Today’s collection of headlines form the realms of economics, politics, and the environment begins with a tale of sobering implications from RT:

Self-organizing robot armies produced – and all thanks to ingenious termite logic

Harvard ‘brainiacs’ are at it again. Inspired by termites, they have realized their dream of cheap, expendable, self-organizing robots – a construction crew building complex structures at a quick pace, and completely independent of leadership.

The possibilities are vast. The machines can be made to build any three-dimensional structure on their own and with minimal instruction. But what is truly staggering is their ability to adapt to their work environment and to each other; to calculate losses, reorganize efforts and make adjustments. It is already clear that the development will do wonders for humanity in space, hard-to-reach places and other difficult situations.

Looking at huge mounds of soil and the resilience of hordes of termites building them, working for a common cause, while their comrades die, the techies and engineers at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University have created an army of little bots that do just that. And they cooperate and learn with no oversight.

And the world into which these shiny new arnies are born? From The Independent:

One in four Americans ‘don’t know the Earth orbits the Sun’ and only half believe in evolution

With the possible exception of ‘is the earth flat?’ it is (according to Discover magazine at least) the most basic question in science: ‘does the earth orbit the sun?’

The good news is that 74 per cent of Americans know the answer.

The very bad news is that means 26 per cent really don’t.

These results, which appear in the National Science Foundation (NSF) survey of 2,200 Americans, will form part of a report set to be presented to Barack Obama and lawmakers in congress, and are likely to once again raise the issue of educational standards in the United States.

Other startling results from the survey included that only 39 per cent of Americans believe “the universe began with a huge explosion”. And fewer than half of the people surveyed (48 per cent) agreed that “human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals”.

As for those creationism believers, they’ve gotten so bad that even Pat Robertson thinks they’re bonkers [via Right Wing Watch]:

RWW News: Even Pat Robertson Attacks Creationism As A “Joke”

From JapanToday, an American initiative with legs:

U.S. drug policy fuels push for legal pot worldwide

From the Americas to Europe to North Africa and beyond, the marijuana legalization movement is gaining unprecedented traction — a nod to successful efforts in Colorado, Washington state and the small South American nation of Uruguay, which in December became the first country to approve nationwide pot legalization.

Leaders long weary of the drug war’s violence and futility have been emboldened by changes in U.S. policy, even in the face of opposition from their own conservative populations. Some are eager to try an approach that focuses on public health instead of prohibition, and some see a potentially lucrative industry in cannabis regulation.

“A number of countries are saying, ‘We’ve been curious about this, but we didn’t think we could go this route,’” said Sam Kamin, a University of Denver law professor who helped write Colorado’s marijuana regulations. “It’s harder for the U.S. to look at other countries and say, ‘You can’t legalize, you can’t decriminalize,’ because it’s going on here.”

That’s due largely to a White House that’s more open to drug war alternatives.

There’s also an argument to be made from the employment angle, as Britain’s ITN discovered:

Pot employees in demand in the US

Program note:

Hemp temps are being sought after due to the rise in the demand for pot. . Report by Jennifer Cordingley.

And from the Toronto Globe and Mail, yet another shift:

Relaxed marijuana rules make Sochi Olympics faster, stronger and way, way higher

Olympic officials take great pride in cracking down on doping and so far no athlete has tested positive at the Sochi Olympics. But officials acknowledge they have had a difficult time dealing with one drug in particular: marijuana.

Technically marijuana is on the World Anti-Doping list of banned drugs, which governs events like the Olympics, because officials consider it to be performance enhancing and a violation of the “spirit of sport”. But in a nod to the growing relaxed attitude toward the drug around the world, the cut off level for a positive test has been increased for the Sochi Games, allowing for some recreational use prior to the Olympics.

The new threshold for the active ingredient in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, has been increased from 15 nanograms per millilitre of urine to 150ng/mls. Officials say that means an athlete who smoked some weed before the Olympics, or inhaled second-hand smoke, wouldn’t likely test positive in Sochi. Someone who failed the new test would have to be “a pretty dedicated cannabis consumer,” WADA officials have said.

Meanwhile, CNBC spots a growth industry:

Helping the rich to become $100 trillion industry

With the global economy creating millionaires and billionaires at breakneck speed, the industry handling their money is about to explode.

Six years from now, the asset management industry, which currently controls about $60 trillion in wealth, will be responsible for more than $100 trillion by 2020, according to a recent study from PricewaterhouseCoopers.

PwC attributes the surge both to a general growth in emerging economies, particularly in Asia.

And the first of two headlines focusing on changes in the Golden State, first from Salon:

San Francisco’s rightward turn: Why it may no longer be America’s iconic liberal city

With an influx of rich people and exodus of poor and middle class, a less liberal San Francisco could soon emerge

And the second headline, from the San Francisco Chronicle:


Are public-employee unions toxic to their candidates?

The real news in the San Diego mayoral race isn’t that a Republican won, but that the candidate backed by public-employee unions lost.

That is a real shift in California politics. And it’s the second time it’s happened in a big-city mayoral race in less than a year.

And from News Corp Australia, an old ghost in a new sheet:

Experts concerned scientific advances are giving rise to ‘neoracism’

ADVANCES in genetic sequencing are giving rise to a new era of scientific racism, experts have said.

