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)

Soros donation to halt Brexit causes storm in Britain

Business magnate George Soros arrives to speak at the Open Russia Club in London, Britain June 20, 2016.

By Guy Faulconbridge

LONDON (Reuters) – News that billionaire financier George Soros is a backer of a campaign group seeking to keep Britain in the EU added fire to Britain’s Brexit debate on Thursday, with supporters of quitting the bloc accusing opponents of plotting a “coup”.

The Best of Britain campaign group confirmed it had received 400,000 pounds from Soros. Soros, best known in Britain for earning billions betting against the pound in the early 1990s, is the target of a hostile media campaign by the nationalist government in his native Hungary and a hate figure for rightwing campaigners in eastern Europe and the United States.

Best of Britain said it had obeyed all rules on political funding in accepting the donation from Soros.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s office repeated its long-standing position that the decision to leave the EU in 2019 after a vote in 2016 was final and would not be reversed. It also defended the right of campaign groups to accept donations.

The Daily Telegraph newspaper, which first reported Soros’s involvement, said the 87-year-old former hedge fund manager was backing a “secret plot” to stop Brexit. The article was written by Nick Timothy, a former chief of staff to May.

Mark Malloch-Brown, a former British diplomat who is chair of the Best for Britain campaign group, said the group had never hidden its aims, which include staying in the EU.

“George Soros’s foundations have along with a number of other major donors also made significant contributions to our work,” Malloch-Brown said in a statement, confirming Soros had contributed 400,000 pounds through his charitable foundations.

May’s spokesman said: “There are many political and campaign groups in this country, that’s entirely right and as you would expect in a democracy.”

“The prime minister’s position on this matter is clear, the country voted to leave the European Union, that’s what we are going to deliver and there won’t be a second referendum.”

BREXIT REVERSED?

In the United Kingdom’s 2016 referendum, 51.9 percent, or 17.4 million people, voted to leave the EU while 48.1 percent, or 16.1 million people, voted to stay. Both sides accepted large donations from wealthy individuals.

Ever since the shock vote, supporters of EU membership have been exploring an array of different legal and political methods to prevent what they see as the biggest mistake in post-World War Two British history.

Brexiteers say such efforts threaten political stability as they go against the democratic will of 17.4 million people. They have vowed to fight any attempt to stop Brexit.

“The new Soros-led coalition is planning a coup in Britain, against the democratic will of the people,” Richard Tice, who chairs the Leave Means Leave campaign group, told Reuters. “They have been outed and will be defeated.”

May, whose government and party is divided over Brexit, has just eight months to strike a deal with the EU on the terms of Britain’s withdrawal.

Opponents of Brexit hope to focus their efforts on blocking British parliamentary approval for the exit deal, a step that if successful could sink May’s premiership. There is, though, little sign so far of a change in opinion among voters, and the supporters of EU membership lack a popular leader who could unite the disparate groups opposed to Brexit.

Brexiteers such as Nigel Farage say public opposition to Brexit from the likes of former Prime Minister Tony Blair and Goldman Sachs Group Inc <GS.N> Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein are unlikely to sway British public opinion.

With no deal, Britain would face a disorderly Brexit that many investors fear would imperil Britain’s $2.7 trillion economy, disrupt trade across the world’s biggest trading bloc and undermine London’s position as the only financial centre to rival New York.

($1 = 0.7209 pounds)

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Peter Graff)

Turkey detains nearly 600 for opposing Syrian offensive

Turkish military armoured vehicles arrive at a border village near the town of Hassa in Hatay province, Turkey, January 21, 2018

By Tuvan Gumrukcu and Dominic Evans

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey has so far detained 573 people for social media posts and protests criticizing its military offensive in Syria, the government said on Monday.

The crackdown, which has extended to the national medical association, has deepened concerns about free speech under President Tayyip Erdogan, who has criticized opponents of the military intervention as “traitors”.

Turkey last month launched an air and ground offensive, dubbed Operation Olive Branch, against the Kurdish YPG militia in Syria’s northwestern Afrin region. Authorities have repeatedly warned they would prosecute those opposing, criticizing or misrepresenting the incursion.

“Since the start of Operation Olive Branch, 449 people have been detained for spreading terrorist propaganda on social media and 124 people detained for taking part in protest action,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement.

