Toronto, Feb 13 (AP/UNB) — Canada's former justice minister announced Tuesday that she was quitting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Cabinet — a move that follows allegations Trudeau's office pressured her to avoid prosecuting a major Canadian engineering firm.
Veterans Affairs Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould released a letter announcing her resignation but gave no reasons. She had been demoted from the post of justice minister last month.
The Globe and Mail newspaper reported last week that Trudeau or his staff pressured her to arrange a deal with Montreal-based SNC-Lavalin that would let it avoid criminal prosecution on allegations of corruption involving government contracts in Libya.
Trudeau said he was "puzzled" and "surprised and disappointed" by her decision.
"Allow me to very clear. Our government did its job properly and according to all the rules," Trudeau said.
The prime minister said Wilson-Raybould never came to him in the fall with concerns the government was not acting properly. "It was her responsibility to come directly to me and highlight that," he said.
"To be honest I don't entirely understand why Jody Wilson-Raybould made the decision she did," he added.
Wilson-Raybould said she has hired a former Supreme Court justice to advise her on what she can say publicly about the matter.
Her resignation is a potential blow to Trudeau as he faces re-election this year. He has denied directing Wilson-Raybould to arrange such a deal.
On Monday, Trudeau said he had told Wilson-Raybould previously that any decision on the subject was hers alone. Trudeau also said her continued presence in the Cabinet should speak for itself.
But later Monday night she told him she was quitting the Cabinet
"Regardless of background, geography, or party affiliation, we must stand together for the values that Canada is built on," Wilson-Raybould said in her resignation letter.
The Globe and Mail's report said Trudeau's office pressured her to instruct the director of public prosecutions — as allowed by law — to negotiate a remediation agreement with SNC-Lavalin.
The agreement would have allowed the company to pay reparations but avoid a criminal trial on charges of corruption and bribery.
If convicted criminally, the company would be banned from receiving any federal government business for a decade. SNC-Lavalin is a major employer in Quebec with about 3,400 employees in the province, 9,000 employees in Canada and more than 50,000 worldwide.
The company released a public letter to Canadians last October complaining it had not been offered a remediation agreement and noting that "innocent stakeholders continue to bear all the brunt of this uncertainty - including all 52,000 current employees who have no responsibility for any past misconduct."
The company also said foreign companies with similar issues are able to work freely in Canada and around the world because of such settlement agreements in place in their own countries.
On Monday, Canada's ethics commissioner announced an investigation into the allegation.
Andrew Scheer, leader of the opposition Conservative Party, said Trudeau is trying to hide the truth and the scandal has thrown the government into "chaos."
"Yesterday he tried to reassure Canadians that nothing unethical took place. In fact, he said that Mrs. Wilson-Raybould's presence in Cabinet should speak for itself," Scheer said. "Today her resignation speaks for itself."
Wilson-Raybould became Canada's first Indigenous justice minister when Trudeau appointed her to the post in 2015.
Robert Bothwell, a professor at the University of Toronto, said her quitting is a blow to Trudeau's efforts for reconciliation with aboriginals.
"The symbolism of her quitting after being touted as Trudeau's bridge to the aboriginal community and as a symbol of the place they could aspire to in Canadian society — the loss of that is dreadful," Bothwell said.
Rome, Feb 13 (AP/UNB) — Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte demanded "authentic" solidarity from Italy's European Union partners on the issue of migrants Tuesday, but drew sharp barbs himself from EU lawmakers for refusing to join a united European stand on Venezuela and over Italy's nasty spat with France.
Addressing the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, Conte insisted his country's EU partners quit following what he called a "nationalistic logic" and instead take in some of the tens of thousands of economic migrants brought to Italy after rescue at sea but who are ineligible for asylum.
"Let's put into practice an authentic solidarity," said Conte, whose populist government includes a coalition partner that advocates "Italians first" policies in foreign affairs.
Christian Democrat leader Manfred Weber used the parliament's debate on the future of Europe to appeal to Conte for Italy to join the "common European approach" that recognizes Venezuelan congress leader Juan Guaido as his country's interim leader until a new presidential election is held in the South American nation.
