Monday, 25 October 2010

Is Cameron also signalling a shift in our defence policy?

The recently announced 8% cuts in the defence budget have brought out a raft of ideological commentary across the media. The Mail frets about the danger of a ‘fresh Argentinian invasion’ of the Falklands following the downsizing; the Guardian heralds the end of Tony Blair’s liberal interventionism doctrine with barely disguised glee.

The 8% cuts at first glance seem small compared to the slash-and-burn other government departments have been subjected to, but in context they are not insignificant. The UK will now be spending a lower percentage of GNP on defence (just under 2%) than at any other time since records began, and will have the ability to deploy about two thirds of the troops committed by Blair to Helmand and Iraq. In that context, it’s unsurprising that reactions have been mixed.

Whatever your position, one thing is clear - the defence cuts mean that the UK will have to reappraise its role on the world stage, and the interventions which characterised the Blair years will become much less viable, at least with the UK leading the charge. It’s the liberal philosophy of localisation writ large - overseas problems will no longer be our burden to bear.

Is this a good thing? Many on the left were unanimous in opposition to Blair’s wars, but as Nick Cohen has argued, progressive values are not geographically or culturally limited, but universal. This was always the moral foundation of Blair’s liberal interventionism. It’s all well and good for progressives to argue for improvements in the UK democratic system, but surely that carries a duty to spread democracy in those places in the world that have none?

I think yes, you may disagree. But the self-perception of the UK as a major global power needs to be put to bed, and that’s one good thing that could come out of these cuts. If we are going to influence global events in the future, and I believe we should aspire to do so, then we need to do it as a part of a more integrated Europe. The aim of interventionism is to spread progressive ideas in places where they haven’t taken root organically, so the best way to do that (within the new fiscal constraints) is in concert with other states who share the same ideas.

As ever, these natural allies are to be found not over the Atlantic but across the channel. The Liberal Democrats may seem neutered in this government, but they remain the most intuitively pro-European political force in the UK. That’s why Clegg should use whatever remaining influence he has to leverage the unease around the defence cuts into an argument for greater EU integration - you know it makes sense, Nick.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

The Curious Case of the Ahmadiyya

The Independent has run a long article today outlining their recent investigation into the escalating tensions between Britain’s Ahmadi Muslim community and adherents of more orthodox strains of Islam. 
According to their findings, recent leaflets and TV announcements have encouraged Muslims to attack and murder the Ahmadiyya, following an outbreak of violence in Pakistan where two Ahmadi mosques were bombed by the Pakistani Taliban.

The Ahmadiyya have long been controversial within the Islamic world. Indeed, in Pakistan it is illegal for them to call themselves Muslims, which explains why they are disproportionately represented in Britain’s Pakistani diaspora. They believe that their founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835 - 1908) was the Mahdi, a prophet eagerly awaited by Muslims worldwide, who - according to some, but not all, Islamic scholars - comes to Earth to guide mankind back to the true path of Islam. Incidentally, Iran’s inimitable president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad belongs to a different sect which is still awaiting the Mahdi, or Twelfth Imam as they’d have it. Reportedly Ahmadinejad has ploughed major resources into a Mosque in the Iranian city of Qom to prepare for the Mahdi’s arrival. But I digress.

The Ahmadiyya’s belief that their sect’s founder was a prophet comes into conflict with the established orthodox Islamic notion that there can be no more prophets after Mohammed. There are other differences of opinion, notably over the question of whether Jesus was actually a prophet - the Ahmnadiyya aren’t so sure, whereas orthodox Muslims believe that he was.

I summarise all this to give some flavour of the dispute that has arisen in the subcontinent and spilled into the UK and Europe. To flesh this out further, here’s a summary of a debate held on the satellite Ummah channel, cribbed from the Independent article:
When a caller named Asim asked for a scholar to explain whether Ahmadis were legitimate Muslims the imam replied: "Since the time of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) the Sahiba [knowledgeable scholars] have confirmed that anyone who believes in a prophet after the Holy Prophet is a kafir [unbeliever], murtad [apostate] and Wajib-ul Qatal [liable for death].
What is not mentioned here, by The Independent or by any mainstream outlet, is that it’s completely immaterial what difference of theological opinion exists between the Ahmadiyya and other Muslims - the point is, they’re all wrong. It’s as simple as that, and that is simple.

