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British conservatives see conspiracies everywhere and the White House sees spies everywhere

22-7-2022 |

Fresh - freshly squeezed news from the international press. We prepare it 3 times a week.

CNBC: Hot summer in Britain - inflation and strikes

U.K. inflation came in at a 40-year high of 9.4% annually in June and pay packets are failing to keep pace, with real wages plunging and workers across sectors becoming more disgruntled.

The Office for National Statistics on Tuesday reported total pay increases of 7.2% in the private sector and 1.5% in the public sector in the three months to the end of May, for an overall average of 6.2%.

This led to a decline in real wages — those adjusted for inflation — of 3.7% excluding bonuses, the worst annual drop since records began in 2001.

Workers across pillars of the economy have been voting for industrial action over below-inflation pay offers — including transport workers, firefighters, doctors, nurses, teachers, postal workers, civil servants, lawyers and British Telecoms engineers.

The Fire Brigades Union said Wednesday, the day after London’s fire service experienced its busiest day since World War II, that “firefighters are at the forefront of the climate emergency.”

“The demands of the job are increasing but our resources have been under attack by government cuts for over a decade - 11,500 firefighter jobs have been slashed since 2010,” FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack added.

Public sector pay increases in the latest round of data were at their lowest level since 2017 both with and without bonuses.

Base salaries rose by 1.8%. The Bank of England expects inflation to peak at around 11% before the end of the year.

Britain was ground to a halt several weeks ago by strike action from rail workers over working conditions, jobs and pay. A further 24 hour walkout by members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union will take pace on July 27.

On Tuesday, more than 115,000 Royal Mail workers, members of the Communication Workers Union, overwhelmingly voted to go on strike in a dispute over pay, with 97.6% of members from a 77% voter turnout backing industrial action.

CWU Deputy General Secretary Terry Pullinger told the BBC on Wednesday that the 97.6% vote in favor of industrial action was a “measure of the anger” felt by Royal Mail workers.

CWU Deputy General Secretary Terry Pullinger
Photo: GETTY

“Royal Mail workers – key workers during the pandemic, key workers always – have had 2% (pay increase) imposed on them,” he said.

“When shareholders are being given millions of pounds off the back of what those workers have done over the past year or so, and also the leaders of the company and members of the board are giving themselves huge wages, they’re giving themselves huge bonuses, but there’s just 2% imposed on postal workers, and it’s unacceptable.”

The prospect of widespread industrial action has drawn parallels to the U.K.’s “winter of discontent” in 1978-79, when almost 30 million working days were lost to strikes during a period of high inflation.

The country’s anti-strike legislation subsequently intensified and union membership dwindled in the decades since, with Conservative politicians trying to sway public opinion by characterizing union leaders as greedy.

However, recent efforts from the major unions in light of an unprecedented squeeze on working households have begun to gather momentum, and have been met with greater public sympathy.

Last week — faced with a deluge of strikes through the summer — outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government passed a law permitting companies to replace striking workers with agency staff in a bid to undermine unions.

Speaking at his final Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Johnson accused Keir Starmer, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, of having “union barons pulling his strings from beneath him” and vowed to “outlaw wildcat strikes” — a continuation of recent efforts to tie trade unionists to the government’s political opposition.

Reuters: U.S. suspects Huawei of spying for China

The Biden administration is investigating Chinese telecoms equipment maker Huawei over concerns that U.S. cell towers fitted with its gear could capture sensitive information from military bases and missile silos that the company could then transmit to China, two people familiar with the matter said.

Authorities are concerned Huawei could obtain sensitive data on military drills and the readiness status of bases and personnel via the equipment, one of the people said, requesting anonymity because the investigation is confidential and involves national security.

The previously unreported probe was opened by the Commerce Department shortly after Joe Biden took office early last year, the sources said, following the implementation of rules to flesh out a May 2019 executive order that gave the agency the investigative authority.

The agency subpoenaed Huawei in April 2021 to learn the company's policy on sharing data with foreign parties that its equipment could capture from cell phones, including messages and geolocational data, according to the 10-page document seen by Reuters.

