EU pledges vaccine controls will not hit UK supplies


Ursula von der Leyen has promised Boris Johnson that future EU controls on vaccines will not disrupt contracted supplies of the Belgian-made BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine to Britain.

The European Commission president made the commitment to the prime minister in a tense Friday night call, which followed the Commission’s controversial plan — hastily abandoned — to impose emergency border controls on vaccines entering Northern Ireland from the EU.

Ms von der Leyen tweeted that the talks with Mr Johnson had been “constructive”, adding: “We agreed on the principle that there should not be restrictions on the export of vaccines by companies where they are fulfilling contractual responsibilities.”

Mr Johnson’s allies confirmed that this included the 40m doses that Pfizer is contracted to supply Britain from a plant in Belgium. The Commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The dropping of the implied threat to Pfizer exports and the abandonment of the proposal to include Northern Ireland in new export controls has calmed tension between London and Brussels.

Mr Johnson has tried this week to avoid stoking tension and inflaming a vaccine war which he believes would harm both sides and hinder the global fight against Covid-19.

“The call was fine, hopefully that’s the end of it,” said one ally of the prime minister. “We don’t plan to dwell on it.”

But Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s first minister, on Saturday called on Mr Johnson to follow Brussels’ lead and override part of the Brexit agreement to ease the flow of goods between GB and NI.

Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol has a “safeguard” clause to override the agreement, which is intended to maintain an open border on the island of Ireland. It includes checks on GB/NI trade.

The European Commission said it would invoke Article 16 to justify its initial plan to impose vaccine export controls on Northern Ireland, even though the region remains part of the EU’s single market for goods.

It cited the risk of “serious societal difficulties” in the EU if the bloc was unable to deploy enough vaccines to its own citizens.

Julian Smith, former Northern Ireland secretary, said the EU had “pulled the emergency cord” without following the proper processes that had been agreed over years of negotiations.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the move came “without anywhere near the level of understanding of the Good Friday Agreement, of the sensitivities of the situation in Northern Ireland”.

“It was an almost Trumpian act — I’m very pleased that they’ve changed their minds,” he said.

The Commission has since republished its vaccine shipment control measures with the Article 16 proposals stripped out.

Cabinet minister Michael Gove said that he had spoken to Maros Sefcovic, European Commission vice-president and co-chair of the EU-UK joint committee. 

“Our shared priority is making sure the protocol works for the people of Northern Ireland, protecting gains of the peace process and avoiding disruption to everyday lives. Jointly committed to redoubling our efforts to address outstanding issues,” they both tweeted from their individual twitter accounts.

Speaking to Sky News, Mr Gove said it had been made clear that the vaccine supply would not be interrupted, “so we can proceed with our plans and make sure that our so far highly successful vaccination programme can continue.

“I think the European Union recognise that they made a mistake in triggering Article 16, which would have meant the reimposition of a border on the island of Ireland.”

The export restrictions had drawn criticism from business groups including the International Chamber of Commerce, which warned they could lead to retaliation from other countries and have a devastating impact on global vaccine supplies.

It has also emerged that Belgium, a key location for vaccine production in the EU, has notified the Commission of a draft health law that would give it new powers to curb medicines exports.

The proposed legislation would allow Belgian authorities to restrict or ban the shipment of critical medicinal products and active ingredients, in case of shortages or potential shortages.

A spokesperson for Frank Vandenbroucke, Belgium’s health minister, said the notification to the commission was not related to vaccine exports or uncertainties about jab supplies.

The draft law aimed to set up a “future legislative framework for managing pandemics more efficiently,” he added.

Democrats push for stimulus deal before Trump impeachment trial


Joe Biden, the US president, faces a narrow window to clinch bipartisan support for his $1.9tn stimulus plan, after congressional Democrats said they wanted a deal before the impeachment trial against Donald Trump begins the week of February 8.

On Sunday, Brian Deese, the director of the National Economic Council in the White House, was due to host a meeting with 16 senators, including eight Republicans, to jump-start talks on Mr Biden’s relief package, which is the new president’s top early legislative priority.

Although Mr Biden has promised to make bipartisan unity a defining trait of his presidency, a number of Republicans have dismissed elements of his relief plan, criticising it for excessive spending and for including provisions such as an increase in the federal minimum wage.

Given that scepticism, Democrats want to quickly gauge Republicans’ appetite for serious negotiations on the stimulus package — which includes direct payments to individuals, aid to states and extra jobless benefits — or move on to try to pass it only with lawmakers of their own party.

Dick Durbin, the Illinois senator and second-highest ranking Democrat in the upper chamber said in interview with NBC News on Sunday that the objective of the call with Mr Deese was to see “if there’s an area of agreement” on the rescue package.

“I am hopeful that we can show right off the bat that bipartisanship is alive in the Senate,” Mr Durbin said.

“The rescue package that President Biden has sent to us is one of the highest importance . . . So, I hope we can really roll up our sleeves and get that done in that period of time [before Mr Trump’s trial].”

