Spain Becomes Top EU Migrant Destination; Italy Accused of Causing Deaths at Sea

Italy has rejected criticism of its hard-line policy on immigration, after protesters marched on the Italian Interior Ministry, accusing it of being responsible for the deaths of migrants at sea. Rome has banned nongovernmental organization, or NGO, charity boats from disembarking migrants in Italian ports. As Henry Ridgwell reports, just-released figures show Italy’s crackdown is having an effect, with Spain overtaking Italy as the No. 1 destination for migrants in the European Union.

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Pompeo: US Won’t Send Any Americans to Russia for Questioning

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the United States will not send Americans to Russia for questioning. Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to let U.S. investigators question officials in Moscow about Russia’s interference in U.S. 2016 elections if Russian investigators are allowed to question American officials. U.S. President Donald Trump called Putin’s proposal an “incredible offer.” But in an interview with VOA on Thursday, Pompeo rejected the idea. Zlatica Hoke reports.

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Trump Invites Putin to a Summit in US

U.S. President Donald Trump is inviting Russian President Vladimir Putin to a second summit meeting. The announcement came as the storm of criticism and confusion that followed the first summit is still making headlines and getting the attention of the U.S. Congress. Here to explain is VOA’s Carolyn Presutti at the White House.

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Spanish Judge Drops Extradition Requests for 6 Catalans

A Spanish Supreme Court judge has dropped his extradition requests for six Catalan separatist politicians wanted on rebellion charges.

They include Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia’s ex-regional president who fled to Belgium to avoid arrest and then went to Germany.

 

The moves comes after a German court recently ruled Puigdemont couldn’t be sent back to Spain for rebellion, only for misuse of public funds.

 

Judge Pablo Llarena said in a decision published Thursday that he’s revoking the international arrest warrants against the six, in what the Catalan separatist movement was likely to regard as a major victory against Spain’s central authorities.

 

The charges are in connection with the Catalan regional government’s unauthorized referendum last year on independence from Spain and a subsequent unilateral declaration of independence by the separatist-controlled regional parliament.

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Montenegro Says it Embraces Peace and Stability

Montenegro says it “contributes to peace” in response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent claim that the “very aggressive people” of the the small Balkan country could start World War III.

In a statement released Thursday, the Montenegrin government said it “contributes to peace and stability not only on the European continent, but worldwide, along with U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.”

The issue surfaced when Trump again criticized NATO during an interview with Fox News Channel’s Tucker Carlson when asked why his son should have to defend Montenegro if it is attacked.

The interview was conducted Monday after Trump, a longstanding skeptic of NATO, met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.  Russia was chagrined when Montenegro joined NATO in 2017 and relations between the two countries have been strained as the Balkan nation forges closer ties with the West.

Trump responded, “I understand what you are saying.  Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people … They’re very aggressive people.  They may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War III,” Trump added.

The comments were made when Trump and Carlson were discussing Article 5, NATO’s common defense clause that says an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all member nations.

Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic said Trump’s remarks were “not in the context of justification of NATO’s existence, but of NATO funding.”   

 

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Radio Free Europe to Resume Broadcasts in Romania, Bulgaria

Radio Free Europe said Thursday that it will resume news services in Romania and Bulgaria in a bid to debunk fake news and combat poor-quality journalism.

 

The U.S. Congress-funded station will return to the two southeastern European countries, both European Union and NATO members, starting in December.

 

Radio Free Europe president Thomas Kent said in a statement that he hoped the move would “help the growth of a free press, promote democratic values and institutions, and inform discussion in both countries of their place in NATO, the EU and other Western organizations.”

 

The statement also said that “government officials, civil society representatives and journalists… have expressed concern that disinformation, corruption, and social division are undermining their political systems.”

 

RFE’s Bulgarian service ended in 2004 while the service to Romania stopped in 2008. The statement noted that the media situation had deteriorated since the two countries joined the EU in 2007.

 

RFE, which is editorially independent, has bureaus in Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia, and a Romanian-language service in the former Soviet republic of Moldova.

