UK PM Theresa May loses historic Brexit vote

British Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday urged MPs to vote in favour of the Brexit deal she has struck with the EU. (AFP/Screenshot)
Updated 16 January 2019
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UK PM Theresa May loses historic Brexit vote

  • Defeat now raises the question about whether she will try again, is removed from office, delays Brexit -- or if Brexit even happens at all
  • Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn tables a motion of no confidence in May's government

LONDON: Britain’s parliament on Tuesday resoundingly rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal, triggering a no-confidence vote in her government and plunging its plans to leave the EU into further chaos.
MPs voted 432 to 202 against May’s plan for taking Britain out of the European Union, the biggest parliamentary defeat for a government in modern British political history.
With a deal that took nearly two years to craft in tatters and her government’s future hanging in the balance, EU leaders sounded a note of exasperation, urging Britain to come out and say what it actually wants.
“If a deal is impossible, and no one wants no deal, then who will finally have the courage to say what the only positive solution is?” EU president Donald Tusk tweeted.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, warned of a heightened risk of a “no deal” Brexit — an outcome that could disrupt trade, slow down the UK economy, and wreak havoc on the financial markets.
The government of Ireland — the only EU member state with a land border with Britain — said it would now intensify preparations to cope with a “disorderly Brexit.”
And German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, representing the EU’s most dominant economy and leading political voice, called the vote “a bitter day for Europe.”
Most lawmakers have always opposed Brexit, as have some leading members of the government, creating a contradiction that has been tearing apart Britain ever since a June 2016 referendum began its divorce from the other 27 EU states.
Moments after Tuesday’s outcome, which was met with huge cheers by hundreds of anti-Brexit campaigners who watched the vote on big screens, opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn submitted a motion of no-confidence in May’s government, calling her defeat “catastrophic.”
The vote is expected on Wednesday at 1900 GMT.
May sought to strike a conciliatory tone, telling MPs they had the right to challenge her leadership and promising to hold more talks to salvage a workable solution by the rapidly approaching March 29 Brexit deadline.
She promised to hold discussions with MPs from across parliament to identify ideas “that are genuinely negotiable and have sufficient support in this House.”
“If these meetings yield such ideas, the government will then explore them with the European Union.”
Downing Street said May will then return to parliament with a new Brexit proposal on Monday.
With their nation again in turmoil, noisy supporters and opponents of Brexit, rallied outside the ancient parliament building in London.
“It could end up being the day that will lead to us leaving with no deal!” said 25-year-old Simon Fisher, who backs a swift and sharp break with the EU.
A much larger rally nearby in support of a second referendum turned Parliament Square, dotted with statues of past UK leaders, into a sea of EU flags.
Economists said the scale of May’s defeat — on the upper end of most predictions — now also put pressure on Brussels to make more meaningful compromises.
The pound surged higher against the dollar and euro after the vote, seemingly buoyed by May’s promise to seek a compromise with her opponents.
“Markets project beliefs and the underlying belief is that nobody’s going to be committing economic suicide,” BK Asset Management’s Boris Schlossberg said.
But businesses voiced alarm about the outcome, which does nothing to resolve uncertainty that has been dampening the UK investment climate for months.
“Financial stability must not be jeopardized in a game of high-stakes political poker,” warned Catherine McGuinness, policy chair at the City of London Corporation, the body governing the British capital’s massive financial district.
May made it her mission to carry out the wishes of voters after she became prime minister a month after the referendum, putting aside her own initial misgivings and stating repeatedly that “Brexit means Brexit.”
But her deal raised concern that Britain could end up locked in an unfavorable trading relationship with the EU.
Criticism of the deal was focused on an arrangement to keep open the border with Ireland by aligning Britain with some EU trade rules, if and until London and Brussels sign a new economic partnership — a tortuous process that could take several years.
Arlene Foster, head of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party upon which May relies for her parliamentary majority, said May needed to win binding concessions from Brussels to secure her vote.
“Reassurances whether in the form of letters or warm words, will not be enough,” said Foster.
“The prime minister must now go back to the European Union and seek fundamental change to the Withdrawal Agreement.”
Speculation is growing on both sides of the Channel that May could ask to delay Britain’s divorce from the EU after almost half a century of membership.
But a diplomatic source told AFP any extension would not be possible beyond June 30, when the new European Parliament will be formed.


