London, Sep 19 (AP/UNB) — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was accused by one of the country's former leaders of obstructing Parliament by shutting down the legislature for five weeks, as a landmark Brexit case at the U.K. Supreme Court came to a head on Thursday.
Meanwhile, the European Union and Britain announced new talks on an elusive divorce deal, even as they squabbled over whether or not the U.K. had brought any new ideas to the table.
The U.K.'s top court must decide whether Johnson broke the law by sending lawmakers home just weeks before the country is due to leave the EU on Oct. 31. At the end of a three-day hearing the court's president, Brenda Hale, said the 11 judges would give their ruling early next week.
Opponents of the government claim Johnson shut Parliament until Oct. 14 to prevent lawmakers scrutinizing his plan to take Britain out of the EU at the end of next month, with or without a divorce deal. They also accuse the prime minister of misleading Queen Elizabeth II, whose formal approval was needed to suspend the legislature.
"The remedy that we seek is a declaration that the prime minister's advice to Her Majesty was unlawful," said David Pannick, lawyer for one of the campaigners challenging the government.
The challengers are being backed by John Major, who was Britain's prime minister between 1990 and 1997 — and, like Johnson, is a Conservative.
Major's lawyer, Edward Garnier, told the court that it was an "inescapable" conclusion that Johnson had shut down the legislature to stop lawmakers blocking his Brexit plans.
A written submission on behalf of Major said Johnson had failed to provide a sworn statement explaining the reasons for suspending Parliament, and argued that "his failure or refusal to do so is conspicuous."
Major said the inescapable conclusion was that "the decision was in fact substantially motivated by a desire to obstruct Parliament from interfering with the prime minister's plans."
The government says the suspension is routine and not motivated by Brexit, and argues that judges should not interfere in political decisions for fear of upsetting the constitutional balance of powers between legislature, executive and judiciary.
Government lawyer Richard Keen said the government's opponents were "inviting the courts into forbidden territory and into what is essentially a minefield."
Hale, the most senior judge, agreed that "none of this is easy."
She said the court would give its answer "as soon as it humanly can" and was aiming for early next week.
If the court rules that the suspension was illegal, Johnson could be forced to call lawmakers back to Parliament immediately.
It's not clear what they would do there, since there is no business scheduled. But lawmakers could use the time to pass new laws aimed at directing the course of Brexit. It already did so just before it was suspended, legislating that the government must seek a three-month delay of Brexit if it can't get a divorce deal by late October.
Johnson says he will not seek a delay under any circumstances, though it's not clear how he could avoid it.
Losing the court case would be a new blow for Johnson, who is battling to fulfill his pledge to lead Britain out of the EU on the scheduled date of Oct. 31 come what may.
Johnson insists he is working hard to get an agreement with the EU that will ensure a smooth departure. EU leaders are skeptical of that claim, saying the U.K. has not produced any concrete proposals.
Finland's Prime Minister Antti Rinne warned that "it's all over" if Britain doesn't come up with solid new Brexit proposals by the end of the month.
"If the U.K. wants to discuss alternatives to the existing exit agreement, then these must be presented before the end of the month," Rinne said after meeting French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Wednesday.
Finland currently holds the rotating presidency of the 28-nation bloc.
Britain says it has not revealed detailed proposals because they would likely leak, to the detriment of negotiations. But the government insisted Thursday it has sent "confidential technical non-papers which reflect the ideas the U.K. has been putting forward." Non-papers are documents intended for discussion, rather than formal proposals.
The British government said in a statement it would not meet an "artificial deadline" but would make formal submissions "when we are ready."
The EU confirmed it has received new documents from Britain relating to ways of maintaining an open border between EU member Ireland and the U.K.'s Northern Ireland — the key sticking point to a deal.
Britain has suggested implementing what it calls "alternative arrangements" — a mix of technology to replace border checks and a common area for agricultural products and animals covering the whole island of Ireland.
European Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva said the two sides would hold "technical discussions" on Thursday, followed by a meeting between EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and Britain's chief Brexit minister Steve Barclay on Friday.
Barclay insisted that the six weeks until Oct. 31 were "sufficient for a deal" if both sides provided "creative and flexible solutions."
"A rigid approach now at this point is no way to progress a deal and the responsibility sits with both sides to find a solution," he said during a visit to Madrid.
