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The countdown to Britain leaving the EU

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More than four years after the UK voted for Brexit, the terms of Britain’s future relationship with the EU are settled.

From January 1, the UK’s economic relationship with the EU will be governed by a tariff-free trade deal. The agreement also safeguards vital co-operation in areas such as the fight against terrorism and the handling of sensitive nuclear materials.

Here are the key dates, moments and turning points in the Brexit saga:

23 June 2016: UK votes to leave the EU
British voters make the historic decision to leave the EU in a tightly fought referendum. Leave wins by 52 per cent, against 48 per cent for Remain.

Celebrations at Vote Leave headquarters in Millbank in June 2016 as the results from the EU referendum start to come in © Charlie Bibby/FT

13 July 2016: Theresa May becomes prime minister
After David Cameron steps down, home secretary Theresa May becomes Britain’s prime minister with a promise that “Brexit means Brexit”.

29 March 2017: Article 50 is triggered
The UK becomes the first country to formally trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, starting the clock on a two-year EU divorce process.

14 November 2018: Withdrawal Agreement concluded
UK and EU negotiators conclude a draft Withdrawal Agreement that spans over 500 pages and lays out the terms of Britain’s exit. The deal includes a “backstop” provision for the Irish border that ensures the free circulation of goods across the island of Ireland, with the intention that it will be used if no other solution can be found before the end of the UK’s post-Brexit transition period.

January to March 2019: UK parliament fails to ratify Withdrawal Agreement
Mrs May’s draft Brexit deal repeatedly fails to win a majority in the House of Commons and the UK is given a short extension as the original Brexit date of March 29 is missed.

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte (left) and his then Belgian counterpart Charles Michel talk to Theresa May in April 2019 as the EU agrees to give the UK a six-month extension to its membership © Danny Gys/belga/dpa

11 April 2019: UK granted extension
EU leaders agree to give the UK a longer, six-month extension to its EU membership given the impasse in the British parliament over ratification. Brexit day is now set for October 31.

24 May 2019: Theresa May resigns
After multiple failed attempts to win support for the Withdrawal Agreement, Mrs May announces she will step down as prime minister and leader of the ruling Conservative party.

24 July 2019: Boris Johnson becomes prime minister
Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson becomes the new party leader and prime minister, defeating rival Jeremy Hunt. Mr Johnson, who was a key figure in the Leave campaign, says he will scrap the “anti-democratic” Irish backstop. 

17 October 2019: Reworked Withdrawal Agreement agreed
The UK and EU agree to replace the Irish backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement with new provisions that would keep Northern Ireland part of the UK’s customs territory, though subject to EU rules.

28 October 2019: Brexit delayed again
The EU gives Britain a further Brexit extension until January 31, 2020 as parliament sets a date for a general election on December 12. Following Mr Johnson’s election victory, the reworked Withdrawal Agreement is passed by the Tories’ strengthened majority in parliament in January 2020.

1 February 2020: Britain leaves the European Union
Brexit finally happens. But economic ties remain as before due to a transition period, which runs till December 31, agreed as part of the Withdrawal Agreement.

2 March 2020: Future relationship talks begin in Brussels
A 100-strong UK negotiating team begins talks with EU counterparts in Brussels, with the two sides up against the end-of-year deadline to strike a deal on the future relationship before the transition period expires.

Michel Barnier (right), the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, with his British counterpart David Frost in March 2020 © Olivier Hoslet/AP

19 March 2020: Barnier catches Covid-19
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier announces he has tested positive for coronavirus. As the pandemic sweeps Europe, plans for further physical negotiating rounds are indefinitely suspended.

15 April 2020: Barnier and Frost speak
Mr Barnier and his UK counterpart David Frost hold a video-meeting and agree on the need to revive the negotiations, initially in a virtual format. Virtual rounds are held in April, May and June.

15 June 2020: EU-UK high-level conference
Boris Johnson has a stocktaking call with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and European Council president Charles Michel. The two sides agree to intensify talks to unblock core sticking points. Negotiators return to having meetings in person.

1 July 2020: Extension deadline expires
The legal deadline passes for Britain to request an extension to its transition period, confirming that the UK will leave the EU single market and customs union with or without a deal on January 1, 2021.

July to August 2020: Negotiators toil but sticking points remain
Intensified talks fail to deliver hoped-for progress and EU officials bemoan a “wasted summer”.

