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May to MPs: We need to hold our nerve on Brexit talks | UK News



London, United Kingdom – British Prime Minister Theresa May sought to buy more time to achieve a Brexit deal with the European Union in a statement to MPs on Tuesday. 

Just 45 days to the March 29 Brexit deadline, the prime minister asked for support in her bid to seek changes to the Irish backstop in a vote on Thursday.

The prime minister also said that if there is no deal by February 26, the government will make a statement on that day and table another amendable motion for MPs to vote on the following day.

“The talks are at a crucial stage. We now all need to hold our nerve to get the changes this house requires and deliver Brexit on time,” May said in her statement at the House of Commons.

Britain and the EU agreed last week to hold further talks by the end of the month in an attempt to avoid a no-deal Brexit. 

May is seeking changes to the backstop, the backup mechanism contained in the withdrawal agreement to avoid a hard border in the island of Ireland, after MPs asked her to go back to Brussels to renegotiate it in a vote late last month. 

The EU has remained adamant that no changes would be made to the withdrawal agreement, which together with the political declaration is part of the deal the two sides negotiated over 18 painstaking months.

On January 15, MPs voted it down by 432 votes to 202 in an historic defeat for the prime minister, brought about by opposition to the backstop from within May’s own party. 

Eurosceptic Conservative MPs see the backstop as a way of tying the UK to the EU’s trade rules indefinitely.

A working group comprised of both pro and anti-Brexit Conservative MPs has been discussing possible alternatives.

Of course, Labour want power, they don’t want to be associated with helping May get her Brexit deal through.

Benjamin Martill, Dahrendorf Forum post-doctoral fellow at LSE

May also ruled out the idea of a customs union, which is one of the Labour Party‘s five demands for Brexit, set out by its leader Jeremy Corbyn in a letter to the prime minister last week.

Labour’s demands include a permanent, UK-wide customs union with the EU, close alignment with the single market, guarantees on the protection of workers’ rights, participation in EU agencies and funding programmes, and more guarantees on security arrangements.

Her statement on Tuesday reiterated she was not willing to budge on her red lines, arguing that a customs union would prevent the UK from having its own independent trade policy, and that it would be “a less desirable outcome than that which is provided for in the political declaration.”

According to Benjamin Martill, a Dahrendorf Forum post-doctoral fellow at the London School of Economics researching UK-EU relations, Corbyn has positioned Labour as the “party of the customs union” partly because “it’s a good halfway position” that would gather support from some of those opposed to Brexit who would see it as a better option than May’s plan, and partly “because it crosses the Conservative party’s red lines.”

“Of course, Labour want power, they don’t want to be associated with helping May get her Brexit deal through,” Martill argued, adding that Corbyn’s customs union requirements are “a way of making sure the Tories can’t come around to that position. It’s possibly not surprising that May is not willing to go that far.”

Corbyn faces pressure from some of his own MPs, who want him to push for a second referendum.

But Labour MP Lisa Nandy told the BBC on Monday that 40 to 60 of her colleagues were “actively looking for ways to support” a revised Brexit deal if the prime minister got “serious” about a customs unions and legislation to protect workers’ rights.

In the past, Corbyn repeatedly called for a general election should the prime minister fail to get a deal approved by Parliament.

Meanwhile, the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, said on Monday the bloc was “waiting for clarity and movement from the United Kingdom” as negotiations continued in Brussels.

The EU has ruled out reopening the withdrawal agreement but signalled that changes might be possible to the political declaration that sketches out the UK’s future relationship.

The UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) said on Monday that the economy has seen its weakest growth rate in six years amid Brexit uncertainty and a global economic slowdown.

Business leaders have argued that a no-deal Brexit would spell disaster for the UK’s economy.

“[May] really is hoping to run down the clock,” Martill said, “and I don’t think it is unreasonable to think that when the withdrawal agreement comes back to Parliament, it will get much more support than it did last time.”

There is however still a political impasse, said Martill, adding that while both parties were playing strategically, “it’s quite unlikely to see where all the support for the withdrawal agreement is going to come from.”

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Wallace’s giant bee, world’s largest, refound by scientists | News




The world’s largest bee, which had not been seen by scientists since 1981, has been rediscovered by a team of conservationists and international researchers in a remote part of Indonesia.

The team found the first specimens of Megachile Pluto, an insect commonly known as Wallace’s giant bee that is roughly the size of a human thumb, in the archipelago’s North Moluccas islands last month.

On Thursday, they released images and video of a nest and its queen, saying their find was the “holy grail” of species discoveries.

“Amid such a well-documented global decline in insect diversity, it’s wonderful to discover that this iconic species is still hanging on,” said Simon Robson, a member of the team and professor at the University of Sydney.

Despite its conspicuous size, Wallace’s giant bee had not been observed in the wild since 1981, the Global Wildlife Conservation said. Several previous expeditions to the region where the bee lives failed to spot it.

The announcement reignites hope that more of the region’s forests may be home to this very rare species, said the team, which includes researchers from the University of Sydney, Saint Mary’s University in Canada and Princeton University in the United States.

