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Zelensky faces pivotal moment in confrontation with constitutional court



Ukraine’s leader Volodymyr Zelensky will this week seek to clear out his country’s constitutional court and reboot his drive to tackle corruption in what allies and analysts described as a pivotal moment for his troubled presidency.

Mr Zelensky was forced to confront judges at the court after they struck down a compulsory asset register for public servants, a cornerstone of anti-graft efforts put in place following the Maidan revolution of 2014 at the behest of western donors.

Activists say the ruling is part of a systematic attempt by the court to dismantle anti-corruption institutions driven by pro-Russian politicians and lawmakers allied to powerful oligarchs who want to wreck Kyiv’s relations with the IMF and EU.

Draft legislation presented to parliament by Mr Zelensky to replace the entire constitutional court will be debated as soon as Tuesday, but the president may struggle to muster enough votes to push it through.

“Zelensky’s presidency has entered its crucial moment,” said Tymofiy Mylovanov, who served as economy minister until March.

For years Ukraine’s oligarchs have used a corrupt judicial system to manipulate the government or out manoeuvre competitors. Mr Zelensky was elected in 2019 on a promise to clean up graft. But Ukrainians and their western backers have grown disillusioned with the president’s meagre achievements.

He sacked his reformist public prosecutor, threatened to prosecute his predecessor Petro Poroshenko and has failed to defend officials who cleaned up the country’s corrupt banks four years ago. The president’s poll ratings have collapsed and his party took a hammering in regional elections last month.

A senior EU official said Brussels had begun to lose faith in Mr Zelensky’s anti-corruption credentials, not because of a lack of conviction but because of “incompetence”. But the move against the court had helped “re-establish his anti-corruption bona fides”.

“This is absolutely the come to Jesus moment,” the official said.

Writing in the Financial Times, Mr Zelensky described the constitutional tribunal, some of whose judges are themselves under investigation for asset declaration breaches, as a “kangaroo court”.

In what will be seen as a declaration of war against the oligarchs, Mr Zelensky also vowed to “pursue the people who acted illegally on behalf of vested interests of well-known influential financial groups and foreign powers to destroy our anti-corruption agencies”.

Last week’s court ruling against the asset declaration system followed a complaint by MPs allied to multi-millionaire Viktor Medvedchuk, a close friend of Russia’s president Vladimir Putin.

The court is expected to hear two fresh appeals brought by MPs from Mr Medvedchuk’s party and also lawmakers loyal to oligarch Igor Kolomoisky. One is challenging a law liberalising land sales, a landmark economic reform for Mr Zelensky’s administration demanded by western donors.

The other is seeking to strike down a law passed earlier this year to safeguard a banking sector clean-up and prevent the reversal of the 2016 nationalisation of PrivatBank, Ukraine’s largest lender, then co-owned by Mr Kolomoisky.

Mr Kolomoisky initially backed Mr Zelensky’s presidency but has since fallen out with the former comedian.

“We always knew there were forces against reform and Ukraine’s western orientation, especially allies of Kolomoisky,” said Orysia Lutsevych, head of the Ukraine Forum at Chatham House in London. “This is the end of coexistence with Kolomoisky’s group. This is a Rubicon for Zelensky.”

However, Mr Zelensky does not have the authority to oust the constitutional court. The Venice Commission, a European judicial watchdog, has said sacking the judges would be “blatant breach” of the constitution.

Arseniy Yatseniuk, a former prime minister, said “there is no doubt that the president has to act . . . there is no doubt that this decision of the constitutional court is complete nonsense.” But he added: “You cannot punish the crime by committing another crime.”

Mr Yatseniuk said Ukraine was now heading for a constitutional crisis on top of a “large-scale political crisis”.

Mr Zelensky has a theoretical majority of 246 in the 450-seat Rada, but has lost influence over dozens of MPs and can rely on 190-200 at most. Voice, a pro-reform party, is refusing to support the president’s “unconstitutional” attack on the court.

Kira Rudik, head of Voice, said she was instead calling on the judges to resign. Mr Poroshenko’s party meanwhile has risen in the polls and has an interest in snap parliamentary elections.

Mr Yatseniuk said a “legitimate” solution could involve persuading enough judges to resign, which could “paralyse” the court and force the rest to step down. The positions could then be filled in accordance with the law, with equal numbers chosen by the president, parliament and national judicial council.

