Friday, September 05, 2014

Cycling the Death Strip: Berlin Wall by bicycle

By Jason Overdorf
(CNN, September 2014)

A lone saxophonist plays in the shadow of an overpass while a horde of cyclists looks down at a set of tangled train tracks.

This outwardly gloomy spot is as good a place as any to begin a cycling tour of the "Berlin Wall Trail," a 160-kilometer (99-mile) path developed to commemorate and transform one of the darkest chapters of the city's past.

Once a popular location for defectors because East German trains cut through a corner of the Western zone, it was here on November 9, 1989, that tens of thousands of people overwhelmed an official checkpoint after a bureaucratic error led to the opening of the border.

Divided by mapmakers into 14 sections that vary from seven to 21 miles in length, the Wall Trail, or "Mauerweg," traces the entire path of the Wall.

Built in 1961, the Wall divided the city by surrounding West Berlin, for decades following the partitioning of Germany after World War II an island of freedom behind the Iron Curtain.

'Culture, politics and nature'

The Wall Trail is a unique combination of tourist attraction and recreational zone, says Michael Cramer, the Green Party politician and cycling enthusiast who conceived the plan in the early 1990s and is now working on a Europe-spanning Iron Curtain Trail, inspired by the Wall route's success.

"It's a ride through history, culture, politics and nature," he says.

That feeling hits home as I pedal across the Mauerpark to the Wall memorial on Bernauer Strasse, where a watchtower and a section of the barren "death strip" have been preserved unchanged.

While Cramer's scheme might seem an obvious venture now, it wasn't easy in the beginning.

The Wall's original Death Strip is visible along the route.

Berliners hated the Wall so much that many people wanted every trace of it obliterated.

In 1989 and 1990, souvenir hunters were carting it away so fast that the government had to shift from demolition to conservation practically overnight.

With experts forecasting an unprecedented population boom, real estate developers were eying the former "death strip" as keenly as East Germany's notorious Stasi security agents ever had.

"At that time, all the politicians and the media said, 'No, no, we want to erase the Wall,'" Cramer says. "But 10 years later, in 2000, we were successful."

Completed in 2009 at a cost of some 10 million euros ($13.4 million), today the trail appeals to all types of cyclists.

MORE: Watching the watchers: Spy's guide to Berlin

Bike-friendly public transport

Every section is accessible by Berlin's bike-friendly public transportation system, so cyclists can pick and choose from various sights and terrain.

It's flat and paved, so it doesn't take an athlete's fitness to hack it, and an ordinary city bike or single-gear, hipster's "fixie" serves as well as something fancier.

Better still, even though it attracts thousands of visitors every year, it never gets crowded, says Martin "Wollo" Wollenberg, who heads a tour company called Berlin-on-Bike.

"As you experience the Wall zig-zagging through the city, you get a feeling for the separation," Wollenberg says. "In a lot of places, the difference between East and West is still quite vivid."

For tourists new to Berlin, about 25 miles of the trail runs through the heart of the city.

Passing not only the Bernauer Strasse documentation center but also the Reichstag, Brandenburger Gate, Checkpoint Charlie and many other important historical sites, it makes an excellent route for a leisurely four-hour guided tour.

Meanwhile, for more committed cyclists, in former western districts such as Kladow and Wannsee, the path doubles as a nature trail, cutting through forests.

Regular rows of plantation pines make the former death strip easy to identify.

At 29 different sites along the path, memorial placards tell the stories of some of the nearly 250 "victims of the Wall," such as Peter Bohme, a 19-year-old cadet in East Germany's National People's Army who was shot trying to escape to West Berlin in 1962.

The Wall Trail is suitable for cyclists of all abilities.

Signposts at regular intervals make it well nigh impossible to get lost, and every section has something to spark the traveler's interest -- the bridge where captured spies were exchanged, a former watchtower now used by the forest brigade or the famous Church of Our Savior whose walls once formed part of the fortifications.

Riders are never more than a mile or two from the nearest beer garden.

MORE: Insider's Guide -- the best of Berlin

How to ride the wall

For do-it-yourselfers, bicycle rental runs about €10 per day, with outlets ubiquitous throughout the city.

Visit Berlin offers free pamphlets with complete maps of the 14 sections of the trail and brief descriptions -- though only the German version was available when I visited. The same material is available online.

