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Two dinners talked Brexit in Brussels last night. One was private | UK News

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It was a busy night for the chefs at the British ambassador’s residence in Brussels on Monday night.

The opulent building, sandwiched between the Swiss and American embassies on the Belgian capital’s grand Rue Ducale, was the venue for two separate but simultaneous dinners.

One, we knew about – the other, a curious meeting, we didn’t.

The first of the two dinners was publicly billed. It was Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay’s first meeting with EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.

The meeting was the consequence of Theresa May’s return to Brussels last week for her meeting with EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.

This dinner was significant if only because it constitutes “negotiations” of sorts between two sides who have not really engaged directly since before Christmas.

Remember – the British and EU negotiating teams signed off on the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement and the accompanying Political Declaration on the future relationship in December.

Together the documents represent the Brexit divorce treaty. But ever since, the deal has been blocked in Westminster.

Stephen Barclay and Michel Barnier
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Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay (L) met with EU’s Chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier

The guests at this publicised dinner included Steve Barclay MP from the Department for Exiting the EU and Olly Robbins, Mrs May’s Europe adviser from Number 10.

With them were Michel Barnier from the European Commission and his two deputies: Sabine Weyand and Stephanie Riso.

The host was the UK’s permanent representative to the EU, Sir Tim Barrow.

It was, judging by the menu, a delicious meal. Pan-fried North Sea sole with Scottish scallops and Welsh samphire followed by roast duck breast, then pear parfait and British cheeses. All washed down with Sancerre and St Emilion.

The key focus of the dinner was to explore ways to get the Withdrawal Agreement through Westminster despite the fact that the EU won’t reopen it or remove the backstop.

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Mr Barnier said a Withdrawal Agreement will not be opened

After a couple of hours, Michel Barnier delivered with a familiar message: “We held constructive talks. It’s clear from our side that we are not going to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement but we will continue our discussion in the coming days. That is all.”

The feeling among a critical number of MPs in Westminster, as voiced by Boris Johnson this week, is “of course they’ll say that now. But soon they’ll budge”.

A statement from a UK spokesperson said: “The meeting was constructive and Mr Barclay and Mr Barnier agreed to further talks in the coming days and that their teams would continue to work in the meantime on finding a way forward.”

But in another dining room in the same building (presumably eating from the same menu) was a much more curious gathering.

Just after 7pm, Sky News cameras spotted the former president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, arriving by limo at the residence.

If you don’t remember Mr Van Rompuy, you may remember the extraordinary moment when Nigel Farage called him a “low-grade bank clerk” to his face in the European Parliament chamber in 2011.

“Who are you?!” Mr Farage had jeered. “You have the appearance of a damp rag and the charisma of a low-grade bank clerk.”

Herman van Rompuy
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Sky News was told that Herman Van Rompuy attended a private dinner with David Lidington MP

It was a moment that was as embarrassing to British europhiles as it was thrilling to eurosceptics. Anyway – what was Mr Van Rompuy doing at the British residence in Brussels?

Well I’m told he was attending a separate private dinner with Mrs May’s deputy David Lidington MP. And I am told that it was a meeting Mrs May had specifically requested to discuss changes to Irish backstop.

The team at 10 Downing Street see Mr Van Rompuy as an “influencer”, and David Lidington was the man to meet him.

Many on this side of the Channel consider Mr Lidington to be one of the few senior British politicians who really understands.

He was David Cameron’s Europe minister from 2010 to 2016 and is seen as a very capable politician and diplomat – despite being unsuccessful in Mr Cameron’s bid to secure concessions from the EU which would persuade the British public to vote to remain in the EU.

When you mention Mr Lidington’s name in Brussels – at the commission, the council or the parliament – people tend to speak highly of him. That’s more than can be said for pretty much every other senior UK politician.

Mr Lidington and Mr Van Rompuy also know each other. There is an existing rapport.

