The date of Britain’s final divorce from the European Union has effectively been kicked down the road for two years, after London and Brussels agreed this week on a 21-month transition period before Britain loses access to the single market. That transition period will kick in at the end of March 2019, when Britain is supposed to formally leave the EU. But the U.K. had to make significant concessions to get the grace period: It must abide by European court rulings in the interim and continue paying into the EU budget until 2064. Also, the transition period will go into effect only if a withdrawal agreement is finalized.
Outdoor rinks melt
Climate change is liquefying that Canadian cultural touchstone, the backyard ice-skating rink. Many Canadian hockey players grew up skating on makeshift ponds their parents made with a tarp and a hose in winter. But the citizen science group RinkWatch says global warming has led to a drop in the number of consistent days of hard freezing. An open-air rink must freeze at below 15 degrees Fahrenheit for at least five days before it is safe for skating; temperatures of 23 degrees or lower are needed to maintain a good surface. This February saw rinks melt for the third winter in a row. “The fact that this could be taken away and is tied to climate has been a real eye-opener,” says RinkWatch co-founder Colin Robertson.
Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was taken into police custody this week over allegations that he illegally accepted some $61 million from former Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi to sponsor his successful 2007 presidential campaign. French law capped campaign funding at $25 million for that election; Sarkozy narrowly defeated his Socialist rival, Ségolène Royal, in the vote’s final round. Police began investigating the Qaddafi connection in 2013, after a French news outlet obtained a memo from the Libyan security services alleging Sarkozy had been paid 50 million euros. As president from 2007 to 2012, Sarkozy hosted Qaddafi for a state visit, but he also supported the 2011 NATO intervention that forced Qaddafi from power. Sarkozy denies any wrongdoing; he is set to stand trial in a separate case concerning illegal funding of his unsuccessful 2012 re-election campaign.
U.S. aid for Venezuelans
The Trump administration announced this week that it will provide $2.5 million in food and medical aid to help impoverished Venezuelan migrants in Colombia. Battered by widespread food and medicine shortages, runaway hyperinflation, and political repression by the leftist government of President Nicolás Maduro, up to 4 million Venezuelans have fled abroad in recent years. Hundreds of thousands have settled in Colombian border cities such as Cúcuta. “Regrettably, this crisis in Venezuela, which is now spilling into the broader region, is man-made,” said Mark Green of USAID, “the result of continued political mismanagement and corruption by the Maduro regime.”
Protests topple PM
Slovakia was in political crisis this week after the country’s biggest protests in decades forced the resignation of Prime Minister Robert Fico. Demonstrators first took to the streets last month after journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, were murdered in their home; Kuciak had been investigating alleged ties between senior politicians and Italy’s ’Ndrangheta mafia. Fico nominated a longtime ally from his center-left Smer party, Peter Pellegrini, as his successor. But President Andrej Kiska has rejected Pellegrini’s proposed cabinet, saying radical changes are needed to appease public anger.
Favela activist killed
Rio de Janeiro
Tens of thousands of people protested across Brazil last week after a Rio politician was murdered in what federal prosecutors said appeared to be a hit by corrupt police officers. The only black woman on Rio’s 51-member City Council, Marielle Franco, 38, was a champion of women, gay people, and favela residents, and an outspoken critic of police brutality and the federal government’s February decision to put the army in charge of policing in Rio state. She was shot dead in her car shortly after leaving a black women’s empowerment event she had organized; Franco was hit by nine police-issue bullets, including four to the head. She had recently been appointed to a city commission conducting oversight of military policing in Rio. Police killed at least 1,200 people, mostly black men, in Rio last year, the highest number in a decade.
Putin declares victory
Russian President Vladimir Putin easily won another six-year term this week, taking 77 percent of the vote in an election marked by severely restricted competition. Turnout was reported at 67.5 percent, a reflection of Putin’s widespread popularity among Russians. While international observers saw a few irregularities, including acts of blatant ballot box stuffing, they said the count was largely accurate. But observers also said the vote was not free or fair, because genuine critics of Putin, such as opposition leader Alexei Navalny, were barred from running and because Russia restricts freedom of assembly and suppresses civil society groups. Putin, who has led Russia either as president or prime minister for 18 years, barely bothered to campaign.
President Trump drew criticism at home for phoning Putin to congratulate him on his victory. National security staffers who prepared Trump for the call advised him to condemn the recent nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy in England—which the British government says was ordered by the Kremlin—and wrote on his briefing cards “DO NOT CONGRATULATE.” Instead, Trump praised Putin for his re-election and failed to mention the chemical attack. He said he discussed Syria during his “very good call” with the Russian president, and he warned Putin that the U.S. would win any arms race. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) rebuked Trump for the call, writing on Twitter, “An American president does not lead the free world by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections.”
We bombed Syria
Israel admitted for the first time this week that its military bombed a suspected plutonium reactor in Syria in 2007. The Israel Defense Forces said its jets hit the facility in the Deir el-Zour province, some 280 miles northeast of Damascus, as it was nearing completion. Experts from North Korea helped construct the reactor, the IDF said. Israel’s intelligence minister, Yisrael Katz, said the operation was proof that “Israel will never allow nuclear weaponry to be in the hands of those who threaten its existence—Syria then, and Iran today.” It’s not clear whether Israel confirmed the bombing as a warning to Iran or because former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who ordered the strike, has a memoir coming out.
Fall in line or stay home
Starting in May, China will begin barring people with poor “social credit” from boarding trains or planes for a year. China’s government has begun issuing citizens with a social-credit score based on trustworthiness: Those who fail to pay bills or are cited for infractions such as smoking on a train will see their scores suffer and their rights curtailed. If a person’s score goes up, privileges will be restored. The full rollout of the social-credit system, scheduled for 2020, will “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven,” the government says, “while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”
Turkey routs Kurds
After a two-month offensive, Turkish troops and their Syrian-Arab rebel allies this week seized control of the city of Afrin from U.S.-backed Syrian-Kurdish militants. Some 200,000 civilians have fled the Kurdish-majority Afrin region in recent days. Jingoistic Turkish media portrayed the victory over the YPG militia—which it accuses of being a front for the PKK, a Turkish-Kurdish terrorist outfit—as a great national feat. Turkey has threatened to push its offensive further east to the town of Manbij, where American troops are stationed alongside YPG fighters, who have proved to be crucial U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS. The Kurdish group has vowed to launch a guerrilla campaign in Afrin and create “an ongoing nightmare” for the Turks.
Give us your whites
An Australian government minister has drawn criticism for offering fast-track asylum to white farmers from South Africa. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said white farmers, who could face uncompensated confiscation of their farms under South Africa’s new land redistribution program, are being persecuted and “need help from a civilized country like ours.” Australian opposition lawmakers and human rights groups said the suggestion was racist, and the South African government demanded that Dutton retract his comments. Whites account for 9 percent of South Africa’s population but own 72 percent of the country’s farmland. Critics noted that Dutton has previously described immigration to Australia from Lebanon as a mistake and has refused to offer fast-track asylum to Rohingya refugees fleeing ethnic cleansing in Myanmar.