Morning Brief

Can Europe Come Together to Save Itself?

A quarrel over the EU coronavirus fund threatens to stall economic recovery efforts.

Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and German Chancellor Angela Merkel speak together as they arrive for an EU summit at the European Council building in Brussels, on October 1, 2020.
Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and German Chancellor Angela Merkel speak together as they arrive for an EU summit at the European Council building in Brussels, on October 1, 2020. Oliver Hoslet/AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: European leaders meet to discuss coronavirus measures, Australia apologizes for war crimes in Afghanistan, the Trump administration continues maximum pressure against Iran.

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Europe’s Leaders Meet Amid Discord Over Recovery Package and Brexit           

European Union heads of state meet today as tensions are rising both between member states and between the bloc’s institutions.

Today’s summit was supposed to include a briefing on the latest developments on Brexit trade talks, but movement has been so slow that EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier is now not expected to brief leaders.

The pace of talks, and what kind of deal a soon-to-retire Barnier may accept, is causing anxiety among member states. With the hard deadline of Jan. 1, 2021 fast approaching, EU leaders are to call for the publication of the European Commission’s plans for a no-deal scenario, a signal that their faith in Barnier’s negotiating team is not rock solid.

Bickering over a bailout. The coronavirus pandemic—and how to deal with it—tops the agenda for today’s virtual meeting. But before any public health measures can be discussed, member states must first agree on the roughly $890 billion economic recovery fund. On Monday, Poland and Hungary withdrew their support for the measure over legislation that would tie the distribution of the funds to respect for the rule of law in EU countries.

The legislation is meant to address allegations of democratic backsliding in the two countries, something that Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has bristled at. “We say yes to the European Union, but no to being punished like children, no to mechanisms that mean Poland and other countries are treated unequally,” he said.

Although coronavirus cases are now on the decline across the continent, three countries—France, Spain, and Italy—are in the global top 10 countries with the highest number of new coronavirus cases daily.

A special relationship. As EU countries suffer, so does the United States. The U.S. death toll from the coronavirus surpassed 250,000 on Wednesday, and new cases have not dropped lower than 100,000 per day since Nov. 4.

The fortunes of the two Western powers are in stark contrast to those in the Asia-Pacific region, where most countries eschewed the false choice between economic health and public health and pursued an aggressive approach to tackling the virus. Vietnam saw only 12 new cases on Wednesday; Taiwan has recorded 607 cases over the course of the entire pandemic; On Wednesday, Australia hosted the largest gathering in the world since March, when almost 50,000 people filled Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane for a rugby match.

American exceptionalism kills. So why is the U.S. government still failing while poorer countries flatten the curve? FP’s James Palmer has a theory: stubborn exceptionalism and disbelief. Writing in Foreign Policy, Palmer expands on “an idea that has dominated American (and to some degree, European) responses since the start of the pandemic: This can’t really be happening.”

What We’re Following Today

Australia publishes war crimes report. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has publicly apologized to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani following the publication of a damning report into murders of civilians committed by Australian special forces in Afghanistan. The government-sanctioned report found that 39 Afghans were unlawfully killed in 23 incidents that all meet the criteria of murder.

Among other shocking revelations, the report reveals that Special Air Service (SAS) non-commissioned officers “allegedly demanded junior soldiers “blood” themselves by shooting unarmed prisoners, and then planted weapons to cover up these crimes, while falsifying reports about what happened,” according to the Sydney Morning Herald. The SAS 2nd Squadron will be disbanded and up to 19 soldiers could face prosecution, including a decorated veteran-turned-media executive, Ben Roberts-Smith.

‘Maximum pressure’ til the end. The Trump administration added more roadblocks to the incoming Biden administration’s Iran policy by announcing more sanctions on a foundation controlled by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and 10 individuals. All U.S. assets of those sanctioned have been frozen and anyone doing business with them could also be subject to sanctions. Iran’s United Nations spokesman called the sanctions “a sign of desperation.” Speaking on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended the U.S. maximum pressure campaign against Iran and offered a warning to the Biden administration. “Reducing that pressure is a dangerous choice, bound to weaken new partnerships for peace in the region and strengthen only the Islamic Republic,” he said.

Ebola eradicated in DRC. An Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is over, six months after it began. The World Health Organization certified that no new cases have been detected in Congo’s Equateur province for 42 days, bringing an end to an outbreak that killed 55 people. A new Ebola vaccine had been deployed from the beginning of the outbreak, which has stirred hopes of a coronavirus vaccine being distributed in the country a similar way because, like the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, the Ebola vaccine must be transported and stored at super cold temperatures.

Keep an Eye On

Trump at APEC. U.S. President Donald Trump plans to attend the virtual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit on Friday, his first appearance at the annual gathering since he assumed the presidency. Malaysia is the host this year, and Chinese President Xi Jinping is also attending the videoconference summit. It is likely the last gathering of world leaders Trump will be a part of before he leaves office, after the White House said on Wednesday that they have no plans for hosting a G-7 summit following one that was cancelled in June. In January, the presidency of the G-7 passes to the United Kingdom.

Ghana corruption in the spotlight as election looms. Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo has denied any impropriety after the country’s anti-corruption chief, Martin Amidu, resigned earlier this week, claiming interference from the president. Akufo-Addo described the allegations as “errors of fact.” When Amidu was appointed two years ago, there were high hopes that he could stamp out corruption among government officials. His resignation comes just a few weeks before the country goes to the polls to decide whether to re-elect Akufo-Addo.

U.K. defense spending. The United Kingdom is to beef up its post-Brexit defense spending after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a further $21.8 billion would be added to the existing budget of roughly $55 billion. The funds will be spent across four years and will lead to the formation of groups covering artificial intelligence, cyberdefense, and space security. According to figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the extra expenditure should see the United Kingdom leapfrog NATO allies France and Germany to become the sixth-highest military spender worldwide, one place behind Saudi Arabia.

MAX returns. The Boeing 737-MAX has been cleared to fly again after receiving approval from U.S. regulators, who mandated fixes to the plane along with extra training for pilots. The planes were grounded in March 2019 after two of the planes crashed, killing 346 people. American Airlines will be the first carrier to resume using the plane, starting with a Miami-New York route on December 29. Approvals from foreign regulators are expected to follow soon.

Odds and Ends

If you feel silly for not purchasing Moderna or BioNTech shares before the news of their blockbuster vaccine trial results broke, things could be worse. New filings show that hedge funds sold 1.9 million shares in BioNTech and 2.2 million shares in Moderna between the beginning and end of the third quarter of 2020, missing out on a potential bonanza as stock prices of both companies surged in November. It’s believed that investors sold their stakes in order to lock in gains before a potentially volatile environment following the U.S. presidential election.

That’s it for today.

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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