Stephen Booth: Brexit’s legacy, the Northern Ireland Protocol, small boats – and Britain’s tense relationship with Macron

5 May

Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.

To the relief of the French and European establishment, Emmanuel Macron’s re-election makes him the first two-term French President in 20 years since Jacques Chirac. However, the 17-point margin of his victory over Marine Le Pen does not tell the whole story. Voter turnout was the lowest in a presidential run-off since 1969 and Le Pen increased her vote tally from 10.6 million in the second round in 2017 to 13.2 million this time around.

It is probable that Macron will secure a working majority in the National Assembly elections in June. But with such a high percentage of disaffected voters on the left and the right, and both camps opposed to giving Macron a mandate to pursue his economic reforms, surprises cannot be ruled out.

Five years is a long time in politics. However, the nature of Macron’s victory and the trend towards polarisation of the French political system does beg the question of what his domestic legacy will be. Having decimated the traditional centre-left and centre-right parties, which has allowed the fringes on the left and right to flourish, can the centre produce a successor to Macron in 2027?

Nevertheless, in the immediate term, Macron will feel that his victory puts him in the ascendency on the European stage and he will continue have a strong influence over the direction of the EU, including on relations with the UK. Hopes of a swift reset of Anglo-French relations following Macron’s re-election look unlikely to materialise. France’s Finance Minister, Bruno Le Maire, made a point of telling reporters after Macron’s victory that “our first challenge will not be the relationship between the UK and France.”

Macron is likely to double down on his vision for EU integration and “strategic autonomy”. He has some like-minded allies for this agenda, such as Italy’s Prime Minister, Mario Draghi, who this week called for “pragmatic federalism” in the fields of economy, energy, and security and defence.

However, in security and foreign policy, Macron could struggle to assert French leadership within the EU as he would like. The crisis in Ukraine has strengthened the position of key UK allies, particularly among the Nordics, Baltics, and several Eastern countries, that EU policy must not undermine or be in competition with NATO. Macron’s previous efforts to open a seemingly unilateral dialogue with Vladimir Putin and his ambivalence towards US leadership of NATO continue to make them suspicious of French strategic direction in this area.

The Prime Minister’s leadership on Ukraine has built up goodwill towards the UK in many of these countries, and the UK should continue to work with these nations on making the case that European security cooperation should enhance rather than detract from NATO. The UK’s response to Ukraine illustrates that Global Britain does not come at the expense of a commitment to European security and prosperity in the most fundamental sense.

Clearly, there remain difficult issues between the UK and France where Macron appears reluctant to help. For example, notwithstanding the Government’s new policies to tackle people smuggling and illegal cross-Channel migrant crossings on small boats, the problem would be much more easily addressed through French cooperation to stop the perilous crossings at source on the French coast. However, politically, this remains a bigger problem for the Government than for Macron.

Meanwhile, France remains strongly opposed to a softening of the EU’s stance in the talks on the Northern Ireland Protocol. The Queen’s Speech on 10 May is expected to include plans for a bill giving the Government new powers to replace parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol unilaterally, in an effort to break the impasse.

The UK should brace itself for a political reaction from Brussels, but it should continue to underline its overriding responsibility to uphold the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. It should emphasise to its allies, in the EU and outside it, that a new political bargain that commands the consent of both communities in Northern Ireland is in the wider European interest and trumps the narrow focus on the EU’s technocratic regulatory order.

With growing fears over unfair Chinese competition and supply chain resilience resulting from the experience of the pandemic, France’s calls for a more interventionist and strategic EU industrial policy may find an increasingly receptive audience. This could have implications for economic competition and cooperation between the UK and the EU, particularly in strategic technological and energy sectors.

The UK should work with Germany to ensure that a renewed EU focus on resilience does not spiral into a form of protectionism that strains UK-EU economic relations further. Germany’s Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, is still bedding into the leadership role vacated by Angela Merkel. His three-way coalition is in the process of dramatically changing the course of German foreign and energy policy in response to the war in Ukraine, and Berlin’s recent commitment to buy US F-35 jet aircraft illustrates that Germany will not necessarily instinctively “buy European”, as Macron would wish.

Meanwhile, despite the recent Anglo-French flashpoints, which also included the row over the AUKUS alliance, more amiable bilateral relations in several areas should be mutually advantageous. The UK should continue to emphasise that both countries remain important security partners within the NATO framework. Germany’s newfound appetite for defence spending may offer Macron another option on paper, but German strategic culture and its readiness to act is likely take far longer to change significantly.

Equally, the UK, unlike Germany, shares French enthusiasm for nuclear power as a means of bolstering domestic energy production. The UK would benefit from French industrial expertise and the UK offers a willing commercial partner.

Much has been made of the poor state of the Anglo-French relationship since Brexit. Personality clashes between Macron and Boris Johnson may well have something to do with it. However, the root remains the geopolitical fallout from Brexit, as viewed in London and in Paris, which are to be found in the concepts of Global Britain and EU strategic autonomy. Both countries therefore look set to continue to rub along uneasily, mixing elements of cooperation and competition along the way, but the UK has tools at its disposal to offer a constructive Anglo-French and UK-EU relationship.

Merkel’s appeasement of Putin is cast into savage relief by the atrocities in Ukraine

5 Apr

For many years Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany from 2005-2021, was acclaimed as one of the world’s great leaders. Liberal commentators lamented that British leadership in this period was so markedly inferior.

This was a thriving school of thought. In 2020 a book appeared, Why The Germans Do It Better: Notes From A Grown-Up Country, by John Kampfner, which in retrospect can be seen as the high point of this school.

German conservatism had produced Merkel, “easily the most respected democratic leader in the world”, while British conservatism had produced Boris Johnson.

She was a genius and the British Prime Minister was a buffoon. That was until recently the prevailing view in liberal circles.