New forms of discrimination, known as “neoracism”, are taking hold in scientific research, spreading the belief that races exist and are different in terms of biology, behaviour and culture, according to anthropologists who spoke at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Chicago.

This comes despite decades-long efforts to reverse attitudes that were used to justify the slave trade and the Nazi ideology.

From Al Jazeera America, a loss for labor:

Tennessee Volkswagen workers reject union

Factory workers voted 712 to 626 to prevent the United Auto Workers from representing them

Workers at Volkswagen’s three-year-old factory in Chattanooga, Tenn., voted Friday to reject union representation by the United Auto Workers (UAW), frustrating an effort to revive the waning influence of the labor movement in the South.

The vote tally concluded with 712 voting no, and 626 voting yes.

The UAW’s bid to represent VW’s 1,550 hourly workers faced fierce resistance from local politicians and national conservative groups.

The defeat could scuttle the 400,000-member union’s latest attempt to stem a decades-long decline in membership, revenue and influence. It could reinforce the widely held notion that the UAW is unable to overcome the South’s deep opposition toward organized labor.

And from Bloomberg yet another corporate takeaway:

Companies Squeeze 401K Plans From Facebook to JPMorgan

Employers are squeezing their workers’ retirement savings, holding back on both the amount and the timing of 401(k) matching funds and dragging out vesting schedules. Taken together, these measures are making it more difficult to save for old age.

Major companies that have engaged in such practices in recent years include Whole Foods Market Inc. (WFM), Facebook Inc., Oracle Corp. (ORCL), Caesars Entertainment Corp. and JPMorgan Chase & Co.

The most frugal have been scaling back company matches and setting lower limits for the maximum annual payment they’ll make to a 401(k) account, according to hundreds of government filings analyzed by Bloomberg. A difference of three percentage points on a match can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars lost for employees over the course of their careers.

But the takers aren’t giving, via Bloomberg Businessweek:

Billionaires’ Wealth Is Skyrocketing. Their Philanthropy Is Not

The Chronicle of Philanthropy released its annual “Philanthropy 50″ list this week, detailing the gifts of the most generous donors in America. These individuals are “ditching the caution that marked so much of their giving as the economy stalled and are roaring back” with $7.7 billion in contributions, 4 percent more than in 2012, the publication says.

Giving is up since the financial crisis. But while the stock market has made a complete recovery, top-50 philanthropy has clearly not. And this kind of giving has not nearly kept pace with the rise in American billionaires’ wealth over the past decade. The Forbes 400 list, which tracks the richest people in the U.S., had a total net worth of $955 billion in 2003. By 2013, it had more than doubled, to $2 trillion.

The Bloomberg Billionaires index, which launched in 2012 and tracks the 300 richest people worldwide, saw a $524 billion increase in wealth during 2013 alone. Tech billionaires gained 28 percent on the year, led by Tesla (TSLA) founder Elon Musk, whose wealth climbed 233 percent.

This puts the 4 percent increase the Chronicle of Philanthropy hails in context. At a time when the richest Americans’ wealth is skyrocketing, it’s appropriate to ask whether their giving is skyrocketing as well.

United Press International covers the boom:

Oil boom in Williams County, N.D., leads to high crime, housing costs

The boom in oil production in Williams County, N.D., has resulted in a population increase and an overbooking of the county jail, officials said.

In the 2010 U.S. census, about 14,700 residents lived in Williston, N.D., the seat of Williams County. Today, officials estimate more than 30,000 live in the city and another 50,000 are being served by its infrastructure, the Williston Herald reported Saturday.

The population boom and high-paying oil jobs have led to the highest housing costs in the country.

Apartment Guide said a 700-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment in Williston costs on average $2,394, the highest in the entire country. That’s even higher than New York City, which is No. 7 on the list, and Los Angeles, which is No. 8.

And from the New York Times, the other drug problem:

Medicines Made in India Set Off Safety Worries

India, the second-largest exporter of over-the-counter and prescription drugs to the United States, is coming under increased scrutiny by American regulators for safety lapses, falsified drug test results and selling fake medicines.

Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, the commissioner of the United States Food and Drug Administration, arrived in India this week to express her growing unease with the safety of Indian medicines because of “recent lapses in quality at a handful of pharmaceutical firms.”

India’s pharmaceutical industry supplies 40 percent of over-the-counter and generic prescription drugs consumed in the United States, so the increased scrutiny could have profound implications for American consumers.

F.D.A. investigators are blitzing Indian drug plants, financing the inspections with some of the roughly $300 million in annual fees from generic drug makers collected as part of a 2012 law requiring increased scrutiny of overseas plants. The agency inspected 160 Indian drug plants last year, three times as many as in 2009. The increased scrutiny has led to a flood of new penalties, including half of the warning letters the agency issued last year to drug makers.

Reuters covers a coming cash flow:

Foreign banks bracing for tough U.S. Fed capital rules

Overseas banks look set to win only minor concessions when the Federal Reserve signs off on new capital rules next week, as they become increasingly resigned to the fact that the cost of doing business in the United States will go up.

The Fed, whose board of governors meets on Tuesday, will require overseas banks to hold as much capital in the United States as their local rivals.

