It’s official: Britain leaves the European Union as ‘transition period’ comes into effect

A deeply divided United Kingdom has officially ended its 47 years of European Union membership as the clock strikes 11pm in London and midnight in Brussels — and the slated 11-month ‘transition period’ has formally begun.

The long and rocky road to the divorce began three-and-a-half years ago when 52 percent of Brits voted to cut their losses and take their country out of the 28-member bloc (now 27). 

Three prime ministers, two general elections, and plenty of national anxiety and rancor later, the day has finally arrived, in a moment long-awaited by some and desperately dreaded by others.

What are the immediate changes?

While Britain’s exit from the EU is a seismic political event which will eventually transform London’s relationship with the bloc, at first, not a huge amount will actually change in practice for citizens.

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The UK, for now, will keep some of the benefits and obligations associated with membership. British citizens will continue to enjoy free travel around the union, but they will no longer be EU citizens. The UK will remain an integrated part of the single market, but British MEPs will head home and will no longer have any say in decision-making processes. EU citizens residing in the UK must apply for Britain’s ‘settled status scheme’ allowing them to remain in the country post-Brexit.

Things like driving licenses, pet passports, and European Health Insurance cards will all continue to be accepted. For the time being, trade will also continue uninterrupted without any new checks or charges.

A commemorative Brexit coin bearing the date January 31 and the words “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations” will also come into circulation on Friday.

‘Transition period’ changes

More changes will come into effect over the coming months. British passports, for instance, will switch back to the old blue and gold design (though the burgundy ones will still be recognized).

Politically, the focus will now switch from debates over Leave vs. Remain and the specifics of the withdrawal agreement to how British Prime Minister Boris Johnson can secure advantageous trade deals with the EU — and, he hopes, the US. 

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Negotiations with Brussels are expected to begin on February 25 and will focus on a swathe of issues including things like fisheries, security, environmental standards, and tariffs. Britain has already set out its aims for talks in a 27-page ‘Political Declaration’ document.

It will be a tense period for businesses across the UK who still don’t know what to expect beyond the end of 2020. Johnson has promised that the transition period will not extend past December 31, though experts have said this is highly optimistic and some envisage a trade deal taking “years” to pin down. 

If Johnson changes his mind and decides an extension to the transition period is in order after all, he will have to request it before July 1.

How did they get there (for those who lost track)?

Leaving a massive constitutional drama in his wake, former PM David Cameron stepped down in July 2016 weeks after the Brexit vote. He was succeeded by Theresa May, who shocked Britain by calling for a snap election in 2017. 

That was ultimately a decision that turned out to be disastrous for the Conservative Party, as May lost her majority in the House of Commons and set the scene for two years of stalemate and tiring twists and turns surrounding the formation and passing of a withdrawal agreement. 

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The deal negotiated with Brussels by May suffered an overwhelming defeat in Parliament in January 2019 and two further defeats in March, leading May to step down in June, having failed to convince MPs to back her plan.

Succeeding May in July 2019, Boris Johnson managed to secure some changes to the withdrawal agreement before calling for a snap election to be held in December, which the Tories won handily, ensuring his deal would sail through the House of Commons and that Britain would leave the EU on January 31.

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Spain confirms first case of fast-spreading coronavirus gripping China

The Spanish Ministry of Health has confirmed the country’s first case of a lethal coronavirus that has swept all of China’s 31 provinces and at least 25 other nations.

The first case in the country was confirmed by Spain’s National Centre for Microbiology and announced by the Health Ministry late on Friday, with one man diagnosed on La Gomera, a remote island in the Canaries. The patient was among five people brought to the island for observation after coming into contact with a German man diagnosed with the virus.

The confirmation comes as officials in China’s Hubei Province – the epicenter of the outbreak – reported 45 new deaths from the illness, bringing the total to 249, with some 10,000 infected and over 1,500 in critical condition in China.

