US-led attack on Syria reduced to ‘coalition a deux’
Barack Obama may get broad political support to punish Bashar al-Assad, but only France looks likely to join in military action. Read more…
John Kerry statement on Syria polarises world leaders
Iran and Russia stand alongside Bashar al-Assad’s regime while the UK, France and Australia follow Washington’s lead. Read more…
David Cameron denounces French ‘ambush’ on Britain’s EU rebate
PM accuses EU of mismanagement following summit in which France and Italy said to demand slight adjustment to UK rebate. Read more…
Francois Hollande pledge on political transparency watered down by MPs
French anti-corruption law weakened as false information is criminalised but public get only limited access to asset files. Read more…
The UK and France’s activism to end the EU arms embargo may have backfired as Assad announces receipt of S-300 missiles
The history of conflicts suggests they are easier to escalate than to de-escalate – something events in Syria have demonstrated in abundance over the last few days.
Moves by UK and France to end the EU arms embargo to allow them – should they wish – to arm “moderate” rebels has been answered in quick order by President Bashar al-Assad’s announcement that he has taken delivery of the first batch of sophisticated S-300 anti-aircraft missiles.
The sale of these weapons should not be seen simply for their military utility. As David Cameron and foreign secretary William Hague have stepped up the rhetoric, arguing that an end to the arms embargo was necessary to persuade the Assad regime to engage in negotiations to end the war, Russia – the regime’s biggest arms supplier – unsurprisingly has trumped that threat.
As Chatham House’s Christopher Phillips pointed out earlier this week, Britain’s calculation over ending the embargo has in any case been based on flawed logic.
“The threat of arming the rebels,” argues Phillips, “is unlikely to convince Assad to change his stance. Every time the rebels have made gains, the regime has been sent a vast supply of arms, financial support and even fighters from its key international allies Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.
“Assad knows they will match or exceed any new weapons sent to the rebels. Unsurprisingly, within hours of the EU decision, Russia announced it would go ahead with deliveries of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Syria to deter foreign intervention.”
The chain of events that has followed Britain and France’s efforts to torpedo the EU embargo may have made the situation regionally more dangerous. The Anglo-French threat, followed by the Russian vow to supply the anti-aircraft system – which Moscow has made clear is designed to prevent western intervention – has now drawn the threat from Israel that it might target the S-300s.
This is in the context of growing regional instability that has already seen renewed violence in the Lebanese coastal city of Tripoli, rocket fire on Shia areas of the same country, and growing instability in Iraq.
More worryingly, the UK and France appear to have bet everything on a Geneva II peace conference next month – the stumbling blocks of which seem no different to those encountered at the first Geneva conference. In the intervening period not only has the Syrian National Coalition, backed by the west as the vehicle for representing the opposition’s demands, failed to become more representative and relevant it has become farcically less so.
The SNC’s latest preconditions for even participating in the talks make it likely that it will be this western-backed opposition that will torpedo Geneva II at this rate even as the Assad regime confirmed it would send representatives, which would be an own goal of spectacular proportions.
Perhaps it should not be surprising. Inherent in the British strategy of offering the prospect of arms to the “right” and vetted rebels was the risk that even such a vague promise would be a strong disincentive to negotiate.
If all this was dangerous enough on the ground in the region, on the diplomatic front Hague and Cameron’s tactics risk backfiring too. The fragile EU unanimity on a joint response to Syria has been jettisoned in favour of what looks like something of a free-for-all, allowing individual countries to make their own judgments on how to back the opposition.
This matters because, lacking any evidence that either the rebels or regime are preparing to back down, only some agreed and united international pressure has any chance of reducing the terrible and spreading toll of the violence.
Today that unity looks more distant than ever.
On Wednesday 22 May the Prime Minister and French President, François Hollande, announced that both countries will be signing up to the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI).
EITI was set up to help tackle corruption, to improve the way revenues from oil, gas and minerals are managed and to make sure that people across the world share in the economic benefits of the natural resources in their country.
The EITI provides an assurance that companies will publish what they pay for extracting natural resources and that governments will disclose the money that they receive from this – so that people know how the resources of their country are being managed.
Prime Minister David Cameron said:
Mineral wealth for developing countries should be a blessing, not a curse. And I urge our G8 partners to champion the same high standards of transparency.
I am determined to use our G8 leadership to put a new and practical emphasis on transparency and accountability, particularly in our partnerships with less developed and emerging countries.
The governance of natural resources
This is an issue that affects half of the world’s population: 3.5 billion people live in countries rich in oil, gas and mineral resources. Many of the world’s poorest countries have some of the greatest supplies of natural resources, but are plagued by a lack of transparency and corrupt practices. If resources are managed well then the revenue can be reinvested and help countries grow, develop and graduate from aid.
