While US President Donald J. Trump’s actions on infrastructure permitting, including executive orders to expedite approvals of controversial projects like the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, grabbed headlines, they are potentially counterproductive. Rushing environmental review and infrastructure approval processes could ultimately undermine Trump’s efforts by leaving those projects vulnerable to court challenges as a result of cutting corners, particularly on environmental impact reviews.

One of the Trump administration’s priorities, welcomed in some quarters as a potential area of bipartisan cooperation, is infrastructure, including improving the efficiency of infrastructure approval and permitting. Meanwhile, efforts to reform the process of preparing environmental reviews for infrastructure permitting under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) are nearly as old as the Act itself.

The Trump administration’s efforts to streamline NEPA reviews, and by extension the process of infrastructure project proposals, thus far follow in the footsteps of efforts by previous administrations, both republican and democratic, which culminated in the 2015 passage of the bi-partisan Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act. The Act created new, cross-agency mechanisms to expedite environmental reviews of important infrastructure projects by facilitating coordination and cooperation.

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The United States’ decision to lift the sanctions on Sudan, citing progress made on counterterrorism and humanitarian efforts, indicates Washington’s understanding that cooperation with Khartoum will best serve the interests of both countries, according to an Atlantic Council analyst.

“This decision reflects the conviction that engagement, rather than isolation, is more likely to advance US interests—and the welfare of the Sudanese people—on a range of governance, humanitarian, economic, and security issues,” said Mary Carlin Yates, an Atlantic Council board director, former senior director for African affairs at the US National Security Council, and US chargé d’affaires to Sudan from 2011-2012. However, Yates added, “there is still much work to do.”

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A law drafted by Russia’s ministry of defense, which would ban its soldiers’ use of social media, serves to confirm the work of open-source researchers reporting on the illicit presence of Russian troops in Ukraine and Syria, according to Atlantic Council analysts.

“The Russian authorities and media have repeatedly tried to undermine open source researchers by arguing that they ‘only’ used social media,” said Ben Nimmo, an information defense fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab). “This shows Russia knows the researchers were right.”

The ban, which serves to corroborate reports of Russian troops’ activity denied by the Kremlin, “confirms the value, and the power, of open-source research,” according to Nimmo. “It’s a validation of the work that they’re particularly nervous about it,” said Graham Brookie, deputy director of the DFRLab, adding: “As this work gains notoriety, [the Kremlin’s] public posture against it increases.”

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There is a strong likelihood that US President Donald J. Trump will withdraw the United States from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Robert Zoellick, a former US trade representative, said at the Atlantic Council on October 5, while advising US lawmakers to be prepared to push back.

“There is a very serious risk [of Trump withdrawing from NAFTA] depending on what happens with Trump’s popularity and the investigations [into collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia] that at some point he will withdraw from the agreement,” said Zoellick, who has also served as a US deputy secretary of state and president of the World Bank.

“I think we are headed to a fundamental crackup here… It partly depends on whether the Congress makes it painful for the administration to go in this direction,” he added.

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The United States must seize the opportunity presented by a Chinese initiative that envisions the creation of land and sea routes that will span three continents and link more than sixty countries, according to experts who participated in a panel discussion at the Atlantic Council on October 4.

Making the case for engagement with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Gal Luft, co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, said: “[The BRI] is a generational project and it will take a long time,” but, “the US needs to engage now.”

“We don’t have to agree to every component of the Belt and Road… we don’t have to buy into the whole package,” he added.

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The controversial conditions surrounding Catalonia’s recent independence referendum show that a unilateral declaration of independence does not embody the will of the people, no matter how much Catalan nationalists claim otherwise. 

Long-standing tensions between the Spanish government and the Spanish region of Catalonia rose to a climax on October 1 as Catalans went to the polls in an independence referendum deemed illegal by Spain’s constitutional court and the European Union. Rather than a clear mandate for Catalan independence, the referendum revealed a deeply divided society, and the lack of a clear and legal path to secession from Spain. 

Voting statistics from the referendum indicate a lack of sweeping support for an independent Catalonia. Although two million Catalans backed independence, a larger majority (58 percent of those eligible to vote) did not participate in the referendum. The vote was also plagued by irregularities and lacked essential guarantees, such as a neutral administration, equal opportunity process, or statutory legislation, in a clear violation of the rules for such plebiscitary votes set forth by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission.

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The rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is unwelcome news for Germany’s minorities, particularly its four-million-plus Muslim community.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s re-election to a fourth term in office on September 24 was marred by the fact that the AfD made history by becoming the first nationalist political party to win seats in Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, since World War II. 

Germany, along with France, is home to the largest number of Muslims in Europe. This community is relatively well integrated in society, despite claims from the far-right that Islam is an obstacle to integration.

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French President Emmanuel Macron’s audacious plan for “profound” changes to the European Union’s (EU) structure will leave Malta uneasy over the prospect of Europe meddling in its policies on taxation and defense.

An ardent supporter of the EU, Malta has a tax regime that has always made the country leery of the EU’s desire to encroach on its taxation policy.

Macron, in his address at the Sorbonne University in Paris on September 26, suggested greater harmonization of Europe’s tax policies. This, he said, could be achieved through the introduction of a Common Corporate Tax Base (CCTB) and a Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base (CCCTB).

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Catalonia’s controversial independence referendum has left Spain with many unanswered questions and an unclear path forward, according to Carles Castello-Catchot, chief of staff in the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

On October 1, the regional government of Catalonia in northern Spain went ahead with a referendum that Spain’s constitutional court had deemed illegal. A majority of the 2.3 million people who voted in the referendum favored independence for Catalonia. The Catalan government has announced it will move forward with a declaration of independence forty-eight hours after the election.

The competing narratives have left the country “in a legal black hole where everything is up for discussion,” Castello-Catchot said in a Facebook Live interview on October 2. 

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Catalonia would lose membership of the European Union (EU) if it were to declare independence from Spain—a development that would have serious economic consequences for this affluent region, according to the Atlantic Council’s Fran Burwell.

“That means barriers will go up immediately; no free movement for people who have Catalan passports; no free movement of goods of services to and from Catalonia; their relationship with the euro will be suspect, like Kosovo which uses the euro with no legal power to do so; there would be no common agricultural policy money for Catalonia,” said Burwell, painting a dire scenario that, she believes, has not been given adequate consideration in the Catalan people’s headlong rush toward independence.

Noting that she has never seen a poll that shows Catalans want to leave the EU, Burwell, a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council, added: “The fact that we did not have a debate about what this actually means is, I think, a bad thing. It’s just this dream of independence that’s out there without actually thinking what it would entail.”

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