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When Lord David Frost announced his latest plan to reboot the Northern Ireland protocol yesterday, he correctly observed that most of the “current friction” between the EU and the UK stems from the rancorous debate over Northern Ireland.
“If we can eliminate this, there is a huge prize on offer,” he wrote in the preamble to the document. “A better and more constructive relationship between the UK and the EU, without mistrust, and working effectively to support joint objectives.”
It’s hard to argue with that statement, and yet it is equally hard to square the substance of the Frost proposals with his gloss that it is all an even-handed, mutually consensual attempt to make the Northern Ireland situation work for both sides.
Because it is plainly not. The 28-page command paper does not offer detailed technical solutions to difficult problems; it is a return to old arguments and an assault on the fundamentals of the protocol itself, which leaves Northern Ireland de facto in the EU single market for goods in order that the rest of the UK could leave the EU on the hardest possible terms.
To make that deal work, Boris Johnson agreed that Northern Ireland should follow large tracts of EU laws and regulations that are set out in the annexes to the protocol. Logically, the enforcement of these rules needs to be under the writ of the European Court of Justice, since that court is the sole arbiter of EU law.
The Frost proposals demand that that structure is replaced with a “treaty-based” approach that uses an international arbitration mechanism.
At the same time, Frost wants UK goods — even if they do not conform to EU standards — to be allowed to circulate freely in Northern Ireland, so long as they are clearly labelled for consumption in the region.
And he wants for companies in Great Britain to be able to self-certify if goods are destined only for Northern Ireland, and if they are, to be exempt from all checks at the Irish Sea border.
For goods going in the other direction (from Northern Ireland into Great Britain) Frost has rejected the EU’s offer of avoiding formal export declarations by using other data sources, such as ship manifests, so that there is no record of goods leaving the EU single market, as is required by EU law.
The ECJ, as the enforcer of the rules of the EU single market would — in Frost’s vision — have no control over goods circulating in Northern Ireland, and no north-south border at which to police them.
The net result of this is a legal free-for-all that removes the border in the Irish Sea and — by inexorable extension — pushes it back either on to the island of Ireland, or into the sea between Ireland and the rest of the EU, thereby diluting Ireland’s place in the EU single market.
Frost is not naive. He knows very well that this proposal will not be acceptable. It is not legally or politically viable. Instead, it is an attempt to rewind the clock back to conceptual arguments that were lost back in 2019, but that the Johnson government now wants to try to win again.
To be fair to Frost, this protocol never looked like his favoured solution. He argued strongly for the “alternative arrangements” to create a light-touch north-south border, believing that the rest of the EU would ultimately force Dublin to accept this compromise.
He was wrong. Merkel and the EU27 held firm and Johnson then agreed the protocol in the space of nine days in October 2019 in order to “get Brexit done”. As we now know from Dominic Cummings’ blog, the prime minister was following instructions to do this and ignore officials “babbling” about Northern Ireland.
Having signed the deal to get Brexit done in 2019, Frost and Johnson then elected to sign a hasty Canada-style trade deal that, by taking the UK as far as possible outside the regulatory orbit of the EU, put the absolute maximum pressure on the Irish Sea border arrangement they agreed the previous year.
These were clear choices, the consequences of which cannot now be cast as unforeseen. Edwin Poots, then the Democratic Unionist party’s agriculture minister, specifically wrote to the government in June last year warning that if it concluded a super-hard EU-UK trade deal without a Swiss-style veterinary agreement to align rules on animal and plant products, the protocol would place “unacceptable burdens” on the people of Northern Ireland.
And so it has come to pass. Six months into the implementation of the protocol, the government clearly regrets those choices and is demanding a rethink based on a mish-mash of pleas to “trust us”, technological solutions and “mutual enforcement” concepts that it knows the EU won’t legally tolerate.
The extraordinary “section one” of the command paper tries to imply that Johnson almost signed the original deal under duress, because (in this telling) parliament’s insistence that the UK could not leave the EU without an agreement had “radically undermined the government’s negotiating hand”.
If that is correct, then by implication the demands in this paper suggest that Frost now believes the Johnson government has a stronger hand created by the deteriorating political and economic facts on the ground, and that he intends to use it.
