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Barnier to hold fisheries talks in bid to break Brexit deadlock

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The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator is set to hold bilateral talks with ministers from the bloc’s key fishing states to identify ways to break the deadlock with the UK over the sector and accelerate efforts towards a trade deal with London.

Michel Barnier’s calls in the coming days, which will aim to find room for manoeuvre in one of the most vexed unresolved areas, follow European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s decision on Saturday to intensify broader negotiations.

The positive tone from the two leaders sparked hopes on both sides that an accord would be possible, despite the damage to trust triggered by the UK’s decision to introduce legislation overriding parts of last year’s withdrawal agreement.

Mr Barnier and his UK counterpart, David Frost, are expected to resume talks on Wednesday in London, Ms von der Leyen and Mr Johnson will hold more frequent direct calls, and the commission president’s own cabinet will be in regular contact with Number 10 counterparts.

On Sunday, Mr Johnson said he did not want a no-deal Brexit but “we can more than live with it”. “All we’re asking our friends and partners to offer is terms that they’ve already offered to Canada, which is you know a long way away from here,” he told the BBC.

“We’re very close to our European friends and partners, we’ve been members of the EU for 45 years, I see no reason why we shouldn’t get those sorts of terms.”

The EU’s trade agreement with Canada, which came into force in 2017, eliminates most tariffs on Canadian imports and increases quotas. But it is not a zero-tariff, zero-quota deal and it still requires border checks on goods to ensure they meet regulatory requirements.

Fisheries is one of the main roadblocks to a deal between the EU and the UK, and Mr Johnson emphasised its importance in his call with Ms von der Leyen. Britain sees its waters as its key asset in the trade talks because without a deal in the area the European fleet will be largely locked out of the UK’s exclusive economic zone, which stretches as far as 200 nautical miles from the coast of Britain.

Three key issues remain unresolved: how shared stocks will be divided; EU access rights to British waters; and how frequently the two sides’ respective allocations of the shared stocks are recalculated.

Lord Frost on Friday warned that the gap between the two sides in the area was “unfortunately very large” as he called on the EU to shift its position.

The EU wants to see a stable allocation between the two sides of stocks that straddle the maritime border, and guarantees of access to British waters. The UK has instead proposed a three-year phase-in period before new arrangements, leaving key issues up to annual negotiations.

EU countries, including France, are highly exercised by the prospect of a heavily diminished and unstable allocation given the political power of their fishing sectors and economic vulnerability of coastal communities.

While Mr Johnson emphasised the UK’s demands on fish, Ms von der Leyen used the call to hammer home Brussels’ insistence on a robust “level-playing field” for business, in particular in the handling of state subsidies.

The two sides made only limited advances on state aid and the broader level-playing field in the most recent round, prompting Mr Barnier to note in his statement on Friday that there remained “persistent, serious divergences” on matters of key importance for the EU.

British officials remain upbeat about the prospect of breaching those divides. One government official said: “It’s looking better than it has for a good while but we’re not there yet.”

Brussels has shifted a long way from its opening position on state aid earlier this year, but it remains anxious to see London enforce similar restrictions on subsidies to those in the EU. The EU is also pushing to insert “ratchet clauses” into the agreement to prevent a future unwinding of environmental regulations and labour standards in the UK.

In the call with Mr Johnson, the commission president also emphasised Brussels’ determination to see a robust dispute resolution mechanism for dealing with Britain if it breaks its commitments under the trade deal.

The EU wants to be able to retaliate quickly if there is a violation by the other side, and with measures targeted at other areas of the trading relationship if necessary. The EU said the issue had assumed new urgency since Mr Johnson introduced the internal market bill, which breaks the UK’s withdrawal treaty with the EU.

Extensive progress has been made on the vast majority of the prospective trade agreement: provisional understandings have been reached on rules for trade in goods and services, on transport, energy, social security and other issues.



