Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Germany: How Christmas survived communism

East German woodcarvers who helped keep the Christmas market tradition alive are still in demand.
By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - December 25, 2013

BERLIN, Germany — Once upon a time, when there was a communist East Germany, a real-life Grinch stole Christmas and turned it into a “socialist festival for peace.”

However, the old tradition of Christmas markets continued behind the Berlin Wall.

Neither Jesus nor Santa was welcome in the atheist, anti-materialist East. And the authorities tried their best to decimate one of the region's long-thriving industries: the Christmas woodcarvers of Erzgebirge, the eastern Ore Mountains.

But the carvers kept their craft alive, continuing to produce nutcrackers, angels and even nativity scenes, albeit with new names.

Angels, for instance, were renamed “Jahresendflügelfigur,” or "winged year-end figurines."

“The names were rubbish,” says Dieter Uhlmann, who heads the Association of Erzgebirger Artisans and Toy Manufacturers.

But they enabled the trade to survive.

More from GlobalPost: British Atheists celebrate Christmas

Today, in Berlin's central Gendarmenmarkt Christmas market, Bavarian woodcarver Ernst Kraus slowly chips away at a life-sized and lifelike carving of a ram as throngs of holiday shoppers pass by. He says East German officials tried to turn Erzebirge's artists into factory workers who would make Christmas figures on lathes instead of carving them by hand.

“They wanted only industrial products for export,” he says.

But the communists failed to end Christmas and couldn't kill Erzgebirg, either.

The region’s woodcarving dates to the Middle Ages, when workmen flocked to its thriving silver and tin mines. They took to woodcarving to while away the long winter nights.

When the mines petered out in the 18th century, carving took over as the main industry.

Later, under communism, when the rest of East Germany raced toward industrialization with no eye to whether markets existed for factory goods, Erzebirg stuck to tradition.

“Business was good even in the GDR,” Uhlmann says of the German Democratic Republic, East Germany’s official name.

“There was a substantial export to the Federal Republic,” or West Germany, he says. “There were no restrictions because there was a clear demand.”

After Germany's reunification in 1990, management consultants brought in to evaluate East German state-owned industries found few of their products able to compete.

There was a two-stroke engine car made out of Bakelite, padlocks made from aluminum, and chicken hatcheries with more employees than birds.

Most of those factories were simply closed down and others forced to fire as many as half the employees from their bloated rosters.

But Erzebirg's wood carving business was an exception.

“After reunification, the state-owned carving units were reprivatized, but the scale of the industry remained the same,” Uhlmann says.

More from GlobalPost: Human rights: Is the EU failing one of its main missions?

Today, however, Germans from both sides of the former wall say Christmas faces a new threat: unfettered commercialization.

So much that the director of Rothenburg’s Christmas museum this year felt compelled to file an application to protect Germany's Father Christmas, or “Weinachtsmann,” from being overtaken by the American-style Santa Claus.

Across German cities these days, Christmas markets are more likely to feature plastic toysand amusement park-style rides than once-ubiquitous handicrafts.

But you wouldn't know that from a visit to posh Gendarmenmarkt, where there’s a steady flow of tourists and locals lining up to wind their way through a shop selling traditional Christmas handicrafts, a full display dedicated to carvings from Erzgebirg.

With a retail market of more than $150 million, Uhlmann says, “we're unable to meet the demand.”

Friday, December 20, 2013

Human rights: Is the EU failing one of its main missions?

Although the EU’s recent expansion into Central Europe was partly meant to improve human rights there, new members have been thumbing their noses at the old boys' club.
By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - December 20, 2013

BERLIN, Germany — When the Croatian soccer player Josip Simunic celebrated his team's victory over Iceland last month with a nationalist slogan from the country's World War II pro-Nazi puppet regime, thousands of fans roared in approval.

It sent a deafening wake-up call directly to the European Commission’s headquarters in Brussels.

When the European Union expanded to include former Soviet bloc countries in Central Europe a decade ago, one of the motives was to speed the march of free Europe's ideas on citizens' fundamental rights into formerly repressive states once trapped behind the Iron Curtain.

Veronika Szente Goldston, of Human Rights Watch, says the accession process was the “single most important engine for change in those countries” at the time.

But a gathering storm of racial discrimination and ethnic nationalism suggests it may be failing.

The European Commission’s Vice President Viviane Reding admitted as much last year. Speaking at a conference on human rights, she said the EU was “very strict” when it came to criteria for joining the union.

“But once this member state has joined the European Union, we appear not to have any instrument to see whether the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary still command respect.”

Experts say that one reason is that the European Commission can’t be seen as a separate entity from the member states, meaning violators must effectively monitor and punish themselves.

As a result, the EU’s infringement proceedings — through which the commission can take member states to the European Court for violations — haven’t been implemented as often or as effectively as they could have been.

Article 7 of the EU’s recent Lisbon treaty enables the commission to enact sanctions against members or revoke their voting rights for serious human rights violations. But the rule’s widespread interpretation as a “nuclear” option of last resort has robbed the commission of one of its only enforcement tools.

“It’s never been used and it most likely never will be used because it’s formulated in such a way that the bar is set so high,” Goldston says. “Everyone’s shying away from it because they feel it’s too much. But there really isn't anything else.”

It's not just soccer hooligans causing headaches in Brussels.

Less than three months after joining the EU in July, Croatia faced the threat of sanctions — empty, it turned out — for refusing to change extradition laws that protected alleged war criminals who committed atrocities during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Serbia alleges that anti-Serb incidents are on the increase in Croatia following a ban on Serbian-language signs in the border town of Vukovar in November.

Croatia also banned gay marriages after a controversial referendum revealed that the public was keen on only the narrowest definition of the EU's “right to marry and found a family.”

Last year, Hungary repeatedly clashed with the EU over new laws that threatened the country’s judicial independence and freedom of religion in a battle many expect will resurface.

And new member states across Central Europe continue to draw fire for segregation and violent attacks against Roma. Amnesty International reported more than 120 beatings, shootings and stabbings over the past four years in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia, where the authorities in one town built a wall to separate the Roma community in August.

Across the EU, social polarization, extremist rhetoric and ethnic tensions have increased both within and between member states, according to Blanca Tapia, spokeswoman for the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA).

“Hate crime is a daily reality in the European Union,” Tapia said in an email. “No states are perfect.”

Rights watchdogs also warn that despite the headlines, rising extremism and discrimination and violence against minority groups can’t be ascribed only to new member states in Central Europe.

More from GlobalPost: EU seeks to overcome banking disunion

The focus of attention on their performance has obscured shortcomings in the EU's internal monitoring system and the cultural biases of its older, western members.

In 2010, France forcibly evicted more than 1,000 Roma immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria and demolished more than 100 of their camps, drawing the European Commission’s ire for violating EU laws allowing freedom of movement throughout member states.

Greece, Italy and other older members have also drawn criticism for violations as the euro crisis has deepened resentment against immigrants and refugees from war-torn states in Africa and the Middle East.

“The EU seems to take human rights seriously only when it comes to candidate countries,” Goldston says. “I see it less as an issue about new member states than something that brings hypocrisy to light.”

