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EU and UK still ‘far apart’ but Brexit deal hopes rise

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Hopes were rising in London and Brussels on Sunday that a post-Brexit trade deal can be rescued, but there were warnings that the EU and UK remained “far apart” on key issues and that talks could go to the wire.

Boris Johnson, UK prime minister, and Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, agreed in a “constructive” call on Sunday to “go the extra mile” in search of a deal, as both sides reported progress in the talks.

But no deadline was set for the conclusion of negotiations, with British officials admitting that they could drag on until Christmas. A deal must be in place before Britain’s transition deal ends on January 1.

“We have time on our side to ratify — we can go up until Christmas,” said one senior British official. EU diplomats confirmed that talks would not be “wrapped up in a day or two” as the high-wire brinkmanship continued.

British MPs have been put on notice to be ready in the week before Christmas to pass the necessary legislation to enact a deal, while the European Parliament is also ready for an emergency sitting.

The decision to continue with talks beyond Sunday’s “deadline” came as both sides explored ways of cracking the main sticking point: designing a system to satisfy EU demands for fair business competition.

Boris Johnson told broadcasters that both sides remained “far apart” on key issues — thought to refer to the so-called level playing field and to fisheries — but there was relief in London that the EU position was shifting.

Dominic Raab, UK foreign secretary, said on Sunday before the decision to extend the talks that the EU would have to cross “quite a high bar” by showing it was willing to compromise to make it worthwhile.

Mr Raab also hinted on the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme that lawyers could pour fudge over a final agreement and that there could be “creative contours in the drafting” to help a deal over the line.

EU officials acknowledged that there had been progress in the talks, with one describing “incremental progress on all fronts”, although Mr Johnson warned that no-deal was still “the most likely” outcome.

Michel Barnier, EU chief negotiator, will brief EU27 ambassadors and MEPs on the state of play on Monday. Talks with David Frost, his UK counterpart, will continue in Brussels on Monday.

People briefed on the negotiations said the two sides were inching forward in their discussions on how to design a mechanism that would preserve a “level playing field” between the two sides’ companies even as EU and UK rules in areas such as environmental law potentially diverge over the years to come. 

Brussels has pushed the idea of a system that would allow either side to request consultations and ultimately introduce tariffs if it was concerned its companies were being put at a competitive disadvantage. 

The UK rejected previous iterations of the idea as an affront to sovereignty, but over the weekend modifications were discussed in a bid to address its concerns. The talks have covered issues such as a role for arbitration and the criteria for establishing when there is economic harm.

“They wanted to set the bar far too low,” said one British official.

Last week Boris Johnson said there was “a strong possibility” the talks would fail, with briefings that the Royal Navy was on standby to stop EU boats operating in British waters in the event of no deal.

Mr Johnson and Ms von der Leyen held an uncomfortable meeting in Brussels last week, fuelling the sense of impending failure, but on Sunday the mood between the two was said by EU officials to have been “cordial”.

Officials briefed on the recent negotiations between Mr Barnier and Lord Frost say progress has been made on the level playing field but that difficulties remain on the question of fisheries access.

Mr Johnson said on Sunday he would have liked to talk directly to EU leaders — including French president Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor — but he had been instructed that Ms von der Leyen was negotiating for all 27 member states.



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Global house prices: Raising the roof

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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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