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UK's last day in the European Union — as it happened

January 31, 2020

As the European Union bids farewell to the UK, the EU chiefs have warned: "Strength does not lie in splendid isolation but in our unique union." Follow us live as we track this momentous day.

A massive banner by the campaign group Another Europe is Possible is hung off Westminster Bridge in London
Image: picture-alliance/empics/D. Lipinski
  • The United Kingdom will leave the European Union at midnight Brussels time
  • British MEPs have left the European Parliament for the last time
  • European leaders warn the UK cannot expect unfettered access to the European market

All updates in Coordinated Universal Time (UTC/GMT)

22:05 Now you have had the highlights of Boris Johnson's Facebook address, for those that want to gorge on the whole speech can do so here.

22:00 In a public address broadcast one hour before Brexit, Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised a "new era of friendly cooperation" with the European Union. He also said there may be "bumps in the road" ahead but vowed that the departure was an opportunity for "stunning success."

"The most important thing to say tonight is that this is not an end but a beginning," he said in a pre-recorded statement from Downing Street.

"For many people this is an astonishing moment of hope, a moment they thought would never come," Johnson said. "And there are many of course who feel a sense of anxiety and loss."

21:57 Having heard from Macron and Merkel, and while we wait for Johnson, a 39-year-old butcher called Mark Leeds told Reuters beside parliament: "Well for three and a half years they’ve been trying to stop it from happening, but we are getting our independence back."

21:48 Tension is building in the UK as Britons wait with baited breath to hear what their prime minister, Boris Johnson, has to say. Read about it here in 12 minutes, which will be Brexit minus one hour.

21:03 For those wanting a reminder of what the White House thinks, Washington shares the "optimism and excitement" about Britain's future away from the shackles of the EU and hopes to negotiate a "broad free-trade agreement" after Brexit, the US ambassador to London said. "Today is a historic day in British history," ambassador Woody Johnson continued in a statement.

Johnson said US President Donald Trump had "long supported the United Kingdom's sovereign decision to withdraw from the European Union."

"Now that the UK is back in control of its own trade policy, we look forward to achieving a broad free-trade agreement that will increase prosperity and create jobs in both our countries," he said.

20:30 Flags have certainly played their part over the last four years, and today has been no different. Another ceremonial removal of the Union Jack has occurred with the European Parliament in Brussels following the Council's lead.

20:21 Pro-Brexit demonstrations in London are in full swing along with banners trumpeting sovereignty and democracy.

Pro-Brexit demonstration, London
Image: DW/B. Wesel

19:56 Brussels is on the move as its public transport operator, STIB, issued a fond farewell to the UK by posting a video on Twitter reminding its followers of all the stops that carry the name of a British person or place in the Belgian capital.

From Churchill, Darwin and Montgomery to Dover, Lancaster and Liverpool – the video was shared along with the message of "always welcome in Brussels."

19:15 The Ursula von der Leyen exclusive interview you've all been waiting for is now here, ready to watch.

Von der Leyen: 'It's a very emotional day'

19:00 Brexit minus four hours and European officials have removed the British flag from the ceremonial entrance of the European Council in Brussels. The Council represents member states and hosts EU summits. The Union Jacks outside the parliament buildings in Brussels and Strasbourg are expected to come down in the coming hours.

European Council, Brussels
The flags at the European Council show a space where the Union Jack once stoodImage: Getty Images/AFP/O. Hoslet

18:33 DW's Max Hofmann has been speaking to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen about her personal relationship with the UK and the upcoming trade negotiations. "It's always sad when a family member chooses to be on the outside. And indeed, I have many, many friends in the UK. I studied there for one year. I have relatives in the UK, some of my children have been studying in the UK. So, a lot of bonds."

When asked what she would miss most about the UK no longer being an EU member state the recently installed president said: "I'll miss their pragmatism. It helped a lot. They were always very down to earth. I'll certainly miss their wonderful British sense of humor and well, this is it. So from tomorrow on we'll have to deal with our British friends as a third country."

18:23 One of the less obvious shifts as a result of Brexit is the geopolitical one. Come midnight, the German village of Gadheim will become the new geographical center of the EU as the alignment shifts due to the UK's absence.

