Garvan Walshe: Finland and Sweden’s NATO application shows how much Russia has already lost 

12 May

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

Finland and Sweden applying to join NATO is more evidence that Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has been a monstrous mistake. Moscow has maintained an effective veto on Swedish and Finnish membership since ether Cold War. Now, with Russian troops bogged down in the Donbas, Helsinki and Stockholm can join while Russia’s too busy to do much about it.

It also complicates Putin’s tactical situation.  NATO forces could soon be positioned to open a second front north of St Petersburg, limiting Russia’s ability to intimidate the Baltic States, and to broaden the directions from which Murmansk on the Arctic coast can be subject to counterattacks.

Instead of Finland defending a 830 mile border with Russia, Russia will now have to defend another 830 miles of border with NATO. The island of Gotland, from which the Baltic Sea can be controlled, will be a NATO, not just a Swedish, island.

But the most important difference is geopolitical. Look at the globe from the top, and list the countries across the Pole from Russia: the United States (through Alaska), Canada, Greenland, Iceland, the UK, Norway, Sweden and Finland. This arc sweeps down through the Baltic States, Poland and the other countries that escaped Soviet domination in 1989, to Ukraine. All except Ukraine are in NATO – and Ukraine is inflicting the biggest defeat of Russia since the Japanese in 1905.

Apart from the US and Canada, which must also pay attention to Chinese ambitions in the Pacific, all these states see resisting Russian aggression as their main defence policy task. 

This will remain the case until the Russian state comes to understand that its purpose should be to improve the lives of Russian people, and that this is hindered, not helped, by paranoid militarism. Yet that process won’t even begin until Putin leaves office, and could well be reversed, even if he’s followed by a liberalising successor. Both Tsar Alexander II’s and Boris Yeltsin’s openings were overturned.  

These first-line states, of which the UK, Poland and Ukraine are the main military powers, can expect to maintain decades of containment of Moscow. As well as strengthening their own cooperation, they need to keep the rest of the Western alliance involved. 

Even setting aside the risk of a second Trump administration, a United States that returns to isolationism, or is simply focused on China, would be unable to help mount a defence against Russian aggression in the way it has this time. Continental European powers such as France and Germany under less immediate threat to Russia need to be persuaded who their real friends are.

The German government is divided. While Annalena Baerbock, its Foreign Minister, has been steadfast in her support for Ukraine, Olaf Scholz appears to lack the courage of his convictions, and needs continually to be pushed to live up to the Zeitenwende he announced immediately after Russia invaded.

And as Emmanuel’s Macron’s speech on Monday showed, France still struggles to shrug off its reflex of seeking somehow to involve Russia in contributing to security in Europe. This thinking has long been obsolete: a democratic Germany inside the EU has long made a Russian balance to Prussia unnecessary, and Poland’s integration into the West made it unsustainable.

But winning the political battles in France and Germany (and maintaining Mario Draghi’s new pro-Ukrainian consensus in Italy) will take more concerted diplomatic effort. It’s been entertaining to watch the friendly rivalry by former European schoolmates as they compete for visits to Kyiv and videotaped addresses by Volodomyr Zelensky. Whether they are Anglo-Swedish NLAWs (anti-tank weapons), US Javelins, German Panzerfausts or French CAESAR howitzers, all contribute to Ukraine’s fight for freedom. This is not a race, but a collective effort in which all democracies should take part.  

Finland and Sweden’s entry into NATO, accompanied by British security guarantees for both countries until the NATO accession process is complete, is one such initiative. Denmark joining the EU’s defence policy (it currently has an opt out: a referendum is due on 1 June, and ‘join’ has a 20 point lead) is another.  The requirement is not necessarily unity of institutions, but unity of action, which must be pursued through NATO, EU initiatives and the British-led Joint Expeditionary force. 

Next winter, when inflation and high energy prices are due to bite, will prove critical. Russia will put every ounce of its political manipulation effort into splitting Germany, France and Italy from the front line states. It is an essential British interest that these efforts fail. 

Lasting peace in Europe will only come once Russia, like Germany has, abandons imperialist ambitions, reforms its militaristic culture, and retreats from all territory in other states that it has occupied. Putin’s defeat won’t be enough on its own to trigger the introspection and reconstruction that Russia needs. But it is a necessary step, and his inability to enforce Moscow’s ban on Finnish and Swedish NATO membership is evidence that he is starting to lose. 

Anand Menon: Europe and the war. Will the unity engendered by Russia’s invasion last?

18 Apr

Anand Menon is Director of the UK in a Changing Europe.

‘Europe will be forged in crisis and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises.’ If ever there were a moment to ponder the import of Jean Monnet’s words, it is now. The war in Ukraine has come as a shock to the system of a union that, for years, has failed to deliver when it comes to its security ambitions.

Unlike, say, the Eurozone or migration crises, events in Ukraine have not proven intrinsically divisive. In the face of the armed invasion of a neighbouring sovereign state by a country already recognised as a potential threat, and acting in lockstep with the United States, unity amongst member states has been (relatively) easy to maintain. If the Donald Trump presidency (and accompanying threats – at least according to John Bolton – to leave NATO) had illustrated the fragility of the NATO shield, Ukraine has rammed home its continued importance by underlining the reality of the Russian sword.

