hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Skripal: NATO’s Next Steps?

“Beware the ides of March”
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

Geneva, Switzerland. 15 March. Prime Minister Theresa May’s statement to the House of Commons yesterday on the Skripal attack was proportionate given the status of the investigation and the need for an initial response. The 15 March use of the Russian nerve agent Novichok in the English provincial city of Salisbury during the attempted murder of one Russian citizen and another former Russian turned Briton is an outrageous act of aggression that must be countered.  The next step is to consider a subsequent and consequent set of responses. Yesterday, I was contacted by a senior figure at NATO and asked what I would suggest the Alliance should do in support of the UK. Given that NATO is likely to be in the vanguard of the international response my considered reaction is set out below.

Investigation and Action

In the wake of this attack, a thorough investigation must necessarily form the basis for action. The aim of any response must be to assert that NATO will respond to any attack on an ally in a robust but proportionate manner and to uphold international regimes and law relating to the use of biological and chemical weapons.  May’s decision to expel 23 Russian ‘diplomats’ from London as part of a suite of measures is just such a proportionate response. She cleverly left open the option to escalate to further measures if and when the available evidence hardens as to the source of the attack, whilst offering Moscow the chance to climb-down by ‘admitting’ it had lost control of the nerve agent.

The response must be further divided into two distinct tracks – investigation and action.  The investigation would see NATO in support of the British seeking to establish exactly the sequence of events that led to the attack and identify those who designed and carried out the attack. Whilst there is overwhelming circumstantial evidence that Russia, in some capacity, is responsible for the attack the legitimacy of any subsequent response will be strengthened if due process has been seen to have been followed.

Specifically, it would be useful to set up two expert panels, one under the auspices of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (OPCW), and another conducted by NATO allies, possibly led by France which has a similar capability to Britain in countering chemical and biological hazards. Past experience would suggest that Russia will doubtless try to interfere with such an investigation and such efforts will need to be resisted.  Equally, prior to the 2003 Iraq War London was not sufficiently skeptical about Iraq’s supposed WMD capability and locked itself into a political position from which it could not retreat.  

The Maintenance of Proportionality

There has been some suggestion that NATO triggers the cornerstone collective defence Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, the so-called doomsday article the invoking of which during the Cold War would almost inevitably have led to nuclear Armageddon. At this stage, such a response would be disproportionate given the scale of the attack and thus enable Moscow to suggest the Alliance is the aggressor.  On the eve of Sunday’s Russian presidential elections, it may well be that the Kremlin would like nothing more than to suggest to the Russian people that Russia is under attack from NATO. Given the extremely high likelihood that Moscow was involved in the attack it may also be that triggering such a response by the Alliance was central to the political design of the attack.

To invoke Article 5 would also devalue its importance and thus the gravity of its invocation in a crisis. In a sense, the Alliance is already preparing a response that is in the spirit of Article 5. The North Atlantic Council has met and offered its support to Britain re-iterating that an attack on one ally is an attack on all. NATO has also confirmed Britain’s right to self-defence under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. The attack has been reported to the United Nations Security Council and the Alliance is considering the subsequent and proportionate action it could take.

NATO Action?

Proportionality does not preclude the preparation of a robust and timely set of actions to deter Russia, or any other state actor, from ever again contemplating such an attack on a NATO ally. Indeed, even if due process has yet to be completed it is reasonable for the Alliance to assume the identity of the attacker and prepare measured and appropriate responses. There is a range of actions I have proposed that would provide a credible considered escalation in the wake of such an attack and thus reinforce deterrence: 

Reinforce the agenda of the NATO Brussels Summit: The Alliance should immediately introduce onto the agenda of the July 2018 Brussels Summit an assessment of the threat posed by what appears to be illegal Russian use of chemical weapons.  Such a debate should also perhaps take place in the context of Moscow’s deployment of new nuclear weapons systems that are illegal under the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Better coordinate and share intelligence: Prevention of attacks on the Alliance’s civilian population would be best facilitated by an effective intelligence-led defence.  Efforts are underway within NATO to improve such co-operation but if such intelligence is to be properly actionable the Alliance needs to become far more effective at gathering, collating and distributing intelligence.

Re-establish effective consequence management: Most NATO allies have lost the ability to quickly identify and thus respond quickly to biological and chemical attack on either military or civilian targets.  In close conjunction with the allies, NATO must move to close that gap in its defences. One idea could be to create bespoke quick response teams of experts that could support national authorities in the wake of a biological or chemical weapons attack.

Instigate a strategic review of Alliance defence and deterrence: A vital question NATO needs to answer is this: in the face of a new concept of coercion how can the Alliance’s citizen be defended against an adversarial strategy that combines disruption, destabilisation, and destruction? Such a review would consider the implications of such an attack across the new spectrum of warfare that Moscow is purposefully engineering and which extends to and weaponises information, cyber, biology, chemistry, space, as well as the eventual or parallel use of conventional and nuclear forces.

Make the Alliance more resilient: The Alliance as a whole must now properly consider how to make critical structures and infrastructures upon which society depends to function far more resilient to an attack. The Salisbury attack might be small in scale but it implied the ease with which a perpetrator could inflict mass casualties on a NATO ally without the use of nuclear weapons.

