Friday 25 January 2013

Cameron in Europe: en route to his downfall?

There is a strong possibility that David Cameron, in one single, ill-considered, badly-timed and unnecessary speech, may have sown the seeds of his own downfall this week. And here's why.

Of all five scenarios we can imagine flowing from his speech on Britain and the EU, only one sees him surviving as party leader. So, in descending order of likelihood, let's go through them.

Scenario 1: The Conservatives lose the next election. Ed Miliband becomes prime minister; David Cameron resigns as Tory party leader.

Scenario 2: The Conservatives emerge after the next election as still the largest party in the Commons, but without an overall majority. The Lib Dems play hard ball over his commitment to an in-or-out EU referendum and demand counter-pledges that are unacceptable to the Tories. Cameron is unable to form a government, his party loses patience with him and MPs force his resignation ahead of a new election under a new leader.

Scenario 3: Either with or without an overall majority, Cameron forms a new government and tells his EU partners the UK wants to open negotiations on a new relationship. Despite Angela Merkel's apparently accommodating comments after his speech on Wednesday, when it comes to the crunch, he's told there's nothing to talk about. No negotiations, no new deal, so nothing to put to voters in a referendum. Cameron's opinion poll ratings slump, as he's accused of yet another referendum U-turn, his Euro-sceptic back-benchers rise up and force him to quit.

Scenario 4: Cameron wins the election with an overall majority in the Commons, persuades the EU to negotiate a few more opt-outs for the UK, but not enough to satisfy his back-benchers. He says he'll urge voters to back the deal anyway, but more than 100 of his MPs refuse to follow him. The party splits and he resigns.

Scenario 5: As above, but the newly-negotiated deal is so good that it satisfies even Bill Cash. All Tory MPs line up behind him to vote Yes in the referendum, and the deal is overwhelmingly approved by voters. Cameron emerges triumphant and walks across the surface of the River Thames in celebration.

So here we have a man who pretty much talked his way to the party leadership with an impressively delivered, look-no-notes speech at the Tory party conference in Blackpool in 2005 -- and who now, with a much less impressive, painfully constructed and endlessly delayed speech, may well have talked his way out of it again.

You think I'm being over-dramatic? Fine, here's the verdict from millionaire businessman and former deputy Tory chairman Michael Ashcroft, who now uses some of his wealth to pay for detailed political polling:

"Europe is not much of a priority even for those who say they might vote UKIP … For most voters, including those who will need to vote Conservative for the first time if we are to have any hope of a majority, Europe barely registers on their list of concerns … Tories must remember that we can only get what we want once we win an election. The more we talk about changing our relationship with Europe, the less likely it is to happen."

I suggested three weeks ago that the EU should move towards a system of concentric circles, to accommodate the very different visions of its various member states. David Cameron seems to share my analysis, although he stopped some way short of my conclusion.

He said in his speech: "We need a [EU] structure that can accommodate the diversity of its members – north, south, east, west, large, small, old and new -- some of whom are contemplating much closer economic and political integration, and many others, including Britain, who would never embrace that goal …We must not be weighed down by an insistence on a one size fits all approach which implies that all countries want the same level of integration. The fact is that they don't and we shouldn't assert that they do."

Robin Niblett, director of the foreign policy think-tank Chatham House, makes the same point: "We did not enter the EU with the same political imperatives [as France and Germany]. We had not been invaded, we did not lose the war, and we have historical connections to all sorts of other parts of the world from our empire and commonwealth.

"To the extent that Brits are emotional about Europe, it's to be against Europe; when we're pragmatic, we're for it. Whereas you could say many continental Europeans, when they're emotional are in favor of Europe; and when they're pragmatic, they're against it. So we come at it from almost the other side of the coin."

Peter Oborne in yesterday's Daily Telegraph called Cameron's speech "a grubby piece of party management, the kind of thing Harold Wilson would have been proud of." And of course it was Labour's internal disagreements over Europe which led to Wilson's decision to call an EU in-or-out referendum in 1975, and, eventually, to the Labour split and formation of the SDP in 1981.

What was that about history repeating itself?

Friday 18 January 2013

Does France know what it's doing in Mali?

It's easy -- almost too easy -- to predict disaster for the French-initiated military action in Mali. After all, given what we know of the Afghanistan and Iraq adventures, who would want to put money on Paris being able to cry "victoire" when they eventually leave?

The attack on the gas plant in neighbouring Algeria -- with as yet, at time of writing, an unknown number of casualties -- has served only to heighten the fears, even if we don't know for certain that the Algeria attack was linked to the actions of the French military in Mali.

Algeria knows all about battling Islamists, having suffered a decade-long civil war in which tens of thousands of people were killed. If the crisis in Mali is going to re-ignite that conflict -- and perhaps raise tensions in other neighbouring countries like Mauritania -- the consequences could be severe.

So what have the French got themselves into? And even more importantly, do they have any idea how they're going to get themselves out again?

I confess I heard loud alarm bells ringing when I read that President Fran├žois Hollande said that France would stay in Mali until it is "safe, has legitimate authorities, an electoral process and there are no more terrorists threatening its territory".