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Germans worry Berlin is becoming too wealthy for its own good

A ban on Airbnb-style vacation apartment rentals is exposing differences over rising real estate prices and changing cultures.
By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost (December 15, 2013)

BERLIN, Germany — Just like elsewhere around the world, internet sites for vacation apartment rentals such as Airbnb were booming here — until last month.

That’s when the city passed a new law banning the trade after residents complained that a spike in vacation rentals was exacerbating a housing shortage that has pushed up rents in a city famous for its relatively affordable real estate.

They also objected to what they said was an influx of rowdy tourists attracted by the city's famous, and famously cheap, nightclubs.

"We are creating the law so that the uncontrolled growth on the housing market is no longer possible," Michael Müller, the city senator in charge of urban development, told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper.

That decision is raising objections from critics who say it will have little effect on rental prices, which they say are really rising because of the government's failure to encourage new construction.

But the issue reflects a wider debate about the kind of place Berlin is becoming.

Economically challenged since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 reunited the city’s two halves, the capital is finally getting rich.

This year, the economy grew faster than the national average for the first time.

The city that Mayor Klaus Wowereit famously called “poor but sexy” in 2004 may even soon work its way out of debt.

Those who oppose the ban on vacation rentals say it’s wrongheaded because it will put a brake on two of the main engines for economic recovery: the booming tourism industry and vibrant startup scene, which helped create some 30,000 new jobs this year.

Overnight stays by tourists rose to a record 26 million this year, and entrepreneurs founded some 32,400 new businesses, according to the Tagespiegel.

Airbnb — which has demanded clarification about how the law will affect residents who use the site to rent their own apartments when they’re traveling — says its guests alone generated more than $130 million for the city over a one-year period.

But others say that by raising prices, the boom is threatening to change the face of a city that has recently attracted a population of bohemian, creative types that have made it into one of the world’s most vibrant places to live.

Living here has been so cheap because when Berlin was divided, the former West Germany more or less paid people to live here. Even after reunification, the lagging economy and a glut of buildings east of the Wall kept rents so low that for 20-odd years, artists, musicians and leftists didn't really need jobs to survive.

This year, however, rents rose by a stiff 8 percent, steeper than in any other German city, according to the German Institute for Economic Research.

Despite the increases, the cost per square meter for a Berlin apartment remains about a third of wealthier cities such as Hamburg and Munich.

But like music fans who rebel when their favorite indie bands makes it big, no one seems particularly happy about the city's new wealth or its hip international profile, which old-timers blame for driving up the rents and attracting legions of American poseurs.

The ban on vacation apartment rentals is part of a growing backlash that has seen protesters attack investors at a business convention and anti-gentrification activists vandalize a newly opened hotel.

Set to be phased in over two years, the law will push as many as 12,000 apartments back onto the rental market, the government says.

That's not enough to influence housing prices, while the potential blow to the economy could be much more significant, says David Eberhart, spokesman for the Association of Berlin-Brandenburg Housing Companies.

“In Berlin, you have 1.9 million apartments, 1.6 million of which are used for rentals,” Eberhart says. “Compared to that, 12,000 is nothing.”

Critics of those battling to stop the city from changing say they’re almost certainly fighting a losing battle.

Among them, a Canadian architect named Matthew Griffin bought a derelict building in 1999 and converted it into a vacation rental property.

“Holiday apartments,” he says, “have been totally scapegoated.”

Monday, December 09, 2013

The world's best engineers are losing their mojo

Well-publicized public project failures may be threatening Germany's reputation for excellence.
By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost (December 9, 2013)

HAMBURG, Germany — The Elbe Philharmonic Hall may become an architectural marvel that will revive this city’s fading glory — or go down in history as one of the country’s colossal engineering failures.

Sipping espresso in a cafe opposite the building site in Hamburg harbor, Josephine, a 28-year-old banker, says Europe’s second-largest port needs “something special” to attract big ships such as the Queen Mary.

“But I'm very disappointed about the problems and the cost — which has exploded,” she says.

Builders now expect the Elbe Philharmonic Hall — once budgeted to cost around $325 million and expected to be finished by 2010 — to tip past $1 billion even if all goes well and open in the spring of 2017.

Renowned for companies like BMW and Daimler-Benz, Germany has thrived for decades on an export-oriented economy founded on the clockwork precision of its engineering. Infrastructure-related products and machinery account for half the country’s exports.

Even during the euro crisis, German firms have capitalized on oil-rich countries' appetite for superlatives and maintained a coveted trade surplus with China.

But a series of high-profile failures are threatening Germany's longstanding reputation for speed and efficiency.

"It's bad for our good image," Walter Boerman, spokesman for a German engineering association, told AFP earlier this year.

Hamburg isn’t alone.

Once forecast to cost a mere $1.6 billion and be finished as early as 2007, the Berlin-Brandenburg Airport has already cost more than $4.3 billion, and there’s still no opening date in sight because no one seems to be able to unsnarl failures in the fire safety system.

In Stuttgart, estimated costs for a new, high-speed railway station deep beneath the city have ballooned to $8.8 billion from $6 billion. Entrenched local opposition and unprecedented engineering challenges make it impossible to predict the final bill or when the project will be completed.

Back in Hamburg, Heinrich, a 63-year-old businessman, calls the philharmonic hall’s cost “unbelievable.”

Perhaps, but not inexplicable — and not actually the fault of Germany's engineers, many believe. Observers say politicians and bureaucrats are really to blame.

In all three cases, city and state officials slashed budgets and moved up deadlines to get projects approved and win points with voters. In the process, they set their engineers impossible tasks, then ensured their failure by rushing the projects along.

For the Berlin airport, project planners scrapped a privatization deal that would have put a private contractor in charge of construction, liable for all the financial risk, in favor of creating a management structure that made it virtually impossible for the builders to succeed, says transportation and infrastructure expert Dieter Schneiderbauer of ECM Ventures.

“I'm positive that if they’d signed the general contractor agreement, the airport would have been opened in 2011 and would have run smoothly.”

Instead, a screwball contract structure put an inexperienced team of bureaucrats in charge of the builder and architecture firm.

Experts say the government set an arbitrary completion deadline for political reasons that had everyone scrambling.

When inspectors showed up to test the smoke alarms and ventilation system, no one could produce the right documentation or even demonstrate it actually worked.

“It was politicians mingling with contractors and putting demands on them,” Schneiderbauer said. “It was simply poor management rather than poor engineering.”

The Elbe Philharmonic Hall faced similar problems.

A storied commercial and financial center since the Middle Ages, Hamburg remains one of Germany’s wealthiest cities. Confronted with the fading importance of its port, however, the authorities launched one of Europe's largest redevelopment projects — dubbed the HafenCity— in 2000.

The original scheme was to convert a forest of cranes and warehouses into a media hub that would employ some 40,000 people along with other businesses. But as the media business began to decline, the city targeted tourism instead, and plans for a simple shoebox were shelved in favor of a concert hall designed to do for Hamburg what the Opera House did for Sydney.

“We decided the HafenCity couldn't work without culture,” city cultural department spokesman Enno Isermann said.

First imagined as a modest cultural project, it was given a bargain-basement budget and assigned to the city's culture department rather than an agency more experienced in infrastructure projects.

As the blueprints expanded to incorporate a high-rise hotel, 45 multi-million-dollar apartments and three concert halls that would present an unprecedented engineering challenge, Hamburg put bureaucrats schooled in scheduling festivals sandwiched between one of the world's most renowned architecture firms and Germany's largest construction company, Hochtief.