The reform is designed to address concerns that U.S. taxpayers will need to foot the bill if European and Asian regulators treat U.S. subsidiaries with low priority if they need to rescue one of their banks.

Foreign banks with sizeable operations on Wall Street such as Deutsche Bank and Barclays have pushed back hard against the plan because it means they will need to transfer costly capital from Europe.

On to Canada and a familiar neocon ploy from the National Post:

Fair Elections Act sure to deprive Canadians of voting rights, U.S. experts warn

A participant in the bruising American battle over voting rights warns that Canada is treading on dangerous ground with its proposed electoral reforms.

One of the lawyers who helped strike down the voter ID law in Pennsylvania last month says legislation tabled by the Harper government will inevitably wind up depriving some people of their voting rights.

That’s why any change to voting requirements should be made with the strictest care, in the spirit of achieving more accurate election results, said Witold Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union for Pennsylvania.

That warning comes from a country where voting rights are an especially emotional subject, for obvious historical reasons. Americans know the issue well. And the impact of ID rules has been studied extensively, re-emerging in recent years as a hotly debated partisan issue.

From Jiji Press, anxiety on the agenda:

G-20 to Focus on Uncertainty over Emerging Economies

Finance ministers and central bank chiefs from the Group of 20 advanced and emerging economies are expected to mainly discuss uncertainty over the course of emerging economies at their two-day meeting in Sydney from Feb. 22.

Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso, also deputy prime minister and financial services minister, regards concerns over emerging economies and the U.S. Federal Reserve’s tapering of its quantitative easing as important issues that the world economy faces.

Since views differ between anxious emerging economies and calm advanced countries, whether the G-20 can hammer out a cooperation framework in a joint statement is a focal point.

Jiji Press again, with another set of talks:

Japan, U.S. to Explore Compromise for TPP Conclusion

At their forthcoming meeting, Akira Amari, Japanese minister in charge of Trans-Pacific Partnership affairs, and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman are expected to sound each other out about the possibility of compromise for an agreement in TPP regional free trade talks.

Amari and Froman are set to hold talks in Washington later on Saturday, ahead of a ministerial meeting of 12 TPP countries in Singapore from Feb. 22.

Japan and the United States remain far apart over tariffs on farm products. In their talks in parallel with multilateral TPP negotiations, Japan is insisting on keeping its tariffs on five key product categories including rice.

And the post-meet update, also from Jiji Press:

Japan, U.S. Fail to Strike Tariff Deal

Japanese and U.S. trade ministers remained apart over tariff issues particularly in the agricultural sector in their talks Saturday linked with multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.

Emerging from the talks with U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman in Washington, which lasted two and a half hours, Akira Amari, Japanese minister in charge of TPP negotiations for regional trade liberalization, told reporters that the two “agreed on the importance of reducing differences in their stances” over the issues.

The Japanese and U.S. sides discussed ways to abolish import duties on individual trading items including agricultural products but “did not reach any numerical agreement,” Amari said.

Toward the upcoming TPP ministerial meeting in Singapore from Feb. 22, the Japanese and U.S. governments will hold working-level talks to narrow the gap, he added.

On to Britain and a disaster update from The Guardian:

UK floods: 5,000 more troops on standby as water continues to rise

Storms ease but severe flood warnings remain in place along Thames and in Somerset, where pumping work continues

An extra 5,000 troops are on standby to support communities hit by flooding, it was announced on Sunday, as the government faced calls for a halt to home building on flood plains.

Large swaths of the UK remain on high alert with severe flood warnings still in place along the Thames and in Somerset where water levels continue to rise despite a respite from the storms.

Defence secretary Philip Hammond said 3,000 troops were currently deployed, and another 5,000 were available. He admitted the armed forces could have been despatched earlier to help.

The London Telegraph tracks a decline:

Downward mobility: Lucy Mangan on the fall of the middle class

The middle classes are being squeezed and stripped – of jobs, income and security – like never before. Lucy Mangan reports on ‘a profound psychological shift in the nation’s heartland’

How to complain about house prices, mortgages and pensions without being accused of being a middle-class whinger? Well, I may be just that, but my worries – and those of millions like me – are very real and need to be heard: they represent a profound psychological shift in the nation’s heartland.

Today the middle classes are being squeezed and stripped – of jobs, income and security – like never before. The landscape ahead has been laid bare by the winds of social, political and technological change. I hardly needed Alan Milburn’s recent report on social mobility, which revealed that for the first time in history middle-class children are likely to end up poorer than their parents, to start worrying about how my son is going to survive out there.

A dis from The Observer:

It’ll take a miracle to restore Barclays’s wrecked reputation now

Antony Jenkins may have tried to do the right thing at Barclays by waiving his own payout, but even the bonus-hungry City is shocked by the bankers’ shameful behaviour

What a difference a year makes. Antony Jenkins was applauded by the City 12 months ago when he set out his strategy for turning Barclays into the “go to” bank by restricting costs and rooting out the bad apples in the investment banking arm.

Remember, it was barely six months after the Libor crisis had shaken Barclays to its core and forced out its top management, including Jenkins’s predecessor, Bob Diamond. Jenkins had said enough to push the bank’s share price up 9% by the end of the day.

