Category Archives: Europe

Welcome to Chechnya: the harrowing film about the regime’s gay purge

Two terrified boys are forced out of a car by members of a gang who taunt them with the question: “Were you kissing?” A paving stone is dropped on to the head of a lesbian by one of her relatives. A man’s screaming is captured as he is raped. These “trophy videos” are the hardest thing to watch in Welcome to Chechnya: The Gay Purge, a harrowing documentary about the persecution of LGBT people in the Russian republic. The videos were made by people who hunt down and and terrorise gay Chechens, with the backing of the government and security forces.

“The leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, is waging a ‘blood-cleansing operation’ to eliminate all LGBT people,” says the director, David France, speaking by Zoom from his home in New York. Thanks to nationalism, religious fundamentalism and Vladimir Putin’s “gay propaganda” law, LGBT people have become scapegoats. As one of the gang members tells the boys in the car: “All our problems are because of people like you.”

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Posted by on June 23, 2020 in Europe


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The government’s repeated mistakes have made people cynical about its plans

The ‘Five O’Clock Follies’ was the name given during the Vietnam War to US military press briefings that were infamous for announcing non-existent victories and wildly exaggerated numbers for enemy casualties.

British government briefings about the Covid-19 epidemic have taken a shorter period to gain the same dubious reputation for making over-optimistic claims. Supposedly crucial advances in the battle with coronavirus are greeted with fanfare only for these successes to evaporate mysteriously or be downplayed as marginal a few weeks later.

The latest silver bullet, of which great things were expected, was the app that was to supply the information to allow for the speedy tracing of anybody in contact with an infected person. Proudly introduced by Matt Hancock, the health secretary, at one of the five o’clock press briefings, it was meant to be an essential part of Britain’s fight back against the disease.

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Posted by on June 22, 2020 in Europe



Brexit led to totally incompetent leadership at a time of crisis. We are paying for that now

Britain is failing to cope with the Covid-19 epidemic as well as other countries in Europe and East Asia have. Out of 62,000 excess deaths in the UK, says former chief scientific officer Sir David King, “40,000 excess deaths could have been avoided if government had acted responsibly”.

The failure is devastating: on a single day this week, 359 people died from coronavirus in the UK – more than the number of deaths in all 27 EU countries over the same 24 hours. The UK is starting to exit lockdown while the epidemic has not been brought under control, despite all the economic self-destruction.

Two main reasons explain why the crisis in Britain turned into a calamity. Firstly, the political consequences of Brexit turn out to be more lethal and swift than any potential economic damage. It is now clear that the worst outcome of the turmoil over leaving the EU has been to land Britain with a leadership of spectacular incompetence during one of the worst crises in British history.

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Posted by on June 10, 2020 in Europe



Trump’s megalomania and Boris Johnson’s incompetence have increased the coronavirus death toll

The US and UK are the nation states that have performed worst in the world in coping with the coronavirus pandemic. Americans and Britons make up more than a third of the 300,000 people worldwide who have died from Covid-19. They have paid the ultimate price for their governments’ slow and incompetent response to the spread of the disease.

Both countries have obvious points in common that explain their excess fatalities: Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are nativist demagogues skilled in winning elections, but not in coping with real crises as opposed to the ones they invent or exaggerate. Their critics had long predicted disaster if either man became national leader and this has finally happened.

I had thought that Trump and later Johnson were safer than they looked so long as they avoided real crises. I was thinking primarily of wars, probably in the Middle East, in the case of Trump. But for all his verbal belligerence towards Iran, he has stopped just short of a full-scale military conflict over the last three years.

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Posted by on May 18, 2020 in Europe, North America


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Making a killing: Inside the Scottish town built on the arms trade

“I am investigating a suspicious, potentially illegitimate, call to an employee of a firm on whose behalf I am now calling,” said the man with the Scottish accent dialling from an unknown number. He refused to divulge his name or the firm to which he was connected, but it was clear that he was linked to Raytheon. Earlier that day I had placed a call—inadvertently interrupting a Secret Santa exchange—to a worker at the US defence giant’s arms factory in Glenrothes, Fife. It is the plant that puts the “smart” in the “smart bombs” that Saudi Arabia is dropping on Yemen.

Raytheon’s Scottish factory builds the electronics systems for precision-guided bombs. The factory’s signature line is circuit boards for the Paveway IV, a 500-pound, all-weather, laser-and-GPS-guided bomb. Raytheon has all sorts of customers, the RAF included. But since the Saudi Royal Air Force started bombing Yemen in 2015, these Paveways have also been much sought after by the Saudi government.

The war, which has left over 100,000 dead and millions displaced, costs the Saudi government an estimated £50bn a year, a significant chunk of which is spent on US and British weaponry that the UN says is being used to “target civilians… in a widespread and systematic manner.” Death, displacement, disease and acute hunger now form the contours of life for the 80 per cent of the Yemeni population—22m people—who are in need of humanitarian assistance. In late 2018, the UN’s top official in the Middle East at its children’s agency Unicef stated: “Yemen today is a living hell.”