Senate votes down Democrats’ witness demand in Trump impeachment trial

The Republican-majority Senate has rejected Democrats’ demand for additional witnesses in the impeachment trial of US President Donald Trump.

Senators voted 51-49 not to call on more witnesses beyond the 18 that testified in the proceedings led by the House Democrats last year.

Two Republicans, Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah), joined the Democrats in calling for additional witnesses – such as former national security adviser John Bolton. The rest of the GOP sided with the president’s lawyers, who argued that all the relevant testimonies and documents should have been produced during the proceedings in the House, which ended on December 18, 2019 with a partisan vote to impeach Trump.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) called for a recess after the vote, meaning that the Senate could go back into session at any moment. There has been speculation that McConnell was planning to prolong the proceedings until after the president’s annual address to Congress, known as the State of the Union, on Tuesday. That has not been confirmed, however.

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Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) reacted to the vote by saying that having a trial with “no witnesses, no documents” would make it a “sham” and that any acquittal of Trump would therefore be invalid.

Had Schumer prefaced that with “additional,” he would have been technically correct, as the Senate did consider the documents and statements of 17 witnesses submitted by the House as part of the proceedings there. The deposition of one more witness remained classified. 

Trump’s lawyers had noted that the House managers said they would object if any additional evidence or documents were introduced during the Senate proceedings, and had to reserve their answers to what was in evidence already introduced, or in public record.

The witness vote was seen as a barometer of how many Republicans may have been convinced by the House Democrats that Trump had actually abused power and obstructed Congress – the charges on which he was impeached in the House.

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Trump to expand travel ban, targeting immigrants from 6 more countries

US President Donald Trump will issue an updated version of his controversial travel ban, acting Homeland Security head Chad Wolf said Friday. The existing ban will remain in place, having been okayed by the Supreme Court in 2018.

Speaking to reporters by phone, Wolf said that the updated ban will suspend immigrant visas for nationals of Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar and Nigeria. Non-immigrant visas from these countries will not be affected. 

‘Diversity Visas’ – handed out by lottery to boost immigration from countries with low rates of immigration to the US – for nationals of Sudan and Tanzania will also be restricted.

Wolf said that the countries in question have failed to meet American security and information sharing standards, citing poor passport security and inadequate terrorism screening.

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Belarus was initially slated to appear on the blacklist, but according to Wolf, managed to remedy its shortcomings in time to avoid a ban. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is due to touch down in Belarus on Saturday, and the decision to strike the eastern European country from the list may have partly been a goodwill gesture, given that Pompeo is likely seeking to pull Belarus away from the influence of its neighbor, Russia.

“These countries for the most part want to be helpful, they want to do the right thing, they have relationships with the US, but for a variety of different reasons failed to meet those minimum requirements,” Wolf said. He added that Trump will issue the ban later on Friday.

The ban will likely be trashed by Democrats and barraged with legal opposition. Trump’s first travel ban, which affected some citizens of Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela and Yemen, was issued just one week into his presidency in 2017, and was widely construed as a “Muslim ban.”

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The ban was challenged in several federal courts, with the Supreme Court eventually accepting a revised version, which came into force in 2018.

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Here comes another one! Khabib Nurmagomedov congratulates his cousin Umar for signing with the UFC (VIDEO)

Umar Nurmagomedov, cousin and teammate of UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, has signed with the UFC, according to an Instagram post by Khabib posted Friday.

Khabib took to social media and posted a message of himself alongside Umar and a horse, with the message: “Me, horse and a @UFC fighter.

“Little brother @umar_nurmagomedov you’ll have a lot to prove, when I signed with the #UFC there were a lot of people who didn’t believe in me, but my team and my people believed and supported me.

“Believing in Almighty and hard work will bring the result.

“You got everything for it, now act and prove that you deserve to be among the best athletes in the world.”

