countries are racing towards vaccinating their population against Covid-19, Europe is off to a sluggish start, even though the European nations are experiencing soaring infection rate. European Union is coordinating strategy and procuring vaccines in bulk for the bloc nations, but at the end of day the member states are the ones who decide for individual vaccination drive. The EU Commission on Friday has agreed to buy an additional 300 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccine. This will provide EU with Pfizer’s half global output for the year 2021. 

Vaccination drive has begun for various European nations. Let’s explore how it’s progressing in individual patches. 

GERMANY 

Germany’s scientists developed the very first Covid-19 vaccine – a definite point of national pride. But being an election year, vaccine and vaccination campaign has become more of an issue of political battleground. Recent surveys show that majority of German population is comfortable to get vaccinated. Vaccination drive in Germany began less than two weeks ago and by the weekend over 500,000 first doses of vaccine had been administered, with priority being given to people over 80 years and care home workers. But opposition party and coalition members is blaming Angela Merkel and her health minister Jens Spahn, the duo who have done a remarkable job till now in pandemic handling, of not utilizing the various vaccination centres. 

Germany shares 56 million doses of the EU order. Till now 1.3 million doses have been delivered and by end of month additional 2.68 million doses are expected to arrive. Germany has also ordered 30 million doses extra after recent Moderna approval by EU. Merkel’s government is sticking to its initial pledge of completing vaccination drive by summer end. 

FRANCE 

France has always boasted its remarkably big and effective health apparatus, but it has been exposed in a bad taste as the nation is off to a rather sluggish start of vaccination campaign against Covid-19. The nation has administered just 45,500 doses by Friday, a remarkably low number when compared to Germany, rendering it statistically nominal and meaningless. 

The slow start in France is confusing and questionable, specially with more than Pfizer vaccine doses waiting in the cold storage. The prime reason appears to be the centralized and cumbersome health bureaucracy in France – 45 page dossier of instructions must be read by staff at care homes to understand vaccination drive. This is to be followed by informed consent through doctor consultation, no less than five days before receiving vaccine. Another problem in France is the high scepticism among people against vaccine. 

A lot is at stake for Macron’s government, with opposition calling vaccine delay a “state scandal”

RUSSIA

In December, national pride and medical urgency pushed Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine rollout, even as the vaccines were under trial. Initially, Sputnik was being offered to the priority group of healthcare and education workers, but the list quickly expanded for the eligible groups for the first dose.

But despite national pride a big riding point in Russia, polls by Levada Centre showed that only 38% of priority group respondents were willing to get the vaccine. Early bold claims around vaccine are the main reason for increased and widespread nervousness and scepticism about getting vaccinated in Russian population. 

SWEDEN 

Sweden performance has been praiseworthy. Its slow infection rate is attributed by many to its no-lockdown policy, but still a vaccination drive is crucial. Despite the nation being almost two weeks into its vaccination programme, there is no official data available as of how many people have been vaccinated till date. The Public Health Agency of Sweden says that the process of compiling data is underway from nation’s 21 regional health authorities, that are vaccinating the entire adult population by 26th June. The date isn’t random but marks Sweden’s biggest annual public holiday weekend. 

As Europe is witnessing massive spike of coronavirus cases and a rampant variant on a spread, a rapid and effective vaccination programme across nations becomes more important than ever. 

Amid vaccine and new restrictions, Coronavirus continues to scare Europe
Europe

Amid vaccine and new restrictions, Coronavirus continues to scare Europe

Coronavirus continues: “The EU has reached an agreement with Pfizer BioNtech to have another 300 million doses of the vaccine against Covid-19, reaching a total order of 600 million doses”. The president of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, stated at a press conference a few hours ago. She added that a vaccination strategy means that priorities must be set. “And as indicated by the World Health Organization, we recommended to vaccinate first people over 65 years-old.” Von der Leyen also specified that no State can negotiate in parallel the agreement conducted by the EU Commission with the producers of vaccines on behalf of the 27 governments. President von der Leyen affirmed she was pleased that all Member States are doing their utmost to move forward with their vaccination plans, but “we need to increase quickly.”