With a new contract that makes clear that Hochtief is running the show, the company and the city say the project is now weeks ahead of its revised schedule and slated for rapid completion.

Still, the original plan has already cost the city millions of dollars in legal fees and years of delays as a spat between the architect and builder inched through the courts.

“This was the main problem for the whole project,” said Bernd Pütter, head of corporate communications for Hochtief. “It's so complex, not only in terms of the technical equipment but also in terms of the contract.”

Inside the construction site, observers can already see signs of breathtaking results in the bare bones of the steep-sided main concert hall and penthouse apartments, where peaked ceilings follow the contours of the building's tent-like roof and reflective, bubbled glass walls offer a panoramic view of the harbor and steeples of the city's many churches.

The entire 12,500-ton main concert hall rests on giant spring assemblies to insulate it from the vibrations of passing ships. And renowned acoustics expert Yasuhita Toyota had to design and redesign a special new material for the “white skin” of the walls due to the especially steep seating: The audience will surround and loom over the orchestra in another first-of-its-kind design.

“It's like an acoustic panic room,” said Joachim Mischke, chief culture reporter for the Hamburger Abendblatt newspaper.

But setting the bar so high created serious problems, both in terms of project execution and public perception.

At nearly a billion dollars, the price tag is ten times the then-controversial $100 million bill for the Sydney Opera House, completed in 1973, and the $89 million bill for the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, finished in 1997.

Despite the obstacles, there’s optimism the price will be worth it. More than a million people attend events at the Sydney Opera House and another seven million tourists show up to gawk at the building each year.

Hamburg arguably has both a larger audience to draw from and a more compelling claim to status as a center of musical culture.

Both Felix Mendelsohn and Johannes Brahms were born in Hamburg. Gustav Mahler was its opera director before he moved to Vienna to make his name.

Even the Beatles got their start in clubs on the Reeperbahn in the city's mammoth red light district. “I might have been born in Liverpool,” John Lennon once said, “but I grew up in Hamburg.”

“No other German city has such a large tradition and history,” Mischke says.

If all goes well, the Elbe Philharmonic Hall could be the next chapter.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Germany's legalized sex industry is booming

While organized sex workers say the trade is safer than ever, Germany's most prominent feminist says the liberalized laws are causing human trafficking and exploitation to skyrocket.
By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost (November 26, 2013)

BERLIN, Germany — Streams of cars flash through the busy Nollendorf intersection as young prostitutes dressed in skin-tight hotpants and stilettos flag down drivers, dragging deeply on cigarettes or chatting on mobile phones.

Hailing from Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria, few speak English. But they know why they're in Germany.

“Street prostitution is legal here,” says a tall, spindly woman from Hungary. “I'm doing this because I have to send money home to my family.”

A decade after Germany legalized big-money brothels and recognized prostitutes' rights as workers in some of the world's most liberal prostitution laws, business is booming. Organized sex workers say the trade is safer and healthier than ever.

But now a surprise campaign by the country's most prominent feminist is invigorating longtime enemies of the oldest profession who argue that the changes have turned Berlin and other towns into city-sized discount stores for sex.

“Prostitution isn’t limited to the evening anymore, it's an around-the-clock service,” says Monika Thamm, a member of the city legislature from the Tempelhof-Schöneberg district, where Nollendorfplatz is located.

“There are playgrounds and kindergartens in the area, and in the summer, the prostitutes will take their customers to the playgrounds to, well… fulfill their contracts,” the legislator, from Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), said in an interview.

A longtime anti-prostitution crusader whose fight against Schoneberg's streetwalkers had recently all but dropped off the radar, Thamm says she's now receiving interview requests from Berlin newspapers on a daily basis.

That’s thanks to a new media campaign by Alice Schwarzer, founder-editor of the women's magazine Emma and arguably the country's most prominent feminist.

“Twenty years ago, German men had to go abroad to indulge their secret fantasies,” a Schwarzer campaign letter reads. “Today, Germany is a sex paradise for foreigners thanks to the 2002 reform.”

The number of prostitutes working in Germany is estimated to have more than doubled to some 400,000 since then, which Schwarzer says has contributed to a massive increase in human trafficking and exploitation.

She argues that Germany should roll back its liberal policy in favor of a model used in Scandinavia, where selling sex is legal but police are free to nab, fine and embarrass anyone seeking to buy it.

Others say the impact of the 2002 reform isn’t as clear as she suggests.

Although surveys and anecdotal evidence show that two-thirds or more of Germany's prostitutes are foreigners — mostly from Eastern Europe — cases of human trafficking for sexual exploitation are believed to have dropped by a third between 2001 and 2011, according to police statistics.

Representatives of Germany's legal, organized sex workers say they have nothing to do with unlicensed and forced prostitution or human trafficking. They say that repealing the Prostitution Act would punish the innocent and rob thousands of women of access to healthcare benefits and other basic rights.

“[Our] biggest legal problem right now is the threat of harsher legislation and more control,” says Alexa Müller, a Berlin prostitute and member of a 30-year-old support group for sex workers called Hydra.

“All that does is force more workers and places underground, which means less safety for everyone involved.”

Although freelance prostitution has been legal in Germany for more than a century, the “promotion of prostitution” was a criminal offense prior to 2002 and exchanging sex for money seen as immoral under the law.

That meant prostitutes couldn’t expect help from the police when clients refused to pay or restitution from the courts when landlords evicted them. Bars and hotels could also lose their licenses if sex workers were found operating on their premises.

Passed by a coalition of Green Party members and Social Democrats, the reform was meant to protect prostitutes from exploitation — along with getting them to pay taxes.

Politically aware sex workers insist the law has succeeded in both, and that any remaining problems with organized crime and human trafficking should be tackled by further normalizing the trade rather than adopting the Scandinavian model.

However, police say the prostitution law relies too heavily on rights granted to sex workers.

A recommended licensing regime for brothels, for example, which might have given the authorities more power to prevent exploitation, was never put in place, they say. Legalization also prompted many federal states to revoke police rights to enter and search brothels without warrants.

“I can’t say whether the law might have scared off human traffickers if it had been fully implemented,” says policeman Heike Rudat, a veteran of Berlin's vice squad. “The only thing we can say is that from the perspective of the police, the way things are going right now, this law hasn't succeeded.”

Such views face strong opposition from sex workers whom the new rules have helped enjoy middle-class lives.

Among them, a 40-year-old, college-educated, Hamburg-based prostitute Undine de Riviere has worked in the industry for 20 years and now has a house and family, not to mention a pension plan.

“The oldest active colleague I know is in her mid-seventies,” she says.

“We age with our clients,” she adds. “Not every older gentleman wants a girl in his bed who could be his granddaughter.”

On trendy Oranienburgerstrasse, prostitutes in expensive-looking leather bustiers and thigh-high boots appear healthier and wealthier than the new migrants in Nollendorfplatz.

One young woman, fluent in English as well as German, says they're on the streets by choice.

“We’re working without pimps, so we only have three or four customers per night,” she says in support of the sex-worker laws. “We’re all German girls here. That’s why we’re high-class prostitutes.”

