Scuffles break out as artworks removed from Catalan city’s museum

Police clash with protesters in Lleida as 44 works of art at centre of disagreement between Catalonia and region of Aragn are removed

Scuffles broke out between police and demonstrators after hundreds of people met outside a museum in the Catalan city of Lleida to protest against the removal of 44 works of art that have been at the centre of a long-running dispute between Catalonia and the neighbouring region of Aragon.

The pieces, which include paints, alabaster reliefs and polychromatic wooden coffins, were sold to the Catalan government by the nuns of the Sijena convent, in Aragon, in the 1980 s.

The Aragonese authorities have been trying to recover the works through the courts, arguing they were unlawfully sold.

At the end of November, Spain’s culture minister, Inigo Mendez de Vigo, received a judicial order for the return of the works.

With Catalonia currently under the control of the Spanish government after Madrid sacked the regional government over its unilateral declaration of independence, Mendez de Vigo authorised their return on behalf of the administration. The move has exacerbated tensions in Catalonia, which were already running high in the buildup to next week’s snap regional election.

In the early hours of Monday morning, experts accompanied by officers from the Guardia Civil and the Catalan police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, entered the Museum of Lleida to begin packing up the pieces.

Around 500 people congregated outside the museum to demonstrate against the removal, some chanting” Hands up! This is a theft !” and expressing fury over the Spanish government’s decision to assume control of Catalonia using article 155 of the constitution. Scuffles broke out between police and some protesters and a cordon was set up to allow the artworks to be loaded on to a lorry.

The mayor of Lleida, Angel Ros, have asserted that article 155 could not to be used to” sacred art” and called for common sense and wisdom to prevail.

” There is still a long way to go to resolve the litigation over these goods ,” he wrote in a local paper on Sunday.” We will use all legal means to show that the purchase, by the[ Catalan government] was made in accordance with the law and that the works were transferred to the Museum of Lleida with full legality and legitimacy .”

The former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium after he was sacked, attacked the move on Twitter.

He accused the Spanish government of using the cover of night and the Guardia Civil to” take advantage of a coup d’etat to plunder Catalonia with absolute impunity “.

A poll published on Sunday in the Catalan daily La Vanguardia indicates Catalan separatist parties will narrowly fall short of a majority in the election on 21 December.

The survey said Puigdemont’s Junts per Catalunya party, the Catalan Republican Left party and the anti-capitalist Popular Unity Candidacy( CUP) would win 66 or 67 seats in the 135 -seat regional parliament, one or two shy of the 68 needed for a majority.

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Macron tells Netanyahu that US recognition of Jerusalem is threat to peace

Call comes as Palestinian human stabs Israeli security guard following Donald Trumps announcement about Jerusalem

Emmanuel Macron, the French chairman, has warned US recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital was a” threat to peace” as he hosted the country’s “ministers “, Benjamin Netanyahu, on his first foreign trip since Donald Trump provoked widespread censure with the decision.

The joint appearance by the two men, following talks in Paris, came as tear gas was used to disperse protesters outside the US embassy in Beirut and a Palestinian human stabbed an Israeli security guard at Jerusalem’s central bus station in the first assault in the city since Trump’s announcement.

Palestinian media identified the assailant as 24 -year-old Yasin Abu al-Qur’a from a village near Nablus in the northern West Bank, who reportedly posted on Facebook hours earlier mentioning Jerusalem. Police described as a terrorist attack.

Trump last week declared the US would recognise Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, violating the international consensus on one of the most sensitive issues in relations between Israel and the Palestinians – who wish the capital of a future Palestinian nation to be in the east of the city.

Macron said he had told Netanyahu that Trump’s statement on Jerusalem” is a threat to peace and we are against it” and suggested that an Israeli freeze on settlement house would be an important gesture, proving Israel was committed to peace.

In uncompromising remarks unlikely to calm the ongoing crisis, Netanyahu replied by saying that the sooner Palestinians recognised the reality that Jerusalem was Israel’s capital, the sooner there would be peace.

He also lashed out at the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, saying he would not” take lecturings” from someone who bombs Kurdish villages, supportings Iran and “terrorists” in Gaza.

Several rockets were fird from the Gaza Strip toward Israel on Thursday and Friday following Trump’s declaration, resulting Israel to respond with airstrikes that killed two people.

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Why is recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital so contentious?

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Of all the issues at the heart of the enduring conflict between Israel and the Palestinians , none is as sensitive as the situation of women Jerusalem. The holy city has been at the centre of peace-making efforts for decades.

