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Germany: Faced with energy crisis, Germans agonize over Autobahn speed limits | International

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Cars driving on the A3 motorway, one of the busiest in Germany, near Leverkusen, in February 2020.
Cars driving on the A3 motorway, one of the busiest in Germany, near Leverkusen, in February 2020.WOLFGANG RATTAY (Reuters)

More than a few people were shaking their heads when the news broke earlier this year about a Czech millionaire named Radim Passer who drove his Bugatti Chiron at 257 mph (417 km/h) on the motorway between Berlin and Hanover, in Germany. The man recorded his feat and posted it on YouTube. Germany’s Transportation Minister criticized him in public and the Prosecutor’s Office announced an investigation, but in the end no charges were brought. His actions were legal because they took place at dawn on a section of the Autobahn without any speed limits. Germany is one of the few countries in the world, along with Haiti, Nepal and North Korea, without a general speed limit on motorways. But this could soon be coming to an end.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has turned the so-called tempolimit (speed limit) into the last untouchable topic in Germany. Since Vladimir Putin’s troops crossed the Ukrainian border, Berlin has reversed track on its foreign, defense and energy policies. From categorically refusing to send weapons to regions in conflict, a position that pitted it against allies like the United States, it went on to supply tanks to Kyiv. Germany previously condemned coal as the world’s most polluting energy source, yet the Russian gas shutdown has forced it to reopen closed plants and expand mining to produce electricity. Even nuclear power, a thorny issue on which virtually no one believed there was going back, is experiencing a resurgence, with the useful life of the last three plants being extended.

On the altar of the things that have defined Germany in recent decades, practically only the speed limit (or lack thereof) remains. Although it has been the subject of bitter controversy for years, it remained untouchable. But the war in Ukraine has brought the issue back to the center of public debate because it would contribute to energy savings and help wean the country from its dependence on Russian energy. Environmentalists say speed limits on Germany’s motorways are urgently needed. The country is not meeting its environmental commitments to reduce greenhouse gases, notes Juliane Dickel, Head of Nuclear and Energy Policy at the green group BUND Friends of the Earth Germany. “A speed limit would contribute to savings quickly and easily.”

Within the government’s “traffic light coalition” of social democrats, greens and liberals, the tempolimit has turned out to be trickier than the budget. During the negotiations to form a government, a year ago, the Greens unsuccessfully attempted to include the issue in the coalition agreement. Now, not even with a war in eastern Europe that is causing an unprecedented energy crisis, are the liberals of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) willing to end what is often viewed in Germany as the ultimate expression of individual freedom.

Germany is, after all, a country where the car carries enormous weight, in real and figurative terms. The automobile industry, the largest economic sector, contributes 7% of gross domestic product (GDP) and employs almost one million people. It is the cradle of the most prestigious brands – Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Porsche – which boast of the power and speed of their new models. For many Germans, their car is one of their most prized possessions, although this is changing in the younger generations. With public railway service becoming less and less reliable, the car is still for many a guarantee of punctuality and independence.

The tempolimit debate is essentially part of a culture war, notes Giulio Mattioli, a transportation researcher at the University of Dortmund who compares it with the gun control debate in the US. “It’s a hugely controversial issue that a very vocal minority defends with real passion,” he explains. Polls show that a majority of Germans are in favor of an Autobahn speed limit of 130 km/h (80mph), he adds. This was supported by 57% of respondents of a survey conducted by the pollster Forsa last May, when the debate over the price of gasoline and the fear of the consequences of cutting off Russian gas were in full swing. Social Democrat, Green and Christian Democrat voters were overwhelmingly in favor of the cap. Not so supporters of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the liberal FDP.

The debate is once again on the table because the FDP leader, Christian Lindner, who serves as finance minister in Olaf Scholz’s government, recently made an offer to the Greens in the political podcast State of the Nation. He proposed rethinking his refusal to introduce a tempolimit if the environmentalists were willing to leave the nuclear power plants running beyond next April, which is the last date agreed upon (with many difficulties) between the three partners. The proposal has been viewed more as a bluff than a real offer, because the Greens, who have already given up more than anyone expected, would never agree to buy the new nuclear fuel rods the plants need to keep running after April.

In Germany, there is no speed limit on about 70% of motorways. The Federal Environment Agency (UBA) has calculated that setting the limit at 100 km/h (62 mph) would save 2.1 billion liters of gasoline and diesel each year, or 3.8% of fuel consumption in the transportation sector. In terms of Germany’s dependence on Russian hydrocarbons, energy expert Claudia Kemfert, an economist at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), has estimated that a tempolimit would reduce Russian oil imports by 5 % and 7%.

