Macron and Merkel renew their vows

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“GENTLEMEN, NEVER forget that for France there can be no other alternative but friendship with Germany.” Half a century after Charles de Gaulle uttered these words to his ministers, the relationship between France and Germany remains the most important in Europe: an emblem of peace and reconciliation, and the foundation stone of European integration.

To renew and strengthen this essential bond, President Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, will meet on January 22nd in the German border town of Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle in French), where they will sign a 16-page treaty. The ceremony takes place 56 years to the day after de Gaulle and his West German counterpart, Konrad Adenauer, met at the presidential palace in Paris to sign the Elysée treaty, capping the two countries’ move from Erbfeinde (hereditary foes) to partners in what a later West German chancellor would call the entente élémentaire.

The inauguration in 2017 of Mr Macron, a passionate European who spoke of seizing a historic moment to face down nationalism, seemed to offer the best chance in years to restart the Franco-German motor. For Mrs Merkel, who had grown used to disappointment under three previous French presidents, Mr Macron looked like a serious reformer, ready to improve French competitiveness and steady its public finances. Mr Macron hoped to inspire Germany to join him in reforming the euro area and bolstering the EU’s resilience. He filled his government with Germanophiles, from his prime minister and finance minister down, and rarely acted before weighing the German response.

Yet a harsh reality has since set in. Despite the ambitions laid out by Mr Macron in a sweeping speech at the Sorbonne in September 2017, the sense of possibility that dominated those early months has mostly evaporated. This is reflected in the low ambition of the new treaty. In place of grand plans for an EU army or commonly guaranteed bonds, you find hopeful language on co-ordinating decisions and plans to deepen municipal co-operation in border regions. An agreement between the countries’ parliaments will establish a 100-member joint assembly. Officials speak of turning the model of co-operation embodied in the Elysée treaty into a platform for Franco-German “convergence”. But it is aspirational at best. “Fifty-six years on, everyone knows the Elysée treaty,” says Henrik Enderlein of the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. “I doubt anyone will look at the Aachen treaty in 50 years.”

Its meatiest provisions concern defence and security co-operation. France and Germany account for almost half the EU’s military-industrial capabilities, says Claudia Major at the SWP think-tank in Berlin. If they don’t agree, things don’t move. The French have welcomed German help in their operations in the Sahel, and the pair work together in the so-called Normandy format with Russia and Ukraine.

Yet there remains a gulf in strategic understanding. “Germany does not need a strong army for its understanding of sovereignty,” says Wolfgang Schäuble, president of the Bundestag and one of Germany’s great Francophiles. “France is a different story.” The Germans strongly opposed the French intervention in Libya in 2011, and remain suspicious that schemes like Mr Macron’s European Intervention Initiative, set up outside the EU, are a ruse to get other Europeans to pay for French action in Africa. French officials are frustrated by German unwillingness to deploy troops, and consider PESCO, a framework for EU defence projects promoted by Germany, as woefully unambitious. This leads to a split-the-difference approach, reflected in Aachen’s dispiritingly Eurocentric proposal for France to back a permanent seat for Germany on the UN Security Council.

On the euro zone Mr Schäuble, finance minister in the 2010-12 crisis, says that German positions, including in his centre-right Christian Democratic Union, have notably softened: “Compared to the positions in my parliamentary group six years ago things are much better.” Yet it is hard to ignore the gap between achievement and aspiration. Mr Macron had sought a euro-zone budget worth “several points of GDP”, as well as a special parliament and finance minister. The budget the euro zone agreed to consider in December is an order of magnitude less ambitious. Banking union proceeds at a glacial pace, thanks in part to German fears about Italy’s wobbly lenders.

Inside Europe, the pairing has proved most effective when the two governments have first battled to secure agreement among themselves. “The strength of the relationship is that we come from different directions and find a joint position,” says Michael Roth, Germany’s Europe minister. Hard-fought compromises tend to endure, and, despite the occasional fear of a Franco-German stitch-up, can sweep up other countries who feel their interests are roughly represented by one or other of the big two.

Yet in an enlarged EU other groups, like the central European Visegrad four or the Dutch-led “New Hanseatic League”, can make the weather; the Hanseatics represent at least as big a roadblock to Mr Macron’s euro-zone plans as Germany. And the motor often sputters. Proposals to harmonise the two countries’ corporate-tax systems as the basis for an EU-wide agreement, for example, have been around since 2011. Similarly, a much-heralded French push for an EU tax on digital giants like Google and Facebook has struggled to gain traction in Berlin. In frustration Bruno Le Maire, France’s finance minister, has applied a digital tax unilaterally.

