Whenever President Obama does something endearing or constructive, such as visiting Cuba this week, he has an awful habit of spoiling it several days later. Here I must annoy some of my friends in the US who were livid over his trip to one of the last surviving laboratories of Communist failure. Somehow the President – in the words of Democrat strategist James Carville – drives many Republicans nuts. They were simply wrong to be furious he went to Cuba. Of course he should have gone.
Is a large part of the Republican base now so consumed with hatred of the current US President that they forget Nixon went to China and Reagan went to Moscow? Good grief, the hero to conservatives everywhere Ronald Reagan went to Reykjavik in 1986, met the Soviets and talked dreamily of getting rid of all nuclear weapons. That naive offer so terrified Margaret Thatcher that she flew the following month to Washington to talk sense into Reagan. Even if there are doubts about the outcome, visiting other countries, talking and trying to get a deal or advance cooperation, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, is standard issue international affairs. It is called diplomacy.
But if Obama was right in the first half of the week, he rapidly ruined it with his glib comments in the aftermath of the attacks in Brussels. There is a part of Obama’s considerable brain that does not function properly when he is asked about terrorism. He begins with his temper in check and finds words of solace. Then in responding to questions he becomes impatient and his body language turns dismissive. So it was this week when he said that he has a lot on his plate.
ISIS, he said loftily, is not an existential threat. That depends, I suppose, on where you are standing. If you are wrapped in a security blanket everywhere you go, with hundreds of millions of dollars spent on keeping you safe, then I’m sure it might look that way. If, on the other hand, you were checking in for a flight at Brussels airport this week, or boarding the metro, or are one of hundreds of millions of Europeans getting on public transport and trying to banish the thought of what is possible, then it probably feels to you a lot like an existential threat or even a personal threat, despite what the US President says. As I said, it is all relative depending on how close you are standing to the scumbag of a suicide bomber.
In Britain, the Brussels attacks turned speedily, as everything seems to right now, into an argument about the EU and the June 23rd in-out referendum. There was outrage when some Brexiteers presented the attacks as a reason to leave, because the capital city of the EU has become a jihadi hotbed (which it has). I don’t think that the day of an attack, with emergency services tending to the wounded, was the time to make the point, but feelings are running high. And the other side in the EU debate has endlessly used the threat of terrorism and crime to make the case for the UK staying in the EU. The Remain campaign has made much of the benefits of EU cooperation, producing experts to say that security and intelligence collaboration is a central benefit of the EU. Is it? It doesn’t seem to be working particularly well.
Indeed, the pan-European picture that emerged from this week’s must watch edition of BBC Panorama, hosted by the inestimable Peter Taylor, was deeply troubling. Terrorist masterminds can roam backwards and forwards between Syria, Iraq and Europe. What will it take before countries adopt a response in line with this threat? Our enemies must think we are bonkers, and in one respect they are right. Travelling to Syria or Iraq from Europe to fight for ISIS should be regarded as treason and punishable by extremely long prison sentences in all but the most unusual cases. If they fall, or are pushed very hard, down the stairs of the escalator at Heathrow Airport or Charles de Gaulle on their return, no one sane will complain.
There is another problem with our approach. For all the claims made, the truth is that although European Union cooperation on intelligence and security exists it is patchy at best. The so-called Club de Berne is the forum in which the agencies of the 28 EU members (plus Switzerland and Norway) have long worked together. It was founded in the 1970s with a smaller membership but it has no executive responsibility. The CTG (the Counter Terrorism Group) was formed after 9/11 and is where more of the practical work – sharing intelligence and expertise – goes on. Under the EU’s foreign policy function, in the External Action Service division, there is also a centre for pooling intelligence analysis and recommending joint action.
Inevitably, there are demands from Brussels, whenever there is an outrage, for much more to be done under the umbrella of the EU. Nation states, it was said again this week in Brussels, must give up their national prerogatives and combine their spying. Yet although the EU has been at this building a common capability for almost twenty years now (beginning in the late 1990s) the results are unimpressive. Despite this, the answer to such inadequacy or failure, it seems, is always more EU rather than an honest reflection on whether it is really the right forum or model.
The reality is that the 28 are not remotely equal in capability in this field. The national services of those countries which by dint of history or experience have a large intelligence and security function have vastly more operational clout and information. That means the UK, France and Germany, with a few others bringing specialist knowledge. Note also that they retain an understandable scepticism about sharing information with some of the newer members. And arguably the closest other such relationship in the West is between the UK and the US. The last time I checked the United States was not in the EU.
It is manifestly clear that the idea that the EU equals security and Brexit equals isolation (splendid or otherwise) for Britain is complete bunkum. It should be perfectly possible for the major players to cooperate against ISIS as national governments, within or outwith the European Union, and to work together closely, without the need for an ever-expanding and self-serving EU superstructure.
But then the inability to see this is at root what is wrong with the EU more broadly, and the reason the UK is having its referendum at all. Even when Britain talked of leaving and tried to negotiate a distinct set of arrangements, and suggested that the federalist mantra of Jean-Claude Juncker and co is a dead end, it did not seem to produce much of a recognition of reality. Speaking as a European (who is nonetheless sceptical of the EU, which is not the same thing as Europe) my concern is that what has been constructed is transparently unfit for purpose. It is a botched bureaucracy, built on a notionally nice idea, being rendered inoperable by history. The EU open borders model and obsession with anti-democratic integration rather than trade and friendly cooperation is turning steadily into a catastrophe for European civilisation.
Goodness, I wish I had a cheerier subject for this newsletter, particularly as it is Easter and in the northern hemisphere Spring has sprung. But sadly this been one of those weeks. Have a good weekend; eat Belgian chocolate; drink French wine.