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European Union

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UK-EU: Pantomime Crisis, Real Risk of a Crash

19 October 2020

The British pantomime is a traditional Christmas entertainment in which stock characters face imaginary dangers and audience participation is encouraged (“He’s behind you!”), but the play never frightens the children and it always has a happy ending.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson could be a pantomime character: he blusters and rages, he takes the most awful risks, and he seems to get away with it. After his latest move, a senior British diplomat remarked wearily that “we’re getting used to being part of Johnson’s pantomime.” But it may not end happily this time.

“Trade talks are over,” Johnson’s spokesman said on Saturday. “The EU (European Union) have effectively ended them by saying they do not want to change their negotiating position.” The spokesman didn’t mention it, of course, but Johnson doesn’t want to change his negotiating position either.

Most negotiations, including the current UK-EU talks to decide on the post-Brexit trading relationship between the former partners, involve a game of chicken towards the end of the proceedings. One party, usually the one that isn’t doing very well in the talks, threatens to blow everything up and walk away.

With Johnson, it was practically guaranteed. He’s well known for setting deadlines and making empty threats about what will happen if he doesn’t get his way by then. Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, even mocked him for it last week. “It is the third unilateral deadline that Johnson has imposed without agreement,” Barnier said. “We still have time.”

A post-Brexit trade deal, not great for Britain but far better than nothing, is still quite possible. The problem is that Johnson won the election last December by saying he could “absolutely guarantee” that he would get a “fantastic” free trade agreement. Indeed, it was “oven-ready”.

Johnson must have known that was sheer fantasy even at the time. But it means that he must now have a couple of high-profile ‘wins’ to obscure the fact that the trade deal after Britain’s ‘transitional year’ ends on December 31st (if there is one) will be a miserable little thing, not remotely comparable to the completely free trade that the UK enjoyed as an EU member.

So Johnson is trying to shake loose a symbolic victory or two by threatening to walk out without a deal. This is very unlikely to succeed, because he is playing chicken with an adversary who is driving a very large truck (EU population 450 million people, GDP $16 trillion), while he is driving a Mini (UK pop. 68 million, GDP $2.8 trillion).

In trade negotiations, it’s the bigger economy that calls the tune, so the EU negotiators assume that Johnson is just bluffing. After all, they called a quite similar bluff of his last year and he crumbled. Surely, they reckon, he’ll just make a brief show of defiance, and then come round again like he did last time.

In theory they should be right, because Britain would suffer far more harm than the EU if there is no trade deal. However, Johnson’s prime ministership is safe no matter how disappointed and angry the electorate gets, because he has a big majority in parliament and the next election is four years away.

His hold on the office is not secure, however, if the fanatical Brexiters in his own party decide that he has failed. His final decision will be driven by which outcome does him more harm politically within his own party, and that is a question of appearances.

As the grown-ups in the room, the European Union’s diplomats should now be devising a way for Johnson to disguise his defeat, but there is little sign that this is happening. Their contempt for Johnson’s tactics may mean that they fail to throw him a lifeline – and Johnson, who is famous for dithering, may delay so long that time runs out.

Time is tight, and there are many competing demands on every government’s attention. Almost every country in Europe faces surging Covid-19 infections, and the UK government is already distracted by a growing revolt against its incompetent handling of the pandemic. The UK-EU trade talks will continue, with time-outs for bad behaviour, but they may not make it under the wire.

The end-December deadline is real. If there is no agreed trade deal by New Year’s Eve, the immense daily flow of food, medicines, just-in-time manufacturing components and other goods across the EU-UK borders will judder to a halt as customs barriers go up, and it will be a very grim winter in the United Kingdom.

Johnson’s political survival strategy then would be to demonise the EU as treacherous and anti-British, poisoning the well for any future cooperation. The grown-ups really need to get their act together, because Johnson isn’t going to.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 13. (“Time…wire”)

The Mysterious Allure of Being French

5 October 2020

On Sunday New Caledonia voted to remain French by a majority of 53.3% to 46.%. That’s hardly an overwhelming majority, but it was the second referendum in two years to reject independence in the South Pacific archipelago, so we may take it as a done deal.

The odd thing about that outcome is that almost three-quarters of the islands’ 270,000 people are not of European descent. They are ‘Kanaks’ (descended from the original Melanesian inhabitants), other Pacific islanders, or Asians, but a substantial proportion of them want to remain citizens of a European country more than 16,000 km away.

Yet it’s not unique. While the other powers of Western Europe gave all their colonies independence more than a generation ago, France stays on not only in the South Pacific (New Caledonia and French Polynesia) but in Africa (Mayotte and Réunion), in the Caribbean (Martinique and Guadeloupe) and in South America (French Guiana).

Moreover, it does so with the approval of the local inhabitants, although nowhere are ethnic French people a majority. What is the mysterious allure of being French that persuades so many non-European people to vote in favour of living in ‘overseas departments’ of France itself?

A large part of the allure is spelled M-O-N-E-Y. If you live in an overseas department of France, then you get a good, free education and a French level of public and social services. Per capita income in New Caledonia is ten times that in other nearby island nations like Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa, and the Solomon Islands.

