Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Archive for July, 2015

Calais migrant crisis – something must be done …. of course

“Send in the army”.

That familiar bedfellow of “something must be done” can now be heard coming from the mouths of British politicians and commentators.

They offer it as a solution to the Calais migrant crisis that’s been disrupting links between France and Britain for weeks incommoding commerce and tourism alike.

Apart from the fact England lost control of Calais in the sixteenth century and it is now part of sovereign French territory, the proposal that British troops be sent to France to secure the Ferry and Eurotunnel terminals and prevent the thousands of migrants there from attempting to stow away on lorries or get through the Channel Tunnel is not a solution.

As things stand London is struggling to convince that it is on top of the situation.

But the pressure Cameron is under is partly of his own making.

His government has failed to keep its – arguably unrealistic – promise five years ago to cut net immigration to under 100,000 a year, so any sense that migration is “out of control” leads to loud headlines and the need to appear to take decisive action.

This means things that are done like providing money for improved fencing at Calais and the offer of sniffer dogs – which make sense – appear inadequate in the eyes of critics.

Clearly, there is an immediate need.

Migrants who have gathered at makeshift camps near the French port after having made their way – in most cases – from the Middle East and Africa via south and south-east Europe need to be given accommodation and have their claims for asylum processed.

This will almost certainly require large-scale police action, where, if France agrees, British officers can help to move the migrants to alternative sites.

But this is not something military forces should be used – or indeed are trained – for.

Beyond dealing with the immediate problem though, the crisis will not be solved until a few other things are sorted out.

EU countries need to start actually cooperating, rather than merely promising to cooperate, in dealing with the thousands of desperate people crossing the Mediterranean.

Italy and Greece – and now increasingly Hungary – where most of the Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, Eritreans, Sudanese and others first arrive in the EU can’t cope on their own.

EU leaders – with the exception of the Brits, Danes and Hungarians – agreed at their June summit to share the burden by accepting allocations of asylum seekers, but progress is clearly not fast enough to keep up with the numbers arriving.

And while not all the migrants are refugees from conflict and oppression, Britain and its EU partners have a moral and legal obligation to give asylum claims a fair hearing.

The EU could also help to reduce the number of purely economic migrants by getting serious about helping African and Middle Eastern countries provide jobs and decent living standards by opening up their markets and investing in those countries, as well as better targeting development aid.

Such a policy was put in place twenty years ago under the Barcelona Process, but it has always seemed to lose out to other political and economic priorities and has proved inadequate.

But that still leaves the main cause driving the current surge in the number of migrants – the conflict in Syria and Iraq and the anarchic situation in Libya.

The UK has defended its parsimony in giving asylum to Syrian refugees by pointing to the humanitarian aid it is giving to help Syrian refugees in the region and the people displaced inside the country.

It is true Britain is one of the largest aid givers, however, it is revealing that newly released figures show the UK spent much more bombing Libya during the revolt against Colonel Gaddafi in 2011 than it did on aid to help stabilise the country after his overthrow.

And it is precisely the failure to stabilise Libya and its further descent into chaos that has enabled migrants to cross the Mediterranean in such large numbers.

The same skewed approach can be seen in Syria and Iraq.

The US alone is spending more than $ 9 million a day on its air strikes on Islamic State forces, while the UN-led relief operations for the millions of refugees who have fled to neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, let alone the millions displaced inside Syria, are chronically underfunded with less then a third of the money needed arriving so far this year.

So is it any wonder people are desperate enough to risk the journey to Europe?

If the politicians in London want to end the crisis in Calais, they don’t need to send in the troops, they need to shoulder a fairer share of the burden of asylum seekers in the EU, something they are currently refusing to do.

They also need to find the money to spend more on supporting international relief operations and be ready to invest in the reconstruction of Libya, Syria and Iraq if and when the fighting ends and the circumstances allow.

