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Posts tagged ‘Land of the British Empire’

EU moves ahead faster on new future than on Brexit talks

September 29, 2017

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Twenty-seven European Union nations, excluding Britain, will be coming up with clear options on a more tightly knit future for themselves even before they will allow divorce negotiations with the U.K. to move toward brokering a new relationship.

EU Council President Donald Tusk said Friday he would be presenting “a political agenda in two weeks’ time,” after EU vision statements in recent weeks from French President Emmanuel Macron, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and others on how to the reform the bloc.

That will be just days before the next EU summit, which is expected to reject for now British demands to start negotiating on the country’s future links with the bloc alongside the current talks on how to make the cleanest Brexit possible.

Officials said Tusk will be given the job of reconciling Macron’s vision of how the EU should embrace a joint budget, a shared military and harmonized taxes to stay globally relevant with those ideas of EU nations that might not want to grow too closer too quickly.

Tusk said he would seek “real solutions to real problems” and stressed the need to make progress “step-by-step, issue-by-issue.” Macron said the EU had to seize the moment of having an improved economy and increased confidence in the bloc to push through reforms before European elections in 2019.

“2018 is a year of opportunity for Europeans,” he said. “In 5 or 10 years, it will be too late.” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte warned, however, not to set the bar too high, since changes in the bloc of half a billion people have always been tough to achieve.

“Under-promise and over-deliver,” Rutte said. “Don’t promise an elephant and see a mouse show up.” The collegial atmosphere was bolstered by a non-confrontational dinner Thursday night for EU leaders, where few of the usual east-west or north-south fissures spoiled the mood, officials said.

The goodwill has not extended to the issue of Brexit over the past months. EU leaders at their Oct. 19-20 summit have to say whether “sufficient progress” has been achieved on divorce issues with Britain — citizens’ rights, the Irish border and a financial settlement — to grant the U.K. its wish to start talking about a new trade deal with the EU.

Juncker said it will take “a miracle” for there to be sufficient progress by then, despite a round of negotiations in Brussels this week that ended with some progress. Other EU leaders sounded a similar tone. Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said despite “a better vibe and a better mood coming out of the negotiations” he questioned whether the time was right to move on to trade issues with Britain.

“It’s still very evident that there’s more work to be done,” he said. For the past week, though, British Prime Minister Theresa May has sounded more conciliatory. In Estonia, she guaranteed her country’s commitment to security even though the nation is leaving the bloc.

May visited troops in Estonia close to the Russian border on Friday and said “the United Kingdom is unconditionally committed to maintaining Europe’s security.” “We will continue to offer aid and assistance to EU member states that are the victims of armed aggression, terrorism and natural or man-made disasters,” she vowed.

She also proposed a “new security partnership” to weather the divorce when her country leaves the bloc in March 2019.

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Britain hopes for Brexit progress; EU leaders cautious

September 23, 2017

LONDON (AP) — Britain and the European Union are preparing to head back to the Brexit negotiating table after a speech by Prime Minister Theresa May that received a cautious welcome from the bloc’s leaders.

May stressed in her Friday speech that Britain wants to keep closes ties with the bloc and offered to keep paying the EU and following its rules during a two-year transition period after the U.K.’s formal departure in March 2019.

EU leaders welcomed the constructive tone of May’s speech, but called for more detail. French President Emmanuel Macron said clarity still is needed on three big issues: the rights of European citizens affected by Brexit, the amount Britain must pay to settle its obligations to the EU, and the status of the border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.

“If those three points are not clarified, then we cannot move forward on the rest,” Macron said. Negotiators are due to start a fourth round of Brexit talks in Brussels on Monday. In a blow for May’s government, credit rating agency Moody’s downgraded Britain a notch to Aa2, the third-highest level, citing the country’s debt burden and uncertainty about Brexit.

The agency said it was not confident Britain “will be able to secure a replacement free trade agreement with the EU which substantially mitigates the negative economic impact of Brexit.” The downgrade decision was made before May’s speech. But Alastair Wilson, head of sovereign ratings at Moody’s, said Saturday that nothing in the speech would have changed the decision.

UK lawmakers back key Brexit bill, but fight still looms

September 12, 2017

LONDON (AP) — British lawmakers voted a key Brexit bill past its first big hurdle in Parliament early Tuesday. But many legislators branded the bill a government power grab, and vowed to change it before it becomes law.

After a debate that stretched past midnight, the House of Commons backed the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill by a vote of 326 to 290. That means lawmakers approve the bill in principle, but the government will now face attempts to amend it before a final vote later this year.

