THE Women of Europe Awards last week thought her a rightful winner. Set up to honour women who promote European ideas and values, such as democracy, inclusion and diversity through their daily work, outgoing German chancellor Angela Merkel was named Woman in Power, for steering the European Union through tricky times like the Great Recession and coronavirus pandemic.

Not everyone of course agreed with the decision made by the awards’ organisers, the European Movement International and the European Women’s Lobby. For its part, the Daily Telegraph here in the UK – perhaps unsurprisingly – described Merkel’s legacy as “woeful” calling her a “great divider” that “leaves behind a ­geriatric Germany and an enfeebled ­Europe”.

Even the Telegraph’s most ­devoted ­readers however couldn’t have failed to notice a certain irony in the ­paper’s ­denunciation of the German ­chancellor given the current state of the UK ­Government and its leader Boris ­Johnson, but hey when was anything ­complimentary ever said about Germany out of London?

Certainly, it’s been a tumultuous time of late in Germany, not least given that the country has hit its highest level of Covid infections since the pandemic ­began ­putting unprecedented strain on hospitals.

Then there was the small matter of the departing chancellor’s choice of a popular East German punk song at a ceremony to honour her time in office, that raised almost as many eyebrows as Merkel’s ­announcement to hold a vote on ­mandatory vaccinations against ­Covid-19.

Having already laid out regulations that will severely curb access to public as well as private activities for those who are ­unvaccinated, Merkel and chancellor-designate Olaf Scholz announced that they had paved the way for measures to hold a vote in the Bundestag on whether to make vaccines mandatory, which would be likely from February.

And speaking of moving into new ­political territory, what now can the world expect from the German political arena after Merkel steps down this week and the country moves into the realm of what has been dubbed a “traffic-light” coalition government?

It’s now been almost two months since September’s federal elections which were followed by intense negotiations which have culminated in a deal to form ­Germany’s next government.

With the coalition named after their ­traditional colours, the victorious ­centre-left SPD (red) will now provide the next chancellor, Olaf Scholz, while sharing power with the Greens (whose ­co-leader, Annalena Baerbock, is to be foreign ­minister) and the yellow-flagged, ­pro-business FDP, whose leader Christian Lindner will serve as finance minister.

What then does this tell us of ­Germany’s future political direction of travel under this three-party government? Well, part of the answer to that can be gleaned for now from the 177 pages and 52,000 words of the coalition deal, unveiled in Berlin last week, that lays out a policy agenda for the next four years albeit still to be signed off by party members.

Even if the country’s new coalition partners have struggled to reach ­consensus on everything from taxes to pensions to ­climate change there still appears one thing that unites them. That common ­denominator for now at least would seem to be a desire to be the country’s most socially progressive government in more than a generation.

The coalition deal contains a range of proposals on which the parties have found common ground and designed to please libertarians and progressives.

Among a raft of legislative proposals in the agreement are plans to ­liberalise ­­Germany’s archaic citizenship laws, shrink the size of the German parliament, give 16-year-olds the vote, raise the ­minimum wage to €12, expand gay and trans rights, ban mass video surveillance in German cities and legalise cannabis. The environment too, as Die Welt ­newspaper stressed recently in an ­editorial, is of “central concern”.

But as with most coalitions there will always be points of difference and this one is no exception. If there is a notable chink in the armour of agreement, then it most likely lies in the economic ­dimension and fiscal policy.

Talk of a future decade of investment has many Germans asking where the money will come from. After 16 years of a Merkel era of relative economic stability these are changed times.

That said, Germany too is changing – a new era beckons.

IRAN - Efforts to save nuclear deal at crucial juncture 

The National:

IT was not what you would call the most auspicious of starts to a resumption of talks. Barely two days after recent negotiations resumed to revive the moribund 2015 Iran nuclear deal, news surfaced that Tehran’s regime had started enriching uranium with advanced centrifuges at its underground Fordow plant northeast of the city of Qom. 

“I have to tell you,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “recent moves, recent rhetoric, don’t give us a lot of cause for optimism.” 

The gloomy outlook delivered by Blinken at a recent meeting of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is shared by many, who say that Tehran is playing a dangerous game as efforts to save the deal reach a crucial juncture. 

The Iran nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has effectively been on diplomatic life support since former US President Donald Trump announced that America was stepping away from the arrangement in 2018. 

While Trump’s successor President Joe Biden entered office pledging to re-join the agreement and remove many sanctions if Iran returned to full compliance, nearly a year on there is a real sense of impatience with Tehran’s contradictory positioning and actions. 

While there are various reasons why the deal is under threat, some observers say that one of the biggest problems is that Iran’s senior diplomats are not the men for the job.  
Writing recently in Foreign Policy magazine, Iran specialist and researcher, Sajjad Safaei of Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, detailed those he says are as much part of the problem as they are part of a solution in reviving the deal.  

