EU Invites Iranian Foreign Minister Amid Rising Regional Tensions

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks with his Russia’s counterpart during a meeting in Moscow on December 30, 2019.
Yuri KADOBNOV / AFP

 

Iran’s foreign minister has been invited to Brussels, the European Union said Sunday, urging a “de-escalation of tensions” in the Gulf after US airstrikes that killed a top Iranian general.

The EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell made the offer to Mohammad Javad Zarif during a telephone call this weekend, a press release said.

“Borrell invited the Iranian Foreign Minister to Brussels to continue their engagement on these matters,” it said.

A regional political solution was the “only way forward”, Borrell said, underlining “the importance of preserving” the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

READ ALSO: US Lacks ‘Courage’ To Strike 52 Iranian sites – Army Chief

He confirmed “his resolve to continue to fully play his role as coordinator and keep the unity of the remaining participants in support of the agreement and its full implementation by all parties”.

US-Iran tensions have escalated since 2018 when President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States from the landmark accord that gave Tehran relief from sanctions in return for curbs on its nuclear programme.

Iran has hit back by reducing its nuclear commitments with a series of steps every 60 days, the most recent deadline passing Saturday.

Trump warned Saturday night that the US would hit Iran harder than ever before if it retaliates over the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force foreign operations.

He was killed in a US drone strike Friday near Baghdad international airport ordered by Trump, who accused the general of planning an imminent attack on American diplomats and troops in Iraq.

AFP

Boris Johnson Plans Law Blocking Brexit Delay Beyond 2020

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures as he speaks to supporters on a visit to meet newly elected Conservative party MP for Sedgefield, Paul Howell at Sedgefield Cricket Club in County Durham, northeast England on December 14, 2019, following his Conservative party’s general election victory. 
Lindsey Parnaby / POOL / AFP

 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson plans to pass a law guaranteeing Britain’s Brexit transition period cannot run beyond the end of 2020, a source in his office said on Tuesday.

Johnson won a big majority in last week’s election on a promise to take Britain out of the European Union by the end of January, followed by a transition period when London and Brussels negotiate a trade agreement.

European leaders have said the December 2020 deadline would be too tight to complete a comprehensive deal and the main opposition Labour party says Johnson’s proposal could lead to a no-deal outcome.

“Last week the public voted for a government that would get Brexit done and move this country forward — and that’s exactly what we intend to do, starting this week,” a Downing Street source said.

“Our manifesto made clear that we will not extend the implementation period and the new Withdrawal Agreement Bill will legally prohibit government agreeing to any extension.”

The House of Commons returns on Tuesday to elect a speaker and begins swearing in MPs.

The state opening of parliament will take place on Thursday when Queen Elizabeth II will read out the government’s legislative programme.

The Withdrawal Agreement Bill is due to be brought before MPs on Friday.

AFP

EU Condemns Violence, Intimidation In Kogi, Bayelsa Elections

Photo: EUinNigeria Twitter Handle

 

The European Union has condemned the reports of widespread incidents of violence and voter intimidation in Bayelsa and Kogi states.

A statement by the Diplomatic Watch also expressed alarm at the reports of fatalities and missing people, urging stakeholders to call for calm.

The Diplomatic Watch deployed teams from Austria, the European Union Delegation, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States to monitor both state elections on November 16.

“We express our alarm at reports of widespread incidents of violence and intimidation, some of which were witnessed by our teams in Kogi. There are reports of fatalities and people missing, including INEC staff. Our thoughts are with all victims and their families.

“We encourage all stakeholders, in particular, political leaders, to call for calm and we encourage security agencies to investigate thoroughly and bring perpetrators to justice.

“We are also concerned by evident vote-buying and credible reports of ballot box snatching in both Bayelsa and Kogi.”

READ ALSO: INEC Suspends Collation Of Kogi Election Results Till Monday

The EU commended the commitment of voters in both states who came out to vote and asked that those enshrined with the mandate to see through a smooth democratic process should continue to act in all capacity.

“We commend the commitment and resilience of voters in both states who came out to exercise their democratic rights. We express our sympathy for those affected by the violence, including ordinary voters; INEC officials; members of the NYSC; civil society; and the media. All should be able to carry out their fundamental role in the democratic process free from intimidation and harassment.”

Boris Johnson Warns EU He Will Not Delay Brexit

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks at the Leaders for Nature and People event during the Climate Action Summit 2019 in the United Nations General Assembly Hall on September 23, 2019.

 

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned the European Union on Sunday that he will not delay Brexit beyond October 31, underlining that his latest proposals are a last chance to reach a deal.

