Czech President Milos Zeman appointed the leader of a center-right alliance Petr Fiala as prime minister on Sunday in a ceremony he performed from a plexiglass cubicle after testing positive for COVID-19.
Fiala leads a bloc of five center and center-right opposition parties that won an election in October, ousting the incumbent premier Andrej Babis and his allies.
The new government will have to tackle a new wave of coronavirus infections that is threatening to overwhelm hospitals and an energy crisis, after the collapse of a large electricity provider. The coalition has also said it plans to rework the 2022 state budget to reduce a large deficit.
“The new government has a very complicated time ahead and many challenges… I want it to be a government of change for the future,” Fiala said at a news conference.
He expected his cabinet to be appointed in mid-December.
The new prime minister also called on people to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and praised medical staff as cases are on the rise.
Opponents of vaccination and government’s anti-coronavirus measures such as a ban on Christmas markets gathered in their thousands in Prague later on Sunday for a protest rally.
Only 58.5% of Czechs are vaccinated against the coronavirus. This compares to a European Union average of 65.8%, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
Zeman performed the inauguration ceremony from a plexiglass cubicle after testing positive for coronavirus. Zeman, who arrived in a wheelchair escorted by a medic in full protective gear, contracted the virus after a six-week stay in hospital for an unrelated illness.
Swiss voters on Sunday gave clear backing to legislation that introduced a system with special COVID-19 certificates under which only people who have been vaccinated, recovered or tested negative can attend public events and gatherings.
Final results showed 62% of voters supporting the legislation, which is already in force. The referendum offered a rare bellwether of public opinion on the issue of government policy to fight the spread of coronavirus in Europe, which is currently the global epicenter of the pandemic.
The vote on the country’s “COVID-19 law,” which also has unlocked billions of Swiss francs (dollars) in aid for workers and businesses hit by the pandemic, came as Switzerland — like many other nations in Europe — faces a steep rise in coronavirus cases.
The Swiss federal government, unlike others, hasn’t responded with new restrictions. Analysts said it didn’t want to stir up more opposition to its anti-COVID-19 policies before they faced Sunday’s test at the ballot box — but that if Swiss voters gave a thumbs-up, the government may well ratchet up its anti-COVID efforts.
Of the country’s 26 cantons (states), only two — Schwyz and Appenzell Innerrhoden, both conservative rural regions in eastern Switzerland — voted against the legislation.
Josef Ender, a spokesman for one of the groups that opposed it, told SRF public radio “it was important that the Swiss population could form an opinion on the tightening of the COVID law.” He maintained that “even if there is a ‘yes'” to the legislation, it violates parts of the country’s constitution.
Turnout on Sunday was 65.7%, an unusually high figure in a country that holds referendums several times a year.
On Tuesday, Swiss health authorities warned of a rising “fifth wave” on infections in the rich Alpine country, where vaccination rates are roughly in line with those in hard-hit neighbors Austria and Germany at about two-thirds of the population. Infection rates have soared in recent weeks.
The seven-day average case count in Switzerland shot up to more than 5,200 per day from mid-October to mid-November, a more than five-fold increase. Austria, meanwhile, has imposed a national lockdown to fight the rising infections.
France hosts a meeting of European ministers on Sunday to discuss ways to stop migrants crossing the Channel in dinghies, but without Britain, which has been excluded following a row last week.
Ministers responsible for immigration from France, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium will meet in the northern French port of Calais on Sunday afternoon to discuss how to tackle people-smuggling gangs that provide boats to migrants seeking to cross the narrow waterway.
The talks were called following the shocking deaths of 27 people last Wednesday as they attempted to cross from France to England in a dinghy that began losing air while at sea in cold winter temperatures.
The aim of the meeting is “improving operational cooperation in the fight against people-smuggling because these are international networks which operate in different European countries,” an aide to French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told AFP.
The main focus had been set to be talks between Darmanin and his British counterpart Priti Patel after both countries vowed in the immediate aftermath of the mass drownings to cooperate more.
