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Europe’s regional leaders chafe at curbs from above as second wave hits



First Madrid, then Marseille, and now Manchester and Munich.

Political leaders in some of Europe’s biggest cities have fiercely resisted coronavirus restrictions imposed by national governments in a sign of how disagreements between central, regional and local authorities are increasingly weighing on efforts to contain the pandemic.

The UK in the past week joined a group of countries where tensions between different levels of government have boiled over. Each has its own structural and historical quirks, but uniting them is the challenge of balancing co-ordination and decentralisation against a backdrop of often febrile politics.

“This is an absolutely central question everywhere in Europe,” said Nicolas Bauquet, associate director of the Institut Montaigne, a Paris-based think-tank, who has been researching the interaction between national and local authorities during the pandemic.

In France, Italy and Spain, as well as the UK, some local leaders have railed against the perceived crudeness and insensitivity of strict central government mandates.

But in regions including Scotland and Wales it is the other way round: leaders are frustrated that other administrations have refused to follow their calls for tougher measures.

The same is true in Munich, the Bavarian capital, in a country that has been praised for its decentralised management of the pandemic. Echoing mounting concern over the absence of a unified German policy, Markus Söder, the Bavarian premier, said last week that “federalism is increasingly reaching its limits”.

Markus Söder: ‘Federalism is increasingly reaching its limits’ © Lukas Barth – Pool/Getty

Responsibility for healthcare is devolved to regional executives in many parts of Europe, creating intrinsic strains between and among layers of government.

These were exacerbated when national authorities acquired emergency powers to restrict personal freedoms and business activity. Now, the second wave of infection is making frictions even harder to manage, as policymakers favour localised controls over economically damaging nationwide lockdowns. Such controls seem insufficient to some. To others they are punitive.

Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, accused Britain’s Conservative government of “playing poker with people’s lives” after it imposed tighter controls on his region against the wishes of municipal leaders. Mr Burnham, a Labour politician, had been negotiating for additional financial support for businesses and employees when Boris Johnson’s government, as he put it, “walked away”.

Andy Burnham said the UK government was ‘playing poker with people’ lives’ © Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty

Civic leaders in Marseille were furious last month when it became the first big French city to face tighter second-wave restrictions imposed from Paris, including the closure of bars and restaurants. The Association of French Mayors accused the government of adding a “crisis of trust to a crisis of health”.

In Belgium, which is fighting one of the highest infection rates per capita, the crisis has renewed questions about co-ordination in a divided and decentralised nation. Its struggles were underscored last week when Sophie Wilmès, who led the country’s pandemic response as prime minister until a new government was formed this month, was herself admitted to intensive care with Covid-19.

Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte has sought to pre-empt renewed skirmishing between Rome and northern regional presidents from the nationalist opposition League by devolving decisions over fresh restrictions to the regional level. Critics have accused him of an absence of leadership.

Similarly, Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez said in August that it was up to individual regions to ask the central government to grant them emergency powers to deal with the crisis. Over the past two days, after infections soared across Spain, at least 10 of the country’s 17 regions have made such requests. In response, Mr Sánchez’s cabinet met on Sunday to declare a “state of alert” to allow regional administrations to impose curfews.

The Spanish central government and the regions also agreed last week on a common “traffic lights” system to help decide when to tighten restrictions.

But the relationship between Mr Sánchez’s Socialist-led government and the regions has been marked by tension at many points during the pandemic. The biggest clash has been with the conservative regional administration of Madrid, which has high infection rates but is fearful of the economic impact of tough curbs. When, despite his previous words about leaving the initiative to the regions, Mr Sánchez imposed exit and entry restrictions on the capital this month, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, Madrid’s conservative leader, denounced the move as “authoritarian”.

Isabel Díaz Ayuso, leader of the regional administration of Madrid, described central government intervention as ‘authoritarian’ © JuanJo Martin/EPA-EFE

Critics claim Spain’s devolved governance model remains broken. Others blame the country’s highly charged political culture.

