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Hello and welcome to the intelligence on Economist Radio. I'm your host, Jason Palmer. Every weekday, we provide a fresh perspective on the events shaping your world. Each year, there's a fierce debate among the economists staff as our editors and correspondents nominate a country of the year. We take a look at a few contenders from the short list and unveil the winner for 2020. First up, though. Today, Britain's parliament will vote on a post Brexit trade deal, one announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week.

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Tonight on Christmas Eve. I have a small present for anyone who may be looking for something to read in that sleepy post Christmas lunch moment. That small present was the 1255 page agreement that represents the end of a long and tortuous negotiations. This is a deal, a deal to give certainty to business travellers and all investors in our country from the 1st of January, a deal with our friends and partners in the EU at several points as the clock ticks down to that New Year deadline and agreement had appeared unlikely.

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So it was a relief to both sides. The European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen struck a slightly less joyful note. I know this is a difficult day for some. And to our friends in the United Kingdom, I want to say parting is such sweet sorrow. But the parting is only partly done nearly five years since the referendum. This framework deal leaves lots of issues unresolved, even if the long threatened no deal scenario seems to have been averted. I think it would have been much more disruptive had we got to the 31st of December with no deal.

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John Peet is our Brexit editor, which would have meant not just checks at the borders, but also tariffs and a lot of confusion. So I think getting a deal was good for both the EU and the UK.

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But this comes after months and months of stand off. What were the compromises in the end? In the end, both sides had to make concessions. Boris Johnson conceded much more than people had expected on access to British fisheries. The EU made concessions on the mechanism for enforcing anti competition rules against the UK. And I think what happened in the week before the deal was done was a recognition that if they didn't compromise, they might really have no deal. So both sides moved quite significantly to to meet in the middle.

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But that's not to say that they're happy compromises that every T has been crossed and I dotted here.

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Know, this deal is very detailed. It's very long, but even then, it leaves quite a lot of unfinished business relating to the future relationship and financial services, to data transfers and other other things. So despite having this deal in place, next year's still going to be debated quite a lot to further negotiations between the UK and the EU. And how far will this deal go in in stopping what has been threatened for so long, the long queues at the border and inhibited travel, though the whole business?

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I think whatever deal was struck is going to be a certain amount of disruption at the border. If you leave the European Union Single Market and Customs Union, you have to have more paperwork, more checks of the border. We're likely to see quite a lot of confusion around the borders. But in a way, fortunately, doing it right now at a time when covid-19 is causing quite a lot of chaos means that it may not make life immediately so much worse a day.

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But I think we will over the next few weeks see some confusion. Truck drivers not quite knowing what paperwork they need as a system based on is there any danger it'll be rejected in the way that past deals have been?

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Because Boris Johnson has a large majority in Parliament, there was never much chance that a deal he struck would be rejected in a way that deals arranged by his predecessor, Theresa May, were. In addition, it seems that the Labour Party has decided it ought to support this deal because it's much better than no deal. So it will pass parliament with a large majority. What I think is perhaps more legitimately are complaining about is having to do everything in one day, but that's just because we're right up against the deadline.

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So the opposition Labour Party's backing this isn't support in the purest sense.

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Labour obviously oppose the idea of Brexit. And when Jeremy Corbyn was leader and dealing with Theresa May, they voted consistently against all her proposed deals. I think then the argument Labour had was that if they stopped it happening, we might reconsider whether we're leaving at all under care. Starmer, of course, now facing Boris Johnson. Britain has already left the European Union. The question facing him is if they were able to block this deal, what would be the alternative?

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And the alternative would would be no deal. So he has decided he wants to support the deal as better than no deal.

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Labour is against no deal firmly and absolutely. And the British people would never forgive us if we enabled a no deal outcome. There are some that argue that labor should be neutral on this issue. To abstain. I do not agree, but quite a lot of his MPs still think they really ought to be opposing the government. They don't like the deal at all and they really don't like Brexit at all. So there is an argument that will continue within the Labor Party about their attitude to Brexit and what they should do after this deal goes through.

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Should they be campaigning to rejoin or to soften the deal in some way? AMA, as leader clearly wants to move on and just say Brexit is done. We need to talk about something else.

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And what about that notion? Is Brexit done here? Is this something that we can at least put behind us?

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I think the argument about whether Britain should be in the European Union is probably over for quite a long time to come. Britain formally left in January. Now it is leaving the single market in the customs union with all that that entails. What that doesn't mean is that we can forget about discussions with the European Union. The European Union is by far Britain's biggest trading partner. It's a regulator for a lot of world activities. And Britain is likely to continue to have to negotiate with the EU on a lot of issues for many years to come.

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Even if the question of whether Britain should rejoin or should be a member may not be on the table. But like countries such as Norway or Switzerland that are in Europe but not in the European Union, they have to live with the EU and they will have to continue to negotiate with the EU for years to come.

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So aside from a great many meetings and a great deal of diplomacy, I mean, what are Britain's prospects now? Is it in a better position now that something of a deal has been done?