The shock delivered to the collective EU system seems to have spawned a realisation, going beyond the usual cheap talk, that its ‘geopolitical holiday’ is over. And not simply because of the conflict itself. More broadly, many of the other challenges the Union faces in its neighbourhood – in the Middle East, Africa, the Sahel, and the Balkans – will be exacerbated by the war. As the EU’s newly minted ‘Strategic Compass’ puts it, the EU is ‘surrounded by instability and conflicts’.

How has the EU responded?

At Versailles in March, EU leaders declared their intention to ensure the EU could ‘take more responsibility for its own security’. The Strategic Compass published ten days later declared that the ‘EU and its Member States must invest more in their security and defence to be a stronger political and security actor.’

And, crucially, member states seem intent on rising to the challenge. In a dramatic half hour on 27 February, Olaf Scholtz reversed decades of German strategic thinking. German defence spending will rise from 1.5 per cent in 2021 to two per cent; a 100-billion-euro fund will be created for the armed forces. Germany will become the world’s third biggest military spender.

Nor is Germany alone. Denmark and Poland have also announced increases in defence spending. The former has announced a referendum on its opt-out from EU security policies. Finland and Sweden are reconsidering the issue of NATO membership. And, in a stark break with past reticence, the EU itself pledged to provide Ukraine with €1 billion in military assistance.

There is of course a long way to go before rousing words are translated into meaningful action. Yet it does seem that one consequence of the current crisis will be significantly enhanced European military capabilities.

So far, so overdue. Europeans have been free riders on American power for far too long. However, capabilities are one thing. Deploying them is quite another. Taking greater responsibility for European security implies working collectively. Working collectively, in turn, requires consensus (because a genuine ‘European Army’ is not on the cards). Perhaps the biggest question emerging from the present crisis is whether the unity engendered by the Russian invasion will last.

While the EU has imposed five separate sanctions packages on Russia, the longer the conflict lasts, or the nastier it gets, the greater the pressure will be to extend these to cover oil and gas. Germany, Hungary, Italy and Bulgaria, however, are highly dependent on Russian gas exports, raising the prospect of bitter arguments to come.

Which raises the thornier question as to how member states might respond to Russian attempts to negotiate a settlement. Emmanuel Macron has maintained a dialogue with Vladimir Putin, despite the obvious irritation this caused among some of the former’s partners (‘nobody negotiated with Hitler’, as the Polish Prime Minister put it). A firm offer of de-escalation in return for concessions on sanctions might well exacerbate such tensions.

Then there is Ukraine itself. While many of the Central European and Baltic states favour a rapid path to EU membership, the French and Dutch have expressed reservations. The Versailles declaration was typically vague, promising support for Ukraine in ‘pursuing its European path’ whilst affirming (meaninglessly) that ‘Ukraine belongs to our European family’. Again, it is not hard to imagine the debate about the appropriate relationship with a post-war Ukraine becoming a running sore within the EU.

And of course such sores existed well before the current conflict. Internal disputes over the rule of law are now being viewed through the lens of events in Ukraine. The European Commission is preparing to release billions in recovery funds for Poland, which has been in the frontline of the refugee crisis. In contrast, two days after the re-election of Viktor Orbán (with his clear sympathies for Putin), the Commission announced plans to trigger a rule of law mechanism allowing it to deprive Hungary of millions of euros in scheduled payments.

It is too early to predict the possible medium-term consequences of all this. On the one hand, the crisis might prompt Poland to reconcile with the European Union. Or, it might encourage political leaders in Warsaw to believe they can act as they like at home as long as they keep in step with EU external policy. As for Hungary, with Orbán’s refusal to countenance weapons deliveries or sanctions on Russian gas exports already straining relations with other member states, it seems reasonable to assume that tensions between Budapest and Brussels will continue to bedevil the Union.

However endless the conflict in Ukraine may be coming to feel, we are still in its early phase. And this might be the easy phase as far as the EU is concerned. How long the war lasts, and the circumstances in which it ends will obviously help shape its longer-term consequences for the Union. It seems likely, though, that member states will emerge with enhanced military capabilities. Whether or not they agree on the foreign policy objectives to which these capabilities will contribute, however, is far from certain.

Gerry Lyons: What are the economic and policy implications of the war in Ukraine – and what do they mean for the UK?

8 Mar

Dr Gerard Lyons is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. He was Chief Economic Adviser to Boris Johnson during his second term as Mayor of London.

Russia is not an economic super-power. It is the world’s largest country by landmass. Its population is large, at 145 million, but is falling. Ahead of this crisis, it was the eleventh biggest economy in the world, while the UK is fifth. Russia’s income per head is low. Its military (defence) spending is similar in dollar terms to the UK’s, although higher in relation to the size of its economy. In addition to being a military power, with nuclear capabilities, Russia is a major commodity and energy producer.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), Russia produced 10.72 million barrels per day (mbpd) of oil in 2021, second only to the US, at 16.39 mbpd. Russia produces more than Saudi Arabia, but exports less than her. Russia’s importance in terms of gas is even more significant, accounting for 45 per cent of the EU’s gas imports and 40 per cent of its consumption last year.

