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Eiffel Tower, Other Sites Go Dark for Earth Hour 

The Eiffel Tower was plunged into darkness late on Saturday as the city of Paris switched off the lights on its best-known tourist attraction to mark this 

year’s Earth Hour. 

The 13th annual edition of the global event, organized by environmental group World Wildlife Fund to push for action on climate change and other man-made threats to the planet, called for nearly 200 major landmarks around the world to be unplugged at 8:30 p.m. local time.

They included New York’s Empire State Building, the Christ the Redeemer statue in Brazil and the Sydney Opera House.

Ahead of the Eiffel Tower shutdown, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and Junior Environment Minister Brune Poirson appeared at the foot of the 130-year-old edifice for a public discussion on global warming and declining biodiversity. 

Earth Hour has grown steadily since the first event in 2007 and is now marked in more than 180 countries and territories, according to its organizers.

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World Turns Off Lights for Earth Hour 

The Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, the Sydney Opera House, the Brandenburg Gate, the Acropolis and many more iconic landmarks went dark at 8:30 p.m. local time, Saturday night, for Earth Hour, an annual call for local action on climate change.

Earth Hour is the brain child of the World Wildlife Fund.

“By going dark for Earth Hour, we can show steadfast commitment to protecting our families, our communities and our planet from the dangerous effects of a warming world,” said Lou Leonard, WWF senior vice president, climate and energy. “The rising demand for energy, food and water means this problem is only going to worsen, unless we act now.”

Individuals and companies around the world participated in the hour-long demonstration to show their support for the fight against climate change and the conservation of the natural world.

WWF said Earth’s “rich biodiversity, the vast web of life that connects the health of oceans, rivers and forests to the prosperity of communities and nations, is threatened.”

The fund also reports that wildlife populations monitored by WWF “have experienced an average decline of 60 percent in less than a single person’s lifetime, and many unique and precious species are at risk of vanishing forever.”

“We have to ask ourselves what we’re willing to do after the lights come back on,” Leonard said. “If we embrace bold solutions, we still have time to stabilize the climate and safeguard our communities and the diverse wildlife, ecosystems and natural resources that sustain us all.”

“We are the first generation to know we are destroying the world,” WWF said. “And we could be the last that can do anything about it.”

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Lyft Shares Soar on Nasdaq Debut After IPO

Lyft Inc shares on Friday opened up 21.2 percent at $87.24 in its market debut on the Nasdaq after the company was valued at $24.3 billion in the first initial public offering (IPO) of a ride-hailing startup.

On Thursday, Lyft said it priced 32.5 million shares, slightly more that it was offering originally, at $72, the top of its already elevated $70-$72 per share target range for the IPO.

After a few minutes of trading, shares were up 18.6 percent at $85.42.

Instead of celebrating the first day of trading at the Nasdaq in New York, Lyft opted to mark the occasion at a defunct auto dealership in downtown Los Angeles.

A couple hundred people – Lyft staff, family and friends, stakeholders and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti – gathered before dawn for the kick-off event.

Lyft has recently bought the facility to turn it into a driver services center, the first of several it plans to open across the U.S. in the coming months, where drivers can get discounted services like help with taxes or charging electric vehicles.

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Bipartisan Support Seen for a US-Taiwan Free-trade Deal 

Influential figures in Washington are calling for the establishment of a bilateral free-trade agreement with Taiwan, even as U.S. and Chinese officials move toward a resolution of their long-running trade dispute. 

 

“We have a lot of issues with Beijing, and a lot of opportunities with Taiwan,” said Edwin J. Feulner in an interview with VOA. Feulner is the founder and former president of the Heritage Foundation, an influential think tank in Washington known for its conservative views and ties with the Republican Party. 

 

Feulner thinks trade negotiations between Washington and Beijing will most likely conclude within 60 days, at which point a full-force push for a bilateral trade agreement with Taiwan could begin. Those talks would be “more or less independent of what’s going on with bilateral negotiations with Beijing,” he said. 

WATCH: Feulner: Taiwan Not Seen by Administration as ‘Bargaining Chip’

Feulner predicted “huge bipartisan support on Capitol Hill” for such an agreement. “Both Republican and Democrat, both House and Senate members, are overwhelmingly positive that a free China can exist, and can be there in the world community today,” he said.  

WATCH: Feulner: ‘We Intend to Strengthen Our Friends’ 

However, any such deal could be expected to anger authorities in Beijing, who see Taiwan as a renegade Chinese province and adamantly oppose any initiatives that treat the island as an independent country or entity.   

