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Sensemaker: Britain and Europe: red lines at dawn

Sensemaker: Britain and Europe: red lines at dawn

Monday 11 October 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • Sebastian Kurz resigned for the second time as Austrian chancellor after being named as a suspect in a corruption investigation.
  • An American couple was arrested for selling nuclear secrets to a person they thought was a representative of a foreign power, but was in fact an undercover FBI agent.
  • A performer was crushed to death during a scene change at the Bolshoi theatre in Moscow.

Britain and Europe: red lines at dawn

Boris Johnson has chosen a good week to be in Marbella. While his business secretary is telling British industry to suck up high gas prices (see below), Lord Frost, his former chief Brexit negotiator, is making the case that it’s time to tear up the Northern Ireland Protocol at the heart of the Brexit withdrawal agreement and start again. 

A week of proposals and counter-proposals starts tomorrow. There are a number of reasons to fear they will lead to the worst possible outcome for both sides, but especially for Britain. 

  • The EU is planning to announce a package of concessions to weaken the impact of the protocol on Northern Ireland’s truckers, supermarkets and consumers, but Lord Frost has already rejected them.
  • Frost says he wants to revisit the European Court of Justice’s oversight role in the protocol, which is fundamental as far as the EU concerned and which the UK approved last year. Simon Coveney, the Irish foreign minister, accuses Frost of creating a new red line he knows the EU can’t accept.
  • There are three ways the EU could put pressure on Britain: suspend efforts to agree new ways for the UK and EU to cooperate on financial services, freeze UK participation in the EU R & D programme known as Horizon Europe, and impose tariffs, in particular on cars. The first two don’t scare Downing Street, leaving the third, which should. It would mean a trade war with the EU. 

The Frost-Coveney debate over the weekend was to the point, as Twitter dictates. Coveney suggested the UK had brought up the ECJ precisely to sabotage progress as Brussels was beginning to unbend. Frost said he didn’t want to argue on Twitter but wished the EU had paid more attention to a British “Command Paper” of 21 July. 

There’s every reason to assume the paper was in fact carefully read. Its argument is that the protocol was negotiated under duress; that its enforcement is turning out to be harder than expected; and that the EU should take it on trust that the UK will protect its single market without ECJ oversight or any customs checks in the Irish Sea that London considers onerous. 

London is trying to make an argument based on good faith when it has very little in the bank, not least because this is a treaty signed with broad smiles on the British side in 2020.

France, still seething over Britain’s role in wrecking a French-Australian submarine deal to create AUKUS, will ride herd on the rest of the EU 27 against renegotiating the NI protocol. 

Liz Truss, the new British foreign secretary, sets off soon on a tour of EU capitals to try to undermine European solidarity. Good luck with that. Poland’s ruling party tried it last week and every big Polish city filled up at the weekend with pro-EU protesters.

There’s life in the old bloc yet.


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Gas up
A useful number for anyone wanting to understand the situation the UK and Europe’s energy-intensive industries find themselves in is five. Gas is five times more expensive than it was this time last year, and the spike is especially painful for British businesses because they’re not protected by a price cap as retail consumers are; and nor has government ridden to their rescue. Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, spent the weekend being asked if he was going to bail out industries like steel with suddenly exorbitant energy bills, and saying no. Awkwardly, he added that he had been in close contact with the Treasury on the matter, only for a Treasury official to tell Sky’s Sam Coates this wasn’t true. Coates’ source said his department wasn’t involved in talks with Kwarteng, and it wasn’t the first time he “has made things up in interviews”. What business leaders want the government to make up is the shortfall between what they can afford to pay and what gas suppliers, chief among them Russia, are demanding as the northern hemisphere heads into winter. Something will have to give, and on present evidence it will be the taxpayer. 


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Trump rides again
He’s off Twitter and still banned from Facebook, but Trump retains an iron grip on the Republican party and most of his old ability to pull and captivate a crowd. He was in Iowa on Saturday to test the waters for a 2024 White House re-run. As things stand, if he bids for the nomination, most big-name rivals will melt away. He spoke for an hour and 43 minutes at the state fairgrounds in Des Moines, remarking that “violent criminals and bloodthirsty gangs” had taken over America’s streets and “lunatic lefties” had taken over its schools. He repeated the lie that last year’s election was stolen – not that his audience needed reminding – and quoted a Des Moines Register poll showing his approval rating among independents three points up since March. Some polls also put him ahead of Biden nationally. Why wouldn’t he run? He could have a health wobble or decide a second term wouldn’t be much fun. Just now, neither looks likely. 


