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Year in Review 2019: Politics – IcelandReview

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The political scene in Iceland in 2019 was chaotic like it most often is. Even though the political scene isn’t large by any means, with 63 MPs in the Icelandic Parliament and 23 seats in the Reykjavík City Council, the close quarters lead to intense fighting. Often, the only saving grace for Icelandic politicians is the fact that Icelanders move on to the ‘next scandal’ extremely quickly. Yesterday’s news becomes yesterday’s news in a matter of days. That’s why we have a recap such as this one. From Eurovision scandals and Mike Pence’s controversial visit to nefarious Namibian dealings, and everything between. Step into the tumultuous political scene in Iceland with us.

Fallout from Klaustur

The year started with the fallout from the Klaustur Scandal, where six MPs made sexist, ableist, and homophobic remarks about their colleagues at the Klaustur bar in downtown Reykjavík. Even though the scandal took place in 2018, the case rattled Icelanders so that ripples were felt through the new year. The court case of whistle-blower Bára Halldórsdóttir came to an end as Miðflokkur (The Central Party) MPs had charged her for invasion of privacy. Bára was made to delete the recordings. Meanwhile, The Central Party became the second-largest party in Iceland, polling at 14.8% of voters in October.

Third Energy Package

The Third Energy Package sounds like something you would guzzle down while running a marathon, but it’s anything but. The matter split opinions at the beginning of the year as politicians and the public alike debated it hotly. The Third Energy Package was approved by the EU in 2009, and was to be adopted by EU and EEA member states. Ten years later, Iceland was the only country not to have approved the package. Many believed Iceland would give up a part of its sovereignty, and force Iceland to build up a power link to the EU. Eventually, the package was approved in September by a Parliamentary vote of 46 to 13.

Strikes, strikes, strikes

The gap between the lowest and highest earners of society has led to wage disputes and strikes. The spring of 2019 saw tourism industry workers strike for higher wages, with hotel staff striking and bus drivers following in their wake. Later in 2019, journalists striked to demand fair wages. That debate is currently still ongoing, but newspaper Morgunblaðið saw it fit to have part-time staff members violate the strike as well as laying off fifteen journalists.

On a happier, yet still, somewhat grim, note – the youth in Iceland took part in the global youth climate strike movement led by Greta Thunberg. Minister of Environment Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson met with protesters.

Flags and dishwashing brushes

Anti-capitalist, BDSM wearing, industrial techno band Hatari represented Iceland at the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest in Israel and managed to stir the pot. Band members held up banners bearing the Palestinian flag during the revelation of the votes, much to the displeasure of Israeli officials. Eventually, national broadcaster RÚV received a fine and the flag-scene was removed from the official Eurovision DV.

In June, a dishwashing brush and an airport wait strained the diplomatic relationship between Turkey and Iceland. A Belgian man stuck a dishwashing brush in star players’ Emre Belozoglu’s face like a microphone while he was being interviewed by reporters. This happened following an unusually long wait at the airport. The Turkish government issued a diplomatic note to Iceland denouncing what it is calling “disrespectful” and “violent” behaviour against the country’s men’s national football team. Iceland won 2-0, but Turkey has not lost a single match since then.

Bills, bills, bills.

Bills, bills, bills is not only a Destiny’s Child song but also what the Parliament started to approved in droves in the spring- and summertime. A new plan was approved to build up tourism infrastructure, while a plan to ban single-use plastics was approved, a widely supported move.

In May, the Government passed an abortion bill which legalises the termination of a pregnancy within the first 22 weeks regardless of circumstances. Abortion was previously legal within the same timeframe, however, a person’s decision to terminate a pregnancy after the 16th week required approval by a committee. That decision is now solely in the hands of the pregnant person.

This June, the Directorate of Health proposed a sugar tax on soft drinks and sweets to work towards long term goals in public health. The Icelandic Dentist’s Association has yet to release a statement on the matter. Later that summer, calls for stricter regulations on foreign land ownership started to rear their head. It’s an oft and long-discussed subject which appears to be stuck in political purgatory. But what should be done, and who’s land is it anyway?

USA – Iceland and Mike Pence

This summer, the Iceland – USA relationship was a hot talking point. US military presence is returning to Iceland, as the US Air Force and US Navy will construct facilities at Keflavík airport. The Air Force had facilities there from 1946 to 2006 and is going to spend ISK 7 billion ($56.2 million/€49.5 million) on military infrastructure. Meanwhile, Iceland increased its defence budget by 37%, due to “…increasing temporary presence of NATO forces at Keflavík Airport due to worsening security conditions in Europe, including in the North Atlantic.”

Vice President’s Mike Pence’s official visit to Iceland in August hit the news. Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir originally intended to miss the meeting due to commitments at the convention of Nordic trade unions. Eventually, Pence extended his stay to speak to Katrín about Arctic issues as well as defence matters. His visit was controversial and proved to somewhat unpopular with road closures, high cost and last but not least it was protested by numerous organizations due to his pro-war and anti-LGBTQ+ agenda.

