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Aug 29, 2019

Axios World

Welcome back to Axios World! I'm steering the ship for this edition while Dave is off gallivanting in Italy. We've got 1,655 words for you tonight, about a 6 minute read.

  • Thanks for joining! Dave would love it if you tell your friends and colleagues to sign up, and I'd love it if you could let me know how I did: zach.basu@axios.com.
1 big thing: Northern Ireland's Brexit balancing act

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

In the 1,160 days since the Brexit referendum, Northern Ireland — a complex, but oft-forgotten country the size of Connecticut — has emerged as the ultimate sticking point in the worst crisis the U.K. has faced since World War II.

Why it matters: Brexit threatens to unsettle the dual identity dynamic on which peace in Northern Ireland hinges.

  • The struggle to maintain that balance has ended the political career of Theresa May, catapulted Boris Johnson into Downing Street, and could result in a cliff-edge Brexit on Oct. 31 with potentially disastrous consequences — barring a miraculous last-minute deal.

The big picture: Northern Ireland is home to the U.K.’s only land border with an EU member state. It’s there — where a physical border with checks and infrastructure has not existed for 2 decades — that complex issues of identity, sectarian violence and trade have coalesced into Brexit’s most intractable puzzle.

Background: Between 1968 and 1998, more than 3,000 people were killed and nearly 50,000 injured in sporadic bouts of politically motivated violence known as "The Troubles."

  • The low-intensity armed conflict saw nationalist paramilitaries — most famously the IRA — carry out guerrilla campaigns against state security forces in the name of ending British rule and reuniting Ireland.
  • Loyalists, who sought to remain part of the U.K., retaliated with attacks and bombing campaigns of their own, including against the minority Catholic community.
  • The conflict was formally ended in 1998 by the Good Friday Agreement, which established Northern Ireland’s current system of government and created some shared institutions with Ireland. Perhaps most importantly, it demilitarized and essentially abolished all visible signs of the Irish border.

Between the lines: Some people in Northern Ireland feel Irish. Others feel British. After the Good Friday Agreement, the lack of a hard border — since both Ireland and the U.K. are in the EU — made it possible for people to identify with either.

  • George Hamilton, the chief constable of Northern Ireland’s police service, tells the BBC that any new border infrastructure installed after Brexit would be attacked by Irish nationalists: "If you put up significant physical infrastructure at a border, which is the subject of contention politically, you are re-emphasizing the context and the causes of the conflict."

Flash forward: Theresa May was unable to pass her Brexit deal through Parliament because of opposition to the so-called "backstop," an insurance policy that would keep the U.K. aligned with the EU’s customs rules in case the two sides couldn’t figure out another way to avoid a hard Irish border by 2022.

  • New Prime Minister Boris Johnson has demanded that the backstop be removed, arguing that it would trap the U.K. inside the EU’s orbit indefinitely. The EU has refused, stressing that it’s simply a backup policy to ensure that the Good Friday Agreement is preserved.

The bottom line: Johnson claims that "under no circumstances" would the U.K. put up border checks in Northern Ireland, but he has not proposed any viable alternatives to enforcing customs rules post-Brexit. Leaked documents from his own government suggest that an open border would be "unsustainable" in the event of a no-deal.

2. So who can stop Brexit?

Pro-EU supporters protest outside Westminster after breaking through barriers. Aug. 28. Photo: Peter Summers/Getty Images

Parliament is trying to, but Johnson just made it a lot harder. On Wednesday, Johnson asked Queen Elizabeth II to prorogue, or "suspend," Parliament to give his government a fresh chance to set out a "new bold and ambitious domestic agenda."

  • Between the lines: That may be grounded in some truth, but the real purpose of the Machiavellian move is to undercut Parliament's power to block a no-deal Brexit and run down the clock until Oct. 31.

The prime minister typically asks the queen to prorogue Parliament once a year in order to bring an end to legislative business and then restart with a blank slate after a few days.

  • This prorogation is especially lengthy because it includes a period of time already set aside for Parliament to break for annual political party conferences. By choosing to prorogue, Johnson ensured that opposition members can't cancel the recess to focus on stopping Brexit.

What they're saying: Activists and politicians who oppose leaving without a deal are outraged that Johnson has taken the extreme step of kneecapping Parliament at such a critical moment.

  • Commons Speaker John Bercow, who had previously said he would fight an attempt to circumvent Parliament with "every bone in my body," condemned the move as a "constitutional outrage."
  • Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn said his Labour Party would join other members of Parliament in doing "everything we can" to "stop Boris Johnson's smash-and-grab against our democracy."
  • More than 1.5 million people have signed a petition demanding that Parliament not be suspended unless the Brexit deadline is extended.

Keep reading.

3. Scoop: Netanyahu tried to reach Trump to block Zarif meeting

Mohammad Javad Zarif. Photo: Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images

While Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was making his way to France for a surprise visit at the G7 summit on Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his team frantically tried to get Trump on the phone to ensure the president wouldn’t meet with him, U.S. and Israeli officials tell Axios.

  • The Israelis were worried that Trump — who loves making a deal and relishes the drama of an unconventional meeting (think Kim Jong-un) — would let French President Emmanuel Macron talk him into holding an unscheduled meeting with Zarif.

Why it matters: Netanyahu’s urgent attempts to get Trump on the phone showed the deep nervousness in Israel about possible renewed nuclear talks between the U.S. and Iran.