From an EU perspective this is, as one diplomat described it to me, “gangster politics”. And given the EU is not going to agree to the UK’s core demands, this move seems destined to provoke further EU legal action (which Frosts says is unhelpful) and very likely a UK decision to trigger the Article 16 override clause.
It is not too late to pull back, but time is short. Businesses want clarity by the end of August on any new rules or extension to grace periods, which Frost has demanded as part of a “standstill” while a new deal is thrashed out.
Perhaps it is still possible, if the EU shows a high degree of flexibility, to keep the core of the protocol but transfer the “at risk” approach that governs tariffs to the agrifood arena, which is by far the largest source of friction. This would instantly reduce the burden of checks.
Still, this latest UK gambit hardly feels conducive to fostering an atmosphere of compromise. Indeed, it will be hard for the European Commission to avoid taking further legal action with regards to the existing agreement, if the UK keeps on this track.
None of this is likely to bring clarity for business or calm to Northern Ireland’s febrile politics. As Frost said, there is indeed a “huge prize” to be had in reaching an agreement. This feels like an odd way to go about grasping it.
Brexit in numbers
The UK lorry driver shortage, which is estimated at more than 60,000 by the Road Haulage Association, is biting ever harder, and is being further exacerbated by the “pingdemic” of self-isolations caused by the rising Covid-19 case rate.
The haulage industry has been lobbying the government hard for drivers to be put on the visa shortage occupation list, or for the creation of a temporary visa scheme for HGV drivers who are legally too low-skilled to qualify for a visa under the UK’s post-Brexit points-based immigration system.
This week those demands were rebuffed by the government, which instead offered a bunch of half-measures to address the problem. It has pledged to increase the speed of testing for HGV drivers; do more to encourage jobseekers into the profession and raise apprenticeship funding for drivers. It also wants to work with industry to make the profession more attractive by improving lorry park facilities, for example.
All of which is great in the medium term, say haulage industry chiefs, but nowhere near what is needed to address the short-term crisis. As Richard Burnett, the boss of the RHA said, the government proposals don’t “address the critical short-term issues we’re facing. The problem is immediate, and we need to have access to drivers from overseas on short-term visas.”
But ministers are unmoved — or at least the Home Office is unmoved — and in a letter to the industry this week signed jointly by the secretaries of state for transport, the environment and work and pensions, have basically said “sorry, bad luck”.
“We know businesses are under severe pressure at the moment and adapting business models,” they wrote, but add that ultimately “market mechanisms will be the predominant way in which this shortage is resolved”.
This is the political front line of Brexit, which rallied voters to the Leave standard by promising higher wages from curbing EU immigration, but omitted to mention that labour shortages could cause delays and scarcity.
This is a tension that is likely to deepen over the summer.
And, finally, three unmissable Brexit stories
There is a depressing madness about the UK government’s new proposals for post-Brexit trade with Northern Ireland, writes Philip Stephens. Downing Street has made an offer it knows the EU cannot accept. Even where it is inclined to be flexible, Brussels now has confirmation that the UK cannot be trusted to keep its word. The danger is that Northern Ireland will pay the price.
A trade deal based on the notion of “mutual enforcement” or “dual autonomy” would allow the UK and the EU to keep their regulatory autonomy intact, writes former director-general at the European Commission Jonathan Faull. Each would incorporate the legal obligations of the other side into its domestic law, to be applied only by producers exporting goods into the territory of the other party.
Rioting and political turmoil usually turn off investors. But unrest and upheaval in Northern Ireland this year have not stopped the flow of investment into Belfast from financial and professional services firms. US banking giant Citigroup and the Big Four accounting firms PwC, Deloitte and KPMG plan to create thousands of jobs in the city over the next few years. New financial services firms have also dipped into the local talent pool after fDI Intelligence named Belfast the world’s third-biggest fintech centre for the future in a 2019 research report.
Taliban take over Afghanistan: What we know and what’s next
The Taliban have seized power in Afghanistan two weeks before the US was set to complete its troop withdrawal after a costly two-decade war.