Enhance NATO’s Enhance Forward Presence: The threat the Alliance is facing involves an adversary who is merging hybrid, cyber and hyper warfare into a new concept of warfare.  Therefore, it is impossible at this stage to know if the Salisbury attack was a one-off or part of some new form of conflict escalation.  It would thus be prudent to strengthen the military defences of the most vulnerable allies Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Accelerate NATO force mobility: NATO is already considering how to better facilitate its ability to move forces across the Alliance in an emergency and how best to reinforce its forces in Europe from across the Atlantic. This attack underlines the importance of that work and the reform of the NATO Command Structure.

Close the NATO deterrence Gap: By deploying short and intermediate range nuclear systems in Europe Russia is both skilful and illegal.  The aim is exploiting a clear gap in Alliance deterrence between NATO’s conventional force and its strategic nuclear forces and thus enhance Moscow’s ability to intimidate allies in a crisis. As I written in these pages before, NATO must actively consider the role of new technologies in closing that deterrence gap using non-nuclear capabilities without joining Moscow in the destruction of treaty-based security.

Power Politics, Russia & Salisbury

When, and frankly from what I have been told it is a question of ‘when’, Russia is confirmed as the perpetrator of the Salisbury attack it will be but the latest of a now long-line of flagrant and blatant flouting of international regimes and law by the Kremlin. Let me be clear; I have a deep respect for Russia and I am firm in my belief there can be no security in Europe without Russia.  My desire is to seek an accommodation with Russia via dialogue to establish a new peaceful order in Europe with which Russia is comfortable and from which Russians benefit.

Russia is also a great power and must be respected as such. However, the attack on my country was an attack on other great power with an economy roughly twice the size of Russia’s.  If Russia really has abandoned a rules-based international order in favour of the anarchy that is geopolitics democracies likes Britain will respond. Like all democracies, there has been a time-lag in that response but when it comes Moscow will quickly discover that whilst Russia might be a great power it is no longer a superpower.  In any such struggle, Russia will lose unless the Kremlin is mad enough to even contemplate that it could win another European war.  

Therefore, whilst Britain and the NATO allies must follow due process, for such process is in effect what divides the Putin regime from its neighbours, and never stop seeking dialogue with Russia, the Kremlin must be under no doubt that the NATO allies accept that the Novichok attack on a quiet provincial English city was both an attack upon them all and an egregious act of aggression that must not and cannot go unpunished. If they do not such weakness would mark the beginning of the end of NATO…something the Kremlin no doubt will also have considered at some length.

Julian Lindley-French

Thursday, 8 March 2018

The Skripal Attack: Britain's Options

Britain “is just a small island…no-one pays any attention to them”.

Alleged 2013 comment by Dmitry Peskov, Official Spokesman of President Putin

The Skripal attack

Alphen, Netherlands. 8 March. Let me assume that in some manner or other the Russian state or those close to it were behind the poisoning of former Russian GRU (military intelligence) officer, Sergei Skripal, his daughter, and a Wiltshire police officer in Salisbury last Sunday.  Moscow will, of course, publicly deny all and any involvement in the attack, even as it leaves open the chance for people (particularly its own) to draw their own conclusions.  So, what options does Britain really have if it is to respond ‘robustly’, as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson somewhat theatrically suggested in Parliament this week?

Why attack Britain?

First, why attack Britain?  If the attack was sanctioned at a high level in the Kremlin the consequences would have been carefully considered.  It is unlikely that Moscow would risk such an attack on the United States, given the consequences if an American police officer was infected in a similar fashion to that unfortunate British police officer.  Moscow is also unlikely to have sanctioned such an attack on Germany, France or, Italy as all have shown themselves sympathetic and/or understanding of Moscow in the past.  Indeed, their collective refusal to back Britain in the wake of the 2006 Russian attack in London on Alexander Litvinenko in which highly-radioactive Polonium 210 not only killed Mr Litvinenko, and which put many Londoners at risk, demonstrated all too clearly the fragility of European solidarity.  It also demonstrated just how ‘uncommon’ the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy really is at times of crisis.  The Baltic States are already under daily attack from Moscow across a range of forms and means.  The rest of Europe?  Too small and insignificant to send the message Moscow might wish to send to the Russian people on the eve of the presidential elections about Russia’s ability to cower enemies and punish traitors.  Therefore, Russia’s much self-reduced and vulnerable old Cold War foe Britain, with a now sad ‘tradition’ of spinelessness in the face of a host of similar such attacks in recent years, thus presents the perfect target.  

Second, the attack might involve the sending my Moscow of more than one message.  On such occasions one needs to think somewhat laterally because the circumstances that inevitably surround cases of espionage are inevitably murky, with the public utterances of government often hiding a whole other story. Certainly, I am (again) angered by the prospect that (again) the Kremlin, one of its agencies (the fearsome GRU?), or one of the factions close to President Putin, seems to have carried out another possibly deadly attack on British soil. Equally, I am curious at the coincidence that such an attack should take place in Salisbury, just next door to Britain’s highly-secretive Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl). Could it be that Skripal, who betrayed Russia, was the unwitting messenger in some other hidden conflict between Moscow and London?

