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UK and EU polarised over post-Brexit N.Irish trade rules

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UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said post-Brexit trading arrangements in Northern Ireland were unsustainable and warned he could take unilateral action if no solutions were found
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The UK and the EU appeared on a collision course Tuesday over post-Brexit trading arrangements in Northern Ireland, after London branded them unsustainable but European leaders insisted they would not be renegotiated. 

It comes as political tensions rise in the UK province after historic elections last week saw pro-Irish nationalists Sinn Fein become the biggest party for the first time and now bid to lead a power-sharing executive.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a call with his Irish counterpart Micheal Martin that the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol governing trade there “was not sustainable in its current form”.

In the latest threat to take unilateral steps to address the “very serious” situation, he added his government “would take action to protect peace and political stability in Northern Ireland if solutions could not be found”. 

But within hours the warning prompted a swift response from German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo.

“No one should unilaterally scrap or break or in any way change the arrangement we agreed on together,” Scholz told a joint press conference in Berlin. 

Flanking the German leader, De Croo added: “Our message is quite clear. Don’t touch this, this is something we agreed on.”

– ‘Disruption’ –

Signed as part of the UK’s EU divorce, the protocol keeps Northern Ireland largely in the EU’s single market and imposes sweeping checks on goods heading there from Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales).

The compromise was introduced to avoid the return of hard border infrastructure between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland to the south.

Keeping the border open was a key plank of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of sectarian violence over British rule in Northern Ireland and on the UK mainland.

But the protocol has infuriated pro-UK unionists who claim the checks on trade across the Irish Sea undermine the province’s place within the UK.

They have vowed not to nominate ministers to the Northern Ireland Executive in Belfast until the protocol is overhauled, raising the prospect of post-election paralysis. 

Johnson and his ministers have said that they share unionists’ concerns about how the protocol is being implemented and have repeatedly threatened to trigger a suspension clause in the terms.

They have accused the EU of inflexibility and overzealous interpretation of the rules, causing “economic and political disruption” in Northern Ireland.

In their call, Johnson told Martin that the province’s 1998 peace agreement “was being undermined”, his office said.

Last week’s elections “further demonstrated that the protocol was not sustainable in its current form”, Downing Street said.

– Unilateral actions –

The EU is insistent that the UK must abide by the terms of the deal it signed up to and that it risks a possible trade war with the 27-member bloc if it unilaterally triggers the suspension clause.

European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic, who is spearheading talks, has urged London to dial down the rhetoric and work on finding solutions within the existing framework.

Martin’s office said in a read-out that the Taoiseach “set out clearly his serious concerns at any unilateral action at this time, which would be destabilising in Northern Ireland and erode trust”.

However, The Times reported Tuesday that Foreign Secretary Liz Truss could move to scrap large parts of the deal from British law by as early as next week.

The newspaper said officials had drawn up draft legislation to remove the need for checks on goods from Great Britain for use in the province.

If passed, Northern Irish companies could also ignore EU rules and regulations and strip the European Court of Justice of oversight powers on disputes, it added.

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France probes alleged nuclear power cover-up: source

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France gets 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear power
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French prosecutors are investigating claims that officials at a nuclear power station covered up incidents of malfunction at an ageing plant, a source close to the probe told AFP on Thursday.

The move follows a legal complaint filed by a whistleblower, a former engineer at the Tricastin power station in the southeast of the country.

In his complaint to police in October 2021 targeting nuclear plant operator EDF, the engineer, whose identity was not given, said he had repeatedly alerted the company to the incidents and also written to the environment minister.

Events that the nuclear operator failed to declare to the national safety agency ASN, or played down, include an unexplained power surge at one of the reactors in 2017 and flooding inside the station the following year, according to the engineer.

An investigating magistrate in the southern port city of Marseille is now probing the power station for fraud and “endangering the lives of others”, the legal source said.

Other suspected violations include damage to the environment by leakage of toxic substances, obstructing checks by nuclear inspectors and workplace harassment of the engineer, who says he was sidelined after sounding the alarm.

