U.S., allies urge Facebook not to encrypt messages as they fight child abuse, terrorism

By Joseph Menn, Christopher Bing and Katie Paul

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States and allies are seizing on Facebook Inc’s plan to apply end-to-end encryption across its messaging services to press for major changes to a practice long opposed by law enforcement, saying it hinders the fight against child abuse and terrorism.

The United States, the United Kingdom and Australia plan to sign a special data agreement on Thursday that would fast track requests from law enforcement to technology companies for information about the communications of terrorists and child predators, according to documents reviewed by Reuters.

Law enforcement could get information in weeks or even days instead of the current wait of six months to two years, one document said.

The agreement will be announced alongside an open letter to Facebook and its Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, calling on the company to suspend plans related to developing end-to-end encryption technology across its messaging services.

The latest tug-of-war between governments and tech companies over user data could also impact Apple Inc, Alphabet Inc’s Google and Microsoft Corp, as well as smaller encrypted chat apps like Signal.

Washington has called for more regulation and launched anti-trust investigations against many tech companies, criticizing them over privacy lapses, election-related activity and dominance in online advertising.

Child predators have increasingly used messaging applications, including Facebook’s Messenger, in the digital age to groom their victims and exchange explicit images and videos. The number of known child sexual abuse images has soared from thousands to tens of millions in just the past few years.

Speaking at an event in Washington on Wednesday, Associate Attorney General Sujit Raman said the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received more than 18 million tips of online child sex abuse last year, over 90% of them from Facebook.

He estimated that up to 75% of those tips would “go dark” if social media companies like Facebook were to go through with encryption plans.

Facebook said in a statement that it strongly opposes “government efforts to build backdoors,” which it said would undermine privacy and security.

Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety, told Reuters the company was looking at ways to prevent inappropriate behavior and stop predators from connecting with children.

This approach “offers us an opportunity to prevent harms in a way that simply going after content doesn’t,” she said.

In practice, the bilateral agreement would empower the UK government to directly request data from U.S. tech companies, which remotely store data relevant to their own ongoing criminal investigations, rather than asking for it via U.S. law enforcement officials.

The effort represents a two-pronged approach by the United States and its allies to pressure private technology companies while making information sharing about criminal investigations faster.

A representative for the U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment.

Susan Landau, a professor of cybersecurity and policy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said disputes over encryption have flared on-and-off since the mid-1990s.

She said government officials concerned with fighting child abuse would be better served by making sure investigators had more funding and training.

“They seem to ignore the low-hanging fruit in favor of going after the thing they’ve been going after for the past 25 years,” she said.

The letter addressed to Zuckerberg and Facebook comes from U.S. Attorney General William Barr, UK Secretary of State for the Home Department Priti Patel and Australian Minister of Home Affairs Peter Dutton.

“Our understanding is that much of this activity, which is critical to protecting children and fighting terrorism, will no longer be possible if Facebook implements its proposals as planned,” the letter reads.

“Unfortunately, Facebook has not committed to address our serious concerns about the impact its proposals could have on protecting our most vulnerable citizens.”

WhatsApp’s global head Will Cathcart wrote in a public internet forum https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21100588 on Saturday that the company “will always oppose government attempts to build backdoors because they would weaken the security of everyone who uses WhatsApp including governments themselves.”

That app, which is already encrypted, is also owned by Facebook.

(Reporting by Joseph Menn and Katie Paul in San Francisco and Christopher Bing in Washington; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Brexit ‘inferno’ lays bare a divided United Kingdom

By Guy Faulconbridge and Elizabeth Piper

LONDON (Reuters) – The fury of Britain’s Brexit “inferno” is so intense that it could encourage violence unless politicians tone down their rhetoric, the husband of a lawmaker murdered a week before the 2016 EU referendum said on Thursday.

Parliament reached boiling point on Wednesday when Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his opponents engaged in hours of vitriolic argument over Brexit, with lawmakers hurling allegations of betrayal and abuse of power across the chamber.

Jo Cox, a 41-year-old parliamentarian from the opposition Labour Party, was murdered on June 16, 2016 by Thomas Mair, a loner obsessed with Nazis and extreme right-wing ideology. She was the mother of two young children.

Cox’s husband Brendan said he was shocked by the inflammatory language on display and both sides should ponder the impact of the words they used.