Volodymyr Zelensky, President of Ukraine, has just addressed some remarks to Merkel and to her French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy, President of France from 2007-2012:

“I invite Mrs Merkel and Mr Sarkozy to visit Bucha and see what the policy of concessions to Russia has led to in 14 years. To see with their own eyes the tortured Ukrainian men and women.”

Merkel’s policy towards Russia has been reduced to a heap of rubble. When she took office in 2005, construction of the Nord Stream pipeline from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea had not begun.

She could have stopped the project, but said she did not want to upset the Social Democrats, with whom she had formed a coalition government.

From that day on, she rejected criticism of Nord Stream by insisting it was “an economic project”.

What her real motives were is difficult to say. Even she might be hard put, were she inclined to stop being disingenuous, to explain why she decided to deepen Germany’s reliance on Russian energy. But it seems pretty clear that domestic political considerations took precedence over strategic thinking.

In 2011 she deepened Germany’s reliance by announcing the shut down of the country’s remaining nuclear power stations. She did this in response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, caused by a tidal wave.

There are no tidal waves in Germany. Merkel, one was tempted to conclude, had done this to damage the Greens, who benefited from hostility among the German public to nuclear power.

Merkel remained in power for 16 years in part because she was so good at placing herself at the head of a domestic political consensus. She stole enough of her opponents’ clothes to leave them looking under-dressed.

Helmut Kohl, Chancellor from 1982-1998, had done the same in the 1990s when he replaced the German mark, proud symbol of West German recovery, with the euro. His opponents on the Left actually believed in this policy, while his followers on the Right, in the Christian Democratic Union, were forced to swallow their reservations and vote for it too.

The introduction of the euro was rendered more tolerable by arranging things in such a way as to be good for German exporters, though less good for the Greeks.

Merkel aroused deep misgivings among the Christian Democrats, whose leader she became in 2002. They were used to being led by Roman Catholic men from the Rhineland, and had no idea who this Lutheran woman from East Germany was, or what she was thinking, nor did she ever tell them.

She was eligible for the leadership not only on account of her acute feel for politics but because, unlike her rivals, she was not contaminated by undue proximity to Kohl, who was found to have operated an illegal network of donations and bank accounts.

While growing up in East Germany as the daughter of a Lutheran clergyman who had arrived there from the West, so was a figure of suspicion to the authorities, she began a successful career as a scientist, without actually joining the ruling communist party.

Merkel spoke excellent Russian and visited Moscow. She was not a dissident. She accommodated herself to the realities of power.

In due course she accommodated herself to the realities of being Chancellor. A cardinal point was to be on good terms with Moscow.

Her immediate predecessor as Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, a Social Democrat, had been on such good terms with Moscow that as soon as he stepped down, he got a wonderful job as Chairman of the Shareholders’ Committee of Nord Stream.

Merkel knew the Russians well, spoke their language and believed she could trust them. After all, they had withdrawn from East Germany without a shot being fired. As far as the Germans were concerned, the Russians had behaved in an exemplary fashion.

Members of the German political class could flatter themselves that they were no mere provincials. By dealing with Moscow, they were dealing with a great power.

So too by dealing with Beijing. Here too they were in the premier division, and were doing what German industry wanted. They had less time for countries like Ukraine, which would soon be cut out of the gas business by the Baltic pipeline.

It suited members the German political class to show they were not just in the pockets of the Americans, while allowing the Americans to pay the cost of their defence, should the Russians after all prove not quite so trustworthy.

Germany’s armed forces were run down into a pitiful condition. But surely the Russians would not do anything mad. Surely in the end they would be as prudent as the Germans.

Then Putin did something which was both mad and bad. He invaded Ukraine. Germany’s policy had been based on an illusion; on mere wishful thinking.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who had succeeded Merkel, broke with her policy, and said Germany would at last spend proper money on defence, in order to pull its weight within NATO.

Schröder is now a totally discredited figure. Merkel too is in a rather embarrassing position. Her spokesperson said that in view of “the atrocities becoming visible in Bucha and other places in Ukraine”, all efforts by the German government and international community to stand by Ukraine “and put an end to Russia’s barbarism” have her full support, as well they might.

We can now expect a reevaluation of Merkel’s 16 years in power. How respected she was at the time, and how discredited she now looks.

Sarah Atherton MP: Russia’s Ukraine war. We must review our army cuts, reconsider fracking – and park Net Zero

14 Mar

Sarah Atherton is a member of the Defence Select Committee and is MP for Wrexham.

The invasion of Ukraine is a dreadful, shameless crime, perpetrated by a corrupt leader entertaining a fantasy of rebuilding the old Soviet Union. In the same way that the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc were brought to an end by the brave people that lived there, we can only hope that Russia’s own people and the heroic people of Ukraine will defeat him. The occupation and destruction of a peaceful European nation in the twenty-first century is truly horrifying.

Events have also shown that the West and our shared defence aims have been left lacking: whilst Russia and China have built formidable military forces, used misinformation tactics to exert pressure and resorted to domestic genocide and international war crimes, one might say that the West has been too focused on woke minority issues.

There have also been signs of what was to come: the illegal annexation of Crimea, the Salisbury poisonings, and widespread allegations of election interference. But what did NATO do – as a defence organisation and military alliance – to counter these events?

Yes, there were stern words of condemnation and the expulsion of Russian diplomats, but the West’s responses to these events look now to have been lacking. If NATO is to prevent future aggressions, we must all have ‘big sticks’ to back up our words of diplomacy and our democracy.

Francis Fukuyama famously declared the post-Cold War era to be the ‘end of history’. There was an assumption that the threat of a European land war was over, and we have allowed ourselves to forget the hard-fought lessons of European history. We have sleepwalked into these current events, believing that the collapse of the Berlin Wall meant that we could take our eye off the defence of our nation. The ‘end of history’, the so-called ‘peace dividend’ of Thatcher and George H.W. Bush, has proved to be a false dawn.

