UK’s Embattled May Faces Huge Anti-Brexit March

British Prime Minister Theresa May has told lawmakers she may not seek passage of her troubled Brexit withdrawal plan in Parliament next week.

The embattled leader, who faces a major protest march in central London on Saturday, wrote to lawmakers Friday night saying she would bring the European Union withdrawal back to Parliament if there seems to be enough backing for it to pass.

“If it appears that there is not sufficient support to bring the deal back next week, or the House rejects it again, we can ask for another extension before 12 April, but that will involve holding European Parliament elections,” she said.

May’s changing stance reflects the plan’s dismal chances in the House of Commons after two prior defeats.

She also says she would need the approval of House Speaker John Bercow to bring the plan back for a third time despite his objections. Bercow has said a third vote would violate parliamentary rules unless the plan is altered.

May said in her letter to lawmakers that if the deal is approved, Britain will leave the EU on May 22, a date agreed with EU officials.

Lawmakers have twice rejected the deal and haven’t shown any clear swing toward endorsing it in recent days. Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union on April 12 if no deal is approved.

Pro-Brexit forces are also girding for the possible political impact of a planned march in central London in support of holding a second referendum that would give British voters the option of remaining in the EU despite the 2016 vote in favor of leaving.

The organizers of the “People’s Vote March” predict that one of Britain’s largest-ever protest marches will grip central London. More than 4 million people endorsed an electronic petition this week in favor of revoking Article 50, the act that formally triggered the Brexit process.

The march will conclude outside Parliament, which remains divided over Brexit. No consensus on a way forward has emerged despite weeks of extensive debate.

May told lawmakers in her letter that Britain still has options including an extension that would require taking part in European Parliament elections in May.

She also said Britain could revoke Article 50 but characterized that as a betrayal of the Brexit vote in favor of severing EU ties.

She also said Britain could leave without a deal.

In a conciliatory tone, the prime minister offered to meet with lawmakers to discuss Brexit policy.

She had offended many legislators with a speech Thursday night that seemed to blame Parliament for the stalled Brexit process.

 

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France Tightens Security in 19th Week of Yellow Vest Protests

The French government vowed to strengthen security as yellow vest protesters stage a 19th round of demonstrations, in an effort to avoid a repeat of last week’s riots in Paris.

Authorities banned protests Saturday from the capital’s Champs-Elysees avenue and central areas of several cities including Bordeaux, Toulouse, Marseille and Nice in the south, and Rouen in western France.

 

In Paris, some yellow vests protesters were gathering Saturday morning on Trocadero plaza, next to the Eiffel Tower. Others issued calls for a demonstration from the Denfert-Rochereau plaza, in southern Paris, to tourist hotspot Montmartre in the north.

 

The new Paris police chief, Didier Lallement, who took charge following last week’s protests, said specific police units have been created to react faster to any violence.

 

About 6,000 police officers are deployed in the capital and two drones are helping to monitor the demonstrations.

 

Authorities also deployed soldiers to protect sensitive sites and allow police forces to focus on maintaining order during the protests. 

 

President Emmanuel Macron on Friday dismissed criticism from opposition leaders regarding the involvement of the military. 

 

“Those trying to scare people, or to scare themselves, are wrong,” he said in Brussels.

 

The French government announced new security measures this week and replaced the Paris police chief with Lallement following riots on the Champs-Elysees that left luxury stores ransacked and charred from arson fires.

 

Last week’s surge in violence came as the 4-month-old anti-government movement has been dwindling. 

The protests started in November to oppose fuel tax hikes but have expanded into a broader rejection of Macron’s economic policies, which protesters say favor businesses and the wealthy over ordinary French workers.

 

The yellow vest movement was named after the fluorescent garments that French motorists must carry in their vehicles for emergencies.

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Architect’s Solution to Housing Shortage is Pre-Fab Homes

There is a housing crisis in many parts of the developed world. Low-cost housing is disappearing, rents and mortgages are going up, and that’s slowly destroying the middle-class dream of owning a home. But one British architect is showing off a simple way to solve the problem. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.

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Hungary Under Fire as US Pledges Support for NGOs, Media

European allies of the outspoken Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban have taken the rare step of suspending his Fidesz party from their center-right alliance in Brussels, citing concerns over the rule of law and attacks on European Union officials. However, the European People’s Party (EPP) stopped short of expelling the party.