The operation has been widely supported by Turkey’s mainly pro-government media and by most political parties, with the exception of the pro-Kurdish opposition.

Last week, a prosecutor ordered the detention of 11 senior members of the Turkish Medical Association, including its chairman, after the organization criticized the incursion, saying: “No to war, peace immediately”.

Erdogan criticized the body as traitors. All of the doctors have since been released on probation, the association said on Twitter. Detention orders have been issued for another 13 people for supporting the medics.

“There are laws that prohibit the glorification of terrorism, support for terrorism through propaganda and media. The prosecutors are implementing the laws,” Erdogan’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, told reporters in Istanbul at the weekend.

Ankara considers the U.S.-backed YPG, which controls Afrin, to be a terrorist group and an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has fought an insurgency in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast since 1984.

Turkey is in the midst of a widening crackdown that began after a failed coup attempt in July 2016. Some 50,000 people have been jailed and 150,000 sacked or suspended from their jobs.

Critics, including rights groups and some Western allies, say Erdogan is using the coup as a pretext to muzzle dissent. The latest arrests have also drawn criticism from the European Union.

Turkey says its measures are necessary due to the gravity of the security threats it faces.

(Additional reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by David Dolan and Janet Lawrence)

Turkey is an aggressive neighbor, Greek PM tells Europeans in Davos

Greece's Prime Ministers Alexis Tsipras gestures as he speaks during the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland January 24, 2018.

DAVOS, Switzerland (Reuters) – Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said on Wednesday his European partners couldn’t always appreciate the challenges of living with an ‘aggressive’ neighbor such as Turkey, remarks reflecting the strained ties between the two NATO partners.

Tsipras was speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos in a discussion about stabilizing the Mediterranean and addressing the migration crisis.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants crossed from Turkey into Greece and further into the European Union at the height of the migration crisis in 2015. It coincided with Greece negotiating its third financial bailout from international creditors to stave off bankruptcy.

Tsipras, who came to power in early 2015, said he took the helm at a very difficult time for Greece which didn’t only have to grapple with its worst debt crisis and the refugee crisis, but also an “aggressive neighbor, sometimes unpredictable with an aggressive military activity in the Aegean,” Tsipras said.

NATO partners Greece and Turkey have a long history of differences that have outlived the Cold War, ranging from jousting over airspace in the Aegean Sea to minority rights and the ethnically split island of Cyprus.

The two now cooperate in a deal brokered between Ankara and the European Union in March 2016 aimed at slowing migrant flows. Tsipras described the deal, which has been criticized by human rights groups, as ‘a difficult but necessary agreement’.

Tsipras said that implementing the agreement, making sure that international laws were not being violated as Greece has been processing thousands of asylum requests, and ensuring that national interests were also safeguarded, was important.

“At the same time we have to take a decision on what we are going to do with this aggressive behavior of Turkey,” he said in response to an observation that Turkey could change its mind on the migration deal at any time.

“For somebody (sic), it is very easy to be also aggressive if they are living in Luxembourg or Netherlands, because their neighbors are Belgium and Luxembourg, and not Turkey. But it’s not so easy for us.”

(Reporting By Michele Kambas and Renee Maltezou, Writing by Michele Kambas, Editing by William Maclean)

Abbas wins EU backing for Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem

European High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini shakes hands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Brussels, Belgium, January 22,

By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union assured President Mahmoud Abbas it supported his ambition to have East Jerusalem as capital of a Palestinian state, in the bloc’s latest rejection of U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

At a meeting in Brussels with EU foreign ministers, Abbas repeated his call for East Jerusalem as capital as he urged EU governments to recognize a state of Palestine immediately, arguing that this would not disrupt negotiations with Israel on a peace settlement for the region.

While Abbas made no reference to Trump’s move on Jerusalem or U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to the city on Monday, his presence at the EU headquarters in Brussels was seized on by European officials as a chance to restate opposition to Trump’s Dec. 6 decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.

Mogherini, in what appeared to be a veiled reference to Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as capital of Israel, called on those involved in the process to speak and act “wisely”, with a sense of responsibility.

“I want to reassure President Abbas of the firm commitment of the European Union to the two-state solution with Jerusalem as the shared capital of the two states,” Mogherini said.

Before Abbas’ arrival, she was more outspoken, saying: “Clearly there is a problem with Jerusalem. That is a very diplomatic euphemism,” in reference to Trump’s position.

