Fall of the European Left, revisited

Parties of the left are out of power in three of the Big Four now, and everyone expects Labour to lose the next General Election in Britain. Going down the list to the Next-Biggest Four, we have Spain (Zapatero’s center-left government hanging in there), Poland (center-right), Romania (grand coalition of the two largest parties; can’t exactly say left-right, because Romanian politics always don’t map well on that axis) and the Netherlands (bizarre Grand Coalition of Christian Democrats and Labour, with Labour far down in the polls and expected to be kicked out soon). It’s not unreasonable to expect that by next summer, Spain might be the only large country in Europe with a left-of-center government.

There’s a recent post over at Crooked Timber deploring this, and suggesting that it’s because

[We’re seeing] the end of the electoral strategy which began with Bill Clinton and which (arguably) is still being kept alive by Kevin Rudd in Australia. Basically, it’s the view that you can keep a balloon flying by constantly chucking out left-wing ballast. Which worked very well in the 1990s and early 2000s, but it does have a limited lifespan built into it. After a while, you run out of ballast to throw out and you find that the hot-air burners aren’t working any more; the traditional left-wing base of your party has switched off, the unions can’t provide blocks of support and you’re left as a more or less identikit technocrat party, largely indistinguishable from your opponents and trying to compete on the basis of more efficient provision of “public services”.

Well… maybe. I submit that this model works tolerably well for Britain (though I have some reservations); somewhat less well for Germany; and hardly at all for France. (Italian and Spanish politics I leave to those who are better informed.) Continue reading

France Changes its Nuclear Policy; Not Very Much

Nicolas Sarkozy was in Cherbourg to name the latest French SSBN, the appropriately named Le Terrible, this week; and he had a few things to say about the circumstances under which she might be called on to fire her M51 SLBMs. The headline grabber, which everyone picked up on, was that France is going to reduce the number of operational nuclear weapons it declares to the world; specifically, the airborne component of the French deterrent is being cut by one-third in terms of warheads.

France, until not long ago, operated a nuclear triad; as well as the first class of submarines, there were also four air force squadrons assigned to the nuclear mission, originally with the Mirage IV-A bomber and then with the Mirage 2000-N, and a force of intermediate-range ballistic missiles based in southern France. These weapons were withdrawn at the end of the cold war; they were always slightly odd with regard to France’s overall policy, as due to their range their only credible target was Russia. Officially, of course, the French nuclear force has always been “tous azimuts” or omni-directional (i.e. could point west, or maybe even north:-)).

The reduction, however, is entirely in keeping with the long-term principles of French nuclear strategy; France, like Israel and the UK (although the UK doesn’t have a published doctrine), has a traditional policy of minimal deterrence. This argues that nuclear weapons are subject to diminishing returns; the consequences of having all your cities nuked once are not noticeably better than twice, three times, or more, so the certainty of retaliation is much more important than its scale. “Superiority” is probably meaningless, and anyway uneconomic if not actively dangerous. This was also the doctrine associated with the US Navy in the 1950s, as opposed to the US Air Force; it was much more important to have a very secure retaliation force than a massive first-strike force, which was certain to be perceived as aggressive and threatening, and by happy accident this policy would involve heavy investment in the Navy’s submarines and carriers.

Despite this, Sarko is trying to frame the change in opposition to Jacques Chirac’s speech in 2006 in which he suggested that deterrence extended beyond a direct nuclear threat to the Republic; his press-cat describes this as a return to the fundamentals of deterrence. Beyond that, he also suggested a “dialogue” on the role of nuclear weapons in European security; well, I suppose he had to say something more, as this is an idea that gets taken out for a stroll every 20-30 years without effect. The speech is here; as far as detail goes, he sticks closely to tradition in refusing to define “vital interests” precisely (so not so much difference from Chirac, then) and stating that the force is targeted on a counter-value policy, i.e. against cities rather than against nuclear weapons systems.