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

Arrested euthanasia
A 51 year-old woman suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) went to bed last Friday night expecting, on Sunday morning, to become Colombia’s first person without an immediate terminal prognosis to die by legally-authorised euthanasia. Instead, Martha Sepúlveda was woken by her lawyers to be shown a letter saying the committee that had approved her decision had changed its mind. She no longer met its criteria for euthanasia because her health had apparently improved. Her story has been extensively covered in mainly-Catholic Latin American and the US as a test case in the debate between advocates and opponents of euthanasia for those without a terminal prognosis. It’s illegal throughout the US, where medically-assisted suicide is legal only in 10 states and DC, and only for those given less than six months to live. There is no cure, though, for ALS, and Ms Sepúlveda was said to have been calm and at peace with her decision


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Australian ambition
Alok Sharma, the UK minister in charge of Cop 26, tells the FT he wants Australia, among other countries, to beef up its emissions reductions targets and commit to net zero before next month’s conference in Glasgow. Australian industry is all for it. It’s the government standing in the way. Not for the first time Australian businesses have set about outflanking Scott Morrison’s government, which is generally recalcitrant on climate change, by claiming to champion more ambitious emissions targets while ministers rule them out. The Business Council of Australia is arguing that firms emitting more than 25 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent a year should be required to buy offsets to account for anything above that. The current threshold is 100 million tonnes a year. The government says companies would pass the cost on to consumers, which wouldn’t be fair. But if companies think consumers will wear the extra cost, why not let them try?


New things technology, science, engineering

Enzymes v plastic
A French firm is planning to commercialise an experimental reactor that takes single-use plastic bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and uses an enzyme to break up its long polymers into easily-recycled monomers. The enzyme is similar to one found in nature that decomposes leaves. Tweaked for PET, its designers reckon it can cut plastic bottles’ carbon footprint by 30 per cent compared with the emissions produced from using only virgin PET. Assuming global oil demand falls between now and 2050, the share of it accounted for by plastics will rise to an estimated 20 per cent. At present only 15 per cent of PET bottles are recycled because the process is energy-intensive, largely mechanical and doesn’t produce the same clear plastic that goes into it. The MIT Technology Review has the story. The French firm, Carbios, hopes its first full-size reactor will eat 2 million bottles at a time.

The week ahead

UK:

11/10 – vaccine passports come into force in Wales; first round of negotiations for a treaty on Gibraltar’s relationship with the EU; nearly 50 countries removed from UK’s red travel list including Mexico and Thailand, 12/10 – David Frost speaks in Lisbon on Northern Ireland protocol; Science and Technology Committee and Health and Social Care Committee report on initial UK pandemic response; ONS monthly labour market statistics, 13/10 – August GDP estimate; Ed Miliband speech to Green Alliance on what can be achieved at Cop 26, 14/10 – Former soldier Dennis Hutchings charged over attempted murder of IRA suspect; Banksy’s ‘Girl With Balloon’ which self-shredded auctioned as ‘Love is in the Bin’, 15/10 – Inquest hearing for death of Belly Mujinga; Powerlist Black Excellence Awards announced

World:

11/10 – Thanksgiving Day in Canada; IMF and World Bank Group annual meetings start; Boston Marathon; winner of Nobel Prize in economics announced in Stockholm, 12/10 – Blue Origin’s second manned launch with William Shatner on board; G20 trade ministers meet in Sorrento; IMF update on its Global Financial Stability Report, 13/10 – Global no-bra day for breast cancer awareness; JPMorgan Chase and Black Rock third quarter results; Opec monthly oil market report, 14/10 – Asos full year results; China’s CPI announced, 15/10 – Vaccine passports come into force in Brussels; Goldman Sachs third quarter results; Italy requires all workers to show proof of vaccination, a negative test or recent recovery from Covid infection; Unicef’s 2021 State of the World’s Children report released; Adele releases new single Easy On Me 

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell
@GWhittell

Phoebe Davis
@phoebe_ivy

Produced and edited by Phoebe Davis. 

Photographs @Fede0830/Twitter, Getty Images