But within 48 hours of the accident, French President Emmanuel Macron had accused British Prime Minister Boris Johnson of being “not serious” in unusually personal criticism that pushed relations to fresh lows.
France was irked by Johnson’s initial reaction, which was seen as deflecting blame onto France, and then by his decision to write a letter to Macron which he published in full on his Twitter account before the French leader had received it.
Patel’s invitation to Sunday’s talks was promptly withdrawn over the breach of diplomatic protocol, with an aide to Darmanin calling Johnson’s letter “unacceptable.”
Britain’s departure from the European Union has caused years of ill-will between Paris and London, with relations seen as at their lowest point in at least two decades.
Without the participation of Britain — the destination country for the thousands of migrants massed in northern France — there are limits to what can be achieved at the meeting.
The invitation to France’s other northern neighbors reflects concern about how people-smuggling gangs are able to use Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany as bases to organize their operations.
Representatives from the European Commission, as well as the EU’s border force Frontex and police agency Europol will also attend.
Many migrants are believed to travel to launch sites in northern France from Belgium, while inflatables and life jackets can be bought in other countries such as the Netherlands and Germany without raising suspicion.
One of the five men arrested in connection with the accident last Wednesday was driving a car with German registration, according to French officials.
While France and Britain agree on the need to tackle people-smugglers more effectively, they remain at odds over how to prevent people taking to the water.
In his public letter to Macron, Johnson again pressed for British police and border agents to patrol alongside their French counterparts along the coast — something rejected in the past as infringing on French sovereignty.
More controversially, he also proposed sending back all migrants who land in England, which he claimed would save “thousands of lives by fundamentally breaking the business model of the criminal gangs.”
“Those are exactly the kinds of things we need to do,” British Health Secretary Sajid Javid told Sky News on Sunday, while denying that Johnson had made a mistake by publishing his letter to Macron.
“Our policy is very clear: these boats must stop. We can’t just do it on our own. We do need the cooperation of the French,” he added.
The European Commission’s vice president on Saturday bluntly told Britain it needed to sort out its own problems after its decision to leave the EU following a 2016 referendum.
“I recall well the main slogan of the referendum campaign is ‘we take back control’,” Margaritis Schinas told reporters during a trip to Greece.
France, which received 80,000 asylum requests in 2020 compared with 27,000 in the UK, has suggested Britain should enable migrants to lodge their demands in northern France.
Activist groups have also called for safe routes for asylum seekers to arrive in Britain.
Investigations into last week’s accident continue, with French police giving no details officially about the circumstances or the identities of the victims.
A total of 17 men, seven women and three minors died, with migrants living along the coast telling AFP that the deceased were mostly Iraqis, Iranians and Afghans.
Portugal’s new law on working from home makes the European Union country sound like a workers’ paradise.
Companies can’t attempt to contact their staff outside working hours. They must help staff pay for their home gas, electric and internet bills. Bosses are forbidden from using digital software to track what their teleworkers are doing.
There’s just one problem: The law might not work. Critics say the new rules are half-baked, short on detail and unfeasible. And they may backfire by making companies reluctant to allow working from home at all.
In many places around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated a trend toward the digitalization of work and more flexible work arrangements. Amid such a sudden and massive shift in the employment landscape, governments are scrambling to accommodate working from home in their employment laws. Those efforts are largely still in their infancy.
Many Europeans stopped going into the office regularly in March 2020 to help curb the spread of COVID-19.
In Europe, unlike in the United States, worker protections are widely regarded as entitlements. Laying off a staff member, for instance, can entail substantial severance pay.
Without a promised European Commission directive on how to legally frame the shift to more extensive working from home, governments’ legislative responses have been patchy and piecemeal.
During the pandemic some countries have recommended teleworking. Others — like Portugal — have demanded it. Most EU countries have specific legislation on teleworking, though with different approaches, and others are considering it through amendments, extensions or conventions.
As home working grew in recent years, workers’ right to disconnect — allowing staff to ignore work matters outside formal working hours — was adopted before the pandemic in countries such as Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Belgium. It is now becoming the standard.
But Portugal is putting the onus on companies.