As far as the practicals go, France has some 60 airborne nuclear weapons, of which 50 are ASMP(A) cruise missiles and 10 freefall bombs; this happens to match the number of Mirage 2000N aircraft on line precisely, mirroring the original and highly aggressive concept of operations from the 1960s, which foresaw launching the whole bomber force, if necessary on one-way missions to reach more distant targets. The mathematical geniuses this blog is known for will no doubt spot that this will fall to 40; the French Air Force and Naval Aviation have currently got 120 Rafales on order out of 294 planned, all of which are capable.

The reduction doesn’t go quite as far as the UK’s decision to withdraw all the WE177 nuclear bombs from the RAF in 1998, which accounted for all the UK’s airborne and tactical nuclear weapons. However, it’s worth pointing out that the British and French jointly developed an air-launched missile recently; in British service it’s called a Storm Shadow. Some voices in the UK have suggested acquiring a supply of these with nuclear warheads as a substitute for the Trident missile submarines that would be cheaper and less dependent on the US; the argument is based on experience since 1991 that surface-to-air missile defences are considerably less fearsome than was thought in the 1960s.

However, the UK government has been notably unwilling to engage with the idea. Its recent white paper on the deterrent cited only two alternatives to Trident (or disarmament), one of which was to independently develop an ICBM and find bases inside the UK, and one was to procure very long range nuclear cruise missiles (which would need developing) and base them on large airliner-type planes (the range because these could not go in reach of enemy air defences). This can only realistically be seen as an exercise in closing down the debate.

Finally, on page one:

Il a fallu des decennies d’apprentissage pour maitriser de tels savoir-faire, que certains de nos partenaires ont eu bien du mal a reconstituer apres les avoir negliges…

I wonder who he might possibly mean?

Euroscepticism does not get you elected

Jamie Kenny and Nosemonkey wonder why Labour is pro-EU. Enlarging on this post a little, I think it’s worth looking at some data. I suspect the data support that post. For example, despite all the bashing, a solid majority supports EU membership and has done consistently over time.

Further, the public does not worry very much about Europe; some 4 per cent according to a recent poll. However, this is historically low; in 1997 that figure stood at 43 per cent, and it was around 25 per cent during William Hague’s ferociously Eurosceptic 2001 election campaign.

But it’s not enough to say that the British simply don’t care, and that Euroscepticism is latent until activated by shouting sufficiently. 1997 was the election when John Major’s campaign ran huge posters of Tony Blair as a poodle on Helmut Kohl’s knee; and it wasn’t a great year for Eurosceptic Tories, was it? Of course there are confounding factors. Euroscepticism in 1997 involved either voting for the proto-UKIP Referendum party or a Conservative party as popular as nuclear waste; probably the issue was buried under the Labour landslide in places.

The principle, however, holds; nobody gets elected in Britain by being Eurosceptic. There are no votes in it; in a sense, Euroscepticism is a luxury. If you are actually struggling for office, you can’t be a true believer in it because you’ll have to take responsibility for it, and anyway, you have more productive things to do; if you have a safe Conservative seat, though, you are set for life and therefore free to spout any old tripe. The costs are minimal, and the benefits in terms of social approval in the kind of circles safe Tory MPs respect, considerable.

The same goes for the Eurosceptic backers, a small group of rich property tycoons (mostly – there are notably few industrialists) who amuse themselves by throwing money at politicians they like. As Winston Churchill said about small countries who insisted on proliferating battleships before the first world war, it is sport to them, it is death to us.

Quiet Riot

Quietly, there seems to be a tiny crisis affecting European politics. For a start, there’s the rocambolesque imbroglio making Belgium a generic cynosure. It would be hard to do better than to point again to Crooked Timber, although it’s worth pointing out that Jean Quatremer is doing a good job too. I especially like the quote from the Flemish prime minister about the 40,000 Flemish hunters (or light infantrymen – the context is missing and the word is the same) who can defend Flanders in the event of civil war; now that’s what I call statesmanlike.

