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EU, UK Inch Closer to Deal as Brexit Hangs in Balance

Britain and the European Union appeared to be inching toward agreement on Brexit on Monday, but British Prime Minister Theresa May faced intensifying pressure from her divided Conservative government that could yet scuttle a deal.

Britain leaves the EU on March 29 — the first country ever to do so — but a deal must be sealed in the coming weeks to leave enough time for the U.K. and European Parliaments to sign off. May faces increasing domestic pressure over her proposals for an agreement following the resignation of another government minister last week.

The British leader had been hoping to present a draft deal to her Cabinet this week. But no Brexit breakthrough was announced Monday after talks between European affairs ministers. The two sides are locked in technical negotiations to try to bridge the final gaps in a move laden with heavy political and economic consequences. 

May said talks were in their “endgame” but that negotiating a divorce agreement after more than four decades of British EU membership was “immensely difficult.”

May told an audience at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in London that “we are working extremely hard, through the night, to make progress on the remaining issues in the Withdrawal Agreement, which are significant.

“Both sides want to reach an agreement,” May said, though she added she wouldn’t sign up to “agreement at any cost.”

The main obstacle to a deal is how to keep goods flowing smoothly across the border between EU country Ireland and Northern Ireland in the U.K.

Both sides have committed to avoid a hard border with costly and time-consuming checks that would hamper business. Any new customs posts on the border could also re-ignite lingering sectarian tensions. But Britain and the EU haven’t agreed on how to achieve that goal.

“Clearly this is a very important week for Brexit negotiations,” Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told reporters after the meeting in Brussels. “The two negotiating teams have really intensified their engagement … There is still clearly work to do.”

And Martin Callanan, a minister in Britain’s Brexit department, said all involved were “straining every sinew to make sure that we get a deal but we have to get a deal that is right for the U.K., right for the EU and one that would be acceptable to the U.K. Parliament.”

EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier didn’t speak to reporters Monday and a planned news conference with him was canceled.

Instead, EU headquarters issued a short statement saying that Barnier explained to the ministers that “intense negotiating efforts continue, but an agreement has not been reached yet.”

Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok said the two sides “are getting closer to each other.”

“But in negotiations there is only a deal if there is full agreement,” Blok said. “There is only a 100-percent deal. There is not a 90-percent deal or a 95-percent deal.”

Earlier, France’s EU affairs minister, Nathalie Loiseau, stepped up pressure on May. “The ball is in the British court. It is a question of a British political decision,” she said.

The EU is awaiting Barnier’s signal as to whether sufficient progress has been made to call an EU summit to seal a deal. 

Rumors have swirled of a possible top-level meeting at the end of November. But Austrian EU affairs minister Gernot Bluemel, whose country holds the EU’s rotating presidency, said “so far progress is not sufficient to call in and set up another (summit).”

In recent days there have been signs of progress behind the scenes, but all parties have remained tight-lipped about the developments, given the politically charged atmosphere.

In Britain, pro-Brexit and pro-EU politicians alike warned May that the deal she seeks is likely to be shot down by Parliament.

Boris Johnson, a staunch Brexit supporter, wrote in a column for Monday’s Daily Telegraph that May’s plan to adhere closely to EU regulations in return for a trade deal and an open Irish border amounts to “total surrender” to the bloc. 

The proposed terms are scarcely more popular with advocates of continued EU membership.

Former Education Secretary Justine Greening on Monday called May’s proposals the “worst of all worlds,” and said the public should be allowed to vote on Britain’s departure again.

“We should be planning as to how we can put this final say on Brexit in the hands of the British people,” Greening told the BBC.

Johnson’s younger brother, Jo Johnson, resigned last week backing calls for a second referendum on whether the country should leave the EU. May has consistently rejected the idea of another nationwide vote on Brexit.

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Separatist Areas Elect Leaders as Ukraine, Russia Trade Barbs

Two separatist-controlled regions of eastern Ukraine announced the winners of leadership elections on Monday that were dismissed by Kyiv and its international allies as a sham exercise engineered by Russia to install puppet regimes.

The polls took place Sunday in the shadow of a conflict between Ukraine and Russian-backed rebels that has killed more than 10,000 people since 2014 and poisoned relations between the two neighbors.

The Donetsk region’s acting head Denis Pushilin, whose predecessor was killed in an explosion in August, was confirmed as leader with 61 percent of the vote while the acting chief of Luhansk region, Leonid Pasechnik, also won with 68 percent.

