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It’s May’s deal or long Brexit delay, UK’s chief negotiator overheard saying in bar

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LONDON (Reuters) – British lawmakers will face a stark choice between Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal or a long extension to the March 29 deadline for leaving the bloc, the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator was overheard saying in a Brussels bar.

FILE PHOTO – Olly Robbins, senior civil servant and Europe adviser to Prime Minister Theresa May, arrives at the Cabinet Office, in London, Britain January 28, 2019. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

Unless May can get a Brexit deal approved by the British parliament, then she will have to decide whether to delay Brexit or thrust the world’s fifth largest economy into chaos by leaving without a deal.

May has repeatedly said the United Kingdom will leave on schedule, with or without a deal, as she tries to get the EU to reopen the divorce agreement she reached in November.

But her chief Brexit negotiator, Olly Robbins, was overheard by an ITV correspondent at a hotel bar in Brussels saying lawmakers would have to choose whether to accept a reworked Brexit deal or a potentially significant delay.

“Got to make them believe that the week beginning end of March… Extension is possible but if they don’t vote for the deal then the extension is a long one,” ITV quoted Robbins as saying in the hotel bar on Monday during a private conversation.

Robbins made clear that he felt the fear of a long extension to Article 50 – the process of leaving the EU – might focus lawmakers’ minds, ITV said.

The spectacle of one of May’s most senior officials undermining her negotiating position in a hotel bar in Brussels indicates the scale of the United Kingdom’s Brexit crisis that has shocked both investors and allies.

It is unclear why Robbins, an experienced civil servant, would make such comments in a hotel bar. His remarks will deepen the concerns of Brexit-supporting lawmakers that May could ultimately delay leaving the bloc.

Amid the labyrinthine plots and counterplots of Brexit, the United Kingdom’s most significant political and economic move since World War Two, some major investors, such as Ford Motor Co, are trying to work out whether to shutter UK production.

NO-DEAL BREXIT?

Robbins’ comments appear to undermine May’s central threat of a no-deal Brexit – a scenario that supporters of EU membership say would threaten the United Kingdom’s unity, spook investors and create possible chaos at major ports.

Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay said he did not want to comment on conversations heard second hand in a noisy bar but the government’s position was that the United Kingdom would leave on March 29 but wanted to do so with a deal.

“If the PM decides we are leaving on 29 March, deal or no deal, that will happen,” Brexit-supporting Conservative Party lawmaker Steve Baker said. “Officials advise. Ministers decide.”

Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage said: “Olly Robbins represents the civil service fifth column in our country. He should be sacked immediately for a combination of treachery and incompetence.”

The opposition Labour Party will back a proposal to try to force the government to take “crucial decisions” on its Brexit plans by the middle of March, the party’s Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer said.

On a call with business leaders on Tuesday, May gave the impression that she was determined to try and avoid a no-deal Brexit if she can.

“She’s determined to try and avoid a no-deal Brexit if she can, because she recognizes in talking to business that this could be very damaging for the UK economy and ergo jobs,” Tony Smurfit, chief executive of Irish packaging group Smurfit Kappa, told Reuters.

“She is very conscious of the business position in Great Britain,” added Smurfit, who said he took part in conference calls with May on Tuesday and last week.

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May is seen outside Downing Street in London, Britain, February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Britain’s economy will barely grow in the run-up to Brexit but if there is a deal there will be a modest post-divorce upturn, according to economists polled by Reuters.

Ford Motor Co told May that it is stepping up preparations to move production out of Britain, The Times reported on Tuesday.

In an indication of just how disruptive Brexit may be, the head of Britain’s MI6 foreign spy service is expected to stay on beyond his retirement date this year to guide the intelligence agency through the post-Brexit period, The Times newspaper reported.

Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Janet Lawrence

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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New round of U.S.-China trade talks to begin in Washington on Tuesday

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Aides set up platforms before a group photo with members of U.S. and Chinese trade negotiation delegations at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China February 15, 2019. Mark Schiefelbein/Pool via REUTERS

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A new round of talks between the United States and China to resolve their trade war will take place in Washington on Tuesday, with follow-up sessions at a higher level later in the week, the White House said on Monday.