Hinting at just such a conflict General Sir Chris Deverell, Britain’s Joint Force Commander, said this week that Russia has developed the ability to cripple a dangerously open Britain, particularly via a cyber-attack. Cryptically and coincidentally Deverell also said that Moscow “did not care about civilian life…They care only about what is in the interests of their elites…They are quite capable of anything”.  Was that the message Moscow was sending London?


Britain now knows the specific nerve agent used in the attack.  Given the sophisticated nature of the compound it is likely to be only a matter of time before the British identify the source of the attack, no doubt with the help of the Americans. So, let me break Britain’s possible responses down into two parts: retaliation and policy.

London’s immediate responses to such an attack would need to be necessarily and consequently theatrical. In addition to issuing pointless indictments against those Russians London identifies as suspects, Britain would first likely withdraw its ambassador from Moscow and/or expel a host of Russian diplomats, as well as declare a few Belgravia oligarchs persona non grata.  However, with the Russian presidential elections nine days away President Putin would probably be only too happy to expel a similar number of British diplomats to demonstrate graphically to the Russian people the ‘real’ enemies of the Russian state.

London might also seek to increase the severity of the sanctions on Russia imposed in the aftermath of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and the July 2014 shooting down of Malaysian Airlines MH17.  However, it would be pointless for Britain to do that on its own.  And, as in the aftermath of the Litvinenko case, it is likely that only the United States (or possibly not!) might be willing to join Britain.  Of Europe’s major powers Germany’s Russia policy is far too tied up with Berlin’s economic interests to consider further sanctions against Russia, particularly the Nordstream 2 pipeline.  France at times talks tough about Russia but is similarly ambivalent, and Italy has just seen the political influence of pro-Russian Silvio Berlusconi markedly increase. 

Even Britain is ambivalent about its own sanctions on the Russian elite.  The City of London represents 11% of the British economy affording it significant influence over British foreign policy. Even after a High Court judge in 2016 implicated President Putin directly in the Litvinenko murder London has done little or nothing to prevent the flow of dodgy ‘no questions asked’ Russian money into London, and would probably be loath to do so even now. The EU? Even if the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy amounted to more than an extended budget for think-tank meetings London is hardly the flavour of the month in Brussels and is unlikely to get much support therein.

What about direct retaliatory action? London is certainly not in the business of poisoning people on foreign soil, whatever RT, Sputnik et al might imply.  Could Britain mount some form of retaliatory cyber-attack?  This is unlikely. First, Britain is only in the process of developing an offensive cyber warfare capability. Second, the failure of successive British governments to ‘harden’ Britain’s critical infrastructure makes the country uniquely vulnerable to a whole host of attacks Moscow has been working up for some time, and which now extend across the twenty-first century hybrid war, cyber war, hyper war spectrum. 

Policy Responses?

If the ability and capacity of London to retaliate is limited what about policy options?  Here, if ‘Whiteminster’ (Westminster and Whitehall combined) for once responds with a) some backbone; and b) investment in new capability, capacity and structures the attack could be the catalyst for Britain to finally abandon its appalling ‘policy’ of recognising only as much threat as HM Treasury says it can afford. Rather, Britain should move to establish a new principle in its dealings with Russia: if Moscow attacks, London responds with policy across the conflict spectrum and as part of a new, twenty-first century concept of escalation. 

At the lower end of escalation London could move to re-capitalise the Russian-speaking service of the BBC World Service and start again to fully engage/interfere in Russian domestic affairs. Britain could also move faster to balance the counter-terrorism focus of its Secret Intelligence Service with a born-again counter-Russia capability – both offensive intelligence and counter-intelligence.

London’s strategic blindness has also left Britain far too vulnerable to externally-induced chaos.  Therefore, London should also begin the systematic hardening of critical infrastructures from cyber and actual attack.  If past Russian tradecraft is anything to go by there is likely to be a significant number of well-placed Russian sleeper agents in Britain ready to help foster such chaos.   

Above all, and by way of considered policy response, London needs to strike a new balance between the protection of its people and its ability to project coercive power, particularly within NATO.  Deductively, it is in the specific realm of defence policy that London should respond most forcefully. For too long successive British governments have played at coercion as Whiteminster has steadily retreated from strategic realism into strategic political correctness. Moscow has observed this Little Britain retreat with contempt.

Therefore, Prime Minister May should announce as a direct response to this attack that Britain will move to prevent Russia’s continuing ability to carry out the low-level war it is currently conducting at Britain’s many seams. Critically, in addition to strengthening the resilience of British society to attack London should also announce an immediate increase of its defence budget to 2.5% GDP to close the massive gap that has opened up between the stated missions of the British armed forces and their ability to undertake them.  That such an increase would be the direct consequence of Russian action would not only be something Moscow would understand, it would also be an unintended consequence that Moscow would not welcome. After all, it takes two to message.

Britain must prove it can still sting

If London’s response to this attack is that it finally gets serious about security and defence and demonstrates to Moscow that there is a price to pay for its aggressive and unlawful actions then, just then, Russia too might want to talk.  Ironically, only then will the Foreign Office’s preferred policy of talking to Moscow, rather than isolating or threatening it, have any chance of success.  Sorry, Foreign Office, speaking softly, carrying a little stick, and turning a well-educated blind eye will no longer do.