Johnson told French President Emmanuel Macron in a telephone call on Sunday that “the EU should not be lured into the mistaken belief that the UK will stay in the EU after October 31st”, a Downing Street spokesman quoted him as saying.

The UK premier said he would not request another delay, despite British MPs passing a law last month that requires him to seek another Brexit delay if he fails to secure an agreement by the end of a make-or-break EU summit on October 17-18.

This law was “undermining negotiations, but if EU leaders are betting that it will prevent no deal, that would be a historic misunderstanding”, a senior Downing Street source said.

“The UK has made a big, important offer but it’s time for the (European) Commission to show a willingness to compromise too. If not the UK will leave with no deal,” the source added.

European leaders have reacted tepidly to London’s latest propositions.

Britain has urged the EU to intensify talks over the proposals, as European leaders warned it must revise its plans within days in order to conclude a deal this month.

Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said the bloc needed to show “creativity and flexibility” ahead of October 31 — when Johnson has vowed to end the country’s 46 years of EU membership with or without an agreement.

With the EU asking for reworked proposals within days, an Elysee Palace spokesperson said Macron agreed in his call with Johnson that talks between EU top negotiator Michel Barnier’s team and British officials should continue in the coming days “to assess if an agreement is possible” by the end of the week.

Barclay reiterated that the ideas Johnson has formally submitted to Brussels were “a broad landing zone” and “intense negotiations” were now necessary.

“We’ve set out very serious proposals including compromise on our side,” he told the BBC.

“We do need to get into the intensive negotiations on the text to clarify what the deal is.”

Barclay added the government was considering holding a parliamentary vote ahead of the EU summit to show Brussels the plans have MPs’ support.

European leaders had reportedly balked at Britain’s request to keep initial discussions on the proposals going through the weekend, and they will resume on Monday, with time running out ahead of the EU summit.

 ‘No more dither’

Johnson began phoning European leaders at the weekend to sell his proposals, speaking to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte on Saturday.

Rutte tweeted he had told Johnson “important questions remain about the British proposals” and “there is a lot of work to be done ahead” of the summit.

Barnier told an event in France Saturday that while an agreement was still possible it “will be very difficult to reach”.

The British leader is hoping the threat of a messy no-deal departure in less than three weeks could force the EU to compromise.

Barclay said Sunday that the government would comply with the legislation requiring Johnson to seek another delay if no deal is reached.

But in identical articles for two Brexit-backing British tabloids, Johnson insisted the country will leave the bloc later this month.

 ‘Ready to work’

The British proposals submitted to Brussels Wednesday centre on how to manage the post-Brexit border between British province Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.

Johnson wants Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly — which has been suspended for almost three years — to vote every four years on whether to maintain EU rather than British regulations there.

He has also proposed the province leaves the EU’s customs union along with the rest of the UK, with required checks to rely on untried technology and carried out away from the sensitive border.

Brussels has said the plans “do not provide a basis for concluding an agreement”.

It sees the potential for rampant smuggling while Ireland is concerned hardline Northern Irish unionists would have an effective veto.

Barclay, who travelled to Amsterdam Sunday for Brexit talks, suggested Britain could be willing to consider alternative ways of meeting its aims.

“We’re ready to work on that,” he said.

Ireland’s leader Leo Varadkar said Saturday there is “plenty of time” to put forward alternatives and he was trying to arrange a meeting with Johnson next week, Irish broadcaster RTE reported.

AFP

EU Urges ‘Maximum Restraint’ Over Attacks On Saudi Oil Facilities

European Union, Ogbonnaya Onu, Science and technology

 

The European Union on Monday stressed its call for “maximum restraint” following weekend attacks on key Saudi oil facilities that have triggered bellicose words from the US, which blamed Iran.

EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic told journalists: “We see them (the attacks) as a real threat to regional security, and at a time that tensions in the region are running very high this attack undermines ongoing work at de-escalation and dialogue.”

No-Deal Brexit Would Betray Britain, Says Ex-Finance Minister

Photo: Stefan Rousseau / POOL / AFP

 

A no-deal Brexit would betray Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, former finance minister Philip Hammond said Wednesday, as he slammed Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s “wrecking” approach to negotiations.

Hammond, who quit as chancellor just hours before Johnson took over from Theresa May on July 24, said there was no popular or parliamentary mandate for a no-deal Brexit, saying most people wanted an orderly exit from the EU.

“No-deal would be a betrayal of the 2016 referendum result. It must not happen,” he wrote in The Times newspaper.