That is a mighty ambitious aim, far too ambitious, many might suggest, in the light of what we have learned from previous "anti-terrorist" interventions. And, without wanting to belabour the point unduly, it does sound uncannily similar to what we used to hear from the White House about how the US was going to build stable, prosperous democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq.

When I wrote about Mali in a blogpost last October, sketching in some of the background to the crisis and what was likely to happen over the coming months, I referred to the military coup in March of last year, and the rebellion by Tuareg separatists and al Qaeda-linked jihadi fighters who had taken over much of the north of the country.

As a result, I wrote: "Half the country or more, including the famed city of Timbuktu, is in the hands of the Islamists. And Western governments are desperately worried that al-Qaeda is well on the way to establishing a new toe-hold in a newly-failed state."

I added: "I wouldn't expect anything to happen quickly in Mali. But it may well be that sooner or later, a [foreign-backed] force will move in." And so it has come to pass, although no one expected the French to go in on their own, or without any prior warning.

Early reports have suggested that France has been surprised by the strength and resistance of the jihadi fighters. They have arms and equipment acquired from the Libya of Muammar Gaddafi, where some of them fought as pro-Gaddafi mercenaries, and millions of dollars in cash acquired from ransoms paid for kidnapped foreigners.

Perhaps, when you heard about the deployment of French forces, you wondered what a rebellion in the middle of the Sahara desert could possibly have to do with the rest of us. I suspect the events in Algeria over the past couple of days have answered the question for you.

But it is worth reflecting that not all foreign military interventions are failures. In May 2000, for example, British forces intervened decisively in another West African country, Sierra Leone, when armed rebels looked as if they might be about to advance on the capital. (Exactly the same scenario, as it happens, that led French forces to intervene in Mali.)

The Sierra Leone rebels were stopped in their tracks, the government was able to build up its strength, and the British were out again, by and large, by September of the same year. The brutal civil war came to an end, and Tony Blair became even more convinced of the moral justification for what, for a time, was known as "humanitarian intervention".

Earlier, in Bosnia and Kosovo, after the disintegration of Yugoslavia, international military intervention had also successfully ended the mass killings of civilians -- it may well be that no sustainable political settlement has been reached, even now, but at least the slaughter stopped.

But why such decisive action in Mali, and not, for example, in Democratic Republic of Congo, where millions have died over the past decade in what is sometimes known as Africa's world war? The answer is a simple one: the fighters in Congo do not directly threaten the West. They are not driven by ideology, or religion, and they do not threaten to attack Western targets.

Mind you, it's perfectly possible that the jihadi fighters in northern Mali are not the religious zealots they are usually portrayed as. According to the US-based regional risk and security consultant Geoff Porter: "Until 2012, AQIM [al-Qaeda in the Maghreb] in the Sahara had been a relatively successful criminal organization – kidnap for ransom, smuggling, narco-trafficking, etc – but it was not a very good or very committed salafi jihadi terrorist organization. From 2008 until 2012 it prioritized making money over ideology."

Has that now changed? We may be about to find out. But Porter suggests that as the former colonial power in the region, the French know only too well the limitations of what they are likely to be able to achieve, whatever President Hollande may say.

"France does not have to transform northern Mali into an environment in which it is impossible for [the various jihadi groups] to operate," he wrote this week. "It simply has to make it an environment in which it is significantly more difficult for them to operate."

Friday 11 January 2013

Is Israel about to turn sharp right?

How would you feel if I told you that the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin ("Bibi") Netanyahu, will soon be the most moderate member of his own government?

He's a man regarded by officials in the capital of Israel's most important ally, the United States, as impossibly difficult to deal with -- and he made no secret of the fact that he very much hoped President Obama would be defeated in last November's elections.

Yet when Israelis go to the polls in 11 days' time, they're likely to elect a Knesset (parliament) in which MPs to the right of Mr Netanyahu will be substantially more numerous than they are now. And that means his next Cabinet will be more right-wing too.

According to the canny Israeli analyst David Horovitz of the Times of Israel: "The right has become the far-right." And if that's how it turns out, it almost certainly spells the end of any prospect of progress towards a settlement of Israel's dispute with the Palestinians.

Two-state solution? Forget it -- even if President Obama really tries to push for a settlement (and let's be honest, there's been no sign so far that he intends to), Mr Netanyahu will simply say sorry, no can do, the Knesset won't wear it.

Here's the situation: Israelis have discovered they can live with the status quo. With the exception of those periods when Palestinian fighters fire rockets into Israel from Gaza, spreading real fear but causing mercifully few casualties, the vast majority of Israelis can get on with their daily lives without thinking about Palestinians at all.

So why even talk to them? Most Israelis still say they believe in a two-state solution, but it's the sort of thing you can say without having to think too much about it. After all, anyone who looks at a map of where the Israelis have already built in the West Bank, which they've occupied now for more than 45 years -- and where they intend to build -- can see the reality: there's no room left for anything that would remotely resemble a viable Palestinian state.

Ariel Sharon, still lying in a coma after suffering a massive stroke seven years ago, understood better than anyone how to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state: he talked of creating "irreversible facts on the ground" -- and that's exactly what he and his successors have done.

