Tim Montgomerie: Lessons for ideology-free Johnson – and the Conservatives – in ideology-free Merkel’s legacy

29 Sep

Tim Montgomerie is the founder of ConservativeHome and is a contributor to Reaction.

‘He is the most remarkable politician of our age’. ‘The most formidable of election winners’. ‘His recipe of extra showbiz and a small side of policy fits our celebrity age perfectly’.

‘The economy’s iron lady’ of 40 years ago might famously have been against turning, but Boris Johnson prefers to see himself as the voters’ ‘flexible friend’. Oozing self-confidence, he does not feel restrained by the rules that Margaret Thatcher laid down, and which inhibit ‘principled, conviction politicians’ who – bless them – see ideas and policies as defining their mission.

And, electorally, he is fundamentally right that turning towards target voters is rarely a bad thing in this age of consumerist-programmed minds. Brits, increasingly used to getting precisely what they want from their shopping platforms; or in their entertainment, travel and leisure options; and even, perhaps especially, in their bedroom activities, like this servant leadership/ political pragmatism/ naked opportunism. (You can choose what to call it!).

Average voters are certainly more keen than the many newspapers and pundits who sell themselves as partly ideological, truth-telling products.

If, therefore, you are a politician who tends to be shamelessly, relentlessly obsessed about retaining power, then shuffle, shift, switch and even somersault your (dizzying) journey through elected office.

And all that s-bending is especially plausible for politicians who, happy days, via one big issue (like Brexit) already possess a loyal core of voters, and can consequently enjoy greater licence on almost everything else (as long as that litmus first big impression stays intact).

Four decades after the Iron Lady, our Flexible Friend in Number 10 isn’t relaxed about how he shifts his shape, however. This Downing Street’s u-turnery is almost scientific in its precision.

Directed by a government polling operation that is so gargantuan, pricey and relentless that it would make Blair and Clinton blush, ‘The Boris Offer’ is sold as ever-fresh and usually one step ahead or, at worst, barely one step behind opposition parties, and their ever more uphill search for issues that will give them an advantage over the Government.

So, in short, the Boris approach is an electorally effective one but – of course there is a but. The shape-shifting eventually becomes all that there is. The ruling party and government loses its principles and character. Incoherence can follow. Commitment from allies weakens. It stops attracting candidates and thinkers who aspire to be more than door-to-door salesmen. Policy innovation dries up as donors give up on think tanks who are unable to devise policies that can readily survive a run of bad focus groups or negative newspaper splashes.

The thinner set of policies that do succeed in getting to drafting stage in government don’t benefit from the Rolls Royce-style lab and road-testing that (allegedly) the civil service once lavished on them. And who can blame a seasoned Sir Humphry, government backbencher or even expert outside volunteer for judging that any time they give to the nurture of ambitious projects will very likely be wasted. Because ambitious almost always means risky, and risky – in any government that fears short-term unpopularity – equals project termination.

Angela Merkel, and last Sunday’s collapse in her party’s vote, is something of a cautionary tale for the British Conservative Party in these early years of “flexibility”.

Mutti’s innate caution might have been the main driver of the German experience – rather than the same BorisInc desire to turn politics into a branch of market research – but the basic inoffensiveness of pitch, and therefore the consequent lack of big mission, are shared features.

Political popularity appears to be broad and sustained but, when it eventually is exhausted, the falling away of support is dramatic. No one is loyal to you because you weren’t ever loyal to much that – at core – they really cared about. The popularity may be of long duration for ‘flexipols’ like Johnson and Merkel, but the list of big achievements ends up being pretty short. Big geopolitical problems like the rise of authoritarian China or dependence on energy from a gangster state like Russia only tend to grow even bigger.

During Merkel’s 16 years, Germany’s Christian Democrats ceased to be adequately distinguishable from the leftish Social Democrats. But it’s not too late for the Conservative Party to fight to stay robustly Conservative.

On tax, free markets, support for the family, basic civil liberties, the essential equality of the four Union nations, and in the fundamental character of our foreign and defence policies, the early sense of drift is real. The electoral operation and philosophy behind Johnson are formidable, but they should serve our mission and not, bit by bit, supplant it.

Those rightist scribblers in newspapers and online who have recently – and in chorus –  written obituaries for conservatism and/or Thatcherism are premature. The warning signs are real though. And the fightback must become real too.

AUKUS and the Indo-Pacific. A tilt to it, yes. A lunge, no.

20 Sep

In a chapter of their book on Britain’s defence capability, White Flag, our proprietor and Isabel Oakeshott describe “Operation Tethered Goat”.  It sets how in the event of a Russian incursion a small NATO force would attempt to defend a 65-mile stretch of the Polish-Lithuanian border “straddled ominously by Kaliningrad to the west and the Russian satrapy of Belarus on the east.”

“If Russia were to attempt to close the gap, NATO’s only option would be to punch north with the US-led brigade based here. Until then, it would be up to the Baltic states to hold their ground, supported by small detachments of NATO forces stationed inside their borders.

“One of those forces would be headed by a small but fierce battalion of UK troops stationed in Tapa, Estonia. Some 800 troops from the 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh are here, supported by smaller deployments from other member states”.  The isolation and vulnerability of our troops gives rise to the operation’s grim nickname.

This is the background against which to see the Americo-British-Australian deal over nuclear-powered submarines, the wounded reaction of France, and the new security pact between the two countries: AUKUS.

Further war in eastern Europe is relatively unlikely, for all the recent tangle between Russia and Ukraine.  But were it to happen, it would directly affect Britain and the alliance on which our security has depended for the best part of three-quarters of a century: NATO.  It would be war in our back yard.

Conflict in the South China is perhaps more likely, but would affect the UK less directly.  We wouldn’t be bound by our NATO obligations to participate.  And whatever may be said of the South China Sea, it is not in our neighbourhood.

None of which is to say that either the new deal or the pact is a bad thing.  Their core for us is the transfer of material – including in “cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and undersea capabilities”, as Boris Johnson put it last week – not that of troops, for all the recent journey of the Carrier Strike Group to the South China Sea.

As he went on to say, “this project will create hundreds of highly skilled jobs across the UK, including in Scotland, the north of England and the midlands,” including perhaps the Red Wall-ish areas of Barrow and Derby.

The deal also shows how fast time moves and frail attention spans can be.  Only a month ago, Joe Biden’s sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan raised the prospect of an isolationist America withdrawing into itself.  Any prudent British government should be alert to the possibility and what it could mean for the future of Europe.

AUKUS is a sign that, whatever else might happen elsewhere, the United States is commited to the Indo-Pacific and that, as in Afghanistan, there is continuity between what Donald Trump did and what Biden is doing.

There has been a startling shift there in attitudes to America within the last five years or so – just as there has been one here since David Cameron declared a new “golden age” in Anglo-Sino relations.  That was before Brexit.  Of which there is a point to be made about the pact and the deal.

