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Sensemaker: Dateline Brexit

Thursday 4 February 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • CGTN, the Chinese state broadcaster, has had its license to broadcast in the UK withdrawn. 
  • Officials said the Australian Open tennis tournament would go ahead despite a worker testing positive for Covid in one of the players’ quarantine hotels. 
  • The leaders of Myanmar’s coup charged Aung San Suu Kyi with illegally importing walkie talkies. 

Dateline Brexit

Exactly a month into the new era there’s a ban on UK shellfish sales to the EU. Containers full of used toys and clothes are stuck on Tyneside because they can no longer be exported to Latvia. Some businesses say it’s easier to export to India than to Calais. Elton John is lobbying the UK government to help musicians get the work and instrument permits they now need to tour Europe, and the Northern Ireland Protocol on which the Brexit deal is balanced is wobbling like the top at the end of Inception.

In brief: in the past week the European Commission and the UK government have both threatened to invoke Article 16 of the protocol to get their way on the vexed question of cross-border goods checks, even though the article was meant for dire emergencies only. Yesterday Boris Johnson said he would consider using it to remove “barriers of any kind” in the Irish Sea.

Background check. Didn’t both sides agree there would have to be checks on goods moving between NI and the UK mainland as the only alternative to a hard border on the island of Ireland, and as the basis of the protocol? The answer is yes, but…

  • Unionists in the province were never happy with this arrangement. 
  • Unionist paramilitaries have started threatening border officials at the port of Larne, north of Belfast.
  • Last week’s threat by the Commission to weaponise Article 16 to stop vaccines leaving the EU stunned even ardent Europhiles, even though it was rapidly withdrawn.
  • Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party took the opportunity yesterday to remind London the DUP regards the whole protocol as a betrayal.
  • Hence Johnson’s renewed pledge to do away with anything that looks like a border in the Irish Sea, even though he agreed to precisely that to secure his Brexit deal in December.

What next? Michael Gove will host talks next week in London with Maros Sefcovic, the Commission’s Slovak vice president, who’s said he thinks the crisis can be resolved with “all the flexibilities we put… into the protocol”. 

The first question is whether Sefcovic will agree to Gove’s request for an extension to 2023 of the current grace period delaying full NI border checks. The next is whether the EU will listen to the idea that goods from the UK mainland destined for NI and no further don’t need all the checks required at the EU’s external borders. It’s a sound idea in principle, but putting it into practice would depend on trust because of the need to avoid a hard border in Ireland. And trust, at the moment, is thin on the ground.


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

SPACs rule
Today’s anagram of the day stands for “special purpose acquisition company”, which can also be described as a large pool of money with a few people looking for something to spend it on. The WSJ has an interesting mini-scoop ($) on a SPAC called Churchill Capital Corp IV, whose stock price has surged 220 per cent since an online report last month that it was thinking of merging with an ambitious new electric car company called Lucid Motors. Lucid hasn’t produced a single production car yet. Churchill Capital Corp IV has nothing but $2 billion in cash, but investors’ search for the next Tesla is so intense that no one seems to care. To note: this share price surge has been driven in part by excitable voices on Reddit, but they’re not looking for a GameStop-style short squeeze. They’re looking for the next big thing. 


New things technology, science, engineering

Vaccine mix
Can you mix Covid vaccines and still get a decent immune response? Might you get an even better one than from using two doses of the same vaccine? We are going to find out (£). To be clear: no one is advocating taking two vials of different vaccines and stirring them in a pot, but the UK’s Vaccine Task Force is funding a trial with 800 participants who will take one dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine and one of the Pfizer vaccine rather than two of the same. New studies of both vaccines have shown that one dose of either delivers a strong and sustained but can take up to three weeks to reach full strength. If mixing proves safe and effective, vaccination programmes would at the very least be partially immunised against bottlenecks. 


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Climate, China, rights
Biden has been in office less than a month and already his China and climate strategies are heading for a roadblock – the same roadblock. The new president’s climate envoy, John Kerry, wants to collaborate with China on cutting carbon emissions since the world’s two biggest economies are its two biggest emitters. But he says this collaboration is a “standalone issue” that can’t be traded off against concessions in other areas like human rights. To which China’s foreign ministry has responded that climate can’t be separated from other issues – “unlike flowers that can bloom in a greenhouse despite [the] winter chill”. Translation: the US needs to stop telling China how to run Hong Kong and Xinjiang (see Belonging, below) if it wants a real deal on emissions. There are nine months to go to COP26, and a lot of diplomacy to squeeze in.


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

A wider net
The Golden Globes have tripled their own record for the number of women shortlisted in the “Best Director” category for feature films – with Emerald Fennell, Chloé Zhao and Regina King receiving nominations. Only five female directors had previously been given the nod in the awards’ 77-year history, and no more than one woman had ever made the list in a given year. Michaela Coel and I May Destroy You are conspicuously absent from the nominations for TV awards, and of course the winners have yet to be announced. Qualified congratulations, then, to the eccentric and none-too-transparent Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which runs and votes on the Globes. May the best director win.


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

A genocide on our watch
Uighur women are being systematically raped, abused and tortured inside camps in Xinjiang, former detainees and a guard have told the BBC. Tursunay Ziawudun, who spent nine months in a camp, said Chinese men raped, bit and electrocuted her. She saw other women taken away only to be returned in shock and with wounds. Such testimonies are shocking but not, by now, surprising. An estimated million people are held in camps across Xinjiang. Chinese Communist Party documents, leaked to the New York Times, showed that President Xi Jinping himself directed officials to show Uighurs “absolutely no mercy”. Uighurs living in western democracies have shared their own harrowing testimonies and deep-seated grief time and time again. Analysis of official state documents has detailed how Uighur women have been sterilised in huge numbers – a policy independent expert and rights groups have said constitutes genocide. Ziawudun is a survivor, but the greatest tragedy of our time is far from over. 

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell
@GWhittell

Ellen Halliday
@ellen_halliday

Luke Gbedemah
@LukeGbedemah

Photographs by Getty Images