Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The European Union and United Kingdom agree to keep Brexit negotiations going, hackers target the U.S. Treasury and Commerce departments, and U.S. President Donald Trump threatens to veto the National Defense Authorization Act.
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Brexit Talks to Go “Extra Mile”
Brexit negotiations are to continue through this week as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed to keep talking. In joint a statement issued on Sunday, the pair said it was “responsible at this point to go the extra mile.”
As deadline after deadline has been missed in Brexit negotiations between the European Union and United Kingdom, one would be forgiven for thinking that an extra mile might be underestimating the actual distance between the two sides. Especially because, after months of discussions, a dispute still remains on the issue of fisheries and the so-called level playing field.
The deadline that cried wolf. In the financial world, the ever-shifting ultimatums have led to cynicism. “If these talks fail, my bet would be that there will be an effort to restart them next year,” Marc Chandler, chief market strategist at Bannockburn Global, told Bloomberg, adding “deadlines don’t matter.”
Supermarket jitters. Beyond financial markets, the literal meat and potatoes of a no-deal Brexit remains a concern. Grocery stores in the United Kingdom have reportedly been told by the British government to begin stockpiling items. “There was a conversation a week ago when ministers said prepare for no-deal. This weekend the message is that it’s no-deal,” one supermarket consultant told the Sunday Times.
Royal delays. Cultural totems are also having to readjust to cope with the sinking feeling of a no-deal Brexit. The recording of Queen Elizabeth II’s Christmas message—considered as much of an institution as NFL football is on Thanksgiving day—has had to be pushed back from its usual filming date in mid-December in order to deal with the uncertainty of Brexit negotiations.
A fight over fish? The U.K. ministry of defense has threatened to roll out the big guns once the Brexit transition period ends, saying it would activate “numerous patrol vessels across military and marine organizations that are used to provide physical presence, deterrence and inspection capability,” suggesting a standoff over fishing rights is on the cards.
European Council President Charles Michel scoffed at the likelihood of conflict breaking out as a result of a no-deal outcome. “I will not say like Donald Trump might that our boats are bigger than theirs, because I try to be serious. On the European side, we will keep our composure,” he said.
The World This Week
On Monday, Dec. 14, the Center for Strategic and International Studies hosts a virtual discussion with Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, addresses the Heritage Foundation.
The Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon Task Force at the Office of Naval Intelligence is due to release its findings on unidentified aerial phenomena and threats to the U.S. military.
On Tuesday, Dec. 15, France’s national lockdown is due to end.
On Wednesday, Dec. 16, U.S. Federal Reserve is to issue its decision on whether to raise, lower, or maintain U.S. interest rates. Followed by a press conference led by Fed Chair Jerome Powell.
Two-day meeting of the WTO General Council begins, the World Trade Organization’s highest-level decision-making body. Discussions expected on proposal to waive intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.
The remaining signatories of the Iran nuclear deal meet in Vienna.
On Thursday, Dec. 17, Russian President Vladimir Putin gives his annual end-of-year press conference.
On Friday, Dec. 18, the U.S. Senate is scheduled to adjourn, although an extension is possible.
What We’re Following Today
NDAA veto threat. U.S. President Donald Trump again warned that he would veto the bill authorizing the U.S. defense budget, this time because it is too soft on China. “THE BIGGEST WINNER OF OUR NEW DEFENSE BILL IS CHINA! I WILL VETO!,” Trump tweeted on Sunday. The proposed $740.5 billion dollar budget, which has been agreed upon by both Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate, is roughly three times larger than China’s.
The White House declined to elaborate on why Trump referred to China in the tweet, although it could be down to a Matryoshka doll line of reasoning on Trump’s part encapsulating Section 230 of the communications act, a perceived social media company bias against conservatives, and Chinese officials’ recent use of Twitter.
Treasury hacked. Hackers linked to the Russian government have had access to the networks of the U.S. Treasury and Commerce departments for months after making use of a security vulnerability in a software management system used by the department called SolarWinds. Upon learning about the hack, the U.S. National Security Council reportedly convened an emergency meeting on Saturday.
According to the company’s website, SolarWinds is used by all five branches of the U.S. military, as well as the Defense Department, State Department, Justice Department, NASA, the Executive Office of the President, and the National Security Agency, suggesting hackers may have breached even more U.S. government agencies than first reported. It’s not yet clear what kind of information was extracted by the hackers.
Sudan rebuffed. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has rebuffed an offer by Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok to mediate between Abiy’s government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Reuters reports that Abiy rejected the offer as his government maintains that all fighting ceased once government forces took the Tigrayan capital of Mekele, although the TPLF maintains that they continue fighting in the mountains surrounding the city. Abiy had described Hamdok’s visit as a two-day trip, however, Hamdok left Ethiopia within hours.
The United Nations estimates that nearly 50,000 Ethiopians have fled into Sudan since the beginning of Abiy’s campaign against the TPLF.
Keep an Eye On
Europe-Iran relations. European nations have pulled out of a Europe-Iran business forum in protest over the execution of dissident journalist Rouhollah Zam over the weekend. Zam had been kidnapped from Iraq and taken to Iran to face charges of fomenting dissent during anti-government demonstrations in 2017. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was also due to take part in the forum, which has now been cancelled. Iran summoned the German ambassador to Tehran over the European actions, and blasted the “interventionist statements” made in the wake of the execution.
Cease-fire ceased? Armenia and Azerbaijan have accused the other of breaking a Russian-brokered cease-fire established last month, as both sides reported renewed fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan’s defense ministry reported that four Azeri soldiers had been killed in recent weeks, while Armenia said that six of their troops were wounded while defending what is considered ethnic Armenian-held land under the terms of the last cease-fire.
Bolsonaro bump. Even as a local newspaper blames his “homicidal negligence” in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is seeing record approval ratings. A recent poll by Brazilian firm Datafolha found that 37 percent of Brazilians see his government as great or good, while the number viewing it as bad or terrible reduced 2 points to 32 percent. Bolsonaro’s relatively solid approval is likely due to his support for a cash benefit for low-income residents hit by the pandemic, which Bolsonaro recently extended until the end of the year.
Odds and Ends
Consumers around the world are facing a Christmas tree supply crunch, as shoppers scramble to spruce up the homes they have spent much of the past year getting intimately acquainted with under lockdown. The Wall Street Journal reports that 8-foot trees are going for as much as $2,167 in Hong Kong and prices for otherwise substandard trees have spiked in the United States. The shortage is likely due to supplier miscalculations on demand, and a fear of oversupplying a market where many have been facing unemployment for months.
The time needed to grow a tree to most home standards—about 8 to 12 years—means that finding more at short notice is difficult. “We have retailers asking us to go out and cut more trees, which we are not doing because we have to save some for next year,” one U.S. grower said.
That’s it for today.