Among those top Iranian officials Safaei identifies as problematic is Iran’s new Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian (pictured above) who is said to have “at times espoused erroneous views about the 2015 deal and how EU-US ties figure within the context of the agreement”.  

Then there is Ali Bagheri Kani, described as Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi’s “point man” in the current nuclear talks and said to have “a long track record of staunch and open hostility to the deal he is now tasked with reviving”. 

So far it would seem that Tehran’s negotiating team is sticking to what has been described as “maximalist positions,” notably demanding a guarantee that no US administration would be able to unilaterally withdraw from the accord in the future and that all sanctions, not just those imposed by Trump, are lifted before Iran begins to reverse its nuclear gains.  

While most international observers would agree that Iran’s desire for such guarantees may simply be to strengthen its position at the negotiating table – and be understandable following Trump’s reckless attempt to destroy an international agreement that Iran was complying with – this is tantamount to a game of high-risk diplomatic poker right now.  

Tehran it seems might have already over played its hand leaving any attempt at reviving the deal dead in the water.

Here’s hoping that’s not the case, for it would only make the world a far more dangerous place.

UNITED STATES - Biden restarts contentious Trump-era border programme

The National:

THERE’S trouble afoot for the Biden administration down Mexico way. Washington’s restarting of a contentious Trump-era border programme that forces asylum seekers to wait in Mexico looks set to give the White House a few political headaches in the weeks ahead. 

It was all a very different story of course when Biden, soon after his inauguration in January, ended the Trump policy known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP). The new US president did so as part of a promise to implement what he called a more humane approach to immigration.  

But then enter Republican officials in Missouri and Texas who sued Biden’s administration in federal court to prevent the scrapping of what has been dubbed the “Return to Mexico” policy, claiming that it would place an undue burden on them from incoming migrants. 

With a US federal judge upholding their case and ruling that Biden’s rescission did not follow proper procedure an order was given in August to reinstate the policy.  

Starting tomorrow n one border city which has not yet been identified, the US will start returning asylum seekers from other Latin American countries to Mexico where they will be obliged to wait while their case is assessed.   It’s expected that the policy will then be rolled out across seven locations including San Diego and Calexico in California; Nogales, Arizona; and the Texas border cities of Brownsville, Eagle Pass, El Paso, and Laredo.   

It was this same policy which previously meant many people were left waiting in limbo in Mexico while their fate was determined, a situation human rights groups have said leaves them vulnerable to criminal gangs. 

According to the charity Human Rights First, there have been more than 1500 publicly reported cases of kidnapping, rape, torture, and other abuses against migrants returned to Mexico. 

Such was the negative impact of the move previously that in October it led to the US Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas saying that the Trump programme had “endemic flaws” and “unjustifiable human costs”.  

Responding these past few days to the policy’s reinstatement, the American Immigration Council described it as a dark day for the US and the rule of law. 

For now, the Biden administration is appealing against the decision. That, however, will be of little consolation to the thousands of vulnerable asylum seekers from across Latin America caught in this bureaucratic and terrifying physical trap.

THE GAMBIA - Hotly contested poll decided by marbles

The National:

The marbles made their mass appearance again yesterday, a sure-fire sign that this small west African country’s presidency was up for grabs. Yes, Gambia where democracy has improved in recent years is a country with a unique election system that forgoes ballot papers in favour of marbles. 

Turn up here at a polling station as a registered voter and you will be given a marble by election officials which you then drop down a tube into a drum painted in the colour of the various parties contesting the ballot.  

At the end of the day the marbles are tallied just as ballot papers would be in a system that came into being after Gambia’s independence in 1965 when the country had a high illiteracy rate. 

Marbles or not the stakes are high in this election which will mark the first time voters decide who runs the country since the electoral defeat of former president Yahya Jammeh in 2016 ended his 22-year dictatorship. 

Even from exile in Equatorial Guinea, the former president is trying to cast his shadow over the polls and Jammeh’s mark on the country is everywhere.  

His face is still on the Gambia’s dalasi currency, and his oppressive regime’s tactics compiled by the country’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) culminated in a report that now sits on the desk of current president Adama Barrow.

While at the time of writing most expect Barrow to win, his re- election would not be without controversy. 

Having given a commitment to leaving power after three years – a vow that convinced many Gambians to vote for him in 2016 – this has subsequently morphed into a broken promise.  

No longer merely a “transitional president” this has alienated some voters especially among the young. Barrow also pledged to prosecute his predecessor Jammeh for alleged atrocities but then joined forces with the dictator’s old party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction, in September to consolidate his support base. 

That tactical alliance has made it a little harder for observers to foresee who will win and given rise to fears among some Gambians that Jammeh might return. 

But whether Barrow’s political deviance will be enough to bring about his undoing given the improvements he has brought to the country remains to be seen. 

We will have to wait until all the marbles are counted to find out for sure.