DDMA Headline Animator

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Italy president taps Berlusconi ally to try to break impasse

April 18, 2018

ROME (AP) — Italy's president on Wednesday tapped the Senate president, a longtime supporter of ex-Premier Silvio Berlusconi, to explore possible alliances to create a governing majority in Parliament, more than a month after Italy's inconclusive elections.

As leader of the Senate, Maria Elisabetta Casellati holds the second-highest position in Italy's governing institutions, making her the logical choice after two rounds of presidential-led consultations failed to break an impasse.

But there was no indication Casellati would succeed where President Sergio Mattarella has failed. The two leading political blocs after the March 4 vote have failed to find agreement or even meet one-on-one.

The leader of the populist 5-Star Movement, Luigi Di Maio, has refused to be part of any government that includes Berlusconi and has tried to woo the xenophobic League away from Berlusconi's Forza Italia. Berlusconi, whose Forza Italia remains a significant power in the center-right bloc that won 37 percent of the vote, has called Di Maio's 5-Stars undemocratic.

Mattarella gave Casellati until Friday to report back on any progress in breaking the logjam. After meeting for 45 minutes with the president Wednesday, Casellati said she would work "with the same spirit of service" that she has given to heading up the Senate, saying she'd quickly schedule consultations with the various parties.

Berlusconi emerged from the consultations insisting he had never imposed a "veto" on a possible alliance with the 5-Stars, saying it was the 5-Stars' Di Maio who had vetoed Forza Italia. If Casellati fails to find a workable alliance, Mattarella could then tap the president of the lower Chamber of Deputies, Roberto Fico of the 5-Stars, for another exploratory round of consultations.

Two populist parties vie to form Italy's next government

April 05, 2018

MILAN (AP) — Italy's president on Thursday set up a second round of talks to form a new government as the leaders of the two most successful parties in the last election vied to control the process despite lacking a parliamentary majority.

Even as both 5-Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio and right-wing League leader Matteo Salvini pledged to open their own coalition talks with other political groups, President Sergio Mattarella did not formally tap either yet to form a new government.

After two days of talks in Rome, the Italian president said no political force had garnered enough support to sustain a stable government. He urged the country's three main political forces — the victorious 5-Stars Movement and the center-right, as well as the defeated Democratic Party -- to use the coming days "to responsibly evaluate the situation ... and the possible solutions to give life to a government."

Di Maio and Salvini staked their competing claims based on the fact that the 5-Star Movements was the party with the most votes in the March 4 election — 32 percent — while the center-right bloc that Salvini heads is the strongest political force, with 37 percent of the vote.

Di Maio told reporters after meeting with Mattarella that he would explore forming a government either with Salvini's League — excluding the other two parties in the center-right bloc — or with the Democratic Party, which has said its resounding electoral defeat places it in the opposition.

"The advantage of being a political force which is neither right- nor left-wing is to be free to talk with whomever really wants to do things," Di Maio said. He said he would seek meetings with Salvini and Democratic Party leader Maurizio Martina to determine where there was the most convergence on programs, adding that he wanted to negotiate with a future partner a formal, signed coalition agreement as is traditionally done in Germany.

"We feel the responsibility to be the first political force of the country, and to work as quickly as possible to assure a majority for government of change that looks to the future," Di Maio said. He said the vote had made clear that Italians rejected any technical government or grand coalition of right and left.

Salvini left the door open to the 5-Star Movement as a coalition partner. But he also presented the center-right bloc as a united entity, including Premier Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia, colliding with the 5-Star Movement's refusal to enter any coalition government with Berlusconi.

"We want to work for a government that will last five years, that has the national interests of Italy as a priority," Salvini said, adding that the numbers indicate the only solution is a center-right coalition with the 5-Star Movement.

"It doesn't take a scientist to realize that the other solutions would be temporary and improvised," Salvini added. He said he will meet formally with other party leaders in the coming days to search for an agreement, starting with the center-right.

Earlier, Martina, the leader of Democratic Party said the center-left bloc would not play any role in Italy's new government. With no clear path to agreement, Wolfango Piccoli of the Teneo Intel consultancy predicted it would be "a long and tortuous process" to form Italy's next government.

If an impasse persists through multiple rounds of talks, Mattarella can call for a new election — but analysts say most parties are eager to avoid that outcome.

League chief says center-right bloc should govern Italy

April 05, 2018

MILAN (AP) — The head of Italy's right-wing League party said Thursday that the center-right bloc it heads should get to form the next Italian government since it won the most votes in Italy's last election, and that it was open to working with Italy's populist 5-Star Movement.

But Matteo Salvini was talking about the center-right bloc as a united entity, including former Premier Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, which collides with the 5-Star Movement's refusal to enter any coalition government with Berlusconi.

