Britain’s May bows to Brexit pressure in parliament

Britain's Prime Minister, Theresa May, arrives at Downing Street, in central London, Britain July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

By William James and Elizabeth Piper

LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Theresa May bowed to pressure from Brexit supporters in her governing Conservative Party on Monday, accepting their changes to a customs bill that underpins Britain’s departure from the European Union.

May, vulnerable in parliament after losing her party’s majority at an ill-judged election last year, has come under fire from both wings of her party over a hard-won Brexit plan, with one ex-minister calling it the “worst of all worlds”.

Eurosceptic lawmakers had targeted her government’s customs legislation to try to toughen up her plans to leave the EU, but instead of facing them down and fuelling tensions, her spokesman said the government would accept their four amendments.

It was not clear the move would fundamentally change her plans – the changes do little more than to put government policy into law, her spokesman said – but it was a victory of sorts for those lawmakers who say May has betrayed them on Brexit, the biggest shift in British trade and foreign policy for decades.

“We will be accepting those four amendments,” the spokesman told reporters, saying the government believed they were “consistent” with the white paper policy document ministers agreed earlier this month.

“We have accepted these amendments because we believe them to be consistent with the approach that was set out and agreed at Chequers,” he said.

May had to fight hard to get the agreement of cabinet ministers at her Chequers country residence for her vision for Britain’s future ties with the EU, only for it to be undermined by the resignations last week of her Brexit minister David Davis and foreign secretary Boris Johnson.

The plan, only a starting point for the second phase of talks with the EU, has come under fire from other eurosceptic lawmakers, who say the proposal to keep close customs ties to the EU betrays her commitment for a clean break with the bloc.

The battle over the amendments to the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill, or customs bill, is unlikely to be the last that May and her team will have to face.

“WORST OF BOTH WORLDS”

On Monday, the other wing of May’s Conservative Party – those lawmakers who want to keep the closest possible ties with the EU after Brexit – spoke up in the voice of former education minister Justine Greening who called for a second referendum.

Greening said such a vote was the only way to break the stalemate in parliament over the best future relationship with the bloc and branded May’s plan as “a fudge I can’t support. It’s the worst of both worlds”.

May’s spokesman said there would be no second referendum under any circumstances, and restated her position that the Chequers plan was the only way to deliver a Brexit that worked in the best interests of the country.

Another pro-EU lawmaker Dominic Grieve, who has led previous efforts to get the government to soften its Brexit stance, said the party needed to accept compromises “or accept that Brexit cannot be implemented and think again about what we are doing”.

For now the impetus lies with the Brexit supporters.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, an arch eurosceptic who proposed the amendments, said he did not expect the bill, or another bill on trade due to be debated on Tuesday, to be blocked outright by the 650-member parliament. Rees-Mogg said that he wanted rather to test the support in parliament for changing her strategy.

“I’m sure Theresa May does not want to split the Conservative Party and therefore she will find that the inevitable consequence of the parliamentary arithmetic is that she will need to change it (the Brexit policy) to keep the party united,” Rees-Mogg said.

(Reporting by William James, additional reporting by Michael Holden and Elizabeth Piper; Editing by David Stamp and Gareth Jones)

UK PM May doing ‘fantastic’ job on Brexit, says Trump, promising trade deal

British Prime Minster Theresa May and her husband Philip stand together with U.S. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump at the entrance to Blenheim Palace, where they are attending a dinner with specially invited guests and business leaders, near Oxford, Britain, July 12, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

By Jeff Mason and William James

CHEQUERS, England (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Friday he looked forward to finalizing a post-Brexit trade deal with Britain, marking an abrupt change from a newspaper interview when he said Prime Minister Theresa May’s strategy would kill such an agreement.

In an interview published just hours before the two leaders held talks, Trump chided the “very unfortunate” results of the prime minister’s proposals for Brexit and her negotiating tactics as Britain prepares to leaves the European Union in March next year.

However, Trump later said May was doing a “fantastic job”.

“Once the Brexit process is concluded and perhaps the UK has left the EU, I don’t know what they’re going to do but whatever you do is OK with me, that’s your decision,” Trump told a press conference with May in the garden of her official country residence Chequers.

“Whatever you do is OK with us, just make sure we can trade together, that’s all that matters. This is an incredible opportunity for our two countries and we will seize it fully.”

