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Johnson to go to Brussels in search of way out of Brexit stalemate

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Boris Johnson is to travel to Brussels for make-or-break talks on a UK-EU trade deal, with negotiations deadlocked and warnings that there was “every chance” they may fail.

The British prime minister will meet Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, “in the coming days” as nine months of talks on a post-Brexit relationship between the two sides come to a head.

“We have made no tangible progress,” said a senior British official. “It’s clear this must now continue politically. Whilst we do not consider this process to be closed, things are looking very tricky and there’s every chance we are not going to get there.”

Mr Johnson and Ms von der Leyen agreed on Monday after a 45-minute phone call that their chief negotiators should “prepare an overview of the remaining differences to be discussed in person”.

Timings have not been confirmed, but the meeting could take place on Wednesday ahead of Thursday’s European Council meeting in Brussels. Both sides said Mr Johnson would not attend the 27-country summit.

Number 10 played down the idea that the scheduling of face-to-face talks might be a positive sign. One ally of the prime minister said: “The differences are every bit as big as they were before.”

The fact that talks are continuing in spite of disagreements on a fair competition “level playing field”, fisheries and the governance of any trade deal offered some hope that an agreement was still possible.

But Ireland’s foreign minister said there had been “no progress at all” in two days of intensive talks since the negotiation resumed on Sunday, saying other EU member states were becoming “increasingly frustrated”.

“In Brussels certainly the mood is starting to shift to contingency planning for a no-deal,” Simon Coveney told RTE television after arriving in Dublin from talks in Brussels. 

Mr Johnson’s allies have made it clear the prime minister is willing to walk away from talks, but Downing Street said he remained “keen” to strike a free trade agreement on the right terms.

People briefed on the Johnson-Von der Leyen call said that both sides felt it was time for political-level talks © Andrew Parsons/No10 Downing Street

The call between Mr Johnson and Ms von der Leyen was not intended to be an opportunity to cut deals on key sticking points, but rather to take stock of the two sides’ existing positions. Officials on both sides of the negotiations remained downbeat about the significant divisions that remain in key areas of the negotiations, and were making no predictions about the likelihood of a deal.

Things remain “very difficult”, said one EU official. The fact that Mr Johnson was coming to Brussels showed “things are not falling off the cliff, but we haven’t solved the issues in the past days that the negotiators were here. It shows more work needs to be done.”

Officials on both sides stressed that it was not surprising that Mr Johnson should be the leader who travelled, given that the two leaders last face-to-face meeting was in London.

People briefed on the call said that both sides felt it was time for political-level talks and Ms von der Leyen suggested she should play host after going to Downing Street earlier this year.

The independent Office for Budget Responsibility has warned that a no deal Brexit on January 1 would inflict a 2 per cent hit on the UK economy — about £40bn — and add around 300,000 to the jobless total next year.

Sterling fell as much as 1.6 per cent against the US dollar to touch a two-week low just above $1.32, before picking up later in the day, leaving it 0.8 per cent lower at $1.33 by late afternoon in London. 

People briefed on the talks said that negotiators on Monday had sought to tackle continued deep-rooted splits over fishing rights in UK waters and “level playing field conditions” for business.

On fisheries, a problem going into Monday’s talks was the UK’s continued resistance to guaranteeing access for European boats to its waters 6-12 nautical miles from the coast, as well as the length of a transition period covering fishing grounds further out.

Splits over the level playing field concern the EU’s determination to secure means of taking rapid redress against the UK if it seeks to gain an unfair competitive advantage through the use of subsidies or through having weaker environmental and labour regulations.

Earlier on Monday Mr Johnson attempted to lift the gloom hanging over the talks by offering to scrap controversial lawbreaking clauses from UK legislation relating to Northern Ireland.

Mr Johnson said that if the two sides reached an agreement on the operation of the NI protocol, part of Britain’s EU withdrawal deal, the contentious clauses would not be necessary.

Although welcomed in Brussels, one EU diplomat said that the move amounted to the UK “trying to use rogue behaviour as leverage”.

Mr Johnson had insisted on clauses in the UK internal market bill as a “safety net” to ensure the free flow of goods between the mainland UK and Northern Ireland in the event London and Brussels could not reach an understanding over how to apply last year’s deal and trade talks failed.

Ministers admitted the clauses would allow ministers to break international law, since the legislation would override Britain’s withdrawal treaty with the EU; the issue has dogged trade talks ever since.



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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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