The insurgents stormed across the country, capturing all major cities in a matter of days, as Afghan security forces trained and equipped by the US and its allies melted away.
Here is a look at what happened and what comes next:
WHAT IS HAPPENING IN AFGHANISTAN?
The Taliban, a militant group that ran the country in the late 1990s, have again taken control.
The US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 ousted the insurgents from power, but they never left.
After they blitzed across the country in recent days, the Western-backed government that has run the country for 20 years collapsed.
Afghans, fearing for the future, are racing to the airport, one of the last routes out of the country.
WHY ARE PEOPLE FLEEING THE COUNTRY?
They are worried that the country could descend into chaos or the Taliban could carry out revenge attacks against those who worked with the Americans or the government.
Many also fear the Taliban will reimpose the harsh interpretation of Islamic law that they relied when they ran Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.
Back then, women were barred from attending school or working outside the home. They had to wear the all-encompassing burqa and be accompanied by a male relative whenever they went outside.
The Taliban banned music, cut off the hands of thieves and stoned adulterers.
The Taliban have sought to present themselves as a more moderate force in recent years and say they will not exact revenge, but many Afghans are skeptical of those promises.
WHY ARE THE TALIBAN TAKING OVER NOW?
Probably because US troops are set to withdraw by the end of the month.
The US has been trying to get out of Afghanistan, its longest war, for several years now.
American troops ousted the Taliban in a matter of months when they invaded to root out Al-Qaeda, which orchestrated the 9/11 attacks while being harboured by the Taliban.
But it proved more difficult to hold territory and rebuild a nation battered by repeated wars.
As the US focus shifted to Iraq, the Taliban began to regroup and in recent years took over much of the Afghan countryside.
Last year, then-President Donald Trump announced a plan to pull out and signed a deal with the Taliban that limited US military action against them.
President Joe Biden then announced that the last troops would leave by the end of August.
As the final deadline drew close, the Taliban began a lightning offensive, overrunning city after city.
WHY DID THE AFGHAN SECURITY FORCES COLLAPSE?
The short answer? Corruption.
The US and its NATO allies spent billions of dollars over two decades to train and equip Afghan security forces.
But the Western-backed government was rife with corruption. Commanders exaggerated the number of soldiers to siphon off resources, and troops in the field often lacked ammunition, supplies or even food.
Their morale further eroded when it became clear the US was on its way out. As the Taliban rapidly advanced in recent days entire units surrendered after brief battles, and Kabul and some nearby provinces fell without a fight.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE PRESIDENT OF AFGHANISTAN?
President Ashraf Ghani hunkered down and made few public statements as the Taliban swept across the country.
On Sunday, as they reached the capital, he left Afghanistan, saying he had chosen to leave to avoid further bloodshed.
It’s not clear where he went.
WHY ARE PEOPLE COMPARING AFGHANISTAN TO THE FALL OF SAIGON?
The Fall of Saigon to North Vietnamese forces in 1975 marked the end of the Vietnam War.
It became an enduring symbol of defeat after thousands of Americans and their Vietnamese allies were airlifted out of the city on helicopters.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has rejected any comparisons to Afghanistan, saying: “This is manifestly not Saigon.”
WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT IN AFGHANISTAN?
It’s not clear.
The Taliban say they want to form an “inclusive, Islamic government” with other factions. They are holding negotiations with senior politicians, including leaders in the former government.
They have pledged to enforce Islamic law but say they will provide a secure environment for the return of normal life after decades of war.
But many Afghans distrust the Taliban and fear that their rule will be violent and oppressive.
One sign that worries people is that they want to rename the country the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which is what they called it the last time they ruled.
WHAT DOES THE TALIBAN TAKEOVER MEAN FOR WOMEN?
Many fear it could mean a severe rollback of rights.
Afghan women have made major gains since the overthrow of the Taliban.
Many are worried they will once again be confined to their homes.
The Taliban have said they are no longer opposed to women attending school but have not set out a clear policy on women’s rights.
Afghanistan remains an overwhelmingly conservative country, especially outside major cities, and the status of women often varied, even under Taliban rule.