Of course, nothing of the sort is going to happen – in fact, if you wanted my prediction I’d say nothing at all will happen. Belgium may consist only of the King, the army, a football team, some diplomats and taxmen, and the capital, but that’s more than the Austro-Hungarian Empire had in the way of central institutions. In fact the similarities are marked; the overlapping divisions, competing governments, large and permanently different capital city. But whatever happens, the result won’t be the first world war, or for that matter the end of the European Union. Whatever the collectif antiliberale says about it.

Apparently it’s all a neoliberal plot to destroy the EU and socialism, based on this FT thinkpiece. Sadly, Jerome seems to have missed a bit:

the vital importance of a functioning EU to the continent’s stability and prosperity

And another one:

Democratic pragmatists, who support European integration as a means to enhancing national interests rather than as an end in itself, can plausibly argue that their vision of the EU has never been more relevant. If the Flemish and Walloons do unhook from each other, they can quickly hook back into the EU as separate entities bound by common European values. The very existence of the EU allows us to contemplate a resurgence in national sentiment without fear of violence or confrontation. In the context of Europe’s past, that is no small achievement.

No hostile paraphrasing there, eh.

Of course, Robin Shepherd is right – it’s precisely why we need the EU. I would expect that nobody will notice very much difference even if Belgium is abolished; funny little nationalisms are a luxury a continent where borders are meant to be irrelevant can afford.

Meanwhile, a million miles away (well, it feels like it..), Britain may be about to have another spasm of Euro-politics. The European issue in Britain has traditionally swung across the political spectrum, like a cow on a rolling deck, blundering into political parties and sending them flying like skittles. To kick off in the 1940s, Ernest Bevin as Labour Foreign Secretary was keen on the proto-Euroinstitutions, the OEEC, the European Payments Union, and NATO, and the idea of Europe as a “third force”, but was opposed by the Labour Left who thought the “same old gang” were behind the Schuman Plan, trying to get their hands on the nationalised coal industry.

Then in the 50s, there was a split in both parties – the Tories were unenthusiastic until MacMillan, but always had strong European and diehard imperial tendencies. Then, a period of consensus around the three applications to join. Then, in the 70s and early 80s, the Labour Party swung back against, before the 1988 Policy Review espoused “social Europe”. The Conservatives, meanwhile, passed Labour in ’88 going the other way, from ratifying the Single European Act of 1987 to the Eurosceptic wars of 1990-1997. It looks like the issue is about to crash into Labour again, but the ricochets will be widespread.

What has happened? Well, some of the trade unions are keen on holding a referendum on the not-constitutional treaty, and are deploying the same arguments as the Tories for it (it’s really the same thing, Blair promised one on the constitution, &c). But their reasoning is opposite; they are concerned about the bits about free trade from the Treaty of Rome. They’re hoping for a non de gauche, having seen what a triumph this was for their comrades in France. Of course, the problem with the entire argument is that turning down the treaty won’t reverse this, as it’s the status quo.

At the same time, the Conservatives are in favour of a referendum, because they think it’s something even they could win. (Yes, it’s harsh. Harsh, but fair.) And so are the Liberal Democrats; who probably don’t think they could win, but feel that it would be best to support a referendum. Not just any old referendum, though, but an all-out balls-to-the-wall one on British membership of the EU.

Risky, no? Not that anyone’s listening. Even if the only time this was done, the pro-membership side won convincingly, and every government that has been elected since 1970 has been more or less supportive of the EU, this positively frightens me. The upshot? The Prime Minister may be tempted to shoot the fox; more like sweep the whole field with a machine gun. That would be achieved by calling an election with ratification as a manifesto commitment; which may just have become more likely.

Business Week loves immigrants

As long as they’re in Spain, that is..