“The lack of co-ordination between central government and the autonomous communities has been a fundamental issue in Spain,” said Eva Sáenz, professor of constitutional law at the University of Zaragoza. “But this is not a structural problem or a legal problem. We have a political problem. We have a problem of polarisation. And it has spread to all levels of government.”

In Britain, the pandemic has highlighted to many English voters the asymmetric nature of devolution, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland enjoying a high degree of autonomy while England remains heavily centralised bar a handful of directly elected metropolitan mayors. The metro mayorships outside London were created from 2017 and the pandemic has become the starkest test yet of their influence.

In both the UK and Spain, the devolution settlement is still contested, with strong secessionist forces in Scotland and Catalonia. Cristina Fasone, assistant professor of comparative public law at Rome’s LUISS university, said: “The UK, Spain and to a lesser extent Italy are examples of where regionalism was not working well before the coronavirus crisis.”

The UK and Spain lack the features of a federal system like that of Germany that create a culture of negotiation, Ms Fasone said. Germany’s 16 states, or Länder, all have the same powers and are all represented in the upper chamber of the federal parliament.

In Germany, it is the states that are responsible for protecting the population from infection, so from the start of the crisis policy was hammered out not by the national government alone but in regular meetings between the 16 state governors and Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Nathalie Behnke, a political scientist at Darmstadt’s Technical University who analysed all the coronavirus-related decisions taken by the Länder between mid-March and mid-June, concluded that Germany’s federal system had produced “objectively better decisions”. Regional governments were able to react to local outbreaks more effectively but also co-ordinated closely with each other.

Yet the benefits of Germany’s decentralised system have been less obvious in recent weeks. Earlier this month a regular conference of the governors and Ms Merkel failed to come up with a new set of tough, uniform rules to deal with a sudden spurge in infections. Mr Söder, the Bavarian premier, said the central government needed more power to issue federal regulations, such as a requirement to wear masks in crowded places.

“But the others just didn’t want to listen,” said Ursula Münch, head of the Academy for Political Education in Tutzing. “They didn’t want to follow him, and so there was no agreement. And that’s when Germany’s federal approach doesn’t really work.”

Additional reporting by Michael Peel in Brussels

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Thousands protest against French Covid health pass rules




French politics updates

Over 200,000 people marched in cities across France on Saturday in the biggest turnout of three consecutive weekends of protests, calling for an end to what they see as draconian rules forcing them to get vaccinated against their will.

They marched down the streets of Paris, Lyon, Marseille, and elsewhere, shouting “This is a health dictatorship!” and “No vaccination, no health pass!”, in protests that included a wide range of social and political movements. 

Staunch Communists marched with supporters of the far-right Rassemblement National party and some from the gilets jaunes movement against a new law making Covid-19 vaccination compulsory for healthcare workers and requiring a health pass for anyone wanting to enter public places such as restaurants, bars and high-speed trains.

“This is an experimental vaccine, we do not know what all of the side effects will be for ourselves or our children,” said Catherine Largo, a 42-year-old dental assistant, who is legally obliged to get vaccinated before the autumn but says she will refuse to do so.

The vaccines used in France have been extensively tested around the world and approved by the European and French medical authorities.

“I won’t be able to find other work, because what else would I do?” she said, as she arrived at one of four protests taking place in Paris on Saturday afternoon. “We should have the choice, we should have the liberty to choose.”

Although the final version of the law was watered down last weekend, a vocal minority of French citizens remain up in arms about the rules which they believe infringe on their personal liberties. But despite the pockets of angry opponents, the policy has so far proved successful at boosting vaccination rates and has been met with approval from the wider public.

Over 60 per cent of people are in favour of the health pass to enter public places and 70 per cent support compulsory vaccination for caregivers, according to an Ipsos-Sopra Steria poll conducted this month.

