EU and UK bid to save Brexit talks before key summit

EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier arrives at the EU headquarters in Brussels on October 11, 2019 for a meeting with EU ambassadors. (AFP)
Updated 11 October 2019

EU and UK bid to save Brexit talks before key summit

  • British Brexit minister Stephen Barclay and EU negotiator Michel Barnier met for two hours in the Brussels headquarters of the EU
  • The meeting came one day after talks between PM Boris Johnson and his Irish counterpart Leo Varadkar

BRUSSELS: British and EU negotiators held a “constructive” breakfast meeting Friday in a last-ditch bid to restart Brexit talks, as leaders insisted a deal might yet be possible despite time running out fast.
British Brexit minister Stephen Barclay and EU negotiator Michel Barnier met for two hours in the Brussels headquarters of the European Union.
“We had a constructive meeting with Steve Barclay and the British team,” Barnier told reporters. “I have already said that the Brexit is like climbing a mountain and we need vigilance, determination and patience.”
A British spokesman also described the closed-door talks as a “constructive meeting.”
Neither side would reveal any detail about what was discussed, but a European diplomat told AFP: “At this stage, the less we hear, the better. If stuff starts leaking out, it means it’s not serious.”
Another European official close to the discussions suggested the restart was at an early stage, but that the process might suddenly accelerate: “We’re completing the qualifiers for the 100-meter dash.”
The meeting came one day after talks between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Irish counterpart Leo Varadkar, and just six days before the EU summit that is seen as the key date in efforts to find a deal before a chaotic divorce on October 31.
As the negotiators reviewed their options, the president of the European Council and host of next week’s Brussels summit Donald Tusk said that he would have pulled the plug on talks this Friday if Britain had not come forward with evidence of a workable proposal.
“However, yesterday, when the Irish taoiseach and the UK prime minister met they both saw, for the first time, a pathway to a deal. I have received promising signals from the taoiseach that a deal is still possible,” Tusk said, during a trip to Cyprus.
“Of course, there is no guarantee of success and the time is practically up. But even the slightest chance must be used,” he warned.
The key sticking point in the Brexit negotiations is how to handle trade and customs on the border between EU member Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland, and on the role of the British province’s devolved assembly.
After a meeting in northwest England on Thursday Johnson and Varadkar said they had “agreed that they could see a pathway to a possible deal.”
Varadkar later said separately the meeting was “very positive,” suggesting it would be a “short pathway, rather than a long one.”
The European Council summit starts on October 17 and, in normal circumstances, European diplomats would want draft texts of any agreements to be prepared before close of business on Friday.
Even if, as UK officials hope, Brussels shows flexibility on the timeline, they have yet to enter the “diplomatic tunnel” of final text negotiations.
After his “stock taking” breakfast with Barclay, Barnier will brief ambassadors from the other EU members on the state of play and then a skeptical Brexit steering group of the European Parliament.
“Barnier will have to say whether we can or can’t start negotiating a text,” a European source told AFP.
“After that, it’s a long road. It’s wacky to think we’d have a treaty text before the October 17 and 18 summit.”
But Varadkar appears to be looking slightly further forward, implying that he and Johnson are now aiming for a deal in the next three weeks.
“I think it’s possible for us to come to an agreement, to have a treaty agreed... by the end of October,” he said.


Violence flares again in Hong Kong as Chinese soldiers make rare appearance to help clean up streets

Updated 16 November 2019

Violence flares again in Hong Kong as Chinese soldiers make rare appearance to help clean up streets

  • Huge fires blaze as protesters hurl petrol bombs near campus
  • City on edge as over five months of demonstrations rumble on

