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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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Fears grow over media independence in Czech Republic

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European media groups have warned that the independence of the Czech public broadcaster is under mounting pressure, ahead of a parliamentary election in the central European nation later this year.

Czech Television (CT) remains one of the few independent public broadcasters in central Europe, where governments in countries such as Poland and Hungary have reduced public media to their mouthpieces.

However, media groups and Czech opposition politicians are worried that new appointments to CT’s governing body, which are due to be voted on in the next parliamentary session starting today, could lead to CT’s autonomy being undermined.

Czech MPs are set to pick four new members of CT’s governing body, the Council. The Council does not directly control the broadcaster’s content, but has the power to fire its director-general.

Opposition MPs have claimed that candidates on the shortlist for the four open positions on the 15-strong Council have been picked not for their media expertise but because their views align with those of the ANO party of prime minister Andrej Babis and its allies.

Czech Republic prime minister Andrej Babis owned various media titles including two big newspapers through his company Agrofert © AP

MPs from ANO deny this. “For us, the only criterion is whether the candidates have met all the requirements for selection required by law,” Stanislav Berkovec, an ANO MP, told the website iRozhlas.cz last month.

However, the situation in Prague has prompted the European Broadcasting Union, which represents public service media, to issue an unusually strong warning about governments across Europe “trying to silence opposition voices by restricting freedom of the press”.

EBU director-general Noel Curran and Delphine Ernotte, the chief executive of France Televisions and EBU president, have written to Czech MPs urging them to protect the independence of the national broadcaster.

“In recent months, it has become alarmingly clear that the Czech Republic’s government is trying to exert pressure on [the independence of Czech Television], directly and indirectly,” the EBU said in a statement.

“It may be that only pressure from outside will preserve the hard-won independence of a public-service broadcaster that is crucial . . . to the democratic future of a nation often seen as a bulwark against authoritarianism in central and eastern Europe.”

The Vienna-based International Press Institute, a media watchdog, has expressed similar concerns, warning that the manoeuvring around the Council appointments could, in the worst case, pave the way for the removal of the current director-general of CT, Petr Dvorak.

“We find it hard to avoid the conclusion that the real aim is to fill the CT Council with enough figures who are critical of Dvorak to ensure that there is a majority to vote to dismiss him when the opportunity arises,” it said.

Observers say that CT’s independence is particularly important, given that many private Czech media groups are controlled by oligarchs. Prime minister Babis, himself a billionaire, owned various titles including two big newspapers through his company Agrofert, before he put his assets in trust in 2017.

“Czech public television, especially its information channel, is one of the most trusted of sources of information, especially concerning the pandemic . . . It is also one of the few which has overall reach and can get to everyone in the country,” said Martin Ehl, a senior journalist at Hospodarske Noviny, a leading Czech daily, and senior associate at the think-tank Visegrad Insight. “It is very important in this media environment, where different oligarchs own different media.”

The battle in Prague comes ahead of a parliamentary election in October, in which Babis’s ANO, which has headed a coalition government for the past four years, is facing a serious challenge from opposition parties. A poll last month put ANO second behind the centrist Pirate party.

The battle also has echoes of conflicts around Europe as public broadcasters in various countries are fighting to preserve their independence against governments who are aggressively seeking to influence output, or hobble the organisations by cutting taxpayer funding. 

Poland and Hungary are the most striking examples of how public broadcasters have been turned, through management and staff changes, into enthusiastic champions of the ruling party’s illiberal political agenda. But MEPs and campaigners fear the tactics are spreading to countries such as Slovenia, the Czech Republic and beyond. 

Adam Cerny from the Czech journalists’ group, Syndikat Novinaru, said there was “increasing risk” that the Czech Republic could go in the same direction as Poland and Hungary. But he expressed scepticism that ANO would want to have a such a big fight before the election. “I don’t think that Babis wants open political confrontation because of Czech TV,” he said.



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CDU leadership backs Armin Laschet’s bid to be German chancellor

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Armin Laschet won a key victory in his campaign to succeed Angela Merkel when the party he leads, the Christian Democratic Union, backed him as their candidate for chancellor in September’s Bundestag election.

The CDU governing executive’s decision to back Laschet was a setback for Markus Söder, governor of Bavaria, who has also laid claim to the title.

The move was expected, but could prove controversial. Söder is by far the more popular politician, and many CDU MPs had argued in recent days that the party would have a much better chance of winning September’s election with Söder as their candidate.

After throwing his hat into the ring on Sunday, Söder said he would accept the CDU’s decision. However, it is still unclear whether his party, the Bavarian Christian Social Union, will accept Laschet as the CDU/CSU’s joint candidate. The CSU’s executive is meeting later on Monday.

