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Diplomats edge closer to Brexit deal but fish remains slippery subject



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This, it is fair to say, is a delicate moment to be penning a Brexit Briefing. After almost four years of tortuous negotiations it appears as if the EU-UK future partnership negotiations are very close to bearing fruit, limited though it may be. 

Brexit-watching these days is an exhausting business; like being a seismologist monitoring a volcano on the verge of eruption — it is clear from measurements of external activity she’s about to blow, but even those with the best knowledge cannot say with certainty when the rising internal pressure will bring those wispy fumaroles exploding into life.

But there are clear signs that we are indeed closing in on that point. In London a parliamentary timetable is being fleshed out; MPs are being put on standby for lightning pre-Christmas approval of the deal; and the “pitch is being rolled” with Eurosceptics. 

The level playing field arrangements being negotiated by David Frost are now in fact “freedom clauses” that will enable the UK to diverge, and EU diplomats that were frowning but two weeks ago are now happy for the British to spin the deal any way they like — so long as they sign it, and stick to it.

The devil will, of course, be in the detail into which the vast majority of people will not delve, but Boris Johnson’s overarching aim will be to have won enough to make the wider political point that on January 1 Britain will once again be fully “sovereign” and the country’s “freedom”, if it were ever lost, will have been recaptured from Brussels. 

(How and why that “freedom” came to be measured by the height and breadth of the wall we are erecting between ourselves and our nearest trading partners is a question for another day. Both sides bear some responsibility, but for now both sides need to focus on the need for a deal — any deal). 

To that end, the negotiations on the level playing field seem to have settled on how to manage UK divergence, essentially creating a “reactive” rather than proactive mechanism, which is a significant move from the EU’s opening position on dynamic alignment. 

In fact, it is the scale of that concession that explains why — if the UK will not, for example, sign up to an “ex ante” state aid regulator for the UK’s own internal market, or grant EU companies the rights to enforcement in UK courts — the EU should want a “reactive” governance mechanism set with much more of a hair-trigger than Mr Johnson would like.

So this discussion is now not about keeping the UK in lockstep with the EU but, as one EU diplomat put it, what to do “procedurally” when either the UK or EU modernises their respective legislation. It is about balancing British lust for “freedom”, with EU demands for nimbleness of retaliatory options. The important thing is that both sides seem to have — finally — homed in on a mutually acceptable solution, even if they are still arguing over the calibration of the firing mechanism itself. 

Which brings us to the issue of fish, which both sides always in general agree cannot be allowed to blow up the entire free trade agreement — fishing accounts for 1 per cent of EU gross domestic product and 0.1 per cent of the UK’s — and yet, when it comes down to the particulars of fish, diplomats on both sides caution they are still far apart.

The EU continues to want to insist on a linkage between the fishing agreement and the wider economic partnership — so that if the UK reneges on the deal and closes off access to EU boats, EU member states can retaliate in other fields. The word is that the UK continues to resist this.

The UK still doesn’t want to give the EU any access to the politically sensitive six to 12 nautical miles zone, where small boats fish in historical fishing grounds that cannot — unlike big, corporate-run deep-sea trawlers — be easily compensated for by other stocks or quotas. For France and Belgium these waters are key.

A recently introduced British demand for EU boats to land a high percentage of their catch in UK ports and moves to restrict ownership rights have caused alarm among Dutch and Spanish diplomats whose industries stand to be much more affected by such deals. 

All these issues need to be finessed while, at the same time, Michel Barnier has at least as much difficulty triangulating intra-EU fishing “red lines” as he does negotiating away British ones. 

There is a dangerous tendency on both sides to assume that the other would, surely, not squander a deal over fish if the FTA covering the remainder of all trade was agreed — but if both sides cling to that position, it is easy to see how this could drag on a while yet.

All of which is to say that if we do not get a deal by Friday — as some hoped earlier this week — it may well be difficult wrangles over fish access that are to blame. 

Still, on the positive side, with Christmas closing in (always a driver of deals in Brussels for exhausted negotiating teams) there is a prevailing sense in London and Brussels that Mr Johnson will sign it off sooner or later. 

Brexit in numbers

If we are indeed heading for a FTA with Europe, one measure of how much work will need to be done to absorb the deal was this week’s story about the huge over-subscription to the government’s Port Infrastructure Fund.

The £200m kitty for new border inspection posts that will need to be up and running on July 1 when the UK government brings in full controls on goods arriving from the EU attracted bids worth more than £450m from 54 UK ports.

Rather than find more money, the Cabinet Office winnowed the requests down, identifying 41 successful bids and then applying a 33 per cent hair cut across the board, leaving pretty much everyone unhappy, it seems.

Dover was particularly upset, receiving just £33,000 when it had bid for £33m to double the number of French passport kiosks at the port — but others like Portsmouth, which nominally “won” £17.1m of funding, was grumbling because it was still £8m short of what it needed to fund its plans.

Given that it costs £10m-£12m to build a single border control post it is not perhaps all that surprising — given the new demands on both east and west UK coasts — that £200m was not going to cover it.

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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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Britain’s wrong-headed approach to refugees




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




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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