Cramer's "Berlin Wall Trail: Cycling Guide" can be picked up for about $10 online or at the souvenir shop at the Berlin Wall Documentation Centre on Bernauer Strasse.

Berlin on Bike's "Wall Tour" covers 15 kilometers of the Wall Trail in about four hours. The company's English- and German-speaking guides provide information about the building and destruction of the Wall and life in East Germany.

At €14 plus €5 for bicycle rental, it's worth considering even for those planning to do the rest of trail solo.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Short on space, Germany is housing refugees in hotels, forests and stadiums

Cities have started rejecting asylum claims as growing violence in Iraq and Syria threatens to make a refugee housing crisis even worse.
By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost, August 2014)

BERLIN, Germany — High atop a Berlin hostel, an unknown asylum seeker believed to be African grips tightly to a steel railing with one hand. Every few minutes, he grins broadly and capers a bit as he calls down to a knot of television journalists on the street — gathered here because of earlier reports that refugees facing expulsion from the capital were threatening to jump.

“Ich bin Berliner!” he shouts, channeling John F. Kennedy. “I want to stay in Berlin!”

The 28 Guertelstrasse hostel was converted into housing for refugees in April as part of a deal to convince asylum seekers to abandon a tented camp in Berlin’s Oranienplatz. They had been living illegally there, in protest against the German government's policies, for more than a year.

But since city authorities ordered 108 mostly African asylum seekers who had claims pending in other German states to vacate their accomodations here, the building has morphed into the latest flashpoint for Germany's refugee problem — with a handful of diehards refusing to leave the rooftop overnight Tuesday.

“In Hamburg, legislators have already proposed building makeshift villages out of shipping containers.”

Historically committed to providing humanitarian relief to the victims of foreign conflicts, Germany has absorbed more refugees from strife in Africa and the Middle East than any other nation in Europe.

But as violence within Iraq and Syria heat up, a housing shortage has prompted new debate over just how many asylum seekers the country can take in, says Claudia Beck, Germany spokeswoman for the Christian aid organization Caritas.

“The situation is already very, very hard for the people, and now there will be much more people trying to come to Europe, and then to Germany,” says Beck, who believes her country must rise to the challenge.

But louder voices are beginning to disagree.

In 2013, Germany was surprised by an unexpected wave of 110,000 requests for asylum — more than five times the number it received in 2006, the low point since the Balkan wars of the 1990s. And with the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees now predicting 2014 requests may rise as high as 200,000, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere this week proposed a strict limit on the refugees the country agrees to accept.

“Whoever is not politically persecuted and needs no protection should not be granted asylum and must leave the country,” de Maiziere said in an interview with a German newspaper published Saturday.

Followed closely by this week’s rejection of asylum claims, the statement has sparked fears a deportation wave is coming for refugees like Haki, from Chad, who lived in a tent in Oranienplatz for more than a year.

“They start to deport people house by house, one by one,” says Haki, who declines to give his last name because his asylum application is still pending.

Some of those who arrive in Germany are automatically considered refugees based on the circumstances they have fled. Others aren't officially recognized as refugees until they've been granted asylum.

Public and government support remains strong for those fleeing conflict or political persecution. But the financial burden of the influx has already pushed some Germans to question whether policies should distinguish war refugees from economic migrants, says Said, an asylum seeker from Ghana.

Germans are more than prepared to welcome refugees from Iraq and Syria, he says, declining to give his surname. But they have less sympathy for Africans who flee places like Libya if they hold passports from peaceful, if poverty-stricken, countries.

“I've tried Italy, Sweden, Norway, Denmark,” he says. “This is my last stop.”

Expulsion of those deemed to be economic migrants may be the only answer, argues de Maiziere, though doing so could prove very difficult.

Already, cash-strapped cities across Germany have been forced to adopt extreme measures to accommodate the stream of refugees making their way here from Italy — where since the beginning of the year the Italian navy has rescued nearly 100,000 people fleeing violence and poverty in countries like Eritrea, Somalia and Syria.

In Hamburg, legislators have already proposed billeting refugees on decommissioned cruise ships moored in the Elbe River and building makeshift villages out of shipping containers, for example.

The city houses about 10,000 refugees in more than 60 locations, and spent around 300 million euros ($396 million) for accommodation and counseling in 2014. But it's struggling to find space for more, says Marcel Schweitzer, spokesman for the Hamburg Department of Labor, Welfare and Integration.