 

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Trump Disputes Intel Chief on Russian Cyberattacks

U.S. President Donald Trump said Wednesday he does not believe Russia is continuing to target the United States with cyberattacks, a direct contradiction of an assessment last week by Dan Coats, his director of national intelligence.

Trump, meeting with his cabinet at the White House, shook his head and said “no” when asked whether Russia was still attempting to interfere in U.S. elections.

Coats had told a Washington think tank that “the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack,” and singled out Russia as the “most aggressive foreign actor, no question.”

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham immediately cited the wide gap between Trump’s and Coats’ views of Russia.

He said “a BIG discrepancy between President Trump’s statement and DNI Coates’ warning. It’s imperative we get to the bottom of what is going on so we can be prepared to protect ourselves in advance of the 2018 elections. My personal view: the Russians are at [it] again.”

Trump told reporters, “We’re doing very well, probably as well as anybody has ever done with Russia. And there’s been no president ever as tough as I have been on Russia.”

Earlier, in a string of predawn Twitter comments, Trump boasted again about his Monday summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The president’s Twitter comments came hours after he said he accepted the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election, walking back his Monday comments embracing Putin’s denial that Moscow had interfered.

“I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place,” Trump told reporters at the White House Tuesday.

But he then added: “Could be other people also. A lot of people out there,” an assessment of the possibility that other countries tried to interfere in the U.S. election that was not part of the intelligence community’s finding.

The U.S. holds congressional elections in November, when the entire 435-member House of Representatives is being contested and a third of the 100-member Senate.

On Twitter Wednesday, Trump wrote that his meeting with Putin could be more successful than the NATO summit in the long-term.

Trump’s revision of the comments he made as he stood alongside Putin at a news conference at the end of their summit came after a torrent of criticism from Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike, who said the U.S. leader appeared to be weak compared to his Russian counterpart.

Only a handful of Republican colleagues of Trump praised his performance.

Trump said that after he reviewed a transcript of his Helsinki remarks, he realized he misspoke.

“In a key sentence in my remarks, I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t.’ The sentence should have been … ‘I don’t see any reason why it WOULDN’T be Russia” — that Russia interfered in the election, Trump said.

But he added that the Russian actions had no impact on the outcome of his victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton, a former U.S. secretary of state, and reiterated his frequent statement denying that there was any collusion between his campaign and Russian operatives.

U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller is continuing his 14-month criminal investigation of Russian interference.

Trump said his administration will do everything it can to thwart any Russian efforts to interfere with November’s U.S. congressional elections.

“We will stop it, we will repel it,” Trump vowed.

Before back-tracking, Trump said on Twitter he had a great summit with Putin and gave no ground in changing his statements about accepting Putin’s denial of interference in the U.S. election two years ago.

On Capitol Hill, House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, responded to Trump’s initial rosy assessment.

“Let’s be very clear: Russia meddled in our election,” Ryan said. “We know they interfered with our elections, and we have passed sanctions on Russia to hold them accountable.”

When asked about election meddling during the joint news conference with Putin on Monday, Trump said, “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”

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Arrested Russian Woman Said to Have Ties to Spies

A Russian woman arrested in Washington over the weekend on charges of working as an illegal foreign agent in the United States “appears” to have ties to Russia’s intelligence services, prosecutors revealed in court documents on Wednesday.

Maria Butina, who founded a gun rights organization and worked as an aide to a top Russian government official, is accused of infiltrating influential American political organizations such as the National Rifle Association for the purpose of advancing Russian interests in the United States.

Indictment

She was indicted by a grand jury on Tuesday on one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States, and one count of working as a foreign agent in connection with the covert influence operation.

Prosecutors allege that Butina carried out the scheme at the direction of an unnamed senior Russian government official. The official is not named in court documents, but his description matches that of Alexander Torshin, a deputy governor of the Russian central bank and a former senator in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party.

