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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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Running battles on Venezuela border as aid trucks from Colombia set alight | World News

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Battles between protesters and Venezuela’s national guard are taking place on the border with Colombia as trucks try to deliver tonnes of emergency aid.

People scrambled to save boxes of food and medicine from burning vehicles, with claims national guardsmen set them alight as they crossed into Venezuela.

Smoke billowed from barricades, built to stop the aid getting in, and demonstrators threw rocks at heavily-armed police.

Tear gas was fired at people trying to clear the blockade to the Francisco de Paula Santander bridge – in the Venezuelan border town of Urena.

Two protesters have also been killed and 18 injured in Santa Elena de Uairen, near the border with Brazil, according to a doctor at the scene.

Smoke billowed from the trucks set alight on the bridge
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Smoke billowed from the trucks set alight on the Francisco de Paula Santander bridge
One of the aid trucks was set alight - reportedly by National Guardsmen
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The trucks were said to have been set alight by National Guardsmen
People rushed to get the aid off the burning truck on the Francisco de Paula Santander bridge
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People rushed to get the aid off the burning trucks

The clashes come after opposition leader Juan Guaido vowed to bring humanitarian aid from Colombia.

Nearly 200 tonnes of aid in a convoy of trucks has been waiting to cross several border bridges.

Mr Guaido says the supplies are vital to help people left in a dire situation by the government of President Nicolas Maduro.



A man faces off against police at the Simon Bolivar bridge in Cucuta, Colombia







‘We’ve got to do it today’ – Sky’s Cordelia Lynch meets protesters in Cucuta

A demonstrator kicks a burning tyre in Urena
Image:
A demonstrator kicks a burning tyre in Urena

Venezuelan officials have closed the border with Colombia, Brazil and the island of Curacao and have been cracking down on those trying to keep them open.

President Maduro said he had cut all diplomatic relations with Colombia’s “fascist government” and was expelling its diplomats in response to its support for Mr Guaido.

“Patience is exhausted, I can’t bare it anymore, we can’t keep putting up with Colombian territory being used for attacks
against Venezuela,” Mr Maduro told supporters in Venezuelan capital Caracas.

Opponents claim he presided over a fraudulent election and has let the economy go to ruins with rampant inflation and people struggling to get food and medicine.

Venezuelan national guards clash with demonstrators in Urena
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Venezuelan national guards clash with demonstrators in Urena
Venezuelans clash with national guards in the border town of Urena
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A protester kicks over one of the barricades

Most of the aid at the Columbia border has been provided by the US which has recognised Mr Guaido as the interim president, despite Mr Maduro refusing to stand down.

Venezuelan authorities regard the plan to bring in aid as a veiled US-backed invasion.

Tensions first flared at dawn, when residents in Urena began removing yellow metal barricades and barbed wire blocking the Francisco de Paula Santander bridge.

A woman throws an object at police in Urena
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A woman throws an object at police in Urena
A protester is hit in the face by barbed wire during battles with guards in Urena
Image:
A protester is hit in the face by barbed wire during battles with guards in Urena

At another border crossing, the Simon Bolivar bridge, about 10 miles (15km) south, Colombian migration authorities said four National Guardsmen had deserted their posts and asked for help.

Pictures showed young men struggling to get through a crowd, holding their assault rifles and pistols above their heads in a sign of surrender.

They were then ordered to lay on the ground as migration officials held back onlookers.

The moment two Venezuelan guards hand themselves to the Colombian authorities
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The moment two Venezuelan guards hand themselves to the Colombian authorities

Juan Guaido, the 35-year-old head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, declared himself interim president under the constitution on 23 January.

He has been backed by dozens of countries, including the UK.

On Friday, he attended a concert staged by Sir Richard Branson, in Cucuta, on the Colombian side of the border, opposite Urena.

A woman lies injured amid tensions at the Simon Bolivar bridge on the border of Colombia and Venezuela
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A woman lies injured amid tensions at the Simon Bolivar bridge

Mr Guaido met Colombian president Ivan Duque at the Live Aid-style event, despite Mr Maduro forbidding him from leaving the country.

Sky’s Cordelia Lynch, who is in Venezuela, said hundreds of people at the concert were planning to join the battle to get the trucks across the border.

She said Mr Guaido had been talking to the authorities to get permission to bring across 14 trucks, each laden with about 20 tonnes of aid in a shipping container.

Juan Guaido at the Venezeula border with Colombia
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Juan Guaido at the Venezeula border with Colombia
Supporters of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro take part in a counter protest in Caracas
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Supporters of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro take part in a counter protest in Caracas

Protests also took place on Saturday in Curacao and in the capital Caracas – where a protest was held by President Maduro’s supporters.

Mr Maduro told the crowds he was ready to defend Venezuela’s independence with his life if necessary.

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Harry and Meghan given guard of honour as they arrive in Morocco | UK News

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The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have been greeted by a guard of honour as they arrived in Morocco for a three-day tour.

After a 90-minute delay, Harry and Meghan flew into Casablanca, famous for the romantic Hollywood film.