Deputy German Foreign Minister Michael Roth told reporters that Trump’s decision had made peace talks harder but said all sides needed to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Abbas also struck a more diplomatic tone than in his recent public remarks, including earlier this month when he said he would only accept a broad, internationally-backed panel to broker any peace talks with Israel.

“We are keen on continuing the way of negotiations,” Abbas said. “We are determined to reunite our people and our land.”

But his call for the European Union to immediately and officially recognize the state of Palestine was unlikely to be answered, two senior EU diplomats said.

SLOVENIAN DECISION?

While nine EU governments including Sweden and Poland already recognize Palestine, the 28-nation bloc says such recognition must come as part of a peace settlement.

Only Slovenia has recently raised the possibility of recognizing the state of Palestine. A parliamentary committee there is due to consider the issue on Jan. 31, but it remains unclear when the parliament could recognize Palestine.

That reflects the European Union’s dual role as the Palestinians’ biggest aid donor and Israel’s biggest trade partner, even if EU governments reject Israeli settlements on land Israel has occupied since a 1967 war – including the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

The European Union also wants the Palestinians to remain open to a U.S.-led peace plan, expected to be presented soon by Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s Middle East envoy and Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner.

Abbas said there was “no contradiction between recognition (of Palestine) and the resumption of (peace) negotiations.”

Instead, France wants to push the European Union to offer closer trade ties through a so-called EU association agreement, an EU treaty covering unfettered access to the bloc’s 500 million consumers, aid and closer political and cultural ties.

“We want to say to Mahmoud Abbas that we want to move … towards an association agreement and to start the process already,” said France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

But offering an EU association agreement to the Palestinians was also fraught with difficulties, diplomats said.

Under EU rules, the agreements need to be agreed with sovereign states. France argues that the EU has an association agreement with Kosovo, whose independence is not recognized by all countries, including EU member Spain.

(Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald in Brussels and Marja Novak in Ljubljana, Editing by William Maclean)

‘Congratulations’: EU launches next phase of Brexit but warns of tough talks ahead

'Congratulations': EU launches next phase of Brexit but warns of tough talks ahead

By Philip Blenkinsop and Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union agreed on Friday to move Brexit talks onto trade and a transition pact but some leaders cautioned that the final year of Britain’s divorce negotiations could be fraught with peril.

On the second day of a Brussels summit, EU leaders agreed “sufficient progress” was made after a deal on citizens’ rights, the Irish border and Britain’s outstanding payments, giving negotiators a mandate to move on to the main phase of talks.

“EU leaders agree to move on to the second phase of Brexit talks. Congratulations PM Theresa May,” European Council President Donald Tusk, who chairs EU summits, said on Twitter.

Discussion of a transition period to calm nerves among businesses is due to start in the new year, although talks on a future free trade pact will not begin until after March — a date underlined by “guidelines” that set out how to proceed as Britain seeks to unravel more than 40 years of membership.

May replied via Twitter, thanking Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker: “Today is an important step on the road to delivering a smooth and orderly Brexit and forging our deep and special future partnership,” May said.

“We will deliver on the will of the British people and get the best Brexit deal for our country – securing the greatest possible access to European markets, boosting free trade with countries across the world, and delivering control over our borders, laws and money,” she added.

However, the future partnership discussion is set to be difficult, leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Juncker and Italy’s Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni warned.

Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern went further, saying even a primary school student could see that the “first phase” deal on the Irish border would come back to haunt the talks because it was impossible for Britain to leave the bloc’s single market while avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland.

“There cannot be any border controls between Northern and southern Ireland, there cannot be border controls between Northern Ireland and the UK, but there can between UK and the EU,” he said.

“So our primary school students can see that there is a riddle to be solved.”

In more formal language, leaders used the nine-point guidelines they agreed at the summit to support May’s call for a two-year transition out of the bloc, which aims to help British business and citizens adjust to life after the European Union.

Leaders reiterated their position that Britain cannot conclude a free-trade accord with the European Union until it has left and become a “third country”.

“AMBITION, CREATIVITY”

In coded language aimed at ensuring that Britain’s departure will not set a precedent for others and further undermine the bloc, leaders also agreed to “ensure a balance of rights and obligations” during Britain’s transition period.