Democrats need at least ten Republican senators to endorse the relief plan if they are to pass it using the current practice in the Senate, which requires a supermajority to advance legislation. But failing that, Democrats could pass a relief plan with a simple majority by using a parliamentary process called “budget reconciliation” which is reserved for bills involving taxes and spending. The Senate is evenly split with 50 senators backing each party, but Kamala Harris, the vice-president, can cast tiebreaking votes, handing control to Democrats.

Mike Rounds, a Republican senator from South Dakota, told NBC on Sunday that Democrats should drop their insistence on boosting the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour from $7.25 to help reach a deal.

“I really don’t think we’re that far off with regard to the direction for Covid relief, specifically in targeted areas,” he said. “The real challenge is whether or not Democrats are prepared to perhaps release some of the items that are not specifically targeted to Covid relief.”

The push for a quick stimulus agreement came on the eve of Monday’s expected move by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives to transmit its article of impeachment against Mr Trump for inciting the January 6 assault on the US Capitol.

Ordinarily, this would trigger the start of the Senate trial against the former president the following day, but Republicans and Democrats reached a deal to delay the core of the proceedings until the week of February 8. For Republicans this is will allow Mr Trump more time to prepare his defence, and for Democrats it will help confirm more of Mr Biden’s cabinet appointees and pass the relief package.

Speaking on Fox News Sunday, Mitt Romney, the Republican senator from Utah, showed he was leaning towards convicting Mr Trump, saying “impeachable conduct” was plausible given Mr Trump’s actions and it was important to have “accountability, for truth and justice”.

But there is unlikely to be enough Republican support to secure that conviction in the upper chamber. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican senator, told Fox News Sunday that Mr Trump bore “responsibility for some of what happened” at the Capitol but he did not agree with impeachment.

“I think the trial is stupid. I think it’s counterproductive. We already have a flaming fire in this country and it’s like taking a bunch of gasoline and pouring it on top of the fire,” he said.

UK stands firm in row over EU envoy’s diplomatic status


The UK on Thursday showed no sign of changing tack after refusing to grant the EU embassy in London full diplomatic status — a snub that former US president Donald Trump also inflicted on the bloc but later reversed.

Dominic Raab, Britain’s foreign secretary, insisted that the EU’s ambassador to London should be seen as representing an “international organisation”, rather than being treated as a national envoy.

The Foreign Office said that staff at the EU’s embassy — which occupies Margaret Thatcher’s former Conservative headquarters in Smith Square — enjoyed “very similar” privileges to those afforded to diplomats from nation states.

“The ambassador doesn’t get to present his credentials to the Queen, but surely it isn’t about that?” said one ally of Mr Raab. “The EU sees itself as a state — we see it as an international organisation.”

Brussels said there was nothing to justify the British government’s decision to refuse to give the EU mission in London the same standing as national delegations post-Brexit.

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator who is now a special adviser to the European Commission president on UK matters, insisted the EU could not be treated merely as an international organisation with lower diplomatic privileges than sovereign countries.

“We will see what will be the final decision of the UK on this point, but they have to be very careful,” he said. Negotiations are continuing with Brussels, but British officials said it was unlikely there would be a change of heart.

The UK also announced on Thursday that Lindsay Croisdale-Appleby, previously its deputy chief negotiator in the Brexit trade talks, would take over from Tim Barrow as the head of Britain’s diplomatic mission to the EU.

But in another symbol of Britain’s shifting post-Brexit relationship with the EU, Mr Croisdale-Appleby’s job will no longer be on a par with London’s ambassador to Washington in the Foreign Office pecking order.

Sir Tim was a Grade 4 diplomat while representing the UK as a member of the EU, while his successor in Brussels — at the new British mission — will be Grade 3, the same level as ambassadors in Paris and Berlin.

Diplomatic sources said that this was “a new job and a new role”, given that Britain’s ambassador was no longer representing an EU member state.

Representatives of international organisations have immunity from prosecution for actions committed in the course of their work, while their offices are inviolable and are not subject to local taxes.

The BBC reported on Thursday that Britain was refusing to give João Vale de Almeida the full diplomatic status that is granted to other ambassadors. The Financial Times first reported on the disagreement in May.

The US quickly reversed a similar move in 2019 after a backlash including from Democratic politicians and EU institutions.

“This is simply petty,” Tobias Ellwood, Tory chair of the Commons defence committee, said on Twitter on Thursday. “[New US president Joe] Biden commits to strengthening alliances and we engage in silly spats which will not help strengthen security and trade co-operation. We are better than this.”

David O’Sullivan, who was EU ambassador to the US at the time of the status downgrade there, said the UK decision to take a similar approach was “surprising”.

“I would be extremely surprised if the UK government were unwilling to accord full diplomatic recognition to the EU ambassador — as is the case in the vast majority of countries around the world, including the United States,” Mr O’Sullivan told the FT.

Additional reporting by Helen Warrell in London

Russia jails opposition activist Alexei Navalny for 30 days


Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny has been sent to prison just a day after returning to his home country, in defiance of EU member states who called for new sanctions against Moscow if he was not released.

Mr Navalny, president Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critic, was detained by police at Moscow’s main airport on Sunday evening after returning from Germany, where he had recovered from an assassination attempt involving the Soviet-developed nerve agent novichok.