When asked how his late wife might have responded, Cox said: “She would have tried to take a generosity of spirit to it and thought about how at this moment you can step back from this growing inferno of rhetoric.”

“To descend into this bear pit of polarization is dangerous for our country,” he told the BBC. “It creates an atmosphere where violence and attacks are more likely.”

Brexit has illustrated a United Kingdom divided about much more than the European Union and has fueled soul-searching about everything from secession and immigration to capitalism, empire and Britishness itself.

The rage and ferocity of the Brexit debate have shocked allies of a country that has prided itself as a confident – and mostly tolerant – pillar of Western economic and political stability.

Cox was clear that the language across the Brexit schism was troubling and that the United Kingdom needed to come together rather than tear itself apart.

Some on both sides of the debate are now using the politics of contrived outrage to argue their point. Johnson says parliament is betraying the will of the people over Brexit, while opponents cast him a dictator who has ridden roughshod over democracy to take the United Kingdom to the brink of ruin.

Parliamentary speaker John Bercow told lawmakers to stop treating each other as enemies, saying the atmosphere in the House of Commons was the worst he had known since he was elected 22 years ago.

“The culture was toxic,” Bercow said in parliament.

BREXIT SCHISM

Johnson returned to the chamber on Wednesday after the Supreme Court ruled that his decision to suspend parliament earlier this month was unlawful.

He goaded his opponents either to bring down the government or get out of the way to allow him to deliver Brexit. His opponents roared “resign” and some cast him as a cheating dictator who should stand aside after the court ruling.

Johnson provoked anger by repeatedly calling a law that forces him to ask the EU for a Brexit delay unless he can strike a deal as “the Surrender Bill”. Speaking to Conservative lawmakers on Thursday, he defended his use of the term and received support from the party.

Johnson told the 1922 Committee: “It IS a surrender act,” arguing that it hurt Britain’s negotiating stance with the EU. The prime minister added that he took threats to lawmakers very seriously.

But some were still furious over his response on Wednesday to a question about Jo Cox.

Labour’s Paula Sherriff told the House she had received death threats, some of which echoed the prime minister’s own rhetoric. Johnson replied: “I have never heard so much humbug in my life”, sparking uproar.

It was not just politicians who were angry. Johnson’s own sister Rachel described her brother’s words as a “particularly tasteless” way to refer to the memory of a murdered lawmaker.

“Words like collaborationist, traitor, betrayal, my brother using words like surrender, capitulation, as if the people who are standing in the way of the blessed will of the people as defined by 17.4 million votes in 2016 should be hung, drawn, quartered, tarred and feathered,” she told Sky News.

“I think that it highly reprehensible language to use.”

In the 2016 referendum, 17.4 million voters, or 52 percent, backed Brexit while 16.1 million, or 48 percent, voted to remain.

But after more than three years of crisis since then, it remains unclear how, when or even whether the country will leave the bloc it joined in 1973.

Nicholas Soames, grandson of Britain’s World War Two leader Winston Churchill, said the atmosphere in the chamber was the most poisonous he could remember in 37 years in parliament. “I despair, to be frank,” Soames, 71, said.

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Andrew MacAskill, Angus MacSwan and Giles Elgood)

British Prime Minister Johnson vows Brexit with “no ifs or buts”

Queen Elizabeth II welcomes Boris Johnson during an audience in Buckingham Palace, where she will officially recognise him as the new Prime Minister, in London, Britain July 24, 2019. Victoria Jones/Pool via REUTERS

By William James and Kylie MacLellan

LONDON (Reuters) – Boris Johnson used his first speech as prime minister to vow to lead Britain out of the European Union on Oct. 31 “no ifs or buts”, warning that if the European Union refused to negotiate then there would be a no-deal Brexit.

Johnson, who has been hailed by U.S. President Donald Trump as Britain’s Trump, is sending the strongest message yet to the EU that he will be taking a distinctly tougher approach to negotiating the Brexit divorce deal.

He enters Downing Street at one of the most perilous junctures in post-World War Two British history – the United Kingdom is divided over Brexit and weakened by the three-year political crisis that has gripped it since the 2016 referendum.

“We are going to fulfill the repeated promises of parliament to the people and come out of the EU on October 31, no ifs or buts,” Johnson, 55, said after arriving at his new residence, No.10 Downing Street.