The revenues from natural resources can help drive a country’s growth and reduce poverty, far more than traditional aid. For example, last year Nigerian oil exports were worth almost $100 billion, more than the total net aid to the whole of sub-Saharan Africa.
By signing the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, the UK and France will play their part in ensuring that people around the world benefit fairly from the natural resources of the countries in which they live.
Business Secretary Vince Cable said:
Some of our biggest extractive companies in the UK are already in favour of the measures – whether as founding members of EITI, sitting on the EITI board or reporting in the other countries which already use the standard.
It is of course key we get this right for everyone – this is about levelling the global playing field and boosting transparency, not about getting in the way of business and meddling in their affairs.
There is a long road ahead to make sure that this works best for everyone. That is why discussions will commence soon between the Government, industry and all interested parties as to how we can get this system working as effectively as possible for the UK.
G8 Summit 2013
At this year’s G8 Summit, the UK Chair will seek to secure higher global standards for the extractives industry. Alongside signing up to EITI, the UK will promote partnerships with key developing countries who are willing to move forward on extractives transparency. These partnerships will provide support to new countries signing up to EITI, and also help existing members maintain and implement global EITI standards.
Employment Relations and Consumer Affairs Minister Jo Swinson will now lead the implementation of the EITI in the UK.
- Press release: UK raises the bar for transparency in the extractive industries
- Read more about the UK’s agenda for the G8 summit: increasing trade, fairer taxes and greater transparency
- Follow the Twitter channel for the UK Presidency @G8 or follow #G8UK
- Read more about the UK’s G8 Presidency
• French minister stresses “pragmatic” cooperation
• Europe’s two largest military powers could set the pace for other countries
Euroscepticism might be spreading across Britain – and other EU countries — but it does not appear to be affecting Britain’s relations with France.
At least not in one important area. Far from it.
Cooperation between the two nations on defence seems to be flourishing. The French defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, helped to explain why at a press conference in London on Thursday.
Le Drian, a Breton who speaks little English, came to see see Philip Hammond, his UK counterpart, in the framework of the Franco-British defence agreements enshrined in the 2010 Lancaster House Treaties.
The two countries enjoy mutual respect because of the capabilities of their armed forces and willingness to deploy them. And certainly Hammond and David Cameron appreciated the emphasis the French (socialist) government placed on nuclear weapons in its recent defence white paper.
There is more to it than that. After saying he enjoyed an “excellent” relationship with Hammond, Le Drian suggested why the two governments got on so well, in military matters at least.
He charactersised cooperation between the two countries as “pragmatic” — a word he emphasised five times in barely half an hour. He stressed the need for “concrete” steps with decisions taken by “sovereign” nation states.
Other European countries were welcome to join in such defence cooperation but it would be little to do with Brussels or the EU.
That was the message.
“I don’t speak of European defence but speak of the defence of Europe”, was how Le Drian put it.
British and French forces have been deployed together in large-scale exercises and they plan to be able to deploy a Combined Joint Expeditionary Force from 2016.
They plan to develop an Anglo-French sea-launched missile and have joint projects designed to secure and maintain nuclear warhead stockpiles (in Valduc in France and Aldermaston in the UK).
Britain and France are now planning to develop unmanned aerial vehicles — UAVs or drones, as they are commonly called.
The huge capability gaps in European defence capabilities were exposed during the Libyan conflict two years ago when Britain and France had to rely on US surveillance and intelligence -gathering aircraft.
In Mali in January, France needed the help of US intelligence assets and UAVs. Significantly, Le Drian was flying from London to Washington where France hopes to buy a number of US Reaper drones.
France already cooperates closely with the US on aircraft carriers — both countries use “cats and traps” planes — aircraft using catapults and arrester gear.
The British government last year abandoned its 2010 decision to equip its new carriers with “cats and traps” on grounds of cost. It has ordered the short take off and vertical landing version of Lockheed Martin’s F35 fighter, at a cost unknown.
Where does this leave the rest of western Europe, and Germany in particular?
“Germany needs to take a bigger part in European defence and security -play a bigger part in the debate on collective security”, a British defence minister told a recent European Council on Foreign Relations meeting in London.
“If European countries do not hang together they will hang separately”, commented a former senior UK diplomat who warned that the US could be an “unreliable ally”.
A European summit devoted to defence is due to be held in December.
This isn’t a uniquely French problem – EU nations of various political hues are in trouble because of a fixation on austerity
Today’s BBC headline fairly trumpets the news: “French economy returns to recession”. Funny how we Brits seem happy if our trans-Manche neighbours are doing a wee bit worse than we are. Especially if you can add that it is the fault of their government for being, well, a bit too left of centre.
