The Spectator

Portrait of the Week - 18 June 2005

A speedy round-up of the week's news

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Mr Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, flew to Moscow for talks with President Vladimir Putin, then to Berlin, Luxembourg and Paris, in preparation for the European Union meeting later this week. A bone of contention was Britain’s £3 billion rebate of its contributions to the EU budget, which President Jacques Chirac of France said Britain should give up as a ‘gesture of solidarity’. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of Germany told Mr Blair that there was ‘no place for national egotism’. In talks with Mr Jean-Claude Juncker, the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, which currently holds the EU presidency, Mr Blair declined a formal proposal to freeze the rebate between 2007 and 2013. In Paris Mr Blair said that his meeting with President Chirac had been ‘immensely amicable, but obviously there’s a sharp disagreement’. Mr Peter Mandelson, the European trade commissioner, an old friend of Mr Blair’s, said in a lecture to the Fabian Society, ‘It is surely wrong to ask the poorer new accession states to pay for any part of the rebate.’ At a meeting of EU foreign ministers, Mr Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, said, ‘If we were to abandon our rebates — which we are not going to do — none of Europe’s fundamental problems would be solved.’ Mr Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, outlined a scheme for the G8 group of countries to forgive £30 billion of debt by 18 nations, 14 of them African. Miss Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Education, said that by 2010 schools would open for breakfast at 8 a.m. and let children stay until 6 p.m. The government proposed a change in the law to allow religious language to be used in civil weddings and the civil partnership rituals to be introduced in December for homosexuals. More than a third of the armed forces would have difficulty deploying within the time limit set by defence chiefs, according to a report by the National Audit Office. Britain is expected to send 5,000 troops to Afghanistan next year. Members of a seven-man forgery gang working at Ashton-under-Lyne were jailed for up to eight years for forging £10 million-worth of banknotes. A Plymouth woman was banned from driving after being caught speeding three times in 24 minutes (at 40, 43 and 40mph in a 30mph zone) by the same camera. The Twentieth Century Society called on Diageo, the brewing company, to reprieve from demolition next year the Guinness brewery at Park Royal, north-west London, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott.

Mr Hans Eichel, the finance minister in the beleaguered SPD administration that still governs Germany, called on businesses to increase wages in the hope that ‘reasonable improvements in income’ would encourage domestic consumer demand. Mme Catherine Colonna, the French finance minister, said, ‘The British position on the rebate defies EU logic and undermines EU solidarity.’ Michael Jackson, the singer, was found not guilty on ten charges of child abuse and plying a minor with alcohol, after a 16-week trial in California. Repellent details of the interrogation of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay were released in America, prompting two Republican senators to call for the prison camp to be closed. Iraq’s Special Tribunal released a soundless video of Saddam Hussein, dressed in a dark suit and open-necked shirt, answering questions, some put by Mr Raid Juhi, the chief trial judge. American air strikes killed 40 Sunni insurgents near the border of Iraq and Syria, according to an American spokesman. Four convicted murderers were executed by the Palestinian Authority, the first such executions since 2002. A referendum in Italy that could have overturned a law passed last year to prevent embryo experimentation failed when the turnout reached only 30 per cent; a 50 per cent vote was required for its validity, and the Catholic Church had asked for abstentions. President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa sacked his deputy, Mr Jacob Zuma, who had been expected to succeed him in 2009, after a colleague of his was jailed for 15 years for corruption. Israeli scientists said that they had germinated a 2,000-year-old date seed from the hilltop fort of Masada. Oprah Winfrey, an American television chat show presenter, said that she was a Zulu.