The most significant economic impact of the war will be contagion through higher energy prices. Ahead of the conflict, gas prices were already elevated and oil prices had been trending higher. War adds a risk premium into the prices of both.

Other commodity prices are already higher, particularly wheat, given Ukraine’s importance as a wheat producer. In 2019, I gave the keynote speech at the annual Ukrainian Financial Forum in Kiev, and it was noteworthy then how the economy was reforming, with a range of key exports including metals, minerals, agricultural products, a shift into digital exports, and also that roughly two-thirds of its public debt was foreign-owned. It is depressing that this move towards openness has been stopped in its tracks.

For many countries – including the UK – this rise in energy and food prices is occurring in an environment of rising inflation, not helped by lax monetary policy last year. Now, UK inflation will peak higher, possibly breaching 10 per cent, and persist for far longer, casting light on how low the Bank of England’s policy rate of 0.5 per cent is.

Financial markets are selling off sharply. This both reflects uncertainty about where the war might lead militarily and concern about future growth.

While high energy prices add to inflation, they also sharply squeeze peoples’ disposal incomes and add to firms’ costs. Also, while higher interest rates may be needed to curb inflation, these may slow the world economy later this year and early next. Recession is even possible for the UK.

Financial markets have repriced the outlook for interest rates: the direction has not changed, but the pace and scale of expected tightening has. Markets now see rates rising less rapidly than previously expected.

Another impact from the war is via sanctions. The scale of sanctions will see a deep recession in Russia. As Russia’s military spending is fiscally led, this may dampen its ability to spend more in this area. But there is little historical evidence of economic sanctions halting an aggressor’s military plans.

How will these sanctions impact the UK? Russia is the UK’s nineteenth largest trading partner with total annual bilateral trade of £15.9 billion. Russia is our 26th biggest export market and 15th in countries we import from.

Russia as an export market for luxury goods will be closed. Annual UK exports are £4.3 billion: cars being the largest item at £386 million, medicines and pharmaceuticals £272 million and capital machinery £199 million. Annual imports are £11.6 billion, with the largest items being: oil £3.6 billion, non-ferrous metals £1.3 billion, and gas £559 million, plus a vast array of other goods.

There will be an impact on financial flows. The UK has invested heavily in Russia and many firms may have to write-off these investments. By 2020, the stock of UK direct investment into Russia was £11.2 billion. By contrast, total foreign direct investment from Russia into the UK was £681 million. Although this is only 0.7 per cent of the total stock it may understate the Russian influence. The phrase “Londongrad” has been attributed to the City since the introduction of the golden visa in 2008 and the continuation of Russian involvement ever since.

This is an association we should seek to ditch – while bearing in mind the importance to differentiate between Russia and the Putin regime. Being open, transparent, non-discriminatory, not retrospective, and abiding by the supremacy of English Common Law are important in ensuring there are no unintended consequences from actions we take now. That is, we should punish the Putin regime whilst enhancing the reputation of the City.

In terms of wider financial flows, the UK financial sector does not appear heavily exposed to Russia. The Bank for International Settlements shows total international bank lending to Russia of $121.5 billion, of which the largest was $25.3 billion from Italy, $25.2 billion from France and $17.5 billion from Italy. The UK’s exposure was $3 billion, so relatively low.

The exclusion of Russia from international capital markets should have a profound impact on its economy. London’s role as a global financial centre should not be impacted.

A critical component of the sanctions was to cut many Russian banks off from the west’s global payments system: SWIFT. The impact of this, however, was slightly diluted because of Western Europe’s dependency upon Russian gas and the need to still be able to pay for this; hence some Russian banks are still able to access the system.

Critically, though, a key decision was taken to exclude the Russian central bank and thus limit its ability to access the large amount of foreign exchange reserves it had accumulated, over previous years, the bulk of which are housed in central banks outside Russia. This measure, like crossing the Rubicon, could have profound longer-term consequences. There is little doubt it adds to the financial and economic pressure on Russia.

It could accelerate the move towards a global currency system not dominated by the dollar and a payments system not dominated by the west. China, in particular, is keen for an alternative to the dollar dominated system. Also, Russia and China have both developed their own versions of SWIFT in recent years. Furthermore, we are already in an environment where, regardless of this war or wider geopolitical issues, there is a race underway across countries to develop new global central bank digital currencies.

Another aspect is global defence spending. The war strengthens the case for increased military spending, illustrated most vividly by Germany’s announcement it will increase defence spending to NATO’s target of two per cent expenditure of GDP. The UK already achieves this target, but may yet decide to boost defence spending further. The war also shows the importance of soft power and controlling the narrative, with the BBC being an important tool internationally in tackling disinformation from Russia

Many countries will be impacted by the humanitarian fall-out. The recent UN World Migration Report noted that there are 281 million international migrants. This represents an increase of, on average, six million per year globally over the last decade. Thus, if as some fear, there are five million migrants from Ukraine (population 44 million) it would be huge.

