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Key supporter of Syrian rebels says decision to extend blanket arms embargo will only prolong war

Qatar, one of the principal supporters of the Syrian rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad, has criticised the EU’s decision to extend its blanket arms embargo on Syria and said it would only prolong the war.

Hamed bin Jassim Al Thani, prime minister and foreign minister of the Gulf state, told al-Jazeera TV that the decision was wrong and accused the Syrian government of seeking to buy time.

On Monday EU foreign ministers agreed to extend the arms embargo on Syria for a further three months, although they accepted a British proposal to allow the supply of “greater non-lethal support and technical assistance for the protection of civilians”.

After further discussions they may also permit military training and advice in areas that are under rebel control, diplomats said.

“I am astonished at this decision,” Bin Jassim said. “The rebels only want to be able to defend themselves. At the present time this is the wrong decision. It will only prolong the crisis.”

Qatar, along with Saudi Arabia, has supplied money and weapons to the anti-Assad forces but is understood to have been pressured by western governments to ease up because of growing concern that weapons are being funnelled to radical or jihadi groups that are not under the influence of the western-backed Syrian National Coalition. Rebel forces have complained that weapons and ammunition are drying up.

Public discussion of this issue is rare. Last month Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former spy chief and senior Saudi royal, said the rebels should be given anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to “level the playing field” and ensure that “extremist” groups did not dominate the opposition.

On Tuesday the New York Times reported that the US may reconsider its refusal to supply weapons to the rebels. Barack Obama rebuffed the advice of his senior security officials last autumn, but with conditions in Syria continuing to deteriorate the debate could be reopened. “This is not a closed decision,” a senior administration official told the paper. “As the situation evolves, as our confidence increases, we might revisit it.”

Obama’s decision not to provide arms was driven by his reluctance to get drawn into a proxy war and by his fear that the weapons would end up in unreliable hands, where they could be used against civilians or Israeli and US interests.

The state department has provided $50m of non-lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition, including satellite telephones, radios, broadcasting equipment, computers, survival equipment and related training. An FM radio network is to connect broadcasting operations in several Syrian cities in the next few days.

But the decision not to provide weapons has greatly limited the influence the US has with groups that are likely to control much of Syria if Assad is ousted. The new US secretary of state, John Kerry has said he plans to advance ideas on how to change the situation, including more co-operation with Russia, Syria’s closest ally on the UN security council.

In a related development, the Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Mualim, is to visit Moscow next week, the Russian foreign ministry announced. But there is still no agreement on a visit by Moaz al-Khatib, leader of the Syrian National Coalition, dashing hopes for an early start to possible talks between the Assad regime and the opposition. Russia appeared to have hoped the two visits would coincide.

Russia also said on Tuesday that a call by UN investigators for suspected war criminals in Syria to face prosecution at the international criminal court was “untimely and unconstructive”.

MAC_PRO

The long-overdue-for-an-overhaul Mac Pro will disappear from store shelves come March 1, and not because of an impending update. Apple is halting sales of the machine because it will not meet new EU regulatory standards.

On March 1, an amendment to the EU’s Information Technology Equipment Safety Standard will go into effect, rendering the Mac Pro noncompliant. Evidently, the machine’s fan guards don’t meet the updated standard and, rather than redesign them, Apple has opted simply to stop shipping the Mac Pro to EU member states.

“Apple resellers can continue to sell any remaining inventory of Mac Pro after March 1,” the company said in a message to resellers first published by 9to5Mac. “Apple will take final orders for Mac Pro from resellers up until February 18th for shipment before March 1 2013. Countries outside of the EU are not impacted and Mac Pro will continue to be available in those areas.”

The Mac Pro has long been a niche product for Apple, so pulling it off the market in the EU will have minimal impact on the company’s bottom line. And the company has been working on its successor — “something really great,” in the words of CEO Tim Cook — with an eye toward launching it sometime this year. With that machine in the pipeline, it likely made far more sense to halt sales of the current Mac Pro than scramble to retrofit them into compliance.

Overall EU spending proposed by Herman Van Rompuy remains 50bn higher than the initial British demand

David Cameron failed on Thursday night in his bid to persuade the European council president, Herman Van Rompuy, to agree a 6bn ( 4.85bn) cut in EU administration costs.

Cameron did manage to secure modest cuts in the Connecting Europe budget, where Van Rompuy agreed to a 4.5bn cut. The prime minister had suggested a cut of 20bn.

The British rebate was not discussed. This meant that the Van Rompuy proposal – exempting rural payments to new member states from the rebate and asking the UK to contribute to the rebate – remains in place.

The latest Van Rompuy draft says on the rebate: “The existing correction mechanism for the UK will continue to apply. The last part of the current own resources decision related to the breakdown of rural development expenditure is no longer applicable.

Temporary corrections in the form of lump sum growth projections (in current prices) in annual GNI based contributions during the period 2014-2020 will be granted to the following member states – 2.8bn to Germany, 1.15bn to the Netherlands, and 325m to Sweden. All corrections (the UK correction and the temporary lump sum corrections) will be fully financed by all member states based on the GNI key.”

One EU official said many in Brussels believe that Britain is taking a tough stance on the relatively small administrative spending – pay and other related costs – to mask a change of tack in Cameron’s plans for a real terms freeze in the overall EU budget.

While Cameron told Van Rompuy he was pleased with big budget cuts tabled last week by Brussels, the spending proposed by Van Rompuy remains 50bn higher than the initial British demand. The Van Rompuy paper reduced European commission budget proposals by 81bn.

