Explained | What is the row over UK’s Rosebank oil field?

The story so far: Angering enivronmental activists across United Kingdom (U.K), the British government okayed one of the country’s biggest new oil and gas projects —the North Sea Rosebank field— on September 27. The Rishi Sunak government claims that the project was essential for securing the nation’s energy demands.

The move comes mere days after UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a delay in the ban on sales of new petrol cars from 2030 to 2035, claiming that he needed the public’s support in switching to net zero (carbon emissions). Mr. Sunak claims that Britain could afford to make slower progress in net zero emissions by 2050 as it was ‘so far ahead of every other country in the world’. The watering down of Britain climate action has triggered fears of other European nations following suit.

Mr. Sunak has stood firm by his decision to green light Rosebank, stating that it was a necessary domestic source of fossil fuel and that Britain would still be dependent on oil and gas as one of its fuel sources by 2050. His Energy Security Minister Claire Coutinho has stated that Rosebank will produce less emissions as it would eventually electrify the oil extraction process.

What is the Rosebank field project?

Located 130 kilometres north-west of Shetland islands, the Rosebank oil field was first discovered in 2004 by Chevron. While oil reserve capacity was demonstrated in 2019, the field has remained untapped till now. In 2019, Norwegian oil company Equinor acquired the licences for the project from Chevron. Known for tackling challenging deepwater untapped reserves, this joint venture by Equinor (80%) and British oil honcho Ithaca (20%) will drill for oil at a depth of 1100 metres under water. The project will be developed in two phases, with the first oil extraction scheduled for 2026.

Map of Rosebank oil field

Estimated to pump 300 million barrels of oil, the Rosebank field will comprise of 8% of UK’s total oil production and is estimated to generate 1,600 jobs during construction and 450 UK-based jobs throughout its lifetime — till 2051. Equinor estimates that the project investment will amount to £8.1 billion, of which £3.1 billion has already been invested in the first phase.

The project will reuse a Floating Production Storage and Offloading vessel (FPSO) previously owned by Altera Infrastructure. An FPSO is a ship-like structure which receives fluids through risers from subsea reservoirs and then separates them into crude oil, natural gas, water and impurities. In order to reduce carbon emissions, the FPSO will be prepared for future electrification, cutting down the upstream carbon dioxide (CO2) intensity from 12kg/boe (barrels of oil equivalent) to less than 3 kg/boe.

The Norwegian oil producer had first submitted its environmental proposal in August 2022, which was open for public consultation till September 2022. While initially questioning Equinor about the environmental impact of the project, the North Sea Transition Authority — UK’s oil and gas regulator— okayed the project after considering the project’s net zero action throughout its lifetime. After Equinor made a final investment decision, the Sunak government okayed the project on September 27, 2023, despite protests by climate activists.

The floating production storage and offloading (FPSO) unit for Rosebank, Petrojarl Knarr

The floating production storage and offloading (FPSO) unit for Rosebank, Petrojarl Knarr

Conservatives, Labour & Scotland: Where do they stand on Rosebank?

Throwing his weight behind Rosebank, Mr. Sunak highlighted how important the North Sea oilfield was for UK’s energy security and economy. In an interview with BBC Scotland, he said, “I don’t want our children to be dependent on foreign dictators like Putin for our energy”.

He added that while UK will switch to clean energy, he would prefer to use gas from domestic sources during the transition rather than “import [gas] from abroad at four times the carbon emissions.” The UK government has stated that if investment in new North Sea oil projects is stopped, the nation’s fuel imports will increase by 10% by 2035.

Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaves the stage after delivers a speech during a press conference on net zero targets, at the Downing Street Briefing Room, in central London, on September 20, 2023.

Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaves the stage after delivers a speech during a press conference on net zero targets, at the Downing Street Briefing Room, in central London, on September 20, 2023.
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Surprisingly, the Labour party, which opposes development in the North Sea, has said it will not reverse the approval to develop Rosebank if it wins the general election in 2025. Its leader Mr. Keir Starmer said that the party would accept the projects it inherits from this government to ensure stability, if it comes to power in 2025. His remarks were met by protests by Labour supporters outside shadow cabinet members’ offices.

Pulling up the Sunak government for reversing its net zero policies, Ed Miliband, the shadow Secretary of State for Energy Security said that the Labour party will tackle cost of living crisis and the climate crisis in tandem. Claiming that Conservatives lacked a vision for future economic growth, Mr. Miliband asserted that the only way to bring down household bills and secure UK’s economic future was by switching to green energy.