In the wake of Biden’s Afghanistan decision, Remain obsessives raised our exit from the EU, suggesting that it was responsible for Johnson failing to persuade Biden to delay the withdrawal, because Washington no longer listens to us.

Never mind that Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel took much the same position.  The boot is now on the other foot.  Some of our fellow Leavers argue that were it not for Brexit, Britain would never have abandoned France for America and Australia – just as, were it not for our exit from the EU, the Government wouldn’t have summoned up the nerve to get on with our own Covid vaccine programme.

Like other counter-factuals, this one is unprovable.  And the lure of new jobs, plus the tug of Anglo-American and Anglo-Australian relations, might have been enough to lure some other Prime Minister in an EU member Britain to make the same decision.

What can safely be said is that our relationship with America carries on as before, regardless of Brexit, and that Britain remains a member of the UN Security Council, the G7, NATO, the Commonwealth, and is one of Europe’s two armed powers, a top five aid donor, and in the top ten influential nations list on any reckoning.  All of which Leavers spelt out during the referendum campaign.

The Global Britain slogan has been ridiculed but, whatever one’s view of leaving the EU, it touches on a fundamental reality which AUKUS, that G7 membership, that Security Council presence and all the rest of it helps to illustrate.

Liz Truss is straight out the traps banging that drum, but it is worth pondering Global Britain, as suits that spherical image, in the round.  Europe is part of the globe.  It is a lot closer to us than Australia, if not in kinship than at least in distance.  And, as we have seen, a conflict in our continental hinterland would disturb us more immediately than one in an Asian sea.

Which takes us to France, and an entente that at present isn’t all that cordiale.  It’s scarcely unknown for Macron to withdraw its ambassadors when piqued: in recent years, they were brought home from Italy and Turkey.

But he will be very bruised, not least because the deal and the pact seem to have been firmed up in private between the three powers during the recent G7, while he was talking up France’s relationship with America (plus its interests in the Indo-Pacific), and taking potshots at Britain over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The real-life cast of The Bureau – i.e: the French intelligence services – may have been asleep on the job, and there is certain to be an inquest.  British crowing at the Gallic cockerel’s embarrassment is inevitable.

But while your own neighbour next door may eventually move out, France won’t be going anywhere, and it isn’t in our interest for this complex relationship to cool further.  France is our only major military partner in Europe (and elsewhere: see Mali), a top five trading one, home to up to 400,000 Brits, the source of most of those channel boats, and tortously intertwined with our culture and history.

Nord 2 has brought Germany closer to Putin’s orbit.  The former’s election takes place soon.  Whatever the result, France will feel the tug from Germany, as will the whole EU.  We don’t want to see the latter plump itself up as a potential rival to NATO.  But it would help us, America, and Europe itself for our neighbours – bearing that Russian presence in mind – to spend more on defence.

Their unwillingness to do so (Mark Francois recently set out the figures on this site), Germany’s passivity and a certain strain in French thinking suggests a drift into the Russian orbit.

De Gaulle’s ambivalence about the old Soviet Union, on which he blew cool post-war and warmer later on, had its roots in a French cultural antagonism to America and periods of alliance with Russia.  The ghost of the General will believe that AUKUS proves him right: that when push comes to shove, Britain will always throw its lot in with its American cousins.

We should turn a new page with France, or at least try to  – and remember that while a tilt to the Indo-Pacific is a one thing, a lunge there would be quite another.  Putin hasn’t “gone away, you know”. And Islamist extremism hasn’t, either.

Ben Roback: Biden’s Afghan pull-out represents the rash decision making we had expected from Trump

25 Aug

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

Who has failed the people of Afghanistan more spectacular, the United States or the G7? Both have made a compelling case of late.

When the G7 nations met in June under Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s leadership, the group issued a customary Communiqué. The urgent priorities were clear and indeed perfectly logical – the Covid recovery, vaccinations, and “building back better”.

The middle priorities of the lengthy to do list were at times perplexing. Cyber space and outer space, a “values-driven digital ecosystem for the common good that enhances prosperity in a way that is sustainable, inclusive, transparent and human-centric”, and open societies.

Eventually, at point 57, the G7 remembered Afghanistan:

“We call on all Afghan parties to reduce violence and agree on steps that enable the successful implementation of a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire and to engage fully with the peace process. In Afghanistan, a sustainable, inclusive political settlement is the only way to achieve a just and durable peace that benefits all Afghans. We are determined to maintain our support for the Afghan government to address the country’s urgent security and humanitarian needs, and to help the people of Afghanistan, including women, young people and minority groups, as they seek to preserve hard-won rights and freedoms.”

With the benefit of political hindsight, was the Communiqué a clear sign that, just 10 weeks ago, the international community had such a miserly grasp of what was about to unfold despite the known deadline imposed by the United States?

Or being critical and almost certainly more honest, did it prove that the G7 countries were too caught up with their own agendas and so forgot about a weak, propped up government that was inevitably going to fall the moment the US initiated its withdrawal?

The chaotic scenes that have followed are a demonstrable failure of diplomacy and military intervention. In the first instance, it is the Afghan people and those who served in uniform and alongside them who will suffer the most.

The case for the White House: Putting an end to the ‘forever war’

There is no equivocation or discussion whatsoever about President Biden’s motivation for withdrawal. He wants to pull out American boots on the ground in advance of the 20th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks.

He does not want to become the fourth president to phone the grieving parent of a soldier lost in Kabul, Kunduz or Kandahar. In that respect, he aims to “succeed where others have failed” given President Bush started the Afghan war and it dogged the Obama and Trump administrations subsequently.

The human and financial costs illustrate the domestic rationale. Brown University’s Costs of War Project estimates that since 9/11, 7,057 US service members have been killed in war operations, whilst 30,1777 US service members have committed suicide.

The cost of caring for post-9/11 American war veterans will reach between $2.2 and $2.5 trillion by 2050. The only way to stop that tide of misery, the White House argues, is to get out of Afghanistan. But at what cost to Afghans and the United States’ reputation abroad?

The White House might also argue that, whilst the eyes of the world are on the Middle East, the Vice President is in the Far East. Kamala Harris completed a three-day trip to Singapore where she fired warning shots about Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.

Did anyone notice? The international community remains entirely focused on the more pressing problems in Afghanistan. At home, Parliament was recalled from its summer recess to discuss saving lives, not the Spratley Islands.

The case against the White House: Biden out-Trumps Trump and hangs the world out to dry

Could we have expected such a gargantuan gaffe from President Biden? After all, this was supposed to be the president who returned America to a state of relative normalcy after four years of Trumpian volatility in the pursuit of “America First”. On the world stage, Biden’s message to historic allies has been clear: “America is back”. Is it?