The attempt on his life last August was blamed on the Kremlin and sparked widespread condemnation from western governments. Moscow denied any involvement and has suggested Mr Navalny could have been poisoned outside Russia.

As supporters chanted his name outside the police station where he had been held overnight — and where a makeshift court had been hastily assembled on Monday afternoon — a judge remanded him in custody for 30 days, pending a second court appearance next month. He faces a potential three-and-a-half year jail sentence.

The decision to find the 44-year-old guilty of breaching the terms of a suspended sentence related to a 2014 fraud conviction. It came despite demands from the US and the EU to release him, and calls from three EU member states for the bloc to impose new sanctions against Moscow.

His incarceration is likely to further sour relations between Moscow and the west and could spark demonstrations in Russia. Mr Navalny’s lawyer was only informed of the impromptu court hearing minutes before it began, and only two Kremlin-friendly media organisations were allowed in.

In a video published after the sentencing, Mr Navalny called on his supporters take to the streets of Russia on Saturday, describing protest rallies as the thing the authorities “fear the most.”

“Don’t be scared,” he said. “Come out on the streets: not for me but for yourselves and your future”.

Russia’s prison service had requested his jailing ahead of a court hearing set for February 2, where it will argue that Mr Navalny failed to appear for meetings mandated under the terms of the 2014 conviction, and that the suspended sentence should be converted to jail time.

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the 2014 conviction was politically motivated.

“It is impossible, what is happening here is the highest degree of lawlessness,” Mr Navalny said in a video filmed as the hearing began and posted on Twitter by his spokesperson. “The old man in the bunker is so afraid of everything that the criminal code has been defiantly ripped up and thrown away into the trash.”

Mr Navalny’s supporters say his arrest is designed to prevent him from campaigning ahead of critical parliamentary elections in September, with Mr Putin’s ruling party polling at record lows.

Officers outside the police station where Mr Navalny is being held, in Khimki, just outsidel Moscow
The police station where Alexei Navalny is being held, in Khimki, just outside Moscow © Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters

Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia on Monday urged fellow EU member states to impose sanctions should Mr Navalny not be swiftly released.

“It seems that Navalny, who dared to challenge the government, has made another most unfortunate mistake. He has survived,” said Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania’s foreign minister.

Edgars Rinkēvičs, Latvia’s foreign minister, later attacked the “kangaroo court” decision to detain Mr Navalny for 30 days.

“Russia is again violating its international obligations,” he wrote in a tweet. “Latvia calls on Council of Europe and relevant international organisations to interfere, we also must discuss this in EU [foreign affairs council] and initiate new sanctions against Russia.”

The EU said it was following developments in the case. The European bloc may discuss its reaction to Mr Navalny’s arrest at a video summit of EU leaders on Thursday and a meeting of foreign ministers next week.

In the US, both Mike Pompeo, the outgoing US secretary of state, and Jake Sullivan, president-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for national security adviser, condemned the arrest and called for Mr Navalny’s release.

“Confident political leaders do not fear competing voices, nor see the need to commit violence against or wrongfully detain, political opponents,” Mr Pompeo wrote on Twitter.

Steffen Seibert, spokesman for German chancellor Angela Merkel, demanded Mr Navalny be released and said the accusation of breaching the terms of his suspended sentence “violates the principles of the rule of law”.

“The Russian authorities have arrested the victim of an assassination attempt using chemical weapons, not the perpetrators,” he told reporters in Berlin.

The EU has already imposed sanctions on six top Russian officials over their alleged involvement in Mr Navalny’s poisoning. It could add other targeted countermeasures against Russian individuals and institutions.

Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s prime minister, said “a quick and unequivocal response at EU level is essential”, while Tomas Petricek, foreign minister of the Czech Republic, said he would “propose a discussion on possible sanctions”.

But any proposal for wider-ranging sanctions imposed on Russia would be likely to be more contentious, given internal EU divisions over how to deal with the Kremlin. The bloc imposed economic countermeasures after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, although some member states are reluctant supporters of them.

Charles Michel, president of the European Council, described Mr Navalny’s detention as “unacceptable” and called for his immediate release.

Dominic Raab, the UK foreign secretary, echoed that view: “Rather than persecuting Mr Navalny, Russia should explain how a chemical weapon came to be used on Russian soil,” he added.

But Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said western criticism of Mr Navalny’s detention was to “divert attention” from a crisis in liberal democracy.

“We can see how they have jumped at yesterday’s news about Navalny’s return to Russia, and we can see how gladly the comments, which replicate one another, are being made,” he told reporters on Monday.

Additional reporting by Guy Chazan in Berlin and James Shotter in Warsaw

Donald Trump, Twitter and the messy fight over free speech


The decision to bar the US president from the most powerful communication platforms of the age has all the ingredients of a singularly American brawl.

There is Donald Trump’s exploitation of a powerful strand of nativist populism to try to stay in power and the highly partisan rightwing media that have helped fan the election-rigging conspiracy theory that led to last week’s insurrection in the Capitol.

In the background, a long-running aversion to internet regulation has left a regulatory vacuum. And, this being the US, everyone involved claims an undying dedication to free speech and the First Amendment.

