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What The Fuck Is Going On In Politics: The Weekly Rundown

Brexit, impeachment, the American withdrawal from Syria: here’s everything going on in politics right now.

By Julie Ngalle and Chloé Meley

National Politics: 

What’s happened in the last few weeks with Brexit?

Our last rundown on what is happening with Brexit was published almost a month ago on the 16th of September, if you want to take a look at that first. So, what’s happened since? One of the most significant event took place on the 24th of September when the Supreme Court ruled the prorogation of Parliament, which had been in effect since the 10th of September, unlawful – we also have an explainer for that, if you want to know more about it. Amid outrage and calls to resign over the fact that he decided to shut down the UK’s sovereign body in a time of crisis without any proper justification, the Prime Minister, who was attending the United Nations Climate Summit in New York at the time, said he did not agree with but would respect the decision. Meanwhile, back in the UK, Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow announced that Parliament would resume business on the 25th of September. In early October, Boris Johnson outlined his Brexit proposals to Parliament, which included the following solution to the Northern Irish backstop: Northern Ireland would stay in the European single market for goods (meaning it would continue to adhere to EU rules and standards, removing the need for checks on goods circulating between both Irelands) but leave the customs union, which would entail the existence of a customs border with electronic checks done away from the border. On the 10th of October, Johnson and Ireland’s leader Leo Varadkar had a two-hour long meeting, which has been described as positive and promising by both sides. However, although Varadkar did not outright reject Johnson’s proposal, the Irish position is better described as a tepid maybe rather than an enthusiastic yes. On the 11th of October, another positive and promising meeting took place in Brussels, this time between Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay and EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier. Hopes of reaching a deal have echoed across the continent, as the pound’s value rose on Friday. Whether or not those talks will culminate next week in a withdrawal agreement between the UK and the EU remains to be seen. Right now, the EU and the UK are engaged in what was described as ‘intense technical discussions’ over the terms of Brexit that will continue throughout the weekend in Brussels. 

What happens if we leave on the 31st? What happens if we don’t?

Johnson’s deal will be presented at a European leaders’ summit on the 17th of October, and if approved, presented to Parliament. On the 19th of October, and for the first time in the 21st century, Parliament will sit on a Saturday, either to vote on a deal or to discuss what to do in the absence of one. The Benn Act is a law that requires Johnson to ask for an extension if no deal has been approved by this date. So, except if MPs approve Johnson’s Brexit deal or if they vote in favour of leaving with a no-deal, which is incredibly unlikely, Johnson is obligated by law to request yet another extension of Article 50, which would delay the UK’s exit to the 31st of January 2020. Despite those legal provisions that are supposed to put no-deal off the table, Johnson has repeatedly proclaimed his commitment to taking the UK out of the EU on the 31st of October, no matter what. 

So, to summarise, if a deal is agreed and legislation has been drafted in time or a short delay to draft such legislation has been approved by the EU, then the UK will officially exit the EU. What this will mean for the country in the short and long term has yet to be determined. However, if a deal is agreed but the government does not request a short delay to draft legislation or if the EU refuses to grant it, then the result can either be a no-deal Brexit or a vote of no-confidence. The same two options will arise if the deal is rejected and Johnson complies with the Benn Act in requesting an extension but the EU does not accept. If the EU does accept the extension, then the whole thing will be delayed to 2020. If Johnson decides to ignore the Benn Act in the event of his deal failing and forces a no-deal Brexit, however, then no one really knows what will happen, as there is no existing blueprint for crashing out of the EU. Also, if the Prime Minister decides to ignore the law, it’s almost certain that he will be legally challenged. Another option for Johnson apart from either complying with or ignoring the Benn Act would simply be to resign. 

In any case, a general election is very likely, which can be triggered if the government loses a vote of no-confidence or if the government itself seeks a general election. In the case of the latter, a general election will take place if two-thirds of the House of Commons agree or through the alternative route of introducing a law specifying the date of a general election – which only requires a simple majority. We will hopefully know more about the direction the country will be taking next week, so stay tuned for the next weekly rundown.

Did Boris Johnson break the law by calling for the prorogation of Parliament?

Yes he did. The Supreme Court has concluded that the shutting down of Parliament was done without proper justification and “had the effect of frustrating or preventing the ability of Parliament to carry out its constitutional functions without reasonable justification”, in the words of President of the Supreme Court and spider-shaped brooch-wearer Lady Hale. It’s important to note that the Supreme Court avoided criticising the Prime Minister, and did not say anything about Johnson’s motives for breaking the law. 

