Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Keep her for entertainment, say I

I have been told by one of the less entertaining readers of this blog that I have out-Thornberried Ms Emily Thornberry of whom I had actually heard even before the low-grade scandal she was involved in that made her name so well known. Not many other people had. As insults go it is not much. I have had far better ones in my life but I do think a short paragraph about the former Shadow Attorney-General is a good way of starting a posting about entertainment in politics.

The whole Thornberry saga showed her stupidity, the ease with which her Leader could be thrown into panic and the general dullness and, as I said above, low grade of politics in this country. That, as it happens, is a good thing. Dull politics enlivened by the odd bout of entertainment is an excellent system to live under. A good many countries are envious of that, their politics being considerably more exciting and frightening. I do not wish to change things, not even to satisfy the People's Will.

All the same, entertainment is needed from time to time and the departure of Cherie Blair from the public scene has taken a good deal of it away. That is why we are so grateful to Ms Thornberry for brightening our days (just a few of them, to be sure, but it is better than nothing) as the new recruits to the People's Army are not likely to do that.

There is, however, another female politician who provides some entertainment (not on the Cherie scale but that was a superlative effort). I speak, of course, of the egregious Cathy Ashton or Baroness Ashton as she is better known, former High Panjandrum of the EU's Common Foreign Policy and before that many things, particularly Treasurer of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament though, apparently, she had no idea but none at all, where some of the funds came from.

As this blog mentioned before, la Ashton may have been superseded as the High Panjandrum but was staying on to "complete" the negotiations with Iran. Readers of this blog will not be surprised to hear that although, according to Secretary of State Kerry the negotiations have gone on very well, the deadline has again been pushed forward to next July.

The EU is now wondering what to do with la Ashton. Do we keep her till then, assuming that the deadline will undoubtedly have to be extended again?
For her part, Ashton - the EU’s former foreign policy chief, who has chaired the nuclear talks for the past 12 months - on Monday read out a joint EU-Iran statement and left the press room without taking questions.

She stepped down from her EU post on 1 November, but was kept in the nuclear talks until Monday’s initial deadline.

Her new boss, Italy’s Federica Mogherini, told press in Strasbourg the same day that she is consulting with the US and Germany on whether to keep Ashton in place until July.

“That’s for me to consider”, Mogherini noted. “It will be decided in the coming days”.

She added there is “a little bit of disappointment, we were all hoping for an agreement tonight [but there is] … also a little bit of hope”.

"It's important that negotiations will continue”.
Federica Mogherini is the new High Panjandrum and she has already provided us with one good story: on November 7 RFE/RL reported that her chief spokesperson, Catherine Ray, married a partner in a Brussels public relations firm that lobbied for Gazprom. Love, of course, can blossom in the most unlikely conditions but is there not a hint of a clash of interests here? Goodness me, no, announced the EU. Everything is ship-shape and Bristol fashion. I am rather looking forward to what else Signora Mogherini and her office might produce by way of entertainment.

However, we cannot rely on them solely or on Ms Thornberry whose days as a comedienne may well be over. We need Baroness Ashton as well. We also do not want her back in the House of Lords, demeaned though it has been by this and the Blair governments. Keep her on as negotiator-extraordinaire with Iran, say I.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Apparently you don't have to become a People's Army recruit

Owen Paterson, who can now take the position Douglas Carswell occupied until recently, of being the most important back bencher on the government side, has called for the Prime Minister to announce before he starts negotiating with other EU member states that he intends to activate Article 50 and to start the process of British withdrawal.

I hear tell that the Boss is lurking somewhere in the shadows, advising Mr Paterson but it is not clear whether the latter will go along with the EURef idea of Flexcit (look it up on EURef).
Mr Paterson made clear his own preferred option would be for the UK to withdraw from the political structures of the EU and instead, like Norway, forge a trade deal, which would include access to the single market.

After his speech, he told the BBC that Britain had come to a "fork in the road" in its relationship with the EU.