Whilst I welcomed the recent Integrated Review and continue to believe it proposes a solid plan for the future, looking towards the Indo-Pacific whilst recognising the changing nature of warfare, we must fundamentally rethink our national and global aims in light of what has happened in Ukraine. The belief is that defence spending should be linked to the threat that the UK faces, and this is why I believe we should increase spending to at least three per cent of GDP. The Foreign Secretary said this recently, and I agree with her.

To start, we must reconsider the cuts to personnel – particularly to the infantry and our armoured capability.

But defence – and our nation’s safety – should also look at our reliance on foreign energy sources and supplies. To ensure that we are no longer reliant upon Russia, directly or indirectly, this Government has been right to rethink how we supply energy to our nation. Recent announcements are welcome but the Government must come up with more – and fast.

We must roll out a new generation of nuclear reactors, and quickly, and we should be re-assessing fracking and tidal enhancement. Radical new energy policies will take time to take effect, but the longer-term implications for energy security will be welcomed.

As part of this, we should also park, for the time being, the Net Zero endeavour. Of course, it can and should remain a long-term aim but ensuring that we can, as a nation, generate the energy we need without a reliance on overseas sources should come first.

In my constituency of Wrexham, we have a large and hardworking Polish community – the largest outside of London and a history dating back to World War Two. We should be engaging a similar welcoming spirit this time around by welcoming into our town, and nation, those displaced from Ukraine who are true European refugees and victims of Europe’s latest war. It is right that the Government are engaging and re-evaluating support for refugees as this crisis evolves.

The appalling invasion of a democratic and sovereign European nation in the twenty first century will change our lives forever. It has already caused a seismic shift in global politics. Just look at Germany, where Olaf Scholz’s has executed an about-turn on German domestic and international policy. Scholz’s decision to increase defence spending and cancel Nordstream 2 goes in the face of German political orthodoxy under Angela Merkel.

The Government is rightly considering how to act in the face of this new reality – because some of the decisions of 2021 are now up for debate.

Stephen Booth: Does Germany’s pledge to rearm signal fundamental change – or is it a temporary reflex?

10 Mar

Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.

The horror of Russia’s unprovoked and brutal full-scale invasion of Ukraine has been shocking in so many ways. Much about what happens next is uncertain, but the crisis is clearly a pivotal moment, which the West and its allies will be grappling with for many years to come. Vladimir Putin’s appalling actions have upended long-held assumptions about the geopolitics of Europe and are leading to radical and fundamental changes in policy, most starkly in Germany.

Germany has long been the EU’s economic powerhouse but, due in large part to its history, has eschewed a leadership role in European foreign and security policy, which have traditionally been roles for France and Britain. However, faced with the new reality, the new coalition government, headed by the centre-left SDP and supported by the Greens and the liberal FDP, is now embarking on a new course.

For weeks prior to the invasion, Berlin had maintained a longstanding policy of not delivering weapons to active conflict zones. Meanwhile, Olaf Scholz, the new Chancellor, had refused to say publicly if the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline would be scrapped if Russia moved into Ukraine. This position was increasingly unsustainable, and the pipeline was eventually suspended in response to Putin moving his forces into Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

A week later, Scholz’s speech to a special session of the Bundestag was the most striking illustration of how the crisis is altering the strategic outlook. Annalena Baerbock, the Green Foreign Minister, described it as a “180-degree turn” in the country’s foreign policy.

Scholz announced that Germany will now “year after year” meet the NATO target of investing more than two per cent of GDP in defence (up from around 1.5 per cent now) and will create a one-off €100 billion fund to modernise its under-resourced military. He committed Germany to NATO’s nuclear sharing, pledging to upgrade its outdated Tornado jets, and reversed the government’s opposition to providing weapons to Ukraine.

On energy, Scholz pledged to reduce dependence on Russian oil and gas, proposing new infrastructure to secure supply from other sources and providing economic support for consumers affected by the transition. There is however no plan to reverse the phase out of nuclear energy announced by Angela Merkel in 2011, which has prolonged German reliance on coal and Russian gas.

Nevertheless, the various policy announcements have overturned decades of German foreign policy and some fundamental tenets of the main political parties.

The SPD has been the party of “Ostpolitik” and has long seen engagement and interdependence with Russia as a key plank of German policy. The first gas pipeline between Germany and the then Soviet Union opened in 1973, under the then SPD Chancellor, Willy Brandt. Scholz also called on another former SPD Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, to resign from his posts at Russian firms, dismissing the argument that he is now a private citizen, noting that a chancellor’s public service doesn’t end when he leaves office.

The Greens have accepted the pledge to increase capacity for coal and gas reserves and build new liquid natural gas terminals to accelerate the move away from Russian gas. The party’s former leader, Robert Habeck, first raised the prospect of providing Ukraine with defensive weapons in May 2021, but this was controversial with the rest of his party and the increase to defence spending is a major departure from the party’s pacifist roots. The fiscally conservative FDP have accepted the need to take on new debt to modernise the military.

Equally, Friedrich Merz, leader of the largest opposition party, the centre-right Christian Democrats, and Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) came out with strong support for rearmament. This is significant, since investment foundered during the 16 years of CDU-led government under Angela Merkel. The breadth of cross-party support demonstrates the level of consensus behind this new direction.

These developments have been welcomed by Germany’s international partners, including the UK, who have long called on Berlin to shoulder a greater share of the security burden and re-evaluate its stance on Russia. Speaking to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee this week, Liz Truss said, “I want to praise Germany for their change in stand, because that will have a huge impact. I want to see others follow their lead.”

Delivering the new suite of German policies is certainly more easily said than done. For example, Scholz has so far resisted any EU embargo on Russian oil, judging this too risky a step, which only underlines the country’s dependence on Russian energy. The US and the UK, which announced embargos this week, are less reliant. The EU has instead announced a plan to cut Russian gas imports by two-thirds within a year.

