Iain Dale: People will die as a result of the EU’s Covid games. But don’t expect the media to criticise Saint Macron.

19 Mar

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

Another day, another attack from the EU on Britain and/or AstraZeneca (AZ).

It’s becoming a very unfortunate pattern. Once you can forgive, twice you can put down to coincidence. Three times and you start to wonder if there’s an agenda. And so on.

This started many weeks ago, when it became clear that the UK had forged ahead in its vaccine rollout, unlike the EU, whose bureaucracy and incompetence led to it being two to three months behind.

As this reality dawned, it seemed the only way it could cover its back was to accuse the UK of vaccine nationalism. President Macron of France even went so far as to cast doubt on the safety of the AZ vaccine with absolutely no proof whatsoever. The German newspaper Handelsblatt followed suit.

We should remember that Macron is president of a country where vaccine scepticism is already rife. It was one of the most irresponsible things I have ever heard come out of a so-called statesman’s mouth. If Trump had said it, Europe’s media would have been up in arms. Not so much with the sainted Macron.

A few weeks later Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, erroneously, and totally without any foundation, claimed that Britain had imposed an export ban on vaccines or vaccine contents. No such ban had been imposed and the European Commission was forced to admit it.

Ursula von der Leyen then proceeded to threaten an export ban to the UK, which again, had to be withdrawn. She did though approve a decision by the Italian government to ban the export of 250,000 vaccine jabs from AZ to Australia, on the basis that they were needed in the EU. Yet all we hear is that there are hundreds of thousands of AZ vaccines sitting in fridges and there is no shortage whatsoever.

And then 17 European countries – not all of them EU members – decided to suspend AZ vaccines on the basis that there were reports of people suffering blood clots after having had the vaccine. Almost immediately we found out that there had been 28 cases per million after 17 million doses had been administered.

Strangely, however, there was no ban on the Pfizer vaccine, given that it has had 22 cases. I wonder why that would be…

While it’s always right to be cautious and to analyse the “yellow cards” which all vaccines experience, the effect of this suspension of rollout has yet again undermined public confidence in the AZ vaccine. So why have these countries done it, given they must have known the consequence?

The head of the Italian medicines regulator has been highly critical of the decision and says it was done for “political reasons”. Scandalous.

There is another explanation. Big pharma companies have incredibly powerful lobbying operations, both in Brussels and in national capitals. The AZ vaccine is sold at cost, whereas all the other companies’ vaccines are far more expensive and are produced with varying, but large, profit margins. It’s in their interests to trash the AZ vaccine. It costs between £1 and £2 per dose, compared to the £13-£20 for the Pfizer offering. Others are a bit cheaper but way more than AZ. Follow the money.

As I write, the World Health Organisation and the European Medicines Agency have both confirmed the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine, but the damage is done. Even in this country there are reports of people with pre-booked appointments not showing up for their turn. It’s a stark thing to say, but the constant running down of the AZ vaccine by European leaders is having an effect here. People will die as a result.

And on Wednesday the hapless von der Leyen returned to the fray and went back on her promise of a few weeks ago and directly threatened the UK with an export ban. Again, scandalous. She appears not to understand Contract Law. Originally she accused AZ of going back on its contractual obligations. She raided their offices in Belgium. The truth was that the contract was watertight. If it hadn’t been, no doubt there would have been an immediate law suit emanating from the Berlaymont.

This sabre rattling is all about arse covering and skin saving. It’s a lame attempt to portray Britain as the bad cop. European people can see through this. They look at the successful rollout of the vaccine in Britain and compare it to the lamentable efforts of the EU, and they can see quite easily how it has happened.

The reaction of the British government to these outrageous threats from Brussels has been commendably muted. It’s more with sorrow rather than anger. But these are hostile acts, and it is a sign that we can expect more of the same. Britain totally holds the moral high ground here, and it will be interesting to see how this can be turned to our diplomatic advantage.