The whole debate is reminiscent of the Thomas Aquinas project to ascertain how many angels can dance on the head of a pin - the question itself is null and void, since there are no angels in existence. Similarly it makes no difference if Ahmad is considered a prophet or not, since neither he or Mohammed ever had any revelation from God - whether some ‘believe’ that or not is neither here or there.

Since The God Delusion there has been an extensive backlash against Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris et al - often dismissed as the ‘militant atheists’, usually followed up by the asinine claim that they are just the same as religious fanatics in their zeal for atheism. But this latest spate of sectarian hatred between the Ahmadiyya and orthodox Muslims just shows how right the ‘new’ atheists were - it really is nonsensical to humour this sort of thing. The real-world consequences of these absurd ideas are very often harmful, so why should it be considered ‘insensitive’ to point out that neither side is ‘right’ in any meaningful sense?

It’s a debate between equally unprovable and nebulous assertions - we’ll never ‘know’ whether Ahmad was a prophet, but we do know for sure that there has never been a recorded and proven case of a human hearing a divine revelation. Surely the free press in secular societies should re-enforce this sort of rational perspective, instead of condescendingly worrying about offending this or that community’s beliefs?

When complaints were made about the Ummah channel debate, Ofcom ruled that the channel was guilty of "abusive treatment of the religious views and beliefs of members of the Ahmadiyya community”. Not ‘incitement to violence on the grounds of fantasy’, not ‘abusive treatment of the concept of logic’, but crimes committed against the beliefs of the Ahmadiyya community.

Free speech should enable the Ummah channel pundits to give their opinion on the Ahmadiyya, but it should also allow mainstream secular pundits to describe the whole situation as they see it in the cold light of day - completely divorced from reason or any known reality. It’s an argument between people who believe a 7th Century myth and people who believe in a 19th Century myth.

It would all be harmless, and just a waste of intellectual energy, if it was constrained to TV studios and theology departments in universities - but this debate has already cost lives in Pakistan, and has threatened lives in the UK. Dawkins was right all along, and it would be an error to let his detractors set the tone - ‘respecting’ these harmful ideas only gives them room to breathe and disseminate, resulting in more lives endangered or lost.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

An ethical foreign policy? At least admit past mistakes, Mr Miliband

24 hours before voting closed for Labour leadership, David Milliband returned to the Home office to study files relating to Brits tortured abroad under his watch as Foreign secretary. His conclusion? That there was no evidence that any ministers had ever asked for any of the men in question to be detained, so any allegations of his own collusion in torture were unfounded.

The statements coming from Miliband and his team are pure legalese, but the overall meaning is clear: ‘David would never sanction torture‘. D-Mili has been at pains to distance himself from the torture allegations, easily the most toxic part of his career to date.

Last month, he wheeled out 
the following truism: “The alternative to an ethical foreign policy is an unethical foreign policy, and I don’t believe in an unethical foreign policy.”

What does he mean by that non-statement? Even if he is right, and British ministers and operatives never colluded in torture, he has himself never overtly condemned the American policies of enhanced interrogation, extraordinary rendition, the establishment of Gitmo, etc. While he was foreign secretary, foreign policy – in the UK possibly, but in the US definitely – completely diverged from ethical considerations. Why did he not stand up for this belief at the time?

There is also the inconvenient truth that David fought hard – and lost – the battle to suppress evidence around the British collusion in the torture of Binyam Mohammed. His loyalty to the party paid dividends in career terms, with all the big New Labour figures and their financial backers lining up behind his leadership bid.

He remains the bookies’ favourite, narrowly ahead of his brother in what has now – predictably – become a two-horse race. Perhaps David might have gained more favour – with the public, if not his line management – by admitting that the UK veered off the moral course during the war on terror, rather than the suspicious-looking evasion and legal jargon he has opted for.

Obama did it – obviously he was heralding a new administration, but in a sense so is D-Mili, in theory at least. He could have used the issue to put clear water between himself and his former bosses. One of the most frequent allegations made against him is that he’s the New Labour continuity candidate, the centrist who would look right at home in the coalition government.

