EU and UK finally reach breakthrough deal on Northern Ireland

After years of limbo, the EU and UK have finally reached an agreement to settle the issues plaguing a post-Brexit Northern Ireland. As the UK officially left the EU at the end of 2020, then-prime minister Boris Johnson signed the Northern Ireland Protocol with the EU, which avoided a historically contentious hard border in Ireland, but created a trade barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK to the chagrin of unionists and hardline Eurosceptics. To appease them, Johnson later went back on his agreement with the EU by threatening to unilaterally change its terms, causing a political and economic spat that left Northern Ireland’s status uncertain.

The newly negotiated “Windsor Framework” addresses economic concerns from both the EU and UK. The EU’s biggest red line was to maintain the integrity of their single market. As the UK left the EU’s regulatory regime and implemented its own legislation, UK goods risked flowing into the EU unchecked through Northern Ireland. Under Johnson’s protocol, Northern Ireland remained in the EU’s single market while goods coming from Britain had to be checked. This outraged unionists by in effect creating a border within the UK. To resolve this, goods are now separated into either a red lane, for goods destined for the EU; or green lane, for goods destined to stay in Northern Ireland. Red lane goods remain policed by the European Court of Justice before entering the EU, while green lane goods have little EU oversight. To streamline the process, the UK has agreed to share extensive real-time customs data with European authorities. The agreement has also reduced checks and bureaucracy on pets, plants, and medicine moving between the UK and Northern Ireland.

While Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has secured the agreement with Brussels, he will have to win support in parliament for it to be implemented. Despite initial opposition from high-profile Tory backbenchers, Sunak appears to have won the support of many hardline Brexiters in his party, and Labour’s Keir Starmer has indicated his support for the deal. Yet to be fully convinced, however, is Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the second largest party in Stormont, Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly. Since elections last year in which the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein ousted the DUP as the largest party, the DUP has refused to take part in Stormont’s complex power-sharing institutions. This boycott has gridlocked legislation, leaving the region without local governance. While the Windsor Framework seems likely to pass and will reduce economic uncertainty, it is unlikely to be a silver bullet for Northern Ireland’s political struggles.

President Biden’s student loan forgiveness faces Supreme Court

President Biden’s plan to cancel up to $20,000 in student loan debt for close to 40 million Americans, announced August last year, is facing a challenge in the Supreme Court over its legality. Six Republican-controlled states – Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and South Carolina – have filed a lawsuit decrying Biden’s move as unconstitutional, arguing that the Department of Education did not have the authority to cancel student debt, and that doing so unfairly harms certain groups. Some individual plaintiffs argue that they unfairly did not qualify for debt relief, while the state of Missouri claims that the cancellation of loans will deprive their state’s independent loan corporation of interest revenues, hindering its ability to make payments to the state treasury.

Biden’s move to cancel student debt had long been a hope for Democrats, especially as the total value of student debt has soared over the past decade. While the Biden administration claims the debt forgiveness was necessary as indebted students faced economic hardship during the pandemic, Republicans decried the move as a cynical political play to energise the Democrat’s young voter base. Biden’s executive order did occur just a couple of months before the 2022 midterm elections, where youth turnout propelled the Democrats’ performance.

As the Supreme Court considers the legality of the case, pro-student debt cancellation protests have occurred outside the Supreme Court building, with progressive Democrats railing against the currently conservative-dominated court. The souring perception of the court comes after the overturning of the historic abortion protection case, Roe v. Wade, last year. As six of the Supreme Court’s nine justices align with its conservative wing, potentially undoing Biden’s student debt forgiveness is likely to be just one of a slew of liberal initiatives on the chopping block.

Turmoil continues in Nigeria after chaotic election

Nigeria’s president-elect, Bola Tinubu, has reached out to opposition parties and those claiming the election was rigged, after defeating two of his closest rivals in the most competitive election for decades. Promising that “renewed hope has dawned” in Africa’s most populous nation, Tinubu, the candidate for the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) party, was on Wednesday declared the winner. The chaotic count lasted almost four days and prompted fierce criticism as well as allegations of rigging from the Nigerian Labour Party, which has said it will mount a legal challenge against Tinubu’s victory as it called for fresh polls. Bola Tinubu has the difficult task of uniting the West African nation, as the results of the election highlight how sharply divided citizens are along religious and ethnic lines.