One thing is for sure: I have lost count of the number of people on social media who were devout Remainers, who now say they regret their Remain votes. I imagine there are plenty of people all over Europe who are now saying that the Brits knew what they were doing and their faith in the EU has been diminished as a result. Who knows what the long-term consequences of this will be for the EU.

– – – – – – – – –

Yesterday my book The Prime Ministers won the Parliamentary Book of the Year by a No Parliamentarian. I think anyone who has ever won an award can imagine how I felt when I heard the news. There’s no panel who chooses this ward in the usual Buggins Turn way, the awards are voted on by MPs and Peers themselves, which makes it even more special.

The book contains 55 essays on each of our 55 PMs, and it’s being announced today that my next book will be in a similar format and look at the 46 US Presidents. That will be followed up in 2023 by one on our Kings and Queens.

Benedict Rogers: It seems plausible that this brazen assault on democracy in Myanmar is driven by one man’s ambition

1 Feb

Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is Senior Analyst for East Asia at CSW, co-founder and deputy chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, author of three books on Myanmar (Burma), including “Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads”, and a former parliamentary candidate.

Today’s coup in Myanmar (Burma) is a devastating blow to a decade of fragile democratization, and a major setback for a beautiful but benighted country that has already suffered decades of war, poverty and repression.

Although Myanmar has a long history of military rule, this latest move comes as a surprise. Despite a transition to a civilian-led democratic government under Aung San Suu Kyi five years ago, the military has in any case retained real power.

Under the constitution which it wrote, Myanmar’s military has direct control of three key government ministries – Home Affairs, Border Affairs and Defence – as well as a quarter of parliamentary seats reserved for the armed forces. It controls its budget, and many enterprises. Aung San Suu Kyi has bent over backwards to compromise with the military, even defending them in The Hague on charges of genocide. So why would the army move against her now?

One theory is that the military is driven by power and is incapable of relinquishing it. Ever since General Ne Win’s first takeover in 1958, the military has been the dominant political force in Myanmar. His caretaker regime handed over to a democratically elected government in 1960, only to seize power in a coup in 1962.

For over 50 years the army ruled Myanmar directly, rejected Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD)’s first election victory in 1990 and transitioned to a ‘civilian’ government led by former generals dressed in suits rather than military uniforms in 2010. Only after the NLD’s overwhelming win in 2015 did the military move from centre stage to the wings of politics, but even then it continued to exercise overwhelming influence. But perhaps it wasn’t satisfied with that, and wanted to play a starring role again.

Another theory, however, is more plausible, and it is that this coup is not so much driven by the military as a whole, but by the personal ambitions of one man – the Commander-in-Chief General Min Aung Hlaing.

He wants to be President and was dissatisfied that the military-backed party, the Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP), did not do well in last November’s election. Knowing that he has to retire from his current post in June this year, he appears to have decided that if he can’t be President using legitimate, constitutional means, he would seize power anyway.

The pretext for the coup – the army’s claim of voter fraud in last year’s election – is risible. An institution that for decades has defrauded the electorate has no right to make such an allegation. While there are concerns that some of the country’s ethnic minorities were disenfranchised in the election, there is no evidence of voter fraud at the ballot box and no legitimate reason to doubt the NLD’s victory.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the President Win Myint, government ministers, regional chief ministers and a number of pro-democracy activists have been arrested, and a state of emergency imposed for a year. This is truly an outrage, and the international community must not stand for it. Britain, the United States, the European Union and others invested significantly in the reform period that began a decade ago, and so cannot allow this coup to pass without consequences.

Reaction has been swift – but so far only rhetorical. Anthony Blinken, the new US Secretary of State, called on the military to reverse their actions “immediately” and “to release all government officials and civil society leaders and respect the will of the people of Burma as expressed in democratic elections on November 8.”

The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, issued a statement in which he described the developments as “a serious blow to democratic reforms in Myanmar.”

The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, condemned the coup in a tweet, calling for the military to release all those who have been detained unlawfully and for the restoration of the democratic process.

