Britain’s Johnson plays down Brexit breakthrough hopes

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson participates in an art class during his visit to St Mary's and All Saints Primary School in Beaconsfield, Britain October 11, 2019. (Reuters)
Updated 13 October 2019

Britain’s Johnson plays down Brexit breakthrough hopes

  • EU leaders will meet on Thursday and Friday for a summit held under the pressures of the October 31 Brexit deadline

LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson played down hopes Sunday of a breakthrough in his last-ditch bid to strike an amicable divorce deal with the European Union.
Negotiators went behind closed doors for intensive talks in Brussels after Johnson outlined a new set of proposals to Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on Thursday.
They have very little time left to succeed.
EU leaders will meet on Thursday and Friday for a summit held under the pressures of the October 31 Brexit deadline just two weeks away.
The 27 would ideally like to have a full proposal to vote on by then.
But the sides are trying to achieve in a few days what they had failed to in the more than three years since Britons first voted to leave the European Union after nearly 50 years.
Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier called the weekend negotiations “constructive” enough to keep going for another day.
“A lot of work remains to be done,” Barnier stressed in a statement to EU ambassadors.
“Discussions at technical level will continue (Monday).”
Downing Street said Johnson also told his cabinet to brace for a cliff-hanger finish.
He reiterated “that a pathway to a deal could be seen but that there is still a significant amount of work to get there and we must remain prepared to leave on October 31,” a Downing Street spokesman said.
Johnson rose to power in July on a promise not to extend Brexit for a third time this year — even for a few weeks.
Breaking that pledge could come back to haunt him in an early general election that most predict for the coming months.
Johnson is under parliamentary orders to seek a extension until January 31 of next year if no deal emerges by Saturday.
He has promised to both follow the law and get Britain out by October 31 — a contradiction that might end up being settled in court.
Outgoing EU chief Jean-Claude Juncker said British politics were getting more difficult to decipher than the riddle of an “Egyptian sphinx.”
“If the British ask for more time, which they probably will not, it would in my view be a historical nonsense to refuse them,” Juncker told Austria’s Kurier newspaper.
Ireland’s Varadkar hinted on Thursday that he could support the talks running on up to the October 31 deadline if a deal seemed within reach.
The few details that have leaked out suggest a compromise around the contentious Irish border issue Britain’s Northern Ireland partially aligned with EU customs rules.
Whether such a fudge suits both Brussels and the more ardent Brexit backers in parliament who must still approve a deal should become clearer by the end of the week.
Britain will only avoid a chaotic breakup with its closest trading partners if the agreement is also passed by the UK parliament — something it has failed to do three times.
Johnson heads a minority government and must rely on the full backing of not only his own fractured Conservatives but also Northern Ireland’s small Democratic Unionist Party.
DUP’s parliamentary leader Nigel Dodds warned Johnson that “Northern Ireland must remain entirely in the customs union of the United Kingdom” and not the EU.
“And Boris Johnson knows it very well,” Dodds told Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper.
The comments do not necessarily rule out DUP support.
UK media are presenting Johnson’s mooted compromise as a “double customs” plan that could be interpreted to mean that Northern Ireland is leaving EU rules.
Yet details are still under discussion and the prime minister’s allies are urging lawmakers to give the British leader a chance.
Main opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn signalled Sunday that he would wait for the outcome of the EU summit before trying to force an early election.
But he added that there was “a strong possibility” that those polls would come before the Christmas break.


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.