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PM aide Cummings damaged public confidence in UK #COVID-19 response

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Dominic Cummings (pictured), a top aide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, damaged public confidence in the government’s coronavirus response by travelling out of London when the city was in lockdown, an academic study published on Thursday (6 August) said, writes William James.

Cummings was at the centre of a huge public outcry among locked-down Britons when it was revealed he had travelled 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of London to be closer to family for childcare reasons after his wife fell ill. He denied breaking the rules, was backed by Johnson, and resisted pressure to quit. The incident caused a clear decrease of public confidence in the government’s ability to handle the COVID-19 pandemic, which started from the day the story broke and has not recovered since, a study by University College London (UCL) found.

“These data illustrate the negative and lasting consequences that political decisions can have for public trust and the risks to behaviours,” lead author of the study, Daisy Fancourt said. The researchers said they had separated out the effect of the Cummings row on confidence in the British government by comparing data from a large scale survey, with data from the same source on confidence in devolved governments in Scotland and Wales, and in the health service.

Confidence in England dropped by 0.4 points on a seven point scale between May 21 and 25, while there was no corresponding drop on the other indicators. The study looked at 220,000 results from more than 40,000 individuals between April 24 and June 11. The findings have not been externally peer-reviewed ahead of their publication, UCL said.

Brexit

UK sees 'a way through' parliamentary maze for #Brexit treaty breach bill

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government sees a ‘way through’ the parliamentary maze for his bill that would break the Brexit divorce treaty as it talks with rebels in the Conservative Party, a minister said on Wednesday (16 September). write Guy Faulconbridge and Kate Holton.

Johnson’s Internal Market Bill, which the EU has demanded he scrap by the end of September, is currently being debated in parliament, though he is facing a rebellion by some members of his Conservative Party.

“I believe there is a way through,” Robert Buckland told the BBC when asked about negotiations with rebels in parliament over the bill, adding that London wanted a deal with the EU.

“In terms of shared understanding, I have already seen quite a difference,” he said when asked about a possible compromise in parliament.

Asked if he had been involved in negotiations with Bob Neill, a Conservative lawmaker, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said: “There are lots of discussions going on with all MPs from all parts of the debate, not just Bob Neill.”

“We want to get this bill through, we want to make sure that we are ready for any disagreements or disputes that might arise if we don’t get agreement in the joint committee,” he said. “For me, I just want Brexit sorted.”

Buckland told Times Radio that the bill was needed as an insurance policy in case the EU made a “material breach” of their obligations but that the talks were not yet at that stage and that London would use current mechanisms to find a compromise.

The EU says Johnson’s bill could collapse trade talks and propel the United Kingdom towards a messy Brexit while former British leaders have warned that breaking the law is a step too far that undermines the country’s image.

Johnson said it was essential to counter “absurd” threats from Brussels including that London put up trade barriers between Britain and Northern Ireland and impose a food blockade - steps he said threatened the United Kingdom’s unity.

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EU chief executive says chances for #Brexit deal fading every day

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Every passing day reduces chances for sealing a new trade deal with Britain, the European Union’s chief executive said on Wednesday (16 September), warning London that there was “very little time” left to put an agreement in place by the end of the year, writes Gabriela Baczynska.

In her major annual policy speech, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen dedicated just a few sentences to Brexit, mostly focusing on the economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic as well as digital and climate investments.

“With every day that passes, the chances of a timely agreement do start to fade,” von der Leyen told the European Parliament in a “state of the (European) Union” speech styled on the ones U.S. presidents deliver. Von der Leyen also stressed both the EU and Britain negotiated and ratified their Brexit divorce deal and warned London the agreement “cannot be unilaterally changed, disregarded or dis-applied”. “This is a matter of law, trust and good faith... Trust is the foundation of any strong partnership,” she said.

Von der Leyen said the bloc would “never backtrack” on UK’s divorce deal, which took three years to negotiate, as it was protecting the delicate peace on the island of Ireland from the consequences of Brexit.

Brexit talks are now in crisis yet again as Prime Minister Boris Johnson put forward a new Internal Market Bill to the UK parliament that would undercut Britain’s EU divorce treaty. That increased the risk of the most damaging, no-deal economic split precipitating at the end of the year when Britain’s standstill post-Brexit transition ends. Reuters reported exclusively on Tuesday (15 September), however, that Britain had quietly offered concessions on fisheries in trade talks with the European Union last week, leaving the bloc thinking London might still be open to clinching an agreement.

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Von der Leyen calls for unity to get Europe back on its feet

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The EU’s chief executive today (16 September) painted a sober picture of Europe grappling with a pandemic and its deepest recession in its history, but laid out ambitious goals to make the 27-nation bloc more resilient and united to confront future crises, write Foo Yun Chee and Robin Emmott. 

In her annual State of the Union address, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen doubled down on the flagship goals she set out on taking office last December: urgent action to tackle climate change and a digital revolution. She unveiled a plan to cut the European Union’s greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% from 1990 levels by 2030, up from an existing target of 40%, and pledged to use green bonds to finance its climate goals.

“There is no more urgent need for acceleration than when it comes to the future of our fragile planet,” the former German cabinet minister told the European Parliament. “While much of the world’s activity froze during lockdowns and shutdowns, the planet continued to get dangerously hotter.”

Von der Leyen also called for greater investment in technology for Europe to compete more keenly with China and the United States, and said the EU would invest 20% of a €750 billion economic recovery fund in digital projects.

Officials said that, far from backing off the plans she laid out at the beginning of her term because of the coronavirus crisis, von der Leyen believes they will be key to Europe’s long-term economic and political survival. The EU has been buffeted for years by crises, from the financial meltdown of 2008 to feuds over migration and the protracted saga of Britain’s exit from the bloc.

Solidarity among the 27 member states frayed badly at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when countries refused to share protective medical kit with those worst-affected and closed borders without consultation to prevent the spread of the virus. The bloc’s leaders also jousted for months over a joint plan to rescue their coronavirus-throttled economies.

But in July they agreed on a stimulus plan that paved the way for the European Commission to raise billions of euro on capital markets on behalf of them all, an unprecedented act of solidarity in almost seven decades of European integration.

Von der Leyen told the EU assembly that “this is the moment for Europe” to trust each other and stand together. “The moment for Europe to lead the way from this fragility towards a new vitality,” she said. “I say this because in the last months we have rediscovered the value of what we hold in common ... We turned fear and division between Member States into confidence in our Union.”

Turning to the troubled talks with London on the future relationship between the world’s fifth-largest economy and biggest trading bloc, von der Leyen said every passing day reduces chances for sealing a new trade deal. She stressed that both the EU and Britain negotiated and ratified their Brexit divorce deal and warned the UK, which has proposed a bill that would breach elements of the pact, that it “cannot be unilaterally changed, disregarded or dis-applied”.

“This is a matter of law, trust and good faith... Trust is the foundation of any strong partnership,” she said. She said EU states must be quicker in their foreign policy to support pro-democracy protests in Belarus or to stand up to Russia and Turkey. “Why are even simple statements on EU values delayed, watered down or held hostage for other motives?” she asked. “When member states say Europe is too slow, I say to them be courageous and finally move to qualified majority voting,” she said, referring to blockages over finding unanimity among the EU’s 27 states.

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