"Guaido has asked Italy to recognize him. I think that you should answer Guaido if you think that there must be a common European approach" to issues, Weber said.
Earlier on Tuesday, Italy's foreign minister said in Rome that his government considers illegitimate last year's re-election of Nicolas Maduro as Venezuelan president but stopped short of joining EU recognition for Guaido's role.
In his retort, Conte contended that recognizing Guaido risked aggravating the South American nation's crisis by "crowning one actor over another."
The senior partner in Conte's government, the euro-skeptic 5-Star Movement, staunchly backed Maduro's predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez.
European lawmaker Udo Bullmann slammed the Italian-French diplomatic spat between the two major trading partners.
"In contests like these, no one comes out a winner. It's a classic lose-lose situation," Bullmann said during the debate.
Last week, Paris called back its ambassador from Rome after 5-Star chief Luigi Di Maio met in France with leaders of the yellow vest movement that has violently protested the policies of French President Emmanuel Macron. The French leader has derided Italy's populist policies as a "nationalist leprosy" eroding European unity.
Conte alluded to the spat, saying "bilateral quarrels represent more the effect than the cause of an inability of Europe to propose solutions" to the continent's problems.
Italy's populist parties are vowing to make populism the biggest force after the May elections for the European Parliament.
Conte scolded the European Union for "losing contact with its people and making ever more unfillable" the distance "between Brussels and the many peripheries of the continent."
Madrid, Feb 13 (AP/UNB) — A politically charged trial of a dozen Catalan separatist leaders began Tuesday in Spain's Supreme Court amid protests and the possibility of an early general election being called in the country.
The defendants are being tried on rebellion and other charges stemming from their roles in pushing ahead with a unilateral independence declaration in October 2017. The declaration was based on the results of a divisive secession referendum that ignored a constitutional ban.
The trial, arguably Spain's most important in four decades of democracy , started as the future of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's minority government hinged on a last-minute change of position by Catalan pro-independence parties to back his 2019 budget.
Sanchez could be forced to call an early election if the Catalan separatists, whose support brought the Socialists to power last year, don't change their current position of voting against his spending plan Wednesday.
The separatists want Sanchez to agree to talks on self-determination for their region, but the government argues that Spain's constitution doesn't allow it.
Opening the parliamentary debate on Tuesday, Spanish Budget Minister Maria Jesus Montero told Catalan lawmakers that the government would "not give in to any blackmail by anybody."
"Under no circumstance will we agree to include the right to self-determination in Catalonia in any talking points," she said.
Meanwhile, Sanchez appeared to put more pressure on his opponents by tweeting that "the right-wing and the separatists will vote against a budget that helps social causes."
"They both want the same thing: a Catalonia that is divided and a Spain that is divided," he wrote.
In response, Catalan lawmakers said that despite the imminent vote Wednesday, there was still time for the government to "rectify."
Tensions between regional and central authorities peaked with the 2017 breakaway attempt but the conflict has been festering ever since. The 7.5 million residents of Catalonia remain divided by the secession question.
In Barcelona, thousands marched to a central square on Tuesday, demanding independence and criticizing Spain's judiciary. Some carried signs with the slogan, "Self-determination is not a crime." Earlier, pro-independence activists briefly blocked highways and the entrance to the state prosecutor's office before they were cleared by the regional police without incident.
In Madrid, right-wing protesters carrying national flags shouted as lawyers and three defendants who were free on bail entered the 18th-century convent that houses Spain's Supreme Court.
Former Catalan Vice President Oriol Junqueras, the regional parliament's former Speaker Carme Forcadell and the other 10 defendants weren't expected to testify Tuesday. They sat on four benches in the middle of the courtroom.
The defendants sat facing a seven-judge panel headed by Supreme Court magistrate Manuel Marchena, who presided. They held papers, smiled to each other at times and waved at relatives in the courtroom.
Junqueras' lawyer, Andreu Van den Eynde, was the first to speak, arguing that the cause goes "against political dissidence."
"We are before an exceptional trial," he told the judges, adding that "self-determination is the formula to avoid conflicts in the world."
