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Archive for the ‘Decline of the European Union’ Category

Pro-EU party wins, cuts Johnson’s UK Parliament margin to 1

August 02, 2019

LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit-backing Conservative Party lost a special election Friday to a pro-EU opposition candidate, leaving Johnson with only a one-vote majority in Parliament as the U.K.’s departure from the European Union looms.

In the Conservatives’ first electoral test since Johnson became prime minister last month on a vow to complete Brexit “do or die,” the party was defeated for the seat of Brecon and Radnorshire in Wales by Jane Dodds of the Liberal Democrats. Dodds won 43% of the vote, against 39% for Conservative Chris Davies, who fought to retain the seat after being convicted and fined for expenses fraud.

Dodds urged the prime minister to rule out leaving the EU without a divorce agreement, saying “a no-deal Brexit would be a disaster” for agricultural areas like her constituency some 175 miles (280 kilometers) west of London.

Sheep farmers in Wales worry that, without a Brexit deal, steep tariffs on lamb exports will devastate their business. Johnson won a Conservative Party leadership race by vowing that Britain will leave the European Union on Oct. 31, with or without a divorce deal. But he faces opposition from Parliament, and the by-election result makes it even harder for the government to pass laws and win votes in the 90 days before the Brexit deadline.

The outcome also reflects the seismic effect the U.K.’s decision three years ago to leave the 28-nation EU has had on the country’s politics, with voters increasingly split into pro-Brexit and pro-EU camps.

The centrist Liberal Democrats have seen their support surge because of their call for the U.K. to remain in the bloc. In European Parliament elections in May, the party took 20% of U.K. votes, trouncing both the Conservatives and the main opposition Labor Party, whose leadership is divided over Brexit.

Labor won just 5% of the votes in Brecon. The Liberal Democrats made a pact with two other pro-EU parties, which did not run to give Dodds a better chance. The Conservatives, meanwhile, lost support to the Brexit Party led by longtime euroskeptic figurehead Nigel Farage, which took 10% of the votes.

The Conservatives lack an overall majority in the House of Commons, and rely on an alliance with 10 lawmakers from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. The loss of the Brecon seat leaves the governing alliance with 320 of the 639 voting lawmakers — the bare minimum needed to carry votes.

The loss illustrates the risks of Johnson’s hard-line stance on Brexit. It comes after a week that saw the new prime minister booed by pro-independence protesters in Scotland, criticized by Welsh farmers and accused by Northern Ireland politicians of destabilizing the economy and the peace process with his willingness to opt for a no-deal exit.

Johnson insists that he wants a Brexit deal, but is demanding that the EU make major changes to the divorce agreement it struck with his predecessor Theresa May, which was rejected three times by Britain’s Parliament. The EU is adamant that it won’t renegotiate.

Johnson argues that a no-deal Brexit will be “vanishingly inexpensive” if Britain prepares properly. This week the government set aside 2 billion pounds ($2.4 billion) for no-deal measures including more border officers and stockpiling essential medicines.

Economists say no amount of preparation can eliminate the shock if Britain crashes out the EU’s single market without a transition period or framework of new trade rules. A slide prepared for the government outlining worst-case scenarios in the day, week and month after a no-deal Brexit mentioned “potential consumer panic and food shortages” and “possible increased risk of serious organized crime including people smuggling and illegal migration.”

The slide was published by Sky News, which said it was drawn up before May left office last month. The government said it would not comment on leaked documents. Bank of England Governor Mark Carney said a no-deal Brexit would deliver an “instantaneous shock” to the economy in which the pound would fall, prices would rise, GDP would slow and many businesses could face ruin.

“There are some very big industries in this country where that which is highly profitable becomes not profitable, becomes uneconomic, and very difficult decisions will need to be taken,” Carney told the BBC on Friday.

Meanwhile a volatile political situation has become even more unpredictable. Parliament voted in the past against Britain leaving the EU without an agreement, and is likely to try again in the fall to thwart Johnson’s plans.

