Damage in Beirut after the Aug. 4 double blast
Hannah Steinkopf-Frank

PARIS — Last week's explosion at a port warehouse in Beirut, which killed at least 200 and caused a minimum of $5 billion in damage, should serve as a sobering wake-up call for countries that have equally (or more) dangerous chemical reserves. Beyond the human toll and material consequences, the catastrophic event has also triggered political consequences, with Lebanon's prime minister and his government announcing their resignation amid widespread protests.

Lebanon, as some have pointed out, was a nation already on its knees. The blast and the ensuing investigation into potential negligence and corruption merely served as a catalyst in a society on the brink of collapse.

But it is indeed a very pragmatic matter that pushed the country over the edge, thus begging the question: How do we make sure that similar chemicals, stored for purposes like controlled explosions, fertilization and the oxidation of materials, don't spark similar mayhem? From India to France to Iran, countries are now re-examining safety risks associated with toxic or explosive compounds:

INDIA: 700 tons of ammonium nitrate in limbo

Politicians in the southern Indian city of Chennai are concerned about more than 740 tons of explosive chemical stored on a harbor. Dr. S. Ramadoss, founder of the Pattali Makkal Katchi party, tweeted that "there is a risk of a similar explosion due to ammonium nitrate in the Chennai warehouse."

  • In India, ammonium nitrate is often used in commercial explosives for mining and construction operations. The stockpile in Chennai was seized more than five years ago, as the company that owned it had failed to obtain the necessary clearance.

  • Ramadoss now advises that it should be safely disposed of and/or used for less harmful purposes, like composting. Following the explosion in Beirut, the local Chennai customs department checked to make sure its own supply was properly stored and now plans to auction it off.

  • The Indian Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs is consulting with substance control bodies to confirm that explosive and hazardous material kept across the country does not pose any safety threats.


The Toulouse AZF factory explosion — Photo: City of Toulouse/Wikimedia Commons

FRANCE: Farmers vs. environmental activists

France knows all too well the potential damage of ammonium nitrate: In September 2001 in the southwestern city of Toulouse, an explosion at the AZF (Azote de France) fertilizer factory left 31 dead and 2,442 injured.

  • The blast, which included 200-300 tons of material, created a 10-meter-deep, 50-meter-wide crater and shattered windows as far as 3 kilometers away, resulting in approximately 2.3 billion euros in damage.

  • Now, France has some of the world's strictest regulations for the chemical. Although, given the country's large agriculture sector, there are "several tens of thousands of places in France" with ammonium nitrate stashes, according to the Regional Directorate for the Environment, Planning and Housing in Brittany.

  • Most of this fertilizer is on farms, but there are also 47 businesses with stocks of at least 1,250 tons of ammonium nitrate-based products, as the Ministry of Ecological Transition told French radio station RTL. Some nongovernmental organizations including Les Robins des bois ("The Robin Hoods') are now calling to ban the use of ammonium nitrate as part of a broader shift to create a more ecologically responsible agriculture industry.

IRAN: Ticking time bombs

Tehran city councilman Majid Farahani was recently quoted as saying that the country should fear a "worse calamity than Beirut," given the presence of "informal" fuel storage points in Iran's ports and special economic areas.

  • Farahani described these fuel depots as "ticking time bombs," as reported in the London-based Kayhan newspaper. "This isn't the type of installation you would want in a city," he said, noting that Tehran is home to a fuel depot in the northwestern district of Shahran, which Farahani compares to a massive bomb "sitting on a fault line."

  • Every day, according to the councilman, 30,000-liter tanker trucks draw fuel out of the depot about 300 times "before driving through Tehran's residential streets."

  • The depot, he said, was built 30 years ago, back when there were no homes around Shahran.

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!
Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