Sep 10, 2020

Axios World

Welcome back to Axios World. My thanks to Dave for handing me the reins as he enjoys his vacation, and to the news gods for bringing my favorite topic back into the headlines just in time for my pinch-hit.

  • That's right — Brexit is back! We'll also be hitting Belarus, the avalanche of China news, the Middle East and foreign election interference, rounding out a 1,675-word (6-minute) journey.
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🌎 Tomorrow: Join Dave and Axios’ Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian at 12:30pm ET for a virtual event on foreign policy in the post-pandemic world. Register here.

1 big thing: Brexit talks in chaos as EU accuses U.K. of breaching "trust"

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Nine months after Boris Johnson won a smashing majority on the promise of an "oven-ready" Brexit deal, the U.K. government is threatening to blow up trade talks with the European Union by declaring its intent to violate that very agreement.

Driving the news: An emergency U.K.-EU meeting was called in London today after a government minister made a stunning admission on the floor of the House of Commons this week — that a new bill seeking to override parts of the Brexit deal would indeed "break international law."

How we got here: The three-year political deadlock that followed the 2016 Brexit referendum effectively boiled down to one thorny issue — how to extricate the U.K. from Europe's customs rules while avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

  • The elimination of border controls was a central plank of the Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. The U.K. and the EU have consistently expressed their commitment to upholding the peace deal.
  • Johnson managed to strike an unlikely Brexit deal by agreeing to keep Northern Ireland aligned with EU rules, effectively creating a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea.
  • A joint EU-U.K. committee would be established to determine whether goods traveling to Northern Ireland from England, Scotland and Wales would be "at risk" of entering the Republic, and therefore subject to EU customs checks.

Flash forward: Johnson succeeded in ramming the deal through Parliament on an expedited timetable, allowing the U.K. to leave the EU on Jan. 31 and buying him an 11-month transition period to negotiate a comprehensive free-trade agreement.

  • Those talks have faltered. Johnson is now threatening to walk away from the table on Oct. 15 so the country can prepare for a "no-deal" Brexit on New Year's Eve.
  • The surprise bill introduced this week would allow U.K. ministers to unilaterally determine which goods should be subject to EU checks and tariffs when passing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
  • In other words, with negotiations at risk of collapsing, the government is reneging on an international treaty that Johnson himself signed, stamped and delivered.

The view from Downing Street: The Brexit deal isn't "like any other treaty," a government spokesperson said in a statement, stressing that it was always written on the basis that the U.K. and EU would work through some of its ambiguities.

  • "It was agreed at pace at the most challenging political circumstances, to deliver on a clear political decision of the British people," the spokesperson added.

The view from Westminster: It's not clear what kind of parliamentary rebellion Johnson's bill is facing, but three former leaders of his own Conservative Party — John Major, Michael Howard and Theresa May — have excoriated the move.

  • "How can we reproach Russia, or China, or Iran when their conduct falls below internationally accepted standards, when we are showing such scant regard for our treaty obligations?" Howard asked today.

The view from Brussels: The EU has urged Johnson to scrap the bill and is threatening legal action if he refuses, saying the U.K. has "seriously damaged trust" between the two sides.

The view from Washington: The prospect of a lucrative trade deal with the U.S. has always been touted as one of the main arguments for Brexit. But according to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, there is "absolutely no chance" of Congress passing a deal if the U.K. violates the Good Friday Agreement.

The bottom line: Experts have long warned about the potentially catastrophic economic disruptions that could result from a "no-deal" divorce from the EU, the U.K's largest and closest trading partner.

  • The likelihood of that happening is now higher than it ever was during three years of pre-Brexit stalemate — this time with an economy already devastated by the coronavirus.
2. Palestinians fail to get Arab League to condemn Israel-UAE deal

Emirati and Israeli flags. Photo: Karim Sahib/AFP via Getty Images

The Palestinian Authority failed on Wednesday to get the Arab League's foreign ministers to endorse a resolution criticizing the U.S.-brokered normalization deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Axios contributor Barak Ravid reports from Tel Aviv.

Why it matters: It's a very unusual development and a significant blow to the Palestinians, who hold the rotating presidency of the Arab League. For decades, Arab League foreign ministers have endorsed every draft resolution the Palestinians have put forward.

  • After the Trump administration's Middle East peace plan was released in January, the Palestinians got the Arab League to condemn the plan — but, this time, many Arab countries refused to condemn the UAE.

What’s next: The White House plans to invite Arab foreign ministers and ambassadors to attend the deal's signing ceremony on Sept. 15 in order to show the deal has Arab support. It's unclear how many will accept.

Go deeper: Saudi Arabia to allow eastbound flights from Israel to use its airspace

3. Belarus: Europe steps up for last opposition leader

Svetlana Alexievich arrives for questioning by investigators on Aug. 26. Photo: Misha Friedman/Getty Images

European diplomats have begun keeping round-the-clock guard at the home of Belarusian opposition activist Svetlana Alexievich, who says masked men attempted to break into her apartment on Wednesday.

Why it matters: The 72-year-old Nobel laureate is the sole original member of the opposition council formed to facilitate a peaceful transition in Belarus who has not been detained, exiled or disappeared.

The big picture: Yesterday marks one month since President Aleksander Lukashenko claimed victory in a blatantly rigged election, setting off a mass protest movement that has continued unabated even in the face of security crackdowns and a state media takeover by master propagandist Vladimir Putin.