10 September 2020: Dispute over the divorce treaty
Negotiations are buffeted by the UK government’s announcement that it plans to break international law and override the Northern Ireland protocol agreed as part of its divorce deal. The internal market bill is published on September 9 and an emergency EU-UK meeting is held on September 10.

EU-UK relations sour after London announces it plans to override the Northern Ireland protocol © Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

1 October 2020: EU takes legal action
The commission launches infringement proceedings against the UK over the internal market bill.

16 October 2020: Johnson halts talks
After the July talks fail to overcome key sticking points, negotiators struggle to regain momentum. Angered by an EU summit statement calling on the UK to make “necessary moves” towards an agreement, Mr Johnson halts negotiations and tells Britain to prepare for a no-deal outcome.

21 October 2020: Talks get back on track
Mr Barnier and Lord Frost settle the terms for a resumption of talks, with negotiators planning to meet almost every day and joint work on legal text. Difficult sticking points remain on “level playing field” conditions to ensure fair competition, on fisheries and on governance arrangements for the agreement.

4 December 2020: Leaders get involved
Mr Barnier and Lord Frost call a halt to intensive talks in London saying they can get no further without political guidance from the highest level. Ms von der Leyen and Mr Johnson speak the following day, and decide a further attempt should be made.

7 December 2020: Hope on the internal market bill
Britain and the EU signal that they are close to resolving their dispute over the internal market bill. An agreement on this issue is confirmed the following day and Britain scraps plans to override international law.

9 December 2020: Dinner in Brussels
Mr Johnson and Ms von der Leyen meet for a dinner of scallops and turbot in Brussels but cannot overcome entrenched disagreements over fair competition rules for business. The following day Mr Johnson tells the British people that there is “a strong possibility” talks will fail.

Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels earlier this month © Andrew Parsons /10 Downing Street

11 December 2020: Both sides on the brink
Ms von der Leyen tells an EU summit that there is a “higher probability” of failure than success. Mr Johnson warns separately that it is “very, very likely” there will be a no-deal outcome. Negotiations continue in the meantime.

13 December 2020: Back from the brink
Ms von der Leyen and Mr Johnson confirm in a phone call that enough progress has been made for talks to continue as they vow to “go the extra mile”. Mr Barnier tells ambassadors the following day that an impasse had been overcome over EU demands for a “mechanism” to protect companies from unfair competition.

23 December 2020: Closing in on a deal
Having taken direct control over the talks at the start of the week, Mr Johnson and Ms von der Leyen negotiate a breakthrough on fisheries, paving the way for a deal. 

24 December 2020: Done deal
The deal is finally agreed after both sides spent all night haggling over quotas for different types of fish the EU fleet could catch in British waters.



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EU plans digital vaccine passports to boost travel

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Brussels is to propose a personal electronic coronavirus vaccination certificate in an effort to boost travel around the EU once the bloc’s sluggish immunisation drive gathers pace.

Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, said on Monday the planned “Digital Green Pass” would provide proof of inoculation, test results of those not yet jabbed, and information on the holder’s recovery if they had previously had the disease.

“The Digital Green Pass should facilitate Europeans‘ lives,” von der Leyen wrote in a tweet on Monday. “The aim is to gradually enable them to move safely in the European Union or abroad — for work or tourism.”

The plan, expected to be outlined this month, is a response to a push by Greece and some other EU member states to introduce EU “vaccination passports” to help revive the region’s devastated travel industry and wider economy. 

But the commission’s proposed measures will be closely scrutinised over concerns including privacy, the chance that even inoculated people can spread Covid-19, and possible discrimination against those who have not had the opportunity to be immunised.

In an immediate sign of potential opposition, Sophie Wilmès, Belgium’s foreign minister, raised concerns about the plan. She said that while the idea of a standardised European digital document to gather the details outlined by von der Leyen was a good one, the decision to style it a “pass” was “confusing”. 

“For Belgium, there is no question of linking vaccination to the freedom of movement around Europe,” Wilmès wrote in a tweet. “Respect for the principle of non-discrimination is more fundamental than ever since vaccination is not compulsory and access to the vaccine is not yet generalised.”

The travel sector tentatively welcomed the news of Europe-wide vaccine certification as a way to rebuild confidence ahead of the crucial summer season, but warned that regular and rapid testing was a more efficient and immediate way to allow the industry to restart.

Fritz Joussen, chief executive of Tui, Europe’s largest tour operator, said “with a uniform EU certificate, politicians can now create an important basis for summer travel”. But he added that testing remained “the second important building block for safe holidays” while large numbers of Europeans awaited a jab.

