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Europe’s Central Governments Struggle With Restive Regions 

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson won last December’s general election partly on the back of promises to unite post-Brexit Britain and to level the country up by reviving parts neglected by previous governments. Partly as a result of his pledge, the Conservative party captured seats in the de-industrialized north of England, breaching a so-called red wall of constituencies that for decades had reflexively voted for Labor, the country’s main, center-left opposition party. Johnson took aim, too, at the Scottish nationalists, vowing to block a second Scottish independence referendum. But thanks to the havoc wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, Britain’s persistent north-south divide has widened — and support for Scottish independence has never been stronger. Welsh nationalism has been stirred by the pandemic into “greater wakefulness,” according to Polly Mackenzie of Britain’s cross-party think tank Demos, with nearly half of all under-25s in Wales now saying they want secession.Northern regional leaders have wrangled with London, complaining it is not doing enough to help them weather lockdowns or to cope with the grievous economic fallout of the coronavirus. Some have opposed a new three-tiered system of restrictions and lambasted Johnson’s handling of the crisis, accusing the government of playing politics with the pandemic.Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham speaks to the media outside Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, England, Oct. 20, 2020.The north’s mayors complain the new tighter measures are being imposed on them with too little consultation by government officials in London. “They can only see numbers and blobs on the map, whereas we see names, communities, the full picture of what happens on the ground,” Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, fumed to reporters last week.  On Monday, 54 Conservative lawmakers representing northern seats warned Johnson that his election pledge to “level up” the nation was being undermined by the disproportionate impact of restrictions in northern England. They said in a collective letter that the coronavirus is threatening to “send the North into reverse.”“The virus has exposed in sharp relief the deep structural and systemic disadvantage faced by our communities and it threatens to continue to increase the disparity between the North and South still further,” the lawmakers said. Their constituencies risk being left behind unless there is a clear strategy for exiting lockdown restrictions.A group of people push a dustbin after a demonstration against curfew and deprivation of rights, in Barcelona, on Oct. 26, 2020. Spain’s Catalonia region said it was studying imposing a lockdown on weekends to fight the spread of the coronavirus.Fueling separatismJohnson isn’t alone among Europe’s national leaders struggling with restive regions to forge a political consensus around a pandemic strategy. Central and regional governments in many European countries are increasingly at loggerheads. Some of the disputes revolve around what approaches to adopt to contain the coronavirus pandemic; others over how to share shrinking economic pies. Many of Europe’s poor regions are being hit harder by the pandemic; wealthy regions, such as Catalonia, Lombardy and Flanders, bristle at the idea that they will have to help bail out their less prosperous neighbors. Lack of consultation or the sidestepping of parliaments and imposing restrictions with no prior agreement are also prompting disquiet, exacerbating pre-pandemic divisions.Some analysts hazard that one of the legacies of the coronavirus crisis could well be to strengthen separatist sentiment in some countries already struggling with secessionists and to boost demands by regions for greater devolved powers. “The coronavirus pandemic is serving to catalyze pre-existing territorial disputes and empower regional nationalist movements,” says Jonathan Parker of Britain’s University of Sussex. “The pandemic is intensifying debates about the constitutional futures of several European regions. Many on the pro-independence side have been empowered by the crisis, which is highlighting the failings of central governments and underscoring the power of the regions,” Parker wrote in a commentary for Britain’s’ Financial Times.Belgium, Spain, Italy and Germany have all seen disputes flaring between national and regional leaders. In Belgium, Flemish nationalists have attacked the central government for its handling of the pandemic. Disputes have raged between Flanders and officials in Brussels. The latest came this week when Flanders declined to impose additional coronavirus restrictions, despite moves by Brussels and French-speaking Wallonia to tighten up. In the past week around 12,000 Belgians a day on average have tested positive for the coronavirus — hospitalization admissions and the death county keep on rising.Speaking to VTM news, Flemish Minister-President Jan Jambon accused the central government and Wallonia of adopting “exaggerated measures.” He warned the additional measures won’t necessarily succeed in tamping down transmissions of the potentially deadly virus, adding that cooler heads need to prevail. Flemish nationalists are bristling at the idea that wealthier Flanders should help subsidize poorer Wallonia.FILE – Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez speaks during a parliamentary session in Madrid, Spain, Oct. 21, 2020.In Spain, seven of the country’s regions have criticized the decision taken this week by the government of Pedro Sánchez to declare a state of national emergency and to impose a curfew. Other regions take an opposite view and have been clamorous for weeks for the central government to order lockdowns. Catalan separatists have argued an independent Catalonia would have tackled the pandemic better than it has as part of Spain, and that there would have been fewer deaths had the wealthy northeastern region been on its own, they say. Earlier this year, when the pandemic started to unfold in Spain, they called on the central government to impose a tough lockdown much earlier than it did.FILE – In this Feb. 10, 2020, file photo, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon speaks during an event at the European Policy Center in Brussels.ScotlandIn Britain, already fractured by Brexit, the pandemic has witnessed a steady divergence in the handling of the pandemic between Johnson’s government in London and the devolved authorities of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The latter were more cautious than the central government in July and August when Johnson eased restrictions. They decided not to do so. Though Scottish nationalists do not like to admit it, the coronavirus has boosted their fortunes, say analysts. Their leader and Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has benefited from increased visibility and has grabbed at chances to differentiate Scotland from England. Support in opinion polls for the Scottish Nationalist Party is now running at about 50%. And backing for Scottish independence also has climbed. Support for separation rose to nearly 60% this month, panicking Conservative ministers in London. “In the 2014 referendum, the Nationalists struggled to get Scots to imagine what an independent government might look like. The pandemic was just what the doctor ordered. Health is devolved under Britain’s constitution, so Ms. Sturgeon’s administration has the trappings of a state-in-waiting,” noted The Economist magazine recently.Sturgeon has received plaudits for her handling of the pandemic — her message has been consistent and so have her policies.  “The coronavirus crisis has given Nicola Sturgeon’s government renewed purpose, increased visibility, new chances to differentiate from England and the opportunity to boast about its supposed superiority,” according to Polly Mackenzie of the Demos think tank.
 