Catalan President Quim Torra, a fervent separatist who has had to apologize for anti-Spanish comments, followed the proceedings from the back of the courtroom, where 100 seats were reserved for defendants' relatives, journalists and members of the public who lined up for hours to get one of the limited spots.
Torra later called the trial a "farce" and said any guilty verdicts would be appealed to European courts.
"No court can put Catalan democracy on trial," Torra said. "This case will end up in European and international courts, and we will win it."
Among those not on trial is Carles Puigdemont, Torra's predecessor who fled Spain. He called for the 12 separatists to be absolved for their alleged crimes and called the trial "a stress test for the Spanish democracy."
Addressing reporters at a news conference in Berlin, the former Catalan leader added: "I trust, however, that the Spanish state will take advantage of this chance to issue the correct sentence, which is absolution."
Puigdemont successfully avoided extradition to Spain when a German court refused to send him back on charges of rebellion last year. Since then, he has campaigned in Europe for the Catalans to be able to settle their links to Spain in a vote.
Those who stayed behind and showed up in court are the ones standing trial. Junqueras, Puigdemont's No. 2 at the time, faces up to 25 in prison if found guilty of rebellion, while others charged with sedition or misuse of public funds could get shorter sentences if convicted.
The proceedings were broadcast live on television in a display of transparency that aims to fight the separatists' attack on the court's credibility. Authorities in Spain have dismissed the notion that the trial is political and say it follows the European Union's highest standards.
Proceedings were likely to last for at least three months. The verdicts, and any sentences, will be delivered months later.
Spain, Feb 11 (AP/UNB) — Tens of thousands of people joined a right-wing rally in Spain's capital Sunday to demand that Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez step down for his handling of the Catalonia region's secession crisis.
Many in the crowd assembled in Madrid's Plaza de Colon waved the national flag and chanted slogans in support of Spain's security forces along with calling for the Socialist prime minister's resignation.
The conservative opposition Popular Party and the center-right Citizens party organized the rally, which the upstart far-right Vox party and other far-right parties backed.
"The time of Sanchez's government is over," Popular Party president Pablo Casado said. He asked voters to punish Sanchez's Socialists in the European, local and regional elections in May.
The political tensions come as a highly sensitive trial at Spain's Supreme Court starts Tuesday for 12 Catalan separatists who face charges, including rebellion, for their roles in a failed secession attempt in 2017.
Sanchez inherited the Catalan conflict from former Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, the then-leader of the Popular Party. Rajoy proved incapable of stopping support for secession from swelling in Catalonia to roughly half of the northeastern region's voters.
Speaking at a Socialist party event in northern Spain, Sanchez reminded his political opponents that when he was an opposition leader, he stood by Rajoy on the situation in Catalonia even after separatist regional officials staged an Oct. 2017 independence referendum in defiance of Spanish courts..
"And what I am doing now as prime minister, always respecting the constitution, is to solve a national crisis to which the Popular Party has contributed," Sanchez said.
"The unity of Spain means uniting Spaniards and not confronting them as the right wing is doing in Plaza de Colon today," he said.
Sanchez came to power in June promising to thaw tensions between central authorities in Madrid and the Catalan leaders in Barcelona. He met twice with Catalan chief Quim Torra. Members of the central and regional governments had several more encounters.
Sanchez had said he would be willing to help Catalan lawmakers agree to a new Charter Law, which determines the amount of self-rule the region enjoys. But Sanchez's government broke off negotiations on Friday, when Vice President Carmen Calvo said the separatists wouldn't budge from their demand for an independence referendum.
Sanchez is trying to cobble together support to pass a national budget. His minority government will need votes from the Catalan separatists and other parties to pass it.
Even though Sanchez has said he wants to see out the legislative term through 2020, a failure to win a budget vote will crank up the pressure on him to call for an early election.
Orje, Feb 10 (AP/UNB) — With fresh snow crunching under their boots and a handful of papers to be checked and stamped, truck drivers from Latvia, Sweden and Poland make their way across Norway's Orje customs station to a small office where their goods will be cleared out of the European Union and into Norway.
