Long stories short
- The US Energy Department said Covid-19 was most likely caused by a leak from a Chinese lab (more below).
- At least 59 people, including a dozen children, died when a boat carrying about 150 migrants sank off Italy’s southern coast.
- The Australian firm Recharge finalised a deal to take over the battery maker Britishvolt.
Isn’t Brexit fun?
On British breakfast TV this morning, Jacob Rees-Mogg, a conservative Conservative and ardent Brexiteer, said Rishi Sunak had done “very well” in his negotiations with the EU to rewrite the Northern Ireland Protocol. Yesterday Steve Baker, the Northern Ireland minister and another proud Leaver, left Downing Street with a smile and a thumbs-up.
So what? Every front page in the land carries stories about today’s visit to Windsor and London by Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president. That is significant and symbolic. She will even see the King for tea. But agreement with Europe was the easy part. Getting truculent Tories and Irish unionists on board was always the challenge.
Rees-Mogg’s language and Baker’s body language matter because they signal that
- Sunak has done enough to prevent a big backbench rebellion; and
- a new deal is therefore in sight to replace the NIP Bill bequeathed to him by Boris Johnson, whose only answer to disagreement with the EU was the nuclear option of unilateral abrogation.
Leaked details say in practical terms the new deal would
- introduce red and green lanes for goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, with red for those heading on to the EU and green for everything else;
- disapply 97 per cent of EU customs rules for green lane goods, so the province can once again enjoy sausages and seed potatoes from the far side of the Irish Sea without their shippers having to fill in up to 500 forms per consignment;
- hand responsibility for VAT rates and state aid rules in Northern Ireland back to Westminster from Brussels; and
- soothe Brexiteer neuralgia over the European Court of Justice by pushing its role as final arbiter of EU single market rules into the deep background.
What Sunak says this will mean in political terms is that his three tests for any renegotiation are met, namely that it improves life in Northern Ireland, safeguards the province’s position within the UK and fixes what he calls the protocol’s democratic deficit. (The argument goes that by placing the province simultaneously in the UK and the EU single market the protocol turns the people of Northern Ireland into rule-takers with no say in the rule-making.)
What Sunak wants this to mean in broader geopolitical terms is a whole new paradigm for relations between post-Brexit Britain and
- the EU, leading to smoother trade across the EU border to and from all UK ports, not just those on the Irish Sea, and to a resumption of research cooperation under the €95 billion Horizon banner;
- France, which hosts an Anglo-French summit on 10 March at which Sunak wants to be able to announce more French help in stopping asylum seekers setting out for the UK in small boats; and
- the US, where Biden frequently proclaims his Irish roots and the importance he attaches to the Good Friday Agreement, whose 25th anniversary falls on 10 April.
Power-sharing. Sunak wants Biden to attend the anniversary ceremony. For that he’ll need to show progress towards restoring the power-sharing instituted by the GFA and suspended by the Democratic Unionist Party on account – it says – of the detested protocol.
Population. Both men know there’s another reason for the DUP’s refusal to get back to sharing power: Sinn Fein is now the biggest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly. But Sunak wants to be able to look Biden in the eye and say he’s done what he can.
Populism. It helps that he’s not the one heard to mutter “fuck the Americans” last week in the House of Commons. That was Johnson, who in his manoeuvrings to return to power has aligned himself with Brexit ultras like Mark Francois MP, chair of the European Research Group. Asked yesterday if he liked the look of Sunak’s deal, Francois replied: “We’re not stupid.”
History will be the judge of that.
In the seven years since the EU referendum, YouGov’s tracker poll asking if Britain was right to vote to leave has swung from 4 per cent in favour to 24 against.
CAPITAL ECONOMY, BUSINESS AND FINANCE
Decline and rise
Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the UK’s Labour Party, says if current growth trends continue Britons will be poorer on average than Poles by 2030 and than Hungarians and Romanians by 2040. There are serious political risks to a strategy of talking up your own country’s decline, but Starmer’s numbers are compelling if trustworthy. They show an average real terms UK growth rate of 0.5 per cent between 2010 and 2021, i.e. for most of the Conservatives’ past 13 years in power. That is a sixth as fast as Poland’s growth in the same period, but that has been from a much lower base. Starmer and Sunak are both looking for growth engines without daring to talk about Brexit as a growth killer. It’s a strange condition for a free country to find itself in.