Anti-health pass campaigner François Asselineau has tested positive for Covid-19 © AFP via Getty Images

Around 204,000 people marched on the streets of France on Saturday, up from 161,000 a week before and 114,000 the week before that, according to estimates from the interior ministry.

One protester missing this week was François Asselineau, president of the pro-Frexit Popular Republican Union party and an ardent campaigner against the health pass, who was unable to attend the march in Paris after he tested positive for Covid-19 on Friday. 

The 2022 presidential candidate said he was suffering from “body aches, fever and a cough” in a video posted on his party’s website, but told his followers that he had obtained ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine as a treatment, both controversial drugs which scientists say have no proven benefit against Covid-19.

Macron announced the extended application of the health pass in the midst of a vaccination campaign that was losing momentum while the highly infectious Delta variant was spreading fast.

So far his decision to power ahead with the hardline vaccination strategy appears to have paid off. The number of first doses being administered per day has jumped back up to more than 350,000 after stagnating around 160,000 last month, according to data from the government compiled by 

France has overtaken the US in the proportion of its population that is fully vaccinated — 52 per cent against 50 per cent in the US and 56 per cent in the UK, according to Our World in Data.

Only 7 per cent of people admitted to hospital with Covid-19 in France between May 31 and July 11 had been fully vaccinated, according to data released by the French government this week.

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Turkey’s marine crisis: ‘death knells are ringing for Sea of Marmara’




For a decade, marine biologist Nur Eda Topcu has fought to preserve delicate corals off the Istanbul coastline, which environmentalists say are threatened by the dumping of industrial waste, fuel and sewage.

Now she fears a new threat may hasten the end of the Sea of Marmara’s coral reefs. A gelatinous substance colloquially known as sea snot has in recent months choked aquatic life, blighted fishing and repelled swimmers.

Long brown streaks of the marine mucilage were still visible across the Marmara in late July, while the gooey foam sank below the surface settling on the rare corals. Scientists warn that the sea, whose mix of Mediterranean and Black Sea currents foster coral usually found at far deeper depths, itself is at risk.

“The death knells are ringing for the Marmara,” said Topcu after surfacing from a recent dive to clean the slime that coated normally fuchsia-hued corals off an Istanbul archipelago. “We can’t stop the mucilage. It’s smothering the gorgonians [and] infecting them with harmful bacteria.” She fears most of Marmara’s soft, red Paramuricea clavata, listed as a vulnerable species of coral, will perish this year.

Eda Eryalçın Topçu (right), Marine biologist at Istanbul University, and Serço Ekşiyan, of the Deniz Yaşamını Koruma Derneği (Marine Life Conservation Society) during a research dive in the Marmara Sea south of Istanbul
Nur Eda Topcu, right, and Serco Eksiyan, of the Marine Life Conservation Centre, during a research dive © Bradley Secker/FT

A thick layer of marine mucilage known also as ‘sea snot’ covers the surface of the Marmara Sea
A thick layer of marine mucilage covers the surface of the sea © Bradley Secker/FT

Factories have nearly doubled the deluge of wastewater they discharge into Turkey’s seas in recent years, according to official statistics. The 50,000 tankers that sail through the Marmara each year illegally dump waste and fuel, according to one municipal monitor. Almost two-thirds of the nation’s industry, including an oil refinery, carmakers, chemical plants and power stations, is concentrated in the region.

Most wastewater from Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, is only treated to remove solids, then pumped to the bottom of the sea. “We use it as our cesspool,” said Levent Artuz, a hydrobiologist at the Marmara Environmental Monitoring Project and author of a new book A Recent History of the Polluting of the Sea of Marmara.

The situation was not helped by the fact that sea temperatures had climbed by an average two degrees Celsius in the Marmara since the start of this century as pollution trapped heat, he said. A state project that diverted the Ergene River, one of Europe’s most toxic waterways, to the Marmara last year was “the tipping point”.