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Umar arrives in the UFC with an unblemished 12-0 record, with half of those wins coming inside the distance. The Russian bantamweight captured the GFC bantamweight title in his last fight with a first-round rear-naked choke victory over previously undefeated Argentine contender Briain Gonzalez at GFC 20 in November 2019, and represents the latest elite-level athlete from Russia to join the ranks of the UFC.

Now he’s all set to join the talent-stacked UFC bantamweight division, where a host of top-drawer opposition awaits.

Umar himself posted to his Instagram to confirm his move to the octagon, saying: “The beginning of a new chapter #UFC. Thanks to everyone who is with me. #InshaAllah I won’t let you down.”

And with his cousin in his corner and the backing of the team back home in Russia, Umar will be confident of success as he looks to follow in his family member’s footsteps as an undefeated Russian in the UFC.

And RT Sport understands his debut could potentially come as early as April 18, where Umar could end up joining his cousin Khabib on the UFC 249 fight card in Brooklyn, USA.

Crimean official quits, changes her mind, then quits again after bizarre ‘bread and fur coats’ scandal

“Fur-coat gate” has gripped Crimea after a local official resigned, then re-instated herself, before – somewhat unbelievably – later resigning again. All in the space of a couple of days.

The controversy started when Maya Khuzhina was pictured handing out pieces of bread to elderly veterans of the Second World War Leningrad blockade while wearing an expensive animal skin. The siege of the city – now Saint Petersburg – by Nazi Germany and its Finnish and Italian allies, lasted 872 days and resulted in over a million deaths, a great many of them from starvation.

In her role as chair of the city council of Kerch, an ancient settlement on the Black Sea coast, Khuzhina handed out bread and medals to eleven survivors of what many consider a genocide. She then posted photos on Facebook, and that’s where the trouble started.

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The images quickly gained notoriety, and in less than 24 hours there were more than 500 comments, most of which complained about how out-of-touch the politicians pictured seemed to be. The outrage was caused by the contrast between the seemingly cheap loaves of bread and the expensive fur coats of Khuzhina and the accompanying council members making up her entourage.

Later, the politicians explained to reporters that the bread was actually a meat pie, while the fur coats were “imitation,” and they stressed that the gifts were purely “symbolic.”
Following a considerable amount of interest in the national media, the head of Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov, stated that Khuzhina’s actions looked “like mockery, like humiliation,” and ordered an investigation into the event. Aksyonov wrote that the head of the City Council and all deputies should be fired and expelled from the ruling party, United Russia.

Maya Khuzhina © Kerch City Council

Despite the outcry, Khuzhina refused to show any remorse, saying:

“I don’t think I’m guilty, I think I did everything right. I received comments from those blockade women who came to me today with their children… and said that ‘we are very grateful to you; you are the only person who remembered us.’”

The story quickly took a strange turn. Despite seemingly not feeling any guilt, just three days after the scandal broke, Maya Khuzhina and her deputy Larisa Shcherbula wrote letters of resignation. However, the resignation didn’t last long, as Khuzhina rescinded her decision less than one day later. “I withdraw my statement, it was a moment of weakness,” she said. Unbelievably, just a couple of hours later, she resigned for a second time.

Khuzhina’s resignation letter will be considered at an extraordinary session of the City Council, according to First Vice-Speaker of the Crimean Parliament Yefim Fiks.

Fiks told RIA Novosti: “Khuzhina wrote a statement and will comply with any order of the head of the Republic of Crimea. An extraordinary session is scheduled for Monday to consider her statement… she apparently said something emotionally, but then explained that she would obey any decision of the head of Crimea.”

Khuzhina was born in Kerch, Crimea, and has been an elected official since September 2019.

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Bring back landmines? Shock at Trump paving way for internationally-banned weapons ignores that rival Obama banned them in US

US President Donald Trump has overturned an order banning landmines passed by his predecessor, Barack Obama, whose mere signature seems to mark even the most benign legislation as a target for presidential wrath.

Trump has reversed a 2014 order that banned the use, production, stockpiling, and transfer of anti-personnel mines, saying that the ban posed an unacceptable risk to US troops, White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham announced on Friday.

