UK’s Embattled May Faces Huge Anti-Brexit March

British Prime Minister Theresa May has told lawmakers she may not seek passage of her troubled Brexit withdrawal plan in Parliament next week.

The embattled leader, who faces a major protest march in central London on Saturday, wrote to lawmakers Friday night saying she would bring the European Union withdrawal back to Parliament if there seems to be enough backing for it to pass.

“If it appears that there is not sufficient support to bring the deal back next week, or the House rejects it again, we can ask for another extension before 12 April, but that will involve holding European Parliament elections,” she said.

May’s changing stance reflects the plan’s dismal chances in the House of Commons after two prior defeats.

She also says she would need the approval of House Speaker John Bercow to bring the plan back for a third time despite his objections. Bercow has said a third vote would violate parliamentary rules unless the plan is altered.

May said in her letter to lawmakers that if the deal is approved, Britain will leave the EU on May 22, a date agreed with EU officials.

Lawmakers have twice rejected the deal and haven’t shown any clear swing toward endorsing it in recent days. Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union on April 12 if no deal is approved.

Pro-Brexit forces are also girding for the possible political impact of a planned march in central London in support of holding a second referendum that would give British voters the option of remaining in the EU despite the 2016 vote in favor of leaving.

The organizers of the “People’s Vote March” predict that one of Britain’s largest-ever protest marches will grip central London. More than 4 million people endorsed an electronic petition this week in favor of revoking Article 50, the act that formally triggered the Brexit process.

The march will conclude outside Parliament, which remains divided over Brexit. No consensus on a way forward has emerged despite weeks of extensive debate.

May told lawmakers in her letter that Britain still has options including an extension that would require taking part in European Parliament elections in May.

She also said Britain could revoke Article 50 but characterized that as a betrayal of the Brexit vote in favor of severing EU ties.

She also said Britain could leave without a deal.

In a conciliatory tone, the prime minister offered to meet with lawmakers to discuss Brexit policy.

She had offended many legislators with a speech Thursday night that seemed to blame Parliament for the stalled Brexit process.

 

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France Tightens Security in 19th Week of Yellow Vest Protests

The French government vowed to strengthen security as yellow vest protesters stage a 19th round of demonstrations, in an effort to avoid a repeat of last week’s riots in Paris.

Authorities banned protests Saturday from the capital’s Champs-Elysees avenue and central areas of several cities including Bordeaux, Toulouse, Marseille and Nice in the south, and Rouen in western France.

 

In Paris, some yellow vests protesters were gathering Saturday morning on Trocadero plaza, next to the Eiffel Tower. Others issued calls for a demonstration from the Denfert-Rochereau plaza, in southern Paris, to tourist hotspot Montmartre in the north.

 

The new Paris police chief, Didier Lallement, who took charge following last week’s protests, said specific police units have been created to react faster to any violence.

 

About 6,000 police officers are deployed in the capital and two drones are helping to monitor the demonstrations.

 

Authorities also deployed soldiers to protect sensitive sites and allow police forces to focus on maintaining order during the protests. 

 

President Emmanuel Macron on Friday dismissed criticism from opposition leaders regarding the involvement of the military. 

 

“Those trying to scare people, or to scare themselves, are wrong,” he said in Brussels.

 

The French government announced new security measures this week and replaced the Paris police chief with Lallement following riots on the Champs-Elysees that left luxury stores ransacked and charred from arson fires.

 

Last week’s surge in violence came as the 4-month-old anti-government movement has been dwindling. 

The protests started in November to oppose fuel tax hikes but have expanded into a broader rejection of Macron’s economic policies, which protesters say favor businesses and the wealthy over ordinary French workers.

 

The yellow vest movement was named after the fluorescent garments that French motorists must carry in their vehicles for emergencies.

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Architect’s Solution to Housing Shortage is Pre-Fab Homes

There is a housing crisis in many parts of the developed world. Low-cost housing is disappearing, rents and mortgages are going up, and that’s slowly destroying the middle-class dream of owning a home. But one British architect is showing off a simple way to solve the problem. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.

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How US States Are Richer Than Some Foreign Nations

The United States is an economic powerhouse.

As the largest economy in the world, the U.S. produced $20.5 trillion worth of goods and services — known as its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) — in 2018. That’s impressive when you consider that the total GDP for the entire world was about $80 trillion in 2017.

In fact, every U.S. state has a GDP that makes it as powerful, economically, as a foreign nation.

California is the state with the highest GDP in the country. Its $2.97 trillion economy is on par with Britain, which has a GDP of $2.81 trillion. The UK needed 14.5 million workers — 75 percent more than California used — to produce the same economic output. On its own, California is the fifth-largest economy in the world.

