- British Parliament passed a final Brexit withdrawal agreement on Wednesday.
- The following day, Queen Elizabeth gave the bill her royal assent, a formality that turns a bill into law.
- While the European Parliament is set to make the U.K.’s divorce from the European Union official next week, the U.K. still has a long journey ahead in laying out a new relationship with the EU and countries like the United States.
Brexit Becomes Law
After a bitter three and a half year struggle that resulted in the resignation of two prime ministers, protests, elections, and multiple delays, the United Kingdom has officially signed a Brexit withdrawal agreement.
Queen Elizabeth gave her royal assent to the bill on Thursday, a formality that gave the agreement the rule of law. Her signature came after parliament passed the agreement Wednesday evening.
In December, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party gained an 80 seat majority in Parliament’s elected lower house, the House of Commons. The massive win was seen as a mandate that the United Kingdom wanted to divorce itself from the European Union, and Johnson’s victory gave him the ability to pass the withdrawal agreement through the Commons with ease in early January.
The bill was then sent to the non-elected upper house, the House of Lords. On Tuesday, the Lords passed the bill back to the Commons with several amendments attached. Notably, one of those amendments included a provision that would have protected the rights of refugee children to be reunited with their parents if their parents were in the U.K. post-Brexit.
On Wednesday, the Commons used its majority to reject those amendments and tossed the bill back to the Lords. The Lords, lacking a majority to pass the amendments, passed the bill to prevent the U.K. from missing its current Jan. 31 deadline.
Before the U.K. officially leaves the EU, however, the EU’s parliament will also need to vote on a final approval of the withdrawal agreement. That vote is expected to happen Jan. 29, and like the Queen’s royal assent, this stage is also largely being viewed as a formality, with it easily expected to pass.
When it does, the U.K. will officially end its 40-year relationship with the EU.
Reaction to Brexit’s Passage
Unlike the raucous and theatrical debate normally associated with Brexit, the withdrawal agreement’s final passage was largely by the numbers and met with little resistance.
Thursday, when Deputy Speaker Nigel Evans announced in the Commons that the Queen had given her royal assent, only a handful of members of parliament either threw cheers or jeers. Likely, this is a consequence of December’s sweeping elections.
However, that doesn’t mean MP’s and other lawmakers haven’t stifled their strong feelings for the agreement’s passage.
Just after the royal assent announcement, Scottish MP Ian Blackford said the U.K. is facing a “constitutional crisis” because the legislatures in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland don’t support Brexit.
On Wednesday, member Alf Dubs—who had proposed the child refugee amendment—expressed his frustration on Twitter.
“It is bitterly disappointing that after a victory in the Lords, the government have voted down my amendment in the Commons,” he said. “What could be more humane than asking that unaccompanied child refugees stranded in Europe be able to join relatives in this country?”
To note, one of the reasons Dubs is so passionate about the amendment is because he came to the U.K. as a child to escape Nazi persecution shortly before the start of the Second World War.
On the other hand, on Wednesday, after Parliament passed the withdrawal agreement, Johnson said in a statement, “At times it felt like we would never cross the Brexit finish line, but we’ve done it.”
“Now we can put the rancour and division of the past three years behind us and focus on delivering a bright, exciting future – with better hospitals and schools, safer streets and opportunity spread to every corner of our country,” he added.
What Happens Once the Divorce Becomes Official?
Following next week’s expected divorce, the U.K. will begin an 11-month transition period with the EU that is currently scheduled to end on January 1, 2021.
During that time, it will continue to follow most of the EU’s rules, but it won’t actually have any decision-making power in the EU.
The U.K. and the EU will also continue to hash out details of what their relationship will look like after that transition period. For example, that includes things like an ambitious free-trade deal, agriculture, and security.
As for negotiations, those are expected to start either sometime next month or in early March, but like how Brexit saw multiple extensions, a lot of EU officials believe this transition period will also need to be extended. Many believe 11 months is too short of a time frame to completely work out all of the details. Johnson, however, has refused to agree to any extensions.
At the same time, Johnson has also been vocal about getting a free-trade deal with the U.S. While in Davos at the World Economic Forum, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin also indicated the U.S.’s desire for a trade deal, saying, “It’s an absolute priority of President Trump and we expect to complete that within this year.”
