Seven Days in Europe

Eurozone unemployment reached 10.8 percent in February, the highest level since the currency was introduced in 1999, according to the latest Eurostat data. The statistics office estimated that more than 17.1 million men and women were out of work in February in the 17 states of the eurozone, 162,000 more than a month earlier and 1.48 million more than in 2011. The highest increases were registered in Greece (14.3% to 21.0% between December 2010 and December 2011), Spain (20.6% to 23.6%) and Cyprus (6.7% to 9.7%).

ECB chief Mario Draghi on Wednsday said talk of an exit strategy from the one-trillion-euro cheap loans programme was “premature”, but warned that this was no substitute for reforms. Speaking at the monthly press conference in Frankfurt, the Italian banker defended the “non-standard” policy – criticised by some economists and the German central bank as a covert money-printing operation.  Draghi said the so-called long-term refinancing operation (LTRO) injecting €1 trillion in eurozone’s cash-strapped banks had averted a credit crunch and calmed markets.

A pensioner committed suicide in the centre of Athens last week, in apparent desperation over his debts. The man, a 77-year-old pharmacist, shot himself in Syntagma Square with some reports saying that he had shouted that he did not want to leave debts to his children. It later emerged that he had left a suicide note. “I can’t find another way to react apart from putting a dignified end to things before I start looking through garbage in order to survive and before I become a burden for my child.” His suicide prompted a spontaneous gathering of around 2000 people in Syntagma Square later on Wednesday. Peaceful at first, demonstrations turned during violent during the evening, as activists threw rocks and petrol bombs at police, who responded with tear gas and flash grenades. Police data show a 20% increase in suicide rates in the two years since the outbreak of Europe’s debt crisis in Greece in late 2009, although the health ministry estimated the figure was almost double that in the first five months of 2011 compared to the first five months of 2010. Suicide hotlines have been deluged with appeals for help.

The effects of the financial crisis in the EU has resulted in many of the Union’s richest member states sharply cutting back aid to developing countries. Figures released by the OECD, a Paris-based thinktank, show that debt-ridden Greece – the recipient of two international bailouts – slashed its foreign aid by 39.3 percent in 2011. Spain, now in the midst of an unpredicted recession and under EU pressure to sharply reduce its budget deficit, made a 32.7 percent cut last year. Development agencies have strongly criticised decisions to cut foreign aid, saying the moves were often made for political expediency rather than out of necessity.

EU ambassadors are to return en bloc to Belarus shortly after the Easter break, unless President Alexander Lukashenko does something drastic in the meantime. EU diplomats say the decision was made behind closed doors in Brussels earlier this week. The EU envoys left in February in an act of solidarity with the EU and Polish ambassadors in Minsk, who were kicked out by Lukashenko.

Almost half of Irish people have refused to pay a household tax imposed as part of promised savings measures, while government pressure to secure the levy risks further angering an austerity-weary public. The Irish government agreed to introduce it in 2012 as part of a deal with the EU and the International Monetary Fund – from which it secured an €85 billion loan in 2010. But it has been unpopular from the very beginning for its across-the-board nature: the same levy is applied both to rich and poor households.

It has not been a good week for Vladimir Putin. Amnesty International has called for the members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot, jailed last month for their protest against Putin, to be released immediately. The human rights organisation said Maria Alekhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Ekaterina Samusevich were “prisoners of conscience” and accused the Russian government of punishing them for the “broader political context” of their actions, rather than the actions themselves.

An anti-corruption campaigner has won a landslide victory in a city mayoral election in Russia, dealing a blow to the pro-Kremlin party and energising the opposition. Yevgeny Urlashov won 70% of Sunday’s vote in Yaroslavl, a city of about 590,000, easily defeating the acting mayor, who was the candidate of Vladimir Putin‘s United Russia party.

The European Commission has taken the next step in the important process of referring the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) to the European Court of Justice (ECJ). By agreeing on the legal submission to be put before the ECJ, the Commission aims to respond to the wide-ranging concerns across Europe on what ACTA is about and whether it harms fundamental rights in any way.  EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht stated, “I am very pleased that we are now one step closer to ensuring clarity on ACTA.”

Greek campaigners seeking the return of the Parthenon marbles have renewed their efforts with an open letter imploring David Cameron to back the restitution of the classical carvings “to their historic home in Athens”. Stephen Fry is lending his support for the return of what are also known as the Elgin marbles. Weighing in to one of the world’s most controversial cultural disputes, the actor proposed that Britain “redress a great wrong” by using the occasion of the 2012 London Olympics to give up the fifth-century BC masterpieces.

The Russian Orthodox Church has apologised for showing a photo of its leader Patriarch Kirill that was doctored to airbrush out a luxury watch he was wearing. The gold Breguet watch is estimated to be worth more than $30,000 (£19,000) and was spotted by Russian bloggers. The watch’s reflection could be seen in the 2009 photo on the church’s website.The Patriarchate said the manipulation would be investigated and “the guilty ones will be punished severely”. More than 600 anglers stranded on an ice floe in the Russian far east have been rescued. The operation to airlift them off the ice involved 48 people, two helicopters and 11 ships, the emergencies ministry said. The 675 fishing enthusiasts were carried out to sea when the floe, off the island of Sakhalin, broke free.

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