Germany has been repeatedly criticised for free riding on others’ NATO commitments. The question is whether we are witnessing a temporary reflex to the current situation, or whether the political environment has fundamentally changed for the long-term. Just as Germany’s energy dependence on Russia cannot be reversed overnight, decades of drift into quasi-pacifism reflect a deeply embedded outlook. Will this moment mark a shift towards a new forward-leaning posture regarding security and the use of hard power as a deterrent?

But assuming it is a long-term commitment, the planned boost to German spending will make it the biggest defence spender in Europe. However reluctant it is to actively engage in geopolitics, this fact alone will matter by virtue of Germany’s size, history, and geographic position at the heart of the EU. A more assertive Berlin could potentially alter EU and wider European affairs significantly in the years to come.

Emmanuel Macron, who looks likely to be re-elected this spring, has been positioning France to take on the geopolitical leadership of Europe post-Brexit and post-Merkel. However, Scholz may yet become a more influential and decisive Chancellor than Merkel. Recent events will certainly have boosted the relationship between Berlin and Washington.

Macron’s bid for European leadership has centred on a push for EU “strategic autonomy”, but Germany, Eastern Europe, and the UK have been keener to emphasise NATO’s role in European security, which could suggest a stronger role for Atlanticism.

On the other hand, Germany is likely to be reluctant to lead from the front, and German governments have consistently sought to embed foreign policy in an integrated EU framework. The current coalition agreement proposes qualified majority voting for foreign and security policy, with a mechanism to reassure the smaller member states. If this moment marks the birth of a more geopolitical EU, its character and configuration remain up for grabs.

Meanwhile, the UK’s early role in providing military aid to Ukraine and its support for eastern NATO states has been welcomed by several EU members. Broadly, both UK and EU politicians have sought to emphasise how the crisis has demonstrated the need for and value of cooperation on fundamental issues of security and upholding democracy. Truss, along with her counterparts from the US, Canada, and Ukraine, attended the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council last week.

When pressed at the Foreign Affairs Committee, Truss refused to engage in speculation about whether new UK-EU structures in this area might be explored. However, she said, “We do need to re-look at European security architecture. It needs to be tougher, it needs to be stronger, there needs to be much stronger support on the Eastern flank.” The key part of the conversation is between the EU and NATO, she added.

For now the most pressing issue is the appalling unfolding humanitarian disaster in Ukraine, which is only likely to get worse as the violence grinds on. Meanwhile, the war’s wider economic impact will soon be felt by households across Europe in the form of higher energy prices and living costs, which will compound already high levels of inflation. Neighbouring countries will need assistance in coping with the humanitarian fall-out as increasing numbers of refugees flee the country.

However, the crisis is also likely to have profound implications for our European neighbourhood, which require careful consideration.

The invasion of Ukraine has forced Berlin to abandon many years of wishful thinking

27 Feb

Whose side are you on? Are you with Vladimir Putin or with the democracies he wants to annihilate?

Until the last few days, the German political class denied that this question even needed to be asked.

The Russian assault on Ukraine has exposed “the moral and material failure of a generation”, as Jasper von Altenbockum put it yesterday in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

German politicians saw no need to make hard choices between Russia and Russia’s freedom-loving neighbours. A hazy vision, adopted from the peace movement, of a disarmed and peaceful world stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok, was allowed to take hold.

After all, the Berlin Wall had fallen without a shot being fired, Germany was reunified, the Soviet Union collapsed and the Red Army marched away.

For the 16 years until last December, Angela Merkel was Chancellor of Germany, and it suited her to believe, despite growing evidence to the contrary, that Putin was a trustworthy partner.

There was a tendency in Berlin to view Russia as the only successor state to the Soviet Union. The rest of central and eastern Europe was treated by most members of the German elite as flyover country, of no interest to them as they flew over it on their way to do deals with Putin.

Warnings from the Poles, the Ukrainians and others that Putin could not be trusted were ignored. Those raising the alarm were backwoodsmen who did not understand how the modern world worked.

While talking to Putin, Germany’s leaders could flatter themselves that rather than being provincial figures, with no idea how to think strategically, they too were the representatives of a great power, acting astutely in order to safeguard their energy supplies.

Merkel’s predecessor as Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, had announced in 2002 that Germany’s nuclear power stations would be phased out by 2022, only to take, for himself, the chairmanship of the Nord Stream pipeline project to bring Russian gas to Germany by way of the Baltic, thus bypassing Poland and Ukraine.

When Merkel became Chancellor in 2005, she reversed the nuclear decision, only to reverse her own reversal in 2011, when to general astonishment she claimed the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan meant it was after all necessary to phase out German nuclear plants.

Germany’s power stations were in absolutely no danger of being hit by a tidal wave, which is what happened at Fukushima, so her pretext was implausible.

But Merkel reaped a big domestic dividend by adopting one of the Greens’ most popular policies, and she reckoned she knew how to manage Moscow, for she had grown up and achieved success as a scientist in East Germany:

Until Merkel was in her mid-thirties, power resided in Moscow, to which she contrived, as a gifted young scientist, to make several visits. She was not a Communist but she and her family made the accommodation with the authorities that was needed for her to get an education. She learned from a young age something about power and about the art of pragmatic compromise, and she also learned how to conceal whatever her own opinions might be. The young Merkel had no training or, indeed, interest in politics. When some of her scientific friends suggested she might like to protest with them against the regime, she laughed at the seeming futility of their proposed course of action.

She was fluent in Russian, and as Leon Mangasarian last year reminded readers of ConHome, she insisted that the Nord Stream project was just another business deal, and was also disgracefully lax (as indeed are many others to this day) in her dealings with the Chinese regime.