18:05 Theresa May is the third former British Prime Minister to speak. "At 11 p.m. tonight, Britain will leave the European Union. After more than three years, we can finally say that we have delivered on the result of the 2016 referendum and have kept faith with the British people," May, who quit last summer after failing to deliver Brexit, said.

Anyone know John Major's or Gordon Brown's thoughts? You'll get them here when we have them to complete the quintuplet.

17:55 In post-Brexit sunlit uplands update, roughly 700 British nationals will continue to work for the European Commission after tonight's official departure, despite a rule stating that officials of the EU must be citizens from a member state. A commission spokesperson confirmed that British nationals who already work for the European Commission must only quit their job if a conflict of interest or international obligation deem it necessary.

17:44 Macron's concern did not end there, as he felt the European Union needed to react to the recent turn of events. "This departure is a shock. It's a historic warning sign which must... be heard by all of Europe and make us reflect," Macron said.

The French president repeated his heavy criticism of the campaign to that led to the UK's departure. "The Brexit campaign in 2016 was made up of lies, exaggerations and simplifications. We must always remember what lies can lead to in our democracies."

17:36 President Emmanuel Macron has said that although France wanted to maintain a close relationship with the UK, it could not expect to be treated the same way as when it was part of the bloc.

"You can't be in and out," Macron said in a televised address. "The British people chose to leave the European Union. It won't have the same obligations, so it will no longer have the same rights."

17:03 The postal service in Austria has issued a special Brexit stamp. The stamps were originally made last year with the UK's initially proposed exit date — March 29, 2019. However, with the delays on Britain's departure from the bloc over the last nine months they never got the seal of approval, until now.

Österreichische Post Sonderbriefmarke zum Brexit
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Österreichische Post

However, Austria Post did not wish to design new stamps, so instead went with the old date crossed out, and the new date of January 31 2020 written underneath.

"It would have been a waste to throw them away," Austria Post spokesman Michael Homola told news agency dpa.

The 140,000 Brexit stamps that were produced have a value of €1.80 ($1.98), enough to send a standard letter or postcard from Austria to a variety of global destinations.

"I am sure it will end up in many collections, but I'm also sure that a few people will surprise their relatives in Britain with a letter carrying this stamp," Homola added.

Read more: US top diplomat Pompeo promises 'enormous benefits' to Brexit on UK trip

16:40 More comments emanating from German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She has released a video statement on the UK's imminent departure from the bloc, saying: "It cuts deep for Germany and all the remaining 27 member states, but we want to remain a close partner and friend of Britain."

Merkel continued: "We are going to hold intensive negotiations with the British — that will define this year, particularly in the areas of economy and trade."

"A lot will depend on Britain. The more Britain moves away from the conditions of the single market, the more our future relationship will have to change," she said.

16:26  The Belgian port of Zeebrugge is going through a surge in traffic, as trucks struggle to make a last minute dash to the UK before it formally leaves the EU in a matter of hours, according to federal police. "Apparently, drivers want to embark today rather than tomorrow, as Brexit is officially today," news agency Belga quoted Sarah Frederickx of the Belgian police as saying. "This is pure panic because it changes nothing for freight traffic," she added.

16:06 In other former British prime minister's opinion news, Tony Blair thinks the UK has to make the best of what he describes as a regrettable situation. "I opposed Brexit with every fiber of my political being. I still deeply regret it, politically and emotionally... But Brexit is happening, and our attitude now should be to strive to make the best of it; to approach it with determined optimism, not looking over our shoulders in unrequited longing for what was."

15:48 The man who set the Brexit ball rolling, who called the referendum almost four years ago, ex-Prime Minister David Cameron, has been speaking to Sky News, and he believes the UK has a bright future. "It's obviously a very big day for our country," said Cameron, who quit immediately after the result was revealed in June 2016. "I always accepted the referendum result and knew this day would come. We are one of the biggest economies in the world ... we can make a success of the choice that we make and I'm sure that's exactly what we will do."

15.39 Away from Europe, it would seem there are other parties with a take on today's proceedings. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has told British newspaper The Daily Telegraph: "The British people wanted out of the tyranny of Brussels," Pompeo said. "They wanted the capacity to make their own decisions. We want that for the British people too."