The difficulties stem in part from diverging analyses of Europe’s place in the world. Mr Macron is impatient to bolster what he calls “European sovereignty” in the face of an increasingly assertive China and an unreliable America. Germany is not immune to such arguments; its manufacturers are belatedly waking up to the Chinese threat, for example. That has helped motivate Germany’s push with France to lean on sceptical competition authorities in Brussels to allow the merger of the rail operations of Siemens and Alstom.

Yet as one French official puts it, “Germany is a slow-moving country, and doesn’t like big visions.” Few Germans share Mr Macron’s instinct to turn politics upside-down. To many, compromise sounds suspiciously like watering down rules, or paying for French indiscipline or military adventures. Economically, Germany’s strong performance has bred complacency at home and an outsized fear of indiscipline abroad. The French case is not helped when Italy seeks to bail out failing banks with state money or Greek finance ministers threaten to blow everything up.

The ties will endure, if only because France has nowhere else to turn and Germany, especially after Brexit, has no better partners. “Yes, it’s difficult,” says an adviser to Mr Macron. “But is there anybody else who has ideas?” The heady ambitions of the Sorbonne speech already belong to a different time. There is little chance of progress in 2019 owing to EU and German state elections, and Mr Macron’s troubles with the gilets jaunes (his trip to Aachen will be his first outside France for nearly a month). Addressing well-wishers during his first visit to Berlin in 2017, Mr Macron said he wanted “even bigger” crowds five years later, once he and Mrs Merkel had brought results. Good luck with that.

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Donald Trump says he will hold a second summit with Kim Jong Un

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THE SECOND visit to the Oval Office by Kim Yong Chol (pictured, left), North Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator, was decidedly more low-key than the first—if the size of the envelope he brandished was anything to judge by. In June last year Mr Kim brought President Donald Trump a giant letter from Kim Jong Un, the North’s dictator. In response Mr Trump agreed to meet “Chairman Kim” in Singapore a few days later. But apparently size is not everything when it comes to envelopes. Shortly after Mr Kim had waved goodbye to Mr Trump and retired for lunch at his hotel with Mike Pompeo (pictured, right), America’s secretary of state, the White House said that there would be another summit between the two leaders in late February, at a location yet to be specified (though logistical preparations are reportedly underway in Vietnam).

The announcement suggests that both America and North Korea are keen to break the impasse that has plagued their nuclear negotiations since shortly after the summit in Singapore last June. At that meeting, Mr Trump and Mr Kim had agreed to improve relations between their countries and work towards the “complete denuclearisation” of the Korean peninsula. But there has been little movement towards ending the North’s nuclear programme since then. Negotiators have been unable to agree on the sequencing of concessions by the two parties or to make a start on the technical details of a disarmament deal. Reports from American spy agencies and analysis of satellite imagery by arms-control researchers suggest that the North’s programme has continued to expand. The Pentagon continues to regard North Korea as an “extraordinary threat”.

There is a chance that the second summit and the meetings that are planned in the run-up may restore momentum to the diplomatic effort. Stephen Biegun, the special representative whom Mr Trump appointed last year to handle negotiations with North Korea, looks set to hold talks with Choe Son Hui, his North Korean counterpart, over the coming days—for the first time since he took the job in August. That may be a start to the detailed working-level conversations many observers say must supplement the high-level summitry to hammer out a deal.

So far, neither side has released any details of the conditions for the second summit. America insists that the North needs to take concrete steps towards dismantling its nuclear programme before receiving the sanctions relief and “security guarantees” (which may include a partial drawdown of American troops stationed in South Korea) that it says it wants. That the summit is now on the cards suggests the North may have offered something. Possibilities include the dismantlement of its ICBM programme, which would suit Mr Trump’s goal to remove the nuclear threat to the American mainland, or permanently decommissioning the nuclear site at Yongbyon and allowing international inspectors to verify its closure. In return, America may offer support for partial or temporary sanctions relief, possibly tailored to allow economic co-operation between the two Koreas.

Such an outcome would certainly be welcomed in Seoul. A spokesman for Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s president, applauded America’s announcement over the weekend, saying that it represented a “turning point” for building a permanent peace on the Korean peninsula. Inter-Korean rapprochement, which had progressed even as the nuclear talks between America and North Korea had stalled, cannot go beyond today’s symbolic level without at least a partial lifting of sanctions. If the second summit is a success, South Korea may be able to reopen the Kaesong industrial complex and the tourist resort at Mount Kumgang, or begin to invest in refurbishing the North’s railways, which the two Koreas have been jointly inspecting since late November.