WILL THE TALIBAN ONCE AGAIN HARBOUR AL-QAEDA?
That is anyone’s guess, but American military officials are worried.
In the peace deal signed with the United States last year, the Taliban pledged to fight terrorism and prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a base for attacks.
But the US has little leverage to enforce that.
Technological advances over the last 20 years allow the United States to target suspected militants in countries like Yemen and Somalia where it does not have a permanent troop presence.
The Taliban paid a heavy price for their role in the Sep 11 attacks and likely hope to avoid a repeat as they seek to consolidate their rule.
But earlier this year, the Pentagon’s top leaders said an extremist group like Al-Qaeda may be able to regenerate in Afghanistan, and officials are now warning that such groups could grow much faster than expected.
Afghanistan is also home to an Islamic State group affiliate that has carried out a wave of horrific attacks targeting its Shiite minority in recent years. The Taliban have condemned such attacks and the two groups have fought each other over territory, but it remains to be seen whether a Taliban government will be willing or able to suppress IS. AP
Malala Yousafzai ‘Deeply Worried About Women, Minorities’ As Taliban Takes Kabul
The activist, who survived a Taliban attack, called for urgent humanitarian aid to Afghanistan.
Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by Taliban gunmen in Pakistan when she was 15, said on Sunday she was watching on in complete shock as Taliban forces advanced into Kabul after executing a near-complete takeover of the country in a little over a week.
“I am deeply worried about women, minorities and human rights advocates,” she said. “Global, regional and local powers must call for an immediate ceasefire, provide urgent humanitarian aid and protect. refugees and civilians.”
Yousafzai was targeted by extremists in 2012 after she spoke out publicly about the right to education for girls and women. She was shot on her school bus. She survived, went on to continue her advocacy from the UK, and in 2014, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
We watch in complete shock as Taliban takes control of Afghanistan. I am deeply worried about women, minorities and human rights advocates. Global, regional and local powers must call for an immediate ceasefire, provide urgent humanitarian aid and protect refugees and civilians.
— Malala (@Malala) August 15, 2021
On Sunday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, U.S. Embassy staff were evacuated and several other western missions worked to withdraw personnel. It comes months after the Biden administration announced the withdrawal of a decades-long U.S. military presence in the country.
Video Shows Afghans Clinging To U.S. Military Plane As It Takes Off In Kabul
Seven people were reportedly killed during the chaos, including individuals who fell from a departing American transport jet.
Stunning video taken Monday at the Kabul airport shows people clinging to a U.S. military transport plane during takeoff, as well as others appearing to plunge to their death from the sky, in a disturbing scene that reportedly ended with several people dead.
The U.S. military suspended evacuation flights from the Afghan capital later on Monday due to the swarms of people blocking the airport’s tarmac, a spokesperson for the German foreign ministry told reporters.
“I understand there is no air traffic at the moment because a large number of desperate people are crowding the tarmac,” the spokesperson told journalists in Berlin, according to Reuters.
The chaos ended with seven people dead, including those who fell from a departing American military transport jet, The Associated Press reported, citing senior U.S. military officials.
Disturbing videos posted to social media appear to capture some of the deaths, and seem to show bodies falling from a plane shortly after takeoff. The authenticity of these videos has not been independently confirmed by HuffPost.
The Taliban has meanwhile attempted to reassure Afghans, saying in a statement that “life, property and honor” will be respected. But many Afghans fear that the Islamic militants will roll back basic democratic and human rights, particularly for women, journalists and nongovernment organization workers.
“Everyone is worried,” a former government employee who is hiding in Kabul told Reuters. “They’re not targeting people yet but they will, that’s the reality. Maybe in two or three weeks. That’s why people are fighting to get out now.” AP/REUTERS
What is the Relationship Between the Taliban and ISIS?
Who are the two groups?
The two forces are actually enemies, however, who have fought bitterly since 2015 when Isis formed the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP) in Afghanistan at a time when it was first seeking to extend its geographical reach beyond Iraq and Syria.