Landmines are an important tool that our forces need to have available to them in order to ensure mission success and in order to reduce risk to forces,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper declared in a press conference shortly before the official announcement, acknowledging the need to account for “both the safety of [mine] employment and the safety to civilians and others after a conflict.”

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Under the new rules, the US military will be free to use landmines “in exceptional circumstances,” including “future potential conflicts,” according to a State Department cable leaked on Thursday, which was reportedly written to give US diplomats suitable language for explaining the decision to their shocked colleagues. The rule excludes mines lacking a feature that allows them to automatically deactivate or self-destruct after 30 days, the cable specifies.

The move has left even military experts dumbstruck. “The United States has not used landmines in a new theater of military operations for nearly 30 years – since 1991,” Arms Control Association executive director Daryl Kimball told Vox.

And the decision has provoked the ire of peace activists and groups like Amnesty International, which issued a statement condemning the move as “a massive step backwards” and pointing to a 1997 international treaty that banned the munitions. Upwards of 130,000 people have died from landmine injuries since the ban took effect, according to watchdog group Landmine Monitor – most of them civilians.

However, the seemingly self-sabotaging effort to bring back the deadly devices makes perfect sense when seen as part of the continuum of Trump dismantling his hated forebear’s legacy, no matter what the implications for the country.

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Trump’s best-known reversal of an Obama-era accomplishment remains his decision to tear up the Iran nuclear deal, ignoring the agreement’s six other country partners, and reimpose harsh sanctions on Iran despite the latter’s total compliance with restrictions on its nuclear development. The president often congratulates himself on ditching “Obama’s terrible Iran deal” at rallies, usually mentioning his nemesis’s decision to give Iran “many billions of dollars, some of it in actual cash” – actually Iranian assets the US had frozen decades ago and never returned. The chasm that Trump’s unprovoked decision to break the deal created between Washington and Tehran arguably set in motion the events culminating in the strike that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani earlier this month, and a retaliatory strike that left 50 US soldiers with traumatic brain injuries.

Trump officially pulled the US out of the 2015 Paris climate agreement in November, capping off a series of reversals of Obama-era energy reforms that he disparaged variously as “job-crushing regulations” and a “war on coal.” Even a 2017 rule requiring more energy-efficient lightbulbs was cast aside. Would Trump go so far as to declare climate change a “hoax” if he didn’t have the specter of Obama, fist-bumping Greta Thunberg and pouring hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars into “green jobs” that never materialized looming over his presidency?

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But not every Obama-era rollback is consequential, or even logical. Earlier this month, Trump’s Department of Agriculture partially reversed a series of health standards for public school lunches set by Michelle Obama, allowing schools to cut the amount of vegetables and fruits required while expanding access to high-calorie foods like pizzas, hamburgers and french fries. The move was announced on the former First Lady’s birthday, on the off chance anyone had missed its significance. 

Obama issued his executive order banning land mines in September 2014, boasting that the US would be aligning itself with the Ottawa Convention signed by over 160 countries – but carving out an exception for “the defense of South Korea” that allowed the Pentagon to continue deploying the controversial munitions there, presumably to fend off a North Korean invasion that never came. Is it a coincidence, then, that Trump has made negotiating peace with Pyongyang a centerpiece of his foreign policy?

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French coach accused of rape admits ‘intimate relationship’ with former skater Sarah Abitbol

French figure skating coach Gilles Beyer, who was accused of sexual assault, has admitted to having an ‘intimate relationship’ with Sarah Abitbol, who was underage at the time.

On Thursday, renowned athlete and ten-time French pairs skating champion Abitbol accused Beyer of systematic sexual assault and rape between 1990 and 1992, when she was between the ages of 15 and 17.

READ MORE: French champion figure skater accused of sexually abusing 13yo US female athlete

He started doing horrible things… sexual abuse, and I was raped when I was 15. It was the first time that a man touched me,” the seven-time European medalist said.