 

The international community has seen how Beijing tries to make Taiwan pay for any inroads it makes toward international recognition, said Scott W. Harold, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, a global policy research group. But Beijing’s problem, he said, “is that they’ve dialed the pain up so high, so often, that it’s hard to see what more they can do.”  

On Wednesday, Feulner invited Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen to participate by Skype in a conference at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. Tsai, on a stopover in Hawaii after visiting three Indo-Pacific nations that still maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan, told the audience her government was enthusiastic about the prospect of bilateral trade talks with the U.S. 

“If we can have a breakthrough in trade with the U.S., this will be very helpful in terms of encouraging many other trading partners to do the same,” she said, adding that a trade deal with the United States would reduce Taipei’s reliance on China “as they increase their political influence in Taiwan, primarily using economic actors.” 

Tsai expressed hope that talks with Washington will include discussion about Taiwan’s role in the global high-tech supply chain “amid concerns of technology theft and control over 5G networks” by Beijing. 

 

Two prominent members of the U.S. Congress joined Feulner in welcoming Tsai to the U.S. and expressed their support for a bilateral free-trade agreement. Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, a Republican and a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, called the pursuit of a bilateral free-trade agreement with Taiwan “imperative.” 

 

Common values

Rep. Ted Yoho of Florida, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the most senior Republican on its subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific and Nonproliferation, told Tsai and the audience that “trade is important between our nations, but more important than that is our common belief in the values we hold, the democracies that we have together. That in itself is the thing that really binds us together.” 

 

Steve Yates, former U.S. government official and longtime observer of U.S.-Taiwan relations, told VOA that President Donald Trump has “unhesitatingly signed” a series of resolutions and bills in support of closer ties between Washington and Taipei. To him, this signals it might be time “for the administration and Congress to be able to cross that bridge and get some results.” 

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Tossing Coins on Brexit: 2nd Referendum, General Election?

Britons desperately wanting some clarity in the country’s interminable Brexit saga were disappointed Wednesday when lawmakers plunged the country’s proposed exit from the European Union, after half-a-century of membership, into further disarray, failing to find a majority for any way forward after a series of so-called indicative votes.

The hope had been a majority might emerge from the eight different options they voted on, which included staying in the EU, leaving with no withdrawal agreement, remaining in the bloc’s customs union and/or single market or holding a second Brexit referendum.

“Parliament Finally Has Its Say: No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No.” Britain’s Guardian newspaper announced on its front-page Thursday.

“In summary: the Commons has now overwhelmingly rejected every single type of Brexit, and no Brexit,” tweeted Michel Deacon, the Daily Telegraph’s parliamentary sketch-writer. The option of leaving without a deal was defeated by a huge margin. So, too, was a motion that would see Brexit cancelled altogether.

It wasn’t what the organizers of the indicative votes in the House of Commons had hoped would be the upshot. Backed by the opposition parties and pro-EU Conservative rebels they seized control of the parliamentary agenda from the government, the first time in 140 years that Downing Street hasn’t called the shots on what can be debated and when on the floor of the House of Commons.

“This is going well. Putting the Commons in charge was clearly a brilliant idea,” tweeted Andrew Neil, the arch-Brexiter presenter of a BBC politics show. The EU’s chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker said Britain’s intentions had become more mysterious than those of the mythological sphinxes guarding ancient tombs.

More confusion

To add to the confusion in London, just before the indicative voting, an  exhausted Prime Minister Theresa May told her Conservative lawmakers she would relinquish the party leadership and resign as prime minister, but only if her contentious Brexit withdrawal agreement, which parliament has twice rejected, is passed.

May’s announcement was a last-ditch bid to persuade Conservative Brexiters to back her withdrawal agreement, a deal they disapprove of because it would keep Britain closely aligned with the European Union and obedient to its rules while a longer-term trade relationship is negotiated.

A hardcore of Conservative Eurosceptics and ten lawmakers from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, who May has to rely on because her government is a minority one, have adamantly refused to back her deal. They say the plan poses a risk to the integrity of the union of the United Kingdom. The DUP believes if it took effect, it would cause trade differences between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and create in effect a “border down the Irish Sea.”

There were no signs Thursday that May will be able to persuade enough holdouts to vote for her deal, if it is put before the Commons for a third time, leaving Britain on course to crash out of the EU without a deal on April 12, unless the British government requests, for the second time, a Brexit postponement.

EU negotiators have indicated they might be open to another delay, but only if it is a lengthy one of a year or more.

It remains unclear how the political deadlock in London can be broken. The idea of leaving without a transition deal has strong opposition in the Commons and would likely be blocked by a majority of lawmakers.

