Friday 28 February 2014

A letter to Angela Merkel

Dear Chancellor

It was really sweet of you to pop over to London yesterday afternoon, but frankly I'd much rather you'd cancelled the trip and flown to Moscow instead.

I mean, priorities? David Cameron's forlorn attempt to hold his party together, or a potentially imploding Ukraine? Surely you don't have time to waste on fripperies. An email would have done just as well, wouldn't it? "Hi David, sorry can't make Thursday after all, but as you know, there's not much to talk about anyway. Let's see what things look like after May '15. Herzliche Grüsse, Tante Angela."

Admittedly, London was a don't-pack-your-toothbrush visit. A midday speech at Westminster; a quick lunch at Downing Street; tea with HM at Buck House; home in time for supper. And the point was what, exactly?

Meanwhile, in Ukraine, as you know, armed men have seized airports and government buildings in Crimea, and Russian fighter jets have been put on combat alert. On a crisis scale of 1-10, I reckon we're already at eight and rising rapidly …

Someone at yesterday's Downing Street press conference referred to you as the Queen of Europe. Not quite right, perhaps, given that queens these days don't have any real power. No, Mrs Merkel, you're the de facto president of Europe (not José Manuel Barroso, or Herman Van Rompuy, or even Antonis Samaras of Greece, all of whom, in the wonderfully wacky world of the EU, currently have claim on the title).

You are the single most powerful politician in Europe. You know it (you may not much like it, but you know it nonetheless), and, more importantly, Vladimir Putin knows it. That's why I think you should have diverted your plane yesterday morning and headed straight for the Kremlin.

Ukraine is the most serious crisis that Europe has faced since the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the wars that disfigured our continent for much of the 1990s. Germany is acknowledged as Europe's dominant power, as France fades from view and the UK mutters grumpily from the sidelines. Ergo, Mrs Merkel, you're the one in the driving seat.

I wrote last week: "Putin understands the nature of power, and he knows better than any other current world leader how to use it." Little did I imagine then how quickly his Ukrainian protégé would turn tail and flee. I imagine there were some choice epithets hurled in his direction from the Kremlin as Putin was left looking weak, and -- worse -- wrong-footed by the power of the Ukrainian street.

Madam Chancellor, you know perfectly well why this crisis is so dangerous. Ukraine is where the Russian president has chosen to make a stand. He faced down the US over its plans to erect anti-missile defence systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, and now he's facing down Europe over its attempts to woo Ukraine into the EU camp.

That's why someone urgently needs to talk to him. Not to warn him or threaten him, but to seek common ground, and identify how to lower tensions, not raise them. Madam Chancellor, that someone has to be you. And what you have to tell him is this: Europe is not trying to snatch Ukraine away from Russia's orbit, and it fully acknowledges the historic ties between the two countries.

The bottom line is that the people of Ukraine must be allowed to make their own decisions about their own future. In the words of Mark Leonard, of the European Council on Foreign Relations: "Rather than aiming to drag Ukraine into the Western sphere of influence and absolve its elites from national responsibility, the goal of the West should be to help Ukraine to help itself."

Last May, a global opinion poll carried out for the BBC asked 26,000 people in 25 countries to say which nation they viewed most favourably. I'm sure you remember who came top: Germany. So now, please, it's time for you to use some of that goodwill, and the power that comes with it, to avert another European disaster.

Friday 21 February 2014

A requiem for the revolutionaries

Today is a day to weep for the world's revolutionaries. Their bruised bodies, their lost lives -- and their shattered dreams.

Not just those who have been out in the freezing streets and squares of Kiev and other Ukrainian towns and cities, but also those who were out not so long ago in Cairo or Tripoli, where as in Kiev, their passion and their courage brought them nothing but grief. People power meets brute power -- and the cost is huge.

It's impossible to say yet how all this will end -- but it may well be that when peace eventually returns to Ukraine, the protesters will, in effect, have lost. When a regime uses live ammunition against its own citizens, it has crossed a line. It cannot turn back, it cannot concede. It's hard to see what real prospect there can possibly be now of a meaningful negotiated settlement. Just as in Cairo and Tripoli (Syria is a tragedy of a different order), even the overthrow of a hated president may lead to a new reality that is no better than what went before. It gives me no pleasure to say this: revolutions are often in vain.

It is, alas, too easy to be swept up in the excitement of young protesters taking control of the streets, unfurling their banners, erecting their tents and singing their songs of defiance. TV cameras blinking down from the balconies of nearby hotels give us the impression of a people in revolt, an unstoppable wave of protest, sweeping away oppression and corruption.

But the cameras can lie. Yes, the people are there, and yes, for a time, they control the streets. But the real power is elsewhere, behind the heavy wooden doors in government buildings, in army headquarters -- and sometimes in capital cities hundreds or thousands of miles away, where those with more power make their own calculations, in their own interests.