The contrasting positions underline the difficulty faced by Italian President Sergio Mattarella on the second day of consultations in Rome to determine whether any party or coalition can muster enough support to form a stable government after no bloc won a clear majority in the March 4 vote.

While the center-right bloc had the most votes as a bloc, it cannot govern alone and forming a coalition government with the defeated Democratic Party has been mutually ruled out. The 5-Star Movement also is asserting itself as the possible head of a future government, as the single party with the most votes. Its leader, Luigi Di Maio, meets later Thursday with Mattarella, but has already made clear his refusal to work with Berlusconi, citing his tax-fraud conviction.

But Salvini ignored those conditions as he spoke to reporters after meeting with Mattarella. "We want to work for a government that will last five years, that has the national interests of Italy as a priority," Salvini said, adding that the numbers indicate the only solution is a center-right coalition with the 5-Star Movement.

"It doesn't take a scientist to realize that the other solutions would be temporary and improvised," Salvini said. He said he will meet formally with other party leaders in the coming days to search for an agreement, starting with the center-right.

Earlier, the leader of Democratic Party, which badly lost the vote, said the center-left bloc would not play any role in Italy's new government and urged the 5-Star Movement and the League to work together to form a government.

If Mattarella is not convinced that any party can reach a coalition deal, he can opt for another round of formal talks. And if an impasse persists, a new election is also an option — but one that analysts say most parties are not eager to face.

"This week's consultations are just the beginning of what is likely to be a long and tortuous process," said Wolfango Piccoli of the Teneo Intel consultancy.

Italy right-wing leader says open to coalition with 5-Stars

March 14, 2018

ROME (AP) — Italian euroskeptic leader Matteo Salvini on Wednesday said he'd be willing to form a government coalition with the other big winner of the country's election, the 5-Star Movement, if the rival populists back his League's promises to voters like lowering the retirement age and taxes.

Salvini's anti-migrant League was the largest vote-getter in a center-right coalition that captured 37 percent of the votes in the March 4 elections for Parliament. The 5-Stars, with 32 percent, emerged as Italy's biggest single party. Neither force has enough seats in Parliament to govern alone.

The only party Salvini ruled out of any deal was the "defeated" Democrats, who were crushed in the vote. "Leaving out the DP (Democratic Party), everything is possible" in terms of a coalition formula that can guarantee a "solid majority" of support in Parliament, Salvini said a news conference for foreign correspondents in Rome.

Asked by The Associated Press if he could accept a League-5-Star government in which not himself, but Movement leader Luigi Di Maio or somebody else might be premier, Salvini indicated he could. "It's not like I get up each morning saying, 'Matteo, you must be premier,'" Salvini said.

Salvini ruled out cobbling together some fragile coalition government the League could join "at all costs to be a minister for a few months." His main campaign coalition partner was Silvio Berlusconi, the media mogul and former premier. During the campaign, Berlusconi branded the 5-Stars as a "sect" whose politicians are "worse than Communists." But after Berlusconi's Forza Italia took a drubbing in the election, the ex-premier no longer dominates the center-right grouping.

Formal talks to find a possible governing coalition are weeks away. Italy's head of state, President Sergio Mattarella, is expected to start sounding out political leaders after the new Parliament first meets on March 23.

Since the election, Di Maio, who insists he should be premier, has appeared intent on dispelling concerns internationally that the 5-Stars might adopt policies of extremist parties gaining traction in much of Europe.

Salvini on Wednesday said if the League governs, he will speed up processing of migrant asylum bids so the undeserving can be swiftly kicked out of Italy. He also renewed his scorn for the "erroneous" euro currency.

He renewed his admiration for Russia, taking the EU to task for making a multi-billion deal with Turkey to stem the flow of migrants into Greece and northward, and for maintaining economic sanctions against Moscow over Ukraine.

Salvini, who has met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Milan, told reporters that Russia, in terms of culture, "has much more in common with Europe than does a country like Turkey." He added: "It's not like Putin calls me every night, but it strikes me as counter-productive to fight with a neighbor like Russia."

Asked how he'd get along with President Donald Trump if he should become premier, Salvini had a one-word answer: "Brilliantly."

Irish pubs open on Good Friday for 1st time in 90 years

March 30, 2018

DUBLIN (AP) — Guinness is flowing in Irish pubs on a Good Friday for the first time in 90 years. Lines of people were reported as pubs opened at 7 a.m. to serve alcohol, thanks to legislation that overturned the 1927 ban on pubs opening on Good Friday in time for thirsty locals and tourists.

The Vintners' Federation of Ireland welcomed the change, saying it would add 40 million euros ($49 million) in sales. Chief executive Padraig Cribben said "the Good Friday ban is from a different era and is rightfully consigned to history."