Last week at the same location, May finally won agreement for her Brexit plans from her cabinet but within days two senior ministers had quit, departures which Trump said earlier in the week had left Britain in turmoil.

Hours after those proposals were formally published, Trump cast further doubt on the strategy, delivering a withering verdict in an interview with the Sun newspaper.

“If they do a deal like that, we would be dealing with the European Union instead of dealing with the UK, so it will probably kill the deal,” Trump said. “I would have done it much differently. I actually told Theresa May how to do it, but she didn’t listen to me.”

Asked about that interview, Trump said he did not criticize the prime minister and was gushing in his praise of his host, saying she was tough and capable.

“This incredible woman right here is doing a fantastic job, a great job,” he said. “Unfortunately, there was a story that was done which was generally fine but it didn’t put in what I said about the prime minister and I said a tremendous thing. It’s called fake news.”

“HIGHEST LEVEL OF SPECIAL”

May, likewise, glossed over the comments.

“We agreed today that as the UK leaves the European Union we will pursue an ambitious U.S.-UK free trade agreement,” she said. “The Chequers agreement reached last week provides the platform for Donald and me to pursue an ambitious deal that works for both countries right across our economies.”

May and Trump both spoke of the importance of the “special relationship” between their two countries, something that Brexit supporters hope will reap benefits when Britain leaves the EU, allowing it to forge closer trade ties with the world’s biggest economy.

“I would say I would give our relationship in terms of grade the highest level of special,” Trump said.

However, many have cast May’s “business-friendly” plan as a betrayal that would leave Britain too close to the EU, including lawmakers in her deeply divided Conservative Party who have warned that she might face a leadership challenge.

During the press conference, May also thanked Trump for his support over Russia which Britain has blamed for a nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy in southwest England in March.

Trump is due to meet Putin, who has rejected the nerve agent claims, at a summit when he finishes his four-day visit to Britain, and said he would raise the issue of reducing nuclear weapons.

“It will certainly be something that we bring up and talk about,” the U.S. president said.

As Trump and May spoke, thousands of protesters marched against the president through central London, one of more than 100 demonstrations planned against the president during his stay.

While Trump’s trip was not a full state visit, he has been given red carpet treatment and is scheduled to have tea later with Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle, where her grandson Prince Harry married U.S. actress Meghan Markle in May.

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Michael Holden, editing by Larry King, Kevin Liffey and David Stamp)

Hungary approves ‘STOP Soros’ law, defying EU, rights groups

Two soldiers stand in front of the Hungarian Parliament building in Budapest, Hungary, May 29, 2018. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

By Marton Dunai

BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Hungary’s parliament on Wednesday approved a package of bills that criminalises some help given to illegal immigrants, defying the European Union and human rights groups and narrowing the scope for action by non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been a vocal critic of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door migrant policy and has led eastern European opposition to EU quotas that aimed to distribute asylum seekers around the bloc.

Orban’s right-wing Fidesz party tightened its grip on parliament in an April election fought on a fiercely anti-immigration platform that demonised U.S. billionaire George Soros and liberal NGOs he backs. Orban accuses Soros of encouraging mass immigration to undermine Europe, a charge Soros denies.

Under the new law, officially called “STOP Soros”, individuals or groups who help migrants not entitled to protection to submit requests for asylum or who help illegal migrants gain status to stay in Hungary will be liable to prison terms.

“The Hungarian people rightfully expects the government to use all means necessary to combat illegal immigration and the activities that aid it,” Interior Minister Sandor Pinter wrote in a justification attached to the draft legislation.

“The STOP Soros package of bills serves that goal, making the organisation of illegal immigration a criminal offence. We want to use the bills to stop Hungary from becoming a country of immigrants,” he said.

Parliament, where Fidesz has a two-thirds majority, also passed on Wednesday a constitutional amendment to state that an “alien population” cannot be settled in Hungary – a swipe at Brussels over its quota plan.

TOUGH STANCE IS VOTE-WINNER

Immigration has become a major concern for voters across the European Union, helping to propel anti-migrant populists to power in Italy and Austria and threatening to fracture Merkel’s three-month-old coalition in Germany.

Orban has drummed up support for his tough measures by exploiting Hungarians’ memories of the large numbers of mostly Muslim migrants fleeing conflicts in the Middle East who surged into the country in the summer of 2015.