Such an admission may have helped lessen that perception, and made him appear honest about past mistakes.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Roma debate involves some hard truths

Whatever you may think of him, you can't say that Nicolas Sarkozy backs away from the difficult arguments. First he ignited a debate about Islam in Europe with his controversial ban on veils, now he's opened another can of worms with his expulsions of Roma immigrants from France. The EU's justice commissioner Viviene Reding was moved to compare the France of 2010 to the France of Vichy, prompting some heated comments from Sarkozy, and later some back-pedalling from EC president José Manuel Barosso. The recently talkative Fidel Castro also weighed in to the debate last week, calling the expulsions "another kind of racial Holocaust". Only Silvio Berlusconi has stood up for Sarkozy – probably a mixed blessing, to say the least.
It's worth looking at why the Roma in particular present such a political flashpoint. The majority of the Roma being expelled from France are Romanian citizens. As Romania is a recent entrant to the EU, its citizens are subject to an interim agreement under which they have a right to remain in France for only three months unless they have work. Therefore, the majority of the Roma being expelled were in France illegally. France expelled 11,000 (non-Roma) Romanian citizens in 2009 under the same pretext, prompting no comment from Brussels. That was considered business as usual.
So why is this latest round of expulsions any different? Because the Roma are a long-persecuted "people without a land", the victims of countless pogroms throughout Europe, and of the Holocaust. The underlying fear is that policies such as Sarkozy's may awaken some of Europe's baser instincts, which are – the theory goes – always simmering just under the surface. That isn't so far-fetched. Far-right politicians in countries such as Hungary and Slovakia frequently take a stand on anti-Roma platforms, and a Euro-stalwart such as France appearing to follow suit may serve to legitimise their views, and help further their agenda domestically.
The problem arises when we consider that as individuals, the vast majority of Roma are not in fact "without a land". They have citizenship in their country of origin, in this instance (mostly) Romania, and also Bulgaria. The leaked memo telling French police to target Roma encampments specifically, plus some of Sarkozy's rhetoric on the subject, has ratcheted up the tensions unnecessarily. However, the ethnic dimension is secondary to the fact that levels of education and training among the Roma are well below the European average, therefore levels of criminality in Roma communities are higher. I suspect this is why the memo asked French officers to target Roma encampments, not some deepseated ethnic hatred.
Sarkozy is to an extent right to point out that some of the fault for the problems surrounding France's Roma communities lies with the governments in Romania, Bulgaria and the other countries where the Roma are coming from. If more policies to bring the Roma into the mainstream had been enacted in these places over the past few decades, then Roma in 2010 may have been less inclined to migrate, and when they did, they may have had more to offer to the societies they migrate to. But can that failure to successfully integrate be blamed entirely on the "host" countries? I'm not sure.
75% of Europe's Roma are estimated to live below the poverty line. Discrimination – both institutional and societal – will play a meaningful part in that figure, but it's also too easy to construct a narrative where the Roma are seen solely as passive victims, and much of the recent coverage of the expulsions (and some of the EU rhetoric) has tended towards that. It may be worth asking how Roma communities can contribute to their own progress.
There's no doubt that deep-seated prejudices towards Roma need to be tackled, and at least Sarkozy's actions have pushed the issue further up the EU agenda. But Europe's Roma also need to take some of the responsibility for their own integration into the mainstream, and this may mean letting go of some historical and cultural practices.
Rightwing voices will always be able to point to the criminality and social problems that Roma communities bring – because they do. The underlying causes may be complex, but the manifestations are not, and it's these manifestations that resonate most with voters. If the European Commission misses this trick, it will continue to be seen as ineffectual and overly soft, and politicians like Sarkozy will continue to reap political dividends by openly defying them. There needs to be honesty at the European level about the problems that Roma communities not only suffer from, but also cause. If this issue is sidelined for the sake of correctness, then it'll erupt in the form of xenophobia. Education, for both Roma and non-Roma Europeans, is the key.