Kremlin aide Vladislav Surkov congratulated the winners, according to the separatist press service DAN, though a Kremlin spokesman later said he was not aware any congratulations had been extended.

The United States, European Union member states and Canada condemned the vote as illegal and in violation of a cease-fire agreed in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, in 2015.

“This reaction clearly states that, on the one hand, these elections will not be recognized by anyone. This is a brutal violation of the Minsk agreements,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said.

“On the other hand, there is a call for the responsibility of the Russian Federation as the organizer of these elections.”

Russia disputed that the elections violated the Minsk accord and instead blamed the Kyiv authorities for failing to honor its commitments in the peace process.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he was not aware any congratulations had been sent to the rebels, but added that it was understandable they wanted to hold elections.

“We are talking about two regions that are completely rejected by the rest of the country and are under an absolute embargo. The Minsk accords are not being implemented by Kyiv,” Peskov told reporters on a conference call in Moscow.

Pushilin said it was a turning point in the region’s history. “We have proved to the whole world that we can not only fight, not only win on the battlefield, but also build a state based on real democratic principles,” he said Sunday.

Moscow-backed rebels seized territory in eastern Ukraine after street protests toppled pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich in February 2014 and Russia annexed Crimea a month later.

Ukraine and the West say Russia de facto controls the eastern Donbass region by propping up puppet leaders with troops and heavy weaponry, which Moscow denies.

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Romanian Leader Says Country Not Ready for EU Presidency

Romania’s president said Monday his country isn’t ready to take over the European Union’s rotating presidency on Jan. 1 and called for the government to step down.

President Klaus Iohannis said “things have gone off the rails,” and that there was “a political necessity to replace the government,” which he called “an accident of Romanian democracy.”

Viorica Dancila, a little-known politician became premier in January, but has little executive power as Liviu Dragnea, chairman of the ruling Social Democratic Party, basically runs the government. Dragnea can’t be prime minister because of a conviction for vote-rigging.

“It’s the 12th hour [and] we are totally unprepared,” Iohannis said. “There’s no chance of a good government … or proper involvement in European affairs.”

European Affairs Minister Victor Negrescu, tasked with preparing Romania to take over the EU presidency, unexpectedly resigned last week. Romania government officials were apparently dissatisfied with Negrescu’s performance in building good relations within the EU’s executive branch.

“It’s unclear at the government who the responsible people are, “Iohannis said. “People who should be dealing with the EU presidency resign or they’re dismissed.” Dragnea called the president’s comments “a major disservice to Romania.”

Romania is already facing censure from the EU over a contentious judicial overhaul last year that the bloc says undermines the fight against corruption.

Last month, EU Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova voiced concern about Romania potentially struggling to manage the presidency while it was weighed down by domestic concerns, in particular corruption.

The EU on Tuesday will present its latest report on the judicial systems of Romania and Bulgaria. The bloc monitors the countries, amid concerns about corruption, their justice systems and organized crime.

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White House: Cemetery Motorcade Would Have Disrupted Roads

Stung by criticism for not attending an event honoring U.S. military dead, the White House says President Donald Trump didn’t want to disrupt Paris roadways for a last-minute motorcade to a cemetery in northern France.

Trump had been scheduled to lay a wreath and observe a moment of silence Saturday at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial, located adjacent to Belleau Wood and about 60 miles (100 kilometers) northeast of Paris. The White House cited weather conditions that grounded the president’s helicopter for the cancellation.

In the wake of criticism that Trump didn’t travel by car to the event, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued a statement Sunday that noted the weather and “near-zero visibility” as well as concerns that a motorcade on short notice would have required closing substantial portions of area roadways.

“President Trump did not want to cause that kind of unexpected disruption to the city and its people,” Sanders said. She also said the trip to Aisne-Marne was 2 hours each way by car.

Instead, Trump spent much of Saturday at the U.S. ambassador’s residence following a meeting and lunch with French President Emmanuel Macron. Trump was in Paris for events to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

Attending the cemetery event in Trump’s place were the White House chief of staff, retired Marine Gen. John Kelly; the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Joe Dunford; and several members of the White House staff. The Battle of Belleau Wood was a critical conflict in the war and a pivotal encounter in Marine Corps history.