The vast majority of them moved on to wealthier western European countries, but Orban has branded the migrants a threat to Europe’s Christian civilisation and built a border fence along Hungary’s southern borders to deter more from coming.

Hungarian statistics show 3,555 refugees living in Hungary, a country of 10 million, as of April. Only 342 people were registered as asylum seekers in the first four months of this year, mostly from the Middle East, and 279 were approved.

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a rights group that often represents migrants, said on Wednesday the narrowing definition of who counts as a refugee essentially means nobody entering Hungary by land would be entitled to such treatment.

“Instead of giving protection against persecution, the Hungarian government has decided to join the ranks of the persecutors,” Helsinki Committee Co-Chair Marta Pardavi said.

The Orban government expects possible legal action by the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, over the new law.

Two leading European rights bodies, the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), have criticised Hungary’s new law as “arbitrary” and vague and said it contravenes European law.

The Venice Commission, an expert body at the Council of Europe, had asked Hungary to refrain from approving the new law until a report it co-authored with the OSCE is published.

Orban has also tightened state control over the media, major business sectors and the courts since taking power in 2010.

In other constitutional changes approved on Wednesday, parliament agreed to set up a new judicial branch for administrative cases that critics say may increase political influence over judges. Another change narrowed the right to free expression and assembly.

(Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Gareth Jones)

EU tries to assuage German, Italian concerns on migration

A migrant, part of a group intercepted aboard three dinghies off the coast in the Mediterranean Sea, leaves a rescue boat upon arrival at the port of Malaga, Spain June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

By Gabriela Baczynska

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union leaders will try to reassure Germany and Italy over migration at a summit next week as a stand-off in Berlin threatens Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition.

The union could take steps to stop asylum seekers moving on from the country in which they are registered and start deciding asylum requests at centers to be established beyond EU borders in the future, according to a draft summit statement.

The proposed steps come ahead of the June 28-29 summit in Brussels at which EU leaders will attempt to agree on a joint migration policy three years after more than 1 million people arrived in Europe, causing a crisis for the union.

Their joint draft statement is not public and its wording might change. But it showed the bloc is trying to accommodate a new, anti-establishment government in Italy, as well as Berlin where Merkel’s coalition partner issued an ultimatum for an EU-wide deal on migration.

If the summit fails to reach a satisfactory outcome, Berlin would issue a unilateral ban on refugees already registered in other EU states from entering the country, said the junior governing Christian Social Union that has the interior ministry.

German police data suggest any such ban could only affect several hundred people a month and hence would have no big impact on the overall number of refugees in Germany.

The EU border agency Frontex said more than 90 percent of current arrivals in Italy, Greece and Spain register for asylum there. Many still often go north, including to Germany. This “secondary movement” violates EU law but has been widespread.

“Member States should take all necessary internal legislative … to counter such movements,” the text said in an indirect response to German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer.

The proposal came as the CSU faces a tough regional vote in Bavaria in October. At its home base, the party faces growing popularity of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has advocated harsh anti-immigration policies.

The AfD on Tuesday accused the CSU of copying its ideas on how to deal with the migrant crisis.

IMMIGRATION LOW, TENSIONS HIGH

The EU has long been bitterly divided over migration.

The bloc has struggled to reform its internal asylum rules, which broke down in 2015, and has instead tried to tighten its borders and prevent new arrivals. The EU has given aid and money to Turkey, Jordan, Libya, Niger and other countries.

Next week, EU leaders will also agree to look into opening “disembarkation platforms” in regions such as north Africa to decide asylum requests before people get to Europe.

European capitals from Rome to Budapest have long called for such centres but concerns that processing people outside EU borders could violate the law have stalled progress.

“Such platforms should provide for rapid processing to distinguish between economic migrants and those in need of international protection, and reduce the incentive to embark on perilous journeys,” the draft statement of EU leaders said.

Italy’s government closed its ports to rescue ships and said it prefers to have Frontex working in Africa to prevent people from coming rather than patrol the Mediterranean.

The Libyan government already runs migrant camps where the EU pays the U.N. migration and refugee agencies to help resettle people to Europe legally or return them home further south in Africa, rather than have them try to reach Europe.

Despite pressure from Berlin and Rome, reform of the bloc’s internal asylum rules is stuck. Southern and wealthy central states demand that all EU members host some new arrivals but eastern states refuse leading to a stalemate.

