What if….Europe elected a president?

The creation of the office of President of the European Union was one of those perfect storm moments that occurs in politics. As an idea, it drew relatively little support, but many of those who supported it did so with a vigor bordering on fanaticism. When that was mixed with the hubris of national politicians who thought it didn’t matter and the short-termism of a political system that only sees policy as a quick solution as opposed to long-term strategy, political tectonic plates started to move. The final key variable was the European Parliament, which had amassed power almost silently like a dog chained in a basement who has grown huge and strong because nobody in the house realizes that they have all been feeding the dog. Politicians stung by accusations of being “undemocratic” had thrown one power after another at the once rubber-stamping talking shop without grasping that all the combined powers were in fact creating a powerful transnational parliamentary assembly. When the parliament itself named an elected president as its price for treaty change the pols rolled over, once again assuming that it could be finessed with some retired prime minister doing a lap of honour. That was assuming the system even got off the ground, given how vague the details in the actual treaty were.

The problem for the “It’ll never happen” brigade was that this was Europe, and for every European thought there’s a well-funded committee that starts working out the details with almost self-pleasuring enthusiasm. Immediately, the committee ran into a problem. It wasn’t hard to figure out what powers would be held by the new office: the committee rapidly concluded that the simplest thing was to directly elect the commission president, with the president of the council acting at a intergovernmental balance.

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What if…Putin detonates a nuclear weapon in Ukraine?

It’s not impossible. Vladimir Putin, facing stalemate or possibly even defeat by a better motivated and well-resourced Ukrainian army, might decide to play the “madman” card.

A small, low-yield tactical nuclear weapon, detonated in a low population rural part of Ukraine. Not a military act, but a political one, to cause panic in the nuclear-phobic West and particularly in western Europe.

The message would be clear: I am willing to go further than you, so give me what I want. Stop helping Ukraine and let me defeat them. 

It’s a high-risk strategy, but also a viable one. The panic it will cause in NATO will be very real, and the response not automatic or even obvious. The idea that NATO will automatically respond with a like-for-like nuclear retaliation should not be assumed at all.

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Europe needs a plan.

Wrote this last year…

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.

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What will actually happen if Marine Le Pen wins?

Let’s cut to the proverbial chase: what will Marine Le Pen do if she reaches the Elysee? The truth is that we don’t know, and neither, probably, does she. As we witnessed with Brexiteers and Trump: often the populists don’t have a plan beyond winning.

She’s given clues, of course. She’s said she will withdraw France once again (as de Gaulle did) from NATO’s military command (but not seemingly NATO itself) and it’s not unreasonable to think that she will stop French support for Ukraine. She has suggested that she does not feel France is bound by NATO’s article 5 guarantee to defend any NATO member that is attacked. If true, that is huge, because France is physically vital to NATO’s defence of Europe. A Europe without French access will struggle to be supplied by the US. It would, in short, be an act of treason against Europe.

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The High Risk Voter.

Whatever happens in the French presidential election, there is a reality that will need to be confronted. It’s a phenomenon we have seen in the last two US presidential elections, in the Brexit referendum, and will no doubt be a feature in future elections.
It is the huge danger caused by reckless voters.
Now, let me be clear: this is not your standard Metropolitan Globalist Liberal (of which I am all three) complaining about how disappointed I am about people who don’t share my views, or their level of intelligence or prejudice. I accept that there are many decent people who voted for Trump, Brexit and yes, even Marine Le Pen. People who in many cases did not share the more extreme views of those candidates.
I even accept that there are people, particularly non-urban, low-income and low-educational achievers who vote for candidates I would regard as extremist because they simply feel they are being ignored by the mainstream parties. I get that too., and it may surprise you that I don’t blame them.
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A free eNovella about the future of Europe: Fulcrum

Something I wrote about 5 years ago. Dated in parts, not so much in others. 

Fulcrum

Europe. The near future.

The Russian invasion of Europe has been defeated.

An EU safezone holds millions of refugees in North Africa.

In Brussels, a woman directs the continent.

To some she is a saviour.

To others a tyrant.

To one man, a target.

