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Bolton to Visit Moscow, Plan Possible Trump-Putin Meeting

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton plans to visit Moscow next week to prepare for a possible meeting of U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Interfax news agency reported on Thursday, citing sources.

The Kremlin said Tuesday there are no plans for a meeting between Trump and Putin before the NATO summit, Interfax reported. Trump is expected to attend the NATO summit in Brussels on July 11-12.

 

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May Wins Passage of Brexit Withdrawal Bill

The British government saw its flagship Brexit legislation pass through Parliament on Wednesday, but remains locked in a tussle with lawmakers over the direction of the country’s departure from the European Union.

The EU Withdrawal Bill was approved after Prime Minister Theresa May’s government narrowly won a key vote. The House of Commons rejected by 319-303 a proposal to require Parliament’s approval before the government agrees to a final divorce deal with the EU, or before walking away from the bloc without an agreement.

Later in the day, the withdrawal bill, intended to replace thousands of EU rules and regulations with U.K. statute on the day Britain leaves the bloc, also passed in the unelected House of Lords, its last parliamentary hurdle. It will become law once it receives royal assent, a formality.

Lawmakers favor close ties to EU

A majority of lawmakers favor retaining close ties with the bloc, so if the amendment requiring parliamentary approval had been adopted, it would have reduced the chances of a “no deal” Brexit. That’s a scenario feared by U.K. businesses but favored by some euroskeptic members of May’s Conservative minority government, who want a clean break from the EU.

May faced rebellion last week from pro-EU Conservative legislators, but avoided defeat by promising that Parliament would get a “meaningful vote” on the U.K.-EU divorce agreement before Brexit occurs in March.

Pro-EU lawmakers later accused the government of going back on its word by offering only a symbolic “take it or leave it” vote on the final deal and not the ability to take control of the negotiations.

Labour Party Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer accused May of telling Parliament: “Tough luck. If you don’t like my proposed deal, you can have something much worse.”

The rebels sought to amend the flagship bill so they could send the government back to the negotiating table if they don’t like the deal, or if talks with the EU break down.

The government claimed that would undermine its negotiating hand with the EU.

“You cannot enter a negotiation without the right to walk away,” Brexit Secretary David Davis told lawmakers. “If you do, it rapidly ceases to be a negotiation.”

But Davis also told lawmakers it would be for the Commons speaker to decide whether lawmakers could amend any motion on a Brexit deal that was put to the House of Commons.

Concession enough

The concession was enough to get Conservative lawmaker Dominic Grieve, a leader of the pro-EU rebel faction, to back down and say he would support the government.

Grieve said the government had acknowledged “the sovereignty of this place (Parliament) over the executive.”

While the withdrawal bill cleared a major hurdle, the government faces more tumult in Parliament in the months to come over other pieces of Brexit legislation.

It has been two years since Britain voted by 52-48 percent to exit the 28-nation EU after four decades of membership, and there are eight months until the U.K. is due to leave the bloc on March 29, 2019.

But Britain, and its government, remains divided over Brexit, and EU leaders are frustrated with what they see as a lack of firm proposals from the U.K about future relations.

May’s government is divided between Brexit-backing ministers such as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson who support a clean break with the EU, and those such as Treasury chief Philip Hammond who want to keep closely aligned to the bloc, Britain’s biggest trading partner.

EU: No deal is worst scenario

The European Parliament’s leader on Brexit, Guy Verhofstadt, said Wednesday that he remains hopeful a U.K.-EU withdrawal agreement could be finalized by the fall so national parliaments have time to approve it before March.

“The worst scenario for both parties is no deal,” he told a committee of British lawmakers. “The disruption that would create to the economy, not only on the continent but certainly in Britain, would be huge and that we have to avoid.”

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Britain Ends Royal ‘Boycott’ of Israel

In 1986, Margaret Thatcher arrived in Israel for the first official visit to the Jewish state by a serving British prime minister. Asked at a news conference why Britain’s queen had never visited, she snapped back, “I am here.”

The Iron Lady’s response got a chuckle, but it did not satisfy the Israelis.