“We can do a deal without checks at the Irish border,” Johnson said, watched by his girlfriend Carrie Symonds and his staff. “It is of course vital at the same time that we prepare for the remote possibility that Brussels refuses any further to negotiate and we are forced to come out with no deal.”

One of Britain’s most prominent Brexit campaigners, Johnson has repeatedly pledged to leave the EU by Oct. 31 – “do or die” – and to inject a new optimism and energy into the divorce, which he argues will bring a host of opportunities.

But his strategy sets the United Kingdom up for a showdown with the EU and thrusts it toward a potential constitutional crisis, or an election, at home.

“NEVER MIND THE BACKSTOP”

One of the issues that prevented his predecessor Theresa May getting a divorce deal through parliament was the Irish “backstop” – a provision that would maintain a customs union with the EU if no better solution was found.

Johnson was bullish, however. “Never mind the backstop. The buck stops here,” he said.

He said he would ensure “the people” were his boss and that he would accelerate preparations for a “no-deal” Brexit – a threat he intends to use to force a reluctant EU to renegotiate the exit deal it agreed with May but which parliament has rejected three times.

To implement Brexit, Johnson will appoint Dominic Cummings, the campaign director of the official Brexit Vote Leave campaign, as a senior adviser in Downing Street.

Earlier May, who had formally tendered her resignation to Queen Elizabeth, left Downing Street after a three-year premiership marred by crises over Brexit.

She appeared to be fighting back tears as she was applauded out of the House of Commons chamber.

Johnson had a possible foretaste of turmoil ahead when, as he drove to his audience with the queen, Greenpeace protesters tried – but failed – to block the path of his car as his chauffeur drove around them.

Now formally “Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury”, Johnson’ first task will be to appoint key members of the government – names that will give a hint of how he will handle Brexit, Britain’s most significant decision in decades.

BREXIT GOVERNMENT?

But ‘Prime Minister Johnson’ – a man known for his ambition, blond hair, flowery oratory and cursory command of detail – must solve a series of riddles if he is to succeed where May failed.

The 2016 Brexit referendum showed a United Kingdom divided about much more than the EU, and has fueled soul-searching about everything from secession and immigration to capitalism, the legacy of empire and modern Britishness.

The pound is weak, the economy at risk of recession, allies are in despair at the Brexit crisis and foes are testing Britain’s vulnerability.

Johnson’s Conservatives have no majority in parliament and so can only govern with the support of 10 lawmakers from the Brexit-backing Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland.

While Johnson has said he does not want an early election, some lawmakers have vowed to thwart any attempt to leave the EU without a divorce deal. Nigel Farage, whose Brexit Party trounced the Conservatives in May’s EU elections, said he was open to an electoral pact with Johnson.

The appointment of Cummings, known for his campaign skills but also for a combative style that challenges the consensus, indicates Johnson is serious about going in hard on Brexit and wants a first-class political campaigner close.

Interior minister Sajid Javid is widely tipped to stay in a top job – possibly as finance minister – and was spotted flanking Johnson as he arrived to meet lawmakers.

A record number of ethnic minority politicians are expected to serve as ministers including Priti Patel, the former aid minister who resigned in 2017 over undisclosed meetings with Israeli officials, and current employment minister Alok Sharma.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Johnson’s rival for the leadership, was offered the job of defense minister but turned it down, Sky News TV reported.

NO DEAL?

A no-deal Brexit could also prompt Scottish nationalists, who want the UK to remain inside the EU, to seek a fresh referendum on Scottish independence.

Many investors say a no-deal Brexit would send shock waves through the world economy and tip the world’s fifth-largest economic power into recession, roil financial markets and potentially weaken London’s position as the pre-eminent international financial center, they say.

Brexit supporters say those fears are overblown and the United Kingdom will thrive if cut loose from the European project, which they cast as a German-dominated bloc that is falling far behind its global competitors such as the United States and China.

“If he really wants a ‘no-deal’, he will get it. We will never push an EU member out, but we can’t stop him,” one EU diplomat said. “More likely, his own parliament would.”

(Additional reporting by Elizabeth Piper, Andy Bruce, Kate Holton, William Schomberg, David Milliken and Paul Sandle in London and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Kevin Liffey)

Brexit: Where will the UK end up: fudge, no-deal exit or halting Brexit?