Seventy years ago, when the UN voted to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab nations, Jerusalem was defined as a separate entity under international supervision. In the war of 1948 it was divided, like Berlin in the cold war, into western and eastern sectors under Israeli and Jordanian control respectively. Nineteen years later, in June 1967, Israel captured the eastern side, expanded the city’s borders and annexed it- an act that was never recognised internationally.

Israel routinely describes the city, with its Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy place, as its” united and eternal” capital. For their portion, the Palestinians say East Jerusalem must be the capital of a future independent Palestinian nation. The unequivocal international position, accepted by all previous US administrations, is that the city’s status must be addressed in peace negotiations.

Recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital sets the US out of step with the rest of the world, and legitimises Israeli settlement-building in the east- considered illegal under international law.

Photograph: Thomas Coex/ AFP

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Macron has been resulting European criticism of the US decision and rang Trump before his announcement to alert him of the likely damaging outcomes for the Palestinian peace process. Before Netanyahu’s visit, he and Erdogan spoke by telephone about a joint diplomatic approach to try to persuade the US to row back on Jerusalem.

He began his pre-prepared remarks alongside Netanyahu with a clear disapproval” of all forms of attacks in the last hours and days against Israel .”

Graphic footage of the incident in Jerusalem demonstrated the attacker calmly handing his coat to the security guard before abruptly plunging a large knife into the guard’s chest. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the guard sustained a serious meander to his upper body and the attacker was apprehended.

In Beirut, meanwhile, Lebanese security force broke up a protest outside the heavily guarded US embassy with teargas after demonstrators pelted them with stones.

Protesters, some of them waving Palestinian flags, lit flames in the street and threw objects at members of the security forces who had barricaded the main road to the embassy.

Addressing the protesters, the head of the Lebanese Communist party, Hanna Gharib, declared Washington” the enemy of Palestine” and said the embassy was ” a emblem of imperialist aggressivenes” that must be closed.

Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, defended Trump’s decision saying it reflected his appreciation for such facts on the ground and – without devoting details – that it would advance peace talks.

” You’ve got the parliament, the president, the cabinet of ministers, the supreme court, so why shouldn’t we have the embassy there ?” she told CBS.

” When you recognise the truth, when both parties recognise reality, peace comes. We are living in the reality that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel .”

She said US allies in the Middle East are the most worried about Iran’s growing influence in the region, where Washington was ” in lockstep” with them.

The US president’s recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital has nevertheless infuriated the Arab world and upset western friends, who say it is a blow to peace efforts and dangers causing further unrest.

The Vatican on Sunday said Pope Francis was praying so that” leaders of nations” commit themselves to work to” forestalls a new spiraling of violence” over Jerusalem. Its statement reiterated the Vatican position on” the essential need for respecting the status quo “.

Most countries consider East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed after capturing it in 1967, to be occupied territory. They say the status of the city should be left to be decided at future Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Netanyahu is on Monday due in Brussels where he will fulfill the EU foreign policy chief, Frederica Mogherini, and hold a working breakfast with 27 EU foreign ministers. Before he left Israel for Europe he was critical of EU leaders, who have also condemned the building of Israeli settlements in West Bank.

” While I respect Europe, I am not prepared to accept a doubled criterion from it ,” Netanyahu said on Saturday evening.” I hear voices from there condemning President Trump’s historic statement, but I have not heard condemnations of the rockets fired at Israel or the terrible incitement against it. I am not prepared to accept this hypocrisy .”

Arab League foreign ministers met for hours on Saturday to denounce the US decision as illegitimate and unlawful, but appeared to have held back from taking any new measures.

The Arab League chief, Ahmed Abul Gheit, said Trump’s decision was ” against international law and raises questions over American efforts to support peace” between Palestine and Israel.

The shift in US policy undermined Arab confidence in the Trump administration and amounted to the legalisation of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, he added.

The pastors reiterated that such a move had no legal impact and was void, adding:” it deepens tension, kindles anger and threatens to plunge region into more violence and chaos .”

The ministers agreed to” demand that the United States rescind its decision on Jerusalem … and the calling on the international community to recognise the state of Palestine … with east Jerusalem as its capital ,” said the statement.

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Tony Blair confirms he is working to reverse Brexit

Former PM argues asserts make use of leave campaign now clearly untrue and so British voters deserve second referendum

Tony Blair has confirmed that he is trying to reverse Brexit, arguing that voters deserve a second referendum because the” PS350m per week for the NHS” promise has now been exposed as untrue.

In an interview with the BBC Radio 4′ s The World This Weekend on Sunday, the former prime minister said that what was happening to the “crumbling” NHS was a” national tragedy” and that it was now “very clear” that the Vote Leave promise about Brexit leading to higher NHS spending would not be honoured.