A key plank in the Conservative government’s Brexit plans, the bill aims to convert thousands of EU laws and regulations into U.K. domestic laws on the day Britain leaves the bloc in March 2019. Prime Minister Theresa May said the measure provides “certainty and clarity” ahead of the divorce. Brexit Secretary David Davis said that without it, the U.K. faces “a chaotic exit from the European Union.”

But the opposition says it would give the government dangerous new powers to amend laws without parliamentary scrutiny. Since Britain joined the EU in 1973, thousands of EU laws and regulations have come to operate in the U.K., covering everything from environmental protection to employment rules.

Justice Secretary David Lidington told lawmakers that the bill is needed to ensure Britain has “a functioning and coherent statute book and regulatory system the day we leave.” It calls for incorporating all EU laws into U.K. statutes so they can then be kept, amended or scrapped by Britain’s Parliament. The government says that will fulfill the promise of anti-EU campaigners during last year’s referendum to “take back control” of the country from Brussels to London.

Critics say the bill gives the government too much power, because it allows ministers to fix “deficiencies” in EU law without the parliamentary scrutiny usually needed to make or amend legislation. Such measures are often referred to as “Henry VIII powers” after the 16th century king’s bid to legislate by proclamation.

Opponents worry the government could use the powers to water down environmental standards, employment regulations or human rights protections. Labor Party lawmaker Chris Bryant said the bill “pretends to bring back power to this country, but it actually represents the biggest peacetime power grab by the executive over the legislature, by the government over Parliament, in 100 years.”

Members of Labor, the main opposition party, were ordered by their leader to vote against the bill. A few rebelled or abstained, wary of being seen as trying to frustrate voters’ decision to leave the EU.

Pro-EU lawmakers from the governing Conservatives largely backed the bill, saying they would try to amend it at the forthcoming committee stage. The government needs to pass the bill to keep its Brexit plans on track. It has been almost 15 months since Britain voted to leave the 28-nation bloc, and nearly six months since the government triggered the two-year countdown to exit.

Since then, negotiations between Britain and the EU have made little progress on key issues including the status of the Ireland-Northern Ireland border and the amount Britain must pay to settle its financial commitments to the bloc.

May’s authority took a battering when she called a snap election in June seeking to increase her majority in Parliament and strengthen her negotiating hand. The move backfired when voters stripped the Conservatives of their majority, leaving May reliant on support from a small Northern Ireland party to govern.

Opposition lawmakers, backed by some Conservatives, say they will try to amend the bill at the next stage, when it receives line-by-line scrutiny before a final vote. Conservative lawmakers signaled that the government would likely agree to water down the contentious Henry VIII powers.

Edward Leigh, a Conservative who backs Brexit, said the government should “be generous … accept some of the amendments” proposed by lawmakers.

UK universities face EU student exodus due to Brexit

September 08, 2017

LONDON (AP) — Growing up in a small Italian farming town, Andrea Guerini Rocco dreamed of pursuing a career in economics in a big, bustling city. Three years ago, he thought that city would be London. He did his undergraduate studies at the London School of Economics, earning good grades and working analyst internships he was passionate about. He was able to afford the lowered tuition for European Union students – half what other international students pay – and he didn’t need a visa to work and live in Britain.

Britain’s vote to leave the European Union changed all that. When the country leaves the bloc in 2019, there’s no promise that the financial and immigration perks for incoming European students and workers will remain.

So after the Brexit vote, when Rocco was preparing to enroll in a master’s degree, he decided to move to Columbia University in New York instead. Tuition is pricy and he’ll need more paperwork – but at least there’s clarity. He knows what he’s signing up for and can plan ahead.

“If Brexit was not happening I would have stayed in London,” the 22-year-old said. “The university is great. I love LSE.” He isn’t alone in having to reassess his plans. More than 60,000 EU students attend British universities, bringing brain power for employers, diversity and more than 400 million pounds ($518 million) of tuition money with them each year, on top of the 500 million pounds these universities receive in EU funding annually.

This year, EU applications to U.K. schools dropped for the first time in at least five years, by 5 percent. More than 2,500 young, bright Europeans took their talents elsewhere, rather than face the uncertainties of Brexit. The British government has promised that EU students starting before Brexit will pay reduced tuition prices and that they’ll stay visa-free until 2019 – and that’s about all they’ve promised.

If the British government doesn’t provide clarity for EU nationals and EU education funding, U.K. universities could lose over 1 billion pounds a year and some of their top students. That’s fewer bright minds staying and contributing to the British economy after graduation, innovating and producing – and paying taxes – in Britain. Until the government tells young EU nationals what they can expect post-Brexit, Britain’s education, financial and other crucial sectors may find themselves struggling to attract and retain the talent needed to stay competitive.

The Russell Group, which represents 24 U.K. universities, including LSE, Cambridge and Oxford, has repeatedly asked the British government to provide clarity for EU students, including assurances that they will be able to stay and work in Britain after graduation.

