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G7 to consider mechanism to counter Russian ‘propaganda’

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By William James

LONDON (Reuters) -The Group of Seven richest countries will look at a proposal to build a rapid response mechanism to counter Russian “propaganda” and disinformation, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told Reuters.

Speaking ahead of a G7 foreign ministers’ meeting in London, the first such in-person meeting for two years, Raab said the United Kingdom was “getting the G7 to come together with a rapid rebuttal mechanism” to counter Russian misinformation.

“So that when we see these lies and propaganda or fake news being put out there, we can – not just individually, but come together to provide a rebuttal and frankly to provide the truth, for the people of this country but also in Russia or China or around the world,” Raab said.

Russia and China are trying to sow mistrust across the West, whether by spreading disinformation in elections or by spreading lies about COVID-19 vaccines, according to British, U.S. and European security officials.

Russia denies it is meddling beyond its borders and says the West is gripped by anti-Russian hysteria.

“It’s time to think of why the countries which are sick to the core with propaganda, and which used it more than once to justify armed intervention and toppling of governments … accuse our country of their own sins,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on social media after Raab’s comments.

China says the West is a bully and that its leaders have a post-imperial mindset that makes them feel they can act like global policemen.

Britain has identified Russia as the biggest threat to its security though it views China as its greatest long-term challenge, militarily, economically and technologically.

Raab will meet U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday, kicking off a week of diplomacy aimed at reinvigorating the G7’s role and forming a wider bulwark against those it sees as undermining the rules-based international order.

“The scope for intense global cooperation, international cooperation with our American partners and indeed the wider G7, that we’re convening this week has never been greater,” Raab said.

He stressed that meeting in person – something only possible due to measures like daily testing of attendees – would make diplomacy much easier: “You can only do so much by Zoom.”

The G7 members are Britain, the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan and their combined gross domestic product is about $40 trillion – a little less than half of the global economy.

RUSSIA-CHINA

British and U.S. officials have expressed concern in recent months about growing strategic cooperation between Russia, the world’s largest country by territory, and China, the world’s fastest-growing major economy.

Asked about the concerns, Raab said: “What matters to us most is that we broaden the international caucus of like-minded countries that stand up for open societies, human rights and democracy, that stand for open trade.”

He said many of those allies wanted “to know how this pandemic started.” The coronavirus outbreak, which began in China in late 2019, has killed 3.2 million people and cost the world trillions of dollars in lost output.

Raab said some of the barriers between the G7 and other like-minded countries needed to be broken down, so that there could be a broader network of allies that stood up for open markets and democracy.

Britain has invited India, Australia and South Korea to attend this week’s meeting, running from Monday to Wednesday, and the full leaders’ summit in June.

Asked whether Britain could seek to join a separate grouping known as the Quad – the United States, Japan, Australia and India – Raab said there was no concrete proposal as yet, but Britain was looking at ways to engage more in the Indo-Pacific.

(Writing by William James and Guy Faulconbridge; Additional reporting by Vladimir SoldatkinEditing by Susan Fenton and Frances Kerry)

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Debt Limit Fight as Much About 2022 Politics as Fiscal Policy – BNN

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(Bloomberg) — The U.S. is heading to the precipice of a debt default as much for the sake of campaign ads and political branding as fiscal philosophy.

While agreeing that the statutory limit on U.S. borrowing must be raised before it’s breached sometime next month, Republicans and Democrats are completely at odds over who should act. 

Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell argues that Democrats alone are responsible since they are pursuing a partisan multi-trillion dollar tax and spending plan. The Senate’s top Democrat, Chuck Schumer, accuses Republicans of trying to “dine and dash” on the cost of their 2017 tax cuts and wants their fingerprints on the vote to raise the debt ceiling.

The debt limit fight has become part of an ongoing struggle between the parties to shape public perceptions of President Joe Biden’s agenda heading into next years congressional election.

For Republicans, it puts the focus on the overall cost of Biden’s economic plan, rather than popular components like paid family leave and an expanded child tax credit. And it ties Biden to the rising national debt, never mind the ballooning deficits under former President Donald Trump.

That prepares ground for the kind of traditional Republican campaign against tax-and-spend liberalism that McConnell is trying to steer his party toward instead of centering the midterm election on cultural issues and Trump’s false charges about election fraud.

At its most basic level, McConnell’s bid to force a Democrats-only vote to raise the limit gives the GOP ready ammunition for campaigning.

“It’s another line in the attack ad,” said Michael Steel, who was then-Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s press secretary during the 2011 fight over raising the debt limit. “Increasing the debt limit is a terribly unpopular vote.”