Stepping up his campaign against eurocrats, Cameron urged further cuts to administration costs by:

Increasing the retirement age to 68 for all EU officials now under the age of 58. The current retirement age is 63. This would save 1.5bn.

Cutting the overall EU pay bill by 10% for officials, saving 3bn.

Lowering the pension cap from 70% of an official’s final salary to 60%, saving 1.5bn.

A UK official said: “These are not dramatic changes. The commission and others are telling the Greeks, the Italians and others that they should put the retirement age up to 68. In the UK we have cut [public sector] pensions to a career average salary. They argue that it is very difficult legally to change people’s terms and conditions. Well, we have managed it in the UK.”

The commission has proposed increasing the administrative budget from 56bn to 63bn. Van Rompuy has proposed a trim to 62.63bn. Cameron told Van Rompuy the EU should follow the example of Whitehall which has imposed cuts of between 25%-30% in administrative costs. One British official said: “We can save tens of billions compared with what is on the table.”

While Van Rompuy was said not to have responded to UK demands, Jos Manuel Barroso, the commission president, was reported to have reacted defensively.

Under pressure from Barroso, Van Rompuy has already minimised his proposed cuts to eurocrats’ terms and conditions to 500m over seven years. Some of the British demands are also supported by the Germans and the Dutch.

EU officials accept it is difficult to argue with the need for cuts in the cost of administration during a time of austerity, though there is anger that Britain has declined to publish the salaries of its diplomats in Brussels. They receive generous housing allowances and live in the most exclusive areas of Brussels such as Ixelles in the centre and Tervuren on the outskirts.

Cameron is encouraged by Van Rompuy’s proposed “payment ceiling” – the amount that is due to be paid out – of 940bn, compared to the first European commission payment ceiling of 987.6bn. Britain is insisting that the overall figure has to come in below 940bn. But Cameron appeared resigned to accepting he would not achieve his original target figure of 886bn.

The administration costs of the EU represent only 6.4% of the overall budget. Senior UK officials admit that big savings cannot be made there, but emphasise that the issue is “very symbolic” not only, but especially, in Britain.

Cameron highlighted the “Connecting Europe” project, which is designed to connect the continent through transport and energy infrastructure projects.One EU official said: “David Cameron lectures us all on the need to draw up a budget for growth. And yet he now wants to cut the very part of the budget that will build up transport, energy and broadband infrastructure.”

Another EU official pointed out that it is designed to help fund the proposed high speed rail link from London to Birmingham and the electrification of the Great Western rail line.

Cameron’s decision to target the growth budget and administrative costs for cuts shows Downing Street has accepted that Britain will not win any further cuts in the two highest areas of expenditure. These are the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and structural funds that help build the infrastructure of poorer areas, notably in eastern Europe.

France’s president, Fran ois Hollande, arrived at the summit incensed at proposed cuts to the farms budget of some 60bn compared to the current seven-year period and also embittered at having currently to fund a quarter of Britain’s annual 3.6bn rebate.

He sought to gain the support of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, before the summit started, but was said to have found little sympathy. The French said they were in no hurry to reach a deal, indicating that the summit could collapse in failure over the next 48 hours.

Europe divided over German proposals for a ‘super commissioner’ who could punish nations with large deficits

Fresh tensions emerged between Germany and southern Europe as Spain and Italy criticised Berlin’s proposals for a European Union “super commissioner” with powers to police national budgets and punish those with large deficits.

“This is an idea, that considered on its own, I personally don’t like,” said Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy after meeting his Italian counterpart Mario Monti in Madrid.Monti claimed not to have read a Der Spiegel interview in which European Central Bank (ECB) president Mario Draghi threw his weight behind the super-commissioner idea, but nevertheless recalled that, in 2003, Germany has been one of the first countries to break EU deficit rules. “It doesn’t sound very good,” he added. “Markets could take this as a sign that current instruments do not work.”

Both prime ministers claimed their recession-hit countries did not currently need a soft bailout that would allow the ECB to start buying bonds to bring down borrowing rates, though Rajoy was prepared to admit a request might come eventually. “The instrument is there and any country can ask for it if it finds it necessary. And I will do just that,” he said. “When I believe that it is in the interests of Spain to ask for it, I will ask for it,” he said.

Monti said Italy did not need the bailout, but said it was important that at least one country use the eurozone’s new soft bailout mechanism in order to prove to markets that the ECB was serious about defending the euro.

“It is of paramount importance that the instrument is put to work, that it does not remain theoretical,” Monti said, in what seemed to be a reference to Spain.

The plan relates to the ECB purchasing a government’s bonds, which results in a lowering of that country’s borrowing rates in the bond markets.

The size of Spain’s economic downturn was underscored by the prices at which a new “bad bank”, to be set up as part of a eurozone rescue of Spanish banks, will forcibly buy toxic real estate assets from bailed-out banks.

The “bad bank”, known as Sareb, will take between 45bn and 90bn of real estate with discounts on book value varying from 80% to 32%, according to the Bank of Spain.

The minimum discount will still be above the market fall in Spanish real estate prices, which have so far dropped 25% from their peak.

But Italy also appeared to be running into fresh difficulties after former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, sentenced to prison for tax fraud last week, threatened to withdraw support for Monti’s government over the weekend.

As Italy’s bond yields began to rise yesterday, Monti refused to speculate on whether this was a sign of market fear that Berlusconi would carry out his threat.

“You can ask that question to the political parties, and to the markets, but not to me,” he said, claiming his duty was merely to keep governing Italy until the spring.