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Boris Johnson holds out hope for Brexit trade talks



Boris Johnson has warned that securing a Brexit trade deal in Brussels this week would be “very difficult” but claimed that the “power of sweet reason” could yet get an agreement over the line.

The British prime minister will meet Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, this week to try to resolve outstanding issues, although a date has yet to be set for the talks.

Michel Barnier, EU chief negotiator, and David Frost, his British counterpart, on Tuesday began putting together a dossier outlining the remaining sticking points before handing negotiations over to their political bosses.

Big differences remain on the fair competition “level playing field”, the governance of a trade deal and fisheries.

Mr Johnson told the BBC on Tuesday that “hope springs eternal” but warned that there were “limits beyond which no sensible, independent government or country could go and people have to understand that”.

He added: “We will see where we get to in the course of the next two days, but I think the UK government’s position is that we are willing to engage at any level, political or otherwise, we are willing to try anything.”

Mr Johnson’s reference to “the next two days” suggested talks with Ms von der Leyen could take place on Wednesday or even Thursday: at lunchtime on Thursday EU27 leaders gather in Brussels for a European Council meeting to which Mr Johnson is not invited.

In a call on Monday with Ms von der Leyen and European Council president Charles Michel, France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel agreed that the Brexit negotiations should be kept away from the summit agenda.

With little more than three weeks left until the end of the Brexit transition period — when Britain leaves the EU single market and customs union — EU diplomats said that there was a real possibility that talks would not succeed given the deep-rooted splits over fishing rights and the “level playing field”.

Clément Beaune, France’s Europe minister, acknowledged that there would need to be “compromises” on fishing rights, but stressed that there were limits to how far France would go to get a deal. “Sacrifice our fishing and our fishermen, that’s a no,” he said.

Brussels on Tuesday confirmed that the uncertain outcome of the talks meant it was getting closer to proposing no-deal contingency measures to address some of the worst potential impacts of failure. These would then need to be fast-tracked through the EU Council and parliament.

The European Commission has been under pressure from national governments for weeks to confirm it will take emergency measures to ensure, for example, that planes are still authorised to fly routes between the EU and the UK and that hauliers can cross the Channel.

EU officials said that leaders may take up the issue at this week’s summit if the commission has failed to act by then

Manfred Weber, the head of the centre-right European People’s Party group in the European Parliament, said it was a good signal that there would be a bilateral meeting between Mr Johnson and Ms von der Leyen.

But he warned that from the point of view of the parliament, which has to ratify any EU-UK deal, time was running out.

“We will not rubber stamp an agreement, that is why we still need time for making a fair assessment,” Mr Weber told reporters on Tuesday.

EU diplomats said that any UK attempts to negotiate directly with leaders such as Mr Macron and Ms Merkel would be resisted by European governments, which want Brussels to remain the UK’s counterpart for talks.

Two senior French officials confirmed on Tuesday that both Ms Merkel and Mr Macron have insisted that the negotiation remains between the UK and the EU and does not take any kind of bilateral turn.

Michael Roth, Germany’s Europe minister, said that any deal will depend on “political will in London”.

He said: “Our future relationship is based on trust and confidence, it is precisely this confidence that is at stake in our negotiations right now.”

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Global house prices: Raising the roof




Global house prices: Raising the roof

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Missing Belarus activist found hanged in Kyiv park




Belarus updates

A Belarusian opposition activist has been found hanged from a tree in a park near his home in Ukraine, a day after he was reported missing. Local police said his death could have been made to look like suicide.

Vitaly Shishov, who led the Kyiv-based organisation Belarusian House, which helps Belarusians fleeing persecution find their feet in Ukraine, had been reported missing by his partner on Monday after not returning from a run.

Shishov’s death follows weeks of increased pressure in Belarus by authorities against civil society activists and independent media as part of what the country’s authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko has called a “mopping-up operation” of “bandits and foreign agents”.

Many Belarusians have fled the country since Lukashenko launched a brutal crackdown last summer after nationwide protests erupted following his disputed victory in presidential elections. About 35,000 people have been arrested in Belarus and more than 150,000 are thought to have crossed into neighbouring Ukraine.

Franak Viacorka, an aide to Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya who met UK prime minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday in London, said Shishov’s death was “absolutely shocking and unexpected to all of us”.

“He [Shishov] and his friends helped people who were moving to Ukraine,” Viacorka told the Financial Times. “They were very helpful, especially for those who have just arrived and didn’t know what to do.”

Viacorka said many activists living in Ukraine, such as Shishov who fled Belarus in 2020, had “complained about possibly being followed, and receiving threats”.

Kyiv park where Vitaly Shyshov’s body was found
The Kyiv park where Vitaly Shishov’s body was found after he failed to return home following a run © Gleb Garanich/Reuters

Downing Street said that after meeting Tsikhanouskaya, Johnson condemned the Lukashenko regime’s severe human rights violations. “The UK stands in solidarity of the people of Belarus and will continue to take action to support them,” a spokesperson said.

Ukrainian police have now launched a criminal case for the suspected murder of Shishov, including the possibility of “murder disguised as suicide”.

Yuriy Shchutsko, an acquaintance and fellow Belarus refugee who found Shishov’s body, ruled out suicide, pointing out that Shishov’s nose was broken.

“I suspect this was the action of the [Belarus] KGB . . . we knew they were hunting for us,” he told Ukrainian television.

Ihor Klymenko, head of the National Police of Ukraine, subsequently said Shishov’s body had what appeared to be “torn tissue” on his nose and other wounds, but stressed it would be up to medical examiners to determine if these were caused by beatings or the result of suicide.

There was no immediate comment from Lukashenko or his administration.

Belarusian House said: “There is no doubt that this is an operation planned by the Chekists [the Belarusian KGB] to eliminate someone truly dangerous for the regime.

“Vitalik was under surveillance,” it added. “We were repeatedly warned by both local sources and our people in the Republic of Belarus about all kinds of provocations up to kidnapping and liquidation.”

Adding to the swirl of attention on Belarus this week, Tokyo Olympics sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya on Monday took refuge in Poland’s embassy after alleging she had been taken to the airport against her will, having criticised her Belarusian coaches.

The athlete has said she feared punishment if she went back to Belarus but has so far declined to link her problems to the country’s divisions.

Shishov’s death comes five years after Pavel Sheremet, a prominent Belarus-born opposition figure and journalist, was killed in an improvised bomb explosion in downtown Kyiv while driving to work at a local radio station. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994.

Ukrainian authorities at first suggested Belarusian or Russian security services could have been involved in the hit, as Sheremet was close to opposition movements in Russia as well.

Instead, officials charged three Ukrainian volunteers who supported war efforts against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine — although they steadfastly denied involvement and authorities were unable to provide a motive in what has been widely described as a flimsy case.

Additional reporting by Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe in London

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EU pledges aid to Lithuania to combat illegal migration from Belarus




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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