Garvan Walshe: Russia’s building up troops on Ukraine’s border. Here’s what we can do to stymie Putin.

15 Apr

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

Tanks rolling towards the Ukrainian border. Paratroopers in Crimea. Mechanised troops to the Kaliningrad enclave on the Baltic sea between Poland and Lithuania. A “rotational” but in effect permanent presence on Ukraine’s frontier with Belarus.

These are just the most obviously military steps in Russia’s campaign to divide and confuse the West, and test the mettle of the Biden Administration.

They come as tensions increase in East Asia, with China increasing pressure on Taiwan, and the US trying to enlist Japan into backing up the island. The question on Russia’s mind is who are the Japans – the large, democratic American allies – of Europe?

Moscow could be forgiven for thinking there aren’t any. France was suckered into attempting a “reset” in relations in exchange for cooperation in the North Africa that never materialised. How seriously can Germany be taken until it cancels Nordstream 2? And the UK has just released a review of strategy promising a military tilt towards the Indo-Pacific.

Russia’s big disadvantage is that its economy is still relatively small (its GDP is the same as that of Spain and Portugal, or the Nordic countries), and its autocratic regime needs an expensive repressive apparatus to hold onto power.

Its advantage, however, is that such wealth as it has comes from natural resources, and these are easy for the ruling elite to capture. It’s much easier for the “Collective Putin”, as the ruling elite is sometimes known, to spend them on internal security, military hardware and foreign subversion than it is for a democracy constrained by law, voters unhappy about tax rises, and expensive welfase states.

Putin’s central belief is that the world is a transactional place where raw power is decisive. He finds it difficult to understand the Western talk of values, and dismisses it as cant, just has he knows that Russian lines about non-interference in the affairs of other nations or respect for international frontiers are empty propaganda – to be used, or discarded, as convenient.

But if he cannot quite fathom the levels of trust that Western countries still have for one another, he knows how to erode it by supporting nationalists from Marine Le Pen (whose party received loans from a Russian bank) to Alex Salmond (still a presenter on Russia Today), and of course, Donald Trump.

But 2021 has worsened the strategic environment. Biden has bluntly called him a “killer”. The autumn’s elections in Germany could deliver the Greens (who are not only anti-Putin, but anti-the oil and gas from which he makes his money).

His only solid European ally is Hungary, whose government has bought Russia’s vaccine, hired Rosatom to renovate its nuclear power plant, agreed to host and give diplomatic immunity from regulatory oversight,to the Russian state International Investment Bank, and provided a permissive environment for Russian spies. Viktor Orban’s collaboration with Putin, is however, enough to neutralise the EU’s Russia policy and limit the effectiveness of NATO.

The latest military build up is another attempt to increase pressure on the alliance now that Trump is no longer in a position to destroy it. Ukraine, which was formally offered a path to NATO membership in 2008, has repeated its request to join, splitting its friends from those who profess to be afraid to “poke the bear.”

But if immediate NATO membership for Ukraine is currently off the table, there is an opportunity here for the UK to be a “North European” Japan, and anchor North European security against Russia in support of the US-led alliance. This role should naturally fall to the UK, since France is heavily committed in North Africa, and Germany cannot be expected to be decisive, especially during a year where the election coincides with Russia’s annual Zapad military exercises.

Britain is in a position to convene a coalition of European countries worried about Russia, including Poland, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands and the Baltic states, possibly with Ukraine in association. A semi-formal initiative and northern analogue of France’s European Intervention Initiative, but obviously more defensive in nature, could focus on reinforcing the territorial integrity of its members, as well as security of the Baltic sea, and develop programmes of mutual assistance in civil resilience for circumstances below those that would warrant the invocation of NATO’s Article Five.

Such an initiative would, I believe, be well received in Washington, where a reinforcement of Britain’s role in the Euro-Atlantic, and not just the distant Indo-Pacific, theatre would bring significant relief.

David Davis: The Covid public inquiry should open in October, be held in two stages – and prepare for the unexpected

26 Mar

David Davis is a former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and is MP for Haltemprice and Howden.

