John Vachon Window in home of unemployed steelworker. Ambridge, PA 1941
In a strong sign of how fast the crisis is deepening, and in between the usual blah blah, the G7 is falling apart.
• Lacking New Ideas, G7 To Agree On ‘Go-Your-Own-Way’ Approach (R.)
A rift on fiscal policy and currencies is likely to set the stage for G7 advanced economies to agree on a “go-your-own-way” response to address risks hindering global economic growth at their finance leaders’ gathering on Friday. As years of aggressive money printing stretch the limits of monetary policy, the G7 policy response to anemic inflation and subdued growth has become increasingly splintered. Finance leaders gathering in Sendai, northeast Japan, sought advice from prominent academics, including Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Shiller, on ways to boost growth in an informal symposium ahead of an official G7 meeting on Friday.
Participants of the symposium agreed that instead of relying on short-term fiscal stimulus or monetary policy, structural reforms combined with appropriate investment are solutions to achieving sustainable growth, a G7 source said. If so, that would dash Japan’s hopes to garner an agreement on the need for coordinated fiscal action to spur global demand. Germany showed no signs of responding to calls from Japan and the United States to boost fiscal stimulus, instead warning of the dangers of excessive monetary loosening. “There is high nervousness in financial markets” fostered by huge government debt and excess liquidity around the globe, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said on Thursday.
But G7 officials have signaled that they would not object if Japan were to call for stronger action using monetary, fiscal tools and structural reforms – catered to each country’s individual needs. That means the G7 finance leaders, while fretting about risks to outlook, may be unable to agree on concrete steps to bolster stagnant global growth. “I expect there to be a frank exchange of views on how to achieve price stability and growth using monetary, fiscal and structural policies reflecting each country’s needs,” Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda told reporters on Thursday.
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The interests are too different to reconcile, and it’s by no means just Japan and the US that are involved in the showdown.
• Japan And US Are Headed For A Showdown Over Currency Manipulation (MW)
Investors will be watching for signs of tension between Japanese and U.S. powers this weekend, when central bankers and finance chiefs face off in Sendai, a city northeast of Tokyo, for the latest Group of 7 summit. The two countries have sparred over the dollar-yen exchange rate in the months since the Japanese currency began a prolonged rise against the dollar. The yen has lost nearly 9% of its value relative to the dollar since the beginning of the year. Last week, Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso spoke publicly about the continuing disagreement between U.S. and Japanese policy makers over whether the rise in the yen seen since the beginning of the year has been severe enough to warrant an intervention.
Japan might favor a weaker currency primarily because it makes the country’s exports more attractive. “We’ve have often been arguing over the phone,” Aso said, according to The Wall Street Journal. He also reiterated that Japanese officials wouldn’t hesitate to intervene in the market if the currency continued its sharp moves. Plus, he said, the Treasury Department’s decision to put Japan on a currency manipulation monitoring list “won’t constrain” the country’s currency policy. The Treasury published the list for the first time this year, including it as part of a semiannual report on currency practices released late last month. Japan was joined on the list by China, Germany, Taiwan and Korea.
To be included on the Treasury’s watch list, a country must meet at least two of three criteria: A trade surplus with the U.S. larger than $20 billion, a current-account surplus larger than 3% of its GDP—or it must engage in persistent one-sided intervention in the currency market, which the Treasury qualifies as repeated purchases of foreign currency amounting to more than 2% of a country’s GDP over the course of a year.
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And so are all other central bankers.
• Kuroda Stresses Readiness to Act if Yen Rise Threatens Inflation Goal (WSJ)
Bank of Japan Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda said he would act quickly if the yen’s rise threatens his inflation goal, highlighting his caution over exchange rates ahead of a major international convention. “Be it exchange rates or anything, if it has negative effects on our efforts to achieve our price-stability target, and from that perspective if we figure that action is necessary, we will undertake additional easing measures,” Mr. Kuroda told reporters Thursday. The remarks by Mr. Kuroda come at a time of tension between the U.S. and Japan over whether the yen’s appreciation seen earlier this year is sharp enough to warrant intervention by authorities. Investors are closely watching whether Tokyo and Washington will continue to clash over yen policy during a meeting in northern Japan Friday and Saturday of finance chiefs from the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations.