The talks follow a round of negotiations that ended in Beijing last week without a deal but which officials said had generated progress on contentious issues between the world’s two largest economies.

The talks are aimed at “achieving needed structural changes in China that affect trade between the United States and China. The two sides will also discuss China’s pledge to purchase a substantial amount of goods and services from the United States,” the White House said in a statement.

The higher-level talks will start on Thursday and be led by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, a strong proponent of pressing China to end practices that the United States says include forced technology transfers from U.S. companies and intellectual property theft.

China, which denies that it engages in such practices, confirmed that Vice Premier Liu He will visit Washington on Thursday and Friday for the talks.

The White House said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, economic adviser Larry Kudlow and trade adviser Peter Navarro would also take part in the talks.

U.S. tariffs on $200 billion in imports from China are set to rise to 25 percent from 10 percent if no deal is reached by March 1.

Trump, who suggested last week that he could extend the deadline for the talks, reiterated in a speech on Monday that the negotiations had been fruitful.

“We’re making a lot of progress. Nobody expected this was going to be happening,” he told a crowd in Florida.

Reporting by Jeff Mason in WASHINGTON and Ben Blanchard and Lusha Zhang in BEIJING; Editing by Paul Tait

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Facebook broke rules, should be regulated: UK lawmakers

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LONDON (Reuters) – Facebook intentionally breached data privacy and competition law and should, along with other big tech companies, be subject to a new regulator to protect democracy and citizens’ rights, British lawmakers said on Monday.

In a damning report that singled out Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for what it said was a failure of leadership and personal responsibility, the British parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee said tech firms had proved ineffective in stopping harmful content on their platforms.

This included disinformation, attempts by foreign countries to influence elections, and risks to personal data.

“We need a radical shift in the balance of power between the platforms and the people,” committee chairman Damian Collins said.

Collins said the age of inadequate self-regulation must end, following an 18-month investigation that concluded Facebook had “intentionally and knowingly violated both data privacy and anti-competition laws.”

“The rights of the citizen need to be established in statute, by requiring the tech companies to adhere to a code of conduct written into law by Parliament, and overseen by an independent regulator,” he said.

Facebook rejected the suggestion it had breached data protection and competition laws, and said it shared the committee’s concerns about false news and election integrity.

“We are open to meaningful regulation and support the committee’s recommendation for electoral law reform,” Facebook’s UK public policy manager Karim Palant said.

“We also support effective privacy legislation that holds companies to high standards in their use of data and transparency for users.”

Lawmakers in Europe and the United States are scrambling to get to grips with the risks posed by big tech companies regulating the platforms used by billions of people.

Germany has been at the forefront of the backlash against Facebook, fueled by last year’s Cambridge Analytica scandal in which tens of millions of Facebook profiles were harvested without their users’ consent. Earlier this month, it ordered Facebook to curb its data collection practices in the country.

U.S senator Marco Rubio introduced a bill last month aimed at giving Americans more control over data collected by online companies like Facebook and Alphabet’s Google.

The British committee does not propose legislation, but does have the power to summon witnesses for its investigations.

ZUCKERBERG NO SHOW

Facebook became the focus of its inquiry after whistleblower Christopher Wylie alleged that political consultancy Cambridge Analytica had obtained the data of millions of users of the social network.

Zuckerberg apologized last year for a “breach of trust” over the scandal.

But he refused to appear three times before British lawmakers, a stance that showed “contempt” toward parliament and the members of nine legislatures from around the world, the committee said.

“We believe that in its evidence to the committee Facebook has often deliberately sought to frustrate our work, by giving incomplete, disingenuous and at times misleading answers to our questions,” Collins said.

“Mark Zuckerberg continually fails to show the levels of leadership and personal responsibility that should be expected from someone who sits at the top of one of the world’s biggest companies.”

Facebook, however, said it had cooperated with the investigation by answering more than 700 questions and putting forward four senior executives to give evidence.

It said it had made substantial changes, including the authorization of every political advert, and it was investing heavily in identifying abusive content.

“While we still have more to do, we are not the same company we were a year ago,” Palant said.

