In many countries, historical divisions between right and left have given way to a new distinction between mainstream and populist voters—those who either trust or distrust ruling elites. As voters’ ideologies have shifted, new parties have emerged to channel their interests and discontents, often leading to unexpected election results and unstable governments. Here’s a look at the new ideological constellation of voters in Western Europe.
As digital technology reshapes the workplace, a move toward skills-based training and employment will unlock opportunities for companies and job seekers alike. While automation and AI are already taking on many routine tasks, demand for people with technology skills is rising fast around the globe. Getting the right people into the right jobs within the right organizations is one of the biggest challenges facing the world of work. So how can it be overcome? To read some recent skills-related stories, visit Microsoft On the Issues.
In recent days, Northern Ireland has seen some of its worst street violence in over a decade. The anger has subsided a bit this week, but post-Brexit fears leave many uncertain about their future in a deeply divided land with a long history of political violence between Irish republicans and UK unionists.
Much ado about Brexit. As in Scotland, a majority of people in Northern Ireland (56 percent) voted for the UK to remain in the European Union in the 2016 referendum. Those who did not were mostly unionists closely aligned with the UK government.
The problem is that the 1998 Good Friday Agreement — which ended large-scale sectarian violence — prohibits reinstalling a physical border between Northern Ireland, which remains part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, an independent country and EU member state. For UK-EU trade, the de-facto border is now in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. As a result, unionists feel trade restrictions have isolated them from the rest of the United Kingdom.
While London and Brussels haggle over cross-border checks and trade quotas, early glitches, exacerbated by COVID disruptions, have left some Belfast supermarket shelves empty. Customs officials, facing intimidation from angry citizens, are scared to show up to work. Many loyalists now believe the Brexit agreement that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed up for has given them the short end of the stick.
But it's not all about Brexit. One of the triggers for last week's riots was unionist outrage at the non-prosecution of Sinn Féin officials who ignored COVID rules to attend the funeral of a former commander of the Irish Republican Army, responsible for most unionist deaths during The Troubles, a period of heightened sectarian violence in the early 1970s. (Sinn Féin used to be the IRA's political arm, and governed Northern Ireland in partnership with the unionist DUP until their power-sharing agreement collapsed in 2017.)
Another was a recent police crackdown on gangs led by ex-paramilitaries who have struggled to find decent jobs. Indeed, many of the rioters are youngsters with no memory of The Troubles but who live in poverty in the urban ghettos that still separate working-class Catholics and Protestants in Belfast. Pandemic-related lockdowns, job losses and education disruptions have made everything worse.
For unionists, the bigger issue is how Brexit will change Northern Ireland's future. In short, unionists fear the UK-EU split will create irresistible momentum toward Irish reunification, leaving Protestant unionists outside the UK, inside the EU, and a small and resented minority in a majority Catholic country.
A recent poll showed that 47 percent of voters prefer to remain part of the UK, compared to 42 percent in favor of joining the Irish republic. However, most Northern Irish under 45 supported leaving the UK, and if current demographic trends — Catholics have a higher fertility rate than Protestants — hold, it may be only a matter of time for Irish unity to be the majority choice.
That Brexit may end up breaking up the UK is no longer a doomsday prediction. Scotland's first minister is likely to demand a fresh referendum if pro-independence parties perform well in Scottish parliamentary elections on May 6. Republicans in Ireland will argue they have the same right. Perhaps Brexit will deliver the Irish unity that decades of violence failed to accomplish.
Iran has vowed to avenge Sunday's attack on its Natanz nuclear facility. Tehran blames Israel, which — as in the past — has neither confirmed nor denied it was responsible. And all this happens just days after indirect talks on US plans to rejoin the 2015 Iran nuclear deal resumed in Vienna. What the Iranians do now will determine the immediate future of those negotiations, a Biden administration priority.
What happened? Natanz, one of Iran's most important sites for uranium enrichment, was hit by an explosion that affected the power system that supplies the centrifuges. The damage will likely set back the country's efforts to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels by some time. So far it's unclear whether it was a cyberattack similar to the Stuxnet malicious worm jointly developed by Israel and the US that destroyed one-fifth of Iran's centrifuges in 2010, or a bomb like the one that caused a July 2020 fire in the same facility.
Why now? The timing of the attack as US-Iran nuclear talks are ongoing is no coincidence. Israel fiercely opposed the original agreement championed six years ago by the Obama administration and was delighted when Donald Trump walked out of the deal in 2018 and later slapped crippling economic sanctions on Iran. To move talks forward, President Biden is willing to lift some of those sanctions, but Tehran, cautious about looking desperate so early in the discussions, has been playing hard to get.
The Israelis now worry that Iran has restarted enriching uranium at higher levels and that many of the deal's so-called "sunset clauses" expire in 2026, so Iran could begin to significantly expand its nuclear program while (technically) adhering to the terms of the agreement. Tel Aviv feels it's urgent to stop version 2.0 of the nuclear deal before Iran comes even close to getting the bomb.
How does it affect the US-Iran nuclear talks? It's too soon to ascertain whether the attack will diminish Iran's key bargaining chip: threatening to enrich uranium faster. What is virtually guaranteed, however, is that its aftermath will poison the domestic political environment in Iran, where any concession to "Great Satan" is always a hard sell, even more so now with a presidential election coming up in two months.