15:30 In social media news, Facebook has offered its users the opportunity of portraying the European Union's twelve stars on their profile pictures for the day.

15:13 Former president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, has expressed solidarity as he said: "My dear British friends. We were, we are, and we will always be a Community. And no Brexit will ever change that."

14:26 London's mayor, Sadiq Kahn, has simply tweeted: "London is European," along with a video extolling the virtues of an open, welcoming British capital.

14:10 This is Alistair Walsh signing off. Thank you for staying with us at DW. I am handing over the Brexit live blog to my colleague John Silk who will keep you updated.

14:07 Remain protesters are making themselves heard across the country, some more lively, others restrained.

The Guardian newspaper has the words "bollocks to Brexit" hidden in its crossword.

Activists let off flares on Westminster Bridge, unfurling a banner that said "Here to stay, here to fight. Migrants in, Tories out."

Protesters in Northern Ireland have unveiled billboards at the border, lamenting the departure.

And some councils are making their voices heard, including the Oxford City Council.

13:50 Politico is reporting that the European Conservatives and Reformists group in the European Parliament has fired all its British staffers and plans to replace them with Polish nationals.

It reported that British staff were fired without prior notice after MEPs voted in favor of the Withdrawal Agreement.

13:25 Pro-EU group Led By Donkeys earlier projected a message of unity on the white cliffs of Dover alongside a giant EU flag.

13:10 Speaking on tariffs, Nicole Sykes, the head of EU Negotiations for the Confederation of British Industry, which represents 190,000 businesses, told DW Business's Monika Jones: "It does seem that we are going to have to talk about areas where there is disagreement first, these things about financial services and fishing, get some of those difficult issues done," said Sykes. 

Sykes added that businesses in the UK are "pragmatic" and don't want to see tariffs on either side. 

"We know that there wont be frictionless trade anymore," said Sykes. "We know there are going to be frictions. So how do we manage the costs, manage the complexities. Huge amount of details to deal with.  But we do think that those will be kicking off soon. We're expecting announcements next week to lay out the expectations from both sides."

12:26 Are you a Brit wondering about job opportunities in the EU? Or vice versa? Here's what will (and what won't) change for you.

12:18 Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is pushing for another referendum on Scottish independence, though she needs the permission of the national government to call one.

Sturgeon on Friday said her government may test the legal boundaries of calling a non-binding vote on independence.

"Should the UK government continue to deny Scotland's right to choose, we may reach the point where it is necessary for this issue to be tested," she said. "I am not ruling that out."

Sturgeon said Brexit will be "a moment of real and profound sadness for many of us across the UK." "And here in Scotland, given that it is happening against the will of the vast majority of us, that sadness will be tinged with anger."

The Scottish Parliament will not be taking down the EU flag on Friday night in a symbol of opposition to Brexit. Two government buildings will also be lit up in the blue and yellow of the EU flag.

Scottish Brexit Secretary Mike Russell called on the EU to "leave a light on for Scotland" in preparation of its eventual return.

Read more: Top EU lawmaker raises prospect of easy Scottish return to EU

12:05  New figures show that last year the eurozone economy recorded its worst year of growth since the 2013 debt crisis. Statistics agency Eurostat reports in its first estimate for the quarter that the eurozone grew just 0.1% from the previous three-month period. Over the entire 2019 the eurozone grew by just 1.2%.

On Friday, London's FTSE 100 slipped 0.4% to mid-December levels. In Europe on Friday, bank stocks lifted European shares with the pan-European STOXX 600 rising 0.2%.

For more on the economic impact of Brexit, DW Business have this:

Read more: As Brexit day arrives, more economic pain for UK is inevitable

11:57 One British region that stands to suffer is Gibraltar. Chief Minister Fabian Picardo told Spain's TVE: "My government and most of the citizens of Gibraltar have deep regrets about what is about to happen." 

"For us, today is not a day to be celebrated."

Gibraltar, on the southern tip of Spain, has been under British sovereignty since 1713. In the 2016 referendum, 96% of the region voted to remain. 

DW spoke to businesses on the ground about their future.

