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. 

The EU can’t create an army. But it can buy fighters.

There’s a lot of talk in the current climate about that great Continental mirage, a European Army. It’ll never happen, not unless there’s a radical change in the European situation. Even a Russian invasion of Ukraine is unlikely to shake up the complacency of Europeans on defence issues.
However, with a bit of imagination Europe could help itself make a leap towards better self defence. One of the problems facing European defence is that the countries that are serious about defence (normally as a result of proximity to the Russian border) lack the financial resources to buy the high-cost tanks, fighters, drones and command and control systems and training needed to operate them. Poland and the Baltic States take their defence seriously, and with that the defence of Europe, but lack the cash of the less enthused.
So here’s a thought: what if the EU invested in the fighters and other equipment needed, buying them directly, and leased them to the frontline states? It would allow the frontline states to spend their limited resources on training and maintaining their service numbers. It would also allow the EU to ensure compatibility, and invest in military technology as the vast majority of the equipment would be bought and manufactured in Europe.                    I suspect it might be one defence issue where European consensus might be possible: European governments have traditionally been quite enthusiastic about selling weapons. 
Of course, there’d have to be safeguards to prevent countries using it as an excuse to cut their own defence budgets. But that’s the beauty of it: put in a minimum NATO style minimum defence spend and it’ll only be the enthusiastic countries that will be able to access it anyway.
And Ireland? Would we benefit from it? Not without increasing our defence spending. But it might allow us to spend more on paying our soldiers, sailors and airmen to actually stay in the Defence Forces. As for drawing down funds for capital defence big spends, one or two submarines wouldn’t go amiss for keeping an eye on our vital undersea cables, nor an A400M Airbus military transport for getting our citizens out of hotspots like Afghanistan. We could even share fighter pilot training costs with Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, and acquire that other novelty: sovereign Irish airspace. 

What if…the United Kingdom went to war against Spain.

Let me be very clear: the reason I’m writing this is basically as a response to a certain type of Daily Mail/Daily Express reader and the “Send in the army/navy!” response that seems to appear regularly in those newspapers. In particular, that France and Spain should be careful that the UK doesn’t decide to give Johnny Foreigner what for.

I do not for one moment think the following is likely. It’s purely a piece of speculative fiction.

Just a bit of fun. But what if a far-right government in Madrid decided to take Gibraltar by force…

The news that Spanish forces had taken Gibraltar reached London within an hour of the crossing. The Royal Marine garrison on the rock put up a solid defence of their positions, slowing the Spanish advance, but as the fighting descended into street combat the decision was taken by the marine commander to surrender to avoid further civilian casualties. The Spanish flag flew over the rock within three hours of hostilities commencing.

The Prime Minister and the general military staff met in Downing Street just before the surrender, and the Chief of the Defence Staff outlined their options.

“Firstly, a Falklands-style task force will not succeed. Even if we could get the force down the Atlantic coast we would face serious air opposition as soon as we closed on Gibraltar. Our carrier group would come under attack from the Spanish Air Force, who fly F35s, F18s and Typhoons and would be flying from bases much closer and with air defence support from the ground. They would target our carriers as a priority and have a serious chance of hitting if not sinking them. The Spanish Navy is smaller and less well-equipped than the Royal Navy but still has submarines and frigates with modern NATO equipment, again focussing on our carriers and amphibious landing craft. We could possibly prevail off the Portuguese coast, assuming Portugal stays neutral, but we would take casualties, and if any of our key ships are sunk the operation fails. If we manage to land a force in Gibraltar, or close to it, we’ll be fighting to hold a beachhead against a modern Spanish army with modern NATO armour and support vehicles, with air superiority over us, and that’s without even considering force sizes and supply lines.”

“What do you mean?” the Prime Minister asked.

“We would put a force of less than ten thousand on the ground. Spain has a professional army of 80,000 plus reserves of about 15,000. They also have 80,000 paramilitary Guardia Civil to draw on. But let’s be honest; if Madrid wanted to equip and arm one million volunteers to fight us they could, as could we if foreign forces landed here. Our supply lines would go back through the Straits of Gibraltar where they’d be harried intensely. In short, we’d be fighting a losing battle from day one.”

“What about landing a force somewhere else? Maybe northern Spain? Capture some town to use as a bargaining chip to trade?” the Foreign Secretary suggested, listing her head slightly towards the official photographer who seemed to magically appear every time she entered a room. For the historical record, she said.

The CDS opened another file.

“We have considered that. It would certainly be logistically easier. Shorter supply lines, and our carriers and the UK mainland could provide better air cover without getting too close to the Spanish coast. But the core problems would remain. Our fleet would be under constant attack, and our assault force would face a Spanish counter attack made up of a bigger but equally professionally trained and NATO standardised force. I need to stress this: we are not dealing with Argentine reservists sent on an adventure here. This will be Spanish professional soldiers, as well equipped as we are, who have trained alongside us in NATO, fighting to retake their own soil. Or at least, in Gibraltar’s case, that is their perception.”

