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SDGs? What are those?

The world has come together at the UN General Assembly to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals – 17 of them in fact.

But if you rely on mainstream media you may have missed the news, given coverage – including by my former colleagues in the BBC – has been relatively limited despite coverage of the Pope’s speech.

The SDGs are a commitment by all 193 UN members to eradicate poverty by 2030 by meeting people’s economic, health, education and social needs while protecting the environment.

They are much broader and more ambitious than the Millennium Development Goals they replace. The 8 MDGs, not all of which were achieved, were aimed at ending extreme poverty but lacked the environmental focus – the sustainable bit.

The SDGs have been a few years in the making and you can understand why journalists – apart from some specialist correspondents – were not interested in the process of how they were drawn up and agreed upon.

But the Goals are designed to address some of the most important challenges facing humanity and now they have been officially adopted by all the UN member states which represent most of people on the planet, the media, with a few honourable exceptions, is failing in its responsibility to inform those same people what they are and what their leaders have committed to do.

The UN, some governments and activists are not waiting around for the penny to drop.

They are using social media to get the message out about the #GlobalGoals and there is an imaginative global campaign, Project Everyone, devised by a team led by filmmaker, Richard Curtis, involving schools, cinemas and, among other things, music festivals hosted by leading celebrities aimed at making sure people around the world are aware of the SDGs and inspired to support them.

While journalists have a duty to remain independent and retain the necessary perspective to report objectively, they should give stories about the Goals, and the campaign to promote them, the prominence they merit given what is at stake for the people who read, watch and listen to them.

As things stand, public awareness is pretty limited and there is clearly a job of informing to do. And while social media is essential in this, traditional media still has an important role to play.

So why hasn’t there been more prominent coverage?

One basic reason is that many journalists themselves aren’t sure what the SDGs are and so haven’t appreciated the significance of what has been agreed.

Then there is the scope of what the Goals encompass – there are 17 of them and 169 targets to be used to assess progress towards them.

Journalists like stories to fit into categories. That’s a business story, that’s a science story, etc. But the SDGs as a whole don’t fit neatly. They cover issues including health, education, environment, business and social policy and summarising them requires thought and care in a profession where the pressure of limited resources and tight deadlines means there is less and less time to do that thinking.

But this isn’t really an excuse.

Some years ago, for instance, when the BBC’s business reporting was subject to criticism, the corporation’s journalists were expected to bone up on the subject as part of an effort to address the shortcomings.

Media organisations – and journalists generally – should have been taking their professional duty more to heart and doing the same to improve their reporting of development and environment issues.

When a nameless veteran reporter is quoted as offering the excuse that SDG sounds too similar to STD, you know you have a problem.

Apart from doing their homework on the Goals, part of the solution to ensure better coverage could be for journalists to think more creatively about the categories they divide stories into.

Instead of pigeonholing stories as “Environment” or “Development”, it has been suggested to me they could, for instance, think in terms of stories that relate to “People and Planet”.

There is the not unreasonable expectation that the media make an effort to publicise the Goals and find ways to make them accessible to their audiences.

As the UN Secretary General’s Special Adviser on Post-2015 Development Planning (yes I know it’s a mouthful), Amina Mohammed, told Reuters: “it’s not being handed to you on a platter”.

Over the coming weeks and years let’s hope journalists and editors rise to this challenge.

 

 

 

 

Corbyn’s foreign policy: the radical change?

Forget the media labels “far-left” or “hard-left”, in terms of economic policy is the new Labour leader any more to the left than say George Osborne or Boris Johnson are to the right?

Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity ideas are in many ways quite conventional Keynesian economics not that far removed from those advocated by the Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman.

Where Corbyn holds views that are a more obvious break with both past British governments and his own Labour Party is in foreign policy. In this sense it’s not surprising it was disagreements in this area that led several former shadow ministers to refuse to serve under him.

Barring the three years when Michael Foot led the party in the early 1980s, since 1945 Labour has been led by Atlanticists who see close relations with the US, the possession of nuclear weapons and membership of NATO and the EU as central to Britain’s place in the world.