For 70 years successive Israeli governments have tried to persuade Britain to send a Royal on an official visit — something both Buckingham Palace and Downing Street have been reluctant to do. They have feared an official visit would drag Buckingham Palace into a diplomatic quagmire and end up infuriating Britain’s Gulf Arab allies.

But next week Prince William, the heir to the British throne, will bring to an end the royal shunning of Israel, arriving Sunday in the Middle East for a visit to Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories. While members of the royal family have visited Israel before on private trips or to attend funerals of Israeli leaders, they have never made what are termed formally as official visits.

‘Occupied city’ controversy

The trip has prompted controversy because of Buckingham Palace referring to Jerusalem in the published program for the Prince’s trip as an “occupied city,” outraging Israeli politicians. Israel captured east Jerusalem from Jordan in 1967 and annexed it in a move that is not internationally recognized.

Israel’s Minister of Jerusalem Affairs, Zeev Elkin, has lambasted the description, posting on his Facebook page, “It’s regrettable that Britain chose to politicize the Royal visit. Unified Jerusalem has been the capital of Israel for over 3,000 years and no twisted wording of the official press release will change the reality. I’m expecting the prince’s staff to fix this distortion.”

There has been no response by Buckingham Palace to the complaint. Under international law East Jerusalem is considered “occupied” by the Israelis. But the spat over the wording of the prince’s itinerary illustrates the risks attached to the visit, say analysts.

Visit to Palestinian territories

Prince William will begin his trip to the Middle East in Jordan on June 24 and travel to Tel Aviv the following day, according to his office. He will spend three days in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Ramallah in the West Bank. His visit will also mark the first time a senior member of Britain’s royal family will visit the Palestinian territories.

Visiting Israel and the Palestinian Territories is testimony to the determination of the British government to show even-handedness. Prince William will also have courtesy meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his residence and later with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.

Royal spokesman Jason Knauf emphasized Buckingham Palace’s neutrality in remarks earlier this month, saying, “the non-political nature of his royal highness’s role — in common with all royal visits overseas — allows a spotlight to be brought to bear on the people of the region.” He noted, “The complex challenges in the region are of course well known.”

Landmark trip

But Knauf added, “Now is the appropriate time and the Duke of Cambridge is the right person to make this visit.” But he did not explain why the British government, which requested the prince take the trip, thinks this is the right time for the landmark trip.

Scores of Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces in recent protests at the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip as the 70th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel is being marked. Tensions are also high with clashes taking place between Israel and Iran, with Israeli forces striking at what they see as threatening Iranian military positions in neighboring war-torn Syria.

The political temperature has remained high since U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision, announced last December, to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, breaking with the United Nations and Western allies by recognizing the city as Israel’s legitimate capital.

Some analysts in Israel and London have linked Trump’s decision to the prince’s trip, saying Britain is dispatching the heir apparent as a way to curry favor with the U.S. president and to gain goodwill in the White House. Anshel Pfeffer, a commentator for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz argues British officials are “hopeful that Netanyahu can help them in the upcoming negotiations in Washington on Britain’s crucial trade deal.”

He adds that Britain has “diminished clout on the world stage” because of Brexit and, “it must utilize whatever assets it has. And the one unique thing Britain has is a young generation of royals who are instantly recognizable across the globe.”

Other analysts see the trip as part of a broader effort by London to raise Britain’s profile as it tries to scout out new trade opportunities to replace the likely loss of trade with European countries once exits the European Union. Two-way trade between Israel and Britain last year reached $7 billion, a 25 percent increase from 2016.

 

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European Business Lobby Presses China to Stop Dragging Feet on Reform

As the United States and China teeter on the brink of an all out trade war and tit-for-tat tariffs loom, a European businesses lobby is urging Beijing to stop dragging its feet on reforms and using unfair trade policies to pamper Chinese companies.

 

Each year, foreign trade groups in China roll out a laundry list of concerns about market access, regulatory hurdles and other policies that tilt the playing field in the world’s second largest economy.

 

This year, for the first time ever, the European Chamber of Commerce’s annual survey of the business climate found that 61 percent of its 532 company members saw their Chinese counterparts as equally or more innovative.

 

Increased spending on research and development, targeted acquisitions of foreign high-tech firms and growing demand for innovative products from consumers were helping driving that shift, the chamber said.

