News & Current Affairs

January 15, 2009

Go-ahead for new Heathrow runway

Go-ahead for new Heathrow runway

The government has given the go-ahead for a third runway at Heathrow, saying it is the “right” move for the country.

The decision, confirmed by Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon, comes despite opposition from environmentalists, local residents and many MPs.

Mr Hoon outlined measures to limit noise and emissions but told MPs doing nothing would “damage our economy”.

The debate was halted and local MP John McDonnell thrown out after he grabbed the mace and shouted “disgrace”.

Alongside the commitment to a new runway, Mr Hoon also announced increased investment in public transport, including the possibility of new high-speed rail links from the airport.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
MPs told of decision
Planning process begins – this will take years
Legal challenge likely in days
If Tories win next election they would scrap plan
If all goes according to government plan, construction would start in 2015
Third runway due to finish 2019

In an effort to appease critics he said airlines using the new runway would be required to use the newest, least-polluting aircraft.

He told MPs the government was satisfied environmental targets could be met, as it would put an initial cap on additional flights from the new runway of 125,000, would ensure new slots were “green slots” used by only the “cleanest planes” and would set a new target on aircraft emissions – that they would be lower in 2050 than in 2005.

“Taken together this gives us the toughest climate change regime for aviation of any country in the world,” he told MPs.

He also announced he would set up a company to look into creating a high speed rail line between London and Scotland – adding there was a “strong case” for a new high speed rail hub at Heathrow.

Heathrow ‘hub’

And he said hard shoulders could be used to ease traffic on the the most congested parts of the M1, M25, M6, M62, M3 and M4, as well as motorways around Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol.

But he ruled out ending “mixed mode” use of runways – where planes land on one runway until 3pm then the other for the rest of the day to give residents a break from noise.

However, he said the Cranford agreement, which limits planes taking off to the east of the airport, would end, which he said would benefit Windsor and other towns to the west of the airport and Hatton and North Feltham to the east.

“Heathrow is the only hub airport, it’s our most important international gateway, it connects us with the growth markets of the future – essential for every great trading nation,” he told MPs.

Doing nothing would only give an advantage to its competitors, he said, adding: “The government is taking the right decisions for the long term.”

The debate was halted when John McDonnell, whose constituency borders Sipson – where hundreds of homes will be bulldozed to make way for a third runway and sixth terminal – shouted “disgrace” as the transport secretary said MPs would not get a vote on the decision.

Labour unease

After marching from the backbenches to the despatch box he picked up the mace and placed it on an MPs’ bench – he refused requests to end his protest and was ordered out of the Commons and suspended for a week.

The government has long argued, in principle, that it is in favour of the scheme, subject to pollution limits and access concerns.

But there has been deep unease within Labour ranks about the decision, with several cabinet members reported to be unconvinced and more than 50 MPs openly opposed.

At a press conference in Berlin ahead of the Commons statement, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he wanted to “protect the economic future of the country while, at the same time, meeting the very tough environmental conditions we have set ourselves”.

Shadow transport secretary Theresa Villiers told BBC Radio 4’s Today any government environmental promises would be shown “to not be worth the paper they are written on” and said her party would cancel the project if they win the next general election.

In the Commons she said: “This is a bleak day for our environment and for all those of us who care about safeguarding it.”

The Liberal Democrats also oppose the third runway and have urged ministers to invest in high-speed rail links instead.

Their spokeswoman, Susan Kramer, told the BBC the arguments in favour of expansion were “glib” and south west London would become a “pretty miserable” place to live.

“There’s this conventional wisdom amongst business that you must grow the airport … it just isn’t held up by the reality. Actually Heathrow has been serving fewer destinations over the last ten years.”

The statement to MPs – it is not subject to a vote in the Commons – marks the start of the planning process which would be a lengthy one, even without the opposition and legal challenges expected.

Work on a new runway is unlikely to start until 2015 and it is not expected to be operational for at least a decade.

About 700 homes will have to be demolished to make way for the runway, which will increase the number of flights using Heathrow from about 480,000 a year now to 702,000 by 2030.

‘At risk’

Campaigners have bought some land earmarked for the construction of the runway in an effort to frustrate the expansion plans.

Environmental campaigners say proceeding with the new runway will leave the government’s legal commitment to cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 in tatters.

Energy Secretary Ed Miliband told the the plans represented “constrained expansion” with strict rules on air quality and noise.

But Greenpeace director John Sauven said: “If Gordon Brown thinks this is a green runway then he must be colour-blind. This package is designed to patch up a cabinet split and will do very little to reduce the huge environmental impact of an expanded Heathrow, which will now become the single biggest emitter of carbon-dioxide in the country.”

Supporters of the runway say Heathrow is already operating at full capacity and the UK economy will lose business to the rest of Europe if it does not go ahead.

They point out that rival airports such as Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam already have at least four runways and that Heathrow is at risk of falling further behind.