He said: "To sort out the nightmare of the euro, they have got to form a cohesive, effective new state

"And meanwhile, we withdraw from the political arrangements and we concentrate on trade, which gives us an opportunity to get our seat back on the supra-national bodies which actually decide regulation affecting virtually every business in this country."

Downing Street did not comment ahead of the speech but the BBC's assistant political editor Norman Smith said it would have been met with a "collective groan" given No 10's negotiating objectives were likely to be much more limited.
I may be prejudiced (well, OK, I am prejudiced) but if I were Mr Cameron I would be much more worried about well argued statements of this kind from a man who is respected in the party and is very unlikely to join the People's Army who has long ago abandoned any idea of fighting for Brexit, in any case.

So what now from the great recruits of the People's Army? Will they start competing in statements or will they stick to the UKIP policy of just calling for a referendum and warning about foreigners getting jobs here?

I hope not for Romania's sake

We shall have to wait and see what the election of Klaus Iohannis will actually mean for Romania as they have not had a great deal of joy with previous Presidents. There is something ominous about the comparisons being made between him and Barack Obama.
Iohannis is Romania's newly-elected president.

After his surprise win on Sunday (16 November), when the German-speaking, Lutheran mayor of Sibiu became the first Romanian president from an ethnic and religious minority, he is being compared to Barack Obama - the first black president of the US.

On Facebook, he has just passed 1.1 million fans, more than German leader Angela Merkel or Italy’s Matteo Renzi.

But despite his popularity, he is neither a populist, nor, like Obama, a gifted orator.

In his victory speech on Monday, Iohannis, a 55-year old physics teacher, was as down-to-earth as it gets, his main message being: “The campaign is over. Let's get to work now”.
That does not sound like too bad a speech to me.

Obama populist and gifted orator. How very nostalgic. Nobody can possibly believe either of those statements any more. President Obama is highly unpopular as the latest mid-term elections showed and it has long ago been recognized that he is lot without his teleprompter.

In fact, given that Barack Obama is turning out to be one of the worst Presidents the United States has ever had it is to be hoped that Romanian President Iohannis will not emulate him in any way.

Let us not forget that, unlike President Obama, President Iohannis is a member of our real government.

These days they have to borrow the money

Among my reading matter (together with that huge Stalin biography, volume 1) is another book in the excellent Yale Annals of Communism series about the Comintern and its activity. Among the various activities that occupied that organization and its various officials (and one has to remember the turn-over was rather high) was the vastly important one of distributing funds to various Communist parties in the West though mostly to the secret branches as well as other organizations like trade unions.

How times have changed. These days parties that are strapped for cash but are happy to include praise of the Putin regime among their activities have to borrow the money and not directly but from a bank.
The far-right French party, Front National (FN), borrowed €9 million from a Russian bank, posing questions over its relationship with the Kremlin.

The loan, by the First Czech Russian Bank (FCRB), was granted in late September, according to a report out on Saturday (22 November) in Mediapart, an online investigative journal.

It notes the FCRB is de facto owned by Roman Popov, a financier with close ties to the Russian political establishment.

Wallerand de Saint-Just, the FN’s treasurer, told Mediapart the loan was organised by Jean-Luc Schaffhauser, an FN euro-deputy.

“We’d been looking for a loan for a long time, notably to finance our election campaigns. Our bank, like many other French and European banks, categorically refused to lend a single centime to the FN or to FN candidates”, he said.

“So Mr Schaffhauser … who has had good relations in Russia for a long time, said: ‘Let me go and see this bank’.”

De Saint-Just denied the FCRB loan amounts to foreign interference in French politics, saying he has never met Popov and has only had contact with the bank’s “technical" staff.
I cannot believe that the Front National's treasurer can be quite so naïve. He can, of course, think that he will be able to outwit the people he is playing with, that is the Russian political establishment and its running dogs (to quote an old phrase) but I am not sure I would be putting any money on him against Mr Popov.

