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April 05, 2018

MI6 claims to have identified source of Novichok production

There has been an overnight development in the Skripal affair, which is fast turning into a deteriorating cold-war-style standoff between Russia and the West. As the Times reports this morning, UK security services have pinpointed the source with a high degree of probability to a covert Russian laboratory that would have manufactured the nerve agent. The location, which is not revealed in the article, was identified by a combination of classic intelligence work and scientific methods. The source of the article says they are not 100% certain, but they have a high degree of confidence. They also said that Russians had conducted tests on whether Novichoks could be used for assassinations.

This late development followed a previous statement by Gary Aitkenhead, the head of the Porton Down defence laboratory in Wiltshire, who said yesterday he was not able to verify that the nerve agent had come from Russia. Earlier Boris Johnson had predicted that Porton Down would clear up the source.

As the source in the Times story is hidden, we cannot be entirely certain of the story's credibility, especially given the timing. The news is supported by a FAZ story quoting a German chemical weapons expert, who gives some details of how Porton Down would proceed in identifying the source of the material. They would be looking at the chemical signatures of the original materials of the binary compound. They would be looking at pollutants and impurities, which may allow the scientists to draw conclusions about catalysts used in the production, in turn narrowing down the number of factors potentially used in the production. They would also be looking at special carrier materials to accelerate the absorption of the poison through the skin. But in all cases, according to the German expert, the information needs to be corroborated by additional intelligence work. 

This is what seems to have occurred in this case - Porton Down narrowed down the possibilities while the intelligence agencies provided additional information that helped pinpoint the most probable production location. 

Russia’s request for a joint investigation into the poisoning was defeated by a vote of 15-6 at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in the Hague. It was interesting to note that both China and Iran supported Russia, according to the Times. Russia has also demanded a UN security council meeting be convened today.

The Times’ front page this morning still carried a different story - that Theresa May was struggling to keep the anti-Russian coalition together. As we reported there is no unity on this issue in Germany, despite the support for the UK's position by both Angela Merkel and the new SPD leadership. But Italian politics is likely to take a decidedly pro-Russian turn. To maintain a reasonable degree of unity will remain one of the biggest tests of EU diplomacy right now. 

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April 05, 2018

Donald Tusk, leader of the Polish opposition?

It is no secret that Donald Tusk is no friend of the current Polish government of the Law and Justice (PiS) party. However, for a high European official who is supposed to be a facilitator of member state diplomacy at the European Council, Tusk remains unusually active in domestic politics. Politico notes that, in a recent interview with Polish TV station TVN24, Tusk is quoted as saying:

"In 2019 I will be back in Poland and let no one think that I will only watch TV."

His term as president of the European Council expires at the end of November 2019, after the next Polish general election. The European Parliament will also hold elections in May 2019. Is Tusk suggesting he might step down from the Council presidency before his term is up, to join the Polish political fray? Worse still, will he take active part in the election campaigns while retaining his EU job? In the cited interview he refused to consider emergency scenarios - but in that case why mention the word emergency in the first place?

In his Polish politics blog Aleks Szczerbiak observes that Grzegorz Schetyna, the leader of the Polish opposition and Tusk's successor at the head of the Civic Platform party (PO), has failed to make a strong impression on the Polish public and establish himself as a credible alternative to the PiS-led cabinets. We suppose it is for this reason that Tusk finds it hard to let go of domestic oppposition politics. Szczerbiak notes the following weaknesses of the Polish liberal-centrist opposition. It is divided, notably between PO and the Modern party. It has also focused too much on constitutional and rule-of-law issues that are far from the bread-and-butter concerns that have propelled PiS to government on an absolute majority of the parliament. However, Szczerbiak argues that the opposition continues to enjoy a strong financial base and the support of most of the national press. With these advantages it is noteworthy that the Polish opposition is not doing any better than it is.

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April 05, 2018

The legal side of Brexit revocation

David Allen Green picked up on Wolfgang Munchau’s comment on the narrowing time window for Brexit revocation. With his own legal analysis he comes to the same conclusions. He says Remainers are placing too much emphasis on the hope for a meaningful vote on the Article 50 withdrawal, presumably in October. But, for Brexit not to happen in a year’s time, one of three things will need to happen, he writes. The first is an agreement between UK and EU to extend the Article 50 period. The EU is not willing to consider this option, and would only regard this as a short procedural delay. The second is a clause in the withdrawal agreement itself that would postpone the date of Brexit to December 2020. He writes that this would be more sensible than a complicated transition agreement, but that it is not happening either. One reason is that the EU and the Brexiteers in the UK are both against this option. 

The third possibility is outright revocation. He says that a serious attempt by the UK to revoke would be acceptable to the EU. But the chances of that are not very large. The mandate of the referendum still stands. And parliament allowed the prime minister to choose the Article 50 notification at her own discretion. The front benches of both the government and the opposition support Brexit. And there will be not enough time for the primary legislation to be passed to hold a fresh referendum. Nor is there pressure from the EU. The EU does not want Brexit, but is prepared for it.

Like us, he concludes that the probability of a Brexit revocation is not exactly zero - it never is for anything in politics. But it would require an extreme political upheaval. This leaves Remainers with two more realistic avenues to pursue: an association agreement that keeps the UK in the customs union and the single market, and re-entry under Article 49.

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