While the dedicated staff of our NHS and public services have managed superbly under extreme pressure, it is clear that mistakes have been made during the Coronavirus crisis.

No, let me rephrase that piece of Blairite prose. We have made mistakes. The whole British ruling class. Government, advisers (scientific and otherwise), Whitehall, the lot. And not just this Government, the previous one, and the ones before that.

So it is essential that lessons are learnt. Not just by this Government, but by future governments as well.

So we must establish a public inquiry on the handling of the pandemic.

Needless to say, the architects of our strategy throughout the crisis are nervous about the implications for them, and unsurprisingly they are saying “Yes, but not yet.” Not before the next election, or not before they retire, or move on to their next job.

Unfortunately, that will not do. The principal aim of the public inquiry is not recrimination about the past, it is preparation for the future. Pandemics come out of an apparently clear blue sky, or seem to. They are a peculiar class of threat, one whose eventual arrival is certain, but whose timing is entirely unpredictable.

The sloppy thinkers in Whitehall tend to imagine that if it is going to happen in the next 20 years, the most likely time is in about ten, so we have time to prepare for the next one. They are wrong. There is an approximately equal chance of a new pandemic in every year. There are “wet-market” style interfaces between wildlife and urban populations in Asia, Africa, and South America, and as the urban populations expand there are new opportunities for zoonotic pathogens jumping species all the time.

As public health services expand, depending too much on antibiotics, the risk of new drug resistant bacteria continues. It is probably only a limited time before we have a really virulent strain of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, for example. We do not know whether the next threat will be bacterial, viral or fungal. We do not know whether it will be transmitted by air, by touch, or in our food. All we know is that there will be another pandemic at some entirely unspecified time in the future.

So we need to get a move on with the inquiry, and start as soon as possible. Of course the inquiry must be thorough, and must thoroughly review what went right and what went wrong in the Government’s handling of the pandemic. The public will expect it, and the Opposition will demand it. But the most important thing is that we learn the lessons and develop the template for the next crisis as soon as possible.

What is different from other inquiries is that there is a vast amount of data to design this rapid template for pandemic management, and most of it comes from abroad. Although we have had a spectacular success with our vaccination programme, and a lesser but important success with the RECOVERY programme (that delivered dexamethasone as a valuable therapy), the majority of the most successful strategies were in other countries, most obviously in East Asia.

There is a vast amount of data to evaluate all the national strategies and operational arrangements. There are reasonably accurate data on mortality, infection, recovery and excess other deaths on a daily basis for virtually every country in the world. Similarly there are accurate economic impact assessments available. Along with the genetic mutation data this allows us to track very accurately how the disease travelled, grew, was suppressed and was treated, and assess the effectiveness of dozens of different preventive and therapeutic approaches.

This argues for a two-stage inquiry. The first stage, which could start in October, should report on what the best template is within one year, giving us the best possible chance of dealing with another pandemic whenever it appears. The second stage can (and will) take years, and should review what we did right and what we did wrong.

While such inquiries are normally run by judges, the first stage of the inquiry might be better led by a leading scientist, possibly a past President of the Royal Society or some similarly recognised intellect. What it should not be is chaired by anybody who was an adviser to the Government in the crisis.

So this week the Health Secretary – Matt Hancock – announced that his Department will be setting out plans for a new UK Health Security Agency. The Agency will plan for, prevent and respond to external health threats, such as pandemics.

This is a welcome development to better protect the UK, our population, and communities from future external health hazards.

However, the Government has chosen Jenny Harries, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, to head up the Agency. I am not at all sure that this is wise. This is not a reflection on Harries, who may be brilliant. However the Prime Minister himself accepts that there were a number of missteps in the crisis.

These missteps taken by the Government were often based on questionable advice provided by the very same medical advisers who are now being handed the job of looking at what went wrong.

These public inquiries must be led in an unfettered way by an independent actor who is not consciously or unconsciously committed to the strategies that have failed in the past.

In due course the inquiry will review the errors that have plagued some of our Covid strategy. Before the current Government gets too nervous it should realise that many of the errors are rooted in the past, long before the current Prime Minister came to power, and often before the Conservative/Liberal Democrat government government took over in 2010.