Biden cannot reasonably claim a lack of foreign policy experience. 36 years in the Senate having been elected before his 30th birthday. 12 years as Ranking Member or Chairman on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Eight years as Vice President, in which his White House bio now even boasts that “Biden played a pivotal role in shaping U.S. foreign policy and describes how he was point person for US diplomacy throughout the Western Hemisphere and led the effort to bring 150,000 troops home from Iraq.

The Afghan pull-out represents the kind of rash decision making devoid of any consultation with military allies that we had perhaps expected from President Trump. But for all of Trump’s bluster and wildly unpredictable rhetoric, he did not deliver the hammer blow to US foreign policy that many had expected.

It had started to look like death by a thousand paper cuts, but the capacity to do further incremental damage was limited by being a one-term president.

It is Biden, not Trump, who has shocked US allies. “Sleepy Joe” has sleep-walked the United States into its biggest foreign policy debacle for a generation.

From “mission accomplished” to “mission impossible”

Where does this leave Joe Biden and his administration’s relationship with the very same allies it sought to reassure after the Trump presidency? Johnson and Emanuel Macron led the call for President Biden to extend his self-imposed deadline of August 31 for the complete and total withdrawal of US forces.

At present, that has fallen on deaf ears trained solely on a domestic audience. News outlets report the president will not extend the deadline, agreeing with the Pentagon’s assessment. An imminent detailed report by Anthony Blinken, the Secretary of State. could yet reshape the decision.

The president has acknowledged that a completed withdrawal by the end of the month will be dependent upon the Taliban’s continued cooperation. The very same terror force the US entered Afghanistan to drive out is now needed to get Americans out of the country.

The administration has hinted at some flexibility. But each time Biden has spoken at the presidential podium since the fall of Kabul, he has doubled down on the decision with even greater tenacity. To alter course now would be political humiliation. From “mission accomplished” to “mission impossible”.

Perhaps the most striking remark the president has made since the Taliban takeover was when he said: “Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building”. Really? Twenty years training and serving alongside the Afghan military. Two decades propping up a western-style government.

It begs the question: on what basis will the US intervene abroad now, if not to nationbuild? Just under 30,000 US troops remain stationed in South Korea, as the threat of war on the Korean peninsula looms perpetually.

But there is no nation building to be done in Seoul; will those troops be brough home next? Over 35,000 US troops are stationed in Germany; Chancellor Merkel needs no help maintaining her own democracy.

The Biden administration has rolled the international dice to take a domestic political gamble

The President, Defence Secretary, Secretary of State and National Security Adviser all clearly believe that most Americans do not care about the fate of Afghanistan or its people. According to YouGov America, at any one time only 0.5 per cent of Americans have ever though that the war in Afghanistan is a top issue facing the country.

They care more about a seemingly endless war in which too much American blood has been spilled. That is understandable with a domestic hat on, but deeply depressing when thinking globally.

Maybe Biden will be proven right. But at what expense? The fall of a nation into the hands of terrorists. It would be the most pyrrhic of all political victories.

Garvan Walshe: Just as in Hong Kong and Belarus, the UK has a duty to stand up for freedom in Tunisia

5 Aug

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party.

As in Belarus and Hong Kong, democratic freedoms are under attack in Tunisia. But 10 years after its revolution, the powers that be are weaker, and strong foreign support for Tunisians’ freedoms can tip the balance.

“I will not become a dictator” insisted Kais Saied, the Tunisian president, as he shut down parliament, put the army on the streets and stopped Al Jazeera broadcasting.

Not since Egyptian general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi appeared in military uniform in the summer of 2013, denying that the events which would make him president were a coup, or when Jeremy Corbyn said he was “present but not involved” at a wreath-laying ceremony for terrorists, has North African denial been so implausible.

Tunisia is the last survivor of the Arab Spring revolts of 2011, but a decade on, its democracy is looking shaky. Ten years of fractious politics haven’t yielded the economic progress freedom was supposed to bring. The pandemic, and the disruption of the vital tourist industry it produced, has made things worse.

Tunisia is supposed to have a political system where power is shared between parliament and the president, but last week the president, a former academic who doesn’t belong to any political party, invoked emergency provisions of the constitution to suspend parliament for 30 days. But while the constitution allows periods of emergency presidential rule, they are conditional on the parliament being in session to keep an eye on him.

A constitutional court would have reaffirmed this, but one hasn’t been set up yet. In its absence, Saied, despite being a former professor of constitutional law, just used the security forces under his command for a power grab. Though he likened himself to de Gaulle, it would be fairer to compare him to Cromwell dismissing the Rump.

Nonetheless, unlike Sisi’s in Egypt, Saied’s coup looks far from a foregone conclusion. Elected with 72 per cent of the vote in 2019, Saied’s approval ratings have fallen to around 40 per cent, and it’s best to describe him as the single most popular figure in a crowded field.

The successor pparty to the old regime, known as the Free Destourians, heads the polls with around 30 per cent support, followed by the genuinely moderate post-Islamist Ennahda, with 20 per cent. Various left-wing and secularist groups, and Islamist groups make up the rest.

This contrasts with Egypt, where the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood were extreme, saw democracy as a means to an end, and against whom the Army was the only force in society capable of standing up to them. Unable to win on their own, Ennahda, who now describe themselves in as “Muslim Democrats” in conscious analogy with Angela Merkel’s CDU, have become moderate (a hardline faction split off to form its own “Dignity” party). Though Saied can argue that his opponents are dysfunctional, there is no threat of an Islamist takeover in Tunisia.

Islamist weakness has been reflected in the US position, with Jake Sullivan, the National Security Adviser, insisting that Tunisia return to the “democratic path.” The US may also be motivated by concerns about increasing Chinese influence in the country, which is only 200 miles from Sicily.

The Foreign Office has so far been rather more perfunctory, issuing a statement so anodyne it is worthy of the department’s caricature in Yes, Prime Minister. There is a need to get a grip on the situation, and the Foreign Secretary should use the opportunity to lead.

Just as in Hong Kong and Belarus, the UK has a duty to stand up for freedom in Tunisia. It has been heavily involved in the democratic transition since 2011, supporting civil society, offering practical assistance and considerable sums of aid. Unlike France it is not burdened by colonial baggage there. And it has an opportunity to outflank the EU which is hampered by the requirement for unanimity in foreign affairs. The UK has an opportunity to convene a response by the world’s democracies.

The most important task is the resolution of the constitutional crisis and a return to the normal democratic process.

In the first instance, the army should be taken off the streets, and journalists be allowed to report openly. Parliament should be reconvened (after all that is what the Tunisian constitution requires even during an emergency), and the parliamentarians that have been arrested freed immediately.

In the medium term, agreement is needed on a constitutional court, and measures to ensure full international observation of future Tunisian parliamentary and presidential elections to ensure their legitimacy.

