Archive for the ‘British politics’ Category

Johnson to Tusk: No, you’re ‘Mr No Deal’

BIARRITZ, France — Boris Johnson shot back swiftly at Donald Tusk’s jibe that he could go down in history as “Mr No Deal” by suggesting the nickname may end up applying to the European Council chief.

Speaking to reporters on Saturday on the plane en route to the G7 summit in Biarritz, the British prime minister suggested that if the EU did not drop the Northern Ireland backstop from the Brexit deal, it would be Tusk who would carry responsibility for the U.K. crashing out without an agreement.

“I’ve made it absolutely clear I don’t want a no-deal Brexit but I say to our friends in the EU: If they don’t want a no-deal Brexit then you’ve got to get rid of the backstop from the treaty,” Johnson said. “If Donald Tusk doesn’t want to go down as Mr No-Deal Brexit then I hope that point would be borne in mind by him too.”

The two leaders will meet on the sidelines of the summit on Sunday, with the U.K. and the EU still talking past one another on the possibility of renegotiating Theresa May’s Brexit deal in time to avoid the U.K. leaving without an agreement on the October 31 deadline.

Tusk said at his pre-summit press conference earlier on Saturday that the EU would be willing to discuss “operational and realistic” alternatives to the backstop, if and when the U.K. puts them on the table.

Asked when this would happen, Johnson said that there were “a large range of alternative arrangements” which “will be discussed with our friends in the coming weeks.”

“We will be discussing things in great detail as you would expect,” he added, when pressed on timing.

Hopes of a breakthrough are low, with EU leaders including Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron showing no appetite to drop the backstop from the Withdrawal Agreement.

EU leaders have an eye on the coming battle in the U.K. parliament in September, when MPs are expected to try to block Johnson taking the U.K. out of the EU with no deal.

Asked what he would do if MPs legislated for a Brexit extension, Johnson swerved the question.

“It’s parliament’s job now to respect not just the will of the people but to remember what the overwhelming majority of them promised to do over and over and over again and that is to get Brexit done,” he said.

Asked about his relations with Tusk ahead of the meeting, and the European Council president’s comment that those who promoted Brexit without a plan had a “special place in hell”, Johnson said: “I had great relations with our friends and partners in the EU and intend to continue to improve them the whole time without getting into any post-Brexit eschatology with the president of the Council.”

Eschatology is the field of theology concerned with death, judgement and the final destiny of humankind.

Boris Johnson’s double Donald dilemma

LONDON — For Boris Johnson, the G7 will be a tale of two Donalds.

The new U.K. prime minister flies into Biarritz Saturday lunchtime, determined to show the world Britain has its mojo back. The centerpiece of his weekend is a meeting first thing Sunday with Donald Trump. Hours later, Johnson will come face-to-face with Donald Tusk.

“My message to G7 leaders this week is this: The Britain I lead will be an international, outward-looking, self-confident nation,” Johnson said in his pre-summit statement. Those who think Brexit — even the no-deal Brexit he is prepared to enact in just 10 weeks’ time — means the U.K. retreating from the world are “gravely mistaken,” he added.

If the Trump meeting is likely to be hailed by Johnson as an exemplar of the U.K.’s new place in the world, the Tusk one will be a reminder of the fractious Brexit process he needs to navigate before he can pursue that agenda with gusto.

In truth, neither head-to-head will be easy. While in style Johnson might appear to share the straight-talking rambunctiousness of his North American ally, in substance many of the prime minister’s policy positions remain closely aligned with those of his continental counterparts. Play too nicely with one and he risks antagonizing the other — or worse still, being stranded, lonely in the middle.

European Council President Donald Tusk | Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images

Trump might talk up his good relations with Johnson, choose the prime minister as his first bilateral of the summit and discuss the agenda with him by phone beforehand, and Johnson may enjoy sharing the limelight with a U.S. president, but the two countries are far apart on key foreign policy questions, particularly on Iran and climate change. Regarding a new U.S.-U.K. trade deal, despite public confidence, officials in London are under no illusions about the serious hurdles that need to be overcome.

As for Tusk-Johnson, the European Council president said in February said there is a “special place in hell” for those who championed Brexit without a plan to carry it out. Most thought he was referring to Johnson, the champion of the 2016 Vote Leave campaign, who was then a backbench MP opposing Theresa May’s Brexit deal.