In a court filing calling for Butina’s pre-trial detention, prosecutors disclosed Butina’s alleged ties to Russian intelligence. The FBI’s searches of her electronic devices revealed that Butina was “in contact with officials believed to be Russian intelligence operatives,” prosecutors said.

Butina maintained a contact list of individuals identified as employees of the Russian intelligence agency FSB, according to court papers. Another document seized by the FBI “contained a hand-written note, entitled “Maria’s ‘Russian Patriots In-Waiting’ Organization,” and asking ‘How to respond to FSB offer of employment?’” according to the filings.

“Based on this and other evidence, the FBI believes that the defendant was likely in contact with the FSB throughout her stay in the United States,” prosecutors wrote.

Preparing to flee

Butina’s arrest came as the FBI feared she was preparing to leave the country. Her apartment lease was set to expire on July 31, and there were boxes packed in her apartment, according to the latest court filings.

 

“Because Butina has been exposed as an illegal agent of Russia, there is the grave risk that she will appeal to those within that government with whom she conspired to aid her escape from the United States,” prosecutors wrote.

Butina visited the United States several times in 2014 and 2015 before obtaining an F-1 student visa in August 2016 to enroll as a student at American University in Washington. A university official confirmed that she’s been enrolled at the American University School of International Service since fall 2016.

Russia’s foreign ministry, calling the allegations against Butina “groundless,” said her detention was carried out to minimize the impact of the recent summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump.

Robert Driscoll, an attorney for Butina, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In a statement on Monday, Driscoll denied the allegations against his client.

Right to Bear Arms

Butina and Torshin founded the Right to Bear Arms, a gun advocacy organization modeled on the NRA, in 2012.

Torshin became a lifetime member of the NRA, and the duo regularly attended the gun lobby’s annual meetings in the U.S. in recent years, according to their social media accounts.

U.S. prosecutors allege that Butina sought to cultivate close ties with the NRA as a conduit to the Republican Party during the 2016 presidential election. The goal was to sway what the Russians saw as the Republican Party’s “negative and aggressive” policy toward Russia, according to an email from Butina that was intercepted by the FBI and cited in the indictment.

The offense carries a penalty of up to five years in prison.

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UK Extremist Convicted of Plotting to Kill Prime Minister

An extremist loyal to the Islamic State group has been found guilty of plotting to kill the British prime minister.

Naa’imur Zakariyah Rahman was convicted Wednesday of planning to bomb the entry gates to the prime minister’s residence and office at 10 Downing Street, kill the guards there and then attack Theresa May with a knife or gun.

The 20-year-old, who is originally from the Birmingham area of England, was arrested in November after collecting a backpack he believed was stuffed with explosives.

He thought he was getting it from Islamic State adherents, but had been talking to undercover police.

Prosecutors said Rahman planned to be killed during the attack.

A jury convicted him at the Old Bailey courthouse in London. He has not been sentenced yet.

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Browder: Putin’s Mention of Me in Helsinki Shows Sanctions’ Bite

None of the questions posed to President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin after their one-on-one meeting in Helsinki mentioned U.S.-born British financier Bill Browder, but Putin singled him out anyway.

The Russian leader suggested he would grant special counsel Robert Mueller access to the 12 Russians indicted for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election if Russian investigators could interrogate foreign tax cheats.

“For instance … business associates of Mr. Browder have earned over $1.5 billion in Russia, [who] never paid any taxes, neither in Russia nor in the United States, and yet the money escaped the country,” said Putin, reiterating well-worn allegations that have long since been debunked as unfounded.

Browder, chief executive officer of Hermitage Capital, has been the driving force behind the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 U.S. law authorizing sanctions against human rights abusers in Russia that freezes their assets and bans their entry to the U.S.

Named after Browder’s lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who died amid allegations of beatings and medical neglect in a Russian jail after working to expose a purported tax fraud scheme by Russian officials, the U.S. legislation — which has since been adopted in seven other countries — may be the single largest threat to the Russian leader’s massive personal fortune.