Such was his status as the antithesis to Diamond – who was dubbed the “unacceptable face of banking” by Lord Mandelson – that Jenkins ended 2013 with the honour of guest editing the BBC’s flagship Today programme. His halo was given a rub when Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, who also featured in the New Year’s Eve radio show, supported Jenkins’s attempt to clean up Barclays’s act.

Last week the applause stopped. Even though Jenkins had personally tried to do the right thing by waiving his own bonus for 2013 – potentially as much as £2.7m – he stunned even the City with his failure to explain why the bank was paying out 10% more in bonuses in a year when profits collapsed by 32%. The boost was even harder to stomach in the investment bank, once better known as BarCap, where the bonus pot was up 13%, despite the unit reporting losses in the final quarter of the year.

The Financial Express wields the job ax:

Indian-origin ‘chicken king’ may cut thousands of UK jobs

British Indian businessman Ranji Boparan, known as the “chicken king”, is set to axe around 1,800 jobs in the UK as part of a major restructuring of his food business empire.

The Birmingham-based tycoon, known as the “chicken king” for his mega poultry-focused business ‘2 Sisters’, is planning to shut two sites and cut jobs to rein in costs.

The company is one of the largest suppliers of poultry and meat to supermarkets and fast-food chains in the UK. The 47-year-old Boparan’s empire now includes ready meals, pizzas, frozen vegetables and biscuits, and he has 24,000 employees at 50 factories.

The Guardian hints of deflation in the making:

Inflation expected to fall below Bank of England’s 2% target

Anticipated drop to 1.9% will mark the first time inflation has fallen below the target since November 2009

Inflation is expected to have fallen below the Bank of England’s 2% target for the first time in more than four years in January thanks to retailers slashing prices and lower fuel costs.

Many economists believe official figures on Tuesday will reveal a fall in the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) to 1.9% last month from 2% in December, which will mark the first time inflation has dropped below the target since November 2009.

It follows last month’s aggressive discounting by food and general merchandise retailers, with high streets seeing widespread deflation. The British Retail Consortium (BRC) said shop prices fell at their fastest rate last month, falling by 1% against a 0.8% drop in December.

BBC News bubbles away:

Mark Carney says UK housing market in widespread recovery

Bank of England governor Mark Carney says the UK housing market is generally recovering.

Mr Carney told the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme that, looking at the UK as a whole, “we are now seeing house prices begin to recover, so it is a more generalised phenomenon”.

He said the only area where prices had not picked up was Northern Ireland. He also said there was little the bank could do to cool the London market, where prices were rising far faster.

Prices in London are rising by about 10% a year, but Mr Carney said a change in interest rate policy – not on the cards in any case until the recovery is well established – would not cool the market as a significant number of properties were bought without a mortgage.

Sky News casts doubt:

Independent Scotland EU Bid ‘Almost Impossible’

The European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso’s comments have been labelled “preposterous” and “ridiculous” by the SNP.

An independent Scotland joining the European Union would be “extremely difficult, if not impossible”, according to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.

Mr Barroso said if the country voted for independence in a referendum on September 18 it would have to apply for membership and get its bid approved by all current member states.

The Scottish government has said the country would try to gain membership within 18 months of a yes vote. But Mr Barroso suggested this could run into difficulties. “We have seen Spain has been opposing even the recognition of Kosovo, for instance,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.

On to Sweden with TheLocal.se and one xenophobia casualties:

Evicted migrants in serious bus crash

A bus carrying 43 Romanian migrants back to Bucharest crashed in the early hours of Sunday morning in southern Sweden, after they had been evicted from a shanty town in Stockholm.

The accident took place in Alvesta when the bus veered off the national highway 27 shortly after midnight. One person, understood to be the bus driver, was seriously injured and spent the night in a local hospital although his injuries are not considered life threatening.

“It is very, very slippery on the roads in this area. It is completely icy which may have been a cause of the accident,” local policeman Percy Nilsson told the Expressen newspaper.

The other passengers spent the night in a hotel where a spokesperson said they were in shock following the crash.

Finland next and a blotted escutcheon from New Europe:

Finland’s record of transparency blemished by increasing corruption cases

Finland, a Nordic country that has been a model in the world in combating corruption, has witnessed an increase of suspected business related crimes in the past few years.

According to a fresh police report quoted by the Finnish Broadcasting Company Yle, alleged economic crimes have more than doubled over the past six years, from 91 cases in 2009 to 204 in 2013.

The increase was almost entirely due to a rise in cases involving the abuse of authority, which number has doubled since 2012.

Erkki Laukkanen, chief of Transparency International Finland, said the public-private partnerships are “far from transparency, and much more open to corruption.”

On to Amsterdam and expectations unfulfilled from DutchNews.nl:

Cuts and tax rises have an adverse effect on the treasury

Cuts to healthcare benefits in 2012 did not give the government the savings it expected, the national auditor says in a report published on Friday.

The benefits bill shrank by just €98m, while the government expected to save €600m. The €502m shortfall added 0.08% to GDP, says the national auditor, quoted by news agency ANP.

Although the number of households claiming healthcare benefits of up to around €70 a month per person did fall, the average cost per household was up €8. The government was expecting a drop of €50.

The national auditor says the cabinet gave ‘limited’ information to parliament about the shortfall and must keep parliament fully informed about the effects of all the cuts.