” When the facts change, I think people are entitled to change their mind ,” said Blair, who has always been a strong foe of Brexit but who has rarely been so explicit about being on a personal mission to stop it happening.

Asked if his purpose in its relationship with Brexit was to reverse it, Blair responded:” Yes, precisely so .”

He added:” My belief is that, in the end, when the country sees the choice of this new relationship, it will realise that it’s either going to be something that does profound damage to the country, or alternatively, having left the European Union, left the single marketplace, we will try and by some entails recreate the benefit of that in some new relationship, in which instance I think many people will think,’ What’s the point ?'”

Blair repudiated the argument that he was eluding the will of the people.” The will of the person or persons is not something immutable. People can change their mind if the circumstances change ,” he said.

Tony Blair:’ absolutely necessary’ Brexit doesn’t happen

He quoth NHS funding as an issue which could lead to people changing their stance on Brexit if given the chance to vote on it again.

” A plenty of people will have voted for Brexit on the basis that if you get out of Europe, all this fund is going to come back and we can expend it on the health service. And that was a very specific promise made by the Brexiteers ,” he said.

” It is now very clear I guess: one, that there is no extra money for the health service through Brexit and, secondly, we’re actually going to be paying less money to the health service , not more money, because growth is down and because we’ve also get this huge bill for the European Union.

” So when the facts change, I believe people are entitled to change their mind .”

Blair was referring to the slogan on the Vote Leave battlebus, which said the UK sent PS3 50 m per week to the EU which could be spent on the NHS instead. The claim was widely rejected as untrue because the figure took no account of the budget rebate, fund never sent to the EU in the first place, or the money returned in the form of EU spending in the UK.

The former Labour leader said he accepted some people would never change their intellect about Brexit.

” There are some people who believe that membership of the European Union is inconsistent with national sovereignty. I don’t agree, but they hold that view very, very strongly. Nothing is going to persuade them ,” he said.

” Then there are other people who, if you like, believe that the reason for being anti-Europe is that it’s too sclerotic and bureaucratic. And these are in many ways the people driving this Brexit thing intellectually. They are not going to be persuaded .”

But he said there was ” a significant group of people”, especially Labour voters, who backed Brexit because of economic and cultural worries. They could be persuaded to change their intellects if their concerns were addressed, he said.

Blair’s new policy institute, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, is developing policy ideas to address these concerns and Blair was dedicating the interview to promote a new report it has published supporting a new” land value tax “~ ATAGEND as a means of helping relating to the housing crisis.

Asked about rumours that he was backing the creation of a new party, Blair said that he was not and that he did not think that would be a good idea. He said he wanted Labour to be the party again for” proper, modern, progressive politics “.

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Merkel hints fresh elections preferable to minority government as talks fail

German chancellor says she is sceptical as chairperson calls for parties to resume endeavours after coalition talks collapsed

Angela Merkel has indicated that she would rather have fresh elections than try to rule in a minority government as the collapse of German alliance talks posed the most serious threat to her power since she became chancellor more than a decade ago.

Merkel, who has headed three alliances since 2005, said she was ” very sceptical” about ruling in a minority government and suggested she would stand again as a candidate if elections were called in the new year, telling public broadcaster ARD she was ” a woman who has responsibility and is prepared to take responsibility in the future “.

Exploratory talks to form the next German government collapsed on Sunday night after the pro-business Free Democratic Party( FDP) walked out of marathon negotiations with Merkel’s Christian Democrats, its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union( CSU ), and the Green party.

Germany’s president had earlier advised political parties to resume efforts to a build a governing coalition following a meeting with Merkel.” I expect states party to build the formation of a new government possible in the foreseeable future ,” Frank-Walter Steinmeier said, adding that the parties had a responsibility that” cannot be simply dedicated back to the voters .”

Elections in September insured Merkel’s bloc poll first place but with a reduced share of the vote and with the FDP and Greens as its merely plausible alliance partners.

The collapse in the talks and possibility of fresh elections brings further uncertainty for the British government over Brexit, which had hoped that a strong German alliance, including the FDP, might help smooth the next phase of negotiations.

After a unusually constructive session last week with a Merkel ally, Manfred Weber, Theresa May, the British “ministers “, was reported to be close to confessing to German demands for an increased divorce settlement in exchange for a favourable start to trade talks. The Brexit secretary, David Davis, also appealed immediately to German business interests in Berlin on Friday.

However, the mooted moves come as the prospect of any future assistance from the German government recedes.