You can download a PDF of “Fulcum” below. Enjoy!

Fulcrum eNovella

 

Beware of nuclear blackmail.

With rational people talking of the possibility of President Putin utilising a chemical or nuclear  weapon in Ukraine, it’s worth having a discussion about how we in Europe and the west generally shall respond to such an event.

First, we have to recognise that it has to be possible to have a discussion about nuclear weapons without falling into Armageddonesque hysterics or into cold Strangeloveian normalisation of what would be a major event in human history.

Consider the following image: the impact of a B61 nuclear bomb (the smallest in the US arsenal) on Dublin if exploded over the GPO.

Would it cause massive devastation, panic, evacuation, economic damage and kill thousands? Yes. Would it end Dublin as a city? The answer is quite simply no. Even with fallout, and a sealed off central zone for decades, Dublin would recover eventually.

If Russia dropped a Tsar Bomba on Ireland, the biggest single bomb ever detonated by Russia, on the middle of the country (Sorry Tullamore) most of Cork, Limerick and Galway city would escape undamaged. The devastation would be immense, and millions would die from the blast and the radiation poisoning, and the presumable collapse of the country as a functioning nation.

The point is that there are different types of nuclear weapons, and a B61 being detonated is different from a Tsar Bomba.

What isn’t different is the psychological effect: the the Russians (or anyone else) have suddenly used a nuclear weapon for the first time since 1945. It becomes the most important story in the world. It is bigger than anything else. People will stop what they are doing in work. Planes will immediately land. Some people will commit suicide.

That’s also what Putin is counting on: the idea that populations in European democracies will be swept up in hysteria and demand their governments immediately acquiesce to whatever he wants to avoid “the end of the world” as he pretends to be (we assume) a madman with nothing to lose. In the only countries that matter in this scenario, the US, UK and France, furious debates will be held as to how to respond. Responding by detonating a comparable weapon against Russian forces in Ukraine is not an option. Nor is detonating a weapon over Russian territory. Therefore, the most likely option would be a massive conventional attack using non-nuclear weapons (Aircraft and cruise missiles) against Russian forces in Ukraine to inflict a high price on Russia for crossing the nuclear threshold without escalation it.

The problem with that is that such a response could, ironically, push Putin further into a corner by a) being attacked directly by NATO forces, and b) by devastating his forces in Ukraine making defeat there far more likely.

This is also against a background where, almost certainly, possibly millions of Europeans will protest demanding their governments abandon Ukraine so as not to provoke further use of nuclear weapons by Putin, the very thing he is hoping.

What if he detonates a second weapon in Ukraine, again of very small yield but nuclear nevertheless? How does NATO respond then? Let us not forget: Putin believes the west is weak. That our people are spineless and obsessed by gender identities and race and celebrity and will buckle when a real man puts his thumb on our collective jugular. That when he shows that he is willing to go further than we are, we will beg him to stop and give him everything he wants.

He may well be right.

Ukraine showing how militarily useless the EU and UK are in reality.

Picture an alternate scenario: a Russian invasion of Ukraine where the US just washes its hands, refusing to get involved or even supply weapons. Where the Ukrainians have nowhere near the amount of Stingers and Javelins they have been supplied with. Would EU/UK still contribute? Probably, but almost certainly only at a token level and secretly hoping that the Russians triumph quickly and put us all out of our embarrassment, so that we can go back to solemnly saying “Never again” at WW2 memorials without being called out about it.

It’s not a question of wealth. Europe and the UK have money, with economies that dwarf Russia. They also have military technology, although not on the level of the US.
What is lacking is will power, and I’m acutely aware as someone coming from Ireland that I’m in no position to be lecturing anybody on defence willpower.

But the reality is that the British (and now possibly the Poles and the Baltic republics) are the only people possibly willing to commit actual troops into harm’s way. Germany is convulsed (despite Scholz’s U-Turn) with indecision by its history, and France is genuinely divided by wanting to lead Europe without ACTUALLY leading it.

