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Moisés Naím: Two American surprises | The Global Observer | Opinion

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A 'Fridays for Future' protest in Düsseldorf, Germany in July 2020.
A ‘Fridays for Future’ protest in Düsseldorf, Germany in July 2020.SASCHA STEINBACH (EFE)

Dramatic international developments that affect us all are becoming more frequent. Some touch us directly and others reverberate around us. But the daily news leaves us with the feeling that we are in a time of great change.

In some cases, we don’t need the media to tell us about the magnitude and severity of change. We live them daily. The coronavirus is one example. It is inescapable, global and, in many ways, unprecedented. Another example is the record number of climate refugees who have fled their homes due to devastating wildfires, hurricanes, and cyclones. Heat waves with temperatures that in the pre-industrial era occurred every 50 years, now occur every ten years.

But the changes that affect us are not only due to climate change and the pandemic. Global politics is also catching us off guard. Nobody expected that a mob of Donald Trump’s supporters would storm the US Capitol or that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan would be so ineptly handled by the Biden administration. On the other hand, frictions between the United States and China have become so frequent that it is now normal to hear that a cold war is already underway between the two superpowers. Global warming is changing the world, but so is geopolitics.

From the outbreak of the pandemic in 2019 to 2020, life expectancy among Hispanics and African Americans in the United States fell three years. Among the white population it dropped 1.2 years

In addition to these pressing and much discussed trends and events, there are others that – without being so visible – will have enormous consequences. Two are worth noting.

One of the under-reported trends has to do with the demographics of the United States: the current growth rate of its population (0.35% per year) is the lowest in 122 years. This is partly due to America’s rapidly falling life expectancy. This decline actually preceded the Covid-19 pandemic, the disease that has already claimed the most lives in United States history. These increases in mortality mainly affect the poorest citizens, specifically workers and, in particular, the 52% of the population who do not have a college degree. This inequality has been exacerbated by Covid-19. From the outbreak of the pandemic in 2019 to 2020, life expectancy among Hispanics and African Americans in the United States fell three years. Among the white population it dropped 1.2 years. These changes in American demographics will have a huge impact on the politics and economy of the whole country.

One of the areas most directly affected by this demographic shift will be fiscal policy: who pays taxes and at what rate, as well as what programs the government will spend those tax dollars on. America’s long-running tolerance for its high levels of economic inequality is finally ebbing, and Joe Biden aims to reduce the gaps even more. To do this, he plans to take advantage of the state’s ability to collect taxes and to use public spending to catalyze social change. An example of this is his decision to increase the corporate tax rate on large multinational corporations. In addition, he decided not to do so unilaterally, but to create a broad coalition of countries that would act together.

The objective of making this an international initiative is to prevent companies from moving their operations abroad to reduce their tax bills. The purpose is to stop the “race to the bottom” among countries which compete in their bid to attract foreign investors by lowering their taxes The proposal by Biden and his Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is to impose a global minimum tax of 15% on all companies with revenues above $890 million.

Between 1985 and 2018 the tax rate paid by the largest multinationals fell by half, from 49% to 24%

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), large multinationals have been able to avoid taxes for amounts ranging from $100 million to $240 million each year, that is, 4% to 10% of their total taxes. Between 1985 and 2018 the tax rate paid by the largest multinationals fell by half, from 49% to 24%. In 2017, which is the last period for which there is reliable data, multinationals placed 40% of their earnings, approximately $700 billion, in tax havens where they paid little or no taxes.

With this agreement, the United States managed to get 132 countries to commit to charging the global minimum rate. The countries that participate in the agreement represent more than 90% of the global economy, which means that companies that try to move their profits to other countries to avoid paying taxes will have very few options.

It is not clear whether this agreement will survive, at least in the form it was originally put forward. Presumably, companies will use their enormous financial resources and political influence to bring the final agreement into line with their interests. But in any case, it shows that international cooperation is possible.

And that’s a change worth celebrating.

Twitter @moisesnaim



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Belgium goes into three-week ‘lockdown light’

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Belgium is to go into a three-week ‘lockdown light’, following a meeting of federal and regional governments on Friday (26 November).

“We have to admit that we have been ambushed by the virus and that the situation is much more serious than we saw a few weeks ago”, Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo told a lunchtime press conference.

De Croo added that “the pressure on our hospitals is seriously increasing and that the situation is not tenable. We have to action now.”

The Belgian concertation committee of federal and regional governments decided that social life will be restricted in a variety of ways for the next three weeks.

Nightclubs will be closed, and indoor concerts where people are not seated will be cancelled. This measure will go into effect on Monday (29 November).

Bars, restaurants and night-shops will need to close their doors at 11PM. The number of people on one table in restaurants will be restricted to six, except for families larger than six. These measures will go into effect on Saturday (27 November).

Private parties will be forbidden, with an exception for weddings and funerals. However, it is still allowed to have guests at home.

At work and school, on the other hand, there are no upgraded restrictions. The last committee decided that teleworking is mandatory four days a week, and that people can only go to the office one day a week.

Schools will remain open, as will universities.

De Croo reiterated that these “measures will only makes sense if everyone follows them.”

The committee decided to accelerate the vaccination campaign. Regional governments will organise test centres where people can get tested for free.

The committee decided to meet urgently after hospitals and doctors said they could no longer handle the situation. From 16 to 22 November, on average 16,100 people tested positive for Covid daily. On 22 November that number was already 25,365 .

Currently, 669 intensive-care beds are filled with Covid patients, well over the emergency threshold of 500, and in the worst-case scenario, 1,250 intensive-care beds, a maximum capacity, would be filled by Christmas.