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I think the deal will certainly cause some damage, because if you're erecting new barriers, nontariff barriers, other barriers with your biggest trading partner, that will have an effect on your GDP and its most economists agree that it'll reduce GDP by something like four percent compared with what it would otherwise have been. But that said, the real question for Britain's economic future is what kind of domestic policies does Boris Johnson's government bring in? What kind of regulatory framework does it go for?

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What does it do about housing, planning, all sorts of other issues which really have nothing to do with the question of whether you're in or out of the EU? And I think that that's the real crunch for this government isn't having now delivered Brexit. They need to set up an agenda for improving the British economy, which, let's face it, has performed quite badly in the last few years.

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So as likely as it is to go through today and the finality that that should bring, I feel will be talking about this still for some time to come.

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I think in many ways you could argue that Brexit will never be completed because the relationship with the European Union is too important. So in that sense, Brexit will never be over. Thank you very much for joining us, John. Thank you. 20/20 has had no shortage of bad news, but at the end of every year, The Economist takes a moment to acknowledge where things have gone well. Places that around the world have bucked trends and given cause for hope through our competition for Country of the Year.

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The Economist Country of the Year award is for the country that, in our judgment, has improved the most in the previous calendar year. Robert Guest is The Economist's Foreign Editor. The award, we hasten to add, is not for achieving a degree of excellence comparable to Switzerland or Sweden is for improving. And generally it's harder to do that if you're starting very high off and it's easier to do that if you're starting low down. But we like to recognize progress.

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And in considering the nominations, what are you on the lookout in particular for or wary of?

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Even though there's always a danger, we have to watch out for that. Events can make the choice look headed fairly swiftly. If we're looking at countries where there's been a very big improvement, it's quite often because things were really terrible beforehand. So, for example, if we give the prize to a country for making peace, the kinds of countries that make peace are usually the ones that are in the middle of a war. And countries that are in the middle of a civil war are quite likely to revert to them in the future.

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So we have to watch out for that. We've been caught short in the past when, for example, we nominated Myanmar in 2015 for making a transition to to some form of democracy from military dictatorship. And since then, it's really not lived up to the promise that we saw there. And you've seen what looks a lot like genocide against the Rohingya and increasingly repressive rule from Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner. So that judgment doesn't hold up terribly well.

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But, you know, many of them do Colombia, who we did the next year for making peace in their civil war. That's held together pretty well. And that judgment's looking good. The winner of this fiercely fought battle is chosen from nominees recommended by our global team of correspondents.

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This year, there was a handful of top contenders. New Zealand's done a better job of containing covid-19 than almost any other country and certainly other countries in the West.

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Eleanor Whitehead is The Economist's Australia and New Zealand correspondent.

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Its strategies always been to eliminate and not to suppress the virus. There've been only just over 2000 cases and only 25 deaths in New Zealand. So that's allowed life to return pretty much to normal. They've crammed into restaurants at the end of the rugby season that were all black matches that were attracting crowds of 46000 or more. And even though there are no tourists coming in from other parts of the world and New Zealand is very dependent on tourists, that's helping the economy bounce back from what was a very bad here earlier in the year, much faster than expected.

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But hang on, isn't avoiding a high covid toll just the benefit of being a small, isolated island?

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Well, of course it helps, but the government has used that geography to its advantage very effectively. So back in March, before there were any local transmission of the virus in New Zealand at all, its prime minister, Jacinda Redan, closed its borders to the rest of the world and it put the country into what was back then, one of the world's toughest lockdown's. So she's been idolized by lots of people for, as they say, keeping them safe from the virus.

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So when it came to a general election in October, her Labour Party was returned for a second term in office with an absolute landslide. It won a majority in New Zealand single House parliament. So that means that unlike in its first term, Labor is governing on its own and without a coalition partner. So it's been able to usher in the most diverse cabinets that New Zealand's ever had and the election board and other progressive changes as well. Notably, I think, the legalization of assisted dying for people who have a terminal illness that makes them only the seventh country in the world to legalise voluntary euthanasia and the first country in Asia to do so.

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Also fighting its way through to the final round with Taiwan championed by our Asia editor, Edward McBride.

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Well, the most obvious way Taiwan has distinguished itself this year is in its handling of the covid epidemic. It has kept the case numbers and happily, the number of deaths extremely low. Just seven deaths from covid-19 in Taiwan, which is remarkable considering how close Taiwan is to China. Taiwan really jumped on the epidemic long before most other countries were even aware it was happening and they managed to keep the disease under control without the sort of blanket lockdown's. They have just had incredibly efficient border controls, very efficient track and trace.

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And as a result, they've managed to keep the economy going even while keeping the disease completely in check. And that's a feat that I think no other country has really matched.

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And so your vote in favor of Taiwan for a country of the year is just based on that pandemic response to that.

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Ah, well, you just mentioned the phrase country of the year. Of course, even referring to Taiwan as a country is controversial because China sees Taiwan as part of its territory and not as an independent country. That's another way, in fact, in which Taiwan has distinguished itself. This year, right at the beginning of the year, Taiwan had a presidential election defined by the question of relations with China. China was trying to bully Taiwan, in effect, into picking a president who would try and pursue warmer ties with China, presumably ending in Taiwan's absorption by China.

