UK must avoid Brexit and not quit the EU in this Hour of Maximum Danger:
Trump, populism, refugees demand UK action to strengthen EU & the West
The need for opposition: Labour’s opportunity
Second Report on BREXIT by John Pedler, (former British diplomat now a consultant based in France specialising in EU/US/Russia relations. For the past two years he has been working in the UK and on the continent to help keep the UK in the EU. He is the author of ‘Our Broken World – in large part a study of UK/EU/US/Russia relations).
Arriving in Britain 6 months after the referendum for the High Court hearings in December was ‘culture shock’. To my amazement, the implications of any sort of Brexit for the UK’s foreign policy - Britain’s place in the world - are barely mentioned. And this at a time when the future of the EU and of the ‘West’ is at stake and polls suggest that some 75% of Britons want the UK to play its full part on the world scene. Yet none seem aware that any form of Brexit would weaken the EU and the ‘West’ although the UK’s prime national interest is to ensure that they are strengthened. This contradiction goes unnoticed - no one was even talking of avoiding Brexit let alone organising a campaign for continued EU membership.
Much confusion even about an advisory referendum
Instead, on this my first visit since the 23 June referendum, I found a country in thrall to ‘leave’ as populist Prime Minister Mrs. May leads the country to Brexit with steely determination. And this with most of the media applauding Brexit, mistrusted politicians in a quandary, widespread fear of ‘leavers’, and a public resigned to its fate bemused by endless arguments about ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit. But of course what the UK gets is in the gift of an unhelpful European Commission with the approval of the European Court of Justice. Most surprising of all was the persisting ignorance about the requirements of an advisory referendum – as this one was. There is of course no obligation to give effect to the majority vote. On the contrary, government has solely to consider the referendum campaign and then act in the best interests of the UK.
On the continent much concern at defection of the UK
In contrast, in France (where I live), Germany, and Italy there is a pervading sense of crisis: nationalist populism – Trump in the US, Mrs. May in the UK, Marine Le Pen in France, and neo-nationalists even in Germany - all threatening the solidarity of the West. It is not only well-informed contacts in the EU countries and in others like the US, who are alarmed. Our French plumber was typical when he asked with some bitterness how ‘les Anglais’, loyal allies whom the French once envied for their common sense, could possibly desert their EU partners at such a critical time with Trump in the wings.
Trump’s extreme uncertainty and the EU
For Donald Trump, even before taking office on January 20, has already brought extreme uncertainty to the world with his choice of advisers, his proposed Cabinet members, and with his disturbing contradictory ‘tweets’ about world affairs, impervious to expert advice – notably on NATO and President Putin’s Russia. Exxon’s boss Rex Tillerson is even less qualified to be US Secretary of State than Boris Johnson to be UK Foreign Secretary – and his appointment led German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeyer to exclaim ‘ungeheurlich’ - outrageous. Ever since World War II the West has sheltered under an American umbrella. Now Europe has to accept that it must summon its own strength to face up to populism, be responsible for its own security, and pursue its own vital interests irrespective of the US – with Russia first on the agenda.
Putin’s war by other means is against EU as well as US democracy
At least since 2007, when Fancy Bear hacker was first detected, Putin’s Russia has been effectively at war with the ‘West’ – EU as well as US - using ‘Special Political Action’ (intelligence services seeking political ends) to unprecedented effect: cyber attacks coupled with false information spread through social media and subverting individuals with concealed payments. Edward Lucas’ ‘Spies, Lies, and How Russia Dupes The West’ was published in 2012 (prompting Russia to be dubbed a ‘katascopic state’ – kataskopos = spy).
Russian and FBI intervention can be considered decisive
There is now no real doubt that by far the most successful SPA operation in history was ex-KGB Putin’s success in securing the election of Donald Trump as 45th U.S. president with the help of FBI chief James Comey (who will have known of Russian intervention when he too, intervened). Paul Krugman, NYT 12 Dec. 2016, shows that Mrs. Clinton lost Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania by less than 1% and Florida by only a little more yet if any three of these states had gone for Clinton she would be president. It is all-but inconceivable that their joint efforts on behalf of Trump did not alter the vote by more than 1%.