Frustration on EU side

EU negotiators, out of exasperation, could decide to raise the stakes and decline another Brexit postponement, hoping to force the Commons to stop Brexit altogether, say some analysts. But it is unlikely they would risk such a high stakes gamble, fearing that might push Britain into crashing out by accident as much as by design.

European Council President, Donald Tusk, said last week in Brussels that the European Union will work with Britain for as long as it takes and on Wednesday he urged European lawmakers to be open to a long delay in Britain’s departure.

That leaves Britain trapped — paralyzed by a deadlocked House of Commons, itself a reflection of a country split down the middle over staying a member of the EU or quitting. With all avenues seemingly leading to dead-ends, there is more talk now in the British parliament of the need to hold an general election, hoping that returns a parliament that is not so undecided.

Behind-the-scenes Cabinet ministers and Conservative party officials are war-gaming calling an election three years ahead of schedule. David Davies, a pro-Brexit Conservative MP who quit as Brexit minister, says “a general election is a lot more likely now.” He added: “I don’t say it’s going to happen, but clearly if a government can’t get through on the one issue which we were really elected to deal with at the last election it puts us all in a very difficult situation.”

The problem in calling a snap election is the British public doesn’t want another one so soon after the Conservatives called another early poll two years ago, according to opinion surveys, with just 12 percent backing the idea.

The other problem for the Conservatives is that they would be fighting an election with a leader who has announced she intends to step down soon and heading a party that’s even more deeply and rancorously divided than the main opposition Labour party.

In the division lobbies on Wednesday some Conservative lawmakers on different sides of the Brexit question were spotted cursing each other and one clash prompted the intervention of colleagues, who feared a brawl might break out.

Commons in charge

Organizers of Wednesday’s indicative voting are placing some hopes that the Commons can still break the deadlock. They say clarity could be reached on Monday when lawmakers are due for another session of indicative voting, this time on the options that attracted the most support.

Labour’s Stephen Doughty said they never expected the votes on Wednesday to reveal a majority for one option. The whole idea was to narrow down the alternatives that have the most support and for parliament then to reconsider.

The two closest votes Wednesday were for staying in the EU’s customs union and another for a second referendum confirming any Brexit departure. Both attracted more votes than May’s deal has got the two occasions it was voted on in parliament. Campaigners for a second referendum appear buoyed.

They believe Britons have shifted their attitudes on Brexit since the 2016 referendum, pointing to a new polling study by veteran pollster John Curtice, which indicates voters are becoming increasingly doubtful about Brexit. The study suggests two and half years after the plebiscite, leaving the European Union may not now reflect majority thinking.

 

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Iceland’s WOW Air budget Carrier Collapses, Cancels all Flights

Iceland’s budget carrier WOW Air said it had ceased operations and cancelled all flights on Thursday, potentially stranding thousands of passengers.

The collapse of the troubled airline, which transports more than a third of those traveling to Iceland, comes after buyout talks with rival Icelandair collapsed earlier this week.

“All WOW Air flights have been cancelled. Passengers are advised to check available flights with other airlines,” the carrier said in a statement.

“Some airlines may offer flights at a reduced rate, so-called rescue fares, in light of the circumstances. Information on those airlines will be published, when it becomes available.”

WOW Air, founded in 2011, exploited Iceland’s location in the middle of the North Atlantic to offer a low-cost service between Europe and North America as well as tapping into a tourist boom to the volcanic island.

However it had flown into financial trouble in recent years due to heightened competition and rising fuel prices, and had been searching for an investor for months.

On Monday WOW Air said it was in talks to restructure its debt with its creditors after Icelandair ended brief negotiations over buying a stake in the no-frills airline.

WOW Air was left needing $42 million to save the company, according to the Frettabladid newspaper.

The privately-owned airline has undergone major restructuring after posting a pre-tax loss of almost $42 million for the first nine months of 2018.

It has reduced its fleet from 20 to 11 aircraft, eliminating several destinations, including those to the US, and cutting 111 full-time jobs.

A report by a governmental work group has warned that a WOW Air bankruptcy would lead to a drop in Iceland’s gross domestic product, a drop in the value of the krona and rising inflation.

 

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One in Three Fear Losing Homes in West and Central Africa, Poll Finds

Nearly one in three people living in West and Central Africa fear losing their homes and land in the next five years, according to a survey of 33 countries, making it the region where people feel most insecure about their property.

More than two in five respondents from Burkina Faso and Liberia worry their home could be taken away from them, revealed Prindex, a global property rights index which gauges citizens’ views.

In West Africa, “a history of governments and investors seizing land for large projects has made people more insecure,” said Malcolm Childress, executive director of the Global Land Alliance, a Washington-based think tank that compiles the index.