In evidence of that division, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said on Tuesday that the CSU demand for border checks within the EU is unacceptable. Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said separately on Tuesday it would be “very difficult to reach a solution” next week.

Otherwise, there is agreement on strengthening external borders and bringing together the border protection databases.

“So much progress has been made, we can’t let all slip away now. So we need to give key countries something to keep them on board,” one EU official said of the proposed text.

(Additional reporting by Alexander Ratz and Michelle Martin in Berlin, Steve Scherer in Rome, Robert Muller in Prague and Johan Sennero, Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Baby powder helping fund Islamic State in Afghanistan: report

FILE PHOTO: Afghan National Army troops prepare for an operation against insurgents in Khogyani district of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan November 28, 2017. REUTERS/Parwiz/File Photo

KABUL (Reuters) – Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan are making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year from illegal mining of talc, much of which ends up in the United States and Europe, advocacy group Global Witness reported on Tuesday.

About 500,000 tonnes of talc, used in products ranging from paint to baby powder, were exported from Afghanistan in the year to March, according to Afghan mining ministry figures cited in the group’s report.

Almost all went to Pakistan, where much of it is re-exported. Pakistan provides more than a third of U.S. imports of talc and much also ends up in the European Union, it said.

“Unwitting American and European consumers are inadvertently helping fund extremist groups in Afghanistan,” Nick Donovan, Campaign Director at Global Witness, said in a statement, calling for stronger checks on imports.

Illegal mining of gemstones and minerals such as lapis lazuli is a major source of revenue for Taliban insurgents and the report said Islamic State was fighting for control of mines in Nangarhar, the province where it has its stronghold.

Nangarhar, on the border with Pakistan, has large deposits of talc as well as minerals such as chromite and marble, and sits on major smuggling routes used for drugs and other contraband.

The report quoted a senior Islamic State militant commander as saying that wresting control of mining assets from other armed groups in Nangarhar was a priority: “The mines are in the hands of the mafia … At any price we will take the mines.”

Security officials in Afghanistan have long been concerned about the uncontrolled traffic in Nangarhar of commodities like talc and chromite, which the Global Witness report said “may be the least glamorous of conflict minerals”.

It said that while it was difficult to estimate the value of the trade to Islamic State, revenue from mining in Nangarhar could amount “anywhere from the high tens of thousands to the low millions of dollars a year”. Somewhere in the hundreds of thousands was a plausible mid-range estimate, it added.

The sum did not appear very high, it said, but the U.S. military estimated the strength of Islamic State in Nangarhar at somewhere between 750 to 2,000 fighters, meaning the funds would be a significant source of revenue to the movement.

An Afghan mining ministry spokesman said a special committee had already been established to coordinate approaches to the issue with security and intelligence services. The ministry planned a news conference this week to address some of the specific issues raised in the report.

(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Europeans scramble to save Iran deal after Trump reneges

U.S. President Donald Trump displays a presidential memorandum after announcing his intent to withdraw from the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement in the Diplomatic Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 8, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Yara Bayoumy and Brian Love

WASHINGTON/PARIS (Reuters) – Dismayed European allies sought to salvage the international nuclear pact with Iran on Wednesday after President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the landmark accord, while Tehran poured scorn on the U.S. leader.

“The deal is not dead. There’s an American withdrawal from the deal but the deal is still there,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who had been reluctant to back the deal, said: “Mr Trump, I tell you on behalf of the Iranian people: You’ve made a mistake…I said many times from the first day: don’t trust America.”

French President Emmanuel Macron was due to speak later in the day to his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani, Le Drian said. Iran also signaled its willingness to talk.

Trump announced on Tuesday he would reimpose U.S. economic sanctions on Iran to undermine what he called “a horrible, one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made”, which was “defective at its core”.

The fruit of more than a decade of diplomacy, the agreement was concluded in 2015 by the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Russia, China and Iran.

It was designed to prevent Iran obtaining a nuclear bomb in return for lifting sanctions that had crippled its economy.

Trump complained that the deal, the signature foreign policy achievement of his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, did not address Iran’s ballistic missile program, its nuclear activities beyond 2025 or its role in conflicts in Yemen and Syria.

His decision raises the risk of deepening conflicts in the Middle East, puts the United States at odds with European diplomatic and business interests, and casts uncertainty over global oil supplies. Oil prices rose more than 2 percent, with Brent hitting a 3-1/2-year high. [O/R]

The deal could also strengthen the hand of hardliners at the expense of reformers in Iran’s political scene.