True, the French have just entered double-dip recession, while we have just escaped. But in fact, in recent years the French and British economies have performed pretty much similarly in terms of GDP “growth” (or lack of).
The real European news today should, though, focus not so much on France, and certainly not alone, but on the dire state of the eurozone and broader EU economies. And this has no correlation with the formal political orientation of the government (centre-left, centre-right or whatever).
There is now a group of 10 EU states, not including France or the UK, who have experienced an annual fall in GDP for each of the past four quarters. This “Austerity A10 Club” includes the usual southern Europe list of Greece, Spain, Italy, Cyprus and Portugal. But it also includes two central European countries – the Czech Republic and Hungary – and the northern bloc of Belgium, Finland and the Netherlands – the land of Jeroen Dijsselbloem, Dutch finance minister and chair of the Eurogroup finance ministers, fresh from the Cyprus bailout “triumph”.
Italy’s GDP has now fallen 4.8% in just two years. Its annual GDP is back to the level of the year 2000. Greece has lost a staggering 31% of GDP, compared with its peak in 2008. These are catastrophic declines that have greatly worsened in the past two years.
And even Germany and Poland – which until recently have done reasonably well – each managed last-quarter growth of just 0.1%.
The problem that unites of all of these countries and the UK is not the political colour of the government but the macroeconomic policy that has been followed. It is particularly harsh for the eurozone countries which cannot rely on a central bank to ward off the bond vigilantes, and who are subject to the Bundesbank’s destructive (and increasingly self-destructive) policies of focusing on the risk of inflation just as the eurozone slides into deflation.
The deficit and debt/GDP ratio fetishes that unite the UK government, Ukip, the European Central Bank and the European commission are part of the economics of the poorhouse, where co-ordinated austerity is seen as a “solution”, even while unemployment reaches mass levels unknown in Europe’s modern history. Let’s remember why Keynes wrote his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money: in sum, employment must come first, the rest follows.
The problem for social democratic parties across Europe is that – scared in many cases of being viewed as anti-European – they have accepted the iron logic of the Bundesbank’s dogma, and are unable to offer an alternative of generating internal European demand.
This means hitting hardest the working class and other not-so-well-off voters in their countries, who turn either inwards on themselves (depression, suicide etc) or to other political forces, mainly rightwing populism.
The only solution for Europe’s social democratic parties is to say: no, time to change course. To make alliances with Greens and other new democratic forces. The European economic orthodoxy has to be challenged in unison by the centre-left parties if they are to survive and stand for any positive policies.
The EU from the outset was a balance between the interests of capital (common market) and labour (social protection). While that balance was maintained, most people across Europe were content with the EU, for all its faults. But the Troika (the ECB, the EC and the International Monetary Fund) is destroying that balance, leaving the EU simply as a neoliberal vehicle.
French economy shrinks 0.2% in first three months of 2013, new data shows
Deputy PM says UK austerity measures are ‘not as remorseless, rigid and dogmatic as some of our critics suggest’
The coalition has a more flexible and measured deficit reduction plan than the Americans, French and Spanish, Nick Clegg has said.
Clegg, speaking to floating voters on a boat on the Thames for his weekly LBC radio phone-in, also hit out at Labour’s “schoolboy approach” to the economy.
He defended the austerity programme on the eve of the local elections saying he saw tentative signs of a recovery in the housing market.
But he added: “I think there is a kind of view which is being put about that all we need to do is somehow abandon these cuts and then, hey presto, everything will be fine, the economy will be back to full strength and by next Tuesday everyone will have forgotten all the problems.
He came close to admitting that “plan A” had been abandoned, saying: “Our plan is not as … remorseless and rigid and dogmatic as some of our critics suggest. So if you actually look at the detail of our cuts this year and next, they’re less than what is planned by [the US president, Barack] Obama, they’re less than what’s being planned in France, they’re less than what will happen in Spain.
“As a sort of proportion of how much taxpayers’ money we spend as a country by the end of this parliament, we’ll be spending about 43% of the nation’s wealth on public spending … which is higher than it was between 1995 and when the banks went bust. So I think we’ve actually got a more thoughtful and measured plan than our critics would allow.”
The deputy prime minister also criticised Labour, saying the party had a “slightly schoolboy approach that if only you do one little thing, then suddenly everything will be rosy”.
He said: “One of the most frustrating dilemmas that we have faced in government is that we have thrown a barrage of initiatives at this problem to get the construction sector and housebuilding sector moving, it just takes longer than I would like,” but he added that there were some tentative signs of a recovery in construction.
“I am starting to think that we’re seeing the early signs of a bit of movement in the housing sector, but I agree with you: as a country for far, far too long – and by the way this is on all governments of all parties – we have built far too few homes.”.