Mr. Kuroda defended his policy stance, saying it is no different from that of central banks abroad. He also reiterated that the BOJ has kept in place massive stimulus to achieve its target of 2% inflation, not to guide the yen lower. Mr. Kuroda said that while he is watching how the bank’s negative-rates policy affects the economy, “this doesn’t mean that we will sit idly by until trickle-down effects become clear.” The BOJ will review the need for fresh steps “at every policy meeting,” he added. Speaking of risks facing Japan’s economy, Mr. Kuroda acknowledged that he is “paying close attention” to the coming British referendum to decide whether to leave the European Union.
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“Business loan delinquencies are a leading indicator of big economic trouble.”
• US Business Loan Delinquencies Spike to Lehman Moment Level (WS)
This could not have come at a more perfect time, with the Fed once again flip-flopping about raising rates. After appearing to wipe rate hikes off the table earlier this year, the Fed put them back on the table, perhaps as soon as June, according to the Fed minutes. A coterie of Fed heads was paraded in front of the media today and yesterday to make sure everyone got that point, pending further flip-flopping. Drowned out by this hullabaloo, the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve released its delinquency and charge-off data for all commercial banks in the first quarter – very sobering data. So here a few nuggets. Consumer loans and credit card loans have been hanging in there so far.
Credit card delinquencies rose in the second half of 2015, but in Q1 2016, they ticked down a little. And mortgage delinquencies are low and falling. When home prices are soaring, no one defaults for long; you can sell the home and pay off your mortgage. Mortgage delinquencies rise after home prices have been falling for a while. They’re a lagging indicator. But on the business side, delinquencies are spiking! Delinquencies of commercial and industrial loans at all banks, after hitting a low point in Q4 2014 of $11.7 billion, have begun to balloon (they’re delinquent when they’re 30 days or more past due). Initially, this was due to the oil & gas fiasco, but increasingly it’s due to trouble in many other sectors, including retail.
Between Q4 2014 and Q1 2016, delinquencies spiked 137% to $27.8 billion. They’re halfway toward to the all-time peak during the Financial Crisis in Q3 2009 of $53.7 billion. And they’re higher than they’d been in Q3 2008, just as Lehman Brothers had its moment. Note how, in this chart by the Board of Governors of the Fed, delinquencies of C&I loans start rising before recessions (shaded areas). I added the red marks to point out where we stand in relationship to the Lehman moment:
Business loan delinquencies are a leading indicator of big economic trouble. They begin to rise at the end of the credit cycle, on loans that were made in good times by over-eager loan officers with the encouragement of the Fed. But suddenly, the weight of this debt poses a major problem for borrowers whose sales, instead of soaring as projected during good times, may be shrinking, and whose expenses may be rising, and there’s no money left to service the loan.
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Hadn’t seen this claim before: “..local steelmakers are more efficient (and enjoy far lower costs) than their international counterparts.”
• China Steelmakers Attack US 522% Tariff Move; Say Need More Time (R.)
Chinese steelmakers attacked new U.S. import duties on the country’s steel products as “trade protectionism” on Thursday, saying the world’s biggest producer needs time to address its excess capacity. “There’s too much trade friction and it’s not good for the market,” Liu Zhenjiang, secretary general of the China Iron and Steel Association told Reuters when asked if China will appeal U.S. anti-dumping duties at the WTO. China said it will continue its tax rebates to steel exporters to support the sector’s painful restructuring after the United States said on Tuesday it would impose duties of 522% on Chinese cold-rolled flat steel. China, which accounts for half the world’s steel output, is under fire after its exports hit a record 112 million tonnes last year, with rivals claiming that Chinese steelmakers have been undercutting them in their home markets.
In the four months to April, China’s steel exports have risen nearly 7.6% to 36.9 million tonnes. “It’s not just China’s problem to tackle overcapacity. Everyone should play a part. China needs time,” Liu told an industry conference. “Trade protectionism hurts consumers, (it’s) against free trade and competition,” he added. China’s Commerce Ministry said on Wednesday the United States had employed “unfair methods” during an anti-dumping investigation into Chinese cold-rolled steel products. While a flood of cheap Chinese steel has been blamed for putting some overseas producers out of business, China denies its mills have been dumping their products on foreign markets, stressing that local steelmakers are more efficient and enjoy far lower costs than their international counterparts.
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All we got to do is wait till they run out of space to store it.
• The Iron Mountain on China’s Doorstep Tops 100 Million Tons (BBG)
There’s a mountain of iron ore sat right on China’s doorstep. Stockpiles at ports have climbed above 100 million metric tons, offering fresh evidence of increased supplies in the world’s top user that may hurt prices. The inventories swelled 1.6% to 100.45 million tons this week, the highest level since March 2015, according to data from Shanghai Steelhome Information Technology. The holdings, which feed the world’s largest steel industry, have expanded 7.9% this year, and are now large enough to cover more than five weeks’ of imports. Iron ore has traced a boom-bust path over the past two months after investors in China piled into raw-material futures, then changed course after regulators clamped down.