“The employer has a duty to refrain from contacting the employee outside working hours, except in situations of force majeure,” meaning an unanticipated or uncontrollable event, the new law says.
Also, parents or caregivers with children up to 8 years old have the right to work from home if they choose, as long as the type of work they do is compatible with teleworking.
Fines for companies breaking the law go up to almost 10,000 euros ($11,200) for each infringement.
The Portuguese rules are meant to address the downside of what has become known as WFH.
The technology that enables working from home has also opened the door to abuses, such as drawn-out workdays as staff remain reachable outside their normal eight-hour shift. The consequences may include attrition between work and private life and a sense of isolation.
But the new law has met with skepticism from those it is intended to protect.
Andreia Sampaio, 37, works in communications in Lisbon, the Portuguese capital. She agrees with the law’s purpose but thinks it is too general and will be very hard to enforce.
“We have to have common sense,” she said, adding that she doesn’t mind being contacted out of hours if it’s an urgent matter. “We have to judge each case by its merits.”
Prompted by the pandemic but designed to apply in the post-pandemic future, the law could come into force as soon as Dec. 1.
It is largely the brainchild of the center-left Socialist Party, which has governed Portugal since 2015. Ahead of an election for a new government on Jan. 30, it is keen to burnish its progressive credentials and hoist a banner about workers’ rights.
Nevertheless, practical questions abound: Must staff be taken off company email lists when their shift finishes and then put back on when they start work again? What about Europeans who work in financial markets and need to know what’s going on in, say, Hong Kong, and have colleagues working in different time zones?
What if an industrial machine that can’t be stopped requires the attention of an engineer who’s off? Who is it that can’t contact the employee — the department supervisor? The company CEO? What constitutes contact — a phone call, a text message, an email?
“The devil is always in the details … but also in the implementation,” said Jon Messenger, a specialist on working conditions at the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency based in Geneva.
The Portuguese Business Confederation, the country’s largest grouping of companies, wasn’t involved in drawing up the new law and thinks it is full of holes.
Teleworking rules need to be flexible, tailored to each sector and negotiated between employers and staff, says Luís Henrique of the confederation’s legal department.
“We’re treating situations that are completely different as if they were all the same. That’s not realistic,” Henrique said. “(The law) can’t be one-size-fits-all.”
Policing and enforcing the new rules may also be challenging in what is one of the EU’s economically poorest countries. In Portugal, which is notorious for red tape and slow justice and poorly resourced public services, how long will it take to resolve a complaint?
Across Europe over the past decade the number of labor inspections has collapsed, according to data analyzed by the Brussels-based European Trade Union Confederation, which represents 45 million members in 39 European countries.
The country with the biggest drop in the number of inspections since 2010? Portugal, with 55% fewer checks up to 2018.
“Ambitious, progressive laws … run up against the reality that ways of policing them aren’t in place yet,” said Henrique of Portugal’s business confederation.
The price to cross the English Channel varies according to the network of smugglers, between 3,000 and 7,000 euros ($3,380 and $8,000) though there are rumors of discounts.
Often, the fee also includes a very short-term tent rental in the windy dunes of northern France and food cooked over fires that sputter in the rain that falls for more than half the month of November in the Calais region. Sometimes, but not always, it includes a life vest and fuel for the outboard motor.
And the people who collect the money — up to 300,000 euros ($432,000) per boat that makes it across the narrows of the channel — are not the ones arrested in the periodic raids along the coastline. They are just what French police call “the little hands.”
Now, French authorities are hoping to move up the chain of command. The French judicial investigation into Wednesday’s sinking that killed 27 people has been turned over to Paris-based prosecutors who specialize in organized crime.
To cross the 33-kilometer (20-mile) Dover Strait, the narrowest point of the channel, the rubber dinghies must navigate frigid waters and passing cargo ships. As of November 17, 23,000 people crossed successfully, according to Britain’s Home Office. France intercepted about 19,000 people.
At a minimum, smuggling organizations this year have netted 69 million euros ($77.7 million) for the crossing, or 2 million euros per kilometer.