In the longer term, reforms are needed in Tunisia’s army, intelligence services and police, to ensure oversight by all elements of Tunisia’s political system, as is normal in presidential democracies. They may be under the command of the president, but need to be subject to laws enacted by the parliament compliance with which is monitored by parliament and enforced by the judiciary.

Finally, priority should be given to Tunisia’s economic recovery. The country is still extremely poor, despite reasonable levels of education, a large French-speaking population and a geographical location extremely close to the European market. A good investment climate and the rule of law should put it in a position to leapfrog its neighbours in Algeria and Morocco. Further aid needs to be made conditional on progress towards a stable, and free, political and business environment.

The only democracy to emerge from the 2011 Arab revolutions needs our help. Unlike in Hong Kong and Belarus, autocratic forces lack a powerful patron. Unlike in Egypt, choice isn’t between authoritarianism and Islamism. And unlike in Lebanon, the country has not been overtaken by sectarian dysfunction. We can make a difference in Tunisia. It would be unforgivable to take our eye off the ball.

Off the football field, Laschet assures the Germans they can continue to pretend to be weak

29 Jun

This afternoon’s football match between England and Germany will be seized on by both sides as a welcome distraction from the pandemic.

When German politicians want to avoid controversy, they often talk, in a most expert manner, about football.

But the greatest of those politicians are also capable of talking about politics in such a way as to avoid controversy, or indeed to avoid saying anything at all.

From her earliest years, Angela Merkel mastered the art of giving nothing away about her personal opinions: a skill which was indispensable to her as the child of a Lutheran clergyman in Brandenburg, in what was then East Germany.

Armin Laschet, chosen by the Christian Democrats as their candidate to succeed her as Chancellor, possesses also that skill, albeit developed over a long period under quite different circumstances.

He is from Aachen, on the far western border of Germany, close to Belgium and the Netherlands. While Merkel speaks excellent Russian, he speaks excellent French.

She was Lutheran. He is a devout Roman Catholic, which is normal for a leader of the Christian Democrats. In the words of a penetrating observer from the German Left,

“He’s a nice fellow, but he is not a strategic person. He is not a second Konrad Adenauer. He is not even a Boris Johnson.

“He is part of the Catholic opposition against the Prussians – a very funny opposition of weak, small people who fight with all their humour against the people at the top of society.

“He is a very charming and weak person who is always laughing at himself. People like him but nobody thinks he is a leader.”

The press, fed up with sitting through numerous occasions when Laschet gave them nothing to report, tends to write him off as a bore.

That does not do justice to him. He has a subtle gift for making not having a stand-up row, indeed not making a decision, sound reasonable. His intonation is delightful: he speaks as one might imagine an unresentful friar would speak, at ease with the whole world.

He stands accused of being too friendly towards Russia and China, but professes friendship towards everyone.

At a recent appearance at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, he was asked what he would change in Germany and the European Union’s policy towards Russia, and what his attitude is towards Nord Stream 2, the Baltic pipeline which will bring Russian gas direct to Germany, cutting out Ukraine.

He replied in a mild tone that he would not change anything, for the joint German-French declaration in Minsk offers a good way out of warlike tensions – it has not yet achieved final success, but a big war, a big conflict has been avoided.

As for Nord Stream 2, he recognised that behind this question lay concern about the geostrategic effect on Ukraine – would Ukraine’s energy security be endangered, would it become more dependent on Russia?

No, he insisted in his sweetest tone, it would not be, for the position of the German Government is that the position of Ukraine must not be affected by the pipeline.

Whether any reliance can be placed on that assurance is doubtful, but Laschet behaved as if it settled the matter.

Germany, it was pointed out to him, has despatched a frigate, the Bayern, to the Indo-Pacific region. Will Germany be sending more frigates there?

Laschet raised his hands in a pacific gesture. This, he explained, is just a part of Germany’s relationship with China, for which the European Foreign Ministers have developed “a good formula – China is partner, competitor and rival”.

If German voters wish their next leader to be all things to all men, which it appears that they do, Laschet is their man. He is almost ten points ahead of his nearest rival, the Green candidate Annalena Baerbock, a former trampolinist who is laughably inexperienced, as one can see when she gives straight answers to straight questions.

She is against Nord Stream 2, pro-American, has an economic policy which German business thinks is disastrous, and has recently been found to have doctored her curriculum vitae.

Like most German politicians, Laschet is in favour of “a stronger Europe”, which “must end in treaty changes”, and in “a European Constitution which is close to the people”.

But when it was put to him that this must mean he favours a common European budget and the pooling of European debt, he replied at once, with a smile, that he had been “misunderstood”, and that was not what he meant at all.

With imperturbable good humour, he indicates that he will take care of everything. It is a beguiling prospectus, for a Germany which is determined to go on pretending to be weak.

Adrian Lee: Nord Stream 2. How Russia could turn off half Germany’s gas supply – and so threaten our collective security.

21 Jun

Adrian Lee is a Solicitor-Advocate in London, specialising in criminal defence, and was twice a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.

Some political issues – such as Climate Change, female circumcision and African debt relief – become truly internationalised over the passage of time. Gatherings of world leaders see these subjects set high on the agenda for discussion and the press released closing statements at such events are dominated by worthy platitudes calling for greater global action.

By contrast, other matters with the potential to change the world order draw far less attention. One issue that has largely failed to focus the comment of the media pack is the imminent opening of the Nord Steam 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.

On the Friday 11th June – ironically, the very day that the G7 leaders arrived in Cornwall – commissioning works to fill the pipeline with gas began. Whilst many have vaguely heard of the controversy, few realise the possible impact of Nord Stream 2 upon the defence of the United Kingdom.

Nord Steam 2 starts at Vyborg in Russia, threads its way through the Baltic Sea, passing Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, and terminates in Griefswald, Germany.

Few would dispute that the project represents a triumph of modern engineering. Like its already operational predecessor, Nord Stream 1, this underwater marvel has the capacity to pump approximately 55 billion cubic metres of natural gas per year from Russia directly into Germany.

Even before the fuel starts pumping down the new line, Germany has already attained the status of the world’s largest user of natural gas, 94 per cent of which has to be imported, and 40 per cent of that total is supplied by Putin’s Russia.

Dependency upon this particular source is likely to increase significantly in the near future, as the so-called “Energiewende” policy announced in 2010 has already terminated most of Germany’s nuclear power, with the remaining six reactors scheduled to be phased out by 2022. When this plan was first trumpeted, the German government was confident that “renewables” would make up for the loss of nuclear power, but alas this has yet to transpire and consequently the wheels of German industry are more dependent on natural gas than ever before. No wonder then that Germany has some of the highest energy prices in the world and that the average German consumer has to pay double the cost of the equally average American.