“Are you honestly telling us that this country, despite being the world’s fifth military power, is essentially powerless to do anything?” the Chancellor asked, looking slightly out of place in his branded hoodie.

The CDS shook his head.

“No sir, what I’m saying is that whilst we can inflict serious damage upon the invading force, we simply do not have the resources to fight a sustained conflict against an economically comparable country. Not on their home soil.”

“What about Trident? I mean, we are a nuclear power. Spain is not,” the Home Secretary said, jutting her jaw out to underline the statement.

The CDS looked at the fleet admiral.

“We can’t nuke Madrid.”

“We can threaten to,” the Home Secretary said.

“No one will believe us. We’ll look ridiculous,” the Chancellor said, eager to shut down his rival out Johnny Foreigner bashing him.

“What is the point having all this equipment paid for by the hard-working families in my constituency if…”

“The Home Secretary has a point,” the prime minister’s chief advisor suggested quietly. The room went silent. He was not known as being a fan of the Home Secretary. Not only had he voted Remain, but he still defended it.

“You’re not suggesting I incinerate Madrid, surely? That would be very uncentrist of you,” the PM suggested, running a hand through his unusually tidy hair.

“Tell us about Prompt Global Strike, admiral,” the Chief Advisor said. All heads turned.

The admiral shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

“PGS is a part of the Trident programme that allows us to use a Trident D5 missile to deliver a non-nuclear payload to a target globally.”

“Could we use it to destroy a designated target in Spain?”

“In theory, yes, but I must advise caution. PGS is not something we use lightly because no country can tell whether a launched ICBM is carrying a nuclear warhead or not. This will show up on Russian and Chinese early warning systems as an ICBM launch.”

“Ok, I understand that admiral. But let me clarify: do we have, at this moment, the capability to launch a non-nuclear Trident missile at a specific target in Spain, and can the Spanish shoot it down?”

“Each Vanguard submarine currently carries 16 ICBMs. Two of them have conventional warheads. No, Spain cannot shoot it down. Nobody can. ”

The room broke into disarray.

“So if we were to identify a key symbolic or economic target in Spain we could destroy it. Say Madrid airport, or the Cortes or the Royal Palace? We could announce this publicly in advance to allow for them to be cleared of people so there needs to be no casualties, and give a ninety minute warning to launch. We’ll inform the Russians and Chinese beforehand, indeed we’ll even surface the submarine just before the launch so that they can verify it. In fact, we could issue a list of key economic targets, power stations, airports, ports, and tell the Spanish we’ll keep hitting them until they withdraw from Gibraltar. That’s global power.”

“The empire strikes back,” the Home Secretary said, slightly breathlessly.

The admiral interrupted the chief advisor.

“We only have two current PGS capable missiles.”

“Can’t we prepare others? I mean we do have four Vanguards, and only one is needed to maintain deterrence patrol. If we hit, say, ten targets in Spain that would do enough damage. I mean, imagine if someone hit all four London airports, Buckingham Palace, the Stock Exchange, and a couple of power stations and railway terminals. We’d be in chaos.”

“That would take a while, to remove and refit the warheads.”

“In fairness, once we did it the first time, provided we picked the right target, Madrid would know we were serious. We probably would not have to do it again,” the Prime Minister said.

He turned to the admiral.

“I want options on this within the hour.”

That night, the Prime Minister addressed the country, with a special Spanish language edition being transmitted directly to the Spanish media. The ultimatum was clear: if Spanish forces were not withdrawn in total in 24 hours, the UK would hit Adolfo Suarez Madrid airport. The PM carefully explained that although a non-nuclear warhead would be used, and therefore there would be no radioactivity, the power of the warhead combined with the kinetic energy of a direct missile impact would destroy a large part of the airport, and so a 10km evacuation zone should be declared around the target.

The PM was inundated with almost universal condemnation from other NATO leaders. The US President was in contact within 30 minutes of the broadcast.

“Whilst we have great sympathy with the Gibraltar situation, mr Prime Minister, the United States cannot condone the use of ballistic weaponry in this way. We strongly advise that you accept the offer of the European Union to broker a diplomatic solution. The spectacle of a NATO member bombing another is grotesque.”

“I would remind you, mr President, that they invaded our territory!”

“Yes, I understand that, but nevertheless this is upping the ante. It’s bad enough that you have isolated yourselves by withdrawing from Europe, and now this…”

“We were invaded!”

“Yes, I get that. Now look, the EU is proposing a joint authority…”

The PM slammed the phone down in a temper.

The calls with the German and French leaders were not very different: it was obvious all three had agreed a joint NATO line.

“Do you know, I think they’d prefer us to invade Spain and go down to a bloody but honourable defeat,” the PM said, as they gather in a Cabinet Office Briefing Room to watch the launch.

All day, scenes from Madrid showed the airport being evacuated, and now it stood empty, its halls eerily displaying hundreds of cancelled flights. The Spanish Parliament openly debated the idea of Spanish fighters bombing Penzance and Falmouth. One over-eager local government official had tested the air raid siren in Truro and caused mass panic.

