UK leader says there is new optimism in Brexit talks

British Prime Minister Theresa May making a statement to lawmakers regarding the Brexit negotiations. (AFP/PRU)
Updated 11 December 2017
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UK leader says there is new optimism in Brexit talks

LONDON: Prime Minister Theresa May says there is a new sense of optimism about negotiations over Britain’s departure from the European Union, insisting that a preliminary deal has given fresh impetus to the talks.
May met with her Cabinet on Monday before a scheduled address to the House of Commons, where she will update lawmakers on the agreement reached Friday with the EU that covers the main divorce issues. Those include the rights of citizens affected by Brexit, Britain’s financial obligations to the EU and how to keep open the border between Britain’s Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member.
Leaders of the other 27 EU members are expected to ratify the agreement later this week, allowing Brexit talks to move on to trade and security cooperation.
“Of course, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” May said in a statement. “But there is, I believe, a new sense of optimism now in the talks and I fully hope and expect that we will confirm the arrangements I have set out today in the European Council later this week.”
But weekend comments by the official in charge of the talks have threatened to spoil May’s triumphant moment. In an interview with the BBC on Sunday, Brexit chief David Davis suggested that last week’s agreement was a “statement of intent” that was not legally binding.
The comments caused unease in Ireland, where leaders demanded provisions in the agreement to ensure Brexit won’t restrict travel and trade between the Republic of Ireland and the UK’s Northern Ireland. Officials in both parts of the island say the border must remain open to protect the Irish peace process.
The Irish government branded Davis’ comments “bizarre” and insisted that Britain must live up to the commitments it made last week.
Davis on Monday tried to mitigate the fallout, insisting his words had been “completely twisted.”
“What I actually said yesterday ... was we want to protect the peace process, want to protect Ireland from the impact of Brexit for them, and I said this was a statement of intent which was much more than just legally enforceable,” Davis told LBC Radio.
“In the event that the withdrawal agreement doesn’t happen then we would still be seeking to maintain an invisible border between Northern Ireland and Ireland,” he added. “I was making the point that it was much more than just in the treaty, it’s what we want to do anyway.”
In Brussels, the Europeans were thinking about form as well as substance.
European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said that while the deal was not legally binding, it was regarded as a pact of honor.
“We see the joint report of (EU Brexit negotiator) Michel Barnier and David Davis as a deal between gentlemen and it is the clear understanding that it is fully backed and endorsed by the UK government,” he said. He noted that EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker agreed on that with May on Friday. “They shook hands.”


Number of asylum-seekers in Europe plunges in 2017, says EU

Migrants walk behind a police car during their way from the Austrian-German border to a first registration point. (AFP)
Updated 25 min 20 sec ago
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Number of asylum-seekers in Europe plunges in 2017, says EU

  • Over 460,000 people applied for asylum in Europe in 2013. More than 660,000 did so in 2014
  • Merkel now faces the challenge of persuading EU governments to sign up to a common plan on the migrants

BRUSSELS: The EU’s asylum office says the number of people applying for international protection in Europe has plunged but remains higher than before 2015, when more than 1 million migrants entered, many fleeing the war in Syria.
EASO said in an annual report Monday that 728,470 application requests were made for international protection in 2017, compared to almost 1.3 million applications the previous year. It says around 30 percent of the applicants come from conflict-torn countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
EASO says there is a still a backlog: More than 950,000 applications were still awaiting a final decision at the end of last year, almost half of them in Germany.
Over 460,000 people applied for asylum in Europe in 2013. More than 660,000 did so in 2014.
Meanwhile, hard-liners in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc on Monday gave her a two-week ultimatum to tighten asylum rules or risk pitching Germany into a political crisis that would also rattle Europe.
Interior Minister Horst Seehofer’s CSU party at a meeting unanimously backed his call to give Merkel a fortnight to find a European deal on the burning issue by a June 28-29 EU summit, failing which he would order border police to turn back migrants.
Three years after her decision to open Germany’s borders to migrants fleeing war in Syria and Iraq and misery elsewhere, Merkel is still struggling to find a sustainable response to complaints from the CSU, her Bavarian allies, over her refugee policy.
Merkel’s woes come as European Union countries are once again at loggerheads over immigration, triggered by Italy’s refusal this month to allow a rescue ship carrying 630 migrants to dock.
Malta also turned the vessel away, sparking a major EU row until Spain agreed to take in the new arrivals.
Seehofer has been one of the fiercest critics of Merkel’s liberal stance, under which over one million asylum seekers have been admitted into the country since 2015.
He wants to turn away at the border new arrivals who have previously been registered in another EU country — often their first port of call, Italy or Greece.
But Merkel says that would leave countries at the EU’s southern periphery alone to deal with the migrant influx. Instead, she wants to find a common European solution at the EU summit in Brussels.
“How Germany acts will decide whether Europe stays together or not,” Merkel told her CDU party’s leadership at a meeting in Berlin, according to participants.

Popular misgivings over the migrant influx have given populist and anti-immigration forces a boost across several European nations, including Italy and Austria where far-right parties are now sharing power.
In Germany, voters in September’s election handed Merkel her poorest score ever, giving seats for the first time to the far-right anti-Islam AfD.
Several high profile crimes by migrants have also fueled public anger. They include a deadly 2016 Christmas market attack by a failed Tunisian asylum seeker and the rape-murder in May of a teenage girl, allegedly by an Iraqi.
With an eye on October’s Bavaria state election, the CSU is anxious to assure voters that it has a roadmap to curb the migrant influx.
“We must send a signal to the world: it’s no longer possible to just set foot on European soil in order to get to Germany,” a leading CSU figure, Alexander Dobrindt, told the party meeting.
Seehofer had struck a more conciliatory tone, telling Bild on Sunday: “It is not in the CSU’s interest to topple the chancellor, to dissolve the CDU-CSU union or to break up the coalition.
“We just want to finally have a sustainable solution to send refugees back to the borders.”

Merkel now faces the challenge of persuading EU governments to sign up to a common plan on the migrants.
Central and eastern EU nations such as Hungary and Poland have either refused outright or resisted taking in refugees under an EU quota system.
A populist-far right government in Italy and the conservative-far right cabinet in neighboring Austria have also taken an uncompromising stance.
Merkel’s talks later Monday with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte in Germany could prove crucial if she is to have any chance of forging an agreement in Brussels.
On Tuesday, she will also meet French President Emmanuel Macron in Germany.
Berlin is also reportedly preparing to call a meeting between Merkel and the leaders of several EU frontline nations in the migrant crisis ahead of the EU summit.
“It would be almost a miracle if she emerges a winner from the next EU summit,” Welt daily said.
But the chancellor may have no choice, as Seehofer could still launch the nuclear option of shutting Germany’s borders in defiance of her — an act of rebellion which would force her to sack him.
That “would be the end of the government and the alliance between CDU and CSU,” an unnamed CDU source told Bild.