Macron backs month of Brexit talks as Johnson visits

French President Emmanuel Macron (L) welcomes Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson ahead of a meeting at The Elysee Palace in Paris on Aug. 22, 2019. (Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/AFP)
Updated 22 August 2019

Macron backs month of Brexit talks as Johnson visits

  • Macron has rejected Johnson’s calls to scrap a key arrangement regarding Ireland
  • The EU argues the backstop is necessary to avoid the re-emergence of checkpoints in Ireland

PARIS: French leader Emmanuel Macron backed the idea of a month of further talks to find a solution to Brexit while ruling out major compromises as he met British Prime Minister Boris Johnson for talks on Thursday.
Like German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday, Macron supported allowing another 30 days to find a solution to the vexed issue of the Irish border which has bedevilled negotiations since 2017.
“We need to try to have a useful month,” Macron said alongside Johnson who insisted that solutions were “readily available” to prevent checkpoints returning in divided Ireland.
But Macron, who admitted he had a reputation as the “hardest in the gang” on Brexit, has rejected Johnson’s calls to scrap a key arrangement for Ireland negotiated between the EU and former British premier Theresa May.
At stake is the so-called “backstop,” which is a provision guaranteeing that border checks will not return between EU member Ireland and Northern Ireland which is part of Britain.
Johnson considers the backstop to be “anti-democratic” and an affront to British sovereignty because it will require London to keep its regulations aligned with the EU during a transition exit period.
“The technical solutions are readily available (to avoid checkpoints) and they have been discussed at great length,” Johnson said. “You can have trusted trader schemes, you can have electronic pre-clearing.”
The EU argues the backstop is necessary to avoid the re-emergence of checkpoints which could lead to a return of fighting on the divided island where anti-British violence has claimed thousands of lives.
“I want to be very clear. In the coming month, we will not find a new withdrawal agreement that is far from the fundamentals,” Macron said at the Elysee palace in central Paris.
Since Johnson’s ascent to power last month, the chances of a “no deal” Brexit on October 31 have risen, which economists see as likely to wreak economic damage on Britain and the EU.
“The EU and member states need to take the possibility of a ‘no deal’ outcome much more seriously than before,” a senior EU official told reporters in Brussels on Thursday on condition of anonymity.
A French official said on Wednesday that this was becoming the “most likely” scenario.
The Paris visit was the second leg of Johnson’s first foreign trip as prime minister.
On Wednesday, he was in Berlin for talks with Merkel who appeared to offer a glimmer of hope by saying Britain should try to find a breakthrough to the issue over the next month.
“I want a deal,” Johnson told Macron. “I think we can get a deal and a good deal.”
He added that he had been “powerfully encouraged” by his talks with Merkel. “I admire that ‘can do’ spirit that she seemed to have.”
But many Brexit watchers see Merkel’s remarks as fitting a pattern in which she has often been more conciliatory in public about Brexit than Macron, whose abrasive remarks have caused anger in London in the past.
“There is not the width of cigarette paper between Paris and Berlin on these issues,” a senior aide to Macron said on Wednesday on condition of anonymity.
The EU official in Brussels added that the EU was “a little concerned based on what we heard yesterday (in Berlin).”
“We are waiting for new facts, workable ideas,” the official added.
Johnson, who has deployed his French language skills to charm diplomats in Paris before, has staked his leadership on withdrawing Britain from the EU by the current deadline of October 31 — “do or die.”
Some analysts see a risk of relations between Macron and Johnson becoming stormy in public, which could lead to a blame game about a “no deal” Brexit.
Johnson reportedly once called the French “turds” over their stance on Brexit during his time as foreign secretary — remarks he later said he could not recall.
But Macron pre-empted any attempt to deflect blame onto the European side during a press conference on Wednesday before Johnson’s arrival.
“It will be the responsibility of the British government, always, because firstly it was the British people that decided Brexit, and the British government has the possibility up to the last second to revoke Article 50,” he said.
Article 50 is the legal mechanism used by EU members states to withdraw from the bloc which was triggered by Britain in March 2017.
At the weekend, Macron, Merkel and Johnson will meet US President Donald Trump, a vocal supporter of both Brexit and Johnson, at a G7 summit in the French seaside resort of Biarritz.