It is significant that it is the GRU, the Russian military intelligence service, that is responsible for the coordination of the role of the armed forces with the actions of the intelligence services. Military power, which demands respect and creates fears, works in concert with the covert work of the intelligence services – together they achieve the political results that Putin’s government seeks. Putin’s uncooperative military action in Syria is part of this ‘war’ against the West for the aggrandisement of Russia. It is important to recognise that Putin’s war by other means is far from confined to the US. He has already had major successes promoting populist-nationalism in the EU. It is likely that high on his agenda are the German and French elections this year (there are suggestions, not confined to those made by Ben Bradshaw MP in the House of Commons, that Putin’s attacks on EU democracy may have begun with the use of highly sophisticated algorithms during the UK’s referendum campaign, targeting specific constituencies to enhance the ‘no’ vote).
Trump an unlikely Putin puppet
So Donald Trump will be ‘the Russian president’ (remember ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ ?) while Russia wages cyber war against the US. But this does not mean that he will necessarily seek a ‘reset’ for US Russia relations harmful to the US. Indeed Putin is likely to find the 45th President far from the puppet he would like. He too, could find Trump’s policies impossible to discern for, an ignoramus in foreign affairs, Trump is capable of tweeting one thing and its opposite the same day. He enjoys keeping the world on tenterhooks. Trump’s one constant is what Trump believes is good for Trump and his family – not what is in the best interests of the US, though these may at times coincide. What Trump brings is uncertainty – and uncertainty, in foreign affairs as in business, is anathema.
Putin’s popularity over the Ukraine – it is also his Achilles heel
Putin, like Trump and Mrs. May, is a nationalist populist – he won his popularity by opposing the not so secret neo-conservative intervention in the Ukraine in 2014, a part of their SPA attempt to create a US unipolar world ignoring EU interests. Remember neo-con US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, and her ‘F… the Europeans?’ Here the State Department cooperated with the neo-cons in the CIA in an attempt to make the Ukraine a pawn in the creation of that ‘unipolar’ world long sought by the neo-cons led by Vice President Dick Cheney and the PNAC (Project for a New American Century). Perhaps Mrs. Clinton’s two worst mistakes were that vote for the invasion of Iraq which led to the destabilization of the Middle East and half our troubles today, and for permitting, albeit unwittingly, the comeback of the neo-conservatives after they had been forced to lie low after Obama’s election.
For all Russians, the Ukraine is a vital interest for security and historic reasons – Kiev is the home of Russia. But Putin’s bellicose foreign policy – of which he is so proud - using both Russia’s armed forces and his cyber war against the West is in fact contrary to the prime national interest of Russia. As most Russians well know that is to have the closest possible relations with the EU in order to give Europe in its entirety far greater clout on the world stage – now even more essential with the advent of Trump. This is Putin’s Achilles heel: it would be hard for him to oppose a well publicised EU offer of such a partnership provided Russia ceases to confront the West, coupled with a simultaneous offer to work out a plan to respect that Russian special interest in the Ukraine. We must not believe Russian polls vaunting Putin’s ‘immense’ popularity – he makes sure they do.
The greatest danger to the UK, the EU, and the West: the conviction that Brexit is inevitable
So both Putin and Trump are presenting existential threats to the EU and the ‘West’. Obviously the UK must not desert its friends and allies. But in the UK that mantra is ubiquitous: ‘the British people have spoken and they want to quit the EU’. So it is unquestioned that ‘to go against the people’s will is to flout democracy’ regardless of the fact that it is daily becoming more evident that breaking with the EU is immensely complicated and will absorb UK attention for years to come; and the fact that the entire world is in crisis and needs the strongest possible Europe. Clearly Britain’s first task is to prevent the EU unravelling because of a selfish quest for Brexit. And that includes united action to counter Putin’s current efforts to subvert EU democracy.
Avoiding Brexit is not ‘flouting democracy’: the vote not the ‘clear will’ of the British people
But how is it that there is this astonishing conviction that Brexit is inevitable and that ‘leave’ voters should be pandered to while ‘remain’ voters are not just ignored but heaped with obloquy although the electorate was all-but divided in half: 51.89% for ‘leave’ and 48.11% for ‘remain’? This is without taking into account the 5 million odd UK overseas passport holders – the ones most affected by ‘leave’ – who had no vote. Indeed the Economist’s Data Unit found that towards the end of 2016 more ‘leave’ than ‘remain’ voters regretted their choice – enough to sway opinion in favour of ‘remain’. And this is also without taking into account either the many Labour sympathisers who could not bring themselves to vote for ‘Cameron’s Tories’, or the ‘millenials’, disenchanted with boring middle-aged politicians, who often did not even register to vote but who are now awakening to the theft of their future as Europeans.