Faced with obstructive lawmakers, Johnson could gamble on an early election in hope of winning more seats. The opposition could also call for a no-confidence vote that could topple the government and trigger an early general election.

The Liberal Democrats hope their staunch opposition to Brexit will let them shed their perennial third-party status. Jo Swinson, the 39-year-old Scottish lawmaker who was elected party leader last month, said the Brecon result sent a “really clear message that the country doesn’t have to settle for Boris Johnson or (Labour leader) Jeremy Corbyn.”

But political experts advise caution. The Liberal Democrats have surged before, notably in 2010 when the party ended up with 57 seats and formed a coalition government with the Conservatives. A backlash followed after the government slashed public spending and tripled university tuition fees — overturning a key Liberal Democrat campaign pledge. Many Lib Dem voters felt betrayed. At the next election in 2015 they won just eight seats.

Rob Ford, professor of politics at the University of Manchester, said the Brecon result was “unambiguously good news for the Lib Dems,” but Britain’s political volatility made it impossible to say whether it would lead to a breakthrough for the party.

“This a very small straw in a very strong wind,” he said.

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Brex-split: 7 lawmakers quit Labor over EU, anti-Semitism

February 18, 2019

LONDON (AP) — Seven British lawmakers quit the main opposition Labor Party on Monday over its approach to issues including Brexit and anti-Semitism — the biggest shake-up in years for one of Britain’s major political parties.

The announcement ripped open a long-simmering rift between socialists and centrists in the party, which sees itself as the representative of Britain’s working class. It’s also the latest fallout from Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, which has split both of the country’s two main parties — Conservatives and Labor — into pro-Brexit and pro-EU camps.

Many Labour lawmakers have been unhappy with the party’s direction under leader Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran socialist who took charge in 2015 with strong grass-roots backing. They accuse Corbyn of mounting a weak opposition to Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May’s plans for leaving the EU, and of failing to stamp out a vein of anti-Semitism in the party.

The splitters — who have between nine and 27 years’ experience in Parliament and represent constituencies across England — make up a small fraction of Labor’s 256 lawmakers, or of the 650 total members of Parliament. But this is the biggest split in the Labor party since four senior members quit in 1981 to form the Social Democratic Party.

Luciana Berger, one of those who quit Monday, said Labor had become “institutionally anti-Semitic.” “I am leaving behind a culture of bullying, bigotry and intimidation,” she said at a news conference alongside six colleagues.

Labor leaders have admitted that Berger, who is Jewish, has been bullied by some members of her local party in northwest England. Labor has been riven by allegations that the party has become hostile to Jews under Corbyn, a longtime supporter of the Palestinians. Corbyn’s supporters accuse political opponents and right-wing media outlets of misrepresenting his views.

There have long been signs that British voters’ 2016 decision to leave the EU could spark a major overhaul of British politics. May’s Conservatives are in the throes of a civil war between the party’s pro-Brexit and pro-EU wings. Labor is also split.

Many Labor members oppose Brexit — which is due in less than six weeks, on March 29 — and want the party to fight to hold a new referendum that could keep Britain in the 28-nation bloc. But Corbyn, who spent decades criticizing the EU before becoming a lukewarm convert to the “remain” cause in the 2016 referendum, is reluctant to do anything that could be seen as defying voters’ decision to leave.

“I am furious that the leadership is complicit in facilitating Brexit, which will cause great economic, social and political damage to our country,” said Mike Gapes, one of the departing lawmakers. The seven members of Parliament leaving Labor said they will continue to sit in the House of Commons as the newly formed Independent Group.

Corbyn said he was “disappointed that these MPs have felt unable to continue to work together for the Labor policies that inspired millions at the last election and saw us increase our vote by the largest share since 1945.”

The Labor lawmakers who quit in 1981 eventually became today’s Liberal Democrats, a centrist party that has failed to topple the dominance of the two bigger parties. The new group of seven stopped short of forming a new political party, but the seeds have been sown. The new group has a name, a website and a statement of principles, which argues for a mix of pro-businesses and social-welfare measures and a pro-Western foreign policy that is closer to the “New Labor” of former Prime Minister Tony Blair than to Corbyn’s old-school socialism.