Prolonged uncertainty in Berlin will also raise concerns in France, where Emmanuel Macron was pinning hopes of eurozone reforms on partnership with a strong German government.” It is not in France’s interest for things to get blocked ,” the French chairman said at the start of a meeting with Bernard Accoyer, a leader of France’s opposition Les Republicains party.

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How much difficulty is Angela Merkel in?

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After a disappointing election result in September, Angela Merkel is struggling to build the political alliances she needs to gain a governing majority.

With many parties bruised by the experience of entering alliances with Merkel’s party over the past twelve years, the German chancellor’s consensus-based approach seems to have reached a dead end.

But in Merkel’s party, the notoriously disciplined Christian Democratic Union, rebels eager to topple the leader are in short supply. Nor has Merkel managed to groom a candidate with the credibility required to follow in her footsteps.

If there are fresh elections in 2018, it is not without question that the German chancellor could end up profiting from the acrimonious end to exploratory alliance talks and improve her share of the vote.

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Steinmeier earlier appealed for German politicians to think of Europe as he called for alliance talks to resume.” There would be incomprehension and great concern inside and outside our country, and particularly in our European neighbourhood, if the political forces-out in the biggest and economically strongest country in Europe, of all places, didn’t fulfil their responsibility ,” he said.

Going in to gratify the president, Merkel said it was a” day of deep reflection on how brought forward” in Germany.” As chancellor, I will do everything to ensure that this country is well managed in the difficult weeks to come ,” she told reporters.

Christian Democrat and Green negotiators on Monday stressed the common ground that had emerged between the two parties during the weeks of talks and focused their criticism on the FDP leader, Christian Lindner.

Lindner left the talks on Sunday saying the parties involved had missed several self-prescribed deadlines to resolve differences on migration and energy policies, and had” no common vision for modernisation of the country “.

” We continue to treat each other with respect and respect the[ FDP’s] decision”, said Julia Klockner, a CDU delegate. Kristina Schroder, a former Christian Democrat family minister, tweeted that the Free Democrat’ walk-out had “discredited” the possibility of a CDU-FDP minority government.

The veteran Green politician Jurgen Trittinprophesied that the pro-business party would have” a tough time” explaining its intransigence to voters trying a responsible government in turbulent political days. Rather than taking the opportunity to make a difference on policies it cared about, such as phasing out the “solidarity surcharge” tax introduced to help fund German reunification, he said, the Free Democrat had” done a runner “.

Lindner defended his walkout, saying a continuation of the talks would have involved his party to depart from its core policy convictions.” We wanted a political tide change, and that was not possible at this phase ,” he said.

The possibility of fresh elections in spring 2018 will continue to loom on the horizon in spite of the president’s appeal, however.

Germany’s constitution involves the president to nominate a chancellor for approval by the German parliament, the Bundestag. If no stable government can be formed after three rounds of voting there, the president would have to ask Germans to return to the polls.

The Social Democratic party, junior partner in a “grand coalition” with Merkel last word, on Monday ruled out talks about a similar arranging for the next four years and signalled its craving for a return to the polls.

” Two months after the federal elections the Christian Democratic Union, the Greens and the FDP have brought Germany into a difficult situation”, said the SPD leader, Martin Schulz.” We consider it important that citizens get the opportunity to consider the situation anew. We are not afraid of new elections .”

News of the collapsed talk was received with noticeable frustration elsewhere in Europe.

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‘More girls, fewer skinheads’: Poland’s far right wrestles with changing image

March for Independence may signal not a surge in support for far right but the seeping of its ideas into the mainstream

The presence of Islamophobic, homophobic, antisemitic and white supremacist chants and banners at last weekend’s March of Independence in Warsaw created fears about the rise of the far right in Poland.

But interviews with nationalist and far-right leaders and their foes reveal a more nuanced picture of a relatively marginal motion wrestling with its public image while hoping to seize the opportunities afforded to it by the success of the ruling rightwing Law and Justice party( PiS) and popular opposition to immigration from Muslim-majority countries.

Far-right insiders described a movement that has changed substantially in recent years-” more girls, fewer skinheads ,” said one- with a marked increase in middle-aged and highly educated recruits.” A decade ago if you considered us in a bar you would know we were from the far right, but if you watched us now you would have no notion ,” said one insider.

One factor in this change, they noted, was the influence on Polish society of young people returning from working in countries such as Britain.” So many young people travelled to work in western countries, and then is coming and told their friends and families what was going on in western Europe ,” said Krzysztof Bosak, of the ultra-nationalist organisation National Movement.

” They told them about the process of exchange of population, by which people of European origin is hereby replaced by people from Africa and Asia, and about Islamisation .”