11:49 With Brexit a done-deal, Germans are reflecting on the events that led to this moment. Among them is Franziska Brantner, a German lawmaker with the environmentalist Greens, who serves on the German parliament's European Union and Foreign Affairs Committees.

"There was so much fake news, so many lies out there," she told DW's Austin Davis. "Probably we should have engaged more as European citizens in the referendum campaign. We should all have come and protested against the lies and put out our common vision for a better Europe."

11:22 Belgian Finance Minister Alexander De Croo has said he fears that Brexit could mean a power shift in favor of Germany and France. "One senses that this Franco-German axis is becoming much more important again. And frankly this is not a good thing for Belgium," the liberal vice-premier told Belgian channel LN24.

He said France and Germany could now "decide any nonsense and the others must follow."

11:20 German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert told a press conference that Brexit marks a "sea change" for the bloc.

"We regret (Brexit), and we think the majority of the German population feel the same, but we respect the decision," Seibert said, adding that Berlin hopes Britain will continue to be a "close partner and friend."

"As the German government, we will continue to rely on Britain being a close partner, a friend," he said.

He said the government hoped to continue the long-standing friendship on the basis of common democratic values based on the rule of law, which are also the values of Europe. He said European integration has brought peace and prosperity to Europe and has given the continent a strong voice in a world that is constantly changing.

"We are determined to continue this European success story together with the other 26 European member states that are now our partners." 

11:06 Here is a look at how Brexit will affect a small British village that voted in favor of the departure. 

10:56 DW's Brexit-weary commentator Rob Mudge writes in an opinion piece: "Brexit will leave Britain broken, a disunited kingdom. Geographically it has always been removed from continental Europe. That distance will become increasingly palpable politically, economically and socially."

10:53 Just like Brexit, so too can sport both divide and unite us. Read here for how Brexit will affect British sport.

10:42 The EU leaders stressed that if the UK wishes to have access to the European market, they must abide by its rules. Von der Leyen said: "The next few months will be decisive for the future relationship. The EU will defend its interests in a determined manner. Only those who acknowledge the rules of the common market can benefit fully from it. As good friends we can negotiate fairly and toughly."

Michel said: "The more the UK will diverge from the EU standards, the less the access to the single market they will have."

Von der Leyen used the opportunity to set the scene for the future goals of the EU, tackling climate change, the digital revolution, managing migration and building strong partnerships across the globe.

10:24 European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel and the President of the European Parliament David Sassoli have delivered a message of unity and hope for the future of the EU. They said it was important for the EU to become more ambitious and deliver more for its citizens. They said it was a painful day for the EU, but they will not look back.

"The sun will still rise tomorrow," said Von der Leyen. She said it was an opportunity for the EU to lead on the world stage.

"Strength does not lie in splendid isolation but in our unique union," she said. "We want to have the best possible relationship with the UK but it will never replicate the benefits of membership."

10:07 Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has warned that a failure to reach a post-Brexit trade deal represents an 'existential threat' to Ireland.

"I am confident we can get a good deal. The good news is that I don't think the two parties — the EU on one side and Britain on the other — are all that far apart. Further apart in rhetoric than substance," Varadkar said in a speech.

"The UK would like to see a trade deal this year and it's possible. Particularly if the new trade deal is very similar to the current arrangements. It will be difficult though."

 "A failure to secure a trade deal would be a major threat, and an existential threat to our economy in 2021, so we do need that deal."

10:05 European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel and the President of the European Parliament David Sassoli are due to address the European Parliament in a session titled "The Future of Europe." 

It is scheduled to start now and you can watch it live here.

See our 07:45 update for their joint statement in which they warned the UK could not expect unfettered access to the European market.

09:50 While European papers have been largely unified in their response (see our 09:09 update), British papers are sharply divided.

Notorious Euroskeptic tabloid The Sun plastered its front page with "Our time has come" alongside an image of Big Ben.

Right-wing populist tabloid The Daily Mail declares "A New Dawn for Britain."

Pro-EU broadsheet The Guardian called it "the biggest gamble in a generation," saying the UK is a "small island" with a picture of a crumbling sandcastle.