Effort to detain

The Russian government, which has long denied the fraud charges and officially blamed Magnitsky’s death on a heart attack, has continued to pursue Browder, and in May asked Spanish police to detain him on what turned out to be an expired Interpol warrant.

Within hours of the Trump-Putin meeting, the Prosecutor General of Russia announced that it had prepared an official request to cross-examine a number of U.S. officials and intelligence agents, including former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, as part of its criminal proceedings against Browder.

That the Russian leader again mentioned him by name at a high-profile public forum, Browder told VOA’s Russian service, only proves Western sanctions are being felt in Moscow.

“I think Putin is taking it personally because of all the success that I have had in getting the Magnitsky Act passed all over the world,” Browder said. “He’s made no secret of the fact that Magnitsky Act is his single largest foreign policy priority to repeal. He’s obviously very rattled and upset by all the different people who have been sanctioned under Magnitsky and other related sanctions programs, and this is his Achilles’ heel.”

A primary reason why Putin hates the Magnitsky Act, Browder has told VOA in prior interviews, is that he asks people around him to commit very grave crimes on his behalf, such as illicitly commandeering private assets and property.

“In order to get people to do these terrible acts, he has to guarantee these people impunity,” Browder said. “He could do that in the past. But now, because of the Magnitsky Act, there are consequences outside of Russia that he has no control over. This [lack of guaranteed impunity] challenges the entire operation of his regime.”

The Kremlin typically declines to respond to these allegations, but in 2013, a Moscow court tried and sentenced Browder in absentia on tax evasion charges, accusing him of failing to pay $16 million in taxes. Magnitsky himself was posthumously convicted in that same ruling.

In 2016, Browder said, a group led by Kremlin-linked attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya “went around and tried every different document, every different door to find sympathetic ears to repeal the Magnitsky Act.”

Trump Tower meeting

“The meeting with [Donald] Trump Jr. was just one of the meetings they had,” he said, referring to the 2016 meeting at Trump Tower that also was attended by, among others, White House adviser Jared Kushner and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort.

“They had meetings all up and down Capitol Hill with members of Congress trying to do the same thing,” he said. “In my opinion it was a completely failed operation, but it does not mean they didn’t have a lot of resources to try to make it happen.”

In a July 2017 interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Trump Jr. described being disappointed when Veselnitskaya changed the subject of the meeting from information damaging to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton to Russian adoption policy.

“That’s when we shut it down,” Trump Jr. said, wondering “… what does this have to do with what we were talking about?”

Russia’s ban on adoptions by American families, colloquially referred to as Moscow’s “anti-Magnitsky Act,” was advanced by Putin’s United Russia party nine days after former President Barack Obama signed the Magnitsky Act into law.

President Trump has defended his 40-year-old son’s actions, downplaying the meeting with Kremlin operatives as a normal part of campaign trail “opposition research.”

In excerpts of an interview with Kremlin-funded RT news, Veselnitskaya defended the meeting at Trump Tower, contending she was the victim of a “disinformation” campaign organized by Browder.

Browder has said he had no knowledge of the meeting until it was reported by various news media outlets, and the public may never know precisely what was discussed that day.

‘Always’ at risk

Asked whether Putin’s comment made him fear for his safety, especially after the recent spate of poisonings of anti-Kremlin figures in Britain, which Prime Minister Theresa May has blamed on the Kremlin, the London-based financier was stoic.

“My security has always been at risk,” he said. “I was just arrested a month ago in Madrid on a Russian Interpol arrest warrant. But at the same time, there is very, very broad international consensus that Putin is running a criminal vendetta to try to have me arrested, and most civilized countries are there to protect me, not to honor Putin’s vendetta.”

“We have effectively caught Putin red-handed, as an individual beneficiary of the … $230 million that Sergei Magnitsky was killed over,” he said.

Although Putin has asked Trump to work to remove the Magnitsky Act, Browder says he’s confident about its longevity.