The war, plus sanctions, will trigger an implosion in both the Russian and Ukrainian economies. There will, however, be significant contagion too, via higher energy prices. The UK will witness higher inflation now and an economic slowdown – and possible recession – over the next year.

Ryan Bourne: A government that wants to Build Back Better must address supply-side constraints on the economy

26 Jan

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.

Well, so long, “Plan B.” In jettisoning some of the most intrusive remaining Covid-19 restrictions, England (with the home nations to follow) could soon rival parts of the U.S. in being the most “normalised” policy environments in the developed world. Yes, mandatory self-isolation for those testing positive will remain, for now. But as with the vaccine rollout, Britain appears now to be leading the world into the new approach of “learning to live with the virus.”

This will bring with it an economic fillip, albeit disrupted in near-term statistics by Omicron. We have certainly been in need of one. Though headline GDP figures across countries can be misleading about the impact of the pandemic given measurement differences, an analysis by The Economist combining five indicators – GDP, household income per person, share prices, investment, and public debt – found that through September last year Britain had been the second most adversely affected major economy from the pandemic, behind only Spain.

In its ranking of 23 OECD countries, Britain was deemed third worst for the fall in household income (behind Austria and Spain), third worst for the decline in share prices (behind Chile and Spain), worst for the fall in investment, and second worst (behind Spain) for the public debt surge. With Covid-19 deaths per capita here relatively high – above all other major European or G7 economies except for the U.S., Belgium and Italy – we suffered a pandemic double-whammy of both poor health outcomes and a big economic hit.

Does analysing the change in these variables mislead about how the UK shapes up internationally after Covid? Perhaps. It’s not as if the public health crisis was the only thing happening during this time. And it’s important to remember that looking at changes to economic variables in the pandemic can hide that Britain entered it with significant structural strengths too.

In mid-2019, The FT’s Chris Giles was able to write that incoming Chancellor Sajid Javid enjoyed unemployment at its lowest rate since 1974, with the share of 16- to 64-year-olds in work at close to record levels, inflation bang on target, average earnings growing at their highest rate for 11 years, and public borrowing modest. The biggest ongoing economic weakness then was clearly productivity – with GDP per hour worked around 15 per cent lower than seen in France or the U.S., after a decade of weak economic growth.

So the UK entered the crisis with many macroeconomic variables healthy. Even the shock of the pandemic has therefore left the country’s headline statistics looking largely unremarkable in comparison with other economies.

UK unemployment is still low by international standards, for example. At 4.1 per cent for September through December 2021, the UK’s rate was similar to the U.S., and bettered only by Japan (2.8 per cent) and Germany (3.2 per cent) within the G7. The employment rate for 16-64 year olds of 75.5 per cent, although still 1.1 percentage points below its pre-crisis peak, is similarly only exceeded by the Scandinavian countries, Germany, and the Netherlands within Europe and then Japan too in the G7.

Pandemic-induced disruption and rising energy prices (on the supply-side) and huge macroeconomic stimulus (on the demand-side) has left us worried about inflation and a cost-of-living crisis. But, again, this is not an affliction unique to Britain, belying the idea it is mainly caused by Brexit. At 5.4 per cent in the 12 months to December, consumer price index inflation was almost identical to EU-wide inflation (5.3 per cent), and lower than some countries within it, such as Germany. Compared to G7 countries, the UK was decisively average too, with only Japan and France with significantly lower rates.

On GDP, it’s true that – putting measurement differences aside – the UK had one of the biggest headline falls in output during the pandemic. GDP in Q3 2021 was still 1.5 per cent below the pre-crisis peak, with only Japan having suffered a worse performance among G7 countries. But the OECD expects faster UK growth going forwards. And as economist Julian Jessop has noted, it’s highly likely that the UK will be doing better than the eurozone in terms of GDP relative to its pre-crisis peak through 2022, although still lagging far behind the U.S.

What about the public finances? Well, up to September 2021, the IMF had calculated that the UK had the third biggest total Covid-19 fiscal support package, amounting to a massive 19.3 per cent of GDP, and so behind only New Zealand and the United States. It’s therefore no surprise that public net debt has surged to new highs in peacetime. And yet, within the G7, the only country with a gross debt-to-GDP level lower than the UK is Germany and the UK is slap bang in the middle of the seven for its projected primary budget deficit this year.

The after-shocks associated with Covid-19 might be felt for years to come, through disruption to demand patterns, experiments with more home working, a spatial reallocation of activity and lingering effects on attitudes to risk. But the UK’s broad macroeconomic situation is not dissimilar to that of many other comparable countries. And that should make us ponder a few lessons from elsewhere as we tackle the immediate challenges we face.

In particular, the country that has stood out in suffering a worse inflation problem than the UK is the U.S. – where households were showered with cash such that the government effectively delivered a money drop to households. So why the guys at the Social Market Foundation appear to be urging the Chancellor to introduce a £500 “Rishi Cost of Living Allowance” as if that’s a cure to inflation here is beyond me.

