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Boris Johnson’s ‘Australian-style deal’ is ‘code for no-deal’, EU trade chief says

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An “Australian-style” Brexit trade deal suggested by Boris Johnson as an option in talks with the EU is just “code for no-deal”, the bloc’s trade commissioner has said.

Commissioner Phil Hogan noted that there was no existing free trade agreement between Australia and the EU – a fact the prime minister neglected to mention in his speech.

Boris Johnson said the choice in talks was between a trading relationship with the EU “comparable to Canada’s” or “more like Australia’s”.

But asked about the phrase after a speech at a think-tank in Brussels this week, Mr Hogan, Ireland’s EU commissioner, said: “We do not have an agreement with Australia. I think that’s code for no deal.”

Speaking earlier in the week, Mr Johnson rejected suggestions that the UK would be heading for a no-deal if it failed to secure a trade deal by the end of the transition period.

“In the very unlikely event that we do not succeed, then our trade will have to be based on our existing withdrawal agreement with the EU,” he said. The withdrawal agreement includes no provisions to govern trade in the long term, other than across the border in Ireland.

Mr Johnson went on: “The choice is emphatically not ‘deal or no-deal’. The question is whether we agree a trading relationship with the EU comparable to Canada’s – or more like Australia’s.”

Under the “Australia” scenario, the UK would end up paying tariffs and having quotas imposed on its imports and exports with the EU. 

Under an agreement mirroring the Canadian deal with the EU, a relatively hard Brexit, there would also be tariffs and quotas – though fewer. 

There are currently no tariffs and quotas during the transition period, under which the UK stays aligned to EU rules until the end of 2020. 

Mr Johnson’s official spokesman denied that an Australian-style arrangement would amount to a “no-deal Brexit”.

Referring to the withdrawal agreement passed last month – which settled a limited number of “divorce” arrangements but did not address the issues of trade, tariffs or quotas which remain to be finalised – the spokesman said: “We have a deal. That conversation is over.”

The spokesman claimed that Australia’s relations with the EU amounted to a “deal” because Canberra has 29 bilateral agreements with Brussels, but was unable to say whether failure on Mr Johnson’s part to negotiate a comparable set of agreements would constitute no-deal.

He declined to say whether any businesses currently undertaking no-deal preparations should abandon them, saying only: “Businesses should prepare for life outside the customs union and single market.”

European Commissioner for Trade Phil Hogan (EPA)

Mr Johnson has rejected staying in the single market and customs union long term so that UK can ditch EU regulations and sign trade deals with other countries. 

However, the UK is expected to lose access to the trade deals with other countries it gets from EU membership. 

The main battleground of EU negotiations is expected to be the extent to which the UK signs up to Brussels’ regulations in exchange for market access with its largest neighbour.

Speaking at the Centre for European Reform on Tuesday Mr Hogan also warned that “the Brexit debate has been a tyranny over British public life for the last three years”. 

But the Irish commissioner said basic decisions had yet to be made by the UK government, such as “What are you Brexiting from and what are you Brexiting to?”. 

He went on to suggest that British people needed to “stay awake” to hold their government to account.

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China says US has ‘manufactured and spread panic’ with ‘excessive’ response to coronavirus

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China has accused the United States of “manufacturing” panic over a fast-spreading coronavirus with travel restrictions and evacuations, as Chinese stocks plunged on the first day back from the extended Lunar New Year holiday.

The death toll in China from the newly identified virus, which emerged in Wuhan, rose to 361 on Sunday, up 57 from the previous day, the National Health Commission said.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) last week declared the flu-like virus a global emergency and it has since spread to 23 other countries and regions, with the first death outside of China reported on Sunday; that of a 44-year-old Chinese man who died in the Philippines after travelling from Wuhan.

Wuhan and some other cities remain in virtual lockdown, with travel severely restricted, and China is facing increasing international isolation.

China accused the United States of spreading fear by pulling its nationals out and restricting travel instead of offering significant aid. Relations between the two sides had just begun to recover after a long and bruising trade war.

Washington has “unceasingly manufactured and spread panic”, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told reporters, noting that the WHO had advised against trade and travel curbs.

“It is precisely developed countries like the United States, with strong epidemic prevention capabilities and facilities, that have taken the lead in imposing excessive restrictions contrary to WHO recommendations,” she added, saying countries should make reasonable, calm and science-based judgements.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, speaking in Geneva, again said travel bans were unnecessary.

“There is no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade,” he told the WHO’s executive board.

“We call on all countries to implement decisions that are evidence-based and consistent.”

China’s delegate said the international community needed to treat the new virus outbreak objectively, fairly and not “deliberately create panic” among the general public.

China would continue to take a “responsible attitude” towards its people’s health, rigorously implement control measures and work to halt the spread of the virus, he said.