The Taliban first came to prominence in 1994 during the Afghan Civil War, its ranks composed largely of students – from which the group derives its name in Pashto – many of whom had been mujahideen resistance fighters who had battled occupation by the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
A Deobandi fundamentalist Islamist movement originating in the Pashtun areas of eastern and southern Afghanistan and in northern Pakistan, the Taliban was led by Mullah Mohammed Omar and conquered first the province of Herat and then the whole country by September 1996, overthrowing the Burhanuddin Rabbani regime, establishing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and making Kandahar the capital.
Its tyrannical rule, marked by the massacre of opponents, the denial of UN food supplies to starving citizens and the oppression of women, was brought to an abrupt end by US-led coalition forces in December 2001 in retaliation for Osama Bin Laden’s devastating al-Qaeda terror strike on the World Trade Center in New York City, which killed 2,996 people and left 25,000 injured.
Since then, Taliban fighters have regrouped as an insurgency and continued to battle to retake Afghanistan from US peacekeeping forces ever since.
Isis meanwhile was first formed by Jordanian jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 1999 before rising to global prominence when it drove Iraqi forces out of key cities in the west of the country in 2014 – having declared itself a worldwide caliphate – and later conquered swathes of eastern Syria before ultimately surrendering Mosul and Raqqa in 2017 when international forces intervened.
It established the ISKP in the Nangarhar Province of eastern Afghanistan in January 2015, actively recruiting defectors from the Taliban, in particular those who were disconttented with their own leadership’s lack of success on the battlefield.
How have their respective factions interacted?
The formation of ISKP prompted Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour to write a letter to his Isis counterpart, Abu Bakr al-
More battles erupted in April 2017 when ISKP captured three drug dealers selling opium to raise funds for the Taliban in the northern Afghan province of Jowzjan and again in May 2017 when 22 militants were killed in clashes between the two sides along the Iranian border.
The Taliban launched an offensive to clear Isis out of Jowzjan the following summer, with the the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan joining in on the latter’s side, as up to 7,000 people were displaced from their homes.
That July’s conflict ended in a significant defeat for ISKP, who suffered further setbacks in skirmishes the following year before being almost entirely eradicated by the US and the Afghan military in late 2019, although the Council for Foreign Relations estimates that there are still 2,200 members of ISKP still active in Afghanistan.
In February 2020, the Donald Trump administration signed its dubious peace accord with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, which saw the latter group pledge to keep other Islamist extremists, including Isis, out of the country.
Why are we asking this now?
Afghanistan is again in a state of turmoil after the Taliban recaptured the capital city of Kabul on Sunday, declaring the country an Islamic Emirate once more after president Ashraf Ghani abandoned the presidential palace and fled to Tajikistan.
The operation followed swiftly on from the withdrawal of American troops from the country last month at the order of US president Joe Biden, their exit coming almost 20 years after the US military drove the same faction out of Kabul at the outset of George W Bush’s War on Terror in response to 9/11.
Biden expressed his determination not to hand the responsibility for policing Afghanistan on to a fifth commander-in-chief following the completion of his own tenure in the White House and trusted in the Afghan military, in whom the US had invested almost $1trn over two decades, to keep the Taliban at bay.
“The fact of the matter is we’ve seen that that force has been unable to defend the country… and that has happened more quickly than we anticipated,” US secretary of state Anthony Blinken lamented on Sunday.
Amid the chaotic scenes in Kabul as people fled for the airports was the alarming sight of 5,000 escaped prisoners walking free from the Pul-e-Charki prison on Bagram air base, occupied by the Americans until recently, with alleged Isis and al-Qaeda fighters present among their number.
Speaking on NPR’s All Things Considered last week, former US defence secretary Leon Panetta gave this blunt assessment of the disaster unfolding: “The Taliban are terrorists, and they’re going to support terrorists. If they take control of Afghanistan, there is no question in my mind that they will provide a safe haven for al-Qaeda, for Isis and for terrorism in general. And that constitutes, frankly, a national security threat to the United States.”
Baghdadi, calling on him to abandon his recruitment drive of the disaffected and arguing that any war for their comparable cause in Afghanistan should be carried out under Taliban leadership.
