Posts Tagged ‘mobility’

‘Global Britain’ plans forced to take a back seat over climate

LONDON — Looks like it will still be Little England for now.

A court’s decision Thursday that plans to build a third runway at Heathrow airport didn’t properly take into account the U.K.’s climate targets puts into jeopardy the country’s ambition to become a freewheeling, free-trading nation that transcends its immediate neighborhood.

The ruling, met predictably with dismay from industry and celebration among climate activists, leaves the government in a bind. U.K. policymakers have been some of the most ambitious in Europe on climate goals. But they face a treacherous post-Brexit economy for which a third runway at the Continent’s biggest airport was an insurance policy.

No one better encapsulates that dilemma than Boris Johnson. He was one of the most vocal critics of a third runway before becoming prime minister, when he served a constituency in West London battered by the noise and pollution of flights every 45 seconds.

Now he is entrusted with the responsibility of navigating an uncertain economic future for the U.K. beyond this year, and has been tacit about the project.

“The third runway was approved solely because of Brexit” — Industry official

Heathrow said Thursday it will appeal. But it won’t get the government’s backing, which said it will not challenge the court’s decision.

“Expanding Heathrow, Britain’s biggest port and only hub, is essential to achieving the prime minister’s vision of Global Britain. We will get it done the right way, without jeopardizing the planet’s future,” an airport spokesperson said Thursday.

“We take seriously our commitments on the environment, clean air and reducing carbon emissions. We will carefully consider this complex judgment and set out our next steps in due course,” said Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.

Flights vs. climate

Heathrow saw 80 million passengers pass through the airport last year, and can’t carry many more — it’s operating at 98 percent capacity. The hope of the last British government was that another runway would allow an additional 260,000 flights, many of which would allow access for faraway countries, whose trading potential would be unlocked.

The U.K.’s own study says a new runway would add £1 billion to the U.K. economy every year for the next 60 years. Based on those estimates, the British parliament in 2018 voted strongly in favor of the project. (Johnson, then foreign secretary, was in Afghanistan at the time and missed the vote.)

Prime Minister Boris Johnson had been a critic of Heathrow expansion | Pool photo by Tim Clarke/Getty Images

“The third runway was approved solely because of Brexit,” said one industry official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

But climate policy — buoyed by protests and more frequent bouts of extreme weather — has shot up as a political priority in tandem.

The government in 2019 was proud to present itself as the “first major economy in the world” to legally require itself to reach climate neutrality by 2050. Despite wrangling over deregulation in the Brexit negotiations, the U.K. has promised that plan will not be affected by its departure from the EU.

Thursday’s ruling — which set a legal precedent that all major infrastructure projects need to be evaluated for their potential to harm or bolster the U.K.’s climate goals — has in effect prioritized the country’s climate targets over its economic concerns.


The judgment — which the government has effectively accepted in announcing it will not appeal — requires the government to undertake a review to figure out how to make expansion compatible with its climate goals.

There is likely to be economic fallout in the meantime, as investors mull pulling out of the Heathrow runway project altogether.

“There’s no global Britain without Heathrow expansion. It’s as simple as that” — Heathrow CEO John Holland-Kaye

“It doesn’t make sense to us for the government or any private entity to be putting large amounts of money into infrastructure that is predicated on missing those climate goals, because in the end it can become massively stranded and that is not something we want to see,” said Natasha Landell-Mills from assets manager firm Sarasin and Partners, which invests on behalf of others in the Heathrow expansion.

“This case is a wake-up call for investors as well as the government and everybody that these promises made under the Paris climate agreement are real … by definition we need to move capital away from activities and infrastructure that is harming the planet,” she said.

Heathrow, which last week committed itself to becoming a carbon-neutral airport facility (minus the flights), said it is confident the expansion can be made compatible with climate goals, and will go ahead.

It warned the government that without the extra runway, the U.K. risks that “trade and tourism volumes are being handed on a plate to European competitors.” Speaking to the BBC before the ruling, Heathrow CEO John Holland-Kaye framed the debate in stark terms: “There’s no global Britain without Heathrow expansion. It’s as simple as that.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a comment from Heathrow airport to the government.

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Heathrow Airport expansion ruled illegal by UK court

LONDON — The expansion of London’s Heathrow Airport has been ruled illegal by the Court of Appeal of the High Court of England and Wales, which on Thursday ruled the project did not adequately take into consideration the U.K.’s environmental commitments.

The judges said former Transport Secretary Chris Grayling did not take enough account of the U.K.’s climate change pledges under the Paris Agreement when considering the plan to build a third runway at Heathrow, the world’s second busiest airport. The Paris deal requires signatory countries to pursue efforts to keep global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius and well below 2 degrees.

The judges also did not overturn the High Court’s dismissal of the other challenges on air and noise pollution, traffic, and the costs of the runway.