Virus pain easing in Spain, Italy; UK braces for bleak days

Updated 06 April 2020

Virus pain easing in Spain, Italy; UK braces for bleak days

  • The two countries, Italy and Spain, that have suffered more virus deaths than anywhere else in Europe are starting to see their crisis ease
  • Britain’s outbreak was headed in the opposite direction as the country reported more than 600 deaths Sunday

MADRID: A week ago, emergency rooms and intensive care wards in Spain and Italy were overflowing with woozy, coughing coronavirus patients and literally buzzing with breathing machines.
So many died that Barcelona crematories have a waiting list of up to two years, forcing some people to bury loved ones temporarily in cemeteries with the expectation of exhuming them for cremation later on.
But now the two countries that have suffered more virus deaths than anywhere else in Europe are starting to see their crisis ease, while Britain, where the prime minister has been hospitalized, seems headed in the opposite direction.
Between them, Italy and Spain saw nearly 30,000 deaths and 265,000 confirmed infections in the pandemic. They, and other European countries that locked down weeks ago and ramped up testing, are now seeing the benefits.
Britain’s outbreak was headed in the opposite direction as the country reported more than 600 deaths Sunday, surpassing Italy’s daily increase for the second day in a row.
“I think that we are just a week away from the surge of this,” the deputy chief executive of Britain’s NHS Providers, Saffron Cordery, told Sky News.
In Spain, deaths and new infections dropped again on Monday. The health ministry reported 637 new fatalities, the lowest toll in 13 days, for a total of over 13,000 dead. New recorded infections were the lowest in two weeks.
Emergency rooms in the hard-hit Madrid region of 6.6 million were returning almost to normal a week after scenes of patients sleeping on floors and in chairs.
Patients awaiting treatment in Madrid-area ERs went down Monday to 390 cases, one-tenth of the arrivals last week, the regional government said. The number of people being treated for coronavirus in intensive care stabilized at about 1,500 for five straight days.
Transport, Mobility and Urban Affairs Minister José Luis Ábalos said the figures show Spain is entering “a new phase of the battle.”
“This new phase does not mean we can let down our guard. We are assessing the measures that we will need to adopt,” Ábalos said.
At the San Carlos Clinic Hospital in Madrid, nearly 15% of the hospital’s 1,400-strong staff contracted the coronavirus, in line with the national average,
“Our priority at the moment is to bring health workers back to work,” said Dr. Julio Mayol, the facility’s medical director.
Still, there are fears for a new outbreak as Spanish authorities begin talking about loosening the grip on mandatory confinement, and the strain on hospitalizations will still be seen for another week while that in intensive care units for another two weeks, Mayol said.
Italy still has, by far, the world’s highest coronavirus death toll — almost 16,000 — but the pressure on northern Italy’s ICUs has eased so much that Lombardy is no longer airlifting patients to other regions.
In the northern city of Bergamo, one of Europe’s virus epicenters, hospital staff were still pulling long, difficult shifts even if the numbers of new patients had eased a bit.
“There has been no reduction in the work,” said Maria Berardelli, a nursing coordinator at Pope John XXIII hospital. “There have been fewer admissions to the emergency room, but our intensive care units are still full, so the activity hasn’t been reduced.”
In a public housing project in the city of Seville, 90-year-old Manuela Jiménez has been confined to her home for more than 20 days. She speaks to neighbors from her window as they deliver food and says she has never seen anything like it, despite having lived through the Spanish Civil War and Second World War.
“Back then my mother would lock me up and I would stay calm but now, look, there is my neighbor and I can’t see her”, says Jiménez.
Illness has been compounded by shocking economic pain as all the world’s largest economies have ground to a halt, including in Italy and Spain. In France, which slightly trails its two neighbors to the south in deaths and infections, the government shut the country down two days after Italy — and has also seen a slight easing.
The UK initially resisted taking some of the tough measures seen in other European countries, which banned large events, shut schools and closed their borders to slow the spread of the COVID-19 illness.
The government’s first advice was that people should wash their hands frequently. As the number of cases soared, the response escalated to include the closure of schools, bars, restaurants and non-essential shops and a nationwide order for everyone but key workers to stay home.
Now, Austria and the Czech Republic are openly discussing how to ease some of the crippling restrictions. Austria’s chancellor said the plan is to let small shops and garden centers reopen next week, with limits on the number of customers inside, and the rest on May 1. The Czech government is proposing an end to the ban on travel abroad as of April 14 and the reopening of small stores.