Fighting duly broke out between the two sides that June 2015 and between two separate factions of the Taliban in the Zabul Province that November over whether or not to join forces with ISIS. INDEPENDENT
1/3 of Israel’s Older Population Has Received COVID-19 Booster Shot as Delta Cases Rise
Over one-third of Israel’s older population has received a COVID-19 booster shot, as the country rushes to administer additional vaccine doses to counter the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Sunday that over 420,000 Israelis older than 60 have so far received a third dose of the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine. According to government statistics, that number is expected to exceed half a million by the end of the day, the Associated Press reported.
Israel began rolling out COVID-19 booster shots to its older population last weekend, after health officials reported new data indicating a decline in vaccine protection over time. The country had previously offered a third dose of the vaccine to some people with compromised immune systems, such as individuals with cancer.
The latest rollout comes as hospitalizations and daily case counts continue to rise due to the delta variant. Last week, Israel began recording an average of more than 3,000 new coronavirus cases a day, with 250 people in serious condition. That marks its worst outbreak since April, according to Agence France-Presse.
On Saturday, the country recorded 4,211 new cases and 19 new deaths. In response to the latest outbreak, the government recently moved to reinstated its mask mandate for indoor settings and is now weighing more restrictions.
Israel quickly became a world leader in vaccinating against the virus during its initial public campaign. By Sunday, nearly 60 percent of the country’s 9.3 million population has been fully vaccinated, with more eligible people now rushing to receive a third vaccine dose.
Over one-third of Israel’s older population has received a COVID-19 booster shot, as the country rushes to administer additional vaccine doses to counter the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant. In this photo, Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett accompanies his mother Myrna Bennett as she receives her third COVID-19 vaccine shot, at a Maccabi Healthcare Services clinic in the northern city of Haifa on August 3, 2021. POOL / AFP/Getty Images
While most vaccine makers and researchers agree that booster shots will be needed to provide additional protection against the virus, the World Health Organization (WHO) last week called for a moratorium on the use of third doses until the end of September in order to address inequalities in global vaccine distribution.
In response to the moratorium, Bennett said Thursday that Israel was doing the world a “great service” by administering the booster shots.
“Israel is going ahead here with something that dramatically contributes to global knowledge,” he said in a Facebook broadcast. “Without us, the world wouldn’t know the exact efficacy levels of the booster shots, wouldn’t know the dates, how much they affect infections, how they affect severe illness,” he added.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to approve of the use of coronavirus vaccine boosters for the American public. However, data from the CDC indicates that an increasing number of Americans are using dishonest means to receive a third jab.
Israel attacks Hamas sites in Gaza in response to fire balloons
Palestinians say the balloons aim to pressure Israel to ease restrictions on the coastal enclave that were tightened in May.
Israeli aircraft bombed Hamas sites in the Gaza Strip on Saturday in response to incendiary balloons launched from the Palestinian enclave, Israel’s military said.
There were no immediate reports of casualties or damage from the attack that targeted what the Israeli military said was a rocket launching site and a compound belonging to Hamas, the political group that governs Gaza.
Hamas had no immediate comment.
A social media post by New Press publication, showed streaks of lights coming from Gaza, as shots were fired targeting Israeli planes in retaliation of the attack.
New Press also reported that three sites were targeted by Israel including Beit Hanoun and Jabalya.
Since a May 21 ceasefire ended 11 days of Israel-Hamas fighting, Palestinians in Gaza have sporadically launched balloons laden with incendiary material across the border, causing fires that have burned fields in Israel.
The incendiary balloons have been used previously in response to the tightening of Israel’s blockade on the coastal enclave, after new restrictions were issued during Israel’s bombardment of Gaza in May.
Balloon launches had mostly ebbed after Israel eased some restrictions on Gaza.
But on Friday, balloons were again launched from Gaza, causing at least four brush fires in areas near the Israel-Gaza frontier.
The Israeli military said its air raids were in “response to continual launches of incendiary balloons from Gaza into Israel throughout the day”.
The blazes along the Gaza frontier broke out on Friday as Israel separately traded fire over its northern border with Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah, in a third day of cross-border salvoes amid wider regional tensions with Iran.
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