Criticising Mr. Sunak, Scotland’s first Minister Humza Yousaf claimed that Downing Street was in ‘climate denial.’ Taking to the microblogging site X (formerly Twitter), Mr. Yousaf pointed out that as Equinor planned to sell Rosebank’s oil at global prices, the fuel extracted from the site would not remain in Scotland or UK. He also slammed the UK government’s decision to commit to approving 100 new oil & gas licences, posting, “That isn’t climate leadership. It is climate denial.”

Why are climate activists opposing Rosebank?

Climate activists have already been seething over Mr. Sunak’s decision to water down the UK’s climate goals. Activists say that by pushing the ban on new petrol and diesel cars to 2035 and easing transition of home gas boilers to heat pumps, the UK will not be able to achieve its legally-binding 2050 net zero target. By estimations, Rosebank’s carbon emissions will be three times that of the nearby Cambo oil field — approximately 200 million tonnes of CO2, equivalent to operating 56 coal-fired power stations for one year.

Activists stage a protest against Rosebank outside a government Office in Edinburgh

Activists stage a protest against Rosebank outside a government Office in Edinburgh

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has indicatedthat for limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, no new oil and gas projects can be developed. The IEA has also estimated that demand for fossil fuels will fall by 80% by 2050 as more and more people switch to electric cars and solar panels. Hence, big oil fields like Rosebank are unnecessary for meeting energy demands, says the IEA.

Several British lawmakers have pointed out that Rosebank will not aid in bringing down household electric bills as most of the oil extracted (90%) will be sold to the global market across Europe. Equinor, meanwhile, has stated that its oil will be transported via the West of Shetland pipeline to support Europe’s ‘energy security.’ This will ultimately end up in the UK grid, securing the nation’s energy needs, the company avers.

What are the ecological effects?

The North Sea’s Faroe-Shetland Sponge Belt is host to deep sea sponges, a variety of clams and quahogs, already subject to a fragile ecosystem. In a protest held in January outside Downing Street, activists displayed a four-metre whale model — emphasizing the havoc oil pipelines will create when laid underwater along the migration corridor of the fin whale and the sperm whale.

During construction, noise pollution and sediment plumes would likely disrupt habitats of shellfish, marine mammals and cephalopods. Drilling may also harm delicate marine creatures like sponges, corals and slow-moving mammals. The biggest threat to marine life, however, is a deep-sea oil spill which would spread faster due to sea currents, damaging fauna like multiple species of fish, dolphins, orcas, and birds and disrupting the food chain in the area.

Windfall tax & oil incentives

Activists have also claimed that the UK tax-payers will hand over £3.75 billion to Equinor via tax breaks awarded to them by the government, just to develop Rosebank field for oil extraction. They further claim that once the plant is operational, the tax-payers are set to lose more than £750 million as Equinor will reap benefits from future tax breaks and profits earned in its oil sale.

Equinor’s Mariner field in the UK North Sea

Equinor’s Mariner field in the UK North Sea

However, Equinor and the UK government refuted any tax benefit for the oil company due to Rosefield. In the wake of the massive profits earned by oil companies during the initial days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the UK levied a 35% windfall tax called the Energy Profits Levy beyond the 40% corporation tax already imposed on oil and gas firms. Currently, oil companies like Equinor and Ithaca pay a 75% tax on their UK profits until 2028.

On the other hand, on June 9, 2023, the UK government announced the Energy Security Investment Mechanism which will go into effect post-March 2028. Under this scheme, if oil prices fall to normal levels (pre-Ukraine invasion rates) for a sustained period, then the tax for oil companies will return to 40%. The move is aimed attract investment in UK’s domestic oil fields — especially the North Sea region.

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Tycoon Mohamed Al Fayed, whose son was killed in crash with Princess Diana, dies at 94

Few things were beyond the reach of billionaire Egyptian tycoon Mohamed Al Fayed who has died at the age of 94.

Hotels, yachts and a football club were bought with ease but he never acquired the recognition he craved.

His son Dodi’s fateful relationship with princess Diana might have been the moment Fayed finally gained acceptance by the British “Establishment” elite.

Instead it marked his permanent estrangement after he insisted – without evidence – that Queen Elizabeth II‘s husband Prince Philip had ordered the Paris car crash in which Diana and Dodi were killed to prevent her marrying a Muslim.

Fayed lived most of his life in Britain, where for decades he was never far from the headlines.

But to his frustration he was never granted UK citizenship nor admitted into the upper echelons of British society.