Some of the damage to Britain’s image as a welcoming environment seems to have already been done. Adrian Thomas, the director of communications at LSE, says that some of the applicants he’s spoken to were spooked by the focus on immigration in the Brexit debate.

Felix Heilmann, who is starting his second year at Oxford, was at home in Germany last year as he watched the Brexit referendum votes rolling in. He was prepping for his first year and had been excited to start studying at one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the world.

But that excitement turned to anxiety about how the referendum would affect his tuition, immigration status and social experience. “There was a very big feeling of, ‘Am I still welcome?'” Heilmann said.

While he hasn’t noticed any blatant discrimination at Oxford, he says EU students on campus are weighed down by the insecurity of their future options. He’s not sure if he’ll stay in the U.K. for graduate school, something he once took as certain.

If EU students no longer get the discounted tuition rates after Brexit, Heilmann and others like him will likely further their education at schools outside the U.K. Stefano Caselli, Dean for International Affairs at Bocconi, one of Italy’s top schools for business, says their applicant numbers have been on the rise since last year. He says Italian students who once flocked to the U.K. for a good education are now looking to earn a high quality degree at home, a trend that could rise faster if the prices of a school like LSE nearly doubles from 9,250 pounds ($12,062) to 18,408 pounds ($24,005). That jump is a huge difference for European students, in a culture where higher education is often virtually free or relatively inexpensive and families don’t save up for college funds.

“Today, many schools in Europe are offering programs in English. The faculty is diversified, with an incredible placement rate,” Caselli said. “And when you have all these parameters you start saying ‘Why would I move to the U.K.?'”

If Europe’s best and brightest choose continental schools like Bocconi, it’s not just British universities that suffer but also companies that will find it more difficult to recruit new talent. The finance industry, London’s economic backbone, is particularly vulnerable. Reza Moghadam, the vice-chairman for capital markets at investment bank Morgan Stanley, notes that around 80 percent of the finance industry’s recruits came from U.K. universities, but only 20 percent are British-born.

“We do need global talent,” he told a conference this summer. “The global diversity is important in terms of delivering global services.” Financial recruiters will have two options if European students head elsewhere for university – accept lower talent from a smaller pool, or build pipelines that extend beyond British schools.

But their tendency to rely on British-educated recruits is partially what makes finance-focused schools like LSE and London Business School so popular. If top talent goes elsewhere, and recruiters follow them, it erodes the schools’ brand name power.

Thomas says his LSE’s reputation is strong enough to combat the Brexit uncertainty working against it. Unlike many other U.K. schools, he says, LSE’s applicant numbers didn’t decrease post-referendum “because LSE on your CV is a read-through to a great job at the end of the day.”

David Kurten, the education spokesman for the U.K. Independence Party, which campaigned in favor of Brexit, also believes the appeal of schools like LSE and Oxford will endure. He notes that applications from international students outside of Europe, particularly East Asia, are on the rise, despite their higher tuition fee. “For every one EU student that doesn’t want to come, there’s two or three from China and the Far East who do,” Kurten said.

Such optimism is cold comfort for Rocco, who can’t risk his financial future and resident status on a brand. “If you need to pay the international student fees, you’re basically forced to go elsewhere,” Rocco said. “Most (Italian) students at LSE are middle class, so that tuition change is quite relevant. If this changes in the future, we expect Italian students at LSE to basically disappear.”

London’s Notting Hill Carnival honors tower fire victims

August 28, 2017

LONDON (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of people are expected at London’s Notting Hill Carnival, where celebrations will pause to remember victims of the deadly Grenfell Tower fire. The Caribbean carnival, billed as Europe’s biggest street party, winds through west London streets near the tower block gutted by a blaze in June that killed at least 80 people.

The carnival’s floats, steel bands and sound systems will fall silent Monday afternoon to remember those who died. The two-day festival opened Sunday with the release of dozens of white doves to commemorate the victims. Participants also held a minute’s silence Sunday for the fire victims.

Security has been tightened this year in the wake of vehicle and knife attacks across Europe, with steel barriers and concrete blocks around the edge of the route.

Brexodus: UK immigration falls as EU citizens leave Britain

August 24, 2017

LONDON (AP) — Net migration to Britain has fallen to a three-year low as a growing number of European Union citizens have left the country following last year’s Brexit referendum. Data released Thursday by the Office for National Statistics provides evidence that the uncertainty and economic jitters caused by Britain’s vote to quit the EU are deterring immigrants and sparking a “Brexodus.”

The statistics office said net migration — the difference between arrivals and departures — was 246,000 in the year to March 31, a fall of 81,000 on a year earlier. More than half the change was due to a decline of 51,000 people in net migration from the EU.