The severely flawed campaign
Then, profoundly affecting the outcome, was the campaign itself which was marked by deliberate misrepresentations by ‘leave’ – who notably failed to warn of the inevitably long drawn out daunting complications of leaving the EU – and the striking incompetence of ‘remain’: both the obscure Lord Rose’s campaign ‘Britain Stronger In Europe’ run by Will Straw, and by ‘Labour In for Britain’ run by Alan Johnson. Much has been published about these serious defects which are perhaps best summed up in John Lanchester’s ‘Brexit Blues’ in the July edition of the London Review of Books. My own, very similar, First Report on Brexit of 18 August 2016 is at dipconsult.blogspot.fr.
Two incidents stand out – leading Brexiter Michael Gove claiming, without evidence, that the Queen favoured Brexit. This was particularly damaging to ‘remain’ given the Queen’s popularity among most of the population. And the BBC permitting its widely viewed ‘Great Debate’ on the eve of the referendum to close with Boris Johnson, the chief personality for ‘leave,’ with his emotional appeal ‘make June 23 Britain’s independence day’. This was followed next morning by arch-Brexiteer American Rupert Murdoch’s full page headlines in his top circulation Sun: ‘We urge our readers to beLEAVE in Britain’.
Indeed ‘remain’ was much hampered throughout the campaign and still is by much of the UK press taking its lead from Murdoch. The Daily Telegraph, the most influential quality paper, vigorously supported Brexit and still does: its lead EU correspondent Boris Johnson, like Trump in the US, was the key TV campaigner getting massive free publicity for their populist aims.
As early as February 2016 many observers, myself included, warned both ‘remain’ campaigns that they were concentrating on dull economic arguments for staying in the EU while neglecting the powerful anti-EU feelings of so many far from Whitehall that successive governments – both Labour and Conservative - had overlooked. As in the US (and this got us Trump), too many in the UK have been left behind by globalisation, impoverished by the 2007 banking collapse, and forced to take ‘zero hour contracts’. And few things are worse than daily fear of losing your job. On top of this is that widespread resentment at EU immigrants competing with Britons for limited social services and NHS resources. In the US it was ‘keep America white’, in the UK it was keep Britain British.
But it is not the EU but successive UK governments, Conservative and Labour, that, mostly in the name of a misguided ‘austerity’, ignored this - losing touch with their voters and forfeiting their loyalty. It seems that sufficient ‘leave’ voters blamed the EU for many of Whitehall’s faults to explain ‘leave’s’ close referendum result.
For all these reasons, Mrs. May never did, and does not now, express the ‘clear will of the British People’. And that is without considering the wishes of Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Avoiding Brexit, the difficulties
So what can be done to prevent this determined lady and the small clique around her, in defiance of that ever-increasing evidence, resolutely invoking Article 50 and thus irrevocably setting the UK on the road to Brexit? And dragging the UK into years of painful all-absorbing negotiations to separate the UK from the EU, thereby sacrificing Britain’s vital interests in the world for the nebulous, never honestly described advantages of Brexit?
On the face of it there is no problem. If, as expected around 12 January 2017, the UK Supreme Court demands formal parliamentary approval before Article 50 can be invoked, all that is required is for the more than 470 MPs of all parties out of a total of 650 to vote as they did in the referendum for ‘remain’ and thus against such invocation. But, in a snap non-binding vote called by Mrs. May on 8 December while the High Court was still sitting, 448 MPs voted in favour of invoking Article 50 with only 75 against. These are the only MPs to have ‘come out’ unequivocally against Brexit. There is much fear of a backlash from disgruntled ‘leavers’ – Gina Miller, the lead litigant contesting Mrs. May’s claim to invoke Article 50 on her own, has police guard after receiving death threats. Other lawyers and their principals have been browbeaten. I myself found ‘leavers’ will not argue in what was once the British way, but angrily condemn you for being unpatriotic, undemocratic and spurning that ‘will of the people’.
Why could parliament vote to end its own supremacy?
Like every one, ‘remain’ MPs are aware of this intimidation. And those from majority ‘leave’ constituencies fear losing their seats so some are ready to sacrifice Britain’s interests. This partly explains how MPs could actually vote to end by Act of Parliament the UK remaining a parliamentary democracy as the High Court has ruled that it is! Without parliament’s supremacy Prime Ministers could enforce populist measures against parliament’s wishes. Yet all this anxiety is unfounded – just as parliament can refuse to pass an Act authorising the invocation of Article 50, so it can refuse permission for Mrs. May to call an early election under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, 2011.
