Britain and EU ‘get to work’ on fresh Brexit talks

UK Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union David Davis is welcomed by the European Commission's Chief Brexit Negotiator Michel Barnier at the start of a first full round of talks on Britain's divorce terms from the European Union, in Brussels, Belgium July 17, 2017. (REUTERS)
Updated 17 July 2017
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Britain and EU ‘get to work’ on fresh Brexit talks

BRUSSELS: Britain and the European Union said they would get to the “heart of the matter” as they launched a fresh round of fraught Brexit negotiations in Brussels on Monday.
Brexit minister David Davis met Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, to try to push through a deal ahead of Britain’s withdrawal from the bloc, scheduled for March 2019.
During four days of talks the two sides hope to make progress on key issues surrounding Britain’s withdrawal, including citizens’ rights and its exit bill, so that talks can move on to discuss a future trade deal later this year. 
“Now it’s time to get down to work and make this a successful negotiation,” Davis told reporters as Barnier welcomed him to the headquarters of the European Commission.
“For us it’s incredibly important we now make good progress, that we negotiate through this and identify the differences so we can deal with them and identify the similarities so that we can reinforce them.”
Barnier, who has repeatedly called on weakened British Prime Minister Theresa May to quickly set out her divorce strategy, said they needed to “examine and compare our respective positions in order to make good progress.”
“We’ll now delve into the heart of the matter,” Barnier told reporters, declining questions until the end of this round of talks on Thursday.

The talks are the first full round of negotiations that formally began last month with a one-day session to agree on a timetable.
The EU has demonstrated increasing confidence in recent weeks, accusing Britain of dithering over whether it wants a “hard” or “soft” Brexit more than a year after the shock referendum that propelled May to power.
Brussels insists it will only start discussing the future relationship once there has been “sufficient progress” on the divorce — an estimated 100-billion-euro ($112 billion) exit bill, the rights of three million EU citizens living in the UK, and the border in Northern Ireland.
This week’s talks are also set to address more detailed concerns such as Britain’s future in Euratom, the EU’s nuclear safety agency, and the role of the European Court of Justice, the EU’s top court.
EU leaders are set to decide at a summit in October whether there is enough common ground to move on to trade talks.
Common ground was very much lacking last week after British foreign minister and leading Brexiteer Boris Johnson remarked that the EU could “go whistle” over its massive Brexit bill demand, drawing a rebuke from Barnier.
“I am not hearing any whistling, just the clock ticking,” said the former European Commissioner and French foreign minister.
Johnson, who was in Brussels on Monday separately to meet his 27 EU colleagues, said he hoped the bloc would accept the “very fair and serious offer” Britain had made on the rights of EU citizens.
“I hope very much that people will look at that offer in the spirit it deserves,” he told reporters.
UK finance minister Philip Hammond said Sunday that Britain will take responsibility for the money it owes, but dismissed the 100 billion euro figure as “ridiculous.”
Barnier last week held a series of meetings in Brussels with British opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and other UK figures at odds with May.
They are all deeply wary of May’s hard-line approach that would see the UK leave the EU without full access to the bloc’s single market of 500 million people, in order to curb free immigration from the bloc.

May’s minority government remains fragile one month after the snap June 8 election in which her Conservative Party lost its majority, forcing it to seek an alliance with Northern Ireland’s small ultra-conservative Democratic Unionist Party.
The tensions have shaken the British government, which on Thursday introduced the draft law that would formally put an end to Britain’s membership of the European Union.
May faces a battle over the bill, which opponents said included a dangerous “power grab” by London at the expense of Scotland and Wales.
Hammond, a potential rival to May, acknowledged that ministers were divided on many elements of Brexit, after weekend newspapers were filled with reports of infighting.
“I think on many fronts it would be helpful if my colleagues — all of us — focused on the job in hand. This government is facing a ticking clock over the Brexit negotiations,” Hammond said.