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross also said that a trade deal shouldn’t be too hard because the U.S. and the U.K. have similar economies.
But the U.S. and U.K. are also currently in a disagreement over a so-called “tech tax.” That riff stims from the U.K.’s plan to introduce a digital services tax on tech companies like Facebook and Google. Mnuchin then threatened to retaliate by potentially slapping a tariff on U.K. car exports.
See what others are saying: (The Guardian) (The Independent) (Business Insider)
Petition Calls for Ban on Sexualized Fanfiction in South Korea
- A petition circulating across South Korea calls for sexualized fanfiction depicting K-pop stars and other real people to be outlawed and classified as sex crimes.
- The petition particularly focuses on the way male stars are depicted in same-sex relationships and argues that they often feature people who are minors.
- A similar petition was submitted last week to President Moon Jae-in; however, it focused on deep fakes. Because both petitions have over 200,000 signatures, they will need to be addressed by President Moon.
K-Pop Fanfiction Causes Chaos
A petition began circulating across South Korea this week demanding that “real person slash” fanfiction works be outlawed and charged as sex crimes.
“Real person slash” refers to a specific form of fanfiction that most often features sexualized versions of K-pop stars and other real people.
In particular, the petition focuses on the way male stars are depicted in same-sex relationships and the age of some of the people being portrayed. The petition notes, “due to the nature of the profession of idols, whose average age is young, many of the victims are still minors or children.”
The petition was submitted to the Blue House, South Korea’s version of the White House, and currently has over 200,000 signatures. It received a big boost in attention after K-pop star Nancy, from the group Momoland, was secretly filmed by a member of her agency while she was changing backstage. This person then doctored some of the images and uploaded them online.
While Nancy’s case isn’t hand-drawn fanfic, it did fuel outrage at what’s seen as an ineffective approach towards sex crimes in the country. Signers of this petition believe that these fanfics fall into the same category of likely illegality as deep fakes.
Deep Fakes Also Being Targeted
Additionally, just last week deep fakes – which often feature k-pop stars – had its own petition submitted to the president last week with over 300,000 signatures.
Because both petitions have over 200,000 signatures, they will need to be addressed by President Moon Jae-in
For years South Korea has struggled with secret cameras, deep fakes, revenge porn, and more violent sex crimes, such as the infamous Nth Room case that saw certain stars filming themselves having sex with women against their consent.
See What Others Are Saying: (CNA) (The Korea Herald) (South China Morning Post)
Italy Begins Largest Mob Trial in Decades
- Italian prosecutors have started their trial against more than 320 defendants linked to the ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate.
- The charges range from murder and drug trafficking to extortion and money laundering.
- The case is so large, high-profile, and potentially dangerous that the government built a bunker for the event in Calabria, the home territory of the ‘Ndrangheta.
- Details uncovered could deliver a massive blow to organized crime in Italy and potentially across the world as the ‘Ndrangheta has major dealings in Europe, Australia, and the Americas.
Hundreds of ‘Ndranghetisti Facing Charges
A major mob trial kicked off in Italy Wednesday involving more than 320 defendants who are part of or associated with the ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate.
In addition to these defendants going on trial, 90 others have elected for a fast-tracked trial elsewhere in Calabria.
While this is a massive affair, it’s still not the country’s largest mob-related trial in history. That happened in the ’80s against the Cosa Nostra from Sicily.
The trial is so high-profile and potentially dangerous that the government built a bunker for the event in Calabria, close to the home territory of the ‘Ndrangheta.
The court is looking at many charges against the defendants, including extortion, drug and arms trafficking, money laundering, and Mafia association – a term used in Italy’s penal code for members of organized crime.
Breaking Into the Family
Investigators hope that the trial will show just how entrenched organized crime is in the territory, as it’s believed that the ‘Ndrangheta has dealings with local politicians and businessmen. These dealings are believed to not only stem from their illicit activities but also from their legitimate businesses that were initially funded via crime-related funds. Either way, the trial is seen as a major blow for the group.
The organization is made up of multiple groups of tight-knight families that are all interconnected. For years investigators have tried to get more information on the group but following the arrest and prosecution of Luigi Mancuso, a boss in the ‘Ndrangheta, investigators finally had a way to look more closely at 12 families who make up part of the ‘Ndrangheta.