Despite officially protesting, both Russia and China had accepted the invitation to send naval officers to inspect the missile before launch, and observe its launch from the submarine. France had not been offered as the Royal Navy feared the French, although officially neutral, might tip off their EU allies as to the location of the UK submarine.

As per the agreement with Russia and China, the submarine surfaced off the coast of Scotland five minutes before launching, giving Russian and Chinese satellites time to verify the launch and ensure the trajectory was not a threat to their countries. It then dived beneath the surface to permit launch of the missile.

Across the world, millions watched as the countdown began, a satellite feed from the submarine being directed by military satellite to global media.

When it reached zero, nothing happened.

The admiral listened intently through headphones as the room sat in silence.

“Those fucking bastards,” he said, before pulling off the headphones.

“The Americans have turned off the guidance software. We can’t launch.”

“What?” The PM asked.

“They are American missiles, and they seem to be able to remotely deactivate the guidance system. The chaps on the submarine have never seen anything like this before.”

“But it’s an independent deterrent. Surely we can launch without US permission?” The Home Secretary asked.

The admiral looked at her.

“We can launch alright, but the targeting won’t be accurate. I can’t guarantee we’ll hit our precise…”

“Oh for fuck’s sake: does it matter which part of the airport we hit?” She said, in exasperation.

“Madam, I can just about guarantee we will hit Spain and then maybe Madrid.”

An aide stepped in, holding a phone.

“The president, sir.” The PM put it to his ear.

“I’m sorry we had to do that. You left us no choice.”

“You bastard. We have followed you fuckers through thick and thin, and now you humiliate us like this.”

“Look, my people are briefing that you delayed at the last minute because I asked you as a personal favour. I’m flying to Brussels on Monday, and Paris and Berlin will be there to sit down with you and Madrid to work this out. We had to do this. Madrid has been talking to the Russians since you announced. There’s talk of Russian ABMs in Spain in return for a Russian naval base in the Med and on the Atlantic coast. The Chinese are sniffing around too. We can’t allow it, it’s as simple as that. Paris and Berlin are with me on this. So is the rest of NATO except for Hungary and Turkey. Hungary and Turkey, man. This is simply too important. See you in Brussels.”

The phone clicked dead.

END.

 

What if….France used the Single Transferable Vote to elect her President?

 

Macron 25%

Pecresse 17%

Le Pen 16%

Zemmour 13%

Melenchon 10% 

Jadot 6%

Hidalgo 3%

Others 7%

There is no more dangerous voting system in Europe than France’s 2 ballot presidential election system. In theory, it has an impressive safeguard: unlike the US or UK or many other countries, in France the president has to win over half the actual votes cast by French voters, and as a result gives an impressive and democratic mandate to the winner.

The problem, as the opinion poll above outlines, is what happens when you get into a highly-fractured party system which then lowers, assuming no candidate gets over half the votes on the first round, the threshold for entry. In 2002 Jean Marie Le Pen scraped into the second round with 16% of the vote because although there were considerably more centre left votes cast, they were dispersed among so many parties as to allow for Lionel Jospin’s very narrow defeat. In the 2017 election, greater discipline on the left could have put the far left onto the second ballot. It’s not inconceivable that one could end up with a far-right and far-left candidate facing each other on the second ballot with a minority of the vote between them, as happened in Chile only recently. Sure, that happens in previous elections in France too, but could one honestly say that the majority of voters want that choice, or end up voting for the least worst candidate? That’s the problem with the two ballot system: vote for the “wrong” (that is, underperforming candidate) and your vote is essentially wasted.

But what if France were to use the Single Transferable Vote system that we use to elect presidents in Ireland? Giving French voters the option not only to vote for the party that closely represents their values with their first preference, but also for their vote to continue to matter and not just in a negative second round way as it does now. Would it be biased towards Macron, as the centrist and possibly least unpopular candidate? Possibly, but it would also allow the Le Pen/Zemmour vote to coalesce, and the disjointed centre-left of the Greens and the Socialists. Would the result be radically different? Possibly not, but it would make it harder for two extremists to end up on the final ballot whilst still giving voters the opportunity to vote for what they want more than just against someone else.

That’s the beauty of the Single Transferable Vote: it’s far less likely that a voter can end up wasting their vote. If you fill in every preference your vote will always be useful. STV recognises that political opinions can be shaded, not always 100% for/against.

I can’t predict the outcome, and I’ve done transfers en bloc and pretty crudely, but here’s a bit of fun based on most recent polls. I stop at the final elimination…

Macron 25%   25% 30% 42%

Pecresse 17% 18% 18% elim

Le Pen 16% 17%  17% 27% 33%

Zemmour 13% 15% 15% elim

Melenchon 10% 11% 16% 21%

Jadot 6%     7% 11% elim

Hidalgo 3% 4% elim

Others 7%  elim

 

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

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.