A few months ago, Mr Van Rompuy told The Observer that a British threat of no deal would not spook the EU side into moving position.

“Those [no deal] threats will not work vis-a-vis the European Union… I cannot imagine that a British prime minister or a responsible British government is even considering seriously a no deal, playing with the economic future of the country and its people,” he said in August last year.

Did he say the same privately at the Monday night dinner? We don’t know how the Lidington/Van Rompuy dinner went.

But I am told that after Mr Van Rompuy left the residence, Mr Lidington switched dining rooms to catch the tail end of the other dinner – the one with Steve Barclay and Michel Barnier. They all had coffee together.

Mrs May is urging MPs to give her a little more time to improve the Brexit deal.

She’s asking them not to tie her hands by forcing her to extend Article 50, thus delaying Brexit. She is using the clock and threat of “no deal” to her favour for now.

When we look back at this Brexit process we may discover that innocuous private dinners, like Monday night’s between Mrs May’s deputy and the former European Council Ppresident, were key moments.

Right now the UK needs all the “influencers” it can get. Herman Van Rompuy is one.

“Every little helps?” I said to a UK source last night.

The anxious nod which came back said it all.

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India launches rocket to far side of moon – just days after aborted take-off | World News

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India’s space agency has launched an unmanned spacecraft to the far side of the moon just a week after aborting the mission due to a technical problem.

The Chandrayaan rocket lifted off from a site in Sriharikota, off the Bay of Bengal, as scheduled at 2.43pm local time (10.13am UK time) on Monday.

Named after the Sanskrit word for mooncraft, Chandrayaan is designed to land on the lunar south pole in September and send a rover to explore water deposits that were confirmed by a 2008 mission which orbited the moon.

The Indian Space Research Organisation's (ISRO) Chandrayaan-2 (Moon Chariot 2), on board the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV-mark III-M1), launches in Sriharikota in the state of Andhra Pradesh on July 22, 2019
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The rocket was launched off the Bay of Bengal

Last week’s launch of the $141m (£113m) mission was called off less than an hour before lift-off due to a “technical snag”.

Media reports said it was aborted after a leak was discovered while filling helium in the rocket’s cryogenic engine.

The space agency neither confirmed nor denied the reports, saying instead that the problem had been identified and corrected.

The spacecraft is carrying an orbiter, a lander and a rover that will move around on the lunar surface for 14 earth days.

The Indian Space Research Organisation's (ISRO) Chandrayaan-2 (Moon Chariot 2), on board the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV-mark III-M1), launches in Sriharikota in the state of Andhra Pradesh on July 22, 2019
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Chandrayaan is named after the Sanskrit word for mooncraft

It will take about 47 days to travel before landing on the moon in September.

India, which put a satellite into orbit around Mars in the nation’s first interplanetary mission in 2013 and 2014, plans to send its first manned spaceflight by 2022.

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Stena Impero: Crew seen in first pictures from inside UK-flagged oil tanker seized by Iran | World News

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The crew of a British-flagged oil tanker seized by Iran in the Gulf have been pictured inside the vessel for the first time since armed soldiers took control.

Some of the 23 personnel stationed aboard the Stena Impero are seen working in the kitchen and assembled around a table, while others are visible near the windows on one of the decks, looking up towards an official stood in-front of them alongside a large pile of shoes.

Tehran had already released video footage of the moment on Friday that members of the Iran Revolutionary Guard rappelled on to the vessel, which is now being held at the Bandar Abbas port.

Iran has said the crew are in 'good health'
Image:
Iran has said the crew are in ‘good health’
There are 23 people in the crew
Image:
There are 23 people in the crew

Those on-board the Swedish-owned, European-operated tanker are from India, Latvia, Russia and the Philippines – and all are said to be in “good health”.

Among the crew is Dijo Pappachan, from Kochi, India, whose parents have said they are “shocked” by the situation.

