Britain's Harry and Meghan to champion cause of girls' education in rural Morocco

RABAT (Reuters) – Britain’s Prince Harry and his pregnant wife Meghan will begin a three-day visit to Morocco on Saturday during which they will show their support for rural girls’ education in the Atlas mountains.

The visit at the request of the British government is the second to the kingdom in recent years by a member of the royal family, following a trip by Prince Charles in 2011. Queen Elizabeth visited Morocco in 1980.

It is expected to be the final royal overseas trip before the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are due to become parents this spring, according to British media.

The couple arrive in Casablanca on Saturday evening. The next morning they will fly to the Atlas mountains where they will meet girls at a boarding house run by Education for All, an NGO that builds dormitories near schools to reduce school drop-out rates among girls aged 12 to 18, the UK embassy said.

“This visit will help give international publicity to the work we do and will help us raise money to build more boarding houses,” Michael McHugo, founder of Education for All, told Reuters by phone.

While in Asni, Harry and Meghan will meet local high school students and teachers and afterwards attend a football game.

“The visit will add new momentum to tourism in the region,” said Montassir Itri from Asni.

On Monday, the Duke and Duchess will attend an equestrian event in the capital Rabat centering on horse therapy for children with special needs, followed by a cooking event and a meeting with young social entrepreneurs.

The couple is also expected to meet a member of the Moroccan royal family later in the day at a palace in Rabat.

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Ninth lawmaker quits Britain's opposition Labour Party

LONDON (REUTERS) – British lawmaker Ian Austin resigned from the opposition Labour Party on Friday (Feb 22), becoming the ninth person to do so this week, saying it was “broken” and had been taken over by the “hard left”.

Mr Austin said he did not currently have any plans to join the Independent Group in Parliament, set up by seven of his former Labour colleagues earlier this week and joined by an eighth as well as three former members of the governing Conservatives.

“The Labour Party has been my life, so this has been the hardest decision I have ever had to take, but I have to be honest and the truth is that I have become ashamed of the Labour Party under (leader) Jeremy Corbyn,” Mr Austin told the Express and Star newspaper, citing the issue of anti-Semitism in particular.

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Japan wants frictionless UK-EU trade after Brexit, says ambassador

LONDON (AFP) – Japan wants Britain to have frictionless trade with the European Union after Brexit, its ambassador said on Thursday (Feb 21), insisting a damaging no-deal scenario should be avoided.

Japanese companies are looking to expand their investment in Britain but are holding back due to uncertainty over Brexit, Koji Tsuruoka said during a talk in London.

However, he insisted Japanese carmaker Honda’s decision this week to close its plant in Britain had nothing to do with Brexit.

“Frictionless trade, we fully agree with that. Whether that is through a customs union or other means is up to the negotiation,” Tsuruoka said on the Brexit talks.

“But the minimum that Japanese companies would like to pursue is an effective supply chain that goes beyond the borders of the UK and the EU.”

Britain is heading towards leaving the EU without a deal on March 29 unless one can be struck between London and Brussels that British MPs can agree to, in the remaining weeks.

“I still believe there will be no no-deal, because no-deal is going to be extremely damaging and put many things on halt,” the ambassador said.

“It can and should be avoided.” Nissan earlier this month axed plans to make its X-Trail sports utility vehicle in Britain, citing “business reasons” but also Brexit uncertainty.

“Unless you can anticipate what happens next, it’s very difficult to make decisions that involve certain risks,” said Tsuruoka.

He said that since the boom of Japanese investment in Britain began in the early 1980s, Japanese companies had seen the UK as a springboard to export into the EU.

Forty per cent of the total Japanese investment into the 28-country bloc comes into Britain, he said.

“The amount of investment is not being reduced; it is being held back,” said Tsuruoka.

“Existing companies will look into expanding their business but all of these investments were put on hold because of the uncertainty.”

