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Coronavirus, Brexit, 'Deal of the Century' and the Fragility

Coronavirus, Brexit, 'Deal of the Century' and the Fragility

Monday, 3 February, 2020 - 10:15
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

Three major developments stole the show last week, albeit at different extents: the growing concern over the spread of the coronavirus, Britain’s formal exit from the European Union and President Donald Trump’s announcement of the "Deal of the Century".


The outbreak in China has undoubtedly become a source of concern and panic for the entire planet. The British exit was considered a decisive turn on the British and European levels, while the US deal was seen as an extraordinary development, whether in terms of searching for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, or regarding the American role in this search process.


Nothing links the three developments together except that they reveal the fragility of countries, regional groups or international organizations.


When we speak of China, we cannot help but remember its size and its rise: it is the world’s most populous country and its second-largest economy, and enjoys the largest army that is constantly modernizing its arsenal. It is a country that has revived the Silk Road, accomplished great progress after taking hundreds of millions of citizens out of poverty, and achieved a remarkable technological leap.


Only weeks ago, we were reading old predictions about “the approaching Chinese era”, “the rise of China” and the shift of the world’s center of gravity to Asia.


Suddenly, with the coronavirus outbreak, we started reading about a virus isolating or besieging China, countries evacuating their citizens and advising their nationals not to travel there and airlines canceling their flights. We also read about the high cost of the epidemic and its implications for the Chinese economy, energy prices and trade.


In just a few weeks, the picture that China has spent decades building or earning was shaken.


Countries appear to be armed to the teeth and strong like fortresses, then an unexpected foe comes to reveal their fragility. Suddenly, they find themselves forced to earmark huge sums to contain the epidemic and strengthen their health sector against surprises of this kind.


Another exciting event. On the first day of this month, the Europeans awoke up to a Britain-free European Union. The British ship chose to sail solo, looking to restore its identity and prosperity away from Brussels’ complications.


After a 47-year stay under the European roof, Britain put into effect its desire for divorce. The issue would not have taken on such a dimension had it been a small country, which had thrown itself onto Europe following the Yugoslav explosion or the Soviet collapse. We are talking about the United Kingdom, the heir to the empire where the sun never set.


As when a family loses one of its members, Europeans remembered, on the day of divorce, the size of their loss: the country that submitted its resignation from the “European dream” is the fifth largest economy in the world, has the second biggest defense budget in Europe and is a very important financial hub. This is without mentioning its permanent membership in the UN Security Council, its natural position in the major powers club and its accumulated diplomatic experience in many parts of the world.


Boris Johnson has fulfilled his promise to the British people. But when it comes to decisions of this magnitude, the coming days will test how right he was. Will Johnson be able to fulfill the Deal of the Century with his American friend? Is Donald Trump ready to offer these kinds of gifts?


It is clear that Europe faces difficult options: generosity in the new relationship with Britain may encourage other countries to jump from the ship commanded by 27 captains. On the other hand, sternness with Britain could be a loss for Europe, especially if London manages to swim alone. Johnson may also face new challenges with the re-awakening of Scotland’s dream for independence.


On the day that followed Brexit, some people spoke about the weakness of this decision, the role of social media in shaping public opinion, populist tendencies, identity crises and fear of immigrants. Others spoke of the fragility of the European structure that has been caught between American volatility and the rise of Vladimir Putin.


A third development stole the show in the Middle East last week: After a long wait, the US president unveiled the Deal of the Century.


It is a new approach to ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that is based mainly on accepting the fait accompli that Israel succeeded in imposing in the territories it occupied. Thus, very sensitive issues, such as the Palestinian state and its borders, the future of Jerusalem and the right of return, were tackled from outside the references that previously formed the basis for negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis.


The difference between the photo of the signing of the Oslo Accords at the White House in 1993 and the current photo is striking. In the first, Yitzhak Rabin shook hands with Yasser Arafat, and the agreement bore the signature of the Israelis and Palestinians. In the new picture, the Palestinian side was absent. Perhaps the first argument put forward by those who stress the fragility of the new deal is the lack of a Palestinian partner, while the old version bore the signature of a full-fledged leader named Yasser Arafat.


For this reason, the Arab foreign ministers adopted a predictable stance following their meeting in Cairo, rejecting the deal and stressing their commitment to just peace and international references.


It is true that many developments in the past two decades have increased the vulnerability of the Arab position, but the new approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict also recalls the fragility of the role of international legitimacy and its chronic inability to implement its decisions.


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