Mauritius and Réunion are almost identical large islands off the east coast of Madagascar. They even both speak French, but Mauritius fell into British hands in 1810 and got its independence in 1968, whereas Réunion stayed under French rule and is now a overseas department of France. Per capita GDP in Mauritius is $11,203 a year, in Réunion $25,900.

It’s the same in the Caribbean. Guadeloupe and Martinique, each with around 400,000 people, have GDPs per capita of $25-27,000; the two nearest ex-British islands, Dominica and St. Lucia, are in the $7-10,000 range. And French Guiana has the highest per capita income in all of South America (though that is largely due to the fact that it hosts the European Union’s main spaceport).

Most startling of all is the Comoro Islands, north of Madagascar. Three of the four main islands voted for independence in a 1974 referendum. The fourth island, Mayotte, voted to stay with France then, and chose full ‘overseas department’ status by a 95.5% majority in another referendum in 2009.

The proudly independent ‘Union of the Comoros’, one million people strong, has a GDP per capita of $1,400. Mayotte’s is ten times as high, and half of its quarter-million people are illegal immigrants from the other islands.

The African Union still insists that Mayotte’s status is illegal, because it didn’t decolonise with the other islands, but the Mahorais aren’t interested, especially since the Union of the Comoros is also the world capital of military coups. They also don’t seem to mind that traditional Islamic law is now being replaced by the French civil code (or at least the female half of the population doesn’t).

None of these places is an earthly paradise, and none enjoys as high a living standard as France itself. There were violent independence movements in several of them in the 1970s, before France hit on the strategy of showering them with economic benefits.

It makes perfectly good sense for a New Caledonian or a Réunionnais to trade in the doubtful blessings of impoverished small-state nationhood for the citizenship of a First-World country and access to all its benefits, without even having to leave home.

And if you do want to leave home, you can move to France (as many do) or anywhere else in the European Union, for that matter. The real puzzle is: what’s in it for the French?

It’s certainly not economic gain: the subsidies France pays far outweigh any profits it might get from privileged access to the limited resources of these small territories. The benefits for France are almost all psychological.

Most other European empires were run as pragmatic business ventures. If the colonies are not turning a profit any more, perhaps because they are getting too expensive to control, then walk away and leave them to their own devices.

France had a bigger emotional investment in empire, perhaps because it was in steady decline from being the greatest European power in the 18th century to a much humbler status today. It could be pragmatic if necessary (as when it gave all its mainland African colonies independence in 1960), but it’s willing to pay for the privilege of having small bits of France in other continents.

Who could criticise the residents of those places for taking advantage of this foible?
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“Mauritius…$25,900″; and “None…benefits”)

Boris Johnson’s Cunning Plan

13 September 2020

“I’ve got a plan so cunning you could put a tail on it and call it a weasel,” said Blackadder’s sidekick Baldrick in the BBC’s brilliant historical comedy series ‘Blackadder’. In fact, he said “I have a cunning plan” in almost every episode, but the plans hardly ever worked, and it became a popular catch-phrase.

So the question in the United Kingdom today is this: if Prime Minister Boris Johnson is Blackadder, who is his Baldrick? Who actually put Johnson up to passing a new law that says Britain can unilaterally change the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement he signed with the European Union less than eight months ago?

Did he not understand what the treaty said? Unlikely. He negotiated it with the EU himself.

Does he realise that a treaty is a legally enforceable international agreement? Presumably, because even his own cabinet minister for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, admits that plan “does break international law in a specific and limited way.”

Did he plan from the start to break the treaty? Probably not. This is Boris Johnson – well, Al Johnson, really; ‘Boris’ is just his stage name – and he regards worrying about next week as long-term planning.

Johnson was well aware that the problem that brought down Theresa May’s government last year and made him prime minister was the Irish border. Peace in Northern Ireland depends on there being an open border with the Irish Republic. EU trade with the United Kingdom, post-Brexit, depends on controlling that border so that there is not a massive smuggling problem. Square that circle, if you can.

May tried to square it by agreeing that the customs border would effectively run down the middle of the Irish Sea, between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. That way, no customs controls would be needed on the border between the two parts of Ireland.

She never got that through parliament, because so many MPs from her own Conservative Party saw it as an unacceptable breach of British sovereignty. Eventually her government fell, and Johnson won the Conservative leadership and a large majority in an election last December by promising to fix that problem and ‘get Brexit done’.

But he couldn’t fix it, of course. Instead, he just accepted the same withdrawal terms as May had when the negotiating time ran out, with a few extra concessions to the EU and the border still firmly in the middle of the Irish Sea. But he went around telling everyone in the UK who hadn’t read the text that it wasn’t true.

On the strength of that ‘victory’ he won a big majority in last December’s election. How could he imagine that this would not come back to bite him?

By following standard Boris operating procedure: bluster and lie to win time, and hope something magical turns up in the end to save the day. If that doesn’t happen, then stage a disguised last-minute surrender, because without a trade deal with the EU, its biggest trading partner, the UK is heading for a massive economic crash.