FILE PHOTO: Silhouettes of mobile users are seen next to a screen projection of Facebook logo in this picture illustration taken March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/File Photo

The committee said it had identified major threats to society from the dominance of companies such as Facebook – which also owns WhatsApp and Instagram – Google and Twitter.

Democracy was at risk from the malicious and relentless targeting of citizens with disinformation and personalized adverts from unidentifiable sources, they said, and social media platforms were failing to act against harmful content and respect the privacy of users.

Companies like Facebook were also using their size to bully smaller firms that relied on social media platforms to reach customers, it added.

Editing by Hugh Lawson and Mark Potter

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Alibaba is the force behind hit Chinese Communist Party app: sources

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BEIJING (Reuters) – A Chinese government propaganda app that recently became a huge hit was developed by Alibaba, two people at the company told Reuters, at a time when the nation’s tech firms are under global scrutiny over their ties to Beijing.

FILE PHOTO: The logo of Alibaba Group is seen at the company’s headquarters in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China July 20, 2018. REUTERS/Aly Song/File Photo

“Xuexi Qiangguo”, which literally translates as ‘Study to make China strong’ and is a play on the government propaganda theme of applying President Xi Jinping’s thoughts, overtook Tik Tok and WeChat to become the county’s most popular app on Apple’s China app store last week.

It was developed by a largely unknown special projects team at Alibaba known as the “Y Projects Business Unit”, which takes on development projects outside the company, said the people.

New York-listed Alibaba declined to comment on whether the business unit had developed the app.

The app’s development by Alibaba, whose Chairman Jack Ma is a member of the Communist Party, is the latest example of a Chinese tech company collaborating with the government.

The country’s propaganda department has released the app ahead of next month’s National People’s Congress in Beijing, China’s top annual parliamentary gathering.

JOB OPPORTUNITIES

The app, which includes short videos, government news stories and quizzes, was created by an Alibaba team. A user of Alibaba’s own messaging app DingTalk can use their login credentials to log into Xuexi Qiangguo. Alibaba said the app was built using DingTalk’s software.

Staff at the Alibaba unit are responsible for developing and maintaining the app that includes news, videos, livestream and community comments, according to the sources and a job advertised for Xuexi Qiangguo on Alibaba’s career website.

The unit does not have a website, but is described in job ads on popular Chinese careers site Zhipin.com as a strategic level project that is in a creation stage and offers many job opportunities.

At least part of the app’s runaway popularity can be attributed to directives issued by local governments and universities that require people in China’s expansive party member network to download the app.

The app has been downloaded over 43.7 million times on Apple and Android devices since its launch in January, according to estimates by Beijing-based statistical consulting firm Qimai.

It was not immediately clear whether Alibaba makes money from the app, or who initiated its development.

Last month, Alibaba executive vice-chairman Joe Tsai slammed U.S. treatment of fellow Chinese tech firm Huawei Technologies as “extremely unfair”, and sharply criticized what he called an attempt by the U.S. government to curb China’s rise via the trade war.

Huawei, the world’s biggest network equipment maker, has been largely barred from the United States and some other countries on suspicion that its products could be used as a conduit for spying. Huawei and China have denied the allegations.

EXTENSIVE COLLABORATION

But major Chinese tech companies have cooperated extensively with governments in China on infrastructure, cloud computing and public security as part of the country’s “Internet Plus” policy drive to improve traditional industries.

Collaboration with state media has also increased in recent years, amid tighter censorship laws that require companies to toe the party line.

Tik Tok creator Beijing ByteDance Technology Co and WeChat creator Tencent Holdings Ltd are among some who have collaborated with state media outlets using their social media platforms.

“The upside for these firms is that their track record of cooperation can put them in a better position to obtain key licenses or opportunities,” said Mark Natkin, managing director at Beijing-based Marbridge Consulting, adding these collaborations were Beijing’s way of maintaining control over private firms.

“The downside is they may get tapped to participate in projects which, on economic or PR considerations alone they might normally eschew, but which may be uncomfortable or unwise to refuse.”

Reporting by Pei Li and Cate Cadell, Additional reporting by Shanghai newsroom; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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