So let's look at what has been happening in Kiev. Nearly a decade ago, the protesters of the Orange Revolution were out in that same Independence Square, from where they successfully brought down a sclerotic, corrupt regime and prevented the fraudulent installation of a pro-Moscow president, Viktor Yanukovych. Today, that same Mr Yanukovych is in power -- having been elected, more or less fairly, in 2010. With the all-important backing of President Putin, he is determined to stay there.

Here are the real battle lines: pro-Western protesters out on the streets, most of them young and dreaming of a Ukrainian future as part of Europe, up against a ruthless Kremlin autocrat who has a very different dream -- of a Ukraine firmly in Russia's sphere of influence, beholden to Moscow politically, militarily and economically.

Ask Hungarians who remember 1956 what happens when popular protest confronts Moscow might. Ask Czechs who remember 1968. It doesn't require Red Army tanks to start rolling through the streets of Kiev for the answer to be the same: the people lose.

Yet it has not been forever thus. In 1989, in Romania, Bulgaria and across eastern Europe, brutal Communist dictatorships were indeed swept away by people's uprisings. Different time, different Kremlin. For Mr Putin, 1989 was the greatest disaster to befall Moscow in its recent history. He is determined not to let it happen again.

Only now, it seems, are Western policy-makers waking up to the new reality: as Obama's Washington has withdrawn from global engagement, weakened and exhausted by Afghanistan and Iraq, Putin's Moscow has leapt in to fill the gap. We have seen it in Syria, where President Assad survives only at Putin's pleasure, and now we are seeing it in Ukraine as well. Putin understands the nature of power, and he knows better than any other current world leader how to use it. 

I do not believe that all revolutions are doomed to fail. In east Asia and Latin America, the ruthless military dictatorships that were the norm in the 1960s and 70s have long gone, swept aside by a combination of popular resistance and internal decay. Similarly in much of Africa, kleptocratic dictatorships have made way for democracies, at least in part due to the end of the Cold War and the removal of external Big Power support for military strongmen.

But nor are all revolutions bound to succeed. Especially not in countries like Ukraine, Libya, Egypt and Syria, with deep social and political divisions, where there is no national consensus and no tradition of political dialogue. It is easy to forget as we watch the terrible, apocalyptic images from Ukraine that President Yanukovych has plenty of supporters, just as President Mubarak did in Egypt and President Assad, despite everything, still has in Syria. (There is one important difference, though: neither Mubarak nor Assad ever won a properly contested election. Yanukovych did.)

I still want to believe in the power of protest. I am still an optimist who believes that the world is slowly becoming a better place, with millions more people able to live decent, fulfilling lives. But when I see what is happening in Ukraine, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Central African Republic -- need I go on? -- my faith, such as it is, is sorely tested. 

Friday 14 February 2014

Why a Swiss Yes could lead to a Scottish No

If I were a Scot, which I'm not, I'd be taking a very close look at the result of a referendum in Switzerland last weekend which, in effect, told the EU to go take a running jump.

Yes, I know, it's Switzerland. To quote Orson Welles in the film The Third Man: "In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

But now, the Swiss have produced something a bit better than the cuckoo clock -- a slow-burning Euro-fuse that could end up causing a mighty big bang in Brussels. And what happens next could be a crucial consideration as Scots decide how to vote in their independence referendum in September.

Here's why: the Swiss decided in their referendum -- by a paper-thin 50.3% -- to introduce a cap on immigration from the EU. That blows a sizeable hole in its treaty with the EU, which gives it all sorts of trade privileges that it wouldn't normally have as a non-EU member -- but in return for accepting many of the obligations that come with EU membership. Like, for example, the free movement of people across borders.

And the relevance for the people of Scotland is simply this: what happens next in Berne and Brussels will depend on some very tough negotiations, accompanied by endless huffing and puffing, public posturing and dire threats. And that's exactly what will happen if Scotland votes Yes to independence on 18 September.

When one of the two parties in a relationship decides it's time to redefine that relationship -- whether it's Switzerland saying No to unrestricted immigration from the EU or Scotland saying Yes to independence from the UK -- the outcome of the haggling depends on the relative strengths of each of the two parties.

Who needs what from whom? And who needs what most? Does it matter more to Scotland that, for example, it signs up to a currency union that would enable it to carry on using the pound; does it matter more to Switzlerland that it continues to enjoy its existing trade relationship with members of the EU?

The party with the greatest needs sits down at the negotiating table with the weakest hand. As all experienced negotiators know, a successful deal is one that both sides can present as being in their own interests. Every negotiator wants to be able to stand in front of the cameras and say: "We got what we wanted."

And that's why Scottish voters should be closely watching the Berne-Brussels drama as it unfolds. Unfortunately, nothing is likely to be settled quickly, certainly not before the Scottish independence referendum. But the early skirmishes could provide a clue: when powerful players (Brussels, London) threaten to play hardball, how likely are they to follow through? Or when it comes to the crunch, will they value a "we can still be friends" divorce to a lawyers-at-dawn, take-no-prisoners legal battle?