Cribben said the change meant pub owners now had a choice whether to open, "like all other businesses who were never subject to a ban." The closing requirement had often surprised tourists arriving in Ireland for the long Easter weekend.

The Intoxicating Liquor Act of 1927 prohibited the sale of alcohol on Christmas Day, Good Friday and St. Patrick's Day. The St. Patrick's Day ban was lifted in 1962. There had been some previous exceptions to the Good Friday ban. Alcohol could be served to hotel residents; those travelling by air, rail or sea; or people attending a theater show or a sporting event.

Good Friday is when Christians remember Jesus' death on the cross.

Hungary's Orban seeks re-election on anti-migrant platform

April 05, 2018

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is betting that his relentless campaign against migration will keep his voter base united and motivated for Sunday's national election. Since 400,000 people passed through Hungary in 2015 on their way to Western Europe, Orban has made migration the near-exclusive focus of his government. Now, at most, a few people a day reach the country's borders.

Orban is seeking his third consecutive term and fourth overall since 1998. Most polls predict Orban's Fidesz party will get around 50 percent of the votes, far ahead of Jobbik, a nationalist right-wing party, the Socialist Party or several smaller left-wing or green groups.

According to Orban and his ministers, Hungary will descend into chaos should it become an "immigrant country" like France or Belgium. He claims that domestic and European Union funds meant for Hungarian families or the country's 800,000-strong Roma minority will be diverted to migrants, whose presence will weaken Hungary's security and increase its terror risk.

And if migrants settle in Hungary, Orban claims Hungary's economic development will end, its support for rural areas will dwindle, women and girls will be "hunted down" and Budapest, the capital, will become "unrecognizable."

After building razor-wire fences on the country's southern borders in 2015 to divert the migrant flow, Orban has constructed a grand conspiracy theory. He claims the EU, the U.N., Hungarian-American financier George Soros and the civic groups he sponsors are all conspiring to force Hungary to take in thousands of mainly Muslim migrants to weaken its independence and its Christian identity and culture.

He spoke last month about a "Soros mercenary army" with around 2,000 people "being paid to work toward bringing down the government" in Sunday's vote. Still, forecasts about the 199 parliamentary seats at stake are complicated. In Hungary's complex electoral system, voters cast two ballots — one for a candidate in their voting district and another for a party list. Fidesz should clearly win the party race, which allocates 93 seats, but there are many uncertainties about its performance in the 106 individual districts.

Although opposition candidates won only 10 individual districts in the 2014 vote, they are urging supporters to vote tactically for the opposition candidate in each district who has the best chance to prevent a Fidesz victory.

"People may not even vote for their favorite party or candidate but rather for the one with biggest chance" to defeat Fidesz, said Jobbik leader Gabor Vona. It's not clear how well the tactic will work.

"As long as the opposition is in a fragmented state ... this migrant/refugee campaign is sufficient to keep (Orban's) voting base united, to keep it mobilized," said Balazs Bocskei, political analyst at the Idea Institute, a Budapest think-tank.

Spokesman Zoltan Kovacs says the government's "Stop Soros" package, which has been submitted to parliament, aimed to close "legal loopholes." "So-called NGOs camouflaging themselves as philanthropic and human rights groups are basically going against the established rules of this country and the European Union, helping illegal immigration happen," Kovacs said.

The bill has yet to be passed but its effects are already being felt. "The 'Stop Soros' package ... already results in considerable self-censorship from our part. For reasons of safety, we don't work anymore the way that we used to," said Annastiina Kallius of the Migrant Solidarity Group of Hungary.

Opposition leaders reject Orban's claims that they are controlled by Soros and support mass immigration. "It's all a huge delusion," said Gergely Karacsony, the prime ministerial candidate of the Socialist Party and his own Dialogue party. "Since they can't govern, they are trying to hold on to power by deceiving the people."

Vona said Jobbik was strongly anti-migration "but we don't want to manipulate and scare people with this issue." Some experts say there is no alternative to Orban for Hungary's conservative voters. "Unfortunately, for those on the right who are disappointed with Orban, there is no democratic conservative alternative like Germany's CDU or a French Macron-type party," said Paul Lendvai, a journalist and author of "Orban: Hungary's Strongman." ''Someone who is angry with him can only show it by not going to the polls."

The one thing opposition parties do agree on is the need to reverse many of Orban's policies, which they call anti-democratic. They are vowing to restore the democratic system of checks and balances, expand press freedom, join the European Public Prosecutor's Office to enhance anti-corruption efforts and allocate more funds to education, health care and fighting poverty.

"The Orban regime is a hybrid regime between democracy and dictatorship," Karacsony said. "This isn't one election among many, where people vote about their judgment of a good or fairly good government. This is about the social model which has solidified in Hungary."