Less snarkily, the article asks the very important question whether this is an answer to the problem of aging populations, and contrasts Spain with Denmark and Nicolas Sarkozy’s election campaign. And it even tackles Edward Hugh’s concerns that the Spanish construction boom may pop with unpredicted consequences.

Meanwhile, Margaret Hodge successfully bears out Barnett’s crack that the British and French are “fearful” on this. The story is here:

At present we prioritise the needs of an individual migrant family over the entitlement that others feel they have to resources in the community,’ Hodge writes. ‘So a recently arrived family with four or five children living in a damp and overcrowded privately rented flat with the children suffering from asthma will usually get priority over a family with less housing need who have lived in the area for three generations and are stuck at home with the grandparents.

‘We should look at policies where the legitimate sense of entitlement felt by the indigenous family overrides the legitimate need demonstrated by the new migrants.

To put it another way, more people should die of carbon monoxide poisoning in Rachmanesque squalor to save Labour/BNP swing votes in constituencies like…Margaret Hodge’s! You can’t begin to guess how much I despise this woman.

An alternative exit strategy for Jacques Chirac

Who knew Chirac was so personally popular in the Lebanon? More popular than he is in France?

Marc Lynch carries the results of a poll of Lebanese public opinion with some fascinating results. Apparently, a majority of Lebanese admire El Presidente, although not a majority of Shia. They rather like Hugo Chavez! In fact, they admire Chavez more than Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, although they would rather have Ahmedinejad in charge than him.

Nobody has confidence in the United States. Neither does anyone believe in “spreading democracy”. The biggest level of support for an Islamic state, among the Sunnis, didn’t break 5 per cent. (Is that the famous Jihad Chill?) Everyone said they were Lebanese first. Only the Christians put their religion second. (Everyone else put Arabness second.) 71 per cent overall said an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 green line would improve their opinion of the US. Over 50 per cent of Shia (i.e. Hezbollah’s base) supported a two state solution.

When asked which nation should be a superpower for preference, France came out marginally ahead overall, with Russia in second place, then China, then the US. Germany drew 10 per cent of the Shia vote but no votes from anyone else. Britain wasn’t an option. Interestingly, the Shia were the only group not to pick France, with Russia no.1, then China, then Germany. Everyone except the Druze picked France as a candidate for emigration by a large majority. The Druze were the only group to go for the US, but only by a bare plurality. Asked where they would rather send a family member to study, France was the first choice of all groups but the Druze, who plumped for Germany. (Curiously, no two groups agreed whether Germany or Britain was more democratic, but everyone thought France was more democratic than the US, Germany, or Britain.)
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North Sea neuroses

Matthias Matussek, once London correspondent of Der Spiegel and now its culture editor, not to mention brother of top diplomat Thomas Matussek, has a book out. Wir Deutschen: warum die anderen uns gern haben können is meant to be a call for a renewed German patriotism and pride in culture. This would usually suggest a very dull book, but I enjoyed it immensely. Not for the right reasons, though.

Matussek’s approach is idiosyncratic, not that there is anything wrong with that, and the book is really a collection of essays, on topics ranging from Heinrich Heine and Angela Merkel to Britain, Britain, the German economy, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, the World Cup, Britain, Danish cartoonists, the East after reunification, and Britain. In fact, an obsession with Britain runs through this book like letters through a stick of rock-hardly a page passes without comparing some German institution, writer, company, statesman or building to one in Britain, and no chapter is complete with a volley of snark directed roughly westward.

Now, it is a truism that Britain and Germany share a mutual obsession. But this would be less interesting if it wasn’t for the sheer wordcount devoted to complaining about the British obsession with Germany. There is a complete chapter on Anglo-German relations, which I looked forward to-the possibilities are immense. Would he dig into the pre-1914 closeness that gave Bradford a Little Germany (and its own Nazi, Ernst-Wilhelm Bohle, born there in 1903 and later Rudolf Hess’s right hand) and Leeds a Dortmund Square, Robert Graves a relative on the Oberste Heeresleitung?

