Why the EU should build a refugee safezone in North Africa.

ceuta“Everything,” Vladimir Ilyich Lenin is reputed to have said, “is connected to everything else.” Watching the rise of right wing populism in Europe, one could easily confirm the validity of that statement. It is hard to argue that Europe’s inability to control its own borders, who enters our union, is not the catalyst for so much of the ugliness that is threatening to engulf our continent. That failure triggers a loss of faith in European integration as a means of delivering for ordinary Europeans, and with that growing electoral support for the sort of parties we had hoped would never again be significant in our public life.

Illegal uncontrolled immigration is not the cause of all our problems. But it is such a huge factor that it cannot be ignored. We cannot fix Europe without fixing the issue of securing our borders.

Having said that, most Europeans, I believe, accept that we have a moral obligation to provide shelter and safety for those fleeing oppression, war and death.

With these two objectives in mind, I have long believed that the most logical means of delivering both is the creation of an EU-run refugee safezone, ideally somewhere in Northern Africa.

I do not rule out the sheer ambition, scale or cost of such a project. It would be the biggest operation ever engaged upon by European countries since the Second World War. We would have to find a nation in North Africa that would lease us a huge tranche of land, probably in the interior. We would have to build a port, roads, and then at its heart a de facto city state. A place where every illegal entrant into Europe from Italy, Greece or elsewhere could be transported for processing and housing, and then gradually, after screening, we could drip feed prepared refugees into the EU at our pace and according to our plans.

Let me be clear that I am not talking about some sort of Australian offshore prison, nor just a giant refugee camp. I’m talking about a functioning city with businesses, schools, hospitals, the sort of place that many refugees would be able to start a new life, under the protection of European security forces and run by an EU governor. A place where the children of refugees will attend EU schools, and learn our languages and values, be raised to be young Europeans with the opportunity to study and work in Europe. It could be party of the single market and the Eurozone. It would also allow us to screen for extremists.

Is it colonialist? Probably. But bear in mind that no one will ever be forced to stay there against their will. They may leave any time they wish. What they will not be able to do is enter Europe proper without permission. All those in the safezone will have been on their way to Europe: they can then hardly object to being in a safezone run by the EU to European values.

It would be incredibly expensive, and would probably need the creation of Eurobonds to fund it. It would need an EU security force to run it, an EU Navy to intercept and ship asylum seekers to it, and thousands of EU teachers, doctors, engineers, judges, administrators and others. But it would also become a focal point for other non-EU countries. I would be very surprised if Norway, Switzerland, Britain and others would not contribute, as would the UN and global charities.

Would it become a magnet for Africans. Almost certainly, and probably a target for Islamist terrorists too. But you know what? We live in the biggest magnet for both already.

Aside from its primary purpose providing shelter and safety, such a safezone would send a powerful message. To those who attempt to enter Europe illegally, they will know that all roads will lead to the safezone, even if they successfully make it illegally to Europe. It will also send a message to Europeans that we have secured control of our frontier, and that Europeans will decide who enters Europe.

*Note: I wrote a short novella, “A Little Piece of Europe” a few years ago. The reason I chose fiction was because it gave me scope to write about the concept in-depth, and its possible effect on individuals living there. You can download it for free here

Europe needs a plan.

And it is as much about where Europe is not heading as where it is.

If you ever want to increase your general euroscepticism, spend a few days hanging around EU institutions. The sheer complexity of getting anything done, in a union of 27 countries with competing political systems, national prejudices and hangups is nothing as compared to a certain type of EU official you meet for whom the answer to ever problem is…go on, guess.

More Europe.

Let me be very clear: I’m a European federalist. I believe in a United States of Europe. But that does not mean that I think that every solution involves Brussels. Indeed, I could even be convinced that maybe some existing powers should be returned to the member states.

I believe in the EU as our best hope of dealing with those huge problems facing our (tiny) countries, but at the same time I despair. There’s currently a Conference of the Future of Europe going on, spending millions trying to get European citizens involved in a debate about, well, guess what.

I’ll be shocked if more than 1% of Europeans have heard of it. Not because it is a white wash, or a plot by the elite, but because Europeans simply don’t think at that level yet. They do on some issues, like security and defence and immigration, but mostly, people see Europe through their countries and we need to recognise that.