The determination to ground Marine One, the president’s helicopter, due to bad weather is made by the Marine Corps and the White House Military Office, which then presents the recommendation to the White House in collaboration with the Secret Service, according to a Secret Service official.

Paris was covered in clouds with drizzling rain through most of Saturday.

On Sunday, Trump attended a scheduled event honoring American war dead at a U.S. cemetery just outside of Paris.

 

 

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PM May: Britain Open to ‘Different Relationship’ With Russia

Prime Minister Theresa May will say on Monday Britain is “open to a different relationship” with Russia if Moscow takes a new path and stops “attacks” that undermine international treaties and security.

Just a year ago, May used her annual speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet to accuse Moscow of military aggression and of meddling in elections, some of her strongest criticism even before the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Salisbury.

This year, she will tell London’s financial center that the action taken since – including the largest ever coordinated expulsion of Russian intelligence officers – has deepened her belief in a “collective response” to such threats.

“We will continue to show our willingness to act, as a community of nations, to stand up for the rules around the world,” May will say, according to excerpts of her speech.

Describing evolving threats, May will say the past year, including Salisbury, has “shown that while the challenge is real, so is the collective resolve of likeminded partners to defend our values, our democracies, and our people.”

“But, as I also said a year ago, this is not the relationship with Russia that we want … We remain open to a different relationship – one where Russia desists from these attacks that undermine international treaties and international security,” she will say.

“And we hope that the Russian state chooses to take this path. If it does, we will respond in kind.”

May has said often that Britain’s decision to leave the European Union does not mean a retreat into isolationism, and her words again seem aimed at underlining London’s desire to play a weighty role in the world.

But with no mention of Brexit in the speech excerpts, she may be hoping to avoid going into too much detail of Britain’s negotiations to leave the EU, which have split her cabinet, her Conservative Party and Britain’s parliament.

 

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Official: Trump, Erdogan Discuss Khashoggi Response

U.S. President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, discussed how to respond to the killing last month of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a White House official said on Sunday.

The conversation took place during a Saturday dinner with heads of state and government gathered in Paris to mark the World War I Armistice centenary.

Khashoggi, a critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was killed at the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate by a team sent from Riyadh. Saudi authorities have acknowledged that the killing was premeditated, but his body has not been found.

Erdogan disclosed on Saturday that audio recordings of the killing had been given to the U.S., French, German and British governments, adding that the operation had been ordered at the “highest levels” of the Saudi government.

Trump expects to form a “stronger opinion” by this coming week on Khashoggi’s killing and Washington’s response, he said last Wednesday – adding that he was working with Congress, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to establish who bore responsibility.

In a phone call with the crown prince on Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “emphasized that the United States will hold all of those involved in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi accountable, and that Saudi Arabia must do the same,” the State Department said in a statement.

 

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Topless Female Protesters Approach Trump Motorcade in Paris

French police arrested two topless female protesters Sunday on the Champs-Elysees where France was holding a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War.

One of the women was apprehended within just a few meters of the motorcade of U.S. President Donald Trump as it approached the site. She had the words “Fake Peacemaker” written across her chest.

Femen, the radical feminist activist group, based in Paris, appeared to take responsibility for the demonstration.

Femen leader Inna Shevchenko wrote on Twitter: “FEMEN activists ‘welcomed’ the cortege of @realDonaldTrump twice on his way to Arc de Triumph.”

The incident is likely to raise questions about security lapses at the event.

Most of the world leaders attending the Armistice Day ceremony in Paris were transported to the site in buses.

Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin chose not to ride on the buses. The White House says Trump’s arrival was dictated by “security protocols.”

 

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Centenary of End of WWI Marked with Paris Ceremony

At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month — precisely 100 years after fighting halted in the first world war — leaders from 70 nations gathered at the Arc de Triomphe to remember the millions who died in the conflict.

French President Emmanuel Macron and leaders from the majority of countries that sent troops or workers to the Western Front, met at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the arch to light the eternal flame that is rekindled every night at the memorial engraved with the words: “Here rests a French soldier who died for the nation.”

In his address Macron spoke about the sacrifices of lives made a century ago in the four years of carnage in Europe.  He said “Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism.”

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin were the last to arrive.

The ceremony, under rainy skies, also features cellist Yo-Yo Ma, singer Angelique Kidjo of the African nation of Benin and a bugler to break the minute of silence for remembrance.