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British Study Shows Antibodies Against COVID-19 Declined Rapidly

A new study of the British population shows that antibodies in the human body fighting COVID-19 declined rapidly in the British population during the summer, suggesting any immunity against the virus may not last long.The study, conducted by Imperial College London and published Tuesday, involved tests on more than 365,000 British people between June 20 and Sept. 28.In their findings, the researchers’ analysis of the home finger-prick tests found that the number of people testing positive for antibodies dropped by 26.5% during the study period, from almost 6% to 4.4%.The findings suggest the possibility of decreasing population immunity ahead of a second wave of infections in recent weeks that has forced local lockdowns and restrictions.The researchers say it is unclear what level of protection antibodies give a person against COVID-19 specifically.Imperial College London Department of Infectious Disease head, Wendy Barclay, told reporters in London they are confident in what a decline in antibodies tells them.“On the balance of evidence, I would say with what we know for other coronaviruses, it would look as if immunity declines away at the same rate as antibodies decline away, and that this is an indication of waning immunity at the population level.”The researchers say that more than anything, the study reinforces the need for a vaccine to effectively bring the virus under control.  


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Italians Protest New COVID Restrictions

Violent protests erupted in more than 15 cities across Italy after the government announced new measures to rein in a second wave of COVID-19 infections. Italian leaders are rushing to stave off criticism with a financial rescue package for struggling businesses.
 
Angry protesters took to the streets of some of Italy’s largest cities but also smaller ones from the north to the south of the country to show their discontent with the new nationwide COVID-19 restrictions.
 
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told Italians he was well aware “this is a complex moment as this is a pandemic that is harshly challenging us, causing anger, frustration and new inequalities. Aware of how many businesses are suffering, Conte said the government had worked out a plan.
 