 

The high response is significant. Policies linked to innovation and competition are a key part of the intensifying US — China trade debate and concerns of foreign companies operating here.

 

European Chamber President Mats Harborn said that as Chinese companies become stronger and more competitive, it is time for Beijing to “remove the training wheels.”

 

“It’s time for China to lift or reduce the pampering of its own enterprises and expose them to even more open and fair competition for them to develop into the champions that China wants them to be,” Harborn said.

 

Currently, Chinese companies account for 115 of the Fortune 500 list of global enterprises. The Chinese government claims that of the world’s 260 “unicorns” — start up companies valued at more than a billion dollars — more than 160 are from China.

 

Since Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered an address at the World Economic Forum in Davos early last year, China has repeatedly pledged to further open up the country’s economy.

 

According to the group’s survey of its members 52 % said that the government’s promises of opening up had yet to be realized. And looking forward, 46 percent said they thought the number of regulatory obstacles would increase over the next five years.

 

Harborn said that time is running out for China and 2018 has to be the year that it delivers on its promises.

 

“Dragging the feet on delivering on promises that have been made in China will cause reactions around the world,” Harborn said.

 

The United States response to that has led to reactions such as the $50 billion, and more recently $200 billion, in possible tariffs that Washington could levy on Chinese goods.

 

“We don’t agree with that action but it is the result of what we have warned about earlier,” he said.

Washington and European companies alike have long voiced concern about trade policies in China that protect domestic companies and State Owned Enterprises through subsidies, regulatory barriers and unequal treatment.

 

The Trump administration has alleged that Beijing is stealing American intellectual property and forcing technology transfers. Beijing denies that is the case.

 

Still, the European chamber’s survey found that about one in five of its companies “felt compelled to hand over technology in exchange for market access,” despite Chinese government assurances to the contrary.

 

According to the survey, 19 percent said they felt compelled to transfer technology.

Harborn said that while the percentage may seem small, the value it represents is much larger. Numbers were even higher among companies in the aerospace and aviation sector (36 percent), civil engineering and construction (33 percent) and automakers (27 percent).

 

 “And no foreign company going to Europe has to even consider the issue of giving up technology for market access,” Harborn said.

 

Reciprocal treatment is a key concern from companies in China, regardless of whether they are from Europe and America. It is also a key aim of Washington’s trade dispute with Beijing and effort to make trade fairer.

 

But as the rhetoric in the U.S.-China trade dispute has heated up, some analysts argue that the focus has shifted too heavily to reciprocal and damaging tariffs. Actions that risk hurting not only the United States and China, but the global economy as well.

 

Harborn said confrontation through tariffs is not the most efficient way to get reforms and opening up that companies have been asking China to deliver.

 

“We are afraid that when you are exerting pressure this way [through threats of tariffs] that China keeps its aces up its sleeve and is presenting what is needed to defuse the tension at the time and is not is not addressing the fundamental and broader issues,” Harborn said.

 

Besides, he add, reforms are not only important for foreign companies but China’s own economic development as well.

 

 

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Turkey Getting F-35 Jets, Despite Congressional Objections

Despite opposition in Congress, Turkey will receive its first F-35 Joint Strike fighter jet this week, Pentagon and aviation industry officials tell VOA.

Lockheed Martin, maker of the F-35, will hold a ceremony Thursday in Fort Worth, Texas, for Turkey’s new jets, according to a company spokesperson.

Both House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) contain restrictions on Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program.

U.S. lawmakers are concerned about Ankara’s imprisonment of an American pastor and its plans to buy the Russian S-400 air defense system, which they say would “degrade the general security” of the NATO alliance and be incompatible with systems used by Turkey’s NATO allies.

The NDAA, and any language therein, would not become law until the House and Senate pass a final, joint version of the bill.

“As always, Lockheed Martin will comply with any official guidance from the United States government,” the company said.

After the rollout ceremony on Thursday, Turkey’s two jets will travel to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona at a later date so that Turkish pilots can learn how to use them, Air Force Lt. Col. Mike Andrews, a Pentagon spokesman, told VOA.