“We believe the refugee policy is a national duty. It’s unbelievable that Hamburg and other cities have to house refugees in containers or tents, while houses are pulled down because of a lack of tenants in other German states,” Schweitzer wrote in an email.

The city of Cologne recently purchased a four-star hotel to convert into semi-permanent housing for its asylum seekers, after being forced to rent rooms for an overflow of some 800 people in 2013.

Other cities like Duisburg, in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, have been forced toerect tented camps in forests, stadiums and tennis courts that have drawn criticism for poor conditions.

As of Wednesday afternoon, police were still negotiating with exhausted Berlin rooftop refugees after a 24-hour vigil.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/germany/140827/iraq-syria-violence-refugee-housing-crisis-germany

Friday, August 22, 2014

Merkel heads to Ukraine as support builds for tough sanctions against Russia

Not even looming recession appears to be stopping Germany's rethink on Moscow.

By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost, August 2014)

BERLIN, Germany — The last time Angela Merkel visited Kyiv, she was there to explain why she'd opposed a US initiative to put Ukraine on a path to join NATO.

That prospect was provoking fury in Russia, which invaded neighboring Georgia over that country’s aspiration to do the same.

This Saturday, Merkel’s agenda promises to be very different.

A longtime proponent of engagement rather than confrontation with Russia, she will meet with Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko on Saturday in a clear sign of Germany's mounting support for his country's European ambitions.

The difference between now and six years ago is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s betrayal of Merkel’s trust by breaking promises to de-escalate the crisis in Ukraine, after he annexed Crimea earlier this year and followed with support for pro-Moscow rebels fighting an insurgency in the country’s east.

The chancellor’s talks will focus on Ukraine’s security situation and explore “concrete possibilities to support Ukraine in the current crisis,” Steffen Seibert, Merkel's official spokesman, said Tuesday.

Last week, negotiations in Germany between foreign ministers failed to end the crisis as Russia reportedly refused to stop or even acknowledge its support for rebel fighters in Crimea.

Merkel will travel to Kyiv just days before Poroshenko and other European leaders will meetwith Putin in Minsk on Tuesday.


In that context, the visit is perhaps the strongest signal yet that concerns about Germany’s economy — slowing thanks to European Union sanctions against Russia — won’t derail the dramatic transformation underway in German-Russian relations, says Stefan Meister of the German Council on Foreign Relations.

“We are in the process of a fundamental change in how we see Russia,” he said in a telephone interview. “You have to understand the policy of the last 20-25 years has failed.”

That policy, marked by regular personal interactions between Merkel and Putin, was intended to nudge and cajole the former communist state to adopt democratic reforms through ever-greater economic ties.

But as the Ukraine crisis has escalated, especially after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, Merkel has steadily taken an ever-stronger stance and now appears to have won support for broad economic sanctions from the once-reluctant German business community.

In May, the chief executives of BASF, Siemens, Volkswagen and Adidas were lobbyingaggressively to prevent stiff sanctions against Russia.

But even as the latest economic data revealed deep cracks in the European recovery last week, the tenor of comments from the business sector, along with public opinion, has begun to change.

The economic data has driven home the idea that stagnation in investment driven by uncertainty in Ukraine is more damaging than any direct blow to trade with Russia, says the Kiel Institute's Klaus-Juergen Gern.

“At the moment, the feeling is that without some kind of sanctions, the Russians would not give in and the crisis will go on for a very long time,” he said.

At the same time, a recent poll conducted by Infratest Dimap on behalf of broadcaster ARD showed that 70 percent of ordinary Germans now favor tougher sanctions, and that 82 percent no longer view Russia as a trustworthy economic partner.

Acting on such views is coming with a price.

Official data show Germany's economy contracted 0.2 percent in the second quarter, which ended June 30.

The Federal Statistics Office warned that the economy was “losing momentum” even before the impact of current sanctions against Russia.

And the German Chambers of Commerce recently said the economy is on “a dangerous path,” with a projected $15-billion shortfall in exports expected to put some 100,000 German jobs at risk.

That makes recession almost inevitable. Ongoing strife in relations with Russia could also do irreparable damage to key sectors of the legendary Mittelstand — the small and medium-sized export firms that drive Germany's export-oriented economy — says Monika Hollacher of the German Engineering Federation.