The court said a review of the project should now follow. The remit and the timeline of such a review will be decided by the current transport secretary, Grant Shapps.

The House of Commons gave consent to the private multibillion-pound expansion of the airport in 2018. Heathrow estimates the cost of building the new runway by 2028-29 would be about £14 billion.

The airport argues the expansion is necessary because of a lack of capacity in the southeast of England, which could hamper the U.K.’s ambitions to expand its global trade post Brexit, especially to emerging cargo markets. Jewelry, machinery and medicines are the most-exported goods from Heathrow.

The case against the British government under Theresa May was brought by a group of councils in London affected by the proposed expansion; environmental campaign groups including Friends Of The Earth, Greenpeace and Plan B; and Mayor of London Sadiq Khan.

The government has not yet asked to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, but Heathrow Airport has said it will. “The Court of Appeal dismissed all appeals against the government — including on ‘noise’ and ‘air quality’ — apart from one which is eminently fixable. We will appeal to the Supreme Court on this one issue and are confident that we will be successful,” an airport spokesperson said.

The court’s ruling is the first in the world to be based on the Paris Agreement and could inspire more legal challenges against infrastructure projects in other countries.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman told journalists on Wednesday that “in order to proceed, Heathrow must demonstrate that it can meet its air quality and noise obligations, that the project can be financed and built and that the business case is realistic.” Johnson opposed the expansion of the airport when he was mayor of London.

London Mayor Khan said he is “delighted that the Court of Appeal has recognized that the government cannot ignore its climate change responsibilities. I will continue to stand up for Londoners’ concerns by doing everything I can to stop the Heathrow expansion.”

UK publishes Brexit trade mandate, warns it’s ready for no deal

LONDON — The U.K. Thursday unveiled its negotiating strategy for a trade deal with the EU — but warned that preparations to end the Brexit transition period without an agreement would begin immediately.

Downing Street’s document titled “The Future Relationship With the EU” lays out negotiating aims on things like fishing and financial services, as well as controversial “level playing field” rules, which would set out the extent to which the U.K. must align to EU regulations in exchange for market access.

Brussels wants Britain to agree to follow its laws on things like labor standards and environmental rights, to avoid being undercut by such a close neighbor. But the U.K., while insisting it will maintain high standards, wants full control over the future direction of its regulations, arguing other nations like Canada have full autonomy and that the geographical proximity between Britain and the EU is irrelevant.

“Whatever happens, the government will not negotiate any arrangement in which the U.K. does not have control over its own laws and political life,” the document reads. “That means that we will not agree to any obligations for our laws to be aligned with the EU’s or for the EU’s institutions, including the Court of Justice, to have any jurisdiction in the U.K.”

Speaking in the House of Commons, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said Britain is “confident that those negotiations will lead to outcomes which work for both the U.K. and the EU.”

The U.K. insists its approach to level playing field rules remains in line with the Political Declaration on the future relationship.

But he added that either way, when the transition period ends on December 31, 2020 the U.K. will “fully recover its economic and political independence,” adding: “In pursuit of a deal we will not trade away our sovereignty.”

The U.K. insists its approach to level playing field rules remains in line with the Political Declaration on the future relationship, agreed last October, and argues that the EU has over-interpreted a line that pledged “provisions ensuring a level playing field for open and fair competition.” It says the EU demands amount to legal subordination of the U.K.

Britain wants an agreement on level playing field rules like the EU-Canada deal, which it says commits both sides not to reduce labor and environmental protections in order to encourage trade and investment.

The new U.K. document adds that if no agreement is in sight by June, when the two sides will take a stock take over progress, the government could ditch negotiations and focus on preparing to leave without a trade agreement, under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement, and possibly with a range of mini-agreements on other areas.

However, a U.K. official said preparations for leaving without a deal would be put in place throughout 2020, and that some border infrastructure will need to be built either way because some checks will be needed under the trade plans envisioned by Britain.

Irish deputy PM: Even basic Brexit trade deal at risk if UK tries to evade customs checks

British attempts to evade checks on goods in the Irish Sea would “significantly” damage the prospect of reaching even a basic EU-U.K. free-trade agreement by the end of the year, Ireland’s deputy prime minister warned Tuesday.

The comments from Simon Coveney, who spoke to reporters ahead of a meeting of EU ministers in Brussels, where they adopted the bloc’s negotiation mandate for trade talks, came in reaction to reports that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit team has been ordered to come up with plans to “get around” the Northern Ireland protocol in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, which foresees checks on goods passing from Britain to Northern Ireland.

“The Withdrawal Agreement involves significant commitments in the context of Northern Ireland through that Irish protocol that both the EU and the U.K. need to follow through on,” Coveney said. “If that doesn’t happen then I think it will damage significantly the prospects of being able to get even a barebones trade agreement, along with a number of other things that need to be done in place by the end of the year.”