“This has become so profitable for criminals that it’s going to take a phenomenal amount of effort to shift it,” the U.K. Home Office’s Dan O’Mahoney told Parliament on November 17.
Golden age for smugglers
Between coronavirus and Brexit, “this is a golden age for the smugglers and organized crime because the countries are in disarray,” said Mimi Vu, an expert on Vietnamese migration who regularly spends time in the camps of northern France.
“Think of it like a shipping and logistics company,” Vu said.
The leg through central Europe can cost around 4,000 euros ($4,500), according to Austrian authorities who on Saturday announced the arrest of 15 people suspected of smuggling Syrian, Lebanese and Egyptian migrants into the country in vanloads of 12 to 15 people. The suspects transported more than 700 people at a total cost of more than 2.5 million euros ($2.8 million), police said. In this network, the migrants were bound for Germany.
The alleged smugglers — from Moldova, Ukraine and Uzbekistan — were recruited in their home countries via ads on social media offering work as drivers for 2,000-3,000 euros ($2,250-3,380) a month.
The men handling the last leg are essentially just making the final delivery. If arrested, they are replaceable, Vu said.
Frontex, the European border agency, echoed that in a 2021 risk report that describes the operational leaders as managers who “are able to orchestrate the criminal business from a distance, while mostly exposing low-level criminals involved in transport and logistics to law enforcement detection.”
The chain starts in the home country, usually with an agreed-upon price, arranged over social media. That fee tends to shift over the journey, but most willingly pay extra as their destination grows closer, she said. That’s precisely when the logistics grow more complicated.
More channel crossings
Channel crossings by sea were relatively rare until a few years ago, when French and British authorities locked down the area around the Eurotunnel entrance. The deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants in the back of a container truck may also have contributed to a new reluctance to use that route.
But the first attempts were disorganized, using small inflatables and even kayaks bought at the local Decathlon sports store.
“At the beginning, it’s always the pioneers,” said Nando Sigona, professor of international migration and forced displacement at the University of Birmingham. “But once it started to seem that it was working for a number of people, you could see the bigger players came to be involved.”
One migrant from Sudan, who would only give his name as Yasir, had been trying for three years to get to the U.K.
While shaking his head about the tragedy, he pointed out that other methods of smuggling, such as hiding on a truck, were also dangerous.
“You could break a leg,” he said. “You can die.”
And as dangerous as the sea voyage might prove, it seemed to many migrants to be safer than other options. The only thing preventing it is the cost, which he had heard was 1,200 euros ($1,350).
“We don’t have any money,” Yasir said. “If I had money, I’d go to the boat.”
Police cracked down on local boat purchases, and the larger inflatables started to show up, hauled by the dozens inside cars and vans with German and Belgian license plates, police said. France’s interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, said a car with German license plates was seized in connection with the investigation.
Police raids on the camps to pull down tents and disrupt operations have given smugglers yet another chance to make money, said Nikolai Posner, of the aid group Utopia 56. Now, the fee includes a short-term tent rental and access to basic food, usually cooked over an open fire.
“There is one solution to stop all this, the deaths, the smugglers, the camps. Make a humanitarian corridor,” said Posner. He said asylum requests should be easier on both sides of the channel.
Work in Britain
In part because of Brexit and coronavirus, expulsions from the U.K. this year dropped to just five people, according to the Home Office. Vu said people who are intercepted at sea or land by British border forces end up in migrant centers, but usually get back in touch with the smuggling networks and end up working black market jobs.
That’s the complaint in France, where the interior minister said British employers appear more than happy to hire under the table, providing yet another financial incentive.
“If they’re in Calais, it’s to get to Britain, and the only people who can guarantee them passage are these networks of smugglers,” said Ludovic Hochart, a Calais-based police officer with the Alliance union. “The motivation to get to England is stronger than the dangers that await.”
On Sunday ministers from France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and EU officials will meet to search for solutions. But, with France and Britain at sharp odds over migration, fishing and how to rebuild a working relationship after Brexit, there is one notable absence: a British delegation.
For Vu, that’s a missed opportunity: “This is transnational crime. It spans many borders and it’s not up to only one country to solve it.”