Berlin, Sep 10 (AP/UNB) — Officials say one person has died and 19 more have been injured in a fire at a hospital in the western German city of Duesseldorf.
City authorities said Tuesday that the fire broke out late Monday at Duesseldorf's Marienhospital.
A 77-year-old man died at the scene.
Duesseldorf fire service spokesman Christopher Schuster said seven people suffered serious injuries from smoke inhalation, four of them life-threatening.
The cause of the fire is being investigated.
London, Sep 10 (AP/UNB) — The simmering showdown between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Britain's Parliament over Brexit came to a head as lawmakers delivered three defeats to the government's plans for leaving the European Union, before being sent home early Tuesday for a contentious five-week suspension of the legislature.
In a session that ran well past midnight, Parliament enacted a law to block a no-deal Brexit next month, ordered the government to release private communications about its Brexit plans and rejected Johnson's call for a snap election to break the political deadlock.
Parliament was then suspended — or prorogued— at the government's request until Oct. 14, a drastic move that gives Johnson a respite from rebellious lawmakers as he plots his next move.
Opponents accuse him of trying to avoid democratic scrutiny. What is usually a solemn, formal prorogation ceremony erupted into raucous scenes as opposition lawmakers in the House of Commons chamber shouted "Shame on you" and held up signs reading "Silenced."
Commons Speaker John Bercow expressed his displeasure at Parliament's suspension, saying "this is not a standard or normal prorogation."
"It's one of the longest for decades and it represents an act of executive fiat," he said.
The prime minister has had a turbulent week since Parliament returned from its summer break on Sept. 3. He kicked 21 lawmakers out of the Conservative group in Parliament after they sided with the opposition, and saw two ministers quit his government — one of them his own brother.
Parliament's suspension ended a day of blows to the embattled Johnson. First an opposition-backed measure designed to stop Britain from crashing out of the EU on Oct. 31 without a divorce deal became law after receiving the formal assent of Queen Elizabeth II. The law compels the government to ask the EU for a three-month delay if no deal has been agreed by Oct. 19.
Johnson says the country's delayed exit must happen at the end of October, with or without a divorce agreement to smooth the way. But many lawmakers fear a no-deal Brexit would be economically devastating, and are determined to stop him.
"I will not ask for another delay," Johnson said. But he has few easy ways out of it. His options — all of them extreme — include disobeying the law, which could land him in court or even prison, and resigning so that someone else would have to ask for a delay.
Legislators also demanded the government release, by Wednesday, emails and text messages among aides and officials relating to suspending Parliament and planning for Brexit amid allegations that the suspension is being used to circumvent democracy.
Under parliamentary rules, the government is obliged to release the documents.
In a statement, the government said it would "consider the implications of this vote and respond in due course."
Then, early Tuesday, lawmakers rebuffed, for a second time, Johnson's request for an early election, which he said was "the only way to break the deadlock in the House."
Opposition parties voted against the measure or abstained, denying Johnson the two-thirds majority he needed. They want to make sure a no-deal departure is blocked before agreeing to an election.
"We're eager for an election, but as keen as we are we, we are not prepared to inflict the disaster of a no deal on our communities, our jobs, our services, or indeed our rights," Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said.
Johnson acknowledged Monday that a no-deal Brexit "would be a failure of statecraft" for which he would be partially to blame.
On a visit to Dublin, Johnson said he would "overwhelmingly prefer to find an agreement" and believed a deal could be struck by Oct. 18, when leaders of all 28 EU countries hold a summit in Brussels.
The comments marked a change of tone, if not substance, for Johnson, who is accused by opponents of driving Britain at full-tilt toward a cliff-edge Brexit.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar warned Johnson that "there's no such thing as a clean break," and if Britain crashed out, it would "cause severe disruption for British and Irish people alike."
Johnson and Varadkar said they had "a positive and constructive meeting," but there was no breakthrough on the issue of the Irish border, the main stumbling block to a Brexit deal.
The EU says Britain has not produced any concrete proposals for replacing the contentious "backstop," a provision in the withdrawal agreement reached by Johnson's predecessor Theresa May that is designed to ensure an open border between EU member Ireland and the U.K.'s Northern Ireland.
An open border is crucial to the regional economy and underpins the peace process that ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.