Female specimens of the bee can reach a length of 3.8 centimetres and have a wingspan of more than six centimetres. Males grow to about 2.3 centimetres.

“It was absolutely breathtaking to see this ‘flying bulldog’ of an insect that we weren’t sure existed anymore,” said Clay Bolt, a natural history photographer, who took the first photos and video of the giant bees alive.

“To see how beautiful and big the species is in real life, to hear the sound of its giant wings thrumming as it flew past my head, was just incredible,” Bolt said. “My dream is to now use this rediscovery to elevate this bee to a symbol of conservation in this part of Indonesia.”

A photomontage showing a living Wallace’s giant bee (right), which is approximately four times larger than a European honeybee [Clay Bolt/Global Wildlife Conservation/AFP]

The insect is named after British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who formulated the theory of evolution by natural selection before Charles Darwin’s published contributions.

Wallace collected the species for the first time in 1858 while exploring the Indonesian island of Bacan.

The bee was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in 1981 by Adam Messer, a US entomologist, who found six nests on the island of Bacan and two other nearby islands. It had not been seen again since.

Eli Wyman, a researcher from Princeton University, said Messer’s find had given some insight, “but we still know next to nothing about this extraordinary insect”.

“I hope this rediscovery will spark research that will give us a deeper understanding of this unique bee and inform any future efforts to protect it from extinction,” Wyman said.

Global Wildlife Conservation, a Texas-based non-profit organisation that runs a Search for Lost Species programme, put Wallace’s giant bee on its list of the “top 25 most wanted lost species”.

Researchers said forest destruction in Indonesia for agriculture, threatens the habitat for this species and many others.

Between 2001 and 2017, Indonesia lost 15 percent of its tree cover, according to Global Forest Watch.

Al Jazeera and news agencies

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US says 200 troops to remain in Syria after forces’ withdrawal | USA News




The United States will leave around 200 troops in Syria for a period of time, the White House has announced, as President Donald Trump pulled back from a complete withdrawal of forces.

In a surprise declaration, Trump in December said the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group had been defeated in Syria and ordered the withdrawal of the 2,000 US soldiers from the war-torn country.

But the president has been under pressure from multiple advisers to adjust his policy, which was fiercely criticised, including by members of his own Republican party. 

Critics have decried a number of possible outcomes from a precipitous withdrawal, including a Turkish attack on US-backed Kurdish forces – Washington’s main ally in the fight against ISIL – and a resurgence of the armed group.

“A small peacekeeping group of about 200 will remain in Syria for a period of time,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a statement.

The decision was announced after Trump spoke by phone to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A White House statement said the two leaders agreed, regarding Syria, to “continue coordinating on the creation of a potential safe zone”.

Turkey wants to set up a safe zone with logistical support from allies and says it should be cleared of the US-backed Kurdish YPG militia, which Ankara considers a “terrorist” group.

US troops withdrawal from Syria ‘will be gradual’ process (1:52)

A senior US administration official said Trump’s decision had been in the works for some time. It was unclear how long the 200 troops would be expected to remain in the area or where exactly they would be deployed.

Leaving even a small group of US troops in Syria could pave the way for European allies to commit hundreds of troops to help set up and observe a potential safe zone in northeast Syria.

“This is a clear direction to our allies and coalition members that we will be on the ground in some capacity,” the senior administration official told Reuters news agency.

On Thursday, acting Pentagon chief Patrick Shanahan met with his counterpart from Belgium. Before the meeting, Didier Reynders, Belgium’s minister of defense, was asked whether he would be open to keeping troops if there were no American forces left.

“We are waiting for preparation of the withdrawal of US troops and we are waiting now for more discussions,” he said.

Until now, European allies have balked at providing troops unless they received a firm commitment that Washington was still committed to the region.

Al Jazeera and news agencies

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China’s shadow looms large over second Trump-Kim summit | China News




Beijing, China – All eyes were on Singapore in June last year as a jumbo jet carrying Kim Jong-un landed on the tarmac of the city-state’s Changi airport, days before the North Korean leader’s landmark summit with US President Donald Trump.

As Kim took his first steps onto Singaporean soil, having completed his longest trip abroad as head of state, those present saw it wasn’t a North Korean airline from which he had just disembarked – but a Chinese one.

Beijing’s loan of the Air China 747 carrier made logistical sense, providing Kim with a much more reliable mode of transport to make the 4,800km trip to Singapore than using his own, decades-old, official aircraft. 

The move, however, was not only practical but also symbolic. Though China – North Korea‘s main ally – was not physically present at the Singapore meeting aimed at reviving stalled nuclear talks, it had an undeniable a role to play in it.

“China’s blessing is important for North Korea,” Tong Zhao, a nuclear-policy fellow at the Beijing-based Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy, told Al Jazeera. Without Chinese support, he added, Pyongyang may fear being “strong-armed into an unfair deal”.