What frustrates me most about my country is the false Little Britain narrative that not only have so many Britons bought into, but which Moscow exploits.  If one combines economic and military power with the experience and systems of engagement Britain should still be able to sting and sting hard. Sometimes in international relations, particularly when dealing with autocrats, democracies must have the proven ability to sting.  We do not as yet live in Utopia. However, only if Whiteminster stops behaving like a strategic amoeba, re-injects some strategic backbone into its policy and responses, and makes an adversary pay a price for such an attack will Britain stop this kind of attack.

Hard at times though it is to believe Britain is still a top five world power but needs to start behaving again like one.  As for Mr Peskov, Britain might well be a small island, but it is a bloody powerful one with an economy twice the size of Russia’s. Now is the moment for Moscow to be reminded of that fact…should, of course, it is demonstrated that Moscow was complicit in some way in the Skripal attack.

Julian Lindley-French

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Chairman Xi's Bipolar Disorder?

“Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”

Mao Zedong

President-for-Life Xi

Alphen, Netherlands. 6 March. Two things concern me about President Xi Jingping’s China this week and can best be summarised as a lot of rubber-stamping. First, at a meeting this week the rubber-stamp National People’s Congress is expected to scrap presidential term limits. Second, the Congress will further rubber-stamp the decision of President Xi to further increase the Chinese defence budget by 8.1% to an official $175 billion per annum.  Whilst that figure pales alongside the $600 billion or so the US spends each year on defence, China’s actual defence expenditure is probably far higher than the official figure suggests, as many new defence projects are not included in the defence budget. 

President Xi’s move to enshrine himself as President-for-Life at least has a greater ring of political honesty to it than the electoral manipulations of that other strategic autocrat-for-life Russia’s President Putin.  Still, past experience in China and elsewhere suggests this landmark decision does not bode well for the Celestial Empire, the Asia-Pacific region, or the wider world.  Indeed, President Xi’s consolidation of his personal power in the age-old name of ‘stability’ suggests not only the creation of a new power dynasty in China, but also hints at a return to the bad old days under Chairman Mao when de facto one man rule led to deadly extremes, such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. 

Political Legitimacy Chinese Style

Among contemporary China’s many achievements are its relative stability and growing prosperity. Since the 1989 massacre of students in Tiananmen Square the Chinese Communist Party has also enjoyed a strange (by Western standards) kind of political legitimacy.  This was achieved by offering the burgeoning Chinese middle class prosperity in return for their unquestioning acceptance of the Party’s political supremacy.  Such ‘legitimacy’ has been further reinforced by strict term limits on office for the procession of grey men who have led China in the intervening years. Now, with President Xi’s power grab (for that is what it is) that legitimacy is again open to question, and it will be interesting to see how a changing China adapts.

For a time President Xi’s personal supremacy may well buttress ‘stability’ within China. However, past experience in China, the Soviet Union/Russia and elsewhere suggests that over time such a retreat from what limited political legitimacy existed in China will be covered by the fostering of a personality cult which will doubtless increase the distance between this ‘Princeling of the Party’ and the people. There is also a danger that Xi’s move will further reinforce a tendency towards more nationalism and militarism in Beijing.

A Revolution in Chinese Military Affairs

President Xi’s power base is, and has always been the People’s Liberation Army or PLA. For decades the Chinese armed forces were essentially designed to assure the control of the Party within China, and assure the borders from threats without China.  China’s foreign military adventures were relatively limited, strategically-constrained and close to China itself.  Then Peking intervened in the Korean War in 1950 against US-led United Nations forces, fought and won a short border war with India in 1962, and in 1969 entered a border conflict with its ‘fraternal’ Communist partner, the Soviet Union. Chinese forces also entered Cambodia and Vietnam in the late 1970s.  Today, China’s strategic ambitions extend far beyond its neighbouring region, as exemplified by Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.

A revolution in Chinese military affairs is also underway. Beijing’s now smaller (2 million), leaner and more agile Armed Forces are currently taking possession of a whole raft of power projection military capabilities, including new aircraft carriers and nuclear attack submarines, whilst at the same time exploiting space-based and other advanced technologies, such as cyber and artificial intelligence.  The People’s Liberation Navy is fast developing into the main regional challenger to the United States Navy. The PLN also has global ambitions, as the joint 2016 exercise in the Baltic Sea with the Russian Navy revealed.  Like the emergence of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Imperial Germany Navy from 1898 onwards which had but one purpose, to challenge the might of the then Royal Navy, it is clear that the PLN is also being prepared with one military-strategic purpose in mind; if Beijing so decides to one day fight and defeat the United States Navy.

Now, China has as much right to invest in such forces as any Western country. However, the strategy behind such investments must be of concern to both neighbours and the rest of us. First, Beijing has shown scant ‘might is right’ regard for international law by employing a host of spurious claims to illegally-seize and militarise a string of islands in the South China Sea.  The strategic aim is clear; to turn one of the most lucrative trading routes in the world into China’s Mare Nostrum.  Next month, like something out of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, the ageing Royal Navy Type-23 frigate HMS Sutherland will conduct a ‘freedom of navigation’ exercise in the South China Sea. Regrettably, and in spite of some talk of a new Asia-Pacific focussed Franco-British alliance, far from being impressed the Chinese will no doubt conclude it is an exercise in British strategic pretence, and that the under-funded Royal Navy poses little or no threat to China. Expect Beijing to ignore the ship.