While the Americans' negotiating hand has strengthened, Natanz will further erode a mutual willingness to compromise — which is already very low after Iran stopped complying with the deal's terms on uranium enrichment in May 2019, and the high-profile assassination of a top Iranian general ordered by Trump in early 2020.
Who benefits? Clearly, Israel, for two reasons. First, whatever the full extent of the damage, it has physically undermined Iran's nuclear program, in the near term at least. Second, it has complicated a diplomatic process the Israelis would like to stop. Iran is now left to choose between a forceful retaliation that would delay any lifting of sanctions and an easing of economic hardship inside Iran, or a muted response that could make Iran's leaders appear weak just at the moment they'd like to be driving a hard bargain.
What happens next? The fallout from Natanz will put immense pressure on the Vienna talks, likely hardening Iran's position and reducing the odds of reaching an agreement before the presidential vote in June. Regardless of the election outcome, the decision on whether to rejoin the nuclear deal will be made by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Negotiations will continue. Iran's sanction-plagued economy suffered mightily last year due to the pandemic and low prices for the oil it's still able to export. Doing whatever it takes to get an agreement may not be popular for many conservatives at home, but US sanctions relief is too big an economic incentive for Iran to ignore.In short, both the US and Iran still want to return to the original deal. That's why, unfortunately for Israel's government, the question is not if but when a new nuclear agreement will be signed.
What We’re Watching: US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Fukushima wastewater, US stops J&J jab, big rabbit hunt
The end of "forever" in Afghanistan: The Biden administration says it'll withdraw all remaining US troops in Afghanistan by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that prompted Washington to invade the country in the first place. It's unclear how the withdrawal will affect American plans to steer intra-Afghan peace talks in the right direction under the terms of a peace agreement reached by the Trump administration and the Taliban in May 2020. Trump promised to pull out next month as long as the former al-Qaida hosts kept their end of the bargain by not launching deadly attacks (spoiler alert: they have not). Biden's move honors his campaign pledge to end a "forever war" that has claimed more than 2,300 American lives and cost the US Treasury almost $1 trillion since 2001. However, critics fear that a hasty departure could leave the Afghans helpless to prevent the Taliban from returning to power, rendering the entire mission not only expensive, but ultimately pointless.
Japan's nuclear waste problem: Japan has announced that in two years it will begin dumping treated radioactive wastewater from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster directly into the Pacific Ocean. Unsurprisingly, the decision has outraged local fishermen, environmental groups, and Japan's neighbors China and South Korea. Tokyo says the water, which has been treated, is safe, and that there is no other choice: the tanks that now store the liquid are almost full and they can't build more on current sites. Critics, in turn, argue that the Japanese government could acquire more land for the tanks, or follow the International Atomic Energy Agency's alternative recommendation to release the water into the atmosphere as vapor. Whether or not Tokyo reverses course, what to do with Fukushima's wastewater will likely be a hot-button issue in Japan's domestic politics and foreign relations over the next two years.
US hits pause on J&J vaccine: The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration have jointly recommended a "pause" in the use of the Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine "out of an abundance of caution" following news that six people have developed a "rare and severe" type of blood clot after receiving doses. Out of more than 6.8 million doses, six people have developed these symptoms, all of them within 6 to 13 days of vaccination. Some observers will congratulate US health officials for their abundance of caution. Others will criticize a decision to slow vaccinations over a "very rare event" at a time when vaccine rollout is critical. But even if the pause in J&J jabs is a brief one, doubts have now been raised about the safety of a vaccine already administered to millions of Americans. The challenge of persuading the vaccine-averse in the US — and elsewhere — to roll up their sleeves just got a lot bigger.Good Rabbit Hunting: Have you seen Darius? He is the world's largest rabbit, and he's been stolen from his home in the village of Stoulton in central England. Be on the lookout, Signal readers. Darius is 4 feet 3 inches long and weighs 44 pounds. For those of you on the metric system, that's 129 cm and 20 kg. There's a reward of more than a thousand dollars/euros/pounds for his return. But we're not in this for the money ourselves - we're searching because… who wouldn't want to see a rabbit that big? Here's to Darius's rediscovery and safe return to an owner who loves and cares for him.
Hard Numbers: Sputnik lands in India, Iran boosts enrichment, US troops go to Germany, Haitian clergy kidnapped
750 million: While struggling with one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the world right now, India has approved Russia's Sputnik V COVID vaccine. Moscow has a deal in place to produce 750 million doses of the shot in India.
60: Just days after a sabotage attack on its main nuclear enrichment facility, Iran says it's upping its uranium enrichment to 60 percent. In recent months, the Iranians have been enriching to about 20 percent — far below weapons grade but well above the 3.67 percent limit established in the 2015 nuclear deal.
500: The US will send an additional 500 troops to Germany, in part to bolster Washington's cyber warfare capabilities in Europe. The move cuts against the previous administration's plans to withdraw about a third of the 36,000 American soldiers stationed in Germany.7: At least seven Catholic clergy members in Haiti, including two from France, have been kidnapped and held for a ransom of $1 million. Amid broader political unrest, kidnappings by criminal groups have surged in recent months.
In recent weeks, both Pfizer and Moderna have announced early phases of vaccine trials in children, and Johnson & Johnson also plans to start soon. If you know a kid who wants to learn about vaccines, how they work, why we need them, this story is just what the doctor ordered.
Watch the episode: Vaccine nationalism could prolong the pandemic