Skirmishes on Saturday erupted in Serbia between police and anti-government demonstrators who blocked roads and bridges in the Balkan country in protest over new laws they say favor interests of foreign investors devastating the environment.
Hundreds of people on Saturday appeared simultaneously in the capital Belgrade, the northern city of Novi Sad and other locations to block main bridges and roads for one hour in what organizers described as a warning blockade. They pledged further protests if the laws on property expropriation and referendum weren’t withdrawn.
Police officers blocked the demonstrators from reaching the bridges, which led to skirmishes as police helicopters flew overhead. The protesters then marched around while managing to stop traffic at a key bridge in Belgrade and in various central streets.
Organizers said a number of people have been detained. Police earlier have warned that any blockade of bridges is illegal.
A number of environmental groups and civil society organizations are angry that the authorities have lowered the referendum threshold and allowed for swift expropriation of private property if deemed to be in the public interest. Activists argue this will pave the way for foreign companies to circumvent popular discontent over projects such as the bid by the Rio Tinto company to launch a lithium mine in western Serbia.
Serbia’s authorities have rejected the accusations, saying the new laws are needed because of infrastructure projects. The country’s autocratic president, Aleksandar Vucic, said a referendum will be organized on the Rio Tinto mine.
Environmental issues recently have drawn public attention as local activists accuse the populist government of allowing for the devastation of nature for profit. Experts have warned that the planned lithium mine in western Serbia would destroy farmland and pollute the waters.
Following decades of neglect, Serbia has faced major environmental problems such as air and water pollution, poor waste management and other issues. Serbia is a candidate nation for European Union entry, but little so far has been achieved with regards to improving the country’s environmental situation.
Show of support
Protesters on Saturday blew whistles during the blockade and chanted “We won’t give up Serbia.” Huge columns of cars and other vehicles formed at several locations as the demonstrators allowed only the emergency services to pass.
The protest coincided with a convention of Vucic’s populist Serbian Progressive Party as thousands of his supporters were bused into the capital for the gathering that was designed as a show of support for his policies.
Although formally seeking EU membership, Vucic has refused to align the country’s foreign policies with the 27-nation bloc and has instead strengthened the Balkan country’s alliance with Russia and China.
Ukraine’s military is ready and able to repel any attack, says Ukrainian soldier Oleksander, standing in a trench just a few hundred meters from pro-Russian separatists.
Ukraine’s military intelligence said last week that Russia had more than 92,000 troops massed around Ukraine’s borders and was preparing for an attack by the end of January or beginning of February.
Russia’s foreign intelligence chief said Saturday that such suggestions were “malicious U.S. propaganda.” But Ukrainian forces who control the borders are prepared for any escalation between the two sides.
“If there is an attack, we have means for defense. We are well-prepared. We’re getting ready, better day by day, considering different options. We can repel an attack without big problems and we’re not afraid of it,” said Oleksander.
Ukraine, which wants to join the NATO military alliance, has blamed Moscow for supporting separatists in a conflict in its east since 2014.
Russia has said it suspects Ukraine of wanting to recapture separatist-controlled territory by force. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Friday that Kyiv had no such plans and Russia’s rhetoric opposing Ukraine’s bid to join NATO was worrying.
Ukraine received a large consignment of U.S. ammunition and Javelin missiles earlier this year, and soldiers say they also have mortars and Turkish attack drones.
“It’s a bad idea to be afraid when someone comes to your house, and you hide in your basement. It won’t work. One should get up and go to fight,” another soldier Vlad said.
“We’re fighting here to not let them come, and then it’s luck of a draw.”
Britain, Germany and Italy detected cases of the new omicron coronavirus variant Saturday, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced new steps to contain the virus, while more nations imposed restrictions on travel from southern Africa.
The discovery of the variant has sparked global concern, a wave of travel bans or curbs and a sell-off on financial markets on Friday as investors worried that omicron could stall a global recovery from the nearly two-year pandemic.
The two linked cases of the new variant detected in Britain were connected to travel to southern Africa, British Health Minister Sajid Javid said.