“The mere threat of sanctions has already led to German companies losing many commissions,” she wrote in a recent article. “Sanctions will only accelerate this negative development. Long-term supply relationships and mutual trust between trading partners will potentially be damaged.”

In the past, German machine companies could stave off cheaper Asian competitors thanks to longstanding business relationships and the sterling reputation of German engineering.

However, now those advantages have been virtually eliminated, says Alexander Loktev, a sales agent for German engineering companies in Russia.

“We've already received inquiries from some customers asking us to look for machines from Asian producers,” he said.

It’s unclear how long Germany’s commitment to sanctions will survive as the economic bite drags on.

But Meister, the foreign relations expert, believes even recession is unlikely to reverse the shift in German policy.

“I think that everybody now understands that Russia changed the European order,” Meister said, “and we need to show them that it is unacceptable.”

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/germany/140821/merkel-poroshenko-putin-ukraine-russia-germany-sanctions

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Foley execution boosts European support for intervention in Iraq

A video of the American journalist’s beheading by Islamist militants appears to be having the opposite of its intended effect.

By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost, August 2014)

BERLIN, Germany — European leaders reacted to the execution of an American journalist with shock and horror Wednesday.

A spokeswoman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was “horrified” by the video depicting James Foley's beheading by members of the militant group Islamic State, or IS, released on YouTube on Tuesday.

Foley was freelancing for GlobalPost and other outlets in Syria when he disappeared nearly two years ago.

The German government extended its “deepest sympathies” to the Foley family, spokesman Steffen Seibert said Wednesday.

“This is a barbaric act that plays on fear,” spokesman for the French government Stephane Le Foll told reporters.

Far from intimidating European leaders, however, Foley's beheading appears to be galvanizing support for military intervention in Iraq, with France, Germany and Italy deepening their commitment to supporting Kurdish rebels fighting IS.

"I think we are in the most serious international situation since 2001. ... I will therefore propose an initiative on security in Iraq and the fight against Islamic State, from September," French President Francois Hollande told Le Monde.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Germany can now “imagine providing further equipment, including weapons” to Kurdish forces — doubling down on a commitment to provide non-lethal military supplies that was already seen as a departure from Germany's usual reluctance to engage in foreign conflicts.


A similar commitment came from Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who made a one-day visit to Iraq on Wednesday.

"Europe must be in places like Iraq where democracy is endangered," he said in Baghdad.

Italy is prepared to provide light arms and ammunition for self-defense, as well as logistical support for weapons supplies, Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti said.

However, Germany’s reaction is perhaps the most significant.

Although Steinmeier and Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen have been pushing for greater involvement in the fight against IS for the past week, a recent poll conducted by the Forsa Institute before Foley's execution suggested that only one in three Germans favored weapons deliveries.

More from GlobalPost: Britain searching for Foley killer

Judging from the emotions expressed by ordinary Germans and in the German media, however, that could be set to change.

“At the moment Germans see ISIS as a barbaric, terroristic warrior tribe, in a way, shedding blood everywhere,” said Alexander Buehler, a German reporter who has covered the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Syria. He was referring to IS by one of its previous names.

In an uncharacteristic editorial for the German press, the deputy editor of Die Welt calledFoley's execution “a declaration of war on Western civilization,” and called not only for Germany to aid in the fight against IS but also for the institution of sanctions against countries that allegedly provide them with financial support, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/140820/foley-execution-boosts-european-support-intervention-iraq

Monday, August 18, 2014

Hungary may be in the EU, but its leader believes his country should be more like Putin’s Russia

Viktor Orban steps up his attacks on liberal democracy.

By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost, August 2014)

BUDAPEST, Hungary — At a beer garden on the campus of Eotvos Lorand University during a lovely summer evening, a group of young graduates grows passionate when the conversation turns to Viktor Orban.

Locked in conflict with the European Union since he took office in 2010, the country's populist right-wing prime minister openly believes Hungary should no longer model itself on the liberal democracies of Western Europe.

It should emulate “illiberal” countries such as Singapore, China and Russia instead, he said late last month. Last week, he condemned EU sanctions against Moscow over its stoking of military conflict in Ukraine.