Corbyn has been compared with Foot, but it’s hard to imagine him making the speech Foot did supporting British military action over the Falklands in 1982. His role in the Stop The War coalition opposing military interventions abroad and his advocacy of withdrawal from NATO makes comparisons with George Lansbury, the pacifist who led the party between 1932 and 1935, more apposite.

And even if he never makes it into government, as Leader of the Opposition his approach to foreign policy matters.

Through parliamentary debates and votes he can have a direct influence on policy as his predecessor Ed Miliband showed when he opted to vote against military action in Syria in 2013.

Also, as the main spokesperson for the UK’s main opposition party his positions on the international issues of the day will influence perceptions of Britain in the world.

The three areas where Corbyn is likely to have influence in the next few years are the main ones in Prime Minister Cameron’s in-tray: the renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership and subsequent referendum; the decision whether or not to replace Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons; and if British forces should join the US-led military action against Islamic State in Syria.

During his leadership campaign, Jeremy Corbyn told journalists he had voted to leave what was then the EEC in the 1975 referendum and he sent out mixed signals about his approach to the next vote, which could be held as early as next year.

But since his victory Corbyn’s position has come under intense scrutiny and he has committed to campaign for Britain to remain a member.

As he laid out in a Financial Times Op Ed, his misgivings about today’s EU are based on its approach to economic policy which he identifies, quite correctly, as dominated by neo-liberal ideas. He wants to see greater protection for social and employment rights and will push Cameron to include these in his renegotiation.

This is counter to the agenda the Prime Minister is currently pursuing. So if Cameron gets most of what he wants in his renegotiation and recommends a ‘’Yes” vote, it could put Labour in a tricky position.

Corbyn’s FT article gives a clue to his likely approach to the vote. He implies Labour would also campaign for a “Yes” while at the same time promising to renegotiate a better deal when they return to power.

If that is the position he takes, it risks not only being a confusing message, but is also likely to be regarded as unrealistic given Britain’s EU partners, having just finished a painful renegotiation with Cameron, will be highly unlikely to agree to an incoming Labour government’s request for yet more special treatment for the UK.

On Syria, Cameron has already announced a drone was used to kill two British citizens fighting with IS who, he said, were a direct threat to the UK, but full-scale air strikes would have to get parliamentary approval.

Here Corbyn will have some sway.

If the government opts to take action, the Labour leader has made clear he will oppose it. The SNP would also vote against. So the result would hinge on how many Labour MPs broke ranks with their leader to back Cameron and how many Tories rebel against the government – in 2013, remember, thirty of his own MPs defied the Prime Minister on Syria. The final tally could depend on how well Corbyn argues the case against action to the House of Commons.

Then there’s the final decision on the replacement of Trident, expected to be made next year.

When Britain opted to replace Polaris with Trident in 1980, Cold War tensions were high following the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and public opinion was not persuaded by opponents like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and other activists.

This time public opinion seems more divided and polls where the people are told how much it would cost have shown majorities against replacement.

Cameron almost certainly has the votes in parliament, including some on the Labour side who would defy Corbyn if he whips the vote. But the platform the Labour leader now has to oppose the decision could help increase public opposition by galvanising a wider debate on the utility and affordability of nuclear weapons as well as the benefit Britain gets out of having them and could potentially reap from giving them up.

One other area where Corbyn has strong views is over Israel-Palestine, where he is a long-time critic of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Two years ago, Labour MPs led a symbolic vote in parliament to recognise Palestinian independence and the new leader can be expected to call for Britain to follow fellow EU member Sweden in officially recognising Palestine.

As things stand, it’s unlikely Cameron will take such action given his record of support for Israel, but another Israeli assault on Gaza or widespread unrest in the West Bank leading to violent Israeli repression could change that calculus.

All told, if the new Labour leader can broaden the appeal of his views on Britain’s role in the world among his parliamentary colleagues and the public, he could have an unexpected influence on UK foreign policy.

China’s big parade: evidence of expansionist threat or a normal great power?