“Turkish F-35 pilots and maintainers have arrived at Luke Air Force Base, and will begin flight academics soon,” Andrews added.

A defense official noted the U.S. government could likely still be in custody of the aircraft when the newest NDAA is passed.

“After aircraft production of F-35 jets are complete, the U.S. government maintains custody of the aircraft until custody is transferred to the partner. This normally occurs after the lengthy process of foreign partner training is complete in about one to two years,” the official told VOA.

Turkey is a NATO ally and has been an international participant with the U.S.-made F-35 program since 2002.

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Scan on Exit: Can Blockchain Save Moldova’s Children from Traffickers?

Laura was barely 18 when a palm reader told her she could make $180 a month working in beetroot farms in Russia — an attractive sum for a girl struggling to make a living in the town of Drochia, in Moldova’s impoverished north.

That she had no passport, the fortune teller said, was not a problem. Her future employers would help her cross the border.

“They gave me a [fake] birth certificate stating I was 14,” Laura, who declined to give her real name, told Reuters in an interview.

That was enough to get her through border controls as she traveled by bus with a smuggler posing as one of her parents.

It was the beginning of a long tale of exploitation for Laura — one of many such stories in Moldova in eastern Europe, which aims to become the first country in the world to pilot blockchain to tackle decades of widespread human trafficking.

Trafficking generates illegal profits of $150 billion a year globally, with about 40 million people estimated to be trapped as modern-day slaves — mostly women and girls — in forced labor and forced marriages, according to leading anti-slavery groups.

The digital tool behind the cryptocurrency bitcoin is increasingly being tested for social causes, from Coca-Cola creating a workers’ registry to fight forced labor to tracking supply chains, such as cobalt which is often mined by children.

Moldova has one of the highest rates of human trafficking in Europe as widespread poverty and unemployment drive many young people, mostly women, to look for work overseas, according to the United Nations migration agency (IOM).

Due to the hidden nature of trafficking and the stigma attached, it is unknown how many people in the former Soviet country have been trafficked abroad but IOM has helped some 3,400 victims — 10 percent of whom were children — since 2001.

In Russia, Laura was forced to toil long hours, beaten and never paid. After ending up in hospital, she was rescued by a doctor, only to be trafficked again a few years later when an abusive partner sold her into prostitution.

She now lives with her daughter in a rehabilitation center in the northern village of Palaria with help from the charity CCF Moldova.

“I had a lot of suffering,” the 36-year-old said. “I am very afraid of being sold again, afraid about my child.”

​Scans and bribes

Moldova plans to launch a pilot of its digital identity project this year, working with the Brooklyn-based software company ConsenSys, which won a U.N. competition in March to design an identity system to combat child trafficking.

Undocumented children are easy prey for traffickers using fake documents to transport them across borders to work in brothels or to sell their organs, experts say.

More than 40,000 Moldovan children have been left behind by parents who have migrated abroad for work, often with little supervision, according to IOM.

“A lot of children are staying just with their grandfathers or grandmas, spending [more] time in the streets,” said Lilian Levandovschi, head of Moldova’s anti-trafficking police unit.

Moldova, with a population of 3.5 million, is among the poorest countries in Europe with an average monthly disposable income of 2,250 Moldovan Leu ($135), government data shows.

ConsenSys aims to create a secure, digital identity on a blockchain — or decentralized digital ledger shared by a network of computers — for Moldovan children, linking their personal identities with other family members.

Moldova has strengthened its anti-trafficking laws since Laura’s ordeal and children now need to carry a passport and be accompanied by a parent, or an adult carrying a letter of permission signed by a guardian, to exit the country.

With the blockchain system, children attempting to cross the border would be asked to scan their eyes or fingerprints.

A phone alert would notify their legal guardians, requiring at least two to approve the crossing, said Robert Greenfield who is managing the ConsenSys project.

Any attempt to take a child abroad without their guardians’ permission would be permanently recorded on the database, which would detect patterns of behavior to help catch traffickers and could be used as evidence in court.

“Nobody can bribe someone to delete that information,” said Mariana Dahan, co-founder of World Identity Network (WIN), an initiative promoting digital identities and a partner in the blockchain competition.