While mills in China churned out record daily output in April to take advantage of a steel price surge, production in the first four months was 2.3% lower than a year earlier. Port inventories in China may continue to increase, BHP Billiton forecast this week. “There’s a lot of optimism actually that steel demand in China will increase,” Ralph Leszczynski at shipbroker Banchero Costa , said by phone. “It’s a bit of an ‘if’ as the economy is still quite fragile,” he said, calling the rise in port stocks “probably excessive.” The raw material with 62% content sank 5.8% to $53.47 a dry ton on Thursday, according to Metal Bulletin Ltd. Prices have tumbled 24% since peaking at more than $70 a ton in April, paring the gain so far in 2016 to 23%.
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A stronger dollar makes this a huge gamble.
• Big Chinese Banks Issue New Yuan-Denominated Debt In US (WSJ)
Two of China’s largest banks are issuing new local currency debt in the U.S., offering attractive yields for investors willing to take some currency risk. Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, the world’s largest bank by assets, said it plans on Friday to raise 500 million yuan ($76 million) through 31-day certificates of deposit in the U.S. that will yield 2.6%. Agricultural Bank of China, the third-largest bank in the world, this week sold a 117 million yuan one-year bill that yields 3.35%. Both issues came at a significant premium to the 0.621% yield on the one-year U.S. Treasury bill. But the yuan-denominated debt could pay out less if the currency falls in value. Fed officials last month discussed the possibility of raising interest rates at their June policy meeting, according to minutes from the April meeting released on Wednesday.
A rate increase could cause the yuan to weaken against the dollar. China’s 3% devaluation in August sparked a selloff in yuan-denominated bonds, driving up interest rates in the offshore market, also known as the dim sum market. The new offerings will test demand for Chinese debt in local currency, the first issued by any Chinese bank in the U.S. since last year. China’s one-month interbank rate is currently 2.84%, which means some Chinese banks can borrow at better rates in the U.S. and other foreign markets than at home. The debt also promotes the use of the yuan abroad, one of the conditions set by the IMF when it said last year it would add the Chinese currency to its basket of reserve currencies. The IMF’s inclusion of the yuan is a step toward making the currency fully convertible.
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Take that, G7.
• Mass Layoffs Are Looming in South Korea (BBG)
The South Korean government’s push to restructure debt-laden companies is set to cost tens of thousands of workers their jobs in an economy where social security is limited and a rigid labor market reduces the likelihood of getting rehired in a full-time position. Many of the layoffs will be in industrial hubs along the southeast coastline, where shipyards and ports dominate the landscape. These heavy industries, which helped propel South Korea’s growth in previous decades, have seen losses amid a slowdown in global growth, overcapacity and rising competition from China. As a condition of financial support, creditor banks and the government are pushing companies to cut back on staff and sell unprofitable assets. In Korea, losing a permanent, full-time job often means sliding toward poverty, one reason why labor unions stage strikes that at times lead to violent confrontations with employers and police.
A preference for hiring and training young employees, rather than recruiting experienced hands, means that many workers who get laid off drift into day labor or low-wage, temporary contracts that lack insurance and pension benefits, according to Lee Jun Hyup, a research fellow for Hyundai Research Institute. “The possibility of me getting a new job that offers similar income and benefits is about 1%,” said one of about 2,600 employees to be laid off following a previous restructure, of Ssangyong Motor in 2009. The 45-year-old worker, who asked only to be identified by the surname Kim as he tries to get rehired, initially delivered newspapers and worked construction after losing his permanent job. He’s now on a temporary contract at a retailer and taking night shifts as a driver to get by. Despite having these two jobs, his income has been halved. Being fired was “like being pushed into a desert with no water,” Kim said.
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Jakobsen’s always interesting. This is quite a long piece.
• ‘Central Banks Can Do Nothing’: Steen Jakobsen (Saxo)
TradingFloor.com: The “new nothingness” thesis was based on zero rates, zero growth, zero reforms. But you hinted that all of this nothingness has spilled over into culture and politics as well… do these macro facts hinder peoples’ imagination, or their ability to deal with the problem?