TECHNOLOGY AI, SCIENCE AND NEW THING
Where is Bao Fan?
On 16 February, the investment bank China Renaissance said it was unable to contact its founder, the billionaire Bao Fan. In a short stock exchange statement released yesterday, the firm said Bao was “co-operating in an investigation” with Chinese authorities. No details of the investigation were shared. Bao is a major figure in China’s tech industry and his disappearance follows two years of tight government control over the sector. He is also the latest in a series of high-profile disappearances – in 2015 alone at least five company executives went missing, according to Reuters.
The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT
Do the maths
Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, has announced a £130 million emergency scheme to provide one year’s free school meal provision for all primary school students, benefitting 270,000 pupils and saving families around £440 per child. But what about those outside the capital? Only households earning less than £7,400 (after tax, not including benefits) qualify for free school meals in England, despite food and drink inflation increasing by 13.1 per cent in the past year. Nearly three quarters of the public support extending free school meals to cover all 800,000 children living in poverty. It would improve academic performance and pupils’ mental and physical health, and over time would see a return of £1.38 for every £1 spent, according to analysis by PwC.
Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics
An accidental laboratory leak in China most likely caused the Covid-19 pandemic. This is the updated assessment – although made with “low confidence” – of the US Energy Department, according to a classified intelligence report first reported by the Wall Street Journal. The department, which runs a network of national laboratories, was previously undecided on how the virus emerged. The FBI also concluded that the pandemic was the result of a lab leak in 2021, while four other US intelligence agencies believe the virus likely emerged from natural transmission. Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, did not confirm the new intelligence yesterday, but pointed to the ongoing divisions within the US intelligence community over the pandemic’s origins. “Right now, there is not a definitive answer,” he said.
CULTURE soCIETY, IDENTITY AND BELONGING
Don’t touch our vote
Tens of thousands of people rallied across Mexico yesterday to protest against legal changes passed last week that will substantially cut the budget of the country’s electoral agency. Many protesters dressed in pink, the colour of the National Electoral Institute, or INE, which is considered one of the most important institutions in the country’s transition to democracy after decades of one-party rule. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has attacked the independent electoral body as corrupt and inefficient. Rights groups say the changes will undermine the credibility of Mexico’s elections (the country is due to choose Lopez Obrador’s successor next year). The new laws now go to Mexico’s Supreme Court.
The week ahead
27/2 – University staff to walk out; supermarket bosses to meet government over salad shortages; eating disorder awareness week begins, 28/2 – Teachers to strike in Scotland and north of England; secondary school performance data released for England; sentencing of Scottish transgender woman guilty of rape, 1/3 – Teachers strike in Midlands and east of England; ONS release Covid-19 vaccine effectiveness statistics; Andrew Bailey speaks at cost of living conference, 2/3 – Boris Johnson speaks at Soft Power Global Summit; teachers in London, Wales and south of England to strike; World Book Day; Nuffield Health Policy Summit, 3/3 – Plaid Cymru hold spring conference; Environment Minister Thérèse Coffey speaks at Our Ocean conference, 4/3 – World Pasty Championships held in Cornwall, 5/3 – Rail fares nationwide to increase by an average of 5.9 per cent.
27/2 – Russian central bank reports inflation expectations; Eurozone consumer confidence data for February released; Mobile World Congress begins in Barcelona, 28/2 – Joe Biden student debt relief plan challenges heard in US Supreme Court; Taiwan celebrates Peace Memorial day; Finnish parliament to vote on joining Nato, 1/3 – Two-day meeting of G20 foreign ministers begins in India; Conservative Political Action Conference begins in Maryland; One Forest Summit co-hosted by Gabon and France in Libreville, 2/3 – American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting; International Energy Agency publishes its global energy review; European Athletics Indoor Championships start, 3/3 – US Federal Reserve releases monetary policy report; Olaf Scholz and Biden hold summit at White House, 4/3 – world’s oldest person, María Branyas Morera, due to turn 116.
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Additional reporting by Jess Winch, Sophie Barnett and Phoebe Davis.
Photographs Getty Images
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