But after the invasion of Ukraine, Merkel said:

“There is no justification for this blatant breach of international law, and I wholeheartedly condemn it.”

The invasion has exposed many years of self-deception and wishful thinking in Berlin. Merkel was the head of a political class which when faced with difficult strategic choices, adopted the posture of an ostrich, burying its head in the sand.

Germany’s armed forces are in a deplorable state of weakness. Berlin did, however, begin yesterday to relax restrictions on the export of German-made weapons and ammunition to conflict zones, which had been hindering the supply of essential military equipment to Ukraine.

And Merkel’s successor, Olaf Scholz, announced yesterday evening that a “turning point” has been reached and Germany will herself supply 1000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger rockets to Ukraine.

History has not stopped, universal peace does not reign, and Germany, as the richest country on the continent of Europe, has realised it cannot opt out of a struggle between a bloodstained dictator and a free nation.

Did New Zealand’s Covid strategy work?

29 Jan

“Which country managed Coronavirus best?” is the question that members of the media may not have asked explicitly during the pandemic, but have tried to answer numerous times during their coverage of it. Over the last two years, particularly in the initial stages of the outbreak, page upon page has been devoted to deciding the winners and losers in the Covid stakes.

While Sweden was relegated to the “naughty step”, given its anti-lockdown approach, New Zealand has often been regarded as a success story. One newspaper even reported that “Female-led countries handled coronavirus better”, off the back of a study comparing New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Angela Merkel and others with male leaders of the world. “Analysis points to earlier lockdowns and lower death rates under the likes of Jacinda Ardern”, continued the article.

But how has that piece aged? Has Ardern kept her reputation up in terms of pandemic management? Looking at the most important metrics, it’s hard to dispute that New Zealand has been effective in holding the virus at bay.

It had far fewer intensive care beds per head than most countries in the OECD, for instance, and only 52 Covid deaths over the last two years. A lot of the population don’t know anyone who has had the virus, as a testament to how secure the country’s borders have been.

Moreover, Ardern’s extremely strict policies – even locking down the country after a single case was detected – bought New Zealand time while vaccines were being developed.

It’s difficult to remember now, but no one could know for certain that vaccines could lead us out of the pandemic, never mind their high levels of efficacy.

If the vaccines hadn’t worked, leaders like Ardern might have gained much more criticism – for having created merely an unsustainable strategy of postponing viral outbreaks. Instead, her approach here appears to have been vindicated.

That being said, New Zealand is not out of the woods yet. In October last year, it abandoned its zero Covid policy. Ardern suggested that the vaccines had allowed New Zealand to move away from its elimination strategy, but has also had to admit the limits of this approach – due to the highly-infectious Delta variant.

In terms of virulence, Delta now looks like nothing, compared to Omicron, and New Zealand has found itself stepping up its measures, even though it has a highly-vaccinated population. One of the most striking policies is that anyone who’s been in contact with someone with Coronavirus now has to isolate for 24 days. There’s also a mandatory cap on the number of people (100) at public events and masks are mandated, even for pupils aged eight and up. 

Whether these measures hold with the public remains to be seen. Generally Ardern’s tough strategy seems to be popular. She won a landslide victory for the Labour Party in 2020, perhaps the surest sign yet that Kiwis approve.

But there have also been slight dips in the polls, and the 24-day policy has attracted a lot of criticism in the media. With 93 per cent of New Zealand’s population double vaccinated, people’s patience with measures could begin to shift significantly. Not least because, New Zealand, like the UK, is currently having a cost of living crisis. The economic effects of Covid policies – like forcing contacts of the Covid positive to stay indoors for 24 days, when they have jobs/ businesses to manage – will become more noticeable.

Either way, one imagines Ardern’s popularity will stay stable because of New Zealand’s relatively low Covid rates; it, understandably, creates the impression of competence. How much of this is due to decisiveness, however, versus managing an island nation with low population density, remains to be seen.

Tom Spiller: It’s time to get real about Russia’s threat to Britain’s cyber security

9 Dec

Tom Spiller is the former President of the Conservative National Convention and chaired the 2017 party conference.

It is rare that a month goes by without the Russian regime broadcasting its noxious brand of propaganda, over-flying somewhere it shouldn’t, or harassing boats at sea – one might very-well be forgiven for telling them that they should shut up and go away.

Most recently, Russia’s activity in Ukraine puts into stark context its usual day-to-day energy diplomacy and acts of trespass. It is more immediate, more worrying and, sadder still, threatens to cause a significant number of deaths. No doubt President Putin has been emboldened by the naïve behaviour of Angela Merkel who approved Nordstream 2, but this article is not about that.

It is about something far more damaging that threatens our way of life here in Britain. I am talking about “ransomware as a service” or, to put it simply, Russian state-sponsored cyber criminality on an industrial scale.

Every day Russian cyber criminals look for ways to infect British businesses (the Labour Party has now been hit at least twice) with malware to prevent them from functioning until a ransom is paid, often in untraceable cryptocurrency.

This is no mere opportunistic and undirected crime. It is a sophisticated industry and our best guess is that it has cost the British economy several hundred million pounds a year since 2017.

The sophistication is clear from the structure of the industry.

The creators of ransomware operate a franchising system. They create and maintain top quality products, advertise their wares and provide all possible support to their franchisees, whose role is to identify targets, infect target IT systems and then negotiate ransoms in cryptocurrency.

The ransom transfers back to the franchisor, is laundered and divided between the criminals. Perhaps the most perverse part of this whole business is the brand-protection element. Ransomware brand names are ruthless in ensuring their affiliates remove malware upon the payment of ransom – after all, no one would pay an organisation that didn’t.

As with all significant organised crime, this level of sophistication is only possible where the criminals have safe territory in which to organise and protection from a host state. And they have found a home-base in Russia, a country which is seemingly immune from ransomware attacks.