Their statement said the Labor Party “now pursues policies that would weaken our national security; accepts the narratives of states hostile to our country; has failed to take a lead in addressing the challenge of Brexit and to provide a strong and coherent alternative to the Conservatives’ approach.”

The departing lawmakers said they would not be joining the Liberal Democrats, and urged members of other parties to help them create a new centrist force in British politics. “We do not think any of the major parties is fit for power,” said lawmaker Angela Smith. “People feel politically homeless and they are asking and begging for an alternative.”

Victoria Honeyman, a lecturer in politics at the University of Leeds, said history suggests the breakaway group will struggle to gain traction in British politics. “It’s very cold out there as an independent,” she said. “It’s all well and good leaving because you believe the party has moved away from you, but you can often achieve more from being inside the tent.”

Italy: 5 EU nations will take in migrants stranded at sea

January 29, 2019

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte says five European Union nations are stepping forward to help resolve the latest impasse involving migrants stuck at sea on a humanitarian ship, but he bemoaned the lack of a systematic EU way to deal with migrant rescues.

Conte said Tuesday that the crisis over the Sea-Watch 3, which has been stuck off Sicily with 47 rescued migrants since Friday, demonstrates the EU’s “incapacity to manage this phenomenon with shared European mechanisms.” He spoke Tuesday in Cyprus at the close of a southern European summit.

But Conte said individual countries had stepped forward late Tuesday to say they would take some of the migrants. The Italian news agency ANSA, citing Conte, said the five countries are Germany, France, Portugal, Romania and Malta.

There was no immediate word on when or where the migrants, who were rescued Jan. 19 off the coast of Libya, would disembark. Conte was to meet with the leaders of Italy’s two governing coalition parties, including hard-line Interior Minister Matteo Salvini of the League party, upon his return to Rome.

Italy’s populist government has refused to allow humanitarian ships to dock in its ports in a bid to force its European partners to share the burden of arrivals. During the same press conference as Conte, French President Emmanuel Macron said France abided by three principals: respect for humanitarian rights in maritime matters, disembarkation at the nearest port and distributing the migrants. He said these standards should become a permanent mechanism.

Conte also said an EU trust fund aimed at propping up African economies to stem the flow of migrants isn’t large enough. Echoing Conte, Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell said it’s an “absolute necessity” for Europe to boost Africa’s economic development.

The Dutch-flagged Sea Watch 3, which is operated by a German humanitarian group, was allowed into Italian waters late last week off the Sicilian port of Syracuse due to deteriorating weather conditions.

Human rights activists and some politicians have denounced Italy’s refusal to allow the migrants to land as inhumane. “The psychological conditions of these people is worsening quickly. They need to get immediate medical attention on land,” EU lawmaker Cecile Kyenge told Sky TG24.

Earlier Tuesday, Europe’s human rights court denied a request by the head of the Sea Watch group, the Sea Watch 3’s captain and one of the migrants to disembark the 47 migrants. The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, however requested in its decision that Italy “take all necessary measures as soon as possible” to give the migrants adequate medical care, food, water and supplies. And it said the 15 unaccompanied minors on the boat should receive legal guardianship.

Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli claimed on Twitter that the human rights court had sided with Italy. “We must guarantee the migrants food, treatment and adequate assistance. And that is what we are doing. But we don’t have an obligation to disembark,” he said.

In another similar instance, Salvini faces possible charges for failing to allow 177 migrants to disembark at a port in Catania in August. Prosecutors have declined to press charges for kidnapping and abuse of office, saying Salvini was enacting government policy beyond the scope of the courts. But a judicial review body ruled otherwise, and has asked the Senate, where Salvini has a seat, to allow the case to procced.

The migrants in that case were allowed to disembark after five days.

Barry reported from Milan. Angela Charlton in Paris also contributed.

Candidate for EU’s top job slams Greece over Venezuela

February 07, 2019

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — The conservative candidate for the European Union’s top job has sharply criticized Greece’s stance on Venezuela’s political crisis, saying Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is “blocking initiatives on a European level” that would support those “fighting for a democratic Venezuela.”

