Brexit: panem et circenses

Tuesday 20 April 2021  



I don't care if people are passionately interested in it. Short of terrorists blowing up Wembley Stadium or machine-gunning the England team, the so-called "beautiful game" has no place as a lead story in most of the English media for most of yesterday, carried over onto the front pages of today's newspapers.

That it has been given so much coverage is panem et circenses on steroids. The only consolation is the view that this "super league" would "destroy football as we know it". Bring it on.

Meanwhile, the real world, a diminishing band of grown-ups is struggling to keep pace with events that really matter – a struggle made all the more difficult by the distorted news values of a puerile, incontinent media.

Of the many things struggling for attention, I note that the shellfish story has disappeared without trace and the Brexit news has dwindled to a scattering of stories about Ireland, north and south, and a few other desultory stories that are hardly worth mentioning. The fact that fresh violence has broken out in west Belfast seems to be of little interest.

The Independent, though, manages to combine football and Brexit, with a long article headed: " Just like Brexit, the European Super League is built on hubris – and it will bring them both down".

Accusing the big clubs of "hubris" and ignoring their fans, writer Tom Peck asserts that hubris only comes to pass on its own terms. I'm not exactly sure what he means by that but he goes on to say that Brexit "is almost certainly set on a path to failure and has been since day one". But, he adds, "that path has not been changed by long years of howling rage from its opponents, all of which began too late".

He contrasts this with the putative European Super League which, he writes, is being led by a small cabal of people who do not care for football and have precious little understanding of it. Thus, he concludes: "The most likely cause of its demise is itself".

Peck then asserts that the ordinary fan that doesn’t want this to happen might find life a little more bearable if they come to accept, sooner rather than later, that "the most potent weapon at their disposal is the overarching greed and arrogance of those involved". If it is to be derailed, he concludes, "that is what will do it, and nothing else".

His piece ends there but we may extrapolate from his title that Peck also believes that the overarching greed and arrogance of those involved in Brexit will give rise to its failure, in which case – it would seem – its opponents need do nothing. In due course it will end without their participation.

It is worth noting here that Beck is the Independent's political sketch writer, but he has also worked as a political correspondent, sports writer and Olympics correspondent. I cannot vouch for his comments on this super league thingy – I don't care enough, one way or the other - but, on the basis of his comments about Brexit, one might aver that he would have been better off sticking to sports writing.

At least John Crace doesn't resort to clunky analogies about Brexit when he tackles the parliamentary response to the ESL announcements, but he could have remarked that MPs in general – and the prime minister in particular – have said more about football in the last 24 hours than they have about Brexit in the last month.

As to Beck's thesis on Brexit, of course it isn't going to fail – not least because it is not the "property" of a political party. Johnson and his dismal crew may currently have the task of implementing post-Brexit policies (or presiding over the political vacuum left by Brexit), but it is not in their gift to make it succeed or fail. Policies can be well-executed, or poorly executed – the latter being the most likely. But Brexit, as such, cannot fail.

The reason for this should be quite evident, even for the likes of Tom Peck. It could only fail if the UK ceased to be outside the EU and somehow had engineered a situation where the government had managed to rejoin. And that – at least in the foreseeable future – simply isn't going to happen.

This is where the "rejoiners" simply haven't thought it through. There is no scenario where the UK government – of whatever colour – can simply decide that it's had enough of Brexit and go crawling back to Brussels, asking to be allowed to re-enter the EU.

Within the framework of the treaties, there is no provision for a departed member to come back, essentially continuing where it left off. The UK would need to start all over again, making a formal application to join which, if accepted, would require it to become a candidate country and negotiate its entry.

Just supposing the 27 were in the least interested in having the UK as a member again, terms would almost certainly require full participation in Schengen and the social chapter, stiff contributions without a rebate, a commitment to join the euro and also an active part in European defence and security.

Currently and for the foreseeable future, even the opening of negotiations could not happen under a Conservative government – even one which had deposed the loathsome Johnson. And, for the foreseeable future – while the Labour Party continues to self-destruct – there will only be a Conservative government.

Furthermore, given Starmer's self-denying ordinance on speaking about Brexit in public, it is unlikely that the issue will feature strongly – or at all – in the next general election. And the longer Brexit is absent from the national debate, the harder it is going to be reintroduce it at a political level.

Then, the longer we leave it, the greater the divergences between the UK and the EU, the gap widening even further with every RoW trade treaty that the UK concludes, and with every treaty the EU members agree between themselves. In little more than a decade or so from now, the gap could be virtually unbridgeable.