More safety and less pollution

The agency recently updated its calculations of the savings in greenhouse gas emissions. A general limit of 120 km/h (75 mph) would reduce emissions by two million tons of CO₂ equivalent per year. Even setting it at 130 km/h (80 mph) would have a positive effect, with 1.5 million fewer tons emitted into the atmosphere. The tempolimit “would be a feasible, beneficial and effective contribution to reduce transportation emissions in the short term,” says a UBA report. “Traffic safety would also increase and noise and polluting emissions would be reduced.”

With the Social Democrats also in favor of the speed limit, the only stumbling block are the liberals, who also control the Ministry of Transportation following the distribution of government portfolios a year ago. Without them, there would be no majority. According to some experts, such as the constitutional expert Joachim Wieland, an old law from 1974, promulgated shortly after the oil crisis, would allow legislators to introduce a temporary speed limit. The Energy Security Law authorizes the Ministry of Economy and Climate, currently in the hands of the Greens, to decree the measure for a limited time. It would have to be extensively justified, and they would need to prove that the energy supply was in jeopardy or interrupted, and it is not clear that this is the case right now. But most importantly, such a decision would open such a rift between the government partners that it is difficult to envisage the Greens taking that risk.

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‘Destitution is almost inevitable’: Afghan refugees in Greece left homeless by failed system | Migration and development

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Mohammad Ashraf Rasooli, 70, looks at his five-year-old granddaughter, sitting on the floor next to him watching cartoons on a phone. They live in a two-bedroom flat in a suburb of Athens. “Even tomorrow, we don’t know what will happen to us,” he says.

The former judge and legal adviser to the Afghan Ministry of Justice, who had a role in putting together the 2004 Afghan constitution, is facing eviction with his family, including his three grandchildren. This is in line with regulations in Greece, which state that once someone has obtained refugee status, they must leave the accommodation provided for them within 30 days.

Since being evacuated to Greece last October, the family have been in limbo, hoping to join relatives in the UK and grieving for lives left behind in Kabul. Due to Rasooli’s high-profile work, as well as that of his daughter, a former journalist, and his son-in-law Fazel Sultani, a prosecutor at the Ministry of Justice, the family had gone into hiding after the Taliban stormed Kabul.

“We had a lot of problems, because the Taliban were saying if somebody had worked with NGOs or international organisations we’d be killed. It was very difficult for me to be there; we went to hide in a few places until we got evacuated,” says Rasooli. He scrolls through his phone to show photos of his home, pointing out books on the shelves, including legal texts he wrote, which he has been told have since been destroyed by Taliban soldiers.

The family has tried to make the best of things and the children are in Greek schools, but until recently, Rasooli feared to go outside in case his papers were checked. They had to wait until this month to receive asylum seeker ID cards.

They struggled to navigate a catch-22 system whereby access to rent subsides requires having a rental contract, while landlords will not rent without proof of the subsidies.

Rasooli and his family are not alone, says Minos Mouzourakis, an advocacy officer at Refugee Support Aegean (RSA). “Destitution is almost inevitable for refugees recognised in Greece. Expecting them to promptly leave accommodation despite exclusion from social welfare and protracted, often year-long, delays in renewing documents is a policy choice breaching the country’s legal obligations according to jurisdictions across the continent,” he says.

Mohammad Ashraf Rasooli (second left), sits with Fazel Sultani, his son-in-law, granddaughter and daughter in their flat in Athens, Greece.
Mohammad Ashraf Rasooli (second left), sits with Fazel Sultani, his son-in-law, granddaughter and daughter in their flat in Athens. Photograph: Anna Pantelia/The Guardian

RSA has gathered more than 100 testimonies of recognised refugees in Greece who have turned to jobs such as collecting waste cardboard around Athens to sell to recycling companies. For such work they may earn between €10 and €20 a day.

RSA has recorded cases where refugees returned to Greece have faced destitution, such as Soraya* and Somaya* from Afghanistan who were sent back from Sweden in June this year. They are now reliant on soup kitchens and solidarity networks and must wait until January 2023 to get identification documents. Some courts, in countries such as Germany, have halted returns of refugees to Greece judging that they are likely to face inhumane or degrading treatment.

“The situation for recognised refugees in Greece is dire. It is commonplace that people granted protection status in Greece face destitution and homelessness following their positive asylum decision,” says Lucy Alper, a legal coordinator with Refugee Legal Support in Athens.

“The only integration programme, Helios, funded by the EU and implemented by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) is not fit for purpose. Many people enrolled in the Helios programme cannot access the limited rental subsidies offered, as they must first open a Greek bank account, pay a deposit on a flat and sign a house contract via the government’s online platform. Barriers are at every turn, exacerbated by the bureaucracy of the Greek asylum system.

“Notwithstanding these failures, people are being evicted from their accommodation. There is no safety net,” says Alper.