From Brexit, “the challenge is to minimise the adverse effect or perhaps open opportunities for new markets.”

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UK's Hammond: talk of warship deployment complicates China ties

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s talk of deploying a warship in the Pacific has complicated its relationship with China, finance minister Philip Hammond said on Thursday.

As Britain prepares to leave the European Union at the end of next month, its biggest foreign and trade policy shift in more than 40 years, it is seeking to strengthen diplomatic relationships and trade ties with countries around the world.

Earlier this month defense minister Gavin Williamson said Britain would use military force to support its interests after Brexit and outlined plans to deploy a new aircraft carrier to the Pacific, where London has been seeking to demonstrate its influence in relation to China.

British media reported that China had canceled trade talks with Hammond because it was upset about Williamson’s speech.

When asked directly on BBC radio if the relationship had been damaged by Williamson’s threat, Hammond said: “It is a complex relationship and it hasn’t been made simpler by Chinese concerns about royal navy deployments in the South China Sea.”

A Ministry of Defense official said the speech had been cleared in advance by both Hammond’s department and Prime Minister Theresa May’s office.

“STRONG AND CONSTRUCTIVE”

Asked whether the prime minister agreed with Hammond that the comments had complicated ties, May’s spokesman said Britain’s relationship with China was important.

“We have strong and constructive ties on a range of issues and we will continue to do so,” he said.

UK exports to and imports from China hit a record high in 2017. China was the UK’s sixth largest export market that year, worth 22.3 billion pounds ($29.15 billion) and its fourth largest source of imports, worth 45.2 billion pounds, according to the House of Commons Library.

In his speech, Williamson announced that the first mission of the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier would include work in the Mediterranean, Middle East and Pacific regions.

In August a different British warship sailed close to the Paracel Islands claimed by China in the South China Sea, prompting fury in Beijing.

Hammond said he was disappointed that the Chinese had reacted in the way they had to Williamson’s comments.

“This is entirely premature, the aircraft carrier isn’t going to be at full operational readiness for another couple of years, no decisions have been made or even discussed about where its early deployments might be,” Hammond said.

Asked if Williamson should be reined in, he said: “I think that it’s very important that we manage this relationship with China very carefully.”

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UK government source: It does not feel like we will have a Brexit deal by next week

LONDON (Reuters) – It does not feel like Britain will have secured the changes it needs to its exit deal with Brussels by next week, a British government source said on Thursday.

Prime Minister Theresa May will hold bilateral meetings with European Union leaders at an EU-League of Arab States summit in Egypt at the weekend, but the source said she was not expected to return from that with a “piece of paper” on a revised deal.

If May does not bring a revised deal back to parliament for a vote by Feb. 27, lawmakers will be given the opportunity to debate and vote on the next steps, and some have said they will seek to wrestle control of the process from the government.

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Ministers warn British PM May of rebellion in the event of no-deal Brexit: media report

LONDON (REUTERS) – Some senior British ministers have warned Prime Minister Theresa May that she must agree to delay Brexit if there is no European Union divorce deal or face a rebellion in Parliament next week, The Sun newspaper reported.

Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd, Justice Secretary David Gauke, Business Secretary Greg Clark and Scotland Secretary David Mundell said she must take no-deal off the table by extending Article 50, the newspaper said.

If Mrs May refuses, the senior ministers said they and 20 other members of the government would back Labour lawmaker Yvette Cooper’s plan for Parliament to seize control of the Brexit process.

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UK attorney general plans for unilateral exit mechanism to Irish backstop: Telegraph

(Reuters) – UK Attorney General Geoffrey Cox is considering plans for a unilateral exit mechanism to the Irish backstop with a notice period of 12 months, the Telegraph newspaper reported bit.ly/2E0XHql late on Wednesday.

The “backstop” provision in Britain’s European Union divorce deal aims at avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland. Earlier on Wednesday, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and British Prime Minister Theresa May said that the backstop provision is temporary.