Fidesz campaign slogans for the upcoming European Parliament elections feature personal attacks on the head of the EU Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, and the U.S.-based financier George Soros. Prime Minister Orban accuses them of conspiring to force Hungary to accept mass migration.

His spokesman Zoltán Kovács told VOA in a recent interview that the suspension will not change the government’s course.

“If it’s about the fundamental issues, that is migration, the defense of European Christian values, we are not ready to compromise,” Kovács said.

Democracy at risk

It is the fundamental issues of democracy that Hungary’s Western allies accuse the government of putting at risk.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Budapest last month and pledged to increase American engagement in the region. Before his meeting with Orban, he held talks with several non-governmental organizations, among them the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union. The group’s Stefania Kapronczay was at the meeting.

“It was very important both symbolically, and it was a message about democracy,” she told VOA.

The U.S. State Department pledged support for Hungarian NGOs and free media, though no further details have been released. Kovács says the government is unimpressed.

“We don’t believe that we shall be giving lectures and tell other people actually and other countries how to behave. And that’s what we expect from our allies. NGOs are not entitled to participate in political decision-making. That has never been an assignment for them. And there is no democratic mandate behind it.”

Changing EU

Such a position is part of the government’s attempt to stifle criticism and shut down debate, Kapronczay argues.

“The Hungarian government systematically demolishes the rule of law, independent institutions. And the system of checks and balances where government power can be controlled is basically nonexistent in the country. Basically, anyone who dissents or who dares to criticize the government faces stigmatization through the media and press statements from government officials.”

The Fidesz party’s suspension from the EPP will weaken its hand in Brussels. However, the Orban government believes things will change after the May elections.

“We all know, everyone knows in the European political sphere, that the political arithmetic in Europe is going to change,” Kovács said.

That could see Hungary team up with like-minded far right parties in countries like Italy, Poland and France, a move that would reshape the power dynamics of Brussels.

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Hungary Under Fire From Allies as US Pledges Support for Free Media

European allies of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban have suspended his party from their center-right alliance in Brussels, citing concerns over the rule of law and attacks on EU leaders. It follows a pledge by the United States to support free media and civil society groups in Hungary, who say they are under attack from the government. Orban has refuted such claims and hopes the European Parliament elections in May change the power dynamics of the bloc. Henry Ridgwell reports.

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UNESCO Campaign Tackles Racism 

The Paris-based U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization on Thursday launched a campaign to fight prejudice. The move coincided with International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Begun with the French city of Bordeaux, the UNESCO billboard campaign features a variety of faces — old and young, men and women, and of many ethnic backgrounds. The tagline, “us different?” aims to make us think about who we are, and our prejudices.

 

“You would walk by it and hopefully react. … [Is that] person on the screen different?” said Magnus Magnusson, partnerships and outreach director at UNESCO’s social and human science division.

Mindful of stereotypes

“Ultimately, it’s about our own awareness of our own stereotypes, and we need to work, each one of us, on those stereotypes that could illustrate or be reflections on racism,” he said.

The campaign rollout comes at a time when experts say brazen forms of racism are resurging — in sports, on social media and in politics.

The initiative follows last week’s mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, in which a self-proclaimed white nationalist opened fire on worshippers at two mosques. Fifty people were killed. The suspect has been charged with murder.  

 

Migration is one factor behind the increase in racist incidents, experts say, but so is the power of social media in spreading and enforcing stereotypes.

 

Activists are fighting back. A round-table hosted by UNESCO featured imaginative ways to counter prejudice, including through chess. 

 

Cameroonian artist Gaspard Njock fights it with his pen. He’s the author of comic books and graphic novels sold in bookstores across France. 

Versatile medium

 

Njock said comics can be a powerful tool to fight racism, because it’s a medium that reaches all types of people and can tackle important themes. 

 

One of Njock’s graphic novels, Un voyage sans retour, is about the dangerous migration of sub-Saharan migrants to Europe. Njock arrived in Europe several years ago, making his way to France after a few years in Italy. 

Njock said he never considered himself a victim of racism — not because he never encountered it, but because he developed ways to fight it.

Magnusson of UNESCO said education is key to wiping out racism. So is being more aware of how we think and feel.

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Netherlands Shooting Suspect to Face Murder Charges With Terrorist Intent

Dutch prosecutors said Thursday they will charge the suspect in this week’s deadly tram shooting in the city of Utrecht with multiple murder charges with terrorist intent.

Prosecutors believe Turkish-born Gokmen Tanis acted alone Monday when he allegedly killed three people and seriously wounded three others.

