BREXIT BLOWS UP

A fragile peace within the UK’s governing Conservative Party has been shattered in the past two days, with the fate of Brexit negotiations and Theresa May’s government in the balance.


To put it politely, the prime minister’s Brexit plan was never going to be an easy sell. Here’s a snapshot of the challenges she still faces:

Theresa May leads a party and a nation deeply divided over what sort of relationship they want with Europe. Many who hope to ensure European institutions have no future say in how the UK crafts its laws and controls its borders will never be satisfied with anything less than a so-called “Hard Brexit,” a sharp break from the EU and its rules. On the other side, those who believe the UK must maintain as much continued access as possible to European markets see Hard Brexit as a blind leap from a speeding train.

Since taking over from David Cameron in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, May’s task has been to develop a plan specific enough on the terms of exit to win a green light from EU negotiators and vague enough on the future of UK-EU economic relations to prevent her party from dividing in two. She then needed to persuade her cabinet ministers to publicly back the plan. Then, the proposal would have to pass muster in 27 European capitals and a vote in the House of Commons.

Forty-eight hours ago, it appeared the best argument for her makeshift compromise, a plan that would leave the UK in a temporary customs union with the EU to avoid restoration of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, was the lack of a clear alternative, either to her proposal or her leadership. That may still be the case. But on Thursday, Dominic Raab, her Brexit secretary, became the seventh minister to quit May's cabinet in the past year, igniting an open revolt from some in the Hard Brexit camp. Tensions between May and this faction are likely to spike between now and mid-December, when a vote on the deal is expected in parliament.

What’s next? May, who used a press conference after Raab’s resignation yesterday to appeal directly to the British people, vows to soldier on and advance her plan. Some within her party have called for a vote of no-confidence in the prime minister, and it remains unclear as of Friday morning whether their number is enough to force one.

The ultimate Brexit questions remain:

  • Is it possible to craft any Brexit deal that can win approval both in the UK and across Europe?

  • If not, is the UK doomed to crash out of the UK toward an unknown future?

  • Might Britain be headed instead toward a second Brexit vote?

  • If so, and it produces a different outcome, how can future British governments mind the gap in public and official opinion that Brexit has created?

  • If a second vote were to produce the same outcome, what would come next?

The ongoing political chaos in London suggests we’re no closer to answers.

Facebook unveiled plans for a new cryptocurrency and payment system on Tuesday. It's called the Libra, and it's not-so-modest goal is to "reinvent money," and "transform the global economy" so that "people everywhere can live better lives." Ambitious much, Zuck?

This is a huge political gamble, but the rewards could be enormous. Here's a quick look at the tradeoffs:

The risks: Facebook is asking its 2.5 billion users — and government regulators — to entrust it with something that's vitally important to people everywhere and a power that governments jealously protect: access to money. And it's doing so at a time when trust in Facebook and other big Silicon Valley companies is at a low ebb.

Whether it's a concern that Big Tech has become too powerful or that it's not doing enough to protect privacy or put a stop to fake news, it's a heck of a time to launch a new techno-utopian project that could give Silicon Valley much more power — including the ability to track not just what people say they like but how they spend their money.

Mark Zuckerberg understands this — the Facebook founder is setting up Libra as a Swiss-based non-profit that will be governed by an "association" of 28 tech and financial companies and non-profits of which Facebook is just one member. He's also promising that Facebook will not mix personal data with payment information, and to cooperate with regulators.

But this will always be Zuckerberg's baby, and by launching Libra, he's painting a big new political bullseye on his own back.

The payoff: If Libra can survive the inevitable political and regulatory storm (and convince its billions of users that they can trust the underlying technology and financial stability of the new cryptocurrency) the upside could be enormous.

How enormous? The Libra website claims that more than 30 percent of the world's population — about 1.7 billion people — currently lack access to traditional bank accounts. Many more pay steep fees to transfer money using traditional payment services. Libra, by contrast, promises access to anyone in the world with a simple smartphone — and to make payments as inexpensive as sending a text message.

Plug those capabilities into a social network whose user base is roughly double the population of the biggest country in the world, and the results could be revolutionary — not just for billions of people who would gain new access to financial resources, but for Facebook's business model, and for central banks and governments that have traditionally sought to control the flow of money through their economies.

That would be a techno-utopian dream come true, but it's a power that governments won't willingly surrender.

Does the leader of Hong Kong appear weaker withdrawing the extradition bill?

Well as we'd say in Australia, "Is the Pope a Catholic?" Of course. This means that Carrie Lam's authority within the Hong Kong SAR is reduced and her standing in Beijing is reduced as well. But I think the bottom line is that China will resist any efforts to remove her from office, despite local pressure.

Is the US – China trade war coming to an end anytime soon?

Depends Dr. Bremmer on what your definition of "any time soon" happens to be. My prediction is simply this: once they get to the G20 meeting in Osaka Xi Jinping and President Trump will agree to reboot the negotiations process but then it's a question of the substance of the deal. My prediction is A) there will be a deal sometime between now and the end of the year. And secondly, the nature of the deal will be America yielding on the questions of tariffs to the Chinese and China yielding to the Americans on the amount that President Trump expects in the purchasing order of future American goods by the Chinese. That's my bottom line. Both countries need the economic outcome. Both countries therefore have a deep interest in securing a deal. Doesn't mean the end of the economic war however, technology reigns supreme.

If Willis's story on Tuesday about Argentina being plunged into darkness after a nationwide power failure didn't get you packing a flashlight and checking that your car has a full tank of gas, this one should. Over the weekend, the New York Times said anonymous US officials had revealed a US campaign to plant "potentially crippling malware" inside Russia's power grid "at a depth and with an aggressiveness that had never been tried before."

Quick thoughts:

This is a big provocation. It's the cyber equivalent of mining a harbor — an aggressive move that falls short of actual conflict but sends an unmistakable message: mess with us, and we'll mess you up.

The leak was probably intentional. The campaign fits with the new US strategy, launched under the Trump administration, of trying to deter cyber adversaries like Russia, China, and Iran from hacking its critical infrastructure. By disclosing the US campaign, US officials are effectively telling Russia (and by extension China and Iran), that they've got a loaded gun cocked and pointed at their economies.

That's dangerous. People — and governments — may not always behave rationally when a gun is pointed at their heads. Russia might be even more inclined to lash out. And unlike more conventional forms of conflict, cyber isn't a domain where the US can be sure it has an overwhelming advantage if push comes to shove.

It gets worse. The Times said US cyber officials described a "broad hesitation" to go into details of cyber operations against Russia with President Donald Trump because they feared he might cancel it or tell other governments about it. Among other things that are disturbing about this story, a lack of communication between the President and US cyber warriors could send mixed signals that further embolden US adversaries.

It's no secret that cyberattacks are becoming more commonplace. But where do most of them originate and what countries do they target most? The graphic above shows the most significant offenders and victims since 2006. Hackers in China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea account for three-quarters of all major attacks. Nearly a fifth of attacks, meanwhile, have targeted institutions or companies in the United States.

(At least that we know of: this chart highlights known attacks on government agencies, tech companies, and other operations that caused more than $1 million in economic damage. But many cyberattacks are never disclosed, and some countries are more transparent than others, so consider this a cross-section of a much bigger — and more disturbing — picture.)