For the first time ever, China has held a military parade, complete with its most modern missiles and watched over by 30 visiting Heads of State, to mark the defeat of Japan in 1945.

The decision to mount this display in the first place, and the way it was staged, tell us quite a bit about what Beijing intends to do with the new kit it showed off.

Many headlines in the West – whose leaders largely stayed away – framed the parade as an aggressive show of force. And there are loud voices among US military officials, commentators and politicians accusing Beijing of modernising its armed forces for nefarious purposes – namely territorial expansion.

Some of China’s neighbours, especially Japan and the Philippines which both dispute ownership of islands and atolls with China also level this charge.

They point to China’s rapidly increasing spending on its military and its more assertive approach to territorial disputes in the past five years as evidence.

In the past few months, they have focused criticism on Beijing’s island building programme in the South China Sea where small islands and atolls have been expanded and some equipped with airstrips capable of handling military aircraft.

But is this evidence of expansionism?

President Xi Jinping used his speech at the parade to try to reassure onlookers, announcing a 300,000 cut in the number of troops and insisting his is a peace-loving country.

While it’s true China’s defence spending has been rising at unprecedented rates, Beijing’s budget is still dwarfed by Washington’s, both in dollar terms and as a proportion of GDP.

Also, Beijing is not the first country to indulge in “island building” in the South China Sea, other claimants were at it before the Chinese, even if the scale of what Beijing has been doing is much larger.

At a recent conference dinner, I was at the same table as a well-known hawkish American commentator. The conversation turned to the South China Sea and the assumption behind most of the talk was China is an old-fashioned expansionist power which the US and its allies have to put in its place.

When I ventured the opinion that perhaps Beijing did not fit that mould, I was literally scoffed at.

But if you compare American and Chinese history there is a big difference – in both motivation and approach.

One of the messages President Xi is sending with the September 3rd parade is that China will stand up for itself and never again allow itself to be invaded and intimidated.

It’s easy for non-Chinese to forget how the country was invaded, first by the British who seized Hong Kong in the Opium war of 1839-42 and culminating in the full-scale Japanese assault of 1937 with its accompanying atrocities and the death of up to 20 million Chinese. What is called “the century of humiliation” in China.

The territorial claims Beijing makes today are also based on its interpretation of history, rather than a future scheme to conquer its neighbours.

The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands it disputes with Japan in the East China Sea are nearer Taiwan than Japan and were taken by force by Tokyo during war with China in the 1890s. China argues they should have been returned after 1945 under the Potsdam Declaration.

Instead the US kept them, using the islands as firing ranges until 1972 when it returned them to Japan which by that time had become a close American ally.

The Chinese also argue their claims in the South China Sea are historical, although these are a lot vaguer than those in the East China Sea.

Compare that with the United States.

It grew from the original thirteen colonies on the East Coast to include Hawaii, 2,400 miles from the West Coast.

The justification for this expansion – much of which was achieved by military conquest – wasn’t history. It was the nineteenth century idea of Manifest Destiny – that despite the presence of indigenous peoples, Americans had a God-given right to take the land they wanted.

It was a powerful, unequivocally expansionist ideology.

Washington has never really looked back and today its military bases have spread to at least 74 countries and its navy patrols the world’s seaways unhindered.

It routinely sends spy planes and ships right up to the territorial waters of other countries, including of course China. When others do the same to the US – and Chinese ships were sighted off Alaska at the same time it was parading military hardware through Tiananmen Square – the Americans don’t exactly welcome it.

The modernisation of China’s armed forces and its assertion of its maritime claims can be seen as normal business for a large country with an economy dependent on oil imports which have to pass through the South China Sea.

To its east, there’s no doubt Beijing is also trying to develop the military capability to prevent US forces from intervening to stop it retaking Taiwan – if it ever judges its attempt at gradual, peaceful reunification has failed. Although, Beijing sees this as completing its historic mission to win back all the territory lost in the recent past.

This doesn’t mean a rising China isn’t capable of aggression.

It does mean its territorial ambitions are probably much more limited than some seem to fear and Washington’s ever were.