Manfred Weber, who heads the European Parliament’s largest center-right group, said Thursday it was “a tragedy to see how the Greek government is now behaving on (a) European level.” Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself interim president last month, saying President Nicolas Maduro’s re-election in May was fraudulent. The United States and a number of European Union countries have backed Guaido, but Greece’s governing Syriza party has expressed its “full support and solidarity” for Maduro.

Weber is running in May 23-26 European elections to succeed his EPP Christian Democrat party colleague Jean-Claude Juncker to run the European Commission. He told reporters in Athens: “Everybody who has eyes in his head must see that in Venezuela we have a dictatorship, a socialist dictatorship.”

He suggested the European Union should change its decision-making process in foreign affairs from requiring unanimous votes to allowing decisions to be taken through majority votes instead. That, he said, would ensure decisions “are not anymore in the hands of governments like here in Greece which have obviously more contact with (Russian President Vladimir) Putin and Maduro and not so much with the free world of democratic countries.”

Weber was in Athens to attend a two-day EPP group meeting. Greece’s left-wing government says it backs an EU initiative to try to find a political solution to the Venezuela crisis but has refused to endorse Guaido. Government officials had no immediate response to Weber’s remarks.

Greek opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis, a close ally of Weber, said Greece’s support for Maduro had hurt the country’s standing. “I’m very sorry to say this but the position of the Greek prime minister on this issue is a disgrace for our country,” Mitsotakis said. “It isolates Greece and it really reduces our political influence abroad.”

France keeps up pressure on Italy in historic EU dispute

February 08, 2019

PARIS (AP) — France’s pro-EU government and Italy’s populist leaders sparred anew Friday, as business giants from both countries appealed for calm amid the neighbors’ biggest diplomatic spat since World War II.

France said the stunning recall of its ambassador to Italy was a temporary move — but an important signal to its historical ally not to meddle in internal French affairs. In Italy, the deputy prime minister who’s the focus of French anger stood his ground, renewing criticism of France’s foreign policy.

France and Italy are founding members of the European Union, born from the ashes of World War II, and their unusual dispute is rippling around the continent at a time of growing tensions between nationalist and pro-EU forces.

French officials said Friday that this week’s recall of French Ambassador Christian Masset was prompted by months of “unfounded attacks” from Italian government members Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini, who have criticized French President Emmanuel Macron’s economic and migration policies.

But the main trigger for the crisis appeared to be Di Maio’s meeting in a Paris suburb this week with members of the yellow vests, a French anti-government movement seeking seats in the European Parliament.

French government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said the visit violated “the most elementary diplomacy” because it was unannounced. Referring to Italy’s populist leaders, he criticized a “nationalist leprosy” eating away at Europe’s unity and said EU members should “behave better toward partners.”

A participant in the meeting, French activist Marc Doyer, told The Associated Press that it was initiated by Di Maio’s populist 5-Star movement and aimed at sharing advice on how to build a “citizens’ movement.”

Doyer said it provided useful technical and other guidance to potential yellow vest candidates and their supporters, and called the diplomat spat an overreaction. “It’s a political game by certain people,” he said. “Free movement exists in Europe, and the meeting didn’t cost the French taxpayer anything.”

Di Maio said he had done nothing wrong by meeting with the yellow vest protesters without informing the French government. A borderless Europe “shouldn’t just be about allowing free circulation of merchandise and people, but also the free circulation of political forces that have a European outlook,” he said in a Facebook video while visiting Abruzzo.

Di Maio again blamed France for policies in African countries that he said had impeded their growth and fueled the flight of economic migrants to Europe. He also implicitly blamed Paris for the chaos in Libya that has led to years of instability and growth of migrant smuggling networks following France’s involvement in the NATO-led operation in 2011 that ousted former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi from power.

Italian Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli, meanwhile, offered France’s yellow vest movement technical advice on launching a version of the 5-Star movement’s online portal, which allows registered party members to vote on policy decisions and candidates.