A crippling lack of information
All this also reflects that all-but total lack of information about what is at stake internationally. Many, even MPs, are calling for a second referendum once the terms Mrs. May gets from the EU are known. This is mistaken for, whatever she may say, these will not be known before she invokes Article 50, and after that, when what is on offer becomes clearer, it would be too late.
This lack of information is due to that conviction, not only in the UK but abroad, that Brexit is inevitable. This is mainly because, for the first time, there is no effective parliamentary opposition to the party in power (although Mrs. May’s Conservative parliamentary party is deeply divided by its 180 degree turn from supporting ‘remain’ under previous Prime Minister Cameron to mandatory support for ‘leave’ under her). And there is no even informal popular grouping for ‘remain’ which could demand attention.
So it is virtually impossible to place material showing that Article 50 can be avoided in the UK and foreign press. For example, when I complained to the New York Times both their correspondents in London made it clear that they had found nothing to cover, and the Chief Political Adviser to the BBC assured me that it would give proper coverage if there were any appreciable moves to avoid Brexit.
An effective opposition essential: an unmissable opportunity for a Labour & LibDem come back
There is though one obvious event which would instantly ensure full media coverage making the UK’s predicament re Brexit known worldwide. That is for a disciplined Labour Party to resume its ‘remain’ policy during the referendum campaign. Jeremy Corbyn, its leader, has promised determined opposition to Mrs. May’s Conservatives and it was he who made possibly the best speech for ‘remain’ during the election campaign on 14 May – notably calling for the UK to take the lead in reforming the EU wanted by so many countries (he urged members to be more concerned with social justice than remaining something of a capitalist club). All Corbyn needs to do now is to lead Labour’s MPs in making a clear unified message opposing Brexit. Only opposition to Brexit can put Labour on the right side of history for Brexit will soon be seen as yesterday’s folly. Then Labour would right away become a forceful opposition with a real possibility of returning to power.
And once there is forceful opposition to Brexit, UK and world media will make it known both in the UK and in the world. And once that happens, celebrities – far more influential than politicians - will lend their support. One of them, highly respected for her international concern, who had offered to back the case for ‘avoid’, withdrew because she did not want to find herself alone. Yet her agent told me there were several others on his books who would give their support if there were evident opposition to Mrs. May. For example just a sportsman, an Olympic gold medallist, an actor, and a best-selling author could do much to win over public opinion. If invited there would be several more.
‘Remain’ MPs now well placed to persuade others to join them
As many Labour supporters already recognise, the best hope for Labour to return to power is in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, not competing for seats. At the 8 December vote 23 Labour MPs and 5 LibDems including their leader, ‘came out’ against Brexit, along with the 51 members of the Scottish National Party, 3 from Wales’ Plaid Cymru, and 3 from Northern Ireland’s SDLP. Broad enough to encourage other MPs of all parties to ‘come out’ as the potential of Brexit for disaster becomes ever more apparent. Labour would recover its roots and the Libdems would recover the support they lost by their coalition with Cameron’s Conservatives instead of Gordon Brown’s Labour.
But if avoiding Brexit is to be generally accepted it is imperative that Labour does not allow Mrs. May to steal its clothes by trying to persuade ‘leavers’ that she has their interests at heart. Labour (and indeed any ‘coalition’ for ‘avoid’), must convince ‘leavers’, who mostly are its natural supporters, that they will demand that the government address their grievances and will act with determination in government.
I must conclude with three points – the first is that Climate Change is by far the most important challenge that mankind faces and Trump does not recognise this. So one of the most important tasks for the UK within the EU is to work on this particularly with China which is well aware of this threat.
The second is to compare Mrs. May’s approach to a Trump presidency with Mrs. Merkel’s. In an attempt to preserve the so-called ‘special relationship’ with the US, Mrs. May is ready to bow to Trump even to the extent of arranging a state visit for him. This would be a nice feather to add to his cap – but no guarantee that he would prove a reliable friend to the UK. His approval of Brexit could be more closely related to his concern for his golf courses in Scotland – as the Scottish government has discovered! Far better is German Chancellor Mrs. Merkal’s pointedly warning: ‘yes’ to cooperation, but only if Trump adheres to the norms expected of democratic states.
Thirdly – after my article of 2 November 2016 in Le Monde (about how Brexit could be avoided) feedback suggested that the Commission – and indeed all involved with Brexit, especially France and Germany with their elections this year, would be so relieved if Article 50 were not to be invoked that the UK would swiftly be able to negotiate the dispensations its very particular position in the EU demands – dispensations that would certainly be refused in Brexit negotiations. I suggest that some MPs should enquire if this can be confirmed.