Unemployment spiked very high and then plummeted in the U.S. below all G7 countries bar Germany and Japan – showing the long-term virtues of flexible labour markets. If Britain wants to regain its full, robust employment performance of 2019, it should beware new policies prioritising worker “security” over continuing a liberal hiring and firing environment as things normalise.

But, most of all, the UK’s key economic challenge – weak growth – remains and becomes even more pertinent given Covid-19-induced constraints. The pandemic has tested to destruction the idea that macroeconomic problems can be solved by throwing more and more stimulus and “demand” at things. If the Government is serious about “Building Back Better”, it needs to do the hard yards in thinking about the supply-side constraints on the economy and how to turn more demand into real growth, rather than rising prices.

The UK’s changing Covid death rate per head

4 Dec

Source: Our World in Data

On April 13 2020 and on January 21 2021, the UK had some of the highest death rates per head in the world.  Even if different methods of calculation, over-counting, and changed methods of calculation were taken into account, our record looked very bad indeed.

It is important to add that like was never being compared with like: countries have different exposure to visitors, ethnic make-ups, resilience, lifestyles, health levels, openness to other economies, and so on.

That applies no less now, when the Covid story is more relatively favourable to the Government, than back then.  The UK currently has the 26th worst death rate per head in the world.  That’s four places below Italy, eleven above France, 23 above Germany (and 16 above that subject of perennial fascination, Sweden).

In other words, we have not done well so far when measured against roughly comparable European countries.  Nonetheless, the gap in terms of absolute numbers isn’t a gulf.

Covid confirmed deaths per million in the UK to date are 2,164.96; in France, 1,690.7; in Germany, 1,229.15.  We will see where the final figures end up in due course, now that a wave of cases is washing over our continental neighbours, as it washed over us earlier this year.

There are many reasons why the Government’s poll ratings were buoyant during the lockdown periods – and why there’s no evidence that the mass of voters believe it to be more culpable than other governments elsewhere.

The changing death number per head internationally is surely one of them.  I don’t mean to suggest that people following the figures closely: obviously, they don’t.  But they pick up a sense of what’s going on.  They clock when Boris Johnson’s opponents are pushing a particular criticism at him – and when they aren’t.

You may or may not like his and Sajid Javid’s relatively light programme of restrictions in response to the Omicron variant to date, but the altered death number per head helps to explain why they have room for manoeuvre.

The protests in Europe show why the Government pressed ahead with its ‘big bang’ July reopening

23 Nov

In the last few days, shocking scenes from Europe have been splashed across the newspapers. Huge protests have erupted in the continent after governments ramped up their Coronavirus measures to deal with growing rates of the virus.

In Austria, which has become the first country in Europe to make vaccinations compulsory and has returned to a full national lockdown, tens of thousands protested, with signs reading “no to vaccination” and “enough is enough”.

Elsewhere in Belgium, 35,000 protested against measures such as vaccine passes for restaurants and bars. Demonstrators threw fireworks at the police, who responded with tear gas and water cannons.

Similar incidents have taken place in other destinations, such as the Netherlands, where riot police used horses, dogs and batons to get rid of the crowds, as well as in Croatia and Italy. All in all, it has been an incredibly chaotic week – which should make leaders think hard about their future pandemic strategies.

In the UK, there have been some very deep-seated notions about how to best manage the virus – now tested by events in Europe. One has been the assumption that the more restrictions, the better. The media and critics of the Government have often called for lockdown(s), “Plan B”, and even referred to England’s unlocking in July as the “big bang” reopening, while idolising Germany and others with stricter policies. 

But our European counterparts show there are two major dangers to indefinite restrictions. One relates to people’s immunity. Part of the reason the UK is in a better position, according to experts, is because it timed its “exit wave” – a rebound in infection when people start circulating again – with summer, when it’s easier to deal with.

While this meant the UK had high infection rates during this period, leading to accusations of it being “plague island”, it now has high levels of immunity (also thanks to the vaccine). Many European countries, on the other hand, now have spiralling infection rates, as their exit wave has come in the worst possible moment (cold weather).

The second issue with the “indefinite restriction” argument is that people’s tolerance for strict measures has a limit, as is obvious across Europe, as well as Australia, which has had one of the longest lockdowns – and resultant, widespread protests.

It’s interesting to note that the UK government was derided at the beginning of the Coronavirus crisis for holding off on lockdown, due to fears about how long people could cope with such conditions. We can now see why behavioural scientists were worried; there have been violence and arrests in countries that hang onto their Covid measures, and do not give citizens enough reassurances about when these will end. 

In fact, governments have hinted to their citizens that they can expect more restrictions. Germany, for instance, has imposed new measures on the unvaccinated and vaccine passports have been eagerly embraced in many countries.

In general, there has been a groupthink – not just in Europe, but elsewhere – as to how to manage the virus. Paperwork and strict restrictions are seen as the default, sensible approach.

But hardly any of these restrictions have been brought about through votes, so it is no wonder we are seeing large-scale backlash. As I wrote recently for ConservativeHome, Austria’s decision to make vaccines mandatory should be a big wake up call as to how illiberal and extreme some policies are getting.