The Robert Koch Institute recorded yesterday a new death record in Germany. In the last 24 hours, according to the daily Covid bulletin, 1,188 deaths have been reported. So far, the maximum number was recorded on Dec. 30, with 1,129 deaths. There are 31,849 new infections. Experts reiterate that the data could also be explained by a delay in reporting due to the Christmas holidays. On January 5, the German chancellor Angela Merkel decided to extend the lockdown in the Federal Republic. Protesters attacked an anti-Covid vaccination center in Rostock in the German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. According to investigators, the attack took place shortly after midnight.

Today the Stockholm Parliament approved a law, which provides the government new powers to curb the Covid-19 spread in Sweden. The new law, which goes into effect Sunday, will allow the government to close shops, malls, or public transport. The government can also impose limits on the number of people allowed in certain specific public places and restrictions on public gatherings. In most cases, the new restrictions’ violations will lead to a fine, which was previously not possible.

Until now, Sweden had never imposed a lockdown, unlike European countries. A few weeks ago, the Stockholm Government began to tighten measures in the face of a second wave stronger than expected. When asked why this law only ten months after the outbreak started, Health Minister Lena Hallengren told broadcaster SVT that “we didn’t need it in the spring.”

French Prime Minister Jean Castex announced yesterday that all activities currently blocked in France “will remain so at least until the end of January.” Therefore, bars, restaurants, cinemas, museums, and gyms remain closed and will not reopen from January 20, as had been hypothesized by President Emmanuel Macron at the end of the lockdown at the end of November.

The ski lifts do not even reopen. For bars and restaurants, closed since October, the reopening prospect is postponed at least to mid-February.  The premier also announced that the night curfew – already in force in 15 districts – will be extended for another ten days. And the borders with the United Kingdom will remain closed until further notice.

EU regulator authorises Moderna Covid-19 vaccine
Europe

EU regulator authorises Moderna Covid-19 vaccine

Moderna Covid-19 vaccine: On Wednesday, European Union regulator authorised the use of Moderna Covid-19 vaccine for the bloc. It is the second vaccine approved by the 27-member Union. The decision came amidst the rising criticism regarding slow pace of vaccination, which was required to shield 450 million population of the region. The announcement was made after European Medicines Agency gave a go ahead to the Moderna vaccine with an aim to increase number of vaccination doses available for the bloc.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, “We are providing more COVID-19 vaccines for Europeans. With the Moderna vaccine, the second one now authorized in the EU, we will have a further 160 million doses. And more vaccines will come.”

“This vaccine provides us with another tool to overcome the current emergency,” said EMA Executive Director Emer Cooke. “It is a testament to the efforts and commitment of all involved that we have this second positive vaccine recommendation just short of a year since the pandemic was declared by WHO.”

Last month, EU provided similar authorisation to US vaccine developer Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech. In case of both the vaccines, people are required to take two shots at the gap of about two-three weeks. As per the existing deal with Pfizer-BioNTech, EU would be purchasing 300 million doses. But with the current approvals granted to Moderna, EU would avail 80 million more doses, with an option to further extend the order to 80 million extra doses. Besides, Moderna gained an upper hand over rest of the vaccines as it is easier to handle, transport and did require ultra-frozen temperatures for the storage.

Both Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech have been labelled safe to use as they both employ mRNA vaccine technology, which imply that the vaccine doesn’t contain any coronavirus. Instead, the medicine uses a certain type of genetic code which signals the immune system when it contacts a spike protein on the surface of the virus, about to attack.

Welcoming the move, Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Stella Kyriakides said that the vaccine authorization “will ensure that 460 million doses will be rolled out with increasing speed in the EU, and more will come. Member States have to ensure that the pace of vaccinations follows suit.”

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz also commended the decision and wrote on Twitter that approval of the Moderna vaccine “is another important step in the fight against the pandemic. This means we have more vaccine available in the EU and can fight the pandemic faster.”

Moderna said that it was working towards producing about 500 to 600 million doses in 2021 to meet the global demand. On Monday, the pharmaceutical company said it is “continuing to invest and add staff to build up to potentially 1 billion doses for 2021.”

What Has Kept Netherlands From Corona Vaccine Inoculation Drive?
Europe

What Has Kept Netherlands From Corona Vaccine Inoculation Drive?

