The World Today for August 21, 2023

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Seven years ago, a majority of British voters opted to remove their country from the European Union. Now many are having second thoughts – or “Bregret,” as the New Statesman termed it.

The United Kingdom’s exit from the EU is estimated to have shaved four percent off the country’s gross domestic product, because companies moved across the channel to the bloc’s nations to access the common market and imports from the EU, the country’s biggest trading partner, became more expensive.

It has caused headaches at border crossings with Ireland, France, Gibraltar, and elsewhere. It’s made Scottish independence more likely. If Britons could vote on rejoining Europe, 55 percent say they would cast ballots to return to the bloc, according to YouGov.

“There’s a growing understanding in Britain that the country’s vote to quit the EU, a decisive moment in the international rise of reactionary populism, was a grave error,” wrote New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg recently.

Even the former leader of the UK Independence Party, Nigel Farage, who helped engineer Brexit, believes it is a failure, Politico reported. “We’ve mismanaged this totally,” he said.

It’s no wonder that pundits now predict that the governing Conservative Party that promoted and presided over Brexit will likely lose control of parliament when the country holds its next general election no later than January 2025, according to National Public Radio.

Meanwhile, negotiations over Brexit are still ongoing. Scottish salmon producers, for example, complained to IntraFish, a trade publication, that they are still waiting for the British government to enact protocols to reduce the paperwork necessary to export their catches to Europe.

These problems have emboldened advocates of Scottish independence, who believe they could rejoin the EU around four years after breaking away from the central government in London, Scottish newspaper the National said.

Diplomats are also still discussing the border between Northern Ireland, a British territory, and the Republic of Ireland to the south. As the BBC reported, Northern Ireland remained in the EU’s single market while retaining its British sovereignty. Under the current agreement regulating trade in the region, from October green and red truck lanes in Northern Irish ports will help customs officials manage commerce between the different jurisdictions, but it is a system that a House of Lords committee said would be burdensome to businesses.

Officials in the British territory of Gibraltar on the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula are also hoping to finalize an agreement to ensure that Spanish workers can cross the border to their jobs, the Financial Times added.

The thought of reversing the purpose of these talks to reconnect the UK to Europe, rather than finalizing the separation between the two, is likely one of the greatest obstacles to the country rejoining the EU.

As EU officials like to say, with some regret: They made their bed.


Push, Pull


China launched military drills around Taiwan over the weekend, shortly after the island’s vice president, William Lai, made two stopovers in the United States, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Last week, Lai visited Paraguay to reinforce relations with the South American nation – one of Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic allies.

He also visited the US and made stops in New York and San Francisco, where he met with the head of the US’ de facto embassy in Taipei and attended a dinner event with members of the overseas Taiwanese community.

But shortly after Lai’s return to Taiwan on Friday, China’s People Liberation Army (PLA) launched joint sea and air readiness patrols around Taiwan’s main island. PLA officials said the drills would serve as “a stern warning to the secession forces advocating ‘Taiwan independence’ with external powers,” but did not explicitly mention Lai’s visits.

They added that the drills would continue with a focus on practical combat capabilities, but did not specify when they would conclude.

Taiwan condemned the PLA’s maneuvers, saying they “fail to maintain peace and stability” in the Taiwan Strait. Its military said Saturday it would dispatch “appropriate force” in response to China’s move.

Lai’s visit and subsequent military drills come ahead of Taiwan’s presidential elections in January, where Lai is considered the front-runner to succeed President Tsai Ing-wen.

Both Lai and Taiwanese officials accused Beijing of using the threat of military force to meddle in those elections.

Although the president and vice president are both members of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, Lai is seen as more aggressive in asserting Taiwan’s independence.

China considers Taiwan as part of its territory and has promised to take control of the island even by force if necessary.

The Lingering Stink


Austrian prosecutors indicted former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz over the weekend on charges of making false statements in a parliamentary inquiry three years ago, the latest development in a long-running political scandal that has unsettled the country since 2019, Politico reported.

The recent indictment is part of the long-running “Ibiza affair” that has embroiled Kurz’s conservative People’s Party and his political allies.

The scandal began in 2019 when a secret video filmed on the Spanish island of Ibiza showed Kurz’s then-coalition partner, Heinz-Christian Strache, offering to provide political favors for money to a woman alleged to be the niece of a Russian oligarch.