He said it could turn Britain into “a diminished and inward-looking little England”.

The British parliament three times rejected the withdrawal agreement May negotiated with Brussels, with many MPs troubled by the “backstop” — a mechanism that would keep the UK in EU customs arrangements to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland.

Hammond said the shift of position from seeking changes to the backstop to demanding its removal “is a pivot from a tough negotiating stance to a wrecking one”, setting an impossibly high bar.

“This is a demand the EU cannot, and will not, accede to.

“It’s time for our government to demonstrate its commitment to a genuine negotiation with the EU to achieve a deal.”

Britain is due to leave the European Union on October 31.

Johnson has pledged to stick to this date, whether a deal can be struck with Brussels or not.

Hammond said a no-deal Brexit would also threaten the United Kingdom’s integrity as it risked collapsing the peace accords in Northern Ireland and triggering a referendum on the province leaving the UK and joining the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state.

It would also lead to a second secession referendum in Scotland and the likely break-up of the UK, Hammond claimed.

He also said US talk of a “great trade deal” meant a trade deal that was great for them, opening up Britain to US produce that would “destroy British agriculture”.

Hammond warned that if parliament wanted to go down a particular route to prevent a no-deal Brexit, the means would emerge to allow that to happen.

John Bercow, the speaker of parliament’s lower House of Commons, warned seperately he would “fight it with every bone in my body” any attempt by Johnson to suspend parliament to force through no-deal against MPs’ wishes.

The Commons “must have its way”, he told an audience at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, according to The Daily Telegraph newspaper.

Johnson Putting UK On ‘Collision Course’ With EU – Irish minister

A video grab from footage broadcast by the UK Parliament’s Parliamentary Recording Unit (PRU) shows Britain’s new Prime Minister Boris Johnson making a statement in the House of Commons in London on July 25, 2019.

 

New Prime Minister Boris Johnson has deliberately set Britain on a “collision course” with the EU over Brexit negotiations, Ireland’s foreign minister was quoted as saying on Friday.

“He seems to have made a deliberate decision to set Britain on a collision course with the European Union and with Ireland in relation to the Brexit negotiations,” Simon Coveney was quoted by Irish state broadcaster RTE as saying in Belfast.

“I think only he can answer the question as to why he’s doing that.”

In his maiden parliamentary speech as prime minister on Thursday Johnson promised to press ahead with plans to reopen the deal agreed with the EU — despite firm pushback from other EU leaders.

Tension around the withdrawal deal centres on the so-called backstop — a mechanism designed to preserve the EU’s single market and prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland.

The clause was the chief reason the deal thrice failed to pass through the British parliament under Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May, bringing the nation to the brink of a crash out, requiring extensions from the EU and ultimately unseating her from power.

But on Thursday Johnson hardened rhetoric around a no-deal Brexit, which would see Britain leave the trading bloc without cushioning measures on October 31 if a deal cannot be brokered.

Coveney said Johnson’s remarks were “very unhelpful”.

“From a Brexit negotiating  perspective it was a very bad day yesterday, and we’ll have to wait and see whether that message coming from London changes,” he said.

EU Says May Resignation Changes Nothing In Brexit Talks

 

The European Union said Friday that Prime Minister Theresa May’s resignation does nothing to change its position on the Brexit withdrawal deal that its members agreed with Britain.

EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker noted May’s decision “without personal joy,” a spokeswoman said, adding that the council of EU leaders has “set out its position” on the Brexit deal.

READ ALSO: Macron Urges ‘Rapid Clarification’ On Brexit As May Steps Down

Some of the candidates to replace May as leader of the Conservative Party and thus prime minister have said they would seek to change the terms of the divorce deal she negotiated.

But commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva old reporters that the other 27 EU leaders had approved the deal as it stands and that there are no plans to re-open its terms.

As has long been the case, Brussels could envisage modifying a non-binding political declaration that accompanies the Brexit treaty to flesh out ambitions for future EU-UK ties.

But the withdrawal agreement, which May tried and failed three times to get past the British parliament, is not up for renegotiation, Andreeva said, reiterating the EU stance.

Juncker, she said, “very much liked and appreciated working with Prime Minister May and, as he as said before, Theresa May is a woman of courage for whom he has great respect.

“He will equally respect and establish working relations with any new prime minister, whoever they may be, without stoping his conversations with Prime Minister May,” she said.

“Our position on the Withdrawal Agreement and anything else has been set out by Margaritis yesterday. There is no change to that,” she added, referring to chief EU spokesman Margaritis Schinas.

