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.
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.
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.”
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.
New York City vows to end hairstyle discrimination after ‘racist stereotypes’ | US News
New guidelines have been introduced in New York City to stop hairstyle discrimination.
Employers have been warned they could face legal action for banning styles associated with black people, such as afros, dreadlocks or corn rows, or for instructing black workers to straighten their hair.
Numerous schools until now have banned dreadlocks, afros and other hairstyles.
The legal guidance says existing human rights law protects New Yorkers’ right to “maintain natural hair or hairstyles that are closely associated with their racial, ethnic or cultural identities”.
Although the protections apply to everyone, they were prompted mainly by “racist stereotypes that black hairstyles are unprofessional”, the NYC Commission on Human Rights said.
The commission’s chairwoman Carmelyn P Malalis tweeted after releasing the guidelines: “Hair is a part of you. Race discrimination based on hair is illegal in NYC.”
The guidance in effect enables people to take companies and organisations to court if they have been harassed or punished in workplaces, schools or public spaces because of their hair texture or style.
However, hair nets and bands can still be required for health and safety reasons.
In December, a white referee sparked uproar when he told a black New Jersey high school wrestler to cut his dreadlocks before a match or forfeit it.
Although the teenager had his hair cut, many criticised the demand, including the state’s governor and an Olympic wrestler.
Last year, the Supreme Court refused to hear a discrimination case involving a black Alabama woman who said she was sacked from her job because she refused to cut her dreadlocks.
An appeal found in favour of the employer and said federal law protects people from discrimination based on “immutable characteristics, but not their cultural practices”.
New York City’s human rights law is distinct from federal anti-discrimination law.
Ms Malalis said: “There’s nothing keeping us from calling out these policies prohibiting natural hair or hairstyles most closely associated with black people.”
Scraping for food to survive: Inside the frontline of Yemen’s devastating civil war | World News
Yemen’s warring parties have agreed to withdraw their forces from Hodeidah – providing fresh hope for the fragile ceasefire in the city.
No timeline has been announced for the withdrawal – it was originally scheduled for last month.
But Sky News has been told by forces who are reporting daily violations that the ceasefire agreement could collapse at any time.
An agreement was reached between Yemen’s UN-recognised government and their rivals – the Houthis – at the end of last year.
And amid this grinding war a desperate population struggling to survive is scraping in the dirt for whatever handouts they can get.
Sky News gained rare access to Hodeidah by travelling along Yemen’s west coast.
We were taken to the Red Sea Flour Mills on the edge of the city.
The front line position is now controlled by the coalition – inside the stores the grain is spoiling in the heat.
Aid agencies say although the fighting has paused they can’t cross the front lines to access the supplies.
Under the agreement of the new talks this should change and access should be allowed but confidence and trust between the two sides remains low.
The UN says the grain is enough to feed 3.7 million people for a month – vital food in a country where 10 million people are on the brink of famine.
Emirati forces claim it is the Houthis, who are less than a kilometre away, who are blocking distribution.
They have been accused of shelling the grain silos so that one was set alight and is still burning several weeks later.
The Houthis have meanwhile accused the coalition of violating the agreement.
The break in the fighting between the Iran-backed rebels and the Saudi-led coalition is the only flicker of hope for Yemen.
It is place where light no longer shines – famine and starvation stalk the population.
At a field hospital near Hodeidah the medical staff are barely coping – the place is full of sick and hungry children.
Some 13 days after she was admitted, Bashira is still struggling to breathe.
The one-year-old’s tiny lungs are weak from lack of food.
Dr Faris Ali Abdu Shami says she’s one of the lucky ones.
“The situation is so bad. And there is not enough support like drugs, food, milk that children like her need,” he says.
I ask him what happens to children like Bashira who don’t get help.
“They will die,” he replies.
The war erupted out of an Arab Spring uprising.
But the conflict cannot be resolved through military might – the coalition believes controlling the main commercial port will clinch victory and restore Yemen’s internationally recognised government.
The path to a political settlement will not be easy – the roads are littered with IEDs and landmines.
Emirati forces are clearing and destroying them every day but even if the latest talks are successful the risk of further violence is great.
We were shown 1,200 anti-tank mines and 396 IEDs collected from various locations along the west coast of Yemen.
They were taken to the town of Mocha and destroyed.
But for now the stalemate remains and it is delicate.
Both sides have agreed to withdrawal measures but because the issue is so sensitive no timeline has been agreed.
If the negotiations fail, the lull in the fighting may not last much longer and the disaster of a full-scale offensive on Hodeidah may become reality.
The UK welcomed the agreement but urged all sides in the conflict to continue working together.
A Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesperson said: “The UK welcomes progress made on agreeing redeployment of troops from Hodeidah by the government of Yemen and the Houthis this weekend.
“This encouraging progress represents a significant step forward in the political process. But more careful work remains to be done.
“The UK urges all parties to continue to work with the UN Special Envoy to rapidly finalise and implement the agreed plan.
“As the foreign secretary re-emphasised alongside UAE, US and Saudi Arabian foreign ministers at the Yemen Quad in Warsaw, a political settlement remains the only way to bring long-term stability to Yemen and to address the worsening humanitarian crisis.
“The Yemeni parties must engage constructively and in good faith to overcome obstacles and find a political solution to end the conflict.”
Kashmir: India-Pakistan tensions flare as more soldiers are killed in gun battle | World News
Tensions in the disputed Kashmir region have escalated further after four Indian soldiers, three suspected militants, a police official and a civilian were killed during a gun battle.
The nine deaths come after a local Kashmiri militant rammed a van fitted with explosives into a paramilitary bus on Thursday, killing at least 40 soldiers.
The suicide bombing was the worst attack against Indian government forces in Kashmir’s history.
Security officials said the latest fighting broke out after government forces surrounded a village in the region of southern Pulwama, following a tip-off that militants were hiding out there.
Monday’s violence saw a senior police officer, an army officer and another three soldiers wounded.
Police said troops had come under heavy gunfire as they started conducting searches.
Residents reported troops destroying one house with explosives during the stand-off.
The bodies of two militants were recovered from the debris and a civilian was killed in the crossfire, according to police.
Among the soldiers killed in the gun battle was an Indian army major. One of the wounded soldiers is reportedly in a critical condition.
Anti-India protests and clashes followed the fighting, with residents – mainly young people – trying to march to the site of the stand-off in solidarity with the rebels.
Government troops fired tear gas at the protesters, who were reportedly throwing stones.
India has blamed Pakistan over Thursday’s suicide bombing as tensions continue to grow between the neighbouring nations.
New Delhi has promised a “jaw-breaking response” to the attack.
However, Pakistan has warned India not to link it with the bombing without an investigation and said it was part of New Delhi’s “known rhetoric and tactics” to divert attention from human rights violations in Kashmir.
Both India and Pakistan administer part of Kashmir but both sides claim the entire region belongs to them.
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