“REGION DESERVES BETTER”

France’s Le Drian, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) all said Iran was honoring its commitments under the accord.

“The region deserves better than further destabilization provoked by American withdrawal,” Le Drian said.

The European Union said it would remain committed to the deal and would ensure sanctions on Iran remain lifted, as long as Tehran meets its commitments.

The Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin was “deeply concerned” by the withdrawal, the RIA news agency said

Merkel said that, while the existing deal should not be called into question, there should be discussion of “a broader deal that goes beyond it”. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson spoke of a “follow-on agreement” but said it was now up to Washington to come up with concrete proposals.

Macron’s contact with Rouhani will be followed by meetings next week involving the Iranians and European counterparts from France, Britain and Germany.

But Iran’s Khamenei appeared skeptical, saying: “I don’t trust these three countries.”

The prospects of saving the deal without Washington depends in large part on whether international companies are willing and able still to do business with Iran despite the U.S. sanctions.

Le Drian said meetings would be held with major firms including oil giant Total <TOTF.PA>.

In a harbinger of what could be in store, Trump’s new ambassador to Germany said German businesses should halt their activities in Iran immediately.

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said the United States should not consider itself the world’s “economic policeman”. Britain and France said they would do their utmost to protect their business interests in Iran, while Germany said it was seeking details of the effect of U.S. sanctions.

European companies including carmaker PSA <PEUP.PA>, plane manufacturer Airbus <AIR.PA> and engineering group Siemens <SIEGn.DE> said they were watching the situation.

In a speech carried on his official website, Khamenei said Trump’s announcement had been “silly and superficial”, adding: “He had maybe more than 10 lies in his comments.”

“DEATH TO AMERICA!”

Lawmakers in Iran’s parliament burned a U.S. flag and a symbolic copy of the deal, known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), chanting “Death to America!”.

President Hassan Rouhani, a reformist who had hoped that the deal would boost living standards in Iran, struck a more pragmatic tone in a televised speech, saying Iran would negotiate with European Union countries, China and Russia.

“If at the end of this short period we conclude that we can fully benefit from the JCPOA with the cooperation of all countries, the deal will remain,” he said.

Trump’s decision adds to the strain on the transatlantic alliance since he took office 16 months ago. One by one, European leaders came to Washington and tried to meet his demands, while pleading with him to preserve the deal.

The Trump administration kept the door open to negotiating another deal with allies, but it is far from clear whether the Europeans would pursue that option or be able to convince Iran to accept it.

China’s foreign ministry said Beijing would defend the deal and urged parties “to assume a responsible attitude”.

A Western diplomat who declined to be named was more pointed about the decision. “It announces sanctions for which the first victims will be Trump’s European allies,” the diplomat said, adding that it was clear Trump did not care about the alliance.

Abandoning the pact was one of the most consequential decisions of Trump’s “America First” policy, which has led him to quit the global Paris climate accord, come close to a trade war with China and pull out of an Asian-Pacific trade deal.

It also appeared to reflect the growing influence within the administration of Iran hawks such as new National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who arrived in Pyongyang on Wednesday to prepare for a summit that Trump hopes will secure North Korea’s denuclearisation.

COMPLYING WITH DEAL

Iran denies long-held Western suspicions that it tried in the past to develop atomic weapons and says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

Senior U.S. officials themselves have said several times that Iran is in technical compliance with the pact.

Renewing sanctions would make it much harder for Iran to sell its oil abroad or use the international banking system.

Iran is the third-largest member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and pumps about 3.8 million barrels per day of crude, or just under 4 percent of global supply. China, India, Japan and South Korea buy most of its 2.5 million bpd of exports.

Its rial currency plunged to a record low against the U.S. dollar in the free market, after sliding for months because of a weak economy, financial difficulties at local banks and heavy demand for dollars among Iranians who feared that renewed U.S. sanctions would hit Iranian exports hard.

“I am scared,” 47-year-old Isfahan school teacher Morad Sabzevari said by telephone. “I listened to Trump’s speech on English news channels last night…It was a declaration of war against Iran … It means dark days and months are ahead of us.”

The U.S. Treasury says sanctions related to Iran’s energy, auto and financial sectors will be reimposed in three and six months.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said a license for Boeing Co <BA.N> to sell passenger jets to Iran will be revoked, scuttling a $38 billion deal. The ban will also hit Europe’s Airbus <AIR.PA>, whose planes contain U.S.-made parts.