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Green fatigue threatens clean-energy leader Germany

Germans’ trailblazing ‘energy transition’ faces a backlash over high prices.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost (November 20, 2013)

BERLIN, Germany — Power plants don't make front-page news as a rule. But it turns out Germans don't always follow the rules after all.

A long-standing leader in environmental protection, this country has achieved dramatic success in reducing pollution during the past three decades, changing consumer behavior and slashing emissions of the greenhouse gases scientists say are responsible for climate change.

But a media blitzkrieg this month against Chancellor Angela Merkel's bold new plan to cut 1990 emission levels by as much as 80 percent by 2050 — without relying on nuclear power — suggests the plan may be a step too far for many Germans.

There are signs that “green fatigue” may make the target hard to reach. With Florida, Vermont and other US states just starting to adopt the German model, a perceived failure here could set back American efforts.

Martin Pehnt of Heidelberg’s Institute for Energy and the Environment (IFEU) says there are no easy answers.

“We have to be very clear: an energy transformation from a fossil to a renewable energy age does cost money,” he says. “However, the cost of inaction would be higher.”

Germany has been ahead of the curve in protecting the environment since the 1970s, a decade before the Green Party won its first seats in parliament. Germans pioneered recycling and conservation long before such practices were known elsewhere.

Today, the average German makes some 140 trips by public transport a year, compared with a measly 25 by Americans, according to a recent US study.

Germans install “green roofs” — covered with grass, vines or gardens that absorb rainwater, recycle carbon dioxide and reduce energy bills — at a rate of some 100 million square feet per year, compared with a historical total of around 6 million square feet across the US.

Since the Renewable Energy Act established an innovative incentive program to stimulate investment in clean power a decade ago, the share of so-called renewables in Germany's electricity generation has jumped from 6 percent to 25 percent, compared with an increase from 9 percent to 14 percent in the US.

After Japan’s Fukushima disaster in 2011 — when Merkel accelerated plans to phase out nuclear power — renewables have also eclipsed reactors on the grid, providing 136 billion kilowatt hours of electricity compared with nuclear's 99 billion last year.

As a result, the kinds of benefits US President Barack Obama has promised for Americans’ future have already materialized here.

Although Germany still imports some 70 percent of its energy, it has shaved nearly $10 billion off its annual bill by generating green power at home.

Green energy has created some 350,000 jobs that can't be outsourced in rural communities struggling to keep residents from moving away.

And Germany has emerged as a leading player in developing technologies that will become more important as the impact of climate change sinks in and emissions targets start biting around the world.

Nevertheless, as Merkel's continuing efforts to forge a governing coalition following recent elections have put energy policy back under debate over the past month, critics from both left and right at home and abroad have assailed the country's Energiewende or “Energy Transition” program.

By turns, they allege that conversion to green power has made electricity too expensive for the poor, or crippled German industry’s ability to compete, or increased corporate profits with fat subsidies.

“Germany is committing slow economic suicide” with a “ruinously expensive green dream,”argued the London Telegraph's Ambrose Evans-Pritchard.

“German consumers already pay the highest electricity prices in Europe” and rising prices threaten to make “electricity a luxury good,” Der Spiegel wrote.

“As a result of the current debate about energy prices, other countries no longer turn to Germany as a positive example in energy policy,” Deutsche Welle lamented.

Critics have focused on the Renewable Energy Act that spurred the rapid growth of green power here.

Unlike in many other countries, where government-mandated quotas force power companies to generate a greater portion of their electricity from renewables over time, Germany guarantees profits to green-power producers with “feed-in tariffs” — surcharges passed on to consumers.

Supporters such as the IFEU's Pehnt say that has enabled Germany's renewable energy sector to grow faster.

They argue that quotas and tax breaks such as those that dominate US incentive programs encourage big corporations to deliberate for years before eventually adopting the cheapest technology as close to the deadline as possible.

However, surcharges encourage any and all green-power projects wherever there's a buck to be made.

It’s no accident that Germany boasts nearly 600 community-owned wind farms, solar stations and biofuel projects, says John Farrell of the US-based Institute for Self-Reliance.

“The participatory nature of the program has been the most revolutionary aspect,” he says.

The scheme has protected consumers from rising energy costs by maintaining constant prices and provided steady investment returns for community owners. It has also boosted support for clean energy by creating tens of thousands of self-interested shareholders and employees.

That’s set an example even for such conservative US states as Georgia, where the Sierra Club recently partnered with the Tea Party to set up a robust solar program.

Still, corporate lobbying in Germany has led to an extension of exemptions for fuel-intensive industries, such as steel, to all kinds of businesses.

A 2011 amendment to the Renewable Energy Act increased the number of exempt companies to 2,000 from 700.

That’s prompting critics to call for slashing some $5 billion in such annual fee breaks — something corporate leaders say would decimate German business.

At the same time, the surcharge system — in effect an itemized bill — has made the cost of conversion all too apparent to consumers.

The supplement for green electricity has risen by nearly 50 percent over the past year, and will inevitably climb higher as more green projects replace conventional coal-powered plants.

Electricity already costs some 35 US cents per kilowatt hour in Germany, compared with just 12 cents in the United States.

Next year, the government expects to hike the surcharge again by nearly a fifth. And unlike in other areas, where taxes and fees have encouraged Germans to change their behavior — such as public transportation and water management — the added whack is starting to smart even though proponents argue that the focus on the surcharge is misleading.

“Renewable energy lowers the spot-market price, but the so-called renewable energy surcharge is calculated from the difference between the tariffs paid to renewable-energy operators and the spot-market price,” Pehnt says. “So the more renewables, the lower the wholesale price of electricity — but the higher the surcharge printed on the bill.”

Meanwhile, electricity distributors have failed to pass on the savings from lower spot rates to consumers. Instead, they're quietly reaping greater profits to the chagrin of clean-energy advocates.

That policy, they say, will surely appeal to US companies.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Himalayan tsunami: Climate change triggers deadly floods among the world’s highest peaks

Last summer more than 6,000 died after glacial melt cascaded through valleys. Scientists expect such disasters to become more common.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost (November 18, 2013 )