Steen Jakobsen: Yes, I think so. This year, we see a growing gap between the central banks’ narrative – which is that you have a trickle-down impact from lower rates – and [the situation on the ground]. People understand that zero interest rates are a reflection of zero growth, zero inflation, zero hope for changes, and zero reforms. In my opinion as an economist and a market observer, people are smarter than central banks. And because they are smarter, they can live with policy mistakes for a while because the narrative is very strong and because people like (ECB head Mario) Draghi and (Fed chief Janet) Yellen have these platforms from which they not only talk but occasionally shout, and they are deemed to be “credible”, scare quotes mine…
We see [this gap] in the Brexit debate as well, where the elite and the academics talk down to the average voter. By doing that, of course, they alienate the voters from their representatives. That’s what we see globally, that’s why Brazil is going to change presidents, why Ireland could not get its government re-elected with 6% growth. It’s not about the top line, but about the average person seeing that we need real, fundamental change.
TF: Earlier this year, you said that the social contract – the agreement between rulers and the ruled – is broken. It made me think of this year’s Davos meeting, which showed a leadership class terrified of slowing jobs growth and enamoured with the idea that population movements might be used to address this. Given the current unpopularity of globalisation and its effects, would you say that there are some things it is impossible for 21st century leaders and the led to agree upon? Is a social contract impossible?
SJ: No, it could be re-established, but it needs to be established on terra firma. Right now, we have a panacea in the form of low rates and the idea that things will somehow improve in six months. This has led to buyback programmes, a lack of motivation [and all the rest]. We as a society have to recognise that productivity comes from raising the average education level. People forget that all the revolutionary trends, the changes we’ve seen in history, have come from basic research. I don’t mean research driven by profit, but by an individual’s particular interest in one very minute area of a specific topic. This is what creates new inventions.
The second thing we often forget is that the military has been behind a lot of the industrial revolution. Mobile telephony, for example, had nothing to do with private citizens or companies – instead, it had a lot to do with the US military. The key thing here is that we need to be more productive. If everyone has a job, there is no need to renegotiate the social contract. The world has become elitist in every way. Before, you could start a company and build a small franchise; now, you have to be global, you have to have a billion users (if you’re an IT company), and [the pursuit of this] does not necessarily provide the best technologies, but only the biggest ones, the ones backed by [the firms with] the deepest pockets and largest web of connections.
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It’s what many countries ‘forgot’.
• Making Things Matters. This Is What Britain Forgot (Chang)
It’s being blamed on the Brexit jitters. But the weakness in the UK economy that the latest figures reveal is actually a symptom of a much deeper malaise. Britain has never properly recovered from the 2008 financial crisis. At the end of 2015, inflation-adjusted income per capita in the UK was only 0.2% higher than its 2007 peak. This translates into an annual growth rate of 0.025% per year. How pathetic this performance is can be put into perspective by recalling that Japan’s per capita income during its so-called “lost two decades” between 1990 and 2010 grew at 1% a year. At the root of this inability to stage a real recovery is the serious imbalance that has developed in the past few decades – namely, the over-development of the UK financial sector and the atrophy of manufacturing.
Right after the 2008 financial crisis there was a widespread recognition that the ballooning financial sector needed to be reined in. Even George Osborne talked excitedly for a while about the “march of the makers”. That march never materialised, however, and manufacturing’s share of GDP has stagnated at around 10%. This is remarkable, given that the value of sterling has fallen by around 30% since the crisis. In any other country a currency devaluation of this magnitude would have generated an export boom in manufactured goods, leading to an expansion of the sector. Unfortunately manufacturing had been so weakened since the 1980s that it didn’t have a hope of staging any such revival. Even with a massive devaluation, the UK’s trade balance in manufacturing goods (that is, manufacturing exports minus imports) as a proportion of GDP has hardly budged.
The weakness of manufacturing is the main reason for the UK’s ever-growing deficit, which stood at 5.2% of GDP in 2015. Some play down the concerns: the UK, we hear, is still the seventh or eighth largest manufacturing nation in the world – after the US, China, Japan, Germany, South Korea, France and Italy. But it only gets this ranking because it has a large population. In terms of per capita output, it ranks somewhere between 20th and 25th. In other words, saying that we need not worry about the UK’s manufacturing sector because it is still one of the largest is like saying that a poor family with lots of its members working at low wages need not worry about money because their total income is bigger than that of another family with fewer, high-earning members.
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Just keep rates low enough for long enough and you’ll screw up any economy.