More on the story by France24 here.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Mark Reckless keeps his seat

What with builders working on the back wall and having to read the huge first volume of the latest mammoth biography of  Stalin by Stephen Kotkin in a fortnight when London Library will demand it back, I have found it hard to work up any kind of enthusiasm for the tale of the People's Army's latest recruit who seems to be under the impression that there has been a "real revolution" going on in this country since that day in September when he left the Conservatives to join the aforementioned People's Army. Nor have I been particularly interested in the sad tale of the stupid Labour MP (ex-Cabinet member) who tweeted some kind of an insulting picture and comment about the driver of a white van. (I think I have that right.) If you are that stupid you should not be in politics at all, unless you happen to be defending your seat in a by-election under a different flag against a couple of underwhelming candidates though the Conservative one seemed to be more underwhelming than anyone else. Given that she was an idiot who called for a boycott of Israel (does she actually know what that would entail?) and was generally hopeless at every occasion, she did not do all that badly. The expected 15 per cent margin for UKIP did not materialize.

Reckless kept his seat by 2,920 votes, that is 42.1 per cent of the total vote cast in a turn-out of 50.67 per cent against the Conservatives' 34.8 per cent. Tchah! Stalin used to get 99.8 per cent. Now that's what I call popular support.

The Boss has a highly entertaining rant analysis on the whole subject, which is well worth reading, as always. He points out quite fairly that the new UKIP (ex-Conservative) MP is not the brightest person in the House of Commons and has already been caught out in a number of stupid and ignorant comments, particularly, needless to say, to do with immigrants and their status.

Now that UKIP has two MPs the question of whether they understand whereof they speak will become important. It will no longer be sufficient to produce another picture of our Nige drinking beer or wine and grinning happily into the camera. The media might finally start asking about policies and wondering about certain contradictions in them. There will also be, I can confidently predict, a certain tension between the Dear Leader and the two MPs who will now be the obvious sources of information about UKIP and its policies (or some version thereof).

Meanwhile, the BBC, the Telegraph and, indeed, everyone else has quoted Nigel Farage as saying that this will mean dozens of UKIP seats in the next Parliament. The Telegraph, curiously, predicts a nice round number instead of the dozens but then they also predict a sizeable Labour majority, which is not indicated by the opinion polls, all of which show Labour merely 3 or 4 points ahead, a statistically negligible figure while the Thornberry saga and their poor performance in the by-election must give their strategists somewhat gloomy thoughts. In fact, if the Conservatives abandon their candidate in Rochester and Strood and find someone more intelligent (though it is not clear that intelligence is of any interest to the voters of that constituency) they stand a good chance of taking it in May.

The Dear Leader is also quoted as saying (something we have all head recently) that "if you vote UKIP you get UKIP" in response to baseless (in this case) accusations of voting UKIP will get you Labour. In Rochester and Strood voting UKIP got you Mark Reckless, exactly as voting Conservative in 2010 did.

Somewhere in the long continuous Telegraph update there is a mention of some hack asking Douglas Carswell (the previous recruit to the People's Army) about the possibility of more Conservative MPs defecting to UKIP. He snaps crossly that he is completely uninterested in what the Conservatives (his friends and colleagues until August) intend to do. That would indicate that he does not think there will be any more defections as Reckless's victory is not big enough to encourage any more of them.

The Lib-Dims did particularly badly, getting 0.87 per cent, that is 349 votes; they were easily overtaken by the Greens with 1,692 votes, that is 4.22 per cent and another lost deposit.

It is worth noting that in 2010 when Mark Reckless won as a Conservative, the turn-out was 64.9 per cent and Reckless's majority was 9,953, that is he won by 20.7 per cent.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The view from over here - 2

And so to the European Union. Russian aggression would not be so bad, would not even happen if President Putin "not a particularly wise man but not stupid, either" had not sensed a basic weakness in the West and, in particular, in the European Union.

The problem, in my opinion, is one that the good Professor does not want to acknowledge as he cleaves to the US foreign policy establishment's views: weakness is inherent in the European Union because of the way it is structured and because its basic lack of real purpose in the real world. That would never be acknowledged by somebody who thinks it was the American foreign policy's greatest achievement.

Professor Mead's list of specific problems that face the EU was interesting though not every item was exactly new to some of us.