On to Switzerland with The Guardian:

Swiss vote on immigration boosts far-right parties through rest of Europe

In Austria, the Freedom party, once led by Jörg Haider, has seen a rise in working-class votes

When Christian Ragger heard that the Swiss had voted to cap immigration into their country in a referendum last weekend, he was “deeply impressed”, he says. “All over the world, immigration is protected [from being limited]. It required a special courage to vote in that way. This was a typically democratic Swiss action.”

Ragger heads the local branch of the Austrian Freedom party (FPÖ) in its mountainous stronghold of Carinthia, in the south of the country. Once led by the flamboyant Jörg Haider, the FPÖ has been called everything from populist to neo-Nazi, yet it would be hard to imagine anyone less like the stereotype of a bull-necked, red-faced Alpine far right-winger than the FPÖ’s trim and cosmopolitan young leader.

TheLocal.ch rejects:

Bern rejects Croat free labour access deal

Switzerland has declined to sign a deal opening labour market access to Croatians, a week after a vote to curb immigration from the EU, the justice department said Saturday.

Swiss Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga called Croatian Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic to inform her that Bern would not be able to sign a bilateral accord extending the right of free access to Switzerland for EU citizens to the bloc’s newest member state “in its current form,” a ministry spokesman said.

Sommaruga had also informed Brussels that the deal would need to be re-examined, spokesman Philippe Schwander told AFP, adding that the minister had stressed she was seeking a “solution” to ensure Croatians were not discriminated against.

Spain next and a worried take from RT:

EU ‘very concerned’ by Spanish police use of rubber bullets to deter migrants

The European Commission wants Spain to account for the drowning of 13 migrants who recently failed to swim to Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in North Africa. Spain earlier admitted that rubber bullets were fired at them, but claimed no one was injured.

“The commission will be requesting explanations from the Spanish authorities on these events,” EU Home Affairs spokesperson Michele Cercone said, adding that the commission has a right to act if there’s evidence that a member state has violated EU laws.

On Thursday, Spanish Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz admitted that local border police, in an effort to turn back around 200 migrants who tried to cross the frontier between Morocco and Spain’s Ceuta on February 6, had indeed fired rubber bullets at them.

While some tried to cross on land, at least thirteen migrants drowned in the Mediterranean trying to swim around a man-made breakwater that separates Moroccan and Spanish waters. Spanish police say they are still searching for more victims.

More from TheLocal.es:

Calls for Spain to end migrant ‘violent’ abuse

A group of Moroccan NGOs has called on Spain and Morocco to end “widespread violence” against illegal immigrants, in a letter to Spain’s ambassador, after 12 people drowned trying to cross their common border.

“We are deeply concerned to see the close cooperation between Spain and Morocco on border control today resulting in… widespread violence against migrants and security practices outside of any legal framework,” the eight NGOs said in the open letter seen by AFP on Friday.

“We ask you to intervene urgently with your government to put an end to these practices,” said the group, with included the Moroccan branch of Caritas and migrant support group GADEM.

A deflation alert from El País:

Inflation at lowest level in over 50 years

Consumer price index up annual 0.2 percent in January

Inflation in Spain in the first month of the year was at its lowest level on record reflecting the ongoing weakness of domestic demand due to high unemployment and falling wages. The National Statistics Institute (INE) on Friday confirmed earlier flash estimates that the consumer price index fell 1.3 percent in January from December as the annual rate slowed from 0.3 percent to 0.2 percent, the lowest level since the INE began compiling the current series in 1961.

Spain pulled out of recession in the third quarter of last year but the contribution of domestic demand to GDP remaining negative.

Annual inflation has now remained under 0.5 percent for the past five months and is well below the euro-zone average in January of 0.7 percent. Analysts have expressed fears of deflation taking a hold on the euro-zone economy as it did in Japan for over a decade. The ECB’s medium-term target for inflation is close to but below 2 percent.

TheLocal.es protests:

Coke staff stage protest over plant closures

Thousands took to the streets in Madrid on Saturday in protest at the closure of four bottling plants of US soft-drink giant Coca-Cola that would affect 1,250 workers.

Demonstrators, some coming from other Spanish cities, carried banners condemning the layoffs and calling for a boycott of Coca-Cola.

Coca-Cola Iberian Partners, the multinational’s only bottling company in Spain, said at the end of January the closures were needed to improve efficiency. But workers argue the layoffs are unjustified since the company is making a profit.

Coca-Cola Iberian Partners, which currently has 4,000 employees on its books, was founded last year by merging the seven bottling companies in Spain

owned by the US brand. Under the restructuring plan, four of the 11 plants in Spain — Fuenlabrada near Madrid, Palma, Oviedo and Alicante — will close.

Of the affected 1,250 jobs, 750 will be axed and 500 relocated to other plants.

El País dings a biggie:

Cabinet approves “Google tax” on use of copyrighted material

Measure included in reform of Intellectual Property Law

The Spanish Cabinet on Friday approved a draft reform of the Intellectual Property Law, which includes a so-called “Google tax” on the use of fragments of “information, opinion and entertainment” grouped together, for example, on search engines.

Presented by Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría and Education and Culture Minister José Ignacio Wert, the reform allows the reproduction of such “non-significant fragments” without prior authorization but requires the payment of “equitable compensation” for doing so, Wert explained. Prior authorization will still be required for the use of photographs. Such a tax already exists in Germany and France.

