Europe Embraces Tighter Measures as Coronavirus Cases Surge
Despite talk earlier in the month of easing restrictions over the holiday period, most European countries are now embracing a stricter approach.
Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Europe embraces stricter coronavirus measures, an oil tanker is attacked in the Saudi port of Jeddah, and U.S. Attorney General Wiliam Barr resigns.
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Europe Attempts to Stop a Covid Christmas
As the Christmas season approached in Europe, authorities are already taking steps to make it a quiet affair for residents as an increase in COVID-19 cases shows no sign of halting.
Germany, once considered an exemplar of success in tackling the virus, will enter a strict lockdown on Wednesday that will last until Jan. 10. During this period, schools, daycare facilities and most shops will be closed after Chancellor Angela Merkel blamed Christmas shopping for a “considerable” increase in social gatherings.
Amid noisy protests outside his office, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced his country “will close for five weeks.” “We’re not dealing with a simple flu like the people behind us think,” Rutte said, in reference to those shouting outside.
France is bucking the trend by relaxing some of its strict lockdown measures—barely. Although an 8 p.m. curfew will remain in place, residents will no longer need to have an essential reason to leave their homes as before.
Rising numbers. The new moves come as the continent has struggled to contain a second wave of infections. Despite some progress in reducing the number of infections since a peak in November, recorded daily cases are still more than three times higher today than they were on October 1.
Across the pond. Europe’s targeted measures contrast with the United States, where recorded daily cases are more than twice as high per capita, and where the overall death toll has now passed 300,000. Absent a national plan, a state-by-state strategy to manage infections has largely failed, with hopes now pinned on a coronavirus vaccine that began rolling out on Monday.
What We’re Following Today
Barr flies. U.S. Attorney General William Barr is out of the job, following an announcement by U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday evening. Trump tweeted a letter written by Barr outlining his respect for the president, ending with the confirmation that he would resign on Dec. 23.
Barr had reportedly fallen out with Trump over the attorney general’s statement that no significant voter fraud could be found in the Nov. 3 presidential election. Deputy Attorney General Jeff Rosen will now take on Barr’s former post in an acting capacity.
Brexit talks warm up. The United Kingdom and the European Union may be close to finding a compromise on one of the main sticking points of Brexit negotiations—the so-called level playing field. The Financial Times reports that a “rebalancing mechanism” is close to being agreed by both sides, allowing for the parties to impose tariffs on the other if one diverges too far from existing labor, environmental, or competition standards.
The report suggests that British negotiators have already found a way to sell the idea to Euroskeptic MPs, calling it a “freedom clause.” The news comes as EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier told an assembly of European ambassadors that there “might now be a narrow path” toward reaching an agreement.
Kidnapping victims still missing. Over 300 schoolchildren are still missing following an attack on a secondary school in northern Nigeria last Friday. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said authorities had located the perpetrators of the attack and were engaged in gun battles in the Zango/Paula forest area.
No group has claimed responsibility for the mass abduction, although Boko Haram and its offshoot, the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP), have targeted students in the area in the past.
Mexico considers controversial bill. Mexico is set to pass a law that would limit the activities of “foreign agents” —including U.S. anti-narcotic officers—on Mexican soil. The bill would force U.S. federal agents to share intelligence gathered in Mexico with local authorities, raising fears of the information getting into the hands of drug cartels. The legislation has already passed in the Senate and is expected to be voted on in the lower house today.
Damián Zepeda, a leader in the opposition National Action Party, called the bill a “tantrum” over the arrest of Salvador Cienfuegos—a former Mexican defense minister—who was charged by U.S. authorities in October of money laundering and drug trafficking.
Keep an Eye On
Iran’s missile policy. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has defended his country’s ballistic missile program, suggesting he would block any attempt to alter it as part of any U.S. negotiations under a Biden administration.
“The Americans were trying for months to add the missile issue and this was rejected. Trump was uninformed and did not know about the matter, but Mr. Biden is well aware of the details of the deal,” Rouhani told a news conference. “I have not heard Biden say that we have to reach another agreement in order to return to the nuclear deal, that is what Trump says,” Rouhani added.
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s choice for national security advisor, told an audience on Dec. 7 that any deal on Iranian missiles would be discussed after the United States had reentered the Iran nuclear deal, and would not be a condition of its return.
Inter-Korean relations. The South Korean government has outlawed the practice of sending leaflets, money, or goods over the North Korean border by surreptitious means following criticism by Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, earlier in the year.
North Korean authorities demolished a liaison office near its border with the south in an apparent retaliation for the perceived failure by the Moon government in Seoul to curb activists activities in sending material into the north. Under the new law, violators could face up to three years in prison or a roughly $27,500 fine.
Human rights organizations have denounced the move as giving into North Korea too easily. “Such appeasement efforts only risk inviting further North Korean provocations and demands,” said said Shin Hee-seok of the Transitional Justice Working Group.
Saudi oil attacks. An explosives-laden boat caused damage to an oil tanker docked at the Saudi port of Jeddah on Monday, adding to the number of attacks on the country’s oil industry in recent weeks. Officials described the attack as an act of terror but did not identify the perpetrators. TheWall Street Journal cited two European security officials who pinned the blame on Houthi rebels.
No one was injured in the attack, although some oil may have been spilled, authorities said. The incident follows another one in November, when the Houthis claimed to have hit a fuel depot in Jeddah using a cruise missile.
Odds and Ends
In a year has shown that what you do after disaster has struck is often more important than the disaster itself, it’s perhaps fitting that Chernobyl—the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident—is in a push to be recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site.
The Ukrainian government is pursuing an initiative to have the site added to the heritage list in a bid to boost tourism to the area, 20 years after the power plant finally ceased operating, and four years since a protective dome over the doomed fourth reactor was completed.
A record 124,000 tourists visited Chernobyl in 2019 amid renewed interest following a popular television drama of the same name. Ukrainian Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko now hopes to boost annual tourist numbers to 1 million.
That’s it for today.
Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn