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Planned ban on New Year fireworks ignites anger in Germany

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In their campaign to curb coronavirus, Germany’s leaders are risking public fury by taking aim at one of the country’s most popular traditions — the New Year’s Eve firework display.

The 16 leaders of Germany’s federal states have agreed a list of new rules for the festive season that include a prohibition on pyrotechnics in busy public spaces. The intention is to prevent big gatherings of people that can turn into superspreader events for Covid-19.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government and the regional leaders will discuss the proposals at a video conference on Wednesday, against the background of coronavirus infection rates that remain stubbornly high despite a partial shutdown in force since the start of this month.

Liberals, such as Volker Wissing, secretary-general of the pro-business FDP party, say the measure is a step too far. “In an enlightened society people will never understand the idea that you can get infected by setting off a firework,” he told German radio.

“You can be for or against New Year’s fireworks for other reasons, but to associate it with the corona pandemic is pretty bizarre.”

The prohibition is in fact a compromise. State governors from the Social Democratic party had initially pushed for a ban on the sale of all fireworks at Silvester, the German New Year’s Eve celebration, partly in order to relieve pressure on hospitals struggling with the pandemic. Last new year, emergency wards across the country treated dozens of people with serious injuries from firecrackers, and in Berlin alone the city’s fire department was called out more than 1,500 times to put out rocket-related blazes. 

But the SPD’s proposed sales ban caused dismay in a country where the freedom to set off fireworks in public is seen as a near universal right. Every December 31, German city centres descend into noisy anarchy as drunken revellers set off barrages of böller, as the firecrackers are known, often deliberately aiming them at passers-by.

Böller-manufacturers were angered by the proposal. “Since we generate 90 per cent of our revenues in the last three days of the year, and we’ve already sunk all our costs . . . the loss of Silvester fireworks would destroy not only our firm but the whole sector,” Thomas Schreiber, head of Weco Feuerwerk, told German television on Monday.

MPs from Ms Merkel’s Christian Democrats urged the chancellor to block the SPD proposal. “This year it will be more important to drive away the evil spirits than it has been in any previous year,” said the CDU MP Marian Wendt. “We can’t restrict this tradition in a disproportionate way.”

In the end, opponents of a full-scale prohibition prevailed: it was replaced in the leaders’ draft resolution with a bar on the spectacular firework shows usually held in public places such as Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate or in front of Cologne Cathedral. Under the plans, families will still be able to purchase and set off fireworks in private gardens.

At Wednesday’s conference, German leaders are also expected to extend the country’s “lockdown-lite”, which has closed restaurants, pubs, theatres and gyms since the start of November, until at least December 20. The rules are likely to be relaxed between Christmas and New Year to allow family celebrations over the festive season.

During that period, up to 10 people from different households will be able to meet in private, according to the draft resolution, instead of five from two households, as at present.

Meanwhile, although the state premiers are satisfied with the compromise on fireworks, the mayors of some of Germany’s biggest cities are taking unilateral action. Stuttgart last week announced a complete New Year’s Eve ban on firecrackers and alcohol in its city centre. Cologne has followed suit, while Berlin, Germany’s party capital, is expanding the number of city districts subject to a blanket böller ban.

Fritz Kuhn, Stuttgart’s mayor, said he didn’t want to usher 2021 in with a new wave of coronavirus infections, warning: “We really can’t have wild revelry and bangers going off everywhere.”



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Nato warns China’s military ambitions threaten international order

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Nato leaders have warned that China poses “systemic challenges” to the rules-based international order, in a sign of growing western unease over Beijing’s military ambitions.

Members of the transatlantic alliance convening in Brussels on Monday cited activities such as disinformation, Chinese military co-operation with Russia and the rapid expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal as part of the threat, according to a Nato communiqué.

The strength of the statement shows how far relations between the west and Beijing have deteriorated in the 18 months since Nato countries last met. Then they had issued a cautious statement about the “opportunities and challenges” presented by China.

The tougher language at US president Joe Biden’s first Nato summit comes as members of the 72-year-old cold war-era military pact vowed to widen co-operation in new theatres of conflict from cyber space to outer space. The Nato communiqué followed a tougher line from the weekend’s G7 meeting, when the club of rich democracies criticised China over human rights, trade and a lack of transparency over the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

Jens Stoltenberg, Nato secretary-general, insisted Beijing was “not an adversary” but said the alliance needed to “engage with China to defend our security interests”.

“There is a strong convergence of views among allies,” he said, adding that Nato was primarily concerned about Beijing’s activities in the group’s Euro-Atlantic sphere of operation. “China’s growing influence and international policies present challenges to alliance security.”

China’s “stated ambitions and assertive behaviour” posed “systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to alliance security”, said the summit communiqué, approved by the leaders of the 30 Nato member states.

“We call on China to uphold its international commitments and to act responsibly in the international system, including in the space, cyber and maritime domains, in keeping with its role as a major power.”