The 62-year-old coach admitted to having sex with the skater, whom he had trained, though he added that his memory of events differs from the version presented by Abitbol.

Though my memories of exact circumstances differ from hers, I am aware that, given my duties and her age at the time, these relationships were in any event inappropriate,” Beyer said in response to the accusations brought against him.

Right after the shocking admission Beyer, who was the general manager of the Parisian club Les Français Volants, was dismissed from his position. It remains unknown whether he will face legal action in the wake of the sexual scandal.

At the end of 2019, an independent investigation initiated by local journalists uncovered multiple sexual crimes within French sport.

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According to the investigation, more than 276 athletes from 28 different sports – mostly kids under 15 years of age – were victims of sexual abuse.

The French Sports Ministry plans to organize a conference on February 20 to address the issue.

Scientists turn bee guts into medicine factories to FIGHT OFF deadly pathogens

In a development that could save the US economy tens of billions of dollars, researchers have developed a technique to immunize honey bees against two major pathogens using bioengineered bacteria.

Last winter, US beekeepers lost 40 percent of their honey bees; it was the highest mortality rate since national surveying began 13 years ago. Honey bees contribute approximately $20 billion-worth of value to US crop production, so safeguarding them is huge from both an economic and conservation standpoint. 

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Like many of the best solutions, the method discovered by the scientists from the University of Texas at Austin is actually rather simple. The team developed a bioengineered strain of bacteria which is fatal to two major pathogens responsible for colony collapse in bees. 

They then simply added the bacteria to a sugar water solution and waited for the bees to ingest it while grooming each other.

The engineered bacteria acts like a biological factory in the bees’ guts and pumps out medicines which protect the bees from both Varroa mites and deformed wing virus. 

A Varroa mite on a honey bee. © Alex Wild/University of Texas at Austin.

The bacteria are easy to grow which the researchers believe will make their treatment easy to scale. Crucially the research says there is essentially no risk of them spreading to other insects given how targeted the genetic makeup of the bacteria is to survive only in bees. 

“This is the first time anyone has improved the health of bees by genetically engineering their microbiome,” explained the study’s first author Sean Leonard.

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Varroa mites and deformed wing virus present a dual threat to bee populations and typically weaken bee colonies to the point where they become extremely vulnerable to other pathogens in the environment. 

Bees with the bioengineered bacteria in their guts had a 36.5 percent higher survival rate against the Varroa virus and a 70 percent higher survival rate against the mites after 10 days compared to control bees. 

Crops like almonds, berries and even vegetables like broccoli all depend on bees, without which they would drastically reduce in yield or simply die off entirely. The researchers hope to continue their work studying the bee genome in order to create more robust colonies and stave off mass extinction among the world’s honey bee population.

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Macron’s Brexit blues: Britain quitting EU is ‘historical alarm signal’, says French leader on ‘sad day’ of UK withdrawal

In a televised address to mark Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, French President Emmanuel Macron branded Brexit a “historic alarm signal” which should “spur” deep EU reform to build a powerful and efficient European Union.

Describing Friday as a “sad day”, Macron said the 2016 Brexit campaign was based on lies, exaggerations, and cheques that were promised but will never materialize. He said the UK leaving the bloc was a shock, but that it came about because Europe had been used as a scapegoat for difficulties “all too often”.

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Macron also spoke about the historical and future relationships between Britain and France, saying that the pair’s long history is “one made of blood, freedom, courage and battles.” He said his compatriots would never forget how much they owe Britain, adding that while British people will no longer have the same rights in the EU after Brexit, UK citizens living in France will still be “at home” there. 

The French president said he wants to see a close relationship with post-Brexit Britain, but the country can’t simply be in and out of the EU at the same time, and France will continue to defend the interests of both its fishing and agriculture industries – two key areas the countries have butted heads over before. 

“And in this negotiation, we will remain united, all 27 of us,” he said of the remaining EU member states.

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