UTTARAKHAND, India — The raging torrent hit in the morning, as Gopal Singh Bhist and his son, a cook and the leader of a pony train, prepared for work.
In minutes, the Mandakini river had breached its banks, sending a crushing hammer of water, ice and rock through the Himalayan villages in this north Indian state of Uttarakhand.  
“There was no meaning in it. It didn't give anyone a chance to survive,” Bhist, a gaunt, weather-beaten man with a piercing stare, told GlobalPost. “Instantly, the water turned everything upside down.”
Bhist and his son were in Rambada, 5 miles downstream from the Hindu pilgrimage town of Kedarnath. Each day during summer, an estimated 5,000 people trek through the valley to the bustling mountain outpost to visit the majestic eighth century temple dedicated to Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction.
For the cooks, dishwashers, porters and other men who made their livelihood from the pilgrimage, a typical morning was suddenly transformed into a life or death struggle. The young and strong scrambled up the mountain. Older men, like Bhist, sought whatever cover they could find.
“I found a tree and threw my arms around it. I thought, if the tree is washed away I will go along with it. I hung on alone,” Bhist said.
His son ran off with the younger men.
Soon, unknown thousands were swept away or buried under swirling sand.
The rain beat down as Bhist clung to the tree. A sudden hailstorm pelted him with ice, and then the rain beat down again, adding to the surging current surrounding his refuge.
Finally, in mid-afternoon, the weather cleared. Slowly, a tiny group of survivors gathered, and waited.
The pilgrimage route, and the entire town of Rambada, had washed away. There was no way up and no way down. It was as if the world they had known all their lives had been erased.
For four long days Bhist and the rest of the older men huddled amid the ruins of Rambada, surviving on packages of crackers and bags of bread dropped by an air force helicopter. The weather was too rough to land. Fearing the river was contaminated, they shared four bottles of water scavenged from a local shop, rationing their sips to make it last. Finally, the air force was able to evacuate the survivors.
There was no sign of the young men who had scrambled for higher ground. Neither Bhist’s son nor any of the others ever came back.
“I waited four days hoping they would come back, but the people who went up the hill did not return,” Bhist said.
Himalayan Tsunami
The mid-June 2013 deluge affected tens of thousands of people, washed away hundreds of villages, and killed at least 6,000 people. It stranded around 70,000 religious pilgrims in the mountains for weeks, as the Indian army and air force worked day and night to evacuate them. The official tally continued to fluctuate months after the disaster as more bodies were recovered.
Across rugged Himalayan valleys, hundreds of bridges were destroyed. Landslides covered thousands of miles of road. Houses, schools and hotels toppled into the torrent. Bustling markets were swept downstream.
The epicenter of the disaster was Kedarnath, near where Bhist lost his son. There, it leveled everything but the Shiva temple.
The immediate cause: the bursting of a natural dam holding back a glacial lake that ultimately triggered the “Himalayan tsunami.”
But the root cause was climate change, according to experts.
As the weeks passed, scientists concluded that something more complex had occurred than the simple bursting of a glacial dam.
The devastation was unleashed by a perfect storm consisting of heavy rain; warmer, looser snowpack; and most insidiously by a climate-induced glacial instability that, in future years, threatens to wreak havoc across the region, dozens of miles from the high peaks.
Underlying all of these is a factor beyond India’s control: the changing pattern of the monsoon.
Lifelong residents say they have never seen a torrential downpour like the one that struck this past June. But the timing was as important as the volume of the rains. Since local scientists became aware of the issue of climate change, they’ve observed that the snow has been coming later and the rains earlier every year. At the same time, the sudden cloudbursts that most often cause flash flooding have increased in frequency.
In 2013, the snowmelt runoff was at its peak when the monsoon arrived — letting loose the deadly cloudburst over Kedarnath.
“Earlier there was [such a] cloudburst [every] five, six, eight years. Now you see one every second year,” said Anil Joshi, who heads the Himalayan Environmental Studies and Conservation Organization (HESCO).
This year, unseasonal rains lashed Uttarakhand and parts of neighboring Himachal Pradesh for three straight days.
“Continuous and heavy rainfall occurred on the 15th and 16th [of] June,” said Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology (WIHG) glaciologist D.P. Dobhal. “If you see the measurement of all the previous years it was 200-300 times more than normal.”
But as global warming progresses, local scientists warn that such extreme climatic events will grow increasingly common.
The shifting climate also has an adverse impact on the snow pack.
Warmer temperatures mean that snowfall that once began in October now arrives in January. That leaves too little time for it to harden into more heat-resistant ice. So when summer returns, the volume of meltwater is much larger.
Combined with the snowmelt, the June downpour caused flooding in countless sites along the six tributaries of the mighty Ganges that originate here.
Ironically, with more water now cascading through Himalayan valleys, climatologists fear that the heavily populated downstream regions of Pakistan, Bangladesh and India will soon suffer from water shortages as the glacial ice becomes depleted.
Glacial time bombs
Aside from the stronger rains and the later snowfall, melting glaciers are literally transforming the Himalayan landscape at an unprecedented rate.
An hour or two before the flash flood forced Bhist and the other laborers to scramble for safety, scientific observers posted at the Chorabari Lake, about a mile and a half upstream from Kedarnath, heard a loud bang, according to WIHG’s Dobhal. It had already been raining for days, and millions of gallons of water had accumulated in the lake.
Now, Dobhal speculates that the bang heard by his researchers may have been the noise of an avalanche or landslide that knocked loose the natural dam of ice and rock holding back the lake — draining it in minutes and sending the full force of the waters down onto the town below.
It won't be the last such disaster, experts fear.
Across the region, rising temperatures are fast creating thousands of such lakes. And the growing volume of meltwater is dangerously increasing the risk of sudden glacial lake outburst floods, according to the Kathmandu-based International Center for Integrated Mountain Development.
“When you talk about glacial lakes, in Nepal alone there are more than 1,400 lakes. And if you talk about the whole Himalayan Range ... there are about 20,000 glacial lakes,” says Pradeep Mool, who monitors the risk of glacial lake outbursts for the mountain development center.  
More than 200 of these lakes have been classified as potentially dangerous. Some of them — like a 250-acre lake holding 5 billion gallons of meltwater high in the mountains of the northeast Indian state of Sikkim — could affect many people living hundreds of miles downstream.
“There are so many lakes in the higher reaches,” said WIHG’s Tewari. “We have to monitor all those lakes now. This might happen in other parts of the Himalayas especially in Badrinath and Gangotri [where there are also temples that attract hundreds of thousands of religious pilgrims every year].”
There are some 250 glacial lakes above population centers like the tourist town of Manali, for example.
And shortly after the Kedarnath disaster this summer, images from remote sensing satellites showed that the level of water in Parchu Lake, in Tibet, was also rising rapidly, putting some two dozen towns and villages along India's Sutlej River in Himachal Pradesh at risk.
Lost lives, lost livelihoods
Today, the tourists and pilgrims have been evacuated from Uttarakhand. But government officials and aid workers are still coping with the tragedy’s impact.
With the destruction of the roads and bridges connecting many villages to larger towns and cities, tens of thousands of people are now forced to hike for basic supplies like rice and flour. Moreover, their renewed isolation threatens to erase the economic gains that come from access to markets and labor centers.
“We have villages that got totally destroyed,” said Aditi Kaur, 43, who heads the non-profitMountain Children’s Foundation. “The river has just become so wide now, [and] the flow was so swift, that there is no rubble left to see.”
“The fields just disappeared into the river so the food-grain you are growing for the next year is not going to be there. The disaster that has happened today is also affecting tomorrow and a year from now.”
Worse still, in some of these villages, all of the men worked in Kedarnath during the pilgrimage season, so there are countless families whose fathers, husbands, and brothers have all been lost.
Because few village women have ever left their fields and livestock for paid jobs — though all of them work from sunrise to sunset — a loss of husband and father means the loss of the family’s sole breadwinner.
That was the scene that confronted Bhist when, five days after he'd clung to a tree to save his life, he hiked four hours to his home village of Chandrapuri.
Some 64 of his downhill neighbors’ houses had been washed away, along with acres of fields and crops. Half of the village was now a floodplain of gray sand.
Worst of all, his son had not returned.
When two of his four ponies straggled in, alone, a few days later, he knew he’d never see him again.
There is now nobody but 64-year-old Bhist left to support the son’s wife and two small children — a 6-year-old girl and 4-year-old boy.
Having spent all his life working the pilgrimage route, he cannot imagine returning to the only job he knows, and virtually the only one available, after the horrifying ordeal that he suffered.
His religious faith, too, has been shattered.
“Where is God? We used to go there to pay our respects to God, to touch his feet and daily bow our heads before him. God could have saved us somehow or the other. He could have taken me and saved my son.”