As with the summit in Singapore, however, the short time allotted for the preparation of the meeting carries risks. The vaguely worded declaration the two leaders signed in Singapore bears at least some of the blame for the lack of progress since then, because it lent itself to protracted arguments over definitions, which North Korea has used successfully to stall on steps towards nuclear dismantlement. And given Mr Trump’s avowed dislike of America’s global military presence, sceptics fear that he may be talked into lifting sanctions and reducing troop strength on the Korean peninsula in return for an end to the North’s ICBM programme, leaving Japan and South Korea to contend with a de facto nuclear state.

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History shows the folly of China’s paranoia about Islam

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IT IS A shame that so few Chinese remember General Bai Chongxi, a brilliant tactician during the war against Japan in 1937-45. He showed China that it is possible to be at once a patriot and a devoted Muslim. Bai was a complicated figure. A warlord capable of ruthlessness, he was also a reformer who wanted education to free his fellow Chinese Muslims from isolation and poverty. As a commander of Kuomintang (or Nationalist) troops, he was involved in massacres of Communists. Still, when Chaguan this week visited Bai’s home town in Guangxi province, in the south, locals praised his victories over the Japanese. The Bai family mansion is a protected historical site. Austere and grey-walled, it sits amid rice fields and limestone peaks straight from a scroll painting. Its empty interior offers no explanation as to why Bai matters.

He was once one of China’s best-known Muslims. Under the autocratic Nationalist rule of Chiang Kai-shek, Bai became head of a body representing the Hui minority, a diverse group of about 10m Chinese united by their Muslim faith. Often indistinguishable from China’s ethnic-Han majority, their ancestors include Persian merchants and Central Asians imported by 13th-century Mongol rulers. The body headed by Bai, the China Islamic National Salvation Federation, recruited Muslim troops and made the religious case for war with Japan. It supported Muslim schools and job schemes for refugees. Bai encouraged Hui delegations to tour the Muslim world to seek diplomatic backing for China’s war effort.

The general, who died in Taiwan in 1966, might have had useful advice to offer today. China is drawing up a five-year plan to “sinicise” Islam, as if the religion had been polluted by links to the outside world. In recent months Hui communities from Ningxia and Gansu in the north-west to Yunnan in the south have seen private Arab-language schools closed, mosques raided for providing “illegal religious education” and Islamic-style domes removed from buildings. Officials renamed the Aiyi river in Ningxia, a region that is home to around 2m Hui, because its name was “Arabic-sounding”. In December Chinese media reported that Gansu and six other regions were abolishing local standards for halal, or Muslim-approved, foods, in the name of fighting extremism and foreign influences. If such measures stir thoughts of repression in the far-western region of Xinjiang, where as many as a million Muslims from the Uighur minority have been sent to re-education camps, that is no coincidence. Ningxia officials recently toured Xinjiang, pledging to learn from its “good practices”.

The Hui have faced suspicions of disloyalty before. In 1280 a Mongol emperor of China, Kublai Khan, outlawed halal food and other Islamic customs, reputedly incensed because Muslim merchants had refused a banquet he offered them. In a forthcoming essay for the Rubin Museum in New York, Johan Elverskog of Southern Methodist University describes a panic that gripped the Qing dynasty in the 1760s. Amid reports that Arab-educated Islamic hardliners were stirring up trouble, local officials were told to report all Muslim misdeeds. A new law deemed three or more Muslims found with any weapon to be criminals. “As might have been expected,” the professor writes, officials inundated the Qing court with reports of dangerous Muslims, prompting still-harsher laws and further radicalisation of the Hui. In time, rebellions followed.

Yet long before Communist bosses vowed to regulate Islam, Hui elites crafted what amounted to their own sinicised versions of Islam, advocating political loyalty to China’s rulers alongside eternal allegiance to Allah. One age of co-operation, about 400 years ago, generated the “Han Kitab”, texts that reconciled Confucianism and Islam, teaching Muslims to obey any emperor who upheld a social order aimed at moral perfection. Jump to the 1920s, and a reformist scholar, Wang Jingzhai, promoted the phrase aiguo aijiao or “loving our country is as one with loving our faith”, which hangs in Chinese mosques. The expression had authority because it was both patriotic and Islamic. It is ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad. Wang translated it after studying in Mecca.

Withdrawing from the world

If it is a shame that Bai Chongxi is largely forgotten, it is heartbreaking to find how defensively he is remembered in places that know his name. Bai’s kinsfolk still live in villages near Guilin city. Chaguan found some of them preparing ducks for curing ahead of Chinese new year. Alas, even mild questions about whether their ancestor protected the Hui caused disquiet. “Just stop talking,” hissed a woman to an old man surnamed Bai, who had begun answering as he salted duck neck-bones. “We are very happy and there is no ethnic discrimination,” said the woman.