The communiqué pointed to China’s “coercive policies”, its accumulation of nuclear warheads and sophisticated delivery systems, and its participation in Russian military exercises in Atlantic region waters. Another trend troubling Nato allies is the involvement of Chinese companies in critical infrastructure in Europe, such as ports and via telecommunications company Huawei.

Nato said it would aim for “constructive dialogue” with Beijing “where possible”, including on climate change, in a sign of more nuanced views held by some of the alliance’s members.

The Nato broadside reflects an attempt by the Biden administration to use his first European trip to mobilise allies to push back against China.

Beijing hit back at criticism by the G7 club of rich democracies this weekend, accusing the group of “sinister intentions” and “artificially creating confrontation and friction”.

The Nato leaders also pressed ahead with efforts to modernise a grouping originally set up as bulwark to the Soviet Union. Nato is now pulling back from an era of “expeditionary” international missions, with its forces preparing to leave Afghanistan along with US troops after almost two decades.

The Nato heads of state and government approved a cyber defence strategy and extended existing powers to invoke the alliance’s “Article 5” principle of collective defence, in cases of co-ordinated cyber attacks.

“[This] will upgrade the defence, political and intelligence dimensions of cyber across the alliance,” Jake Sullivan, US national security adviser, said before the meeting.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson had also called for more investment in cyber defences in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, when hostile states were accused of carrying out cyber attacks on allies’ health systems.

Nato leaders also pushed through measures to strengthen their collective response to attacks on satellites, and to build capabilities in emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence. Members of the alliance have become increasingly preoccupied with potential military uses of AI and with the growing activities of China and Russia in outer space.

As well as confronting external threats, Nato faces some chronic internal divisions, notably between Turkey and some member states such as France in the eastern Mediterranean.

Additional reporting by Helen Warrell in London



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Biden says he is open to exchange of cybercriminals with Putin

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US president Joe Biden said he was open to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s proposal to hand over cybercriminals to the US if Washington did the same for Moscow, just days before the two leaders meet for a summit in Geneva.

Biden and Putin will sit down in Switzerland on Wednesday for their first face-to-face meeting since the former was sworn in as US president. Both leaders said at the weekend that relations between their two countries were at a low point, but Biden’s latest comments suggested there could be room for co-operation.

Speaking at the conclusion of a meeting of G7 leaders in the UK on Sunday, Biden told reporters he was receptive to Putin’s suggestion of reciprocal extradition of cybercriminals responsible for disruptive ransomware attacks.

Earlier on Sunday, Russian state TV aired an interview with Putin in which the Russian president said that Moscow and Washington must “assume equal commitments”.

“Russia will naturally do that but only if the other side — in this case the United States — agrees to the same and will also extradite corresponding criminals to the Russian Federation.”

Asked about Putin’s comments, Biden said: “Yes, I am open to, if there are crimes committed against Russia, that in fact are people committing those crimes are being harboured in the United States, I am committed to holding them accountable.”

“I was told as I was flying here, that [Putin] said that,” Biden added. “I think that is potentially a good sign of progress.”

An increasing number of audacious ransomware attacks has paralysed companies in recent weeks. These have included the disruption of the Colonial Pipeline, which provides petroleum supplies for much of the US east coast, as well as operations at JBS, the Brazilian meat processing company. The White House has said it believes both attacks originated in Russia.

Jake Sullivan, US national security adviser, later clarified that Biden had not signed up to a “prisoner swap”.

“What he was saying was that if Vladimir Putin wants to come and say I am prepared to make sure that cyber criminals are held accountable, Joe Biden is perfectly willing to show up and say cyber criminals can be held accountable in America, because they already are. That is what we do,” Sullivan told reporters on Air Force One en route to the Nato summit in Brussels, the second leg of Biden’s first foreign tour as president.

“This is not about exchanges or swaps or anything like that.”

Putin told NBC News in an interview that aired on Friday that relations between the US and Russia were at their “lowest point in recent years”. Biden on Sunday said that he agreed with the characterisation, but also pointed out areas where he believed the two countries could work together.

The White House confirmed on Saturday that Biden would hold a solo press conference following the summit with Putin, rather than share a stage as his predecessor Donald Trump did with the Russian president in Helsinki in 2018.

Joe Biden disembarks from Air Force One in Belgium on Sunday for a Nato summit
Joe Biden disembarks from Air Force One in Belgium on Sunday for a Nato summit © Benoit Doppagne/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

“This is not a contest about who can do better in front of a press conference or try to embarrass each other,” Biden said. “It is about making myself very clear what the conditions are to get a better relationship.”

He added: “Russia has engaged in activities which we believe are contrary to international norms. But they have also bitten off some real problems they are going to have trouble chewing on. For example, the rebuilding of Syria, of Libya.”

“I am hopeful that we can find an accommodation that can save the lives of people in, for example, Libya.”