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EU pledges aid to Lithuania to combat illegal migration from Belarus

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EU immigration updates

In the latest sign of deteriorating relations between the EU and Belarus, Brussels has promised extra financial aid and increased diplomatic heft to help Lithuania tackle a migrant crisis that it blames on neighbouring Belarus and its dictator Alexander Lukashenko.

Lithuania detained 287 illegal migrants on Sunday, more than it did in the entirety of 2018, 2019, and 2020 combined, the vast majority of them Iraqis who had flown to Belarus’s capital Minsk before heading north to cross into the EU state. Almost 4,000 migrants have been detained this year, compared with 81 for the whole of 2020. 

“What we are facing is an aggressive act from the Lukashenko regime designed to provoke,” Ylva Johansson, the EU commissioner for home affairs told reporters on Monday after talks with Lithuania’s prime minister Ingrida Simonyte. “The situation is getting worse and deteriorating . . . There is no free access to EU territory.”

The EU imposed sweeping sanctions against Lukashenko’s regime in June, after he fraudulently claimed victory in last year’s presidential election and then led a brutal campaign to violently suppress protesters and jail political opponents. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994.

The rising concern over the migrant crossings, which EU officials say is a campaign co-ordinated by Lukashenko’s administration, comes as one of the country’s athletes competing in the Tokyo Olympic Games sought refuge in Poland after team management attempted to fly her home against her will after she publicly criticised their actions.

Johansson said the EU would provide €10m-€12m of immediate emergency funding and would send a team of officials to the country to assess the requirements for longer-term financial assistance, including for extra border security and facilities to process those attempting to enter.

Simonyte said that Vilnuis would require “tens of millions of euros” by the end of the year if the number of people attempting to cross the border continued at the current pace.

Lithuania’s foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told the Financial Times in June that Belarus was “weaponising” illegal immigration to put pressure on the Baltic country over its housing of several opposition leaders. Since then, the flow of illegal immigrants from Iraq, Syria, and several African countries has increased sharply.

Iraqi diplomats visited Vilnius at the end of last week after Lithuania’s foreign minister flew to Baghdad in mid-July. Johannson said on Monday that EU diplomats were engaged in “intensive contacts” with Iraqi officials, which she said were “more constructive than we had hoped”.

State carrier Iraqi Airways offers flights from four Iraqi airports to Minsk, according to its website. Former Estonian president Toomas Ilves suggested on Twitter that the EU could cut its aid to Iraq “immediately until they stop these flights”.

Speaking at the border with Belarus on Monday, Johansson added that the tents provided by Lithuania were unsuitable for families. Lithuania’s interior minister Agne Bilotaite said she hoped the number of illegal migrants would subside in the coming months but that Vilnius was planning to build some housing to accommodate them over the upcoming winter.



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Britain’s wrong-headed approach to refugees

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UK immigration updates

Thanks to the bravery of volunteers who run towards storms at sea to rescue ships’ crews, few British institutions command as much respect as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. The charity, however, has recently had to negotiate a different kind of storm, over its efforts to help refugees who get into difficulties crossing the Channel from France. Nigel Farage, the former Brexit party leader, accused it of running a taxi service for illegal trafficking gangs. Last week, the RNLI said it had received hundreds of thousands of pounds of extra donations in response.

The RNLI has become embroiled in a now familiar story when the summer months allow more small boats to make the Channel crossing. Compared with the flows to other countries such as Spain, Italy and Greece, only a handful of migrants attempt the journey. That makes the UK’s inability to control the border in an effective and humane way — and shabby treatment of those who do make it across — no less of a scandal.

Britain’s strategy for stemming the flow has relied mostly on paying the French authorities to limit the number of boats crossing and return any that leave to France, while deterring would-be migrants through the unwelcoming environment that awaits them. Just as EU countries are dependent on their neighbours for keeping entrants down — whether Morocco for Spain or Belarus for Lithuania — the UK needs French co-operation to control the mutual border. Diplomatic spats, whether over Brexit or extra Covid quarantine restrictions on arrivals from France, have made that harder.

