Sep 17, 2018

Axios World

By Dave Lawler
Dave Lawler

Welcome back to Axios World. It's week two of Lawlerlessness here, so thanks for continuing to tag along with me!

1 big thing: May's way or the highway

Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Images via Getty Images

British Prime Minister Theresa May issued her most forceful edict yet on Brexit today, telling the BBC that the "soft Brexit" Chequers plan she negotiated in July, which involves keeping close economic ties to the European Union, is the only possible way forward — even though it's "strongly opposed" by the EU.

Why it matters: With just over six months to go until Brexit day, her statement is sure to provoke the hard-line Brexiteers in her own Conservative Party by essentially forcing them to choose between backing her own moderate Brexit vision or a "no-deal" scenario, which could wreak economic havoc on the U.K.

  • May also said that she's "a little bit irritated" at the rumors of a leadership challenge from within her party ranks as she attempts to negotiate a Brexit solution. But today's statements aren't likely to make life easier for her on that front. The Chequers plan forced high-profile resignations from the most visible Brexiteers in her Cabinet, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit Secretary David Davis, upon its announcement.

Never one to keep quiet, Johnson fired back in his weekly column in The Telegraph, headlined, "We are heading for a car crash Brexit under Theresa May's Chequers plan."

  • "The whole thing is a constitutional abomination, and if Chequers were adopted it would mean that for the first time since 1066 our leaders were deliberately acquiescing in foreign rule."

At issue is the Irish backstop — determining the economic alignment between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and Ireland, which is a member of the EU — and whether there would be a hard border between the two areas after Brexit.

  • May is adamant that a hard border cannot be allowed, advocating for "friction-free" movement of goods enabled by close economic ties to the EU. She told the BBC, "The only proposal that has been put forward that delivers on them not having that hard border and ensures that we don't carve up the United Kingdom is the Chequers plan."
  • Boris argued in his column that Chequers undermines the fundamental aim of Brexit: "We are volunteering that the whole of the U.K. must remain effectively in the customs union and large parts of the single market until Brussels says otherwise."
  • Michel Barnier, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator, blasted the Chequers' Irish backstop plan earlier this month: "If we let the British pick the raisins out of our rules, that would have serious consequences."

The bottom line: While it seems that May has finally upped the ante on Brexit, both her Conservative Party and the EU are in strong positions to call her bluff moving forward.

2. Asia: The trade war's next round

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

The next round in the ongoing trade war between the United States and China is here — and it's set to be a doozy.

Driving the news: After days of rumors and reports, President Trump announced the next set of tariffs that his administration will launch against China.

  • Next week, China will face 10% tariffs on $200 billion worth of goods with those tariffs set to increase to 25% on January 1.
  • And should China retaliate "against our farmers or other industries," Trump is ready to immediately pursue tariffs on $267 billion of additional imports.

What Trump's saying: "As President, it is my duty to protect the interests of working men and women, farmers, ranchers, businesses, and our country itself.  My Administration will not remain idle when those interests are under attack."

The intrigue: The Wall Street Journal originally reported these tariffs on Saturday, setting off a wave of rumors throughout the weekend that indicated that top Chinese economic officials planned to skip upcoming trade talks in Washington.

  • And that tracks with Axios contributor Bill Bishop's prediction last week. He wrote that China's senior economic official Liu He wouldn't want to make another trip back to the U.S. after being consistently snubbed by Trump over the last few months — on issues as small as a handshake and as big as a negotiated deal to end the trade war.
3. ICYMI: An interview with NATO's head

Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told Axios' Jonathan Swan that he reassured Montenegro after President Trump publicly questioned whether it was worth it for the United States to defend the tiny NATO ally if an enemy attacked.

What he said: "I have reassured Montenegro," Stoltenberg said in an interview on Friday. "And I also know that the United States has clearly stated that they are fully committed to Article 5 and NATO and the collective defense."

