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With Brexit ‘done’, Britain must rebuild trust in Europe

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After four years of wrangling, passionate debate and soul-searching, the UK has left the EU. But we have not left Europe. In a sombre speech announcing the EU-UK deal, the European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen quoted William Shakespeare, The Beatles and the poet TS Eliot. Not only is Britain “geologically” attached to the continent, as the UK prime minister also noted; Europe is in our culture and our souls.

US friends can feel puzzled when Brits say they are “going to Europe” on holiday. As a proud island nation, we love to emphasise our differences. But for many of us, it would have been harder to get through lockdown without Mozart, Bordeaux or cappuccinos.

A recent conversation with the editor of the Greek edition of my book, who is marvellously called Plato, reminded me of the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. What have the Romans ever done for us? asks Reg, leader of the People’s Liberation Front of Judea, as he urges his group to turn against the oppressors. “Apart from” — he is forced to concede — “sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system and public health”. As Europeans, we are bound together by a history that long predates a 47-year-old trade agreement. We can even — occasionally — share a sense of humour.

In the new year, it would be a profound mistake for government ministers to continue their tone of macho English exceptionalism. No one should be in the cabinet who can make the kind of claim, as Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, did recently, that the UK was first to roll out Covid vaccinations in Europe because “we’re a much better country”. On the contrary, with Brexit “done”, Brits must begin the process of rebuilding the amicability and respect that have been lost.

The Channel between France and England is a scant 20 miles across at its narrowest point. Yet not since Charles de Gaulle vetoed British membership of the Common Market in 1967 have we felt so far apart. All negotiations are brutal. But under former prime minister Theresa May, the British side squandered the goodwill initially felt in many European capitals after the shock result of the 2016 referendum. Boris Johnson’s team then deepened distrust by demanding negotiating sessions without having anything new to offer, and threatening to break international law.

It is not just the terms of the deal that many business people worry about; those can be worked with. It is the worldwide loss of respect for a country once envied for its brilliant diplomats and robust parliament but now — whatever you think of Brexit — has looked a shambles.

Many of our allies have been staggered by Britain’s self-absorption over the past four years. This helped Brussels to cast Brexit as a uniquely British issue rather than an existential moment, and to avoid thinking strategically enough about what the new relationship should look like between such important democracies.

UK-EU tensions are nothing new. In the popular 1980s TV series Yes Minister, the minister tells civil servant Sir Humphrey that “I’m pro-Europe, I’m just anti-Brussels”. There is a deep irony in the fact that the British Foreign Office, with its philosophy of “wider not deeper”, drove the enlargement of the union from a relatively coherent 12 member states in 1993 to an unwieldy 28 by 2013. But the current exasperation seems to be of a different order. There is a feeling in many European capitals that the UK has decided to make itself irrelevant.

Outside the bloc, the future will be a rolling series of negotiations. But they need not be fractious. Modern Britain is wholly European in its desire to combat climate change, Islamist extremism, Russian meddling and Chinese incursions into human rights. As the world moves into a new era of great power competition, the UK can only project its soft power and liberal democratic values in partnership with other like-minded countries.

For many people, one of the tangible benefits of EU membership were the schemes that promoted understanding and collaboration. Half of all British students who study abroad do so under the EU’s Erasmus programme, which has sadly been jettisoned under the new agreement. In its desire to pivot to the rest of the world, the UK government should not lose opportunities to deepen ties with countries which, after all, are nearby and cheap to reach.

Perhaps we should try to regain some of the spirit of 1967, when The Beatles released “All You Need Is Love” with the opening bars of the French national anthem. Boris Johnson has a chance to do so, and reset the tone, when Britain chairs the G7 next year and hosts the UN COP26 climate summit in November. The world will want to see a grown-up Britain that is intelligent and co-operative, not jingoistic.

With a treaty that is over 1,200 pages long, and many issues still to be finalised, it will take time to see how the deal will work in practice. But the machismo and bravura can now be left at the door, and the rapprochement can begin. Even our language, after all, owes so much to the interplay of forces and ideas that is Europe.

The writer, a former head of the Downing Street policy unit, is a Harvard senior fellow



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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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