The GDP of Texas ($1.78 trillion) is equivalent to the economy of Canada ($1.73 trillion), while New York’s GDP ($1.70 trillion) matches up to South Korea ($1.66 trillion).

Even the smaller U.S. states can hold their own. Wyoming, the smallest U.S. state population-wise, with fewer than 600,000 residents, has a GDP of $41 billion, which is about the same as Jordan’s, a country of 9 million people.

Mark J. Perry, an economics and finance professor at the University of Michigan, and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, used data from the U.S. Department of Commerce and the International Monetary Fund for his analysis comparing the GDP’s of U.S. states to entire countries.

He says those numbers are a testament to the “world-class productivity of the American workforce,” and a reminder of “how much wealth, output and prosperity is being created every day in the largest economic engine there has ever been in human history.”

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US Government Posts $234 Billion Deficit in February

The U.S. federal government posted a $234 billion budget deficit in February, according to data released Friday by the Treasury Department.

Analysts polled by Reuters had expected a $227 billion deficit for the month.

The Treasury said federal spending in February was $401 billion, up 8 percent from the same month in 2018, while receipts were $167 billion, up 7 percent compared to February 2018.

The deficit for the fiscal year to date was $544 billion, compared with $391 billion in the comparable period the year earlier.

When adjusted for calendar effects, the deficit was $547 billion for the fiscal year to date versus $439 billion in the comparable prior period.

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GM Announces Jobs, Electric Vehicle After Trump Criticism

Less than a week after a series of critical tweets from the president over an Ohio plant closure, General Motors is announcing plans to add 400 jobs and build a new electric vehicle at a factory north of Detroit.

The company says it will spend $300 million at its plant in Orion Township, Michigan, to manufacture a Chevrolet vehicle based on the battery-powered Bolt.

GM wouldn’t say when the new workers will start or when the new vehicle will go on sale, nor would it say if the workers will be new hires or come from a pool of laid-off workers from the planned closings of four U.S. factories by January.

The company also announced plans Friday to spend about another $1.4 billion at U.S. factories with 300 more jobs but did not release a time frame or details.

The moves come after last weekend’s string of venomous tweets by President Donald Trump condemning GM for shutting its small-car factory in Lordstown, Ohio, east of Cleveland. During the weekend, Trump demanded that GM reopen the plant or sell it, criticized the local union leader and expressed frustration with CEO Mary Barra.

GM spokesman Dan Flores would not answer questions about Trump but said the investment has been in the works for weeks. Indeed, GM has said it planned to build more vehicles off the underpinnings of the Bolt, which can go an estimated 238 miles on a single electric charge. The company has promised to introduce 20 new all-electric vehicles globally by 2023.

In November, GM announced plans to shut the four U.S. factories and one in Canada. About 3,300 workers in the U.S. would lose their jobs, as well as 2,600 in Canada. Another 8,000 white-collar workers were targeted for layoff. The company said the moves are necessary to stay financially healthy as GM faces large capital expenditures to shift to electric and autonomous vehicles.

Plants slated for closure include Lordstown; Detroit-Hamtramck, Michigan; Warren, Michigan; White Marsh, Maryland, near Baltimore and Oshawa, Ontario near Toronto. The factories largely make cars or components for them, and cars aren’t selling well these days with a dramatic consumer shift to trucks and SUVs. With the closures, GM is canceling multiple car models due to slumping sales, including the Chevrolet Volt plug-in gas-electric hybrid.

GM has said it can place about 2,700 of the laid-off U.S. workers at other factories, but it’s unclear how many will uproot and take those positions. More than 1,100 have already transferred, and others are retiring.

The United Auto Workers has sued GM over the closings, which still must be negotiated with the union.

Trump’s latest GM tweet on Monday said GM should: “Close a plant in China or Mexico, where you invested so heavily pre-Trump,” and “Bring jobs home!”

Ohio and the area around the Lordstown plant are important to Trump’s 2020 re-election bid. The state helped push him to victory in 2016, and Trump has focused on Lordstown, seldom mentioning the other U.S. factories that GM is slated to close.

Barra has said that she sees no further layoffs or plant closures through the end of 2020.

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Hungary Under Fire as US Pledges Support for NGOs, Media

European allies of the outspoken Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban have taken the rare step of suspending his Fidesz party from their center-right alliance in Brussels, citing concerns over the rule of law and attacks on European Union officials. However, the European People’s Party (EPP) stopped short of expelling the party.

