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Exhausted negotiators struggle to strike Brexit deal

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Nine months after talks began, the strain showed as Michel Barnier and David Frost entered the windowless “cave” on Friday in a final attempt to settle the post-Brexit relationship between Britain and the EU.

Negotiations that began in March and were supposed to wrap up by July, then by October, were finally entering what both sides acknowledged was the endgame. “They’ve gone as far as they can go,” said one UK official.

Sustained by takeaway pizzas and sandwiches, Mr Barnier, the EU chief negotiator, and Lord Frost, his British counterpart, have led teams that worked late into the nights in London this week on a future relationship agreement.

But an air of serious uncertainty hung over the process as the negotiations were “paused” to allow Boris Johnson to speak to Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, to try to break the deadlock. UK officials had earlier warned the talks were at “a very difficult point”.

Both sides now accept that any deal penned by officials in the dismal subterranean Department for Business conference centre — a stone’s throw from the UK parliament — will have to be referred to higher authorities.

The British prime minister Johnson, working this weekend from his country retreat of Chequers, is on standby to talk to other European leaders to try to secure a deal that will underpin attempts to rebuild UK-EU relations after Brexit.

An electronic billboard in London displays a government information message advising business to prepare for Brexit © REUTERS

The same issues have dogged the talks from the beginning and remained unresolved at 11am on Friday as Mr Barnier and Lord Frost trudged back to the negotiating table: the so-called level playing field arrangements to ensure fair business competition, and EU access to UK fishing waters.

Both issues strike at the heart of the negotiations: Mr Johnson’s desire to regain sovereignty over Britain’s regulatory regime and fish, and the EU’s insistence that any deal granting access to its vast internal market of 450m people must come with strings attached.

A real sense of urgency now grips the negotiations and not just because time is running out before Britain’s Brexit transition period expires on January 1.

On Monday, MPs will start voting on Mr Johnson’s contentious legislation that would allow ministers to rip up parts of the UK’s withdrawal treaty with the EU relating to Northern Ireland.

The prospect of MPs voting to breach one EU treaty while negotiators simultaneously try to agree a new one has sent shudders through both sides. Charles Michel, European Council president, underlined that Britain had to fully respect its withdrawal treaty.

On Thursday the 27 EU leaders gather for a heads of government summit in Brussels, with both sides determined to settle the issue by then.

Talks in the “cave”, adorned with posters promoting Britain’s post-Brexit trading ambitions, have been dominated in part by neuralgic wrangling over how to carve up the EU’s existing fishing rights in British waters, worth around €650m each year, and hand some of them back to the UK.

UK officials complain that the EU side is reluctant to move beyond an old offer to sacrifice about 18 per cent of those fishing rights.

Over the past two days negotiators have haggled species by species, with talks taking place against a backdrop of incessant pressure from France for the EU not to sell out the sector.

Jean Castex, France’s prime minister, on Thursday headed to Boulogne-sur-Mer to warn that the country was ready to veto the fruits of Mr Barnier’s efforts.

Satisfying French president Emmanuel Macron will be a top priority for Brussels chiefs should a deal materialise, with Paris in the vanguard of a worried group of EU capitals that has coalesced during the course of this week.

The group — which also includes the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Italy and Spain — is worried that too many concessions have been made to Britain and insists that it would be better for talks to drag on rather than for the EU to accept a bad deal.

During a debriefing with ambassadors on Wednesday and a separate session with senior advisers to national leaders on Thursday, the group insisted Mr Barnier stay at the negotiating table until he either secured a deal that protects their fishermen and safeguards their businesses, or talks ran aground.

France and the other countries are concerned that not just the European Commission but also Berlin might be prepared to accept a suboptimal deal, and they have called for advance scrutiny of whatever emerges from the talks before anyone hails a positive outcome.

The complaints were a visible sign of Mr Barnier coming up against the limits of his negotiating mandate, and upped the strain on exhausted EU negotiators after a six-week period of almost unbroken daily sessions with their British counterparts.

The constraints on Mr Barnier contributed to talks snarling up over the EU’s insistence on its right to rapidly dole out economic punishment to Britain if it were to breach the terms of a future relationship agreement.

