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LONDON (Reuters) – The future of Britain’s exit from the European Union hung in the balance on Tuesday as lawmakers prepared to vote on a divorce deal after Prime Minister Theresa May won last-minute assurances from the European Union.
Scrambling to plot an orderly path out of the Brexit maze just days before the United Kingdom is due to leave, May rushed to Strasbourg on Monday to agree ‘legally binding’ assurances with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
British lawmakers, who on Jan. 15 voted 432-202 against her deal, were on Tuesday studying the assurances with lawyers. The government’s top lawyer, Geoffrey Cox, is due to give his opinion on Tuesday ahead of the vote due around 1900 GMT.
“We have secured legal changes,” May said in a late night news conference in Strasbourg beside Juncker, 17 days before the United Kingdom is due to leave the EU on March 29.
May said the assurances created an arbitration channel for any disputes on the backstop, “entrenches in legally-binding form” existing commitments that it will be temporary and binds the UK and EU to starting work on replacing the backstop with other arrangements by December 2020.
After two-and-a-half years of haggling since the 2016 Brexit referendum, Juncker cautioned this was the last chance for Britain. “It is this deal or Brexit might not happen at all,” he said.
Sterling rose 1.5 percent against the dollar and to a near two-year high against the euro.
If lawmakers vote down May’s deal, she has promised a vote on Wednesday on whether to leave without a deal and, if they reject that, then a vote on whether to ask for a limited delay to Brexit.
Opening summit, Pope urges ‘concrete, effective measures’ on abuse
ROME (AIWA! NO!)- Concrete, effective actions and courage, not merely “simple condemnations,” is what Pope Francis said he’s expecting from a Feb. 21-24 Vatican summit on clerical abuse that opened Thursday morning.
The pontiff pointedly said this is what the People of God want, watching the 190 men and women meeting over the next four days in Rome.
Thursday’s opening session included several voices acknowledging that the Catholic Church has failed victims, and that crimes of sexual abuse of minors by clergy have been covered up by bishops.
“The Holy People of God are watching us and wait for more than simple condemnations, they expect concrete and effective measures. We need concreteness,” Francis said in a short opening speech.
Defining the abuse of minors perpetrated by men of the Church as a “plague,” Francis said he’d thought to reach out to presidents of bishops’ conferences, heads of the Eastern Churches and leaders of male and female religious orders so they can “listen to the cries of the little ones clamoring for our help.”
German Father Hans Zollner, director of the Centre for Child Protection at Rome’s Gregorian University, read a quote from an unnamed survivor.
“Not my parents nor ecclesial authorities heard my cry,” Zollner read. “And I ask myself, why is it that not even God heard my cry?”
The morning session that opened the much anticipated summit was live-streamed, with the exception of the pre-taped witness of five victims from Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the United States and Asia.
The lineup included a short opening speech from the pope, two longer talks and a series of prayers. The encounter was multilingual, with people speaking in English, Spanish and Italian.
The Vatican released the text of five abuse survivors who addressed the participants, keeping their identities hidden. The first, however, is well known, as he had told the media he’d be a part of the presentation: Juan Carlos Cruz from Chile.
“You are physicians of the soul, and yet, with rare exceptions, you have been transformed – in some cases – into murderers of the soul, into murderers of the faith. What a terrible contradiction,” Cruz said.
Cardinal Blase Cupich defended on Thursday the “dramatic drop” in clergy sex abuse cases in the United States since the U.S. bishops enacted a zero tolerance policy against abusers in 2002. “When we put in measures to protect children, when we make sure we cooperate with law enforcement, incidents of child abuse drop dramatically, and have since 2002 when we adopted a charter,” Cupich told veteran journalist Christiane Amanpour last week ahead of Pope Francis’s major summit on sex abuse this week at the Vatican.
Yet Cruz defended the work Pope Francis is doing in the Chilean church to address a decades-long crisis, one which led all the country’s bishops to submit their resignations en masse. Eight have been subpoenaed by civil authorities to testify on either charges of abuse or cover-up.
A survivor from Asia, unclear if it was a man or a woman, spoke about being sexually abused over 100 times, which, this person said, has created “traumas and flashbacks all across my life.”
The person said that after going to provincials and superiors of the religious order of the abuser, they covered up for the perpetrator, adding, “That kills me sometimes.”
If “we want to save the Church, we need to get our act together,” the person said. “This act [of abuse] will destroy whole generations of children. And as Jesus always said, we need to be child-like and not to be child sexual molestors.”
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila in the Philippines compared the response of bishops to the clerical sexual abuse crisis to the apostles’ betrayal of Jesus and their doubt about the resurrection until Thomas touched the wounds in Jesus’ hands and side.
“How can we profess faith in Christ when we close our eyes to the wounds inflicted by abuse?” Tagle said.
“If we are to give authentic and credible witness to our faith in the resurrection, this means that each of us and our brothers and sisters at home must take personal responsibility for bringing healing to this wound in the body of Christ,” he said.
According to Tagle, President of the papal umbrella charity group Caritas Internationalis, the Church must “see that children and vulnerable people are safe, are cared for, in our communities.”