Opposition to the backstop was a key reason Britain's Parliament rejected May's Brexit deal with the EU three times earlier this year. British Brexit supporters oppose the backstop because it locks Britain into EU trade rules to avoid customs checks, something they say will stop the U.K. from striking new trade deals with countries such as the United States.
Varadkar said he was open to any alternatives that were "legally workable," but none had been received so far.
"In the absence of agreed alternative arrangements, no backstop is no deal for us," he said.
Meanwhile, Bercow, whose control of business in the House of Commons has made him a central player in the Brexit drama, announced he would step down after a decade in the job.
The colorful speaker, famous for his loud ties and even louder cries of "Order!" during raucous debates, told lawmakers he will quit the same day Britain is due to leave the EU, Oct. 31.
Throughout the three years since Britain voted to leave the EU, Bercow has angered the Conservative government by repeatedly allowing lawmakers to seize control of Parliament's agenda to steer the course of Brexit.
He said he was simply fulfilling his role of being the "backbenchers' backstop" and letting Parliament have its say.
"Throughout my time as speaker, I have sought to increase the relative authority of this legislature, for which I will make absolutely no apology," he said.
Rome, Sep 7 (AP/UNB) — Who would have bet that two soaring stars of European politics would have gambled so badly on strategic power plays?
Both British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Italian right-wing politician Matteo Salvini found themselves in corners this week, each in his own way having lost bets that their popularity would carry the day.
Instead, analysts and fellow politicians say, both men badly miscalculated the crucial role of democratic institutions like parliament in the age of populist politics and underestimated the time-tested tactic of bitter enemies ganging up together in countermoves.
"They confused their popularity with power, and they thought because of their popularity they would be able to ram through their plans," said Wolfango Piccoli, an analyst and co-president of Teneo intelligence, based in London.
The circumstances for each leader in these waning weeks of summer are decidedly different.
In London, the unpredictable Johnson is still in power, although his gambit to sideline Parliament in his iron-clad determination to ensure Britain exits the European Union on Oct. 31 backfired. Over in Rome, while trying to trigger early elections so he could become premier, firebrand Salvini lost his two powerful coalition posts, as virulently anti-migrant interior minister and as deputy premier in Italy's first all-populist government.
In Johnson's case, faced by a feisty Parliament, where he enjoyed only the slimmest of working majorities, he took a gamble in late August. The prime minister declared that Parliament would be suspended for weeks in the crucial run-up to the Brexit deadline. But Johnson's strategy only ended up uniting lawmakers, with the rebels including 21 lawmakers from his own Conservative Party. His move cost him his working majority and left his Brexit strategy in tatters.
One of the lawmakers who was suspended from the Conservative group in Parliament this week after voting against Johnson's government blamed the prime minister's mistake on hiring as key advisers those who ran the successful "leave" campaign in the 2016 referendum on EU membership. But those advisers have scant experience in working with Parliament.
"Just maybe they thought they could win over Parliament and they can succeed if they ran things like a campaign," lawmaker Alistair Burt said. "You can't. It's a misjudgment."
Salvini was riding high, after his nationalist League party triumphed in European Parliament elections in May. Advisers pressed him to pull his League from Premier Giuseppe Conte's then barely year-old coalition, confident the Italian president would dissolve Parliament and set elections this fall.
Instead, Salvini spent much of the summer basking in his own glory, working crowds of adoring vacationers at seaside resorts. Back in Rome, in trattorie and party backrooms, his political rivals, the opposition Democrats and the League's ill-matched coalition partner, the 5-Star Movement, were strategizing to keep him from power.
"If you are on the beach, getting mojitos and selfies left and right, and everyone's thanking you for stopping the invasion of Africans, you feel you're some kind of Superman who can do anything," said Franco Pavoncello, professor of political history and president of John Cabot University in Rome. The reference to Africans reflects the contention by Salvini, and much of his voter base, that migrants cause crime and rob work from Italians.
During his "wild, two-week vacation," Salvini "lost touch with reality to some extent, political reality," said John Harper, a history professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna.
When Salvini did make his move, yanking his party from Conte's coalition, it proved to be too late. The 5-Stars, co-founded by caustic comic Beppe Grillo, and the Democrats, whose powerbrokers include wily former Premier Matteo Renzi, then cut a deal.
