The European Commission launched new legal action against Britain on Wednesday, accusing London of putting peace in Northern Ireland at risk by trying to overhaul the post-Brexit trade deal.
“The UK government tabled legislation confirming its intention to unilaterally break international law,” EU commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic said.
“More precisely to break an agreement that protects peace and stability in Northern Ireland,” he said.
“Opening the door to unilaterally changing an international agreement is a breach of international law, as well. So let’s call a spade a spade. This is illegal.”
On Monday, the British government introduced legislation to rip up post-Brexit trading rules for Northern Ireland, in an attempt to override the EU withdrawal treaty that it had signed.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government insists it is not breaking international law, citing a “necessity” to act to restore Northern Ireland’s power-sharing institutions.
But Brussels rejects this argument, and Sefcovic said that legal action would be taken, with two new cases joining those the commission had suspended.
Sefcovic said the EU would revive a case is launched last year to control the export of certain food products from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
“If the UK doesn’t reply within two months, we may take them to the Court of Justice,” he warned.
“Second, we are launching two new infringements against the UK,” he said, announcing cases that could see the British government brought before the European Court of Justice.
“One for failing to carry out the necessary controls at the border control posts in Northern Ireland by ensuring adequate staffing and infrastructure.
“And one for failing to provide the EU with essential trade statistics data to enable the EU to protect its single market.”
– ‘Grave peril’ –
The cases brought by the EU do not directly tackle the proposed UK legislation, but rather seek to compel Britain to implement the existing agreements.
Johnson’s government has said it would still prefer a negotiated outcome with the European Union to reform the Northern Ireland Protocol.
But it accuses Brussels of failing to engage on its concerns about measures to control goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
Brussels counters that, with Northern Ireland remaining in the EU single market, European law must ultimately apply to goods arriving in the territory.
And Sefcovic says that attempts to negotiate a compromise with Britain within the terms of the agreement Johnson himself hailed and signed have been mate with “radio silence” since February.
The spat comes at a bad time for the UK economy, with inflation at 40-year highs and rising household bills that have left many Britons struggling to make ends meet.
But there are economic headwinds in the European Union too, and warnings that the West must not fall out over trade when trying to present a united front against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said Wednesday’s EU action is “the result of a deliberate UK Government strategy of provocation over partnership”.
“Reckless UK decisions this week have forced the EU into responding to a threatened breach of international law with serious consequences.”
Jonathan Jones, the former head of the UK government legal service scoffed at Number 10’s argument.
Jones resigned after Northern Ireland minister Brandon Lewis admitted that unilaterally breaking the deal would “break international law in a very specific and limited way”.
“The concept of ‘necessity’ is an extremely high test. It applies only where a state must act to safeguard its essential interests against ‘grave and imminent peril’,” Jones said.
“How can an agreement willingly entered into only in 2020, at what the Prime Minister described as a ‘fantastic moment’, be already proving so disastrous as to represent ‘grave peril’ to the country?”
Meanwhile, the Democratic Unionist Party argues the protocol’s creation of an effective border in the Irish Sea jeopardises Northern Ireland’s status in the wider UK.
The pro-British party is boycotting the local government in Belfast until the deal is scrapped or dramatically overhauled, putting at risk the power-sharing agreement that underlies the Northern Ireland peace agreement.
Tanzania targets internet giants with new tax
Tanzania will introduce a digital tax this year, the country’s finance minister said, in a move targeting global internet giants offering services in the East African nation.
The two-percent tax will come into effect in July and follows similar attempts by other countries to force US multinational tech companies to pay at least a portion of their revenues in local tax.
Tanzania’s Minister for Finance and Planning, Mwigulu Nchemba, announced the measure on Tuesday as he presented the nation’s annual budget.
“Tanzania Revenue Authority shall establish a simplified registration process to accommodate digital economy operators who have no presence in Tanzania,” Nchemba told lawmakers.
“This measure is intended to keep pace with rapid growth in the digital economy,” he added.
The tax needs to be approved by Tanzania’s parliament, which will vote on the budget before July.
The tax announcement follows talks in April between officials from the Tanzania Revenue Authority and US social media giant Meta — the parent company to Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.
Nearly 140 countries signed up to a 15-percent global minimum corporate tax last October under the auspices of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Since then more countries, including Turkey and India, have signed up to the deal, which is expected to come into effect in 2023.
The historic agreement aims to put an end to corporations sheltering profits in low-tax haven countries.
Flights resume after computer glitch shuts Swiss airspace
Swiss airspace reopened Wednesday morning after a computer glitch grounded flights across the Alpine nation for several hours, officials said.
“Swiss airspace is now open again,” Swiss air traffic control service Skyguide said in a tweet, adding “the technical malfunction at Skyguide has been resolved”.