Fayed will be remembered most for his outspoken and often foul-mouthed manner, his revenge on the Conservative party, his controversial purchase of the Harrods department store, and his ownership of Fulham football club and the Ritz hotel in Paris.

Al Fayed owned the Harrods department store in west London. © Carl De Souza, AFP

With a business empire encompassing shipping, property, banking, oil, retail and construction, Fayed was also a philanthropist, whose foundation helped children in the UK, Thailand and Mongolia.

His gift for self-invention – he added the “Al-” prefix to his surname and a 1988 UK government report described his claims of wealthy ancestry as “completely bogus” – led segments of the British press to dub him the “Phoney Pharoah.”

Humble origins

Far from being the scion of a dynasty of cotton and shipping barons he made himself out to be, Fayed was the son of a poor Alexandrian school-teacher who, after an early venture flogging lemonade, set out in business selling sewing machines.

He later had the good luck to start working for the arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, who recognised his business abilities and employed him in his furniture export business in Saudi Arabia.

He also owned the Ritz hotel in Paris, from where Diana and Dodi made their fateful final journey.
He also owned the Ritz hotel in Paris, from where Diana and Dodi made their fateful final journey. © Jacques Demarthon, AFP

He became an advisor to the Sultan of Brunei in the mid-1960s and moved to Britain in the 1970s.

Fayed bought the Ritz in 1979 with his brother and the pair snapped up Harrods six years later after a long and bitter takeover battle with British businessman Roland “Tiny” Rowland.

A subsequent government investigation into the takeover, officially published in 1990, found that Fayed and his brother had been dishonest about their wealth and origins to secure the takeover.

They called the claims unfair. Five years later, his first application for British citizenship was rejected.

Revenge followed swiftly. Soon after, Fayed told the press that he had paid Conservative MPs to ask questions in parliament on his behalf.

This brought down two prominent politicians, while Fayed also exposed Cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken’s involvement in a Saudi arms deal.

Aitken was later jailed for perjury and perverting the course of justice.

Paris tragedy

The defining tragedy of Fayed’s life came in August 1997: Dodi and Princess Diana died when a car driven by one of Fayed’s employees, chauffeur Henri Paul, crashed in a Paris road tunnel.

For years afterwards, Fayed refused to accept the deaths were the result of speeding and intoxication by Paul, who also died.

Dodi's death in the tragedy was largely eclipsed by Diana's.
Dodi’s death in the tragedy was largely eclipsed by Diana’s. © Mohammed Al-Sehiti, AFP

The distraught Fayed accused the royal family of being behind the deaths and commissioned two memorials to the couple at Harrods.

One, unveiled in 1998, was a kitsch pyramid-shaped display with photos of Diana and Dodi, a wine glass purported to be from their final dinner and a ring that he claimed his son bought for the princess.

The other, a copper statue of the couple releasing an albatross, was entitled “Innocent Victims” – a reflection of his view that Dodi and Diana “were murdered”.

Fayed’s claims against the royal family came at a price.

Harrods lost a royal warrant bestowed by Prince Philip in 2000 after what Buckingham Palace called “a significant decline in the trading relationship” between the prince and the store.

Al-Fayed commissioned two memorials to the couple, insisting they were going to be married
Al-Fayed commissioned two memorials to the couple, insisting they were going to be married © John D. McHugh, AFP

Later that year, Fayed ordered the removal of all remaining royal warrants – effectively a regal seal of approval – for supplying the queen, queen mother and Prince Charles, the now King Charles III.

The Establishment “dislike my outspokenness and determination to get the truth”, he said, as he announced his exile to Switzerland in 2003 because of his claims and what he said was the “unfair” treatment at the hands of the tax authorities.

Sporting success

Fayed sold Harrods in 2010 to the investment arm of Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund for a reported £1.5 billion ($2.2 billion), although it was once reported he wanted to remain there even in death.

He told the Financial Times in 2002 that he wanted his body to be put on display in a glass mausoleum on Harrods roof “so people can come and visit me”.

Despite his paranoia, secrecy and eccentricities, Fayed’s success with the prestige department store was undeniable.

Al Fayed bought Fulham Football Club and commissioned a statue of pop star Michael Jackson for outside its ground.
Al Fayed bought Fulham Football Club and commissioned a statue of pop star Michael Jackson for outside its ground. © Glyn Kirk, AFP

Within a decade of his taking over, sales increased by 50 percent and profits rose from £16 million to £62 million.

Other successes included at Fulham, which he transformed from a struggling outfit into an top-flight side. But even here he was ridiculed and he eventually sold up.