Monday, November 11, 2013

Here's a shocker: Repainting part of the Berlin Wall is a sensitive topic

An artist’s guerilla strike on Berlin's East Side Gallery reignites controversy about what remains of the once-despised barrier.
By Jason Overdorf

GlobalPost (November 11, 2013)

BERLIN, Germany — As guerilla strikes go, Jim Avignon's assault on a mile-long stretch of the former Berlin Wall was a masterpiece.

Ten minutes after the artist began painting over his 1990 mural, part of what’s called the East Side Gallery, the police turned up to stop him. He proceeded to produce a letter from the organization that manages the popular tourist attraction asking him to “refurbish” his work.

The police checked his passport and told him to carry on; they'd even make sure no one else interfered.

The trouble was that Avignon wasn't exactly restoring his 1990 work. He was covering it with something entirely different, which he'd been expressly forbidden to do by the artists' collective in charge of the site.

“It was surprisingly easy because respecting the authorities has a big tradition in Germany,” Avignon said in an interview. “The letter was four years old. It didn't show my original painting. I could have easily made it with Photoshop.”

His controversial action has reignited a longstanding debate about the legacy of the Wall’s remaining pieces.

Painted spontaneously by more than 100 international artists while the rest of it was being torn down two decades ago, the East Side Gallery is the longest remaining stretch of the once-despised barrier between the Soviet Bloc and Western Europe — and a protected monument.

Avignon’s “Doin' It Cool for the East Side” depicted stunned East Berliners confronting the golden arches of a McDonald's at the Brandenburg Gate and other images of the shocking clash between the communist East and capitalist West.

That’s no longer relevant, he believes. His new work evokes Berlin's current identity crisis through images such as a dollar holding a whip and a foreign real estate speculator carrying off an apartment building like a suitcase.

Avignon argues that it addresses the commercialization, or degradation, of the original East Side Gallery works. By painting over his “historical” mural with a new one, however, Avignon was also making a statement about who owns the work.

“For years, they made it clear this is a holy thing and nobody should touch it,” Avignon says of the Wall’s other artists. However, “if one of their own group changes it, then that means the whole idea could change.”

Most members of the Artists' Initiative for the East Side Gallery disagree. Standing in its original location along the River Spree in the neighborhood of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg — formerly part of East Berlin — the gallery captures the heady zeitgeist of the days immediately following the end of the Cold War in 1989, they argue.

“We as a board agreed that Avignon's actions were totally unacceptable,” Lutz Weber, spokesman for the group, told Berlin's MorgenPost newspaper following Avignon's guerilla strike. “We are considering whether or not to lodge a legal complaint.”

“The original images were painted to capture the spirit of the times,” artist Birgit Kinder told the Tagespiegel. “If we don't preserve that, we’ll soon have a Disneyland where everyone just paints what he likes.”

Perhaps. Avignon’s critics say he couldn't walk into a museum or a collector’s home and paint over one of his own works regardless of whether he felt they’d lost their cultural currency.

Avignon counters that his painting, if not all the East Side Gallery’s works, aren’t museum pieces but street art, which means they’re transitory by nature and have no clear “owners.”

He made his original work spontaneously on a piece of public property without knowing its future fate, he says, but also without contracting for its sale.

“At the moment we created it, we thought the Wall would be taken down after three years and the single pieces would be auctioned,” Avignon says. “We were naïve.”

Today, it's clear others also see the monument as a piece of the Wall rather than an art gallery.

George Lutz's “Wir waren so frei” (We were so free) — a largely white painting of a giant Gorbachev driving with a hammer-and-sickle steering wheel — is covered with names and slogans written by tourists and ne'er-do-wells. Killroy was not here. But Johnske, Mad Mike, and Dominic Khoo were, and a brisk walk down the mile-long “gallery” reveals that Marc Neo SG was practically everywhere.

Jens-Helge Dahmen's “Pneumohumanoiden” (Pneumatic humanoids) is hardly visible beneath all the scrawls, while a leather-jacketed tourist from Spain chuckles over the word “Faggots” crudely spray painted over Dmitry Vrubel's painting “My God, help me survive this deadly love,” which depicts Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev locked in a passionate kiss with his East German counterpart Erich Honecker.

The vandalism, more than the elements of nature, has prompted the paintings’ periodic restoration.

But Avignon's supporters argue that repainting his own work and the tourist graffiti evoked the site’s original spirit more closely than refurbishing the static murals.

Historian Brian Ladd, whose book Ghosts of Berlin chronicles the city’s history through its architecture, says the arguments on both sides raise the question of why the East Side Gallery deserves preservation.

“It remains standing only because of that 1990 cooperative effort to paint it,” he says. “Yet I think the public cherishes the site now as the Wall, not as art.”

From its initial construction in 1961 until its spontaneous destruction began in 1989, the Wall’s west side served as a public canvas for political expression. Graffiti was acceptable and even welcome because it called attention to the structure’s absurdity and cruelty, Ladd says.

During the fervor of its collapse, the public claimed ownership of the hated barrier by carting pieces away as souvenirs, including a priceless mural by Keith Haring, who died of AIDS in 1990.

“That’s the key difference between the Wall before and after 1990,” Ladd says. “The functioning Wall was East German state property, which meant that on the Western side, it was seen as illegitimate. The few pieces that were saved became something different.”

Avignon (and perhaps Marc NEO SG) disagree.

“It's like Disneyland now: Tourists pose in front of the paintings and want to write their names,” Avignon says.

When it comes to evoking the feelings produced by the Wall’s destruction, “that means most of the works aren't strong enough.”

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

German response to NSA scandal reflects country’s changing role

Berlin rules out asylum for Edward Snowden, but his revelations mark a possible turn in relations with Washington. The question is in which direction.
By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost (November 5, 2013)

BERLIN, Germany — Government officials are swiftly backpedaling on the possibility of offering asylum or safe passage to the American whistleblower Edward Snowden as the potential damage to US relations sinks in.

“There is no reason to grant asylum to Edward Snowden. He is not facing political persecution,” Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich told a Munich newspaper Tuesday, apparently squashing mounting calls for an agreement for Snowden to testify before a parliamentary committee here.

Offering the former NSA contractor a deal would be “the termination letter for the transatlantic partnership” between Germany and the US, Free Democratic Party chairman Christian Lindner told the Berliner Zeitung.

But the real news lies between the lines, and reflects the authorities’ grappling with their country’s emerging role as Europe’s most influential state.

After World War II, West Germany — the capitalist Federal Republic of Deutschland — became a rubber stamp ally of the United States, on which it depended for economic aid and, for many years more, military protection.

Since the end of the Cold War and German reunification, however, the country has grown increasingly uncomfortable with that role, especially as it’s emerged as Europe’s economic powerhouse during the past decade.

Germany has taken an ever-larger role in foreign policy since 2001, including by reorienting its military in order to take part in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The euro crisis cemented its role as Europe’s de facto leader. Now Snowden’s revelations are prompting questions about whether Germany will remain an all-weather ally like Britain or a trickier one like France.