Corruption and official complicity in trafficking are significant problems in Moldova, according to the U.S. State Department, which last year downgraded it to Tier 2 in a watchlist of those not doing enough to fight modern day slavery.

Moldova is eager to prove that it is taking action, as a further demotion could block access to U.S. aid and loans.

​Tricked

Many details have yet to be agreed before the blockchain project starts, including funding, populations targeted, the type of biometrical data collected, and where it will be stored.

But the scheme is facing resistance from some anti-trafficking groups who say it will not help the majority of victims — children trafficked within Moldova’s borders and adults who are tricked when they travel abroad seeking work.

“As long as we don’t have job opportunities … trafficking will still remain a problem for Moldova,” said IOM’s Irina Arap.

Minors made up less than 20 percent of 249 domestic and international trafficking victims identified in 2017, said Ecaterina Berejan, head of Moldova’s anti-trafficking agency.

“For Moldova, this is not a very big problem,” she said, referring to cross-border child trafficking, adding that child victims may travel with valid documents as their families are in cahoots with traffickers in some cases.

But supporters of the blockchain initiative say low official trafficking figures do not account for undetected cases, and they have a duty to attempt to stay ahead of the criminals.

“Many times, authorities are late in using latest technologies,” said Mihail Beregoi, state secretary for Moldova’s internal affairs ministry. “Usually organized crime uses them first and more successfully. … Any effort [to] secure at least one child is already worth trying.”

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IMF Chief: Ukraine Anti-corruption Court Law Needs Amending 

Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, welcomed on Tuesday the adoption by Ukraine’s parliament of a law to create an anti-corruption court, but said lawmakers needed to amend it to guarantee the court’s effectiveness.

Creating an independent and trustworthy court dedicated to handling corruption cases is one of the key conditions for Ukraine to receive further funding under its $17.5 billion aid-for-reforms program from the IMF.

Earlier in June, parliament passed the law after months of delay, but the draft contained an amendment that activists said would undermine the reform by allowing appeals on existing cases to be handled by the current courts system.

In the Fund’s first direct comments on the law, Lagarde said she had spoken with President Petro Poroshenko and said she was encouraged by the adoption of the legislation.

“We agreed that it is now important for parliament to quickly approve … the necessary amendments to restore the requirement that the HACC (anti-corruption court) will adjudicate all cases under its jurisdiction,” she said in a statement.

The law is meant to ring-fence court decisions from political pressure or bribery in Ukraine, where entrenched corruption remains a deterrent to foreign investors and knocks two percentage points off Ukraine’s economic growth each year, according to the IMF.

Establishing the court, adjusting gas prices and honouring budget commitments are key conditions to unlock the next loan tranche under the IMF program, which expires next year.

Lagarde said she and Poroshenko had “also agreed to work closely together, including with the government, toward the timely implementation of this and other actions, notably related to gas prices and the budget.”

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Merkel to Trump: Falling German Crime Stats ‘Speak for Themselves’

Chancellor Angela Merkel coolly rebuffed U.S. President Donald Trump’s assertion that migrants were behind a surge in crime in Germany, pointing to statistics that showed crime was in fact down.

“My answer is that the interior minister presented the crime statistics a short while ago and they speak for themselves,” Merkel told a news conference with French President Emmanuel Macron when asked about a recent flurry of tweets from Trump.

“We are seeing a slight positive development. We must always do more to fight criminiality. But they were very encouraging numbers,” she added.

Statistics published last month showed that overall crime fell 9.6 percent in Germany in 2017.

A government-sponsored study published in January showed that violent crime had risen about 10 percent in 2015 and 2016, attributing more than 90 percent of the rise to young male asylum seekers.

Merkel has faced opposition at home for a decision in 2015 to open Germany’s borders to hundreds of thousands of migrants, mostly Middle Eastern asylum seekers who crossed by sea from Turkey to Greece and overland through the Balkans. That route has since been closed under a 2016 deal Turkey-EU deal.

In a tweet on Monday, Trump said that the people of Germany were turning against their leadership because of loose migration policies.

“Crime is way up. Big mistake made all over Europe in allowing millions of people in who have so strongly and violently changed their culture,” Trump said.