Chinese Might is not always Right

However, it is the mid-to-long term consequences of President Xi’s ‘might is right’ strategy both at home and abroad that should most concern the West. History suggests that autocratic, one-man regimes sooner or later resort to adventurism when the political and economic going inevitably gets tough. This is what President Putin did when he attacked Ukraine in 2014 after falling oil and gas prices undermined his domestic political and economic strategy and threatened the Kremlin’s control. 

For as long as the Chinese Communist Party continues to deliver prosperity to the Chinese middle class and the wider country it is likely that the Party’s grip on power will endure.  And, as long as China can continue to feed off Western technologies via strategic investments in companies in debt-ridden European and other countries, China will see no reason to become overly aggressive. And yet there are clear dangers implied by such investments. Last week it was discovered that Chinese investment in a small British semi-conductor company may have helped Beijing to develop a new naval ‘super-gun’ that will soon pose a distinct threat to US carrier battlegroups.

The dilemma for Beijing, as one Chinese official once told me during a visit, is that China has to grow at at least 8% per annum simply for the economy and prosperity to stand still. Sooner or later such growth will cease, a prospect made more likely by China’s burgeoning corporate debt. Sooner or later the militarised super-presidency of President-for-Life Xi could well seek to bolster its power domestically by further embellishing its nationalist credentials. In such circumstances Taiwan (the Crimea of Asia-Pacific?) would be first in the firing line, closely followed by Japan and South Korea, something that that other President-for-Life Kim Jong-un has no doubt considered.  

Chairman Xi’s Bipolar Disorder?

There is another even greater danger, or rather combination of dangers that really worry me about President Xi’s power-grab, which could threaten the world order.  The defining strategic relationship for much of the twenty-first century will be that between the United States and China.  They are the two power poles around which other lesser powers are already coalesced or coalescing.   It is a complex relationship and that could spawn a dangerous bipolar (dis) order, particularly if China and Russia define their relationship as inherently anti-Western.

In some respects the world is already beginning to look eerily like Europe in the first decade of the twentieth century when the Triple Entente of the British, French and Russian Empires, ‘balanced’ the Dual Alliance of Imperial Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Whilst this was an essentially European-focused power struggle it had global reach because of empire.  Given the West itself is now an idea rather than a place with liberal democracies the world-over, and centred on the American system of alliances, the threat of systemic conflict can no longer be ruled out. Indeed, whilst Russia may pose a regional threat to certain NATO and EU members, in combination with China that threat becomes a wholly different ball-game, particularly for the Americans.      

It is a threat compounded by the West itself.  First, too many debt-ridden Europeans seem only too willing to see the ‘opportunities’ afforded by rich China, but at the same time refuse to recognise the risks that an increasingly autocratic and aggressive China poses.  Second, President Trump seems more interested in disrupting the West than reinforcing it.  This most idiosyncratic of American presidents this week decided to threaten trade wars with most of his major allies so, apparently, he can secure an improved NAFTA. Sadly, at times the White House seems more interested in disaggregating the very system of alliances that helped make America great. Alliance which America will again need if Washington is to reassert the very considered leadership that was, is, and always will be the true source of American greatness. 

A Global Triple Track

Is war with China inevitable? Certainly not. Having worked with seasoned diplomats and practitioners over many years I have learnt that the expectation of the worst is the surest fire way to guarantee it.  And, whilst I harbour profound concerns about the direction of travel of the Xi regime, it is vital the West continues to talk to Beijing.  Beijing is not simply a richer and more powerful version of Putin’s Russia, and because a set of circumstance and patterns of power occurred in the past they are by no means doomed to reassert themselves in the future.

Rather, Americans and Europeans should seek strategic balance in their respective engagements with Beijing.  Deterrence, defence and dialogue were the triple themes in a narrative that emphasised just such a need for strategic balance in the GLOBSEC NATO Adaptation Initiative, for which I had the honour to be Lead Writer.  Realising such balance demands that Europeans see their security and defence not just in regional, but global terms. It also demands of Europeans a willingness to better support, albeit not uncritically, Washington’s lead in dealing with Xi’s China if they want the Americans to continue to underpin Europe’s own security and defence.
All of the above will certainly demand that Europeans finally get serious about their twenty-first century defence and invest sensibly, although not excessively, in such a defence.  Equally, Europeans also have something to contribute in ensuring Xi’s China maintains a nuanced understanding of the contemporary West. Indeed, it is precisely the bloc-forming experience of Europeans prior to the First and Second World Wars, and during the Cold War that places Europeans in a responsible position to promote dialogue with China, whatever past imperial insults Europeans have committed.

What is happening in Beijing this week is a cause for concern. Equally, Beijing is inherently cautious and remains for the moment open to dialogue, particularly if it believes an adversary respects its legitimate interests and has the power and coherence to counter its own ambitions.

Therefore, President Xi’s bipolar disorder is not a given.  However, to paraphrase one of the Roosevelt’s the global West together, Europeans included, should speak softly, politely and firmly to President Xi, and help America carry not just its big stick, but its many burdens.  It would also help if America learnt again to speak softly. Over to you, Mr President.