In the UK, particularly thanks to the booster programme, is moving forward and leaders are confident we will not experience the current scenes in the rest of Europe. Nadhim Zahawi, who was behind the vaccine rollout, said he hoped we would probably “be the first major economy in the world to demonstrate how you transition this virus from pandemic to endemic using vaccines”. 

For all the criticisms levelled at the Government, we can now see that there is more logic to its decisions than its critics thought; that, along with the vaccine rollout, we have got into a good position in regards to pandemic management. Far from considering measures, such as vaccine passports, because others have done so, we should use our momentum to show what normality can look like.

Benedict Rogers: Leaders have 24 hours to send a clear message to the CCP on its human rights abuses

28 Oct

Benedict Rogers is co-founder and Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, co-founder and Chair of Hong Kong Watch, an adviser to the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and the Stop Uyghur Genocide Campaign.

Over the next 24 hours in Rome, as G20 world leaders gather for their summit, an unprecedented meeting of legislators and campaigners from around the world is taking place, focused on the biggest challenge the world faces: China.

The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) was only formed just over a year ago, and yet already includes over 200 Parliamentarians in 21 legislatures across five continents.

Crucially, it is one of the most global and cross-party coalitions ever, drawing together politicians such as Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former leader of the British Conservative Party, and Senator Marco Rubio, former US Republican Presidential candidate, with Robert Menendez, senior Democrat Senator, Reinhard Butikofer, the leader of the German Greens in the European Parliament, Kimberley Kitching, Australia’s Labour Senator, Irwin Cotler, Canada’s former Attorney-General and parliamentarians from countries as diverse as Norway, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, France, Italy, Japan, Uganda and beyond.

Many of IPAC’s members arrive in Rome today for a gathering that will hear from Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, the ‘Sikyong’ Penpa Tsering, Tibet’s political leader, Nathan Law, Hong Kong’s exiled former legislator and political prisoner, and Rahima Mahmut, the Uyghur campaigner – all the voices Beijing tries relentlessly to discredit and silence.

The reason this alternative summit is so important is that it is designed to send a clear message to the G20: the Chinese Communist Party regime must not be given a free pass, its human rights atrocity crimes cannot be allowed to go unchallenged and the international community must set out clear consequences for Beijing’s flagrant breaches of international treaties. Kowtowing must end, the climate of impunity must cease and Xi Jinping’s regime must be held to account.

The IPAC gathering will make clear that the genocide of the Uyghurs, the dismantling of Hong Kong’s freedoms – happening before our very eyes – as well as the persecution of Christians, Tibetans, Falun Gong practitioners, human rights defenders, citizen journalists and civil society activists – must not be forgotten.

Already, even despite Amnesty International’s closure of its Hong Kong office on Monday and the statement by 43 countries at the United Nations last week about the plight of the Uyghurs, these issues are being sidelined.

As COP26 begins this Sunday in Glasgow, the message should be clear: climate change is a big challenge of our time, but human rights should not be sacrificed on the greenwashing line.

Indeed, climate change and human rights should go together, for what good is freedom if our planet is dying, yet at the same time what good are blue skies if humanity is in chains? And, one might add, how trustworthy anyway is the world’s biggest polluter, China, when its regime lies and breaks its international treaty promises?

And then there’s Taiwan. Xi Jinping has ratcheted up not only the rhetoric but the fighter jets, plunging the region into the most dangerous period in decades. The free world – indeed the entire international community – needs to be clear about what it will do if China invades Taiwan: and it must spell it out unambiguously to Beijing as a deterrent.

The mood in the free world is clearly shifting. President Biden and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken have already indicated that concerns over the Chinese Communist Party’s repression and aggression is a bipartisan matter, perhaps the only topic that unites Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill.

The European Union shows some signs of shift, with Josep Borrell, its policy chief, defending closer ties with Taiwan. And Liz Truss, Britain’s new Foreign Secretary, has given multiple messages that while trade with China could continue, we must reduce strategic dependency, diversify supply chains and cement an alliance for democracy around the world.

The direction of travel for the free world is clear. It is simply a matter now of accelerating the pace. IPAC’s gathering in Rome is designed to urge the G20 on.

Let’s not wait for an invasion of Taiwan. Let’s act now to stop Beijing’s genocide against the Uyghurs, dismantling of Hong Kong’s freedoms, repression in Tibet, persecution of all its critics and aggression towards freedom itself, including our own. And Britain, together with our allies, should lead this fight.

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.

Mark Francois: Why, following the crisis in Afghanistan, Johnson must avoid a Love Actually moment with Biden

25 Aug

Mark Francois is the MP for Rayleigh and Wickford, a former Armed Forces Minister and a Member of the House of Commons Defence Committee.

There is an old saying that hindsight makes geniuses of all of us. However, the events of the last fortnight in Afghanistan have certainly demonstrated a lack of foresight, especially in the Biden White House.

When Parliament was recalled to discuss what went gone wrong, I was one of those who was highly critical of the Biden Administration for withdrawing so hastily, which has led to a strategic defeat for NATO, for the first time in its 72-year history.