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Construction sector warns rising costs will eat into EU recovery plan

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Construction industry executives across Europe have warned that “dangerous” price rises and shortages of many building materials risk undermining the EU’s flagship €800bn economic stimulus programme.

The EU construction sector generates almost 10 per cent of the bloc’s economic output and vast infrastructure projects make up a sizeable proportion of Brussels’ recovery fund, which will distribute grants and loans to rebuild member states’ economies after the Covid-19 pandemic.

But prices of construction materials from steel and wood to concrete and copper have begun to rise sharply in recent weeks as the economic rebound both in Europe and elsewhere — including the US and China — triggers a building boom.

According to the European Construction Industry Federation (FIEC), bitumen prices have risen 15 per cent in only three months, cement prices were up 10 per cent in a single month and wood prices were up over 20 per cent.

Public infrastructure projects usually impose penalties on builders for delays, while contractors often have to bear the cost of unexpected price increases.

Domenico Campogrande, director-general of FIEC, warned that the price rises and extra delays risked diluting the impact of the EU funds.

“The danger is that we have this big EU recovery plan but if 30 to 40 per cent of these funds are absorbed in extra financial instruments to cover the higher prices, it would be a real nonsense as it won’t go into the real economy,” he said. 

In a recent letter to the European Commission, the FIEC expressed “alarm” at the price rises and shortages of materials, including a more than doubling of the Italian price of steel bars used to make reinforced concrete in four months to March. 

“This phenomenon is jeopardising the construction sector’s contribution to economic recovery and is threatening the potential impact of European recovery programmes,” it said.

In Italy — the biggest beneficiary of the stimulus cash from Brussels — the government is planning to spend more than €100bn of its EU funding on building new infrastructure over the next five years. But the construction sector has warned officials that it will struggle to rise to the challenge without major reforms.

“We are facing shortages of many basic materials for construction and this is very dangerous as Italy is being hit harder than the rest of Europe,” said Flavio Monosilio, research director at ANCE, the association of Italian construction companies. “This crisis is at the heart of the new EU recovery plan.”

Line chart of Price indices rebased in US dollar terms showing Construction materials prices soar

Construction executives blame several factors for the bottlenecks, including the sharp rebound in demand which has outstripped the supply of materials in many countries, as well as pandemic-related disruption to supply chains and continued trade tensions.

Some materials have been hit by additional problems such as a bark beetle infestation that has hit wood production, and delays in the redistribution of unused steel.

Thomas Birtel, chief executive of Austrian construction group Strabag, said price rises had “increased tremendously in the last two weeks” and the company had to “report delays on individual construction sites because the material is simply no longer available”. 

Strabag, which built the Copenhagen Metro in Denmark and the Limerick Tunnel in Ireland, operates its own concrete and asphalt plants, but Birtel said: “Construction is a small-scale business and it is not even possible to control the supply chains for all building materials.”

In Germany, 44 per cent of construction companies surveyed by the Ifo Institute in May reported problems procuring materials on time, up from less than 6 per cent in March.

“We haven’t seen a bottleneck like this since 1991,” said Felix Leiss at Ifo. “This evidently caused construction activity to slow down in April, at least temporarily.”

Production in the German construction industry fell 4.3 per cent in April from the previous month, despite companies in the sector reporting a record order backlog of €62bn in March.

“Many producers are unable to supply the materials before the end of the year and that’s a real problem,” said Stephan Rabe at the German construction industry association. “A lot of money is going into public and private sector construction projects in the US and China and that is sucking up a lot of materials. Wood is being produced in Germany and exported to the US, so it is in short supply here.”

Some German politicians have called on Berlin to seek temporary EU export restrictions on wood and other materials.

As the US government prepares to launch a $1.7tn infrastructure programme and the global economic rebound is expected to gain pace, the pressures are expected to remain high in the coming months.

“It will take time to go back to normal — at least the end of the year,” said Campogrande.

Some countries, such as France and Germany, have responded by easing the rules on some public sector construction contracts, waiving fees for delays and compensating contractors for unforeseen price rises.

Monosilio said Rome was yet to offer any relief to the sector, which has been battered by a decade-long fall in public infrastructure investment, a lack of funding from banks and long delays in project approvals and payments.

Italy’s prime minister Mario Draghi has said the “destiny of the country” depends on the success of a €248bn package of investments and reforms mostly funded by the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Plan. It includes investment in high-speed train lines, renewable energy facilities, smart electricity grids and energy efficient buildings. 

EU states have a poor record in distributing funds; in the six years to 2020, they on average only spent just over half the money they were allocated by Brussels. 

Without reforms to address the Italian construction sector’s problems, Monosilio said similar problems could bedevil the EU’s recovery spending efforts.

“The Draghi government absolutely wants to improve the situation,” he said. “[But] it is a sword of Damocles hanging over the whole European project.”



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