And Boris Johnson condemned the coup and the unlawful imprisonment of civilians.

Now the free world must set out what it will do if the military do not back down – and the United Kingdom should take a lead. We should impose co-ordinated, targeted sanctions – not broad-based sanctions against the country, which would hurt the people, but sanctions specifically against the military’s enterprises and assets.

In July 2020, the United Kingdom announced sanctions against two high ranking members of the Burmese military under the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime – otherwise known as “Magnitsky” sanctions – for human rights violations, but what is needed now is measures against military companies and the economic interests of the military as a whole.

The United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, the European Union, Japan and other allies must work together on this, though if a unified approach cannot be reached, those that are willing to go down the sanctions path should do so anyway, and work with allies on other measures they can agree on.

If it is the case that this coup is more about Min Aung Hlaing’s personal ambitions, then it may be possible to cause a split in the military if international pressure is perceived to hit its economic interests. If that happens, perhaps wiser, cooler heads in the military may prevail and force the Commander-in-Chief to back down.

Certainly one thing is clear: if the Myanmar army is allowed to get away with this brazen assault on a fragile democracy, not only will Myanmar’s development and progress be set back, but it will send an unwelcome green light to others in South-East Asia and beyond, that unconstitutional seizures of power will be allowed to go unchecked. And that – in a world where the cause of freedom and democracy is already on the back foot – would be devastating.

Stephen Booth: The Brexit trade talks, the romance and realities of fishing, and its crucial importance for Scotland

29 Oct

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

UK and EU negotiators are now targeting a mid-November deadline to reach a trade agreement. This would give the European Parliament enough time to consider the treaty and hold a vote on it in the last session of the year, due in the week of December 14 – only two weeks before the Brexit transition period ends.

A fortnight ago, a public row erupted due to the apparent suggestion from EU leaders that further compromises all had to come from the UK side and that this was a precondition for “intensified” negotiations. After Downing Street declared the talks “over”, some on the EU side, including Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, and Mark Rutte, Dutch Prime Minister, sought to immediately defuse the situation, saying the bloc was also willing to make concessions. Ultimately, it took Michel Barnier’s speech to the European Parliament, in which he said it was his intention to “seek the necessary compromises on both sides”, to get the UK to confirm that talks were back on track.

After these theatrics, the EU does appear to have dropped its insistence that the most difficult areas must be settled before progress can be made on lower hanging fruit. The Financial Times reports that much of the talks this week have been engaged with the technical process of agreeing common legal text in areas where there is already considerable agreement, including many of the rules for trade in goods and services, with a mixture of EU and UK drafts being used to reach a consolidated text.

The fact that very little has leaked out of this week’s round of talks is a positive sign that these negotiations are now serious and, indeed, “intensive”. Simon Coveney, the Irish Foreign Minister, this week stated optimistically that: “We’re likely to get a deal, but it won’t be easy.” Charles Michel, the EU Council President, was more equivocal, noting that the two sides have yet to overcome their differences on “level playing field” guarantees, fishing, and the deal’s enforcement.

As I noted in my previous column, the differences over subsidies seem to be narrowing and fishing is increasingly emerging as the major sticking point.

Fishing’s political symbolism is outsized compared to its economic importance to either side. The industry is not significant across the UK – it makes up only around 0.1 per cent of gross value added. The economic contribution is similar in Spain, Denmark and France, which together account for over half the total EU catch.

On the UK side, we know that the Common Fisheries Policy was long viewed as one of the major inequities of British membership and fishing communities were among the most vocal supporters of Leave in the EU referendum. In 2017, around 35 per cent of fish landed by EU vessels from the north Atlantic came from UK waters. By contrast, only 13 per cent of fish landed by UK vessels came from EU waters.