Rather than have yet another tome come out of Brussels, I’d like to see a simple declaration from Europe’s leaders outlining clearly what we see the EU existing for. I’ve had a stab at it below. Many of the things outlined are already in the treaties, and would, I feel, benefit from a more succinct public airing as opposed to being buried in the treaties.

We, the democratically elected leaders of the 27 member states of the European Union, declare the following:

  1. The European Union is, and shall remain, a union of sovereign democratic nations. There shall be no attempt to abolish the nation states.
  2. The European Union and its institutions are subordinate to the member states, and exist at the pleasure of the member states. The union and its institutions exist to enhance the sovereignty and capabilities of the member states.
  3. No proposal of the European Union shall be accepted without the support of 55% of the member states with a combined population exceeding 65% of the population of the EU.
  4. The Presidents of the European Commission and Council shall only hold office with the consent of the national governments. A public shortlist of candidates for both offices shall be published by the Council not less than one week before the vacancy is to be filled. The candidates must be selected from this list.
  5. No European Army shall replace the national armies of the member states. A European Defence Force may exist in parallel to national forces.
  6. The recruitment and conscription of national citizens to serve in a military capacity in Europe remains the sole right of the national governments. The EU may not introduce conscription.
  7. Europe recognises that there are issues, from the security of our Eastern borders to controlling who shall enter our continent, to climate change to fighting terrorism, which cannot be solved by any single European nation but require a common European approach and solution.
  8. Europe shall have the right to determine who shall enter and may live in Europe, and require of those individuals to respect and live by the culture and values of the European nations they live in, and by the common values of Europe.
  9. Europe reserves the right to act outside its borders in defence of itself and the values of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  10. A third of member states may act in enhanced cooperation to create further integration provided the proposal is not in breach of EU law and shall be open to other member states who may wish to join later.
  11. A third of national parliaments may request that the European Commission revise a draft proposal on the grounds of subsidiarity.
  12. No new country shall join the European Union without the consent of all the existing member states. Every member state has the right to put accession of a member state to a referendum of its people in accordance with its national constitution.
  13. The union recognises the right of any member state to leave the union peacefully. Every member state recognizes that the remaining member states shall act in common protection of their interests in such an event.

House of Cards meets the Élysée: Baron Noir

If you’re not watching or haven’t watched French political drama “Baron Noir”, you can’t call yourself a political junkie. Whereas “The West Wing” did liberal political fantasy, and “Borgen” did liberal compromise, and “House of Cards” did cynical winning for winning sake, “Baron Noir” does political street-fighting with just a hint of morality.

The series centres on Phillipe Rickwaert, Socialist MP and Mayor of Dunkirk and chief crony of the Socialist candidate for President of France, starting on the eve of the first round. I won’t give anything else away other than the show is about the grubby compromises of politics. And yet… most of the characters, especially Rickwaert played by a brooding but charismatic Kad Merad have a moral centre. Politics matters to them. Nearly all are idealists (some lapsed) and all actually care about what it means to be in public office.

Rickwaert is an intriguing character, at home with the parish pump politics of his local fiefdom as with the battles over what it means to be a socialist in 21st century Europe. Genuine political issues from Marxism to Europe to secularism are debated throughout the show in a way unimaginable in a modern English-language political drama. It shows just how big the gap between Anglo-Saxon and continental politics is: unions still matter, and characters barely bat an eyelid when a prime minister openly advocates a United States of Europe.

There was a time when eyes were rolled at European TV drama in terms of accessibility and production values. No more. This is as good if not better than any political drama on US/UK TV.

All three seasons (it seems there won’t be a fourth) are on Amazon Prime.

7 things every real liberal should know.

1. You, and everybody else, has a right to offend and be offended. Too much freedom of speech always trumps too little.

2. Everybody has the right to keep their money as much as you have the right to keep yours.

3. Before demanding someone have more power over someone else, imagine giving that power to your worst enemy, and see if you’re comfortable with that.

4. The validity of an argument is not increased by how strongly you feel about it.

5. It is possible to disagree with someone’s politics but like them personally.

6. Everybody minding their own business is the solution to far more problems than you think.

7. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a compassionate welfare system. There is something wrong with thinking that basic maths has nothing to do with it. Every euro spent has to be taken or borrowed off someone else.

 

A serious country defends itself seriously.

French Air Force Rafale

Previously published in The Irish Independent.

There’s an ad from the Norwegian Armed Forces currently doing the rounds on social media. It’s a very slick affair, all fighters, submarines, tanks, and good looking Nordic soldiers of both genders looking like they’d give you a good hiding if you as much as looked at their orderly well-run social democratic paradise. 