Aleks Szczerbiak, a prof of politics at the University of Sussex, said:” It was long assumed that young Pole would come to the west and were becoming increasingly secular, multicultural and liberal, and that they would re-export those things back to Poland. But instead their experience of the west seems to have reinforced their social conservatism and traditionalism in many ways .”

The march’s organisers included the National-Radical Camp( ONR ), the successor to a pre-war Polish fascist motion; All-Polish Youth, a far-right youth organisation that has operated social information campaign denounced as racist; and the National Movement.

Despite their involvement, and the participation in the march of even more hardline white supremacist groups such as the National-Socialist Congress and the so-called Szturmowcy( Stormtroopers ), the marching also attracted thousands of people with little to no affiliation to nationalist or far-right groups.

To the march’s defenders, including the Polish National Foundation, a body with strong ties to Law and Justice that was put in by the government last year to” promote Poland abroad”, the international media’s focus on racist mottoes and banners amounted to” slandering the good name of Poland and an insult to the Polish people “.

” Waving the white-red national flags, the supporters of Poland’s independence, veterans, Warsaw’s dwellers and visiting guests all marched together. As in the past, a large percentage of the 60,000 -strong crowd were families with children ,” read a statement from the foundation, which described some of the media coverage as a “defamation”.

Critics argued that the presence of people with a range of political opinions at last weekend’s marching was precisely their own problems, because it amounted to a tacit acceptance of far-right extremism.” They may not all identify as nationalists, but they are being united by the language of nationalism” said Rafal Pankowski, a prof at Collegium Civitas in Warsaw and director of the Never Again association, an anti-racism campaign group.

” The fact there were families with children there doesn’t mean the march was OK, it means there is a question when people think there’s no problem with bringing their children to a far-right rally .”

Speaking to the Guardian, nationalist and far-right leaders distanced themselves from charges of racism, insisting their movements were dedicated to the preservation of Polish-Catholic culture and moral values, and not white supremacy.

” Faith is very important to us, the Catholic religion is part of Polish national identity ,” said Bosak, who served as an MP between 2005 and 2007.” We want Catholic morality and the social teaches of the church to be the base for the nation policy, for the law, for a new constitution .”

Tomasz Kalinowski, a spokesman for the ONR, said:” We have much more in common with Cardinal Robert Sarah, an African conservative traditionalist Catholic from Guinea, than we do with a pro-EU, liberal, secular legislator like Emmanuel Macron or a Polish Bolshevik like Feliks Dzerzhinsky .”

Observers argue it is enmity towards perceived western models of multiculturalism that bind the far right to the anti-immigrant populism represented by the ruling Law and Justice party- an alliance consummated per year by the March for Independence.

” The problem is not that there is a huge amount of support for far-right movements, the problem is that there is a lack of distinction between the conservative right and the far right, and that is very dangerous in a democratic society ,” said Pankowski.

Seen this way, the March for Independence signals not a surge in support for far-right motions but the seeping of far-right ideas into Polish mainstream discourse. The far right is not resulting from the front but being left behind.

” The far right is not able to build a party, an institution, that can get even 2% of public support, said Slawomir Sierakowski, of Krytyka Polityczna, a left-leaning thinktank.” The marching is a sign of frustration, an alibi for their weakness, their opportunity to get some attention once a year. Without the media, they would be nothing .”

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David Davis blames Germany and France for Brexit talks deadlock

Brexit secretary accuses two most powerful players in Europe of blocking UKs attempts to start trade negotiations

The Brexit secretary, David Davis, is seeking to drive a wedge between Germany and France, and the rest of the countries in the European Union, over the stalled negotiations to leave the bloc.

Speaking on Friday before an economic seminar in Berlin, Davis suggested the two most powerful countries in Europe were blocking the UK’s hopes, backed by other EU states, to start trade negotiations.” Many of them do want to move on ,” he told the BBC.

” They see it[ progressing to trade negotiations] as very important to them. Countries like Denmark, Holland, Italy, Spain and Poland, can see there are big, big benefits in the future deal that we are talking about ,” he said.” They have all got things to benefit from that. This is not a one-way street .”

Speaking a week after the EU’s chief negotiatior, Michel Barnier, defined the UK a two-week deadline to commit to a higher fiscal settlement, Davis said the UK and these other countries were looking to Germany and France to compromise on whether sufficient advance had been made to allow the talks to move to the next phase.

” Germany and France are the most powerful players on the European continent ,” he said.” So what they believe is very influential, sometimes decisively so. But it is a whole-of-Europe decision, it is a 27 -country decision.

” Always in international negotiations you want the other side to compromise. I want them to compromise- amaze, astonish. Nothing comes for nothing in this world.