The prelate also said that Jesus’ wounds remind us that wounds are often inflicted by the “blindness of ambition and misuse of power, which condemned an innocent person to die as a criminal.”
Tagle called on the Church to “reject any tendency” that refuses to see and touch the wounds of others: “Those wounded by abuse and the scandal need to be strong in faith in this moment,” he said.
“If we are to heal victims and all those wounded by the crisis, we need to take seriously their resentment and pain,” Tagle said.
His presentation was followed by a behind-closed doors Q&A session.
“We in the Church should continue to walk with those wounded by abuse, building trust and asking forgiveness, fully understanding we do not deserve that forgiveness in the order of justice,” Tagle said, adding that only mercy and grace can supply it.
Walking with the victims, he argued, does not mean that bishops and superiors cannot reach out to the perpetrator too, helping them face the truth of their actions without “rationalization, and at the same time not neglecting their inner world and their own wounds.”
Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, a former Vatican prosecutor on sex abuse crimes and a leading Catholic voice on the protection of minors, was scheduled to speak next.
In a piece published on Wednesday, Vatican editorial director Andrea Tornielli argued that this week’s summit is destined to leave a mark.
“Even before a deep consideration of indispensable concrete indications of what to do facing the wounds of abuse, the awareness on the part of the entire Church of the dramatic and irreversible consequences for minors who have suffered abuse will leave a mark,” Tornielli wrote.
Scicluna’s talk was centered on how bishops and religious superiors can prevent abuse, and how they should respond when it happens.
His recommendations included mandatory reporting to civil authorities, noting that beyond Church rules, priests and religious must also abide by civil laws. He also called for careful screening of candidates to the priesthood, and said that concealing information on the leadership ability of a candidate to become a bishop is a “great sin against the Church.”
“The faith community should know that we mean business,” he said. “They should come to us as friends of their safety and that of their children and youth…. We will protect them at all costs. We will lay down our lives for the flocks entrusted to us.”
Scicluna quoted extensively from two letters Pope emeritus Benedict XVI addressed to the bishops and the people of Ireland in 2006 and 2009, including praise of survivors who’ve spoken up and also a call for the “transgressions” of some priests not to obscure the “fine work and selfless dedication of the great majority of priests and religious.”
Labour and the Conservatives could face more resignations, with members of the new Independent Group saying they expect more MPs to join them
So far, eight Labour MPs and three Conservative MPs have quit their parties and joined forces as the Independent Group.
From Labour, Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, Mike Gapes, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Ann Coffey, Gavin Shuker, and Joan Ryan have all left.
It wasn’t long before Conservative MPs Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen and Sarah Wollaston followed.
Here we answer some of your biggest questions about what is now the fourth-largest group in Parliament.
Are there going to be by-elections?
Jeremy Corbyn has said the Labour MPs who have quit the party should “resign and put themselves up for election”.
In a video posted on Twitter, the Labour leader said it was the “decent and democratic thing to do” because the MPs wanted to “abandon the policies on which they were elected”.
If an MP changes or leaves the party they were elected under, there does not automatically have to be a by-election.
This is because at the ballot box voters chose the individual they wanted as their MP, not the party they wanted running the country.
However, the defectors could trigger a by-election by resigning as MPs.
They could then immediately stand for election in the same constituency – that’s what Conservative Zac Goldsmith did in 2016. (He lost his 23,015 majority and was ousted).
But these MPs don’t want to face a by-election right now.
Voters can also call for a petition to recall their MP – and trigger a by-election.
But this can only happen under specific circumstances, such as an MP being convicted of an offence and receiving a custodial sentence. And none of these conditions apply to the members of the Independent Group.
As it stands, if they were to run in a by-election (or any general election) the name the Independent Group wouldn’t appear on the ballot paper because they’re not registered as a political party.
Who funds them?
On their website, the group of MPs say they are “supported” by a company called Gemini A Ltd, which was set up last month by Labour defector Mr Shuker.
Since they launched, they have been crowd-funding via their website.
But because they are not a registered political party, they don’t have to play by the rules of the Electoral Commission and disclose their financial backers.
However, they say they intend to do so anyway and will publish all donations over £7,500 alongside donors’ names.
If the group registers with the commission, the MPs would be entitled to “short money” – that is funding given to opposition parities in Parliament to support them in their parliamentary business, expenses and costs of running.
Which one is the leader?
Because it is not a political party – yet – the Independent Group does not have to have a leader.
But it is thought they will choose one at some point.
Chuka Umunna – who briefly stood to be leader of the Labour Party and is seen as the driving force behind the Labour MPs – is most often touted as a potential leader.
Anna Soubry, who has a high media profile, might also be seen as a candidate.
But, sources say, they are still trying to recruit new members so it would not be a good idea to select a leader at this stage.
The group is due to meet next week to work out who will speak for them at Parliamentary occasions, such as responding to the Chancellor’s Spring Statement, and who will take on the job of whip, to organise their voting in Parliament.
What do they stand for?
The group has not published a manifesto – but it does have a list of 11 “values”, which it claims the main political parties have forgotten.
Top of the list is the belief that Britain is a “great country of which people are rightly proud” – and the government must do “whatever it takes” to protect national security.
