Brexit Officially Arrives
Britain officially left the European Union at midnight Central European Time, after three and a half years of negotiations with the bloc. The U.K. withdrawal agreement was quietly finalized in Brussels on Thursday. In London, few changes will be immediately apparent, though Brexit supporters, including Nigel Farage, have planned a celebration in Parliament Square. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who campaigned last month on a promise to “Get Brexit Done,” will not attend.
During the transition period—until Britain leaves the EU customs union at the end of the year—the change will be felt in Brussels. There are still more negotiations ahead, as officials hash out the future of EU-U.K. relations. And the EU Parliament will no longer have U.K. voting members, with 73 British lawmakers returning home. France and Germany could struggle to lead the bloc without Britain, the EU competition chief Margrethe Vestager said Thursday: “I think we will see a new dynamic in the union, but it will take some time before we fully recover.”
What about the British economy? On Thursday, the Bank of England decided not to cut interest rates, amid signs that the economy was improving ahead of the Brexit deadline. The move was a bit of a surprise, and the value of the British pound rose on the news. Economists suggest that Britain’s economy grew by 1 percent at most last year, with the Bank of England forecasting sluggish growth over the next two years.
Will Scotland break away? Scottish lawmakers voted on Wednesday in favor of a second independence referendum, and a poll published Thursday revealed that a slim majority of people in Scotland now support independence—boosted by those who changed their minds because of Brexit. With increasing popular support, the Scottish National Party isn’t likely to give up its push for another referendum despite facing obstacles, Jamie Maxwell reports for FP.
What We’re Following Today
Hundreds of thousands flee Syria’s Idlib. A Russian-backed Syrian Army campaign to take back Idlib in Syria’s northwest—the last rebel stronghold—has forced more than 700,000 people to flee toward the Turkish border. U.S. Special Envoy for Syria James Jeffrey said Thursday that the military campaign would create an “international crisis.” The assault has increased tensions between Moscow and Ankara, which fears a new influx of refugees. Turkey already hosts more than 3.5 million Syrians, and the Turkish national security council said Thursday that it would take “additional measures” against attacks on civilians and Turkish troops.
U.S. Senate votes on additional impeachment witnesses. U.S. senators will vote today on whether to allow additional witnesses in the impeachment trial of U.S. President Donald Trump. As the senators’ two days of questioning wrapped up on Thursday, Republicans appeared optimistic that they would have the votes to stop the testimony of any more witnesses, such as former National Security Advisor John Bolton. If the Senate declines to admit further evidence in the trial, the Republican-held chamber could quickly vote to acquit Trump—though Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has hinted at a Democratic plan to stall the vote.
Airlines are suspending flights to China. Many international airlines are suspending flights to mainland China for weeks or longer over the Wuhan virus, including Air France, American Airlines, British Airways, Lufthansa, and Turkish Airlines. (Here’s a full list.) The U.S. government has warned citizens not to travel to China. The announcements come as the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the new coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency on Thursday, with confirmed cases in 18 countries. The move by the WHO will trigger stricter guidelines around containment and information sharing, though it did not include a recommendation for limiting trade with or travel to China.
Keep an Eye On
India’s budget announcement. India’s government is expected to reveal its budget on Saturday amid slowing economic growth. Businesses, investors, and citizens will look to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s plan to reverse that trend, with economists projecting GDP growth to reach a 10-year low at the end of the fiscal year on March 31. The new budget is likely to increase spending and call for higher import tariffs.
Chinese investment in Myanmar. As the West distances itself from Myanmar’s government over allegations of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya minority, China is stepping in to fill the gap with multibillion-dollar development deals. The economic offensive is worrying for policymakers in India, already feeling the squeeze of an increasingly aggressive China, FP’s Keith Johnson reports.
A humanitarian channel to Iran. Switzerland has launched a humanitarian channel to bring essential food and medicine to Iran, beginning with cancer drugs. Though food, medicine, and humanitarian supplies are exempt from U.S. sanctions, the measures have deterred foreign banks from doing business—including humanitarian deals—with Tehran, harming some of Iran’s most vulnerable citizens, as Abbas Kebriaeezadeh wrote in Foreign Policy last August. The Swiss channel has been in the works since 2018.