Such criticism has horrified educated, urban Hungarians like Marcsi, a young blond woman who, like her companions, asked that her surname not be published.

“Now we're mentioned in the same breath with Belarus and Russia,” she says. “If this government did nothing else, it’s ruined our reputation in the rest of the world.”

Orban has capitalized on his Fidesz Party's two-thirds majority in parliament to centralize control over democratic institutions since his first term began in 2010. But some believe his open declaration of war on liberal democracy presages a new level in what they say is a drive to embed cronyism in government and quash dissent.

“This is a programmatic declaration that the government would like to further weaken the system of checks and balances,” says Peter Kreko of the Budapest-based think tank Political Capital.

Orban came under fire during his first term for weakening the independence of the judiciary. Critics alleged he used punitive taxes and other questionable legal measures to target businesses owned by foreign companies and his political opponents.


He also faced international censure for amending the constitution to make it easier for his party to win a second two-thirds majority in April 2014.

He's since continued to move in the same direction.

In June, Orban enacted a tax on advertising revenue — not profit, as is more typical — that the EU criticized as an attack on the free press.

He also launched an investigation into foreign-funded nonprofit organizations. The probe’s targets say it’s designed to threaten their autonomy.

Viktor Szigetvari, a politician who campaigned for the opposition alliance in the recent election, is unequivocal about Orban's inspiration.

“It's Putinism at its best,” he says, referring to Russia’s authoritarian President Vladimir Putin.

The government denies the accusations, saying none of its measures is malicious.

Officials argue that the constitutional changes were needed to eliminate political gridlock. They say the advertising tax and similar measures are required for filling the country's depleted coffers and protect people from predatory pricing.

And they say the probe of nonprofits stems from allegations that funds were improperly diverted into campaign financing for a small Fidesz rival called “Politics Can Be Different.”

Zoltan Kovacs, Orban's international spokesman, denies there are grounds for comparisons between Orban and Putin, let alone Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

“This is a political game,” he says. “It's very cheap and easy to use terms like these. We never crossed the democratic boundaries with any measure.”

But critics point to what they say is growing evidence to the contrary.

Veronika Mora, who heads the Okotars Foundation, responsible for distributing grants from Norway, says the government office that launched the original probe into NGOs has no jurisdiction over the administration of funds under a bipartisan agreement between Hungary and Norway.

A secondary embezzlement investigation launched by the Orban-controlled public prosecutor's office is little more than harassment, she says.

“If we lived in a country of law and order, we'd have no reason to fear because we've done nothing wrong,” she says.

The anti-corruption advocacy group Transparency International draws a direct line between the removal of checks on government power and an increase in crony capitalism.

Although the extent of corruption may not have grown — preceding governments were no angels, either — tailor-made laws have entrenched and legalized it, says Miklos Ligeti, Transparency’s head of legal affairs in Hungary.

“It's an exaggeration when it's perceived as a dictatorship,” he says of the state. “But the tendencies and trends are very worrying.”

Hungary raised no objections from the EU when it nationalized retail sales of tobacco following a model used in Austria.

A year later, however, franchise licenses were distributed to Fidesz Party loyalists.

In 2013, the government nationalized the country's largest cooperative savings bank only toreprivatize it again a year later through a single-bidder sale to a consortium of investors that included the man appointed to run the nationalization process in the first place.

The system uses punishments as well as rewards, says a Western businessman based in Hungary.

The tax on advertising revenue, for instance, was structured so that only a single media company was hit with a whopping 40 percent tax bill — a channel called RTL Klub owned by the German conglomerate Bertelsmann.

Similarly, a special retail tax on companies with revenues of more than $2.2 million bypassedHungarian-owned CBA — a grocery chain that competes with companies like Britain’s Tesco — because its stores were run as individual franchises.

Sources of persecution can run the gamut from the taxman to the health inspector, according to the businessman, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal from officials.

“At one point, a client company had 65 different government investigations going on at one time,” he says.

More from GlobalPost: Amid fears of a Russian invasion, Ukrainians keep pushing for political reform

None of that may be evident to visitors in swish, stylish Budapest, where tequila bars, luxury boutiques and elegant cafes stand among majestic bridges and cathedrals.

But back at the campus beer garden, dismay pervades the jokes about state-owned TV broadcasts, a new degree program for shepherds, rules requiring college graduates to stay in Hungary and other echoes of the order that existed here before communism fell in 1990.

