Britain seeks ‘special’ EU ties as Brexit talks start

The EU's Michel Barnier, right, speaks as David Davis looks on during a statement before the negotiation of Brexit at the EU headquarters in Brussels on Monday. (AFP)
Updated 19 June 2017
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Britain seeks ‘special’ EU ties as Brexit talks start

BRUSSELS: Britain’s negotiators came to Brussels seeking a “new, deep and special partnership with the EU” on Monday, as talks on the unprecedented British withdrawal from the EU finally got under way.
A beaming Brexit Secretary David Davis, a veteran campaigner against EU membership, told a somber Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, that his team aimed to maintain a “positive and constructive tone” during “challenging” talks ahead in the hope of reaching a deal that was in the interests of both sides.
A year after Britons shocked the continent by voting on June 23 to cut loose from their main export market, debate within Prime Minister Theresa May’s Cabinet on precisely what kind of trading relationship to pursue has perplexed EU leaders, who warn time is tight to agree terms before Britain leaves in 2019.
“We must first tackle the uncertainties caused by Brexit,” said Barnier, a former French minister, as he greeted Davis at the European Commission’s Berlaymont Building headquarters.
Those were, he said, the rights of expatriate citizens and problems of a new EU-UK border, notably cutting across Ireland. He did not mention a third EU priority — that Britain settle a bill of tens of billions of euros before it leaves in 21 months.
That financial issue is already a bone of contention, as is Brussels’ refusal to discuss a new free trade deal until after it is resolved. May, whose future is uncertain after she lost her Conservative majority in an election this month, has insisted that trade talks start immediately and run in parallel.
While Barnier insists on the “sequencing” of talks, so that trade negotiations cannot start until probably January, finding a way to avoid a “hard” customs border for troubled Northern Ireland may well involve some earlier discussion of the matter.
A bigger problem may be for British negotiators to resolve what trade relationship they want. While “Brexiteers” like Davis have strongly backed May’s proposed clean break with the single market and customs union, finance minister Philip Hammond and others have this month echoed calls by businesses for less of a “hard Brexit” and retaining closer customs ties.
The bloc has expanded steadily since first formed as the European Economic Community in 1957 by France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemburg. It currently numbers 28 members. Never before has a country sought to leave.
Brexit Secretary Davis, noting shared security threats for governments across Europe hours after a van rammed worshippers at a London mosque, said: “There is more that unites us than divides us.
“We are ... determined to build a strong and special partnership between ourselves, our European allies and friends.”
Officials on both sides play down expectations for what can be achieved in one day. EU diplomats hope this first meeting, and a Brussels summit on Thursday and Friday where May will encounter — but not negotiate with — fellow EU leaders, can improve the atmosphere after some spiky exchanges.
Davis’s agreement to Monday’s agenda led some EU officials to believe that May’s government may at last be coming around to Brussels’ view of how negotiations should be run.
After Davis and Barnier met over lunch in the Commission’s top floor dining rooms, their teams broke up into “working groups” that will be charged with handling specific areas of talks that the EU expects to take place for a week every month.
Barnier said he was hoping to have a clearer timetable by the end of the day. He has said a divorce deal should be ready by October next year to give time for parliamentary approval. With or without a deal, Britain will be out of the EU on March 30, 2019. EU leaders want May to lay off threats that she would walk out and leave a chaotic legal limbo for all Europeans.
But Union leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, are also determined not to make concessions to Britain that might encourage others to quit.
When 52 percent of British voters opted for Brexit, some feared for the survival of a Union battered by the euro crisis and divided in its response to chaotic immigration. The election of the fervently europhile Macron, and his party’s sweep of the French Parliament on Sunday, has revived optimism in Brussels.


Energy wells plugged as Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano sends lava nearby

Updated 33 min 27 sec ago
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Energy wells plugged as Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano sends lava nearby

PAHOA, Hawaii: Production wells at a geothermal plant under threat by lava flowing from Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano have been plugged to prevent toxic gases from seeping out.
Lava from a nearby, new volcanic vent entered, then stalled, on the 815-acre property where the Puna Geothermal Venture wells occupy around 40 acres. Residents have been concerned about hazards if the lava flowed over the plant’s facilities, or if heat generated would interact with various chemicals used on-site.
Ten wells were “quenched,” which cools them with enough cold water to counter the pressure of volcanic steam coming from below, said Hawaii Gov. David Ige. The last well was plugged with mud, because it had remained hot despite the infusion of water. Metal plugs in the wells, which run as deep as 8,000 feet (2,438 meters) underground, are an additional stopgap measure.
“All wells are stable at this point,” said Ige. County officials are also monitoring various gases that may leak into the atmosphere.
A spike in gas levels could prompt a mass evacuation, said Hawaii County Civil Defense Administrator Talmadge Magno. Officials, however, have not discussed specific scenarios that would lead to such an emergency.
Puna Geothermal, owned by Nevada’s Ormat Technologies, was shut down shortly after Kilauea began spewing lava on May 3. The plant harnesses heat and steam from the earth’s core to spin turbines to generate power. A flammable gas called pentane is used as part of the process, though officials earlier this month removed 50,000 gallons (190,000 liters) of the gas from the plant to reduce the chance of explosions.
The plant has capacity to produce 38 megawatts of electricity, providing roughly one-quarter of the Big Island’s daily energy demand.
Lava destroyed a building near the plant late Monday, bringing the total number of structures overtaken in the past several weeks to nearly 50, including dozens of homes. The latest was a warehouse adjacent to the Puna plant, Hawaii County spokeswoman Janet Snyder told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. The building was owned by the state and was used in geothermal research projects in the early days of the site.
Native Hawaiians have long expressed frustration with the plant since it came online in 1989; they say it is built on sacred land. Goddess of fire, Pele, is believed to live on Kilauea volcano, and the plant itself is thought to desecrate her name.
Other residents have voiced concerns over health and safety.
Scientists, however, say the conditions on Kilauea make it a good site for harnessing the earth for renewable energy.
“There’s heat beneath the ground if you dig deep enough everywhere,” said Laura Wisland, a senior analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. But in some places in the US “it’s just hotter, and you can access the geothermal energy more easily.”
Geothermal energy is also considered a clean resource as it doesn’t generate greenhouse gas emissions, said Bridget Ayling, the director of Nevada’s Great Basin Center for Geothermal Energy.
Ormat said in a May 15 statement that there was a low risk of surface lava making its way to the facility. The company also said there was no damage to the facilities above-ground and that it was continuing to assess the impact. The plant is expected to begin operating “as soon as it is safe to do so,” according to the statement.
The US Geological Survey said sulfur dioxide emissions from the volcano have more than doubled since the current eruption began. Kilauea’s summit is now belching 15,000 tons (13,607 metric tons) of the gas each day up from 6,000 tons (5443 metric tons) daily prior to the May 3 eruption.
Scientists say lava from Kilauea is causing explosions as it enters the ocean, which can look like fireworks. When lava hits the sea and cools, it breaks apart and sends fragments flying into the air, which could land on boats in the water, said US Geological Survey scientist Wendy Stovall.