” But so far in this negotiation we’ve made quite a lot of compromises, on the citizens’ rights front we’ve made all the running … we have been actually offering some quite creative compromises .”

Asked whether the EU wanted insure a commitment to a bigger divorce settlement, Davis said:” Of course they are saying that, but the other thing that is also clear is many of them do want to move on .”

He indicated the UK was willing to accept the jurisdiction of the European court of justice in the first phase of any transition bargain.

” It will start under the regulations as they are now. Then ideally we’ll end up with a circumstance where we have another arbitration mechanism, but that’s for negotiation .”

Davis also signalled a willingness to drop a government amendment to the EU withdrawal bill which would set a date for exiting the EU on the face of the legislation. He said:” It is a good idea because it is stating something which is clear government policy: that we will leave on 29 March 2019.

” Now how it’s done, what the form of it is, is being debated in the House … The whole of this bill is going to be debated through the House, and there are parts of it which will change as we go through, undoubtedly .”

Meanwhile, the Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, has called on the UK to give Ireland “more clarity” on its proposals for the Irish border after Brexit.

” We all want to move on to phase two of the Brexit negotiations but we are not in a place right now that allows us to do that ,” Coveney said at a briefing in Dublin with the British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, on Friday.

” We also have very serious issues in phase one, particularly around the border and the Good Friday agreement and the peace process, that need more clarity than we currently have .”

Coveney indicated the final negotiations over Britain’s exit and its implications for Ireland could take up to five years to work out.

Coveney( L) and Johnson hold a joint press conference in Dublin. Photograph: Paul Faith/ AFP/ Getty Images

Johnson, inducing his first visit to Ireland since becoming foreign secretary in July 2016, said no one in London or Dublin wanted to see a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic after Brexit.

He said he recognised the” unique situations” of the border.

” We have to work together, and in order to resolve those issues and get onto right for our people it is necessary now to move on to the second stage of negotiations which entail so many of those questions .”

His trip to Dublin comes as Theresa May holds talks with her Irish equivalent, Leo Varadkar, on the sidelines of an EU summit in Sweden.

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Thirty countries use ‘armies of opinion shapers’ to manipulate democracy report

Governments in Venezuela, the Philippines, Turkey and elsewhere use social media to influence elections, drive agendas and counter critics, says report

The governments of 30 countries around the globe are using armies of so called opinion shapers to meddle in elections, advance anti-democratic agendas and repress their citizens, a new report shows.

Unlike widely reported Russian attempts to influence foreign elections, most of the offending countries use the internet to manipulate opinion domestically, says US NGO Freedom House.

” Manipulation and disinformation tactics played an important role in elections in at least 17 other countries over the past year, injury citizens’ ability to choose their leaders based on factual news and authentic debate ,” the US government-funded charity said.” Although some governments sought to support their interests and expand their influence abroad, as with Russia’s disinformation campaigns in the United States and Europe, in most cases they used these methods inside their own borders to maintain their hold on power .”

Even in those countries that didn’t have elections in the last year, social media manipulation was still frequent. Of the 65 countries surveyed, 30, including Venezuela, the Philippines and Turkey, were found to be using” armies of opinion shapers” to” spread government opinions, drive particular agendas, and counter government critics on social media”, according to Freedom House’s new Freedom on the Net report. In each of the 30 countries it saw” strong indications that individuals are paid to distort the digital information scenery in the government’s favor, without acknowledging sponsorship “.

That number has risen every year since the first is present in 2009. In 2016, merely 23 countries were found to be using the same kind of pro-government “astroturfing”( a fake grassroots movement ). Recently” the practice has become significantly more widespread and technically sophisticated, with bots, propaganda producers, and fake news outlets exploiting social media and search algorithms to ensure high visibility and seamless integration with trusted content ,” the report says.

” The effects of these rapidly spreading techniques on democracy and civic activism are potentially devastating … By bolstering the false perception that most citizens stand with them, authorities are able to justify crackdowns on the political opposition and advance anti-democratic changes to laws and institutions without a proper debate .”

The report describes the differed forms this manipulation takes. In the Philippines, it is shown as a” keyboard army” paid $10 a day to operate fake social media accounts, which supported Rodrigo Duterte in the run-up to his election last year, and backed his crackdown on the drug trade this year. Turkey’s ruling party enlisted 6,000 people to manipulate discussions, drive agendas and counter foes. The government of Sudan’s approach is more direct: a division within the country’s intelligence service generated fake accounts to fabricate is supportive of government policies and denounce critical journalists.