Marco Corradino, chief executive of online travel agent Lastminute.com, said he feared the infrastructure needed would not be ready in time for the summer season: “It will not work . . . at EU level because it is too complicated and would not be in place by June.”

He suggested that bilateral deals, such as the one agreed between Greece and Israel in February to allow vaccinated citizens to travel without the need to show a negative test result, had more potential.

Vaccine passport sceptics argue it would be unfair to restrict people’s travel rights simply because they are still waiting for their turn to be jabbed. 

Gloria Guevara, CEO of the World Travel and Tourism Council, said it was important not to discriminate against less advanced countries and younger travellers, or those who simply cannot or choose not to be vaccinated. “Future travel is about a combination of measures such as comprehensive testing, mask-wearing, enhanced health and hygiene protocols as well as digital passes for specific journeys,” she added.

A European Commission target to vaccinate 70 per cent of the bloc’s 446m residents by September means many people are likely to go through summer unimmunised.

While some countries around the world have long required visitors to be vaccinated against infectious diseases such as yellow fever, a crucial difference with coronavirus is that those inoculations are available to travellers on demand. 

Questions also remain about the risk of people who have already been vaccinated passing on coronavirus if they contract the disease.

 





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EU must prepare for ‘era of pandemics’, von der Leyen says

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Europe must prepare its medical sector to cope with an “era of pandemics”, the European Commission president said, as she warned the bloc was still in its most difficult period for Covid-19 vaccine deliveries. 

Ursula von der Leyen told the Financial Times that the EU could not afford to sit still even once Covid-19 has been overcome, as she described her plans for a Europewide fast-reaction system designed to respond more quickly to emerging medical threats. 

“Europe is determined to enlarge its strength in vaccine production,” she said in a telephone interview. “It’s an era of pandemics we are entering. If you look at what has been happening over the past few years, I mean from HIV to Ebola to MERS to SARS, these were all epidemics which could be contained, but we should not think it is all over when we’ve overcome Covid-19. The risk is still there.” 

Von der Leyen last month unveiled plans for a biodefence preparedness plan called the HERA Incubator, which will combine researchers, biotech companies, manufacturers and public authorities to monitor emerging threats and work on adapting vaccines. This will become part of a Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA). 

The concept is an attempt to mirror some of the benefits conferred by America’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, which is charged with the job of responding rapidly to new health threats.

“The US has a strong advantage by having BARDA . . . this is an infrastructure Europe did not have,” von der Leyen said. “But Europe has to build up to be prepared for whatever comes, and also for the next possible pandemics. This is the HERA incubator.” 

The EU remains within its “most difficult quarter without any question” for vaccine deliveries, she said, cautioning “many, many problems” could always occur within the production process.

Looking towards the second quarter, she pointed out that a second EU contract with BioNTech/Pfizer for their vaccine would kick in, alongside the new jab from Johnson & Johnson, which is expected to be authorised in March.

In an EU summit on Thursday, von der Leyen addressed vaccine production and the threat of virus mutations after a rocky start to the year, when she was hit by complaints from politicians in member states, including Germany, about supply shortfalls. 

Von der Leyen acknowledged to the European Parliament in early February that mistakes had been made in the EU’s vaccination effort, and the campaign remains behind those of the US and UK. Among the difficulties are continued production problems at AstraZeneca’s European facilities. 

Von der Leyen said she was sticking with the EU’s target for the delivery of 300m doses in the second quarter, saying the challenge will shift from vaccine production to national rollouts. As for AstraZeneca’s shipments, she said: “I need to see the proof of the pudding . . . It’s very good that they also delivered from the rest of the world, but they have to honour their contract and we want our fair share.”

Ursula Von der Leyen says she is sticking with the EU’s target for the delivery of 300m doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine in the second quarter © Remo Casilli/Reuters

The good news for the EU is its access to mRNA technology, which is used in the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine and which scientists believe can be used to rapidly adapt to mutations, said von der Leyen. 

But she also supported French president Emmanuel Macron’s proposal to share up to 5 per cent of supplies to permit the vaccination of healthcare workers in developing countries.

“We all suffer from the fact that the scaling up was not and is not as rapid as we thought at the beginning. This has a general effect all over the world,” she said. “With production picking up I think we should never forget that only if everybody has access to vaccines will we overcome this virus.”