Mr Mylovanov said the president could gain politically, whatever the fate of the legislation. “If the law goes through, Zelensky comes out a victor, recaptures control of the parliament, and demonstrates in the public eye that he is trying to fulfil his promises of getting rid of the corrupt elites and making Ukraine prosperous,” he said. “[But] if the law gets stuck, it is parliament that is to blame.”

But Adrian Karatnycky, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think-tank, said Mr Zelensky should seek to build broader support for his judicial reform.

“Ukraine’s constitutional court is acting unpredictably and irresponsibly, and thus destabilising Ukraine and its western course. But the remedy is not unilateral action by the president and his majority in the Rada. What is needed is a national consensus with the support of the pro-Western opposition.”

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End of an era as Lionel Messi and FC Barcelona part company




Lionel Messi updates

Barcelona football club said on Thursday that Lionel Messi, widely regarded as one of the greatest of all players, is leaving because of “financial and structural obstacles” that it blamed on financial regulations imposed by La Liga, which runs the top two divisions in Spain, requiring the team to rein in its spending.

Messi, the frontman of FC Barcelona’s success for more than a decade, will be leaving a club where he has spent the entirety of his career, winning every leading trophy and personal accolade.

Messi and Barcelona had intended to sign a new contract on Thursday but ultimately the player and club were forced to separate, said Barcelona in a statement, adding that both sides “deeply regret” their split. La Liga declined to comment.

“Despite FC Barcelona and Lionel Messi having reached an agreement and the clear intention of both parties to sign a new contract today, this cannot happen because of financial and structural obstacles (Spanish Liga regulations),” Barcelona said. “As a result of this situation, Messi shall not be staying on at FC Barcelona. Both parties deeply regret that the wishes of the player and the club will ultimately not be fulfilled.”

Messi’s exit comes as Barcelona and rivals Real Madrid are at loggerheads with La Liga over the Spanish league’s plan to partner with private equity firm CVC Capital Partners, which plans to invest €2.7bn in the league, subject to clubs’ approval.

The exit of the superstar Argentina international, who earned a total of more than €555m between 2017 and 2021, according to Spanish newspaper El Mundo, underlines the financial pressures at Barcelona.

The Catalan club sunk to a net loss of almost €100m in the 2019-20 season, the first to be disrupted by the pandemic, as revenues of €855m fell short of the €1bn set in its budget. Its debt has soared north of €1bn. In June, the club approved a €525m debt refinancing.

On the pitch, Barca finished third in La Liga, its worst showing since 2008. It has not won the Uefa Champions League, Europe’s most prestigious club tournament, since 2015.

The decision comes just days after Barca president Joan Laporta said the club “have to make sure” Messi stays and that the process was “on the right track”. The president had also called for “greater flexibility” from La Liga.

Despite the long affiliation between Messi and Barcelona, the player last year told the club he wanted to leave but ultimately decided to stay on to avoid a legal dispute.

Messi’s departure comes a day after La Liga agreed a €2.7bn deal with US private equity group CVC Capital Partners to buy a minority stake in a new entity that would manage broadcast, sponsorship and digital rights for the league.

Barcelona and arch-rivals Real Madrid, which have been embroiled in a dispute with La Liga over plans for a breakaway European Super League, would stand to receive about €260m each from the deal with CVC.

The transaction was partly seen as a way to win over the support of Barcelona, which has been financially constrained by La Liga’s rules from making any high-profile acquisitions or renewal of contracts.

Real Madrid also lashed out at the CVC deal with CVC on Thursday, questioning its legality and accusing the Spanish league of negotiating the agreement without the club’s knowledge.

Barcelona followed up later on Thursday by joining Real in condemning La Liga’s planned partnership with the buyout firm. The club said: “FC Barcelona feels it is inappropriate to sign a half-century agreement given the uncertainties that always surround the football world. The terms of the contract that La Liga is describing condemn FC Barcelona’s future with regard to broadcasting rights.

“FC Barcelona wishes to express its surprise at an agreement driven by La Liga in which the teams’ opinions, including those of FC Barcelona, have not been taken into account.”

Spanish football clubs have yet to vote on the CVC agreement. Italy’s top football league, Serie A, turned down a similar agreement a few months ago.

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Europe targets adolescents for Covid jabs to curb Delta spread




Covid-19 vaccines updates

French President Emmanuel Macron, whose habitual garb in public is a dark suit and tie, switched this week to a black T-shirt to encourage the young to get vaccinated over the holidays. 