  • Netanyahu views Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal as a signature foreign policy achievement — and one that remains essential to Israel’s security. Any loosening of Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign on Iran could create tension with America’s closest ally in the Middle East.

Behind the scenes: U.S. officials said Trump ultimately decided not to meet with Zarif anyway. Senior Israeli officials said that although the meeting didn't happen, they think direct talks between the U.S. and Iran are just a matter of time — and could happen as soon as the UN General Assembly session opens in New York at the end of September.

4. A rift in the Gulf

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (L) with Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed (R). Photo: Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Kingdom Council/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The close alliance between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates appears to be under rare strain as the two oil-rich monarchies take increasingly divergent approaches to foreign policy, Reuters reports.

Driving the news: The immediate source of tension is the war in Yemen, where the UAE has scaled down its military presence amid a realization that there is "no military solution" to a devastating conflict that has dragged on for 4 years. "The Saudis felt abandoned," a Western diplomat said.

The big picture: A source tells Reuters that the UAE wants to establish itself as the more mature player in the region, especially as Saudi foreign policy grows increasingly "impulsive and interventionist" under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).

  • In Washington, where the UAE has an extensive lobbying operation, the country has also sought to distance itself from MBS after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi enraged U.S. lawmakers.
  • "The UAE wants to be seen as the small country that facilitates peace and stability rather than an appendage to a triumphant expansionist Saudi," the source said.

Why it matters: If the alliance is indeed fracturing, it could have huge reverberations in the Middle East, especially in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the Trump administration's "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran.

5. Euro quick hits

A lesson in ambition: Matteo Salvini's gamble appears to have backfired. Photo: Cosimo Martemucci/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

1. Italy's center-left Democratic Party and populist Five Star Movement — once sworn enemies — have agreed to form a coalition government.

  • Why it matters: Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right League party and perhaps the most popular politician in Italy, withdrew his support on Aug. 8 from the unlikely coalition he had formed with Five Star after the 2018 election. Salvini hoped fresh elections might allow him to become prime minister, but instead, his gamble has expelled his party out of power.

2. A pair of state elections in Germany this weekend will be a huge test for Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK), the hand-picked successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel, Politico's Matthew Karnitschnig reports.

  • Between the lines: A series of missteps have Germans — including some in AKK's own party — questioning her leadership. AKK needs her center-right CDU to hold onto first place in Saxony, where it's been hemorrhaging popularity to the far-right Alternative for Germany.

3. In an interview with Dave on Wednesday, Kosovo Foreign Minister Behgjet Pacolli accused Russia of aiding in a Serbian effort to coerce African countries to revoke diplomatic recognition of Kosovo.

  • The big picture: Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and has since been recognized as an independent state by 117 countries.
  • Serbia bitterly opposes Kosovo’s independence and has undertaken a covert effort to convince countries to change course. The goal is to bring the total number of countries that recognize Kosovo to below 97, or half the membership of the UN.
6. What I'm reading: The legacy of Juan Perón

Argentine President Juan Perón and his wife Evita. Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

"It is not that we were good, but those who came after us were so bad that they made us look good."
— Juan Perón

The New Yorker's Stephania Taladrid has an excellent piece out on the enduring populist movement known as Peronism in Argentina, the home of my mother and a country in perennial economic crisis.

  • Driving the news: A poor showing by President Mauricio Macri in Argentina's primaries has taken a massive toll on the stock market, as investors fear the return of former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner — a popular Peronist, economic isolationist and a defendant in 11 ongoing corruption cases.

Macri's ambitious economic reform agenda has failed to boost the economy, but his defenders argue that the long-term effects will be worth the pain. It's a markedly different approach from Peronism, which "favors temporary fixes with little consideration for spending constraints."

"At a recent news conference, a journalist urged the President to leave his talking points aside to address the Argentines facing hardship, who go home to an empty fridge or are unable to afford other essentials. In his response, Macri invoked an elderly gaucho who recently appeared in a viral video, expressing his worries about Argentina’s current juncture. The gaucho recalled a childhood episode, when a neighbor asked for his help to get several foals across a wide and choppy stream. Halfway into the stream, he panicked, let go of the horse, and swam back to the bank, only to return home to pick up another foal. Argentines need 'to make it to the other side of the river,' Macri implored. 'Because if we don’t cross the river, for once and for all, if we go backward, then we’ll have to start all over again.'"
7. Stories we're watching

A flight attendant doll is placed inside a shopping mall during a rally to support Cathay Pacific staff in Hong Kong on Aug. 28 after some were sacked for supporting opposition to a controversial extradition bill. Photo: Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images

  1. Colombian rebels issue call to arms 3 years after peace deal
  2. Trade war threatens to disrupt tech's global supply chain
  3. Implications of a growing wealth gap in English soccer
  4. Alibaba CEO: AI could enable 12-hour work week
  5. Creating 'Planet B' in Earth's image
  6. Expert Voices: Israel-Iran tensions boil over
  7. Survey: U.S. companies aren't leaving China for America


"Will you pay for me too?"
— Turkish President Erdoğan to Vladimir Putin as the two leaders stopped for ice cream at a Russian air show
"Yes, of course. You're my guest, aren't you?
— Putin responded. The U.S. and NATO are growing wary of closer ties between the two countries.