Chinese stocks closed down almost 8 per cent, the yuan currency had its worst day since August, and Shanghai-traded commodities from oil to copper hit their maximum downward limits.

The wipe-out came even as the central bank made its biggest cash input into financial markets since 2004 — with an injection of 1.2 trillion yuan (£131bn) — and despite apparent regulatory moves to curb selling.

Investors had been bracing for volatility when onshore trade in stocks, bonds, yuan and commodities resumed, following a steep global sell-down on fears about the impact of the virus on the world’s second-biggest economy.

Beijing also said it would help firms that produce vital goods resume work as soon as possible, state broadcaster CCTV reported.

But while stock markets reopened, most provinces have extended the holiday to try to contain the virus, with workers in Hubei not scheduled to return until after 13 February.

The number of new confirmed infections in China rose by 2,829, bringing the total to 17,205.

The WHO reported at least 151 confirmed cases have been reported in 23 other countries and regions, including the United States, Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong and Britain.

A 1,000-bed hospital built in just eight days to treat people with the virus in Wuhan will begin to take patients on Monday, state media said. More than 7,500 workers took part in the project, launched on 25 January and finished this weekend.

A second hospital in Wuhan, with 1,600 beds, is due to be ready on 5 February.

While countries have been trying to block the virus with travel bans, they have also been getting stranded citizens out of Wuhan.

The United States, which flew people out last week, is planning “a handful more flights” while Russia is due to start evacuating its citizens from Wuhan on Monday. It has also suspended direct passenger trains to China.

Australia evacuated 243 people, many of them children, from Wuhan on Monday and will quarantine them on a remote island.

Australia on Saturday followed the United States in barring entry to all foreign nationals travelling from mainland China.

The virus is thought to have emerged late last year in a Wuhan market illegally trading wildlife. It can cause pneumonia and spreads between people in droplets from coughs and sneezes.

It has created alarm because it is spreading quickly and there are still important unknowns surrounding it, such as its death rate and whether it is able to spread before any symptoms show.

The number of deaths in China has now passed the total Chinese death toll from the 2002 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars), another coronavirus that emerged from China and killed almost 800 people around the world.

Even so, Chinese data suggests the new coronavirus is less deadly than Sars, although such numbers can evolve rapidly.

Chinese authorities sacked two officials in Hubei over the death of a cerebral palsy patient whose father and sole caretaker was taken into quarantine.

Sixteen-year-old Yan Cheng was found dead on Wednesday, a week after his father was taken away.


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Sinn Féin leader to appear in final Irish election TV debate as poll shows party surging to first place

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Sinn Féin have continued to surge in the polls ahead of this week’s Irish general election, with one survey now showing the left-wing Republicans tied in first place.

Public broadcaster RTÉ announced on Monday it would invite party chief Mary Lou McDonald to its final leaders’ debate of the campaign, due to be held on Tuesday.

Ms McDonald was not previously invited to the head-to-head with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, but her party’s surge in the opinion polls has put her in the national spotlight.

The latest poll by RedC in the Sunday Business Post newspaper has Sinn Féin on 24 per cent, up four per cent since last week. The current largest opposition party Fianna Fáil is also on 24 per cent, down two per cent.

Meanwhile Leo Varadkar’s party Fine Gael is struggling on 21 per cent, down two per cent on the previous weeks. The Green party and Labour are on seven per cent and five per cent respectively.

The election is due to take place on Saturday this week and will be the first since 2016.

Sinn Féin has been mostly attracting younger votes, touting its left-leaning policies on building more social housing. But the party’s controversial history of supporting the IRA means many older voters will not even consider it.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are difficult to distinguish on policy, with both parties sitting slightly to the right of centre by international standards. 

Mr Varadkar won plaudits in Ireland for his handling of Brexit last year but his popularity has suffered since Ireland’s role in the affair fell off the top of the news agenda. 

Ireland uses the proportional Single Transferrable Vote system to elects its parliament, the Dáil, meaning if the polls are right no single party will be able to form a majority. 

At least two of the three largest parties would likely have to work together to reach a majority. Mr Varadkar has emphatically stated he would not go into coalition with Sinn Féin, but said he is open to a “grand coalition” with Fianna Fáil.

But Fianna Fáil leader Mr Martin has said he would not go into grand coalition with Fine Gael. 

In a statement on Tuesday’s debate, RTÉ said: “RTÉ is very mindful it has a duty to the public to reflect events as they unfold.

“During the course of the campaign and over recent days RTÉ has taken into consideration the notable change in the dynamic of the campaign on the ground, and representation and statements by political parties.

“The dynamic has also been consistently reflected in all opinion polls since the campaign commenced. 

“We now consider it necessary to amend our original approach, respond to the changes in the campaign, and continue to put the audience first in the making of Tuesday night’s programme.”

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