Europe’s migrants: urgency and empathy needed

The 71 migrants thought to be Syrians – among them four children – found suffocated to death in a truck in Austria have added to the terrible toll of more than 2,400 people the UN says have drowned in the Mediterranean so far this year trying to get to the EU.

Events around Europe the day the bodies in the lorry were discovered serve to highlight both the sluggish and mean-spirited reaction in Europe to the thousands of people fleeing conflict and repression in the Middle East and Africa.

German Chancellor Merkel and EU Foreign Policy Chief Mogherini were holding a summit in Vienna with leaders from Austria, Greece, Italy and the Western Balkans when news of the gruesome discovery came through.

The meeting was already intended largely to discuss how to cope with the numbers of migrants passing through the region on their way to the EU. And while the expressions of shock from the leaders present were no doubt sincere, the fact the meeting was being held in late August when the flow of migrants began several months ago speaks volumes for the lack of urgency with which EU leaders have addressed the migration crisis.

It’s two months since they agreed in principle – with the exception of the UK, Hungary and Denmark – to share the burden of resettling asylum seekers. But as the numbers of migrants – and the number of deaths – has continued to climb, governments have continued to haggle over the details.

To her credit, Angela Merkel does now seem to have got the message. She has recently condemned as “shameful” an attack on a refugee centre in her own country and reacted to news of the latest deaths by saying “this reminds us that we in Europe need to tackle the problem quickly and find solutions in the spirit of solidarity”.

But will other European leaders follow suit?

In the UK, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, has faced criticism for using inflammatory language talking of “a swarm of people” trying to reach the UK and his Foreign Secretary, Phillip Hammond, said migrants were “marauding” around the continent.

This is despite the fact the numbers trying to get to Britain are far lower than those trying to get to Germany – for every one Syrian applying for asylum in the UK, Germany receives 27 applications.

But the political and media climate in several countries shows it is not just governments that are falling short.

The same day the 71 bodies were discovered, the UK media was full of negative headlines criticising the government for failing to control immigration.

In his first term, responding to pressure from the press and opinion polls showing increasing public concern over immigration, Cameron promised to cut net immigration to under 100,000 a year. But the latest figures show his government is still a long way from that target. Net immigration has reached   330,000 and one in eight people now living in Britain was born outside the country.

Many journalists tend to conflate asylum-seekers and other migrants and the tone and emphasis of much of the coverage of migration this summer, especially since the disruption to cross channel links caused by migrants at Calais trying to get to Britain, has been – to put it politely – lacking in empathy.

In many reports you could be forgiven for forgetting many of these migrants are fellow human beings who have risked their lives to escape Syria, Iraq, Eritrea or Sudan and make their way to Europe to seek sanctuary.

Britain isn’t the only country where the politicians and journalists are neglecting the better angels of their nature.

Hungary, which is on the main migrant land route, has built a – largely ineffectual – fence to keep asylum seekers out. Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, didn’t even bother to go the Vienna meeting and his party responded to the discovery of the bodies in the truck, which was registered in Hungary, by laying the blame on the EU.

Unless Europe finds the political will and humanity to respond urgently and on the necessary scale to the flow of migrants, more people are going to end up dying.

But with the penny having seemingly dropped with Chancellor Merkel, Berlin appears to have decided it now has to act.

Germany is after all the preferred destination of most of the migrants with the country reportedly expecting up to 800,000 this year alone.

The country has also experienced mass influxes before in living memory.

In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and the Nazis’ depredations in Eastern Europe, millions of ethnic Germans fled or were expelled from the region and were given refuge in their ancestral homeland. So, perhaps Germans are better able to feel sympathy for those fleeing conflict and oppression today.

Senior EU officials are also expressing optimism member states’ resistance to agreeing to accept quotas of asylum seekers is weakening as the death toll mounts.

We will see if the combination of German leadership and tragic news will galvanise other EU leaders and their citizens to respond to the needs of the moment with greater generosity and urgency.

Japan: sorry seems to be the hardest word …. to accept

Imagine German Chancellor Merkel visiting a war memorial honouring senior Nazis. You can’t, can you?