The state of play: The Lukashenko government has initiated a criminal case against the seven-member Coordination Council.

  • Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya: The 37-year-old presidential candidate and self-described "housewife" fled the country after being detained by Lukashenko's security services and forced to film a video calling for an end to the protests. She remains exiled in Lithuania and told BuzzFeed News that she is the "national, chosen president" of Belarus.
  • Maria Kolesnikova: Her lawyer says she was forced into a van by masked men and told she would leave Belarus "alive or in bits." She was driven to the Ukrainian border but avoided deportation by tearing up her passport and throwing it out the window. She's now jailed in Minsk.
  • Maxim Znak: The 39-year-old lawyer was dragged out of the council's building in Minsk on Wednesday by masked men. His whereabouts are unknown.
  • Olga Kovalkova: The 36-year-old activist was removed from Belarus by masked men and is exiled in Poland.
  • Pavel Latushka: The former government diplomat joined the council after witnessing the police crackdown on protesters. He remains outside of the country and has been told he will be detained when he returns.
  • Sergei Dylevsky: The 30-year-old factory worker was sentenced to prison for organizing a strike.
Via Twitter

Go deeper: Svetlana Alexievich is not going anywhere (The New Yorker)

4. China roundup

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Some quick-hits from a big week in China news ...

1. The Trump administration has revoked more than 1,000 visas of Chinese nationals as of this week under a proclamation aimed at student researchers suspected of having links to China's military.

2. China and India accused each other's soldiers of firing warning shots in disputed Himalayan territory, breaking decades of protocol to avoid the use of firearms along the 2,000-mile-long unmarked border.

3. Two Australian journalists arrived home Tuesday after being forced to seek diplomatic refuge in China following "threatening behavior" from Chinese officials.

  • The big picture: Relations between China and Australia have deteriorated in recent years, with the Australian government passing legislation to prevent foreign interference and banning Huawei from supplying 5G infrastructure.

4. Disney revealed that some scenes from its latest blockbuster "Mulan" were filmed in Xinjiang, where the Chinese government is engaged in a campaign of cultural and demographic genocide against Uighur Muslims and other ethnic minorities.

  • Why it matters: The riches promised by China's massive domestic film market are buying the silence — and even complicity — of one of America's most powerful entertainment empires.
5. Alarms sounding over foreign election interference

Vladimir Putin. Photo: Mikhail Klimentyev\TASS via Getty Images

A flurry of headlines over the last week captures the heightened attention the U.S. intelligence community, prosecutors and media are paying to foreign interference efforts with 53 days to go until the election.

1. Microsoft said in a blog post today that it's detected unsuccessful cyberattacks on political campaigns from actors in Russia, China and Iran, consistent with what the U.S. government has reported.

2. The U.S. Treasury sanctioned Ukrainian lawmaker Andrii Derkach — described as an "active Russian agent for over a decade" — for interference activities that include promoting "false and unsubstantiated" allegations about Joe Biden.

  • The Treasury also designated three Russian nationals for their work for the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-linked social media disinformation operation.

3. A former senior Department of Homeland Security official filed a whistleblower complaint alleging he was directed to "cease providing intelligence assessments on the threat of Russian interference" because it "made the president look bad."

6. What I'm reading: Dissecting the Beirut blast

An aerial view of smoke from today's fire in Beirut port. On the right, damage from last month's blast. Photo: Haytham Al Achkar/Getty Images

A huge fire broke out today in the port of Beirut — the site of the massive blast that killed hundreds and leveled much of the Lebanese capital last month, leaving traumatized civilians fearful they'd been hit by yet another catastrophe.

  • Authorities say the blaze is under control and no injuries have been reported. It's not yet clear what caused the fire, which blanketed the city in smoke.
  • In the meantime, I recommend delving into this stunning, seven-byline visual New York Times investigation on last month's blast, featuring dozens of interviews, new documents, exclusive images and a minute-by-minute analysis of high-def footage.

Excerpt ...

In the six years since the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate had arrived in Beirut’s port ... repeated warnings had ricocheted throughout the Lebanese government, between the port and customs authorities, three ministries, the commander of the Lebanese Army, at least two powerful judges and, weeks before the blast, the prime minister and president.
No one took action to secure the chemicals, more than 1,000 times the amount used to bomb a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
The disaster-in-waiting was the result of years of neglect and bureaucratic buck-passing by a dysfunctional government that subjugated public safety to the more pressing business of bribery and graft.

Go deeper.

7. Stories we're watching

Chickens in a classroom converted into a poultry house because of COVID-19 in the town of Wang'uru, Kenya.

  1. U.S. to withdraw thousands of troops from Iraq, Afghanistan
  2. Pompeo: "Substantial chance" senior Russian officials involved in Navalny poisoning
  3. Fires destroy massive Greek refugee camp on COVID lockdown
  4. Mali's military coup leaders launch talks with civilians
  5. Bolivia asks Hague to investigate ex-president Morales
  6. Argentina's debt restructuring triumph
  7. Afghan peace talks with Taliban begin in Qatar this week

Quoted:

"I am writing this letter to you as we are nearing the first anniversary of our meeting in Singapore on June 12 -- the historic moment of great significance that captured the attention of the world and left an imprint still indelible in my memory -- as well as to congratulate you on your birthday, which is just days away. I take it as a great honor to be able to send such a letter to Your Excellency."
— One of 27 "love letters" from Kim Jong-un to President Trump obtained by Bob Woodward and shared with CNN

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