The World Today for September 09, 2016


I’ll Do It My Way

British Prime Minister Theresa May keeps saying, “Brexit means Brexit.” But it turns out almost nobody really knows what that means.

May has created a new Department for Exiting the EU to figure it out. So far they haven’t made much progress, however. And while a second referendum looks to be a non-starter, despite a petition calling for one that was signed by more than 4.1 million Britons, there’s also no real forecast for when Britain will actually invoke Article 50 to trigger negotiations on exiting the EU.

If ever.

Instead, a little more clarity came this week, chiefly in the sense that it became clear just how much remains undecided.

David Davis, who heads the new department, said Brexit means that Britain will leave the EU, in case anybody had missed that part, and that means the UK will take back control over its borders, its laws and its tax revenue. That’s where things get murky.

At the Group of 20 summit meeting in China last weekend, May laid down ground rules that suggested she’d be the final arbiter of what shape Brexit takes, Bloomberg reported.

Specifically, she rejected Foreign Minister Boris Johnson’s suggestion that Britain adopt a “points-based” immigration system like the one used by Australia – which awards potential immigrants points for age, English proficiency, work experience and educational achievements. She refused to commit to withdrawing from the common European market for trade. And she refused to back the Leavers’ pledge to plow the money saved through the elimination of Britain’s EU budget payments into the National Health Service, notes the Economist.

That leaves the Brexiteers nominally in charge of figuring out what to do in a bit of a quandary.

Because the Brexit campaign was largely rooted in hostility toward immigrants, a withdrawal from the EU’s system of freedom of mobility is essentially non-negotiable, writes the Washington Post. But freedom of movement is just as “sacrosanct” to the EU as “sovereignty” is the Brexiteers. So much so that Norway and Switzerland have been compelled to accept migrants – though neither is a member of the EU – just to retain access to the common market.

That leaves a trade agreement like the one that Canada enjoys with the EU. But that presents its own problems, because it excludes services – which account for 80 percent of British GDP.

Meanwhile, foreign governments continue to lobby Britain to walk back on the decision, if not through a second referendum then simply by dilly-dallying indefinitely over the invoking of Article 50. But the Leavers have received a boost by an unexpected economic rebound from the immediate post-Brexit shock, making it tempting to dismiss their prognostications of doom.

Earlier this week, Japan’s foreign ministry published a paper on Brexit warning that Britain could suffer a flight of Japanese investment if it were to lose full access to the single EU market. It also advised Britain to continue to let its employers hire EU nationals. Britain received a full half of Japan’s investment in the EU last year, and plays host to the European headquarters of Japanese firms like Toyota, Nissan and Nomura.

US President Barack Obama and others added to the pressure by saying bilateral trade deals with Britain “would not be a priority,” the Economist said. And Britain’s domestic advocates for business and the finance industry are also pushing for retaining access to the single market.

All that could mean that Britain will go on and on talking about an exit but never actually leave, of course. But electoral compulsions could put a ticking clock on the decision to invoke Article 50, writes the Financial Times.

With May ruling out early polls, Britain’s next election is slated for 2020. Working backward to include the two-year negotiation with the EU and leave enough time before the polls in case there’s another temporary economic shock, she’ll need to invoke Article 50 early next year.

Perhaps by then we’ll know what “Brexit means Brexit” really means.


No Power to the People

For those few souls who still believe that democracy can solve the world’s problems, here’s a lesson from Israel: Voting only works if everybody agrees to abide by the results.

In the West Bank and the Gaza strip, the political leaders aren’t even willing to find out what voters think, according to the Los Angeles Times.

It’s not the Israelis’ fault, either. It was the Palestinian Supreme Court that “indefinitely postponed” the first elections in the troubled region in 10 years on Thursday, in what many saw as an effort to prevent Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s more secular Fatah party from losing ground to Islamist Hamas.

The proposed elections were not for the president or membership in parliament, but to fill 3,818 seats on 416 municipal councils in cities and villages across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. And though a recent poll showed that two-thirds of residents want Abbas to resign, Hamas isn’t exactly beloved either, the Washington Post reports.