Ireland’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar cautioned that there were “quite divergent opinions” on how a new relationship and transition would look. EU officials are unsure exactly how far Britain should continue to receive the full, unfettered economic benefits of EU membership during a transition after it leaves, even if it loses political representation in Brussels.

A day after she suffered a defeat in parliament over her blueprint for quitting the EU, May won applause from her peers on Thursday evening. As she left to return to London, she said she was eager to move on, once her peers give the formal green light to trade talks on Friday.

The EU is willing to start talks next month on a roughly two-year transition period to ease Britain out after March 2019, but has asked for more detail from London on what it wants before it will open trade negotiations from March of next year.

A British government official said the prime minister was approaching the next phase, which will discuss a transition period as well as the terms of the future trading relationship, “with ambition and creativity”.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave her stamp of approval, but cautioned time was running out.

“We made clear that Theresa May has made an offer that should allow us to say that we have seen sufficient progress,” she told reporters. “Nevertheless, there are still a lot of problems to solve. And time is of the essence.”

May, weakened after losing her Conservative Party’s majority in a June election, has so far carried her divided government and party with her as she negotiated the first phase of talks on how much Britain should pay to leave the EU, the border with Ireland and the status of EU citizens in Britain.

But the next, more decisive phase of the negotiations will further test her authority by exposing the deep rifts among her top team of ministers over what Britain should become after Brexit.

(Additional reporting by Luke Baker, Alastair Macdonald and Liz Piper in Brussels; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Mark John)

EU tells Netanyahu it rejects Trump’s Jerusalem move

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini brief the media at the European Council in Brussels, Belgium December 11, 2017.

By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took his case to Europe to ask allies to join the United States in recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but was met by a firm rebuff from EU foreign ministers who saw the move as a blow against the peace process.

Making his first ever visit to EU headquarters in Brussels, Netanyahu said President Donald Trump’s move made peace in the Middle East possible “because recognizing reality is the substance of peace, the foundation of peace.”

Trump announced last Wednesday that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, breaking with decades of U.S. policy and international consensus that the ancient city’s status must be decided in Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Israel, which annexed East Jerusalem after capturing it in a 1967 war, considers the entire city to be its capital. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent state.

The Trump administration says it remains committed to the peace process and its decision does not affect Jerusalem’s future borders or status. It says any credible future peace deal will place the Israeli capital in Jerusalem, and ditching old policies is needed to revive a peace process frozen since 2014.

But even Israel’s closest European allies have rejected that logic and say recognizing Israel’s capital unilaterally risks inflaming violence and further wrecking the chance for peace.

After a breakfast meeting between Netanyahu and EU foreign ministers, Sweden’s top diplomat said no European at the closed-door meeting had voiced support for Trump’s decision, and no country was likely to follow the United States in announcing plans to move its embassy.

“I have a hard time seeing that any other country would do that and I don’t think any other EU country will do it,” Margot Wallstrom told reporters.

Several EU foreign ministers arriving at the meeting reiterated the bloc’s position that lands Israel has occupied since the 1967 war – including East Jerusalem as well as the West Bank and Golan Heights, are not within Israel’s borders.

Israel’s position does appear to have more support from some EU states than others. Last week, the Czech foreign ministry said it would begin considering moving the Czech Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, while Hungary blocked a planned EU statement condemning the U.S. move.

But Prague later said it accepted Israel’s sovereignty only over West Jerusalem, and Budapest said its long-term position seeking a two-state solution in the Middle East had not changed.

On Monday, Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek said of Trump’s decision: “I’m afraid it can’t help us.”

“I’m convinced that it is impossible to ease tension with a unilateral solution,” Zaoralek said. “We are talking about an Israeli state but at the same time we have to speak about a Palestinian state.”

VIOLENCE SUBSIDES

Trump’s announcement triggered days of protests across the Muslim world and clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem in which scores of Palestinians were wounded and several killed. By Monday morning, violence appeared to have subsided.

Netanyahu, who has been angered by the EU’s search for closer business ties with Iran, said Europeans should emulate Trump’s move and press the Palestinians to do so too.

“It’s time that the Palestinians recognize the Jewish state and also recognize the fact that it has a capital. It’s called Jerusalem,” he said.

In comments filmed later on his plane, he said he had told the Europeans to “stop pampering the Palestinians”. “I think the Palestinians need a reality check. You have to stop cutting them slack. That’s the only way to move forward towards peace.”

