Brexit talks close in on tentative deal before summit

Boris Johnson leaves from the rear of 10 Downing Street where he briefed his ministers on details of a Brexit deal taking shape in Brussels, while warning an agreement was still ‘shrouded in mist’. (AFP)
Updated 16 October 2019

Brexit talks close in on tentative deal before summit

  • Hopes were increasingly turning toward getting a broad political commitment, with the full legal details hammered out later
  • Even if a provisional deal is inked this week, moves in the British parliament could still mean another delay to Britain’s departure, currently due to take place on Oct. 31

BRUSSELS: French President Emmanuel Macron said he hopes the European Union and Britain were on the cusp of concluding a tentative Brexit deal that leaders would seek to complete at a summit Thursday.
The French leader said Wednesday that “I want to believe that a deal is being finalized and that we can approve it tomorrow,” when EU leaders are meeting with Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Brussels.
Hopes were increasingly turning toward getting a broad political commitment, with the full legal details hammered out later. Negotiators were locked in EU headquarters with few details leaking out. Wild movements in the British pound on Wednesday underscored the uncertainty over what, if anything, might be decided.
Meetings between EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and key EU legislators as well as with ambassadors of the member nations were rescheduled for the evening — an indication there was still momentum in the ongoing talks among technical teams from both sides.
“It looks like things are moving,” said an EU official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because talks were still ongoing.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman, James Slack, echoed that, saying there is still “a chance of securing a good deal” at the summit, even though a number of issues remain.
The thorniest among them is how goods and people will flow across the land border between EU member Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK
But Northern Ireland is not the only issue. An eventual withdrawal agreement would be a legal treaty laying out the terms of Britain’s departure and setting up a transition period in which relations would remain as they are now at least until the end of 2020, to give people and businesses time to adjust to new rules. It will guarantee the rights of EU citizens in Britain, and British nationals living elsewhere in the EU, to continue with their lives.
But it leaves many questions about the future unanswered, and Britain’s departure is sure to be followed by years of negotiations on trade and other issues.
Even if a provisional deal is inked this week, moves in the British parliament could still mean another delay to Britain’s departure, currently due to take place on Oct. 31. It also raises the prospect that the EU needs to hold another Brexit summit before the end of the month.
“The 31st of October is still a few weeks away, and there is a possibility of another summit before that if we need one,” Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said in Dublin.
Adding to the pressure and uncertainty is that any deal must be approved by the British Parliament, which has already rejected agreements three times and has also issued an order that Johnson’s government must seek to delay the departure if a deal isn’t in place by Saturday.
The British government continues to insist the UK will leave on Oct. 31 — but also promises to obey Parliament’s order.
With the need to get Parliament’s approval looming over negotiations, EU leaders are seeking reassurances from Johnson during this week’s summit that he has the political weight to push any new deal through the House of Commons, which is due to meet on Saturday for its first weekend session in almost 40 years. 
The Brexit talks plodded ahead Wednesday, further delaying preparations for the EU summit. Since the weekend, negotiators have been locked in long sessions on how to deal with detailed customs, value-added tax and regulatory issues under British proposals to keep goods and people flowing freely across the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
“Talks have been constructive, but there still remains a number of significant issues to resolve,” EU Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said after being briefed by EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.
Johnson is eager to strike a deal at Thursday’s summit that will let the UK leave the bloc in good order on Oct. 31, fulfilling his promise to get Brexit done. But he has also vowed to leave the bloc deal or no deal.
UK lawmakers, however, are determined to push for another Brexit delay rather than risk a chaotic no-deal Brexit that economists say could hurt the economies of both the UK and the E.U.
Beyond the questions of disrupting to daily life, an open Irish border underpins both the local economy and the 1998 peace accord that ended decades of Catholic-Protestant violence in Northern Ireland. But once Britain exits, that border will turn into an external EU frontier that the bloc wants to keep secure.
The big question is how far Johnson’s government is prepared to budge on its insistence that the UK, including Northern Ireland, must leave the EU’s customs union — something that would require checks on goods passing between the UK and the EU.
The alternative is to have checks in the Irish Sea between Britain and Northern Ireland. But Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, the party that props up Johnson’s minority Conservative government, strongly opposes any measures that could loosen the bonds between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK
Pro-Brexit Conservative British lawmaker David Davis says success in passing a Brexit deal rests on the stance of the DUP.
“If the DUP says ‘This is intolerable to us’ that will be quite important,” he said.
DUP leader Arlene Foster said the party had not yet consented to a deal. She tweeted: “Discussions continue. Needs to be a sensible deal which unionists and nationalists can support.”


