Europe/Americas update: January 15 2019



US and European Union negotiators will begin talking about trade issues later this year, but it already looks like they’re going to have a pretty rough time reaching an accord:

The EU’s executive body will meet Tuesday to firm up the bloc’s parameters for talks expected to launch later this year. It is crafting a narrow mandate that would bar negotiations to reduce protections for Europe’s farmers.

“We have been very clear that from the EU side that we will not discuss agriculture,” European Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström said last week after meeting in Washington with her American counterpart, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.

Two days after that meeting, Mr. Lighthizer released the Trump administration’s “negotiating objectives” for the coming talks, declaring that a top priority is to “secure comprehensive market access for U.S. agricultural goods in the EU by reducing or eliminating tariffs.”

Not a lot of immediately apparent room for compromise there. But the EU may have problems maintaining a united front if the Trump administration brings back the threat of auto tariffs on European imports. That kind of thing would hit Germany especially hard, and so Berlin may push for compromise on agriculture to protect its automotive industry. France, which has a much larger agricultural sector and a much smaller auto export business, is therefore likely to be more willing to risk auto tariffs to protect European agriculture.


Well, Theresa May’s Brexit plan got its vote Tuesday evening, and as bad as you suspected it might go for her, it actually went worse than that:

Theresa May has sustained the heaviest parliamentary defeat of any British prime minister in the democratic era after MPs rejected her Brexit deal by a resounding majority of 230.

The prime minister immediately announced that she would welcome a vote of no confidence in her own government, and would make time for it on Wednesday.

The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, quickly confirmed he had tabled the motion, with the support of the leaders of all other opposition parties.

May is almost a lock to survive the confidence vote because she’s got the Tories and the Democratic Unionist Party backing her and that’s enough for a majority, but as far as Brexit is concerned, it’s anybody’s guess. May has been telling everybody it’s her way or the highway, so…highway it is.

May’s spokespeople are arguing that her deal could still form the “basis” for Brexit. This is a little like arguing that Betamax could still form the basis for a rejuvenated home movie market, only dumber–it’s not like her plan lost a squeaker of a vote, it was thoroughly annihilated. Amid many other more or less hair on fire reactions to the vote, European Council President Donald Tusk is now suggesting that the UK could just remain in the EU. This isn’t happening without at a minimum a second referendum, and that’s still extremely unlikely. No, this process has always probably been leading to a no-deal Brexit, and now it’s very hard to imagine how could possibly end with anything else. So you know what that means–time for my favorite gif:

may laughing



The Argentine government reported on Tuesday that inflation reached 47.6 percent in 2018. Prices in transportation, health care, and food rose the most. The high inflation prompted the government to seek an International Monetary Fund bailout that threatens to put the country into a devastating austerity trap.


Venezuela’s National Assembly is continuing its campaign against Nicolás Maduro’s government, calling on Tuesday for foreign governments to freeze its assets as it declared Maduro himself a “usurper” over allegations that he rigged last year’s presidential election. Donald Trump is reportedly thinking about recognizing assembly president Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president, which is likely to get Guaidó into more hot water with authorities, and will almost certainly levy new sanctions against Caracas soon. How severe those sanctions will be is open to speculation, but an embargo on Venezuelan oil is reportedly not out of the question.


An estimated 700 migrants have crossed into Guatemala on the latest Central American caravan, though only about half of them were allowed to enter the country while the other half were detained or sent back. Another 300 or so migrants are believed to still be making their way to the Guatemalan border. Many of them will eventually arrive at the southern US border, where they may still find some of the remnants of last year’s caravans. Of the estimated 6000 migrants who arrived in northern Mexico in November, only a few hundred remain. US Border Patrol says it’s arrested 2600 for crossing unlawfully into the US, while the Mexican government has given visas to about 2900 and says another 1300 have returned home.


As we know, China is almost ready to deploy its second (and first homemade) aircraft carrier, which when stacked against the 11 carriers the US has represents a clear and present danger to US hegemony. So you can expect to see a lot more of this kind of thing moving forward:

The Defense Intelligence Agency’s first public report on Chinese military capability reflects mounting concern within the U.S. government that the United States is not moving quickly enough to respond to Beijing’s rapid military rise or its efforts to dominate American allies in the Pacific.

“During the past decade alone, from counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, to an expanded military presence in the East and South China Seas, China has demonstrated a willingness to use the [People’s Liberation Army] as an instrument of national power in the execution of what they call their historic mission in the new century,” Dan Taylor, a senior DIA analyst, told reporters at the Pentagon.

The assessment by the Pentagon’s intelligence agency comes as the U.S. military begins reshaping itself to counter powers such as China and Russia after nearly two decades of focusing on counterinsurgency and anti-terrorism operations. Though then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis released a new national defense strategy in January 2018 outlining the goals, the Pentagon is still working on implementing them, with officials promising that proof of the transformation will be visible in the department’s 2020 budget request, which is due out next month.

Acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan has made the effort to outpace China a central aim of his tenure since joining the Pentagon as the deputy defense secretary in 2017. A former Boeing executive, Shanahan oversaw the 2020 budget request, which he has called a “masterpiece” designed to show how the U.S. military is reorienting itself toward China and Russia.

How fortunate that we have a former executive from a major arms contractor running the Pentagon at a time when the US military is definitely going to have to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on lots of new weapons systems lest we wake up some morning to find Chinese soldiers swarming through our cities.

In the Atlantic, meanwhile, the New York Times reports that Donald Trump has become very interested in the idea of withdrawing the US from NATO:

Senior administration officials told The New York Times that several times over the course of 2018, Mr. Trump privately said he wanted to withdraw from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Current and former officials who support the alliance said they feared Mr. Trump could return to his threat as allied military spending continued to lag behind the goals the president had set.

In the days around a tumultuous NATO summit meeting last summer, they said, Mr. Trump told his top national security officials that he did not see the point of the military alliance, which he presented as a drain on the United States.

DC is naturally aflutter with fears that Trump is going to destroy NATO in order to do the bidding of evil genius Vladimir Putin, and it’s absolutely fair to say that this is the wrong president for a reasoned critique of NATO’s mission and even its very existence. But if we’re ever to bring some sanity to US foreign policy, that critique has to be made, and serious questions about what NATO is and whether it’s still needed will have to be asked. If you want to argue that this isn’t the time for that, I’ll sympathize and probably even agree with you, but the time has to come at some point.

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