The biggest of all problems has been the shift to information economy, which, together with globalization, put great pressure on wage rates and employment. This has continued through the last few decades and has been affecting ever more parts of employment. Is this actually a problem or an opportunity? That depends on how you identify yourself.

European self-identity, particularly since the Second World War (though that event was not mentioned by Professor Mead) has been what might be termed the blue social model: a stable society, a fair amount of government control of the economy and the existence of national champions, all of which may have looked particularly inviting in the late forties and fifties but has long turned stability into stagnation. (Then again, that is precisely the model that UKIP is promoting in its policies, if one can use that word.)

This model or assumption did not allow and still does not allow for the changes that flow out of technological and informational upheavals; instead people's certainties have been destroyed and the institutions that were supposed to provide them have lost their legitimacy. Well, well, so the European project was predicated on an assumption that did not take into account inevitable changes? How many blogs did I write on that subject? How many articles in such publications as the European Journal? I have long lost count.

The second problem is the demographic transition that will require some rethinking on the subject of the welfare state and care for the old. As a matter of fact, what this does require is some rethinking, particularly in Britain about the employability of older people. While people live longer, are healthier and keep their marbles longer (assuming they had them in the first place and I do not mean the Elgin ones) employers, NGOs that call themselves charities and unions continue to exist in a world of about sixty years ago when anyone who lived for three score years, never mind the extra ten, was to be treated as one who could no longer do anything but doze in the sun.

The third problem is the poor functioning and perceived illegitimacy of the European institutions. They are far too bureaucratic, function poorly and are not well regarded by an ever growing section of Europe's population. (I need not say that this came as a complete shock and surprise to me.) At a time, added Professor Mead when no European country can cope on its own (as when could they?) it is not helpful to have European institutions that actually make that coping far more difficult.

The obvious answer is to start thinking how European countries could create links and alliances with some institutions that would strengthen them and not destroy their economy but this is not an idea that comes easily to someone who really does think that the European project was going to be one that lived by liberal ideas of law, justice and liberty. (I kid you not. That is what some American supporters of the EU quite genuinely think they had helped to bring about. Now they are, understandably, upset.)

Problem number four was that the various shifts in political and, especially, economic structures affect different countries differently. Thus Britain, German and the Nordic countries have done reasonably well while France and the Mediterranean ones have not. These tensions would have emerged even without ....

Problem number five: the euro.

Well, all I can say is d'uh! I mean, no, nobody, absolutely nobody said any of this ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. And what did we get in response from the likes of Professor Mead: oh don't worry, it will be fine, European integration is a grand idea, it will be the envy or the world. (NO, do NOT get me on to that subject.)

So, President Putin looked at this seriously dysfunctional structure with political institutions that are not considered to be legitimate and huge economic tensions and thought "hey, I could be President of that easily". No, sorry, he thought, "hey, I can invade anything I like and they will do nothing". And so he did. Well, up to a point. He invaded Crimea and semi-invaded Luhansk and Donetsk. The West did nothing and the EU, in particular, cannot decide what it should do and how to go about doing anything.

Could this have been avoided? Well, possibly, but that would have required an understanding of President Putin's mentality and of Russia's essential weakness. On the other hand, I do not agree with Professor Mead that Putin has inflicted one propaganda defeat on the Europeans and the Americans after another. In what way has he won the propaganda war? In that, apparently, he has continuing support in Russia, no matter what he does? That was to be expected. In that some people, so engrossed in their own little problems that they cannot understand what has been going on in Russia and see Mr Putin as the leader of the anti-Western world thus to be supported? Slightly more surprising but, again, not a huge achievement. But Russia is not exactly a popular country and all suggestions of her allying herself with China and Iran, creating a huge bloc of anti-Western powers fall down, as Professor Mead said, on the fact that China is not particularly interested. An alliance with Iran and what remains of Assad's Syria has considerably less cachet.

Here we should have come to the point of what is to be done with the fact that history has returned and we cannot get away from it. Unfortunately, as I mentioned in my first blog, there was no real answer. Apparently, it would be a good idea if the US and the UK would stop criticizing everything those nasty Europeans do and engage in some sort of dialogue to sort things out.