As fellow leaders, their diplomatic relations haven’t been much more cordial. This week, Tusk responded to a letter from Johnson requesting that a key pillar of May’s deal — the Northern Ireland backstop — be removed, by effectively accusing the U.K. prime minister of wanting to reimpose a hard border on the island of Ireland.

And despite some warm words and mixed messages from Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel this week, a new deal before October 31 that could avert an economically disruptive, crashout Brexit still looks unlikely, and Johnson knows it.

“I want to caution everybody, OK? Because this is not going to be a cinch, this is not going to be easy. We will have to work very hard to get this thing done,” he told broadcasters on Friday. No wonder then that the other message Johnson intends to convey to Tusk on Sunday, according to officials, is that the U.K. really means it (this time) when it says it will leave with no deal.

Looking both ways

The paradox of Boris Johnson’s G7 agenda is that while the Trump meeting is at its heart, his other key messages could hardly sound more different to those of the U.S. president.

A convinced advocate of global action to combat climate change and protect the environment, the U.K. prime minister joined French President Emmanuel Macron in advance of the summit in highlighting the seriousness of the “heartbreaking” Amazon rainforest fire.

On Russia, he opposes Trump’s wish to invite President Vladimir Putin back into the G7 fold, and on perhaps the most pressing foreign policy issue on the summit agenda — Iran — he stands with France and Germany.

U.K. officials indicated in advance of the summit that there is no change in the U.K.’s support for the nuclear deal, and that London, despite the change of leadership, is still not supportive of the U.S. “maximum pressure” on Iran strategy.

New Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is, one official said, more inclined to a hard-line stance on Iran than his predecessor, Jeremy Hunt (Johnson’s vanquished leadership rival), but the overall direction of U.K. foreign policy — on this and much else — has not radically changed.

This much was clear from Johnson’s pre-summit statement.

“We face unprecedented global challenges at the very time when public trust in the institutions designed to address them risks being undermined,” he said. “International tensions and new trade barriers are threatening global growth. Violence and conflict are trapping countries in poverty, depriving children, and particularly girls, of the universal right to education. Climate change is accelerating the devastating and unprecedented loss of habitats and species.”

It’s not a pitch tailor-made to appeal to Donald Trump.

Nor will the two leaders necessarily find an easy path to a new trade deal between their countries. In private, U.K. officials recognize the difficulties involved in securing a post-Brexit trade deal with the U.S. — namely ensuring protection for U.K. farmers and the NHS, while persuading Washington to open up the U.S. market to the U.K.’s services firms.

Boris Johnson (L) and U.S. President Donald Trump greet before a meeting on United Nations Reform at UN headquarters in New York on September 18, 2017. | Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Talk of a series of mini-deals, promoted by Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton on a recent visit to London, is not considered viable in London, and Downing Street is downplaying any suggestion of a timetable for negotiations emerging from the Trump-Johnson meeting.

“The prime minister and president have both repeatedly expressed their commitment to delivering an ambitious U.K.-U.S. free-trade agreement and to starting negotiations as soon as possible,” a Downing Street spokesperson said.  “Of course we want to move quickly, but we want to get the right deal that works for both sides.”

Johnson’s real fight back home

And then, of course, there’s Brexit.

Angela Merkel’s suggestion on Wednesday of a 30-day timetable to find a solution briefly raised hopes in the U.K. that the EU might climb down from its refusal to countenance a reopening of the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement struck with May.

However, EU officials have been clear that there has been no change of position and that it is still up to the U.K. to come up with what Tusk on Monday called “realistic alternatives” to the Northern Ireland backstop plan.

While Macron hinted on Thursday at more talks led by the EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier, the EU has not dropped its insistence that the backstop stays in the Withdrawal Agreement.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

As Merkel in particular emphasized, the non-legally binding Political Declaration on the future relationship between the U.K. and the EU — the second element of the Brexit deal — can be changed, and Barnier is authorized to start talking about that. But without changes to the Withdrawal Agreement the U.K. won’t be at the table — so deadlock looks likely to persist.