Wert did not say how “non-significant fragments” would be defined nor how much compensation would be involved.

thinkSPAIN cuts corners:

Judge accuses ADIF rail board of ‘putting profits before lives’ in light of Galicia crash

A JUDGE investigating the devastating train crash just outside Santiago de Compostela last July in which 79 passengers died has slammed the rail board for ‘putting profits before lives’.

According to a court report, the Administrator of Rail Infrastructures (ADIF) decided not to put in place the European-standard ERTMS braking system which automatically slows a train down when it is exceeding the speed limit, instead using the older ASFA system which does not warn the driver when the high-speed AVE line with a limit of 200 kilometres per hour switches to the regional line, where the speed limit is 80 kilometres per hour.

The report says this decision was purely financial and went against the duty of care the rail board has towards its passengers, and questions whether it could be considered ‘suspected criminal behaviour’.

Medical tourism fears from El País:

Government warned Euro-healthcare scheme will lead to longer waiting lists

Officials consider possibility that Spain could become a cheap option for other countries

Spanish patients, like all Europeans, will now be able now choose which EU country to seek treatment in. The Cabinet last week approved a decree that implements an EU directive on cross-border healthcare. Under the system, patients will advance the money for their treatment abroad, but can request a reimbursement from their own country.

The directive aims to go one step beyond the emergency treatment already covered by the European Health Card and let patients choose another member state for specific, non-emergency treatment.

But the initiative has raised questions, such as how many Spaniards will want to get surgery abroad. And how many foreigners will come to Spain for healthcare? Uppermost among people’s concerns is how reimbursement will take place. While some issues are already clear to the Health Ministry, others will have to be decided by the regions.

On to Italy and a Bunga Bunga reincarnation from The Independent:

Silvio Berlusconi’s back… to broker voting reform: Italy’s new PM Matteo Renzi to do a deal with his predecessor

Italy’s head of state President Giorgio Napolitano yesterday set in train his third prime ministerial appointment in less than three years. His most conspicuous meeting was not, however, with soon-to-be premier Matteo Renzi, but with the disgraced tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, who appears to be enjoying yet another unlikely political revival.

Pundits are predicting that the centrist Mr Renzi, dubbed “Italy’s Tony Blair”, could be sworn in as soon as Tuesday. In addition to reviving Italy’s moribund economy the 39-year-old has promised to make a radical overhaul of its flawed electoral and political system his priority, to prevent hung parliaments of the type Italy currently labours under.

But to get a deal on electoral reform through parliament, Mr Renzi is, to the horror of many in his centre-left Democratic Party, doing a deal with convicted tax fraud Berlusconi. Berlusconi, as a convicted criminal, has been expelled from parliament, but still leads the biggest centre-right grouping, Forza Italia.

Reuters issues the call:

President summons center-left’s Renzi as Italy seeks new government

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano summoned Matteo Renzi to a meeting on Monday at which he is expected to ask the center-left leader to form a government that must overhaul one of the most troubled economies in the euro zone.

Napolitano is likely to ask the slick-talking mayor of Florence to form the country’s 65th government since World War Two in the meeting, which a statement from the president’s office said was scheduled for 10.30 a.m. (0930 GMT) in Rome.

Enrico Letta resigned as prime minister on Friday after his Democratic Party (PD) forced him to make way for Renzi, 39, who is promising radical reforms to the euro zone’s third-biggest economy and a government that can survive until 2018.

Renzi would become the youngest prime minister in Italian history.

Renzi would be Italy’s youngest ever prime minister if his bid succeeds and has promised a radical programme of reforms to combat rampant unemployment, boost growth and slash the costs of Italy’s weighty bureaucratic machine. Opinion polls show Renzi enjoys high popularity ratings, mainly because as someone with no experience in national government or parliament he is seen as a welcome breath of fresh air in Italy’s discredited political system.

An uptick from the Associated Press:

Moody’s upgrades outlook for Italy’s govt bonds

Moody’s Investors Service on Friday raised the outlook on Italy’s government bond rating to stable from negative, citing improved financial strength in the European country.

It reaffirmed Italy’s bond rating at Baa2, its second-lowest investment grade, and its Prime-2 debt ratings, which is considered a moderate credit risk.

The rating agency said that it expects the government’s debt-to-gross domestic product ratio to level off in 2014 as economic growth modestly resumes. It pointed to Italy’s strong government bond market, which is one of the largest in Europe, as an indicator of strength.

Moody’s also said that that the government’s balance sheet is looking less risky, citing lower risks tied to its banking sector as the capitalization in that sector has stabilized.

And next, Bosnia. Via New Europe:

Angry protesters want new government of experts

On 10 February, thousands protested in a dozen Bosnian cities to demand that politicians be replaced by non-partisan experts who can better address the nearly 40% unemployment and rampant corruption, AP reported.

It was the sixth day of the worst unrest the Balkan country has seen since the end of the 1991-95 Bosnian war, which killed 100,000.

The peace deal that ended the war created a complex political system in which more than 150 ministries govern Bosnia’s four million people. Corruption is widespread and high taxes eat away at paychecks. One in five Bosnian lives below the poverty line. Svjetlana Nedimovic, an unemployed political scientist, accused the European Union — whose 28 foreign ministers were discussing Bosnia on Monday — of turning its back on her country even as it supports protesters in Ukraine.