FILE PHOTO: An EU flag flutters next to the statue of Winston Churchill outside the Houses of Parliament, ahead of a vote on Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit deal, in London, Britain January 15, 2019. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

By Guy Faulconbridge and Andrew MacAskill

LONDON (Reuters) – With just 10 weeks until the United Kingdom is due to leave the European Union, it is unclear how or even whether the divorce will take place.

The crushing defeat of Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal means she must now work with other parties in parliament on a new variant if she is to avoid a no-deal Brexit or the other option, a referendum on membership.

As the clock ticks down to 2300 GMT on March 29, the time and date set in law for Brexit, May has three main options: a compromise deal, a no-deal Brexit or halting Brexit altogether.

FUDGED DEAL

After her defeat, May pledged to speak to senior to parliamentarians to find a compromise, and financial markets are betting that lawmakers will cobble together a last-minute deal.

The opposition Labour Party’s finance policy spokesman, John McDonnell, said Labour would support May if she agreed to stay in a permanent customs union with the EU, a close relationship with its single market and greater protections for workers and consumers.

With May’s Conservatives deeply split, the opposition party holds great influence over the eventual outcome of Brexit. It is difficult to see how any Brexit plan can pass the House of Commons without the support of some of Labour’s 256 lawmakers.

But if May moves closer to Labour’s position, she risks losing the support of dozens of pro-Brexit Conservative lawmakers as well as the small Northern Irish party which props up her minority government.

If May is unable to forge a compromise deal, she will have to chose between calling a national election, delaying Brexit or going for a no-deal exit.

Many Conservative lawmakers would oppose fighting a national election at such a crucial juncture, especially after she lost the party its majority in a snap poll in 2017. May herself said on Wednesday an election would be “the worst thing we could do”.

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier indicated that one way forward would be for Britain to accept closer alignment with EU regulations. EU officials say London could, for example, abandon its plan to leave the EU customs union and single market, but that is unlikely to win backing among many Conservatives.

NO-DEAL BREXIT

Despite strong opposition among a majority of British lawmakers and many businesses to leaving the EU without a deal, this remains the default option unless parliament can agree on a Brexit plan.

“It is not enough to just not like May’s deal – to not have a no-deal there has to be something to replace it with, otherwise we leave without a deal,” said one senior British lawmaker.

No-deal means there would be no transition so the exit would be abrupt, the nightmare scenario for international businesses and the dream of hard Brexiteers who want a decisive split.

Britain is a member of the World Trade Organization so tariffs and other terms governing its trade with the EU would be set under WTO rules.

Business leaders are triggering contingency plans to cope with additional checks on the post-Brexit UK-EU border they fear will clog ports, silt up the arteries of trade and dislocate supply chains in Europe and beyond.

Brexit supporters say there would be short-term disruption but in the long-term the UK would thrive if cut free from what they cast as a doomed experiment in German-dominated unity that is falling behind China and the United States.

NO BREXIT

Since the 2016 referendum, opponents of Brexit have sought another vote they hope would overturn the result, but May has repeatedly ruled this out, saying it would undermine faith in democracy among the 17.4 million who voted in 2016 to leave.

A new referendum can only be called if it is approved by parliament and there is currently no majority in favor of one.

The opposition Labour Party wants to push for an election and only if that is rejected will it consider another referendum. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is a veteran euroskeptic who has also spoken out in the past against a second referendum.

However, a prominent pro-EU Conservative lawmaker, Dominic Grieve, on Wednesday submitted legislation making provisions for a second Brexit referendum.

If parliament agreed to a second referendum, Britain would have to ask for an extension to its timetable for leaving the EU to allow enough time for a campaign, probably by withdrawing its Article 50 formal departure notification.

The Electoral Commission would have to agree what question, or questions, would be asked of the public.

At the highest levels of government, there are worries that a second referendum would exacerbate the deep divisions exposed by the 2016 referendum, alienate millions of pro-Brexit voters and stoke support for the far-right. If Britons voted to remain, Brexit supporters might then demand a third and decisive vote.

“I became prime minister immediately after that (2016) referendum,” May said minutes after her Brexit deal was rejected on Tuesday. ”I believe it is my duty to deliver on their instruction and I intend to do so.”

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Explainer: Brexit basics – What is Brexit and why does it matter?