Johnson has been on course for that surrender for some time now, but a new trade deal doesn’t cancel the existing Withdrawal Agreement, so the border controls will still appear in the Irish Sea next January. His instinct would be to blame it all on Johnny Foreigner and his tricky ways, and maybe he could ride out the storm.

Instead, he has announced that he is going to tear up an international treaty with the EU. This is most un-Boris-like behaviour.

We are asked to believe that Boris Johnson – BORIS JOHNSON – has belatedly realised there will be a crisis in the Irish Sea next January, and decided to push through a highly controversial law right now to give himself cover for an illegal act next year. It’s so out of character that it begs the question: who put him up to it?

Not exactly Baldrick, but Johnson’s senior political adviser is Dominic Cummings, whose passionate and scarcely concealed desire is to crash the United Kingdom out of the European Union with no deal at all.

The other man who truly wants that outcome is Michael Gove, the most powerful person in Johnson’s cabinet, who used to be Cummings’s main patron in government. Together, they have somehow talked Johnson into doing something so stupid that it may make a trade deal impossible and end his prime ministership.

They probably just told him that such a grave threat would bring the spineless foreigners to heel. The EU would let Johnson have his way, forget about putting an Irish-UK border anywhere (even though the Irish Republic is an EU member), and all would be well.

And the poor mug believed them.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (”Did he not …way”)

Mali and ECOWAS

25 August 2020

In what is probably the poorest region of the world, West Africa, there is an unsung success story. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) doesn’t just work for economic integration; it tries to defend democracy and prevent war among its member states, and often it succeeds.

Right now it is trying to deal with a recent military coup in Mali, a country with devastating poverty, runaway population growth, an Islamist insurgency, and a long record of military take-overs: four since independence in 1960. Intervention is always a tricky business, because the tangled ethnic and political details are different for each of the fifteen member states.

The Mali coup of 18 August was driven partly by frustration among the military, who are taking heavy casualties in the war against the jihadi groups and often go unpaid, but also by the soldiers’ awareness that there would be some civilian support for a coup. President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta won re-election last year in a fairly honest vote, but only because the opposition parties were so badly split.

Keïta did not get a majority of the vote, and he got very few votes in the capital, Bamako, where the corruption of his entourage is most visible. Massive demonstrations against him began in the capital in June, and by last month Ecowas was trying to mediate between him and the protesters. He dug his heels in; the soldiers saw their opportunity; and they acted.

The crowds in Bamako rejoiced at the coup, but the fourteen other ECOWAS countries, aware of how vulnerable they are to similar events, took a different view. Almost every one of them has seen a coup or a civil war, and now that they mostly have elected civilian leaders their priority is to defend democracy.

Their concern deepened when Colonel Assimi Goita, leader of the National Committee for the Salvation of the People – the coup leaders always chose names like that – announced that the military would stay in power for three years to carry out ‘reforms’ before holding elections.

So ECOWAS sent a delegation led by former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan to Mali to help restore constitutional order. (Nigeria, which has half the population of ECOWAS, cannot give orders to the other members, but it is definitely first among equals.)

At first Jonathan tried to persuade the military to put Keïta back in office, but the elected Malian leader was already in their hands and had agreed to renounce the presidency. Besides, the street in Bamako would not tolerate his return. At that point, the Nigerian ex-president switched to trying to persuade the soldiers to hold an election after only one year – and that’s where the talks are stalled today.

Not a particularly edifying tale, and it may not even end well, but look what’s actually happening here. A bunch of West African countries, each with its own huge problems, has learned to act together to protect the civil and human rights of the citizens they are supposed to serve. They don’t always succeed, but they win more often than they lose.

They cannot send military forces into another ECOWAS country uninvited, but they have a joint peacekeeping force that frequently gets asked to help (Ivory Coast in 2003, Liberia in 2003, Guinea-Bissau in 2012, Mali in 2013, and The Gambia in 2017). Indeed, ECOWAS has become the second most effective regional organisation in the world.

Second, because the European Union definitely comes first. In a continent that has seen more destructive wars and more dreadful regimes than any other, the EU has brought its citizens two generations of peace, considerable prosperity, and even a common identity.

It has its flaws, of course. The Polish and Hungarian governments are not really friends of democracy, but it’s their EU membership that holds them back from more extreme actions.

The United Kingdom walked out in a fit of Little Englander nationalism, but that just shows that Charles De Gaulle was right to veto British membership twice in the 1960s. As he said, the English don’t have a ‘European vocation’, and they probably shouldn’t be allowed back in even if they ask. (The Scots, and maybe the Welsh, are a different matter.)

It’s hard to build regional organisations that defend democracy and prevent war, because they inevitably infringe on the absolute ‘sovereignty’ of the state. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) can’t bring itself to condemn genocide in Burma, and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation doesn’t even criticise China’s oppression of Muslim Uyghurs.

The Organisation of American States is still too much under US influence, the African Union is only a modest improvement on the old Organisation of African Unity, and the Arab League is a joke in poor taste. ECOWAS often fails, but it is a beacon of hope.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“It has…matter”)