Von der Leyen added that the EU needed to be particularly concerned about developments in its immediate area. 

“The mutant story is worrying me the most,” she said. “When the virus is still raging in the neighbourhood, the probability that mutants will occur, that will come back, for example, to Europe, is only rising.”



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Did US hiring accelerate in February?

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Did US hiring accelerate in February?

US hiring picked up markedly in February from the previous month, economists have forecast ahead of the monthly employment report that is due to be released on Friday.

After the country lost 227,000 jobs in December, hiring rebounded in January — albeit with a modest gain of 49,000 jobs — as the rise in coronavirus infections abated and vaccinations accelerated.

Economists polled by Bloomberg anticipate that the US will add 145,000 jobs in February, pushing the unemployment rate 1 percentage point to 5.3 per cent. If that forecast holds, it would mark the strongest pace of hiring since November.

The prospect of a resurgence was bolstered by data released last Thursday showing that filings for first-time jobless benefits fell to a three-month low in the week ending February 20.

The labour market stumbled in the final stretch of 2020 under the weight of the pandemic’s upswing in the autumn, which prompted tighter restrictions on businesses and social activity across the US.

The leisure and hospitality sector alone shed 597,000 jobs in December and January, according to labour department figures, whereas the January payroll gains were concentrated in government employment and professional and business services.

However, the outlook is brighter for the coming months, particularly with the expected passing of the Biden administration’s $1.9tn stimulus plan, which last week won the support of a large group of senior Wall Street executives, and further vaccination progress.

“US households appeared quite febrile at the end of 2020 as the cocktail of a worsening health situation, weakening employment and expiring fiscal aid weighed on private sector confidence and restrained mobility,” analysts at Oxford Economics said. “Fortunately, we see hope on all three fronts.” Matthew Rocco

Will eurozone inflation continue to rise?

Eurozone inflation hit its highest level since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in January, after five months of falling prices. On Tuesday the bloc’s statistics body will publish a preliminary estimate of February’s level, which is expected to continue the upward trend.

Many economists are predicting a steady rise over the spring on the back of higher energy costs, continuing supply chain disruptions that have raised costs for retailers and manufacturers, and the reversal of a VAT tax cut in Germany.

“For eurozone inflation, the only way is up,” said Carsten Brzeski, economist at ING, who forecast that headline consumer price inflation in the bloc would reach 1.3 per cent in February, from an 11-month high of 0.9 per cent in January.

Claus Vistesen, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, said a further increase in the price of oil — international benchmark Brent crude is up more than 30 per cent this year — could be the biggest driver of inflation in coming months.

A change in the inflation basket of goods and services is also at play. The 2021 basket reflects that people are consuming more food, where prices are rising, and less recreation activity, where prices are generally falling.

The European Central Bank has forecast that price growth will rise to 1.5 per cent in the fourth quarter this year before dipping to 1.2 per cent a year later — still under its target of below but close to 2 per cent.

“The ECB will not contemplate raising its policy rates until eurozone inflation expectations and wage inflation have increased substantially and persistently,” said Andrew Kenningham, economist at Capital Economics. “That is probably several years away.” Valentina Romei

Line chart of By date of forecast, % showing Economists revise up their eurozone inflation forecast for 2021

Can the copper bull run continue?

If, as the commodity market adage goes, the cure for high prices is high prices, where does that leave copper?

The world’s most important industrial metal, used in everything from electric vehicles to power cables, has risen more than 100 per cent from its pandemic lows in March last year.

Last week it hit a 10-year high above $9,500 a tonne before falling back as speculators piled in and a Chinese brokerage amassed a $1bn long position on the Shanghai Futures Exchange. 

A growing number of banks and brokers believe the bull run will continue and copper will go on to surpass its all-time high of $10,190 reached in February 2011. 

Citi and Goldman Sachs are both predicting big supply deficits for 2021 that would further drain already-low stockpiles of the metal, citing strong demand from China but also the rest of the world as the economic strain from the coronavirus pandemic eases. 

Unlike previous cycles, a dearth of “shovel-ready” copper projects means a flood of supply is not going to hit the market and send prices tumbling. If anything, even higher prices might be needed to spur production of low-grade ores in far-flung parts of the world where it is difficult to build a mine.

“It takes 15 years from discovery to navigating approvals to ultimately getting a development up and running in our industry,” Anglo American chief executive Mark Cutifani said. “So you can’t just wiggle your nose. It does need high prices, but it also needs time.” Neil Hume



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