Fidesz campaign slogans for the upcoming European Parliament elections feature personal attacks on the head of the EU Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, and the U.S.-based financier George Soros. Prime Minister Orban accuses them of conspiring to force Hungary to accept mass migration.

His spokesman Zoltán Kovács told VOA in a recent interview that the suspension will not change the government’s course.

“If it’s about the fundamental issues, that is migration, the defense of European Christian values, we are not ready to compromise,” Kovács said.

Democracy at risk

It is the fundamental issues of democracy that Hungary’s Western allies accuse the government of putting at risk.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Budapest last month and pledged to increase American engagement in the region. Before his meeting with Orban, he held talks with several non-governmental organizations, among them the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union. The group’s Stefania Kapronczay was at the meeting.

“It was very important both symbolically, and it was a message about democracy,” she told VOA.

The U.S. State Department pledged support for Hungarian NGOs and free media, though no further details have been released. Kovács says the government is unimpressed.

“We don’t believe that we shall be giving lectures and tell other people actually and other countries how to behave. And that’s what we expect from our allies. NGOs are not entitled to participate in political decision-making. That has never been an assignment for them. And there is no democratic mandate behind it.”

Changing EU

Such a position is part of the government’s attempt to stifle criticism and shut down debate, Kapronczay argues.

“The Hungarian government systematically demolishes the rule of law, independent institutions. And the system of checks and balances where government power can be controlled is basically nonexistent in the country. Basically, anyone who dissents or who dares to criticize the government faces stigmatization through the media and press statements from government officials.”

The Fidesz party’s suspension from the EPP will weaken its hand in Brussels. However, the Orban government believes things will change after the May elections.

“We all know, everyone knows in the European political sphere, that the political arithmetic in Europe is going to change,” Kovács said.

That could see Hungary team up with like-minded far right parties in countries like Italy, Poland and France, a move that would reshape the power dynamics of Brussels.

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Hungary Under Fire From Allies as US Pledges Support for Free Media

European allies of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban have suspended his party from their center-right alliance in Brussels, citing concerns over the rule of law and attacks on EU leaders. It follows a pledge by the United States to support free media and civil society groups in Hungary, who say they are under attack from the government. Orban has refuted such claims and hopes the European Parliament elections in May change the power dynamics of the bloc. Henry Ridgwell reports.

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Tribes Call for Ban on Drilling Near Sacred New Mexico site

Native American leaders are banding together to pressure U.S. officials to ban oil and gas exploration around a sacred tribal site that features massive stone structures and other remnants of an ancient civilization but are facing the Trump administration’s pro-drilling stance. 

Creating a formal buffer around Chaco Culture National Historical Park has been a long-running issue, but tribes are pushing for further protections as U.S. officials revamp the management plan for the area surrounding the world heritage site as well as large portions of northwestern New Mexico and southern Colorado.

Federal officials repeatedly have denied drilling leases within a 10-mile (16-kilometer) radius of the park as tribes, environmentalists and archaeologists have raised concerns about the potential effects on culturally significant sites like ceremonial structures called kivas outside Chaco’s boundaries. 

A thousand years ago, the site was a ceremonial and economic hub for the Pueblo people, historians say. 

Solidarity among tribes

Tribes gathered Thursday at Acoma Pueblo, a Native American community about 60 miles (97 kilometers) west of Albuquerque, amid an All Pueblo Council of Governors meeting to reaffirm support for protecting the land.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, head of the largest American Indian reservation, sat among pueblo governors and said it’s only right that they support each other, just as their ancestors did.

“Navajo culture and tradition dictate respect for our relatives who have come before us,” he said. “As Native people, we are connected to the land, and it is important to preserve the dwellings and the belongings of the ancient ones.”

The tribes want specific language in a U.S. Bureau of Land Management plan that would prevent drilling near the park, instead of protesting four times a year when the energy industry requests lease sales on certain parcels.

 Pueblo council Chairman E. Paul Torres said the threat to Chaco, which he called the “heart of pueblo culture,” is financially driven. 

 

“On our side, it has nothing to do with money,” said Torres, who also is the Isleta Pueblo governor. “It has to do with where we come from. These sites, to us, are living sites because the spirits are still there.”

Communicating the importance of the sites to non-Native people is challenging because the stories are sacred knowledge not shared outside tribal communities, said Phoebe Suina, who is Cochiti and San Felipe.

She thinks about her young children who have visited Chaco Canyon and of future generations, mindful of the legacy she would leave if she didn’t work to protect the larger landscape. 

“We’re put in that role as living beings of our ancestors,” she said. “We have this time, this life, what are we going to do with it? At least we are trying.”