There is a certain romance that an island nation attaches to the sea-faring industry. But cold, hard political realities also explain the significance of fishing in this negotiation. Although not a major national employer, the industry is of course very important to particular communities – often remote, such as along the west coast of Scotland, in Wales and Northern Ireland, with limited other employment opportunities – and, ultimately, the negotiation is a zero-sum game for both sides. More fishing quota for the UK means less for the EU.

For a Conservative Government with increasing reason to be concerned about the state of the Union, there is obvious political benefit to ensuring a better settlement. According to the Government’s statistics, the UK’s largest and most valuable fish landings are in the north-east of Scotland, where larger trawlers tend to operate. 40 per cent of fishers working on UK boats are on Scottish boats. Should the UK gain extra quota, this region is likely to benefit the most. A Brexit dividend for Scotland would be an important win.

The EU knows that the UK has leverage when it comes to fishing access. A failure to reach a deal would mean the UK was under no obligation to provide access to foreign boats at all. Brussels had therefore wanted a deal on fishing rights settled in July, well before the final horse-trading of end-game negotiations.

Nevertheless, a wider trade deal – if it includes a better quota share – is also in the interests of the UK fishing industry. The UK imports most of the fish British consumers want to eat but exports most of the fish UK vessels catch. The EU is by far the biggest market for UK exports. It should also be noted that the wider fish processing industry is a larger, although less vocal, employer than the catch sector. Failure to reach a trade deal would increase costs for UK exports and the processing industry via new trade barriers.

Brussels’ starting position – described as “maximalist” by Barnier – was essentially that its fishing rights in UK waters should not change after the transition period. The EU has so far turned down the UK’s request to move to a new regime of annual quota negotiations – a model the UK recently agreed with Norway.

A possible compromise is likely to rest on establishing a process under which EU fleets’ catch would be phased down over a number of years. The UK would regain a much greater share of future catch opportunities but EU fishing communities would be assured of their rights over the medium-term. How the 100 or so stocks that are up for discussion might be apportioned could also present opportunities to ensure certain political constituencies are prioritised.

So far, Emmanuel Macron, the French President, has been steadfast in his belief that the EU should stand firm on fishing access, vowing to scupper any Brexit deal that “sacrifices” French fishermen. He is aware of a potential political backlash in coastal and rural areas.

However, despite the rhetoric, reports suggest that in private, at least, the French government is preparing the industry for a compromise. It should be noted that Macron is also effectively negotiating with the rest of the EU about how much of the residual quota France will get in the future.

Given the wider economic and political issues at stake, it still seems unlikely that fishing will be the deal-breaker. Macron is likely to come under increasing pressure from member states most exposed to no deal – Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany – to moderate his position. However, it is clear that the political choreography of reaching a deal on this issue is vitally important on both sides of the table.

Stephen Booth: While UK-EU talks gather momentum, Britain should continue to diversify its trading relationships.

25 Jun

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

There are signs that the UK-EU negotiations on the future relationship may be gathering some momentum.

Last week’s stock take meeting between the Prime Minister and Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, the European Commission and European Council Presidents, respectively, confirmed there will be no UK request to extend the transition period beyond December 31 this year.

Both sides agreed to inject fresh impetus into the negotiating process, with talks set to intensify in July, August and September. This marks the make-or-break period to reach a trade agreement and new arrangements in other areas such as cooperation on policing and security.

In my previous column, I argued that the nature of the impasse – essentially whether the EU is prepared to cut a deal under which the UK would be free to leave Brussels’ regulatory orbit – means that it is incumbent upon the EU to move on the key sticking points.

These are fishing and the demand for ongoing UK alignment with EU law on the “level playing field”, particularly with regard to state aid. Important UK-EU differences remain but there are encouraging signs that this is now happening.

Following her meeting with Boris Johnson, von der Leyen signalled in a speech to the European Parliament that the EU was prepared to compromise without, of course, putting into question “our principles and the integrity of our Union”.