Most here expect Orban’s centralization to continue for the foreseeable future.

Fruzsina, a young woman in a pink, sleeveless blouse who works for a foreign firm, says that gives educated Hungarians a special responsibility: “We can't give up on the idea that we still live in a liberal state.”

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/140815/hungary-eu-viktor-orban-russia

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Europe has a puppy mafia problem

Open borders are creating canine refugees.
By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost, August 2014)


BERLIN, Germany — In a sprawling animal shelter on the outskirts of Berlin, Beate Kaminski scoops up a tiny, bug-eyed puppy called Luna and plunks her down on her office table.

Eight inches tall and a foot long from nose to tail, handbag-sized Luna is the kind of “designer dog” flooding into Germany from dodgy puppy mills across Europe.

Like Luna, many are abandoned on the street or dumped at facilities like this one when they fall sick from one of the myriad canine diseases that can usually be prevented by mandatory vaccinations.

Evidence suggests there's an organized “puppy mafia” behind the trade. But Europe's open borders, web-based sales and a reluctance to file criminal charges are making it almost impossible to stop.

“Basically, anyone can breed puppies,” says Kaminski, whose large-framed glasses give her the air of a librarian.

“The puppy mill problem in the US is bigger than here, but we're in danger of facing the same issue because of our open borders.”

The largest shelter in Europe, Tierheim Berlin, or “Animal Shelter Berlin,” is an enormous concrete compound. Designed by the architect who built Chancellor Angela Merkel's residence, it houses monkeys used for research in East Germany before reunification, abandoned and confiscated farm animals, exotic lizards, parrots, rabbits, and just about every animal you can name — along with 800 cats and 300 dogs.

With an annual budget of around $10 million, the shelter houses animals indefinitely if no one adopts them, resorting to euthanasia only in the case of terminal illnesses that cause undue suffering.

Many of the animals have gone through hell before getting here.


No one knows how many puppies and kittens are transported illegally into Germany each year. But activists like Kaminski say highway accidents and routine traffic stops revealing cars and trucks loaded with animals from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia — as well as a steady flow of sick and abandoned pets — hint at a booming trade.

“The puppy mill problem in the US is bigger than here, but we're in danger of facing the same issue because of our open borders,” she says.

In one case, Autobahn police and animal control officers recovered more than 100 pug, bulldog, husky and Saint Bernard puppies after a truck from Slovakia crashed near the city of Schifferstadt in Southwestern Germany.

Puppies were stacked in boxes in a closed truck bed reeking of urine and feces, conditions a horrified veterinary department official said surely reflected animal rights violations across the border.

Nevertheless, police maintained there were no grounds for filing criminal charges in Germany, whatever conditions the pups might have been raised in.

“From a purely legal standpoint, there is no actionable offense because the animals have valid vaccination certificates and the necessary documents,” police spokeswoman Simone Eisenbarth told Germany's Bild newspaper. “Unfortunately, our hands are tied.”



Newly adopted shelter puppies in Bucharest, Romania. (AFP/Getty Images)

The problem isn’t unique to Germany.

The truck caught on the Autobahn was actually headed to Belgium. A similar case netted a major importer in Luxembourg last year.

In Britain, a recent Channel Four documentary revealed that the relaxation of the country's once-stringent quarantine laws with the adoption of the EU's pet passport system has resulted in a massive increase in puppy smuggling there.

The impotence of the authorities in Germany — where regulations governing the treatment of animals are among the toughest in the world — highlights the difficulty of stopping the cruel trade.

The driver in the Autobahn case was fined nearly $30,000 to cover the costs of rehabilitating and quarantining the pups, many of which were injured or sick. But such hefty fines are rare and the chances of being caught with direct evidence of mistreatment remain slim, meaning profits still outweigh the risks.

Public outrage is also fleeting, says the Berlin animal shelter's Kaminski.

“You have headlines for one or two days and then the incident is forgotten,” she says.

Still, the country's animal rights activists may be making at least some headway.

In May, Germany’s federal food and agriculture authorities held the country's first roundtable discussion of the issue, focusing on possible new measures to combat the trade, including regulations that would require Germany-based retailers to obtain permits before importing any animals.

For Kaminski, there's an even easier solution.