FILE PHOTO: A bus with a pro-Brexit message passes an anti-Brexit demonstrator outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, December 10, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

LONDON (Reuters) – The United Kingdom is due to leave the European Union on March 29, 2019. The date is set in law – the 2018 Withdrawal Act – but the divorce has been plunged into chaos.

Below is an explainer of the Brexit basics:

BREXIT?

A blending of “Britain” and “exit,” it is the description of the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union. The word was coined by former lawyer Peter Wilding four years before the vote took place.

The EU, initially an attempt to tie Germany and France together and prevent another major European war, is now a group of 28 countries which trade and allow their citizens to move between the countries to live and work.

In the June 23, 2016 referendum, 17.4 million voters, or 52 percent, backed leaving while 16.1 million, or 48 percent, backed staying in the bloc.

The campaign was among the most divisive waged in Britain with accusations of lying and scare-mongering on both sides.

Supporters of remaining in the EU were accused of exaggerating threats to the economy. The pro-Brexit camp was accused of misleading voters about how much extra money could be spent on healthcare and stoking fears about immigration.

A week before the vote, a pro-EU member of parliament died after being stabbed and shot in the street.

WHY DOES IT MATTER?

Pro-Europeans fear Britain’s exit will weaken the West as it grapples with Donald Trump’s unpredictable U.S. presidency and growing assertiveness from Russia and China. It weakens Europe’s economy and removes one of its only two nuclear powers.

A disorderly Brexit would hammer the United Kingdom’s economy, the world’s fifth largest, and could disrupt trade in Europe and beyond. The shock of a chaotic Brexit would roil financial markets.

Brexit supporters say while there may be some short-term disruption, in the long-term the UK will thrive outside what they cast as a doomed experiment in German-dominated unity and excessive debt-funded welfare spending.

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

The vote to leave the EU followed decades of discussion about how close the United Kingdom should be to the bloc.

Britain refused to join the forerunner to the EU, the European Economic Community when it was founded in 1957. When it did decide to join, its attempts were vetoed twice by France.

The UK became a member in 1973, only to have a crisis of confidence that led to an exit referendum two years later. Britons voted 67 to 33 percent to stay in the club in 1975.

But opposition, which partly reflected an ambivalence grounded in Britain’s imperial past, stiffened as European leaders sought greater economic and political integration. Britain never joined Europe’s currency, the euro, or participated in the EU’s Schengen Area open-borders agreement.

Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher threatened to halt payments to the EU unless Britain got a refund. But her opposition to greater European integration led to her being ousted in a party coup.

In an attempt to end splits in his Conservative Party, the former Prime Minister David Cameron held the 2016 “in-out” referendum.

WHO ARE BREXITEERS?

Supporters of Brexit. They say leaving will give the United Kingdom back control over its own destiny and allow it to exploit global economic opportunities beyond Europe.

They argue the United Kingdom will save billions of pounds in membership fees, regain control of its economic policies and regulations and the right to restrict immigration from countries in the EU.

WHO ARE REMAINERS?

Opponents of Brexit. They say leaving will hammer the British economy and diminish the United Kingdom’s global clout.

As a bloc, the EU is Britain’s most important trading partner and its greatest source of foreign direct investment. Remainers say an exit will disrupt trade and dislocate supply chains in Europe and beyond.

SO WHY THE CHAOS?

After months of negotiation, British Prime Minister Theresa May reached agreement on the terms of Britain’s departure with EU leaders. But her plan to accept EU customs rules on goods while ending free movement of people has drawn criticism from both pro-Brexit and pro-EU lawmakers, the Northern Irish DUP party, which props up her minority government, and members of the opposition.

May says the choice before parliament is her deal, no deal or no Brexit.

CAN BREXIT BE STOPPED?

The lack of support in parliament for May’s divorce deal has stirred interest in the possibility that Britain may hold a second vote on whether to stay or leave.

May has ruled out a second referendum. The main opposition Labour Party is also skeptical, fearing another vote would divide supporters.

If Parliament did agree to hold another referendum, Britain would have to ask for an extension to the timetable for leaving the EU to allow enough time to hold the vote.

(Reporting By Andrew MacAskill; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Janet Lawrence)

U.S. strongly condemns Russia’s poisoning of former spy: White House

By Jeff Mason

BERKLEY HEIGHTS, New Jersey (Reuters) – The White House said on Friday the United States strongly condemned Russia’s use of chemical weapons against a former Russian agent in Britain, two days after the U.S. State Department announced sanctions over the move.