But that doesn’t mean either party is ready to trust the will of the voters.

“Fatah and Hamas are not interested in democracy,” a 27-year-old accountant told the paper. “They believe in their interests only. They never care about people.”

Interestingly, the election was postponed a day after a report by Israel’s Channel 1 News alleging that Abbas was a Soviet spy in the 1980s, based on encrypted information from the Mitrokhin archive, a collection of handwritten notes by KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin. However, another Washington Post article quotes Brookings Institution analyst Khaled Elgindy as saying the revelation, even if it’s true, would not have much political impact.

Sincere Praise Only!

Catching on that some of the fulsome praise aimed in his direction was less than sincere, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has banned citizens from using sarcasm.

One of the phrases that has been specifically banned was “This is all America’s fault,” a reference to Kim’s obsession with blaming the United States for everything that goes wrong in the Hermit Kingdom, Radio Free Asia reported.

Another blacklisted phrase is “a fool who cannot see the outside world,” which refers to Kim’s absence from celebrations in Russia and China marking the end of World War II.

The message was communicated at mass meetings throughout the country beginning in August, according to the nonprofit news agency, which operates from US government-operated transmitters.

“One state security official personally organized a meeting to alert local residents to potential ‘hostile actions’ by internal rebellious elements,” the agency quoted an unnamed source as saying. “The main point of the lecture was ‘Keep your mouths shut!'”

Who Stole What?

The dispute over the dubious re-election of longtime Gabon President Ali Bongo Ondimba will now go to the courts, as opposition candidate Jean Ping filed a legal challenge in the country’s constitutional court on Thursday accusing Bongo of electoral fraud.

The election results showed an unlikely 99 percent voter turnout in Bongo’s home province, where 95 percent of votes were cast in his favor, and EU observers earlier backed Ping’s claims that there were anomalies in the voting. But Gabon’s U.N. Ambassador Michael Moussa-Adamo said it was Ping who’s trying to rig the election.

“We have mountains of evidence of tampering from neighboring countries” to help Ping “steal the election,” the New York Times quoted Moussa-Adamo as saying. “It’s covert and documented.”

Protests by Ping’s supporters followed the announcement of the results, and Ping has said more than 100 people have been killed – though the official government tally is only three. And the country’s justice minister has resigned in response to Bongo’s government’s refusal of a recount.

Bongo has said only the court can decide if a recount is justified. But it’s not clear whether the court will be able to resolve the issue to universal satisfaction, either, as Ping has said he has little faith in its independence, Reuters reported.


This Is Your Brain on Smog

Everybody knows that pollution is bad for your lungs. It’s also possibly bad for your brain, according to a new study.

Researchers at Lancaster, Oxford and Manchester Universities discovered microscopic magnetic particles produced by car engines and brakes in the brains of 37 people afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, suggesting that air pollution may trigger the dreaded neurodegenerative disorder, according to Britain’s Telegraph newspaper.

The mineral, called magnetite, is known to be toxic and had been found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients before. But previously it was thought to have occurred in their bodies naturally. What the study found is that the magnetite particles in the brains of this set of patients had a fused surface, indicating they’d been formed by extreme heat, such as that of a car engine.

“The particles we found are strikingly similar to magnetite nanospheres that are abundant in the airborne pollution found in urban settings, especially next to busy roads and which are firmed by combustion or frictional heating from vehicle engines or brakes,” said lead author Professor Barbara Maher, of Lancaster University.

The scientists acknowledged that they had not established a causal link between the magnetite particles and Alzheimer’s. But with air pollution already known to kill more people each year than malaria and HIV/AIDS combined, the suspicion alone ought to spur further efforts to slash emissions of toxic particles along with greenhouse gases.


In our lead article on Sept. 7, “The Lasting Pivot,” we inadvertently put in non-functioning links. If you wish to access the correct links, click here. We apologize for the inconvenience.

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