But the other defining theme has been the technocratic self-confidence and thinly veiled self-interest of a powerful group of tech executives, who all run American companies but whose decisions have global implications.

As Mr Trump’s indefinite ban took effect on Facebook, Twitter and other sites this week, the decision to de-platform the democratically elected president has exposed as never before the contradictions at the heart of social media.

Much of the tech industry faced a moment of reckoning last week, when false claims about a stolen election, seeded and stoked by Donald Trump, led a mob to take over the US Capitol
Much of the tech industry faced a moment of reckoning last week, when false claims about a stolen election, seeded and stoked by Donald Trump, led a mob to take over the US Capitol © John Minchillo/AP

The platforms “are having a crisis of legitimacy”, says one tech industry insider of their attempts to justify their decisions. “As long as Mark [Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO], Jack [Dorsey, Twitter CEO], Sundar [Pichai, Google CEO] or Susan [Wojcicki, YouTube CEO] can arbitrarily decide who can appear on their company’s services and what they are permitted to say, people will not be satisfied that these decisions are in the public interest, rather than corporate commercial interests.”

The backlash from both Mr Trump’s supporters and opponents of the tech companies’ power has forced even some executives to sound regretful. Mr Dorsey opined on his own company’s site that blocking powerful politicians like this “sets a precedent I feel is dangerous: the power an individual or corporation has over a part of the global public conversation”.

Such public soul-searching, however, comes alongside signs that some executives still reject the role their companies’ services have played in the US political drama.

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, declared in an interview this week that the social network had been scarcely used to help organise the riot at the Capitol — a statement that flew in the face of many documented cases of co-ordination carried out on the service.

Twitter chief Jack Dorsey: 'Offline harm as a result of online speech is demonstrably real, and what drives our policy and enforcement above all'
Twitter chief Jack Dorsey: ‘Offline harm as a result of online speech is demonstrably real, and what drives our policy and enforcement above all’ © Cole Burston/Bloomberg
Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg said the social network had been scarcely used to help organise the riot at the Capitol
Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg said the social network had been scarcely used to help organise the riot at the Capitol © Mark Kauzlarich/Bloomberg

“The assault on the Capitol was a horrible week for Big Tech because it raised their prominence, it raised their visibility — not simply as commercial institutions, but as political institutions,” says William Kovacic, a former FTC chairman and a current law professor at George Washington University.

“It has put the spotlight on the sector in the most unwelcome way and demonstrated for both left and right reasons to be concerned . . . with over-reach and power.”

Scrutinising Big Tech

Just over two months ago, as American voters went to the polls, things seemed very different. Despite the continued spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories on their networks, the social media companies looked to have tiptoed successfully through the minefield of the presidential campaign, avoiding the charges of foreign interference that blighted the 2016 election.

But the post-election period — and Mr Trump’s full-on denial of the results — has been another matter. Speaking to the Financial Times last September, Nick Clegg, the former British politician and now head of global affairs at Facebook, said the company was prepared to take drastic action to defend the integrity of the election: “There are some break-glass options available to us if there really is an extremely chaotic and, worse still, violent set of circumstances.”

German chancellor Angela Merkel has said the US should take a lesson from her country and pass stricter laws against hate speech
German chancellor Angela Merkel has said the US should take a lesson from her country and pass stricter laws against hate speech © Michel Kappeler/Reuters

For much of the tech industry that moment of reckoning came last week, when false claims about a stolen election, seeded and stoked by Mr Trump, led a mob to take over the US Capitol. Facebook shut down the president’s accounts indefinitely to prevent what it claimed was further incitement to violence; Twitter did so permanently.

The actions spread much more widely through the tech world, as Google’s YouTube, Snap and payment company Stripe were among those to act against the Trump campaign. Amazon, Apple and Google also took steps to force rightwing network Parler off the internet over fears it was fomenting violence.

The impression this has left of co-ordinated action across the tech sector has added to the scrutiny. “The fact that they ‘broke the glass’ by blocking Trump’s ability to communicate on their services has, if anything, placed greater pressure on these companies to demonstrate the legitimacy of their decisions,” says the insider.

The showdown with the White House comes at a politically charged moment, given that lawmakers in Washington were already working on ways to challenge tech’s power. Inevitably, this has fed simmering debates on everything from tougher laws on speech to ending the tech platforms’ legal protections and whether they should be broken up.

To critics outside the US, the riot in Washington and curtailing of Mr Trump’s tweets have been taken as a sign that the country’s civic discourse has gone off the rails — as well as evidence that the tech companies have grown too powerful. German chancellor Angela Merkel said this week that the US should take a lesson from Germany and pass stricter laws against hate speech, pre-empting private companies from overreaching into the realm of censorship.

Such ideas are widely dismissed in the US, where First Amendment rights are jealously guarded. “I think the European approach is of only limited relevance to the US,” says Richard Hasen, a professor of law at the University of California, Irvine.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has called on Twitter to 'create some sort of a committee that can make such decisions' about what speech is acceptable on its platform
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has called on Twitter to ‘create some sort of a committee that can make such decisions’ about what speech is acceptable on its platform © Instagram account @navalny/AFP

Anupam Chander, a professor in global internet regulation at Georgetown University, adds: “It is problematic to have Jack Dorsey decide whether Donald Trump stays or goes, but it may be more problematic to have federal judges do so.”