Nord Stream 2 AG is owned by Gazprom, a Russian state-owned company, and its CEO is one Matthias Warnig, a former intelligence officer in the East German Stasi. The main source of the natural gas for the pipeline can be found in the Yuzhno-Russhoye field, located in Krasnoselkupsky, Tyumen Oblast. When one realises that oil and gas are responsible for more than 60 per cent of Russia’s exports and provide over 30% of the country’s GDP, you can understand why the Kremlin is so enthusiastic about this project. Russia certainly intends to make a lot of money out of wealthy Germany and is therefore not planning to suspend supplies, but should she feel the need to do so in the future, she faces no legal obstacle, as Russia is not a signatory to the 1991 Energy Charter Treaty, that provided safeguards to supply.

Why should Britain be concerned about this Russo-German oil deal? Well, mainly because of the military dimension. Sweden and Poland have voiced grave concerns about the Russian Navy using Nord Stream 2’s presence as a pretence for increased military intelligence gathering and intensified patrolling in the Baltic Sea. However, there is a much greater reason for worry.

NATO has been the cornerstone of the West’s defence for seven decades and, until the end of 1991, the main strategic opponent of NATO was the USSR. Following the collapse of Soviet Communism, the organisation changed its emphasis to the broad founding principle of collective security. In other words, an attack on one member is an attack on all – hence the participation of European NATO members in the Afghanistan theatre after 9/11.

The Russian war with Georgia in 2008, the protracted conflict over the Ukraine since 2014 and the Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war refocused NATO’s attention on the increasing threat from the east. The 2016 NATO Summit, held in Warsaw, set the conditions for the establishment of an enhanced “Forward Presence” in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland to strengthen the line against Russian forces.

There are currently 900 British military personnel in these states, along with allies from France and Denmark. There can be no doubt that Putin’s Russia is today the main threat to NATO on the European continent.

Since the inception of NATO, the involvement of Germany (originally West Germany) has been pivotal. Prior to 1989, Germany formed the frontline and prospective battlefield in any conflict, contributed an effective military force and provided a permanent base for US and British forces.

During recent decades ,it is arguable that Germany’s attention has turned towards the costly projects of re-building the old GDR territories and pushing for a federal Europe but, geographically, the country provides a vital link with the eastern NATO members in terms of supply. An effective NATO without wholehearted German participation remains unthinkable.

Unfortunately, Germany’s armed forces are currently in a pretty parlous state. Despite the pressure from the Trump Administration, Germany is yet to come close to contributing the two per cent of GDP agreed by all NATO countries in 2006. She only spent 1.2 per cent of GDP in 2019.

No surprise, then, that Germany’s arsenal is so decrepit. The main battle tank, the Leopard 2, entered service in 1979 and, of the 183 that the German state possesses, only 101 are estimated to be operational.

In 2014, it was reported that a significant number of German military aircraft were “unserviceable”. In terms of assault aircraft, Germany possesses 60 aging Tornados and 141 Eurofighters. However, it has been claimed that only half of these are airworthy, and one estimate states that just 12 of the Tornados are currently operational. Recently, Germany has ordered another 38 Eurofighters, but they are hardly likely to make the Russians quake in their flying boots.

By contrast, since 2012, Russian ground forces have received more than 15,500 pieces of weapons systems and equipment, twelve missile regiments have been rearmed with Yars ICBM’s and 10 missile brigades with Iskander tactical ballistic missile systems.

Overall, Russian has a million active-duty personnel in its armed forces, 2,300 modern battle tanks, 1,200 new helicopters and assault planes, 50 state of the art surface ships, 28 submarines and a 100 shiny new satellites for communication, command and control. Vladimir Putin spends 4.3 per cent of GDP on the Russian armed forces – in part thanks to the healthy financial contribution made by his trading partner Germany.

Under the circumstances, we are surely entitled to ask whether Germany’s commitment to NATO is likely to remain as wholehearted in the era of Nord Stream 2. Is Germany really going to go out on a limb for, say, the Baltic States and Poland when, at the turn of a tap Russia could cut off over half of her energy supply? Or is Germany gradually going to slide down the road to a slightly more neutralist position in the years ahead – to paraphrase William Hague “In NATO, but not run by NATO.”

One thing is for certain: in the absence of an effective backup plan for energy supply to Germany in the event of conflict with Russia, Angela Merkel’s government has handed Putin the ability to paralyse her country, and potentially the whole of western defence.

Lord Frost’s opening speech to Königswinter Conference, June 17

18 Jun

As delivered, 1330h

It’s conventional at this point at events like these to reflect on the strength of our bilateral relationship.

But I hope that for the UK and Germany that hardly needs doing. The events, the connections, the reality all speak for themselves.

Let me give a few examples.

Germany, which we described as our “essential ally” in the IR, was the only country in the world in 2020 to receive visits from the Prince of Wales, the PM, the Foreign Secretary, and the Chancellor. And we were delighted to have Chancellor Merkel here for the G7 in Cornwall last week, with a very warm and friendly bilateral meeting with our Prime Minister too.

We will have soon a Joint Declaration on Foreign and Security Policy, to complement the existing Joint Defence Vision – and, I hope, with more to follow soon. I agree with Ambassador Michaelis that there is room to make the governmental relationship a bit more structured and we should work on that in the months to come.

There are 1800 cooperation projects between our universities.

We have huge investment in each other’s countries – 1400 British companies in Germany, 2500 German companies in the UK.

And cultural exchanges are equally rich. Neil MacGregor’s role at the Humboldt Forum is well known, as is Hartwig Fischer’s at the British Museum – but there is much more.

I could go on. But there is no need to. The short version is that this is what you would expect between two great European countries. There’s a rich set of contacts at all levels – government, business, broader civil society, and beyond.

And of course KW itself is part of that and has been since the beginning. And let me put in a plug here for not just the main event but for YKW. My own engagement in KW is actually framed, until today, by 2 YKW events – my first involvement, in 1995, in Berlin, and my last, as a speaker at YKW in Frankfurt in 2018, where HansHenning was present, where I fear I shocked some of our German friends, and quite a few Brits too, with my views on Brexit. So I’d like to say thank you and well done Annika Muller De Vries and everyone else who has kept YKW going and to underline my hope that we can keep and intensify the pipeline of people from YKW to KW proper. It’s crucial that KW makes an effort to be representative of all parts of our societies – by generation, by profession, by political views.

I want to say a little more on that last point. This is a UK-Germany event, not an EU one. All the same obviously Brexit has been a matter of huge controversy at KW over the years, even if the 52/48 split in British opinion hasn’t generally been reflected in the perspectives of the British guests!

This isn’t the moment to go over the arguments – they are done. It’s time to look forward and I want to set out how politics now feels here, and why, to help frame our discussions in the next 24 hours.

First, a reflection on the current situation. Our relations with Germany are, I think, good. Our relations with the EU collectively and with the institutions are a bit more bumpy. Obviously no one is happy with that situation.

Indeed I would go further. I think those who campaigned for Brexit wanted and expected genuinely friendly and free-trading relations between the UK and the European Union – and still do. Nothing was further from our thoughts than the current fractious and friction-filled relationship that we seem to have now.