So the advisory arrangements – SAGE et al – date back to the Blair years. They were first activated for the H1N1 swine flu outbreak in 2009. They frankly do not work very well. The idea of dumping all scientific advice into one committee is a bit bizarre, the sort of thing that liberal arts dominated Whitehall might do. It can often become dominated by a single strong character with a speciality that is beyond many of the members, as happened with Neil Ferguson and his poorly constructed and opaque mathematical model at the beginning of the crisis.

Similarly the Whitehall structures that are supposed to cope with crises are pretty poor too. The best demonstrator of this was the Operation Cygnus pandemic preparation exercise that was run a few years ago. This so-called command post-exercise was positively harmful, because it persuaded Whitehall that it was ready for a pandemic when all it rehearsed were the coping mechanisms – how many body bags you need, and should you have a mass mortuary in Hyde Park – rather than what you would actually do to minimise deaths. This is a generic problem, not just applicable to pandemics. Their “worst case” Brexit preparation was pretty poor too.

Some of the deep-rooted problems come a little later. The Public Health England structures were largely a product of the Lansley reforms, and they too were visibly not fit for purpose. It was their poor leadership that meant that we failed to hit the target of 10,000 test a day before the end of March, while Germany comfortably hit 15,000 a day in mid March. That incompetence denied the Government the strategies that worked so well for Germany in the first wave.

Then of course there were many decisions made on the fly during 2020. Obviously many of these were wrong, notwithstanding Matt Hancock’s cheerfully optimistic gloss earlier this week. But the public, and frankly anybody with any sense, knows that any government was making decisions based as much on guesswork as on hard data, and the public are very tolerant of that.

The primary area where an inquiry’s criticism is likely to fall is poor strategic management in, for example, the upper levels of NHS management. While their staff were doing a brilliant job, I am not too sure that the decisions on, for example, the deployment of the Nightingales and the private sector hospitals were entirely sensible.

These are the sort of things that will be unpicked over a few years by the second stage of the inquiry. The data will be complex and sometimes hard to establish, so it will take a significant time to resolve. Since it may be commenting on the decisions of individuals it is right that it takes its time. But that is all the more reason to start soon.

So my message to Boris Johnson is do not fear this inquiry: grasp this nettle soon, get the actionable insights quickly, reform and prepare accordingly, and then allow the commission to take its time doing a detailed inquiry over several years. History will judge you well for doing the right thing on this.

Alistair Burt: Global Britain can also be European Britain

11 Nov

Alistair Burt is Chair of the Conservative Group for Europe’s Foreign Affairs Policy Group and former Minister of State at both the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development.

Change is happening. Our relationship with Europe is changing, the United States is changing – Joe Biden will be the 46th President – the Foreign & Commonwealth Office has merged with Department for International Development, and the Government is undertaking the ‘Integrated Review’ of security, defence, development and foreign policy.

All of these changes, and others, provide the UK with unique opportunities to make a success of Global Britain. We must now be bold enough – and honest enough – to seize them.

During the summer, the Conservative Group for Europe (CGE) established a Foreign Affairs Policy Group, which includes experts in diplomacy, business and politics. Our first publication – Foreign Affairs and International Relations Post-Brexit – will be launched today at a webinar with William Hague, David Lidington, the Chair of CGE, Tom Tugendhat and Neale Richmond, the Fine Gael TD. We will discuss the paper and the future of UK foreign policy.

The Conservative Group for Europe, formed over 50 years ago, has a long history of promoting constructive European engagement within the Conservative Party. But being a pro-European Conservative today inevitably means something different to being a pro-European Conservative in 1970, or even in 2016. Debates move on and times change – as does the CGE.

As the UK forges a new foreign policy, which both reflects and responds to the constantly evolving world, we should not be driven by ideology or old biases. In the realm of foreign affairs, if continuing cooperation and coordination with Europe is in our best interests, we should say so. Adopting a ‘go it alone’ approach, simply to prove a point, would be both wrong and dangerous, and I hear no serious talk of this in foreign affairs. But being outside of the EU will allow for even greater innovation and ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking in how we approach foreign policy in the future.