On Tuesday, Nigeria’s main opposition parties called for the country’s presidential election to be scrapped, alleging that results had been manipulated. International observers have criticised Saturday’s vote, which was largely peaceful despite expectations of widespread poll violence. A team of observers said delays on voting day, which led to many polling stations opening hours late, meant the election “fell well short of Nigerian citizens’ reasonable expectations”. An EU mission also said the failures “reduced trust in the process and challenged the right to vote”.

Belarusian “guerilla” activists target Russian aircraft

Belarusian anti-government activists claimed an attack using drones on a Russian surveillance aircraft near Minsk. The Association of Security Forces of Belarus, known as BYPOL, a Belarusian anti-government group of former law enforcement officers, whose aim it is to restore democracy in the country, claimed responsibility for what they said was an act of sabotage that had seriously damaged a Russian A-50 surveillance aircraft. The Belarusian Hajun project, which tracks the activity of the airspace of Belarus, confirmed the incident. 

Mykhailo Samus, director of the New Geopolitics Research Network, says that the Russian surveillance aircraft could find targets from up to 500 kilometres away including mobile and stationary missiles, aircraft, tanks, rocket launchers, and air defence systems. The data is then shared with destructive weapons, so the attack on this piece of Russian equipment will be a setback for its ongoing invasion of Ukraine. 

Russia and Belarus have somewhat of a close relationship, with Belarus initially allowing Moscow to use its territory as a launchpad for attacks on Ukraine. However, acts of sabotage in Belarus, which shares a border with both Ukraine and Russia, have been common since the invasion of Ukraine. The country’s autocratic leader Alexander Lukashenko is dependent on the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and so attacks like these may damage their relationship.

China attempts to become peacemaker in the war in Ukraine

At the recent Munich Security Conference (MSC), Chinese diplomat Wang Yi announced his government’s 12-point plan to help bring the conflict between Russia and Ukraine to a peaceful conclusion. Since the war began in February last year, Western leaders have openly encouraged China to join them in opposing Russian aggression, so as to bring about peace as quickly as possible. Up until now, China has condemned the prospect of a nuclear war, but chosen to abstain from UN votes directly condemning Russia’s invasion.

The 12 pledges given have had a cold reception from Western countries, for they are vague enough to allow China to continue its supposed neutrality. For example, the first pledge states that the ‘sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries must be effectively upheld’, but does not directly mention Russia or Ukraine. It is therefore unclear as to whether or not China is telling Russia to leave Ukraine and respect its territory, or insinuating that Ukraine is really a part of Russia and so should concede to Vladimir Putin. The case for the latter is strengthened by the warm welcome Wang Yi received from Putin, which seems to suggest that the two countries remain on good terms. The statement also calls for unilateral sanctions to be stopped, seemingly criticising the West’s economic sanctions against Russia.

By staunchly refusing to overtly side with either the West or Russia in the document, China has managed to keep its options open and will be able change tack in the future if it feels one side is looking stronger than the other.

Surge in hospitalisation of schoolgirls in Iran following new gas poisonings

CW: Violence, Illness

Girls from 26 schools across five cities in Iran have been hospitalised after another spate of toxic gas attacks. The attacks began in November last year, seemingly in retaliation to the widespread protests that had been taking place across the country, fighting against the draconian restrictions imposed upon women by the current Iranian regime. Towards the end of last year, the government began executing some of the protestors in an attempt to quell resistance. This decision was met with sanctions against Iran from Western countries like the UK.

Currently, it is unclear who is behind the gas attacks, though they are assumed to be a deliberate attempt to make girls’ schools close, given the recent participation of many female students in the anti-government protests. More than 1000 students have been affected by the poisonings since they began in November, with symptoms including respiratory problems, nausea, dizziness and fatigue.Public pressure on authorities to prevent further attacks is growing. The Iranian government has appointed Minister Ahmad Vahidito to investigate, though there is widespread scepticism over whether any steps will be taken, not least because the regime is still refusing to say whether or not they believe the attacks are premeditated. Iranian human rights activist Masih Alinejad, who is currently based in the US, has called upon Western countries to take action, condemn the attacks, and isolate the Iranian regime to try and prevent further violence.