The lame left?

Newsweek has a longish (for Newsweek) article this week about how the center-left is in trouble in pretty much all the large European countries:

No matter what they call themselves—Social Democrats, Socialists or Labour—rarely have they simultaneously appeared so troubled. In Britain, Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s popularity has hit rock bottom. Germany’s Social Democrats are a dwindling party, squeezed between conservatives in the center and populist extremists on the left. In France and Italy, telegenic new-style rightists have managed to reduce the left-wing opposition to tatters. Even Spain’s José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the last unchallenged mainstream-left ruler of a major European power, looks increasingly besieged as the Spanish economic miracle crashes all around him…

Last week Germany’s Social Democrats dumped their fourth chairman in as many years and nominated a charisma-free career bureaucrat, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, to face off against the popular Chancellor Angela Merkel in the September 2009 national election. Only days earlier the annual late-summer confab of the French Socialists in La Rochelle erupted in discord and intrigue over the party’s direction.

So far, reasonable enough. Unfortunately, the article then tries to explain just why the left is in trouble: Continue reading

There are quite a few of us

In today’s Wall Street Journal Europe, Gareth Harding does a nice job describing the frustration of a UK citizen who has lost the right to vote as a result of long-term residency outside the UK — a feature that only dates from 2002 legislation.  It’s little consolation, but the Irish voting regimen for its many emigrants is even harsher, with voting eligibility gone as soon as you’re off the register in your former home county, and that happens once you no longer live there.   As Harding points out, the situation leaves emigrants without a vote in either their country of citizenship or residence.  Of course the counterarguments are well known, ultimately relating to whether someone living abroad is truly a participant in domestic politics.  It certainly tests the notion of what the European Union is supposed to mean to the citizens of its member countries.

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?

The Bear Blows First

Last week, the EU peacekeeping force for Chad/the Central African Republic/and anywhere else in the general mess left of Darfur looked all set; after the French government offered to pony up more troops, and specifically enough Transall cargo planes and Puma support helicopters to assure the force’s mobility, the EU foreign ministers signed off the deal. It was settled that a multinational HQ at Mont-Valerien outside Paris, headed by an Irish general, would command the operation, with a French land force commander on the scene; the first-flights were due to arrive on Thursday and Friday, bringing an advanced guard of Irish Rangers and various logistic elements.

However, it seems Chad’s rebels have adopted the bear principle. Remember the man who tried to give the powder to the bear, said Winston Churchill; he rolled it up in a piece of paper, pointed it down the bear’s nose…but the bear blew first. The initial airlift was held on the ground, as a column of rebels appeared at the gates of N’Djamena; instead the French army brought in 150 more troops from their base in Gabon. The rebels, who raided the city last spring and were beaten off with the help of French aircraft are reported to be fighting towards the presidential palace. As Secret Defense (my new favourite blog) points out at the link, it’s in the nature of desert warfare that enemies can appear suddenly almost anywhere, especially when the modern ship of the desert is the Toyota Land Cruiser.

The French troops evacuated 400 or so nationals to Gabon, but the million-dollar question is whether they will support Idriss Deby in trying to stay in power; French forces have been doing precisely that ever since 1986 under Operation EPERVIER. Apparently Deby refused the offer of a Dassault Falcon lift into exile and is fighting it out; the head of the Chadian army was reported to have been killed in action, which argues that this is pretty serious business. For what it’s worth, Bernard Kouchner says France is neutral in this conflict, but we support legality and the powers-that-be.

Pretty clearly, part of the point was to act before EUFOR deployed across the route from the border to the city; the questions are now whether EUFOR will ever move – after all, will there be any peace to keep? – and whether its French elements move to save France’s man in Chad. This only points up the ambiguity in the entire mission; protecting the civilian population and supporting the African Union in Darfur are goals that are easily merged with saving Idriss Deby’s skin and TotalFinaElf’s interests. As Daniel Davies so wisely said, unless you can make it rain as much as it used to, you probably aren’t going to solve Darfur’s problems.

Turkey: Kurds Voting For Christmas?

Despite having read mountains (appropriately) of reporting on the Turkish-Kurdish-Iraqi crisis, I haven’t read anyone who has tried to answer the big question – why do the PKK seem to be doing everything possible to provoke the Turks into invading Iraq after them?

You’d think this was a pretty vital issue; who wants to be blitzed, after all? Fortunately, Handelsblatt does journalism; Gerd Hoehler reviews the history of the Kurdish movement and concludes that the PKK does indeed want Turkey to hit me as hard as you can. Why? It would set Turkey’s relations with essentially everyone in a state of chaos, it would probably upend the Turkish economy, and it would outrage the Turkish Kurds, to say nothing of all the others.

But it probably wouldn’t achieve strategic-level damage to the PKK; however, Turkey’s slow progress towards the EU and its (much faster) economic development have threatened to do so. The AK got an absolute majority of votes in most of Kurdistan at the last elections. So, the PKK needs an explosion; something that would reverse EU integration, wreck the economy, and whip everyone into a frenzy of rage.