China’s leaders want more babies, but local officials resist

Updated 6 min 12 sec ago
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China’s leaders want more babies, but local officials resist

  • In 2016, China lifted its notorious one-child policy and Chinese couples were urged to go forth and multiply — within limits
  • Despite that, the number of new births in 2018 fell to 15.23 million in a total population of 1.395 billion — a growth rate of .381 percent

BEIJING: Facing a future demographic crisis and aging society, China’s leaders are desperately seeking to persuade couples to have more children.
But bureaucrats don’t seem to have gotten the message, fining a couple in a recent widely publicized case for having a third child against the strict letter of the law.
The move has sparked outrage among the public, who are venting their anger at venal population control officials who long persecuted couples for violating the now-scrapped “one-child policy.”
“The country is doing all it can to encourage childbirth but the local governments need money, so we end with this sort of madness,” a columnist and political commentator who writes under the name Lianpeng said on China’s Weibo microblogging service.
“The low birthrate has everyone on edge, yet the local governments care only about collecting fees,” journalist Jin Wei wrote on her verified Weibo account. “I don’t know of any other nation that pulls its people in different directions like this.” 
The Wangs, the couple at the heart of the recent controversy, were ordered by local authorities in Shandong province to pay a fine known as a “social maintenance fee” of 64,626 yuan ($9,500) immediately after the birth of their third child in January 2017. After various deadlines came and went, the family’s entire bank savings of 22,957 yuan ($3,400) were frozen last month, with the balance still due.
“I just don’t know what I’m going to do,” the husband, Wang Baohua, was quoted as saying by local media last week.
The situation the couple faces has its roots in decades-old fears that China’s population would outstrip its resources, along with the ruling Communist Party’s all-consuming fervor to control people’s most personal decisions.
Family planning regulations emerged in the 1970s, and in 1980 the notorious “one-child policy” came into effect, mandating often brutal punishments for violators ranging from forced abortions and sterilizations to fines and workplace demotions.
Fast-forward 35 years, and a radical change of course was ordered after leaders realized an aging population and declining workforce threatened to hamstring the country’s future development. In 2016, the one-child policy was officially replaced with a two-child policy and Chinese couples were urged to go forth and multiply — within limits.
But the bump in the birthrate was fleeting. Last month, the National Bureau of Statistics said the number of new births in 2018 fell to 15.23 million in a total population of 1.395 billion — a growth rate of .381 percent and the lowest increase since 1961, resulting in fully 2 million fewer births than in 2017.
China’s population is estimated to peak at 1.442 billion in 2029 and then gradually decline, potentially fulfilling the conventional wisdom that China will grow old before it grows rich.
Cases such as the Wangs’ remain common, despite a growing recognition of the seriousness of the population crisis, said Yi Fuxian, a professor at the University of Wisconsin Madison and a leading critic of Chinese population policies.
Bureaucratic inertia and the desire of local officials to chase revenue contribute to the problem, Yi said.
China, with an estimated fertility rate of 1.02 in 2018, now finds itself in the same category as other predominantly Chinese societies in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao and Singapore, Yi said. Average fertility rates in those regions and countries from 2005 to 2017 were 1.10, 1.12, 1.08 and 1.23 respectively.
Yet the one-child policy has weighed down China with the additional burden of distorted attitudes toward the family, society and childbearing, where one or no children have become the norm, Yi said.
With economic growth the primary guarantor of continued Communist Party rule, the leadership is concerned. The sputtering economy grew at 6.6 percent last year, its slowest pace in three decades, fueling fears over the long-term trend of a shrinking pool of workers paying the pensions and health care costs for a ballooning population of retirees.
Despite that, there remains considerable resistance to lifting controls entirely, something that might give people greater autonomy.
Local bureaucrats in the Wang case said they were just following the law, citing the exact articles and passages. They also have a strong stake in maintaining the rules that justify their jobs and authority.
State media reports say fees meant to compensate for the resources extra children consume actually constitute a large percentage of local governments’ discretionary funding — 15-30 percent — and can be used for a range of purposes from salaries to travel expenses.
Thus far, the National Health Commission has rejected calls to eliminate legal references to family planning, citing among other reasons article 25 of China’s Constitution, which says, “The state promotes family planning so that population growth may fit the plans for economic and social development.”
Even if legal changes do go through, experience in recent years shows that’s no guarantee of more children.
Families complain of the soaring costs of housing, education, health care and safe food, an important consideration given China’s frequent scandals over food and drug safety.
And many young Chinese who are enjoying activities such as foreign travel are simply putting off marriage and childbirth indefinitely.
“Other things have taken the place of children, like apartments and vacations. My parents put pressure on us, but I just say it’s not possible right now,” said a government employee who asked to be identified only as Linda.
Boosting fertility will also require reforms to the economy, society and educational system, Yi said in an email.
“It will be very difficult,” he said. “Of course, the premise is to respect human rights and withdraw the government’s hands from the people’s bodies.”