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Cameron’s confused counter-terrorism strategy

British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has followed his French counterpart, Manuel Valls, by responding to a terrorist outrage with a major speech and proposals for tougher laws.

Coming in the wake of the attack on a beach in Tunisia which killed 38, mostly British, tourists and more evidence of British-born recruits going to Syria and Iraq to join Islamic State, Cameron’s address was billed as a major statement of his government’s counter-terrorism strategy.

Prime Minister Valls delivered similar speeches in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack as a prelude to announcing new laws.

Cameron’s was certainly a detailed and apparently comprehensive assessment of why – in the view of the British government – young Brits are attracted to groups like IS and why they turn to violence.

But can the counter-terrorism strategy it portends have any greater success than its predecessors?

Flaws in the analysis and suggested remedies suggest not.

The Prime Minister began by extolling the virtue of Britain as a successful multi-ethnic, multi-faith society. A “beacon to the world” he called it.

But then went on to make clear Britain isn’t so well integrated after all.

If it were, he wouldn’t have returned to a common theme of his that one of the main problems fuelling Islamic extremism is that there are people in Britain – many born and bred – who don’t share British values.

Those, he argued, are based on liberal values of democracy, freedom and equality.

He then went on to say the government and British society needs to enforce those liberal values. Can values be liberal if they are enforced? Is there not a contradiction there?

But then rather strikingly he only used the word tolerance when he condemned “passive tolerance” of things like forced marriage and female genital mutilation.

This confusion perhaps explains another weakness in the government’s approach.

Cameron correctly identifies Islamic extremism as an ideology, but goes on to argue that if you hold certain ideas, that facilitates violence.

Try this: “We’ve got to show that if you say “yes I condemn terror – but the Kuffar are inferior”, or “violence in London isn’t justified, but suicide bombs in Israel are a different matter” – then you too are part of the problem”

Or this: “… you don’t have to support violence to subscribe to certain intolerant ideas which create a climate in which extremists can flourish.”

The danger here is the Prime Minister is essentially saying some ideas – rather than actions – are impermissible in a democratic, liberal society.

This threatens to undermine the very values Cameron says he is defending.

It is also counter-productive.

If people hold certain ideas and there’s no democratic space for them to make their arguments and enjoy the same freedom as others to think what they like, there is a danger they may be even more likely to turn to violence.

The speech laid repeated emphasis on conspiracy theories as a cause of violent extremism, but denied the role of western foreign policy in alienating young Muslims.

He made selective references to Somalia, Kosovo and Bosnia, where western intervention has sided with Muslims, but failed to even mention Israel/Palestine where Cameron – along with other western leaders – has done little to pressure Israel to end its brutal occupation.

His most confused argument was that because 9/11 – where many Britons were killed – preceded the Iraq invasion then Iraq should not be seen as a cause of Muslim anger. Does he think his audience hasn’t read about how the Bush Administration used 9/11 to galvanise support for the Iraq invasion even though Baghdad had nothing to do with attacks on New York and Washington?

He also failed to address another cause of anger among Muslims – the hundreds of thousands who have died in the wake of western intervention or at the hands of local allies of the West.

And telling young British Muslims IS is brutal and extreme risks patronizing them. After all, IS doesn’t hide it. It revels in its brutality, disseminating images of its murderous actions as part of a deliberate propaganda strategy.

Despite saying the problem isn’t Islam, the fundamental flaw in Cameron’s framing of his argument is it fuels the impression there is a problem with Muslims – they are somehow ‘other’. This threatens to further alienate many Muslims and confirm prejudices and preconceptions of non-Muslims.

This is something governments resisted doing regarding the Irish community when the IRA campaign was at its height in the 1970s and 80s

Instead of making speeches with obviously contestable assertions and arguments, the Prime Minister would be better advised to put more resources into understanding what leads people who hold certain views – be they Islamist or far-right – to turn to suicide bombing and terrorism.

Research that’s been done so far suggests a complex cocktail of the political and social, as well as personal psychology and experience, is responsible.