​Aggressive public land development

President Donald Trump’s administration has pushed aggressively to open more public lands to energy development. It also went against the wishes of tribes and others by scaling back two national monuments in Utah that protected tribal artifacts and other sensitive land. 

Lawmakers and tribal leaders said at a congressional committee hearing this month that a 2017 Trump administration review of lands protected nationwide by past presidents didn’t take tribal interests into account despite some of the lands being sacred to them.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico said Thursday that legislation will be reintroduced soon in Congress to safeguard the land around Chaco Canyon. He said he would not trust the Trump administration to include protections in the federal plan for the area.

“Let’s not leave Chaco to the whims of one administration or another,” he said. “We have a sense that this place is incredibly important and deserves protection.”

New Mexico State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard said an executive order from her office is expected next month that would make state land around Chaco off-limits to any new oil, gas and mineral leases. Most of the land surrounding the park is federal and tribal land. 

Accessible only by dirt roads, Chaco takes effort to reach, and supporters say they want to protect the sense of remoteness that comes with making the journey, along with the ancient features that remain.

Acoma Pueblo Gov. Brian Vallo sees Chaco in the way his pueblo is set up, with homes, ceremonial structures, ladders and lookout points in much of the same places. Growing up, he said he heard the migration story of the Acoma people who were at Chaco Canyon before settling in the present-day location. 

“To me, it was the center of where the intelligence of our ancestors evolved,” he said. “It was the place where we observed solar and lunar cycles, all of that was tested at Chaco.”

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UNESCO Campaign Tackles Racism 

The Paris-based U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization on Thursday launched a campaign to fight prejudice. The move coincided with International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Begun with the French city of Bordeaux, the UNESCO billboard campaign features a variety of faces — old and young, men and women, and of many ethnic backgrounds. The tagline, “us different?” aims to make us think about who we are, and our prejudices.

 

“You would walk by it and hopefully react. … [Is that] person on the screen different?” said Magnus Magnusson, partnerships and outreach director at UNESCO’s social and human science division.

Mindful of stereotypes

“Ultimately, it’s about our own awareness of our own stereotypes, and we need to work, each one of us, on those stereotypes that could illustrate or be reflections on racism,” he said.

The campaign rollout comes at a time when experts say brazen forms of racism are resurging — in sports, on social media and in politics.

The initiative follows last week’s mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, in which a self-proclaimed white nationalist opened fire on worshippers at two mosques. Fifty people were killed. The suspect has been charged with murder.  

 

Migration is one factor behind the increase in racist incidents, experts say, but so is the power of social media in spreading and enforcing stereotypes.

 

Activists are fighting back. A round-table hosted by UNESCO featured imaginative ways to counter prejudice, including through chess. 

 

Cameroonian artist Gaspard Njock fights it with his pen. He’s the author of comic books and graphic novels sold in bookstores across France. 

Versatile medium

 

Njock said comics can be a powerful tool to fight racism, because it’s a medium that reaches all types of people and can tackle important themes. 

 

One of Njock’s graphic novels, Un voyage sans retour, is about the dangerous migration of sub-Saharan migrants to Europe. Njock arrived in Europe several years ago, making his way to France after a few years in Italy. 

Njock said he never considered himself a victim of racism — not because he never encountered it, but because he developed ways to fight it.

Magnusson of UNESCO said education is key to wiping out racism. So is being more aware of how we think and feel.

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Malaysian Leader in Pakistan to Sign $900M in Investment Deals 

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad arrived Thursday in Pakistan on an official three-day visit, where his high-powered delegation is expected to finalize investment deals worth nearly $900 million, officials said. 

 

The Malaysian leader will also be the chief guest at the Pakistan Day military parade Saturday, the Foreign Ministry announced. 

 

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s adviser on commerce told reporters that business leaders accompanying Mahathir would sign three memorandums of understanding on Friday covering up to $900 million worth of investments in information technology and telecom sectors.  

The adviser, Razak Dawood, said the deals with Malaysia would also provide Pakistan a new opening toward membership in the Association of South East Asian Nations. He said Malaysian businessmen had also indicated they would like to invest in other sectors, including energy and textiles, to help Pakistan improve its exports. 

 

Officials said that Malaysia’s Proton carmaker signed an agreement late last year with a Pakistani partner to set up an assembly plant in the southern city of Karachi that would be its first facility in South Asia. Khan and his Malaysian counterpart are expected to officiate at a symbolic groundbreaking of the Proton plant Friday.