Nah. Instead, most of the chapter is dedicated to the results of a trip to Germany for some schoolteachers his brother’s embassy organised, and a pleasant but uninformative weekend in the country with John Le Carré.
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Twitchers

Torture, war, elections. Let’s talk about birdwatching for a bit.

Twitchers. The term is British. When a rare bird shows up, twitchers are people who will drop everything and rush to the scene.

They used to have phone trees, then for a while it was beepers. It’s cell-phones and e-mail now. Here is an interesting thing: if you look back to the early days of twitching, the 1960s and ’70s, you see them using an alert system that’s eerily similar to the formal regime for planespotting developed by British civil defense during WWII. Direct copy, inspiration, accident? I wonder. Does anyone here know?

Anyway. Your classic twitcher will leave job, family, or church service behind, seize camera, binoculars and notebook, jump in the car, and roar off to the copse where the black-bellied whistling duck has appeared for only the third time in Britain since 1937.
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Mr Commitment

Mike Gayle is a British novelist. He writes books that, if you were feeling snarky, you might call chick-lit that guys can read too. Less snarkily, he writes light contemporary drama. I’ll admit to a small weakness for the genre, at least in its British variant. Although the plots are wildly predictable, the details of melodrama in a separated-by-common-language culture fascinate me. Plus Gayle is good with dialogue and doesn’t go for cheap ploys.

And there’s another thing: Gayle’s black. As are his characters. Or at least they might be, though I had to admit I did not picture them as black at first. He chooses not to make much use of physical description, so it seems clear that he’s at the very least quite aware of the ambiguity he’s creating. On the other hand, I wonder if there aren’t subtler cues–neighborhoods where the characters live, other parts of their background–that would tip off British readers. Anyone else have this experience? Or more broadly, what would tip you off that a London-based character was black, without being a physical description or too much of a stereotype?

Romania edges towards the door

Romania’s PM Tariceanu announced yesterday that he wants to withdraw Romania’s troops from Iraq.

Right now here are about 900 Romanian soldiers there — one full battalion, with the catchy name of “The Red Scorpions”. They’re deployed in the Al-Nasyria area. They don’t do combat operations. There’s an intelligence team and some de-miners. 900 non-combat soldiers may not sound like a lot, but they made Romania the fifth largest member of the coalition (after the US, Britain, South Korea and Italy).

Why were they there? Well, Romania places a high value on the security relationship with the US. (A cynic might suggest that they’re keeping up the payments on their national security insurance policy.) The numbers involved are not large, Romanian casualties have been very light (one death in three years, to a roadside bomb), so up until now it hasn’t seemed like a very expensive investment on Romania’s part.

The withdrawal isn’t a done deal, BTW. PM Tariceanu must ask the Defense Council for permission; unlike a US President, he isn’t Commander in Chief of the armed forces. And President Basescu (who until recently was saying that the troops should stay “until democracy is established”) may yet weigh in.

From a little distance, I have the impression of a government edging cautiously towards the door, floating a trial balloon and waiting to see how everyone else reacts.

Note that the new government of Italy is sharply cutting Italy’s military commitment to Iraq; the troop count there has dropped from 2,700 to 1,600, and Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema says all troops will be out by early 2007. That would leave the Poles (900 troops) and the Danes (550) as the only European countries other than Britain with significant numbers of troops in Iraq. (Hereby somewhat arbitrarily defined as more than 200 men. There are a dozen or so countries with 20 or 50 or 100 there.)

European countries that had significant troop levels in Iraq, but then left:

Spain — 1,300, left April 2004 (Zapatero government)
Hungary — 300, December 2004
Netherlands — 1,300, left March 2005
Ukraine — 1,600, left December 2005 (Yushchenko government)
Bulgaria — 460, left May 2006

So, there were nine (counting Britain); five have left, one looks getting ready to go, that would leave three.

No further comment, just taking note.