Unfortunately, this complexity doesn’t brook simple solutions. It also requires greater honesty and self-awareness from western politicians, like David Cameron and Manuel Valls, of the impact of past and present policy on Muslims – both at home and abroad.

Pope Francis: the nearest we have to a world statesman?

Pope Francis is pulling in the crowds on his tour of Latin America.

At his first stop in Ecuador, 800,000 people are estimated to have turned out for mass in the city of Guayaquil. Not bad for a country of only 16 million people.

Francis’s conservative predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II, were also capable of attracting large numbers of the faithful on their international trips, but the messages they delivered to their followers were somewhat different.

Where they were conservatives who took a hard-line on issues such as divorce and homosexuality, Francis seems intent on reaching out to Catholics who have become disillusioned with the Church’s rejection of contemporary social mores.

But the current Pope goes one step further, appealing to non-Catholics as well with his calls for action on issues of global importance, like climate change and what – on his recent visit to Bosnia – he called an atmosphere of war across the world which is shattering countless lives.

Francis lives modestly – in an overt kind of way – and has also identified himself with opponents of what he calls unbridled capitalism and inequality and had himself photographed for the International Labour Organisation’s campaign against child labour.

While continuing to oppose gay marriage, he also attracted attention when he indicated a more tolerant attitude to homosexuality when he told journalists: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?”

The Argentine pontiff has shown a gift for communication and memorable quotes, and with more than 12 million followers on Twitter he reaches the parts previous Popes couldn’t reach.

His sense of humour and penchant for self-deprecation was immediately apparent the night of his election when he toasted his fellow cardinals with “May God forgive you for what you’ve done”.

But he uses all this to serious ends and is provoking global discussion on things that matter, something that is attracting serious admiration from people, particularly progressives, who may well have run a mile the Catholic Church in the past.

Clearly, the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio has a sharp mind and is talking about issues close to many hearts. He also has charisma.

But I think Pope Francis also stands out because other world leaders have been found wanting.

Think of the alternatives.

President Obama was elected 7 years ago promising change and the audacity of hope, but has singularly failed to meet the expectations he raised. From the absurdly premature Nobel Peace Prize he got – seemingly for simply not being George W Bush – and the famous Cairo speech where he called for a new start with the world’s Muslims, it has been pretty much downhill. His appeal especially eroded by his preference for using drones to kill people in other countries he identifies as America’s enemies – as well as uncounted others who just happen to be nearby – and the world-wide, industrial-scale spying by US intelligence agency, the NSA, revealed by Edward Snowden.

Focussed as he seems to be on Russia’s narrow interests and lacking much in the way of soft power skills, President Putin attracts little admiration, if some grudging respect.

China’s President, Xi Jinping, has emerged as his country’s most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping, but given his focus on national economic development and the re-assertion of Chinese influence, he is yet to show he has a message with global appeal.

Europe’s most powerful leader, Chancellor Merkel, may have a reassuring effect on German voters who have dubbed her Mutti (Mummy), but the Greek crisis has cruelly exposed her limitations as more than a national leader – and none of her European counterparts shows any more knack for statesmanship.

Then there’s the UN Secretary General who’s meant partly to embody the world’s conscience. Ban Ki-moon has been game for a bit of self-deprecation of his own – performing Gangnam style with his compatriot Psy and making a spoof film on the NSA revelations for the UN correspondents dinner – but his civil servant’s demeanour fails to inspire. How many remember Ban made climate change his signature issue in his first term?

If Pope Francis continues to sound relevant to Catholic and non-Catholic alike, and is able to see off the still powerful conservative forces in the Church before he steps down or dies – a big if as he is 78 after all – then he could act as a catalyst for social change and help the World find a way to deal with the challenges it faces from global warming to growing inequality.

Europe: more than fraying at the edges

The EU is teetering on the brink of Grexit as the two sides continue to play a momentous game of chicken.