Kim waves from a train in Beijing on January 10, 2019 [KCNA via Reuters]

And now, with another summit between the United States and North Korea set to take place at the end of this month in Vietnam, Beijing’s influence is once again palpable.

China does not want to be pushed aside by the Trump-Kim summit; it wants to have a role in shaping it,” Carlyle Thayer, a security consultant and Emeritus Professor at The University of New South Wales in Australia, said.

Indeed, it was only last month when Kim arrived in Beijing on a bulletproof train at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping, just as speculation over an upcoming second meeting with Trump mounted.

The trip marked the once-reclusive North Korean leader’s fourth summit with Xi over the past year, including his first known diplomatic foray overseas with a visit to the Chinese capital in March 2018, all coming before and after talks with either Trump or South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

“The four visits seem an effort to get them both on the same sheet of music,” Thayer told Al Jazeera. “It indicates some kind of coordination.”

Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un have held four meetings over the past year [KCNA via Reuters]

A strategic partnership

China is North Korea’s largest economic partner, accounting for the vast majority of its trade. Beijing’s support for Pyongyang dates back to the Korean War (1950–1953), when Chinese troops were sent to the Korean Peninsula to aid the North’s forces. Former Chinese leader Mao Zedong once described the relationship between the two countries as “close as lips and teeth”.

But these brotherly ties began to deteriorate when North Korea began missile testing in 2006, before hitting further lows in 2017 after Pyongyang began ramping up its nuclear tests.

“China was very irritated when Kim was firing his ballistic missiles and setting off explosions,” Thayer said. “It brought threats from Trump as trade issues were rising,” he added, referring to a major tariff dispute between the world’s two largest economies.

“It complicated the situation enormously.”

According to Zhao, China’s renewed closeness with North Korea does not stem from “mutual trust” but from “mutual benefit”. He said China’s ultimate goal was denuclearisation on the Korean Peninsula whilst maintaining influence over the region.

“As long as North Korea possesses nuclear weapons, it will be an excuse for South Korea and Japan to continue enhancing their own military capabilities, and for the US to strengthen its alliances in the region and to continue deploying missile defence and other advanced military assets near China’s doorstep,” Zhao added. “That is a major cause for concern in China.”

Cheng Xiaohe, a professor of Korean studies at China’s Renmin University, said Beijing supported the Trump-Kim summit because it saw it as a crucial step towards stability in the region.

“Nuclear issues have been bothering the whole of Northeast Asia,” Cheng told Al Jazeera, adding that China believed a positive outcome would help transform North Korea from “a country that used to be the origin of tensions and wars, to one that’s stable and peaceful”.

101 EAST: North Korea’s Secret Money (25:00)

Economic push

Pyongyang, in turn, sees close ties with Beijing as crucial for its economic development. Chinese support also gives Kim a certain amount of leverage while negotiating for the lifting of international sanctions.

“Putting a stop to the sanctions will be very important,” Cheng said. “If that doesn’t happen, North Korea can never have a real reform and opening up.”

Though China began imposing United Nations sanctions on North Korea in 2017, it hs been careful to maintain its role as an economic lifeline for North Korea – Beijing remains the country’s main source of food and energy.

“China wants to push Kim in the direction of denuclearisation,” said Thayer. “But not squeeze him so badly so that the regime collapses and affects China.”

But for Zhao, there is a deeper reason behind Beijing’s continued assistance: increasing economic interaction with Pyongyang is the only way for China to address the root cause of its nuclear ambition. “North Korea’s nuclear weapons are simply the symptom of the disease,” Zhao said. “The disease itself is actually deep paranoia; its serious threat perception towards the outside world, especially the US.”

Therefore, he added, promoting dialogue with the US and interaction with other countries was, “in the long run, good news for China”.

INSIDE STORY: Is North Korea’s timeline to denuclearise for real? (25:25)

Concrete outcomes

Last time Kim and Trump met on June 12, 2018, in what was the first encounter between a North Korean leader and a sitting US president, millions of people around the world stopped to watch the two leaders’ historic handshake. Only months before, such a moment seemed unthinkable – North Korea had intensified its nuclear testing, prompting threats from the US president to rain down “fire and fury”.

But though the Singapore meeting was high on spectacle, it was low on details, resulting in little tangible progress on denuclearisation.

This time, Cheng said, China would want more concrete results and both countries to reach “a real consensus” in the February 27-28 summit in Hanoi.

“For example, for North Korea to agree to international monitors checking and reporting on its nuclear weapons and facilities; and for the US to agree to partially lift sanctions,” said Cheng.

Failing that, he said Beijing would welcome “lower” or “medium-level” goals, such the halting of weapon development and the dismantling of the Yongbyon nuclear facility, increased economic cooperation with South Korea and an official end to the Korean War.

China does not expect denuclearisation to happen overnight, said Zhao. “North Korea’s leaders still have a very strong incentive to keep their independent nuclear deterrent capability.

“It really requires time for trust to be built between Washington and Pyongyang. Any progress to be made at the second summit is likely to be incremental and limited.”

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