He claimed in 2014 they were relegated because a giant statue he had commissioned of Michael Jackson outside the ground was removed.

Critics, he said characteristically, “can go to hell”.

According to Forbes list of the world’s billionaires, Fayed was worth $1.9 billion in November 2022.


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In the latest chapter in UK press phone-hacking scandal, Prince Harry gives testimony

Prince Harry appeared in London’s High Court on Monday and Tuesday to argue that articles about him printed in UK tabloids run by Mirror Group Newspapers contained information obtained by illegal means. If the royal’s claims are found to be true it could prove phone hacking on an “industrial scale” at one of Britain’s largest newspaper groups.

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Two days in the witness box at London’s High Court have seen Prince Harry rake over the contents of dozens of articles stretching back into the early years of his life as a subject of tabloid interest.

The Duke of Sussex claims 148 articles documenting events such as his mother Princess Diana visiting him at school, a bout of glandular fever, phone arguments with ex-girlfriend Chelsy Davy and instances of illegal drug-taking all contain details that journalists obtained by illegal means.

The cumulative impact of a lifetime of intrusive articles created “huge amount of paranoia” the royal said in a witness statement, and the feeling that he couldn’t even trust his doctors.

A lawyer for Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN) said details in the articles were obtained by legal methods including buying information from the prince’s acquaintances, reprinting information that had already been published in other newspapers, and press briefings from members of royal staff.

On the stand, Prince Harry said the articles can all be linked to the “hallmarks” of illegal information gathering such as mystery missed calls and voice messages that indicate phone hacking, and evidence of repeated instances of journalists making payments to private investigators.

‘The heart of popular culture’

It is rare that such allegations go to trial. The legal muscle and deep pockets of many British media companies act as an effective deterrent: MGN has paid out around £100 million to around 600 claimants accusing them of phone hacking and obtaining stories through other unlawful means.

But it is even rarer that a member of the royal family testifies in court – Prince Harry is the first senior royal to appear on the stand since 1891.

He brings a unique profile to the case, suggestions of a personal axe to grind, his own deep pockets and a wealth of potential evidence. “Someone like Prince Harry is in a unique position that they will have been subjected to a large number of tabloid articles over a significant period of time,” says Professor Paul Wragg, director of campaign group Hacked Off, which supports victims of press abuse.

In this instance, Prince Harry is the most high-profile one of more than 100 people who are suing MGN, publisher of the Daily Mirror, the Sunday Mirror and the Sunday People tabloids, accusing them of widespread unlawful activities between 1991 and 2011.

The royal is one of four claimants who are being heard at trial as “representative cases”.

A court artist sketch by Elizabeth Cook shows Prince Harry being being cross examined by Andrew Green KC, at the High Court in central London on Wednesday, June 7, 2023. © Elizabeth Cook, AP

Traditionally the British tabloids hold a unique place in national discourse. “They are read right across the country and really set the agenda for public conversation,” says Adrian Bingham, Professor of Modern British History at the University of Sheffield. “Historically, they have been right at the heart of popular culture.”

The period during which the articles submitted as evidence were published coincides with the peak of “a hugely competitive tabloid market, in which competition always trumped ethics”, Bingham adds. “The scoop was everything for the editors. There was little restraint.”

The British public was widely shocked when in 2011 The Guardian newspaper revealed that journalists from Rupert Murdoch’s News of The World paper had interfered with police investigations into the disappearance of missing schoolgirl Millie Dowler by illegally listening to her voicemail messages.

Further investigations revealed journalists had also hacked the phones of victims of the 2005 London bombings, relatives of deceased British soldiers and numerous celebrities, politicians and members of the royal family.

Criminal cases were brought that saw three journalists and editors from News of the World convicted for illegally acquiring confidential information. Others convicted were private investigators and members of the police.

A judicial public inquiry, chaired by Lord Justice Leveson in 2011-12, was based on the premise that within newsrooms, “any illegality that was taking place was done by a limited number of individuals”, Wragg adds.

An ‘industrial scale’

MGN argues that Prince Harry has missed the six-year deadline for making his claim, but it does not deny that it has participated in illegal practice. Prior to the trial this week, the publisher “unreservedly” apologised to the royal for one instance of unlawful information gathering.

Yet the Duke of Sussex and other claimants are aiming to show that practices such as phone hacking were happening on an “industrial scale” – and not just at one group of newspapers.

The trial against MGN is the first of three the royal hopes to bring. He and other claimants are still waiting to hear whether courts will allow two separate cases against the parent companies of The Sun and the Daily Mail tabloids to go to trial.