An Anglo-Polish led force would almost certainly give the Russians a bloody nose, but could it actually hold and push them back? Such a force certainly wouldn’t lack courage or determination or skill, but it is doubtful it would have the huge logistical and supply reserves that seem to be the vital ingredient of modern warfare, and that possibly only the US and China truly has?

The uncomfortable truth is this: despite all the talk of strategic autonomy, European and British security remains at the mercy and whim of increasingly erratic policy makers in Washington DC. It’s getting to the stage we’d be better off paying the Ukrainians protection money: after all, they’re fighting the Russians so that we don’t have to.  

What if….the United States left NATO?

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s a common trope of the political thriller was a devious plot by the KGB to break up the western alliance, normally through the dismantling of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). In Alfred Coppel’s “The Hastings Conspiracy”, for example, a plot involved the KGB revealing to the leftwing British government that there existed a secret US plan to invade the UK (landing at Hastings, in case you’re interested) Colin Forbes’ “The Stone Leopard” involved a group of French, British and German agents racing to stop Moscow putting a Soviet agent into the Elysee Palace and pulling French forces out of Germany ahead of a Soviet invasion through the Fulda Gap. Chris Mullin’s “A Very British Coup” hinged on a plot by the CIA to stop Jeremy Corbyn Harry Perkins pulling Britain out of NATO. Both “The Fourth Protocol” and, eh, “Octopussy” had key plot points hinging on something very similar.

There were some books that speculated at a US withdrawal back into isolation, but relatively few: it was taken as read that the US was the anchor of western defence both out of value belief and in its own naked self-interest.

Then Donald Trump was elected President, and the party of Ronald Reagan and Eisenhower became the party of Lindbergh. Under Trump it was mostly mouth, a man who was too chaotic to pursue a policy of withdrawal even if he really believed it, which probably depended as much as what day it was as any intellectual conviction. But Trump aside, isolationism, fueled by Fox News charlatans who see any sort of engagement with liberal elements abroad as grounds to whip up hysteria have seriously undermined American commitment to NATO, and the idea of the US withdrawal, whilst still unlikely, is no longer ludicrous. What if it happened…

The near future. The new administration had moved much faster than anyone had expected, given the relative closeness of the election result. This was primarily at the hands of a bevy of new National Security Council appointees who would never had seen the inside of the building under the Bush, Reagan or indeed any previous post-war administration. These were young men who had been born in the 80s and 90s and even later and were more familiar with The Turner Diaries and Ayn Rand and sarcastic put downs on cable news shows than strategic thinking. Withdrawal from NATO was more, to them, about sticking it to foreigners, effete socialist Europeans who had lived off the backs of hard working Joe Sixpack for decades. America didn’t need alliances. America was strong. And any way: China was the enemy that needed to be faced down and Europe was of little of any use in that regard.

In Europe, as ever, surprise was the first call of the day. Yes, the new president had been very clear about his intentions, but no one is capable of self-delusion as Europeans are. Even watching the president announce that, whilst Congress debated withdrawal, he was signing an executive order to pull out US forces over six months and disavow any US commitment to defend any NATO country. He signed the document live on air and held it up to the camera, his massive signature covering half the page. He liked signing pieces of paper on camera.

The news that the US was leaving NATO triggered the European response to everything: a summit in Brussels, attended by the remainder of NATO. To say it was chaotic was an understatement. The Canadians earnestly stated their commitment to NATO which was received with the grateful eyes of a mortgage defaulting parent being offered a child’s piggy-bank. The Turks glowered at everyone. The French and the Germans immediately flew to Moscow. The British looked pained and paralyzed and announced a defence pact with New Zealand. The Hungarians wrote down everything everybody said. In Russian.

The Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians had their own meeting, with the Finns and Swedes quietly sitting in. The Poles revealed a secret, to gasps.

The moment the last US plane lifted off, that very moment, Russian troops ploughed across the border and annexed another chunk of Ukraine. The Ukrainians, with limited support from the British, Poles and Baltic states, put up a noble, robust and doomed defence, surrendering after three weeks of vicious fighting. The EU made a very robust speech at the UN.