Fortunately, as when this happened in 2003 and 2005, the Turkish government has been very good at moving towards war very slowly indeed and with immense ceremony; thus allowing the pressure to build for a resolution without an actual war. Hoehler, however, reports on a worrying degree of war fever – there’s been a surge of volunteers for the Turkish army, 4,200 in a week, and people are stopping cars on the highway with guns to make the drivers join in singing war songs. That has a nasty sound of August, 1914 about it; this would not be a good moment for losing control.

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.

The Lure of Membership in action

If the EU didn’t exist, would we have to create it? Arguably, one of the best reasons for doing so would be the power it has demonstrated to spread democracy, constitutionalism, peace, and other good stuff through the accession process. Today, we had an excellent example of this. On the 7th of July, the European Commission updated the list of airlines that aren’t allowed to land in the EU. In the wake of the ban, the Moldovan government decided to solve the problem by shutting down a succession of really dodgy operations, revoking the Air Operator’s Certificate that is required by international law and grounding the planes.

The reason for such dramatic action is simple enough – it’s not just flight safety that was at stake. The list of dodgy airlines includes one that was involved in a regrettable incident in which 99 tonnes of assorted firearms were purchased from Bosnian war surplus by the US Government, and flown in a couple of Ilyushin 76s to Iraq for the use of the Iraqi government. However, the guns never arrived, and their fate remains a mystery – perhaps the least disturbing theory being that they were never actually shipped, and the Americans were defrauded. More disturbing options include the suggestion that the weapons were offloaded somewhere else, switched with another cargo, and sold God knows where, or that they were delivered all right, but to the former Iraqi army. The airline which was meant to move the guns, Aerocom, was itself later shut down after a plane was seized in Belize with a load of cocaine – but it actually subcontracted the job to one of the current crop, Jet Line International.

Meanwhile, in Montenegro

Montenegro initialed a Stabilization and Association Pact with the EU on March 15. That’s a step on the road to EU candidacy.

Nobody outside the Balkans noticed. Even inside the Balkans, nobody got too excited. Montenegro is a small and rather poor country, and EU membership is still years away. Hell, all they did was “initial” the S&A pact. They won’t actually sign it until (1) Montenegro adopts a new, EU-appropriate Constitution, and (2) all the current 27 members approve.

Still, it’s no small achievement. It shows that the Montenegrins, like the Croats, may be able to launder their recent history. Montenegro isn’t being held up for not cooperating with the Hague Tribunal, nor is their enthusiastic participation in the breakup of Yugoslavia being held against them. They are now formally, officially on the road to EU membership.

This is as good an occasion as any to review the league table in the Western Balkans. Continue reading

Ukrainian Disappointment..

While everyone is focused on the French elections, the Balkans, or the contreaty relaunch (in increasing order of wonkishness), it’s not going too well in the Ukraine. Back in the winter of 2004, you couldn’t move for bloggers taking sides on the Orange Revolution, but hardly anyone has noticed the progressive disappointment since.

Well, all revolutions end up eating their children, they say. But I think it’s fair to say that this one at least turned the country in a less Putin-like direction, and after all, past revolutions here have actually ended up with people eating *their* children. Recently, though, there’s been a political murder – one of Yanukovich’s backers from last time was assassinated by a sniper – and the Associated Press can no longer tell President Yuschenko from Prime Minister Yanukovich.

So, the crowds are out again, as are the tents…with the same leaders as before. Indispensable as ever, Veronica Khoklova reports, with video.

In a sense, I suppose it’s the aim of the European project these days – to shift away from snipers towards tents and blogs as a means of resolving political conflict, and in the fullness of time, to falling turnout and general apathy. Hooray! Not that there’s very much wrong with that. People who complain about the hegemony of liberal order rarely concede that it’s unlikely to kill you.

But there’s the rub. As Leszek Kolakowski put it:

The trouble with the social democratic idea is that it does not stock and does not sell any of the exciting ideological commodities which various totalitarian movements – Communist, Fascist or Leftist – offer dream-hungry youth. It is no ultimate solution for all human miseries and misfortunes. It has no prescription for the total salvation of mankind, it cannot promise the fireworks of the last revolution to settle definitely all conflicts and struggles. It has invented no miraculous devices to bring about the perfect unity of man and universal brotherhood. It believes in no easy victory over evil.

It requires, in addition to commitment to a number of basic values, hard knowledge and rational calculation, since we need to be aware of and investigate as exactly as possible the historical and economic conditions in which these values are to be implemented. It is an obstinate will to erode by inches the conditions which produce avoidable suffering, oppression, hunger, wars, racial and national hatred, insatiable greed and vindictive envy.

You could say much the same about the EU, with the rider that too many people think pretending to be the fireworks, etc, will bring in the dream-hungry youth its grinding seriousness tends to alienate. Which is, I think, what I was drivelling about in this Crooked Timber thread.

Second Life, Second EU?

Right on time for the 5oth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, the European Union’s Communications Department, is thinking seriously about establishing a digital “embassy” in the (currently more hyped than) popular virtual reality Second Life. According to a pressetext.at (in German) report, EU spokesperson Mikolaj Dowgielewicz explained that an EU office in Second Life was intended to reach out, get closer, and communicate better with individual European citizens, since 54% of the alleged 4.4m virtual inhabitants of Second Life are European nationals, according to Second Life operator Linden Labs.
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