“The essential problem isn’t mucilage. That’s just a link in the chain of decades of degradation,” Artuz said. “We have zero chance of recovering the Sea of Marmara as it was. What we have to do now is figure out how to prevent the Marmara from harming us.”

Sea snot and pollution can be seen in the Marmara Sea
Long brown streaks of the marine mucilage seen across the Marmara Sea in late July © Bradley Secker/FT

The borders of the Marmara Sea, which has been heavily affected by the ‘sea snot’
Scientists and fishermen say the current flare-up is unprecedented © Bradley Secker/FT

In recent years, marine life has died in mass mortality events, and there have been infestations of jellyfish and algal blooms such as red tides and mucilage.

But scientists and fishermen say the current flare-up is unprecedented. Phytoplankton is flourishing because of nutrient-rich sewage and fertiliser from agricultural runoff while overfishing has wiped out populations of small fish and crustaceans that would consume the algae.

Gone are the mackerel, tuna, swordfish and other seafood that Istanbul was known for. This year’s haul was down 90 per cent from 2020 as mucilage clogged and dragged off nets, said Erdogan Kartal, the head of Istanbul’s fishing co-operative. “Even if we could supply fish markets, customers aren’t buying out of disgust.”

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, has vowed to crack down on polluters and “save our seas from this scourge of mucilage”. Thousands of cubic metres of the sea snot had been vacuumed up, the country’s environment minister said. In early July, he pronounced the Marmara “cleaner and bluer” than before.

Turkey is the only G20 country that has not ratified the Paris accords on climate change, and grassroots movements to protect the environment are often viewed as provocateurs by the government.

Authorities have refused to register a new Green party eager to fight climate change. Scientists also say that a planned shipping canal from the Black Sea to the Marmara could deplete oxygen in the Marmara and promote hydrogen sulphur gas that would envelop Istanbul with the stench of rotten eggs. Erdogan’s transportation minister argues that the cleaner water coming through from the Black Sea would improve the quality of the Marmara.

Along the way, there have been successes for Topcu and members of Istanbul’s Marine Life Conservation Society (MLCS). They secured protected status for the tiny outcrop of Neandros this April, stopping boats from dropping anchors or trawling for fish near its corals. They spent two summers transplanting fan-like yellow sea whips to Neandros after a nearby colony of the golden Eunicella cavolini was buried in debris from a government construction project.

“We carried them like a heart or kidney for transplant, keeping them in cold water and in the dark to prevent shock,” said Serco Eskiyan of the MLCS. It took more than 100 dives to harvest and replant 300 corals 30 metres down.

Eda Eryalçın Topçu (left), Marine biologist at Istanbul University, preparing her equipment prior to a research dive next to Tavsan Adasi
Topcu, left, prepares her research equipment before diving in the Sea of Marmara © Bradley Secker/FT

Eda Eryalçın Topçu, Marine biologist at Istanbul University, shows a photo from a research dive next to Tavsan Adasi, in the Marmara Sea south of Istanbul, after repeatedly applying good bacteria to the coral, to combat the ‘sea snot’ which continues to kill the sea bed ecosystem
A photo from a dive. Sea snot continues to kill the seabed ecosystem, clogging corals © Bradley Secker/FT

But Eskiyan, who has dived the waters off the islands since the 1970s and knows the area “like the rooms in my house”, was unable to locate the transplants in July, blinded by the sea snot that reduced visibility to a metre or two. “It looks like a different planet,” said Topcu.

A generation ago, the Marmara’s rich fauna included seahorses, poisonous scorpionfish and great white sharks, now all gone, though Eskiyan still occasionally confronts a rare angular roughshark when he hunts for “ghost nets” abandoned by industrial fishing boats that choke the corals. The MLCS has collected 32,000 square metres of the meshing since 2015.

“I have faith in the sea’s ability to renew itself from the damage people do. But now I question how much longer it can fight back,” Topcu said.