Insecurity can lead to people struggling to plan for their futures, holding back entire economies, Childress said.

“In countries like Rwanda, however, which are mapping and registering customary land, that uncertainty is much lower,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that only 8 percent of the country’s respondents feared losing their homes.

In Southeast Asia and Latin America, which Childress said had strong institutions documenting land, only 21 percent and 19 percent of people, respectively, reported feeling insecure about their property.

The survey, conducted by U.S. polling firm Gallup and launched in Washington, D.C., at a World Bank conference on Tuesday, is the largest ever effort documenting how secure people feel about their homes and land at a global level.

A lack of formal documentation and poor implementation of land laws threaten tenure in many countries, experts say, with more than 5 billion people lacking proof of ownership, according to the Lima-based Institute for Liberty and Democracy.

Survey respondents cited being asked by their landlord to leave the property as well as family disagreements as the main reasons for feeling insecure.

The index also found that 12 percent more women than men felt they might lose their property in the event of divorce or death of a spouse.

That gap shows “there is a long way to go in meeting the aspiration of equal economic rights for women worldwide,” said Anna Locke from the Overseas Development Institute, a British think tank that is involved in the index.

The survey for the first time sampled respondents in Britain, where 11 percent of people feared losing their home, mainly due to a lack of money or other resources.

More than 50,000 people were questioned about ownership or tenure in 33 countries most of them from Africa, Latin America and Asia. Over the next year, the poll will be extended to 140 countries.

Prindex is an initiative of the Omidyar Network — with which the Thomson Reuters Foundation has a partnership on land rights coverage — and the U.K.’s Department for International Development.

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Land Lost, Families Uprooted as Myanmar Pushes Industrial Zones

Than Ei lived in the Thilawa area near Yangon for years, growing vegetables in her backyard and sending her two children to school with money from her husband’s construction job.

Then came the government order to move. Than Ei’s family was among 68 households relocated in 2013 to make way for the Thilawa Special Economic Zone (SEZ), the first such industrial area in Myanmar, about 23km (15 miles) southeast of Yangon.

Authorities said each family would get a home a few miles away, or a plot of land and money to build a house, as well as jobs in the new factories, with good wages.

But six years on, Than Ei and others who moved say their incomes are lower than before, and they have only limited access to services. Many families sold their homes and left the area after they ran out of money, Than Ei said.

“There is no land to grow vegetables or to keep chickens, and we are not close to transport or the market anymore,” Than Ei said outside her one-room home in Myaing Thar Yar village.

“My husband only got a job as a security guard two years after (the move). We had to take out a loan until then, which we are still paying off.”

For developing nations like Myanmar – which emerged from decades of economic isolation in 2011 when the military stepped back from direct control – SEZs are seen as a way to attract much-needed foreign investment and create jobs.

Authorities say Thilawa SEZ is being built according to international environmental and social safeguards, which includes getting the consent of residents and offering adequate compensation.

But for those whose lives have been uprooted by the country’s economic ambitions, the reality is different, said Mike Griffiths, a researcher at the Myanmar Social Policy and Poverty Research Group, a think tank based in Yangon.

“They not only have lower levels of income, but are more likely to have higher expenditure, higher rates of debt and lower employment rates,” he wrote in a report last year on the relocated households. “The picture is of extreme vulnerability.”

Risky Model

The model for economic growth that Myanmar and other countries in the region hope to emulate is that of China, which in the 1980s set up about half a dozen major SEZs to boost its market reforms.

Experts say SEZs have contributed significantly to China’s economic growth, with the World Bank estimating in 2015 that they accounted for nearly a quarter of the country’s GDP.

Spurred by China’s example, governments from sub-Saharan Africa to southeast Asia have adopted SEZs, but analysts say they have a mixed record of success.

“The model has passed its use-by-date, and officials have been slow to catch on,” said Charlie Thame, a professor of political science at Bangkok’s Thammasat University.

“Even from an economic point of view they are fraught with risk, mostly borne by host states.”

In poorer nations, SEZs “overwhelmingly fail to provide decent jobs or generate beneficial effects to local economies,” he said, and domestic legislation and international investment frameworks largely fail to protect those affected.

No Consultation

When completed, the Thilawa SEZ will cover some 2,400 hectares (9 sq. miles) of land. Dozens of manufacturers, largely making goods for export, are already operating there.

Thilawa is the only operational SEZ in the country, with the Dawei SEZ in the southern region of Tanintharyi on hold after some initial construction. A third SEZ is planned, with Chinese investment, in Kyauk Pyu in Rakhine state.

The site in Thilawa had been earmarked for industrial use under the junta government in 1996, but the original plans fell through.