Yet the Trump ban has still added to the urgency of calls in the US to limit the power of the tech companies to make what can often seem like arbitrary judgments about digital speech, with sweeping effects on millions of users.

One focus is on antitrust. Greater competition in social media would give people more choices over the kind of online conversation they want to join, while also reducing the impact of being “de-platformed” by them. The federal government has already taken the first steps to challenge Big Tech in courts in areas such as Facebook’s ownership of Instagram and WhatsApp.

Applying the blunt instrument of antitrust policy to the marketplace of ideas might not result in better civic discourse, however. Splitting the online discussion between partisan platforms might lead to a fracturing of public debate and reinforce the tribal nature of today’s partisan politics.

Fringe sites that hope to put fewer restrictions on the kind of speech they host may also find it hard to establish a place on the internet — as Parler discovered when Amazon Web Services refused to host its site. Apple and Google had already moved to eject it from their mobile app stores — a severe punishment in today’s duopolistic smartphone world.

Amazon, Apple and Google took steps to force rightwing network Parler off the internet over fears it was fomenting violence
Amazon, Apple and Google took steps to force rightwing network Parler off the internet over fears it was fomenting violence © Cristobal Herrera-Ulashkevich/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
A Trump supporter uses his phone during a 'Stop the Steal' protest in Milwaukee
A Trump supporter uses his phone during a ‘Stop the Steal’ protest in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, two days after the election © Bing Guan/Reuters

Policing better

In the absence of more competition, the debate has come to focus on what steps the tech companies could take to engender public confidence in their content policies — and what level of regulatory arm-twisting is required to make them live up their promises.

One improvement, according to many observers, would be a clearer delineation of the rules that the platforms apply to policing speech, along with more consistent enforcement.

“These platforms, if they’re going to retain the size and power, have to have a regular way in which they are accountable, and be open and public about the decisions they made,” says Emily Bell, a professor at Columbia University journalism school.

Consistency will never be easy. Regulation of language is inherently subjective. Having turned a blind eye to the repeated use of exactly the same language for weeks, it was only when election denial turned to violence at the heart of US government that the tech companies acted.

The idea that the authorities should respond to the storming of the Capitol by regulating hate speech has been widely dismissed in the US, where First Amendment rights are jealously guarded
The idea that the authorities should respond to the storming of the Capitol by regulating hate speech has been widely dismissed in the US, where First Amendment rights are jealously guarded © Jim Lo Scalozo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

“Offline harm as a result of online speech is demonstrably real, and what drives our policy and enforcement above all,” Mr Dorsey tweeted in explanation. But the timing of this change of heart — which came at the dawn of a Democrat-controlled Washington — fed suspicions that the companies had been motivated at least as much by political expediency.

A second, related step would be to bring more transparency to the effects of the tech companies’ content decisions. After the 2016 election, Facebook promised to release more data to academic researchers to allow a wider understanding of the effects of its actions. But the programme has been slow to take hold, with the company claiming to be held back by concerns about protecting user privacy.

Europe’s proposed digital services act, meanwhile, attempts to impose similar checks on internet companies judged to have the power of gatekeepers. They would have to audit their algorithms and content moderation decisions to show whether they risked bias or other harms.

Another idea that has gained wider support would involve external oversight of the companies’ most controversial decisions. Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny took up the idea this week, calling on Twitter to “create some sort of a committee that can make such decisions”. He added: “We need to . . . understand how it works, how its members vote and how we can appeal against their decisions.”

Facebook has already moved in this direction, setting up an independent Oversight Board last year to review a limited number of appeals against the company’s decisions to censor content. However, it would not disclose whether the board would consider an appeal on Mr Trump’s ban, saying “we are not commenting further to avoid prejudicing the review process”.

Anupam Chander of Georgetown University: 'It is problematic to have Jack Dorsey decide whether Donald Trump stays or goes, but it may be more problematic to have federal judges do so'
Anupam Chander of Georgetown University: ‘It is problematic to have Jack Dorsey decide whether Donald Trump stays or goes, but it may be more problematic to have federal judges do so’ © Lou Rocco

Meanwhile, sceptics point to its very limited powers. The board “arguably is a start”, says Ms Bell. “[But] it’s so painfully slow and incredibly limited in scope that it is very hard to interpret it as anything other than a public relations exercise.”

Amid the furore caused by the Trump ban, it is unclear whether the tech companies will move any faster on issues such as policy inconsistency and enforcement.

Government action to force the companies to act may already be on the cards. The EU’s digital services act would require big tech companies to do more to combat hate speech. But Brussels also wants them to reinforce free speech, setting up a tension between the two objectives that may be hard to resolve. Two years of negotiations lie ahead before the proposals make it into law.

In the US, meanwhile, politicians from both parties have argued for limiting the legal protections that online companies enjoy under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The debate has divided politicians on the left, who want tech companies to do more to remove harmful content, and right, who want to limit their room for action.

There is no guarantee that more regulation will stem the tide of online hate speech and conspiracy-mongering. It may also entrench big platforms with the resources to operate in a more regulated world. But after last week’s stark demonstration of tech company power over political speech, it just got one step closer.