What could happen at some time in the future is a new EU treaty which introduces a form of associate membership, possibly based on the structure of the EEA. The EU for a long time has been anxious to rationalise its neighbourhood relations and bringing the Efta states (including Switzerland) into a common fold, together with the UK, could become a distant ambition.

Whether the UK government would entertain that prospect is unknowable, but much could depend on whether the UK even survives. An independent Scotland could change the calculus, creating problems similar to those experienced with Northern Ireland. An EEA-type arrangement, by another name, could resolve a lot of problems – even if it also created a whole lot more.

There can't be much doubt though that the shape of things to come will depend on there being a comprehensive national debate about the issues. But this is a nation which managed to have a referendum campaign on leaving the EU, with little semblance of a coherent debate.

And where a reorganisation of the management of football seems to excite more interest than the management of our government, and attendant matters, there can be little hope of seeing that debate any time in the future.

If panem et circenses represented the latter stage of the Roman empire, where a decadent population no longer cared for its historical birthright or for political involvement in its own government, then the events of yesterday and the newspapers of today should serve as a warning that we as a nation are travelling the same path.

Also published on Turbulent Times.



Richard North 20/04/2021 link

Brexit: no better off?

Monday 19 April 2021  



There is no fixed methodology set out for determining the classification of shellfish waters. Essentially, it is up to each member state and third country to decide on their own sampling programmes for each of the harvesting areas within their jurisdictions, and then to test the waters to ascertain whether they meet EU criteria.

The way this works in practice is that the Commission's Food & Veterinary Office (FVO) carry out site inspections to evaluate the sampling programmes in place, and the conformity with the criteria. For third countries, where the FVO considers that the programme is inadequate – or not properly implemented – it will make recommendations for improvement.

If the third country does not improve its performance, and imports from the relevant areas fail to meet end product microbiological criteria, when tested by at the border control posts, testing frequencies are increased and, if a high level of failure is experienced, the Commission will set in motion the process of delisting the offending country, thereby preventing it from exporting produce to the EU.

Should, on basis of results from its established sampling programmes, a third country finds that the current classifications no longer apply to certain waters, it is at liberty to upgrade or downgrade the water quality in the affected shellfish areas. That should be a routine matter which will, in the normal course of events, be notified to the Commission, with country also updating its own website.

Therefore, on the face of it, there is nothing exceptional in today's report in the Mail, that the Food Standards Agency has upgraded the waters off Kent, Essex, Devon, Cornwall and Northumberland, previously set at Class B, to Class A.

This will, of course, have the effect of permitting live bivalve molluscs from these areas to be exported to the EU when, so far, businesses have been unable to send product unless previously depurated in the UK.

Understandably, there are suspicions that this sudden upgrade is all too convenient, and that the system has been manipulated in order to bypass what the Mail and many others insist on calling a "ban" on undepurated product from Class B waters.

However, an unidentified source asserts that the Food Standards Agency carried out an "independent" review, which " was conducted according to long-standing and stringent protocols on health standards". This source the goes on to say that "The UK is a world leader in environmental and health standards, and we take our responsibilities on food exports extremely seriously".

What is puzzling here, though, is that the FSA, according to its own website has adopted a "long term classification" system for assessing Class B waters.

This is in place to show greater stability in the classifications which are based on compliance over five years instead of the standard three years, the effect of which is that any waters qualifying for upgrades must have shown long-term sustained improvement over a number of years. One-off sampling results would not allow waters to be reclassified.

So far, though, we don't seem to have had any official statements either from the government or the Food Standards Agency - nor any response, official or otherwise, from the European Commission. Initially, only the Mail and the Express carried the story, so it was quite possible that we would see denials or "clarifications" from officials.

Nevertheless, this didn't stop the Express from crowing headline that declares: "Brussels surrenders! EU says it will accept British shellfish after 'Brexit revenge'", without any evidence to support its assertions. This compares with the Mail's headline: "EU may have to lift British shellfish ban after UK seas are 'upgraded' following Brussels' 'Brexit revenge' rule-change".

The "revenge" meme being floated is the suggestion that Brussels imposed a shellfish ban as a retaliation for Brexit. With the narrative set, it now beyond the capability of mere mortals to prevail, by pointing out that there is no "ban" as such – rather, a refusal of the Commission to publish a model export health certificate.

Since the first publication of the "surrender" story, though, the Times has joined in with its own version, headlined: "Easier rules are help to few British fishermen banned by EU".