After the jump, the latest chaos in Greece, Ukrainian stalemate, Turkish judicial independence constrained, neoserfdom in the Gulf, a Cuban cutoff, drought and violence in Brazil, Venzuelan protests, Mexican vigilantes, Chinese lending [and bad loans] hit a peak, hot money flight in Manilla, Japanese tax cuts and investments, a radioactive leak in New Mexico, childhood toxins, and the latest Fukushimapocalypse Now!

The Washington Post counts victims:

Greece grapples with soaring numbers of abandoned children and babies

First came the rising rates of homelessness. Then, the explosive growth of suicides. Now, four years into a devastating financial crisis, Greece’s youngest citizens are falling through the cracks of the country’s disheveled society.

Either deserted at maternity wards days after their birth, bundled inside pillowcases, or packed in cardboard boxes dumped on the doorsteps of churches, clinics and charity centers, abandoned babies are turning up all over the country.

Hard statistics are difficult to come by. But in a telling tale of the trend and an admission of the devastating effects of austerity on young children, Health Minister Adonis Georgiadis told parliament recently that the number of abandoned infants had soared by 336 percent alone in the state’s flagship pediatrics hospital since the start of the financial crisis.

Kathimerini English gives a thumbs down:

Merkel ‘vetoes quick aid’ for Greece

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has blocked a bid by her powerful finance minister to offer fresh aid to Greece ahead of European elections in May, Der Spiegel magazine reported on Sunday.

Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble had wanted to give the ailing Greek government a “demonstration of solidarity” by committing this spring to further support from Europe after the May 25 poll.

“He sees the danger that without the prospect of further aid, radical parties in Greece could make big gains in the election,” leading the government in Athens to collapse, the magazine reported.

ANA-MPA sees austerity yet to come:

Olli Rehn: Discussion of Greek debt viability, financing gap ‘from summer onwards’

The viability of the Greek debt and the financing gap for the years 2015-2016 will be discussed “from the summer onwards,” European Commission Vice-President and Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs and the Euro Olli Rehn told an interview with German Sunday newspaper Welt am Sonntag. He noted that the official Eurostat report for the Greek fiscal data will be available on April 23.

The Commissioner proposed that the World Bank be also involved in Greece at a future stage to offer help, saying that “Greece’s economy at the start of the programme was in a condition that often made the World Bank more useful than the International Monetary Fund (IMF).”

Referring to the June 2012 elections, Rehn revealed that Europe was prepared even for the eventuality of an economic disaster, but, “Thank God, the catastrophe did not happen.”

“In the case of Greece, we have to decide three things: First, we must complete the current troika mission, which began as of September. This relates to Greece’s funding in 2014 and the state of reforms. This will be done soon. Secondly, the financing gaps for 2015 and 2016, and thirdly, the issue of debt sustainability,” the Commissioner said.

From To Vima, the first of two contrasting headlines:

Samaras claims primary surplus is over 1.5 billion

Amidst a critical phase for the economy, society and politics, the Prime Minister Antonis Samaras spoke to To Vima and spoke about everything.

The Prime Minister praises the primary surpluses that were achieved a year before, explains that the debt relief and return to the markets will be based on these surpluses and announces that a significant portion of the surpluses will return to society, pensioners and uniformed officers.

Furthermore, under condition that the surpluses are maintained, he promises a gradual reduction of taxes. And clarifies that his goal is to gradual reduce the rates of VAT, income tax, profits and of course, real estate. Especially with regards to real estate taxes, he outright states that he has planned to reduce them by 38% by 2016.

Mr. Samaras claims that Greece is exiting the recession, entering a growth phase and estimates that the economy will by 3% on an annual basis from 2016 onwards.

From To Vima again, the contrast:

Greek primary surplus disputed

High-ranking European officer is skeptical about the rumored primary surplus of Greece for 2013

A high-ranking European officer expressed his surprise at the Greek government’s “confidence” with regards to the primary surplus from 2013 and noted that it is too soon for the Eurostat to have a clear picture of what the primary surplus will actually be.

While the officer admits that he hopes that the Greek government is correct to be as confident as it appears to be, sine it would mean that no further funding would be necessary, he could not help but express his doubt and amazement. The discussions for further debt relief are scheduled to begin after the surplus is confirmed.

According to the anonymous European officer, the situation in Greece will be evaluated at the Eurogroup on Monday and estimated that a preliminary deal for the troika’s return to Athens will be reached by the Eurogroup scheduled for the 10th of March.

Greek Reporter comes to a stop:

Greek Farmers Block Athens with Tractors

Greek farmers decided to continue their struggle in order to push the government to satisfy their demands which they claim are vital for their survival. They have announced a panhellenic rally on Wednesday, February 19 in the center of Athens, Greece. Farmers called all Greek citizens to participate, expressing their opposition to the government’s policy, which afflicts all workers and vulnerable social groups.

Farmers in Thessaly, central Greece carried out a rally on Sunday as a response “to the intransigence of the Greek government,” blocking circulation in main highways of the region.

Moreover, farmers from Serres, northern Greece blocked the Egnatia highway on Sunday noon, for about half an hour, forming a human cordon.

