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Trump administration gives green light to proceed with Biden transition

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After weeks of waiting, President Donald Trump’s administration on Monday (23 November) cleared the way for President-elect Joe Biden to transition to the White House, giving him access to briefings and funding even as Trump vowed to continue fighting the election results, write  , Andrea Shalal, David Shepardson, Michael Martina, James Oliphant, Julia Harte, Patricia Zengerle, Susan Heavey, Richard Cowan and David Morgan.

Trump, a Republican, has alleged widespread voter fraud in the 3 November election without providing evidence. Although he did not concede or acknowledge his Democratic rival’s victory on Monday, Trump’s announcement that his staff would co-operate with Biden’s represented a significant shift and was the closest he has come to admitting defeat.

Biden won 306 state-by-state electoral votes, well over the 270 needed for victory, to Trump’s 232. Biden also holds a lead of more than 6 million in the national popular vote.

The Trump campaign’s legal efforts to overturn the election have almost entirely failed in key battleground states, and a growing number of Republican leaders, business executives and national security experts have urged the president to let the transition begin.

The president-elect has begun naming members of his team, including tapping trusted aide Antony Blinken to head the State Department, without waiting for government funding or a Trump concession. But critics have accused the president of undermining US democracy and undercutting the next administration’s ability to fight the coronavirus pandemic with his refusal to accept the results.

On Monday, the General Services Administration (GSA), the federal agency that must sign off on presidential transitions, told Biden he could formally begin the hand-over process. GSA Administrator Emily Murphy said in a letter that Biden would get access to resources that had been denied to him because of the legal challenges seeking to overturn his win.

That means Biden’s team will now have federal funds and an official office to conduct his transition until he takes office on 20 January. It also paves the way for Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to receive regular national security briefings that Trump also gets.

The GSA announcement came shortly after Michigan officials certified Biden as the victor in their state, making Trump’s legal efforts to change the election outcome even more unlikely to succeed.

Trump and his advisers said he would continue to pursue legal avenues but his decision to give Murphy the go-ahead to proceed with a transition for Biden’s administration indicated even the White House understood it was getting close to time to move on.

Biden names Kerry as US climate envoy, emphasizing diplomacy's role in the issue

“Our case STRONGLY continues, we will keep up the good ... fight, and I believe we will prevail! Nevertheless, in the best interest of our Country, I am recommending that Emily and her team do what needs to be done with regard to initial protocols, and have told my team to do the same,” Trump said on Twitter.

A Trump adviser painted the move as similar to both candidates receiving briefings during the campaign and said the president’s statement was not a concession.

The Biden transition team said meetings would begin with federal officials on Washington’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, along with discussions of national security issues.

Two Trump administration officials said the Biden agency review teams could begin interacting with Trump agency officials as soon as Tuesday.

“This is probably the closest thing to a concession that President Trump could issue,” said Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer.

Murphy, who was appointed to the GSA job by Trump in 2017 and said she faced threats for not starting the transition earlier, told GSA employees in a letter that the decision to do so was hers alone.

“I was never pressured with regard to the substance or timing of my decision. The decision was solely mine,” she wrote. The GSA had insisted that Murphy would “ascertain” or formally approve the transition when the winner was clear.

Representative Don Beyer, who led the Obama administration’s transition at the Commerce Department in 2008, said Murphy’s delay was “costly and unnecessary” and warned that Trump could still do great harm in his remaining time in office.

Top Democrats in the House and Senate on Monday warned that an executive order signed by Trump in October could result in mass firings of federal employees in the final weeks of his presidency and allow the Republican president to install loyalists in the federal bureaucracy.

The now formalized transition and Michigan’s certification of Biden’s victory could prompt more Republicans to encourage Trump to concede as his chances of overturning the results fade.

Top Republicans in Michigan’s legislature pledged to honor the outcome in their state, likely dashing Trump’s hopes that the state legislature would name Trump supporters to serve as “electors” and support him rather than Biden.

Trump has been consulting his advisers for weeks, while eschewing standard responsibilities of the presidency. He has played several games of golf and avoided taking questions from reporters since the day of the election.

Biden, who plans to undo many of Trump’s 'America First' policies, announced the top members of his foreign policy team earlier on Monday. He named Jake Sullivan as his national security adviser and Linda Thomas-Greenfield as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Both have high-level government experience. John Kerry, a former U.S. senator, secretary of state and 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, will serve as Biden’s special climate envoy.

The president-elect is likely to tap former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen to become the next Treasury secretary, according to two Biden allies, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a personnel decision that was not yet public.

Biden also took a step toward reversing Trump’s hard-line immigration policies by naming Cuban-born lawyer Alejandro Mayorkas to head the Department of Homeland Security.

Economy

EU approves €2.9 billion in state aid for battery project attracting €9 billion

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The Commission has approved, state aid of up to €2.9 billion in funding for an ‘Important Project of Common European Interest’ (IPCEI) to support research and innovation in the battery value chain. The twelve EU countries involved will provide public funding expected to unlock an additional €9 billion in private investments.

The project, called “European Battery Innovation” was jointly prepared and notified by Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland, Slovakia, Spain and Sweden.

Executive Vice-President Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy, said: “For those massive innovation challenges for the European economy, the risks can be too big for just one member state or one company to take alone. Today's project is an example of how competition policy works hand in hand with innovation and competitiveness. With significant support also comes responsibility: the public has to benefit from its investment, which is why companies receiving aid have to generate positive spillover effects across the EU.”