“The administration doesn’t have control over the Magnitsky Act, as it is an act of Congress,” he said. “I have met with many members of Congress. There’s no chance whatsoever that Congress is going to repeal the Magnitsky Act.”

This story originated in VOA’s Russian service.

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Proposed Legislation Stokes New Crackdown as Emergency Rule Ending in Turkey

A state of emergency imposed in Turkey following a failed coup two years ago this week is set to end in the coming days. But there are concerns that the government will maintain draconian measures under a different guise.

Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul Monday confirmed the imminent end to emergency rule, a move broadly welcomed.

“The end of the emergency rule, which bypasses parliament on key issues, has been something demanded internationally and domestically for better conditions and for the independence of the judiciary and the media,” Murat Yetkin, editor of Hurriyet Daily News, wrote Tuesday.

Human rights groups say that under the emergency powers, more than 150 journalists were jailed, and newspaper outlets, television and radio stations seized. Tens of thousands of prosecutors and judges, along with academics, were detained or removed from their posts. 

The government maintains the measures were needed to remove the threat posed by followers of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blames for the botched military takeover. Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the U.S., denies the accusation.

Despite the government’s decision to lift the state of emergency, critics say the status quo will remain in place. They point to parliament’s consideration of sweeping new anti-terrorism legislation that would allow authorities to detain people for up to 12 days without charge in anti-terror cases. Erdogan’s ruling party, the AKP, is pushing for passage of the measures that would also give governors the power to stop people from leaving or entering defined areas. 

Additionally, state workers, including security forces, would be removed from their posts for three years if considered a threat. The interior minister would also be empowered to cancel passports of those dismissed from their jobs. The passport policy would also apply to their spouses.

“Lifting the state of emergency appears good but doesn’t change anything,” political columnist Semih Idiz of Al-Monitor website said. “The authorities have the same powers as they do under emergency rule. Especially with the newly expanded powers being pushed through parliament, it will be the state of emergency by default,” he added.

The main opposition Republican People’s Party, the CHP, criticized the new legislation. “It aims to make the state of emergency rule permanent,” deputy group leader Ozgur Ozel wrote in a statement.

Despite the proposed new powers, analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners suggests there remains a way for Erdogan to make a conciliatory gesture.

“One way to keep the binding provisions of state of emergency in the new legislation but signal a more tolerant approach to human rights such as free speech is to release most of the 150 journalists and intellectuals currently locked up, as well as ending the practice of firing academics for pro-PKK (Kurdish insurgents) or Gulenist sympathies,” Yesilada said. Turkey considers the PKK a terrorist organization. The PKK has been waging a decades-long insurgency in southeastern Turkey. 

On Monday, prominent journalist Erdem Gul was acquitted of charges of publishing state secrets. Last month, Mehmet Altan, a well-known writer, academic and Erdogan critic, was released from jail. Altan had been serving a life sentence on charges of helping the plotters behind the attempted coup. Both writers are widely seen as high-profile cases on freedom of expression.

Human rights groups point out the arrests and detentions of government critics continue.

Another court case in the spotlight is that of jailed U.S pastor Andrew Brunson, whose trial is due to resume in the western Turkish city of Izmir Wednesday. Brunson has been incarcerated for nearly two years under emergency rule on charges of supporting both the PKK and Fethullah Gulen.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Congress have described the Brunson case as baseless. 

“It’s (case) very important because it’s already an obstacle and sticking point between the two countries, having prompted the discussion about sanctions against Turkey,” Idiz said.​

​“Erdogan needed to maintain his image during the elections that he didn’t want to cave into international pressure. We have a very different situation now. He is in an insecure position now with his re-election. And the court will possibly take note of the situation,” said Idiz. Erdogan was re-elected last month in the vote that allows him to consolidate power.

Trump has until now headed off threats from Congress to sanction Turkey. Failure to release Brunson at Wednesday’s hearing could result in a rapid escalation in bilateral tensions. 

“Even Trump’s good graces may not be able to deter Congress from punishing Turkey. In that scenario, the relationship enters the proverbial “slippery slope,” Yesilada said.