When authorities announced the start of development for the SEZ six years ago, they said since the land already belonged to the government, villagers living on it were only eligible to be compensated for their crops.

None of the residents made to move were consulted on the economic or social impacts of the development, said Mya Hlaing, a member of the Thilawa Social Development Group, which was set up to represent the villagers.

“We were also promised training and jobs, but very few have got jobs – and even then, only as cleaners and security guards,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A spokesman for Myanmar Japan Thilawa Development, which operates Zone 1 of the SEZ, said the land acquisition was carried out by government authorities, and that those affected had been offered several job opportunities.

Myanmar authorities did not respond to calls and e-mails seeking comment.

Backlash

About 600km away in southern Myanmar, development of the Dawei SEZ has been suspended since 2013, after it sparked community protests and hit funding difficulties.

The project is a joint venture of the Thai and Myanmar governments, and includes a 140-km road to the Thai border, a port, a power plant, a reservoir and an industrial estate.

Most residents affected by the initial phase of construction refused to move into the nearly 500 homes that had been built a couple of miles away.

“We were not told what types of factories would be built or what their impact would be,” said Mar Lar, who sold some of her land in the southern Htein Gyi village but still lives in her own home.

Residents in Dawei fear construction on the stalled project will resume soon, even as a backlash against SEZs is growing.

Protests broke out in Vietnam last year over planned new SEZs.

In India, the Supreme Court has asked why land acquired for SEZs is not being used, and the Myanmar government has scaled back its Kyauk Pyu project with China over fears of a debt trap.

But back in Thilawa, the second phase of construction is about to kick off and will see the relocation of more than 800 families, said Aye Khaing Win, a community leader.

“The government says the SEZ has done many good things, but we have lost our land. We have not benefited,” he said.

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US Labor Unions Say USMCA Doesn’t Go Far Enough for Workers

U.S. labor officials on Tuesday pressed lawmakers to strengthen enforcement of the provisions of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) intended to protect workers, the latest sign that the trade deal could face hurdles to passage in the Democrat-led House of Representatives.

Renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was one of President Donald Trump’s campaign promises and part of his broader push for better terms of trade for the United States. He has said that bad deals have cost millions of jobs.

Representatives from some of the largest and most influential unions in the United States told lawmakers on Tuesday that the reworked pact does not go far enough to ensure improvement of wages and working conditions, especially for Mexican workers.

“All the NAFTA renegotiation efforts in the world will not create U.S. jobs, raise U.S. wages or reduce the U.S. trade deficit if the new rules do not include clear, strong and effective labor rules that require Mexico to abandon its low wage policy,” Celeste Drake of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations said at a House Ways and Means subcommittee hearing.

In late 2018, the leaders of the United States, Mexico and Canada signed the deal to replace NAFTA, but it has yet to be reviewed and ratified by Congress. Trade among the three countries totals more than $1 trillion.

Democrats, who took control of the House of Representatives in January, have traditionally been skeptical of free trade agreements and sympathetic to labor groups. Their support is essential to USMCA’s passage.

USMCA requires its three signatories to maintain labor laws in line with international standards, and to enforce them. But critics have called the agreement’s enforcement mechanism insufficient, saying it will still allow weak unions and resulting low wages in Mexico, while failing to stanch the flight of U.S. factories to lower-cost Mexico.

NAFTA, launched in 1994, put labor provisions in an unenforceable addendum to the agreement, allowing Mexican wages to stagnate despite a flood of factory investment from U.S. companies.

“The (USMCA) labor chapter is an improvement. The problem is the enforceability mechanism,” said Shane Larson, a director with the Communications Workers of America, advocating for reopening the agreement.

Autoworkers, too, are concerned about the new agreement, despite provisions aimed at requiring more vehicle value content produced in North America and in high-wage areas in the United States and Canada.

USMCA “takes some positive steps but doesn’t measure up to being able to make more good-paying jobs now and going forward,” said Josh Nassar, legislative director of the United Auto Workers union.

The imposition of NAFTA led to decades of lost jobs for autoworkers, who watched U.S. factories close as manufacturers moved production to Mexico.

House Democrats have greeted USMCA coolly, telling U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer earlier this month about their concerns about labor enforcement and provisions that could lock in higher drug prices.

“This agreement is a continuation of the assault on the American middle class,” Brian Higgins, a Democratic representative from New York, said on Tuesday at the hearing.

The Trump administration is lobbying to persuade Congress to ratify USMCA this year. Trump visited Capitol Hill on Tuesday to meet with Senate Republicans, and discussed the trade pact with House Republicans later in the afternoon.