Trump’s announcement last week has triggered a war of words between Netanyahu and Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan, straining ties between the two U.S. allies which were restored only last year after a six year breach that followed the Israeli storming of a Turkish aid ship bound for Gaza.

On Sunday, Erdogan called Israel a “terror state”. Netanyahu responded by saying he would accept no moral lectures from Erdogan who he accused of bombing Kurdish villages, jailing opponents and supporting terrorists.

On Monday Erdogan took aim directly at Washington over Trump’s move: “The ones who made Jerusalem a dungeon for Muslims and members of other religions will never be able to clean the blood from their hands,” he said in a speech in Ankara. “With their decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the United States has become a partner in this bloodshed.”

The decision to recognize Jerusalem could also strain Washington’s ties with its other main Muslim ally in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, which has sought closer relations with Washington under Trump than under his predecessor Barack Obama.

Saudi Arabia shares U.S. and Israeli concerns about the increasing regional influence of Iran, and was seen as a potential broker for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace deal. But Saudis have suggested that unilateral decisions over Jerusalem make any such rapprochement more difficult.

Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former Saudi ambassador to the United States and veteran ex-security chief, published a strongly-worded open letter to Trump on Monday denouncing the Jerusalem move.

“Bloodshed and mayhem will definitely follow your opportunistic attempt to make electoral gain,” the prince wrote in a letter published in the Saudi newspaper al-Jazeera.

“Your action has emboldened the most extreme elements in the Israeli society … because they take your action as a license to evict the Palestinians from their lands and subject them to an apartheid state,” he added. “Your action has equally emboldened Iran and its terrorist minions to claim that they are the legitimate defenders of Palestinian rights.”

The Trump administration says it is working on a peace proposal being drawn up by Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt and Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner.

European leaders say the decision on Israel’s capital makes the need for a broader peace move more urgent.

“We’ve been waiting already for several months for the American initiative, and if one is not forthcoming then the European Union will have to take the initiative,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.

(Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald and Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Peter Graff)

Britons can change terms of Brexit to diverge from EU: pro-Brexit minister Gove

Britons can change terms of Brexit to diverge from EU: pro-Brexit minister Gove

By Alistair Smout

LONDON (Reuters) – British voters will be able to change the terms of the country’s relationship with the European Union after leaving the bloc if they don’t like the final Brexit deal, senior cabinet minister and pro-Brexit lawmaker Michael Gove said on Saturday.

Britain and the EU achieved “sufficient progress” in Brexit negotiations on Friday to allow them to move on to discussing future trade ties, in a move welcomed by Gove and other Brexit supporters in Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party.

However, while Gove, who is Britain’s environment minister, reiterated his support for May, he gave succour to critics of the deal by saying that if Britons were dissatisfied with the terms of Brexit, future governments could change it.

“The British people will be in control. By the time of the next election, EU law and any new treaty with the EU will cease to have primacy or direct effect in UK law,” Gove wrote in a column in the Daily Telegraph.

“If the British people dislike the arrangement that we have negotiated with the EU, the agreement will allow a future government to diverge.”

Britain is due to exit the EU in March 2019. The next election is not scheduled until 2022, though there has been speculation in British media that it could come earlier, given May’s lack of a parliamentary majority and deep divisions within her party about Brexit.

Some eurosceptic voices outside the government have said that May has betrayed British “leave” voters and given in to EU demands with the agreement.

TOUGH WEEK

It has been a tough week for May after Northern Ireland’s small Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – whose support she needs in parliament – unexpectedly blocked an initial deal on Monday, leaving Britain and the EU scrambling to find wording acceptable to all sides ahead of next week’s summit of EU leaders.

While agreement was eventually reached on Friday, Gove said that all UK proposals were provisional on a final deal being done, and even then, that arrangement could be revisited by future governments.

Matthew Parris, an anti-Brexit columnist and former Conservative lawmaker, told BBC radio that Gove might envisage a situation in which he would be spearheading a new approach to Brexit.

But Gove, who was briefly in the running to lead the party last year, praised May on Saturday, and said the deal was a result of her “tenacity and skill”.

Fellow pro-Brexit cabinet colleague Andrea Leadsom defended his comments, saying it did not imply that May would be replaced before the next election.