“Prince Harry’s certainly the figurehead, but what we’re talking about is hundreds of individuals claiming that there have been a serious significant number of breaches of law across a long period of time,” Wragg says.

If found to be true, “it reopens the question of press regulation and the adequacy of press regulation in this country”, Wragg says.

After the prince’s testimony ended on Tuesday defence lawyers said he had failed to produce a “single item” of evidence proving his phone was hacked by journalists working for MGN.

The royal said this was because the journalists in question had used “burner phones” allowing them to destroy call logs.

The case continues.

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King Charles III: A radical environmentalist or mainstream ecologist?

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King Charles III was mocked in the past as an eccentric for championing organic farming, but will demonstrate his continuing commitment at his coronation which will be steeped in symbols of nature and the environment. But will he be able to hold on to his beliefs as king, given that the role requires frequent travel etc and runs counter to the British monarchy’s many traditions?

As an environmentalist long before Greta Thunberg was even born, green issues ranging from climate change to biodiversity have been at the heart of Charles’s Royal work.

His coronation itself will be marked by his long-held environmentalism from his wearing clothes that belonged to previous monarchs and serving a vegetarian main course at the main meal. This fervent ecologist is thus making his “green” mark and making his mark on the ceremony.

Charles has always been forward-thinking on the issue of the planet, warning about the dangers in a speech in 1970 at just 21. He said that the planet was in danger and denounced chemical, air and oil pollution, “which almost destroys beaches and certainly destroys tens of thousands of seabirds”.

Organic farming and endangered pigs

The British Crown’s property and Charles III’s own land introduced organic farming practices on some of it in far ahead of the curve as 1985. On his 440-hectare farm at Highgrove in south-west England, he has experimented with natural instead of chemical pesticides on his fields. The site is also home to over 73 species of rare animals, including Tamworth pigs, which are one of the oldest breeds in the country and currently endangered.

On his Dorset estate in the southern part of the country, he has also built a very popular village using only eco-friendly materials, waste separation and other principles of sustainable urban living and planning.

Later, he installed wood chip boilers in his homes and converted his Jaguar and Land Rover to run on biodiesel, made from used cooking oil, along with a host of other green measures. Over the years, his experiments have sometimes been met with further mockery, such as when he said at COP26 in 2021 that his Aston Martin runs on “surplus English white wine and whey from the cheese process”. This idea has obviously been dismissed for mass usage.

From 2007 onwards, Charles III began tracking and publishing his carbon footprint, which he has done every year since. He has committed to offsetting his emissions by investing in sustainable energy projects where it is not possible to reduce them. 

Big statements at the World Economic Forum

Unlike his mother, who was thrust onto the throne as a child, the former Prince of Wales has had 70 years to observe how the world has changed. During all these years, he has taken advantage of his official travels and international speeches to put environmental conservation in the spotlight, even if it means shocking his audience. 

In 2020 at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, he supported the young climate activist Greta Thunberg and criticised the business world’s lack of ecological commitment. “What good is all the extra wealth in the world, gained from ‘business as usual’, if you can do nothing with it except watch it burn in catastrophic conditions?” asked Charles III during his speech

In partnership with the WEF, the sovereign created the Sustainable Markets Council a year ago, a body charged with encouraging best practice, identifying innovative technologies and linking investors to projects. 

In partnership with the WEF, the sovereign created the Sustainable Markets Council a year before this famous speech, a body charged with encouraging best practice, identifying innovative technologies and linking investors to projects.

Political neutrality and mainstream ecology

However, “Charles III’s positions are not radical,” says Thibaud Harrois, lecturer in contemporary British civilisation at Paris’ Sorbonne-Nouvelle University. “He has not called for the end of capitalism. He is doing what could be described as ‘mainstream’ ecology, accepted by all at a time when there is scientific consensus on the issue of global warming,” adds Harrois.    

In his role as monarch, the British sovereign is subject to political neutrality, says the lecturer, adding that he doubts Thunberg will ever be invited to Buckingham Palace. “It would be daring because she symbolises a type of activism – a climate strike – that is politically contested. It’s hard to imagine that the king would do something that could have a political impact and damage the British government,” says Harrois. He received a huge backlash in the UK for getting involved in the environmental movement so publically, for as a “working Royal” he is not supposed to interfere with UK government policy. Their role is as ambassadors to the UK — symbolic — and to work on social and charitable causes in the UK.