I wouldn't automatically assume that in the event of a Scottish Yes, London would hold all the best cards. I don't imagine the international money markets would be all that thrilled if the pound found itself at the centre of a lengthy and acrimonious London-Edinburgh slugfest -- and there may well come a time when the view from Frankfurt, New York and Hong Kong is simply: "For God's sake, do a deal. Then we can get back to normal …"

Of course it's not just in Switzerland and Scotland that substantial numbers of European voters want to redefine their relationship with their neighbours. Right across the EU, anti-immigration parties are gaining strength; and in the UK, David Cameron insists that he too wants to "renegotiate" his relationship with Brussels.

Perhaps the anti-immigration parties will have been encouraged by the result of the referendum in Switzerland, on the grounds that it brings home to Brussels the depth of feeling among angry and disillusioned voters. (Mind you, 50.3% isn't exactly an overwhelming victory.) On the other hand, they know that the political elites, business leaders and bankers will now redouble their efforts to steady the ship. They have far too much invested in the status quo to see it smashed without putting up a fight, and yesterday's triple whammy from Messrs Osborne, Balls and Alexander was just a taster of what's to come …

My hunch is that, paradoxically, the Swiss Yes to immigration quotas makes a Scottish No to independence more likely. There'll be more warnings of the price to be paid for years of political uncertainty, potential instability and investor nervousness. Pro-independence campaigners will call it bullying; the anti-independence camp will call it setting out the facts.

As a Brit, not a Scot, I hope the Scots vote to stay in the UK, which I believe is a much better place with them than it would be without them. But that's just me being selfish -- and I have to accept that it's not a decision for me to take.

Friday 7 February 2014

"I am Peter Greste"

I appreciate that it's not always easy to love journalists, but that should not detract from an eternal truth: it is always essential to value journalism.

Especially in places where governments want to restict free access to information. Places like Egypt, for example, where the generals are cracking down hard on journalists and accusing some of them of being terrorists. Among the dozens who have been rounded up are 20 from the al-Jazeera TV network, including their award-winning and much-respected correspondent Peter Greste, a former colleague of mine at the BBC.

He has managed, with great courage, to smuggle two letters out of prison since he was detained more than a month ago, and I would urge you to read them -- they are here and here. Just as a taste, here's an extract from the second letter, in which he describes the "new normal" of an Egypt ruled, once again, by an unelected military junta.

"The state here seems to see itself in an existential struggle that pits the forces of good, open, free society against the Islamist 'terrorists' still struggling to seize control. In that environment, 'normal' has shifted so far from the more widely accepted 'middle' that our work suddenly appeared to be threatening. We were not alone in our reporting, but our arrest has served as a chilling warning to others of where the middle is here."

This, alas, is where the heady days of the Arab Spring three years ago have led. And yet, disgracefully, the considered view from Western governments seems to amount to not much more than "Oh dear, but at least they're better than the other lot …" By which they mean, of course, the Muslim Brotherhood, of whom they were deeply suspicious. (Just to be clear, I'm not a huge fan of the Brotherhood either -- but that's not the same as backing their violent overthrow.)

Tony Blair, former prime minister, and now a would-be global statesman, went out of his way to offer his support to the generals when he was in Cairo a few days ago -- they overthrew the elected government, he said, "at the will of the people … to take the country to the next stage of its development, which should be democratic". Which frankly leaves me lost for words …

Journalists around the world have mounted a campaign to press for the release of their colleagues imprisoned in Egypt -- if you're on Facebook, you might like to add your support to the Free Peter Greste page. (On Twitter, use #freeAJStaff.) Because this is something that should concern not just journalists, and not just those who care about Egypt and the future shape of the Middle East.

We live in an era when it is easier than ever before for more people to have more access to more information more quickly. Thanks to the internet, mobile phones and social network sites, information can flow across the globe at unprecedented speed and with unprecedented freedom. It empowers popular movements and terrifies governments.

So the crackdown on journalists in Egypt is part of a much bigger picture. Whether it's the Turkish government introducing tough new internet access controls in the midst of a major corruption scandal, or the kidnapping and murder of journalists in Syria, or UK intelligence agents insisting that The Guardian smashes up its computers to destroy leaked security material from Edward Snowden -- governments are desperate to control the flow of information.

There's nothing new about this, of course. In the 1990s, it was illegal in Britain to broadcast even the voice of any member of the Republican Sinn Fein movement. The ban was a total farce, and succeeded only in creating regular work for Irish actors who were hired to impersonate Sinn Fein leaders like Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.

A free press is an essential part of a functioning democracy. Locking up journalists for trying to do their job is an affront to anyone who cares about the world we live in and believes that we have a right to be properly informed about what's going on in some its darkest corners. (There'll be other opportunities to reflect on phone-hacking and other journalistic misdeeds -- because even I wouldn't dream of trying to persuade you that all journalists, everywhere, are saints.)

In Stanley Kubrick's 1960 film Spartacus, when captured Roman slaves are asked to identify which of them is the rebel leader Spartacus, each of them leaps to his feet and replies: "I am Spartacus."

So in that same spirit, and with no disrespect to the many other imprisoned journalists in Egypt and elsewhere: I am Peter Greste.