Julian Lindley-French

Friday, 2 March 2018

Analysis Paper: The Battle of Brexit

“The highest pivot of virtue is to possess boundless power without abusing it”.
Thomas Babington MacCauley, 1stBaron MacCauley

Abstract: This brief personal analysis paper examines why it is so hard to agree a Brexit settlement. It considers the challenges through the lens of two issues; the post-Brexit inner-Irish border and the aims and strategy of the European Commission. The analysis concludes by suggesting that Tony Blair’s call for a bespoke deal to keep Britain in the EU is the only way to stop Brexit, but for all the reasons discussed below it is extremely unlikely Britain would or could be offered such a deal.

The Battle of Brexit

Brexit is at its inevitable schwerpunkt when fudge can no longer be fudged, and choices have to be made. Today, British Prime Minister May will lay out five tests for Brexit which will essentially say that Britain’s decision to leave the EU must be respected, frictionless trade with the EU must be maintained, London decides which of the four fundamental EU freedoms (goods, people, services and capital) London will observe, with any disputes to be decided not solely by the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

This week the real Battle of Brexit broke out. On one side is a hard-line, unelected, and effectively unaccountable European Commission committed to its self-appointed political role to drive towards some form of European Federation. On the other side, is a top five world power that is seeking to leave the European Union, not least because of profound unease in many of its quarters about the EU’s attitude to democracy, legitimacy and the sovereign will of the people. In the middle is a people appalled by the divisions within its leading political class, and increasingly irritated by the hard-line stance of Brussels. The Battle of Brexit is also a battle fought through proxies, but it is nevertheless an existential battle not only about who rules ‘Europe’, but the future of Europe.

The publication this week of TF50 (2018) 33 or European Commission Draft Withdrawal Agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Agreement is far more than a dry technical, bureaucratic document. Rather, it firmly establishes the strategic and political battle-lines between a European Commission that is playing very hard-ball indeed over Brexit, and a British Government that has thus far avoided setting out anything that might be called a negotiating position. This is because the May Government is unable to agree one, and she is too weak to impose one. Born of a mix of ideological fundamentalism and frustration the Draft Agreement is thus deliberately designed to put Theresa May in a position where she has no option other than to say what she wants. There are two issues upon which this analysis will focus, one of which demonstrates the lack of any political will to agree a settlement, and the other explains why; the Brexit Irish Question and the aims and strategy of the European Commission.

The Irish Tail Wagging the British Dog?

In the 1980s I spent time in Northern Ireland and I am acutely sensitive to Britain’s tarnished, at times appalling history on the island of Ireland. My respect for Ireland and the Irish people runs deep, and I remain firm in my belief that should the majority of people in the north of Ireland ever vote to become part of the Republic I would honour such a decision. As someone intelligent said to me recently, “Ireland is like an innocent passer-by walking down a street in a storm who suddenly gets drenched by a bloody big, poorly-driven lorry driving through a puddle of its own making”.

What is fast becoming known as the Irish Question amidst calls for a ‘common regulatory area’ on the island of Ireland, perhaps shine the best light on the politics of the Draft Agreement. As such it reflects as much Brussels’ legitimate frustration with a hitherto hopeless London, as it implies any power grab on a part of the United Kingdom. Yes, Brexit is complicated, but it is being made far more complicated by Theresa May’s lack of leadership, a Cabinet so divided they probably could not even agree on the time of day when it comes to Brexit, and a negotiating team most of whom give the strong impression they would prefer to be batting for the other side. When historians come to write about the sordid tale that is Brexit they will doubtless conclude that London conducted perhaps the worst set of negotiations in Britain’s long history.

With the Battle of Brexit now turning nasty some accuse the Commission of diverging significantly from at least the spirit of the December Joint Agreement, which agreed the overall cost to Britain of its pending departure from the EU. Others suggest the Commission even wants to ‘annex’ Northern Ireland. In fact, the text of the Joint Agreement is pretty clear. “In the absence [my italics] of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all island economy and the protection of the 1998 [Belfast] Agreement. A second sentence states that, “In all circumstances, the United Kingdom [not the EU] will continue to ensure the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland's businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market”. In other words, only if the UK fails to come up with a solution to the Irish Question would Northern Ireland remain fully aligned with existing EU obligations. It is hard not to conclude that in her pre-Christmas December desperation to complete so-called Phase One negotiations, and agree the ‘divorce bill’, Theresa May simply gave away too much. The Draft Agreement simply translates that concession into legalese.

However, as with all issues Northern Ireland there is a wider security context against which Brexit must be considered. The security and stability of Northern Ireland, and in particular the April 1998 Belfast or Good Friday Agreement (GFA), has been the cornerstone of the peace process. Whilst the EU was not a signatory to the GFA the political and economic context provided by the Union undoubtedly played a role in reducing the logic of Sinn Fein/IRA’s armed struggle against Britain, even if the critical moment in the peace process was not 1998, but 911. After the attacks by al Qaeda on the US, and Tony Blair’s commitment of immediate British support for the Bush administration in the Global War on Terror, savvy Republican political leaders such as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness quickly realised they they would lose the support of their American backers if they continued to attack British troops fighting alongside their American counterparts in Afghanistan against Osama bin Laden.