During their investigation police and prosecutors managed to turn some members of those families and use them as informants. They are expected to take the stand as witnesses during the trial. In total, prosecutors hope to put bring out over 900 witnesses.
If successful, this could be a massive blow to organized crime in Italy and potentially across the world as the ‘Ndrangheta has major dealing in Europe, Australia, and the Americas.
See What Others Are Saying: (ABC News) (LA Times) (Chicago Tribune)
Hundreds Sickened By Mysterious Illness in India
- A mystery illness has hospitalized over 500 people in India and is linked to one death. While most people have recovered and been discharged from the hospital, under 100 people are still being treated.
- Health officials believe that it is not a viral infection and that it is not tied to the coronavirus pandemic. One official told The Washington Post that it is a “point source epidemic,” but no one knows what is causing it.
- Blood tests showed patients had high levels of lead and nickel and officials are trying to find what is behind that. Some are also pointing to pesticides used in mosquito treatment as a potential cause behind the outbreak.
- Still, health officials are puzzled, and the situation comes while India currently trails the United States as the country with the most coronavirus cases. This mystery outbreak is also occurring in one of the hardest-hit states.
Mystery Illness in India
Health officials are still looking for what might be causing a mysterious illness that has sickened hundreds of people this month in India.
The unidentified illness has put over 500 people in the hospital and taken one life. Most patients have been discharged and recovered but under 100 are still being treated. The disease was first reported on Sunday, and new instances have gone down since the start of the week.
The outbreak started in the state of Andhra Pradesh. Symptoms range from nausea to anxiety to loss of consciousness, and in some cases, seizures. Some reports say the patient who died suffered from a seizure. Others note they may have fallen as well.
Many patients describe the sickness as hitting them quickly and suddenly as they were going about their day. Some got foggy vision, sore eyes, or incredibly tired before passing out. Many woke up in the hospital and were left with a gap in their memory.
While the cause of this disease is unknown, health officials do not believe it is tied to the coronavirus in any way as no patients have tested positive. The illness is also not believed to be a viral infection of any kind.
“What has been established by experts is that this is a case of acute intoxication of toxins. It is not chronic in nature. This is all we know for now,” one high-ranking official told The Washington Post.
Because cases are already slowing significantly, some believe it might have stemmed from an isolated source or event.
“This is a point source epidemic,” another official told the Post. “Whatever happened, occurred for one particular day and some people got affected. The number of new patients has dropped.”
What that source or event may have been remains a mystery that officials are eager to solve. So far, no commonalities have been found between the patients as they all live in different places, are of different ages, and do not test positive for other kinds of illnesses that could be causing or contributing to this outbreak. Clues are beginning to emerge, though.
One medical official told Al Jazeera that high lead and nickel levels were found in the blood tests of patients. So far, ten have been tested and another 30 will be tested shortly. At first officials thought these levels may have been a result of water contamination, but after water tests were conducted, neither lead nor nickel were found.
Water contamination as a whole has not been ruled out though.
“Health experts suspect that excessive use of bleaching powder and chlorine in sanitation programmes as part of Covid-19 prevention measures may be the cause of water contamination,” the Health Minister of Andhra Pradesh told the Indian Express. “This is just one of the causes we are exploring.”
Another theory at play stems from the fact that organochlorines, which are used as pesticides in mosquito control, were found in some water samples. One of the federal legislators in the state believes that the sickness could be tied to that. A public health director confirmed to Al Jazeera that “it is one of the possibilities.”
Timing With COVID-19
Still, all these ideas simply remain possibilities and officials have far more questions than they have answers about this situation. Health officials from the country and the World Health Organization have established a presence in Andhra Pradesh to get to the bottom of the situation.
The timing of this outbreak is unfortunate as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread through India. While daily cases are much lower than they were when it peaked in September in the country, it still remains an issue.
India is behind the United States in seeing the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases, totaling 9.7 million infections. Around 141,000 people have died in the country. In August, their outbreak was the fastest growing in the world. Andhra Pradesh is among the hardest-hit states in the country.
Hope is on the horizon as India, like many other countries, could be on track to approve a vaccine within weeks. According to Reuters, health officials will prioritize 300 million people, including healthcare workers, policemen, and those above the age of 50.