“Twitter’s in a no-win situation,” says Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University law school. “They’ll never be able to earn the trust of the entire world, because the world is going to want different things.”

Coronavirus latest: Arizona reports worst daily death toll as Covid hospitalisations hit record high


Peter Wells in New York

Arizona on Tuesday reported its deadliest day of the pandemic, underscoring the state’s status as one of the hottest coronavirus hotspot in the US.

Authorities attributed a further 335 deaths to coronavirus, the health department revealed this morning, up from six on Monday. That surpassed the previous single-day record of 297 fatalities reported on January 7.

That took the total number of deaths in Arizona since the start of the pandemic to 10,482, just days after the state became the 11th to reach the grim milestone of 10,000 coronavirus fatalities.

Arizona’s health department also revealed this morning that a further 8,559 people had tested positive over the past 24 hours. That compared to an average over the past week of a record 9,803 a day. Only California, Texas, Florida and New York – the most populous states in the US – have averaged more cases over the past week.

The latest figures come less than a day after Governor Doug Ducey warned that the risk of coronavirus was “still serious, and so is the pressure on our hospitals and medical personnel” but gave few hints that he would reintroduce restrictions on the economy.

In his state of the state address on Monday, Mr Ducey said he had been “entrusted by the people of Arizona with this responsibility” to deal with the public health emergency, but that he was “not going to hand over the keys to a small group of mayors who have expressed every intention of locking down their cities.”

The governor claimed other states and cities that had reintroduced restrictions on social gatherings and business had little to show for their efforts. “They’re still dealing with the worst of it, just as we are,” he said.

Adjusted for population, Arizona’s coronavirus metrics are as bad as they have ever been and are among some of the worst levels experienced by any state during the pandemic. For every 100,000 people, Arizona has averaged 135 new cases and 2.29 deaths a day over the past week.

That death rate is the highest rate in the US at present — well ahead of second-ranked Kansas at about 1.8 deaths per 100,000 a day over the past week, according to a Financial Times analysis of Covid Tracking Project and US Census Bureau data. Only New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, South Dakota, North Dakota and Iowa have experienced a higher rate at any point during the pandemic.

Arizona’s per capita infection rate over the past week is the highest rate in the US, ahead of second-ranked Rhode Island at about 107 and third-ranked California at about 105. Only North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Tennessee have ever notched up higher population-adjusted seven-day averages of cases, according to FT analysis of Covid Tracking Project and Census Bureau data.

There were a record 4,997 people in Arizona hospitals with coronavirus, according to the latest Covid Tracking Project data on Monday. Adjusted for population, that is nearly 69 patients per 100,000 people, a level that has only been exceeded by New York and New Jersey — each above 90 patients — during the worst of their crisis in April of last year.

Johnson’s fawning to Trump will have done the UK no favours with Biden


Kim Darroch is former British ambassador to the US and author of ‘Collateral Damage: Britain, America And Europe In The Age Of Trump’

It was only 24 hours after the storming of the Capitol that Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, finally broke with Donald Trump. I witnessed first hand Mr Johnson’s fascination with the US president when he was foreign secretary — and how this continued when he became UK prime minister. As well as a reminder of the importance of principles in foreign policy, I fear it will cost Britain in terms of our relations with the Biden administration.

I realised the haphazard nature of Mr Trump’s administration four years ago. It was an evening in January 2017. I was at Dulles Airport, and the plane of then prime minister Theresa May had just taken off. She was the first foreign leader to see the new US president, only a week after his inauguration. It had been a strange meeting, but a genuine coup. As her plane’s taillights disappeared, I judged the UK to be as well placed as we could hope at the launch of this Administration of Unknowns. 

A few hours later, we rethought this comforting assessment. Mr Trump signed an executive order barring passport holders from several majority Muslim countries from entering the US. Dubbed “the Muslim ban,” it caused chaos at airports around the world, with thousands of passengers caught mid-journey. Heathrow, as a major hub, was particularly disrupted. London pressed us to get the order rescinded but also wondered if we hadn’t been warned about this while Mrs May had been at the White House. We had learnt something fundamental about Mr Trump’s wilful and go-it-alone nature. 

We re-learnt that lesson regularly. In November 2017, for example, I woke to news that the US president had retweeted some Islamophobic video clips from Britain First, a far-right extremist group. Mrs May responded, in the mildest rebuke, that he had been wrong to do this. Mr Trump replied angrily she should spend her time focusing on “the destructive Radical Islamist terrorism taking place within the United Kingdom”. Then, the following year, we put huge effort into arranging a “special” UK visit, including a gala dinner at Churchill’s birthplace, Blenheim Palace. Mr Trump rewarded us by giving an interview to the Sun newspaper in which he said Mrs May had ignored his advice, wrecked Brexit and destroyed the prospects of a UK-US trade deal.

Urged on by London, I would remonstrate with my White House contacts about these gratuitous attacks; about their failure to warn us; and, more generally, about the absence of advance consultation on their big policy decisions. I always got the same response: “You think any of us knew this was coming?” It painted a picture of a man so self-obsessed as to be incapable of processing the impact of his decisions on others, and so undisciplined that he would broadcast them to the first person who listened. Sometimes it was a call to Fox News, sometimes just putting his head around the door of the White House media room.

