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No-Deal Brexit Is Back on the Table as EU-U.K. Trade Talks Get Underway

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The Brexit process heats up again as the British government sets a deadline, Russia looks to deepen its economic involvement in Syria, and West African leaders pressure Mali’s junta to appoint a new transitional government.

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Will the U.K. Crash Out of the EU?

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has set a deadline of Oct. 15 for the United Kingdom’s talks with the European Union as the latest round of negotiations gets underway today to determine the post-Brexit EU-U.K. economic relationship, again raising concerns that the United Kingdom could crash out of the bloc without a deal in place.

The announcement comes as the British government is working to push legislation through Parliament that would override key parts of last year’s Brexit withdrawal agreement. The Financial Times reported on Sunday that the so-called internal market bill is expected to remove the legal force of the highly contentious Northern Ireland protocol, which observers have long argued is vital to preserving peace and stability in Ireland after Brexit.

Irish border question revisited. The Northern Ireland protocol was included in the withdrawal agreement as a way of preventing the return of physical infrastructure along the Irish border, which both the Irish government and the European Union argued could disrupt travel and trade, deal a blow to decades of peace efforts, and antagonize republican paramilitary groups that seek to unify Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic in the south.

Under the terms of the withdrawal agreement, Northern Ireland would nominally operate inside a new U.K. customs union but would continue to be subject to EU trade regulations, effectively placing the United Kingdom’s new economic border in the Irish Sea. The arrangement enraged Northern Ireland’s unionists, who insist on maintaining Northern Ireland’s equal place inside the United Kingdom.

Unionist influence. On Sunday, the Democratic Unionist Party’s Sammy Wilson said that the withdrawal agreement needed to be scrapped and accused Johnson of betraying Northern Ireland. Johnson will reportedly tell the European Union today that the withdrawal agreement must be rewritten to protect the union between Britain and Northern Ireland. On Monday, EU officials warned London that there would be no trade deal if it tried to renege on the withdrawal agreement.

Economic impact. Economists have consistently warned that the economic impact of a no-deal Brexit could be severe. On Monday, business leaders in Britain doubled-down on those warnings, telling Johnson that securing a Brexit deal was essential for the United Kingdom’s economic recovery following the coronavirus pandemic.

But the markets already seem to have responded negatively to the latest news. On Monday, the pound took a slight tumble against the U.S. dollar, losing 1 percent of its value on the first day of talks.


September 8-10. The eighth round of Brexit negotiations between the United Kingdom and the European Union takes place.

September 8. U.S. and U.K. trade representatives meet for the latest round of trade talks.

September 8. Trial begins for former South African President Jacob Zuma, who is appearing in court on corruption charges.

September 9-12. Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) ministerial meeting takes place.

September 10-11. French President Emmanuel Macron hosts the Med7 summit with leaders from Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal, and Spain.

September 11-12. EU finance ministers will meet for their first in-person gathering since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak.

September 11-13. Russian local elections take place.


What We’re Following Today

Navalny is responsive after poisoning. The Berlin hospital that has been caring for Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny said that he is now out of his coma and is responsive, after confirming last week that he had been poisoned by the nerve agent Novichok. “It remains too early to gauge the potential long-term effects of his severe poisoning,” the hospital said in a statement.

The revelation that Navalny, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fiercest critics, was poisoned has strained relations between Germany and Russia. German Chancellor Angela Merkel suggested that it could jeopardize the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline if Moscow didn’t take action over the suspected attack.

Khashoggi assailants sentenced. A Saudi Arabian court sentenced eight people to prison for their involvement in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent critic of the Saudi Arabian government under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. U.N. officials and human rights campaigners criticized the trial because the real culprits of the murder would be allowed to go free. “The Saudi authorities are closing the case without the world knowing the truth of who is responsible for Jamal’s murder,” Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancée, wrote in a statement.

Suspicion has long swirled around the crown prince for his alleged role in ordering the crime, and Khashoggi’s death in October 2018 led to international condemnation of the Saudi regime and severely damaged bin Salman’s carefully cultivated image as a reformist.

Syria wants more Russian help. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said he wants to expand his country’s economic and business ties to Russia as a way of bypassing crippling U.S. sanctions during talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday. Lavrov hinted that Russia was prepared to come to Assad’s aid, noting during a subsequent press conference that Syria needed international assistance to help rebuild its economy now that Assad is in control of most of the territory he lost during the country’s brutal civil war.

The meeting was Lavrov’s first visit to the country since 2012, demonstrating Moscow’s continued interest in Syria after providing Assad with critical military support throughout the civil war.


Mali junta under pressure. The heads of state of the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have told Mali’s newly formed junta that it has until Sept. 15 to appoint civilians to the positions of president and prime minister at the head of a new transitional government. Talks between the coup leaders and opposition figures began on Saturday but made little progress after opposition figures protested the proceedings. As Philip Obaji Jr. recently wrote for Foreign Policy, a democratic transition in Mali that tackles the problem of corruption is vital to prevent the further destabilization of the region.

The bloc’s announcement is its latest attempt to pressure Mali’s junta as it tries to force a return to civilian rule. Shortly after the Aug. 18 coup, ECOWAS imposed a series of sanctions on Mali to demonstrate its opposition to the military takeover. African leaders have been far less critical of elected leaders who use constitutional tricks to hold on to power, Adem Abebe argued recently in FP—and to remain credible they will need to condemn both military and constitutional coups.

Libya talks underway. Representatives of Libya’s U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) and its rival, the eastern-based House of Representatives, met in Morocco on Sunday as the country continues to look for a way out of its near-decade-long civil war. The meeting took place two weeks after both sides declared a surprise nationwide cease-fire. Although Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said he “will applaud [the Libyans] regardless of the outcome” of the talks, he stressed that the final resolution would need to be brokered by the United Nations.

As Anas El Gomati recently wrote for Foreign Policy, Libyan National Army chief Khalifa Haftar’s failure to seize the capital of Tripoli helped create a military stalemate that could leave partition as the only viable long-term solution for the country. The leaders of the rival groups are expected to meet for talks in Switzerland today.


The San Bernardino unit of the California Fire Department confirmed on Sunday that a gender reveal party using a “smoke-generating pyrotechnic device” appears to have sparked one of the many wildfires currently ravaging California. The fire started on Saturday and has now spread to more than 8,500 acres, part of a much wider series of wildfires that have unleashed widespread destruction in California. Several nearby communities have been forced to evacuate.

It isn’t the first time a gender reveal party was behind the start of a wildfire. In 2017, an expectant father in Arizona fired a rifle at a target packed with explosives which sparked a 47,000-acre fire.


That’s it for today. 

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Photo credit: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images



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