Friday 12 July 2019

The shape of things to come

Mission accomplished.

Or, if you prefer: game, set and match. (Yes, sorry, I’ve been watching a lot of Wimbledon.)

Whoever leaked those not-so-diplomatic missives from Our Man in Washington had two simple goals: to make it impossible for the UK ambassador to continue to do his job, and to suck up to Donald Trump.

Job done. After all, what kind of future relationship can there be if a senior British official is on record as having accused Mr Trump of ‘stupefying ignorance’ that makes him ‘frankly unfit to hold the office of president of the United States’?

Ah. Un problemo, as Boris Johnson might say. Because it wasn’t the British ambassador who used those words, but Mr Johnson himself, when he was still mayor of London and the then Republican presidential candidate had upset him by suggesting that parts of London were ‘no-go’ areas for the police because large numbers of Muslims lived there. (You can watch Mr Johnson venting his spleen by clicking here.)

As you may remember, the pro-Brexit campaign was built on a simple, clever slogan: Take back control. It was, of course, a sick joke. Even before the UK has left the EU, it has sold – no, not sold, given away – its independence of action to a would-be despot in Washington. Imagine a lapdog jumping through hoops, and there you have the perfect image of Mr Johnson’s relationship to the US president.

Trump could, of course, have ignored the ambassadorial leaks – they weren’t the first such unauthorised disclosures, nor will they be the last. (WikiLeaks, anyone?) But he seized his opportunity: Kim Darroch, he said, was a ‘wacky ambassador that the UK foisted upon the United States’ – a ‘very stupid guy … a pompous fool.’

(Perhaps he doesn’t know – in fact, he certainly doesn’t know – that Darroch grew up on a council estate, won a scholarship to a private school and then studied zoology at Durham university. Unlike, for example, Boris Johnson. Eton and Oxford. Of course.)

To be fair, and in the interests of reciprocity, which is a time-honoured principle of international diplomacy, we should note that any Western ambassador in London could have used exactly the same descriptions of Theresa May’s administration as Sir Kim did about Trump’s. Dysfunctional, faction-riven, clumsy and inept? Yup, spot on.

Trump’s insults in response were, as Martin Kettle wrote in The Guardian, ‘knowing acts, deliberate interventions, designed to weaken a country that thinks of itself, and is still often seen in Washington, as America’s special ally. They were a wilful assertion of power over Britain … a crude act with implications for any country that seeks alliance with America or indeed with any other global power. Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin will have been watching approvingly.’

So Darroch came to the view that he had no option but to quit. (I can’t help wondering,  however, why the Foreign Office couldn’t have refused to accept his resignation.) And Boris Johnson, by deliberately and repeatedly refusing to back him, sealed his fate.

It’s not hard to work out why. Johnson thinks Trump will be post-Brexit Britain’s salvation. ITV’s political editor Robert Peston reported last Wednesday: ‘This summer, Johnson wants Trump to publicly celebrate his very special relationship with a Johnsonian Britain – in the twin hopes that this expedites a post-Brexit trade deal with the US and (perhaps more importantly) it persuades EU leaders to belatedly agree an acceptable Brexit compromise, to stay on the right side of a UK that may seem stronger as Trump’s acolyte.’

Yes, you read that right. ‘Stronger as Trump’s acolyte.’ Stronger as the plaything of an unpredictable, frequently unhinged, always ignorant narcissist, than as a major partner in an alliance of 28 democratic, European nation states.

It is, of course, ludicrous folly. Look where toadying up to the White House got Theresa May, dismissed by Trump this week in another of his Twitter-spews for having – inexplicably – ignored his advice on how to leave the EU: ‘She went her own foolish way – was unable to get it done. A disaster!’

Here is the verdict of the Washington-based foreign policy analyst Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution, writing this week in The Atlantic: ‘Theresa May did everything she could to accommodate Donald Trump. She was the first leader to visit him after he became president. She offered him a state visit to the UK at a much earlier stage in his tenure than his predecessors received one. She uttered nary a word of criticism of his administration … Trump could not have wished for a prime minister who was less demanding or more sycophantic … Trump gave May nothing in return.’

So a Trump sycophant in Downing Street is about to be replaced by a Trump acolyte. Our only hope is that on both sides of the Atlantic, the nightmare will soon be over.

Friday 5 July 2019

A hero for our times?

I’m beginning to wonder if I should turn these weekly blogposts into a Hero of the Week feature. There’s no shortage of villains (I’ll happily leave you to draw up your own list), so perhaps I should do more to find people who seem – against the tide – to make the world a marginally better place than it would otherwise be.

Last week, I drew your attention to Janet Barker, the Greenpeace protester who was ejected from a City of London banquet by a none-too-gentle Foreign Office minister, Mark Field. (He was immediately suspended from his job by Theresa May, who was said to have found his decision to frogmarch Ms Barker out of the room with his hand around her neck ‘very concerning.’)

This week, I offer you Carola Rackete, a German environmentalist and activist with the charity Sea Watch International who was arrested in Italy last weekend for having rescued 53 migrants from an inflatable raft off the coast of Libya and landing them, without permission, on the Italian island of Lampedusa.

According to the Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini, who makes Nigel Farage look like a dyed-in-the-wool bleeding heart liberal, she is a ‘pirate’ and an ‘outlaw’ and her actions were an ‘act of war.’

On the contrary, said a judge who cleared her of having endangered the lives of four Italian police officers when the rescue ship she was captaining collided with a patrol boat that was trying to prevent her from docking. The judge, Alessandra Vella, ruled that Rackete had not broken the law and was carrying out her duty to protect human life. (Signor Salvini said he was ‘disgusted’ by the ruling.)

So three cheers for the judge, three cheers for Carola Rackete, and three more cheers for the thousands of people in Germany and Italy who immediately donated more than a million euros to her defence fund. (No cheers, on the other hand, for those people who have threatened her life and forced her to go into hiding.)

But why are desperate migrants still risking their lives by trying to reach Europe by sea from the north African coast? Thousands are still trapped indefinitely in appalling conditions in detention centres in Libya – just this week, more than forty were killed in an air attack on the Tajoura detention centre outside Tripoli. Little wonder that even the risk of drowning seems preferable.

And why are they having to endure such appalling conditions? Because that is what EU governments have demanded, preferring that they should rot out of sight in Libya than be granted asylum in Europe. According to the human rights organisation Human Rights Watch, Libyan coast guards have intercepted more than two thousand people at sea since the beginning of this year and returned them to detention in Libya.

In a report published last January, the organisation said it had found in Libyan detention centres ‘inhumane conditions that included severe overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, poor quality food and water that has led to malnutrition, lack of adequate health care, and disturbing accounts of violence by guards, including beatings, whippings, and use of electric shocks.’

All of which would be quite bad enough, even if it weren’t for the fact that the Libyan authorities are being given millions of euros by the European Union and its member governments to help them to intercept and detain migrants in these conditions. We all must shoulder our share of the blame.

And even as I write these words, I read reports of dozens more migrants feared drowned off the coast of Tunisia when their boat capsized on Wednesday.

Truly, Carola Rackete deserves a Hero of the Week award.