Well, to start with, we are in different positions. When the US throws up its collective hands up in horror, they do so as outsiders who feel that the wonderful structure they helped to create did not turn out all that well and they are going to have to come back to sort everyone out. When the UK .... ahem ... throws up its collective hands up in horror it is with the knowledge that we are part of this whole shambolic structure, that we have wilfully abandoned the idea of our own foreign policy in order to help create a common one, that we are among the most obedient member states.

The problem from the point of view of Professor Mead and the foreign policy establishment in the US is that for some bizarre reason of their own they saw "Europe" or the European project as something they could point to as an example to all and sundry. That makes me wonder whether they actually understand the concept of history at all. It is the history of Europe that makes the European Union an impossible proposition unless, as its founders knew full well, it is imposed rapidly and ruthlessly on the populations; but it is also the history of such areas as the Middle East or South-East Asia or Africa that makes any imitation of what Europe does unlikely. That, dear readers, is what the return of history really means.

Meanwhile, what is to be done (to quote that terrible novel and equally terrible political tract)? Well, it seems that the Yanks will have to come back.

And we won't come back till it's over, over there. 

The view from over here - 1

The lunchtime meeting today had been organized by the Henry Jackson Society, the Left's particular bugbear, in the House of Commons (luckily in one of the committee rooms where the acoustics were good and the mikes worked). The guest was the eminent academic and commentator, Professor Walter Russell Mead and his topic was an obvious riff on a once highly influential book by Professor Francis Fukuyama: The Crisis in Europe: the Return of History and what to do about it.

As one would expect, Professor Mead gave a very cogent and exhilarating analysis of the many problems the world is facing today but, as a journalist from Die Welt pointed out, we have all heard a great many depressing talks and read a great many even more depressing articles of that kind recently. What did Professor Mead think were some of the answers?

Professor Mead's main solution was (and, to be fair, we were coming to the end of the session but, to be equally fair, that was supposed to be part of the presentation) that the US should restore its interest in Europe and re-engage in a dialogue with its European partners. Or, in other words, as he said the Lone Ranger, having ridden away, should now return (no word of how Tonto might feel about  that).

The European Union, Professor Mead explained, was American foreign policy's greatest accomplishment; it had been one of the aims of the Marshall Plan (some stretching of history here), had been supported diplomatically and politically throughout its history but has, to some extent been left to its own devices in the last few years. The US underestimated the difficulties European weakness and lack of cohesion will cause to it. Having, as it thought, defeated the bad guys (twice, presumably), knocked all the European heads together, the US announced that it will do what the European had always said they wanted and that is leave them all alone. Apparently, that is not what the Europeans wanted deep down and it is time to recognize this fact.

We'll be over, we're coming over
And we won't come back till it's over, over there.

Well, that's fine, except that it would appear that it is never going to be over, over here. We saw that when Yugoslavia disintegrated into a series of wars in the nineties, the EU though the egregious Jacques Poos announced that "this was Europe's hour" only to plead with the Americans to come back and sort the mess out after all. It seems that they will have to come back again in the sense of taking greater interest in this pesky little continent and its pesky problems.

Is that really the answer? Obviously, as an Atlanticist and an Anglospherist I want to see a continuation of the existing links between certain European countries and the United States, adding Canada, Australia and New Zealand into that network. But would a greater involvement by the US in the EU's problems really help anyone? Somehow, I doubt it.

Let us go back to the beginning of Professor Mead's talk. We are, he said, facing the greatest geopolitical crisis since the 1960s with President Putin's Russia displaying the most obvious signs of naked aggression since the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. (Whatever happened to Afghanistan in 1979 and, more recently, Georgia?)

Facing this growing aggressiveness we have a West that is in some disarray, both politically and economically; in fact, in most disarray since the 1930s.

I have a problem with these shock-horror announcements because they seem to be so wobbly in their evidence. Are we facing the greatest crisis since the thirties or the sixties? Is this the biggest geopolitical upheaval since 1918, 1945, 1989 or last year?