Where do other parties stand in terms of Brexit?

Labour’s official position is to not challenge the result of the 2016 Brexit vote (even if voices within the Party have called for a second referendum), but instead to renegotiate a deal that protects the UK’s close relationship with the EU, guarantees the UK’s continued participation (the extent of that participation to be determined) in the Single Market and the Customs Union, and ensures that the UK and the EU keep working together to tackle issues such as climate change and the refugee crisis. The Liberal Democrats have made their opposition to Brexit crystal clear, notably standing in favour of revoking Article 50 and effectively cancelling Brexit. The Green Party supports a people’s vote on the final deal, and the Scottish National Party wants to halt or revoke Article 50, and supports a new referendum on EU membership

International Politics:

What are other countries doing in terms of climate emergency?

The environmental crisis seems to be all that everyone has been talking about this year and yet nobody can clearly tell what, if anything, is being done regarding global warming. Depending on what country we look at, it is actually quite easy to evaluate the level of priority put on the matter. When asking what “other countries” are doing, that includes 195 countries and nobody would read through all that, so let’s summarise the political involvement on a continental scale rather than national: 

  • Africa: Due to the economic and social development in most African nations, the priority has not been on climate change for the most part. Most countries unfortunately have limited power and resources to be more sustainable as most of their economies rely on non-sustainable activities and sectors. There is still some action and enthusiasm on their part to help solve global environmental issues with Ethiopia for example commiting to reducing emissions by more than half of what they are now by 2030 and also committing to restoring 15 million hectares of degraded and deforested land. It is also interesting to note that North African nations such as Tunisia and Morocco have made considerable contributions to this fight with Tunisia introducing a green police force to considerably reduce littering and better the country’s waste management. Morocco is one of the two only countries that have been judged compatible with the 1.5˚C target outlined in the Paris Agreement according to the Climate Action Tracker. The main challenge for the continent lies within erosion and land degradation, deforestation and air and water pollution. 
  • Asia: Just like Africa and Latin America, Asia’s environmental initiatives have been nuanced. On the one hand, we know China has been one of the world’s biggest investors in renewable energy but that does not stop them from having some of the most polluting production strategies and factories worldwide. India is another good example as their air pollution levels is also breaking records but they have been able to cut down their fuel consumption massively in the past 5 to 10 years. Alongside that, we have Singapore who aims to reduce and raise awareness about plastic usage and food waste. Both have dropped considerably since 2014.  Unfortunately, this impact is rendered less significant due to Russia’s lack of concern for the crisis despite its terrestrial size. 
  • Europe/EU: Although many people like to believe that Europe claims to do much more than they actually achieve, most European countries have been taking the climate crisis fairly seriously. Scandinavian countries are truly setting an example for the rest of us with their use of renewable energy (Norway’s power system works almost 100% thanks to hydro technologies), the quality of air, low pollution rates and use of public transports and bicycles rather than cars. Hungary, Romania and  Bulgaria have also shown impressive governmental investment with regards to land protection and use of renewable energy. Still a lot needs to be done with regards to Europe’s use of fossil fuels and levels of air pollution and waste. 
  • North America: North America has been quite divided on the matter. As we all know, Donald Trump’s priority is not climate change. Other than the fact that he still manages to dismiss how real it is and claims all scientists are lying, Trump has also made it very clear that the wealth and growth in power of his country is a top priority, over the climate emergency. Thankfully, we have Canada that is trying to make up for that lack of effort on the US’ side. Indeed, the country’s air pollution is very low and increasingly diminishing. They have also pledged and reached many goals in the past few years regarding the development and use of renewable energies or sustainable transportation. There are still some big challenges and issues notably in the frozen-solid north of the country which is heavily affected by climate change, and challenges remain. 
  • South America: We’ve all heard about the fires in the Amazonian forest that lasted for close to a month and therefore know that the environment is not being taken as seriously as it should be. Deforestation is one of the major issue with an increase in fire outbreaks and palm oil production getting more widespread and more unsustainable. Air pollution is also a major issue in several countries and with Bolsonaro’s views on climate change, it does not look like change is going to be easy or effective just yet. However, just like Africa, there are notable policies and pledges being put in place such as Peru’s specialised environmental court that holds citizens and companies accountable when it comes to deforestation, environmental degradation, hazardous waste and more. Mexico also has made many pledges concerning green gas emissions, the use of low-emission energy sources and cutting deforestation to zero by 2030. It is safe to say that there is hope! 
  • Oceania: Oceania is one of the areas that has been most responsive to the environmental crisis. Both Australia and New Zealand have the highest percentages of protected terrestrial and marine areas. New Zealand’s reduction of green gas emissions has been impressive and Australia officially banned the use of plastic bags and is currently working on halving the country’s food waste quota. The continent’s main issues have to do with deforestation and Australia’s gas emissions. 