HONG KONG: Police fired tear gas while protesters threw petrol bombs and fired arrows in clashes outside Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University on Saturday, just hours after Chinese soldiers made a rare appearance to help clean up the city’s streets.
China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers in shorts and t-shirts appeared in streets outside their base, helping residents clean up debris after anti-government protests blocked roads.
The presence of PLA troops on the streets, even to help clean up, could stoke further controversy over the Chinese-ruled territory’s autonomous status.
A city spokesman said the Hong Kong government did not request assistance from the PLA but the military initiated the operation as a “voluntary community activity.”
Hong Kong has been rocked by more than five months of demonstrations by protesters angry at perceived Communist Party meddling in the former British colony, which was guaranteed its freedoms when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Beijing denies interfering and has blamed the unrest on foreign influences.
Clashes between protesters and police have become increasingly violent. China has said any attempt at independence for Hong Kong will be crushed, but troops have remained inside their base.
Chinese state media repeatedly broadcast comments made on Thursday by President Xi Jinping, in which he denounced the unrest and said “stopping violence and controlling chaos while restoring order is currently Hong Kong’s most urgent task.”
Saturday’s clean-up followed some of the worst violence seen this year, after a police operation against protesters at the Chinese University of Hong Kong on Tuesday.
The authorities have since largely stayed away from at least five university campuses that had been barricaded by thousands of students and activists who stockpiled petrol bombs, catapults, bows and arrows and other weapons.
Many protesters appeared to have left the campuses by late Saturday but Hong Kong’s Cross-Harbor Tunnel was still blocked by protesters occupying Polytechnic University, where violence flared again on Saturday night.
“We don’t want to attack the police, we just want to safeguard our campus,” said Chan, a 20-year-old Polytechnic student. “The reason why we want safeguard our campus is we want citizens to join the mass strike and protect Hong Kong.”
Earlier, hundreds of pro-China demonstrators gathered by the city’s legislature and police headquarters, waving Chinese and Hong Kong flags. Some held up posters reading “Police we stand with you,” while others chanted “Support the police.”
Pro-China protests have so far attracted much smaller numbers than those angry at Beijing.

Rare troop presence
By late afternoon, the PLA soldiers had left the streets outside Baptist University beside their barracks in Kowloon Tong.
Chinese troops have appeared on streets only once since the 1997 handover to help clear up after a typhoon in 2018. It was not clear how many were involved on Saturday.
The PLA garrison in Hong Kong said that when some residents began cleaning, some troops “helped clear the road in front of the garrison gate.”
Demosistō, a pro-democracy organization, said Saturday’s clean-up operation could set a “grave precedent” if the city’s government invites the military to deal with internal problems.
In August, Beijing moved thousands of troops across the border into Hong Kong in what state news agency Xinhua described as a routine rotation. Foreign envoys and security analysts estimate up to 12,000 troops are now based across Hong Kong — more than double the usual garrison number.
Standing beside a black flag with the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of our Times,” James Wong, 23, was among protesters manning a bridge at Baptist University.
“We didn’t want to confront the people and the PLA troops directly,” he told Reuters. “We are not directly against the PLA, but rather the government. But the PLA should not leave their base because this is Hong Kong territory.”
Hundreds of residents moved in to help clear barricaded roads near several universities.
Earlier clashes on Saturday saw at least one petrol bomb thrown before anti-government protesters at the campuses retreated. No soldiers appeared to have been involved in the confrontations. “We just want our lives to continue,” said one resident who was helping clear streets near Hong Kong University. “There are many elderly who need to go the hospital and children who need to go to school. I am very sad to see what is happening in my community.”

Pro-police demonstration
Saturday’s rally to denounce the anti-government violence drew a mix of young and elderly.
“A lot of people keep silent, afraid of the rioters. It’s time for all the people who are silent to step up and say that’s enough,” said a 49-year-old housewife surnamed Kong.
A 70-year-old street cleaner died on Thursday after being hit on the head a brick police said had been thrown by rioters. On Monday, police blamed a rioter for dousing a man in petrol and setting him on fire. The victim is in critical condition.
On the same day, police shot a protester in the abdomen. He was in a stable condition.
Pro-police protesters laid white flowers outside the government office to pay their respects to the cleaner. Others applauded and cheered the police, some bowing and giving thumbs up as they walked past riot police on duty.
Train services suspended earlier in the week were gradually resuming, metro operator MTR Corp. said.
In a commentary on Saturday the Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper called on public institutions to act “quickly and decisively” to suppress and punish violence in Hong Kong.