He said that compensation has already been earmarked for all those who will suffer under the new restrictions.
 
Government officials hope the measures will be enough to quell the anger.  
 
Italians were the first to face a widespread outbreak of the virus earlier this year and were hit with one of the world’s toughest lockdowns, which did serious damage to the country’s economy.  
 
At the time, they complied with the government’s rules and the tough action managed to rein in the virus by the summer.Police officers are seen in front of a garbage bin set on fire during a protest against new government restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus, in Turin, Italy, Oct. 26, 2020.This time, reactions were far from measured and it appeared not everyone in the country was ready to adhere to the government’s guidelines and rules. Far-right groups and organized crime also appear to be behind the recent clashes.
 
In cities like Turin, Milan, Naples and Rome, hundreds of protesters ransacked stores, vandalized trams and set garbage cans on fire. Groups of young people threw glass bottles and chanted “freedom, freedom.”
 
Many opposition politicians and even some members of parliament of the ruling coalition government voiced their disapproval of the tough new measures saying the already battered economy would not be able to cope. Far-right leader Matteo Salvini announced he was launching a legal challenge to the government’s decisions.
 
Business owners are in despair saying some will have to close forever. But some scientists say the measures adopted until November 24 still do not go far enough and that beds in intensive care units of hospitals are quickly running out.
 
Up for approval Tuesday was a package of up to $6 billion  to support businesses in the restaurant, sports and entertainment sectors, hard hit by the new restrictions.
 


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Russia Issues National Mask Mandate After Coronavirus Cases Surge

Russian authorities issued a national mask requirement Tuesday as the country set a single day record for coronavirus deaths amid a resurgence of new cases.Health officials reported 16,550 new cases and 320 new deaths Tuesday, the highest daily death toll since the pandemic started.In response, Russia’s consumer safety and public health agency, Rospotrebnadzor, ordered all Russians to wear masks in crowded public spaces, on public transit, in taxis, parking lots and elevators starting on Wednesday.The agency also recommends regional authorities put a curfew on entertainment events, cafes, restaurants and bars from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m.Russia has the world’s fourth largest tally of more than 1.5 million confirmed cases, according to the Johns Hopkins University, which is tracking the pandemic.The government’s coronavirus task force has been reporting more than 15,000 new infections every day since Sunday, which is much higher than in spring.Russia has reported more than 26,000 virus-related deaths.Despite the sharp spike in daily infections, Russian authorities have repeatedly dismissed the idea of imposing a second national lockdown or shutting down businesses.Most virus-related restrictions were lifted in July as cases dropped, but masks were still encouraged.


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Erdogan Calls for Boycott of French Goods

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan told Turkish citizens to boycott French goods in response to what he says is France’s “anti-Islam” agenda.During a televised speech Monday, he also called for European Union countries to pressure France to end French President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to fight what he called “Islamist separatism.” Macron has said separatism threatens to take over some Muslim communities in France.”Never give credit to French-labeled goods. Don’t buy them,” Erdogan said, according to the BBC. He added that “European leaders should tell the French president to stop his hate campaign.”Tensions between the two NATO allies have risen in recent months as Macron vowed to defend secularism in the wake of the public beheading of a French teacher earlier this month by a Muslim militant over cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad.French President Emmanuel Macron speaks after meeting with the medical staff of the Rene Dubos hospital center, in Pontoise, outside Paris, Oct. 23, 2020.Macron called Islam a religion “in crisis,” the BBC reported, and announced measures to stem what he called separatism. France has the largest Muslim community in Western Europe.Just how much of an impact a boycott would have remains to be seen. France is the 10th largest source of imports to Turkey. France is also Turkey’s seventh biggest market for exports, Reuters reported.France and Turkey have also clashed recently over policy in Syria and Libya, as well as Turkish oil and gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. More recently, the two have been at odds over the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.


