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Boris Johnson rolls the dice on a no-deal Brexit

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves after attending a news conference at the European Union leaders summit dominated by Brexit in Brussels, Belgium in October 2019. Reuters

Brexit has been a messy process since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in June 2016. So messy, in fact, that although London and Brussels have already technically agreed on how to part ways at the end of this year, it's still unclear what the relationship — particularly on trade — will look like after December 31.


If there's no agreement, the UK would leave the EU with "no deal", which would entail both British and EU businesses and consumers suffering tariffs that would make goods and services more expensive amid the economic crisis unleashed by COVID-19.

The latest drama. With talks deadlocked, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is gambling big again. He is pushing for a new law that would allow London to scrap parts of the interim withdrawal agreement that the UK already has with the EU if both sides can't agree on a permanent trade pact before October 15 (Johnson says he's willing to leave with no deal if necessary).

The main sticking point is the border between the independent Republic of Ireland — an EU member state — and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. The border has been virtually invisible since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that put an end to decades of political violence in Northern Ireland, but Brexit throws that into question. Although the withdrawal agreement specifies no hard Irish border until a broader trade deal is signed, Johnson's bill would reserve the right for the UK to ignore that clause, if necessary, to prevent some EU trade rules from being enforced in Northern Ireland.

Johnson insists he is doing this to ensure the EU has no say over post-Brexit internal UK commerce. But many believe it's the wrong move, at the wrong time.

The gamble has caused an uproar in the UK. Five former PMs (including David Cameron, who called for the 2016 Brexit vote) argue that passing the law is backtracking on a binding international agreement, which sets a bad precedent as London needs to negotiate multiple new bilateral trade deals — like it just did with Japan and hopes to do soon with the US. Individual UK nations — for instance Scotland, which voted to remain in the EU and where nationalists seek another independence referendum — worry that under the proposed bill, they may have to accept lower quality standards for goods and services which would make it harder to sell to the EU.

Brussels is also livid. There's a broad perception within the EU that the British PM is trying to pull an eleventh-hour fast one as the new UK bill has been floated when both sides are in the homestretch of trade talks. But Brussels, used to the UK's often chaotic negotiation style with Brexit, has made it clear it won't budge. As far as the EU is concerned, any future trade deal must fall within the limits of the withdrawal agreement, period.

However, if Johnson follows through on his threat to walk away, the EU may call his bluff. After all, there's simply not enough time to renegotiate a new withdrawal agreement that would need to be ironed out and ratified by all 27 EU member states by December 31... in the middle of a pandemic.

So, what's Johnson up to? One explanation is that he is just playing hardball to get more concessions from Brussels on the ongoing trade talks. Another is that no-deal is the only way for the UK to control all its domestic trade, which would be a big win for the "hard" Brexiteer wing of the divided Conservative Party. But if the EU pushes back and the UK ends up suffering the economic fallout of a no-deal Brexit, will Johnson blame Brussels or himself?

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As we enter the homestretch of the US presidential election — which is set to be the most contentious, and possibly contested, in generations — Americans are also voting on 35 seats up for grabs in a battle for the control of the Senate. The 100-member body is currently held 53-47 by the Republican Party, but many individual races are wide open, and the Democrats are confident they can flip the upper chamber of Congress.

Either way, the result will have a profound impact not only on domestic policy, but also on US foreign relations and other issues with global reach. Here are a few areas where what US senators decide reverberates well beyond American shores.

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On September 23, GZERO Media — in partnership with Microsoft and Eurasia Group — gathered global experts to discuss global recovery from the coronavirus pandemic in a livestream panel. Our panel for the discussion Crisis Response & Recovery: Reimagining while Rebuilding, included:

  • Brad Smith, President, Microsoft
  • Ian Bremmer, President and Founder, Eurasia Group & GZERO Media
  • Jeh Johnson, Partner, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, LLP and former Secretary of Homeland Security.
  • John Frank, Vice President, UN Affairs at Microsoft
  • Susan Glasser, staff writer and Washington columnist, The New Yorker (moderator)

Special appearances by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, European Central Bank chief Christine Lagarde, and comedian/host Trevor Noah.

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Jon Lieber, who leads Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington, offers insights on the Supreme Court vacancy:

Will Senate Republicans, who stopped a Supreme Court nomination in 2016, because it was too close to an election, pay a political price for the change in tactics this time around?

Not only do I think they won't pay a political price, I think in many cases, they're going to benefit. Changing the balance of power on the Supreme Court has been a career-long quest for many conservatives and many Republicans. And that's why you've seen so many of them fall in line behind the President's nomination before we even know who it is.

At this point, do Senate Democrats have any hope of stopping President Trump from filling the ninth seat on the Supreme Court?

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In a special GZERO Media livestream on global response and recovery amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Eurasia Group & GZERO Media president Ian Bremmer discussed the difference between Europe's unified approach to economic stimulus and the deeply divided and political nature of the current conversation in the US. While initial stimulus support was bipartisan, there is little chance of Democrats and Republicans coming together again ahead of the November 3 presidential election. "It's red state versus blue state. President Trump's saying that coronavirus isn't so bad if you take the blue states out. He's president of the blue states, you can't take the blue states out," Bremmer told moderator Susan Glasser of The New Yorker.

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Panel: How will the world recover from COVID-19?

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