Through much of this time, Mr Johnson was foreign secretary and a frequent Washington visitor. On policy, he was poles apart from Mr Trump: an advocate of action on climate change, a liberal on immigration, a supporter of the Iran nuclear deal. Yet he was also intrigued, I believe, by Mr Trump’s rise to power, by the devotion he inspired among supporters, and by his never-give-an-inch approach to the media. Mr Johnson also thought he could manage Mr Trump, build a much stronger relationship than Mrs May, and make domestic capital out of his support for Brexit and a UK-US trade deal. 

These were reasonable objectives. It’s important that the British prime minister be close to the US president. But Mr Johnson never knowingly understates, and this led him to statements he didn’t need to make: asserting that Mr Trump had “many, many, good qualities”, was “making America great again”, and even suggesting he was as good a candidate as Barack Obama for a Nobel Peace Prize.

None of this looks great now, in the wake of the Capitol’s sacking. Unlike Mrs May, the Johnson government also studiously avoided direct criticism of Mr Trump. It remained silent when he told Democrat congresswomen of colour to “go back” to where they came from, and declined to comment on Mr Trump’s handling of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

Did this sidelining of our principles deliver for the UK? My guess is it wouldn’t have ended well even if Mr Trump had won the election. We might have got a UK-US trade deal, but at the cost of a massive increase in low-cost US agricultural exports into the UK.

With Joe Biden, it has started better than some anticipated, with Mr Johnson getting an early slot for his congratulatory call to the president-elect. But judging by what I’m hearing from Democrat friends, there will be a price to pay, somewhere down the track, for our obsequiousness to Mr Biden’s predecessor. They see German chancellor Angela Merkel’s handling of Mr Trump as the gold standard, and reckon we fell way short. “What were you thinking?”, they say.

The lesson here? It is right and sensible to be judicious, to measure carefully the words that you use, and to consider the consequences. But ultimately, when basic values are challenged, you have to call it as you see it.

Democrats within touching distance of winning US Senate


Democrats moved to within touching distance of control of the US Congress after Raphael Warnock became the first African-American in Georgia to win a Senate seat and fellow Democrat Jon Ossoff led his Republican opponent in a second contest in the state.

The rising prospect of a Democratic sweep in the two pivotal races would hand the party unified control in Congress for the first time in a decade, boosting Joe Biden’s chances of implementing his agenda as president when he takes office later this month.

It is also likely to trigger a bitter round of recriminations among Republicans, after they failed to secure Donald Trump’s re-election as president or preserve control of the Senate as a last-ditch opportunity to thwart Mr Biden.

Mr Warnock was declared the victor by the Associated Press in the early hours of Wednesday morning. With 98 per cent of votes counted, he had 50.6 per cent of the vote with a lead of about 53,000 over Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler.

In the other Georgia Senate race, Mr Ossoff led Republican incumbent David Perdue by slightly more than 17,000 votes. Many of the remaining ballots are expected to come from areas that favour Democrats.

US stocks and Treasury yields rose on the prospect of a bigger fiscal stimulus that could feed through to inflation.

US 10-year Treasury yields hit 1 per cent for the first time in more than nine months, rising 0.06 percentage points to 1.02 per cent in Asia trading, reflecting market expectations of higher government spending. Yields rise when bond prices fall.

The two run-off elections were triggered after no candidate earned more than 50 per cent of the vote in the November 3 general election, and took place in the shadow of Mr Trump’s repeated refusal to accept his loss to Mr Biden.

The Associated Press, which the Financial Times relies upon to call elections, has yet to declare Mr Ossoff, a 33-year-old documentary film producer, the victor against Mr Perdue, 71, the former chief executive of Dollar General.

But Mr Ossoff, who would be the youngest senator since Mr Biden was sworn in at the age of 30 in 1973, claimed a win on Wednesday in a video posted to social media.

“It is with humility that I thank the people of Georgia for electing me to serve you in the United States Senate. Thank you for the confidence and trust that you have placed in me.”

Mr Perdue’s campaign said in a statement that the “exceptionally close election . . . will require time and transparency to be certain the results are fair and accurate”.

“We will mobilise every available resource and exhaust every legal recourse to ensure all legally cast ballots are properly counted,” the statement said. “We believe in the end, Senator Perdue will be victorious.”

Mr Warnock thanked his supporters in a speech delivered over video-link early on Wednesday. “We were told that we couldn’t win this election. But tonight we proved that with hope, hard work and the people by our side, anything is possible,” he said.

“I am going to the Senate to work for all of Georgia,” he added.

Mr Warnock, the senior pastor of Martin Luther King Jr’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, will become only the 11th black senator in US history. In his video speech, he thanked his 82-year-old mother, who grew up picking cotton in the southern US state.

Ms Loeffler refused to concede and said she still had a “path to victory”.

“This is a game of inches,” Ms Loeffler told supporters at an event in Atlanta before the race was called. “We are going to win this election.”

On Wednesday morning, Mr Biden congratulated Mr Warnock and Mr Ossoff and vowed to press ahead with his platform.