Deportations debated

The public has called for the government to make major improvements to the handling of asylum seekers in Iceland. In August, authorities’ handling of two Afghan families seeking asylum in Iceland were heavily criticized. Later, in November, the Directorate of Immigration deported an asylum seeker who was just shy of 36 weeks pregnant. Both cases were met with outrage, as they were considered inhumane.

Move the clock – or not?

Few issues have garnered as much attention – and feedback – as the contentious suggestion to move the Icelandic clock back one hour to better align with solar time. Should Iceland move the clock?

Fishrot Files

Last but not least are the Fishrot Files. Icelandic fishing company Samherji is accused of tax evasion and bribery in Namibia to ensure access to fishing quotas in the country. Samherji is one of Iceland’s biggest companies and the fallout has been according to that. The government issued additional funding to investigate Samherji’s wrongdoings, and Icelandic tax authorities have opened an investigation into the case. Namibian ministers have resigned, as well as the CEO of Samherji. The case is still being resolved.

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Boris Johnson hails Biden as ‘a big breath of fresh air’

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday as “a big breath of fresh air”, and praised his determination to work with allies on important global issues ranging from climate change and COVID-19 to security.

Johnson did not draw an explicit parallel between Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump after talks with the Democratic president in the English seaside resort of Carbis Bay on the eve of a summit of the Group of Seven (G7) advanced economies.

But his comments made clear Biden had taken a much more multilateral approach to talks than Trump, whose vision of the world at times shocked, angered and bewildered many of Washington’s European allies.

“It’s a big breath of fresh air,” Johnson said of a meeting that lasted about an hour and 20 minutes.

“It was a long, long, good session. We covered a huge range of subjects,” he said. “It’s new, it’s interesting and we’re working very hard together.”

The two leaders appeared relaxed as they admired the view across the Atlantic alongside their wives, with Jill Biden wearing a jacket embroidered with the word “LOVE”.

“It’s a beautiful beginning,” she said.

Though Johnson said the talks were “great”, Biden brought grave concerns about a row between Britain and the European Union which he said could threaten peace in the British region of Northern Ireland, which following Britain’s departure from the EU is on the United Kingdom’s frontier with the bloc as it borders EU member state Ireland.

The two leaders did not have a joint briefing after the meeting: Johnson spoke to British media while Biden made a speech about a U.S. plan to donate half a billion vaccines to poorer countries.

NORTHERN IRELAND

Biden, who is proud of his Irish heritage, was keen to prevent difficult negotiations between Brussels and London undermining a 1998 U.S.-brokered peace deal known as the Good Friday Agreement that ended three decades of bloodshed in Northern Ireland.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One on the way to Britain that Biden had a “rock-solid belief” in the peace deal and that any steps that imperilled the accord would not be welcomed.

Yael Lempert, the top U.S. diplomat in Britain, issued London with a demarche – a formal diplomatic reprimand – for “inflaming” tensions, the Times newspaper reported.

Johnson sought to play down the differences with Washington.

“There’s complete harmony on the need to keep going, find solutions, and make sure we uphold the Belfast Good Friday Agreement,” said Johnson, one of the leaders of the 2016 campaign to leave the EU.

Asked if Biden had made his alarm about the situation in Northern Ireland very clear, he said: “No he didn’t.

“America, the United States, Washington, the UK, plus the European Union have one thing we absolutely all want to do,” Johnson said. “And that is to uphold the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, and make sure we keep the balance of the peace process going. That is absolutely common ground.”

The 1998 peace deal largely brought an end to the “Troubles” – three decades of conflict between Irish Catholic nationalist militants and pro-British Protestant “loyalist” paramilitaries in which 3,600 people were killed.

Britain’s exit from the EU has strained the peace in Northern Ireland. The 27-nation bloc wants to protect its markets but a border in the Irish Sea cuts off the British province from the rest of the United Kingdom.

Although Britain formally left the EU in 2020, the two sides are still trading threats over the Brexit deal after London unilaterally delayed the implementation of the Northern Irish clauses of the deal.

Johnson’s Downing Street office said he and Biden agreed that both Britain and the EU “had a responsibility to work together and to find pragmatic solutions to allow unencumbered trade” between Northern Ireland, Britain and Ireland.”

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Andrea Shalal, Padraic Halpin, John Chalmers; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Giles Elgood, Emelia Sithole-Matarise, Mark Potter and Timothy Heritage)

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U.S. senator slams Apple, Amazon, Nike, for enabling forced labor in China

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U.S. senator

A U.S. senator on Thursday slammed American companies, including Amazon.com Inc, Apple Inc and Nike Inc, for turning a blind eye to allegations of forced labor in China, arguing they were making American consumers complicit in Beijing’s repressive policies.

Speaking at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on China’s crackdown on Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in its western Xinjiang region, Republican Senator Marco Rubio said many U.S. companies had not woken up to the fact that they were “profiting” from the Chinese government’s abuses.