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'Time of the essence,' says May on latest Brussels shuttle

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Theresa May held “constructive” talks in Brussels on Wednesday as she sought concessions on Brexit from a sceptical European Union, her strategy under strain after the defection of three lawmakers.

Emerging from an hour or so of discussions with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, the second in as many weeks, May told a British television channel that she again pressed for “legally binding changes” to a deal she agreed with the EU in November so that a “backstop” policy on the Irish border would not bind Britain indefinitely to keeping EU rules.

It is this part of the treaty, intended to avoid new trouble in Northern Ireland, which the British parliament rejected last month. That pitched the country toward the exit on March 29 without a safety net — and left May scrambling to secure concessions both in Brussels and from lawmakers in her own party and others.

“I’ve underlined the need for us to see legally binding changes to the backstop which ensure it cannot be indefinite,” May said. “That’s what is required if a deal is going to pass the House of Commons … Time is of the essence.”

She said there had been progress and her Brexit minister would be back in Brussels on Thursday, along with the attorney general Geoffrey Cox. It is he whom the EU must find a way to persuade to change his view that the backstop might never end.

People close to the negotiations say discussions have been focusing on what May and Juncker in a joint statement called “appropriate legal assurance to both sides”.

The EU has refused to reopen the treaty or to add new text that would anger Ireland by putting a time limit on the backstop or giving London a unilateral right to quit an arrangement that would see Britain obliged to follow EU trade and industry rules until a better way is found, probably using technology, to keep the border open while letting the UK diverge from EU standards.

Various kinds of text, focusing on how a future trading relationship may work after a status quo transition period, have been discussed, officials say. But EU leaders, many of whom will meet May during a weekend summit with Arab governments in Egypt, want assurances she can deliver parliamentary ratification for any new deal before they will nail down their concessions.

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BREXIT DELAYED?

That kind of brinkmanship could, many officials say, lead to a delay in Brexit as the only option for May to avoid running out of time to pass the necessary laws in the next month.

EU summit chair Donald Tusk said on Wednesday: “If Britain fails to prepare some sensible option on time, then there is always a possibility to extend these negotiations in time. This would be better than a divorce without agreement.”

May’s ability to get any deal through parliament suffered a new blow earlier in the day when three of her Conservative lawmakers quit, condemning her “disastrous handling of Brexit”, which they, like she, had opposed during the 2016 referendum.

Despite some support for a new vote, EU leaders no longer hold out hope of Brexit being halted and, with governments and the Commission saying they are ready if need be for a no-deal departure, many diplomats fear political deadlock in London has made such an outcome as likely as May securing ratification.

In their joint statement, May and Juncker said talks were “constructive” and their teams would press on to “explore the options in a positive spirit”. The two plan to meet again before the end of February, when May faces a new test in parliament.

She has less than a month to crack the puzzle, EU diplomats say, arguing that a compromise must be in place a week or so before a summit on March 21-22 that could seal any accord.

“They have until March 10, maybe March 15 at the latest,” one said. “Otherwise they will be forced into a delay of Brexit, or crash out.”

Despite that, few in Brussels expect a quick breakthrough: “It’s too early,” another EU diplomat said. “The second half of March is the make-or-break moment.”

(This story was refiled to fix typo and add comma in headline.)

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Honda to close British car plant as Brexit looms

LONDON/TOKYO (Reuters) – Honda will close its only British car plant in 2021 with the loss of up to 3,500 jobs, a major departure of Japanese investment announced just over a month before the United Kingdom is due to leave the European Union.

The automaker, which builds more than a tenth of the 1.5 million cars made in Britain, said the move was not related to Brexit and it needed to focus activities in regions where it expects to sell most cars, after struggling in Europe.

But the timing of the announcement about the Swindon plant, just 38 days before Brexit, comes after a series of warnings from Japan that it would pull investments if they are no longer economically viable after Britain leaves the bloc.