Why is that?

  • Some of the current difficulties are teething troubles.
  • Some of it might relate to what happens when people can’t travel, can’t meet,
    have no real means to discuss things informally or to defuse arguments.

But I fear some of it goes deeper.

  • Some of it stems from lack of trust, for our part from the legacy of what seemed to be attempts to frustrate our referendum result during what seems to us to have been a period of British intellectual and negotiating weakness in 2018 and early 2019, which this government has had to spend a lot of time trying to correct.
  • And finally some also stems from what we see now. We have been surprised by the EU’s willingness to resort quite quickly to threats when problems arise – over vaccines, over fish, over financial services, and indeed over Northern Ireland.
  • I didn’t want to speak about Northern Ireland in any depth, but I do need to respond to Ambassador Michaelis’s comments. We are spending hundreds of millions on operating the Protocol, and that is the source of the problems, so we take no lectures on this. I am afraid the idea that we could take the politics out of Northern Ireland and the Protocol is not exactly realistic. We agreed the Protocol to deal with a very particular and delicate situation, and the best thing our European friends can do is to respect this delicacy and to work with us to find a pragmatic and negotiated solution.

So I want to be clear – we don’t wish for difficult relations, we look for this time to
pass, we will work to make it better – but it takes two.

Second, a reflection on why Brexit matters so much to us. It’s worth saying perhaps to our German friends that there is no longer any serious debate on the subject in Britain. No major political party advocates EU membership, and, while a proportion of the public may still regret Brexit, there is no energy behind a rejoin movement. Overwhelmingly we are now looking forward.

That matters. Those of us who became convinced, publicly or privately, in the years after 2010 of the need to leave the EU did so not because of some obsessional attraction to sovereignty. We did so because we believed EU membership had been detrimental to the UK, had sapped our energy and ability to solve problems for ourselves, and had stopped us making hard choices and clear decisions about how we wanted to run our country.

I think it’s worth making clear that this is not just a Brexit of the right. We’ve seen perhaps the most significant change in British politics for a generation – a profound shift towards Brexit, and the Conservative Party, from parts of the country which have traditionally leaned left.

Some are inclined, even now, to dismiss this as a cry of anger against “being left behind”. That is far too dismissive. What we have seen is a call for the country to be run in a different way, injecting new ideas into the political class, creating alternative possibilities, and crucially, holding politicians to account for different things, against different standards.

The point I want to make is that leaving the EU wasn’t the final goal – it was a doorway, a portal through which we had to pass, the beginning of a journey to national renewal and a repositioning of Britain on the world stage. I think it’s because people sense those possibilities that the mood in Britain is better than many thought it would be.

We think we have made a fairly good start to that renewal process, with a world class vaccination programme and indeed vaccine – as indeed does Germany. The predicted collapse in trade has not happened. We are putting in place a programme of reforms – to subsidy policy, to procurement rules, to agricultural support programmes. We are establishing genuine freeports to encourage investment and rebalancing around the country. We are setting up our own pure scientific research agency, ARIA. On the global stage, we are putting our money where our mouth is on defence, with spending going up to 2.3% of GDP, well above the NATO target. And just this week we agreed our first FTA, with Australia, showing as we always predicted that the ability to tailor agreements to our own needs would mean we could agree them more quickly.

All this is why, for those sitting in our government, it is hard to feel anything other than a profound sense of responsibility to deliver upon the trust bestowed upon us. And if you will forgive me a few personal remarks at this point – it is also why we must be vigilant. We do have a challenge as we take our programme forward as a Conservative Government. It is to respond to the new political configuration here without falling into the trap of statism or the intellectual fallacy that a big state, high levels of public spending, more regulation, and government-determined goals and investment plans can build sustainable economic growth over time. Germany demonstrated this was a false path in the Wirtschaftswunder and I think we could do worse than refresh our knowledge of the Ordoliberal tradition, weakened though it may be in the context of broader European policy-making, as we make our plans.

We must also avoid being too influenced by the current pandemic situation, that Ambassador Michaelis referred to. . The pandemic has ushered in a range of measures literally unprecedented in a free society – indeed for the last year or so we have not really lived in a free society. We now know governments can act decisively when there is a genuine crisis – but we always knew that. I personally don’t want to accept that the levels of state involvement in our lives and in the economy we have seen in the last year are in any way normal. I want to get back to the old normal as soon as we can. To me and to many Brits it is striking that it was in Germany, that has learned to be vigilant about these things, that we saw the first, and still in many ways the strongest, protests against lockdowns. As we emerge from the pandemic, we must not lose our conviction that individual not collective rights are paramount, that living with risk is inevitable, or our belief that free debate and free expression of opinion is the right way forward for a free society.

Of course we 100% do not have all the answers. As I hope I’ve made clear, I personally think we have a lot to learn from Germany. What we do have is the ability to make our own decisions, and yes our own mistakes, but also to correct errors and make changes. That is a crucial advantage in developing good public policy.

So, although we are rebuilding our relationships beyond Europe – and as the Integrated Review showed we are going to be putting lots of effort into that – relationships with Germany, and our other great European friends, remain crucial to us. We recognise we have to manage them not just bilaterally but through the EU institutions – but events like today show that the bilateral remains crucially important.

To conclude – as you may be able to tell I am profoundly optimistic about this country and our future. This is an optimistic government and we believe in the ability of the British people to recover from the setbacks we’ve all faced over the last year and to turn our country into something special. In doing so, we look for friendly collaboration wherever that is possible; with Germany I am confident it is possible; and KW has a huge role in keeping it possible. Thank you.

Leon Mangasarian: Merkeldämmerung. It is past time that the German Chancellor stepped down.

14 May

Dr Leon Mangasarian was an editor and reporter for Bloomberg News, Deutsche-Presse Agentur and United Press International in East Berlin, Bonn, Berlin and Brussels. He received a PhD from the London School of Economics in 1993. He is co-author (with Jan Techau) of a book on German security policy, Führungsmacht Deutschland, and is now a freelance writer living in Potsdam, Germany, and on a farm in southeast Brandenburg state.

All political lives end in failure unless cut off midstream. Angela Merkel proves Enoch Powell’s theorem as her chancellorship staggers to its end after 16 years amid a botched Covid-19 vaccination campaign.

If Merkel had learned one lesson from her mentor, Helmut Kohl, it would have been to get out while the getting was good. He was also tossed out of office after 16 years.

Merkel is departing with no signature achievement. True, she’s dealt with major crises, but her policy responses have at best been fair to middling. Far too often they’ve been flawed, or she simply avoids tough issues.

Germany is failing to get  jabs into people’s arms. Just nine percent of Germans are fully vaccinated, compared with 56 percent in Israel, 35 percent in the US and 27 percent in the UK. Merkel insisted on handing vaccine procurement to the EU and thus to Ursula von der Leyen, a competency-challenged ex-German defense minister co-responsible for wrecking Germany’s Bundeswehr.