“The attack against Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, United Kingdom, on March 4, 2018, was a reckless display of contempt for the universally held norm against chemical weapons,” said a spokesman for the White House National Security Council in an email.

The spokesman said sanctions that the State Department said it would impose by the end of August fulfilled its legal obligations “after determining a foreign government has used chemical or biological weapons against its own nationals or in violation of international law.”

Skripal, a former colonel in Russia’s GRU military intelligence service, and his 33-year-old daughter were found slumped unconscious on a bench in the southern English city of Salisbury in March after a liquid form of the Novichok type of nerve agent was applied to his home’s front door.

President Donald Trump, who is spending the week at his golf property in New Jersey, did not comment on the recent sanctions when asked about them by a reporter on Thursday. Trump has sought to improve relations with Russia despite U.S. intelligence findings that Moscow had meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

European countries and the United States have expelled 100 Russian diplomats since that attack, in the toughest action by Trump against Russia since he came to office.

Trump and his advisers have often appeared at odds over how strongly to act against Moscow. In the run-up to a summit between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki last month, U.S. officials repeatedly called out Russia over its “malign” activities, but Trump did not use such language during a news conference with Putin.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Americans in UK warned to keep ‘low profile’ during Trump visit

Temporary signs indicate road closures around the U.S. ambassador's residence, where special fences have been erected prior to the U.S. presidential visit at the end of the week, in Regent's Park in London, Britain, July 10, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

By Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) – The U.S. Embassy in London issued an alert on Tuesday to Americans in the British capital, warning them to keep a low profile during President Donald Trump’s visit later this week in case protests against him turn violent.

Trump arrives in Britain on Thursday after a NATO summit and thousands of protesters are expected to join demonstrations during his visit, including plans to fly a blimp over parliament portraying Trump as an orange, snarling baby.

While Britain regards the United States as its closest ally, some Britons see Trump as crude, volatile and opposed to their values on a range of issues. His comments on militant attacks in Britain and his re-tweeting of anti-Muslim videos posted by a leader of a far-right UK party sparked anger.

More than 50,000 people have signed up to demonstrate in London on Friday against his visit although a counter-gathering to welcome him is also planned.

“Numerous demonstrations are being planned for July 12 to 14, 2018, surrounding the visit of the President of the United States to the United Kingdom,” the U.S. embassy said in the alert on its website.

“Several of the events are expected to attract large crowds and there will be road closures in connection with those events.”

Its advice to U.S. citizens was to “keep a low profile” and “exercise caution if unexpectedly in the vicinity of large gatherings that may become violent”.

Trump arrives in Britain on Thursday after the NATO summit in Belgium and will stay overnight at the central London residence of the U.S. ambassador where a high metal security fence was erected outside.

He will hold talks with Prime Minister Theresa May at her 16th-century manor house, meet Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle and attend a black-tie dinner at the home of former World War Two leader Winston Churchill – all outside London.

The U.S. president is also due to travel to Scotland where he owns two golf courses and Scotland’s interim police chief has said more than 5,000 officers would be needed for to cover the trip, including specialist riot and armed officers.

Ahead of his visit, Trump said Britain was currently “in somewhat turmoil” as Prime Minister May grappled with a political crisis after two top ministers quit over her plans for trade ties with the European Union after Britain leaves the bloc next March.

“I have NATO, I have the UK, which is in somewhat turmoil, and I have (Vladimir Putin),” Trump said as he set off on his trip to Europe which includes a meeting with the Russian President in the Finnish capital Helsinki.

“Frankly, Putin may be the easiest of them all. Who would think?”

Relations between Britain and Russia are at a post-Cold War low since May blamed the Kremlin for the poisoning of former Russian agent Sergei Skripal with a Soviet-era military nerve agent in March.

(Editing by Guy Faulconbridge)

Donald Trump’s visit puts Britain’s Brexit dependence on show

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump shake hands with Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May during the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, January 25, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

By Guy Faulconbridge and William James

LONDON (Reuters) – When Donald Trump visits Britain next week, Prime Minister Theresa May will have to face a harsh reality: Brexit makes Britain more dependent than ever on an alliance with the most unpredictable U.S. president in living memory.