Brussels is demanding so-called cross-retaliation rights that would allow it to, for example, hit UK manufactured goods with tariffs should Britain renege on its commitments on a level playing field.

Speaking to reporters on Friday, German chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said: “There is always scope for compromises. That’s our basic attitude, even when there’s not much time left.”

The coming days will determine whether he is right.

Additional reporting by Guy Chazan in Berlin



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End of an era as Lionel Messi and FC Barcelona part company

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Lionel Messi updates

Barcelona football club said on Thursday that Lionel Messi, widely regarded as one of the greatest of all players, is leaving because of “financial and structural obstacles” that it blamed on financial regulations imposed by La Liga, which runs the top two divisions in Spain, requiring the team to rein in its spending.

Messi, the frontman of FC Barcelona’s success for more than a decade, will be leaving a club where he has spent the entirety of his career, winning every leading trophy and personal accolade.

Messi and Barcelona had intended to sign a new contract on Thursday but ultimately the player and club were forced to separate, said Barcelona in a statement, adding that both sides “deeply regret” their split. La Liga declined to comment.

“Despite FC Barcelona and Lionel Messi having reached an agreement and the clear intention of both parties to sign a new contract today, this cannot happen because of financial and structural obstacles (Spanish Liga regulations),” Barcelona said. “As a result of this situation, Messi shall not be staying on at FC Barcelona. Both parties deeply regret that the wishes of the player and the club will ultimately not be fulfilled.”

Messi’s exit comes as Barcelona and rivals Real Madrid are at loggerheads with La Liga over the Spanish league’s plan to partner with private equity firm CVC Capital Partners, which plans to invest €2.7bn in the league, subject to clubs’ approval.

The exit of the superstar Argentina international, who earned a total of more than €555m between 2017 and 2021, according to Spanish newspaper El Mundo, underlines the financial pressures at Barcelona.

The Catalan club sunk to a net loss of almost €100m in the 2019-20 season, the first to be disrupted by the pandemic, as revenues of €855m fell short of the €1bn set in its budget. Its debt has soared north of €1bn. In June, the club approved a €525m debt refinancing.

On the pitch, Barca finished third in La Liga, its worst showing since 2008. It has not won the Uefa Champions League, Europe’s most prestigious club tournament, since 2015.

The decision comes just days after Barca president Joan Laporta said the club “have to make sure” Messi stays and that the process was “on the right track”. The president had also called for “greater flexibility” from La Liga.

Despite the long affiliation between Messi and Barcelona, the player last year told the club he wanted to leave but ultimately decided to stay on to avoid a legal dispute.

Messi’s departure comes a day after La Liga agreed a €2.7bn deal with US private equity group CVC Capital Partners to buy a minority stake in a new entity that would manage broadcast, sponsorship and digital rights for the league.

Barcelona and arch-rivals Real Madrid, which have been embroiled in a dispute with La Liga over plans for a breakaway European Super League, would stand to receive about €260m each from the deal with CVC.

The transaction was partly seen as a way to win over the support of Barcelona, which has been financially constrained by La Liga’s rules from making any high-profile acquisitions or renewal of contracts.

Real Madrid also lashed out at the CVC deal with CVC on Thursday, questioning its legality and accusing the Spanish league of negotiating the agreement without the club’s knowledge.

Barcelona followed up later on Thursday by joining Real in condemning La Liga’s planned partnership with the buyout firm. The club said: “FC Barcelona feels it is inappropriate to sign a half-century agreement given the uncertainties that always surround the football world. The terms of the contract that La Liga is describing condemn FC Barcelona’s future with regard to broadcasting rights.

“FC Barcelona wishes to express its surprise at an agreement driven by La Liga in which the teams’ opinions, including those of FC Barcelona, have not been taken into account.”

Spanish football clubs have yet to vote on the CVC agreement. Italy’s top football league, Serie A, turned down a similar agreement a few months ago.



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Europe targets adolescents for Covid jabs to curb Delta spread

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Covid-19 vaccines updates

French President Emmanuel Macron, whose habitual garb in public is a dark suit and tie, switched this week to a black T-shirt to encourage the young to get vaccinated over the holidays. 