But what’s really striking about the ad is the message (in English) it conveys. 

That Norway is buying 52 F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters. 

In case you don’t know, the F-35 is probably the most advanced jet fighter in the world, with a price tag of between $90 and $120 million each depending on what bells and whistles you get with them. 

The more expensive ones can take off vertically like a Harrier jump jet. 

Any country that plans to attack you by air knows it will come up against a plane that will almost certainly shoot you down unless you too are flying one. 

They’re not just buying planes. They’re buying submarines, too. 

And standing foursquare behind their membership of NATO.

That’s not the bit that struck me the most though: what really makes you sit up is that the narrator asks a question every Irish viewer asks watching it. 

Why are they doing this? 

Why are they spending money on this? 

Why are they sending their young men and women into the snow and the forests to drill and practice over and over?

What, the ad asks, do we expect to happen having done all this?

The answer is: nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Norway hopes that any aggressor (cue side-eye to the man in the Kremlin) will see that Norway takes its defence seriously. 

That there is a price to threatening Norway. 

That the price of a Russian boot on Norway is a bloody nose and more. 

From an Irish perspective it’s bizarre. 

We simply don’t comprehend the idea that war is something that happens without your consent. 

To us, war is a choice. If you don’t like it, it won’t happen to you. 

The Norwegians have known what it is like to have foriegn troops in your capital executing your own fellow citizens, and have chosen to learn a lesson from it.

Curiously, we too have experienced an occupying force on our streets, and yet have chosen to learn a different lesson. The party that bangs on the most about Irish sovereignty is also the party most opposed to spending any money defending it. 

On one hand, we are right. Norway shares a border with Russia, and has offshore assets that need defending. 

The chances of us being physically invaded by anyone is very slim indeed. 

If Russian troops are coming down O’Connell Street it means they’re probably coming down the Champs Elysee as well and we’re all banjaxed anyway.

But we do have national security issues. We are, as a modern industrialised nation, as vulnerable to cyber attack as any other western nation. We are, thanks to foriegn direct investment, a target-rich environment for terrorists and especially those with access to technology. 

Do we believe we’re as capable of cyber defence as comparable nations? 

Anyone  think we could safely shoot down a suspicious drone over Croke Park?

Or deal with an extortion attempt involving bringing down our air traffic control system?

We don’t even have a dedicated domestic intelligence service, and all these capabilities involve spending money and having someone to sell you the equipment and train you how to use it (PESCO), both of which we have political problems with.

Our response to issues of national security, if we ever consider them, is to regard them as fluffy “thoughts and prayers” issues, with reference to the United Nations and the need for empathy and understanding of all sides, a form of “Nazis have feelings too, you know.”

Most parties don’t even have national security policies, wrapping the subject up in a foriegn policy based on wringing our hands at other countries to do stuff with their resources. 

When the defence forces are mentioned it is inevitably in the context of pay and working conditions for the military (a not unimportant issue, by the way) and the local impact of barracks closures. 

We hardly ever talk about what a military is for. 

Indeed, there are many in Ireland who would in fact be horrified on learning that this year alone we’ll spend around €869 million on defence, regarding it as “toys for the boys” in a way we never regard much greater expenditure on MRI machines or social housing. 

As if giving our soldiers the best equipment we can is some sort of male ego stroking. 

We spend that amount with a population of around 4.6 million. 

Norway, with a population of 5.3 million, will spend around €6 billion, and that’s an increase on previous years. 

We obsess with the idea of our young people being conscripted to fight in some foriegn colonial adventure, whereas there are only two issues that will really confront us. 

Do we have the capability to deal with actual threats that may occur here, be they terrorist or otherwise, physical or virtual? 

And what do we do if the rest of Europe actually has to fight an invasion? 

Imagine how our support in the EU will look as British (Yes, Brexit Britain!), French, Polish and Estonian troops die defending Talinn as we do a Pontius Pilate? 

Can we live being the slíbhín nation, that runs for the door when trouble starts? 

Perhaps. It’s the easy way out, and will certainly save Irish lives. 

I suspect our teeth will start to grind, however, as our near neighbours remind the rest of Europe that IRA stands for Irish Ran Away.

Does the United States need to emulate the European Union?

Previously published in the Irish Independent.