Murdoch's center-right The Times had a cartoon of Boris Johnson leaping out the EU frying pan into the fire of Trump's orange hair.

The Financial Times writes: "Britain bows out of EU with a mixture of optimism and regret."

The right-wing Daily Telegraph writes: "This is not an end but a beginning," with remarks from Boris Johnson.

Scotland's papers were notably less jubilant, given most of the region voted against Brexit.  

The Scotsman ran "Farewell, not goodbye", with farewell translated into 24 European languages.

09:30 Brexit Party MEPs have forgone tact and have marched out waving Union Jacks and accompanied by a bagpipes playing Cock o' the North. Ann Widdecombe, 72, led the jubilant procession, shouting "Goodbye! We won't be coming back," as she left. They plan to take the Eurostar train to London and join Farage's party described in our 08:45 update.

09:17 Planning to travel to the UK from Europe or vice versa? Here's what you need to know.

09:14 German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas posted a message on Twitter in which he mourns Brexit and calls for successful negotiations on their future relationship.

"I am relieved that we were able to prevent 'no deal' chaos. But it is still a shame that Britain is leaving."

"I hope that we can agree to a new partnership. Tomorrow, we open a new chapter," he wrote.

German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier told ZDF public broadcaster: "We must look ahead and make sure that the European Union becomes stronger and not weaker."

09:11 British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn said in a statement calling for an outward world view. 

"Britain’s place in the world will change. The question is what direction we now take."

"We can work with other countries to develop trade, improve rights and protections, invest in our communities, tackle the threat of climate catastrophe, fight human rights abuses and promote peace.

"We can build a truly internationalist, diverse and outward-looking Britain. Or we can turn inwards, and trade our principles, rights and standards to secure hastily arranged, one-sided, race-to-the-bottom trade deals with Donald Trump and others."

09:09 European newspapers have been varied in their responses, but overall they call for the EU to learn lessons from Britain's departure, and agree the EU is worse off without the UK.

France's left-leaning daily Liberation writes: "We simply love them, the British, even if they leave. But we also accuse them of having given in to this anti-European populist wave on which Boris Johnson has ridden." The paper partly blames the EU for Brexit, saying it failed in revitalizing the European dream.

Le Parisien writes: "If the economy of 'independent' Britain collapses, it is proof that the European Union is a boon for all member states. But if the British economy flourishes, the euroskeptics will have a weighty argument to justify their divisive speeches. In either case, the shock waves should not be taken lightly."

Spanish newspaper El País writes: "The UK has the right to take this wrong path it has chosen, even if support for it was low in the referendum. It is their decision. But Europeans now also have the right to make decisions in their own interests. It is even appropriate to put the interests of European citizens above everything else."

Belgium's De Standaard: "The fact that the British must voluntarily leave this large free market and at the same time try to gain access to it again shows how absurd the whole Brexit idea is. And yet there is a feeling of unease and melancholy when the British leave, even in Europe, although they have always had the stamp of the troublemaker since they joined in 1973. The question is even whether one can still speak of a "European" Union when the country that, for centuries, shaped the identity and culture of the continent no longer wants to belong. Of course this influence will not suddenly disappear ... But an EU without Britain will become a poorer union in many areas." 

Sweden's liberal daily Dagens Nyheter writes: "Brexit is a hard blow for globalization and the European project. Close cooperation between the EU and the UK is the best way to limit the damage. Negotiations on the future relationship will be difficult and will require hard compromises - on both sides. But the stronger the resulting links will be, the greater the chance that Brexit will only be a one-off example of de-globalization - a temporary setback rather than an unfortunate turning point."

Czech conservative newspaper Lidove noviny writes: "Britain's withdrawal from the EU has a more definitive character in its consequences than the disintegration of Czechoslovakia. When the Czech Republic and Slovakia later joined the European Union and the Schengen area it was as if the common state had been restored in practical matters like the free movement of workers and travelers. This is not the case for Britain and the EU. ... Without Britain there will be fewer complications in Brussels, but also less diversity and debate culture. Instead there will be more unity and herd mentality. It's a pity that the EU leaders have not yet understood this."