The Commission case, and indeed that of the Varadkar government in Dublin, rests upon an assumption that Northern Ireland is not really part of the United Kingdom. It is. The majority of the people of Northern Ireland have not as yet indicated a desire to leave the United Kingdom and become part of the Republic. In other words Northern Ireland is, and will remain for the foreseeable future, part of the United Kingdom, whatever the necessary fudge of the Belfast Agreement. Theresa May was thus correct to say this week in Parliament that no British prime minister could ever accept an agreement that threatens the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom, just as she is correct to assert that no hard border need be re-imposed on the island of Ireland.

Getting Over the Border

So, what is the answer to the Irish Question? Over many years between 1984 and 2007 I either lived or stayed in Switzerland.  In 2011 Switzerland joined the Schengen Zone and in practice accepted the ‘acquis’ of a borderless European Union. However, for many years prior to 2011 there were many border crossings between France and Switzerland that were rarely ever manned. In other words, the border between Switzerland and France was a ‘fudge’, albeit a successful fudge. It is precisely such a fudge that Britain and the EU could ‘craft’ if there was the political will so to do. It is precisely the lack of such will on the part of Brussels that is preventing such a fudge.

Let me be specific. I have just finished reading a report entitled Smart Border 2.0; avoiding a Hard Border on the Island of Ireland for Customs Control and the Free Movement of Persons. The paper was published in November 2017 and written by Leo Karlsson, the former Director of the World Customs Organisation, having been commissioned by the European Parliament.

Forgive me for quoting this report at length, but it is important. The paper states: “This study, commissioned by the European Parliament’s Policy Department for Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs at the request of the AFCO Committee, provides background on cross-border movement and trade between Northern Ireland and Ireland and identifies international standards and best practices and technologies that can be used to avoid a ‘hard’ border as well as case studies that provide insights into creating a smooth border experience. The technical solution provided is based on innovative approaches with a focus on cooperation, best practices and technology that is independent of any political agreements on the UK’s exit from the EU, and offers a template for future UK-EU border relationships”.

The paper goes on: “There have been significant developments around the world in creating ‘smart borders’ that bring together international standards and best practices and new technologies to create low-friction borders that support that fast and secure movement of persons and goods. Standards and best practices such as domestic and cross-border coordinated border management as well as trusted trader and trusted traveller programs can significantly reduce compliance requirements and make borders almost friction free. Customs and other border control practices that keep the border open, such as release before clearance, deferred duty payments and clearance away from the border, also help keep the border free of traffic and speed up or even remove the need for processing. Technologies such as automatic number plate recognition, enhanced driver's licenses, bar-code scanning and the use of smartphone apps can also have a significant impact by reducing paperwork and allowing pre- or on-arrival release, which can reduce or even eliminate the need to stop or undergo checks. Many of these measures have been introduced at borders across the world.

At both the Norway-Sweden border and the Canada-US border, low friction borders have been created through a focus on sharing of both data and facilities, the creation of an electronic environment for trade and travel and the use of modern technologies. Both Australia and New Zealand have also focused on utilising technology, in particular bio-metrics, to speed-up the movement of citizens between their respective countries. In developing a solution for the Irish border, there is an opportunity to develop a friction free border building on international standards and best practices, technology and insights from other jurisdictions”.

In other words, the only real barriers to solving the inner-Ireland border questions are the willingness to enact a fudge, and the time it would take to install the Karlsson system. And, of course, the political will so to do.

The Aims and Strategy of the Commission

This brings me to the second part of this analysis; why the European Commission, claiming to act on behalf of the whole of the EU, is determined to prevent the ‘pragmatic’ solution Michel Barnier repeatedly refers to? To answer that question one must analyse the Brexit aims and strategy of the Commission. The simple answer to the question is that the Commission is simply not interested in a working solution to Brexit because such a solution could imply that other member-states might make a similar choice if the cost is not too great.

Indeed, for the Commission the Brexit negotiations are not really about the British. Rather, it is a struggle within the EU over precedent, primacy, pre-eminence and power between the European Council, the European Commission and the European Parliament. The aim of the Commission is to drive Europeans towards some form of European Federation. During my time as Senior Fellow at the EU Institute for Security Studies when I visited the Commission in Brussels I was struck often by the extent to which those who occupy the New Berlaymont see themselves as political Jesuits; committed to not only uphold the True Faith, but enforce it.

As with all such political institutions the primary aim is to render ever more power unto itself and, in so doing, eradicate any danger of dissent. One aspect of that aim is to eradicate democracy from the high politics of the EU in the form of national referenda, and thus drive towards ‘ever closer union’ as defined (and initiated) by the Commission. As such Brexit represents an existential threat to the True Faith of Euro-Federalism. To protect its mission the Commission must either over-turn the Brexit vote (preferred Commission option), or by making the cost of Brexit so high, deter any other Member-State from ever again contemplating withdrawal.

The Commission claims it is accountable to the European Council and the European Parliament. In practice, as ‘the only body paid to think European’ the powers of the Commission go far beyond the apparent limits of its competences. The 2009 Treaty of Lisbon imbued the Commission with the ability to initiate policy, and in so doing enabled it to occupy the powerful legal and political space between an international treaty and a domestic constitution that is the Lisbon Treaty. The Commission has also mastered far more effectively than any Member-State the treaty-constitutional uplands of the Union. This has enabled the Commission to often and effectively manipulate the Council, particularly if it aligns itself with an increasingly dominant Germany, and to use the European Parliament as a rubber-stamping agency for the Commission’s vision of ‘ever closer Union’.