Trump said the nuclear agreement did not prevent Iran from cheating and continuing to pursue nuclear weapons.

“It is clear to me that we cannot prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb under the decaying and rotten structure of the current agreement,” he said.

Trump said he was willing to negotiate a new deal with Iran, but Iran has already ruled that out.

Iran’s growing military and political power in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq worries the United States, Israel and Washington’s Gulf Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia.

Among the few nations to welcome Trump’s decision were Israel and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s arch-foes in the Middle East.

Less than 24 hours after Trump’s announcement, Saudi Arabia said it had intercepted missiles fired at Riyadh by the Iran-aligned Houthi forces it is fighting in Yemen.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Tim Ahmann, Makini Brice, Warren Strobel, Jonathan Landay and Arshad Mohammed, Patricia Zengerle, David Lawder, Mohammad Zargham in Washington, Ayenat Mersie in New York, Sybille de La Hamaide, John Irish and Tim Hepher in Paris, Parisa Hafezi in Ankara, David Milliken and Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London and Andrew Torchia in Dubai; Writing by Angus MacSwan and Kevin Liffey)

Ukraine moves to split church from Russia as elections approach

FILE PHOTO: A general view shows a bell tower and domes of the Kiev Pechersk Lavra monastery in Kiev, Ukraine January 22, 2017. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich/File Photo

By Natalia Zinets

KIEV (Reuters) – Ukraine’s Orthodox church could become independent of Moscow under the terms of a presidential initiative lawmakers approved on Thursday, a move that President Petro Poroshenko said would make it harder for Russia to meddle in Ukrainian affairs.

Ukraine’s pro-Western leaders have sought step by step to move the former Soviet republic out of Russia’s orbit, after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014 and a Moscow-backed insurgency broke out in eastern Ukraine.

The Moscow Patriarchate is part of the Russian Orthodox Church and has a sizeable following in Ukraine. Kiev considers it a tool for the Kremlin to wield influence.

Poroshenko met Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, in Istanbul last week, to seek support for giving autocephalous status – effectively, making it independent – to the Ukrainian church.

“Unity is our main weapon in the fight against the Russian aggressor,” Poroshenko told parliament. “This question goes far beyond the ecclesiastical. It is about our finally acquiring independence from Moscow.”

Poroshenko compared having an autocephalous church to Kiev’s aspirations to join the European Union and NATO, “because the Kremlin regards the Russian church as one of the key tools of influence over Ukraine.”

Asked about the issue on his daily conference call with reporters, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted by Russian state media as saying:

“Of course, actions aimed at splitting up the churches are unlikely to be supported and unlikely to be welcomed.”

A spokesman at Patriarch Bartholomew’s office declined comment. Poroshenko has previously suggested he has the Patriarch’s support for an independent church but could not divulge many details about their meeting.

The Moscow Patriarchate sees itself as the only legitimate Orthodox church in Ukraine. It vies for influence with the Kiev Patriarchate, a branch of the Orthodox Church that broke away from Moscow in 1992 after the fall of the Soviet Union, and other Orthodox and Catholic denominations.

The Kiev Patriarchate’s leader has been sharply critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin and in 2014 called him possessed by Satan.

Putin in turn has cultivated strong ties with the Russian Orthodox Church, adopting more conservative policies and prompting critics to suggest the line separating state and church has become blurred.

Thursday’s parliamentary motion was opposed by the Opposition Bloc, the heir to the party once headed by the pro-Russian former president Viktor Yanukovich. The party called the move a gambit by Poroshenko ahead of elections next year.

“We believe that the presidential campaign began today,” its leader, Yuriy Boyko, said. “The bad news is that the presidential campaign begins with the most sensitive topic for society – the issue of religion. The state has no right to interfere in religious matters.”

(Additional reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul; Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Europeans to take new steps against Russia over UK spy

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May, Lithuania's President Dalia Grybauskaite, Slovenia's Prime Minister Miro Cerar and Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy attend a European Union leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium, March 23, 2018. Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Pool via Reuters

By Noah Barkin and Alastair Macdonald

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union member states agreed at a summit in Brussels to take further punitive steps against Russia in the coming days for the nerve agent attack in Salisbury, as Moscow accused the bloc of joining a London-driven hate campaign against it.