Latvian national-conservative daily Neatkariga Rita Avize writes: "Neither today nor tomorrow will change, because there is a transitional period which will last at least until the end of the year. What is difficult to predict, however, is whether London and Brussels will be able to reach agreement on future coexistence during this period."

Conservative Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita writes: "None of the remaining 27 EU member states have the advantages of Great Britain: its world language, its cultural influence, its geographical location, its support from America. Nevertheless: if Brussels doesn't draw thorough lessons from Brexit it's easy to imagine that in another country public opinion on the subject of integration could change in a similar way to that in Britain. 

08:45 As Europeans and pro-unity Brits mourn their departure, Brexit apostle Nigel Farage has planned gleeful celebrations in London.

The arch-Brexiteer has planned a "Brexit Celebration" rally for his supporters in Parliament Square, where they plan to sing patriotic songs and listen to speeches.

The veteran euroskeptic delivered an exultant speech during his last day as a member of the European Parliament on Wednesday, declaring Britain was "never coming back" as he waved Union Jack flags.

Fellow euroskeptics have also planned a "have your cake and eat it" picnic in central London, in mockery of European criticisms of British Brexit demands. Organizer Lucy Harris, an outgoing MEP, wrote on the event's website: "Now it's time to celebrate this historic day."

08:19 Boris Johnson will address the nation in a reportedly pre-recorded speech at 10 p.m. UTC/GMT tonight. His office has released extracts of the speech, in which he will call for national unity and present a rosy future for the UK.

"Our job as the government, my job, is to bring this country together and take us forward," he will say, according to the official extracts. "This is not an end but a beginning. This is the moment when the dawn breaks and the curtain goes up on a new act.

"This is the dawn of a new era in which we no longer accept that your life chances — your family’s life chances — should depend on which part of the country you grow up in.

"This is the moment when we begin to unite and level up.

"And the most important thing to say tonight is that this is not an end but a beginning."

Ahead of his planned speech, Johnson is due to host a special cabinet meeting in the north-eastern English city of Sunderland — an early adopter of the pro-Brexit wave.  

07:55 How did we actually get to this point? Spoilers, you can partially thank David Cameron. Watch here:

07:50 Are you wondering what will actually change tonight? We've got you covered. I recommend Rob Mudge's piece here  that spells out exactly what to expect.

An extract: 

Britain will remain in the single market, the customs union and will continue paying into the EU budget. British citizens can continue to move freely, work and study in the EU while EU nationals in the UK have the same rights.

Read more: Brexit day: All change on January 31?

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel and the President of the European meet in France
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel and the President of the European say Brexit has unified the remaining statesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Pignatelli

07:45 There will be volumes of commentary coming out today. But we lead with a joint statement from European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel and the President of the European Parliament David Sassoli, published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung today. They write of their sadness at the departure of the UK, but warn that they cannot expect unfettered access to the European market. 

In the weeks, months and years ahead, we will have no choice but to loosen some of the ties that the EU and the UK have so carefully woven over five decades. At the same time, we will have to fight hard to find new ways of working together for our future as allies, partners and friends.

Even though the United Kingdom is no longer a member of the EU, it remains part of Europe. Our common geography, our history and our connections in so many areas inevitably bind us together and make us natural allies. In foreign policy, security, and defense, we will continue to work together with common goals and common interests.

But the way we work together will change. We do not underestimate the task ahead, but we are confident that with goodwill and determination we can build a lasting, positive and meaningful partnership.

But tomorrow will also mark the dawn of a new era for Europe. In recent years we have grown closer - as nations, as institutions and as people. In this time we have all been reminded that the European Union is more than a market or an economic power; that it stands for values that are common to us all and that we stand for. How much stronger we are when we stand together.

07:40 Good morning and welcome to our Brexit day live blog. I (Alistair Walsh) will be leading this blog for the next six hours.

The day has finally come. No more delays, no more extensions. Brexit happens tonight. The UK has been a part of this extraordinary peace project for more than 47 years. But three and half years ago it voted to remove itself. The decision has torn the country apart, and compromised the unity of the EU. 

Join us today as we follow the final moments of the UK's membership in the EU.

John Silk Editor and writer for English news, as well as the Culture and Asia Desks.@JSilk