Insufficient vaccines is worsened by Germany’s obsession with making sure nobody jumps the queue. Instead of using the nation’s excellent network of general practitioners, the wheel was reinvented by setting up huge vaccination centers. Rationing vaccine by age groups means binning thousands of doses at the end of the day.

This debacle again shows Merkel as the tactician and not a grand strategist. She’s reactive, rather than calculating means to big-picture ends. So notorious is she for dithering that her name has become a new German verb: to “Merkeln” means either to do nothing and avoid making a decision or, when you do, to hide it in gauze and fog.

Merkel’s bad ideas aren’t limited to public health. Here are some of her greatest hits.

Drifting left

Merkel’s fundamental misstep was shoving her once centrist-conservative Christian Democratic Union to the left. The CDU became social democratic, making its conservatives homeless, prompting some to join the Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Her 2015 open border migration policy led to the AfD’s resurrection. The Christian Democratic bloc is cratering, with polls putting it at 23 percent, behind the opposition Greens. Under Kohl the Christian Democrats regularly won over 40 percent. In a further act of self-harm, the CDU chose the Merkelist premier of North-Rhine Westphalia, Armin Laschet, as its chancellor candidate for September’s election.

Merkel is a high-tax leader. Among her first acts was raising value-added tax to 19 percent from 16 percent, and income and other tax burdens have shot up under her chancellorship. German tax revenue was 452 billion euros in her first year in office. In 2019 it was 800 billion euros. Germany now has one of the highest overall tax rates in the OECD club of rich nations.

Overregulation

Meanwhile, the Chancellor failed to revamp Germany’s economy. The last major reform was almost 20 years ago under Gerhard Schröder, a Social Democrat. It was political suicide on his part, but laid the foundation for prosperity.

Today, German business staggers under suffocating bureaucracy. There’s a stunning example near Berlin, where Tesla is building a “Gigafactory” that will create an estimated 40,000 jobs. Construction is almost finished, but German bureaucrats still refuse to issue a building permit. Elon Musk has been warned he’s investing at his own risk and that if the permit is denied he’ll have to tear down the factory. Merkel thinks more bureaucrats as the answer: since 2016 there’s been a 22 percent increase in the number of employees in her chancellery and ministries.*

Importing power

Germany now has Europe’s highest electricity costs. Households and most businesses pay 43 percent above the EU average. Merkel’s botched renewables shift slams consumers with huge bills subsidising wind and solar. Merkel’s other energy move was to panic after Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster and move forward the closure of all nuclear plants to 2022. At the same time, she’s speeding up closures of coal-fired power plants.

The result? Germany’s Bundesrechnungshof, which audits government management, warns that Merkelian energy policies risk triggering electricity blackouts. After closing nuclear and coal-fired plants, Germany, on winter days with no sun or wind, will import electricity from France and Poland that’s produced by – you guessed it – nuclear or coal-fired plants.

Russia

Merkel’s other energy/geopolitical debacle is the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, running under the Baltic Sea, to bring natural gas from Russia to Germany. The pipeline has pissed off Germany’s NATO and EU allies. (Everyone but Merkel knows the Kremlin uses energy as a political weapon.)

The Poles and the Baltics are furious; Ukraine, the current route of Russian pipelines to Europe, is fearful; and both the Trump and now the Biden administrations pledged sanctions on companies building the pipeline.

Merkel insists Nord Stream 2 is just another business deal.

China

China is Merkel’s favorite among global dictatorships. It’s only a slight exaggeration to describe her chancellorship one long kowtow. She regularly visits China to support German exports and investment. Merkel crowned Germany’s EU presidency by ramming through an EU-China investment accord, despite pleas from the incoming Biden administration to wait.

Merkel is wobbly on minority rights, Beijing’s military operations in the South China Sea, the crushing of democracy in Hong Kong, and threats to Taiwan.

A key part of Germany’s body politic is memory of the Holocaust and Nazi crimes. There are two parts: never forget history, no matter how awful; and “never again,” as in never tolerate even a hint of genocide. Joschka Fischer, then Foreign Minister, evoked this in backing the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo by saying “never again Auschwitz, never again genocide.”

More than anyone in Germany, the Chancellor must personify these tenets. Yet Merkel has stumbled. “Never again” is brushed off over China’s persecution of the Uighurs. Merkel refuses to follow NATO allies the US, Canada, and the Netherlands, which accuse Beijing of genocide.

Turkey

As for history, Merkel made clear her displeasure over a 2016 German parliament resolution describing the killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire (Germany’s World War I ally) as genocide. Merkel skipped the vote and then, to make sure that Ankara got the message, her spokesman declared the resolution wasn’t legally binding.

Overlooking a century-old genocide is easier than angering the Turkish government she needed to block migrants from Europe. Merkel and the EU paid Turkey billions so Ankara would do the dirty work of closing EU borders.

Digital

Merkel’s failings are striking in her endless harping about “digitalization.” For all Merkel’s talk, inaction is the result. Forget Estonian-style e-Government. Germans rely on fax machines, signatures and humorless officials wielding stamps and well-inked stamp pads. Anyway, e-Government couldn’t work in Germany because it requires a decent mobile phone system. Merkel has failed to plug the massive holes Germany’s network. I’ve had better mobile service in the remotest parts of Scotland or Namibia.

Politicians everywhere reach their “sell-by” date after eight to ten years. Merkel, despite human decency and incorruptibility, has long since reached hers. Every day she remains in office is a lost day for Germany. This year is wasted for lawmaking with elections in September, followed by coalition negotiations that could run into 2022.

Germany desperately needs a member of parliament, like Leopold Amery in the House of Commons in 1940, to stand up and speak the truth:

“You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing … In the name of God, go!” 

*Simon Haas, Jonas Hermann and Charlotte Eckstein, “Wuchernder Staat: Deutschlands Regierungsapparat wird grösser und grösser,“ Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 10 April 2021.

Garvan Walshe: Merkeldammerung. Germany’s polls put the Greens within striking distance of government.

1 Apr

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party

No leader gives up the job entirely on their own terms, but Angela Merkel, who will step down as Chancellor after what will be at least fifteen years in power, came closer than most.

She had the skill to keep the coalition of voters behind her Christian Democratic Union (which governs with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union) sufficiently broad to dominate German politics for a decade and a half. She’ll leave office as one of the great centre-right Chancellors of modern Germany, along with Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl.

Known for waiting for what seems to everyone too long before making darting radical jumps, Merkel overcame the financial crisis, the refugee crisis, and even dealt effectively with the first wave of the Covid pandemic.

She saw off rivals internal (Wolfgang Schäuble) external (the AfD) and a man best described as standing just inside the tent, peeing in (Friedrich Merz).