Other highlights:

  • On whether he was worried about NATO members — such as Poland, Hungary and Turkey — sliding toward illiberalism, Stoltenberg said his hands were tied, given that NATO doesn't have a mechanism for punishing wayward members.
  • On whether a Russian cyberattack on a NATO member would trigger Article 5, Stoltenberg said, "Not automatically. It depends on the character of the cyberattack. We will never be specific on when we trigger Article 5."

You can read the rest of Jonathan's interview with Stoltenberg here.

4. Russia: Putin's domestic problem

Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin saw his United Russia party nearly lose an election for governor in Russia's Far East, spurring accusations of 11th hour electoral fraud and a hunger strike from the losing candidate, reports Bloomberg.

  • "With more than 95 percent of ballots counted, [Putin-backed Andrei] Tarasenko’s Communist challenger, Andrey Ishchenko, was ahead 52 percent to 46 percent."
  • "But as the final returns came in, Tarasenko pulled ahead by a percentage point, sparking angry claims of fraud by Ishchenko and his supporters."
  • "After [Tarasenko] unexpectedly failed to win in the first round on Sept. 9, [Putin] stepped in give him a boost last week, promising in a televised meeting that 'everything will be all right' with the runoff."

The big picture: "Putin’s sky-high approval ratings have slipped in recent months as public anger over the pension reform and weak economy have spread. So far, the Kremlin has brushed off the decline as temporary, but analysts say the election setbacks are a warning sign."

5. What I'm reading: Knausgaard's close

Karl Ove Knausgaard. Photo: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images

The final volume of Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard's six-volume, 3,500-page autobiographical fiction series "My Struggle" is set to be published in English tomorrow, capping one of the biggest worldwide literary crazes of the decade.

  • Presenting his own life in excruciating, often embarrassing detail, Knausgaard became a sensation in his native Norway, where the series has sold over 500,000 copies — or 1 for every 9 Norwegian adults.
  • And yes, the provocative title is a reference to that book, explained at length in this New Yorker piece from 2014. Knausgaard's explanation? "If it was boring, I wanted it boring. ... No compromises were made in this book. The title kind of makes that statement."

If the thought of reading about the minutiae of a Norwegian man's life sounds excruciating, check out Zadie Smith's take on Book Two in The New York Review of Books: "Every detail is put down without apparent vanity or decoration, as if the writing and the living are happening simultaneously. There shouldn't be anything remarkable about any of it except for the fact that it immerses you totally. You live his life with him."

Go deeper: The N.Y. Times has an excerpt from the newest volume.

6. South America: On the ground in Caracas

People line up for an ATM in Caracas. Photo: Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images

"Eat, pray, barter like hell: How a restaurant owner survives Venezuela’s crisis": The WashPost's Rachelle Krygier has an on-the-ground look at the effects of the country's hyperinflation in Carcacas.

  • "In one week, prices of products had more than doubled, said [restaurant owner Freddy] De Freitas, 39. He turned to a computer screen and started adjusting the prices of 100 menu items on a spreadsheet."
  • "Sometimes, he barters with other restaurants — three weeks ago, he exchanged shrimp for rice. He was now worried that his supply of meat would last only one more week. His providers told him they had nothing more to sell him, he said."
  • "De Freitas sat down, and the lights went out. It was a citywide outage ... 'Now we don’t know if we’ll open for lunch.'"

Go deeper:

7. Stories we're watching

Men use a basin to cross a flooded street after Super Typhoon Mangkhut in Calumpit, Bulacan, Philippines. Photo: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images

  1. Super Typhoon Mangkhut pummels Philippines and southern China
  2. Global terror attacks have skyrocketed since 9/11
  3. Uyghur detentions in China get global attention
  4. Russia and Turkey agree to demilitarized zone in Syria
  5. Facebook seeking to hire human rights policy director
  6. Germany has its own Catholic Church sex abuse scandal
  7. UNICEF and Congo officials boost efforts to contain Ebola outbreak


"I lack words to describe this day."
— Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge after shattering the marathon world record in the Berlin Marathon on Sunday
Dave Lawler