” Governments are now using social media to suppress disagreement and advance an anti-democratic agenda ,” said Sanja Kelly, director of the Freedom on the Net project.” Not merely is this manipulation difficult to see, it is more difficult to combat than other types of censorship, such as website blocking, because it’s dispersed and because of the sheer number of people and bots deployed to do it .”

” The fabrication of grassroots is supportive of government policies on social media generates a closed loop in which the regime essentially endorses itself, leaving independent groups and ordinary citizens on the outside ,” Kelly said.

‘Way too little, style too late ‘: Facebook’s factcheckers say endeavour is failing

‘White Europe’: 60,000 nationalists march on Poland’s independence day

Xenophobic phrases, far-right emblems and religion mottoes mark event also attended by households and branded a beautiful sight by the interior minister

Tens of thousands of nationalists have marched through Warsaw to mark Poland’s independence day, throwing red smoking bombs and carrying flags with such mottoes as” white Europe of brotherly nations “.

The march organised by far-right groups was one of many events marking Poland’s rebirth as a nation in 1918, overshadowing official state observances and other patriotic events.

Police calculated 60,000 people took part. Many were young men, some with their faces encompassed or with beer bottles in hand, but families and older Poles also participated.

Those marching chanted” God, accolade, country” and” Glory to our heroes”, while a few people also hollered xenophobic phrases like” pure Poland, white Poland” and” refugees get out “.

Some participants marched under the slogan” We Want God”, terms from an old Polish religious song that the US president, Donald Trump, quoted during a visit to Warsaw earlier this year. Speakers spoke of standing against liberals and defending Christian values.

Many carried the national white-and-red flag as others set off flares and firecrackers, filling the air with red smoke. Some also carried flags depicting a falanga, a far-right symbol dating to the 1930 s.

Far-right marchers brandish banners illustrating a red falanga, a far-right emblem dating to the 1930 s. Photograph: Janek Skarzynski/ AFP/ Getty Images

The march has become one of the largest such demo in Europe and drew far-right leaders from elsewhere in Europe, including Tommy Robinson from Britain and Roberto Fiore from Italy. It also attracted a considerable number of supporters of the governing conservative Law and Justice( PiS) party.

State broadcaster TVP, which reflects the conservative government’s line, called it a” great march of patriots”, and in its broadcasts described the event as one that depicted mostly regular Poles expressing their love of Poland , not extremists.

” It was a beautiful sight ,” the interior minister, Mariusz Blaszczak, said.” We are proud that so many Poles have decided to take part in a festivity connected to the Independence Day vacation .”

A smaller counter-protest by an anti-fascist movement also took place. Organisers kept the two groups apart to prevent violence. However, there was one incident in which the nationalists pushed and kicked several women who chanted anti-fascism slogans and had a flag saying ” Stop Fascism “.

Polish patriots carry a flag translating to’ we want God’ during a procession in Warsaw. Photograph: Jacek Turczyk/ EPA

” I’m shocked that they’re allowed to demonstrate on the working day. It’s 50 to 100, 000 mostly football hooligans hijacking patriotism ,” said 50 -year-old Briton Andy Eddles, a language educator who has been living in Poland for 27 years.” For me it’s important to support the anti-fascist coalition and to subsistence fellow democrat, who are under pressure in Poland today .”

But main march participant Kamil Staszalek warned against attaining generalisations and said he was marching to” honour the memory of the individuals who fought for Poland’s freedom “.

” I’d say some people here do have extreme positions, maybe even 30 per cent of those marching, but 70 per cent are simply walking peacefully, without screaming any fascist slogans ,” he said.

Earlier in the day, the president, Andrzej Duda, is president of nation ceremonies also attended by the European Union president, Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister.

Tusk’s appearance comes at a time when Warsaw has been increasingly at odds with Brussels because of the PiS government’s controversial court reforms, large-scale logging in a primeval forest and refusal to welcome migrants. Relations between PiS and Tusk have been so tense that Poland was the only country to vote against his re-election as EU president in March.

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Barcelona protest calls for release of jailed Catalan independence leaders

Hundreds of thousands of freedom advocates march through city after eight former Catalan government members jailed by Spanish high court

Hundreds of thousands of Catalan independence supporters lined one of Barcelona’s main avenues on Saturday to demand the release of separatist leaders held in prison for their roles in the banned independence referendum.

Wearing yellow ribbons to signify supporting, they filled the length of the Carrer de la Marina, which runs from the beach to Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia church, while the jailed leaders’ families constructed speeches.

Catalonia’s two main grassroots freedom groups called the march, under the motto” Freedom for the political prisoners”, after their leaders were remanded in custody on charges of sedition last month.