Deutsche Welle’s Volker Wagener believes the relationship with the United States continues to follow the “master and servant principle.”

But there's more pressure now than ever on Chancellor Angela Merkel to assert Germany's sovereignty, which could mark an important turning point.

The country’s data protection commissioner Peter Schaar, who’s leading calls to enact tough new regulations that would safeguard Germans’ privacy, says a way can be found to enable Snowden to testify in Germany in exchange for protection from US prosecution.

“It's more or less a political question of how far in our national interests it can be justified,” he told GlobalPost.

Last week, the Green Party's Hans-Christian Ströbele took the initiative by flying to Moscowfor a secret meeting with Snowden before announcing the whistleblower had agreed to testify before German investigators in exchange for asylum or safe passage to another country that would protect him from extradition to the US.

Various leaders, including Merkel's own interior minister, joined the chorus, even as officials traveled to Washington this week to hammer out details of a so-called no-spying pact.

But reports that the two countries’ top intelligence officials will finalize that deal by early next year — together with the sudden flurry of explanations as to why asylum for Snowden isn't necessary after all — suggest the whistleblower's revelations are as likely to tighten the Merkel-Obama embrace as to drive a wedge between them.

The no-spying pact will probably concern sharing secrets as much as curtailing surveillance, according to reports in Der Spiegel and Deutsche Welle.

That could elevate Berlin’s alliance with Washington by making it responsible for building its own all-powerful internet surveillance operation.

The model for the pact is probably the longstanding “Five Eyes” alliance, under which the English-speaking nations of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the US agree not to spy on each other and to share intelligence information.

Like the recent German military reorientation — which reversed the decades-long stance that German soldiers should never again fight on foreign soil — that would make Berlin a closer and more valuable ally for Washington. But it would also require debate about what kind of country Germans want to live in.

“Membership in this exclusive club means [one has] to share information with the other four eyes or four members and to help in the field of mass surveillance,” data commissioner Schaar said.

“This would not be in compliance with our fundamental rights as defined in our basic law and confirmed by our constitutional court.”

Monday, November 04, 2013

Germany: Privacy protections must go beyond 'no-spying act'

Washington and Berlin are close to agreeing not to spy on each other. That won’t be enough, Germany's data protection commissioner tells GlobalPost.
By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost (November 4, 2013)

BERLIN, Germany — German intelligence officials are meeting with their American counterparts in Washington on Monday for a second round of talks aimed at hammering out a so-called “no spying pact” that would ensure US spooks never again snoop on Chancellor Angela Merkel's phone calls.

But Germany's data protection commissioner believes that’s far from enough for protecting the privacy of ordinary citizens.

“There must be a complete redesign of the structures and methods and rules governing secret services and collection of data by those secret services,” the Federal Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information Peter Schaar said in an interview with GlobalPost.

He said it’s crucial that the right to privacy extends beyond borders and not remain restricted to US citizens, and that it must include clear regulations defining who can be targeted for surveillance and what kind of data can be collected.

“The complete change that has happened 10 or 15 years ago — especially after 9/11 — [has been to] go away from collecting data on suspects to collecting all data you could collect without any suspicion or any concrete information that there are threats,” Schaar said. “This is one of our main problems.”

A balding, avuncular figure, Schaar has spent the past decade in his post working to establish rules for protecting privacy in Germany and the European Union.

But he’s recently emerged as the most trenchant German critic of how his country has handled the NSA scandal. Calling for Merkel to play hardball to secure broader commitments from President Obama, he believes Edward Snowden's revelations have opened a “window of opportunity” for Germany to extend the protection of its citizens and for the EU to push through tough new privacy laws.

That window could be closing fast, however.

On Monday, Gerhard Schindler, head of Germany's Federal Intelligence Service (BND) and Hans-Georg Maassen, head of the Federal Office for Protection of the Constitution (BfV), were set to meet with NSA officials to iron out the details of a pact not to spy on each other, Germany's Die Zeit reported.

The talks follow discussions last week that included Merkel's foreign policy adviser, the coordinator of the German secret service, US National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Lisa Monaco, assistant to the US president for homeland security and counterterrorism.

German officials expect the “no spying” agreement to be finalized by early 2014, according to Die Zeit. But how far the pact will go in limiting the rights of the NSA and similar agencies remains to be seen.

The German magazine Der Spiegel reported on Sunday that the two sides have agreed not to conduct industrial espionage on each other in the future.

Presumably, a pact will be hammered out to also protect Merkel's phone — the hacking of which turned Germany from quiet supporter to dogged NSA critic. However, nothing is known about any protections the deal may offer to ordinary citizens.

In Germany, where both the Nazis and the communist government of the former East employed ruthless agencies to spy on their own people, that's unlikely to assuage fears surrounding the NSA's massive internet surveillance programs.

“The Obama administration said previously that they do not spy for business purposes,” Schaar said.

“If they now say, 'Oh, well, we confirm that we don’t spy for business purposes,' we can believe this or not. But it is not an advantage compared with the situation before. We need much more comprehensive rules for what is allowed and what is a no-go area.”

Merkel has repeatedly said that concerns over the NSA scandal should not be allowed to affect business. Schaar disagrees.

Last week, the commissioner called for Germany to stop sharing banking information with companies in the United States and to suspend the Safe Harbor agreement that allows American companies operating within the European Union to transfer customer data and store it in the US — moves that would create some chaos in the business world.

He also argued in favor of suspending negotiations for the much-vaunted US-EU free trade pact.

Despite the ongoing talks for the no-spying pact, he sees no reason to back down now.

“I followed the hearing of [NSA director Keith] Alexander and Mr. Clapper in front of the intelligence committee. They said: 'What we did was in compliance with US law and we need this. We do not intend to change.' If we get this message, I would say of course there must be a clear answer from the European side.”

Although the capabilities of its own intelligence services pale in comparison with the NSA’s, Germany has also shifted from tracking concrete suspects to trolling the internet for useful information. But its clearly defined limits on that information-gathering could shape the direction of a no-spying pact as well as further regulations currently under debate in the European Parliament.

Germany's so-called G-10 act — which relates to the surveillance of communication protected by article 10 of the German constitution — bars the intelligence services from monitoring more than 20 percent of the overall internet traffic, according to Schaar.

Moreover, the search terms used to filter communications must be cleared through a parliamentary commission — ensuring, at least to some degree, that the civilian government knows what its clandestine operators are doing.

However, based on what’s known of the scale of NSA operations and Washington’s apparent use of the UK's General Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) to skirt what limited US regulations do exist, those limitations must now go much further, Schaar believes.

“Governments can’t be convinced by good words or the public alone, he said. “Especially if that public is outside their own country.”

Friday, November 01, 2013

Edward Snowden angles for a ticket to Germany

The whistleblower offers to testify in exchange for asylum: MP.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost (November 1, 2013)

BERLIN, Germany — Edward Snowden will not testify before German officials while he remains in Russia, an opposition lawmaker said on Friday.

Speaking after the government offered Snowden to meet with German representatives in Moscow, Green Party legislator Hans-Christian Ströbele — who met with Snowden in Moscow this week — said the whistleblower is keen to testify before a proposed German parliamentary committee to investigate spying allegations surrounding the US National Security Agency (NSA) only if Germany can protect him from arrest.