EU leaders also have half an eye on Johnson’s home front. MPs return to parliament in little over a week’s time, and opposition parties and Conservative rebels are expected to fight tooth and nail to block Johnson from taking the U.K. out of the EU on October 31 without a deal. While it is not yet a public position, many government officials are convinced Johnson will seek an election to prevent the House of Commons — where he has a majority of one — standing in his way.

For now, that is where Johnson’s real fight lies, and until he wins it, his fellow G7 leaders will be justified in wondering how long his tenure as a member of their exclusive club will be.

David Herszenhorn and Gaby Orr contributed reporting for this article.

Johnson to push at G7 for Osborne as IMF chief

LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson will lobby for former Chancellor George Osborne to be the next leader of the International Monetary Fund at this weekend’s G7 summit, according to a U.K. official.

Downing Street wants to nominate a candidate to replace Christine Lagarde as IMF managing director and, while Osborne has not been announced as the preferred choice, an official familiar with the government’s strategy said Johnson would have discussions at the G7 about his potential candidacy.

The EU has already chosen to endorse Kristalina Georgieva, the World Bank‘s chief executive. Nominations close on September 6. The U.K. official said there had been concerns the EU “rushed” the decision to nominate the Bulgarian, but any move to install a Briton would also be viewed as a deliberate bid to assert U.K. influence on the global stage after Brexit.

Osborne was chancellor from 2010 to 2016 and right-hand man to then-Prime Minister David Cameron. He has been editor of the London Evening Standard newspaper since May 2017, after being sacked as chancellor by Theresa May in one of her first acts as prime minister. Under his editorship the newspaper has argued against a hard Brexit that could be damaging for London’s financial services sector. However, the paper backed Johnson in the Conservative leadership contest, despite his advocating for Brexit to happen on October 31, with or without a deal.

Merkel: I didn’t mean 30 days as a fixed Brexit deadline

BERLIN — When Angela Merkel said a no-deal Brexit could be averted within 30 days, she didn’t actually mean 30 days.

The German chancellor told Boris Johnson on Wednesday she sees “possibilities” to solve the Irish backstop problem and avoid a no-deal Brexit but it is up to the U.K. to come up with a workable plan. “We can maybe find it in the next 30 days,” the chancellor said, standing alongside Johnson in Berlin.

A day later and Merkel clarified what she meant. “I said that what one can achieve in three or two years can also be achieved in 30 days,” she said during a visit to The Hague, according to Reuters.

“The 30 days were meant as an example to highlight the fact that we need to achieve it in a short time because Britain had said they want to leave the European Union on October 31,” Merkel said.

French President Emmanuel Macron said Thursday that the U.K. and EU will not be able to find a new Brexit agreement that’s different to the existing one in 30 days.

UK government yet to commission Australian migration system review

A month after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to commission a report into Australia’s points-based migration system, he still hasn’t done so, according to the independent committee that would be charged with conducting the review.

“For years, politicians have promised the public an Australian-style points based system,” Johnson said on July 25 in his first speech to the British parliament after replacing Theresa May as PM. “And today I will actually deliver on those promises — I will ask the Migration Advisory Committee to conduct a review of that system as the first step in a radical rewriting of our immigration system.”

But the committee said Johnson’s government has yet to request the review.

“At present we have not received the commission to look at an Australian points-based system for the U.K.,” a Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) official said. “We look forward to receiving more detail on the commission in due course.”

According to the MAC official, it could take about six months to produce a report, though the actual timing would depend on the details of the commission itself.

“I don’t know if they’re going to give us this [commission] separately or as a sort of light-touch one as part of another commission. That’s what we’re waiting for at the moment — whether it’s going to be a real in-depth one, or an initial look and then an in-depth one later,” the official said. “I can’t give you more information at the moment because we’re not sure ourselves.”

Speculation about the commission “stemmed from just a comment [Johnson] made in parliament,” the official continued. “It’s much more work than just saying that and then expecting the answers, isn’t it?”

A No. 10 spokesperson said: “The PM has instructed the Home Office to task the MAC,” and “they will be actioning this in due course.”

A Home Office spokesperson said that Johnson has “set out this government’s ambitious vision for a new immigration system that is open to the world and brings the brightest and best to the U.K.”

“As part of this, the home secretary will shortly commission the independent Migration Advisory Committee to review the Australian-style points-based system,” the spokesperson added.