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Taiwanese voters rejected that vision out of hand. They voted resoundingly for the incumbent president, saying when she has stood up for Taiwan's democracy, Taiwan's independence, she has actually welcomed democracy refugees, as it were, from Hong Kong every day this year, even as China was busy suppressing democracy and personal freedoms in Hong Kong, Taiwan was an advertisement for the idea that there is no problem having a Chinese society that is fully democratic, that respects individual freedoms, that remains prosperous in spite of its resistance to China's ever more aggressive talk of invading or annexing Taiwan away from the pandemic and away from the Asia Pacific region.

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Our Africa editor Jonathan Rosenthal backed Malawi for the prize.

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Malawi is not exactly the first choice that people automatically think of. It is small. It is poor, it is landlocked. In fact, if you made a list of countries that are sort of least likely to succeed, you'd put Malawi pretty high up at the top of that list. And yet Malawi has proved to be a shining exception to the sort of general slide away from democracy that we've seen in recent years in East Africa. Malawi had a rigged election in 2009.

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The election was so badly rigged that the vote tallies were corrected using correction fluid that people called that the next election election monitors watched this and they all came back and they said the election was good enough, kind of in brackets for Malawi or for Africa. And Malawians themselves stood up and said, this is not good enough. They came out onto the streets, they protested. The opposition parties took it to court, and the real winner was for justice and the judiciary, which stood up against immense pressure from the government and said this election was not good enough, it was not free and fair, and it wasn't an accurate reflection of the will of the people.

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And it ordered the government to rerun the election, which it did. The incumbent president who'd been accused of rigging the previous election was kicked out. And Malawi now has a new president who is promising reforms.

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And do you think that Malawi is going to to continue to be a good example in that way?

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All of the disadvantages the country faced, all of those outside pressures that mitigate against progress, development and democracy are still there. But Malawians have at least stood up and said that they will not be held by a lower standard and they themselves broke with the tyranny of world expectation. That said, a flawed election is OK for Africa, OK for Malawi. And they've said no. And that is also a very powerful inspiration. So, Robert, don't leave me in suspense, who's got it as a country of the year, the winner this year is mulloway.

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It's been such a bad year for democracy around the world, partly because of the pandemic. Lots of authoritarian leaders have used that as an excuse to cancel opposition rallies, stop the elections, shut down the media. There was regression in so many countries. Malawi was the only country that Freedom House judged to have improved on democracy and human rights since the beginning of the pandemic to the end of September. And there were 80 countries that regressed. So it really did back a very powerful global tide towards deterioration of democracy and human rights.

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And that was something we thought was worth recognizing.

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And why did New Zealand and Taiwan not make the cut? Then New Zealand and Taiwan both really creditable stories. We were reluctant to make a definitive judgment on the basis of covid-19 statistics, partly because it seems very likely that there's a lot more to those things than simply government action. The accident of geography, such as being an island, clearly makes a difference, and it's quite possible that we'll discover in the coming years that different populations are more or less susceptible to the disease, that some will have built up immunity over the years or a degree of immunity to coronaviruses.

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And so it could be that the widespread success, for example, in parts of East Asia isn't entirely down to government action. We don't really know. So we thought that was a bit of a hostage to fortune.

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And I know that all three of these countries are fairly small ones. Were there any larger countries that were out of the running?

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Well, certainly we gave consideration to the United States, which although it did pretty badly in terms of the spread of covid-19 and the number of deaths there. On the other hand, it did extremely well in terms of contributions to research into vaccines. That was very impressive. And it was also a demonstration of democracy working. It had a bold experiment, if you will, with populism over the past four years. And then after four years, the voters said, you know what, that wasn't working.

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Let's elect someone different. So we think that's a very hopeful sign. But ultimately, it wasn't as big a step change as what we've seen in Malawi.

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And do you think that those those changes are robust, that that you're hopeful for Malawi, then?

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We're certainly hopeful that they're robust. Look, there's always a greater chance of of reversion to the mean in countries where there's been a very big change recently. But we think that firstly, the institutions in Malawi, particularly the courts, have shown themselves to be brave and assertive about upholding the law. It seems to be very popular within Malawi. So there is a reasonable chance, we think, that the these improvements will hold. Robert, thank you very much for your time.

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Thank you. Jason. That's all for this episode of the intelligence, in fact, that's all for the intelligence for 2020. We'll be taking a couple of days off to ring in the new year. So see you back here on Monday. How can businesses make the world a better place, ESG, environmental, social governance, maybe a term you're familiar with, maybe not. Either way, you're going to hear a lot more about ESG over the coming months and years.

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The latest series of the future of business with me, Vincent Wall, in association with Mazars in Ireland will focus on the different aspects of ESG and its relevance for business. Join me and a number of specialist guests as we learn about this important issue and its growing impact. Search for the future of business on your favourite podcast app.