Coveney, who said he had just met EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier to discuss the issue, stressed that “in some ways the implementation of agreements that have already been struck is the test of good faith and trust. And without good faith and trust, building a future relationship is not going to be easy.”

He added: “Just to be clear, Michel Barnier and the Irish government are at one on this.”

French EU Minister Amélie de Montchalin also had fighting words for London. She told reporters outside the General Affairs Council meeting that “mutual confidence” is essential for the negotiations. “To make new commitments, to sign a new agreement, it must be clear that what we did so far — that’s to have a first agreement, the Withdrawal Agreement — must be fully respected,” she said. “We cannot restart negotiations if what we agreed some months ago is not being correctly implemented.”

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British jobs for British robots

LONDON — You can’t get cheap migrant labor in the U.K. anymore. Try building a robot instead.

The U.K. government’s newly-unveiled, post-Brexit immigration system is designed to do two things.

First, satisfy a desire for a reduction in immigration that polls and subsequent elections have indicated motivates many British voters; second, and somewhat less obviously, support a high-tech U.K. economy, at the forefront of automation and artificial intelligence.

This dual function is, as they say in Westminster, classic Dom — a reference to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s top adviser Dominic Cummings.

One of Cummings’ publicly stated goals is to turn Britain into “the school of the world” and he has sought, U.K. government officials say, to infuse his passion for science and technology into government policy across a wide range of sectors. His science and tech focus is “clearly the lens we are looking at all sorts of policy through,” said one government official.

The Johnson-Cummings crackdown on low-skilled migration goes beyond delivering what the Vote Leave campaign promised in 2016.

So it is that the immigration system must serve the automation revolution; that migrants with a Ph.D. in a science, technology, engineering or maths (STEM) subject get double the number of immigration “points” as their humanities counterparts; and so it is that a special “global talent” route will see the most highly skilled migrants allowed to arrive from anywhere in the world without a job offer.

“We need to shift the focus of our economy away from a reliance on cheap labour from Europe and instead concentrate on investment in technology and automation. Employers will need to adjust,” the government’s policy document states. British business will no longer be able to use a “reliance on the U.K.’s immigration system as an alternative to investment in staff retention, productivity, and wider investment in technology and automation.”

Brexit politics, post-Brexit vision

The headline takeaway from the new immigration plan is more straightforward: Freedom of movement with the EU will end as of January 1, 2021 and the new system effectively shuts the door on low-skilled migrants from anywhere in the world.

Skilled EU and non-EU migrants will be treated equally and all those seeking to work in the U.K. must have a job offer, speak English and meet a new points threshold determined by salary, qualifications and whether they are coming to work in sectors judged to be particularly needed.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson at King’s Maths School in London | Pool photo by Daniel Leal-Olivas via Getty Images

Cummings, officials say, still places great stock in what he gathers from focus groups with ordinary British citizens. He knows full well that regardless of any backlash from business or political opponents, the “points-based” approach is regarded as fair and commonsensical by the Brexit-backing voters the Conservatives need to hold onto. A chorus of support from the U.K.’s right-leaning popular newspapers won’t hurt either.

But the Johnson-Cummings crackdown on low-skilled migration goes beyond delivering what the Vote Leave campaign promised in 2016.

Besides being a highly successful interpreter of the public mood, Cummings is best known for his obsession with science, technological innovation and his desire, as he put it a blog several years ago, for the U.K. to do for the world what Athens did for the Ancient Greeks: school its greatest minds and leads its intellectual and technological revolutions.

He’s not alone in wanting the U.K. to go further and faster on automation. MPs from across the political spectrum on the House of Commons business, energy and industrial strategy committee noted in a report on the subject last fall that “the problem for the U.K. labor market and our economy is not that we have too many robots in the workplace, but that we have too few.” They even made the link between a country that has had more success focusing on automation — Japan — and Tokyo’s “reluctance to increase immigration beyond a limited number of temporary visa schemes.”

The tone of the government’s immigration paper goes further. It implies U.K. businesses have delayed innovations in robotics and automation, partly because of the cheap labor they have been able to get do the jobs that in future a robot might.

2030 vision

Clearly, though, replacing low-skilled workers with robots and artificial intelligence will not happen overnight or across all sectors of the economy.

In the early 2020s, only 2 percent of U.K. jobs could potentially be automated, according to a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers. Automation will be limited to data-driven sectors such as financial services, where AI could help with simple computational tasks and analysis of structured data.

By the end of this decade, about 20 percent of U.K. jobs could be automated, with robots taking over easy tasks under human oversight, for instance, moving boxes in warehouses. By mid-2030s, automation could have replaced 30 percent of British jobs, as robots become more independent and capable of solving problems in fast-moving real-world situations.