He followed that up with a tweet on Tuesday that said: “Crime in Germany is up 10% plus [officials do not want to report these crimes] since migrants were accepted. Others countries are even worse. Be smart America!”

His tweets come amid a storm of criticism from Democrats and some Republicans for his administration’s policy of detaining immigrant children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said it was “not the American president’s role to speculate —  as he did yesterday — that the German people would march towards the chancellery to remove Mrs. Merkel.”

“Mr. Trump may govern the USA, he doesn’t govern Europe,” Juncker added.

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Right-Wing Italian Interior Minister Wants to Look into ‘Roma Question’

Italy’s new right-wing interior minister Matteo Salvini said his department has to look into “the Roma question” in Italy — a comment the opposition said reminds them of Italian fascism.

Salvini said Monday he wants to take a census of Italy’s Roma population.

“Unfortunately, we will have to keep the Italian Roma because we can’t expel them,” Salvini told Telelombardia television.

Center-left politicians immediately jumped on Salvini’s comments, likening it to ethnic cleansing.

“You can work for security and respect for rules without becoming fascistic,” lawmaker Ettore Rosato tweeted. “The announced census of Roma is vulgar and demagogical.”

But Salvini said he wants to help the Roma, an itinerant ethnic group. He said he wants to know who they are and where they live, and protect Roma children, whose parents he said did not want them to integrate into society.

“We are aiming primarily to care for the children who aren’t allowed to go to school regularly because they prefer to introduce them to a life of crime,” he said.

The interior minister said he has no desire to take fingerprints of the Roma or keep index cards of individuals. He also said he wants to see how European Union funds earmarked to help the Roma are spent.

Many Roma live in camps on the outskirts of Italian cities. They complain of lifelong discrimination, being denied job and educational opportunities.

But officials say many Roma are responsible for petty crimes, such as pickpocketing and theft.

Salvini’s comments about the Roma came a week after Italy refused to let a shipload of migrants dock at an Italian port. Spain gave permission for the ship to dock in its country Sunday.

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France’s Macron Sets Out Corporate Law Shake-up in Reform Bill

France’s finance minister promised to cut red tape on companies, open up more financing for them and create incentives for employee profit-sharing under a new bill presented on Monday.

The proposed law is part of President Emmanuel Macron’s pro-business reform drive that has already eased labour laws and cut companies’ and entrepreneurs’ taxes.

“The law’s ultimate objective is more growth and the creation of a new French economic growth model,” Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told reporters.

Le Maire said that by 2025 the overhaul of French corporate law was expected to boost overall gross domestic product by one percent over the long term.

The new law aims to address one long-standing complaint from business owners about a complex system that imposes new charges in multiple stages as companies increase their workforce.

The bill would simplify the system, Le Maire said, by halving the number of those stages to three — bringing in new charges and obligations when a company has 11, 50 and then 250 employees.

It would also make it easier, cheaper and faster to register a company, giving entrepreneurs a single online platform to replace the current round of seven administrative bodies.

Liquidation of insolvent companies will be sped up so business owners can move on and bankruptcy law will give more power to creditors who have a stake in seeing the firm survive, the minister added.

The government aims to boost the more than 220 billion euros French people currently hold in long-term retirement savings, which it hopes will make more funds available to be invested in companies’ capital.

To do that, employees’ voluntary contributions will largely be made tax-deductible for all types of savings products and they will be able to transfer savings from one money manager to another at no cost, potentially boosting competition, according to a statement on the bill.

The government aims to make profit-sharing much more common in small companies by scrapping charges employers currently have to make on payouts to employees.

Largely because of that measure, the new law is expected to cost the government 1.2 billion euros annually, which Le Maire said would be paid for by planned cuts in subsidies to companies.

The law also sets the stage for several large privatizations with the proceeds already earmarked for a new 10 billion euro innovation fund.

It will in particular lift legal restraints on selling down stakes in airport operator ADP and energy group Engie while allowing the national lottery FDA to be privatized.

While some left-wing and far-right politicians have said the sales amounted to selling the family jewels, Macron’s party has a sufficiently large parliamentary majority to pass the bill with little trouble early next year.