“Many of you have questions or are scared,” Macron said in one of several videos he posted on TikTok and Instagram from what seemed to be the presidential holiday residence in southern France. “So I’ve decided to answer your questions directly. Go ahead.”

He has also posted short videos to correct misconceptions about the vaccines and France’s supposedly “freedom-killing” insistence on health passports to access bars and other public places. “Vaccination saves lives, the virus kills — it’s as simple as that,” he said in one. 

Macron may be one of the EU’s more visible leaders to urge the young to be jabbed, but he is not alone. 

On Wednesday, the UK belatedly extended its Covid-19 vaccination programme to 16- and 17-year-olds. But across continental Europe, governments from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean have already been targeting as yet unvaccinated teenagers to fight rising infections and hospitalisations driven by the highly infectious Delta variant of the virus.

This vaccination drive, which anticipates the new school term starting in September, is partly why Europe has already overtaken the US in terms of vaccination rates per 100 people and, on current projections, will soon overtake the UK too.

In France, health ministry data show that more than 40 per cent of those aged between 12 and 17 have already received one jab, and nearly 20 per cent are fully vaccinated. (In the vulnerable age group between 70 and 80, full vaccination coverage is close to 90 per cent.) 

Chart showing that Europe and the US have already vaccinated millions of teens, leaving the UK far behind

Most Nordic countries have also started to vaccinate teenagers and, by the end of July, almost one-third of 12-15 year-olds in Denmark had received at least one jab. “We need the immunity of the population, especially before a winter season,” Soren Brostrom, head of the Danish health authority, said in June when announcing the decision.

Much the same is true in Germany, where more than 900,000 adolescents or 21 per cent of those aged between 12 and 17, have received at least one jab, and more than 10 per cent are fully vaccinated. 

Individual German parents and children already have had the legal right to get vaccinated since June, and several states had begun limited offerings of the jabs to 12-17-year-olds.

But health minister Jens Spahn announced on Monday plans to offer more jabs to youngsters before school begins. “This is absolutely not about applying pressure,” he said on RBB radio. “It is about giving those who want to be vaccinated, including children and adolescents, the opportunity.”

The next step in Europe will be to vaccinate young children, especially as Delta strain infections seem to be rising fastest among the unvaccinated young. In a recent UK study, almost a third of the positive Delta variant tests came from people aged 5 to 17.

“It’s clear that children under 12 will become the main reservoir of infections once a large share of the over-12 population is vaccinated,” said Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva. 

“It seems reasonable today to suppose that we’ll only be able to finish with this pandemic by vaccinating a very large share of the population, perhaps 90-95 per cent, by including children,” he said, noting that the jabs would have to be supplemented by other measures such as continued border controls as well.

In Spain, which has already overtaken the UK and the US in vaccinating its population, the government says its inoculation drive must now focus on younger people. 

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has declared that the country, where 59 per cent are fully vaccinated, deserves “the gold medal for vaccinations”. This week he said the country was on course to fully vaccinate 70 per cent of its population before the end of August.

But officials increasingly recognise that will not be enough to provide “herd immunity”. Infection rates in Spain — now in its fifth coronavirus wave — remain extremely high, with cases particularly prevalent among people in the 12-19 and 20-29 age groups; in the former, the full vaccination rate is less than 4 per cent.

High infection rates among these groups — with a 14-day rate of above 1,300 per 100,000 people — have spilled over to older groups. The 14-day rate among the over-eighties has been close to 300, even though according to official figures that age group is 100 per cent vaccinated.

“What is happening in Spain shows quite simply that the vaccinations do not have the same efficiency that was indicated in the trials . . . It is going to be more difficult to reach herd immunity,” said Rafael Bengoa, a former Basque region minister for health and director at the World Health Organization. 

He said the Delta variant — now accounting for more than 75 per cent of Spanish cases — was a key factor blunting vaccines’ impact and argued that the necessary level of protection would now probably require full vaccination for closer to 90 per cent of the overall population.

“We are only going to achieve this when we have revaccinated older people who are losing protection relatively quickly and when we have vaccinated young people and children,” he said. “The end is further away than we predicted.”

Additional reporting by Richard Milne in Oslo





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Global house prices: Raising the roof

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Global house prices: Raising the roof



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