Yet Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has done the equivalent, visiting the Yasukuni Shrine where high profile war criminals are commemorated.

His last visit in December 2013 met with loud protests from Japan’s neighbours China and South Korea who arguably suffered the brunt of Tokyo’s empire building in the first half of the last century. Even close ally the US tut-tutted about it.

Hoping to avoid another row, Abe has not visited since, but apparently tone deaf to the way this is perceived abroad, he has sent offerings, including on the anniversary last year of the end of World War 2 when the Japanese Emperor announced the surrender to the Allies on August 15th 1945.

This matters in the here and now because it adds to tensions in East Asia that are already rising as China’s growing power sees it trying to reassert its influence, upsetting the US-led post-war order in the region.

In the run up to this year’s 70th anniversary of the end of the War, there was much speculation about what Abe would say in his speech to mark the milestone.

Would a man known for his nationalism and whose own grandfather served in the wartime military government stand by the statements of several of his predecessors and apologise for Japan’s aggression and the suffering it wrought on its neighbours during its brutal invasions and occupation?

In the event he largely did.

He expressed “deep remorse and heartfelt apology”. He used key words like “aggression” and “invasion” that his critics were listening for. In the Q & A with journalists after the speech he also said he stood by the Murayama Statement, considered the benchmark for Japanese apologies.

However, if Abe was wishing to avoid criticism for being less than fulsome in his sentiments, there was more than one hostage to fortune.

The language he used to describe ‘’comfort women” – the euphemism used to describe the women, many of them Korean, who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military – was a bit oblique, talking of women “whose honour and dignity were severely injured”.

He also rather unnecessarily sought to explain – some would say justify – Japanese expansionism by saying the Great Depression of the 1930s and protectionism by western countries and empires isolated Japan and led to Tokyo resorting to war.

While there is some truth in this, you can rightly quibble with this interpretation given Japanese expansionism began well before the 1930s when they seized Taiwan from China in 1895 and occupied Korea in 1910.

But ultimately these equivocations are by the by.

Japanese leaders have repeatedly apologised for their country’s aggression and wartime actions and yet they have failed to convince many, especially in China and South Korea (it’s difficult to know what North Koreans think) that they are really sincere.

Germany is often held up as the example for Japan to follow.

Germans – despite the recent flare up of name calling over the Greek debt crisis – have successfully reconciled with their neighbours and largely been forgiven for the aggression and atrocities committed by the Nazis.

What explains the difference?

There is that lingering sense in Japan that western economic protectionism pushed the country into a corner in the 1930s, even if the resort to war by Tokyo was misguided.

The remorseless bombing of Japanese civilians during the War, including the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, may also help to explain why there is a stronger sense of victimhood in Japan than in Germany, where the Allies also directly targeted civilians.

Then there’s a heavy dose of politics and diplomacy.

In Europe, the Cold War led to reconciliation between European countries because Germany was central to the project of building a strong, united Western Europe as a counter to the USSR.

In Asia meanwhile, attempts at reconciliation took a back seat as the US built up Japan as a base against the spread of Communism after Mao’s victory in the Chinese civil war in 1949 and the Korean War in the early 1950s.

Japan didn’t establish diplomatic relations with China until 1972 and even then people to people contacts remained limited and the two governments avoided much discussion of the past in the interests of improving economic ties.

In more recent years, leaders in China and South Korea have used nationalist sentiment against Japan to bolster political support at home and Japanese leaders, especially Abe, have harnessed apprehension of growing Chinese power for similar purposes.

All this doesn’t mean the Prime Minister should not have apologised again in his 70th anniversary statement.

But it does mean that more needs to be done on all sides to overcome the bitterness of the past.

It also means if Abe – and others on the right in Japan – want their remorse and apologies to be accepted, they need to make sure their actions reinforce the message and don’t contradict it.

In other words, Japanese leaders need to stop visiting or sending offerings to Yasukuni or trying to imply that the aggression and atrocities of the past were somehow explainable at the time.

Yemen: proxy war and war by proxy

There’s more than one nasty war going on in the Arab world.