Not long ago Legatum Institute tweeted a link to a discussion by various global thinkers, put together by Foreign Policy whose premiss was that "the world as we know it fell apart in 2014". This was said on a number of occasions at the Institute's events by no less a person as Anne Applebaum Director of Transitions Forum and author, among other books, of an excellent history of Eastern Europe in the immediate post-war period. She has also written about the Gulag. It seems to me that compared to what she described in those books makes the events of 2014 rather small potatoes.

As the presentation went on, Professor Mead narrowed down the time scale and focused on three countries that are unhappy with the world order that was established in 1989 - 91, that is after the fall of the Soviet Union, and are ready to challenge it. So we are really talking about a possible world order that is twenty-five years old. Could it be that there was no world order established in those years but that events were the beginning of the break-up of the post-Second World War order and that break-up is still going on? That is one explanation of events.

The three countries that are challenging the world order, according to Professor Mead, are China, Iran and Russia. Of these China is the most powerful and capable with the greatest long-term potential. It is, however, already interdependent with the existing world order and benefits from it greatly; therefore, its challenge is unlikely to be a particularly destructive one. There are issues on which it feels aggrieved but, on the whole, it has had less effect on the surrounding area than the other two countries.

When challenged on this subject during the discussion by a somewhat long-winded China expert, Professor Mead, defended himself robustly. China, he reiterated, has not made any real changes in the geopolitical structures close to her, partly because she faces stronger countries than Iran and Russia and partly because its leadership miscalculated in  2008 - 9: the US had not been weakened quite as much as they thought and the sudden aggressive reaction alarmed various countries like Japan who now have a far more active foreign and defence policy.

To the point that China was now the second largest economy (that keeps changing and it is never clear to me how these things are defined) Professor Mead replied that the connection between GDP and world influence is not all that straightforward, pointing to the fact that in the mid-nineteenth century France's GDP was greater than Britain's but that did not lead to French domination of the world.

Moving on to Iran, the picture is a little odd. That country has the least long-term potential of the three yet it is the one that has made the greatest changes, in its favour, in the area that immediately surrounds it. When one looks at the situation in Iraq and Syria one cannot argue with that. Turkey, Iran's rival for influence in the Middle East, has retreated. But Hezbollah is, as far as one can tell, not as strong or powerful as it used to be. For all of that, Iran has done well and that is without going into the convoluted negotiations it has been conducting for decades about its nuclear power.

To a great extent the reason is the basic weakness and unsustainable structure of its immediate neighbours (Israel being the one exception but they are satisfied with keeping a watching brief for the time being), made worse by the events of the so-called Arab Spring.

Does this affect the rest of the world? Well, not so that you'd notice at present though that may change if Iran really does develop a nuclear bomb.

That brings us to Russia, which is, according to Professor Mead betwixt and between those two. It ought to be very powerful, in possession of a nuclear arsenal (whose efficacy is not altogether clear) and in possession of a vast reserve of oil and gas. But unlike China, Russia has not been able to use these advantages to strengthen its economic base even if we ignore the various rumours and news items that indicate a greater weakness in the former than has been assumed.

Russia is alienated from the existing world order in a more fundamental way than China and that is despite the enormous efforts made after the collapse of the Soviet Union to integrate the country into that world order: G7 turned into G8, membership of G20, various agreements with NATO, membership of WTO and so on. For reasons that were obviously beyond the scope of the talk Russia has not managed to take advantage of any of it and has returned to her historic distrust of the West.

When one adds to that the obvious fact that most of the countries that border on Russia have weak governments, chaotic economic policies and, for the most party, dysfunctional structures, one can see that Russia is in a better position than China to make geopolitical changes as well as being more willing to do so.

Of course, one needs to add a few points. Russian interference in those countries has contributed to those weaknesses as well as to Russia's own stagnation. Furthermore, not all countries fall to her machinations. The Baltic States are managing reasonably well for the time being and even Georgia has recovered from the last war sufficiently well to look to the West again.

[This is becoming rather a long blog. So, I shall stop here and write up Professor Mead's comments about the European Union in a separate posting.]