Originally posted on Comment is Free on 20th September 2010

Friday, 10 September 2010

Why Andy Burnham gets my vote

In all the recent debate about cuts and deficit reduction, one question that should perhaps be asked more is: dude, where's the opposition?
The Labour party's leadership contest has so far failed to generate much excitement, which is not so surprising given the air of inevitability that is gathering around it lately. It now seems all but certain that David Miliband will be the next Labour leader, which is a shame – because a more promising candidate has been almost completely sidelined. That candidate is Andy Burnham.
Of all the hopefuls, Burnham has the most distance from the still-toxic legacy of the New Labour project. This has allowed him to be overtly critical of the "factionalism and indulgence" revealed in Peter Mandelson's book, which is rapidly becoming shorthand for the New Labour-style of government. Conversely, Ed Balls and both Miliband brothers were all key – albeit junior – members of the Blair and Brown teams, so right at the nucleus of government for the last 13 years.
There is something dispiriting, and predictable, about automatically promoting the assistants when the bosses have left. It's what tends to happen when no one else applies for the job – much like when Gordon Brown himself got an uncontested promotion in 2007, to lukewarm applause all round.
Diane Abbott is arguably the most left-leaning of all the candidates, but her lacklustre pitch so far has mainly consisted of repeatedly pointing out that her opponents are all Caucasian men. Recently, she varied the riff by calling them "geeks in suits". When she does present an argument, it usually comes across as half-hearted, presumably because she knows that she won't really get the job and is now just going through the motions.
Burnham's big idea – "aspirational socialism" – is too oblique to try to interpret at this point. Like the "big society" before it, it's still only a gift-wrapped package with an only vaguely discernible shape. "Socialism" is a concept in urgent need of a brand detoxification, to be sure, and it seems a risk to even have it on the platform at all. But it's canny to weld it to "aspiration" – it'll hopefully reassure the public that this isn't a regressive, totalitarian sort of socialism, but one more in tune with the zeitgeist. If that seems reductive, it's because soundbites are, but they're no less significant for that.
In policy terms, Burnham is more explicitly socialist than aspirational, but he still stays reassuringly within a centre-left, moderate framework. In summary: he wants to introduce a financial transaction tax, uphold the 50p tax rate, support the future jobs fund and introduce a national care service for the elderly. His could be an antidote to the ultra-liberal path taken by the coalition, just stopping short of the scary sort of big-state socialism. It's exactly these sorts of arguments that Labour in opposition need to be making, and Burnham is, I would argue, the best placed of the five contenders to put these arguments forward.
One consequence of Burnham's marginal role in the race so far is that we haven't seen him properly tested yet, both in terms of argument and presentation. He comes across as earnest, perhaps even a little po-faced at times. He makes a point of frequently mentioning the "London-centric" politics of his peers in all parties, a difference underlined by his own Merseyside twang. If he became leader, this may play well in differentiating Labour from the overtly metropolitan, RP-speaking government ministers. In the short term, it also differentiates Burnham from his overtly metropolitan, RP-speaking opponents for the party leadership.
There's every reason to think that by 2015 the honeymoon will be well and truly over for the Lib-Con government. The planned cuts will have taken their toll and the novelty of a coalition will have worn off. It seems safe to predict that the Liberal Democrats will be hemorrhaging left-leaning voters. Labour, on the other hand, will have had five years of the relatively easy life of opposition, criticising the government without having to expand any fully worked-out alternatives. In that time, Burnham could have a chance to shed his ingénue image and gain some PM-like gravitas – and after that, who knows?
Unfortunately, the current Labour big beasts don't agree. Jack Straw, Alistair Darling and Alan Johnson have all thrown their lot in with David Miliband. Financial backers have followed suit, with Miliband the elder raising six times as much money as the second most-funded candidate (Balls), and more than 100 times more than the least-funded (Abbott). Even if he turns up clutching a banana in each hand and grinning ear-to-ear at the party conference on 26 September, David Miliband still seems set to walk it.
It's partly this kind of "who-else" appointment that made the previous Labour government seem insular and unresponsive. It would be a missed opportunity if the Labour party continued in the same vein, especially when a proper, credible opposition is needed more than ever. That's why Labour need to give Andy Burnham more room in the limelight between now and the conference.