His father, TV Pappachan, told the Khaleej Times newspaper: “He called and spoke with his mother on Thursday morning saying he is on his way to Saudi Arabia from Dubai. To our utter shock, we got a call from his company the next day saying the ship is under Iran’s custody.

“I am not speaking only for my son. All the 23 crew members set sail to foreign countries for work. They are on-board to make a living. We are all praying for the entire crew’s safe return.”

Stena Impero
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Some of the crew of the Stena Impero can be seen in this picture from inside the vessel
The crew of can be seen working in the kitchen
Image:
The crew can be seen working in the kitchen

The crew had been expecting to arrive in the Saudi Arabian industrial city of Jubail on Sunday, having departed Fujairah on the east coast of the United Arab Emirates on Thursday.

As it passed westward through the Strait of Hormuz on Friday, it was approached by unidentified small crafts and a helicopter, from which troops from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard rappelled on to the vessel to seize control.

The vessel’s course shifted north towards the Iranian coast.

Dijo Pappachan
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Dijo Pappachan is among the crew aboard the vessel
Deena and TV Pappachan, whose son is among the crew
Image:
Deena and TV Pappachan, whose son is among the crew

Some 40 minutes later, there was a similar course shift by the UK-operated, Liberian-flagged Mesdar.

That crew was allowed to continue their voyage a few hours later after the ship was boarded by armed guards.









Moment Iranian troops board tanker

The seizure of the Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz has sparked widespread condemnation in the UK, with a Cobra emergency committee meeting chaired by Prime Minister Theresa May.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has said it looked like Iran was choosing a “dangerous path of illegal and destabilising behaviour”, but wants a “diplomatic solution” to the dispute.

He is due to update the House of Commons on the situation, with sanctions against Iran for its “illegal interference” said to be on the cards.

Ministers are reportedly considering freezing Iranian regime assets, which will exacerbate tensions that have been on a rapid rise since US sanctions came into effect at the start of May.

Iranian Revolutionary Guards patrolling around the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero off the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas
Image:
Iranian Revolutionary Guards patrolling around the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero

It began when two US oil tankers in the region were attacked on 13 June, with Iran denying it was to blame after the regime was accused by Donald Trump.

Britain has since become embroiled in a tit-for-tat of its own, starting with the involvement of Royal Marines in the seizure of an Iranian supertanker near Gibraltar due to suspicions it was carrying oil to the Syrian regime.

Bob Seely MP, from the foreign affairs committee, has said the situation constitutes a “massive crisis” that will only grow unless there is “an Iranian nuclear deal that gets the US back in it”.

President Trump has said he "was not happy" about what the crowd had to say.
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Iran has blamed Donald Trump for the heightened tensions in the Gulf

Mr Trump took the US out of the international agreement earlier this year, and its remaining Western backers fear it will soon collapse.

The deal – considered one of the most significant foreign policy achievements of the Obama administration – was designed to see Iran eliminate its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium, cut its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and reduce the number of its gas centrifuges for 13 years.



Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt MP has been in a Cobra meeting discussing what 'further measures' will be taken







Hunt to Iran: ‘We need that ship released’

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has blamed the US for the current situation in the Gulf, saying Washington wants to drag the UK “into a quagmire”.

Meanwhile, Iran claims it has broken up a CIA spying ring and sentenced some of the 17 suspects to death.

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Stena Impero: How tensions reached this point and what happens next | World News

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Tensions between the UK and Iran show no sign of easing thanks to the latest drama in the Gulf, which saw a British-flagged oil tanker seized by Tehran as it sailed through the Strait of Hormuz.

Prime Minister Theresa May will chair what should be her final Cobra emergency committee meeting to formulate a response, which could result in sanctions being issued.

Here is a timeline of how the situation unfolded.

Iranian Revolutionary Guards patrolling around the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero off the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas
Image:
Iranian Revolutionary Guards patrolling around the oil tanker off the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas

Thursday

The Stena Impero, registered in the UK, was anchored at Fujairah on the east coast of the United Arab Emirates.