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White House, Business Groups Make Push on Trade Pact

The White House and business groups are stepping up efforts to win congressional approval for the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade accord. But prospects are uncertain given that Republicans are at odds with some aspects of the plan and Democrats are in no hurry to secure a political victory for the president.

President Donald Trump will meet with GOP lawmakers Tuesday to try to kick-start the process for rounding up votes on Capitol Hill. Supporters in Congress and business groups say they have a narrow window to push it through, given that lawmakers tend to avoid tough trade votes during election season.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., the chairman of the House subcommittee that has jurisdiction over trade, said the pact needs adjustments to be “worthy of support.”

Some Republican lawmakers also have concerns. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the Republican chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, maintains that the president should lift steel and aluminum tariffs on products brought in from Canada and Mexico as a first step to getting the trade agreement through Congress.

Trump’s top trade negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, told lawmakers during a recent congressional hearing that if they don’t pass the trade agreement, the United States will have “no credibility at all” with future trading partners, including China.

“There is no trade program in the United States if we don’t pass USMCA. There just isn’t one,” Lighthizer said.

The White House’s legislative affairs team has talked to more than 290 members of Congress and staff over the past two months to push the deal. But the administration knows that making changes in the agreement to win over lawmakers could jeopardize support for the pact from Canada and Mexico.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, told reporters recently that many in her state’s agricultural community are “still with the president, but if we don’t get the trade deals done, they could turn quickly.”

She said, “We need to start wrapping this baby up.”

​The trade deal is designed to supplant the North American Free Trade Agreement, which took effect in 1994 and gradually eliminated tariffs on goods produced and traded within North America.

U.S. trade with its NAFTA partners has more than tripled since the agreement took effect, and more rapidly than trade with the rest of the world.

But Trump has called NAFTA a disaster for the United States. The new pact his administration negotiated is meant to increase manufacturing in the United States. Trump is warning that if lawmakers don’t approve the pact, the U.S. may revert to what he has described as “pre-NAFTA.”

Blumenauer is looking to make changes to the agreement in four areas: enhancing environmental and labor protections, ensuring enforcement of the agreement, and taking on protections for pharmaceutical companies that he believes drive up drug costs for consumers.

“I don’t think anyone wants to blow it up, but there is interest in strengthening it,” Blumenauer said.

Rep. Vern Buchanan of Florida, the ranking Republican on the trade subcommittee, said he believes the vast majority of Republicans will end up voting for the agreement. He’s tried to assure Democratic colleagues that Republicans were “open-minded to try and get some things done” to address their concerns.

“You put a lot of jobs at risk if this blows up,” Buchanan said.

Vanessa Sciarra, a vice president at the National Foreign Trade Council, said it’s too soon to tell how the vote will shake out.

Sciarra said one thing lawmakers don’t want to see is Trump make good on a threat to withdraw from NAFTA if he can’t get Congress to ratify the pact.

“Never has NAFTA been so popular,” Sciarra said.

Canadian officials have been lobbying the U.S. to end Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs and have suggested that approval by Canada’s Parliament could be conditioned upon them being lifted. David MacNaughton, Ottawa’s ambassador to Washington, has said it will be a tough sell to pass if the tariffs are still in place.

Dan Ujczo, a trade lawyer and Canada-U.S. specialist in Columbus, Ohio, said the trade deal could pass “relatively quickly” once the tariffs are removed.

In Mexico, the administration of then-President Enrique Pena Nieto spearheaded Mexico’s negotiations, but representatives of current President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador were deeply involved in the talks to ensure an agreement that both the outgoing and incoming administrations could live with.

Allies of Lopez Obrador, who took office Dec. 1, enjoy a large majority in the Mexican Senate, so passage of the agreement would seemingly go smoothly.

Kenneth Smith Ramos, who was chief negotiator for Pena Nieto’s government and now works as an international trade consultant at Mexico City-based AGON, said Mexican enthusiasm for the deal could dim though if there are significant new demands on labor, pharmaceuticals, the environment or other issues.

“We made some important concessions,” he said, adding that if “the U.S. still wants more, then that starts to unbalance the agreement and there may be a growing opposition in Mexico.”

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Hong Kong Ex-Official Patrick Ho Jailed 3 Years for Bribery

Hong Kong’s former home affairs secretary Patrick Ho Chi Ping was jailed for three years Monday for a scheme to bribe African officials to boost a top Chinese energy company that was part of Beijing’s global Belt and Road initiative.

Ho, 69, who worked for the controversial energy conglomerate CEFC China Energy, was sentenced by a New York judge after being convicted in December on seven charges of violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and money laundering for bribes.