When Vestager was asked if companies from outside the EU, such as Tesla, could benefit from this funding she said that this was possible and showed that the EU was committed to open strategic autonomy and welcomes non-EU firms when they have the right projects.

The Vice-President for Foresight, Maroš Šefčovič, said: “The Commission has given its green light to a second important project of the common European interest in the field of batteries. Technology is vital for our transition to climate neutrality. The figures show what an enormous undertaking this is. It involves twelve member states from North, South, East and West, injecting up to €2.9 billion euros in state aid in support of 46 projects designed by 42 companies, which in turn will generate three times as much private investment. "

The project will cover the entire battery value chain: extraction of raw materials, design and manufacturing of battery cells, recycling and disposal. It is expected to contribute to the development of a whole set of new technological breakthroughs, including different cell chemistries and novel production processes, and other innovations in the battery value chain, in addition to what will be achieved thanks to the first battery IPCEI.

 

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EU urges AstraZeneca to speed up vaccine deliveries amid 'supply shock'

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The European Union has urged AstraZeneca to find ways to swiftly deliver vaccines after the company announced a large cut in supplies of its COVID-19 shot to the bloc, as news emerged the drugmaker also faced supply problems elsewhere, write and

In a sign of the EU’s frustration - after Pfizer also announced supply delays earlier in January - a senior EU official told Reuters the bloc would in the coming days require pharmaceutical companies to register COVID-19 vaccine exports.

AstraZeneca, which developed its shot with Oxford University, told the EU on Friday it could not meet agreed supply targets up to the end of March, with an EU official involved in the talks telling Reuters that meant a 60% cut to 31 million doses.

“We expect the company to find solutions and to exploit all possible flexibilities to deliver swiftly,” an EU Commission spokesman said, adding the head of the EU executive Ursula von der Leyen had a call earlier on Monday with AstraZeneca’s chief Pascal Soriot to remind him of the firm’s commitments.

A spokesman for AstraZeneca said Soriot told von der Leyen the company was doing everything it could to bring its vaccine to millions of Europeans as soon as possible.

News emerged on Monday that the company faces wider supply problems.

Australia’s Health Minister Greg Hunt told reporters AstraZeneca had advised the country it had experienced “a significant supply shock”, which would cut supplies in March below what was agreed. He did not provide figures.

Thailand’s Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said AstraZeneca would be supplying 150,000 doses instead of the 200,000 planned, and far less than the 1 million shots the country had initially requested.

AstraZeneca declined to comment on global supply issues.

The senior EU official said the bloc had a contractual right to check the company’s books to assess production and deliveries, a move that could imply the EU fears doses being diverted from Europe to other buyers outside the bloc.

AstraZeneca has received an upfront payment of 336 million euros ($409 million) from the EU, another official told Reuters when the 27-nation bloc sealed a supply deal with the company in August for at least 300 million doses - the first signed by the EU to secure COVID-19 shots..

Under advance purchase deals sealed during the pandemic, the EU makes down-payments to companies to secure doses, with the money expected to be mostly used to expand production capacity.

“Initial volumes will be lower than originally anticipated due to reduced yields at a manufacturing site within our European supply chain,” AstraZeneca said on Friday.

The site is a viral vectors factory in Belgium run by the drugmaker’s partner Novasep.

Viral vectors are produced in genetically modified living cells that have to be nurtured in bioreactors. The complex procedure requires fine-tuning of various inputs and variables to arrive at consistently high yields.

“The flimsy justification that there are difficulties in the EU supply chain but not elsewhere does not hold water, as it is of course no problem to get the vaccine from the UK to the continent,” said EU lawmaker Peter Liese, who is from the same party as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The EU called a meeting with AstraZeneca after Friday’s (22 January) announcement to seek further clarification. The meeting started at 1230 CET on Monday.

The EU official involved in the talks with AstraZeneca said expectations were not high for the meeting, in which the company will be asked to better explain the delays.

Earlier in January, Pfizer, which is currently the largest supplier of COVID-19 vaccines to the EU, announced delays of nearly a month to its shipments, but hours later revised this to say the delays would last only a week.

EU contracts with vaccine makers are confidential, but the EU official involved in the talks did not rule out penalties for AstraZeneca, given the large revision to its commitments. However, the source did not elaborate on what could trigger the penalties. “We are not there yet,” the official added.

“AstraZeneca has been contractually obligated to produce since as early as October and they are apparently delivering to other parts of the world, including the UK without delay,” Liese said.

AstraZeneca’s vaccine is expected to be approved for use in the EU on Jan. 29, with first deliveries expected from 15 February.

($1 = €0.8214)

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EU

Chemicals: EU protects wildlife from negative effects of lead in the environment

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On 25 January, the Commission took firm steps to ensure that wildlife is protected from the negative effects of lead in the environment, by restricting its use in gunshot in or around wetlands. Adopted under the framework of the EU's chemicals regulation, the measure will help to protect the environment by significantly reducing lead pollution while preventing the avoidable death by lead poisoning of around 1 million waterbirds every year. Lead is a highly toxic substance, which released to the environment contaminates both the soil and water.

Every year, 4,000 to 5,000 tonnes of lead are released into wetlands from lead gunshot.  There are affordable alternatives, for example steel gunshots, which currently cost about the same as lead gunshots. The measure adopted today will harmonise and enhance the effectiveness of national legislation limiting the use of lead gunshot in wetlands already in place in 24 member states.

It will start applying in two years' time. The restriction supports the goals of the Chemical Strategy for Sustainability and the Green Deal. It also supports the objectives of the Birds Directive, and is a first concrete deliverable under the new EU 2030 Biodiversity Strategy. More info here.

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