Back in 1980, Sharon took two senior American reporters, William Claiborne and Ed Cody of the Washington Post, on a tour of the West Bank. At that time, there were no more than 14,000 Israeli settlers living there (now the number is more than 350,000, plus another 300,000 in east Jerusalem, also occupied by Israel since 1967).

This is what he told them then: "We are going to leave an entirely different map of the country that it will be impossible to ignore … I believe in things that are done, in facts that are created."

It's true that some Israelis do see a way round Sharon's "irreversible facts" -- by proposing that Israel hangs on to much of the land in the West Bank that it has built on, and swaps it for bits of the Negev desert and Galilee region which have been in Israel since 1948 but which are inhabited overwhelmingly by Palestinians.

If there were any real political will to negotiate such a deal -- on both sides -- then maybe, just maybe, there'd be a chance. But on the Palestinian side, the pro-negotiations Fatah party led by Mahmoud Abbas is a broken reed -- and the Islamist Hamas movement, which controls Gaza, is still a very long way from talking the language of compromise.

So, to many Israelis, it may look as if what they have now is sustainable, that somehow the Palestinians in the West Bank will eventually forget that they ever wanted a state of their own or the opportunity to decide their own futures -- and that Palestinians in Gaza will no longer mind living in what they have long called the world's biggest open-air prison.

In my view, this is a profound, and potentially disastrous, mistake. Israelis need only look to their neighbours in Egypt and Syria to see what happens when prolonged injustice is allowed to fester. But for now, what many Israelis see is a region mired in uncertainty and instability, and growing Islamist power which looks deeply alarming.

That, I suspect, is why they're turning to leaders who speak the language of strength and resistance to compromise. What matters to them is not whether they're liked, or even whether they're approved of. What matters is that they're feared. 

Friday 4 January 2013

Why Cameron will get it all wrong on the EU

Some time before the end of this month, David Cameron will make a Very Important Speech about Britain and the EU. I know that, like me, you are already on the edge of your seat, quivering in excited anticipation.

Unfortunately, Mr Cameron will almost certainly say all the wrong things. He will talk about Britain insisting on this, demanding that, and refusing to accept the other. He will sound, as so many British politicians have done before him, like a petulant child, stamping his foot because he can't have what he wants.

There is another way. He could -- here's a revolutionary idea for you -- be honest. He could say there are pluses and minuses to being a member of the EU, and then spell them out for us. Maybe take out full-page ads in the papers, asking Monty Python style: "What has the EU ever done for us?" -- and then provide a list of answers.

And here's another idea: instead of talking about a two-speed Europe, or a multi-tier Europe, or an "associate membership" Europe, why don't we imagine a Europe of concentric circles?

At its centre would be the members of the eurozone, with all its trimmings: banking union, common taxation policies, and of course the single currency. Next, the countries that are in the single market, but outside the eurozone, in other words, where the UK, Sweden and Denmark are now. Other governments may choose to be there too.

Then, a third circle, outside the single market but still in the EU. Maybe that's where some of Mr Cameron's Tory colleagues would prefer to be, pretty much where we were before the UK signed up to the single market in 1987 (the prime minister at the time, you may recall, was a certain Margaret Thatcher).

And you could have a fourth circle, in which you'd find countries like Norway, Switzerland and Iceland, not in the EU but linked to it. Some Tory MPs want that to be the place for the UK as well.

But here's the really revolutionary idea: when you've drawn up all your different circles (and yes, I know it'll be complicated and difficult, but there are some very clever people in Brussels), you put them to the vote. Not just in the UK, but right across the EU. Ask the voters in all 27 member states, on the same day, which circle they'd like to be in.

It's never been done before, and it would change the nature of the EU overnight. For the first time in its recent history, the shape of the EU would genuinely represent the will of the people who live in it, rather than the conviction of Europe's political elites that they know best.

I remember being shocked (yes, I'm still just about capable of being shocked) at a meeting in Westminster some months ago when a group of MPs and peers were discussing the future shape of the EU. I ventured to suggest that closer integration might not be acceptable to British voters. "Probably," said one of the participants. "But the voters would be wrong."

In an article in the Financial Times last October, Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform wrote of a multi-tier Europe rather than a concentric one, and said: "Life in the third tier need not be uncomfortable for the UK. If it makes an effort to win friends and allies among its partners, including those in the euro, it will have an influential voice in EU decision-making. Yet successive British governments have done too little to forge alliances with those – such as the central Europeans, Nordics and Dutch – who tend to think like the British on some key issues."
So how about it, prime minister? Tell us you're going to propose to the UK's EU partners that a new constitutional commission is established to draw up the criteria for a concentric union. The members of the commission will be given two years to come up with a detailed plan, then there'll be a three-month referendum campaign in each of the EU's 27 member states.
A lively, raucous debate will ensue. Different political parties will choose different options -- they'll take out newspaper ads, stage televised debates, form cross-border alliances, argue that this is the most important political decision voters will be asked to make in a generation. The campaign will be noisy, messy and ill-tempered.
We could even call it -- and I admit I may be stretching a point here -- democracy in action.