Former Labour MP Lord Soley, campaign director of Future Heathrow, which represents groups in favour of expanding the airport said Heathrow brought jobs and “prosperity” to west London and the Thames Valley that was “at risk”.

The boss of British Airways, Willie Walsh, said he was “very pleased” by the decision and welcomed the fact the scheme would be subject to “very strict environmental conditions”.

Virgin Atlantic’s Paul Charles told BBC Radio 5 Live that if there was no third runway “jobs won’t be created and people will go to Europe instead”.

Richard Lambert, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, said: “This approach to expanding Heathrow’s capacity makes real sense. It will create the integrated transport system necessary for an economy that needs to grow in an environmentally sustainable fashion.”


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September 7, 2008

Serb opposition leader resigns

Serb opposition leader resigns

Tomislav Nikolic

Tomislav Nikolic went too far for party hardliners

The head of the main opposition party in Serbia has resigned after senior colleagues refused to back the country’s efforts to join the EU.

Tomislav Nikolic had recently persuaded his Serbian Radical Party to approve the ratification of an important agreement with the European Union.

But there was a party revolt over the issue, with critics saying it meant abandoning Serbia’s claim to Kosovo.

Kosovo unilaterally declared itself independent from Serbia this year.

Mr Nikolic had steered his party towards the centre of Serbian politics, focusing on social issues such as unemployment and poverty, rather than the militant nationalism of the past.

Mr Nikolic is officially the deputy president of the party as its leader, Vojislav Seselj is facing charges at the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

His endorsement of the Stability and Association Agreement, signed earlier this year but still awaiting ratification by the Serbian Parliament, was a bridge too far for many of his party colleagues, our correspondent says.

A meeting of the party leadership on Friday night reversed the decision to endorse the agreement with Brussels.

Mr Nikolic resigned in protest, both from his position as de facto leader of the party, and as the head of its group in parliament.

The parliamentary vote on the agreement with the European Union is expected next week.

August 25, 2008

Russian MPs back Georgia’s rebels

Russian MPs back Georgia’s rebels

An Abkhaz separatist tank crewman relaxes in the Kodori Gorge on 14 August

Abkhazia used the Ossetia conflict to drive out remaining Georgian troops

Both houses of Russia’s parliament have urged the president to recognise the independence of Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The unanimous votes in the Federation Council and State Duma are not binding on President Dmitry Medvedev.

But they could provide Mr Medvedev with bargaining chips in talks with the West, analysts say.

Russia fought a brief war with Georgia this month after Tbilisi tried to retake South Ossetia by military force.

Most of Russian ground forces pulled out of Georgia last Friday, following a French-brokered ceasefire agreement between Moscow and Tbilisi.

It’s a historic day for Abkhazia… and South Ossetia
Sergei Bagapsh, Abkhazian leader

But some Russian troops continue to operate near the Black Sea port of Poti, south of Abkhazia, and have established checkpoints around South Ossetia.

On Monday, a senior Russian commander said Russian troops would be carrying out regular inspections of cargo in Poti.

Moscow has defended plans to keep its forces near the port, saying it does not break the terms of the truce.

Russia has also said it will not allow aerial reconnaissance in the buffer zones it had set up.

The US, France and UK say Russia has already failed to comply with the ceasefire terms by creating buffer zones around South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Both regions have had de facto independence since breaking away in the early 1990s.

While they have enjoyed Russian economic and diplomatic support, and military protection, no foreign state has recognised them as independent states.

Since the fighting over South Ossetia ended nearly two weeks ago with the ejection of Georgian forces from both provinces, the Russian military has established controversial buffer zones along their administrative borders with Georgia proper.

‘Hitler’ comparison

The upper house, Federation Council, voted 130-0 to call on President Medvedev to support the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The lower house, the State Duma, approved the same resolution in a 447-0 vote shortly afterwards.

South Ossetians demonstrate for independence in Tskhinvali on 21 August

South Ossetians rallied for independence last week

The Federation Council speaker, Sergei Mironov, said both Abkhazia and South Ossetia had all the necessary attributes of independent states.

During the debate in the two chambers, several speakers compared Georgia’s military action in South Ossetia with Hitler’s Second World War invasion of the Soviet Union.

Both Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh and his South Ossetian counterpart, Eduard Kokoity, addressed the Russian lawmakers before the votes, urging them to recognise the independence of the two regions.

“It’s a historic day for Abkhazia… and South Ossetia,” UK said, adding that Abkhazia would never again be part of Georgia.

Mr Kokoity thanked Russia for supporting South Ossetia during the conflict with Georgia, describing President Medvedev’s move to deploy troops as “a courageous, timely and correct” decision.

He said that South Ossetia and Abkhazia had more rights to become recognised nations than Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia earlier this year with support from the US and much of the European Union.

Both houses of the Russian parliament are dominated by allies of President Medvedev and his Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin.

The lawmakers interrupted their summer holidays for extraordinary sittings, formally called at the request of separatist leaders in the two Georgian provinces.

Thousands of people attended pro-independence rallies in the Abkhaz capital Sukhumi and war-ravaged South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali on Thursday.

