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EU accomplishes its mission of Brexit damage limitation

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The EU dealmaking machine has churned out another deal. Even in a year of momentous negotiations — on the pandemic recovery fund and rule of law safeguards — it is a remarkable achievement.

Four and a half years after the UK voted to leave the EU, London and Brussels have struck a free trade agreement that will frame their relationship for decades to come. It will maintain zero-tariff, zero-quota trade in goods in which the EU has a large surplus. It will help ease the inevitable frictions that come with the end of the transition period and provide the foundations for further talks on closer co-operation.

For the EU, this arduous task was always about limiting the damage from a UK withdrawal that has few upsides. From that perspective, it has been a resounding success both in terms of process and strategy. For a bloc that is so often hamstrung by divergent interests among its member states — and for British politicians who had banked on divide-and-conquer tactics — it has provided a lesson in the power of unity.

The UK’s insistence on a narrow free trade deal meant talks were delegated to the European Commission. EU capitals were happy to go along as they became increasingly exasperated at British indecision, its false ultimatums and then a breach of trust when the UK government threatened to rip up parts of the withdrawal agreement. European governments had other priorities. Michel Barnier, the EU’s skilful chief negotiator, kept them and the European parliament well informed and retained their confidence.

To be sure, the EU made substantial concessions during the course of 2020. It gave up on its demands that the European Court of Justice adjudicate disputes and that UK state aid, environmental and labour rules matched EU ones. It will also be busy with negotiations and quarrels with London for years to come — even if this agreement should provide for a more stable relationship than the multiple, transitory accords it has with Switzerland.

But the EU has achieved its main objectives. It has maintained internal unity to a remarkable degree, even with Eurosceptic governments more sympathetic to the Brexit cause. It stood up for a smaller member state, Ireland, which has most to lose from the UK’s departure. But every member state could see itself losing out were the UK able to undercut EU state aid, environment or labour rules. The integrity of the single market has been preserved. The UK has agreed to binding constraints and adjudication.

Brexit Britain will not have its cake and eat it. The principle that single market access comes with obligations was essential to preserving the deterrent effect of Brexit. Political turmoil in the UK has made support for EU exit a political liability for Eurosceptics on the continent. Few openly advocate it. The power asymmetry in the process has been undeniable. The chaos at British ports this week following French border closures has underlined UK dependence on the goodwill of others.

Brigid Laffan, professor at the European University Institute in Florence, sees the EU’s success as evidence that the bloc has entered a more assertive phase of governance, marshalling its power and resources to protect its interests. The Christmas Eve deal caps a year in which the EU has got its act together in tackling a new economic crisis.

Brexit might have galvanised the EU but it is probably an exception rather than the new rule. There are plenty of examples of European weakness stemming from its own divisions. When another third country, Turkey, disputed the sovereign waters of an EU member state — a challenge to EU integrity — the EU did little to push back because the interests of its members were not aligned. The continued efforts of nationalist governments in Poland and Hungary to dismantle democratic standards and the rule of law are an existential threat to a union that is built on fundamental values and a common legal order.

The effects of Brexit on internal EU policymaking will play out for years to come. It has already shifted the balance away from liberal-minded Atlanticist states. It has forced other countries, including the Netherlands, out from British coat-tails to defend their own interests. It has handed more influence to France and Germany.

Ultimately, says Catherine de Vries, professor at Bocconi university in Milan, much will depend on how Britain fares on the outside. “If the UK looks like it is going to do well in 10 years, that is going to create an interesting dynamic.”

Before that, though, the UK and the EU will both have to adjust to the end of frictionless trade. Even with this deal, nobody is a winner.

ben.hall@ft.com



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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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