Is Trump actually being impeached? 

No. At least not yet. Like everything in politics, it’s all a bit more complicated than what the headlines suggest. There is a huge difference between impeachment and an impeachment investigation (also known as an impeachment inquiry), with the latter preceding but not automatically resulting in the former. Right now, the House of Representatives is investigating whether or not an impeachment process should be triggered, so Trump’s presidency is not being directly threatened just yet. Six House committees (Judiciary, Intelligence, Oversight and Reform, Foreign Affairs, Financial Services, and Ways and Means) are currently gathering evidence and issuing subpoenas, which refer to orders issued by a government agency to compel witnesses to testify. 

Once the investigation by those committees is finished (god knows how long that will take), the House has to determine whether to move forward with impeachment. The House Judiciary Committee has to vote on the formal charges (also known as articles of impeachment) brought against the President, before advancing them to a vote by the full House (a simple majority is required to officially charge the President). Then, the Senate will hold a trial to decide if the President should be convicted or acquitted (two-thirds of the Senate need to agree to remove the President from office, or 67 senators. The 47 Democratic senators would therefore need the support of 20 of their Republican counterparts). But even if the House impeaches a President, it is not guaranteed that he will be convicted on the charges brought forth by the House (Bill Clinton was impeached but acquitted, and Richard Nixon resigned before he could be impeached).

It is not clear how long the process will take, and with the 2020 election looming, both Democrats and Republicans are also thinking about the political impact of the impeachment inquiry. There are notably concerns among Democrats over the impeachment investigation potentially bolstering Trump’s popularity with his base. A lot of boring, bureaucratic work will be done by the House committees in the next few weeks, but one thing to watch out for will be the interview that the Intelligence committee is set to schedule very soon with the whistleblower. 

Why did the US pull out of Syria?

Following a phone call with Turkish leader Erdogan on Sunday 6th of October, Trump announced that the US would be withdrawing from northeastern Syria so that Turkey could begin military operations in that region. The reason why that move elicited so much consternation and outrage is because the US troops’ withdrawal will leave the stateless Kurdish people – who have been crucial allies in the fight against the Islamic state as members of the Syrian Democratic Forces – fending for themselves against the Turkish military. American absence in the region is a two-fold opportunity for Turkey. The first is to attack Kurdish troops and civilians, who Erdogan considers to be terrorists because of their link to the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and whom he wants to prevent from creating a de facto state in northeastern Syria. The second is to create a “safe zone” to relocate 2 million of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees that have crossed the border into Turkey in the last eight years of conflict. 

Since this summer, the US and Turkey have been working on developing a plan for the resettlement of those refugees as well as on easing the tensions between Turkey and the Kurds. But instead of taking the incremental route, it seems that Trump and Erdogan both decided to accelerate the process, which surprised national security officials as much as it surprised the rest of the world. This move is consistent with Trump’s opposition to US military presence in the Middle-East, and echoes his December 2018 decision to abruptly remove all troops from Syria (he ended up leaving one contingent there, notably to ensure protection of the Kurds). In response to the backlash, Trump shifted his position slightly, saying he would “obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!).” in the case of an invasion of northeastern Syria. Administration officials also clarified that the US was not endorsing a Turkish invasion of the region. However, regardless of whether or not Trump supports it, the fact remains that an invasion is likely, which will both leave Kurds incredibly vulnerable and provide a golden opportunity for ISIS. 

Sources to go further:

Vox: 9 things everyone should know about the impeachment process

Vox: Trump’s shocking Syria decision and confusing aftermath, explained

BBC: No-deal Brexit: 10 ways it could affect you

BBC: Brexit: Jargon-busting guide to the key terms

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