In nearby Jiu village, home to a century-old mosque, Wang Yisehakai, the ahong or imam, blandly praised General Bai as a pious man who prayed in the heat of battle. He added, improbably: “The most important thing about Bai is that he cared for his parents.” Asked about politics, Mr Wang said his community’s only ills come from lost faith. He grumbled that fewer than a dozen elderly Hui pray each week at his mosque, which looks like a Chinese temple with its tree-filled courtyard and curving roof.

At the Bai family mansion, Chaguan bumped into four male travellers from Ningxia, sporting straggly beards, long robes and the white prayer caps of pious Hui. One, surnamed Zhou, hailed General Bai’s strong faith but scorned any link between Islam and patriotism. “We are put on Earth to have our faith in Allah tested. We are not interested in politics at all,” he said. “Such things as aiguo aijiao are spoken only by those who don’t understand.”

Such a historically ignorant vision of Chinese Islam would appal Bai Chongxi, as would official attacks on halal rules. The general was a pragmatist. During wartime rows about dietary codes he proposed creating Hui units with their own food so they could get on with fighting. Communist bosses seem not to care for such approaches. They prefer sullen submission to shared loyalties.

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How chicken became the rich world’s most popular meat

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IN A SHED on a poultry farm just outside Colchester, in south-east England, thousands of chickens sit on piles of their own excrement. The facilities will not be cleaned until after the birds are killed, meaning they suffer from ammonia burns and struggle to grow feathers. Ants and maggots crawl over the bodies of those that have not made it to slaughter. The chicken industry is a dirty business, but it is also a profitable one. In the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries, pork and beef consumption has remained unchanged since 1990. Chicken consumption has grown by 70% (see chart).

Humans gobble so many chickens that the birds now count for 23bn of the 30bn land animals living on farms. According to a recent paper by Carys Bennett at the University of Leicester and colleagues, the total mass of farmed chickens exceeds that of all other birds on the planet combined. In London, some 50 miles west of Colchester, fried-chicken shops are ubiquitous. Many are named after American states (including Kansas and Montana, not to mention Kentucky). But schoolchildren and late-night partiers are unfazed by the strange names. Nor do they worry much about where their meal came from.

And why should they? Chicken is cheap and delicious. A pound of poultry in America now costs $1.92, a fall of $1.71 since 1960 (after adjusting for inflation). Meanwhile the price of beef has fallen by $1.17 a pound to $5.80.

Fans of cheap chicken have selective breeding to thank. In the 1940s America launched a series of “Chicken of Tomorrow” competitions for farmers. The aim, as described by a newspaper at the time, was to produce “one bird chunky enough for the whole family—a chicken with breast meat so thick you can carve it into steaks, with drumsticks that contain a minimum of bone buried in layers of juicy dark meat, all costing less instead of more.” The result was something along the lines of the modern broiler chicken.

Since then chickens have continued to get bigger. A study by Martin Zuidhof of the University of Alberta and colleagues documented this shift by comparing chickens that were selectively bred in 1957, 1978 and 2005. The authors found that at 56 days old the three birds had average weights of 0.9kg, 1.8kg and 4.2kg (see chart). As raising a single big bird is more efficient than raising two smaller ones, it now takes farmers just 1.3kg of grain to produce 1kg of chicken, down from 2.5kg of grain in 1985.

The intense use of antibiotics means that farmers no longer need to spend much time worrying about their chickens’ welfare. Before the second world war, most birds were raised on small plots. Farmers kept hens for eggs and sold their meat when they got too old to lay any more. But prophylactics have allowed farmers to pack chickens into conditions that would once have been considered unthinkably cramped and dirty. Birds raised in denser quarters do not move around much, and so require less to eat.

Farmers have also benefited from the healthy reputation of chicken. In the 1980s doctors worried that by eating too much beef and pork people were ingesting lots of saturated fat, which was then thought to increase the risk of heart disease. Those fears have since waned, but new evidence suggests that red meat might increase people’s chances of getting colon cancer. In contrast, poultry’s image as a healthy meat survives unscathed.

Feet and feathers

It is not just fussy Western eaters who increasingly favour chicken. Rising incomes mean that demand for the meat is growing even faster in poorer countries. As a result, chickens are now the world’s most widely traded meat. In economic terms they are, in effect, the opposite of cars. They are produced whole. But their value is maximised once they are broken up.