“If useful, we can offer them a hand and do political activities in service of the French people,” Toninelli said, according to the ANSA news agency. As the diplomatic spat simmered, a French yellow vest activist known for his extremist views held a gathering Friday in the Italian city of Sanremo.

The standoff was clearly sending jitters through Europe’s business world, given that the two countries are top trading partners and powerhouses of the EU economy. A pressing concern in Italy is the future of struggling national carrier Alitalia, amid rumored interest by Air France in some form of partnership.

Italian opposition leaders seized on a report Friday in business daily Il Sole 24 Ore that the French carrier had cooled on a deal as a result of the standoff. Di Maio, who is also Italy’s economic development minister, pushed back.

“I’ve been following the Alitalia dossier for months. Air France’s enthusiasm hasn’t cooled now,” he said. The Italian business lobby Confindustria and its French counterpart Medef wrote to their respective leaders calling for “constructive dialogue” to resolve the dispute, which they warned could threaten Europe’s global standing.

“It’s necessary that the two historic protagonists of the process of integration don’t split, but reconfirm their elements of unity,” the presidents of the two groups wrote Macron and Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte. “Europe is an economic giant and we have to work to make it become a political giant as well.”

The two business leaders — Vincenzo Boccia of Confindustria and Geoffroy Roux de Bézieux of Medef — confirmed plans for a joint meeting later this month in Paris. French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll told the AP that the ambassador recall “is an unprecedented gesture toward a European state that is aimed at making clear that there are things that are not done between neighboring countries, friends and partners within the European Union.”

Winfield reported from Rome.

EU chief calls for elections in Venezuela amid aid crisis

February 07, 2019

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (AP) — A top European Union official on Thursday called for a peaceful solution to Venezuela’s crisis through free and transparent presidential elections as desperate residents gathered at the Colombian-Venezuela border demanding embattled President Nicolas Maduro allow in emergency food and medicine.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said an international coalition does not plan to impose a solution but is focused on finding answers to avoid violence or foreign intervention within Venezuela.

“We can have different points of view and readings about the causes of the crisis,” Mogherini said. “But we share the same objective, wishing to contribute to a politically peaceful and democratic solution.”

The “International Contact Group” met in Uruguay’s capital to discuss Venezuela’s crisis for the first time since opposition lawmaker Juan Guaido declared himself interim president of the South American nation.

Guaido, who has backing from some 40 countries including the United States, is seeking to oust Maduro following a 2018 election that many countries say was a sham. Maduro has support from several countries, including Russia and China.

Uruguayan President Tabare Vazquez is leading the meeting attended by leaders of 14 countries, including Spain, Italy, Portugal and Sweden. But as the gathering got underway, tensions were playing out farther north in the Colombian border town of Cucuta. Humanitarian assistance from the U.S. is in Colombia and is en route to the town over objections from Maduro, who blames the White House for leading a coup against him.

The Venezuelan military has barricaded the bridge at the border crossing between the two countries in a bid to block the aid from passing. About a dozen human rights activists on Thursday stood at the metal gate at the entrance to the bridge on Colombia’s side. They held flags while Colombian police trucks carrying armed officers and other authorities drove by throughout the day.

Venezuelan Luis Escobar said his wife had advanced breast cancer and urged Maduro to accept the aid. In tears, he described how his wife was unable to get treatment in Venezuela and that by the time they were able to see a doctor in Colombia, her illness had significantly progressed.

Escobar says that he doesn’t want other Venezuelans to suffer his wife’s dire fate. “I am here because, unfortunately, my wife is going to die,” Escobar said. “But today I am here for Venezuelans who are suffering the same as my wife. The world has to know about this.”

Associated Press writer Christine Armario contributed from Cucuta, Colombia.

UK, EU leaders don’t budge on Brexit but agree to more talks

February 07, 2019

BRUSSELS (AP) — Britain and the European Union refused to budge an inch Thursday toward any compromise over Brexit, but at least they are on speaking terms again about their impending divorce. They agreed to further negotiations in the next few weeks, although that means any deal will come perilously close to the scheduled deadline of March 29. That risks a chaotic departure for Britain that could be costly to both sides — both to businesses and ordinary people.