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May Narrowly Avoids Defeat in Parliament on EU Trade Laws

British Prime Minister Theresa May narrowly avoided a defeat in parliament at the hands of pro-EU lawmakers from her own party on Tuesday, fending off a rebellion that had threatened to deepen a crisis over her Brexit strategy.

Parliament voted 307 to 301 against an amendment to trade legislation in a vote that had been closely followed by currency markets, and was seen as a test of May’s ability to deliver a British exit from the European Union and keep her job.

The amendment would have required the government to try to negotiate a customs union arrangement with the EU if, by January 21, 2019, it had failed to negotiate a frictionless free trade deal with the bloc.

Sterling rebounded from the day’s lows against the dollar after the government sidestepped defeat on the amendment. But there was no guarantee that the issue of retaining a form of customs union — which pro-EU MPs see as vital to preserving industrial and commercial supply chains — would not resurface.

Tuesday’s legislation was technical in nature — focusing on converting trade deals between the EU and third countries into bilateral deals with Britain — and was not originally intended to define new trade policy.

However, the government did suffer an unexpected defeat on a separate amendment, which means it will now be required to seek an agreement that allows Britain to have continued participation in the European medicines regulatory framework.

“Very significant defeat of govt tonight on European medicines regulation amendment. Near miss on customs union amendment. Margin is closing on these votes & we will keep at it,” tweeted Keir Starmer, Brexit spokesman for the opposition Labour Party, which favors a customs tie with the EU.

The Department for International Trade said Britain was always seeking to be part of the medicines framework. It said it objected to the amendment because it requires the government to take “all necessary steps” to join, while the government wants to join only if it can negotiate reasonable terms.

More challenges

May is expected to face many more challenges to her strategy after a summer break as she works her way through a mountain of Brexit-related legislation. Any final deal with the EU will also require ratification by a bitterly split parliament.

Highlighting the fine margins May is dealing with, Tuesday’s victory required the votes of four pro-Brexit Labour opposition lawmakers who backed the government in defiance of their party’s instructions.

May will be back in the firing line on Wednesday when she takes questions from lawmakers in parliament before appearing in front of a parliamentary committee, and then leading a Conservative Party meeting.

The close shave was May’s third this week as she presents legislation on one of the most important and divisive decisions in modern British history with only a minority government, and her Conservative Party at war with itself.

By prevailing in Tuesday’s vote, she avoided for now the prospect of having to go back on her word that Britain will not be part of any customs union after leaving the EU — something that would have enraged the pro-Brexit wing of her party.

The prospect of continued drama in parliament and doubts over the future of May’s “white paper” Brexit plan — which is only a starting point for talks with the EU — is testing the patience of businesses that depend on cross-border trade.

“We can’t rely on anything,” said Warren East, CEO of UK engine maker Rolls Royce, who said his firm could start stockpiling parts soon if it looked like Britain was heading towards a disorderly exit from the EU.

Can’t please everybody

On Monday, May infuriated lawmakers who want to keep the closest possible ties in the EU when she decided to accept a number of demands by hard-line pro-Brexit members.

On two of those votes, her majority was cut to three, suggesting that she might find it hard to get final approval of a Brexit agreement with the EU through parliament.

May is proposing to negotiate the closest possible commercial links — “a common rule book” — for goods trade with the bloc, saying this is the only way to balance political and economic priorities for Brexit.

But her plan has pleased few on either side, compounding the divisions within he Conservative Party that have so far frustrated progress in talks with the EU.

The government was forced to abandon a plan to start parliament’s summer recess five days early, after opponents criticized it as a ploy to avoid further rows, and members of her own party said they still had work to do.

“I can’t remember anything quite like this. I got into the House of Commons in 1966, we had some pretty hairy moments, but nothing as continued and nothing where the bitterness between the two sides in the government party is as acute as it is today,” former Conservative minister Michael Heseltine, who now sits in parliament’s upper chamber, told Sky News.

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