“Snowden has considerable reservations [about testifying in Russia] that I neither can nor want to explain in more detail,” said Ströbele, the longest serving member of the parliamentary committee that oversees German intelligence, told reporters at a news conference.

“He can imagine coming to testify in Germany. But for that he would need to be assured that he would be able to remain safely in Germany or a comparable country,” Ströbele said.

In stepping forward to broker such a deal, Ströbele may put additional pressure on Chancellor Angela Merkel to take a tough stance in negotiations regarding US surveillance programs — which have raised considerable controversy here because of the legacy of the Third Reich's Gestapo secret police and the East German Stasi.

“I hope Stroebele’s making a first step will enable an open and conclusive conversation about the spying of foreign intelligence services on German citizens,” said Daniel Domscheit-Berg, an internet security expert and former spokesman for Wikileaks.

Snowden's Russian lawyer Anatoly Kucherena said earlier that his client could not leave Russia without violating the terms of his asylum.

“Snowden will not go to Germany,” the Voice of Russia reported Kucherena as saying. “This is not possible because he has no right to cross Russian borders.”

But he added that the whistleblower is free to testify to visiting German officials.

That essentially means Snowden can’t return to Russia if he leaves. However, he may be hoping to gain asylum in Germany instead by mounting pressure on Merkel to secure his testimony before the parliamentary committee.

Analysts are skeptical the government would grant him asylum.

"I don’t think asylum in Germany is the only expectation Snowden may have," said Klaus Segbers of Berlin's Free University. "But he’ll certainly insist on guarantees that in case he would travel to Germany to testify, he would be free to return to Moscow and not be handed over to the US authorities."

The German Foreign Ministry rejected Snowden’s asylum application in June on a technicality: requests can be made only on German soil.

Were Snowden to get here, he could join the thousands of refugees and asylum seekers whose cases languish for months and sometimes years before they are decided. However, if the Interior Ministry declares his presence to be in the country's national interest, he could begranted permanent residency.

During Friday's news conference, Ströbele revealed the contents of a brief letter he said was intended for Merkel, although it was addressed “To whom it may concern.”

Ströbele said he uploaded a copy of the letter to the internet.

It says Snowden hopes to participate in the “responsible finding of fact regarding reports in the media” and leaked documents.

It provides no new revelations regarding NSA surveillance or Snowden's current life in Russia. But it excoriates Washington for the “severe and sustained campaign of persecution” that forced the former NSA contractor into exile.

Ströbele and members of the German media spoke with the 30-year-old whistleblower for more than three hours on Thursday. German broadcaster ARD aired some of the footage.

More from GlobalPost: Do try this at home: revolution for dummies

Ströbele said on Friday that the meeting had been planned for months.

"You all know that the entire world has been talking about Edward Snowden since June," he said. "Then I thought, why not talk to him personally?"

"I therefore have not had a holiday because I have been waiting with a packed bag," Ströbele said.

Segbers of Berlin's Free University said Americans would see Germany’s giving Snowden asylum as a serious breach of US interests. "Granting him free passage [to testify and return to Russia] may be less problematic, but not by much," he said.

"We already now find ourselves in the most serious crisis between Germany and the US since the second world war."

Here is a copy of Snowden's letter:

Snowden letter to Merkel by Daniel Bentley

Monday, June 24, 2013

Kerry declines to play America's chief salesman in India

Analysis: Despite vigorous lobbying by executives, the secretary of state remains quiet on economic reform. Experts say that's the right strategy.

NEW DELHI — America’s secretary of state often plays the role of lead US salesman abroad, urging governments to buy products and to facilitate foreign investment.
As such, American executives have been pushing John Kerry hard to get India to further open its markets to American investors.
But as Kerry’s agenda unfolds here at the start of his three-day visit, it’s becoming increasingly clear that he won’t fulfill those demands — at least not publicly.
Sources here in New Delhi say that’s probably the right approach, even for business.
Already, the current Indian government agrees with America's agenda many issues, particularly economic ones. Exerting too much pressure, particularly in open forums like press conferences and official speaches, they say, is likely to backfire.
The reason: Indians distrust lobbying from US industry, so stumping for reforms can fuel opposition claims that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's United Progressive Alliance government is the puppet of exploitative US corporations.
“This [government] is the best team you can assemble for a market reform agenda. So pushing these people hard does not make sense. It is not in their competence to change the political situation here,” said Lalit Mansingh, a former Indian ambassador to the US.
On arriving in India Sunday for the fourth annual India-US Strategic Dialogue, Kerry surprised some observers by focusing on climate change in his first speech. He did touch on broader economic issues, as well as broader security concerns as the US prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan.
But Mansingh said this approach indicates Kerry has come to India with a sound strategy.
“He didn't bring in any of these contentious [trade] issues,” Mansingh said, indicating that more can be accomplished by talking with India's US-friendly business leaders behind closed doors.
“I think he did well in pointing out three major sectors – climate change, economic cooperation and security. There are plenty of issues in these three sectors for the two countries to discuss without getting into a heated debate.”
Kerry stuck to that script at a press conference following his meeting with Indian foreign minister Salman Khurshid on Monday. He mentioned blandly that the two leaders discussed trade and other economic issues. But he devoted more time to defending the National Security Agency's PRISM electronic surveillance system and to urging countries not to offer refuge to whistleblower-and-accused-spy Edward Snowden, whom Kerry called “a traitor to his country.”
He also reiterated his call for India to assist with elections in Afghanistan next year and praised India for cooperating with efforts to encourage Iran to comply with the International Atomic Energy Agency, as well as announcing a $150,000 aid package for the victims of flooding in the Himalayas.
The US-India Business Council and similar lobby groups had urged Kerry to press India to alter several key economic policies, on matters such as drug patents and preferential market access for companies with local manufacturing units Lobbyists had also demanded less onerous limits on foreign direct investment in potentially lucrative areas for US firms, such as the defense and insurance sectors.
But those efforts ignored the political reality in India, where Singh and his team are keen on economic reforms but can't sell them to their coalition partners.
The politics appear to be shifting, however. Due to a plummeting rupee, the country desperately needs foreign direct investment to meet its development goals and stabilize markets. If the US business lobby can get out of its own way, the government may just succeed in expanding market access for American firms.
Last week, the rupee fell to an all-time low of almost 60 to the US dollar after US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke forecast a reduction of America's stimulus package, causing foreign investors to sell some $300 million in Indian stocks. That means India now faces a “growing strain to fund the widest current-account deficit in major Asian countries,”according to Bloomberg.
Virtually the only weapon that Finance Minister P. Chidambaram has left in his arsenal is to throw open more industries to direct investment by foreigners
“Given the current economic situation... the proclivity of the Indian government to open up to more [foreign direct investment (FDI)] will be higher at this juncture,” said Dharmakirti Joshi, chief economist at the credit ratings agency Crisil.
Before Kerry's visit, finance ministry officials said India was poised to eliminate the 74 percent cap on FDI in the telecommunications sector — though companies with local manufacturing would still have an advantage. And plans are afoot to increase the limits on FDI in defense to 49 percent from today's 26 percent, giving US firms better access to one of the world's largest and fastest growing markets if, again, they're willing to invest in making products in India.
That means that, at least in public, Kerry was wise to let India's economic situation speak for itself.