One could draw a comparison to the British privateers of the Elizabethan era and the industries that supported and supplied them. The difference being that, if Drake hijacked a shipment of Spanish jewels at sea, it wouldn’t cause a hospital to immediately stop functioning. Food deliveries wouldn’t be disrupted on a nationwide scale. Power stations wouldn’t cease to operate. Entire borough councils wouldn’t grind to a halt.

Recent events (take your pick: panic buying, Covid restrictions, gas market disruption) have taught us that our economy has a sophisticated but fragile supply chain. It is a fragility that bad actors in Russia are keen to exploit. They live in luxury in Moscow, drive to work at offices in the most desirable sky-scrapers in the city’s financial district in fluorescent Lamborghinis and channel criminal money through Russian banks.

By some estimates there are 50 crypto-exchanges which serve to facilitate the conversion of ransom payments to cash. The Americans are certain of this and have sanctioned the worst offenders, who don’t try to hide their activity.

Predictably, Russian law enforcement has a standard, smirking line when asked to arrest these criminals: no Russian law has been broken so we cannot act.

Both the Russian state and the criminals that operate from Russian territory are ambivalent to the destruction that they cause. That is because they consider themselves to be at war. And this activity is surely what is now referred to as “war by other means”, or asymmetric warfare, to use an older phrase.

I have already listed some of the more jaw-dropping potential effects that cyber criminals can have – and we know that they targeted the NHS (and other European healthcare systems) during the peak of the pandemic – but just look at the headline figure. This activity is having an impact on a huge scale and is plainly designed to harm and drain our economy. To disrupt and damage our way of life in tangible ways that have an effect on British soil.

This brings British policy in this sphere starkly to light. In the world of crypto-currency the state’s efforts are focussed on introducing sufficiently robust anti-money laundering checks to attempt to separate the illegitimate actors from the crypto-pioneers.

In the slightly older world of ransom payments, the state’s policy is more akin to “don’t-ask-don’t-tell”, which leaves crypto-exchanges and insurance companies paying ransoms in an uncomfortably grey legal area.

The reality is that whatever steps we take to regulate activity on our own territory, the criminal cryptosphere (and of course the agencies of the state itself) in Russia will provide all of the services that the criminals need to steal money from hard-working British businesses and enjoy their ill-gotten wealth.

Surely it is time to now recognise the continuum that exists between Russians actions in Ukraine and cyberspace?

The level of Russian hostility towards us has been under-estimated. Now is the time to admit the significant threat that the state-sponsored Russian cyber criminals pose to us and disrupt them in the same way that we do drug cartels and terrorists.

Today, Russian cyber-warfare is sub-contracted to modern-day privateers but, if Russia were to take this activity in-house and use malware without seeking a ransom, the results would be truly crippling, and would cause injury and loss of life on a significant scale.

It is time to get real about this threat and to respond accordingly.

Peter Franklin: I’m pro-mask, pro-vax and pro-lockdown (if necessary). But against compulsory vaccination. Here’s why.

6 Dec

Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.

I’m a Covid hardliner: pro-vax, pro-mask and — if the circumstances demand it — pro-lockdown. I’ve listened to those who think otherwise, but haven’t been convinced by their arguments.

So when a colleague warned me last year that compulsory vaccinations were on the way — plus second-class citizen status for the unvaccinated — I thought he was exaggerating. Things like that might happen in China, but not in the West.

Well, he was right and I was wrong. Last week, Germany followed Austria by singling out the unvaccinated for lockdown. The two-tier society the sceptics warned us about is happening.

But even worse is the prospect of compulsory vaccination. According to Angela Merkel (and her successor, Olaf Scholz) they’ll be coming by February.

I wonder how the German authorities intend to enforce the new policy? As far as I know, there are no plans for physical coercion. Unwilling citizens won’t be literally held down while somebody forces a needle into their veins. However there are other methods of persuasion. The state doesn’t need to use violence if it wants to ruin your life.

There’s the prospect of indefinite lockdown, for instance. Or what if a refusal to get vaccinated becomes grounds for dismissal — and not just in hospitals and care homes?

Direct financial penalties could be another weapon. The Greek government is already introducing fines of a hundred euros of month for older people who fail to get jabbed.

At this point I’d like to stress that getting jabbed is a very good idea. Vaccines work — and the evidence on the efficacy of booster shots is encouraging. And yet the decision must remain that of the individual. A vaccine mandate is not like a mask mandate. In penetrating the body it literally crosses a line — the one between you and the rest of the world.

I’m more relaxed about the frontiers of the state rolling forward than a lot of Conservatives are. But all the way into my bloodstream? Not without my say so.

But just how absolute is the principle of bodily autonomy? Imagine a serious outbreak of, say, Ebola somewhere in Europe. Should the authorities do everything possible to contain the threat — including compulsory isolation and medical treatment? I think that most of us, a few libertarians excepted, would say “yes”.

The uncomfortable fact is that very few of our liberties are entirely beyond question. There are circumstances in which most of them can be reasonably taken away from us by the state. However, that is precisely why governments need to wield such power with the utmost restraint. And therein lies the problem.

In my experience, most politicians are not in fact power-crazed maniacs. However, they are desperate to prove their relevance. One only has to look at Ursula von der Leyen’s intervention on vaccine mandates. At a press conference last week, the President of the European Commission advocated an EU-wide policy: “How we can encourage and potentially think about mandatory vaccination within the European Union? This needs discussion. This needs a common approach.”

It really doesn’t. As this pandemic has proven time-and-time again, patterns of infection differ between countries (even neighbouring ones). Therefore they require country-specific responses. To filter these decisions through the EU’s unwieldy power structures and then impose them as a one-size-fits-all policy across the continent is the last thing that Europe needs. Wasn’t the debacle of the EU’s vaccine procurement programme warning enough?