On Thursday, Schinas had told reporters: “Our position is clear: the divorce agreement, the withdrawal agreement, cannot be reopened, cannot be renegotiated.

“The European Council has included in its conclusions several sentences which say that the political declaration can be reviewed if and as long as it does not undermine the spirit of the agreement.”

Separately, the EU official who negotiated the agreement with May, Michel Barnier tweeted: “I would like to express my full respect for @theresa_may and for her determination, as Prime Minister, in working towards the UK’s orderly withdrawal from the EU.

AFP

EU Condemns Trump’s Withdrawal From UN Arms Trade Treaty

 

The European Union warned Saturday that US President Donald Trump’s rejection of a UN treaty designed to regulate the global arms trade would hamper the global fight against illicit weapons trafficking.

“A decision by the US to revoke its signature would not contribute to the ongoing efforts to encourage transparency in the international arms trade, to prevent illicit trafficking and to combat the diversion of conventional arms,” said the EU’s chief diplomat, Federica Mogherini.

“The EU will continue to call on all states, and in particular the major arms exporters and importers, to join the Arms Trade Treaty without delay,” she said.

READ ALSO: Trump Rejects “Misguided” UN Arms Treaty

Trump said Friday the United States would not abide by the 2013 treaty aimed at regulating the global arms trade, calling it “misguided” and encroachment on US sovereignty.

The US Senate never ratified the treaty after former president Barack Obama endorsed it. Trump said he was revoking his predecessor’s signature.

Mogherini said the EU viewed the pact — which seeks to regulate the flow of weapons to conflict zones — as key to “contributing to international efforts to ensure peace, security and stability.

“All 28 Member States have joined the ATT and are determined in pursuing its objectives and its universal ratification and implementation,” Mogherini said.

The treaty, which entered into effect in December 2014, requires member countries to keep records of international transfers of weapons and to prohibit cross-border shipments that could be used in human rights violations or attacks on civilians.

While 130 countries originally signed the treaty, only 101 have ratified it. Those include major powers like France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

The world’s largest arms traders, the United States, China and Russia, have not joined.

“The unregulated arms trade continues to cause major suffering in many parts of the world, fuelling conflicts, terrorism and organised crime,” Mogherini said.

“Small arms and light weapons kill around 500,000 people every year, in addition to the victims of other conventional weapons.”

Trump has already withdrawn the United States from the Paris Agreement on curbing Earth-warming carbon emissions, signed by most of the world’s nations.

He has also taken the country out of a multilateral nuclear deal on Iran, as well as a Cold War-era arms treaty with Russia.

The EU has hit out at each of these moves, which have soured transatlantic ties and relations between Washington and its European allies in NATO.

AFP

EU Unveils Ethics Guidelines For Artificial Intelligence

European Union, Ogbonnaya Onu, Science and technology

 

The European Union presented ethics guidelines Monday as it seeks to promote its own artificial intelligence sector, which has fallen behind developments in China and the United States.

The European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, unveiled a framework aimed at boosting trust in AI by ensuring, for example, data about EU citizens are not used to harm them.

“Ethical AI is a win-win proposition that can become a competitive advantage for Europe: being a leader of human-centric AI that people can trust,” Commission Vice President Andrus Ansip said.

The guidelines list seven key requirements for “trustworthy AI” established by independent experts consulted by the Commission.

Among them is one ensuring that data about citizens will not be used to harm them or to discriminate against them.

The measures also call for mechanisms to ensure accountability for AI systems and for AI algorithms to be secure and reliable enough to deal with errors or inconsistencies.

The Commission now aims to launch a pilot phase in which industry, research, and public authorities test the list of key requirements.

It will also involve companies from other countries and international organisations.

The Commission aims to improve cooperation with “like-minded partners” such as Japan, Canada or Singapore and continue working with the G7 and G20 groups of leading economies.

The updated guidelines flow from the Commission’s AI strategy unveiled in April last year, which aimed to bring public and private investment in the sector to at least 20 billion euros annually over the next decade.

Europe is trying to catch up with both the US and China.

A study published last month showed that China is poised to overtake the United States in artificial intelligence with a surge in academic research on the key technology.

A burgeoning sector, AI is already used to recognise people in photos, filter unwanted content from online platforms and enable cars to drive themselves.

UK Issues Passports Without ‘European Union’ On Cover

courtesy: Susan Hindle Barone Twitter handle

 

Britain has begun issuing passports with the words “European Union” removed from the front cover — despite Brexit being delayed and its political leaders deadlocked over how to extricate the country from the bloc.

The interior ministry said Saturday that a longstanding decision to start introducing passports without reference to the EU had gone ahead from March 30, the day after the original date for Brexit.