A common theme running throughout the paper is that multilateral political cooperation with the EU, as well as the bilateral relations with its member states in other international fora like the UN, OSCE, Council of Europe and NATO where we continue as full members, remains in the UK’s best national and independent interest.

In global affairs, UK and EU interests are often aligned. UK values have influenced Europe and vice versa, so in many ways these are intertwined in facing growing challenges, and our foreign policies will rarely be contradictory but more often mutually reinforcing. To make a success of Global Britain, we can also be ‘European Britain. We can achieve far more on the world stage by working collaboratively, as an equal partner, with our European allies. At the same time, we must seize new opportunities, think innovatively and engage in parts of the world previously overlooked.

Foreign Affairs and International Relations Post-Brexit is a Conservative contribution to the ongoing discussions about the UK’s role in an ever changing and challenging world, where resources will be stretched, and priorities must inevitably be chosen. The paper covers the EU; the Middle East and North Africa (MENA); Sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas and East and South Asia. It offers an overview of each region, the UK’s involvement and highlights potential future opportunities and dangers. Crucially, it offers practical and positive suggestions to help ‘Global Britain’ succeed.

It starts with Africa, the world’s fastest growing continent which has all too often been overlooked. The UK should seek more active engagement with Africa by extending its diplomatic outreach and having an Embassy or High Commission in every African state.

These need not be large or grand undertakings; success can be achieved with just a few staff. Likewise, we should consider appointing a dedicated Ambassador to the African Union – as have with the European Union – and further engage with regional groups such as Southern African Development Community (SADC) and Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS). Over the last 30-40 years British business has overlooked African markets – we have lost export market share to Asia, the Americas and even some European countries. Increasing our diplomatic presence and engagement will help foster growth in UK-African trade.

Moving from Africa to the USA, the paper considers the potential foreign policy implications of Joe Biden’s upcoming presidency, his stated aim to rebuild traditional links with Europe and the future role that the UK can play. As President, Biden is committed and experienced in collective international action. He will want a UK working closely with European partners an essential and vital ally, further enhancing the UK’s opportunity for global influence. However, if we were to turn our back on Europe, the UK risks being marginalised and losing its unique and historic role as a bridge between the US and Europe.

Biden has committed to rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement on the first day of his presidency and with the UK hosting the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) next year, an immediate opportunity exists to strength the UK-US relationship beyond trade and security, as the Prime Minister has noted. A good trade deal is obviously in both our best interests as a good foundation to our new relationship. It may not be without its concessions on both sides, but this might be best for the recovery of our economies post Brexit- some give now on both sides might be politic.

Turning our attention to Europe, the UK cannot be considered as simply ‘another third country’ by the EU, given our security surplus and P5 status. We should seek to establish structured cooperation on Common Foreign and Security Policy and Common Security and Defence Policy matters.

This could be done by developing new structures, or reinventing older ones – like the Western European Union (WEU) – to help formalise foreign policy, defence and security dialogue between the EU and UK. We might also consider including certain non-EU NATO to develop wider European cooperation.

In the Middle East and North Africa, we should welcome the opportunity to use all our diplomatic skills in such a conflicted area: Libya, Yemen and the Middle East Peace Process should be a priority, as should be helping to de-escalate tensions surrounding Iran and the Gulf. The E3 working alliance with Berlin and Paris will remain crucial in the MENA region.

We should continue to work with partners who share our values to promote good governance, human rights, economic reform, ending corruption, and consent in government as the bases of stability. (We should work especially with states promoting religious tolerance, which has a resonance unappreciated in a largely secular UK and Europe. The absence of tolerance, and oppression of minorities, is one of the key recruiters for conflict.)

Defence policy is largely decided in European capitals – and not Brussels – meaning scope exists for future cooperation outside of the EU structures that we are leaving. With constrained resources, we must think carefully about our future defence capabilities. A suggestion in the paper for counterinsurgency, counterterrorism and stabilisation missions, promotes the idea of the UK focusing on high-end capability, including drones. This would allow us to worth collaboratively with Europe, supporting large deployable gendarmerie forces from countries such as France and Italy.