Under the sea: Fighting Greece's plastic trash problem

April 05, 2018

LEGRENA, Greece (AP) — Dressed all in black and preparing his diving gear with loud zips and clicks, George Sarelakos looks like he's part of a Greek naval operation ready to storm an island or take down smugglers.

He's not — but he and four other volunteer divers do have a challenging mission: Clearing the plastic trash from the sea floor that's suffocating Greece's marine life. In a heavy rain, they struggle to clamber off the rocks along a stretch of coast south of Athens favored by day-trippers looking for a nice place to swim within driving distance of the Greek capital.

"Most beaches are clean because they're tidied up by municipalities. But the big problem is on the seabed. It's is like a garbage dump," Sarelakos said. In January, the European Union launched a major campaign to reduce plastic waste across its 28 member states.

Greece starts the 12-year program with major disadvantages: An alarming rate of single-use plastic consumption, a waste management system largely neglected during a decade-long financial crisis and the longest coastline in the EU — nearly double the length of India's.

Within an hour, Sarelakos and his rubber-suited companions bring up large clumps of garbage, mostly old tires, tied into bundles with rope. A curious dolphin inspects their work before darting off to a nearby fish farm.

"All this is death for sea life. It's a problem that most people are totally unaware of," Sarelakos says. In a 2015 study, researchers trawled five coastal areas in the eastern Mediterranean and found that 60 percent of the marine litter detected was in the Saronic Gulf bordering greater Athens. And 95 percent of that trash was plastic, much of it single-use items like supermarket carrier bags or water and soft drink bottles.

The EU plans to make all plastic packaging on the market recyclable by 2030, and wants member states to crack down on single-use plastic, with consumers using no more than 40 lightweight plastic bags annually by 2025.

A few countries have already zoomed past that target: Finns on average use just four plastic bags a year. But for Greeks — now accustomed to sipping coffee out of plastic cups using plastic straws and with kiosk beverage coolers within easy reach of every city dweller — it's become part of the lifestyle. They use 296 bags per year, according to the EU Commission.

Local surveys suggest the number is even higher. Greek stores began charging for plastic bags on Jan. 1 — a relatively small step for a country still heavily reliant on coal-fired power plants and which is regularly fined for its large number of unregulated garbage dumps.

Only 16 percent of trash is recycled here, compared with the EU's average of 44 percent. Nearly everything else ends up buried in trash dumps. At Fyli, the country's largest landfill on the outskirts of Athens, bulldozers constantly reshape mountains of garbage in a quarried hillside, squeezing out a dark liquid called leachate to leave enormous stacks of brown-coated plastic. A steady flow of garbage trucks is coordinated by loudspeaker, and their entry is accompanied by packs of seagulls ready to swoop on the fresh new trash.

The site's environmental officer, Ioanna Kapsimali, is another volunteer diver in the Athens marine cleanups. She says it's impossible to contain all the plastic at the landfill. "Plastic is the most difficult material, given its chemical composition," she said, noting that it's so light it can be blown away by the wind and end up in the sea. "That happens with quite a large amount (of plastic). It causes problems because the plastic breaks up and is ingested by fish, birds and other animals."

Pieces of trash, including bottle caps and cigarette lighters, end up in the stomachs of birds and marine creatures, who are also often tangled in plastic nets. A few lucky creatures end up at Maria Ganoti's animal clinic in Athens. The director of the Greek Wildlife Care Association recently treated an injured seagull.

"We've had cases where animals have died and in the autopsy we find plastic items in the stomach, usually pieces of synthetic rope, which had been mistaken for a worm or a small snake," Ganoti said, speaking over the loud squawk of injured birds.

"If the animal swallows a large piece of plastic, it doesn't get broken down. It takes up space in the stomach and at some point . it will starve to death." According to pollution activists, Greeks are largely unaware of their country's plastic problem because bathing water quality remains high in most parts of the country and most of the pollution is not visible.

But visit a Greek shoreline not used by swimmers and that picture can quickly change. Conservationists say the Kolovrechtis Marsh north of Athens is threatened by a trifecta of environmental assaults: plastics washing up on its shores, fertilizers used by surrounding farms, and waste from nearby factories that include a ferronickel plant. The trash ending up at the small, protected nature spot endangers the nearly 200 types of birds found there, including hawks, herons and green-headed wild ducks.

On a three-hour trash collection with volunteers and municipal workers, plastics were cleared from a small strip of beachfront on the edge of the marsh — including 3,476 plastic bottles and 549 plastic bags.

Spanish volunteer Fran Vargas joined the effort, digging into the sand with his hands to pull out buried plastic bags. Nearly everything he found was single-use plastic. "We know that no matter how much garbage we collect, it will always be a fraction of what is going into the sea," he said. "So this is about making a point: That this is a big, big problem and that we need to stop — now."

Elena Becatoros and Thanassis Stavrakis contributed.