No soldier from the war is known to still be alive but their voices are present through high school students here reading their letters written at the front on this day a century ago.

U.S. Army Capt. Charles Normington wrote that “each soldier had his arms full of French girls, some crying, others laughing; each girl had to kiss every soldier before she would let him pass. There is nowhere on earth I would rather be.”

“Finally, the whir of the shells and the whistling of the bullets are over,” wrote French infantryman Alfred Roumiguieres.

“Today has been perfectly wonderful,” Charles Neville, a British officer, wrote to his parents. “We got news of the armistice at 9:30 this morning.”

The war’s four years of carnage was intended – as the British and Americans idealistically insisted — to be the “war to end all wars.” But little more than 20 years later global conflict would again erupt with casualties on an unprecedented scale.

Trump cancels cemetery visit

Trump canceled a visit to an American cemetery outside Paris Saturday.

A White House statement said the president’s visit was canceled because of scheduling and logistical difficulties caused by the weather.

An American delegation led by Chief of Staff General John Kelly and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joe Dunford did visit the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial under gray skies and drizzle, paying respect to the nearly 2,300 war dead buried there.

The area was the site of the Battle of Belleau Wood in June of 1918. In addition to the 2,288 graves of American soldiers, the cemetery contains a memorial to 1,060 service members who went missing in action.

Trump was criticized on social media for remaining in Paris during the afternoon with no other scheduled events, as images were broadcast of French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel holding hands at the site in the Compiegne Forest, north of the capital, where allies and defeated Germans signed the agreement that ended the war.

Some former U.S. officials suggested Trump could have visited the cemetery if he really desired.

“There is always a rain option. Always,” wrote on Twitter Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser under President Barack Obama, who explained he helped plan such foreign visits during the two terms of Trump’s predecessor.

Tense start

Earlier Saturday, Trump and Macron discussed their differences about European security. The meeting came soon after Donald Trump arrived in Paris and criticized his host via Twitter, calling Macron’s support for a European military force “very insulting.”

In the touchdown tweet, Trump suggested Europe first pay “its fair share” of NATO before contemplating a Europe-wide force.

As they began their meeting Saturday morning at the Elysee Palace, the U.S. president again called for better burden sharing for the cost of defending Europe.

“We want a strong Europe,” said Trump.

Macron replied: “I do believe we need more European capacities, more European defense.”

Trump and Macron avoided any criticism of each other in front of the media.

Macron, during a visit to the World War One Western Front at Verdun, told Europe 1 radio that in face of a revived threat from Moscow that Europe needed to “defend itself better alone” and Europeans cannot protect themselves without a “true European army.”

Macron, in the interview, also blasted Trump’s recent announcement that Washington will withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) limiting nuclear weapons that U.S. President Ronald Reagan and the Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to.

The “main victim” of the withdrawal, Macron argued, is “Europe and its security.”

French officials, however, say — without elaborating — there was a misunderstanding by Trump about Macron’s comments, noting the U.S. president told his French counterpart in their Saturday meeting: “I think we are much closer than it seems.”

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World Leaders Gather in Paris a Century After WWI Armistice

Commemorations are underway around the world to mark the moment 100 years ago when the slaughter of World War I finally stopped.

France, the epicenter of the first global conflict, was hosting the main international commemoration, pressing home the point that the world mustn’t stumble into war again, as it did so quickly and catastrophically with World War II

 

The more than 60 world leaders scheduled to gather at precisely 11 a.m., a century after the cease-fire, included those with the power to destroy humanity if it ever stumbled into the folly of a World War III.

 

The U.S. and Russian presidents were being joined by an array of leaders whose geographical spread showed how the “war to end all wars” left few corners of the globe untouched.

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Report: Russian Charged by US Seen at Libya Military Meeting

A Russian newspaper says video released by the self-styled Libyan National Army shows a businessman allegedly linked to a private contractor that sent mercenaries to Syria at a meeting with the head of the Libyan army and top Russian military officials.

 

Novaya Gazeta reported Friday that a man seen wearing civilian dress at the meeting was Yevgeny Prigozhin. The Moscow meeting included Libyan National Army head Khalifa Hifter, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of staff of Russia’s armed forces.

 

Prigozhin is allegedly tied to a military contractor believed to have sent thousands of mercenaries to Syria, augmenting regular Russian troops deployed there. He also has been indicted by the United States over the alleged Russian “troll farm” accused of using social media to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.