A new summit attempted to confront the reality: that for the first time in over 75 years, European nations were now solely responsible for their own defence. There was no Deus Ex America to save them from the Russians.

As with so many challenges facing Europe, the problem was not finding the right or even credible solution. A small group of nations proposed the creation of a Combined European Defence Force, putting into physical existence the reality that Europe was both big enough and wealthy enough to defend itself from almost any threat, if it had the will.

As ever, it was the will that was the problem for Europe. The new Le Pen government in France was only remaining in NATO, critics said, to wreck NATO from the inside, and was openly hostile to contributing to the defence of the Baltic states. Germany’s political system was dominated by Russian penetration and overly optimistic free traders concerned only really with German exports. The British were divided between a pro-Russian left and an anti-European right that couldn’t really believe the US had left, and openly discussed some sort of merger with the US and Canada to guffaws from even their ideological allies in the new administration in Washington.

Having said that, neither France nor Germany was dumb enough not to recognise that US withdrawal also presented a huge commercial opportunity. A European Army in whatever form it took would need to purchase fighters, drones, tanks and all the high tech infrastructure needed to operate them effectively. The problem was that those nations genuinely concerned for their safety, within striking distance of the Russian border, were out of patience. As they looked at the tent cities holding refugees from Ukraine dotted throughout their countries, they saw the threat for real, and decided that their foot-dragging neighbours, whilst free to join, would not be permitted to hold them back.

The Treaty of Warsaw, creating a European Defence Community, was signed by Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, Norway, Finland and Sweden. A request by Hungary to join was humiliatingly rejected as long as FIDESZ remained in office, and a robust method to expel rogue members was put in place. Unlike previous aspirational political compacts, the treaty clearly outlined what forces from each nation would be transferred to a combined Continental European Defence Command (CEDC) under a Supreme Commander, European Forces (SCEUR). The treaty dealt with wavering nations by formally transferring command of the assigned units for a fixed two year period with a 12 month period required for a nation to regain command early. A respected Polish general was appointed on the same day, with a Finnish deputy. The treaty also committed CEDC to purchasing specific numbers of fighters, tanks and other equipment and to raising a volunteer force in addition to existing transferred national troops by specific dates. Members that failed to reach their targets would be suspended from voting and possibly expelled. Finally, CEDC agreed to raise a €100 billion bond to fund the new force, with the money earmarked to be spend primarily in the member nations unless the equipment was unavailable. This particular clause caused ructions in the United States, where the new administration discovered that, having stepped away from Europe, it had far less leverage on getting its share of European defence procurement. Anti-NATO Republicans were shocked to see the big defence firms suddenly develop an interest in Democratic congressional candidates.

The response in Berlin and Paris was different. Le Pen flew into a rage on discovering, a week later, that the wily Swedish prime minister had secured British membership of the organisation by agreeing to English being the official working language, a proposal that had few objectors. He also agreed that the next supreme commander of the CEDC would be British. In return, the British contributed both physically and financially.  The French president found herself being lambasted in the National Assembly for allowing France be outmanouvered, especially given that huge defence contracts were about to be issued and France, having refused to join, was not eligible to seek them. In the Bundestag, a different state of affairs reigned, where those in the German parliament who had always supported a European army were now demanding of the government why Germany was not joining it? Again, German arms manufacturers were asking the same questions their French counterparts were: why was Germany not in line for its share?

The French government had to settle for an association with the CEDC where France could bid for contracts in return for a financial contribution to the organisation, as the Baltic states vetoed France joining as long as Le Pen was president because “we believe her” about not defending them. It was humiliating, so much so that her two-term centrist predecessor returned from his honeymoon to announce that he had changed his mind and would seek a third term on the pledge of France committing to the CEDC fully from day one. Looking fit and tanned in a crisp white open-necked shirt as he strolled through Charles De Gaulle holding hands with his beautiful new wife, he told the gathered media that it was obscene that Le Pen had created a situation where “Les Rosbifs” were taking a greater role in Europe’s defence than the republic. “An attack on Finland, an attack on Estonia is an attack on France!” he declared.