Originally posted on Comment is Free on 21st August 2010

‘National security' Afghan justification doesn't hold

Three words you're unlikely to hear from a UK or US politician these days are "war on terror", but undeniably the phrase has taken its place just behind "yes we can" and "I agree with Nick" in the roll-call of classic political soundbites. The latest instalment of this saga played out on Thursday, when an al-Qaida cell was apprehended in Norway, and some of the details being reported paint a depressingly familiar picture to anyone who follows this sort of thing.
The makeup of the Norwegian terrorist cell – like the failed New York subway bombers and the 7/7 bombers – is notable for its complete and total remove from Afghanistan. It comprises a Norwegian national of Uighur origin, and an Uzbek citizen and an Iraqi who both have indefinite leave to remain in Norway. A fourth suspect was arrested in Germany. Their intended targets are as yet unclear, and speculation as to their motives has inevitably turned to Norway's 500 troops in Afghanistan and the decision by some Norwegian papers to republish the Danish cartoons of the Prophet – a commendable stand for press freedom, which set an example sadly not followed by any UK publication.
When al-Qaida burst into the foreground of western consciousness in September 2001, there was a scramble to understand what sort of entity we were dealing with. The surface picture quickly fell into place – they were a terrorist organisation centred around Osama bin Laden, with infrastructure and training camps in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The response seemed clear cut – remove al-Qaida from Afghanistan, capture Bin Laden and topple his Taliban facilitators so that al-Qaida can't take root there again. There was little dissent from the notion that this course of action would make western streets safer.
Fast-forward nine years, and we all know that the situation was always much more complex. Well, almost all of us – just last week, defence secretary Liam Fox declared that our engagement in Afghanistan is "a national security imperative", wheeling out once again the time-worn argument that military actions in Afghanistan can reduce the terrorist threat in the west. This issue is proving to be a gift-wrapped package for any politician in opposition – Bob Ainsworth had to hold the same line in the face of mounting Tory derision when he was defence secretary for Labour, and now it's Labour's turn to point and laugh at Fox when he's forced to do the same.
I can understand why Ainsworth felt the need to cleave to the idea that our domestic security depends on a stable Afghanistan, since it was his party leaders that committed us to the invasion. Any admission of doubt would have been politically disastrous for Labour. To a lesser degree, I can understand why Fox cleaves to it too – in for a penny, and all that. But it seems that there's only so far an argument can stand in complete opposition to an increasingly obvious reality, and this one is now stretched to breaking point.
Since 2001, a whole shelf of books have been published about al-Qaida, and the overall consensus is that they are now no more than a brand, a nebulous idea that anyone can subscribe to. Many existing Islamist groups simply changed their name to "al-Qaida", without necessarily establishing any direct contact with Bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Even more impossible to counter militarily are al-Qaida cells such as the 7/7 bombers, who showed that it only takes seven or eight disaffected young men, a broadband connection and some household items (like peroxide and flour) to create an al-Qaida cell. That's not to say that we haven't been successful in uncovering these operations – the Norway episode is the latest in many successes on this front – but it's impossible to see how our engagement in Afghanistan has helped this effort.
So how can anyone still honestly maintain that our involvement in Afghanistan can reduce the terrorist threat level on our streets? Practically every al-Qaida convert in the last nine years has cited the invasion as a galvanising factor in their radicalisation, so in fact our involvement seems to have had the opposite effect. And that's leaving aside the hard-earned lesson that the border between the uncontrollable region of north-west Pakistan and Afghanistan exists largely in our imaginations.
There is a separate argument to be made that a stable, democratic Afghanistan is in the world's best long-term interest, provided you don't think too much about our chances of achieving that goal within the available timeframe. So why is Fox not focusing on that argument alone? Why has the "national security" justification not joined the phrase "war on terror" on the scrapheap of bad ideas? Fox could (just about) afford to do that, whereas Ainsworth couldn't. In one fell swoop he'd not only insulate himself from easy blows from the opposition, but he'd also reassure the UK public that government ministers can take account of widely acknowledged realities when they formulate their arguments.
Tony Blair's foreign policy decisions are proving to be like the incomprehensible derivatives that helped bring down the financial system in 2008 – ticking time-bombs that don't reveal their true, noxious nature until it's too late. This particular one can now be seen for what it is, which is why we need to cut it loose.