Whatever the future relationship between Britain and its allies – the US, its longstanding Commonwealth friends and, in particular, the EU – the British Government has some very tough choices to make. I hope this paper makes a timely contribution to the on-going discussions about Britain’s future foreign policy, and I wish the Government, and the UK, well as Global Britain.

Face mask policies abroad. How do they compare to the UK’s rules?

15 Jul

After weeks of pressure and indecision, yesterday the Government announced that face coverings will be mandatory in shops and supermarkets from July 24, with a fine of up to £100 for anyone who doesn’t comply.

As often in the Coronavirus crisis, the UK has been accused of being an outlier in its approach to controlling the virus. Without further ado, ConservativeHome takes a look at how its face mask policy compares to other countries’.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

Throughout the pandemic, the devolved administrations have had different strategies in managing Covid-19, with face coverings being one area of disagreement. In Scotland, people have had to wear them in shops since July 10, with fines if they do not follow the rules.

In Wales and Northern Ireland, on the other hand, shoppers are not required to wear face masks, but it is understood that this situation is under review.

France

The country requires anyone over the age of 11 years to wear face masks, with travellers who fail to comply charged up to €135 (£121). Many supermarkets and shops now ask customers to wear them, but they will be made compulsory in all enclosed public spaces from August 1 – with the aforementioned fine applicable to anyone who violates the rules.

Germany

Face coverings in the country have been mandated on public transport and in shops since April 27, with Berlin and Schleswig-Holstein the last regions to enforce compulsory masks on April 29. In the German state of Thuringia, masks are required in the workplace. Very young children are exempt from the rules, but the age at which they are mandated to wear a mask differs by state.

Italy

People have been required to wear masks in specific enclosed spaces, such as restaurants, shops and public transport, since May 4. In restaurants, they must be worn when people enter the venue and any time they leave their table. Several regional authorities, such as Lombardy and Piedmont, have made masks compulsory in all public spaces.

Greece

Everyone has to wear masks on public transport and they are compulsory in hospitals and other medical facilities, as well as in lifts. Greece also made them compulsory in shops, but the measures have since been relaxed, although shop staff are still required to wear them.

Spain

Face masks are mandatory for anyone over the age of six if they’re not able to keep the required social distance of 1.5 metres. Some regional authorities have implemented tougher rules in regards to face coverings, so that they are required in public regardless of social distancing measures.

Catalonia

After a surge of new Coronavirus cases in Spain’s autonomous region, face masks are mandatory in public for anyone aged over five. People who are caught without one, even if they engage in social distancing, can be charged €100 (£90).

Turkey

Face masks are compulsory in crowded places, such as markets, hairdressers and barber shops, as well as public transport. Bodrum, Marmaris and Istanbul, some of Turkey’s most popular tourist destinations, have made masks compulsory at all times outside of the home, such as on beaches, in parks and in restaurants.

East Asia

For many countries in Asia, such as mainland China, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan, there is a strong culture of mask wearing, partly as a result of previous health crises.

China has forced its citizens to wear masks in all public spaces since the beginning of the Coronavirus outbreak last year, and anyone who doesn’t comply can be fined, banned from subways shops, offices and banks, or even arrested.

In Singapore, it’s compulsory to wear face masks outside or be fined around £170.

And in Taiwan masks are seen as a form of social etiquette – used to protect others while out and about. Its government has been one of the most proactive at obtaining masks during the Covid-19 crisis, partly due to lessons from the Sars outbreak.

India

India, which has almost 880,000 cases of Coronavirus, and over 23,000 fatalities, has recently made face masks compulsory to wear out and about in most big cities. The police now hand out fines of 500-rupee (£5.29) for violations.

Russia

Due to the country’s nine time zones, there are different rules on face masks for different destinations. Moscow has mandatory guidelines on wearing masks and gloves in its public spaces, although people are only recommended to wear these on the streets. Police also enforce mask wearing in shops and public transport.