“It’s simply the case that in taking back control (from Brussels)… it will be for the voters to determine what future governments do,” Leadsom told BBC radio. “I think it is a statement of the obvious.”

(Reporting by Alistair Smout; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Britain and EU clinch Brexit ‘breakthrough’ with move to trade talks

Britain and EU clinch Brexit 'breakthrough' with move to trade talks

By Alastair Macdonald and Gabriela Baczynska

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Britain and the European Union struck a divorce deal on Friday that paves the way for arduous trade talks, easing immediate pressure on Prime Minister Theresa May and boosting hopes of an orderly Brexit.

May rushed to Brussels before dawn to seal European Commission agreement that “sufficient progress” had been made to begin talks about trade and a two-year Brexit transition period that will start when Britain leaves the EU on March 29, 2019.

Negotiators in London, Brussels and Dublin worked through the night before breaking an impasse over the status of the Irish border, the last major obstacle to the opening of trade talks which EU leaders are due to bless at summit on Dec. 14-15.

Speaking before sunrise at the EU’s executive headquarters in Brussels after a hurried flight on a Royal Air Force plane, May said opening up trade talks would bring certainty for citizens and businesses about Britain’s future after quitting the EU.

“The most difficult challenge is still ahead,” European Council President Donald Tusk cautioned. “We all know that breaking up is hard. But breaking up and building a new relationship is much harder.”

May, looking weary after just a couple of hours sleep, spoke after European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced the breakthrough first in English and then in German and French.

The move to trade talks 18 months after the United Kingdom’s shock vote to exit the EU allayed some fears of a disorderly Brexit that could disrupt trade between the world’s biggest trading bloc and its sixth-largest national economy.

Sterling climbed to a six-month high against the euro <EURGBP=D3> on Friday before it fell back around midday to sit broadly flat, with one euro worth 87.4 pence, while bond yields across the euro zone rose. Against the U.S. dollar <GBP=D3> the pound also weakened.

BREXIT DIVORCE?

Facing 27 other members of the bloc, May largely conceded to the EU on structure, timetable and substance of the negotiations.

Moving to talks about trade and a Brexit transition was crucial for May’s own future after her premiership was thrown into doubt when she lost the ruling Conservative Party its majority in a snap election in June, unwisely called.

“I very much welcome the prospect of moving ahead,” said May, a 61-year-old Anglican vicar’s daughter who herself voted to stay in the EU in a referendum in June 2016 but has repeatedly insisted Britain will make a success of Brexit.

One senior British banker said the deal signaled that May would stay in power for now and that Britain was heading towards a much closer post-Brexit relationship with the EU than many had feared.

Draft guidelines showed the transition period, which would start on March 29, 2019, would last around two years. During that time, Britain will remain part of the customs union and single market but will no longer take part in EU institutions or have a vote.

It will also still be subject to EU law.

Pro-Brexit Conservative lawmakers rallied around her after the overnight deal, a possible signal that the party – which has been split over EU membership for generations – was not preparing to ditch her immediately despite the June election fiasco.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who spearheaded the Brexit campaign, congratulated May, adding that Britain would now take back control of its laws, money and borders.

Supporters of a radical Brexit were tougher.

Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage struck a jarring note saying it was extraordinary a British premier had conceded so much in the middle of the night, agreeing to all the demands of Juncker, Tusk and EU negotiator Michel Barnier.

“The British prime minister has to fly through the middle of the night to go and meet three unelected people, who condescendingly say: ‘Now jolly well done May, you’ve met every single one of our demands, thank you very much, we can now move on to the next stage’.”

“BREAKTHROUGH”

The EU had insisted it would only move to trade talks if there was enough progress on three key issues: the money Britain must pay to the EU; rights for EU citizens in Britain and British citizens in the EU; and how to avoid a hard border with Ireland.

“I believe we have now made the breakthrough we needed,” Juncker said.

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said it was not possible to put a concrete figure on the amount of money Britain will have to pay. Britain has said the divorce bill will cost it between 35 and 39 billion pounds.

On citizens rights, London and Brussels agreed to offer equal treatment on social security, health care, employment and education and that Britain will enable its judges to ask the European Court of Justice to weigh in when necessary for eight years after Brexit.

But the crucial breakthrough was on the future of the 310-mile (500 kms) UK-EU land border on the island of Ireland. The Northern Irish party which props up May’s minority government vetoed a draft deal on Monday.