The UK approach manages to be simultaneously ineffective and cruel. Yvette Cooper, chair of the home affairs select committee, wrote last week to home secretary Priti Patel to complain of unacceptable conditions in the holding facility for migrants who make it to the Kent coast. A recent unannounced visit by MPs found most of those remaining in the overcrowded facility sitting on a thin mattress on the floor, with women and children in the same room as adult men.

Earlier this year, the High Court ruled that “squalid” conditions in the Napier Barracks, a temporary centre set up last year to house asylum seekers during the pandemic, were so bad as to be unlawful. While arrivals have declined since the peak seven years ago, cutbacks have led to a backlog in processing claims, leaving more in a legal limbo.

Since the start of the pandemic Britain has shut down other paths into the country, ending a resettlement scheme. This has ceded the ground to people traffickers. The “push factors” of the risk of violence and torture at home and “pull factors” of higher living standards mean many are still willing to resort to risky and illegal methods to try to reach the UK. Creating a harsh environment for those who make it has done little to dispel the widespread belief among migrants that Britain is a better destination than other European countries, and stem the flow.

That will not stop the government trying. Barristers have warned that a clause in draft border legislation could potentially make it a crime to help asylum seekers arrive in the UK, with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment; at present it is illegal to do so to earn a profit. The Home Office says the clause is aimed at criminal traffickers. But along with a suggestion to set up offshore processing centres, the provision has rightly earned criticism from human rights groups. If the government is unwilling to create safe and legal routes, its only option is to prevent people from coming in the first place. That, ultimately, will mean relying on France.



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Olympic organisers investigate after Belarusian runner seeks refuge

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Tokyo Olympics updates

A Belarusian runner due to compete at the Tokyo Olympics was taken to the airport against her wishes after making complaints about her coaches, according to media reports on Sunday night.

The International Olympic Committee, the Games organisers, said it had asked for clarification from the Belarus team about the status and whereabouts of Krystina Tsimanouskaya, who is due to compete in the women’s 200m sprint on Monday.

Belarus’ dictatorial leader Alexander Lukashenko and his regime are widely seen as international pariahs after he fraudulently claimed victory in last year’s presidential election and then embarked on a brutal campaign to suppress protesters and supporters of his rival, which has seen thousands beaten and jailed. 

Images and video circulated on social media sites by Belarusian opposition activists appear to show Tsimanouskaya at Tokyo’s Haneda airport, where she refused to board a plane and instead sought refuge with Japanese police.

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya took part in the heats for the women’s 100 metres on Friday but narrowly missed qualifying for the semi-finals © Aleksandra Szmigiel/Reuters

The IOC said it “has seen the reports in the media, is looking into it and has asked the [Belarus] national Olympic committee for clarification”.

Japanese police did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Belarusian Olympic Committee did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but a statement attributed to the body suggests she had been removed from competition by coaches on the advice of doctors advice about her “emotional, psychological state”.

Late on Sunday, Tsimanouskaya shared a screenshot of that statement on Instagram with the message: “This is a lie.”

“I am asking the International Olympic Committee for help, they are putting pressure on me and they are trying to take me out of the country without my consent,” Tsimanouskaya said in a video message reportedly recorded on Sunday evening from the airport and posted on social media.

A person close to Olympic officials said there remained “confusion” around the incident, adding they had been told that Tsimanouskaya had boarded a coach to the airport and had gone through the departures area to board a plane to Istanbul, where she then sought Japanese police to ask for asylum.

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya tweeted that she was grateful to the IOC for its quick reaction. “She has a right to international protection and to continue participation in the Olympics. It is also crucial to investigate Belarus’ NOC violations of athletes’ rights,” she said.

Tsimanouskaya on Friday appeared to criticise her coaches and team management in an Instagram post that said she had been “ignored” and that “people in higher ranks should respect us as athletes”.

The 24-year-old had taken part in the heats for the women’s 100 metres on Friday but narrowly missed on qualifying for the semi finals of the event. She is listed on official Olympics sites as due to compete in the first round of the 200 metres at the Olympic stadium on Monday morning.





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