On Sunday, Greeks will be voting in their referendum on whether or not to accept the conditions the EU and IMF have put on giving the country another bailout – and the polls are so finely balanced it’s too close to call.

Germany’s Chancellor Merkel has said no one should tell the Greeks how to vote, but then went on to make clear a “no” means Greece leaving the Euro, so no pressure there then.

Greece’s anti-austerity government on the other hand is pushing for that “no” arguing it will strengthen their negotiating hand. Prime Minister Tsipras seems to be banking on fear of the unpredictable effects of Grexit to force the rest of the Eurozone back to the table.

There has been much talk of Europe fraying at the edges if Greece is forced out of the Euro with some even suggesting Athens will be end up leaving the EU altogether.

But that risks understating the depth of the crisis facing the Union.

What is happening with Greece is a symptom of something that’s eating away at the EU’s very foundations and the glue that binds the 28 nations together is in danger of dissolving.

You have to go back and ask yourself why Europeans created their unique organisation in the first place.

Before 1945, the people of the continent had spent centuries killing each other in the name of king, then country and – in some cases – both and that’s not to mention the wars of religion.

After the devastation and slaughter of World War Two, European leaders – especially in France and Germany – finally woke up to the fact that there must be a better of doing things and started building what has now become the European Union by creating a common market for coal and steel which quickly became the European Economic Community.

In so doing they were appealing to enlightened economic self-interest, but behind the project there was a more altruistic impulse too – to end the threat of war between Europeans by appealing to a sense of solidarity. The idea that what Europeans have in common is much more important than what divides them.

And like Araldite, the glue holding the EU together needs two elements to make a strong bond – that combination of enlightened self-interest and solidarity.

It’s this that has brought many benefits like the ability to live and work anywhere in the EU, something I took advantage of in the early 80s when I left recession-hit Britain to work in Italy – how things have changed, as you see when ordering your cappuccino or latte in a London coffee bar.

But the Europe-wide economic crisis of recent years has chipped away at the sense of solidarity underpinning the EU.

The Greek debt saga has both exposed and fuelled this.

Basically, the German government is unwilling to ask its taxpayers to write off the loans they’ve made to Greece to keep it afloat while it tries to find a way to pay its debts, a form of solidarity that’s called fiscal transfer in economist-speak.

And you can understand why Germans wouldn’t want to do this. After all, Greece has been living beyond its means for years and when borrowing became easier after it joined the Euro because of lower interest rates, Athens continued splurging.

On the other hand, German and other banks were happy to lend to Greece knowing it had a dodgy credit history. This is a country that’s struggled to remain solvent ever since independence in 1832.

It’s also important to point out that the Greek bailout in 2010 was also a bail out for those banks as EU governments, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund basically took on the Greek debt.

But this is a complex argument the German government for one is unwilling to make to its people, so they haven’t and instead blamed it all on profligate Greeks. So it’s not just the usual suspects of the nationalist and populist right like UKIP and Front National who are responsible.

Yet EU solidarity is not just being undermined by the Greek debt crisis

The influx of thousands of migrants crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa is also playing its part.

They are making for the nearest EU countries, mainly Italy and – by unfortunate coincidence – Greece, and they are struggling to cope with the numbers. The European Commission came up with a plan for all 28 countries to relieve the burden on Rome and Athens. After acrimonious talks, where calls for solidarity and responsibility were bandied about, most countries agreed to take a share of asylum-seekers, but some, including Britain, Denmark and Hungary, refused to play ball.

According to some in the room, Italy’s Prime Minister Renzi didn’t mince his words exclaiming at one point: “If this is your idea of Europe, you can keep it. Either there is solidarity, or you don’t waste our time”.

Which kind of sums it up.

If Europeans don’t rediscover the balance between self-interest and solidarity soon, the EU faces an existential threat at its core, which will make external challenges like a resurgent Russia and spill over from chaos in the Arab world look like local difficulties.

 

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