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Sensemaker: Brexit crunch week part 2

Sensemaker: Brexit crunch week part 2

What just happened

Long stories short

  • UK regulators became the first in the world to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid vaccine for general use. 
  • William Barr, the US attorney general, said the Department of Justice has found no evidence of widespread fraud in the presidential election. 
  • József Szájer, a veteran Hungarian MP close to prime minister Viktor Orban and seen as hostile to gay rights, resigned after attending an all-male sex party in Brussels in violation of local lockdown rules.

Brexit crunch week part 2

The view from elsewhere. European leaders think the UK’s bargaining position is weak, and they’re probably right.

Last week Le Monde sent a reporter on a not-too-arduous assignment to Sevington in Kent, the village outside Ashford next to the 27-acre site being turned into a lorry park and customs facility for the new age of border checks that starts on New Year’s Day. 

A lot of the site’s still mud, the reporter noted. The entrance from the M20 is complete but inside the site only small sections are paved and there’s not a single permanent structure for drivers or customs people. Verdict: “It’s difficult to believe this place will be ready on time.”

Maybe it will be; maybe it won’t. Perhaps it doesn’t matter anyway if, as Michael Gove said yesterday, a four-fold increase in private sector customs clearance capacity smooths the way to France for freight from midnight on the 31st. But Le Monde’s general attitude is worth noting. A week earlier it ran an editorial on Dominic Cummings, whose influence had “only underlined the dilettantism and weakness of the prime minister”. Biden’s victory in the US meanwhile “reinforces the danger of isolation for the UK” and would “encourage Johnson to make concessions [on Brexit] to manage his relations with a Democratic administration that considers him a British Trump”.

Touché on two fronts. The US election has put Johnson in a new and uncomfortable universe, and like Trump he is widely considered unserious. 

There is breaking news on Brexit. We’re told the UK government is doubling down on asserting the right to break international law by ignoring its undertaking in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement to do customs checks on goods flowing between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It’s doing this by reinserting the offending clauses in the Internal Market Bill after the House of Lords removed them, and by adding similar ones to a forthcoming Taxation Bill. As Tory party management, this could fly. 

But as brinkmanship with the EU, it could flop. Looking in from outside, there are plenty of reasons to think Johnson is playing a weak hand:

  • The EU has the US onside. Shortly before he was announced as the next secretary of state, Tony Blinken told France in fluent French: “We have a great interest in an EU which acts with strength and conviction… For us this partnership is essential.”
  • For what it’s worth, Blinken has also described Brexit as “the dog that caught the car and the car goes into reverse and runs over the dog”.
  • UK trade with non-EU countries, which is supposed to compensate for EU trade lost in the event of no deal, is falling fast. The FT reports (£) that in the six months to October UK exports to China, South Korea and the US fell sharply while German and Italian exports to China and South Korea rose, and those to the US contracted only slightly.  
  • British businesses, broadly speaking, are not backing Johnson, and not just because of the prospect of trade foregone. As William Bain of the British Retail Consortium notes, Brexit entails “the biggest imposition of red tape that businesses have had to deal with in 50 years”.

President Macron of France, Prime Minister De Croo of Belgium, Chancellor Merkel of Germany and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen are all sticking to the message that they’d like a deal, but not at any cost. Macron, as ever, goes a little further on behalf of Breton trawlers and says he’ll never agree a deal that fails to respect France’s “long term interests”. 

They’re all negotiating, but Johnson is the one who’s under real pressure. The risk is that he proves Le Monde right and responds as a dilettante, by sulking. 

Before it’s too late we’ll have a Sensemaker Special on why this deal is proving so much harder to reach than it was supposed to be. Stay tuned.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Oz rebounds
Australia’s economy grew much faster than expected in the third quarter, by 7.9 per cent. It’s still on track for an overall contraction this year, but a strategy of stringent measures to contain Covid followed by reopening the economy appears to have paid off. The key words are “followed by”. There is every reason to hope European economies bounce back fast too once vaccinations are rolled out at scale, but in the meantime the evidence is compelling that focusing on the virus first, rather than trying to juggle health and the economy at once, saves lives and hastens recovery

New things technology, science, engineering

China’s regolith
For the first time in 44 years a human-made contraption is poised to pick up material from the surface of the moon that should, all being well, return to Earth. The last time was in 1976, when the uncrewed Soviet Luna 24 mission brought back 170 grams of moon. Before that the Apollo programme brought back nearly half a tonne of moon rocks that toured the world and accelerated research on the origins of the solar system. This time the spacecraft is Chinese. A lander from the Chang’e-5 mission touched down yesterday on volcanic territory near the Oceanus Procellarum and is supposed to bring back about 2kg of much younger material than the ancient rocks collected by Nasa’s astronauts. Not much has changed up there since 1976, but a great deal has on Earth, not least China’s emergence as a superpower. 

The 100-year life health, education, living, public policy

Japan’s Jiyukokuminsha publishing house has chosen “sanmitsu” as its word of the year. It’s derived from three words referred to in English as the three Cs because they stand for “closed spaces”, “crowds” and “close contact situations”, all to be avoided in this time of pandemic. To anglo minds it may be interesting that this highly condensed mantra focuses on the negative unlike, say, “Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives”. But it has worked, or at least is associated with a relatively successful Covid strategy: Japan (population 125 million) has so far recorded 2,139 Covid deaths, or one for every 27 in the UK.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Oceans’ 14
The world’s oceans are largely unexplored, and for the most part belong to no single country. This lack of clear jurisdiction makes them easy to ignore. But the actions of people – overfishing, pollution and habitat degradation – are responsible for huge biodiversity loss. Since the 1970s, fish stocks have halved according to the WWF. 14 countries, among them Japan, Australia, Norway and Ghana have come together with a pledge to protect their national waters and manage them sustainably by 2025. They hope their actions will not only restore fish populations but also help achieve Paris agreement goals by enhancing the ocean’s CO2 absorbing potential. The 14 countries want others to join, and there are 108 in all with more than 20km of coastline. What’s stopping them?

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Gender ruling
Yesterday the UK’s High Court ruled that children under 16 with gender dysphoria are unlikely to be able to give informed consent to treatment with puberty-blocking drugs. The NHS has now said that no one under the age of 16 can be referred for the drugs without a court order. The case was brought against the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust, which had 2,590 children referred to their clinic in 2018-19, compared with just 77 patients in 2009-2010. The court held that because the vast majority of patients taking puberty blockers proceed to further treatments, including cross-sex hormones and surgical intervention, they would also need to understand the implications of these treatments in order to give informed consent. The ruling was made despite cross-sex hormones only being available to those aged 16 and over, and surgical intervention to those aged 18 and over. According to the trans children’s charity Mermaids, the Tavistock has already started cancelling appointments for young people waiting more than two years for puberty blockers. At the centre of this debate is a question about bodily autonomy: if children under 16 are deemed mature enough to get abortions without a court order, or even their guardian’s knowledge, why not physically reversible puberty blockers?

In other news the Juno star Elliot Page has publicly come out as transgender and non-binary. “My joy is real,” he wrote in a letter making the announcement, “but it is also fragile”.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around. 

Giles Whittell

Xavier Greenwood

Ella Hill