Not for the first time, the British can count themselves lucky that we’re not part of this anymore. But can we be sure that vaccine mandates won’t cross the Channel?

Laurence Fox was among those horrified by Oliver Dowden’s reassurances on the matter. Asked, by Julia Hartley-Brewer to rule out German-style policies for the UK, the Conservative Party Chairman said “It’s not something we want to do or plan to do in the United Kingdom. And the reason why we… won’t hopefully have to do any of that is because of the booster…”

Leaping upon the ambiguities in Dowden’s answer, Hartley-Brewer pressed him to unequivocally rule out and condemn the German approach. You can judge for yourself, but I don’t think he did — though he did his voice his disagreement with compulsory vaccination “in principle”.

Hartley-Brewer wasn’t satisfied with that. She wanted a categorical statement that the government would “never, ever under any circumstances bring in mandatory jabs and never put in a lockdown for those who are unvaccinated.” Indeed, she pronounced herself “stunned that politicians across the board in this country aren’t making that statement.”

I’m not. If we can’t rule out a scenario in which the choice is between locking-down the unvaccinated only and locking-down the whole country, then we can be sure that our leaders will want to keep their options open.

Profile: Emmanuel Macron, grandstander over fishing. A campaigner of genius – but not a man to be taken literally.

3 Nov

The theatre of politics has few more brilliant performers than Emmanuel Macron. In 2017, he became, at the age of 39, the youngest ruler of France since Napoleon.

He now intends to seize, with characteristic boldness, the leadership of the European Union. As Sabine Syfuss-Arnaud, world editor at Challenges, the leading business weekly in France, told ConHome yesterday:

“For Emmanuel Macron the timing is perfect to project himself as the leading personality of the European scene. A lot of strong voices are gone: Boris Johnson, swept away by Brexit; Sebastian Kurz, by a corruption case; Mark Rutte, by an internal political crisis; Viktor Orban, by his authoritarian attitudes.

“Moreover, Angela Merkel, for years considered the most important European leader, is leaving power, and her likely successor, Olaf Scholz, is known neither for his charisma, nor for his ability to wax lyrical, which the French President loves doing and is very talented at.

“The year 2022 is full of challenges and opportunities for Macron. France will hold the rotating presidency of the EU for the first six months, which will be the perfect stage for ‘Macron the European’, as the French press has been nicknaming him since 2017.

“In April he will face his most important test, the presidential elections. He will be counting on Europe, European achievements and foreign policy successes to give him a decisive advantage over his opponents.”

The fight Macron picked with Britain over fishing rights has nothing whatever to do with the merits of the case. It is simply an opportunity for Macron to grandstand in defence of French fishermen.

Here was an irresistible chance for Macron the European to prove he is also Macron the Frenchman, standing shoulder to shoulder with his brave compatriots in their small boats as they defy the might of the Royal Navy.

But this week Macron was determined also to grandstand at the COP26 summit in Glasgow, so he toned down the fishing row. His sabre had been rattled loudly enough to reap a rich harvest of headlines, and he does not wish, by escalating hostilities, to impoverish the far larger number of people in Calais and other parts of northern France whose livelihoods would be damaged by a trade war. Nor is he likely to end the close co-operation on defence between France and Britain.

Recent polling indicates that Macron has good chances of victory in next April’s presidential elections. The French Left is at present hopelessly divided between a number of different candidates, and so is the Right.

And Macron himself is a campaigner of genius. This observation is not meant to imply that he deserves to win, but simply that he is extraordinarily good at attracting attention to himself, and thus denying it to his opponents, who face an unenviable choice between being sane but invisible, or else insane but unelectable.

Anyone who saw Macron in action at the Rome summit, or in Glasgow, will have been reminded of his ability to attract attention to himself. The French President is always in play, always engaged in daring feats of oneupmanship and brinkmanship, always ready to swear eternal friendship or eternal enmity.

If Peter Sellers were still around, he could play Macron to perfection, as a politician who is at one and the same time cunning, witty, naive and triumphant.

“But what does Macron believe?” the reader may ask. “What is his ideology?”

The authors of a new book about himLe Traître et le Néant (The Traitor and Nothingness, a title which echoes Sartre’s celebrated work, L’Être et le Néant, Being and Nothingness) say it remains impossible to know what he believes: “Macronism is deliberately indefinable.”

Even to try to define it is to make a mistake. Here is a man who is very quick and very clever, surrounded by people who like him went to France’s top universities. He is impelled by the desire to win and to retain power, but is vulnerable to the charge that he does not know his own country.

And always he has to play a double game: to be the great European, but also the great defender of France, down to its most humble fishermen. In him are found all the vanities and insecurities of his nation, its grandeur and decadence, its hope of glory and fear of being left behind by Germany and by the English-speaking world, unable even to persuade immigrants of the superiority of French civilisation.

Emmanuel Macron was born on 21st December 1977 in Amiens, his mother a physician, his father a professor of neurology. He was sent to the local Jesuit Lycée, where at the age of 15 he fell in love with a teacher, Brigitte Auzière, who was 24 years older than him and was married with three children.

His parents, hoping to break the attachment, sent him to finish his education in Paris. Here he studied philosophy – his thesis was on Machiavelli and Hegel – followed by the training at Sciences Po and the Ecole nationale d’administration required to become, as an Inspector of Finances, a high-flying civil servant.

In 2007 he married Brigitte Auzière and the following year he bought himself out of the civil service, and instead joined the French branch of Rothschild, where he became a successful investment banker.

In 2012, he changed tack again, and joined President François Hollande as a senior adviser at the Elysée. Two years later, he was made Minister of Economy, but in 2015 he let it be known he was no longer a member of Hollande’s Socialist Party, and should be regarded as an independent.

Macron pursued, certainly, an increasingly independent political course, and in April 2016 launched his own political movement, La République En Marche!, which was said to be neither of the Left nor of the Right.