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Ransomware attacks rise despite US call for clampdown on cybercriminals




Ransomware updates

In mid-June, US president Joe Biden held talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to discuss a recent scourge of cyber attacks against the US, including by Russian-based criminal ransomware hackers. 

Biden has said he told Putin in no uncertain terms that “certain critical infrastructure should be off limits to cyber attack — period”. Nevertheless, data show that ransomware attacks continue apace, including in sectors such as healthcare and education. It is unclear whether Biden will take further action in light of this. 

Ransomware, which usually involves hackers seizing an organisation’s data or computer systems and only releasing access if a ransom is paid, has long plagued businesses large and small. The first known ransomware virus, PC Cyborg, was recorded in 1989, with victims infected via floppy disk and told to send a $189 cheque to an address in Panama.

Today, these financially motivated hacks are far more sophisticated — and are proliferating fast. Attacks have quadrupled during the pandemic, SonicWall data show, partly because the shift to remote working has left staff more vulnerable than if they were connecting to more secure corporate networks. 

Chart showing that ransomware attempts reached an unprecedented level in 2021

Additionally, hackers have swapped demanding cheques for requesting hard-to-track cryptocurrencies, meaning that as the price of bitcoin has risen during the past year, the business of ransomware has become all the more lucrative. It is also easier to launch attacks with little to no technical knowhow, given the growing market for “ransomware-as-a-service”, where hackers maintain their ransomware code but rent it out to others and take a cut of any extortion payouts. 

While known attacks have reached unprecedented levels, the story of what we do not know — given that there are few rules around disclosure — may be far worse. Earlier this week, Bryan Vorndran, assistant director of the FBI Cyber Division and other cyber agency officials called for mandatory reporting rules around attacks, so that accurate data can be gathered and analysed by the US government.

Chart showing the median size of companies targeted by ransomware (number of employees)

Small businesses with little spare resources have tended to be the hardest hit by ransomware attackers. But the matter was thrust into the spotlight earlier this year after several audacious attacks on critical infrastructure such as the Colonial Pipeline, which led to fuel shortages for several days on the US east coast, the Irish health system and Brazilian meat supplier JBS. All of these attacks were believed to originate from Russia-based ransomware hackers, although the US government has accused Chinese state-backed groups of also orchestrating attacks.

The number of ransomware gangs stretches into the dozens and continues to proliferate as the economics remain so profitable. Vorndran said the FBI tracked 100 gangs, using an algorithm to rank them and the effect that each has on the economy. The largest one rakes in an estimated $200m a year in revenues, he said.

Chart showing that ransomware demands can often be negotiated down

To help victims fight the gangs, a cottage industry for “ransomware negotiators” has emerged. These middlemen are tasked by victims with haggling down the ransom payments. As go-betweens, they also collect data on attacks, learning the playbooks of various groups in order to best know how to speak to them. 

According to data from Coveware, the average ransom payment has fallen in the second quarter to $136,576, from more than $200,000 in the first quarter, amid an emergence of smaller ransomware groups. But in the majority of attacks — about 80 per cent — hackers are using the newer tactic of threatening to leak data as extra leverage in extorting victims. About half of these “leak threat” victims paid out in the second quarter, Coveware said.

Chart showing publically reported ransomware attacks on US healthcare, public, state or local government and schools, by month

Unfortunately, the negotiators’ services continue to be in high demand. According to data on reported attacks collated by Recorded Future, in the US there have been 10 attacks on healthcare, nine on schools and 10 on public state and local government groups during June and July this year. Despite Biden urging Putin last month to crack down on the criminal groups and warning against attacks on 16 critical entities, attacks on many of these key sectors have continued.

“The volume of targeted attacks on government organisations and enterprises that impact civilians, countries and the global economy will not end without a change in approach,” said Bill Conner, the chief executive of SonicWall.

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