Late on Thursday, in a boost for British Prime Minister Theresa May, the 28-member EU collectively condemned the attack on a former Russian spy and said it was “highly likely” Moscow was responsible. They also recalled the EU ambassador to Russia.

“Additional steps are expected as early as Monday at the national level,” summit chair Donald Tusk told reporters.

French President Emmanuel Macron said Paris and Berlin would be among countries taking further rapid and coordinated measures which other leaders said would include the expulsion of Russian officials and possible other retaliatory actions.

“We consider this attack a serious challenge to our security and European sovereignty so it calls for a coordinated and determined response from the European Union and its member states,” Macron told a news conference.

Standing beside him, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said EU countries would debate what measures to take “and then act”.

One senior official familiar with discussions said the extent of measures in the coming weeks could be “surprising” and not confined to expulsions. There is no talk of more economic sanctions, whose enforcement has divided the EU in the past.

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said he was likely to announce the expulsion of several people on Monday, after returning to Prague and consulting with his foreign minister.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said she was ready to expel Russian spies, whose activities she said were deeply harmful: “It is certain that a coordinated action will be taken next week, maybe at the start of it,” she said. “It’s absolutely obvious that the network exists and that it acts aggressively.”

Romanian President Klaus Iohannis stressed that national governments wanted to retain control of the details in an area where they guard their sovereignty from Brussels. But most of those present would go home and prepare suitable steps.

Russia has denied responsibility for the March 4 attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, the first known offensive use of a nerve toxin in Europe since World War Two. A British judge said on Thursday that both victims may have suffered brain damage from the attack.

BRITISH EXPELLED

Moscow retaliated against May’s move to expel 23 Russians by announcing the expulsion of the same number of Britons.

On Friday, the Russian foreign ministry described the EU accusation as “baseless” and accused the bloc of spurning cooperation with Moscow and joining “another anti-Russian campaign deployed by London and its allies overseas with an obvious goal: to put another obstacle on the path to the normalization of the situation on the European continent”.

In Moscow, the expulsion of British diplomats went ahead, a convoy of minibuses speeding out of the embassy compound to applause after British embassy staff said their goodbyes in the courtyard under a light snowfall.

A special charter flight is expected to fly the diplomats back to Britain later on Friday.

France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, on a visit to Kiev, signaled that Paris was considering expelling Russian diplomats in solidarity with Britain. “You will see,” he said.

The summit statement hardened previous EU language on Russia’s alleged role as French President Emmanuel Macron and others helped May overcome hesitation on the part of some of Moscow’s friendlier states, some of whom questioned how definitive Britain’s evidence is.

“What we will now consider in the coming days is whether we want to take individual action relating to Russian diplomats in Ireland,” Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar told reporters.

“We’re not going to expel people randomly.”

Welcoming the solidarity she secured from the summit, May told reporters on leaving: “The threat from Russia is one that respects no borders and I think it is clear that Russia is challenging the values we share as Europeans and it is right that we stand together in defense of those values.”

Still, some said they could ill afford Russian retaliation against their own Moscow embassies, some of which employ barely a handful of accredited diplomats.

Austria said it did not plan to expel Russians.

(Additional reporting by Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber and Dmitry Madorsky in Moscow and Richard Lough, Gabriela Baczynska, Robin Emmott and Elizabeth Piper in Brussels; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Alastair Macdonald)

Britain seeks European help against Russian spy networks: diplomats

Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) arrive to begin work at the scene of the nerve agent attack on former Russian agent Sergei Skripal, in Salisbury, Britain March 21, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

By Gabriela Baczynska and Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Britain is seeking help from other European countries to take action against Russian spy networks that could be preparing similar attacks as the nerve agent assault on a former Russian spy in England, diplomats said.

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May will urge “coordinated action” among European Union governments at a summit in Brussels on Thursday, where she will also try to persuade the bloc’s leaders to condemn Russia squarely over the attack in Salisbury.

May accused Russia of the first known offensive use of a nerve toxin in Europe since World War Two after Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent, and his daughter were found unconscious on a public bench in the English city on March 4.

In the worst crisis between the two powers since the Cold War, May has expelled 23 Russian diplomats whom she says were spies working under cover. Moscow, which has denied involvement in the attack, has taken retaliatory steps.

“Britain says there are these networks that organize such things like Salisbury, that these networks exist across our borders and that it would be good to go after them together,” a senior EU diplomat said.