Corona Vaccine Inoculation Drive: Netherlands’ healthcare system is so gripped in bureaucracy that it is finding it difficult to justify the eminent delay in the provision of vaccinations to the Dutch.  The country has started to receive a trickle of the vaccine that was already being used in the UK for inoculations. 

An emergency debate in the parliament recently saw the opposition blaming the government for the eminent delays. This comes as a surprise because the country is well known for excellent health care budgets and a healthy life-work index. Apparently, the health care facilities in Netherlands have not been able to manage the surging number of cases of corona virus infected patients. 

The Dutch Health Minister, Hugo De Jonge has justified the delays, as Dutch choice to ‘go slow and pay it safe’ than act hastily as the UK did by cutting corners and wishing for a quick solution.  The EU Commission took rather long to zero on the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccination. 

This week, Mr. Jonge changed his stance and accepted that ‘over-agility’ could cost Dutch lives after all. Dutch was banking on the Astra Zeneca Oxford led vaccine whose efficacy rate varies between 60-90percent. It can be stored in normal refrigeration. Netherlands had not made any arrangements to accommodate the next better vaccine candidate, Pfizer or Moderna for that matter. The latter had arrived in end of December. 

Infrastructural and then IT system glitches is what has delayed the Netherlands to start a country wide inoculation drive. They now plan to start theirs from January 18, 2021. 

Netherlands was one of the few nations to have used rather relaxed lockdown norms. Their mask mandatory ruling has only been put into effect in December. The country is now fighting record high number of contraction rates. The first to be inoculated will be health care workers. The Dutch health ministry has confirmed that an initial 30,000 vaccines will be made available for a select group of healthcare workers.

The eminent delay has been attributed to primitive IT systems that are now being upgraded. Also, the ministry has confirmed that they are spending energy in training call-centre staff on the scripts to use with people booking their vaccinations. 

Conte’s government under coercion over economic recovery plan for Italy
Europe

Conte’s government under coercion over economic recovery plan for Italy

Recovery plan for Italy: Giuseppe Conte led Italian government is in midst of its future deciding panorama as confrontation between Conte and former prime minister and his coalition ally, Matteo Renzi escalates. 

Renzi has been having an upper hand in this coalition government. The former prime minister has repeatedly threatened of pulling out his Italia Viva party from ruling party provided certain conditions. Renzi is pressurizing government to cease its control over the country’s secret services and that it must escalate the Covid-19 vaccines distribution, as Italy struggles to stay afloat with UK coronavirus variant cases being found amid the new wave of cases. Renzi is also coercing government to change its tactics of rebooting fragile economy of Italy.     

Conte has been resisting the increasing pressure from coalition allies but is now holding a meeting with party leaders. The key agenda of this meeting will possibly be reshuffling of government. On January 7, Conte will be seeking his ministers’ support for government’s economic recovery plan. This, as is expected, may prompt Renzi to withdraw Italia Viva party from coalition leading to government crisis. 

Renzi has maintained that his ministers are not a part of government for hearsay but because they have strong ideological grounds and that their ideas carry weight. He said, “If these ideas are not liked, then we are not like the others – we will leave our seats. I understand that in times of populism this sounds extravagant, but you can do politics even without institutional positions.”

Renzi is mainly concerned about the spending of yet to receive EU recovery fund of €209bn. Italy’s share is the largest among all bloc member nations. He said, “I’m in favour of spending it all and spending it well. But if someone wants to spend it badly, they can do so without us.” 

Renzi’s coalition party is not the only one standing cross corners with Conte. Conte is also facing fierce challenge from the far-right Brothers of Italy, the opposition party, which is reportedly calling for vote of confidence and is organizing a petition for it. Over last year, the Brothers of Italy and Forza Italia parties have risen in popularity significantly. 

But despite of Renzi’s maneuvers it is highly unlikely that it could lead to new elections. This is attributed to Conte’s high support among Italian voters. Franco Pavoncello, a political science professor shares his analysis, “I think Renzi wants to create a reshuffle, to show that he has an independent voice that can produce change. He has a small presence in parliament and when you are in a situation of relative weakness, you need to stir things up.”

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