In 2004, however, Charles secretly sent a series of handwritten letters to several British ministers and politicians. In these very personal letters, the former prince shared his views on organic farming, global warming and urban planning, for which he was later severely criticised.

King Charles III’s private jet trips

He is largely seen as a “’green monarch’ but he is criticised for his lifestyle; including his love of fox hunting and frequent air travel, which many feel run contradictory to his environmental stance. 

Even though Charles III is monitoring his carbon footprint, he continues to travel regularly by private plane and go on ski holidays every winter, an activity that is being increasingly criticised for its environmental impact. In 2020 alone, his carbon footprint was estimated at 3,133 tonnes of CO2 compared to the 8.3 tonnes emitted by the average British citizen.     

Britain’s King Charles III and Camilla, Queen Consort, exit their plane after landing at Berlin Brandenburg Airport in Schoenefeld, Germany, on March 29, 2023. © Odd Andersen, AFP

That same year, the Daily Mail criticised the former prince for flying 25,000 kilometres in a private jet 11 days before he attended the WEF in Davos, Switzerland, where he posed alongside Thunberg. During this short period, Charles III travelled by private jet three times, not counting the five empty trips to pick him up. He has been involved in other controversies, including when he travelled to New York in 2007 with a team of 20 people to receive an ecology award. 

At a time when global warming is more topical than ever, one thing is certain: the next British monarch will continue to be criticised even after he is crowned whatever he or she does and their overseas travel closely monitored.

This article has been translated from the original in French

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Charles III’s ‘slimmed down’ coronation still aims to capture royal magic

Charles III will be crowned king of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth Realm nations on Saturday in a ceremony imbued with religious and national symbolism. Yet some significant changes to protocol aim to bring the normally extravagant ceremony down to earth – while retaining some royal mystique.

Many of the rituals and mythical-sounding objects that will be used for the coronation of Charles III draw deeply on national symbolism dating back hundreds – if not thousands – of years. 

London’s Westminster Abbey has been a venue for coronations since 1066, and artifacts such as the silver-gilt coronation spoon (used to transfer the holy oil for anointing the monarch) date back to 1349.

During the ceremony, King Charles III will wear the same lavish robes used for his grandfather George VI’s coronation and carry a 17th-century golden orb and sceptre last seen atop the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II. 

When he is crowned, the king will sit upon the Stone of Destiny – an ancient and sacred symbol of Scottish monarchy that some historians date back to biblical times.

At its heart, the ceremony will aim to convey the history, tradition and enigma the monarchy embodies.

“It will be a very mysterious-looking ceremony that may look bizarre to many people across the world. But what will look bizarre to some will look mesmerising for others,” says Luke Blaxill, lecturer in British political and constitutional history at the University of Oxford.  

Ardent fans are mesmerised already. Along The Mall – the long avenue leading up to the royal residence, Buckingham Palace ­– committed royal well-wishers began camping out in late April to ensure a prime view of the royal procession to and from the abbey. 

Royal enthusiasts camp along the king’s coronation route at The Mall with Buckingham Palace in the background in London, Tuesday, May 2, 2023. © Emilio Morenatti, AP

Although the ceremony will certainly be opulent, it is intended to be less ostentatious than coronations past.

“This event is streamlined and slimmed down,” says Ed Owens, royal historian and author of “The Family Firm”. “There’s a much greater emphasis on the democratisation of the ritual and the ceremony as a result.”  

This approach correlates with a decades-long effort among the royal family to boost its popularity by appearing more accessible, and means a more inclusive ceremony. Women bishops will take part in a coronation for the first time on Saturday, as will representatives of non-Christian faiths. In another first, texts will be read in Welsh, Scottish Gaelic and Irish Gaelic.   

The guest list for the ceremony has also been adapted: most of Britain’s 24 non-royal dukes, who normally attend in coronation robes and coronets, are not invited. Some 2,000 guests are expected, including 450 members of the public who have served their communities – a far cry from the more than 8,000 who squeezed into Westminster Abbey for Elizabeth II’s coronation 70 years ago. 

A down-to-earth monarch

As this will be the first coronation most viewers have witnessed, the more obscure changes are likely to go unnoticed. Time-consuming rituals, such as presenting the monarch with gold ingots, have been axed to bring the duration of the ceremony to just over an hour.  

Other details aim to convey the image of a more down-to-earth royal ceremony, quite literally. 

Invitations to the ceremony emphasised the king’s environmentalism, featuring flora from the British Isles and the Green Man, an ancient figure from British folklore symbolising spring and rebirth. State leaders have been encouraged to reduce emissions by travelling to the ceremony on charter flights instead of private jets and key items, such as the king’s coronation robes and throne chairs, are being repaired and reused instead of commissioned. 