Whole libraries have been written about the so-called “special relationship” between the United Kingdom and the United States. The term itself was first coined by Winston Churchill, whose very close relationship with US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was fundamental to the allied victory in World War Two.

Similarly, the very strong partnership between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan was undoubtedly essential to winning the Cold War. Although it is often overlooked, a young Senator Joe Biden even supported the UK’s position during the Falklands Crisis in 1982.

Nevertheless, 39 years on, Biden’s address to the American people on August 16 2021 was inherently isolationist. It put US domestic political interests way above foreign policy considerations and America’s relations with its allies, including us.

So, what should we do now? Does our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, need to create a “Love Actually moment” of his own and start making Johnsonian wisecracks about Americans invoking the 25th Amendment? Probably not. But some are now asking can we credibly create a European defence, sufficient to deter a revanchist Russia, without the active involvement of the United States?

NATO now has 30 member nations, a third of which now meet the recommended alliance minimum of spending at least two per cent of their GDP on Defence. According to NATO’s own latest figures, (which helpfully compare apples with apples), Greece is now the highest spender in proportional terms, at an estimated 3.82 per cent in 2021, compared to 3.52 per cent for the United States.

The UK is now fourth at 2.29 per cent; with all three Baltic States a bit over 2.0 per cent. France sits almost exactly on 2.0 per cent, with Italy on 1.41 per cent and Spain, at barely one per cent at all. Still, in most cases this actually represents an increase, since Russia invaded Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in 2014.

France, which maintains Armed Forces broadly comparable to Britain’s, including its own strategic nuclear deterrent, has increased its defence spending over the last seven years, has bilateral Defence ties with the UK under the auspices of the Lancaster House Agreement and is involved in a number of Anglo-French equipment programmes.

However, the calls by President Macron of France for the creation of a “European Army” have not been met by a sizeable increase in the French Defence budget to help facilitate such a concept which, for a number of NATO nations, including the U.K. is politically unrealistic anyway. Still, the French do maintain professional and operationally credible armed forces, which exercise regularly with our own.

But the great drag anchor in terms of any increased European defence capability is Germany. Although Germany recently signed a low-key bilateral defence declaration with the UK (described by one colleague of mine as, “a poor man’s Lancaster House”) even now the German defence budget has been only creeping upwards, to 1.53 per cent of GDP this year and is not due to achieve the two per cent target for several years yet – much to the repeated annoyance of former President Trump.

Moreover, the German Armed Forces are now a shadow of their former, highly operationally focused, Cold War selves. Much of Germany’s military equipment is in poor repair, with depressingly low levels of operational availability in everything from submarines to fighter aircraft. They are also a risky industrial partner, because of increasingly hostile attitudes to defence exports within the Bundestag.

Similarly, Germany’s close relationship with Russia, for instance in advocating the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, may suit Germany’s peacetime energy needs but does not help bolster NATO security, especially among its Eastern European members.

Much now hinges on the forthcoming German Federal Elections, with the era of the Merkel ascendency coming to an end and the race for her successor seemingly wide open.

Whether the largest party emerging from the elections is the CDP/CSU or the SPD, any subsequent coalition Government which meaningfully involves either Der Linke or the Greens is unlikely to be keen on the sort of very significant increase in German defence spending – and hardening of the line on Russia – that would likely be required to give a meaningful edge to a European Defence identity. Pious declarations are all very well but, as Stalin brutally put it: “How many divisions has the Pope?”

So, where does all this leave us? First, it means that we should look to strengthen defence ties with our European allies – but with a clear-eyed realism about the limits of what this is likely to achieve. For the foreseeable future, the idea that NATO’s European partners could credibly deter Russia entirely on their own is completely fanciful; they just aren’t prepared to pay for it – and even the most junior analyst in Moscow knows it.

That means that we need to try and repair the damage caused to NATO by the disastrous events of the past fortnight. In that context, the Anglo-American link is absolutely crucial. Historically, whoever has been in the White House or Downing Street, Anglo-American links at the diplomatic, military and intelligence (Five Eyes) have remained strong, and we now need to bolster them again. As one example, the previous US Ambassador, Woody Johnson, was a high-profile and popular Anglophile and we need to see someone equally charismatic appointed without delay.

Hard left opponents in Britain have sometimes railed about the “Anglo-American deep State”; well, if such a thing exists, now is surely the time to use all of these contacts to best advantage to bolster Western security.

To those in the American security establishment who have become obsessed with China, we need to remind them that Russia possesses thousands of nuclear weapons too, has invaded neighbouring countries on the European landmass within the last decade.

Russian spokesmen have even boasted about new nuclear torpedoes, which could cause an irradiated tsunami against cities on the eastern seaboard of the United States (and NATO believes these weapons actually exist). Finally, Taiwan, while an important Western ally, is not a member of NATO – but Estonia most certainly is.

The Atlantic Charter, which led, in turn, to the creation of the United Nations, was originally an Anglo-American construct. The American Eagle and the British Lion have stood side by side in defence of the free world for many decades now and we cannot allow any one individual, no matter how senior, to get in the way of that.