America is an exceptional nation. I know it’s not fashionable to say so, given how the phrase has been hijacked by the huckster ruling family of that country, but it is true. The next human to step foot on the lunar surface will do so not less than 60 years after an American first did it. 

Imagine it had been left up to the EU to put a man on the moon? We’d still be talking about it, although the European Mission Control building would be a massive money spinner for whatever country got it. The French would build the rocket, the Germans the lander, the Italians the spacesuits. 

We’d get The Corrs to write the theme song. Well, until Jim put his hand up to ask a question…

But we still wouldn’t actually be there.    

To me and many of my generation the United States was an inspiration, the country where the future came from. Growing up, watching sheets of rain coming down in Ireland amid the sideburns and crumbling quays of Dublin, one could watch Jon and Ponch on “Chips” patrol the highways (not dual carriageways, highways!) of California, a place so perfect that you could leave the house without a duffel coat or fear of getting soaked and the same coat doubling in weight as it absorbed the rain. 

Farrah Fawcett and her giant beautiful hair made me feel things as a young boy that even Thelma Mansfield didn’t, and don’t get me started on Colonel Deering from “Buck Rogers” bet into her white shiny lycra. Bet in.  

America was where hope and promise came from.

Which is what makes today’s America so heartbreaking. I’m a liberal, so I’m biased, but watching the Republican National Committee teeming with people who seem to really hate half their country, you have to ask yourself. 

Not only if the US can survive, but why should it?

Don’t get me wrong: I find some on the American left insufferable too, and yes, there is a difference between rioting and looting and protesting. 

The first two should get you arrested. 

A whole heap of them hate the other side of America so much they’re effectively campaigning for Trump. 

But how does a country survive when every election isn’t like a baseball game, where passions are strong but both sides accept the other side wins occasionally? How does it survive when every election leads to half the country believing that they are being run by an alien culture?

Where election results are no longer the absolute decider, but merely another “fact” to be disputed.  

Is it time for the United States to disband, or at least, to reform into a new form of union?

Enter Europe!

There’s a lot of things we don’t do well. But building a robust continental-size model for political consensus? We invented that.

At the heart of the American discourse is a fear, on both sides, that the other side will impose their values on them. 

We know something about that fear, and designed a union that is the sum of its parts without dissolving those diverse parts. 

Is it time for an American Union which recognises that many American values have now diverged and perhaps states should be allowed recognise that. 

Of course, there are many who will say the US has been here before, and it was pretty ugly. 

States Rights became code for the Jim Crow laws of segregation and voter suppression. It’s a fair point. Popular and democratically elected (by white people) segregationist state politicians were overruled by the federal government and sometimes federal troops and US Marshals, and rightly.

Segregation was abolished at times by force, and a righteous use of force it was too.

But there was effectively a political consensus, between Republicans and Democrats, that segregation had to go. 

There’s no consensus between Trumpism and moderation.     

What if the November election descends into chaos or even violence? 

What if it doesn’t, but the country stuck remains divided and paralysed?

As Europe can always learn from the United States, perhaps the United States can learn from Europe? 

Imagine an agreement to devolve more power back to the states, with a transition period of a few years (another European innovation) to allow liberals in Texas or conservatives in California to basically move house. 

Yes, it’s all a bit Mountbatten in India, but gives states the powers to have their culture match their state. 

Let the south ban abortions. Better it be banned in Alabama than a republican Supreme Court ban it everywhere.   

Let New York and California ban guns and introduce an American State Health Service. 

Let governors, as in the EU, negotiate the federal budget with taxes raised in their states. 

Let states have proper borders, as EU or Australian states have, and let 

Americans have the four European freedoms: the right to live, work, study and vote in any state.  

As for federal decisions, copy the EU’s Qualified Majority Voting: no bill can pass the senate unless it has the support of 55% of states representing 65% of the population. That way neither side can ram stuff down the others throat.  

Finally, recognise that there are more than two political choices: use the Single Transferable Vote in elections. 

Would it be tricky? Yes. Would it be divisive? Oh yes. 

But if things get bad, it might be a choice between this and Fort Sumter.  

The EU is doing pretty much what it says on the tin.

Previously published in The Irish Independent.