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British Special Forces Storm Tanker After Reports of Possible Hijacking

British officials say a Liberian-registered oil tanker is docked safely in Southampton and its crew “safe and well” after British naval special forces stormed the ship following a report that stowaways threatened violence. In a statement, ship operator Navios Tanker Management, says the Nave Andromeda left Lagos, Nigeria, on October 6 and had been due to dock in Southampton on Sunday when the ship’s master became “concerned for the safety of the crew due to the increasingly hostile behavior of the stowaways.” A report by the British Broadcasting Corporation indicates the crew had been aware of the stowaways – believed to have been from Nigeria – but said they became unruly and even violent as the ship neared Britain. The ship was circling an area a few kilometers southeast of the Isle of Wight, south of Southampton, and when it failed to dock, local authorities were contacted. A statement on the British ministry of Defense’s Twitter account indicates police requested assistant from the military.  The coast guard was also called in and scrambled helicopters to reach the scene.  A nearly five-kilometer exclusion zone was established around the vessel.  After several hours, commandos from the Royal Navy Special Boat Service were lowered from helicopters onto the ship, whose crew had locked themselves in a secure area. Within minutes, the commandos had detained seven people and secured the vessel. Speaking to reporters Monday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson thanked both the police and armed forces for what they did “to keep our shores safe.” 
 


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Opposition Announces National Strike in Belarus 

Belarus’s opposition called a countrywide general strike on Monday — the latest in a series of efforts to dislodge longtime leader Alexander Lukashenko from power following what opponents say was a rigged presidential election in the former Soviet republic last August.  Svetlana Tikhanovskaya — Lukashenko’s primary opponent in the race and who fled the country under state pressure following the vote — threatened the strike two weeks ago in an effort to reinvigorate the protest movement.  FILE – Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, candidate for the presidential elections, foreground, greets people during a meeting to show her support, in Brest, 326 km southwest of Minsk, Belarus, Aug. 2, 2020.Her demands: Lukashenko resign, end police violence against demonstrators, and free hundreds of political prisoners or face a national work stoppage.   On Monday, the independent media site Tut.by posted photos of workers striking at several key factories. The news service also reported dozens of workers detained at the Grodno Azot factory for joining the strike. Nexta, People with old Belarusian national flags march during an opposition rally to protest the official presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus, Oct. 25, 2020.Yet once again, Lukashenko’s security troops and riot police were out in force.  Central metro stations were closed in advance — forcing people to walk towards the city center.  Crowds chanting “Strike, Strike, Strike” were met with stun grenades, rubber bullets, and tear gas as they closed in on Lukashenko’s residence — sending protesters running for cover.  The Interior Ministry also reported demonstrators had thrown rocks and broken windows outside a police headquarters in central Minsk.  The damage did not appear to be widespread.  Meanwhile, the human rights group Vesna reported more than 300 protesters arrested — adding to the estimated 8,000 detained in the wake of the vote.  On social media, a widely shared video showed masked security guards terrorizing protesters who had fled into a nearby apartment.  Its unbearable to watch. Ferocious from impunity, Lukashenka’s police are hunting protesters in private apartments, threatening to use gas if the people don’t go with them FILE – Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko takes his oath of office during his inauguration ceremony at the Palace of the Independence in Minsk, Belarus, Sept. 23, 2020.Lukashenko has refused to step down — arguing he won the election in a landslide with 80% of the vote.  He also has backing from his neighbor Russia, which seeks to maintain a predictable ally in charge along its western border.   Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov implied Russia was growing concerned about the strike’s ability to impact Russia’s economy — noting the two economies were integrated “at the highest levels.” “For us, it’s extremely important how rhythmically and reliably the Belarus factories function,” added Peskov.  President Vladimir Putin has provided both economic aid and assurances of military support if necessary. In another sign of Moscow’s careful watch over events in Belarus, Sergei Narishkin, the head of Russia’s external intelligence services, was in Minsk to meet  with Lukashenko last week. Meanwhile, the U.S. and other Western governments have denounced the violence against demonstrators and backed sanctions on the Lukashenko regime — with the European Union declaring it no longer saw Lukashenko as the head of Belarus.  French President Emanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are among European leaders who have met with Tikhanovskaya directly.  FILE – Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya meets with French President Emmanuel Macron in Vilnius, Lithuania, Sept. 29, 2020.Washington calling In a separate development, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke with Lukashenko by phone on Saturday —   the first publicly known high-level contact between the U.S. and the embattled Belarusian leader since the political crisis began.  Secretary Pompeo had been behind recent U.S. efforts to improve relations with Minsk — even meeting with Lukashenko during a high profile visit to Minsk last February.  According to the State Department, Pompeo “reaffirmed U.S. support for the democratic aspirations of the people of Belarus” and demanded the release and evacuation of Vitali Shkliarov, 44, a Belarusian-American political analyst who was arrested ahead of the August vote while visiting his parents in Grodno.  FILE – Belarusian opposition activist Maria Kolesnikova greets protesters during a rally at Independence Square in Minsk, Belarus, Aug. 22, 2020.In recent days, Kolesnikova issued a letter from prison saying Lukashenko’s security forces were threatening to jail her for the next 25 years.  