Naturally, ‘ever more Europe’ means ever more Commission, in particular the permanent secretariat now under the leadership of the new German Secretary-General and ultra-hard line Euro-federalist Martin Selmayr, who last week was mysteriously, and somewhat suspiciously, promoted from being Juncker’s chef de cabinet to being the Commissions top permanent civil servant. Even the European Parliament’s transparency ‘czar’ has expressed concerns about the manner of Selmayr’s promotion.

The Commission’s Brexit strategy is thus clear; present an utterly inflexible negotiating position as ‘reasonable’, and block off any ‘escape’ route that the British Government might seek via fudge that might lead to something like an equitable, working future relationship.

Analysis versus Instinct

Even though I have seen Brussels close-up I still decided to campaign for Remain during the Brexit referendum, even though it was against my better instinct. Indeed, it was only after an exhaustive analysis of the EU and Britain’s relationship and place within it that I made my final decision. On balance, I assumed, given the growing geopolitical threats faced by states to the east and south of Europe, and in spite of my deep and abiding concerns about the dangerous retreat from meaningful democracy in the EU, I came out for Remain. I saw myself as a Big Picture Remainer, someone who had carefully considered where best to exercise Britain still-considerable influence and power within the wider strategic context of a Europe under growing threat.  And, in spite of my concerns about the EU I accepted the idea that the EU still had a vital role to play in preserving peace within Europe.

Even with the June 2016 vote to leave I still assumed that the subsequent Brexit negotiations whilst hard would be carried out in a manner respectful of the legitimate democratic choice the British people had made. How wrong I was. The outcome of this disaster is now becoming clear: Britain will be much weakened by Brexit, and the EU, rather than being the free associations of democracies in which I once believed deeply, has been revealed as a vengeful empire run by an elite ‘monastic’ bureaucracy in which the only place for democracy and the people is to vote for the powerless and the meaningless.

Hard Sovereignty versus Soft Sovereignty

To conclude, the Battle of Brexit is not about trade, whatever the Labour Party or the Liberal Democrats like to pretend. Brexit is about where power resides and who governs us. In which case it is a struggle for all Europeans and of which all Europeans need to be aware.

This is because Brexit is not about now, it is about who really has the power to govern Europeans ten, twenty, thirty years hence, and whether the EU really is a free association of sovereign, democratic states, or a federation effectively ruled by an elite cabal. In other words, these are questions that whilst they can be delayed cannot be fudged indefinitely if Britain, and the rest of Europe, are not to slide into some form of soft authoritarianism epitomised by the likes of Barnier and Selmayr. Sadly, Theresa May’s inability to either understand strategy or apply big power means she is incapable of anything but fudge.

That is why with the Draft Agreement the Commission is in effect offering the British people a Hobson’s Choice: hard Brexit and effectively lose Northern Ireland, or a Brexit so soft that Britain does not leave the EU at all. Rather, it becomes to all intents and purposes a colony. Or, to put it at its most romantic (and here is the irony) the first province of the new European Federation.

As a Remain-backing Briton I cannot, nor will I ever accept such a ‘choice’. Read carefully the speeches this week made by Sir John Major and Tony Blair and my sense is neither do they. Rather, they remain hopeful a) EU Member-States can again re-establish their supremacy in the EU; b) the Member-States can do so without the former Franco-German Axis morphing ever more into German domination; and c) Britain can re-exert more influence over the EU, and indeed the French and Germans within the EU than at any time since Britain joined in 1973. Give me the hope of realising such a vision and I would actively campaign for it.

Ironically, Blair’s speech this week in Brussels actually mirrored what I said in Berlin a couple of weeks ago (naturally, I was first); the only way to stop Brexit is to offer the British an entirely new deal that would enable the British people to vote again on Brexit, albeit on a different question; will you accept British membership of a reformed EU with a special status for Britain?

Sadly, I think it is too late for that. For all the reasons I outline above the denizens of the New Berlaymont would rather die fighting in the trenches of Euro-federalism than accept a compromise that would, to all intents and purposes, end their dream of just such a federated Europe. Moreover, to convince the British people to change their minds would take far more than the kind of dupe used to make the French, Dutch and Irish people ‘change their minds’ over the then EU Constitutional Treaty. The failure of the British Government’s Project Fear prior to the June 2016 Brexit referendum demonstrates all too clearly a people that are not easily fobbed off.

Therefore, given the appalling choice available to me, and with genuine regret, if the worst of all post-Brexit worlds came to the worst I would prefer Britain break cleanly with the EU fully accepting the inevitable cost to Britain’s economy, if not to Britain’s democracy. Resistance is never futile, and the Commission needs to understand that it must accept the legitimacy of Brexit, just as much as London, and the British people, must accept the cost of it.

There is one final thought I wish to impart in this personal analysis. There are those on the Continent who somehow believe they could countenance the attack on the integrity of the United Kingdom that the Commission is mounting and yet seem to believe that such an attack would have no implications for the support of Britain in the defence of their own countries through NATO. Should the Commission succeed in its efforts to weaken the UK over Brexit the British people would have little interest in defending those in whose name such attack was mounted. And, I for one, would be only too happy to help to make that clear.

Maybe it is time for some grown-ups to intervene?

Julian Lindley-French