“If you want a puppy,” she says, “go to a shelter.”

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/germany/140806/europe-germany-puppy-mafia-animal-smuggling

Friday, August 01, 2014

Scientists revolt against one of Europe’s most ambitious research projects

Dissenters are threatening to boycott a $1.6 billion attempt to simulate the brain’s workings.

By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost, August 2014)

BERLIN, Germany — If it’s true, as the saying goes, that politics in academia are especially vicious because the stakes are so low, raising the ante doesn’t always seem to improve matters. At least that’s what an ongoing revolt by researchers against one of Europe’s most ambitious scientific projects appears to show.

With $1.6 billion in funding and hundreds of researchers from across the continent, the European Union's Human Brain Project (HBP) is attempting to simulate the workings of the human brain using big data systems. It represents the EU's grandest undertaking in science since the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) completed its search for the so-called “God particle.”

Like that experiment, which succeeded in 2013 — and the sequencing of the human genome a decade ago — the Human Brain Project is addressing one of the greatest challenges facing 21st century science. And it promises huge rewards.

But last month, more than 150 neuroscientists signed an open letter to the European Commission demanding a new, more transparent review of the project, suggesting it’s “not on course” and that its funding should be parceled out to smaller neuroscience projects as individual grants.

Since the letter was published, the number of signatories has grown to more than 600.

They argue that autocratic leadership and flaws in the project's design have doomed it to failure, and they've threatened a boycott if something doesn't change.

In an official response, the European Commission said that it welcomes debate, and some HBP members say they're open to discussions.

Led by Zachary Mainen, director of the Champalimaud Neuroscience Programme in Portugal, the dissenters say that’s a promising sign.


“There's more going on between people in the European Commission and the HBP than there was before all this,” Mainen said in an interview.

Nevertheless, both sides have become increasingly entrenched since the squabble became public.

The HBP leadership points out that the project was selected only after a lengthy review process by a panel of 25 renowned experts in the field. Raising objections now, they say, is like complaining about a sports referee’s credentials only after he's ruled against your side.

The dissenters insist that review process was meaningless because the panel’s members are anonymous, their deliberations made behind closed doors. The protesters are unofficially calling for the project leader, Henry Markram — a professor of neuroscience based in Switzerland — to be replaced.

In a sign of how frayed tempers have become, the project’s co-director Karlheinz Meier, a University of Heidelberg professor who specializes in computer modeling of neural circuits, says he resents the opposition's methods more than their arguments.

“I don't like this kind of Facebook style which has been chosen, to just click on the letter and say I like it or I don't like it,” he said of the open letter. “This is not the way science works.”

There are real scientific differences, too.

In what Markram has described as “a paradigm shift” for neuroscience, he hopes to gather the vast amount of existing data about various neural structures in order to plug into a yet-to-be-developed supercomputer. It would run thousands of statistical simulations to determine the most likely connections and interactions between them.

If it works, the method could “reverse engineer” a map of the brain's circuitry that would otherwise take millions of conventional experiments to achieve, he says.

To further that focus, the HBP in May slashed the arm of the project devoted to cognitive neuroscience — the more theoretical study of the connections between neurons and higher mental processes such as decision-making and memory. The open letter’s signatories say that’s turned the project into a computing exercise, drastically lowering its odds of teaching us much about the brain.

They argue that simulations alone will never be enough to provide an understanding of how the firing of neurons translates into thoughts and feelings. Instead, they advocate constant interplay between the theoreticians who look at brain function from the top down — from the perspective of behavior — and those who look at it from the bottom up, from the perspective of neurons.

Alexandre Pouget, a neuroscientist from the University of Geneva, says without contributions from both sides, it would be astounding if the project achieves its goal of building an artificial human brain within ten years.

“I would be blown away and would probably retire,” he said.

More from GlobalPost: Putin doesn't look like he's about to give in

Markram and his supporters counter by saying that's exactly the same kind of nay-saying that was once leveled at the human genome project, the Hubble space telescope, the CERN supercollider and other successful scientific collaborations during their early stages.

Co-director Meier says scientists already have plenty of theoretical understanding to get started on the project as it’s currently envisioned.

“If we would wait until we've understood the brain, then we wouldn’t have to simulate it anymore,” he said.

Whether or not the European Commission agrees remains to be seen.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/140731/human-brain-project-european-commission