Many lawmakers make little effort to cloak their political motives. Republican Senator Rick Scott, who heads the Senate GOP’s campaign committee, said he expects Democrats’ votes in favor of raising the debt ceiling will feature prominently in the 2022 election.

“Oh yeah, you’re going to hear about it a lot,” Scott said.

Senator Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican, said the party-line debt limit vote will “absolutely” help crystalize the case that Democrats’ spending is out of control. “It will be very effective in Iowa.”

Democrats are already heading into a challenging midterm campaign, particularly in the House, where the party has a slim majority, Democratic-leaning states are losing seats to Republican ones in the Census reapportionment, and the president’s party typically loses members during midterm elections. Control of the 50-50 Senate also is in play.

“It’s total political rhetoric, drama,” Michigan Democratic Representative Debbie Dingell said. “We shouldn’t be playing political games the way we are.”

Democratic leaders have primarily responded by casting the GOP as reckless with the economy in their readiness to risk a debt default as well as their actions when they controlled the White House and Congress. 

The total U.S. debt rose from $19.8 trillion, or 104% of gross domestic product, when Trump took office in 2017 to $28.1 trillion, or 128% of GDP when he left in 2021. The $8.3 trillion increase during Trump’s single term is almost as much as the $10.6 trillion rise during Barack Obama’s two terms.

Democrats claim their $3.5 trillion economic program won’t add to deficits because it will be paid for with tax increases on corporations and the wealthy, though they haven’t finished negotiating a final version and the independent Congressional Budget Office hasn’t yet made a projection. A separate bipartisan infrastructure package backed by Biden would add $256 billion to the national debt over the next decade, the CBO estimated.

Democrats voted with Republicans three times during the Trump presidency to raise or suspend the debt limit to avoid default, despite opposing the 2017 Republican tax cuts that added to the debt.

This time, McConnell is insisting Democrats use a process called reconciliation to pass the debt limit increase in the Senate without Republican votes. Democrats so far have refused. They instead added the debt limit increase to stopgap legislation to avert an Oct. 1 government shutdown and fund disaster aid, daring Republicans to oppose the measure. The legislation passed the House, but Republicans have vowed to block the measure in the Senate when a procedural vote is taken as soon as Monday.

Assigning Blame

So far, Democratic efforts to blame Republicans for the stand-off haven’t worked. Asked which party would be more to blame if the U.S. defaulted, 33% of Americans said Democrats, 42% both parties, and only 16% Republicans, according to a Morning Consult/Politico poll taken Sept. 18-20.

The stability of global financial markets and strength of U.S. economic growth once again are on the line in the resulting game of chicken. 

Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, warned in a note to clients that even a short default would raise borrowing costs to U.S. taxpayers for decades. A prolonged default on U.S. debts would cost the country 6 million jobs, drive down U.S. stock prices by a third and wipe out $15 trillion in household wealth, Moody’s predicts. 

Even without a default, brinksmanship over the debt limit between Republicans and the Obama administration in 2011 provoked the first-ever downgrade in the U.S. sovereign credit rating and contributed to a stock-market slide.

The political payoff for the risk is nebulous.

Republican pollster Whit Ayres, a 30-year campaign veteran, can’t think of a single election in which a debt limit vote played a decisive role.

“There may be some campaign out there that someone can point to,” Ayres said, “I can’t come up with one.”

Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at Third Way, a think tank aligned with the Democratic party’s moderate wing, also argues there’s “more bark than bite” in established political wisdom that votes to raise the debt limit are perilous. 

Voter Reaction

Even so, many moderate Democratic lawmakers represent closely divided constituencies and aren’t anxious to add to their political risks. Public feeling on government debt can be potent.

“American voters’ sensitivity to debt and deficits shows up episodically, but when it shows up it shows up with a vengeance,” Kessler said, citing the Tea Party movement that began in 2009 and helped provide energy for the Republican resurgence in the 2010 midterm elections.

Pete Brodnitz, a Democratic pollster who has worked for party leaders’ House Majority super-PAC in battleground races every election the past decade, said the midterm results will hinge on what the public believes about the party’s economic strategy. And that is the critical battle beneath the surface.

“An economic narrative is critical,” Brodnitz said. “If the economy gets better, Democrats won’t be helped unless there is a Democratic strategy people associate with it.” 

The debt limit fight is playing out just as Congress debates the spending packages that will enact the Biden agenda and voters are forming impressions of the plan.