• Germany Strives to Avoid Housing Bubble (BBG)
The German government, after years of warnings, is about to clamp down on rising home prices and mortgage lending. The government is preparing to implement measures to prevent real estate bubbles, the Finance Ministry said in an e-mail late on Wednesday. These policies may include capping borrowers’ loan-to-income ratio in order to reduce the probability of default, Handelsblatt reported on Thursday. The government continues to study the consequences of low interest rates on financial stability, a finance ministry spokesman said in the e-mail. However, there are currently no signs that German residential real estate lending is causing acute risks, he said.
With mortgage rates at record lows and savings accounts earnings almost nothing – thanks to a string of ECB rate cuts – Germans are buying homes at the fastest rate in decades. That’s pushed prices in cities including Berlin, Hamburg and Munich up by more than 30% in five years. New mortgages jumped by 22% in 2015 after five years of rising at 3% or less, according to the Bundesbank. In March, Bundesbank board member Andreas Dombret said he sees “clouds gathering on the horizon” and that the central bank is keeping a close eye on mortgages. Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, who has been critical of the ECB’s policy of pushing growth with cheap cash, in December said the hunt for yield could lead to the “formation of bubbles and excessive asset values.”
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Don’t think I can say in public what I think should happen to companies like Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta et al. The people who brought you Agent Orange, Zyklon B and chemical warfare are coming for your food, all of it. A start might be to figure out who holds shares in these things. Your money fund, your pension fund? This is the industry of death, as much as arms manufactureers are.
• Bayer Eyes $42 Billion Monsanto in Quest for Seeds Dominance (BBG)
Bayer made an unsolicited takeover offer for Monsanto Co. in a bold attempt by the German company to snatch the last independent global seeds producer and become the world’s biggest supplier of farm chemicals. The St. Louis-based company, with a market value of $42 billion, said it’s reviewing the offer in a statement Thursday. It didn’t disclose the terms of the proposal. Bayer, confirming the bid, said the combination would bolster its position as a life sciences company. Shares of Bayer plunged amid concern that a large purchase would weigh on its credit rating and force the company to sell more stock. The proposal by Werner Baumann, who’s been at Bayer’s helm for less than a month, follows Monsanto’s failed attempt to buy Syngenta and the proposed merger of Dow Chemical and DuPont.
To help finance its quest to buy the world’s largest seed maker, Bayer is considering asset disposals and a share sale, according to people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified because discussions are private. The German company is exploring the potential disposal of its animal-health business and the remaining 69% stake in plastics business Covestro, the people said. Animal health could fetch $5 billion to $6 billion, according to one of the people, and the Covestro holding is worth about €4.9 billion. If Bayer buys Monsanto, it could be the biggest acquisition globally this year and the largest German deal ever, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. A takeover of Monsanto would require an enterprise value of as much as €65 billionß, according to analysts at Citigroup.
[..]Merging Monsanto with the company that invented aspirin would bring together brands such as Roundup, Monsanto’s blockbuster herbicide, and Sivanto, a new Bayer insecticide. Monsanto is particularly vulnerable to a takeover after piling up a mountain of problems this year. The company has cut its earnings forecast, clashed with some of the world’s largest commodity-trading companies and become locked in disputes with the governments of Argentina and India. Shares are down 19% in the past 12 months. “It’s a relentless string of bad news,” Jonas Oxgaard, an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein in New York, said. “It’s almost like they forgot to sacrifice a goat to the gods.”
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Bayer won’t be able to sell its new ‘products’ at home.
• Bayer’s Mega Monsanto Deal Faces Mega Backlash in Germany (BBG)
Bayer’s proposed mega deal to buy Monsanto is likely to create a mega public relations challenge for the German company at home. Bayer faces a backlash against Germany’s biggest planned acquisition because of two products from the St. Louis-based company that are widely detested in the country: genetically modified seeds and the weedkiller Roundup, which uses a compound called glyphosate that some believe can cause cancer. “Germans view Monsanto as the main example of American corporate evil,” said Heike Moldenhauer, a biotechnology expert at German environmental group BUND. “It may not be such a good idea to take over Monsanto as that means incorporating its bad reputation, which would also make Bayer more vulnerable.”
A German Environment Ministry study released last month found 75% of citizens are against genetic engineering of plants and animals. Aware of voter suspicions, members of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s junior coalition partner, the Social Democrats, have already come out against the deal, which would turn Bayer into the biggest supplier of farm chemicals. Monsanto, which has a market value of $42 billion, said Thursday it’s studying the offer. Neither party has disclosed the terms. A merger would “strengthen the economic power of genetic engineering in Germany, which we see as very problematic as the majority of the population in Germany is opposed to the technology,” said Elvira Drobinski-Weiss, the lawmaker responsible for formulating policy positions on genetic engineering for the Social Democrats.