Cummings’ automation vision seems to be rubbing off on Whitehall | Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images

Concerns about the possible loss of existing jobs should not lead to countries shying away from developing these technologies, PwC said. “If governments and businesses in one country do not invest in them, then they will just be developed elsewhere. Unless a country blocks itself off from global trade and investment, which history shows would be extremely damaging economically in the long run, the technologies will still come to all countries over time, so it is better to be at the forefront of this global race.” Cummings would surely agree.

But tech won’t solve everything. AI and robots might play an important role in health care and education, but they are likely to work alongside human doctors, nurses and teachers rather than replacing them, PwC said. This is because of the greater reliance of these sectors on social skills and the human touch. One of the key sectors to criticize the government’s new immigration plans is social care, where one in six of the mostly low-paid workforce are from overseas, and staff shortages already mean thousands of elderly people not getting the support they need.

But when it comes to other sectors, the Cummings’ automation vision seems to be rubbing off on Whitehall. As one Home Office official archly put it, when asked whether the new immigration system’s crackdown on low-skilled migrants would leave the U.K. with a barista shortage: “It’s fine — I’ve got a great espresso machine.”

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UK shuts the door to unskilled migrants

LONDON — The U.K. government will not create a visa route for low-skilled migrants and temporary workers in its post-Brexit immigration system, which will give “top priority” to those with the highest skills, including scientists, engineers and academics.

A policy paper published Tuesday evening outlines plans for a new points-based system after EU freedom of movement ends in December. The report said employers “will need to adjust” to not being able to recruit unskilled workers from Europe.

“We need to shift the focus of our economy away from a reliance on cheap labour from Europe and instead concentrate on investment in technology and automation. Employers will need to adjust,” the paper said.

“It is important that employers move away from a reliance on the U.K.’s immigration system as an alternative to investment in staff retention, productivity and wider investment in technology and automation.”

Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the employers’ group CBI, said firms in the care, construction, hospitality, food and drink sectors could be most affected.

“In some sectors firms will be left wondering how they will recruit the people needed to run their businesses,” she said. “Firms know that hiring from overseas and investing in the skills of their workforce and new technologies is not an ‘either or’ choice — both are needed to drive the economy forward.”

The report recognizes the proposals represent “a significant change” for employers in the U.K., but pointed to a group of about 170,000 recently arrived non-EU citizens working in low-skilled occupations, saying this kind of workforce will continue to be available.

It added that U.K. employers could also recruit low-skilled workers from among those Europeans already in the country, and restated the government’s commitment to quadruple the pilot scheme for seasonal workers in agricultural jobs to 10,000 places.

Points-based system

According to the paper, skilled migrants from the EU and elsewhere wishing to work in Britain will need to demonstrate that they have a job offer from an approved sponsor; that the job offer is at the required skill level (A level minimum), and that they speak English. They will be able to make an application for a visa if, in addition to this, they meet the minimum salary threshold — which the government plans to lower from £30,000 to £25,600.

However, the salary threshold will not be a hard stop. As long as applicants earn £20,480 or more, they may still be able to live in the U.K. if they can demonstrate that they have a job offer in an occupation judged to be most needed, or if they have a Ph.D. relevant to the job.

The Migration Advisory Committee, an independent body reporting to the Home Office, will produce a shortage occupation list detailing all jobs covered by the points-based system. This will make it easier for the government to address shortages in the NHS, for instance.

Meanwhile, the most highly skilled will be able to enter the U.K. without a job offer if they are endorsed by a relevant body and they can achieve the required level of points.

The Home Office also floated plans for an even broader route — with no endorsement from an organization at all — that would allow a small number of the most highly-skilled workers to move to the U.K. without a job offer, but the department warned this additional route is likely to be capped and “will take longer to implement.”

The points-based system will be introduced next January, but the Home Office expects that it will be refined, both in the coming months and after it is implemented. The government pledged to reduce the time it takes for work visas to be granted to eight weeks.

Most EU citizens will be issued an electronic visa and will need to use an online checking service to demonstrate their right to be in the U.K. when applying for a job or using public services. This is likely to become a contentious issue after campaigners for the rights of EU citizens criticized the EU Settlement Scheme for not providing physical evidence of status.

Innovators, ministers of religion, sportspeople, artists and entertainers from the EU will fall outside the points-based system, and will instead be allowed to apply to visit the U.K. through existing routes that already apply to non-EU specialists. Europeans visiting the U.K. for up to six months will be able to travel without a visa, but will not be allowed to work.

Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott criticized the plan, saying it would be harder for U.K. firms to attract the workers they need at all skill levels.

“This isn’t an ‘Australian points-based system,’ which is a meaningless government soundbite,” she said. “It’s a salary threshold system, which will need to have so many exemptions, for the NHS, for social care and many parts of the private sector, that it will be meaningless.”

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