“They want the narrative to be the Democrats just want to spend,” Brodnitz said. “We need the narrative to be we’re trying to invest in our future, and the Republicans are trying to stand in the way.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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German Election Heralds Messier Politics and Weaker Leadership After Merkel – The New York Times

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Preliminary results indicated an outcome so tight that it could take months of talks to form a new government at a critical moment for Europe.

BERLIN — After 16 years of Angela Merkel as their chancellor, Germans scattered their votes across the political spectrum on Sunday in the election to replace her, a fractured return that heralds a messier political era in Germany and weaker German leadership in Europe.

Preliminary official results gave the center-left Social Democrats a lead of 1.6 percentage points, an outcome so close that no one could yet say who the next chancellor would be nor what the next government would look like.

The only thing that seemed clear was that it would take weeks if not months of haggling to form a coalition, leaving Europe’s biggest democracy suspended in a kind of limbo at a critical moment when the continent is still struggling to recover from the pandemic and France — Germany’s partner at the core of Europe — faces divisive elections of its own next spring.

Sunday’s election signaled the end of an era for Germany and for Europe. For over a decade, Ms. Merkel was not just chancellor of Germany but effectively the leader of Europe. She steered her country and the continent through successive crises and in the process helped Germany become Europe’s leading power for the first time since two world wars.

Her time in office was characterized above all by stability. Her center-right party, the Christian Democratic Union, has governed in Germany for 52 of the 72 postwar years, traditionally with one smaller party.

Markus Schreiber/Associated Press

But the campaign proved to be the most volatile in decades. Armin Laschet, the candidate of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats, was long seen as the front-runner until a series of blunders compounded by his own unpopularity eroded his party’s lead. Olaf Scholz, the Social Democratic candidate, was counted out altogether before his steady persona led his party to a spectacular 10-point comeback. And the Greens, who briefly led the polls early on, fell short of expectations but recorded their best result ever.

On Sunday, the Christian Democrats’ share of the vote collapsed well below 30 percent, heading toward the worst showing in their history. For the first time, three parties will be needed to form a coalition — and both main parties are planning to hold competing talks to do so.

“It’s so unprecedented that it’s not even clear who talks with whom on whose invitation about what, because the Constitution does not have guardrails for a situation like that,” said Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, the Berlin-based vice president of the German Marshall Fund, a research group.

Even before the first official returns were announced, the battle lines were drawn as both main contenders to succeed Ms. Merkel as chancellor announced their claims to the top job — and their intention to fight for it. A long tradition of deferential, consensus-driven politics was quickly evaporating, giving way to a more raucous tone.

At the headquarters of the Social Democrats in Berlin, loud cheering erupted when the first exit polls were announced. “The S.P.D. is back!” Lars Klingbeil, the party’s general secretary, told the crowd of party members, before Mr. Scholz took the stage with his wife and insisted “that the next chancellor is called Olaf Scholz.”

Across town, at the conservative headquarters, Mr. Laschet, the candidate of Ms. Merkel’s party, made clear who he thought the next chancellor should be, saying, “We will do everything to form a government.”

Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

It is a messy set of circumstances likely to complicate the negotiations to form a government. And whoever ends up being chancellor will have not just a weaker mandate — but less time to spend on leading in Europe, analysts said.

“Germany will be absent in Europe for a while,” said Andrea Römmele, dean of the Hertie School in Berlin. “And whoever becomes chancellor is likely to be a lot more distracted by domestic politics.”

With two-thirds of the voting districts counted, the Social Democrats appeared to have a slight lead, with less than two percentage points dividing the two main parties. Analysts said the vote could continue to swing marginally in favor of either party. Four in 10 Germans voted by mail-in ballots, which were being counted at the same time as votes dropped into ballot boxes.

But few anticipated a dramatic turn that would yield a less murky outcome and alleviate the need for protracted coalition talks.

The outcome gives significant leverage to the two smaller parties that are almost certain to be part of any new government: the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats. Courted by both Mr. Scholz and Mr. Laschet, they have signaled they will first talk among themselves.

“Two Maybe-Chancellors and Two Kingmakers,” read one headline of the German public broadcaster ARD.

Lena Mucha for The New York Times

In one way Sunday’s returns were an expression of how disoriented voters are by the departure of Ms. Merkel, who is leaving office as the most popular politician in her country.

The chancellor oversaw a golden decade for Europe’s largest economy, which expanded by more than a fifth, pushing unemployment to the lowest levels since the 1980s.

As the United States was distracted by multiple wars, Britain gambled its future on a referendum to leave the European Union and France failed to reform itself, Ms. Merkel’s Germany was mostly a haven of stability.

“She was the steady hand at the helm, the steady presence,” said Mr. Kleine-Brockhoff of the German Marshall Fund.

