The Latest: Assad v. West, Modi v. WhatsApp, Busted For Cheese

A Palestinian barber works among ruins of buildings and shops in Gaza City, on May 25
A Palestinian barber works among ruins of buildings and shops in Gaza City, on May 25

Welcome to Wednesday, where Assad is all set for reelection, WhatsApp takes on India's Modi, and a drug dealer's love of blue cheese leads to his demise. Meanwhile, we turn to German daily Die Welt for an in-depth analysis of Angela Merkel's relationship with China (Spoiler alert: It's complicated).

• Syrian presidential elections: Polling stations have opened on Wednesday across Syria in presidential elections in which Bachar al-Assad is assured to win a fourth seven-year term. Western foreign ministers have issued a statement warning about the fairness of the election.

• UN emergency meeting on Mali's coup: The UN Security Council is holding an emergency meeting on Mali on Wednesday, as West African mediators are supposed to meet with Mali's detained president and prime minister. On Tuesday, Mali's interim vice president, Colonel Assimi Goita announced that he seized power after the interim president and prime minister failed to consult him about the nomination of a new government.

• COVID vaccines doses to Taiwan, anti-vax influencers in France: Millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses are on their way to Taiwan, where 300 new cases in capital city Taipei, after months without cases. In France, several YouTube personalities were asked to publicly denigrate the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine in return for money.

• South African ex-leader Zuma pleads not guilty: South Africa's former President Jacob Zuma has pleaded not guilty to all 18 counts of racketeering, corruption, fraud, tax evasion and money laundering on Wednesday, at the start of his trial over a 1999 deal, when he was deputy president. The ex-president is also facing another inquiry into corruption with French arms company Thales during his time in office.

• WhatsApp sues Indian government over privacy rules: U.S.-based messaging platform WhatsApp has sued the Indian government over new internet laws that will give the government bigger power to monitor online activity.

• First woman to head the Louvre: Laurence des Cars has been chosen to head the Louvre, becoming the first female director of the world's largest and most celebrated museum. Since 2017, des Cars has run the Musée d'Orsay, just across the river in Paris.

• Cheese leads to drug dealer's arrest: A drug dealer in Liverpool, UK, was tracked down after sharing a picture of Stilton cheese on the encrypted messaging service EncroChat that was cracked by the police. The man has been jailed for 13 years and six months for helping to supply heroin, cocaine, ketamine and MDMA.

"Shell personnel are fed up with oil too," titles Amsterdam-based daily De Volkskrant as a Dutch court is due to give its verdict today on a landmark "People V. Shell" case. Environmental groups are aiming to force the oil giant to meet greenhouse gas emissions targets from the Paris climate accords.


In an editorial directed at Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, top Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun is calling for the cancellation (pronounced "no chūshi") of the Tokyo Summer Olympics slated to begin in July, citing COVID-19 risks to public safety.

Berlin to Beijing: the double meaning of Merkel's China policy

The German chancellor is the driving force behind a controversial investment agreement between China and the EU, which is recognizing Beijing's true intentions too late, writes Daniel-Dylan Böhmer in German daily Die Welt.

In 2012, Germany's dealings with China were going well. Since coming to power in 2005, Merkel had visited the country almost every year, watching its rise to superpower status. A year later, the EU entered into negotiations with China about a new trade deal, designed to open China up to European investment and ensure that European companies received fairer treatment in China. It was an attractive idea: Even now, despite interference from Beijing, despite widespread theft of intellectual property, China is a highly attractive market. How much more so if we could do fair, free trade with it in the future?

Slowly though it dawned on the Europeans that their strategy of "change through trade" was naive, and they began to take action. In the spring of 2019, the EU published a strategy paper in which China was referred to not only as a partner and competitor, but for the first time as a "systemic rival." Still, many Europeans clung to their illusions, and nothing really changed. Europe wanted to keep the investment deal alive at all costs, particularly Germany, as its car industry has especially strong links with China.

In 2021, for the first time in 30 years, the EU imposed sanctions against four Chinese officials due to human rights violations. In practice, however, these sanctions were toothless. The German Chancellor's office intervened in Brussels and argued for more lenient measures. But Beijing was enraged, and in retaliation, issued sanctions against 14 European individuals and institutions, including many EU officials. In the meantime, the European Parliament still needed to ratify the investment deal.

In early May, the foreign ministers of the G7 states demanded a UN inspection of the Uyghur camps and called for Beijing to "participate constructively in the rules-based international system." And the German chancellor? She is still fighting for the investment deal. As Michael Roth (SPD), minister of state for Europe at the German Federal Foreign Office, explains: "Overall, the German government still supports the agreement." Nevertheless, there is still a long way to go to get it ratified, and it's clear that nerves are frayed.

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According to the International Organization for Migration's Missing Migrants Project, which tracks the deaths of refugees and asylum-seekers worldwide, 743 migrants have already died in the Mediterranean this year — compared with 289 for the whole of 2020. The United Nations on Wednesday said the EU was "partly to blame" for these deaths.

Your opinions have zero value.

— Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad has reacted to the release of a joint statement by the foreign ministers of the U.S., UK, France, Italy and Germany warning that Syria's May 26 presidential election will "neither be free nor fair".

✍️ Newsletter by Emma Flacard, Bertrand Hauger & Anne-Sophie Goninet

Al Jazeera is a state-funded broadcaster in Doha, Qatar, owned by the Al Jazeera Media Network. Initially launched as an Arabic news and current-affairs satellite TV channel, Al Jazeera has since expanded into a network with several outlets, including the Internet and specialty television channels in multiple languages.
Reuters is an international news agency headquartered in London, UK. It was founded in 1851 and is now a division of Thomson Reuters. It transmits news in English, French, Arabic, Spanish, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Japanese, Korean, Urdu, and Chinese.
Euronews is a European pay television news network, headquartered in Lyon, France.
De Volkskrant (The People's Paper) is a Dutch daily headquartered in Amsterdam. Founded in 1919, it was originally a center-left Roman Catholic publication, it took on a clear left-wing stance in the 1960s and later evolved to a more centrist stance. It was named the European Newspaper of the Year in the category of nationwide newspapers in 2013.
The BBC is the British public service broadcaster, and the world's oldest national broadcasting organization. It broadcasts in up to 28 different languages.
Premium stories from Worldcrunch's own network of multi-lingual journalists in over 30 countries.
Die Welt ("The World") is a German daily founded in Hamburg in 1946, and currently owned by the Axel Springer AG company, Europe's largest publishing house. Now based in Berlin, Die Welt is sold in more than 130 countries. A Sunday edition called Welt am Sonntag has been published since 1948.
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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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