Speaking later, Johnson laid out measures that included stricter testing rules for people arriving in the country but that stopped short of curbs on social activity other than requiring mask wearing in some settings.
“We will require anyone who enters the UK to take a PCR test by the end of the second day after their arrival and to self-isolate until they have a negative result,” Johnson told a news conference.
People who had come into contact with people testing positive for a suspected case of omicron would have to self-isolate for 10 days and the government would tighten up the rules on wearing face coverings, Johnson said, adding the steps would be reviewed in three weeks.
The health ministry in the German state of Bavaria also announced two confirmed cases of the variant. The two people entered Germany at Munich airport on November 24, before Germany designated South Africa as a virus-variant area, and were now isolating, said the ministry, indicating without stating explicitly that the people had traveled from South Africa.
In Italy, the National Health Institute said a case of the new variant had been detected in Milan in a person coming from Mozambique.
Czech health authorities also said they were examining a suspected case of the variant in a person who spent time in Namibia.
Omicron, dubbed a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization, is potentially more contagious than previous variants of the disease, although experts do not know yet if it will cause more or less severe COVID-19 compared to other strains.
England’s Chief Medical Officer, Chris Witty, said at the same news conference as Johnson that there was still much uncertainty around omicron, but “there is a reasonable chance that at least there will be some degree of vaccine escape with this variant.”
The variant was first discovered in South Africa and had also since been detected in Belgium, Botswana, Israel and Hong Kong.
Flights to Amsterdam
Dutch authorities said that 61 out of about 600 people who arrived in Amsterdam on two flights Friday from South Africa had tested positive for the coronavirus. Health authorities were carrying out further tests to see if those cases involved the new variant.
One passenger who arrived Friday from South Africa, Dutch photographer Paula Zimmerman, said she tested negative but was anxious for the days to come.
“I’ve been told that they expect that a lot more people will test positive after five days. It’s a little scary the idea that you’ve been in a plane with a lot of people who tested positive,” she said.
Financial markets plunged on Friday, especially stocks of airlines and others in the travel sector, as investors worried the variant could cause another surge in the pandemic. Oil prices tumbled by about $10 a barrel.
It could take weeks for scientists to fully understand the variant’s mutations and whether existing vaccines and treatments are effective against it.
Although epidemiologists say travel curbs may be too late to stop omicron from circulating globally, many countries around the world – including the United States, Brazil, Canada and European Union nations – announced travel bans or restrictions Friday on southern Africa.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and State Department added Saturday to Washington’s previously announced travel restrictions, advising against travel to eight southern African countries.
Also Saturday, Australia said it would ban non-citizens who have been in nine southern African countries from entering and will require supervised 14-day quarantines for Australian citizens returning from there.
Japan said it would extend its tightened border controls to three more African countries after imposing curbs Friday on travel from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Lesotho.
Britain also said it was expanding its “red list” to put travel curbs on more southern Africa countries, while South Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Oman, Kuwait and Hungary announced travel restrictions on southern African nations.
South Africa is worried that the curbs will hurt tourism and other sectors of its economy, the foreign ministry said on Saturday, adding the government is engaging with countries that have imposed travel bans to persuade them to reconsider.
Omicron has emerged as many countries in Europe are already battling a surge in COVID-19 infections, and some have re-introduced restrictions on social activity to try to stop the spread. Austria and Slovakia have entered lockdowns.
The new variant has also thrown a spotlight on disparities in how far the world’s population is vaccinated. Even as many developed countries are giving third-dose boosters, less than 7% of people in low-income countries have received their first COVID-19 shot, according to medical and human rights groups.
Seth Berkley, CEO of the GAVI Vaccine Alliance that with the WHO co-leads the COVAX initiative to push for equitable distribution of vaccines, said this was essential to ward off the emergence of more coronavirus variants.
While we still need to know more about omicron, we do know that as long as large portions of the world’s population are unvaccinated, variants will continue to appear, and the pandemic will continue to be prolonged,” he said in a statement to Reuters.
“We will only prevent variants from emerging if we are able to protect all of the world’s population, not just the wealthy parts.”