May worked through most of the night, grabbing just a couple of hours sleep, as she worked the phones from Downing Street to secure agreement from Dublin, Brussels and the Democratic Unionist Party for her deal on the border.

They agreed to avoid a hard border which might upset the peace established after decades of violence, but said the details would be agreed as part of talks about the future relationship, according to a 15-page negotiators report.

In the text, Britain agreed that should London and Brussels fail to agree a final Brexit deal, the United Kingdom will maintain “full alignment” with those rules of the internal market and customs union that help protect north-south cooperation in Ireland.

“In all circumstances, the United Kingdom will continue to ensure the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market,” it said. .

The Democratic Unionist Party gave only a conditional endorsement of the new terms, four days after 11th-hour objections from Belfast scuppered May’s attempt to sign off on an accord over the Irish border.

“We cautioned the Prime Minister about proceeding with this agreement in its present form given the issues which still need to be resolved,” Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Arlene Foster said.

“Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed and how we vote on the final deal will depend on its contents.”

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Kate Holton in London; Additional reporting by Alistair Smout, William James, Costas Pitas and Andrew MacAskill in London, Padraic Halpin in Dublin, and; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Despite EU caution, France pursues tough line on Iran missile program

Despite EU caution, France pursues tough line on Iran missile program

By John Irish

PARIS (Reuters) – France said on Wednesday it wanted an “uncompromising” dialogue with Iran about its ballistic missile program and a possible negotiation over the issue separate from Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

Paris has already suggested that new European sanctions against Iran could be discussed over its missile tests, something EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini seemed to dismiss on Tuesday, keen not to raise risks to the hard-won deal that curbed Iran’s disputed nuclear activity.

On Sunday, Iran rejected a call by French President Emmanuel Macron for talks on its missiles, saying they were defensive in nature and had nothing to do with its nuclear energy work.

“France is concerned about the continued pace of the Iranian missile program, which does not conform with (U.N.) Security Council Resolution 2231 and which is a source of destabilization and insecurity for the region,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Agnes Romatet-Espagne told reporters in a daily briefing.

Resolution 2231, which enshrined the nuclear deal, calls on Iran not to undertake activities related to missiles capable of delivering nuclear bombs, including launches using such technology. It stops short of explicitly barring such activity.

“France wishes to examine all the diplomatic options: a frank and uncompromising political dialogue with Iran; investigations by the U.N. General Secretariat; if necessary, new European sanctions against Iranian entities or individuals involved in the ballistic program; and finally opening a negotiation on the subject,” she said.

President Donald Trump, who has resumed a confrontational U.S. approach to Iran in contrast with predecessor Barack Obama’s policy of detente, has said Iranian missile activity should be curbed and wants to punish Tehran over its role in Yemen and Syria.

Trump has also dealt a blow to Iran’s nuclear deal – agreed with Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States under Obama – by decertifying Iranian compliance with its terms, contradicting the findings of U.N. nuclear inspectors.

The U.S. Congress now has until mid-December to decide whether to reimpose economic sanctions on Iran that had been lifted in exchange for limiting its nuclear program in ways meant to prevent it developing an atomic bomb.

But the EU, which normally coordinates closely with Washington on international sanctions, has been lobbying hard to keep the nuclear pact alive, saying it should be kept separate from missile and regional security matters.

France’s tougher line on the missile issue appears to reflect a concern that Iran might eventually try to arm a missile cone with a nuclear bomb, should it ever build one. Tehran has repeatedly denied any intent to do so.

Romatet-Espagne reiterated the view that the nuclear deal should be kept separate, but said the ballistic missile issue was being discussed with fellow EU governments and Mogherini’s foreign service.

Foreign Minister Jean-Yves le Drian had been due to visit Tehran before the end of the month, although that has now been pushed back to later in the year due to a busy schedule, a diplomatic source said.

Any EU-wide sanctions action requires the unanimity of all 28 member states but there is no consensus on new punitive steps against Iran, a fact made clear by Mogherini on Monday.

“We didn’t discuss, not today, not last week (and) I don’t foresee any discussion also in the future, further sanctions from the EU side on Iran,” she said, alluding to Macron’s remarks, after a meeting of EU foreign ministers.

(Reporting by John Irish; editing by Mark Heinrich)