Politics Summary: Tuesday, March 16th

Greece, Gordon Brown, the Israeli/Washington contretemps, the digital economy bill and the sad news about the death of Ashok Kumar.

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In the strongest attack yet on Greece, the German finance minister has called for countries that fail to get their house in order “to be thrown out of the single currency”. Wolfgang Schäuble said stricter rules were needed, at a meeting of Eurozone finance ministers in Brussels where they hope to agree a plan for a financial bailout for Greece, reports The Times. Herr Schäuble said: “We need stricter rules. That means, in an extreme emergency, having the possibility of removing from the euro area a country that does not get its finances in order.” Responding to his remarks, French finance minister Christine Lagarde urged the Germans “to increase domestic demand to stimulate economic growth in the eurozone”. The Financial Times, however, reports agreement from finance ministers on establishing “an emergency financial support facility for the first time since the euro’s creation in 1999”. Austrian finance minister Josef Pröll told the FT: “The technical conditions for aid are in place, and it can be organised whenever necessary – but Greece didn’t ask for any aid.”

Staying in Brussels, and all the broadsheets report a warning from the European Union that Britain “must do more to curb its spiralling debt”. The Telegraph says the EC is urging the Treasury to put in place “more ambitious debt reduction plans”; it says: “The EC will chide Britain for failing to guarantee that it will meet the Maastricht limit for budget deficits of 3pc of gross domestic product by 2014/15 … However, the EC can do little but berate Britain, since its independence from euro membership means it is not bound to follow the rules under which euro members should not exceed deficits of 3pc of GDP.” The Guardian sees it as a warning from Europe to “cut deficit faster, deeper”, adding the reports reveal “European doubts over Britain’s finances” and question the “‘ambition’ of Labour’s plans to cut debt”. The Independent claims it is a “double blow for Brown” – with Brussels describing his plan to cut the deficit as “inadequate” – and The Times calls it “an embarrassing blow” which will “electrify the debate over the economy” coming just a week before the Budget.

The Israeli ambassador to Washington has described the state of relations between the two countries as the “worst crisis since 1975 – a crisis of historic proportions”. The freezing of relations follows US Vice-President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel, during which he clashed with Benjamin Netanyahu over the building of more than 1,500 new settlements in occupied East Jerusalem, reports the Telegraph. Hitting back at Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Isralei prime minister had said: “Construction will continue in Jerusalem as this has been the case over the past 42 years”; with an unnamed cabinet minister adding: “The demands they are making of the government now are almost impossible as far as the coalition is concerned … How can we announce a construction freeze in Jerusalem? A move like that would break up the coalition.” The Times, however, reports the White House’s refusal to back down, saying the stalled peace talks “threaten the lives of American soldiers in the Muslim world”.

The Guardian reports fears over the digital economy bill, which critics say “is in danger of being rushed through parliament … with the government hoping that it can pass into the statute books before a general election is called”. The bill, which includes a “three strikes rule” to cut off internet access for suspected file sharers has been welcomed by the British Phonographic Industry, whose chief exec last night said: “It is vital for the future of the UK’s creative sector that the digital economy bill becomes law before the dissolution of parliament … We are pleased that it has passed successfully through the Lords and will continue to work closely with all parties as it progresses.” Opponents, however, are angry such little time is being devoted to it. Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, said: “Our elected MPs will have spent a whole two hours on this bill … before they disappear back to constituencies to ask for our vote … Meanwhile, a ‘rump parliament’ made up of retiring MPs and party whips will pass disconnection measures – with no actual debate.”

And the Mirror reports the sudden death of Labour MP for Middlesbrough Ashok Kumar. The prime minister led the tributes to Mr Kumar, who was just 53 when he died: “I was greatly saddened by the sudden death of Ashok Kumar. Ashok was a hard-working constituency MP who took pride in representing the people of Middlesbrough as both a councillor and MP since 1987.” The Sun reports Tony Blair’s words of condolence: “Ashok Kumar’s sudden death is a genuine tragedy and source of real sadness. Ashok was a dedicated and committed local Member of Parliament, representing Middlesbrough with a real passion and determination to serve the community he was from.” Neighbouring MP Sir Stuart Bell added: “The death of Ashok Kumar at so young an age is tragic. He has been for many years a fine parliamentarian and good constituency MP. He built up his parliamentary majority and had every expectation of being returned to the House at the forthcoming election. He will be mourned by his many friends and colleagues.”

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