Originally posted on Comment is Free on 9th July 2010

Macedonia and Greece live up to Balkan Stereotype

As any fan of Asterix the Gaul can confirm, national stereotypes are funny because they tend to carry a grain of truth. They give us a broad caricature of a people and their quirks, and also, crucially, how those people are perceived from the outside. Asterix is yet to travel to the Balkans, but when he does, he is sure to find the locals embroiled in inexplicable, intractable feuds based on absurd disagreements rooted in the distant past. This stereotype is often unfairly applied, but - like all stereotypes - it's sometimes roundly deserved. The Greece / Macedonia naming dispute falls squarely in the latter category.

The latest instalment in this 19-year-old tale of woe unfolded last week, when, despite pressure from various MEPs, the Greek prime minister George Papandreou and his Macedonian counterpart  Nikola Gruevski failed to reach an agreement ahead of a European Council meeting on the 17th of June. The likely result, predictably, will be another Greek veto of the motion to provide Macedonia with a date to begin EU accession talks. Some insiders claim that a mutually acceptable agreement on the name now seems more distant than ever.

Accession to the EU would be an immeasurable help to Macedonia - aside from the sorely-needed economic benefits, governing parties would be forced to comply with EU standards in dealing with the sizeable Albanian minority and the long-oppressed Roma population. It would also put an end to the maddening uncertainty over Macedonia's official legitimacy as a state, which will in turn hopefully quell some of the ultra-nationalistic sentiment that occasionally erupts. It would also be a big step forward in establishing stability in the wider Balkan region.

Greek concerns over Macedonian expansionist ambitions - over the region of Northern Greece also known as Macedonia - are an obvious red herring. Even if we put aside the fact that the tiny Macedonian army could barely make Athens flinch, there is no conceivable future where Macedonia could garner international support to invade an EU member state. Fears over irredentism are a diversionary tactic - the argument here is really about history and symbolism.

In 2003, David Cameron and I both paid a visit to Skopje to attend an England / Macedonia football match (separately, I'll hasten to add), and unlike me, he wrote a Guardian piece about it on his return. In it, he recalls being asked by unnamed Macedonians: 'What will you do to help us?'. His answer was ready: 'From now on I will call our esteemed EU partner "the former Ottoman possession of Greece (Fopog)."

Of course he won't do that, and he'll be hoping that the Greek government never read his flippant remark - however, Cameron does put his finger on something quite significant with that statement. The 'Greek pettiness' that Cameron disapprovingly notes stems from a deep insecurity over Greece's 400 year subjugation by the Ottomans, during which time Greece, like the rest of the Ottoman lands, was generally referred to in the West as 'Turkey in Europe'. When Greece won their independence in the 19th Century, there was a concerted effort to reconnect the new Greek identity with the fabled Greece of antiquity. 

This insecurity over heritage initially drove Greek opposition to Macedonia's constitutional name - now it's a bitter slog to wrestle at least some face-saving concessions from the whole mess, as the key argument was lost years ago. Whichever way it plays out, Macedonia will not only feature in the republic's name but it will be the key signifier. That's exactly what Greece wanted to avoid, but they found their position became unsustainable back in 1995 - now the argument centres on whether a compromise name like 'the republic of Northern Macedonia', if agreed, would have to be used by everyone or just by those states who are yet to recognise Macedonia's constitutional name (39% of NATO members).

For their part, Macedonia under the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE goverment have embarked on a misguided project of 'antiquisation', or the deliberate appropriation of ancient Macedonian figures and symbols as the foundation of the modern Macedonian identity. To this end, Skopje's Petrovec airport was renamed 'Alexander the Great airport' in 2006. A plan has long been mooted to build a 40 metre Alexander statue in Skopje's main public square, which would be a total disaster in both aesthetic and diplomatic terms.

Like Greece, Macedonia's frantic embrace of all things classical is driven by defensiveness over their identity. Unlike Greece, VMRO don't have the nous to realise how absurd all this looks to international observers, so they haven't thought up a fig leaf for their irrational hysteria - like the 'irredentism concerns' Athens uses. Each new Alexander statue in Skopje or Prilep sends faces into palms in Brussels, and makes a resolution to the dispute that bit more unreachable.  Realistically, Macedonia doesn't need any antiquisation. The main argument has been won, and conceding 'Northern Macedonia' is a small price to pay to move forward.