Symbolic images of nature will be threaded throughout the ceremony; Catherine the Princess of Wales is reportedly considering wearing a floral headpiece instead of a tiara.  

A member of the Royal School of Needlework hand embroiders the Robe of Estate that will be worn by Camilla, the Queen Consort, at the coronation on May 6.
A member of the Royal School of Needlework hand embroiders the Robe of Estate that will be worn by Camilla, the Queen Consort, at the coronation on May 6. © Buckingham Palace via AP

Such changes mark a change in approach from the monumental display of royal pageantry for Elizabeth II’s state funeral eight months previously, and may be an acknowledgment that the public could be feeling fatigue from large-scale royal events.

“There’s only a certain amount of public appetite for royal pomp and ceremony, even in Britain,” Blaxill says. “There will be a reduction in the novelty element. And the important background context here is that there’s a cost-of-living crisis – this deliberately, slightly scaled-down ceremony is a quite deliberate attempt to reflect that.” 

Even though the ceremony has been slimmed-down”, estimates of how much the coronation will cost have already drawn backlash amid reports that Charles III’s personal fortune runs into the billions. 

Tabloid newspaper “The Mirror” reported British taxpayers will foot a bill of £250 million for the ceremony, with £150 million (€170 million) being spent on security alone. For comparison, it reports that Elizabeth II’s coronation 70 years ago cost the equivalent of £47 million.  

Other media outlets have placed the total cost at closer to £100 million, still a seemingly extravagant sum at a time when inflation is pricing some Britons out of purchasing essential goods.  

The cost-of-living-crisis is not the only issue giving people pause. After Brexit, a series of short-lived prime ministers and the death of its longest-ruling monarch, Britain has lost the clear sense of national identity a large-scale coronation could help consolidate.

“The coronation is meant to be an event that projects a sense of British self-confidence, but Britain’s had a pretty tough time for the last seven years,” Owens says. “There’s nothing like the same level of positivity or optimism that characterised Elizabeth II’s coronation.” 

Royal magic 

Britain is far from a nation of ardent royalists; just over a third of British adults feel indifferent towards the coronation.

One ill-fated attempt to make the process less elitist has drawn near-universal ire. Instead of the traditional “Homage of Peers”, during which hereditary peers – historically members of the aristocracy – knelt to pledge their loyalty to the king, the “Homage of the People” will invite viewers at home to swear allegiance to King Charles III and his successors. Critics have called the attempt to democratise the ceremony “tone deaf”.

“Britain is a liberal democracy, where we believe in freedom of speech,” Owens says. “The idea that we are having words put in our mouths as part of this ceremony, and are swearing an oath of loyalty to the monarch and his successors, notably, has been problematic.” 

“I think, perhaps, asking people to say, ‘God save the king’ would have been about the limit,” Blaxill adds. 

And yet, almost half of adults in the UK plan to watch the ceremony or take part in coronation celebrations over the weekend.  

Notable republicans, including Scottish First Minister Humza Yousaf, Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford and Sinn Fein’s Northern Ireland leader Michelle O’Neill have also said they will attend the ceremony in person.

They are, perhaps, hoping to witness a unique, historical spectacle – if not a moment of royal magic. 

The sacred act of anointing the monarch with holy oil will take place behind the anointing screen, pictured here in the Chapel Royal at St James's Palace in London on April 24, 2023.
The sacred act of anointing the monarch with holy oil will take place behind the anointing screen, pictured here in the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace in London on April 24, 2023. © Victoria Jones, AFP

As much as the coronation of Charles III has been designed to give the impression of a humbler head of state than his predecessors, he must also retain some of the mystical power that allows people to see him as a monarch and not just a man in a golden crown. 

Historically, coronations were deliberately closed off from the public to project a sense of elite power and mysteryand one moment on Saturday will uphold this tradition. The most sacred part of the ceremony, dating back to the 7th century, will happen behind a specially designed screen. During the unction, the most senior bishop in the Church of England anoints the monarch with holy oil, thereby signalling that the king has been chosen by God. 

“It’s the moment where the mystique and the spiritual dimensions of the monarchy are made visible through their invisibility,” Owens says. A few minutes during which millions of viewers in Britain, the Commonweath and beyond are invited to suspend their disbelief and make a leap of faith to transform Charles III into a king.