The IOM says 19,000 people had leased an apartment so far, which spoke to the “feasibility of the requirements”. They added there are, “all the necessary services to support recognised refugees in finding and leasing apartments … IOM in coordination with its partners ensures support and interpretation in issuing all required documents … whenever obstacles are encountered, targeted support is provided to solve possible problems.” It says it had no “recorded cases” of difficulties from those who applied within the appropriate time frame due to bureaucracy.

Rasooli hopes to go to the UK under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy (Arap) but has a rejection that is under review. His initial rejection letter, seen by the Guardian, states that since he has asylum in Greece, he will have access to medical care and is in relative safety – facts disputed by NGOs who have documented the precariousness of life for refugees in the country.

For now, the family remains in Athens, hopeful for an offer of an apartment for the short term. Nothing about the future is certain.

The Greek Migration Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

* Names have been changed to protect identities

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Europe Lost Russia as Energy Supplier, Russian Envoy Says

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VIENNA (Sputnik) – Russia’s Permanent Representative to International Organizations in Vienna Mikhail Ulyanov said Europe has lost Russia as its largest energy supplier.

“Isn’t it vice versa: Europe has lost Russia as its largest energy supplier to get the opportunity to buy the US LNG at a much higher price? Great achievement!” Ulyanov wrote on Twitter.

It was his response to a user post that quoted the head of the International Energy Agency (IEA) saying Russia had lost Europe as its largest energy client “forever.”

IEA chief Fatih Birol said in October that Russia had lost the European oil and gas market forever and would face a drop in production. The West stepped up sanctions pressure on Russia over Ukraine, which led to higher prices for electricity, fuel and food in Europe and the United States.

A view shows gas metering units at the Gazprom's Amur Gas Processing Plant near the town of Svobodny, Amur Region, Russia. The plant was launched on June 9, 2021 - Sputnik International, 1920, 27.11.2022

Russia Determined Not to Sell Energy Resources to Those Who Set Price Caps: Kremlin

Russian President Vladimir Putin said cheap and reliable Russian energy resources were Europe’s competitive advantage, and even a partial rejection of them already had a negative impact on its economy and residents. The US, pushing through the EU’s complete rejection of Russian energy carriers and other resources, is leading to the de-industrialization of Europe, he said.

Putin, commenting on the West’s idea to limit prices for Russian energy resources, said Russia would not supply anything abroad if this was contrary to its own interests.

Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak said Russia would not supply oil to countries that set any price cap. He added that such restrictions were interference in market tools, and Moscow was prepared to work with consumers ready for market conditions.



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Kirchner: Argentina’s vice-president blasts ‘firing squad’ overseeing her corruption trial | International

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“Last words…” said Cristina Fernández de Kirchner from her office in the Senate, staring at the camera. She paused for a second, smiled and delivered the line she had already envisaged as a headline. “Never has a judicial term been so appropriate to define what this court is: it is a firing squad.”

Her words were aimed at three federal judges who on December 6 will decide whether she is guilty of leading an alleged scheme to divert state funds through public works contracts. The prosecution wants Fernández de Kirchner to spend 12 years behind bars and be permanently barred from holding public office.

Fernández de Kirchner, 69, has been charged with “illicit association” and “aggravated fraudulent administration” in connection with a corruption case involving 12 other defendants and known in Argentina as the Vialidad Case. The 51 contracts under scrutiny were awarded in the province of Santa Cruz, the political cradle of Kirchnerism, to companies owned by a friend of the Kirchners, Lázaro Baez, over a 12-year period (Baez has since been sentenced to 12 years in prison for money laundering). Prosecutors said many contracts were inflated and some were never carried out. They have estimated that the scheme cost the state around $1 billion. The defendants include officials accused of collecting bribes and businesspeople suspected of paying them.

But the vice-president claims to be a victim of political persecution.

“A government that was democratically elected three times is not an ‘illicit association’,” she said, alluding to the government of her late husband Néstor Kirchner (2003 -2007) and her own two terms in the president’s office between 2007 and 2015.

On Tuesday, the vice-president spoke for less than 20 minutes, a far cry from the long speeches she has given in the past in court. At her first hearing on December 2, 2019, she claimed to be the victim of a case in which the sentence had been decided ahead of time. The ultimate goal of the trial, according to the vice-president, is to remove her from politics and erode Peronism, the movement she represents.

“The sentence is written, but I never thought it would be so badly written,” said Fernández de Kirchner, accusing the two lead prosecutors in the case, Diego Luciani and Sergio Mola, of spreading lies about her. To reinforce the idea of the firing squad, she recalled the assassination attempt against her outside her house in early September.

Kirchner has maintained throughout the trial that the entire investigation against her is a set-up by the opposition to imprison her. Her lawyers have uploaded a document entitled “The Twenty Lies of the Vialidad Case” to social media.

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