In her speech, von der Leyen made no mention of the EU’s initial demand to maintain EU boats’ access to UK waters on the basis of the status quo. “No one questions the UK’s sovereignty on its own waters,” she said. “We ask for predictability and guarantees for our fishermen and women, who have been sailing in those waters for decades.”

Neither did von der Leyen mention the demand for ongoing alignment with EU law on state aid or a role for the Court of Justice (ECJ) in overseeing the level playing field. “It should be a shared interest for the EU and the UK to never slide backwards, and always advance together towards higher standards,” she said.

Notably, she limited her remarks on the role of the ECJ to the part it should play “where it matters” in the area of police and judicial cooperation, rather than in the wider trade deal. If the UK wishes to retain access to EU crime and policing databases, these are underpinned by EU law and there is no escaping that the Court has the role of interpreting how law applies on the EU side.

Though, as the UK has pointed out, the EU has consistently agreed treaties with non-EU countries on policing and judicial matters without requiring the ECJ to settle disputes between the two parties. Equally, the Government has said it will not agree to the extraordinary EU demand for treaty provisions that would oblige the UK to maintain its existing implementation of the European Convention of Human Rights in domestic law.

Meanwhile, there is speculation that a compromise on the level playing field is being explored, under which Britain would assert the right to deviate from the EU rules that it will inherit after the transition period expires. And, in return, the EU would have the ability to apply tariffs on British exports if regulatory divergence amounts to unfair competition.

Neither side has formally adopted the idea yet, but there are reasons to suggest it might have legs. The UK would regain regulatory independence (and the consequences), while the EU would retain the ability to control access to its market in instances where it perceived the UK was lowering standards.

Brussels would need to give up on its desire to export its regulatory model to the UK indefinitely by treaty and the UK would need to compromise on its current position that any commitments on subsides, labour and environmental rights should be exempt from dispute resolution.

It is also an idea hiding in plain sight. The EU’s draft UK trade agreement text already proposes so-called “temporary remedies” and “interim measures” in the event of non-compliance with treaty commitments.

Such a model would not be without difficulties. The UK and EU would still need to agree on the relevant benchmark for identifying a breach of level playing field commitments. The UK could insist that evidence should be required to show that the effects of divergence are harmful to open and fair competition. The EU could continue to insist that the letter of EU law is the benchmark.

Equally, the prospect of the EU using tariffs or market restrictions as a political tool to secure leverage over the UK in other areas of the agreement cannot be discounted. This has been a feature of the EU-Swiss relationship in recent years. However, this needs to be weighed against the prospect of UK-EU trade facing the full panoply of tariffs on day one, if talks break down completely and trade reverts to World Trade Organisation terms.

Critics have noted that rather than providing for managed divergence, such a mechanism would create perpetual conflict. But, ultimately, while it would be nice to avoid it, the likely reality is that the UK and the EU will face disputes in the future, just as they have in the past. This is a feature, rather than a bug, of an independent UK. Some disputes may be easily resolvable through treaty dispute mechanisms, others will require political resolution.

One way for the UK to insure itself in the event of such disputes is to diversify its trading relationships outside of the EU. And negotiations with the UK’s priority non-EU markets, the US, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, are also intensifying over the coming months.

This week, Hiroshi Matsuura, Japan’s chief trade negotiator, called for a UK-Japan deal to be secured in just six weeks to be ready for ratification in the Japanese parliament. The challenge is to replace the existing EU-Japan agreement, which is due to expire at the end of the Brexit transition period, and Japan is insisting on a bespoke UK deal rather than a simple rollover of the existing EU agreement.

This may mean that the deal is less ambitious than the UK would like on agricultural tariffs but Japan and the UK could go further than the EU was prepared to in areas of mutual interest such as services and digital.

Unlike the Japanese deal, the talks with the US, Australia and New Zealand are about fresh deals and the talks are expected to run into next year. UK accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership is next on the agenda. India would be another potential candidate for the future.

With this week marking the fourth anniversary of the EU referendum, the contours of the UK’s international trade policy are beginning to take shape.