The protest is seen as a test of how the freedom movement’s subsistence has fared since the Catalan government declared independence on 27 October, prompting Spanish “ministers ” Mariano Rajoy to fire our own member, dissolve the regional parliament and call new elections for December.

An opinion poll this week showed that pro-independence parties would win the largest share of the vote, though a majority was not assured and question mark remain over ousted regional head Carles Puigdemont’s leadership of the separatist cause.

” Look at all the people here ,” said 63 -year-old Pep Morales.” The independence movement is still going strong .”

Barcelona police said about 750,000 people had attended, many from across Catalonia. The protesters carried photos with the faces of those in prison, waved the red-and-yellow striped Catalan independence flag and shone sunlights from their phones.

The Spanish high court has incarcerated eight former Catalan government members, along with the leaders of the Catalan National Assembly( ANC) and Omnium Cultural, while investigations continue.

The high court last week issued arrest warrants on charges of uprising and sedition for Puigdemont, who flew to Brussels after being deposed, and four other former government members who ran with him.

” Your illuminate reaches us in Brussels and illuminates the path we must keep following ,” Puigdemont tweeted during the protest.

On Thursday, the supreme court ruled to release on bail the Catalan parliament’s speaker Carme Forcadell and four other lawmakers, who enabled the declaration of independence by overseeing a parliamentary vote. Another lawmaker was released without bail.

Forcadell left jail on Friday after agreeing to renounce any political activity that went against the Spanish constitution, in fact banning her from campaigning for independence in the December election.

Those words threaten to undermine the freedom movement just as fissures are starting to appear and tensions rise between the grassroots and their leaders.

Puigdemont’s PDeCAT party has failed to agree on a united ticket to contest the election with another secessionist party, the ERC, denting the pro-independence camp’s hopes of pressing ahead after the election.

On Saturday, the ERC said its leader, jailed former Catalan vice-president Oriol Junqueras, would be its candidate in December and he would campaign from behind bars.

Pepita Sole, a 61 -year-old in the crowd on Saturday, said she understood the 27 October declaration was symbolic but now wanted the real thing.” They better understand that we’re not faking .”

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Nuclear accident in Russia or Kazakhstan sends ‘harmless’ radioactive cloud over Europe

French institute says pollution indicates release of nuclear material south of the Ural mountains in September has no consequence for human health

A cloud of radioactive pollution over Europe in recent weeks indicates that road traffic accidents has happened in a nuclear installations in Russia or Kazakhstan in the last week of September, French nuclear safety institute IRSN has said.

The IRSN on Thursday ruled out an accident in a nuclear reactor, saying it was likely to be in a nuclear fuel treatment site or center for radioactive medication. There has been no impact on human health or the environment in Europe, the IRSN said.

IRSN, the technical arm of French nuclear regulator ASN, said in a statement it could not pinpoint the place of the release of radioactive material but that based on climate patterns, the most plausible zone lay south of the Ural mountains, between the Urals and the Volga river.

This could indicate Russia or perhaps Kazakhstan, an IRSN official said.

” Russian authorities have said they are not aware of road traffic accidents on their territory ,” IRSN director Jean-Marc Peres told Reuters. He added that the institute had not yet been in contact with Kazakh authorities.

A spokesperson for the Russian emergencies ministry said she could not immediately remark. It was not immediately possible to reach authorities in Kazakhstan or the Kazakh embassy in Moscow.

Peres said that in recent weeks IRSN and several other nuclear safety institutes in Europe had measured high levels of ruthenium 106, a radioactive nuclide that is the product of splitting atoms in a nuclear reactor and does not pass naturally.

IRSN is forecast that the quantity of ruthenium 106 released was major, between 100 and 300 teraBecquerels, and that if an accident of this magnitude had happened in France it would have been able to involved the evacuation or sheltering of people in a radius of several kilometres around the accident site.

The ruthenium 106 was probably released in a nuclear ga therapy site or centre for radioactive medicine, Peres said. Because of its short half-life of about a year, ruthenium 106 applies in nuclear medicine.

The IRSN ruled out an accident in a nuclear reactor, as that would have led to contamination with other substances. It also ruled out the accident of a ruthenium-powered satellite as an IAEA investigation has concluded that no ruthenium-containing satellite has fallen back on Earth during this period.

Measurement from European stations showed high levels of ruthenium 106 in the atmosphere of the majority of European countries, at the beginning of October, with a steady reduction from 6 October onwards.

The IRSN said that the concentrations of ruthenium 106 in the air that have been recorded in Europe were of no consequence for human health and the environment.

The institute also said that the probability of importation into France of foodstuffs , notably mushrooms, contaminated by ruthenium 106 near the site of the accident is extremely low.

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