Kosovo or Northern Cyprus?

While both provinces have been pushing for formal independence since the break-up of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Russia’s official line at least until now has been similar to that of the West, the BBC’s Humphrey Hawksley reports from Moscow.

BBC map

But in March the State Duma passed a resolution supporting independence should Georgia invade or rush to join Nato.

After Monday’s votes, the bill will be sent to the Kremlin for approval.

Analysts say the Kremlin might delay its decision while it carries out wider negotiations with the West on the crisis, says our correspondent.

If it backs the move, the two regions could apply to the United Nations for recognition, which would almost certainly be vetoed in the Security Council.

They could also ask for support from Russia’s allies from as far afield as Venezuela and Cuba, our correspondent notes.

Analysts say the two new aspirant nations could end up like Kosovo and be accepted by a substantial number of governments.

Alternatively, they could become largely isolated and recognised only by Russia, in the same way that Northern Cyprus is recognised only by Turkey.

Much of it would depend on the measure of Russia’s international influence, our correspondent adds.


Should Abkhazia and South Ossetia be independent? Can normal life ever be resumed in Georgia?

Send in your comments

August 21, 2008

Rebels push to sever Georgia ties

Rebels push to sever Georgia ties

Pro-independence rally in Sukhumi, Abkhazia, 21 Aug 08

Russian TV showed a huge crowd at the rally in Abkhazia

The separatist leaders of Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have urged Russia to recognize their independence, at mass rallies.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow’s response to their pleas would depend on the conduct of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili.

Russia says it will keep troops in a security zone around South Ossetia.

The zone will stretch several km into Georgia proper. Russia also plans to reinforce its South Ossetia force.

“Tomorrow, eight checkpoints will be established in the security zone in which 500 peacekeepers will be deployed, no more than that,” said Mr Lavrov, quoted by Reuters news agency.

It is still not clear to what extent Russian military forces have withdrawn from Georgia, despite Moscow’s promise to pull out most of its troops by the end of Friday.

Russian troops on Abkhazia/Georgia border

Russian troops moved far into Georgia from the breakaway regions

Russian news agencies say an armored column, consisting of more than 40 vehicles, has passed through South Ossetia, on its way to the Russian border.

A correspondent in the Georgian village of Igoeti, just 35km (21 miles) from the capital Tbilisi, said he saw the Russian military pulling back towards South Ossetia early on Thursday afternoon. Russian forces were also reported still to be dug in around Georgia’s main Black Sea port of Poti.

Russia poured troops into Georgia after Georgian forces tried to retake South Ossetia on 7 August. Russian-led peacekeeping troops had been deployed there since a war in the early 1990s.

Thousands of people attended pro-independence rallies in the Abkhaz capital Sukhumi and war-ravaged South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali on Thursday.

The world-renowned conductor Valery Gergiyev – himself an Ossetian – plans to give a concert in South Ossetia with his St Petersburg orchestra on Thursday.

Chill in NATO-Russia ties

Meanwhile, Russia says it is reviewing its co-operation with NATO, which has insisted that Moscow pull its troops out of Georgia, in line with a French-brokered ceasefire agreement.

PEACE PLAN
No more use of force
Stop all military actions for good
Free access to humanitarian aid
Georgian troops return to their places of permanent deployment
Russian troops to return to pre-conflict positions
International talks about security in South Ossetia and Abkhazia

Nato said on Tuesday there could be no “business as usual” with Moscow.

At an emergency meeting, NATO suspended formal contacts with Russia because of the Russian military presence in Georgia.

“Relations with NATO will be reviewed,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency on Thursday.

“This will apply to the military co-operation programme,” he said.

Nato has accused Russia of failing to respect the truce, which requires both Russian and Georgian forces to pull back to the positions they held before heavy fighting erupted in South Ossetia.

On Wednesday, Norway’s defence ministry said Russia had informed Norwegian diplomats that it was planning to freeze co-operation with Nato.

Norway’s Aftenposten newspaper said Oslo was trying to establish exactly what impact the Russian decision would have on existing co-operation, such as joint rescue operations and border controls. Norway shares a border with Russia in the Arctic.

A statement from the Norwegian defence ministry said: “Norway notes that Russia has decided that for now it is ‘freezing’ all military co-operation with Nato and allied countries.

“We expect that this will not affect planned activities in the areas of coastguard operations, search and rescue and resource management, because on the Russian side these are handled by civilian authorities.”

Russia has not yet given Norway formal written notification about its suspension of co-operation, a ministry spokesperson said.

Russia’s permanent envoy at Nato headquarters in Brussels, Dmitry Rogozin, has been recalled to Moscow for consultations, Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency reports.

He said that in light of Nato’s position on the Georgia conflict, relations with Nato “really cannot remain as before”, but he added that “there will not be a cold war”.

A state secretary in Norway’s defence ministry, Espen Barth Eide, said “there’s no doubt that our relationship to Russia has now chilled”.

Georgia map

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