Belgium has not been able to organise roll-out of the booster jab in time to prevent the fourth wave. De Croo announced that on Saturday (27 November) a plan will be made to accelerate the booster jab for every adult.

Before the Belgian governments met, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen announced the bloc will take the initiative to block all air travels from Southern Africa, where a new variant of Covid-19 has been found.

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Interpol’s president: alleged torturer rises as symbol of UAE soft power | Global development

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Maj Gen Ahmed Nasser al-Raisi’s ascent through the ranks of the interior ministry in Abu Dhabi is associated with the United Arab Emirates’ transformation into a hi-tech surveillance state.

His personal achievements include a diploma in police management from the University of Cambridge, a doctorate in policing, security and community safety from London Metropolitan University and a medal of honour from Italy.

Now, in a big soft-power win for the UAE and its attempt to legitimise its policing methods internationally, he has been elected the president of the global policing organisation Interpol – to the dismay of human rights defenders.

Often photographed smiling, Raisi is the longstanding inspector general for the interior ministry, responsible for the supervision of detention centres and policing. Multiple former detainees accuse him of using this position to green-light abuses, including torture.

“Raisi’s rise to the Interpol presidency legitimises the role and conduct of security forces in the UAE,” said Matthew Hedges, a British academic and expert on the Emirates who was detained there for seven months on espionage charges. Hedges, who was eventually pardoned, says Raisi was responsible for his arrest and also oversaw the torture he says he suffered in detention.

“This translates to a green light for states to continue acting in a way that abuses accountability and human rights, legitimises the dilution of rule of law and emboldens authoritative and abusive systems of detention,” Hedges said. “This is really a warning to the international community that cross-border abuses can and will occur.”

The Gulf state has previously said Hedges was not subjected to any physical or psychological mistreatment during his detention. On Thursday its interior ministry heralded Raisi’s win as “recognition of the vital role of the UAE all over the world”.

“The UAE,” it said, “is now at the helm of this international organisation working in the fields of security and policing and will do its best to make the world a safer place.”

In an unusually public campaign for the role, Raisi boasted of technological transformations that overhauled policing and surveillance in the UAE. These included the introduction of iris and facial scanning technology, and the creation of the interior ministry’s first “general directorate of happiness”.

His domestic policing changes underpin Abu Dhabi and Dubai’s status as two of the world’s most surveilled cities. One system, called Falcon Eye, deploys thousands of cameras to monitor not just traffic violations but also “behavioural issues like public hygiene and incidents like people gathering in areas where they are not allowed to”, according to a report by the state news agency WAM.

The rise in surveillance has been accompanied by a crackdown on domestic criticism and dissent. Human Rights Watch has said: “The government’s pervasive domestic surveillance has led to extensive self-censorship by UAE residents and UAE-based institutions; and stonewalling, censorship, and possible surveillance of the news media by the government.”

Abdullah Alaoudh, from the Washington DC organisation Democracy for the Arab World Now, said the UAE had been applying a two-pronged approach epitomised by Raisi’s Interpol win: “Cracking down hard on every voice of dissent, while investing in public relations like lobbying, soft power, sports and entertainment.”

Christopher M Davidson, the author of a book on statecraft in the Middle East, described Raisi as an example of “high-performing technocratic members of UAE political society” who had found success under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

“The key to the regime of Mohammed bin Zayed has been to get things done, to stamp out corruption. Despite all criticisms levelled at the UAE and Abu Dhabi today, it is a far less corrupt place than it was 15 years ago. These were the people entrusted to clean up ministries,” said Davidson.

Stamping out corruption has, at times, included arresting the wealthy and critics. Khadem al-Qubaisi, a former adviser to the royal family and a businessman who said he was “scapegoated” by the Abu Dhabi authorities for embezzling millions, is detained in Al Wathba prison. The prison, overseen by Raisi, also holds the human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor.

Riyaadh Ebrahim, who spent more than a year in the prison, said he witnessed torture there. “There is wrongful imprisonment, no application of the rule of law. People are being persecuted for crimes they did not commit,” Ebrahim said. He said he was “totally appalled” by Raisi’s victory in the Interpol election race.

Davidson said the UAE was using its wealth and resources to buy reputational shortcuts on the international stage.

“Policing in the UAE still has its problems, but this is a way of saying to the world that [they] are credible and respectable,” he said. “Obtaining the presidency of Interpol symbolises moving in the right direction.”

Jalel Harchaoui from the Geneva-based organisation the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime said Raisi’s election highlighted the struggle between liberal and illiberal nations within international institutions such as Interpol, and was a victory for anti-democratic countries.

“On the surface, Abu Dhabi – thanks to excellent soft-power outreach – markets itself as a modern state, which happens to be a dependable friend to all the major western democracies,” he said. “In reality however, the Emiratis, whose governance style has been partly inspired by China’s strict form of authoritarianism, always campaign against liberalism and its key principles.”

A spokesperson for the UAE embassy in London did not respond to a request for comment.

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France reminds Poland on law in Paris meeting

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French president Emmanuel Macron urged Polish president Mateusz Morawiecki to solve a rule-of-law dispute with the EU, while voicing solidarity on the Belarus migration crisis, in a meeting in Paris on Wednesday. Poland should “find a solution that safeguards the core values of the European Union”, Macron’s office said. Russian president Vladimir Putin told EU Council president Charles Michel by phone extra EU sanctions on Belarus would be “counterproductive”.

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