From this we learn that the easement applies only to 11 out of 266 sea areas, including the Thames estuary, Fleet in Dorset and St Austell Bay in Cornwall. Thus, only a minority of British shellfish exporters will benefit from the reclassification.

The Times thus cites its own source at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who says that that reports that the dispute was close to being resolved were exaggerated because most shellfish would remain "banned" – even though, technically, they are not banned.

This "clarification", coming so swiftly, has given the Mail and Express stories a half-life of about five or six hours, not even lasting overnight before, effectively, being debunked.

Despite the limited easement, one might still expect of Commission response - given the fraught background to this development. It might call in the FSA's sampling data, and compare them with previous years. The Commission may also be asking why this apparently miraculous improvement in water quality has been confined to England and why Food Standards Scotland hasn't witnessed a similar miracle in the waters under its jurisdiction.

And whether border control post officials in France and elsewhere will be prepared to accept the export health certificates from the newly designated Class A waters remains to be seen. Exporters might also find their consignments delayed if officials decide to increase the frequency of microbiological testing, to verify the new designations.

Even if what was being reported is correct, in respect of the FSA's moves – according the Times rendition, English shellfish exporters are no means out of the woods. Redesignation, even in a limited number of areas, could give the Commission the excuse to implement an actual ban – on all shellfish exports – on the basis that it no longer has confidence in the UK's classification scheme.

With that, one notes that the FSA's reclassifications are being described as "temporary" and, under pressure from Brussels, it is not impossible that they could be withdrawn.

On the broader front, with the European Parliament still not having ratified the TCA, arrangements for the Partnership Council have not been finalised, so there is no mechanism for invoking the dispute procedures if the Commission does take action to block further exports. Shellfish exporters, therefore, could end up in a considerably worse position than they are now.

It goes without saying, though, that none of this gets any airing in the media. The Times uses the bare bones of the story as a hook to run a sob-story about Nicki and John Holmyard, who employ their children and 12 other people in running Offshore Shellfish, which has two sets of mussel ropes covering 10sq km.

They have 2,500 tonnes of mussels worth up to £6 million growing on ropes but no prospect of getting them to former customers in Belgium and France. They say that they will have to dismantle the farms unless trade resumes by September, by which time the mussels need to be harvested.

With that amount of money at stake, one might think that they would be considering setting up a depuration plant of their own, as have other shellfish exporters in the region. But, we must come to terms with the fact that the legacy media's forays into the news business no longer encompass Brexit.

If the shellfish exporters are no better off, it might also be said that this applies also to the average reader, who is no better informed about a complex and long-running drama.

Also published on Turbulent Times.



Richard North 19/04/2021 link

Brexit: disorganised on crime

Sunday 18 April 2021  



As an antidote to the trivia which infests the legacy media, it was almost a relief yesterday to see a serious piece in the Guardian website for publication today in the Observer.

Headlined, "Colombia's cartels target Europe with cocaine, corruption and torture", it tells the story of how armed Belgian police raids had "lifted the lid on a sinister new front in the drugs war", retailing the details of "Operation Sky" where 1,600 police officers were ordered into action around the Belgian port city of Antwerp.

This was cited as the largest police operation ever conducted in the country and potentially one of the most significant moves yet against the increasingly powerful narco-gangs of western Europe. And, with that, there are hopes that the operation will herald the downfall of a generation of local bosses, although the Belgian and Dutch "godfathers" largely now hide out in Dubai and Turkey, hoping to be out of reach of the authorities.

The mystery about the piece though is that the paper has chosen to publish it now, when the details were in the public domain over a month ago.

But, while the narrative offered covers a victory for the forces of law and order, the article would have made much more sense if it had been cross-referenced to a report issued just a week ago by Europol, its Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment, for the European Union, known as the EU SOCTA 2021.

The assessment is published every four years but this year the working title is "A corrupting influence: the infiltration and undermining of Europe's economy and society by organised crime". It details the operations of criminal networks in the EU and how their criminal activities and business practices threaten to undermine its societies, economy and institutions, and slowly erode the rule of law.

It provides "unprecedented insights into Europe's criminal underworld based on the analysis of thousands of cases and pieces of intelligence provided to Europol", revealing a concerning expansion and evolution of serious and organised crime in the EU.

The document thus warns of the potential long-term implications of the COVID-19 pandemic and how these may create ideal conditions for crime to thrive in the future, highlighting serious and organised crime as the key internal security challenge currently facing the EU and its Member States.