Though Westerners prefer lean, white meat; many in Asia and Africa prefer dark meat, which includes legs and thighs. These preferences are reflected in local prices: in America breasts are 88% more expensive than legs; in Indonesia they are 12% cheaper. Differences in the price of chicken feet are even starker. The thought of eating talons is abhorrent to many Westerners, but they often feature in Cantonese recipes. China now imports 300,000 tonnes of “phoenix claws” every year.

The fact that different countries specialise in different kinds of production also boosts trade. America and Brazil, the world’s two biggest chicken exporters, are agricultural powerhouses that grow huge amounts of feed, the main cost in poultry production. Thailand and China, in contrast, dominate the processed-meat market which requires cheap, skilled labour. Russia and Ukraine, once net importers of chicken, have become net exporters as their grain industries have grown.

Producers that sell their meat abroad expose themselves to risks. Chicken has been a flashpoint in trade negotiations. China imposed tariffs on American birds in 2010 and then banned all imports in 2015, shortly after an outbreak of avian flu. Industry observers are pessimistic the ban will be lifted, much to the dismay of American farmers who would love to be paid more for the 20bn chicken feet they produce every year, which currently become animal feed.

Similarly, the European Union banned the import of chlorinated American chicken in 1997, owing to concern that a chlorine wash allows lower hygiene standards in farms. Arguments over chlorinated chickens also proved a big stumbling block in negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a now-failed trade deal between America and the EU. Some Britons fear that if they leave the EU any trade deal signed with America would require them to accept imports of such chickens.

Although the chicken boom has been good for consumers, animal-welfare advocates worry that the meat industry’s cost-cutting measures have come at the expense of the birds. Vicky Bond of the Humane League, an animal-welfare campaign group, says the size of modern chickens is the cause of the worst problems. Broilers have breast muscles which are too big for their bones to support, leading to lameness. In Colchester the chickens are so unresponsive to humans that they resemble zombies. Indeed, modern chickens have become so big that their muscles prevent them from getting on top of each other to mate (meaning they have to be starved before they are able to consider romance).

Partly because of advocacy by animal-welfare charities, and partly because meat has become so affordable, more consumers are now willing to pay for meat raised in better conditions. Sales of free-range and organic chickens, which—unlike most broilers—have access to the outdoors, are surging. In the Netherlands, a recent public outcry over enormous plofkip (which translates as “exploded chicken”) was so intense that retailers switched in droves to breeds that grow more slowly. Plofkip’s share of the Dutch market plummeted from around 60% in 2015 to 5% in 2017. In Britain sales of free-range eggs have overtaken those of caged ones.   

Concerns about the health of livestock have also led the EU to pass some of the world’s strictest animal-welfare laws. Battery cages for egg-laying hens were banned in 2012, for instance. Legislative reforms have been harder to come by in America, especially at the federal level. Animal-welfare advocates lament the country’s congressional system, which gives disproportionate clout to rural states. Nevertheless, a rare but significant state-level change came last November when Californians voted to pass Proposition 12, which will ban the production and sale of pork, veal and eggs from animals kept in cages, bringing the state’s laws roughly in line with those in the EU. The change affects all meat producers who want to sell in America’s biggest state, putting pressure on them to change their farming practices.

Public companies have been more responsive than lawmakers to animal-welfare concerns. Activists have achieved remarkable success in recent years by threatening companies with the release of unflattering images and videos of how their food is produced. Research by the Open Philanthropy Project, a group which funds animal-welfare activists, finds that such campaigns have prompted more than 200 American companies—including McDonald’s, Burger King and Walmart—to stop buying eggs from chicken raised in battery cages since 2015.

An idea is hatched

Farmers are therefore increasingly interested in improving the lives of their birds. Richard Swartzentruber owns two chicken sheds in Greenwood, a small town in Delaware. The company he supplies, Perdue Farms, has stopped using antibiotics altogether. Mr Swartzentruber’s chicken sheds have plenty of windows and doors that open onto a fenced grassy field whenever the weather permits. This comes with trade-offs: chickens might like perching on trees, but so do hawks. Inside the sheds, bales of hay, wooden boxes and plastic platforms are scattered around to entertain his chickens. Such measures have helped him gain a good-farming certificate from the Global Animal Partnership, a charity.

Bruce Stewart-Brown, a food-safety scientist at Perdue Farms, says that his company would love to raise more organic chickens. His ability to provide higher-welfare organic meat is ultimately constrained by market forces, since the feed legally required is pricey. Although larger numbers of people might be willing to pay more for organic or free-range products, most still prefer whatever is cheapest. And, despite growing interest in vegetarianism and veganism, surveys find little evidence that many people in the rich world are turning into herbivores. People may like flirting with plant-based diets. But what they really love is chicken.

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