The Commerce Department said it could not "confirm or deny ongoing investigations." It added that: "protecting U.S. persons' safety and security against malign information collection is vital to protecting our economy and national security."

Huawei did not respond to a request for comment. The company has strongly denied U.S. government allegations that it could spy on U.S. customers and poses a national security threat.

The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to the specific allegations. In an emailed statement, it said:

"The U.S. government abuses the concept of national security and state power to go all out to suppress Huawei and other Chinese telecommunications companies without providing any solid proof that they constitute a security threat to the U.S. and other countries."

If the Commerce Department determines Huawei poses a national security threat, it could go beyond existing restrictions imposed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the U.S. telecoms regulator.

Using broad new powers created by the Trump administration, the agency could ban all U.S. transactions with Huawei, demanding U.S. telecoms carriers that still rely on its gear quickly remove it, or face fines or other penalties, a number of lawyers, academics and former officials interviewed by Reuters said.

Huawei has long been dogged by U.S. government allegations it could spy on U.S. customers, though authorities in Washington have made little evidence public.

Reuters could not determine if Huawei's equipment is capable of collecting that sort of sensitive information and providing it to China.

Cell towers equipped with Huawei gear that are close to sensitive military and intelligence sites have become a particular concern for U.S. authorities, according to the two sources and an FCC commissioner.

Brendan Carr, one of the FCC's five commissioners, told Reuters there was a risk that data from smartphones obtained by Huawei could reveal troop movements near the sites:

"There’s a very real concern that some of that technology could be used as an early warning system if there happened to be, God forbid, an ICBM missile strike."

Rick Sofield, a former DOJ official in the national security division who reviewed telecoms transactions, said there was nothing new in targeting Huawei:

"The U.S. government’s concerns regarding Huawei are widely known so any information or communications technology company that continues to use Huawei products is assuming the risk that the U.S. government will come knocking."

France24: Forest fires in France - great losses and new opportunities

France’s battle to contain ferocious wildfires in the southwestern Gironde region entered a second week on Tuesday, with more than 19,000 hectares of pine forest already reduced to ashes.

While the ecological and economic damage is immense, some conservationists see the fires as an opportunity to adapt Europe’s largest artificial forest to the challenges of global warming.

French authorities have deployed much of the country’s fire-fighting capacity to curb fierce blazes that have raged since July 12, fuelled by swirling winds and a scorching heatwave.

More than 34,000 people have been forced from their homes and summer vacation spots in the Gironde region, with the flames moving to within a few kilometres of the famed Dune de Pilat, Europe's highest sand dune and a tourism hotspot.

The continent’s largest man-made woodland, the nearby Landes forest is caught in between two wildfires of exceptional intensity. One has consumed more than 6,500 hectares of vegetation near the Arcachon maritime basin famed for its oysters and beaches. The other has raged further inland, around the town of Landiras, torching some 12,000 hectares.

While the authorities’ first priority is to evacuate people and protect residential areas, experts are already assessing the ecological and economic cost of the devastating fires, which are set to profoundly impact biodiversity, soil quality and, potentially, weather patterns too.

Indeed, “while global warming explains why forest fires are more becoming more frequent and intense, such fires can in turn accelerate the rise in temperatures”, said Thomas Smith, an assistant professor at the London School of Economics (LSE) who has researched the impact of forest fires on climate.

By consuming the Landes’ famed pine forests, the fires release vast quantities of CO2 stored in the trees. When thousands of hectares go up in smoke “it’s like a carbon bomb exploding”, said Jonathan Lenoir, a specialist in forest management at the CNRS research centre.

Such effects were widely documented following Australia’s historic wildfire season in 2019-2020, which triggered vast algal blooms in the Pacific Ocean and turned New Zealand’s glaciers brown with ash.

However, experts caution that the boom in emissions will be on a much smaller scale in France’s case.

“The surplus of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will certainly have an impact, but it will not be quantifiable on the scale of all other greenhouse gas emissions,” said the CNRS’s Jean-Baptiste Filippi, a member of the forest fires research group at the University of Corsica.