Iraq and Syria get most of the headlines in western media given the current focus on the threat from Islamic State to European and American interests and citizens, as well as the direct involvement of western military forces in the campaign against IS.

But there’s also a war going on in Yemen, which since neighbouring Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies intervened in March has claimed nearly 2,000 lives and caused a humanitarian crisis as Saudi forces have imposed a tight blockade on much of the country.

The Saudi-led coalition intervened when the complex on-going Yemeni civil war appeared to shift decisively against the government of President Hadi and in favour of Houthi rebels – Shi’ites seen as close to Iran.

The fighting appears to have escalated with Houthi forces being driven out of the strategically important port of Aden and a nearby airbase (which the US has used in the past to carry out drone strikes on al-Qaeda and its allies in Yemen and the region – told you it was complicated).

Reliable press reports suggest what seems to have turned the tables on the Houthis is the recent arrival of ground troops – both regular and special forces -from the Saudi-led coalition.

Saudi Arabia has also been funding Sunni rebel groups in Syria against President Assad, while Iran – rather than Russia – has been the main source of foreign support for the beleaguered Syrian government.

This aspect of the Syrian conflict is very much an old-fashioned proxy war and it has added greatly to the complexity and destructiveness of what is also a civil war.

The parallels with Yemen are clear. Though unlike Syria, Yemen is next door to Saudi Arabia and so direct intervention is a practical option.

To Sunni Saudi eyes, the Shia Houthis are like the Syrian government, which is dominated by Alawites, a branch of Shia Islam. They are apostates and allies of Riyadh’s great Shia rival for influence in Middle East – Iran.

But the Saudis are not freelancing. Its coalition’s intervention has the full backing of the United States, which is supplying arms and intelligence.

The US Navy has also been deployed off Yemen to prevent Iranian ships docking, citing suspicions they may be carrying arms for the Houthis.

So for Washington, Yemen is more like war by proxy against Iran.

In this way it resembles some of the conflicts of the Cold War where the US backed one side and the Soviet Union another.

What is also striking is the absence of any talk of “humanitarian intervention”.

There have been “humanitarian pauses” in Yemen where the two sides have agreed to (frequently broken) ceasefires to allow delivery of aid to civilians by the UN and NGOs.

But there has been no hiding that the intervention in Yemen is part of a good old-fashioned, geo-political power struggle.

Saudi Arabia moved when it thought its side was losing.

Perhaps after the debacle of Libya where the Responsibility to Protect was invoked and NATO, endorsed by the UN Security Council, intervened leading to the overthrow of Colonel Gadaffi and the country’s collapse into its current anarchic state, there is a realisation the humanitarian rhetoric just doesn’t wash any more.

Also, since Libya there’s been Syria.

If anything has demonstrated that the era of Sierra Leone and Kosovo in the late 1990s where western intervention in local conflicts was justified on moral grounds has passed, it is the international response to the Syrian conflict.

Instead of trying to help end an escalating civil war, the US, its western and Turkish allies took sides early against President Assad, who has been backed by Iran and Russia.

Despite this though, there has been a reluctance to get directly involved in the battle against Assad. Instead, the US has used its diplomatic muscle to try to undermine his government’s international legitimacy and support his non-Islamist opponents, as well as ill-fated efforts to train so-called moderate rebels.

For their part, Moscow and Tehran have propped Damascus up with arms – and in Iran’s case with money and military advisors.

In all this, the humanitarian interests of Syrian civilians have seemingly counted for a lot less than the struggle over the fate of President Assad.

The UN-led aid operation to help those forced to flee their homes has been chronically underfunded and most western countries have been reluctant to accept Syrian refugees – helping to drive the surge in migrants trying to get into the EU by any means.

So as the World continues its transition from one dominated by the US to one where there are competing centres of power prepared to back different sides in conflicts – and stymie UN action when their interests are directly involved – we can expect to become more familiar with proxy wars and wars by proxy like the one in Yemen.

PS

I was going to write about the EU migrant crisis this week but could not have said anything more poignant than my friend and former colleague, Robin Lustig. You can read his blog here.

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.

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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