“We had to consider the rise of electrified vehicles, and the different speeds at which electric vehicles will be taken up in North America and Europe,” said Honda Chief Executive Takahiro Hachigo. “This decision was not informed by Brexit.”

Britain’s business minister said Honda’s decision was a major blow and illustrated how much was at risk from Brexit.

“Decisions like Honda’s this morning demonstrate starkly how much is at stake,” said Greg Clark, who supports a Brexit deal agreed between the UK government and EU, but which has so far failed to win over a majority of British lawmakers.

“This news comes on top of months of uncertainty that … manufacturers have had to endure about Brexit, about our future relationship with the EU,” Clark said.

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He said it was unacceptable that business did not have clarity on future trading terms ahead of the March 29 departure.

Honda, which builds its Civic in Britain and Turkey, said it would stop making the model in both countries. The announcement comes just over two weeks after fellow Japanese carmaker Nissan reversed a decision to build a new SUV in Britain.

Honda, Britain’s fourth-biggest automaker, will cease production at Swindon in southern England, which made 160,000 cars in 2018.

It follows decisions by Japanese electronics companies Sony and Panasonic to move their headquarters from Britain into the EU, while Hitachi put a $28 billion nuclear power project in Britain on hold in January.

‘DEVASTATING DECISION’

Some 1,000 Japanese firms are based in Britain, employing around 140,000 people, and have invested about 60 billion pounds ($78 billion), according to the Japanese embassy in London.

Nissan, Toyota and Honda were encouraged to come to Britain in the 1980s as a pro-business gateway to the EU and have helped turn around an ailing domestic car industry.

The trio build half of Britain’s cars and hundreds of thousands of engines at production sites across the country, but a no-deal Brexit could destroy the free and unfettered trade manufacturers rely on.

The loss of such a major employer in Swindon, which backed Brexit in the June 2016 referendum, risks a further 10,000 jobs in the supply chain, which could have knock-on effects for other carmakers due to the interconnected nature of the sector.

For Honda, declining demand for diesel vehicles and tougher emissions regulations have also clouded its manufacturing prospects in Europe, which accounts for just 3 percent of its global sales.

The company said in October 2017 it would stop making vehicles at its Sayama plant in Japan by 2022 as it grapples with a shrinking domestic market, while it has a tiny share of less than 1 percent in Europe.

The outlook in Europe looks gloomy as sales in every major country fell in January, according to industry data, with a double-digit drop expected in Britain, Europe’s second-biggest auto market, if there is a disorderly Brexit.

U.S. automaker General Motors has already pulled out of the continent while Ford is conducting a major restructuring.

A recently agreed EU-Japan trade deal also means tariffs on cars from Japan to the bloc will be eliminated, while Britain is struggling to make progress on talks over post-Brexit trade relations with Tokyo.

Honda said this was not part of the decision-making process but its boss said it would benefit from the EU-Japan deal.

Britain’s largest trade union Unite said it would continue to consult with the company and fight to keep the site open, blaming the handling of Brexit for making it harder for companies to keep investing in the country.

“We believe that the uncertainty that the … government has created by its inept and rigid handling of the Brexit negotiations lurks in the background,” said national officer for the automotive sector Des Quinn.

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UK likely to delay Brexit, former EU chief Barroso says

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain is likely to delay Brexit and not leave the European Union in March, former EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said on Tuesday, adding the bloc would likely accept a request to extension to sort out the details of departure.

“I think the most likely scenario is not to do that in March of this year. We need more… preparations,” Barroso, who now serves as a non-executive chairman at Goldman Sachs, told Sky News when asked when if he thought Brexit would happen as currently scheduled on March 29.

“Even if there was a positive deal now, from a practical point of view, it’s obvious that everything is not ready. So I think the right thing to do is to have some extension, and I believe that if the UK demands an extension of Article 50, European Union countries will naturally accept it.”

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