After Afghan cease-fire gamble, prospects rise for US-Taliban talks

Updated 3 min 59 sec ago
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After Afghan cease-fire gamble, prospects rise for US-Taliban talks

  • US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared ready to tweak the policy when he welcomed Ghani’s 10-day extension of a cease-fire that is currently due to end on Wednesday
  • While Washington has long resisted direct talks with Taliban, the official said that recent developments indicate “the US now seems less and less averse to it”

KABUL/WASHINGTON: Prospects have risen for negotiations between the Taliban and the United States after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called a cease-fire and allowed militants to roam into cities in a gamble to encourage peace talks.
The Taliban, ousted from power in 2001 by US-led troops, insist that any negotiations with what it calls the “puppet” Afghan government on a peace plan can begin only after talks with the United States about withdrawing foreign forces.
Analysts and Western diplomats said Ghani’s offer to hold unconditional peace talks had set the stage for US officials to open backchannel negotiations with the Taliban, despite Washington’s policy that peace talks be Afghan-led.
“Ghani has done his bit,” said Thomas Ruttig, co-director of Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent think tank.
“It is now for the US to cut through this blockade,” he said, although that would be a departure from US policy that talks to end the 17-year-old war must be wholly Afghan-led.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared ready to tweak the policy when he welcomed Ghani’s 10-day extension of a cease-fire that is currently due to end on Wednesday. The Taliban said its cease-fire ended on Sunday.
“As President Ghani emphasised in his statement to the Afghan people, peace talks by necessity would include a discussion of the role of international actors and forces,” Pompeo said. “The United States is prepared to support, facilitate, and participate in these discussions.”
Richard Olson, former US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, described the statement as significant “in that it signals that the US is prepared to ultimately discuss the issue that is paramount to the Taliban, which is the withdrawal of foreign forces.”
A senior US official, speaking on the condition of anonymity before the start of the cease-fire, however said there were a number of issues that made direct talks between the Taliban and the United States unlikely in the short-term.
The official said there was a substantial gap in knowledge about the Taliban — for instance as to who had the authority to negotiate on the their behalf. “There is not enough intelligence or resources on this issue,” the official said.
A second official said there was still a question of what would happen with hard-line elements of the Taliban. “There are Taliban that won’t come to the table,” the official said.
Taliban call
The Taliban, in a statement marking the end of their cease-fire on Sunday, said the organization was unified and called on “the invading American party” to “sit directly for dialogue with the Islamic Emirate to find a solution for the ongoing imbroglio.”
A senior diplomat with knowledge of the negotiations leading to the cease-fire estimated the chances of eventual talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government at “50-50.”
“The Taliban want to talk to the US directly on withdrawal (of foreign forces) because they do not want to share the credit of withdrawal with the government,” the official said.
And while Washington has long resisted direct talks with Taliban, the official said that recent developments indicate “the US now seems less and less averse to it.”
In August, US President Donald Trump unveiled a more hawkish military approach to Afghanistan, including a surge in air strikes. Afghan security forces say the impact has been significant, but the Taliban roam huge areas of the country and, with foreign troop levels of about 15,600, down from 140,000 in 2014, there appears little hope of outright victory.
Ghani, never widely popular, met his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, on Sunday to secure support for peace talks. He visited a restaurant in Kabul where he met diners and took selfies with children, trying to capitalize on the unprecedented party atmosphere created by the cease-fire to mark last weekend’s Eid Al-Fitr festival.
But Amrullah Saleh, the former head of intelligence and head of a political party, said Ghani had committed a blunder by allowing insurgents to pour into government-controlled areas.
“Thousands of Taliban fighters were allowed to enter with guns and some of them could be hiding in civilian areas, planning attacks,” Saleh told Reuters.
Ghani has also come in for praise.
“Now we can say that our president is making an absolute honest attempt” for peace, said Anwar-ul-Haq Ahadi, the chairman of the outspoken New National Front of Afghanistan.