“Many of you have questions or are scared,” Macron said in one of several videos he posted on TikTok and Instagram from what seemed to be the presidential holiday residence in southern France. “So I’ve decided to answer your questions directly. Go ahead.”

He has also posted short videos to correct misconceptions about the vaccines and France’s supposedly “freedom-killing” insistence on health passports to access bars and other public places. “Vaccination saves lives, the virus kills — it’s as simple as that,” he said in one. 

Macron may be one of the EU’s more visible leaders to urge the young to be jabbed, but he is not alone. 

On Wednesday, the UK belatedly extended its Covid-19 vaccination programme to 16- and 17-year-olds. But across continental Europe, governments from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean have already been targeting as yet unvaccinated teenagers to fight rising infections and hospitalisations driven by the highly infectious Delta variant of the virus.

This vaccination drive, which anticipates the new school term starting in September, is partly why Europe has already overtaken the US in terms of vaccination rates per 100 people and, on current projections, will soon overtake the UK too.

In France, health ministry data show that more than 40 per cent of those aged between 12 and 17 have already received one jab, and nearly 20 per cent are fully vaccinated. (In the vulnerable age group between 70 and 80, full vaccination coverage is close to 90 per cent.) 

Chart showing that Europe and the US have already vaccinated millions of teens, leaving the UK far behind

Most Nordic countries have also started to vaccinate teenagers and, by the end of July, almost one-third of 12-15 year-olds in Denmark had received at least one jab. “We need the immunity of the population, especially before a winter season,” Soren Brostrom, head of the Danish health authority, said in June when announcing the decision.

Much the same is true in Germany, where more than 900,000 adolescents or 21 per cent of those aged between 12 and 17, have received at least one jab, and more than 10 per cent are fully vaccinated. 

Individual German parents and children already have had the legal right to get vaccinated since June, and several states had begun limited offerings of the jabs to 12-17-year-olds.

But health minister Jens Spahn announced on Monday plans to offer more jabs to youngsters before school begins. “This is absolutely not about applying pressure,” he said on RBB radio. “It is about giving those who want to be vaccinated, including children and adolescents, the opportunity.”

The next step in Europe will be to vaccinate young children, especially as Delta strain infections seem to be rising fastest among the unvaccinated young. In a recent UK study, almost a third of the positive Delta variant tests came from people aged 5 to 17.

“It’s clear that children under 12 will become the main reservoir of infections once a large share of the over-12 population is vaccinated,” said Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva. 

“It seems reasonable today to suppose that we’ll only be able to finish with this pandemic by vaccinating a very large share of the population, perhaps 90-95 per cent, by including children,” he said, noting that the jabs would have to be supplemented by other measures such as continued border controls as well.

In Spain, which has already overtaken the UK and the US in vaccinating its population, the government says its inoculation drive must now focus on younger people. 

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has declared that the country, where 59 per cent are fully vaccinated, deserves “the gold medal for vaccinations”. This week he said the country was on course to fully vaccinate 70 per cent of its population before the end of August.

But officials increasingly recognise that will not be enough to provide “herd immunity”. Infection rates in Spain — now in its fifth coronavirus wave — remain extremely high, with cases particularly prevalent among people in the 12-19 and 20-29 age groups; in the former, the full vaccination rate is less than 4 per cent.

High infection rates among these groups — with a 14-day rate of above 1,300 per 100,000 people — have spilled over to older groups. The 14-day rate among the over-eighties has been close to 300, even though according to official figures that age group is 100 per cent vaccinated.

“What is happening in Spain shows quite simply that the vaccinations do not have the same efficiency that was indicated in the trials . . . It is going to be more difficult to reach herd immunity,” said Rafael Bengoa, a former Basque region minister for health and director at the World Health Organization. 

He said the Delta variant — now accounting for more than 75 per cent of Spanish cases — was a key factor blunting vaccines’ impact and argued that the necessary level of protection would now probably require full vaccination for closer to 90 per cent of the overall population.

“We are only going to achieve this when we have revaccinated older people who are losing protection relatively quickly and when we have vaccinated young people and children,” he said. “The end is further away than we predicted.”

Additional reporting by Richard Milne in Oslo

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Global house prices: Raising the roof




Global house prices: Raising the roof

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