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Northern Ireland business groups uneasy over Brexit border plan

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The UK government on Wednesday announced temporary measures to smooth the disruption caused by a new trade border in the Irish Sea after January 1, but industry groups warned they still faced “considerable” long-term challenges as a result of the Brexit deal for Northern Ireland.

The precise implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol, part of last year’s withdrawal agreement that paved the way for Britain’s legal exit from the EU in January, has been a major cause of friction between London and Brussels.

In September prime minister Boris Johnson threatened to introduce new laws that would allow him to unilaterally override parts of the agreement — which keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s customs code — if Brussels did not implement it in a reasonable manner.

On Tuesday that threat was withdrawn after Britain’s Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove struck an agreement-in-principle with the European Commission’s vice-president Maroš Šefčovič over the rollout of the new arrangements.

Mr Gove told MPs on Wednesday afternoon that the implementation of the Northern Irish protocol would ensure “a smooth flow of trade” between Great Britain and the region after the UK’s transition period ends in just under three weeks.

He added that the agreement, the full details of which will be published in the coming days, removed all checks on goods going from Northern Ireland to Great Britain, and limited the risk of the protocol affecting UK government state subsidy decisions after January 1.

To ease the imposition of the new border controls for goods flowing the other way — from Great Britain into Northern Ireland — Mr Gove announced that supermarkets would receive a three-month grace period from needing to fill in export health certificates on animal and plant products.

A six-month exemption from rules requiring meat products to be frozen before export was also agreed in a move that temporarily allows supermarkets to continue to send meat products as at present — but this risks expiring next year if a wider deal cannot be struck with Brussels. 

A “trusted trader” scheme will also be put in place to reduce bureaucracy for supermarkets and suppliers that can prove their products are going directly to Northern Irish consumers and are not at risk of leaking into the Republic of Ireland, which would make them subject to tariffs.

Supermarkets supplying Northern Ireland will receive a 3-month exemption from filling export health certificates. © Stephen Barnes/Alamy

Goods from Great Britain that could be shown to be going directly to Northern Ireland’s consumers would enter the region tariff-free, Mr Gove said. The medical and veterinary industries will also have a one-year adjustment period to adapt to the protocol and avoid shortages of critical medical supplies. 

Despite the temporary measures outlined by Mr Gove, Northern Irish businesses said they would still be facing significant frictions when trading in future with Great Britain.

UK officials conceded that after the grace period, all animal and plant products entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain would require export health certificates — which cost £200 each — and all goods would need import declarations.

After the expiry of the six-month grace period for chilled meat, Northern Ireland will have to source fresh meat products from either its own producers or the Republic of Ireland, unless the exemption could be extended to all UK-EU trade by agreement with Brussels.

Trade groups said privately that while Mr Gove has focused on the narrow question of “tariffs”, in reality the additional bureaucracy created by the protocol would fundamentally change the relationship of Northern Irish businesses and consumers with those in Britain.

“There are short-term measures to stop the images of empty shelves on January 1 and save face for both the UK and EU — but not enough to stop costs rising,” said a trade executive who asked to remain anonymous to preserve their relations with the government. 

Aodhán Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, said further work would be needed to protect households from unaffordable price rises and availability issues. “There will also be considerable challenges in the medium term,” he said.

Groups representing smaller businesses in the supply chain questioned whether wholesalers and suppliers to the hospitality sector would be eligible to use the trusted trader scheme.

Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation, said that a scheme that only helped big supermarkets would be an “an anti-competitive hammer blow” for wholesalers that serviced small and local food businesses. “The derogation should apply widely and not just service the biggest companies with the loudest voices,” he said.

Northern Ireland’s trade groups warned this week that despite the creation of a £200m trader support service (TSS), they would not have time to adjust to new computer systems and border processes by January 1.

In other areas of contention for Brexiters, such as whether the EU would have a permanent diplomatic presence to monitor the implementation of the protocol, Mr Gove said the EU would have no “Belfast ‘mini-embassy’ or mission”.

Instead, EU officials will be present as needed in Northern Ireland to monitor compliance and have the power to request checks, which must then be conducted by UK officials. They will also have access to relevant databases.

In the last area of contention — whether clauses in the protocol might inadvertently impinge on UK government decisions to provide subsidies for companies after January 1 — Mr Gove said that two sides had clarified the agreement in order to limit its scope to cut across UK sovereign decision making.

“It means firms in GB stay outside state aid rules where there is no ‘genuine and direct’ link to Northern Ireland, and no ‘real foreseeable’ impact on NI-EU trade,” he told MPs, although some legal experts have questioned whether the “clarification” carries legal force.





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Global house prices: Raising the roof

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Missing Belarus activist found hanged in Kyiv park

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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

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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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