“They have already been approaching EU states on that bilaterally and today May will tell EU leaders more.”

Diplomats stressed May was not seeking a formal or immediate EU strategy because the bloc has little joint competence on intelligence, meaning any such work would be done directly with other governments.

“There is movement among several willing states to do something together in reaction to Skripal,” said another EU diplomat. This could be done bilaterally outside the EU so as not to press too hard on those bloc members worried about their ties with Moscow, the person said.

Reluctance from countries – Greece and Hungary among them – mean a draft joint statement by EU leaders now says only that they take “extremely seriously” London’s assessment that it was highly likely Russia was responsible for the attack.

But May will push fellow EU leaders to blame Moscow directly for the poisoning of the Skripals who British authorities say have been critically ill since the attack by a Soviet-produced military-grade nerve agent called Novichok.

A British official confirmed London was seeking to work with groups of countries on intelligence sharing over spy networks.

“Russia has shown itself as a strategic enemy, not a strategic partner,” said another British official, who stressed however that Britain was not seeking new economic sanctions.

May will seek to demonstrate to EU governments that all Western countries are vulnerable to such attacks, as well as what NATO says is a Russian strategy to undermine the West, officials said.

“The Russia threat does not respect borders and as such we are all at risk,” a second senior British official said.

PROOF

May will need to overcome reluctance from the Russia doves in the EU since the bloc is traditionally split on how to deal with Moscow.

Ties between Moscow and the West plummeted over Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Kiev and support for rebels in east Ukraine, which have triggered sanctions by the EU.

French President Emmanuel Macron said on Wednesday the Salisbury attack could not go without response.

Macron and May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Donald Trump, have already said in a joint statement they “share” Britain’s assessment of Russian responsibility.

Diplomats said EU leaders could to settle for similar language, though some bloc members remained concerned there was not enough direct proof to incriminate Russia in the attack.

European Council President Donald Tusk, who will chair the summit and has sided with Britain, said: “It is clear we should improve our preparedness for future attacks.”

He wants the bloc to discuss how to better protect itself from chemical and biological attacks, including in cooperation with NATO, as well as to how to beef up counter-intelligence capabilities to combat hybrid threats.

(Additional reporting by Elizabeth Piper, Richard Lough, Jean-Baptiste Vey, Editing by Richard Balmforth)

U.S. says ready to talk Mideast peace; Abbas calls for conference

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner seen with United States Ambassador to the United Nations (UN), Nikki Haley, and lawyer Jason Greenblatt (R) before a meeting of the UN Security Council at UN headquarters in New York, U.S., February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – The United States is “ready to talk” Middle East peace with the Palestinians, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said on Tuesday in remarks directed at Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a meeting of the U.N. Security Council.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, and U.S. Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, who are working on a new peace plan, sat behind Haley. Speaking after Abbas made a rare address to the 15-member council, Haley gave no details of the U.S. plan.

“Our negotiators are sitting right behind me, ready to talk. But we will not chase after you. The choice, Mr. President, is yours,” Haley said. Abbas did not stay in the council chamber to listen to her.

White House spokesman Josh Raffel said Washington would present a peace plan “when it is done and the time is right.”

The Palestinians no longer view the United States as a neutral negotiator, and Abbas on Tuesday called for an international Middle East peace conference to be convened later this year.

The Palestinians are furious over the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December and its decision to cut U.S. funding for the U.N. agency that helps Palestinian refugees (UNRWA).

“It has become impossible today for one country or state alone to solve a regional or international conflict,” Abbas said. “It is essential to establish a multilateral international mechanism emanating from an international conference.”

Abbas, who shunned a visit by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to the region last month, said the conference should include the Palestinians, Israel, the five permanent U.N. Security Council members – the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France – the European Union and the United Nations.

French U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre told the council: “We are open to studying the development of the ways of international accompaniment for the peace process.” Deputy British U.N. Ambassador Jonathan Allen described U.S. leadership on the issue as “indispensable.”

Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Danny Danon told the Security Council that Abbas was part of the problem, not the solution, and that the “only way to move forward is direct negotiations” between Israel and the Palestinians.

Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said the so-called Quartet – made up of the United Nations, the United States, Russia and the EU – and the League of Arab States could play a role in kick-starting the stalled peace process.

(Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Washington; Editing by Paul Simao)