But this is a business trip for the royal couple, and their second major overseas tour, as they visit Morocco on behalf of the government and the Foreign Office.

With Meghan’s baby due in April or May, the Palace confirmed that medical provisions had been made. It is not unusual for doctors to travel as part of the royal party, although officials did not go into detail.

The couple are staying privately as guests of the king of Morocco in a royal residence.

They will use the visit to highlight their interest in issues around female empowerment, inclusivity, education for women and girls, and encouraging young entrepreneurs.

The duchess is due to give birth in April or May
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The duchess is due to give birth in April or May
A guard of honour welcomed Harry and Meghan at the airport
Image:
A guard of honour welcomed Harry and Meghan at the airport

Morocco is seen as a key focus for UK foreign policy, as a gateway to Africa.

Speaking ahead of the visit, ambassador to Morocco Thomas Reilly said: “It is hugely exciting to have The Duke and Duchess of Sussex here for the next few days, and I am delighted to have this opportunity to showcase the vital roles that girls’ education and youth empowerment are playing in shaping modern Morocco.

“When we began planning for this visit, I had a very clear view in my mind of the story we wanted this visit to tell.

“It is the same story that we have been telling consistently at this embassy about Morocco since my arrival here 20 months ago, and in a fortunate stroke of serendipity, we have found that this story fits with interests close to their hearts.”

THE DUKE AND DUCHESS OF SUSSEX ARRIVE IN MOROCCO
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Harry and Meghan are staying as guests of the king

In the medina in Rabat, Sky News met 18-year-old Loubna Ouraich.

She is from a Berber family that live in a village near the Atlas Mountains. Her father is a teacher and encouraged her and her sisters to study.

She is the first woman in her family to go to university and is studying French literature in Rabat.

She told Sky News she admires what Meghan stands for: “I saw some pictures of her in all the world, doing a lot of things, a lot of beautiful things for humanity, humans, helping poor people and that was so great.

“And when I see her I just remember the Princess Diana, she’s wonderful.”

It comes at the end of a busy few days for the duchess who spent most of last week in New York with her friends, who put on an opulent baby shower.

The Duchess of Sussex is spending five days in New York on a low-key visit
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The baby shower in New York attracted a lot of media attention
American photographers could not believe their luck
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Meghan’s stay in the Big Apple came in for some criticism

However, the private baby shower became a very public event with journalists tipped off about the event.

Her friends reportedly paid hundreds of thousands of pounds to spoil Meghan and cover the cost of penthouse suites and private jets.

The cost and the way it was managed has come in for some criticism.

Arthur Edwards, royal photographer for The Sun, said: “I remember going to New York with Princess Diana, and she used to stay at the Carlisle, very sort of small hotel, but beautifully smart.

“And there used to be about four of us waiting outside for her to come and go, you know completely different, and she’d come out and give us a smile and get into the car – but I mean Meghan it was a massive showbiz event.

“She’s become America’s Diana, she’s so massive now.”

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex will fly into the Atlas Mountains on Sunday to carry out engagements in Asni town where they will visit the Education For All boarding house that houses girls aged 12 to 18 to make sure girls in rural communities get access to secondary education.

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Gunfire and explosions at start of Nigeria’s presidential election | World News

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Nigeria’s delayed election began with gunfire and explosions as President Muhammadu Buhari seeks a second term.

Delays at polling stations across the West Africa country have also marred the election which is widely seen as too close to call.

Police say they carried out the blasts in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, just before polls opened in a show of force to deter Islamic extremists who have been a scourge in the north east.

Security sources said a rocket hit a displaced persons’ camp, while an explosion at an army garrison killed one soldier and injured four others.

It was also confirmed by the army that a “futile” attack on a security outpost in Geidam in Yobe state had been carried out.

President Muhammadu Buhari casts his vote
Image:
President Muhammadu Buhari casts his vote

Gunfire was also heard in Port Harcourt in Nigeria’s restive south where the presence of the army was heavier than in previous elections.

:: Your guide to the Nigerian election

A military convoy in Delta state contained more than 25 vehicles full of soldiers on standby.

Soldiers in Rivers state fired on suspected ballot snatchers and arrested four people.

Mr Buhari refused to answer questions on whether he would accept a loss to top challenger Atiku Abubakar, a billionaire former vice president.

Opposition presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar casts his vote at Ajiya's polling station in Yola, Adamawa State
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Opposition presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar pictured voting

As he went out to vote in his northern hometown of Daura, the president jokingly checked the name on his wife’s ballot.

Nigerians “are behaving themselves”, the president said.

After voting in his hometown of Yola in the north east, Mr Abubakar said: “I look forward to a successful transition”.

He previously pledged to accept the results provided they are credible.

The election is widely seen as too close to call
Image:
The election is widely seen as too close to call

Mr Buhari said the voting process had been smooth but a coalition of civic groups said many polling stations had not opened more than four hours after voting was due to officially start.

Delays were reported in Delta, Anambra and Akwa Ibom states as well as in Nigeria’s largest city Lagos.

Observers say preliminary results of the election are expected within two to four days.

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