France, which derives around 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, has been exploring a possible extension of the lifetime of its ageing stations, several of which have come up against their 40-year limit.

That includes Tricastin, built in 1980-81 — making it one of France’s oldest nuclear stations.

It is on a list of installations that the ASN agency said last year could be renovated to extend their lifespan.

Currently operations at 12 of France’s 56 nuclear reactors are shut down because of corrosion issues, EDF said last month.

In February, President Emmanuel Macron called for a “rebirth” of France’s nuclear industry, with 14 new plants, as part of efforts to move away from fossil fuels.

The launch of the Tricastin probe was evidence of the accusations’ “extreme gravity”, the whistleblower’s high-profile lawyers Vincent Brengarth and William Bourdon said in a statement to AFP.

Contacted by AFP, both EDF and ASN declined to comment.

Last November, however, ASN chief inspector Christophe Quintin told AFP that routine checks at Tricastin had not revealed any incidents that might have gone unreported.

Independent radioactivity research association CRIIRAD welcomed the investigation, saying it raised important issues such as nuclear safety and transparency on nuclear issues.

“The judiciary is sending a strong signal, but will it be able to get to the bottom of this?” asked the association’s spokesman, Roland Desbordes.

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Biden eyes climate progress as Brazil leader joins Americas summit

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US President Joe Biden speaks during opening ceremony of the the Ninth Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles
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Joe Biden sought Thursday to step up action on climate at an Americas summit with hopes for at least small progress with Brazil, whose far-right leader will hold a potentially tense meeting with the US president.

Some two dozen leaders have descended on Los Angeles for the Summit of the Americas, where Biden late Wednesday implored them to show that democracy can produce results.

“There is no reason why the Western Hemisphere shouldn’t be secure, prosperous and democratic, from Canada’s northernmost reaches to the southern tips of Chile,” he told a welcoming reception with pop performers at a downtown Los Angeles theater.

But as China makes rapid inroads in Latin America, long viewed by Washington as its turf, Biden has steered clear of big-dollar pledges and has instead sought cooperation in targeted areas.

The summit on Thursday will focus on climate, with Vice President Kamala Harris tasked with meeting leaders of Caribbean nations that are particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels.

One outlier from the international chorus to battle climate change has been Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a champion of agribusiness who has horrified environmentalists who warn that further erosion of the Amazon rainforest will disrupt a vital natural sink for the planet’s carbon emissions.

Ahead of Biden’s first meeting with Bolsonaro on Thursday, the White House said Brazil, Colombia and Peru would join a US-backed initiative to explore ways to reduce Amazon deforestation motivated by commodities industries.

The White House also said that Brazil and four other nations were joining a renewable energy initiative launched at last year’s UN climate summit in Copenhagen.

In the pact, countries promise to work toward a goal of 70 percent renewables in their energy mix by 2030. 

Despite coming under criticism over the Amazon, Brazil — the sixth most populous nation — has one of least carbon-intensive economies for a major economy and already meets the goal on renewables, mostly through hydropower.

– The ‘Tropical Trump’ –

The meeting with Bolsonaro could be awkward due to more than climate. Bolsonaro was an ally of Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump and has appeared to follow the former president’s playbook by alleging that Brazil’s October elections are threatened by fraud.

On the eve of his trip, Bolsonaro went further by backing Trump’s claims of irregularities in the 2020 US election won by Biden. There has been no evidence of widespread fraud.

Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, said the president would not shy away from discussing the Brazilian election.

“I do anticipate that the president will discuss open, free, fair, transparent democratic elections,” Sullivan told reporters.

Bolsonaro has trailed in early polls against his likely challenger, former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a leftist icon who was jailed on controversial corruption charges.

A victory by Lula would mark a further swing to the left in Latin America. Colombia, one of the closest US allies, could see a historic shift on June 19 if there is a victory by leftist Gustavo Petro, who topped the first round of voting.

While promising to work with leaders across ideology, Biden has held firm against inviting the leftist leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela on the grounds that they are autocrats.