While many border posts in Europe have vanished,, Norway's hard border with the European Union is clearly visible, with cameras, license-plate recognition systems and barriers directing traffic to customs officers.
Norway's membership in the European Economic Area (EEA) grants it access to the EU's vast common market and most goods are exempt from paying duties. Still, everything entering the country must be declared and cleared through customs.
Technological solutions being tested in Norway to digitalize customs procedures for cargo have been seized on by some in Britain as a way to overcome border-related problems that threaten to scuttle a divorce deal with the EU. But the realities of this northern border also show the difficulties that persist.
A divorce deal between Britain and the EU has stumbled over how to guarantee an open border between the United Kingdom's Northern Ireland and EU member state Ireland after Britain leaves the bloc on March 29.
The Irish border area was a flashpoint during decades of conflict in Northern Ireland that cost 3,700 lives. The free flow of people and goods across the near-invisible Irish border now underpins both the local economy and Northern Ireland's peace process.
The EU's proposed solution is for Britain to remain in a customs union with the bloc, eliminating the need for checks until another solution is found. But pro-Brexit British politicians say that would stop the U.K. from forging new trade deals around the world.
Technology may or may not be the answer, depending on who you talk to.
"Everyone agrees that we have to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland, and ... technology will play a big part in doing so," said Northern Ireland Minister John Penrose.
But EU deputy Brexit negotiator Sabine Weyand said on Twitter: "Can technology solve the Irish border problem? Short answer: not in the next few years."
The Customs office at Orje, on the road connecting the capitals of Oslo and Stockholm, has been testing a new digital clearance system to speed goods through customs by enabling exporters to submit information online up to two hours before a truck reaches the border.
At her desk in Orje, Chief Customs officer Nina Bullock was handling traditional paper border clearance forms when her computer informed her of an incoming truck that used the Express Clearance system.
"We know the truck number, we know the driver, we know what kinds of goods, we know everything," she told The Associated Press. "It will pass by the two cameras and go on. It's doesn't need to come into the office."
That allows Customs officers to conduct risk assessments before the vehicle even reaches the border.
So far, only 10 Swedish companies are in the pilot project, representing just a handful of the 400-450 trucks that cross at this border post each day. But if it's successful, the plan will be expanded.
In the six months since the trial began, Customs section chief Hakon Krogh says some problems have brought the system to a standstill, from snow blocking the camera, to Wi-Fi issues preventing the border barrier from lifting, to truck drivers who misunderstand which customs lane to use.
"It's a pilot program, so it takes time to make things work smoothly before it can be expanded," said Krogh, who still felt the program could have a long-term benefit.
The program also limits flexibility for exporters. If a driver calls in sick and is replaced by another, or extra cargo is added to a shipment, then all the paperwork must be resubmitted online.
Yet a greater barrier to digitalizing the border is the complexity of international trade.
The Svinesund customs office, 90 kilometers (56 miles) south of Orje, is Norway's major road border, with 1,300 trucks each day carrying goods into the country from all over Europe. Customs section chief Kristen Hoiberget has been following the Orje pilot program with interest but warns of systematic challenges to its expansion.
"It's very easy to deal with a digital system when the goods are uniform," said Hoiberget. "If you have one kind of goods in a lorry, it's less complicated. But if you have a lorry that picks up goods at ten different places abroad, the complexity arises rapidly."
He said most of the export information needed is available digitally but Customs, clearance houses and exporters all use different computer systems.
"There are a lot of prerequisites to a digital border," he said. "A frictionless border would need development and lots of legislation."
Back in Orje, vehicles entering Norway are randomly checked, with officers mainly looking for alcohol and cigarettes, which are cheaper in Sweden. Border changes are coming, but certainly not in the tight two-month timeframe that any Brexit border changes would need.
"If you look 15 years ahead, I guess this office won't be here. I won't be sitting here stamping papers," said Bullock. "But customs officers will still be on duty, to prevent goods coming into Norway that are not supposed to."
As an AP journalist waited in the snow to watch a truck at Orje use the Express Clearance lane, a truck driver made his way across a large parking lot to the customs office.
"You must be doing a Brexit story," he joked. "They'll be in the same boat soon."