He was accused of paying off top officials in Uganda and Chad to support the Shanghai conglomerate’s projects in their countries.

Some of the deals were arranged in the halls of the United Nations, leading to the U.S. arrest in November 2017 of Ho and a co-conspirator, former Senegalese top diplomat Cheikh Gadio.

The two men allegedly offered a $2 million bribe to Idriss Deby, the president of Chad, “to obtain valuable oil rights,” and a $500,000 bribe to an account designated by Sam Kutesa, the minister of foreign affairs of Uganda, who had recently completed his term as the President of the U.N. General Assembly, according to the charges.

“Patrick Ho schemed to bribe the leaders of Chad and Uganda in order to secure unfair business advantages for the Chinese energy company he served,” said U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman. “Foreign corruption undermines the fairness of international markets, erodes the public’s faith in its leaders, and is deeply unfair to the people and businesses that play by the rules.”

CEFC was an upstart company that quickly grew to be worth tens of billions of dollars despite a murky track record.

It was considered to be a vital player in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambitious One Belt One Road plan to build commercial networks around the world.

CEFC was led by Ye Jianying, an ostensibly well-connected businessman who built a network of global contacts, and notably was able to meet with members of then-vice president Joe Biden’s family and a former CIA director.

But after Ho was arrested by U.S. authorities in 2017, CEFC’s business began to crumble.

Last year, Ye disappeared and is now believed to be held by Chinese authorities for unspecified charges.

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Airbus Wins China Order for 300 Jets as Xi Visits France

Airbus signed a deal worth tens of billions of dollars on Monday to sell 300 aircraft to China as part of a trade package coinciding with a visit to Europe by Chinese President Xi Jinping and matching a China record held by rival Boeing.

The deal between Airbus and China’s state buying agency, China Aviation Supplies Holding Company, which regularly coordinates headline-grabbing deals during diplomatic visits, will include 290 A320-family jets and 10 A350 wide-body jets.

French officials said the deal was worth some 30 billion euros at catalogue prices. Planemakers usually grant significant discounts.

The larger-than-expected order, which matches an order for 300 Boeing planes when U.S. Donald Trump visited Beijing in 2017, follows a year-long vacuum of purchases in which China failed to place significant orders amid global trade tensions.

It also comes as the grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX has left uncertainty over Boeing’s immediate hopes for a major jet order as the result of any warming of U.S.-China trade ties.

There was no evidence of any direct connection between the Airbus deal and Sino-U.S. tensions or Boeing fleet problems, but China watchers say Beijing has a history of sending diplomatic signals or playing off suppliers through state aircraft deals.

“The conclusion of a big (aviation) contract … is an important step forward and an excellent signal in the current context,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in a joint address with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.

The United States and China are edging towards a possible deal to ease a months-long tariff row and a deal involving as many as 200-300 Boeing jets had until recently been expected as part of the possible rapprochement.

Long-term relationship

China was also the first to ground the newest version of Boeing’s workhorse 737 model earlier this month following a deadly Ethiopian Airlines crash, touching off a series of regulatory actions worldwide.

Asked if negotiations had accelerated as a result of the Boeing grounding or other issues, Airbus planemaking chief and designated chief executive Guillaume Faury told reporters, “This is a long-term relationship with our Chinese partners that evolves over time; it is a strong sign of confidence.”

China has become a key hunting ground for Airbus and its leading rival Boeing, thanks to surging travel demand.

But whether Airbus or Boeing is involved, analysts say diplomatic deals frequently contain a mixture of new demand, repeats of older orders and credits against future deals, meaning the immediate impact is not always clear.

The outlook has also been complicated by Beijing’s desire to grow its own industrial champions and, more recently for Boeing, the U.S.-China trade war.

French President Macron unexpectedly failed to clinch an Airbus order for 184 planes during a trip to China in early 2018 and the two sides have been working to salvage it.

Industry sources have said the year’s delay in Airbus negotiations, as well as a buying freeze during the U.S. tariff row, created latent demand for jets to feed China’s growth.

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Chairman of India’s Ailing Jet Airways Resigns

The chairman of India’s private Jet Airways has quit amid mounting financial woes which have forced it to suspend 14 international routes and ground more than 80 planes.

A statement by the airline says its board on Monday accepted the resignations of Chairman Naresh Goyal, his wife and a nominee of Gulf carrier Etihad Airways from the board. It said Goyal will also cease to be chairman.

Goyal has been trying to obtain new funding from Etihad Airways, which holds a 24 percent stake in the airline, which was founded 27 years ago.

The statement said the airline will receive 15 billion rupees ($217 million) in immediate funding under a recovery plan formulated by its creditors.