Garvan Walshe: Orbán, Le Pen, Morawiecki. Europe’s new national populist alliance is a sign of weakness, not strength.

8 Jul

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

Spin doctors for Marine Le Pen made a rather breathless announcement of a “rassemblement de patriotes”. Viktor Orbán’s followed suit . There is both more, and less, to this alliance than meets the eye.

More, in that it is part of a long-running effort. See this from Le Pen in 2014, or another announcement this April Fool’s day, by Orbán and Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s Prime Minister.

Less, in that this particular declaration falls far short of a full European political alliance, and relates only to the Conference on the Future of Europe, which, after a year of the Covid pandemic, has begun debating changes to the EU’s institutions.

Unlike British Eurosceptics, who were wound up by waste and fraud in European financial institutions, the parties signing this declaration are rather more exercised by attempts, such as the European Public Prosecutor, to uncover and punish the abuse of taxpayers’ money. It is I’m sure a coincidence that Orbán’s father’s agribusiness is doing so well that he can afford to build himself an enormous country house, dubbed “Putin’s Palace” by Hungarian wags.

Putin himself is relevant to one of the alliance’s other aims: keeping national vetoes on EU foreign policy. Their presence has allowed Russia and China to delay and even block sanctions against them and their allies, such as Belarus’s Alexandr Lukashenko, while Le Pen’s own party put itself $11 million in debt from a Russian bank.

A third piece of the puzzle is their opposition, in the name of sovereignty, to the EU’s rather delayed efforts to protect the freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary in Poland and Hungary.

A recent spat over a Section–28 style law in Hungary and “LGBT free zones” in Poland has stiffened the EU’s resolve, with Mark Rutte, Holland’s Prime Minister, hinting that Warsaw and Budapest might do better to avail themselves of Article 50 if they have a problem with the supremacy of European law built into the EU’s governing treaties.

But the danger of Huxit or Polexit is rather exaggerated. This is not so much an alliance of patriotes, as for the capture and diversion of EU funds.

Moreover, the national populists’ protector in the White House has gone, replaced by a man who considers Putin a “killer” and the restoration of liberal democracy a central part of his foreign policy.

Their domestic position is also rather less steady. Marine Le Pen’s party failed to impress in France’s regional elections. Law and Justice is on course to lose the next Polish vote, following the emergence of a new moderate-conservative Polska 2050 party. Even Orbán is behind an opposition alliance in the polls, with an election due next year.

This vulnerability is probably behind the anti-gay culture war, which is proving at best a damp squib domestically, and a strategic error at a European level. Hungary (and to a lesser extent Poland) have operated a bargain with Austria and Germany, whereby they gave Austrian and German manufacturing firms good conditions close to Western Europe’s old border, and in exchange Germany, in particular, has overlooked corruption and the dismantling of democratic institutions.

This had caused grumbling in the rest of the EU, but not, until now, much political will to address it. Whereas on migration Orbán and Law and Justice were able to count on sympathy from significant portions of the European public, on gay rights they cannot. Instead of dividing Western Europeans, this culture war unites them.

Second, the creation of a common post-Covid recovery fund, under which Poland and Hungary stand to benefit significantly, changes the calculus. Europeans don’t mind helping each other out of the Covid mess, but are asking: why should we pay for these bigots? Furthermore, the Commission this week demanded revisions to Hungary’s plan to spend the recovery fund, because of weak anti-corruption safeguards.

Weakening at home and friendless abroad, the populist alliance finds itself on the back foot. The five pro-integration political groups are pushing for democratic reforms: from making the Commission answerable to the parliament, extending voting rights in national elections to all Europeans, giving elected institutions more power over EU taxpayers’ money, and the EU more power over areas such as foreign policy and the rule of law. The national populists can dilute these proposals but, unless they can win national power in a large member state like France or Italy, they stand little chance of stopping them altogether.

The proposals that emerge will not be to the liking of Warsaw and Budapest (or traditionally Eurosceptic capitals like Copenhagen). Nevertheless there is impetus to go beyond the Lisbon Treaty in the name of “European sovereignty”, but also to ensure oversight of the new common European debt. Here the old dilemma between widening and deepening Europe reemerges.

Countries in the west, led by France, (a partially-accurate shorthand, because the Baltic states would also be keen) prefer to deepen, and would not mind if a sufficiently large coalition went ahead to build new structures into which the laggards could later be incorporated.

In central Europe, however, there is a strong stategic as well as economic interest in keeping the Eastern and Western halves of the continent together: that’s why Germany has so far been reluctant to meet Hungarian and Polish provocation head on, and is wary of a “multi-speed” Europe. But France also knows that a deepening project without Germany would not be viable, so some sort of compromise needs to be made.

The effect of the national populist alliance, paradoxically, is to define the minimum of what the new Franco-German compromise must contain: end of foreign policy vetoes, democratic oversight of funds, and effective mechanisms for protecting the rule of law and guarding against state capture. Their gay rights culture war risks giving Western Europe the political will to enact it.