In August 2016 he resigned from the Government, and in October he criticised Hollande for wanting to be a “normal” President, and asserted that a more “Jupiterian” presidency was required.

He was by now attracting crowds and media attention of which his numerous rivals could only dream. His eloquence and charisma were undeniable, so were his brains and love of French literature, and he promised he would reform the French economy, but his runaway success was still a bit of a puzzle.

As Patrick Marnham observed in The Spectator in February 2017,

“If Macron’s unique selling point is unclear, his unique talking point is that he married his former school teacher, a lady 24 years older than him. This startling fact, when first encountered, tends to bring political discussion to a halt, while all pause for a few moments of profound reflection.”

In the course of writing this profile I was surprised to be told by an Englishwoman:

“From a woman’s point of view I wouldn’t say no to dinner with Mr Macron.”

Perhaps he is among other qualities more attractive than his rivals. He had certainly positioned himself very astutely, avoiding the extreme positions taken up by some of his competitors as they strove to profile themselves, and in May 2017 he won a decisive victory over Marine Le Pen in the second round of the presidential election.

On the night of 18th January 2018 I happened to be passing the Victoria and Albert Museum and saw, in the middle of a crowd of spectators, the small figure of Macron making for a black official car.

There was something dramatic but also comic in his demeanour, and I let out a loud laugh, whereupon he turned his head and looked for a moment directly at me, alert and involved and somehow a star.

When I related this encounter the next day to an elderly shire Tory, she said:

“I think he’s quite devious. One’s got to be jolly alert with these foreigners.”

Her sentiments are ably reflected in the British press as it follows the twists and turns of the fish dispute. But while we should certainly keep a close eye on this heroic defender of France’s fishermen, we should not make the error of taking him literally.

Garvan Walshe: Germany’s new government may be tougher on Russia and China. Which would suit our own. But there’s a snag.

30 Sep

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.

Foreign policy rarely features much at election time, and Germany’s election last Sunday was no exception. It scarcely appeared during the three Chancellor candidates’ debates, conducted against a background of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Franco-American spat over AUKUS. The result, however, sets the stage for an change in German foreign policy to which the UK will need to adapt.

The centre-left SPD came out narrowly on top with 26 per cent of the vote and 207 seats in the Bundestag. Their Olaf Scholz is likely to move to the chancellery once coalition negotiations conclude.

Angela Merkel’s successor-to-be, Armin Laschet, suffered a true shocker. He gave his CDU/CSU Uniuon their worst ever result ever (24 per cent of the vote and 196 bundestag seats).

Next came the Greens, up a third to 15 per cent and 118 seats, and the liberal FDP (92 seats and 12 per cent).

The far right AfD and far left Die Linke got 10 per cent and five per cent respectively, as their core electorate of elderly former GDR residents dwindles. Fans of the Schlewsig-Holstein question will be delighted to observe the seat won by Stefan Seidler of the Danish minority SSW.

The big electoral shift is not so much the revival of the SPD, up a fifth on their 2017 result, or unmet expectations of the Greens, who did not do as well as their early summer polling suggested, but the decline of the CDU/CSU. This was partly down to an uninspiring and gaffe- prone candidate, but also because of its difficulties in keeping its vote together at a time of electoral fragmentation.

An important strand of the CDU has come to think that a hard-boiled national conservative politics could consolidate the right-wing vote by winning back supporters lost to the AfD. Friedrich Merz, who narrowly failed to become CDU leader after Merkel’s successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was forced out, epitomised that thinking. This week’s results put its futility beyond doubt. The CDU picked up 80,000 votes from the AfD this time around, but lost almost three million to the SPD, Greens and FDP. If even ultra-moderate Laschet was too right-wing for that many CDU voters, it is hard to see how an AfD-lite offering could not have done even worse.

This election has moved German politics in a liberal, pro-European, pro-green direction. Norbert Röttgen is the CDU man best placed to take advantage. Yet after its battering, the CDU/CSU is now divided about whether even to take part in coalition negotiations. Though Laschet claimed a mandate to enter talks with the Greens and the FDP, many in his party, including the influential Bavarian sister party leader, Markus Söder, are wary. After sixteen years in power, an exhausted Union could do with some time in opposition to refresh itself.

Though a CDU-led government remains an outside possibility, the most likely coalition will be the so-called “traffic light” made up of the SPD (red), FDP (yellow) and the Greens. In a savvy move, the smaller Greens and FDP have decided to forge a joint neogtiating platform (together they acccount for 210 seats, four more than the SPD) that they will then put to the bigger parties’ leaderships.

And although Greens and FDP differ on economics, their positions on foreign affairs are much closer than might be expected. With the Green co-leader, Annalena Baerbock, tipped for the foreign ministry, German foreign policy is not set for radical revolution (this is Germany after all), but it can expect to receive a sizeable shove.

Both parties want to see more foreign policy made at the EU level, and by qualified majorities (rather than unanimity as it is now). The FDP are explicitly in favour of a European army. And while the Greens have a pacifist inheritance that makes them skittish about anything involving nuclear weapons, they have come around to multilateral military deployments abroad. Watch for an effort to change the EU’s treaties to bring all this about. If the new coalition is with the SDP, policy towards Hungary and Poland will also toughen.

Beyond Europe, both these parties are also tougher on Russia and China than both the SPD (whose former leader works for a Russian state oil firm) and the CDU, more focused on human rights, and less on industrial exports. Though they are unlikely to be strong enough to stop the Nordstream 2 pipeline in Germany, expect them to push to have it subjected to tougher EU-level regulation.

Overall, this is an agenda with which the UK can work well — provided it realises that the new government will be even more disposed to conduct its foreign policy through the EU. Bilateral relations will remain polite, of course, but London will find it much easier to pursue its interests if it comes to terms with the growing EU foreign and defence establishment in Brussels and engages with it.