Sandwiched between a NATO meeting and a summit with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Trump’s first visit to Britain as president comes at one of the most important junctures for Europe and the West since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union.

From challenging Western assumptions about the EU and free trade to courting the Kremlin and North Korea’s leader, Trump has delivered on his promise of an “unpredictable” U.S. foreign policy.

That leaves May, who held hands with Trump at the White House during her visit after his inauguration, in a difficult position as she seeks closer trade ties with the United States to offset the disruption of leaving the EU on March 29, 2019.(F

“The irony is that by leaving the EU, the United Kingdom will be less useful to Washington as an ally but it will also need the United States much more,” said Jeffrey A. Stacey, a former State Department official in Obama’s administration.

“So May has been thrown into the arms of the most unpredictable U.S. president in living memory,” Stacey said.

Over 50,000 people have signed up for a protest on Trafalgar Square in central London against the Trump visit, which will include a meeting with Queen Elizabeth and possibly even a round of golf at his Turnberry course in Scotland.

Even taking account of Trump’s penchant for deal making, the visit is likely to be heavy on rhetoric about an increasingly lopsided “special relationship” and short on specifics such as the details of a post-Brexit trade deal.

For supporters, Trump and Brexit offer the prospect of breaking free from what they see as obsolete institutions and rules that have weakened the United States and its allies relative to competitors such as China.

But for many British diplomats, Brexit marks the collapse of a 70-year British strategy of trying to balance European integration with a U.S. alliance based on blood, trade and intelligence sharing.

“May’s rushed diplomacy with Trump has been foolish: what has she actually got out of the relationship so far?” said one senior European diplomat in London, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“You Brits are leaving Europe but do you really want to jump into the arms of Donald Trump’s America? And more importantly, do you have a choice?” the diplomat asked.

HOLDING HANDS

Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election shocked British diplomats in Washington and relations between May, a vicar’s daughter, and Trump have been strained at times.

The enduring image of May’s visit to the White House in January 2017, when she became the first foreign leader to meet the president after he took office, was Trump taking May’s hand to help her down the steps of a White House colonnade.

But any good vibrations from that moment soon dissipated when Trump, the same day, announced plans to ban migrants from seven Muslim-majority countries – a decision that drew fierce international criticism and appeared to blindside May.

Days later, thousands marched on parliament to protest the decision to offer a Trump full state visit to Britain, and 1.8 million people signed a petition saying the invitation should be canceled because he might embarrass the Queen.

Trump has repeatedly thwarted British and other European diplomatic overtures, withdrawing from multilateral agreements on climate change, human rights, and a treasured deal to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for lifting sanctions.

Officials around May insist that Britain still has the capability to influence Trump, outlining a handling strategy that involves appealing to his self interest, “planting the seed” of an idea and allowing him time to consider its merits.

But, much will rest on the personal dynamic between May, a staid, career politician who prides herself on careful decision-making, and Trump, the brash, often-bellicose, former reality TV star who declared last month he would know within a minute whether a deal could be struck with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un

“We talk about Trump and Macron because it seems interesting with some upsides. We talk about Trump and Angela Merkel because it’s ‘difficult'” said Leslie Vinjamuri, head of the U.S. and Americas program at the Chatham House think tank.

“Theresa May gets a bit lost in all of that. She has neither been strong nor weak, there doesn’t seem to be any special affection.”

Asked at last month’s G7 meeting in Canada whether Trump was a “good friend” to Britain, May said: “The United States and the United Kingdom are good friends. President Trump and I work together.”

But just hours after the meeting concluded he tore up a joint communique on trade, equality and the environment that May and other G7 leaders had labored late into the night to agree.

Therein lies the difficulty for May.

“When he’s here, he’ll give, but I think when he walks away he will very quickly forget what the visit was about,” Vinjamuri said.

(Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Britain expels 23 Russian diplomats over chemical attack on ex-spy

Russia's flag flies from the consular section of its embassy, in central London, Britain March 14, 2018. REUTERS/Phil Noble

By Costas Pitas and Estelle Shirbon

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain will expel 23 Russian diplomats in response to a nerve toxin attack on a Russian former double agent in southern England, Prime Minister Theresa May said on Wednesday, adding it was the biggest single expulsion in over 30 years.

May said Britain would also introduce new measures to strengthen defenses against hostile state activities, freeze Russian state assets wherever there was evidence of a threat and downgrade its attendance at the soccer World Cup in Russia this summer.