Yet she was unable to find a successor. Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg imploded in a plagiarism scandal, Ursula von der Leyen’s mediocre efforts at the defence ministry would be repeated at the European Commission, Annegret Kramp Karrenbauer proved the dampest of squibs, while Armin Laschet was left holding the Coronavirus pandemic as the vaccination programme foundered.

Like every other centre-right party in proportional electoral systems, the CDU/CSU is struggling in a fragmenting political landscape. Party activists worry that she’s losing votes to her right, to the AfD (or, in a more liberal direction, the FDP), while larger numbers of voters defect to the Greens, who have governed impressively in Baden Württemburg (in coalition with the CDU), and who also increased their seats at the CDU’s expense in Rhineland-Palatinate.

The “Union” has a backup plan in the form of Markus Soder, the leader of the Bavarian CSU, who could replace Laschet as the centre-right’s Chancellor candidate in September’s elections, but he is now also suffering from the terrible vaccination campaign and PPE procurement corruption scandals. The Union is now polling in the mid twenties, ten points down on the beginning of the year. This doesn’t look like an election where “more of the same” is a winning formula.

The latest opinion polls have narrowed the gap between the CDU/CSU and the Greens to less than five points, and if the trend continues the Greens could even top the poll in September.

This opens up two new possibilites for post-election Germany. Until this month, it had seemed likely that a coalition between the CDU/CSU and the Greens, headed by a Union Chancellor, would have been the only way to avoid letting either the AfD or the post-communist Linke into national government.

But the green surge increases the options. A “traffic light” coalition, between the Greens, SPD (the social democrats, whose colour is red) and the liberal FDP (yellow), or a Jamaica coalition (after the Jamaican flag, because the CDU’s colour is black) involving Greens, Union and FDP would also add up to a majority. In these scenarios it is the Greens, not either of Germany’s two traditional parties, who could choose who to form a government with.

Germany’s Greens started as a conventional green party emphasising environmental politics, but have evolved into a centre-left formation without the industrial baggage of the SPD, which allows them to take clearer stances against polluting industry or in favour of immigration and accommodating refugees.

If their representation in the Berlin city government is radical (favouring rent control, for example) their adminsitration in prosperous Baden Würtemberg, home to much of Germany’s car industry, has been decidedly more pragmatic. Their independence from German industrial politics has also led them to take stronger stances against Putin’s Russia (remember that Gerhard Schröder, Germany’s former Chancellor, serves as chairman of Rosneft), and Orban’s Hungary.

A green-led government would, perhaps astonishingly, tilt German geopolitics closer to that of the United States. Transatlantic friction over Russia’s Nordstream pipeline to Germany, which both the Greens and Washington are against, would disappear. Leading the govenrment would, however, pose problems for the party in relation to nuclear weapons, with which much of its membership is deeply uncomfortable.

Nevertheless, the German Greens, which hse co-leaders, Robert Habek and Annalena Baerbock, would pursue international policy in step with the UK’s focus on addressing climate change, and upholding international human rights norms against Moscow and Beijing.  Nonetheless, they are strongly pro-European, and a Green-led German government would put renewed energy behind deeper European integration.

In September, the test for the Greens will be whether they can provide the right combination of reasssurance and change for an electorate that prized the stability and integrity Merkel provided them, but is now ready to give the system a bit of a jolt.

The AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine. A run down of the developments across Europe extreme caution takes hold.

15 Mar

Over the past few months, there have been lots of issues across Europe with the vaccine roll out. From the EU’s difficulties in acquiring vaccines, culminating in its attempt to control exports across the Irish border, to Emmanuel Macron casually deriding the AstraZeneca-Oxford jab (AZ) and causing vaccine hesitancy, it’s been problem after problem. Today there was more trouble on the AZ front, with leaders concerned about whether it leads to blood clots. Without further ado, here’s a round up of some of the developments:

  • Germany has made the headlines today for two reasons. For one, Angela Merkel’s centre-right party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), suffered its worst ever results in two regions it once considered strongholds. The drop in support has been attributed to Germany’s problems obtaining vaccines, and will have huge implications for the CDU’s fate in September’s election. To complicate matters, this afternoon it was revealed that Germany has suspended use of the AZ jab, citing fears that it could lead to blood clots.

  • Soon after Germany’s decision, it was reported that France had also suspended the AZ vaccine. Macron already has one of the most dreadful records in regards to vaccination strategy. He claimed the AZ vaccine was “quasi-ineffective” in over 65s – based on no evidence. With reports of intensive care units filling up in Paris and with France having the world’s sixth-highest total of Covid-19 cases, it is extremely troubling that European leaders are planting more doubt about the vaccine. On Twitter, political pundits did not hold back when speculating about the reasons for Merkel and Macron’s decision to suspend the vaccine.

 

  • But Germany and France are not the first to suspend the AZ vaccine. The Netherlands has paused roll out until at least March 29 for the same reasons (worries about blood clots). In the meantime, the country has had some of the most extreme lockdown protests. Over the weekend, the Dutch police used a water cannon and other shocking methods to control protesters (see the video below). So who knows how much worse this will get with the vaccine roll out being so slow. All of this has happened three days before the country’s election, in which Mark Rutte, the Prime Minister, will stand for a fourth term in office. Unlike the CDU, his party is expected to do well – and build even more seats than it did in 2017.

  • One big surprise is that Italy’s Piedmont region has stopped using the AZ vaccine. This is in spite of the terrible time Italy is having, with it recording 27,000 new cases and 380 deaths on Friday, and going into lockdown. Luigi Genesio Icardi, head of regional health services, stood by Piedmont’s decision, suggesting that suspending AZ roll out was “an act of extreme prudence, while we verify whether there is a connection”. After a teacher died from a vaccination shot, authorities have been trying to find the batch responsible to examine it.
  • Lastly, Austria has suspended the use of a batch of AZ vaccines after a 49-year-old nurse died of “severe blood coagulation problems”, and four other European countries (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Luxembourg) have stopped using vaccines from the same batch. It was sent to 17 European countries and consists of one million jabs.

So all in all, there is still huge scepticism about the AZ vaccine. Are leaders right to stop the AZ roll out? The European Medicines Agency and World Health Organization have both said there’s no evidence of a link between the jab and blood clots, although the EMA is apparently going to advise further tomorrow. In the UK there have been 37 reports of blood clots among 17 million people (and there is no strong biological explanation of why the vaccine would cause a clot). So it all looks slightly strange.

Leaders are using what is known as the “precautionary principle”; a scientific method that means you pause and review something if you’re unsure about it. It’s the ideal thing to do, of course, but the consensus from scientists elsewhere seems to be that leaders need to press ahead given the urgency of the pandemic situation. Suspending AZ can mean that many more lives are lost from the direct impact of the virus. Either way, you get a sense that “extreme prudence” may not have been the right move.