The German government agreed to the terms quietly and it went through the Bundestag with only the extremes of left and right objecting. The German Constitution was amended to permit the transfer of command of a section of the Bundesweher and Luftwaffe to SCEUR. Belgium, Luxembourg, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands quickly joined. The Italian parliament erupted into a blazing row nominally over the European Defence Community treaty but in reality over a string of political corruption prosecutions. The Italian president and former ECB president rang the young Polish President to reassure her that despite the political drama, if Russia invades, “Italy will not be found wanting.” Ireland called for the United Nations to do something.

In Moscow, the aging Putin, seeing the lay of the land, decided to mobilize quickly, ordering a build up on the Estonian border before the CEDC could be organised. When his generals revealed that the actual ability of European forces was now that they could inflict serious damage on Russia’s forces, probably not enough to stop them but enough to turn the war into a long-running conflict that Russia could not afford, Putin let it be known that Russia would consider the use of tactical nuclear weapons if European forces did not capitulate quickly. He had never really believed in the concept of the NATO nuclear umbrella for one simple reason: the nations that needed it most had no nuclear weapons of their own, and Paris, London and Washington were simply not going to invite retaliation on their own soil despite all the bluster.

That night, the Polish president, accompanied by the Baltic and Finnish presidents put out an address in English. She announced that, on hearing the Russian threat to detonate tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, the five countries had been working on a Polish-led nuclear weapons programme, and that they had the ability to respond with short-range weapons in response to any Russian first use.

“We cannot destroy Russia,” she declared. “But we can respond in Kaliningrad, Belarus, and even in a city President Putin holds dear, so let the president understand us very clearly. We will never use nuclear weapons first. But we will respond in kind. We will, after this broadcast, communicate to you the size and yield of these weapons, and you will realise they can be carried by a single fighter, a drone, a fishing boat, a team of special forces with huskies over a border or even on the back of a truck sitting in St. Petersburg traffic. If we, the leaders of our respective countries dies in a first strike, the protocol is in place to retaliate. Do not test us on this, Mr President.”

It’s time to debate national security. And yes, it SHOULD be a divisive debate.

Imagine we only had a minister of state running the Department of Health. Imagine the outrage. Yet minister for defence? We don’t give it a second thought. We are, on the subject of national safety, incredibly complacent, with “neutrality” the boiled 7UP solution to all ails. We don’t debate defence issues.
Oh, we claim we do: ask any TD and they’ll talk at length at the need to improve the terms and condition of Defence Forces personnel, and rightly so. They might also get very agitated at any suggestion of closing barracks in their constituencies, with all those paypackets appreciated locally. But ask them what the Defence Forces are actually for, what’s its specific mission, or how they should carry it out, and it becomes much more vague. Ask TDs about airspace or patrolling our waters and there’ll almost be a flippant answer, that stuff like that is for “the big boys” and not little countries like Ireland. Ask them about giving our personnel the proper equipment and they start getting cheap in a way they never would with any other public expenditure. As for actual weapons, like fighters or warships or missiles, suddenly, particularly on the left, they’re an indulgence, toys for the boys.

As with everything else in a country prone to groupthink, there’s a collective belief that defence is simply not an issue in the country, and an open hostility to anyone who suggests otherwise. Despite the fact that there is significant reason to believe that the Russians are active in our waters near transatlantic cables, and that we have suffered a very significant cyberattack by criminal elements on our national health service. 

Within our political system, complacency about national safety is what abortion used to be: the untouchable third rail of Irish politics. But even that is changing now. There’s certainly not anything close to majority support for joining NATO, but I believe there is significant support in the country to open the debate if not about NATO but identifying our defence needs and finally deciding to spend the money to meet them. 

If a party, presumably Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael were to join Independent Kildare TD Cathal Berry in saying that yes, this is a serious issue and yes, we are going to have to spend money on it, the usual suspects will kick off. But that’s what they always do.

I’m convinced there’s a less noisy but equally significant section of the country that wants this issue openly and honestly debated. It doesn’t mean we’re going to automatically make any decision, or even change what we are currently doing, but turning the subject into a normal political issue worthy of debate is a worthy exercise in itself.