As with so many people, I’ve been spending time watching various boxsets, and recently finished “Star Trek: Picard” which tells the story of the further adventures of now retired Admiral Jean-Luc Picard, late of the USS Enterprise-E. (The fact I put E there is to confirm my Trekkie knowledge status, by the way.) In one episode, there’s a scene where Picard remonstrates with another admiral about the failure of the Federation (Think the EU with starships) to rescue millions of refugees from their former superpower rivals the Romulan Empire. The admiral (coincidentally resembling EU President Von Der Leyen) lays out the cool hard realpolitik of the situation: the Romulans were the enemy until very recently and that members of the Federation were threatening to leave the alliance (FedXit?) if the Romulans were taken in. 

In short, she said, the preservation of the Federation was more important.   

It was an unusual moment for “Star Trek”, which is usually (but not always) more comfortable with a straight goodies/baddies narrative.

It was also a timely scene, given the current travails that another multi-member political alliance (also with prominent French leadership) is going through, where principle meets pragmatism.  

It’s always entertaining to watch many in the now departed UK are still banging on about the EU and how doomed it apparently is. The Covid19 crisis is being used, in particular, as proof that the European ideal is some sort of gossamer-like substance that blows away at the first sign of a storm. One can’t help suspecting there’s a hint of the protesting ex-boyfriend about the Brexiteers, over their former girlfriend yet constantly hovering around Facebook seeing who she is now dating whilst adamant that they don’t care. 

Their criticism would be true if the EU were the cartoon superstate that Brexiteers always either believed it to be (through the wearing of an assortment of kitchen-foil based self-assembled headwear) or simply hoped it to be so that they could rail against it. 

The reality is that the EU is exactly what those of us supporting it always said it was: closely integrated but still a union of sovereign independent states. In a crisis, the EU is doing what it is supposed to do, clearing obstacles like relaxing state aid rules and negotiating “green lanes” through closed borders to get vital supplies through, whilst staying out of the way and letting member states do what they have to do to fight the virus at the most appropriate level, which in this case is mostly nationally.

The complaint that EU countries are putting their national interests first and foremost is a contrived one because that’s what EU countries invented the EU for: not to abolish sovereignty but to act as a de facto bionic enhancement of it, by giving national governments more tools to pursue the interests of their people. I’m a believer in freedom of movement but I also believe in the sovereign right of nations to control their borders and yes, close them in an emergency. 

Yet, even as they have done that, EU countries have been helping each other where they can, with medical resources where they can, caring for each others’ citizens, and helping to get each other’s citizens back to Europe.

The EU is not a federal government. Personally, I wish it was, but it ain’t. Instead it is a mechanism to assist cooperation. Nobody, including the Commission, wanted Brussels to be deciding who gets how many ventilators. 

Euroskeptics (and some pro-Europeans, it must be said) are complaining that the EU is not a top-down federalist superstate because, well, it isn’t. The robust debate over whether to have “Coronabonds” to fund our now eye-watering crisis debts is a healthy one, with all points of view being voiced. The EU will undoubtedly have failures during the crisis, but almost all will be because the EU institutions don’t have the power or resources to do what people now demand of them. 

That’s not a rupture in the union. That’s what a healthy democratic alliance does. 

By the way, there is one union of states where the central government has imposed orders upon the democratically elected heads of the national governments, and that would be the United Kingdom. 

I, for one, would be totally opposed to the EU being run in a manner similar to the centralised diktat of the UK, where the largest nation in the union can overrule all other members of that union. But that’s another day’s debate.  

It’s not that there aren’t lessons to be learned. The debate about a European army, or perhaps better named European Crisis Force, to be able to mobilise transport aircraft and rapidly build emergency field hospitals is a debate that has to be had. As is one about Europe’s seeming inability to rapidly manufacture emergency medical supplies.      

Then there’s Hungary, where the Orban regime is using the crisis to effectively create a dictatorship. Yes, every government has voted itself emergency powers, but Orban has form on this sort of thing, and has now suspended parliament and elections indefinitely, and there’s no place for that in the EU. 

There’s no system for expelling a country from the EU, but if the EU is anything it’s creative and it is time to call Orban’s bluff. I’m not paying my taxes for them to be used as some sort of Fidesz (Orban’s party) slush fund to keep a dodgy outfit in power.

Either Orban backs down, or Hungary has to go, by whatever means. Orban uses EU criticism as a means of bolstering power in Hungary. Maybe it’s now time for ordinary Hungarians to realize that Orban has created a Hungary that the rest of Europe does not want to be associated with, and act accordingly. 

Hungary is a sovereign nation entitled to respect. But so are the rest of us. 

For all the criticisms, Europe isn’t going away. It can’t.