“A no-deal is for us not an option. It is a disaster on both sides of the Channel,” said Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s chief Brexit official. Looking at the ever-tighter deadline, British Prime Minister Theresa May said after talks at EU headquarters in Brussels, “it’s not going to be easy.”

But she vowed: “I am going to deliver Brexit. I am going to deliver it on time.” May was able to clear the air after EU Council President Donald Tusk exacerbated the frosty climate Wednesday by wondering aloud what “special place in hell” might be reserved for those who backed Brexit with no idea of how to deliver it.

May said she had “raised with President Tusk the language that he used,” saying his words “caused widespread dismay” in Britain. Tusk’s comments were condemned by British Brexiteers but at least served to focus minds on how wide a gulf remains between the U.K. and the EU. It was little surprise that talks at EU Commission headquarters were described as “robust.”

At the end, May and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker agreed on a renewed effort to hold more negotiations on seeking a breakthrough. The two leaders agreed to assess progress “before the end of February to take stock of these discussions,” a joint statement said. Two years ago, May set Brexit day as March 29 — and original plans were to have a deal in place six months ahead of time.

As the time shrinks between a deal and the cutoff date, the more difficult it becomes for businesses and authorities to adapt quickly to the fundamental changes that a withdrawal from the bloc would entail.

Both sides still disagree on whether the divorce agreement struck between May’s government and the EU — and then summarily rejected by Britain’s Parliament — can be changed to ease British objections.

“The EU27 will not reopen the Withdrawal Agreement, which represents a carefully balanced compromise between the European Union and the U.K., in which both sides have made significant concessions,” the joint statement said.

U.K. officials said May’s primary concern was not to be “trapped” in a system that could see Britain linked to the EU in a customs union for an indefinite time and not be able to set its own trade agenda.

Britain’s Parliament voted down May’s Brexit deal last month, largely because of concerns about a provision for the border between the U.K.’s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland. The mechanism, known as the backstop, is a safeguard that would keep the U.K. in a customs union with the EU to remove the need for checks along the Irish border until a permanent new trading relationship is in place.

Thursday’s statement said that May “raised various options for dealing with these concerns in the context of the withdrawal agreement.” Many pro-Brexit lawmakers in Britain say they won’t vote for the withdrawal agreement unless the backstop is removed from the 585-page, which the EU leaders oppose vehemently.

Juncker and the other leaders have agreed to look for a compromise in a political text accompanying the withdrawal agreement, but not in the document itself. “What we would look at as positive from today is that there are going to be talks,” a senior Downing Street official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the UK-EU negotiations. “Obviously we’ve got work to do.”

In London, there was significant momentum from the opposition, with the Labor Party making perhaps its biggest move in months. Party leader Jeremy Corbyn dangled a possible way out of the impasse, saying his left-wing party could support a Brexit deal if May committed to seeking a close relationship with the EU after Britain leaves. That would include a commitment to maintain roughly equivalent standards in areas such as the environment and workers’ rights.

Corbyn’s key demand, set out in a letter to May, is permanent British membership in a customs union with the EU. May has repeatedly ruled that out, but it would solve the problem of the backstop by making customs checks on the Irish border unnecessary.

It is the firmest sign yet that Labour lawmakers might be willing to vote for a Brexit deal in Parliament. But the party — like May’s Conservatives — is divided. Corbyn’s position disappointed some Labor Party legislators who had hoped he would back calls for a second referendum on whether to leave the EU.

Britain’s Parliament is set to hold a debate and votes Feb. 14 on the next steps, giving lawmakers a chance to force May to change course toward a softer Brexit — if divided lawmakers can agree on a plan.

Corbyn said Thursday that Labor would “do everything we can in Parliament to prevent this cliff-edge exit.” “Half of our trade is with Europe. A lot of our manufacturing industries are very frightened, very worried,” he said.

Lawless reported from London.

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