Earlier this month, a spokeswoman for the prime minister said Johnson’s post-Brexit immigration plan is still “being developed” but insisted that freedom of movement “will end” on October 31, when the U.K. is due to leave the EU. “The prime minister has obviously been clear he wants to introduce an Australian-style points base immigration system,” the spokeswoman added at the time.

Johnson backed the points-based system when he led the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 EU referendum, and has repeatedly said he wanted to introduce the system in the U.K. after Brexit.

Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting.

This article has been updated with a response from a Home Office spokesperson.

EU migration to UK sinks to lowest level since 2013

LONDON — EU migration to the United Kingdom has fallen to its lowest level in six years, according to the Office for National Statistics.

In the year ending March 2019, 200,000 EU citizens were estimated to have moved to the U.K., the ONS said Thursday. The number of EU citizens arriving in the U.K. has fallen continually since 2016, the year the country voted for Brexit.

This is the lowest figure since the year ending June 2013, when it was an estimated 183,000. The ONS said the recent drop was mostly due to a decline in people moving to the U.K. for work.

Only about 59,000 more EU nationals arrived than left in the year ending March 2019, the ONS said. In the year ending June 2016, EU net migration to the UK stood at 189,000.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said free movement of people from the EU “will end” on October 31.

Matthew Fell, chief U.K. policy director at business lobby group CBI, said that the downward trend in EU net migration, combined with record-low unemployment “means that skills shortages are getting worse.”

Overall, about 612,000 people moved to the U.K. in the year ending March 2019, while 385,000 people emigrated, according to the ONS. This leaves total net migration to the U.K. at 226,000.

The data was released one day after the ONS admitted that long-term migration from the EU to the U.K. between 2009 and 2016 had been underestimated by as much as a quarter of a million people.

The ONS acknowledged there was a discrepancy between migration statistics and population statistics, as the former are drawn from the International Passenger Survey, which asks people arriving in the U.K. about their future residency plans.

“Europeans don’t necessarily know what they are going to do, they can change their mind and they don’t need to answer truthfully,” Jonathan Portes, an economist at King’s College London, said.

Merkel to Johnson: Let’s find a Brexit plan in 30 days

BERLIN — Angela Merkel told Boris Johnson on Wednesday she sees “possibilities” to solve the Irish backstop problem and avoid a no-deal Brexit but said it is up to the U.K. to come up with a workable plan.

“I see possibilities, shaping the future relationship to address this point,” said Merkel of the contentious backstop — meant to ensure there is no return to a hard border on the island of Ireland — in the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated between the EU and the U.K. under Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May.

“We can maybe find it in the next 30 days,” the chancellor said, standing alongside Johnson at a brief press conference before the two leaders held talks over dinner.

Despite such hopeful rhetoric, Merkel’s comments indicated she continues to oppose reopening the Withdrawal Agreement and is sticking to the EU line that any changes should come in the political declaration that sets out the future relationship between Britain and the bloc.

Hosting Johnson for talks on his first overseas visit as prime minister at her Berlin chancellery, she put the responsibility on Westminster to come up with a solution.

“Britain should tell us what kind of ideas it has. It is not the core task of a German chancellor to understand [the relationship of Ireland and Northern Ireland],” she said. “We have shown imagination and creativity in the past as the EU.”

Johnson was given military honors on arrival at the chancellery, during which both the two leaders were seated following Merkel’s recent health troubles. While the Bundeswehr band played the national anthems, a small group of protesters shouted “stop Brexit!” during interludes.

“Of course I think there’s ample scope to do a deal,” said Johnson alongside the chancellor, before offering a mangled “wir schaffen das” — a reference to a phrase used by Merkel during the 2015 migration crisis.

The chancellor offered a wry smirk in response.

Merkel gave no indication she is about to make a big concession on the backstop to avoid a no-deal Brexit. “We have said time and again that we are prepared for a no deal,” she said.

Johnson is scheduled to travel on to Paris for talks with French President Emmanuel Macron over lunch on Thursday. But officials in the French capital warn the position will be the same on the other side of the Rhine.

“There is not the thickness of a cigarette paper between [the German and French positions],” an Elysée official said.

Rym Momtaz contributed reporting.

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