The Macedonians of antiquity were Greek in the same sense that the Caesars were Italian – sort of, but not really. Alexander was in fact Macedonian, in a sense of that word that's long dead. He has as much continuity with Papandreou and Gruevski as Cameron has with whoever built Stonehenge. Greece and Macedonia both need to break out of the Balkan stereotype - history should be left to historians, and current realities to politicians.

Originally posted on Comment is Free on 25th June 2010

Ed Balls must find room for romance amid EU ambivalence

In last weekend's Observer, Ed Balls set out his philosophy of "pro-European realism". As an exercise in political positioning, the piece does the job of placing him squarely in the middle ground – the natural habitat of the politician seeking office. In the context of the immigration debate, he comes across as honest about past mistakes, and clear on the way forward. However, in the wider debate about the UK's relationship with Europe, Balls's remarks follow a familiar path, which should give pause to those of us who support the long-term European project.
I realise that Balls needs to be seen as being at least slightly Eurosceptic (ahem, Euro-realistic) since that's the way the wind of public opinion is blowing. But at the same time, he bluntly states: "I am a strong pro-European." In fact, that is his stated "starting point" as a Labour leadership candidate. Despite that, Balls devotes about three short sentences to the benefits of the EU, with the rest of the article being about the potential downsides.
This particular brand of Euro-ambivalence was a defining characteristic of New Labour's approach to the EU question. Tony Blair told the European parliament that the EU "is a union of values, of solidarity between nations and people … not just a common market in which we trade". Four years later, Gordon Brown claimed he was "proud to be British and proud to be European". Balls amends that slightly: "I know, like most of my fellow citizens, that I am British before I am European." The three statements in succession show a party edging away from the continent.
Despite the occasional sweet-nothings uttered in Brussels, New Labour failed to sell the potential benefits of the EU back in Britain. Their deep reluctance to engage on this question allowed strongly Eurosceptic voices to enthusiastically fill the void, such as Ukip, certain unreconstructed Tories, and their cheerleaders in the rightwing press. Labour never managed to create a real debate around it (and yes, for lack of trying), instead ceding all the ground to the Eurosceptics. It would be a shame if they were to continue in that vein in opposition.
At this point it seems fair to ask: what are the potential benefits of greater EU integration? According to Balls: "Europe is our best platform to win the global argument for an open and fair world." I agree. To ask whether the UK should be in the EU is the same as asking whether the UK should have a role on the world stage in the decades to come. How you answer that question largely depends on what you intuitively believe – personally, I think that the UK, along with the rest of the EU, can and should influence future debates on key global issues such as climate change, nuclear proliferation, or distribution of wealth. There will be no future global role for the UK without further integration into some supranational Euro-entity.
By offering economic benefits to aspiring EU members, the EU is able to demand reforms in return, which can improve the lives of millions of Europeans. The UK should play an active role in that process – despite the "going-to-the-dogs" grumbling, the UK is a highly successful nation, economically and politically. We should strive to ensure that all of Europe attains a minimum living standard comparable to our own.
Balls claims to be a "pro-European of the hard-headed rather than romantic variety". Ok, but there's a place for a bit of romance in this argument too, on both sides. Euroscepticism is fed in large part by the romantic notion of British exceptionalism – in the words of Margaret Thatcher: "God separated Britain from mainland Europe, and it was for a purpose." That was in 1999, and many still hold to the same view now, encouraged by the rightwing press and commentariat.
The nations that make up the British Isles are European. Historically, culturally, geographically, ideologically: the UK is comprised of distinctly European nations and cultures. The story of Britain and the story of Europe have always been intertwined, and not always peacefully. It may be a romantic view, but it seems right and correct that the same joint narrative should be projected into the future, but on a peaceful and co-operative grounding.
Despite being the most pro-EU mainstream party, the Liberal Democrats did not wring any meaningful concessions from their Conservative coalition partners with regards to Europe. The appointment of the historically Eurosceptic William Hague as foreign secretary gives some measure of the Tories' own view on the matter. For these reasons, it is especially important that the Labour party now do what they manifestly failed to do in their 13 years in government: make a clear and strong argument for greater UK participation in the EU.

Originally posted on Comment is Free on 8th June 2010