Greek Reporter again, with more road rage:

Tension During Protests in Athens Toll Booths

The police presence caused reactions. Some citizens tried to attack a police car but were stopped by the rest of the protesters. The protesters occupied the toll booths and lifted the bars allowing the drivers to pass without paying.

The Greek Minister of Transport, Mihalis Chryssohoidis reported that the frustration of the citizens is understandable. However, he pointed out that the implementation of this measure is considered necessary.

Last week the Greek government decided to increase the cost of the tolls in all motor-ways, nearly tripling the prices. Greek Transport Minister stated on Friday that the toll increases were part of the contract signed with the motorway operators in 2007.

More from To Vima:

Group of 42 SYRIZA MPs demand the repeal of toll hikes

Opposition MPs argue that the government was deceitful and claim the hikes will case further problems

A group of 42 SYRIZA MPs have demanded from the Ministers of Transport, Justice and Public Order to repeal the recent hike in tolls, which sparked violent protests in Oropos.

The Opposition MPs claim that “the government has deceived the Greek people once one and carried out excessive hikes” and cited comments from the Minister of Infrastructure, Transport and Networks Michalis Chrysochoidis from December 2013, when he stated in Parliament that “there is no provision for a toll hike, absolutely none”.

The MPs further stress that the excessive toll hikes are introduced after the dramatic wage and pension cuts and argued that the hike will only benefit the toll operators and cause harm to the community at large.

Kathimerini English ups the heat:

Stournaras to face pressure for troika deal as elections loom

Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras is due back in Brussels on Monday where he is expected to come under pressure to push forward troika-mandated economic reforms amid reports that European officials are keen for the Greek government to wrap up negotiations quickly and shift its focus to European Parliament elections in May which are expected to be hotly contested.

Ahead of Monday’s Eurogroup, a top-ranking European official told Kathimerini that there is a desire for resolution. “Europeans want the evaluation of 2013 to conclude as soon as possible,” the official said, referring to a troika review that began in September. The official added that Europeans were prepared to tone down their demands as regards the thornier issues being negotiated, such as calls for relaxing restrictions on mass layoffs in the private sector and pressure for privatizations.

A key concern is to ensure that Prime Minister Antonis Samaras does not have additional political pressure on him ahead of elections in May when the leftist, anti-bailout SYRIZA is expected to make significant gains, as is the neo-fascist Golden Dawn.

ANA-MPA plays a role:

SYRIZA leader: Greece was a guinea pig

SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras in an interview to Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper on Saturday referred to the need of a new deal for the Greek economy expressing the opinion that Greece played the role of a guinea pig.

“With the shock doctrine they wanted to see how much the people can bear” said Tsipras who predicted SYRIZA’s broad victory in the imminent elections (Euroelections and local government elections) noting that the Left’s criticism for the Europe has nothing to do with that of the ‘Right populists”.

Asked on government’s claims of a major primary surplus of 1.5 billion euros in 2013, Tsipras said that according to his party’s calculations it is only a numerical surplus because the government has to pay over 1.2 billion euros. “If EU accepts the figures, this will be a political decision, it will be an effort to support prime minister Antonis Samaras” he said.

At a press question why he wants to govern under so difficult conditions, the main opposition leader said “We want to govern because the conditions are so difficult. To change things. It has nothing to do with personal ambitions or with positions. We want this tragedy to end”.

The Buenos Aires Herald calls the question:

Greek opposition says will try to force early election in 2015

Greek opposition leader Alexis Tsipras said today he will not support any candidate for president in spring 2015 in the hope of forcing an early parliamentary election.

President Karolos Papoulias’ term ends in March 2015 and, under Greece’s constitution, his successor will need the support of 180 deputies in Greece’s 300-seat parliament, equivalent to a 3/5ths majority.

But the government has only 153 seats, meaning it would have to rely on the support of Tsipras’s Syriza’s 71 deputies or of smaller parties also opposed to Greece’s EU/IMF bailout.

“We will not support any candidate,” Tsipras said in an interview in the weekend edition of German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

Greek Reporter walks out:

Greek Civil Servants on Strike

The union of Greek civil servants (ADEDY) reacting to the bill lodged by the Ministry of Administrative Reform and Electronic Governance and the upcoming dismissals, has announced two 48-hour strikes.

The Ministry’s bill, through the abolition and merger of legal entities is promoting new dismissals. The civil servants also object to the new evaluation system in the public sector, according to which it will be compulsory that 15% of civil servants are assessed as inadequate.

The first 48-hour strike will take place on March 13 and 14. The protests will escalate on March 22 when the Greek government will announce the first day of layoffs of civil servants who entered the availability scheme eight months ago.

Employees in the public sector stated that they will  struggle against layoffs and the dismantling of public services and that they will coordinate their action with the fights of the Greek society suffering from unemployment and poverty. The union of Greek civil servants has also invited the General Confederation of Greek Workers (GSEE) and other social organizations in Greece to join their fight to defend public goods and the overthrowing of the troika’s brutal and destructive policies.

On to the Ukraine and a call from EUbusiness:

Kiev protesters issue ultimatum after vacating city hall

Hundreds of angry demonstrators in Kiev issued an ultimatum to authorities Sunday, demanding amnesty for fellow activists just hours aft

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