Blindsided, Salvini seemed shocked that Conte on Wednesday formed his second government, again with the 5-Stars but this time with the Democrats while the League is banished to Parliament's opposition ranks. Until nearly the end, Salvini desperately lobbied the 5-Stars to again govern with his League.
"It would have been hard for him to have believed that Renzi and Grillo, bitter enemies, would get together and turn out to be more Machiavellian and more ruthless than anyone expected," Harper said.
Used to getting his way, Salvini cried foul. But President Sergio Mattarella reminded the nation that in a parliamentary democracy what matters is whether a coalition commands a working majority in the legislature.
Still, "I'm not sure it is the role of Parliament itself that they didn't take into account," Harper said. "In both cases, they seemed to underestimate the capacity of their opponents to thwart them and to unite."
Johnson at times has used populist tactics, such as claiming that out-of-touch politicians are trying to defy the will of the people on Brexit. He is known for surprises and still may win a national election if one is held.
"By Christmas, things can be looking good for him, he could be looking like a strategic genius," Harper said. But Salvini "has definitely lost this round," with the new coalition motivated to banish the specter of early elections.
Ultimately, said the London-based Piccoli, "you can do very well in opinion polls, but there are rules, there are institutions that need to be taken into consideration."
London, Sept 6 (AP/UNB) — Britain's opposition parties said Friday that they won't support Prime Minister Boris Johnson's call for an election when the issue gets voted on next week, piling more pressure on Britain's embattled leader.
The parties have been mulling whether to agree to Johnson's plan for a mid-October election, which can only be triggered if two-thirds of lawmakers agree.
Johnson already lost a vote on the same question this week, but plans to try again Monday, saying an election is the only way to break the country's deadlock over Brexit.
Opponents don't want to endorse the election unless they can ensure Johnson can't take Britain out of the European Union as scheduled on Oct. 31 without a divorce agreement in place, as he has threatened to do so.
After discussions Friday, opposition lawmakers said they would not back an election until the government asked the EU to delay Brexit. Johnson said Thursday he would "rather be dead in a ditch" than do that.
The parties said they would either vote against Johnson's motion or abstain on Monday.
Parliament is in the midst of passing an opposition-backed law that would compel the Conservative government to seek a Brexit postponement if no deal is agreed by late October. The bill is likely to become law by Monday, and many pro-EU lawmakers want to hold off on triggering an election until it is set in stone, fearing Johnson will try to wriggle out of the commitment.
"I do not trust the prime minister to do his duty," said Liz Saville Roberts, leader of the Welsh party Plaid Cymru.
She said lawmakers needed to be sitting in Parliament in late October, rather than on the campaign trail, to ensure Britain does not crash out of the EU.
"In the short time we need to make sure that we get past the 31st of October," she said.
Johnson became prime minister in July after promising Conservatives that he would complete Brexit and break the impasse that has paralyzed Britain's politics since voters decided in June 2016 to leave the bloc and which brought down his predecessor, Theresa May.
After only six weeks in office, however, his plans to lead the U.K. out of the EU are in crisis. The EU refuses to renegotiate the deal it struck with May, which has been rejected three times by Britain's Parliament.
Johnson's push to leave the EU by Halloween even if there is no divorce deal to smooth the way, is facing stiff opposition, both in Parliament and in the courts. Most economists say a no-deal Brexit would cause severe economic disruption and plunge the U.K. into recession.
On Friday, Britain's High Court rejected a claim that Johnson is acting unlawfully in suspending Parliament for several weeks ahead of the country's scheduled departure from the EU.
Johnson enraged his opponents by announcing he would send lawmakers home at some point next week until Oct. 14, just over two weeks before Britain is due to leave the EU. Critics accused him of subverting democracy and carrying out a "coup."
Transparency campaigner Gina Miller took the government to court, arguing the suspension was an "unlawful abuse of power."
A panel of three High Court judges ruled against her, but said the case can be appealed to the Supreme Court, which has set a hearing for Sept. 17.
Outside court, Miller said she was disappointed with the ruling but "pleased that the judges have given us permission to appeal to the Supreme Court."
"To give up now would be a dereliction of our responsibility," she said. "We need to protect our institutions. It is not right that they should be shut down or bullied, especially at this momentous time in our history."