From this, it concludes that serious and organised crime has never posed as high a threat to the EU and its citizens as it does today, stating that the COVID-19 pandemic and the potential economic and social fallout expected to follow threaten to create ideal conditions for organised crime to spread and take hold in the EU and beyond.

Once more confirmed by the pandemic, the report states, a key characteristic of criminal networks is their agility in adapting to and capitalising on changes in the environment in which they operate. Obstacles become criminal opportunities.

Like a business environment, the core of a criminal network is composed of managerial layers and field operators. This core is surrounded by a range of actors linked to the crime infrastructure providing support services. With nearly 40 percent of the criminal networks active in drugs trafficking, the production and trafficking of drugs remains the largest criminal business in the EU.

The trafficking and exploitation of human beings, migrant smuggling, online and offline frauds and property crime pose significant threats to EU citizens. Criminals employ corruption. Almost 60 percent of the criminal networks reported engage in corruption.

Criminals make and launder billions of euros annually. The scale and complexity of money laundering activities in the EU have previously been underestimated. Professional money launderers have established a parallel underground financial system and use any means to infiltrate and undermine Europe's economies and societies.

Legal business structures are used to facilitate virtually all types of criminal activity with an impact on the EU. More than 80 percent of the criminal networks active in the EU use legal business structures for their criminal activities. The use of violence by criminals involved in serious and organised crime in the EU appears to have increased in terms of the frequency of use and its severity. The threat from violent incidents has been augmented by the frequent use of firearms or explosives in public spaces.

The final point it makes is that criminals are digital natives. Virtually all criminal activities now feature some online component and many crimes have fully migrated online. Criminals exploit encrypted communications to network among each other, use social media and instant messaging services to reach a larger audience to advertise illegal goods, or spread disinformation.

Although written in the context of the European Union, it would be unwise to the point of foolhardy to assume that this problem stopped at the Channel. By way of a small example, we see another report in the Guardian covering the trafficking of a Vietnamese boy into Britain. 

The boy, the paper says, was one of the hundreds of children trafficked from Vietnam every year and forced to work in hidden cannabis farms across the UK: small cogs in the vast criminal machine that supplies Britain's £2.6 billion cannabis black market. It is quite stunning to find that just this small segment of the UK drug market is worth this much, the illegal drugs market itself being just one part of the vast international enterprise that is organised crime.

The reports themselves reminded me that I had addressed the issue in Flexcit, where I wrote that, according to the UN Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC), annual turnover of transnational organised criminal activities such as drug trafficking, counterfeiting, illegal arms trade and the smuggling of immigrants is around $870 billion.

That was in 2009, and even then it was this was six times the amount of official development assistance, comparable to 1.5 percent of the global domestic product, or seven percent of the world's exports of merchandise.

Drug trafficking was the most lucrative form of business for criminals, with an then estimated value of $320 billion a year. Human trafficking brought in about $32 billion annually, while some estimates placed the global value of smuggling of migrants at $7 billion per year. At $250 billion a year, counterfeiting was also a high earner for organised crime groups.

In the context of Brexit, I wrote, the problem is that attempts to free up the international movement of goods often have the unfortunate side-effect of creating opportunities for criminals. Therefore, no independent trading policy can be complete without structured components aimed at reducing system vulnerabilities and improving enforcement, all directed at containing the growth in transnational organised crime (TOC).

There is simply no point in freeing up trade and reducing "red tape", I asserted, if the main beneficiaries are criminals of one type or another. Better constructed cost/benefit analyses might lead the way here, costing in the impact of criminal activities, and policing to set against benefits which might accrue to the legitimate economy.

One important issue here is freeports, a cornerstone of the Johnson administration's post-Brexit policy yet, as recently as last year we were advised that Brussels was clamping down on 82 free ports or free zones after identifying that their special tariff and duty status has aided the financing of terrorism, money laundering and organised crime.

While many might argue – with some justice – that the Johnson administration itself is an offshoot of organised crime, one wonders whether the implications of the Europol report are being factored into UK planning.

The latest UK strategy document I can find is from October 2013, pre-dating Brexit by many years, and in 2019 the National Crime Agency was warning that Britain risked losing fight against organised crime.

Then the NCA's director general, Lynne Owens, was warning that the threat from organised crime groups was at unprecedented levels. "It is chronic and corrosive. The message needs to be heard by everyone", she was saying. Yet nothing since then seems to have changed the situation and, if the Europol warnings are to be heeded, Covid is a serious complicating factor.