Inevitably, the loss of thousands of pine trees will carry an economic cost for the many industries that rely on the Landes’ sprawling forest land. Covering one million hectares, the forest is vital to the paper, carpentry and chemical sectors and is also used by energy firms for the development of biomass.

“The economic cost will be calculated both in the number of trees lost and the impact on tourism,” said Morvan, noting that the Landes’ iconic pine trees have become a symbol of the region.

The loss of trees to wildfires will also leave the area exposed to other weather hazards, including flashfloods, he warned.

While the short-term outlook is bleak, the increasing fires present “an opportunity to improve forest management in the longer term”, argued LSE’s Smith.

Jonathan Lenoir also agrees with this position. According to him, the fires raging in Gironde have exposed a key weakness of artificial pine forests, “a monoculture that was decided at a time (in the 1970s) when the issue of global warming was absent from debates”.

Forests with only one type of vegetation “are the ones where fire spreads fastest”, he added, describing the Landes forest as “a matchbox that was only waiting for the spark of global warming to catch fire”.

Lenoir is hoping the crisis in Gironde will help raise awareness of the need to introduce greater diversity in forests, mixing pines with more fire-resistant vegetation.

“We are now paying the price for the mistakes of forest management in Southwest France,” he said. “Starting again on a more resilient basis will mean promoting more heterogeneous vegetation, in some cases by letting the forest grow back naturally.”

The Guardian: New package of European sanctions - the mountain has given birth to a mouse

New EU sanctions hitting Russian gold, a major bank, a nationalist motorcycle club known as the Nightwolves and actors backing Vladimir Putin have been dismissed as insufficient by Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Approval of the EU’s seventh wave of economic sanctions by the 27 member states on Thursday morning has been lauded by the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, as a “strong signal”.

The “reinforced, prolonged EU sanctions against the Kremlin” send “a strong signal to Moscow: we will keep the pressure high for as long as it takes”, Von der Leyen tweeted.

In Kyiv, however, Ukraine’s president was withering about the incremental moves by the EU, where the central concern for politicians and officials in recent days has been the Russian threat to gas supply this winter.

“This is not enough and I am telling my partners this frankly,” Zelenskiy said in a late-night address in response to the latest round. “Russia must feel a much higher price for the war to force it to seek peace.”

The latest measures agreed in Brussels have been nicknamed the “six and a half package” owing to their limited ambition. On Monday, Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, admitted that leaders had been increasingly concerned that the bloc’s sanctions were self-harming.

“There is a big debate about are the sanctions effective, are the sanctions affecting us more than Russia,” he said. “Some European leaders have been saying that the sanctions were an error, was a mistake; well, I don’t think it was a mistake.”

Those concerns were reflected in the relatively modest set of measures, including a ban on Russian gold imports, that were agreed by written procedure on Thursday morning.

The G7, the world’s seven biggest economies, including the UK, France, Germany, and Italy, have already prohibited the imports of Russian gold but that will now be enforced across the EU.

Forty-eight individuals and nine entities have also been targeted. According to a draft paper circulated before formal approval, they include Russia’s biggest lender, SberBank, and the actors Vladimir Mashkov, who had appeared in the 2001 film Behind Enemy Lines and 2011 film Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, and Sergey Bezrukov.

Mashkov had also “performed during the propaganda rally in support for the illegal annexation of Crimea and the war against Ukraine, which took place on 18 March 2022 at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow”, according to the leaked text.

Vladimir Mashkov at Luzhniki Stadium, 2022
Photo: Kommersant/ Vida Press

Also on the list is Andrey Bobrowskyi, who is described as “a member of the nationalist motorcycle club Nightwolves MC and leader of the Roads for Victory branch of Nightwolves MC”.

The EU claims that Bobrowskyi “organised several Nightwolves rallies in Berlin, Poland and Russia” in support of Putin’s war in Ukraine.

The full details of the sanction measures will be published this week in the EU’s official journal. In addition to the restrictive measures, the EU also decided to grant €500m (£420m) in military aid to Ukraine.

Picked and squeezed for you: Irina Iakovleva