Brexit delay looms after UK MPs demand more time to debate deal

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Boris Johnson reacts after the programme motion setting out the proposed timetable for the Brexit withdrawal Agreement Bill was defeated in a vote in the House of Commons in London. (AFP)
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EU flag and Union flag-themed umbrellas of Brexit activists fly outside the Houses of Parliament in London. (AFP)
Updated 23 October 2019

Brexit delay looms after UK MPs demand more time to debate deal

  • MPs gave their preliminary approval for the deal but rejected Boris Johnson’s timetable to push it through parliament this week
  • Johnson said he would consult with European Union leaders about a further Brexit delay but insisted Britain should still leave the bloc as scheduled on October 31

LONDON: British MPs gave their initial approval Tuesday to legislation enacting Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s EU divorce deal — but rejected his plan to rush it through parliament, opening the door for yet another Brexit delay.
Johnson immediately announced he would pause the process of trying to ratify the text he struck with European Union leaders last week, and said the EU should consider Britain’s request for a delay beyond October 31.
Responding to the vote, European Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva said European Council president Donald Tusk was consulting EU leaders about a possible postponement.
Johnson won a significant victory when the House of Commons voted by 329 to 299 to approve in principal a bill that implements his Brexit deal.
But just minutes later, MPs rejected by 322 to 308 his timetable motion demanding they push through the bill in three days to allow Britain’s departure at the end of this month.
Johnson has vowed to stick to the October 31 date and said Britain would step up preparations in case of a disorderly “no deal” exit.
On Saturday, he was forced to ask EU leaders to delay Brexit after MPs refused to approve his deal — despite having once said he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than see the deadline postponed.
Ratifying the bill before October 31 would have allowed him to avoid this legally mandated delay, which was set provisionally at three months but is open for EU leaders to amend.
With speedy ratification now in doubt, a postponement seems likely.
“The EU must now make up their minds over how to answer parliament’s request for a delay,” Johnson told MPs.
He added: “I will speak to EU member states about their intentions. Until they have reached a decision, until we have reached a decision I will say, we will pause this legislation.
“Let me be clear — our policy remains that we should not delay, that we should leave the European Union on October 31. That is what I will say to the EU.”
Ahead of the vote, Johnson warned he would seek an election to break the political deadlock, although this requires the support of the Labour party. Johnson, a leading Brexit campaigner in the 2016 EU referendum, took office in July promising to deliver on the result come what may.
He defied expectations in striking a new divorce deal at a Brussels summit last month, and despite Saturday’s setback, has now shown he has the numbers to get it through parliament.
But to stick to his Brexit deadline he needs to get the deal through in the next week — and has no majority in the 650-seat House of Commons.
Opposition parties, many of whom dislike his divorce deal, said it was “ludicrous” to expect proper scrutiny of the legislation in less than three days.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has called for a second referendum on Brexit, said Johnson was trying to “blindside” MPs into supporting a “rotten bill.”
The Democratic Unionist Party, Johnson’s Northern Irish allies, accused him of duping them about new trading arrangements for the province.
DUP MP Sammy Wilson said he “nearly choked” when he heard Johnson’s assurances, adding: “The prime minister thinks I can’t read the agreement.” The timetable motion was intended to ensure the House of Commons debated the bill quickly, allowing it to go onto the unelected upper House of Lords.
Johnson warned that seeking further time risked a “no-deal” exit if the EU refused a delay.
Speaking before the vote, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said he saw “no justification at this stage” for further delay.
“It’s important for it to be announced today, because otherwise there will no option except ‘no deal’, which is not the solution we prefer.”
Businesses and markets on both sides of the Channel fear a “no-deal” Brexit, where Britain severs ties with its closest trading partner with no new plans in place after 46 years of integration.
The deal covers EU citizens’ rights, Britain’s financial settlements, a post-Brexit transition period until at least the end of 2020 and new trade arrangements for Northern Ireland.
It also sets out vague plans for a loose free trade agreement with the EU after Brexit.
An earlier Brexit text agreed by Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May was rejected three times by MPs earlier this year.


Venice hit by another ferocious high tide, flooding city

Updated 15 November 2019

Venice hit by another ferocious high tide, flooding city

  • The government declared a state of emergency for Venice on Thursday, allocating 20 million euros ($22 million) to address the immediate damage
  • Venice, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is spread over 118 islands and once presided over a powerful maritime empire

VENICE: An exceptionally high tide hit Venice again on Friday just three days after the city suffered its worst flooding in more than 50 years, leaving squares, shops and hotels once more inundated.
Mayor Luigi Brugnaro closed access to the submerged St. Mark’s Square and issued an international appeal for funds, warning that the damage caused by this week’s floods could rise to one billion euros.
Local authorities said the high tide peaked at 154 cm (5.05 ft), slightly below expectations and significantly lower than the 187 cm level reached on Tuesday, which was the second highest tide ever recorded in Venice.
But it was still enough to leave 70% of the city under water, fraying the nerves of locals who faced yet another large-scale clean-up operation.
“We have been in this emergency for days and we just can’t put up with it any more,” said Venetian resident Nava Naccara.
The government declared a state of emergency for Venice on Thursday, allocating 20 million euros ($22 million) to address the immediate damage, but Brugnaro predicted the costs would be vastly higher and launched a fund to help pay for repairs.
“Venice was destroyed the other day. We are talking about damage totalling a billion euros,” he said in a video.
Sirens wailed across the city from the early morning hours, warning of the impending high tide. Sea water swiftly filled the crypt beneath St. Mark’s Basilica, built more than a thousand years ago.
Venice, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is spread over 118 islands and once presided over a powerful maritime empire. The city is filled with Gothic architectural masterpieces which house paintings by some of Italy’s most important artists.
Culture Minister Dario Franceschini said initial checks suggested the damage to St. Mark’s was not irreparable, but warned that more than 50 churches across the city had been flooded this week.
“Visiting here you see that the disaster is much bigger than you think when you watch the images on television,” he said.
After Friday’s high waters, forecasters predicted tides of up to 110-120 cm during the weekend. In normal conditions, tides of 80-90cm are generally seen as high but manageable.
The mayor has blamed climate change for the ever-increasing flood waters that the city has had to deal with in recent years, with the mean sea level estimated to be more than 20 cm higher than it was a century ago, and set to raise much further.
Groups of volunteers and students arrived in the city center to help businesses mop up, while schools remained closed, as they have been most of the week.
“When you hear the name Venice, it is always like sunsets and everything pretty but it is a bit crazy now that we are here,” said British tourist Chelsea Smart. “I knew it was going to flood ... but I didn’t expect it to be this high.”
At the city’s internationally renowned bookshop Acqua Alta — the Italian for high water — staff were trying to dry out thousands of water-damaged books and prints, usually kept in boats, bath tubs and plastic bins.
“The only thing we were able to do was to raise the books as much as possible but unfortunately even that wasn’t enough ... about half of the bookshop was completely flooded,” said Oriana, who works in the store.
Some shops stayed open throughout the high tide, welcoming in hardy customers wading through the waters in boots up to their thighs. Other stores remained shuttered, with some owners saying they had no idea when they could resume trade.
“Our electrics are burnt out,” said Nicola Gastaldon, who runs a city-center bar. “This is an old bar and all the woodwork inside is from the 1920s and earlier which we will have to scrub down with fresh water and then clean up again.”
A flood barrier designed to protect Venice from high tides is not expected to start working until the end of 2021, with the project plagued by the sort of problems that have come to characterise major Italian infrastructure programs — corruption, cost overruns and prolonged delays.