Back in 2013, when I wrote Flexcit, I posited that asked the extent to which the situation could be improved by the efforts of a single country was questionable but nevertheless argued that an independent Britain would have greater freedom to raise issues in global forums than as part of the EU, where the "common position" dictated the line taken.

Where the balance of advantage lay, I mooted, was "unknown", so I suggested that there was a debate which must be had before Britain could determine its own priorities and the direction of its post-exit settlement.

So far, I see no signs of that debate taking place and, from this current administration, there is no expectation that we will see anything of consequence. This, it would seem, another corner of Brexit that has been left to fester from the incompetence of its progenitors, so much so that it scarcely registers with our political masters.

How long this can last, we can only guess. But if the issue continues to be neglected, about the only thing organised left in this country will be crime.

Also published on Turbulent Times.



Richard North 18/04/2021 link

Brexit: beyond the trivia

Saturday 17 April 2021  



Firmly in the category of "nothing makes sense", we see the latest YouGov poll give the Conservatives a commanding lead of 43 percent, with Labour's share of the vote slipping to its lowest level under Keir Starmer yet, at 29 percent – a gap of 14 points.

Johnson, the poll tells us, continues to lead in the "best Prime Minister" stakes. A third of respondents (34 percent) say he would make the better head of government. Only around a quarter (26 percent) favour Keir Starmer. However, over a third (36 percent) are undecided, more than the percentage supporting Johnson.

The poll was, of course, presaged on the question of a general election "being held tomorrow". But any election is a long way off. When there is a contest in the offing, the margin between the two main parties tends shrink. At the moment, mercifully, people don't have to engage.

Nevertheless, with endless talks of "Tory sleaze", we're almost back to the dying days of the John Major government – except that Johnson is no Major and, more to the point, Starmer is no Tony Blair. Even if he was, the Labour party has not been tamed and continues on its path of self-destruction.

That, possibly, is enough to explain the current gap between the parties. It could suggest that the electorate is taking the view that, no matter how bad the Tories are, Labour is inestimably worse. The only consolation for Starmer is that, in April last year, the gap was 24 points. But then he was on the way up. Now he is going down, and has been since December.

Almost certainly, Johnson is also benefitting from the relative success of the vaccination programme, which is also apparently delivering a Brexit "bounce" as voters compare the performance of the EU Member States and the Commission.

What doesn't seem to have affected sentiment are the indications of the damaging effects of Brexit on Britain's exports, with the latest data from Eurostat painting an unhappy picture.

According to this source (via Reuters), in the first two months of the year, EU imports from Britain dropped 47.0 percent year-on-year, to €16.6 billion. Exports to the UK declined only 20.2 percent to €39.8 billion. This brings the EU's trade surplus with Britain to €23.2 billion euros for the period, up from €18.6 billion in the same period of 2020.

These latest figures, obviously, are too late to register for the YouGov poll, but it is unlikely that their earlier publication would have made any difference. Nor indeed is the Northern Ireland situation having any discernible impact on voting sentiment, despite the recent rioting and the egregious failure of the Protocol.

On the face of it, Johnson won his election on the platform of "get Brexit done", on which basis one might expect the government's performance in this sphere to be registering prominently in voter's concerns. Instead, the issue has disappeared, almost without trace, barely registering from day-to-day in the legacy media and not at all in Westminster politics.

Interestingly, the Radio Times carries a long article complaining that the BBC has airbrushed the "remainer" argument out of the picture.

Worse still – according to former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger – portraying those who still believe that Brexit would be an economic and foreign policy disaster for the UK as "undemocratic extremists". They are, Rusbridger says, allowed a voice "only if repeatedly challenged, and balanced by fervent Brexit hardliners".

It might help, though, if the BBC could break away from the dreary binary position of remainers versus Brexiteers, to acknowledge that it is not Brext, per se, that is doing the damage, but Johnson's version of it. But then, the BBC never has been able to manage nuance in this department, and without a lead from Starmer, the bigger complaint is that – like the rest of the legacy media – it has almost completely abandoned the subject.

Here, the Covid-19 pandemic and now the death and funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh has given the media the perfect excuse to abandon Brexit, although any issue at all seems to be more important. In fact, away from the overkill of the headline stories, trivia has taken over as the main preoccupation of the media.

Nevertheless, the Telegraph has just about managed to drag itself away from its in-depth coverage of Colin the Caterpillar vs Cuthbert, Curly and Wiggles, and similar pressing matters, long enough to offer a stilted piece on the outcome of talks between Frost and Maroš Šefcovic over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Talks between officials on the implementation of the new customs arrangements have been going on for a couple of weeks, and "good progress" has been made in that technical work, according to the Commission, although both sides are stressing that significant differences remain and that any breakthrough is some way off.