Raytheon has used the slogan “strike with creativity,” and its precision bombs have been discovered in the wreckage of hundreds of civilian sites in Yemen including hospitals, schools and infrastructure indispensable to the civilian population such as granaries, groundwater pumps and water tanks. While Raytheon is not, of course, responsible for any particular decision to bomb civilian targets, it does have to abide by the law when it comes to the export of weapons to those countries engaged in dirty wars. And responsibility for overseeing those laws lies squarely with the government.

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Posted by on May 11, 2020 in Europe, Reportages


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Young Britons have been hit hard. We owe them a future they can believe in

It’s time the young got a break. Already, those who left education to enter the workforce after the financial crisis of 2008 have had their lives scarred. If you get unlucky and enter work in bad economic times, it will shadow your entire life.

Thus the 2008-11 “crisis cohort”, as the Resolution Foundation calls them, have suffered measurably lower wages, fewer career opportunities and more insecure work than their predecessors. And now Covid-19 is creating a “super-crisis cohort” about to experience the same effect, only worse. Unless government, business and society collectively act, what lies ahead will be unfairness heaped upon unfairness.

Last week, it became obvious just how profound the impact is going to be. What caught the headlines was the Office for Budget Responsibility’s scenario of a possible fall in GDP of 35% over the next three months with a rise in unemployment of two million. But it optimistically assumed that an exit strategy would allow a rapid economic recovery. Without vaccines and extensive capacity to mass test and contact-trace, there is no prospect of an early and swift bounce-back – just a gradual, trial-and-error, partial easing of the lockdown. And, sorry to mention it, but the self-defeating Brexit at a time of collapsing world trade is going to make matters worse.

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Posted by on April 28, 2020 in Europe



Coronavirus has exposed the myth of British exceptionalism

There is now the terrible possibility that Britain may match or even overtake Italy and Spain as the country in Europe that suffers most from the coronavirus pandemic. This tragedy has a political, as well as a biological, epidemiology. Those seeking to trace its path may look back on a telling moment – paradoxically the one at which the government finally changed course and fell into line with most of the rest of Europe. On 20 March, Boris Johnson announced the closure of pubs, clubs and restaurants. Even as he did so, however, he made it clear that this decision was an assault on the national character.

“We’re taking away the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go the pub,” he said. “And I can understand how people feel about that.” Lest his anguish be in any doubt, he underscored the point: “To repeat, I know how difficult this is, how it seems to go against the freedom-loving instincts of the British people.” The message was – what exactly? You must not go to the pub but your right to do so is “inalienable” (which is to say absolute and irrevocable). You must stay at home but, if you so do, you will be a disgrace to your freedom-loving ancestors.

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Posted by on April 23, 2020 in Europe


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Russia is about to face its biggest test yet in Syria

An American reader tired of corona journalism sent me a plea this week: “There must be plenty of cruelty being unleashed by the gangsters-in-chief across the ‘Mideast’ that simply isn’t making it into the headlines,” she wrote. “Trump et al are either ignoring it or silently condoning it.”

I doubt if Donald Trump is ignoring it, but I do think he’s ignorant of it. And condoning is a bit of a long word for the current occupants of the White House. But here goes.

Russia, we are now led to believe, is losing ground in Libya as its most recent ally, the Libyan-American – and erstwhile friend of Washington – General Khalifa Haftar retreats from Tripoli, losing even the city of Sabratha to the “internationally recognised” government.

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Posted by on April 16, 2020 in Europe, Uncategorized


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The chaotic government response to coronavirus is closer to the failures of 1914 than 1940

Government leaders everywhere are calling for their people to wage war against the coronavirus outbreak, recalling past victories in an effort to boost public morale. In Britain, politicians cite the Second World War as a suitable example of determined and successful resistance to a terrifying enemy.

Yet the faltering response of the British authorities to the Covid-19 pandemic so far is much closer to the failures of 1914 than anything that happened in 1940. The parallels are striking between the crisis today and the one that exploded on the world just over a hundred years ago. Then as now there was poor leadership – inadequately prepared and hampered by an initially mistaken strategy – sending frontline forces over the top to suffer massive losses. The difference is that then the casualties were in the British army and today they are in the NHS.


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Posted by on April 6, 2020 in Europe



Society can come together to deal with coronavirus but we need help

“I have delivered food parcels to four families this morning,” says Paula Spencer, who runs the community centre in Thanington, a deprived district on the outskirts of Canterbury. Two of the families had called for help because they had symptoms of the coronavirus, and two simply needed food to eat.

There are no signs of panic buying in Thanington, which has a population of about 2,700 and a Morrisons supermarket not far away. However, Nick Eden Green, a Lib Dem councillor for this part of Canterbury, says that the restraint is not due to people being unworried by shortages but because many “do not have the money for a bulk buy and, even if they did, they do not own cars in which to take away mass purchases”.

I spoke to Spencer by phone on Thursday afternoon and she was already sounding fairly desperate. She said that the problem is that food banks in Canterbury, on which many in Thanington have come to rely, are dependent on volunteers who tend to be older people or pensioners – because of their high vulnerability to the coronavirus, and in compliance with government advice, many of them have gone home.

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Posted by on March 24, 2020 in Europe, Uncategorized


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