Notably, there is no sign of Brexit on the list, although it mentions “maintaining strong alliances with our closest European and international allies on trade, regulation, defence, security and counter-terrorism”.
On inequality, the group calls for the “barriers of poverty, prejudice and discrimination” to be removed – and says everybody should make a contribution to society.
It also says it believes that:
“Paid work should be secure and pay should be fair”
“We have a responsibility to future generations to protect our environment”
Britain “works best as a diverse, mixed social market economy” with “well-regulated private enterprise”
“The collective provision of public services and the NHS can be delivered through government action”
“Our free media, the rule of law, and our open, tolerant and respectful democratic society should be cherished and renewed”
It remains to be seen which policies the Independent Group would adopt to enact their values.
What are the potential tensions?
The Independent Group have bonded over their shared desire to prevent a no-deal Brexit.
Some of them have been working together for months as members of the cross-party People’s Vote campaign for another EU referendum.
Former Conservative Heidi Allen said they had been “clinging to each other like on a shipwreck” during the “chaos” of Brexit, and had begun to realise they had “quite a lot in common” with each other.
They do come from different sides of the traditional political divide – and there may be tensions over issues such as austerity and the privatisation of public services.
Last year, Luciana Berger, then a Labour MP, blamed austerity for having a “devastating cumulative impact” on her constituents and Chuka Umunna has said austerity “failed” and “disproportionately hit the poorest”.
Anna Soubry – a minister in the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition government – has defended then Chancellor George Osborne’s public spending cuts and welfare freeze.
But Heidi Allen has been highly critical of welfare cuts too, and Universal Credit in particular.
Asked on BBC Newsnight if they could all agree on issues such as this, Ms Allen said “probably not, but it doesn’t matter because this is a fresh start”.
All 11 have signed up to the broad principles in their founding statement – and share a socially liberal outlook and a belief in a “mixed economy” with free markets and publicly-owned services.
How powerful will they be in Parliament?
With 11 members, they are the fourth largest group of MPs – behind the Conservatives, Labour and the SNP, and equal to the Lib Dems.
They are bigger than Plaid Cymru and the DUP – the party on whom Theresa May depends to pass legislation.
As the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg explains: “When a government has no majority on its own, even shy of a dozen MPs can wield political strength.
“The defections change not just the official arithmetic in Parliament, but its alchemy and atmosphere.”
If they were to surpass the SNP’s Westminster cohort – which would require 24 more MPs – the party would become Parliament’s third largest.
That would then entitle them to various privileges, including getting a guaranteed two questions at Prime Minister’s Questions.
How will it impact Brexit?
In terms of the parliamentary votes, it won’t. These MPs were defying their former party whips on Brexit long before they quit.
But if enough Tories leave, Mrs May’s slim majority will be wiped out, throwing her plans to get a tweaked version of her Brexit deal through Parliament into even more doubt.
AIWA! NO!| Seven Labour MPs announced their departure from the Labour party on Monday morning after months of tension and disagreement over the leadership’s handling of Brexit and other issues.
The seven — Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Mike Gapes, Gavin Shuker, and Anne Coffey — told a press conference in central London that they were quitting Labour to become independent MPs, operating under the name The Independent Group.
Umunna called for a centrist “alternative” in British politics as the rebel MPs complained about the far-left turn the party had taken under veteran socialist Corbyn.
“The bottom line is this: politics is broken, it doesn’t have to be this way, let’s change it,” Umunna said at a hastily arranged press conference in London.
The seven MPs will form a breakaway independent group in parliament, undermining Corbyn as he attempts to steer the party through the highly divisive issue of Brexit.
Many Labour voters, particularly in northern England, chose to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum — but a majority of Labour MPs and members supported staying in.
The referendum cut across party political allegiances also in the ruling Conservative Party, which is now deeply divided between pro-EU moderates and Brexit hardliners.
The Labour rebellion is unlikely to make a major difference in crucial votes on prime minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal, but pro-EU forces welcomed the move.
Vince Cable, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said he was “open to working with like-minded groups and individuals in order to give the people the final say on Brexit, with the option to remain in the EU”.
Corbyn said he was “disappointed”. Pointing to his party’s strong performance in the 2017 general election, he said: “Now more than ever is the time to bring people together to build a better future for us all.”
Corbyn is under fire from europhiles for failing to push for a second referendum. Instead, he called on May to negotiate a customs union with the EU to ease trade ties after Brexit.
Corbyn has also been criticised for months for his handling of cases of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, and his past associations with Palestinian militants.
Another of the seven MPs, Luciana Berger, a victim of anti-Semitic online abuse for years, said: “This has been a very difficult, painful but necessary decision.”
The Labour Party had become “institutionally anti-Semitic”, said Berger. “I have become embarrassed and ashamed to represent the Labour Party. I am leaving behind a culture of bullying, bigotry and intimidation,” she said.
MP Mike Gapes said one of his main reasons for leaving was that he was “furious that the Labour leadership is complicit in facilitating Brexit”. Colleague Chris Leslie said he was leaving because of “Labour’s betrayal on Europe”.