His stance led to a boycott of the summit by Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a crucial partner on addressing rising migration into the United States.

Harris started the week-long summit by announcing commitments of $1.9 billion by businesses in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in hopes of creating jobs and discouraging migration — an issue seized upon by Trump’s Republican Party.

Also at the summit, the Biden administration announced a plan to help train 500,000 health workers in Latin America and a $300 million project to improve food security, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine disrupting grain exports.

Biden also announced what he called a new economic partnership for the Americas, although there were few concrete details and no promises of funding or greater market access.

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Sandberg exit unlikely to improve Facebook: whistleblower

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Frances Haugen's leaked documents suggested executives knew their platforms could fuel hate speech and damage the mental health of young people
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The departure of controversial Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg is unlikely to improve the troubled social media giant, whistleblower Frances Haugen told AFP.

Haugen, a former Facebook engineer who leaked internal documents last year suggesting the firm put profits before safety, pointed out that Sandberg’s replacement came from a team whose remit was to help the firm to expand.

The “growth team” was part of the problem and the decision showed the company was “not listening to the heart of the critiques”, she said.

Sandberg, the number two at Facebook parent Meta, shocked Silicon Valley last week by announcing she was stepping down after 14 years at the firm, steering its rise from niche social network to ad-tech juggernaut.

But she had increasingly become the public face of a firm beset by scandals over misinformation, data protection and even accusations of fuelling ethnic violence.

Haugen’s leaked documents suggested executives knew their platforms could fuel hate speech and damage the mental health of young people.

The revelations led to huge criticism of Sandberg and her boss, Mark Zuckerberg, whose business — renamed Meta in 2021 — also includes Instagram and WhatsApp.

– ‘Did she do enough?’ –

Haugen, speaking to AFP this week ahead of addressing a cybersecurity forum in Lille in northern France, said there was a “fundamental tension” about Sandberg’s role.

“Did she do enough to stand up to Mark, or to demand Mark be a better leader? I don’t think so.”

She praised Sandberg, though, for establishing a strategic response team in 2018 to combat efforts to misuse the network.

“Sheryl did set up the parts of the company that were actively concerned with the safety of people who live in fragile places like Ethiopia,” she said.

But she said it “doesn’t seem particularly promising” that Sandberg will be replaced by Javier Olivan, the head of Meta’s “growth team”.

In announcing Olivan’s promotion, Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook that he had a “strong track record of making our execution more efficient and rigorous”.

Haugen wished him luck in his new role but said the growth team embodied “many of the things that I consider problematic about Facebook”.

Much of Haugen’s criticism stemmed from a central accusation that Facebook had pursued growth and profit with no concern for the safety or wellbeing of its users.

The growth team was central to that effort.

“The fact that the person who got to replace Sheryl comes from that part of the organisation feels that they are not really listening to the heart of the critiques,” said Haugen.

Meta did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

– Optimism on Musk –

Haugen has never fitted the stereotypical whistleblower image of a scrappy outsider — she has wealthy backers and a slick campaign that has seen her addressing parliaments around the world.

She told AFP in an interview last year she planned to start a youth movement to help empower young people to take charge of their online lives.

Aside from Facebook, she is sanguine about other recent developments in tech.

The saga of Elon Musk’s on-off takeover of Twitter, for example, has left many commentators questioning whether the billionaire magnate might do more harm than good to the social media firm.

But Haugen reckons he might just be on to something, saying she was “cautiously optimistic”.

“Part of why Facebook makes bad decisions is because it’s a publicly traded company,” she said.

“Elon Musk taking Twitter private provides an opportunity to go and do the house cleaning that Twitter needs.”

And she is heartened by a new European Union law — known as the Digital Services Act — that forces social media to regulate content.

She said it should break open the tech giants to independent scrutiny, which was a “really, really good deal”.

Overall, she said her revelations had made a positive impact — Facebook has doubled its spending on safety and staff working on safety issues say they have more space to operate.

“I’m incredibly heartened by how seriously leaders around the world have taken us,” she said.

“We have different conversations now about what social media should be.”

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