Prosecutors and police said in a statement they are still investigating whether the 37-year-old suspect “acted out of a single terrorist motive or whether from personal problems in combination with radicalized ideas.”

The suspect was arrested after an eight-hour search that virtually closed the city. Police later arrested a fourth suspect and are trying to determine “whether this suspect played a supporting role in the shooting.”

Tanis is scheduled to attend a closed-door court hearing on Friday. Prosecutors also said Tanis will undergo a psychological examination.

 

 

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As Brexit Clock Ticks, May Appeals to EU for Delay

British Prime Minister Theresa May is trying Thursday to persuade European Union leaders in Brussels to approve a three-month extension, giving Britain more time to figure out how exactly it will leave the EU.

The other 27 EU members must approve any Brexit delay beyond the original March 29 deadline. A vote is not likely to take place until next week.

Before May traveled to make her case in person at Thursday’s EU meeting, she made her request in a letter to EU Council President Donald Tusk.

But Tusk says such a short-term extension can only happen if Britain’s parliament votes in the next week to approve the divorce terms that British and EU negotiators reached after two years of talks.

British lawmakers have shown little enthusiasm for that deal, rejecting it by large margins in two votes. The speaker of the House of Commons has also said a third vote should not take place on procedural grounds.

May said in an address Wednesday night that lawmakers now have the choice to either support her deal or have Britain go forward with Brexit without any terms in place for its separation from the European Union.

Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn also traveled to Brussels for his own talks with EU officials in an attempt to find support for allowing parliament, and not May, to figure out an alternative path forward.

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Crimea Marks 5 Years of Russian Annexation as Western Sanctions Bite

Residents and officials in Crimea have been staging events this week to mark the fifth anniversary of Russia’s forceful annexation of the region from Ukraine.

The United States and its allies imposed wide-ranging sanctions on Moscow following the invasion. Analysts say the economic impact is denting approval ratings for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Thousands of heavily armed fighters, dubbed “little green men” for their anonymous uniforms, stormed Ukrainian military installations and government buildings in February 2014. The fighters were clearly backed by Russia, but Moscow denied involvement.

On March 16, 2014, the new de facto authorities staged a referendum in which they claimed more than 95 percent of voters chose to return Crimea to Russian control. Putin hailed the annexation.

“After a hard, long, tiring trip, Crimea and Sevastopol are returning to their home port, to their native shore, homeward, to Russia,” Putin said in a ceremony in Moscow’s Red Square five years ago to mark the annexation, just weeks after the country hosted athletes from around the world at the Sochi Winter Olympics.

 

WATCH: Crimea Marks Anniversary of Russian Annexation

Putin returned to Crimea this week and praised the progress made.

New power stations have been built. A new bridge links Crimea to the Russian mainland, its limited height restricts shipping into Ukrainian ports. A rail service is to begin this year.

Crimea residents appear supportive.

“Well, it’s all good. Giant construction sites everywhere, you can see that,” one resident told VOA this month.

​Political cost

In the aftermath of the Crimean invasion, Putin’s approval ratings soared. They are now falling fast.

The U.S., Europe and several allies imposed economic sanctions in Moscow. Russian political analyst Maria Lipman said the economic noose has tightened.

“The Crimea syndrome, or Crimea consensus, is wearing out quite visibly,” Lipman said. “The announcement of the pension reform, and the raise of the retirement age, was a trigger when people began to realize — not that they hadn’t realized before — but they really began to feel that things were not right.”

Ukraine is about to hold presidential elections. The leading candidates have pledged to continue Kyiv’s path toward European Union and NATO membership. 

So, could Putin attempt further military action? Unlikely, said Vladislav Inozemtsev, director of the Moscow-based Center for Post-Industrial Studies.

“Russian politics is much exhausted with Ukraine. I definitely exclude any kind of military intervention, the closure of the Azov Sea, or military provocations in Donbas,” he said.

The U.S. and the European Union said this week that Crimea will always be considered part of Ukraine.

Critics say the West’s failure to confront Russia more robustly in 2014 led to Moscow’s intervention in other conflicts, including in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine and in Syria.

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Juncker: EU Unlikely to Decide This Week on Brexit Extension

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said Wednesday the European Union is not open to further negotiations on Britain’s exit from the bloc and is unlikely to decide this week whether to give Britain an extension on its March 29 deadline.

British Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to send a letter to EU leaders to ask for a delay to give her government and parliament more time to agree on how exactly the divorce should take place.