A total of 122,000 EU citizens left Britain in the year to March, up 31,000 from the year before and the highest outflow in nearly a decade. There was a particularly sharp rise in departures from citizens of the “EU 8” — the eastern European nations that joined the bloc in 2004. Hundreds of thousands of Poles, Lithuanians and other eastern Europeans moved to Britain to work after 2004.

EU citizens have the right to live and work in any member state, and more than 3 million nationals of other EU countries reside in Britain. When Britain leaves the EU in March 2019, it will have the power to set restrictions on the movement of people from the EU, leaving many EU citizens uncertain about their future rights in Britain.

Nicola White, head of international migration figures at the U.K. statistics office, said the figures “indicate that the EU referendum result may be influencing people’s decision to migrate into and out of the U.K., particularly EU and EU8 citizens.”

“It is too early to tell if this is an indication of a long-term trend,” she said. A fall in the value of the pound since last year’s referendum and a slowdown in the British economy may also be making the country less attractive to migrants. The statistics agency confirmed Thursday that the economy grew by a modest 0.3 percent in the second quarter of 2017 from the previous three months, slower than any other Group of Seven economy.

Pro-EU opposition politicians and business leaders said the decline in migration was an early-warning sign, and Britain would face a shortage of workers if it severely restricted immigration after Brexit.

Matthew Percival, head of employment at the Confederation of British Industry said the loss of “vital skills” should concern everyone in Britain. But Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative government, which has a longstanding and unmet pledge to cut net immigration below 100,000 a year, said the figures were “encouraging.”

“People who come to our country to work bring significant benefits to the U.K., but there is no consent for uncontrolled immigration,” said immigration minister Brandon Lewis.

Big Ben bell falls silent in London for repairs until 2021

August 21, 2017

LONDON (AP) — After more than 150 years as Britain’s most famous timekeeper, London’s Big Ben bell fell silent Monday for four years of repair work that will keep it quiet on all but a few special occasions.

The giant bell atop Parliament’s clock tower sent a dozen deep bongs into a gray sky at noon, marking the hour as it has done almost continuously since 1859. It is not due to resume its regular duties until 2021.

Hundreds of parliamentary staff, journalists and lawmakers gathered in a courtyard under the Victorian clock tower to mark the moment, while hundreds more tourists and passers-by lined sidewalks and filled nearby Parliament Square, cellphones held aloft.

The mood was light-hearted — it is, after all, just a bell — but total silence fell as the first bong sounded. The crowd burst into cheers and applause as the last faded away, and bells at nearby Westminster Abbey pealed a noisy farewell to their neighbor.

The bell is being stilled to allow workers to carry out much-needed maintenance to the clock and clock tower without being deafened. But a handful of lawmakers have criticized the lengthy silence, calling Big Ben an important symbol of British democracy. Prime Minister Theresa May said last week that “it can’t be right for Big Ben to be silent for four years.”

In response to the criticism, House of Commons officials have said they will take another look at the repairs schedule once Parliament returns next month from its summer break. Labour Party lawmaker Stephen Pound said it was sad to see the silencing of “the chimes of freedom.”

“You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” he said. And Pound expressed skepticism that the repair work would be finished on schedule in 2021. “Dream on,” he said. “Have you known any government project ever come in on time and on budget?”

Big Ben has been silenced by malfunction and for repairs before, most recently in 2007, but this stretch is by far the longest. Parliamentary officials say it will still be heard on special occasions such as New Year’s Eve.

The sound of the 13.5 U.K. ton (15.1 U.S. ton, 13.7 metric ton) bell became associated with Britain around the globe through World War II radio news broadcasts. The clock tower — also commonly called Big Ben, but formally named the Elizabeth Tower after Queen Elizabeth II — is one of London’s most-photographed buildings.

“Parliament and the clock tower and Big Ben are just iconic parts of London and Great Britain and so it’s very exciting to be out here and see it,” said Mitchell Polay, visiting one day recently from Yonkers, New York. “In the States when you think of England, that’s one of the first things that pop up into your mind.”

He felt there must be a way to keep Big Ben bonging. “We have an international space station,” Polay said. “I’m sure they could figure out a way to make a bell ring and not damage the hearing of the workers.”

During the repair work, scaffolding will obscure parts of the tower, and the clock faces will be covered at times — though at least one face will always be visible. Adam Watrobski, principal architect at the Houses of Parliament, said authorities are well aware of how much interest the bell and the tower generate.

“But you know at the end of the day all buildings have to be serviced,” he said. Watrobski added that once this round of work is finished, “the building will be sound and secure for the next 60 years or so.”

Kevin Scott and Caroline Spiezio contributed to this story.

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