The controversy promptly led to the collapse of Kurz’s coalition government, but his party later won early polls in September of that year and formed a coalition with the Greens.

But as anti-corruption investigators probed deeper, they uncovered a series of WhatsApp messages on the phone of one of the chancellor’s closest associates, Thomas Schmid, who had been appointed as head of a state holding company Österreichische Beteiligungs AG in 2018.

During a 2020 parliamentary inquiry, Kurz downplayed his involvement in Schmid’s appointment – but amid the ongoing investigation, Kurz resigned from his position as chancellor the following year.

The new charges this week center on his 2020 testimony: The WhatsApp messages and the testimony of Schmid – who has become an important witness – showed that Kurz was directly involved in the appointment, not just informed of it as he had said. They also showed a high level of cronyism, Politico said.

The former chancellor, who won office on promises to root out the cronyism that has long defined Austrian politics, insists he is innocent.

If found guilty, the former chancellor, who in 2017 became the world’s youngest head of government at the time, could face up to three years in prison. And that indictment may only be the first he will face.

Observers said the outcome would further damage the reputation of his People’s Party, which has been in power since 1987.

Still, questions remain about how successful any prosecution by Austria’s justice department will be because it has experienced a series of failures lately – not least, the acquittal of Strache in two bribery cases linked to the Ibiza affair.

‘A Fig Leaf’


Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi pardoned 35 political prisoners over the weekend, including the prominent Arab Spring activist Ahmed Douma, a move aimed at improving Egypt’s human rights record as it seeks badly needed international funding, the Washington Post reported.

Douma was one of the key figures in the mass demonstrations during the popular revolution that swept Egypt in 2011 and led to the fall of the longtime president, Hosni Mubarak.

Since then, he has spent around a decade behind bars because of his activism. Initially, he was detained by the government of Mubarak and his successor Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president elected after the uprising.

In 2013, the military government that ousted Morsi – and later brought el-Sisi to power – sentenced Douma to three years in prison for violating protest laws. But in a 2015 trial, his sentence was increased to 15 years, a case that human rights groups called “grossly unfair and politically motivated.”

Douma’s imprisonment underscored el-Sisi’s tough crackdown on dissent over the past decade which has seen thousands of journalists, academics and activists arrested on political grounds.

The releases come as Egypt is in dire need of foreign funding to mitigate its economic crisis.

In 2021, the US attached human-rights conditions to security aid for Egypt. By early 2022, it had withheld $130 million from Egypt’s annual $1.3 billion of US security assistance.

In response, the Egyptian government has taken steps to improve the country’s human rights record, including proposing a national dialogue for political and social reforms, as well as reactivating the committee charged with administering presidential pardons of detainees.

So far, more than 1,400 people have been released from pretrial detention.

While human rights advocates welcomed the pardons, some noted that the government is still arresting critics. Others cautioned that the recent releases “should be seen as a fig leaf designed to detract from the vast scope of the human rights violations.”


Stars in the Ice

Scientists studying Antarctica’s waters found a new alien-looking species which they named after a popular fruit, Insider reported.

Meet the Antarctic strawberry feather star, a sea creature measuring up to eight inches long and sporting 20 so-called “arms.”

In their study, researchers explained that the creature – formally known as Promachocrinus fragariu – has a “strawberry-like” central body and its natural color can range from “purplish” to “dark reddish,” according to Gizmodo.

They said the species’ arms are of varying textures, with some being bumpy and others feathery. These appendages are typically spread out and upward, aiding their movement.

The P. fragariu belongs to the Crinoidea, a class of species that includes starfish and sea urchins.

Found between around 200 and 3,800 feet below the ocean surface, its discovery is particularly important because scientists initially believed there was only one species under the Antarctic feather star group – the P. kerguelensis.

Following genetic and body analyses, the authors confirmed that they found seven other species of Promachocrinus, including four species previously never named by scientists.

“So we went from one species with 20 arms to now eight species – six with 20 arms and two with 10 arms under the name Promachocrinus,” co-author Greg Rouse told Insider.

There could be more unknown creatures lurking under the frozen continent’s sea, the authors said.

Still, that strawberry-like marine animal resembles the alien creature from “The Thing” movie – which is also set in Antarctica.

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