“Now there is an uneasiness about what comes next,” he said. “The presence and reputation of this chancellor is outsized and very hard to emulate.”

That explains why both main candidates to succeed her mostly ran on platforms of continuity rather than change, attempting where possible to signal they would be the one most like the departing chancellor.

“This election campaign was basically a contest for who could be the most Merkel-like,” Mr. Kleine-Brockhoff said.

Even Mr. Scholz, whose center-left party is the traditional opposition party to Ms. Merkel’s conservatives, played up his role as finance minister in the departing government rather than his own party’s sensibilities, which are well to the left of his own.

Lena Mucha for The New York Times

“Stability, not change, was his promise,” said Mr. Kleine-Brockhoff.

The distinctive political tradition of the Federal Republic of Germany is change through consensus.

In the four decades it was split from the Communist East, West Germany had strong governments, traditionally formed by one of the two larger parties teaming up with a smaller partner or, in rare circumstances, the two big parties forming a grand coalition. This tradition was continued after reunification in 1990, with far-reaching changes — like the labor market reforms of the early 2000s — often carried out with support from across the aisle.

But four parties have become seven and the two traditional main parties have shrunk, changing the arithmetic of forming a government that represents more than 50 percent of the vote. In the future, analysts say, three or four, not two, parties, will have to find enough common ground to govern together.

Some analysts say this increasing fragmentation of Germany’s political landscape has the potential to revitalize politics by bringing more voices into the public debate. But it will no doubt make governing harder, as Germany becomes more like other countries in Europe — among them, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands — that have seen a similar fracturing. And messier politics could make the next chancellor weaker.

Ms. Merkel has embodied the tradition of consensus more than perhaps any of her predecessors. Of her four terms in office, she spent three in a grand coalition with her party’s traditional opponents, the Social Democrats.

Laetitia Vancon for The New York Times

Governing as Ms. Merkel’s junior partners almost killed the Social Democrats, Germany’s oldest party, stripping it of its identity and its place as the leading voice of center-left opposition. But Mr. Scholz used his cozy relationship with the chancellor to his advantage, effectively running as an incumbent in a race without one.

At party headquarters on Sunday night, he was being celebrated as a savior by party members who were adamant that the chancellery was theirs.

“The S.P.D. is the winner here,” insisted Karsten Hayde, a longtime party member, while Ernst-Ingo Lind, who works for a parliamentarian, said that only a year ago, he would “not have dreamed of being here.”

Among the parties represented in the next German Parliament is the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, which shocked the nation four years ago by becoming the first far-right party to win seats there since World War II. Its vote share slipped to 10.5 percent from almost 13 percent in 2017 and it will no longer be the country’s main opposition party. But it solidified its status as a permanent force to be reckoned with. In two states in the former Communist East it came first.

“We are here to stay, and we showed that today,” Tino Chrupalla, co-leader of the party, told party members gathered on the outskirts of Berlin.

For all the messiness of this election and Merkel nostalgia, many Germans took heart from the fact that more than eight in 10 voters had cast their ballots for a centrist party and that turnout was high.

Laetitia Vancon for The New York Times

The mobilization was palpable outside several polling stations in Berlin, where families patiently waited their turn in long lines.

“It’s the beginning of a new era,” said Ms. Römmele of the Hertie School.

Christopher F. Schuetze, Jack Ewing and Melissa Eddy contributed reporting from Berlin.

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Quebec undergoes a culture shift as ‘woke’ politics is redefined in the province – The Globe and Mail

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Quebec Solidaire Leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois questions the government during question period on Sept. 23.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

For 50 contentious years, the defining split in Quebec politics was between sovereigntists and federalists. “Should Quebec remain in Canada?” was the ideological question par excellence.

But last week, when Premier François Legault exchanged barbed words with the rising opposition star Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois in the Salon bleu of the National Assembly, a new political axis was born. Call it “les wokes” vs. “les Duplessistes.”

This divide isn’t about economics or independence so much as issues of race and religion, whose primal importance in Quebec was once again borne out by this year’s federal election. And although the divide stems from a pair of insults hurled across the floor of the provincial legislature, it reveals a deeper realignment in Quebec’s political class that is being mirrored around the democratic world, away from traditional standards of left and right and toward a preoccupation with identity.