“For far too long companies like Nike and Apple and Amazon and Coca-Cola were using forced labor. They were benefiting from forced labor or sourcing from suppliers that were suspected of using forced labor,” Rubio said. “These companies, sadly, were making all of us complicit in these crimes.”

Senator Ed Markey, who led the hearing with fellow Democrat Tim Kaine, said a number of U.S. technology companies had profited from the Chinese government’s “authoritarian surveillance industry,” and that many of their products “are being used in Xinjiang right now.”

Thermo Fisher Scientific said in 2019 it would stop selling genetic sequencing equipment into Xinjiang after rights groups and media documented how authorities there were building a DNA database for Uyghurs. But critics say the move didn’t go far enough.

“All evidence is that they continue to provide these products which enabled these human rights abuses,” Rubio said of Thermo Fisher, noting that he had written the Massachusetts-based company repeatedly about the matter.

“Whenever we receive proof of forced labor, we take action and suspend privileges to sell,” an Amazon spokesperson said.

Coca-Cola declined to comment. The other companies mentioned did not respond immediately to Reuters’ questions.

U.S. lawmakers are seeking to pass legislation that would ban imports of goods made in Xinjiang over concerns about forced labor.

Rights groups, researchers, former residents and some western lawmakers say Xinjiang authorities have facilitated forced labor by arbitrarily detaining around a million Uyghurs and other primarily Muslim minorities in a network of camps since 2016.

The United States government and parliaments in countries, including Britain and Canada, have described China’s policies toward Uyghurs as genocide. China denies abuses, saying the camps are for vocational training and to counter religious extremism.

Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch, told the Senate panel that Beijing’s “extreme repression and surveillance” made human rights due diligence for companies impossible.

“Inspectors cannot visit facilities unannounced or speak to workers without fear of reprisal. Some companies seem unwilling or unable to ascertain precise information about their own supply chains,” she said.

 

(Reporting by Michael Martina, Richa Naidu, Aishwarya Venugopal and Jeffrey Dastin; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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Biden’s vaccine pledge ups pressure on rich countries to give more

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The United States on Thursday raised the pressure on other Group of Seven leaders to share their vaccine hoards to bring an end to the pandemic by pledging to donate 500 million doses of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine to the world’s poorest countries.

The largest ever vaccine donation by a single country will cost the United States $3.5 billion but Washington expects no quid pro quo or favours for the gift, a senior Biden administration official told reporters.

U.S. President Joe Biden‘s move, on the eve of a summit of the world’s richest democracies, is likely to prompt other leaders to stump up more vaccines, though even vast numbers of vaccines would still not be enough to inoculate all of the world’s poor.

G7 leaders want to vaccinate the world by the end of 2022 to try to halt the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 3.9 million people and devastated the global economy.

A senior Biden administration official described the gesture as a “major step forward that will supercharge the global effort” with the aim of “bringing hope to every corner of the world.” “We really want to underscore that this is fundamentally about a singular objective of saving lives,” the official said, adding that Washington was not seeking favours in exchange for the doses.

Vaccination efforts so far are heavily correlated with wealth: the United States, Europe, Israel and Bahrain are far ahead of other countries. A total of 2.2 billion people have been vaccinated so far out of a world population of nearly 8 billion, based on Johns Hopkins University data.

U.S. drugmaker Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech have agreed to supply the U.S. with the vaccines, delivering 200 million doses in 2021 and 300 million doses in the first half of 2022.

The shots, which will be produced at Pfizer’s U.S. sites, will be supplied at a not-for-profit price.

“Our partnership with the U.S. government will help bring hundreds of millions of doses of our vaccine to the poorest countries around the world as quickly as possible,” said Pfizer Chief Executive Albert Bourla.

‘DROP IN THE BUCKET’

Anti-poverty campaign group Oxfam called for more to be done to increase global production of vaccines.

“Surely, these 500 million vaccine doses are welcome as they will help more than 250 million people, but that’s still a drop in the bucket compared to the need across the world,” said Niko Lusiani, Oxfam America’s vaccine lead.

“We need a transformation toward more distributed vaccine manufacturing so that qualified producers worldwide can produce billions more low-cost doses on their own terms, without intellectual property constraints,” he said in a statement.

Another issue, especially in some poor countries, is the infrastructure for transporting the vaccines which often have to be stored at very cold temperatures.

Biden has also backed calls for a waiver of some vaccine intellectual property rights but there is no international consensus yet on how to proceed.

The new vaccine donations come on top of 80 million doses Washington has already pledged to donate by the end of June. There is also $2 billion in funding earmarked for the COVAX programme led by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), the White House said.

GAVI and the WHO welcomed the initiative.

Washington is also taking steps to support local production of COVID-19 vaccines in other countries, including through its Quad initiative with Japan, India and Australia.

(Reporting by Steve Holland in St. Ives, England, Andrea Shalal in Washington and Caroline Copley in Berlin; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Keith Weir;Editing by Leslie Adler, David Evans, Emelia Sithole-Matarise, Giles Elgood and Jane Merriman)

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