EU's Barnier gives Britain two-week Brexit deadline

Britain's Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union David Davis and European Union's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier address a joint news conference after the latest round of talks in Brussels on Friday. (Reuters)
Updated 10 November 2017
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EU's Barnier gives Britain two-week Brexit deadline

BRUSSELS: EU Brexit chief Michel Barnier on Friday handed Britain a two-week ultimatum to make concessions on a divorce agreement if it wants to unlock the next phase of talks in December.
Frenchman Barnier said it was "vital" for Britain to increase its offer on its exit bill — a figure senior EU officials put at up to €60 billion —to open up talks on a future trade deal.
The fate of the border between British-ruled Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has also thrown an unexpected spanner into the works, with British negotiator David Davis ruling out the EU's preferred solution.
"My answer is yes," Barnier told a press conference at the end of the sixth round of talks in Brussels, when asked if he would need "concessions" from Britain within the next two weeks to move on.
"On the financial settlement, this is absolutely vital if we are to achieve sufficient progress in December. It is just a matter of settling accounts, as with any other separation," the former European commissioner and French foreign minister said.
Barnier added that he was "following attentively" the political situation in Britain where a series of government resignations has further weakened the government of Prime Minister Theresa May.
EU leaders decided at their last summit in October that there was insufficient progress on three main divorce issues — the bill, Northern Ireland and the rights of three million Europeans living in Britain — to move on to the next stage.
They said they hoped to open talks on future relations and a post-Brexit transition period at their next meeting on Dec. 14-15, but officials have warned that could now slip to February or March.
Hopes of a breakthrough at this week's Brussels talks —  the first since mid-October — were so low that they were cut to just one-and-a-half days from the normal four days.
Northern Ireland has reared its head in the discussions, with an internal EU paper for the talks suggesting that it should remain in the EU's single market and customs union after Brexit to prevent a hard border with Ireland.
Davis insisted Friday that any Brexit deal cannot create a frontier between Northern Ireland, where a 1998 peace deal ended decades of sectarian unrest, and the rest of the United Kingdom.
"We recognize the need for specific solutions for the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland," Davis said. "But let me be clear, this cannot amount to creating a new border inside the United Kingdom."
Barnier, meanwhile, welcomed a British proposal on protecting the rights of EU nationals living in Britain after 2019, but said there were still differences on key issues.
There appeared to be little progress on the main sticking points: The rights of EU migrants to bring their families to Britain, their ability to send welfare payments to their home countries, and whether the European Court of Justice would have jurisdiction over those rights.
"On citizens' rights we are making some progress although we need to move further on a number of points," Barnier said.
The Brexit bill has been the main source of deadlock in the talks since they began in June. The EU says it must meet budgetary commitments totalling €50 to 60 billion, but Britain puts the figure nearer 20 billion.
Britain voted to leave the EU in a shock referendum result in June 2016. The government confirmed Thursday that Brexit day will be 2300 GMT on March 29, 2019.


Pope Francis gets invite to North Korea, may consider landmark trip

Updated 28 min 18 sec ago
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Pope Francis gets invite to North Korea, may consider landmark trip

  • Any visit would be the first by a pope to the reclusive state which does not allow priests to be permanently stationed there
  • North Korea’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion as long as it does not undermine the state

VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis on Thursday received an invitation to visit North Korea and the pontiff indicated he would consider making what would be a landmark trip to a nation known for severe restrictions on religious practice, according to South Korean officials. South Korean President Moon Jae-in relayed the invitation from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to the pope verbally during a 35-minute meeting in the Vatican.
Any visit would be the first by a pope to the reclusive state which does not allow priests to be permanently stationed there. There is little information on how many of its citizens are Catholic, or how they practice their faith.
North Korea’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion as long as it does not undermine the state.
But beyond a handful of state-controlled places of worship — including a Catholic church in the capital of Pyongyang — no open religious activity is allowed and the authorities have repeatedly jailed foreign missionaries.
Kim told Moon, a Catholic, of his wish to meet the pontiff during a meeting last month and the South Korean leader announced before the trip that he would be relaying a message.
According to the president’s office, Francis expressed his strong support for efforts to bring peace to the Korean peninsula. Moon’s office quoted the pope as telling Moon: “Do not stop, move forward. Do not be afraid.”
Asked if Kim should send a formal invitation, Moon’s office quoted the pope as responding to Moon: “your message is already sufficient but it would be good for him to send a formal invitation.”
“I will definitely answer if I get the invitation, and I can go,” the president’s office quoted the pope as saying.
A meeting with Pope Francis would be the latest in a string of major diplomatic meetings for Kim Jong Un this year.
The two Koreas have held three summits this year. Kim also held an unprecedented summit with US President Donald Trump in Singapore in June, where the leaders promised to work toward denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
The pope is expected to visit neighboring Japan next year and the proposed North Korea visit comes as China improves relations with the Holy See.
A deal signed in September gives the Vatican a long-sought say in the choice of bishops in China, and for the first time, Beijing allowed two bishops to attend a Vatican meeting, where they invited the pope to visit China.
A Vatican statement made no mention of the verbal invitation from North Korea’s Kim.
It spoke only of “the promotion of dialogue and reconciliation between Koreans” and “the common commitment to fostering all useful initiatives to overcome the tensions that still exist in the Korean Peninsula, in order to usher in a new season of peace and development.”
Any trip to the North, however brief, could be contentious for the pope, given what the United Nations says is a record of gross and systematic human rights abuses.
Aides close to the pope have said he is open to taking what they call first steps in places where the Church has been persecuted in the hope that the situation could improve.
Church officials estimate that North Korea had a Catholic community of about 55,000 just before the 1950-53 Korean War.
Religious agencies have estimated the number remaining from the few hundreds to about 4,000.
Priests from the South occasionally visit, usually accompanying aid deliveries or humanitarian projects.