“The American people demand action and they want unity. I am more optimistic than I ever have been that we can deliver both,” he said in a statement.

On Capitol Hill, Democratic leaders were celebrating their wins and ramped up planning for legislative action in co-ordination with Mr Biden.

“Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff ran and won on the values of advancing equality and opportunity for working people across the state and the nation,” Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, said in a statement. “In sending these two outstanding Democratic senators to Washington, Georgians cast their ballots for a fairer, accountable and more compassionate America.”

Economists were already factoring in a higher likelihood of additional fiscal expansion with Democrats in control of the Senate.

Video: Joe Biden faces multiple domestic crises

Aneta Markowska of Jefferies wrote in a note that she assumed $1tn in new stimulus over the next few months, adding “roughly two percentage points to growth over the next two years”. This meant that the economy would reach full employment earlier than expected, prompting the Federal Reserve to tighten monetary policy in early 2023 rather than 2024.

Republicans were considered the favourites heading into Tuesday’s run-offs, given that the party had dominated the political landscape in Georgia for decades. But Democrats were optimistic after Mr Biden’s narrow victory in the state’s presidential contest in November.

Returns on Tuesday indicated Mr Warnock and Mr Ossoff had reassembled the coalition that helped catapult Mr Biden to the White House, enjoying particularly strong support from black voters while also winning over some white suburbanites. In many Georgia counties, the Democratic Senate candidates outperformed Mr Biden’s November numbers.

It remained unclear how the Senate run-offs were affected by Mr Trump’s repeated attempts to undermine the result of the state’s presidential election, although data suggested turnout had fallen short of Republicans’ expectations in rural party strongholds.

“In a normal election cycle, without a president going psycho . . . I think the GOP would have significant advantages here. But that’s not the election we’re in,” Bill Crane, a political analyst in Atlanta, said ahead of Tuesday’s vote.

Swamp Notes

After a historic 2020 election, stay on top of the biggest themes driving US politics, business and markets from Washington, New York and beyond with Rana Foroohar and Edward Luce. Sign up here

Republican bid to overturn US election faces fierce backlash


A group of Republican lawmakers pressed ahead with plans to resist the certification by Congress of Joe Biden’s election victory, despite fierce criticism from both sides of politics that they were undermining democracy.

The rebellion, which is being cheered on by US president Donald Trump, includes at least 12 senators and as many as 140 members of the House, who are expected to vote against approving Mr Biden’s electoral college win on Wednesday during a normally routine joint session of Congress.

The effort, which is being led by Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican senator, is unlikely to overturn the US presidential result, given it is based on allegations of widespread voter fraud that have been roundly dismissed by state officials and a myriad of state and federal courts.

However, it could delay the congressional recognition of Mr Biden’s victory ahead of the January 20 inauguration. It could also further erode the incoming president’s legitimacy among conservative voters, given Mr Trump’s failure to concede defeat.

The opposition of a substantial number of Republican lawmakers to accepting Mr Biden’s move to the White House came at the start of a pivotal week in US politics.

Members of the House of Representatives, which is controlled by Democrats, were on Sunday preparing to re-elect Nancy Pelosi as speaker for a new two-year term. Meanwhile, voters in Georgia prepared to cast their final ballots on Tuesday in two run-off Senate races that will determine control of the upper chamber of Congress and Mr Biden’s ability to enact his agenda.

Speaking on Sunday morning, the Republican objectors to Mr Biden’s victory insisted on the establishment of an independent commission that could report back on voter fraud allegations within 10 days. Speaking on Fox News, Mr Cruz said the US went into the election “deeply divided [and] deeply polarised” and “unprecedented” voter fraud allegations had produced a “distrust” in the result.

“I think we in Congress have an obligation to do something about that,” he said.

Ron Johnson, the Republican senator from Wisconsin, added on NBC: “We are not acting to thwart the democratic process. We’re acting to protect it. The fact of the matter is that we have an unsustainable state of affairs in this country where we have tens of millions of people that do not view this election result as legitimate.”

Their revolt was roundly attacked by Democrats, with Amy Klobuchar, the senator from Minnesota, calling it “nothing more than an attempt to subvert the will of the voters” in a tweet on Sunday. But it is not backed by Republican leaders in the Senate either, and some party members have criticised it in scathing terms.

“The egregious ploy to reject electors may enhance the political ambition of some, but dangerously threatens our Democratic Republic,” warned Mitt Romney, the Republican senator from Utah, in a tweet on Saturday.

Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, added on Sunday that his colleagues had a “high bar to clear” in opposing Mr Biden’s certification.

“Proposing a commission at this late date — which has zero chance of becoming reality — is not effectively fighting for President Trump. It appears to be more of a political dodge than an effective remedy,” said Mr Graham in a tweet.

But Mr Trump on Sunday retweeted a call for Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, the two Republican senators from Georgia facing a tricky run-off election on Tuesday, to join Mr Cruz’s effort, signalling that the president was still highly supportive of the effort.

Ms Loeffler told Fox News on Sunday she was “seriously looking” at joining the group. “We have to make sure that Georgia and all of Americans trust our voting process,” she said.