Court says EU states must label Israeli settlement products

Updated 12 November 2019

Court says EU states must label Israeli settlement products

  • Consumers will be able to make choices based on ethical considerations and those relating to the observance of international law
  • The ECJ ruling effectively backs the EU guidelines issued in 2015 on labelling goods from Israeli-occupied areas

BRUSSELS: The European Union’s top court ruled Tuesday that EU countries must identify products made in Israeli settlements on their labels, in a decision that was welcomed by rights groups but sparked anger in Israel.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) said that when products come from an Israeli settlement, their labels must provide an “indication of that provenance” so that consumers can make “informed choices” when they shop.
The EU rejects Israeli settlement expansion, saying it undermines the hopes for a two-state solution by gobbling up lands claimed by the Palestinians. Israel says the labeling is unfair and discriminatory and says other countries involved in disputes over land are not similarly sanctioned.
The volume of settlement goods coming into Europe, including olive oil, fruit and wine but also industrial products, is relatively small compared to the political significance of the court ruling. It is estimated to affect about 1% of imports from Israel, which amount to about 15 billion euros ($16.5 billion) a year.
The EU wants any produce made in the settlements to be easily identifiable to shoppers and insists that it must not carry the generic “Made in Israel” tag.
Israel captured the West Bank and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war and began settling both areas shortly afterward. The Palestinians claim both areas as parts of a future state, a position that has global support.
The international community opposes settlement construction and they are consider illegal under international law. Their continued growth is seen to undermine the establishment of an independent Palestine alongside Israel. Today, nearly 700,000 Israelis live in the two areas, almost 10% of the country’s Jewish population.
The ECJ underlined that settlements “give concrete expression to a policy of population transfer conducted by that State outside its territory, in violation of the rules of general international humanitarian law.”
It said any failure to identify the point of origin of produce meant that “consumers have no way of knowing, in the absence of any information capable of enlightening them in that respect, that a foodstuff comes from a locality or a set of localities constituting a settlement established in one of those territories in breach of the rules of international humanitarian law.”
It’s not entirely clear, however, how the ruling will be enforced because the real origin of the produce is not always easy to identify, experts say.
The European Commission said it’s up to individual EU countries to ensure that labels are correct, but that the origin of settlement produce must be made known in a way that is “not misleading to the consumer.”

An Israeli settler prepares olive oil containers at the Achia Olive press factory in the Jewish settlement of Shilo in the occupied West Bank. (File AFP)

Human Rights Watch welcomed the ruling. The rights watchdog’s EU Director, Lotte Leicht, said it’s “an important step toward EU member states upholding their duty not to participate in the fiction that illegal settlements are part of Israel.”
Oxfam’s director in the Palestinian territories, Shane Stevenson, said settlements “are violating the rights and freedoms of Palestinians” and that “consumers have a right to know the origin of the products they purchase, and the impact these purchases have on people’s lives.”
Israel’s Foreign Ministry rejected the ruling, saying it set a “double standard” that unfairly singles out Israel when there are dozens of territorial disputes worldwide.
“The European Court of Justice’s ruling is unacceptable both morally and in principle,” said Foreign Minister Israel Katz. “I intend to work with European foreign ministers to prevent the implementation of this gravely flawed policy.”
The head of the local settler council, Israel Ganz, said the ruling is part of “a double standard that discriminates against Jews living and working in their homeland of thousands of years. This decision will directly hurt the Arab population working at these factories, and manufacturing these products.”
Ganz said he did not expect sales to be hurt as settlement products are of “high standards.”
Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, welcomed the ruling as a “first step” and encouraged Europe to ban settlement products altogether. “If they do not allow these illegal products to enter European soil, then that would really serve the cause of justice,” she said.
The case came to court after an Israeli winery based in a settlement near Jerusalem contested France’s application of a previous ECJ court ruling on the labeling. That ruling had backed the use of origin-identifying tags but did not make them legally binding.
The winery’s director, Yaakov Berg, said “the Winery is proud of its contribution to combating this decision and intends to continue the struggle. We are happy to see the support of all the relevant people in Israel and the United States.”
EU Commission Spokeswoman Mina Andreeva noted that Israel has a special trading relationship with the EU, with products originating in its internationally recognized borders benefiting from preferential tariff treatment.
“This situation will remain unchanged,” she said. “The EU does not support any form of boycott or sanctions against Israel.”
How to do business in or with the Israeli settlements has been a tricky issue for companies before. Airbnb stopped listings there last year, before reversing its decision .