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Pakistani PM: French Leader Stoking ‘Islamophobia’

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has accused French President Emmanuel Macron of “attacking Islam” by defending the publication of “blasphemous” caricatures.
 
The comment Sunday comes four days after Macron said France would not “give up cartoons” depicting the Prophet Muhammad, pledging that Islamists “will never have” his country’s future.
 
“Sadly, President Macron has chosen to deliberately provoke Muslims, including his own citizens, through encouraging the display of blasphemous cartoons targeting Islam & our Prophet PBUH (peace be upon him),” Khan said in a series of tweets.
 
“It is unfortunate that he has chosen to encourage Islamophobia by attacking Islam rather than the terrorists who carry out violence, be it Muslims, White Supremacists or Nazi ideologists,” Khan wrote.
 FILE – French President Emmanuel Macron.Macron’s controversial remarks came in response to the beheading of a French teacher, Samuel Paty, outside Paty’s school near Paris after he had shown cartoons depicting the Prophet during a class on free speech. The French president described the slain teacher as a hero, saying Islamists were a threat to the country.
 
“This is a time when Pres Macron could have put healing touch & denied space to extremists rather than creating further polarisation & marginalisation that inevitably leads to radicalisation,” Khan said.
 
Caricatures of the Prophet are forbidden by Islam. Insulting the religion or the Prophet carries the death penalty under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
 
“By attacking Islam, clearly without having any understanding of it, President Macron has attacked & hurt the sentiments of millions of Muslims in Europe & across the world,” Khan said.
 
Earlier this month, Macron sparked controversy when he said, “Islam is a religion that is in crisis all over the world,” prompting several Muslim countries to call for a boycott of French goods.
 
In recent years, France has experienced a series of violent attacks blamed on suspected Islamists, including a bloody 2015 assault on the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo for publishing anti-Islam images.
 Khan writes to Facebook
 
Separately, the Pakistani leader wrote to Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive officer of Facebook, urging him to ban anti-Islam content on the social media platform.
 
“Given the rampant abuse and vilification of Muslims on social media platforms, I would ask you to place a similar ban on Islamophobia and hate against Islam for Facebook that you have put in place for the Holocaust,” said Khan in a letter his office released to media late Sunday.There was no immediate comment from Facebook.The social media giant recently announced it was updating its hate speech policy to ban any content that denied or distorted the Holocaust.
 
Khan noted in the letter that Islam has been associated with terrorism in France and publication of blasphemous cartoons targeting Islam have been allowed there.
 
“This will lead to further polarization and marginalization of Muslims in France. How will the French distinguish between radical extremist Muslim citizens and the mainstream Muslim citizenry of Islam?,” Khan asked.
 
Last month, the Pakistani prime minister, in his address to the United Nations General Assembly, denounced Charlie Hebdo for re-publishing the cartoons and demanded that “willful provocations” be “universally outlawed.”
 


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