 

 

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Nike fined $14 Million for Blocking Cross-border Sales of Soccer Merchandise

U.S. sportswear maker Nike was hit with a 12.5 million euro ($14.14 million) fine on Monday for blocking cross-border sales of soccer merchandise of some of Europe’s best-known clubs, the latest EU sanction against such restrictions.

The European Commission said Nike’s illegal practices occurred between 2004 to 2017 and related to licensed merchandise for FC Barcelona, Manchester United, Juventus, Inter Milan, AS Roma and the French Football Federation.

The European Union case focused on Nike’s role as a licensor for making and distributing licensed merchandise featuring a soccer club’s brands and not its own trademarks.

The sanction came after a two-year investigation triggered by a sector inquiry into e-commerce in the 28-country bloc. The EU wants to boost online trade and economic growth.

European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said Nike’s actions deprived soccer fans in other countries of the opportunity to buy their clubs’ merchandise such as mugs, bags, bed sheets, stationery and toys.

“Nike prevented many of its licensees from selling these branded products in a different country leading to less choice and higher prices for consumers,” she said in a statement.

Nike’s practices included clauses in contracts prohibiting out-of-territory sales by licensees and threats to end agreements if licensees ignored the clauses. Its fine was cut by 40 percent after it cooperated with the EU enforcer.

($1 = 0.8839 euros)

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How Will Foreign Investment Change Vietnam’s Economy?

Vietnam’s cheap workers might not be the country’s stars for much longer: low wages helped to propel the communist nation to some of the fastest growth rates in the world, but analysts say it needs a new economic model now.

After a slow recovery from the Vietnam War, the Southeast Asian country saw gross domestic product rise year after year from the 1990s on. That was built on the back of low-cost labor and factory-driven exports, as well as companies’ increasing tie-ins to foreign investment.

Vietnam is currently at a turning point, looking back at simple exports like rice and Reeboks that helped it develop, and looking forward to a more advanced economy along the lines of Taiwan or South Korea. Locals do not want “Made in Vietnam” to signal low quality. They also want to integrate into global trade, without the backlash against globalization seen among populist voters from Europe to the United States.

“What has been working in the past 30 years may not necessarily work in the future,” said Ousmane Dione, the World Bank director in Vietnam. “The impacts of initial institutional and structural reforms seem to have reached their limit.”

He was referring to the Doi Moi reforms that began three decades ago, when Vietnam started to introduce more and more traits of a market economy into its system, like private ownership of firms and houses. Hanoi is conducting a review of how well Doi Moi turned out, and how to chart an economic path for the next three decades.

Advisers have put forward ideas of how the new economy could look in Vietnam, among which are three common themes: the internet and other high-tech sectors will dominate; businesses will move into services and other value-added industries rather than physical goods; and employees will constantly update their skills through life-long learning.

For example, Vietnamese factory hands are accustomed to assembling phones and cars, but could they one day move up the value chain, such as by providing tech support to people who buy these products?

On the technology side, Vietnam could do more to collaborate with the rest of Southeast Asia, according to Pham Hong Hai, CEO of HSBC Vietnam. That may range from ensuring electronic payments go off without a hitch across borders, to cooperating on a response to cyber threats, he said.

“Businesses are crying out for tangible developments that will smoothen intra-regional trade,” Hai said. Vietnam “should continue the momentum to further integrate into the region and gain most benefits from globalization.”

Left Behind?

The other vital theme has to do with the workforce, making sure its productivity and skill levels improve. Millions of Vietnamese now rely on entry-level jobs to make a living, whether it’s gluing together wallets at a factory, or picking coffee cherries on a farm.

That was the work that used to attract foreign investors to the country in droves, but not all of those jobs will last. So groups from government agencies to charities are enacting education and training programs to equip locals with skills for the future.

This is meant not just to increase job security, but also to prevent Vietnamese from feeling left behind or bitter if jobs get off-shored to cheaper countries. Vietnam hopes to avoid the populist resentment of other parts of the world, as well as the trade protectionism that has created.

To that end Vietnam is turning to partners like Australia, which has supported projects that allow the fruits of economic success to be spread more widely.

Vietnam set out on a new “chapter that embraces innovation, promotes bold reform, and helps Vietnam achieve its ambitious development goals,” said Craig Chittick, the Australian ambassador in the country of 100 million people.

His government has backed programs in Vietnam like the KOTO center, which teaches hospitality skills to street children, as well as a contest to invent technologies useful to rural women and a forum to promote impact investing. The idea is that not all groups have benefited from past economic growth, but there is still a chance to change that in the new Vietnam.

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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.