So far, Britain’s House of Commons has emphatically rejected the terms British and EU negotiators reached after two years of talks, and has also signaled an objection to proceeding with no deal in place.

The BBC reported Wednesday that according to a Downing Street official, May’s request will be for a short delay, not a long one.

Juncker told Germany’s Deutschlandfunk radio that May needs to show the EU some more clarity about Britain’s plans in order to win an extension, which must be approved by all of the other EU members.

“There will be no renegotiations, no new negotiations and no additional assurances on top of the additional assurances we have already given,” he said.

May sought to have another parliament vote on her proposed terms for leaving the EU, but House of Commons Speaker John Bercow ruled this week that the prime minister cannot keep asking lawmakers to vote on a proposal they have already rejected.

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Ukraine’s Night Train to the Front Lines

Ukraine is gearing up for presidential elections at the end of this month, a vote that holds huge implications for a country still at war with Russian-backed separatists. There are other issues on the agenda too – not least getting around this vast country. The dilapidated infrastructure means long night trains are the only practical transport. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell jumped on board to chat with some of the passengers heading east.

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Brexit in Crisis as PM May Plots Course Around Speaker’s Obstruction

Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plans were in disarray on Tuesday as her government sought to plot a way around the  speaker of parliament’s ruling that she had to change her twice-defeated divorce deal to put it to a third vote.

After two-and-a-half years of negotiations, Britain’s departure from the European Union remains uncertain – with options including a long postponement, leaving with May’s deal, an economically disruptive exit without a deal, or even another membership referendum.

Speaker John Bercow blindsided May’s office on Monday by ruling the government could not put the same Brexit deal to another vote in parliament unless it was substantially different to the ones defeated on Jan. 15 and March 12.

Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay said the ruling meant a vote this week on May’s deal was more unlikely but said ministers were studying a way out of the impasse and indicated the government still planned a third vote on May’s deal.

“This is a moment of crisis for our country,” Barclay said.

“The ruling from the speaker has raised the bar and I think that makes it more unlikely the vote will be this week.”

“We always said that in terms of bringing a vote back for a third time we would need to see a shift from parliamentarians in terms of the support – I think that still is the case.”

May is due at an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday at which she will ask for a delay to the March 29 Brexit departure set in law as the British government tries to come up with a way to leave the European Union after 46 years of membership.

EU leaders could hold off making a final decision at that summit on any Brexit delay depending on what exactly May asks them for, senior diplomats in the bloc said.

“Now it looks like we have to wait till the week after the council to find out what happens,” one diplomat said.

Speaker’s spanner

Bercow said his ruling, based on a convention dating back to 1604, should not be considered his last word and the government could bring forward a new proposition that was not the same as those already voted upon.

Because May must now spice any deal with additional legal and procedural innovation, Bercow’s ruling means she is likely to get just one more chance to put the deal to a vote.

Barclay, who last week said Britain should be unafraid of a no-deal exit, indicated the government was looking at different options and that circumstances, such an extension or a shift in support, would indicate a change in context.

“The speaker himself has pointed to possible solutions, he himself has said in earlier rulings we should not be bound by precedent,” Barclay said. “You can have the same motion but where the circumstances have changed.”

“The speaker himself has said that where the will of the House is for a certain course of action, then it is important that the will of the House is respected.”

Third vote?

Even before Bercow’s intervention, May was scrambling to rally support for her deal – which keeps close trading ties with the EU while leaving the bloc’s formal structures – after it was defeated by 230 votes in parliament on Jan. 15, and by 149 votes on March 12.

To get her deal through parliament, May must win over at least 75 lawmakers – dozens of rebels in her own Conservative Party, some Labour lawmakers, and the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which props up her minority government.

The biggest issue is the so-called Northern Irish border backstop, an insurance policy aimed at avoiding post-Brexit controls on the United Kingdom’s border with EU-member Ireland.

Many Brexiteers and the DUP are concerned the backstop will trap the United Kingdom in the EU’s orbit indefinitely, and have sought guarantees it will not.

The Financial Times said May had been told by senior colleagues she will have to set a timetable for her departure if she is to persuading many rebels to support her deal.

Barclay ruled out May asking Queen Elizabeth to cut short the entire parliamentary session, known as prorogation, saying involving the 92-year-old monarch in Brexit was a bad idea.

“The one thing everyone would agree on is that involving Her Majesty in any of the issues around Brexit is not the way forward, so I don’t see that a realistic option,” he said.

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