What We're Watching: EU tightens vaccine exports, Kenya to close Somali refugee camps, Mexico-US border "cooperation"

COVID vaccines and masks imprinted with the EU symbol

Europe's vaccine war escalates: As the European Union contends with a resurgence of COVID-19 cases and deaths, and a disastrous vaccine rollout, the European Commission announced Wednesday a proposal to tighten vaccine exports from the bloc, a move referred to by one diplomat as a "retrograde step." The new measures would ban vaccine doses produced in the EU from being sent abroad to countries that don't "reciprocate" as well as those that have a higher per capita vaccination rate than EU member states (the UK falls under both categories). European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen is upping the ante from January, when the EU banned exports by companies that don't first honor their contracts with EU member states. (In practice, only one batch of vaccines from Italy was blocked from being sent to Australia.) This is a massive development within the context of an ongoing row with the UK, which so far has received almost 10 million doses of EU-made jabs, far more than any other country. London also has rolled out a much more successful vaccine drive, having administered vaccines to 45 out of every 100 people, compared to just 13 in the EU. Although EU leaders will discuss the vaccine disaster at a summit later this week, the new proposal will come into force unless most EU members oppose it — an unlikely outcome given that many EU countries are struggling to keep their COVID crises at bay.


Mexico, US border "cooperation:" Mexico has sent federal troops to guard its southern border, saying that only essential travel from Guatemala into its country will be permitted. But the sudden move, which Mexican officials say is to prevent the spread of COVID-19, surely has other motivating factors. Importantly, the deployment was announced just days after Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador confirmed that his country would receive 2.7 million vaccine doses from the US — at the exact same time that the Biden administration is struggling to deal with an influx of migrants from Central America along its own southern border with Mexico. While both sides deny that this amounts to an "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine" scenario, given the timing, it's hard to imagine that the developments are unrelated. It's a win-win: On the one hand, the Mexicans get the vaccines they need to deal with surging COVID cases and deaths, while Biden enlists Mexico's help in stemming the flow of migrants to the US, which is becoming a political quagmire for his nascent administration.

Kenya kicks out Somali refugees: Kenya has given the UN two weeks to prepare for the closure of the country's two main refugee camps. Most refugees in the sprawling camp, overseen by the UN refugee agency, are from its northern neighbor Somalia. If the facilities are not shuttered by then, Nairobi says it'll move its occupants across the border, and let the Somalis deal with the ensuing humanitarian catastrophe. Kenya has been threatening to shut down the camps — which together host over 400,000 people — since 2016, citing concerns that Somali refugees allegedly helped al-Shabaab militants carry out deadly attacks inside Kenya. The move was previously blocked by the High Court in Kenya which said it would be unconstitutional, but now, amid rapidly deteriorating bilateral relations with Somalia, the Kenyans say they are pressing ahead either way. Last December, Mogadishu cut ties with Nairobi after accusing the Kenyans of meddling in their internal affairs by hosting a Somali separatist leader. Kenya responded weeks later by withdrawing from an International Court of Justice trial over a maritime dispute with Somalia. And to top it all off, the US has pulled out its troops from Somalia, paving the way for more insecurity. If the Kenyans don't back down, the camp closures are certain to usher in fresh instability in the Horn of Africa.

This time last year, world health experts were speculating about why Africa appeared to have escaped the worst of the global pandemic. Younger populations? Natural immunity created by exposure to past viruses? Something else?

They can stop wondering. Africa is now in the grip of a COVID emergency.

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Listen: Stanford historian Niall Ferguson joins Ian Bremmer on the GZERO World podcast to talk about the geopolitics of disaster. Throughout human history we seem to be unable to adequately prepare for catastrophes (natural or human-caused) before they strike. Why is that? And as we emerge from the greatest calamity of our lifetimes in the COVID-19 pandemic and look to the plethora of crises that climate change has and will cause, what can we do to lessen the blow?

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Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi barred two Republican members from serving on the Jan. 6 commission. What's going on?

Well, the Jan. 6 commission was designed to be a bipartisan commission, taking input from members from Democrats and Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had the opportunity to make recommendations but the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, could always veto those recommendations. In this case, she did, saying no to two members, Jim Banks and Jim Jordan, both of whom are strongly aligned with President Trump and who voted against certifying the election results in 2020. The Republicans for the most part see the Jan. 6 commission as an opportunity to score political points against them, and the Democrats say this is going to be a fair, non-biased, and nonpartisan investigation into what happened on Jan. 6, starting with a hearing next week with some of the police officers who were involved in the battle with the protesters inside the Capitol.

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In his New York Times op-ed, David Brooks says the US is facing an identity crisis — protecting liberal and progressive values at home while doing little to stop autocrats elsewhere. But has the US really abandoned its values abroad just because it's withdrawing from Afghanistan? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Charles Dunst take out the Red Pen to argue that the US can advance democracy without being the world's sheriff.

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When the Tokyo Olympics begin on Friday, Japan watchers will be following more than just the performance of Japan's star athletes, including tennis star Naomi Osaka. They will also be tracking the political fortunes of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is taking a big gamble by staging the event — amid a raging pandemic — in the face of strong and longstanding opposition from the Japanese public. What are the stakes for Suga, particularly with elections on the horizon? Eurasia Group senior analyst Ali Wyne explains.

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YouTube pulls Bolsonaro's rants: Google-owned YouTube pulled down a series of videos on the channel of Brazil's populist President Jair Bolsonaro, accusing him of spreading misinformation about the pandemic. YouTube removed more than a dozen clips for touting quack cures for coronavirus or claiming, in defiance of scientific experts, that masks don't reduce COVID transmissions. Last year, Twitter and Facebook also removed some content from Bolsonaro's feeds for similar reasons. But critics say that YouTube's move is too little too late, because Bolsonaro has been spreading misinformation about COVID since the pandemic began. Many Brazilians hold him personally responsible for the country's abysmal pandemic response, which has led to almost 550,000 deaths, the second worst toll in the world. Will YouTube's move change Bolsonaro's message? His weekly address to the nation, where he converses not only with government ministers but also various conspiracy theorists and loons, is broadcast on YouTube. Surely he doesn't want to risk losing that — or does he?

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Boycotts! Bans! Protests! Drugs! Think you've got gold medal knowledge about politics at the Olympics? Test what you know with this special Tokyo Olympics Quiz. And to stay current on all the latest political stories at the Games and around the world, subscribe here to Signal, our daily newsletter. Now, without further ado, the first question is...

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