Looking for investors

Since taking office last August, Khan has approached nations that have warm relations with Pakistan, including China, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Malaysia, to bring investment and financial deposits to help reduce a widening current account deficit and shore up foreign reserves.  

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have deposited or are in the process of depositing $6 billion in loans in recent months. The two countries have also agreed to allow Islamabad to import oil on deferred payments. China is expected to deposit more than $2 billion in the next few days. 

 

Beijing has invested more than $19 billion over the past six years in energy and infrastructure projects under what is known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, as part of its global Belt and Road Initiative. 

 

Last month, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman visited Islamabad and signed investment agreements worth $20 billion, including a $10 billion refinery and petrochemicals complex in the southwestern port city of Gwadar. 

 

Pakistani officials say they are also close to securing a deal with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout package reportedly of up to $12 billion.

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US Labor Market Solid; Manufacturing Sector Slowing

The number of Americans filing applications for unemployment benefits fell more than expected last week, pointing to still strong labor market conditions, though the pace of job growth has slowed after last year’s robust gains.

Other data on Thursday showed a measure of factory activity in the mid-Atlantic region rebounding sharply this month after falling into negative territory in February for the first time in more than 2-1/2 years. But manufacturers’ perceptions about the outlook were the least favorable in three years and their expectations for capital spending were also less upbeat.

These findings support the view that the manufacturing sector is slowing in line with softening economic growth.

The Federal Reserve held interest rates steady on Wednesday and its policymakers abandoned projections for further rate increases this year, noting that “growth of economic activity has slowed from its solid rate in the fourth quarter.”

“The U.S. economy has clearly slowed and will cause job growth to moderate, which isn’t alarming as long as it is orderly,” said Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 9,000 to a seasonally adjusted 221,000 for the week ended March 16, the Labor Department said on Thursday. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims falling to 225,000 in the latest week. Claims have been drifting in the middle of their 200,000-253,000 range this year.

The four-week moving average of initial claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, rose 1,000 to 225,000 last week.

The claims data covered the survey week for the nonfarm payrolls portion of March’s employment. The four-week average of claims fell 11,000 between the February and March survey periods, suggesting a pickup in job growth after hiring almost stalled last month.

Nonfarm payrolls increased by only 20,000 jobs in February, the fewest since September 2017. The slowdown followed big gains in December and January. Average job growth has moderated to about 165,500 per month from 223,250 per month in 2018.

Despite the slowdown in employment growth, the labor market remains solid. The unemployment rate is at 3.8 percent and annual wage growth in February was the strongest since 2009.

The step-down in hiring reflects a shortage of workers and softening economic growth as the stimulus from a $1.5 trillion tax cut package fades. A trade war between the United States and China, slowing global growth and uncertainty over Britain’s exit from the European Union are also hurting domestic activity.

Ebbing momentum

The slow growth theme was also underscored by another report on Thursday from the Conference Board showing its leading economic index, which measures future U.S. economic activity, rose in February for the first time in five months.

February’s 0.2 percent increase in the leading indicator followed an unchanged reading in January.

The leading indicator’s growth rate has slowed in the past six months, which the Conference Board said suggested “that while the economy will continue to expand in the near-term, its pace of growth could decelerate by year end.”

Gross domestic product estimates for the first quarter are as low as a 0.4 percent annualized rate. The economy grew at a 2.6 percent pace in the fourth quarter.

The dollar firmed against a basket of currencies while stocks on Wall Street rose. U.S. Treasury prices were generally higher.

In a third report on Thursday, the Philadelphia Fed said its business conditions index jumped to 13.7 in March from -4.1 in February, which was the first negative reading since May 2016.

But the survey’s measure of new orders received by factories in the region, which covers eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware, rebounded moderately from negative territory in February and unsold goods piled up.

In addition, the survey’s six-month business conditions index dropped to a reading of 21.8 this month, the lowest since February 2016, from 31.3 in February. Its six-month capital expenditures index fell to a reading of 19.5 in March from 31.7 in the prior month. The index dropped below 20 for the first time since 2016.

“The details within the report were much more of a mixed bag, and more downbeat than one might think given the solid improvement in the headline reading,” said Daniel Silver, an economist at JPMorgan in New York.

These readings are in line with other surveys showing signs of slowing national factory activity. A report from the New York Fed last week showed a gauge of factory activity in New York state dropped to a two-year low in March.

The Philadelphia Fed survey also showed more factories experiencing difficulty finding workers, which could weigh on production in the future. Nearly 74 percent of the firms reported labor shortages, up from 63.8 percent last year.

Just over half of the companies also reported they had positions that have remained vacant for more than 90 days. That compared to 47.8 percent in 2018.

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