It did not say what had caused the problem that shut Swiss airspace for hours Wednesday morning, but said that “air traffic over Switzerland and operations at the national airports of Geneva and Zurich are resuming”.
Those airports too announced that flights had begun taking off.
“Good news! Air traffic has gradually resumed since 8:30 am (0630 GMT),” Geneva airport said in a tweet, warning that a number of flights had been cancelled and urging passengers to check with their airlines.
At the airport, where the first morning flights were delayed by more than three hours, dozens of travellers crowded around the information screens, with phones plastered to their ears.
Zurich airport also said flight operations were “running again”, although flight operations would be at 50-percent capacity until 9:30 am, and 75-percent after that.
“We recommend passengers to pay attention to the flight information of the airline.”
The chaos erupted when Skyguide announced it had “experienced a technical malfunction in the early hours of this morning, which is why Swiss airspace has been closed to traffic for safety reasons”.
It said it regretted “this incident and its consequences for its customers, partners and passengers.”
The Swiss news agency ATS-Keystone said international flights to Switzerland had been re-routed to Milan in northern Italy.
The Zurich airport website meanwhile showed that a United Airlsines flight from New York had been rerouted to Frankfurt in western Germany, while a Singapore Airlines flight from the city state had been sent to the southern German city of Munich.
Zurich is Switzerland’s largest airport, with more than 10.2 million passengers going through its terminals in 2021.
But with Covid restrictions lifted, air traffic has picked up significantly since then, with 1.9 million passengers registered there in May alone.
China’s middle class looks to flee as Covid policies bite
Alan Li no longer sees any future for his family in China after harsh Covid rules decimated his business, upended his son’s education and left his country out of step with the rest of the world.
He has given up hope of a return to normal after months of lockdowns in Shanghai, and now plans to close his firm and move to Hungary, where he sees better opportunities and his 13-year-old son can attend an international school.
“Our losses this year mean that it’s over for us,” he told AFP wearily, asking to withhold his real name.
“We have been using our own cash savings to pay 400 workers (during the lockdown). What if it happens again this winter?”
Shanghai’s long shutdown, which brought food shortages and protests, has driven some to reconsider staying in a country where livelihoods and lifestyles can vanish at the whim of the state.
Schools have been closed and exams called off, including assessments for applying to American universities.
Li is frustrated that his son’s expensive bilingual schooling has been mostly online for two years, and he is anxious about the way Beijing has tightened oversight of the curriculum.
“This is a waste of our children’s youth,” Li said.
Being fairly well off, he has been able to take advantage of a European investment scheme that grants him and his family residency in Budapest.
“Many people know that if they sold all their assets they could ‘lie flat’ in a European country,” he said, using a slang phrase meaning to take it easy.
Beijing-based immigration consultant Guo Shize told AFP his company has seen an explosion of enquiries since March, including a threefold increase in Shanghai clients.
Even after the lockdown eased, requests continued flooding in at more than double the usual level.
“Once that spark has been lit in people’s minds, it doesn’t die down quickly,” he said.
– Exit ban –
Censors have sought to suppress discussion of emigration, prompting nimble internet users to adopt the term “run” instead.
Searches for the term on messaging app WeChat peaked during Shanghai’s shutdown.
But as more people consider ways to leave, Beijing has doubled down on strict exit policies for Chinese citizens.
All “unnecessary” travel out of the country has been banned. Passport renewals have been all but halted, with authorities blaming the risk of Covid being carried into the country.
In the first half of 2021, immigration authorities issued only two percent of the passports given out in the same period in 2019.
One woman who emigrated to Germany told AFP she receives dozens of messages from Chinese people looking for tips on escaping.
Emily, who did not want to use her real name, tried to help a relative obtain a new passport to take up a job in Europe, but the application was denied.
“It’s like being a child who wants to go to their friend’s house to play but their parents won’t let them leave,” she said, adding that she has heard of passports being sold for up to 30,000 yuan ($4,500) on the black market.
– ‘Absolutely insane’ –
A Chinese freelancer told AFP he was turned back by immigration officers while attempting to fly to Turkey for work last October, despite having already checked in.
“My itinerary sounded too suspicious to them. They took my passport into an office and 15 minutes later told me I do not meet the requirements” for leaving, he said on condition of anonymity. “It was absolutely insane.”
He managed to leave weeks later by entering semi-autonomous Macau on a different travel document, before catching an onward flight.
Some are disillusioned with Beijing’s growing controls, which have been ramped up during the pandemic.
“I just want to live in a country where the government won’t crudely interfere in my personal life,” said Lucy, a 20-year-old student at an elite Beijing university involved in LGBTQ and Marxist activism.
The virus policies had “allowed the government to control and monitor everything”, she said.
“Perhaps rather than accepting and adapting to this system, we must go elsewhere and create a new life.”
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