Prime Minister Theresa May has delayed leaving the bloc after 46 years of membership amid stubborn opposition in parliament to the divorce deal she finalised with European leaders in November.

MPs have overwhelmingly rejected the agreement three times.

READ ALSOUK Govt Open To Brexit Compromise With Opposition, Says Finance Minister

Ahead of an EU summit on Wednesday, she was forced to ask them for another extension, until June 30, to prevent Britain departing with no deal at the end of next week.

But with EU heads growing increasingly impatient at the political paralysis in Westminster, they could offer just a shorter postponement — or a longer period of up to a year.

The other 27 members must give unanimous backing to any extension.

May is trying to break the parliamentary gridlock by striking a compromise deal with the main Labour opposition.

Senior ministers have spent several days negotiating with its leaders, but there were signs Friday that talks were stalling after Labour complained of no “real change or compromise”.

British finance minister Philip Hammond nonetheless struck an optimistic tone at a meeting Saturday of European finance ministers in Bucharest, telling reporters there were “no red lines” in the ongoing discussions.

“I expect we will reach some form of agreement,” he predicted.

– ‘Restore national identity’ –
In an apt sign of the befuddling circumstances around Brexit, Britain’s interior ministry confirmed that some newly-issued passports now omit references to the EU atop the cover while others still bear the bloc’s name.

It said the discrepancy was due to an attempt to save public money and insisted both designs would be “equally valid for travel”.

“In order to use leftover stock and achieve best value for the taxpayer, passports that include the words ‘European Union’ will continue to be issued for a short period,” a spokeswoman added.

British passports have become ensnared in the country’s Brexit divisions after the government announced in 2017 it would return to traditional blue passports “to restore national identity”.

The travel documents had dark blue covers from 1921, but Britain switched to burgundy from 1988, in common with other passports in what was then the European Community.

Brexit backers are thrilled by the highly symbolic change, while those who support remaining in the bloc have mocked their excitement.

Last year it emerged that Franco-Dutch company Gemalto had won the contract to make the new blue passports, prompting fury from Brexit campaigners and more ridicule from Remainers that a British company was not chosen.

The new production contract is to begin in October 2019, with the passports currently being issued without reference to the EU on them still in the burgundy colour.

– ‘Listen to suggestions’ –
Whether Britain will have left the bloc by then is uncertain.

Many of May’s Conservative colleagues are vociferously opposed to her outreach to Labour, while hardline Brexiteers remain implaccably opposed to her deal.

Hammond, who backed Remain in Britain’s 2016 referendum and is seen as favouring as soft a Brexit as possible, urged his divided party to show flexibility.

“We should be open to listen to suggestions that others have made and some people in the Labour Party are making other suggestions,” he said.

Labour is pushing for a much closer post-Brexit alliance with the EU that includes participation in a customs union.

May has previously dismissed the idea because it bars Britain from striking its own trade deals with global giants such as China and the United States.

Labour’s home affairs spokeswoman Diane Abbott said Saturday her team must compromise.

“The government perhaps has to show a little more flexibility than it seems to have done so far,” she told the BBC.

British PM May Seeks Brexit Extension Until June 30

A video grab from footage broadcast by the UK Parliament’s Parliamentary Recording Unit (PRU) shows Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May speaking during the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) question and answer session in the House of Commons in London on March 27, 2019. 
HO / PRU / AFP

 

Prime Minister Theresa May asked the European Union on Friday to delay Britain’s departure from the bloc until June 30, with the extension ending earlier if parliament approves her Brexit deal.

“The United Kingdom proposes that (the extension) should end on June 30 2019. If the parties are able to ratify before this date, the government proposes that the period should be terminated earlier,” May wrote in a letter to EU Council president Donald Tusk.

Downing Street released May’s letter moments after a senior EU official told AFP that Tusk was proposing to postpone Brexit day by up to a year, also pending parliament’s approval of the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement.

READ ALSO: EU Council, Tusk To Offer Flexible 12-Month Brexit Delay – Official

The current deadline is April 12, which has already been pushed back once from March 29 because of the UK parliament’s failure on three occasions to back the deal May signed with the other 27 EU leaders in December.

In her letter, May said she wanted to make sure that Britain left the bloc after 46 years in an orderly manner, with an agreement that could help unwind intricate political, security, diplomatic and economic ties.

“The government’s policy has always been and remains to leave the European Union in an orderly way, and without undue delay,” May wrote.

“The government agrees that leaving with a deal is the best outcome,” she said.

AFP