BASF four years ago abandoned research into genetically modified crops in Germany, citing a lack of acceptance of the technology in many parts of Europe from consumers, farmers and politicians. The German company moved the unit to the U.S. and halted development of products targeted for Europe to focus on crops for the Americas and Asia. “There’s virtually no market for genetically modified seeds in Europe because they’re so unpopular,” said Dirk Zimmermann, a GMO expert at Greenpeace in Hamburg. A deal combining Bayer and Monsanto would “hurt the future of sustainable agriculture.”
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The EU is good for something after all. The pro-Roundup arguments get an eery left field feel to them though: “We use it for some farming practices such as no-till and minimum-tillage, helping to ensure less greenhouse gas emissions and soil erosion.”
• EU Declines To Renew Glyphosate Licence (EUO)
European experts failed again to take a decision on whether to renew a licence for glyphosate, the world’s widest-used weedkiller, during a meeting on Wednesday and Thursday (18-19 May). The EU standing committee on plants, animals, food and feed (Paff), which brings together experts of all EU member states, failed to organise a vote. There was no qualified majority for such a decision. The current licence expires on 30 June. The Paff committee was expected to settle on the matter already in March, but postponed the vote after France, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden raised objections, mainly over the impact of glyphosate on human health. The European Commission has since tabled two new proposals, both of which failed to convince the member states.
The health commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis insists that member states decide with a qualified majority because of the controversies involved. A spokesperson said the commission will reflect on the discussions. ”If no decision is taken before 30 June, glyphosate will be no longer authorised in the EU and member states will have to withdraw authorisations for all glyphosate based products”, the spokesperson said. Pekka Pesonen, the secretary general of agriculture umbrella organisation Copa-Cogeca, told EUobserver he regretted the outcome. ”This adds to uncertainty in an already pressured business”, he said. Glyphosate is widely used by European farmers because it is cost-efficient and widely available on the market.
”Without it, production will be jeopardised. This raises questions about food safety, competitiveness of European farmers, as well as our commitments to climate change,” Pesonen said. “We use it for some farming practices such as no-till and minimum-tillage, helping to ensure less greenhouse gas emissions and soil erosion.” ”Glyphosate is also recognised as safe by the EU food safety authority [Efsa]”, he added.
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“It is not legal or moral, it is shameful and it is not a solution. It will cause problems later.”
• Ai Weiwei Says EU’s Refugee Deal With Turkey Is Immoral (G.)
The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei described the EU’s refugee deal with Turkey as shameful and immoral as he unveiled the artistic results of his stay on the Greek island of Lesbos. Speaking in Athens, where the works are going on public display for the first time from Friday, Ai said that although he had seen and experienced extreme and violent conditions in China, he “could never have imagined conditions like this”. Lesbos last year became the main European entry point for tens of thousands of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, but arrivals have fallen dramatically since the implementation of an agreement between Brussels and Ankara to return migrants from the Greek islands to Turkey. Of the agreement, Ai said: “It is not legal or moral, it is shameful and it is not a solution. It will cause problems later.”
The artist told the Guardian: “These people have nothing to do with Europe; they are like people from outer space, but they have to come. They have been pushed out and they are being totally neglected by Europe. They are sleeping in the mud and rain and it is only volunteers giving them food or clothes.” Ai arrived on Lesbos in December, having been invited to stage an exhibition at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens. The island seemed like a good starting point for thinking about ancient Greece and its mythologies, philosophies and values. Instead Ai became caught up in what he said was the biggest, most shameful humanitarian crisis since the second world war. He had told his girlfriend and young son it was a holiday, but five months later he and his studio are still there. He said he has been changed by what he has seen.
“It is such a beautiful island – blue water, sunshine, tourists – and to see the boats come in with desperate children, pregnant women and elderly people, some 90 years old, and they all have fear and they all have it in their eyes … You think: how could this happen? I got completely emotionally involved.” Ai said Europe needed to understand that the refugees were fleeing their countries because they had to. It was leave or die, he said. The exhibition at the MCA, Ai’s first in Greece, includes an enormous collage of 12,030 small pictures taken on his camera phone, documenting his time on the island. He is also exhibiting photographs taken by six Greek amateur photographers, in partnership with the Photographic Society of Mytilene.
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