Coronation of King Charles III
Coronation of King Charles III © Creative Department – France Médias Monde

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Northern Ireland confronts compromise in post-Brexit deal

Britain and the European Union have reached a new agreement on post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland, raising hopes that more than six years of wrangling over the U.K.’s departure from the bloc may finally come to an end.

The deal, announced Monday by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, is designed to replace existing rules that have been criticised for effectively creating a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, weakening the region’s links to Britain.

What was the deal about?

The government says the new arrangements, known as the Windsor Framework, will eliminate the need for customs checks on most goods shipped to Northern Ireland from other parts of the U.K., cutting costs and reducing red tape.

The deal also reduces the role of EU law and the European Court of Justice in Northern Ireland, a key demand of Brexit supporters who want to shake off the remnants of the bloc’s influence.

Why are we still talking about this?

Northern Ireland has a unique position in the Brexit negotiations because it is the only part of the United Kingdom that shares a land border with the European Union. That border, which separates Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland to the south and east, is also particularly sensitive because of the history of sectarian violence on the island of Ireland.

The 1998 Good Friday agreement that largely ended three decades of violence was underpinned by the fact that both Northern Ireland and the Republic were members of the EU.

That made it possible to remove border checkpoints that had been a source of tension and allow trade to flow freely, spurring economic development and creating jobs on both sides of the frontier.

When Britain left the bloc, negotiators for both sides pledged to keep the border open, even as the rules on everything from food and agriculture to steel and medicines began to diverge.

That forced them to come up with a new way to protect their internal markets from products that didn’t comply with their laws.

Why didn’t Brexit settle these issues?

Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson tried to resolve these questions with the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol, which required customs checks on some goods shipped from other parts of the U.K. as they entered Northern Ireland.

But Unionist politicians in Northern Ireland, who want to maintain the region’s historic links to Great Britain, demanded that the protocol be scrapped because they said it treated the region differently from other parts of the country and weakened its status as an integral part of the United Kingdom.

Unionists and staunch Brexiteers also opposed the protocol because it meant that many EU rules still governed trade in Northern Ireland and because the European Court of Justice was empowered to settle disputes about these rules. That, they said, meant the people of Northern Ireland were subject to laws they had no role in making, creating a “democratic deficit.”

The Democratic Unionist Party, the largest unionist party, resigned from Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government early last year to put pressure on officials in London to renegotiate the protocol. Northern Ireland hasn’t had an effective government since then.

How have these issues been resolved?

Mr. Sunak’s deal scraps most checks on goods shipped to Northern Ireland from other parts of the U.K.

Products destined for use in Northern Ireland will now travel through a “green lane” without any checks other than those normally required for internal shipments. While those destined for the Republic of Ireland will still go through a “red lane,” both sides have agreed to track those goods using technology and by sharing data from commercial declarations, reducing the need for border inspections.

Border checks will now focus on “risk-based and intelligence-led operations targeting criminality and smuggling,” the U.K. government says.

Searching for an understandable example, Mr. Sunak repeatedly mentioned that sausages would no longer have checks and could move more swiftly across the Irish Sea — a move certain to be met with satisfaction in Belfast.

The absence of the humble banger on Northern Irish grocery store shelves had become a symbol of post-Brexit turmoil.

As a result of the deal, some 1,700 pages of EU law will no longer apply in Northern Ireland.

But about 3% of EU laws will still be applicable in the region, meaning there is a possibility that the European Court of Justice could still be involved in a small number of disputes.

The deal also seeks to protect the democratic rights of Northern Ireland by giving the regional assembly the power to object to any new EU rules that may apply in its territory.

If this “Stormont Brake” is triggered by 30% of the members of the regional assembly from two or more parties, the rule in question would be suspended unless both the U.K. and EU agreed to override those objections.

Have all these issues been resolved?

The biggest question remaining is whether the DUP will support the deal.

While Mr. Sunak received broad support from the House of Commons on Monday, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has said his party will take time to “study the detail” of the agreement before deciding on its position.

“There’s only one boulder left in the road, and that is the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland,” said Jonathan Tonge, a professor of politics at the University of Liverpool. “They could turn a victory into defeat if they say no to this deal.”

Will Northern Ireland now get a government?

Not immediately.

Mr. Sunak stressed that this agreement is only about the trading arrangements for Northern Ireland, though he hopes it will lay the groundwork for the DUP and other parties to return to government.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement seeks to promote peace in Northern Ireland by requiring unionist and nationalist politicians to share power in the regional government.

“I will respect the fact that the local parties need time and space to study the details,” Mr. Sunak wrote Tuesday in the Belfast Newsletter.

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