It was reported to have left there at 12.20pm, bound for the Saudi Arabian industrial city of Jubail, with an expected arrival time of 1pm on Sunday.

The Stena Impero has been seized in the Strait of Hormuz
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The Stena Impero has been seized in the Strait of Hormuz

Friday

The oil tanker, which has 23 crew from India, Latvia, Russia and the Philippines, was well on its way to its destination until its course shifted north towards the coast of Iran.

It had been passing westward through the Strait of Hormuz, and was approached by unidentified small crafts and a helicopter at around 4pm UK time.

Some 40 minutes later, there was a similar course shift by the UK-operated, Liberian-flagged Mesdar.

That crew was allowed to continue their voyage a few hours later after the ship was boarded by armed guards.

The Stena Impero has been seen in satellite images. Pic: TankerTrackers
Image:
The Stena Impero has been seen in satellite images. Pic: TankerTrackers

Saturday

There was still no contact from the crew of the Stena Impero by the early hours of Saturday, but by sunrise it had emerged that the ship had been taken to the Bandar Abbas port in Iran.

Iranian agency Fars News said it had been involved in an accident with a fishing boat and failed to stop after a distress call was issued, but that version of events was dismissed by Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

He tweeted at 8am that Iran looked like it was choosing a “dangerous path of illegal and destabilising behaviour”.



Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt MP has been in a Cobra meeting discussing what 'further measures' will be taken







Hunt tells Iran: ‘We need that tanker released’

The Iranian Guardian Council, a powerful constitutional watchdog, said the seizure of a British-flagged oil tanker was in response to Britain seizing an Iranian tanker earlier this month.

Iran also released footage of the Stena Impero at Bandar Abbas, with all the crew said to be in “good health”.



Defence secretary Penny Mordaunt MP said the Iranian seizure of the British-flagged oil tanker as a 'hostile and agressive act'







Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt: Seizure of tanker ‘is a hostile act’

Sunday

With the Stena Impero still being held, new audio was released of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the Royal Navy both giving instructions to the ship before it was seized.

In the recording, an Iranian officer can be heard telling the vessel: “If you obey, you will be safe. Alter your course to 360 degrees immediately, over.”









Tanker told: ‘If you obey, you will be safe’

Then a British officer from the HMS Montrose, patrolling the area, said: “This is British warship F236. I reiterate, that as you are conducting transit passage in a recognised international strait, under international law your passage must not be impaired, impeded, obstructed or hampered.

“Please confirm you are conducting transit passage in a recognised international strait.”

The Royal Navy later ask the Iranians: “Please confirm you are not intending to violate international law by unlawfully attempting to board the MV Stena.”

The Iranians then repeat their request for the tanker to turn around.









Armed Iranian troops storm British-flagged oil tanker

Monday

The prime minister will chair a meeting of the emergency Cobra committee, where she will receive updates from officials and ministers – and discuss the maintenance of the security of shipping in the region.

It has been reported that consideration is being given to freezing Iranian assets.

Whatever is decided, the foreign secretary is expected to confirm details in an update to the Commons.

The ship's seizure has been seen as a major escalation. Pic: TankerTrackers
Image:
The ship’s seizure has been seen as a major escalation. Pic: TankerTrackers

What happens next?

Bob Seely MP from the foreign affairs committee said over the weekend that the situation constituted a “massive crisis” that was “going to get bigger”.

He said the “only long-term solution is an Iranian nuclear deal that gets the US back in it”, but that is an incredibly unlikely prospect as things stand.

Donald Trump has repeatedly blamed Iran for tensions in the Gulf and shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon has warned the government not to be drawn into a potential conflict as the president’s “sidekick”.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has also waded into the crisis by blaming the US, saying Washington wants to drag the UK “into a quagmire”.

The UK has said the seizure “constitutes illegal interference” but says it wants a diplomatic solution.

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