Sunday’s events threw the process for finding a successor to Merkel, who will step down this year after 16 years as Germany’s leader, into confusion. The CDU and CSU traditionally field a joint candidate for chancellor: that person is usually the leader of the CDU, which is by far the larger party.

Volker Bouffier, governor of the western state of Hesse, said the CDU’s executive had unanimously backed Laschet at a meeting in Berlin on Monday morning. He added, however, that no formal decision had been made on the issue.

Bouffier said the executive had made clear “that we consider [Laschet] exceptionally well-suited and asked him to discuss together with Markus Söder how we proceed”. He added that “the current polls should not determine the decision over [who we choose as] candidate”.

Since Laschet was elected CDU leader in January, the party has suffered a precipitous slump in the polls and that created an opening for Söder. He has frequently argued that the CDU/CSU’s joint candidate should be the politician with the best chances of winning in September.

Voters have blamed the CDU for the government’s recent missteps in its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, in particular the slow pace of Covid-19 vaccinations. Revelations that a number of CDU and CSU MPs earned huge commissions on deals to procure face masks also badly damaged the party’s image.

The malaise in the CDU was highlighted last month when it slumped to its worst ever election results in the two states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, which for decades had been Christian Democrat strongholds. National polls currently put support for the CDU/CSU at between 26 per cent and 28 per cent, way down on the 33 per cent it garnered in the last Bundestag election in 2017.

There was more bad news at the weekend for Laschet, who as well as being CDU leader is also prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state. A poll for broadcaster WDR in NRW found that only 26 per cent of voters in the state are satisfied with the work of the regional government Laschet leads and only 24 per cent of voters consider him a suitable candidate for chancellor.

The slide in the CDU’s fortunes contrasts with the rise of the Greens. The party garnered 8.9 per cent of the vote in 2017 and is now polling at 23 per cent. It is seen as a racing certainty that it will be part of Germany’s next government.



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EU and UK edge towards accord on trade rules for Northern Ireland

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The UK and the EU are making progress in talks on how to apply post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland, raising hopes of an agreement that could help reduce tensions that have spilled over into violence on the streets of Belfast.

Officials on both sides said that recent days of intensive contacts had given cause for optimism that the UK and EU can craft a “work plan” on how to implement the Northern Ireland protocol, which sets the post-Brexit terms for goods to flow between the region and Great Britain. EU Brexit commissioner Maros Sefcovic and his UK counterpart David Frost may meet to review progress this week. 

“They are advancing on a technical level and probably we will see a [Frost-Sefcovic] meeting rather sooner than later”, said one EU diplomat, while cautioning progress depended on firm commitments from the UK and its “unequivocal support” for the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

Other EU diplomats and officials said strong UK engagement in the technical talks on implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol had raised hopes that an understanding could be reached. 

“The mood seems to have warmed up a bit — the tone of the discussions is quite good,” said one British official. 

The talks are a follow up to a draft plan about implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol that was submitted by the UK to Brussels at the end of last month — a step the EU said was essential to rebuilding trust after Britain unilaterally extended waivers for traders from some aspects of the rules in March. This move prompted EU legal action.

The discussions between British and EU officials in recent days have taken place against the backdrop of violence in Northern Ireland, stoked in part by resentment within the unionist community at how the protocol treats their region differently to the rest of the UK.

From April 2 there were eight consecutive nights of unrest in Northern Ireland, involving both unionist and nationalist areas. The police responded by deploying water cannons for the first time in six years.

The Brexit deal placed a trade border down the Irish Sea in order to keep commerce seamless on the island of Ireland. The Northern Ireland protocol requires customs and food safety checks for goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

Officials said the EU-UK talks now under way about implementation of the protocol cover a wide array of practical issues ranging from trade in steel and medicines to the policing of food safety standards, how to deal with residual soil on plant bulbs, and the construction of border inspection posts. 

“Technical talks are ongoing”, said an EU official. “Depending on the progress made at technical level, a political-level meeting may be held soon.”

But EU diplomats and officials also cautioned that more work remains to be done, especially on the thorny issue of applying food safety checks. Difficult talks also lie ahead on the timetable for putting particular measures in place.

Meanwhile Downing Street played down a report in The Observer that it was resisting proposals by Dublin for a special crisis summit to address the outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland.

“We have not refused anything,” said a Number 10 official. “It’s something we will consider.”

However there are concerns on the British side about the wisdom of holding a summit in Northern Ireland with Irish government ministers at a time when pro-UK loyalist groups have been engaged in street violence.

Irish officials said taoiseach Micheál Martin and British prime minister Boris Johnson have spoken and would “maintain close contact over coming days”.



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