The fracas began on Sept. 15, when Mr. Nadeau-Dubois, a leader of the “Maple Spring” student protests in 2012 and now parliamentary leader of the left-wing Québec Solidaire, rose in the Assembly to accuse Mr. Legault of imitating Maurice Duplessis. It was meant as a bitter reproach: “The Boss” ruled Quebec for most of the period between 1936 and his death in 1959 with a mixture of Catholic piety, anti-Communism and Quebec nationalism, while openly persecuting religious minorities such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and suppressing dissent. His time in power is still often called The Great Darkness.

The current Premier, Mr. Nadeau-Dubois argued, was channeling his notorious predecessor in part by conflating support for Bill 21, a contentious piece of provincial legislation that bans the wearing of visible religious symbols by certain public servants, with membership in “the Quebec nation.”

Visibly angry, Mr. Legault shot back that a majority of Quebeckers support the religious-symbols law. Duplessis, he said, had “many faults, but he defended his nation. He wasn’t un woke like the leader of Québec Solidaire.”

A surprised wave of laughter went up in the Blue Room; the Quebec media has been tittering about Mr. Legault’s choice of epithet ever since. Why was the Premier of North America’s only majority francophone jurisdiction wielding a term popularized by Black activists to describe vigilance about social injustice? Why was he using it as a put-down, not to mention a noun?

Asked to define “un woke” the following day, Mr. Legault offered an original contribution to the Quebec vernacular, saying that to him it meant someone “who wants to make us feel guilty about defending the Quebec nation [and] defending its values.” Google searches for the word exploded in Quebec.

But if the Premier’s particular gloss on the term was novel, its use by conservatives in the province was not. In the past couple of years, columnists for the influential Quebecor media conglomerate have become particularly enamoured of using “woke,” in English, as a slur for liberals and leftists who are highly sensitive about race and gender, a trend on the American right as well. Benoît Melançon, a literature professor at the University of Montreal, searched a media database to find that, since the beginning of last year, the word has appeared in francophone outlets more than 2,000 times.

The word entered Quebec’s political bloodstream purely as a pejorative; virtually no one in the province owns up to the label. While a French politician running to be the Green Party’s presidential candidate recently embraced being “woke,” Prof. Melançon noted, “that’s never done in Quebec.” Likewise, although some historians and journalists have recently begun rehabilitating Maurice Duplessis’s reputation – and Mr. Legault himself jokingly compared his party to Duplessis’s as recently as 2019 – his name remains a popular shorthand for reactionary authoritarianism.

Both political camps have begun life, then, with no self-professed members – but that does not mean they lack weight. In an unsuccessful attempt to steal back some thunder from two rival parties and reassert the importance of his political project, Parti Québécois leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon tweeted a photo of himself this week wearing a shirt that said, “Neither woke, nor duplessiste. Indépendantiste.” The provincial Liberals, meanwhile, traditional standard-bearers of the federalist cause, have stayed out of the fray altogether. Their only slight involvement in the squabble came when Mr. Legault sneeringly referred to them as one of two “multiculturalist” parties in the National Assembly.

The lower profile of Quebec’s once-dominant parties, and the issue that animated them for decades, is the result of a sea change that has sidelined the traditional debate about sovereignty in favour of lower-stakes skirmishes about immigration and ethnic diversity. The shift dates to around 2007, according to Frédéric Bérard, a political commentator, doctor at law and course instructor at the University of Montreal’s law school. It was then, he said, that the question of “reasonable accommodation” of religious minorities came to the forefront of political life in the province.

Quebec has since been roiled by successive controversies around that theme, from the question of whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear the niqab at citizenship ceremonies to the outrage that greeted a debate moderator’s question during the recent federal election campaign about Quebec’s “discriminatory” religious-symbols law.

These issues have emerged, not coincidentally, amidst the long-term decline of the Parti Québécois. Sensing the withering of its traditional goal of an independent Quebec state, the PQ embraced a program of aggressive secularism and the integration of immigrants into the francophone mainstream as an alternative form of national self-assertion, Mr. Bérard said. “It’s less trouble to ban a veil than to have a referendum on independence.”

Although Quebec’s identitarian shift had local causes, it also happened in parallel with a move away from traditional definitions of left and right worldwide. Culture and identity have replaced economics as the main vectors of politics in much of the West, said Mark Fortier, a sociologist and publisher (as well as the author of a book about reading the work of Mathieu Bock-Côté, one of the main exponents of anti-wokeism in the mass-market Journal de Montréal newspaper).

If “les wokes” vs. “les Duplessistes” seems like a tempest in a Québécois teapot, then, it may be part of something bigger. Consider Brexit in the U.K. and the rise of Donald Trump in the U.S., Mr. Fortier said.

“It’s not just in Quebec … It’s the Quebec version of a phenomenon that traverses all liberal democracies.”

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