Russia, which has repeatedly denied any involvement in the nerve agent attack, said Britain should expect retaliation for its actions.

Former spy Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, were found unconscious on a bench in the city of Salisbury on March 4 and remain in hospital in critical condition. A police officer was also harmed and remains in a serious condition.

May has said the Skripals were attacked with Novichok, a Soviet-era military-grade nerve agent. She had asked Moscow to explain whether it was responsible for the attack or had lost control of stocks of the highly dangerous substance.

“Their response demonstrated complete disdain for the gravity of these events,” May said in a statement to parliament.

“They have treated the use of a military grade nerve agent in Europe with sarcasm, contempt and defiance.

“There is no alternative conclusion, other than that the Russian state was culpable for the attempted murder of Mr Skripal and his daughter, and for threatening the lives of other British citizens in Salisbury, including Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey.

“This represents an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom.”

May said the expulsion of the 23 diplomats, identified as undeclared intelligence officers, was the biggest single expulsion for over 30 years and would degrade Russian intelligence capabilities in Britain for years to come.

“We will freeze Russian state assets wherever we have the evidence that they may be used to threaten the life or property of UK nationals or residents,” May said.

She also said new legislative proposals would be urgently developed to counter any threat from a hostile state.

“This will include the addition of a targeted power to detain those suspected of hostile state activity at the UK border,” May said.

British authorities would make use of existing powers to enhance efforts to monitor and track the intentions of those traveling to the UK who could be engaged in activities that represented a security threat.

“We will increase checks on private flights, customs and freight,” she said.

She also threatened action against those she described as “serious criminals and corrupt elites,” adding: “There is no place for these people, or their money, in our country.”

May said Britain would revoke an invitation to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to visit the country and suspend all planned high level bilateral contacts between London and Moscow.

On the soccer World Cup, she said no ministers or members of the British royal family would attend.

(Reporting by Costas Pitas, Estelle Shirbon, Guy Faulconbridge, Michael Holden, Elizabeth Piper and William James, additional reporting by Polina Ivanova in Moscow, writing by Estelle Shirbon; editing by Stephen Addison)

Iran will treat jailed aid worker as Iranian citizen: foreign ministry

Iran will treat jailed aid worker as Iranian citizen: foreign ministry

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Iran will treat a British-Iranian aid worker as an Iranian citizen and she will serve her sentence as determined by the judiciary, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman said on Monday.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson discussed Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case with Iranian officials after flying to Tehran over the weekend to try to seek her release.

“One of the issues that Johnson brought up in Tehran was the issue of Ms. Zaghari,” Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi was quoted by state media as saying.

“With regard to her dual nationality, from our point of view of course she is Iranian and she has been sentenced by the judiciary and she will serve the period of her sentence.”

Britain says Zaghari-Ratcliffe was visiting family on holiday in April 2016 when she was jailed by Iran for attempting to overthrow the government.

Johnson said he urged the release of dual nationals.

“I urged their release, on humanitarian grounds, where there is cause to do so,” Johnson told the British parliament.

“These are complex cases involving individuals considered by Iran to be their own citizens, and I do not wish to raise false hopes. But my meetings in Tehran were worthwhile,” he said. “It is too early to be confident about the outcome.”

Zaghari-Ratcliffe is not the only dual national being held in Iran, but her case has taken on political significance in Britain after Johnson said last month that she had been teaching journalists in Iran, which her employer denies. Johnson later apologized.

Opponents have called for him to resign if his comments lead to her serving longer in prison.

Qassemi said the Iranian foreign ministry would follow up on Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case but said that it was ultimately a matter for the judiciary.

A project manager with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced to five years in prison after being convicted by an Iranian court of plotting to overthrow the clerical establishment. She denies the charges.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation is a charity organization that is independent of Thomson Reuters and operates independently of Reuters News. It says Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been on holiday and had not been teaching journalism in Iran.

Johnson also said he raised with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif what he called “the official harassment of journalists working for BBC Persian and their families inside Iran.”

The BBC has called on Iran to reverse a court order which it said effectively froze the non-liquid assets of 152 staff, former staff and contributors in Iran.

(Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh; Additional reporting by Andrew MacAskill and Guy Faulconbridge in London; Editing by William Maclean and Peter Graff)