As to the latest meeting, we are told that this "took place in a constructive, solution-driven atmosphere", which is diplomat-speak for confirming that the parties were restrained from ripping each other's throats out.

But the essential point conveyed is a warning from the Commission to the UK government that any further unilateral action over the Northern Ireland Protocol would be "unacceptable". "Mutually agreed paths towards compliance are key", the Commission says.

Meanwhile, the Commission is warning that it will continue to pursue legal action against the UK "for as long as necessary" over post-Brexit trade issues in Northern Ireland.

Illustrating that the UK is not really taking this issue seriously, we learn that border control posts at Northern Ireland's ports will not be ready before 2023 - despite a date of June 2021 having previously been given.

This was disclosed to a Stormont committee by Department of Agriculture permanent secretary Denis McMahon, who has put the projected date of completion at January 2023. Officials will not have final options ready until October 2021 and the Northern Ireland Executive will need to grant approval before any work gets underway. Construction is then expected to take "more than a year".

Perhaps, though, the delay is not such a bad thing. Separately, we are told that cross-border trade in Ireland "has increased dramatically" in 2021. Ireland's Central Statistics Office (CSO) suggests that in February the value of exports from NI to the Republic of Ireland almost doubled compared to the same month last year. They rose from €145m to €283m, with the Republic's exports to NI up by almost 40 percent from €168m to €232m.

On a year-to-date basis, NI exports to the Republic of Ireland are up 52 percent, with trade the other way increasing by 28 percent. If this continues, and we see a permanent realignment of trade flows, the chances are that there will only be limited need for BCPs at NI ports.

With over 400 financial firms in Britain having shifted activities, 7,400 staff and a combined £1 trillion in assets to hubs in the European Union due to Brexit, with more pain to come, it is interesting to learn that Dublin is the biggest beneficiary of the relocations.

Dublin claims 135 relocations, followed by Paris with 102, Luxembourg 95, Frankfurt 63, and Amsterdam 48. Never let it be said that there are no Brexit benefits. But, so far, Teflon Johnson sails above it all, awash in a sea of trivia.

Also published on Turbulent Times.



Richard North 17/04/2021 link

Afghanistan: lost before it started

Friday 16 April 2021  



I think we can safely leave the Ukraine for a while, in the reasonably certain knowledge that nothing very much is going to happen, by way of military action in the near future – as the US military acknowledge.

As Brexit descends into tedium, marked by the continued political retreat from the subject, therefore, it is an opportune moment to visit another retreat, the Biden decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan, so ending the latest US adventure in this troubled country.

But in a campaign marked by extremely poor intelligence gathering, even by the standards of the US and UK military, we saw an assertion - one of many – that the failure that Biden's announcement represents was entirely or mainly due to the "failure to understand the Afghans and why they were fighting".

There can be no doubt that the pivotal area in the fight for the "hearts and minds" of the Afghanis was Helmand Province, the pacification of which was initially allocated to British-led coalition forces. The areas was subsequently taken over by the US military, to no better effect, again eliciting the confession that, "We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn't know what we were doing".

But, even to this day, there is still little understanding of the roots of the failure in Helmand province, which stems not from the last twenty years of action but from the thirty years or so when the Americans first took an interest in the province, with disastrous effect, before the Soviet invasion.

As I wrote more than a decade ago, when I was taking a daily interest in the progress of the campaign, the key to the pacification strategy was a two-tier process of keeping the Taliban at bay while implementing an ongoing development programme which, in theory, would bring the indigenous population into the fold.

The trouble was, as I then wrote, Helmand was no stranger to development projects. From 1946 to 1979, it had been the subject of one of the largest and most expensive schemes in the history of Afghanistan, known as the Helmand Valley Project.

Yet, far from providing the untold benefits, it turned out to be "doomed to failure", constituting a major factor in pushing Afghanistan a step closer to the USSR and therefore to the Soviet's subsequent invasion of Afghanistan.

It is not difficult to see why the project was launched in the first place. Its importance stemmed s from the river itself, the River Helmand. It was (and is) the longest in Afghanistan, carrying forty percent of the country's total water as it snaked down from the Hindu Kush for 350 miles, to join its major tributary, the Arghandab, at Qala Bost – now called Lashkar Gah.

It is this river, flush with the meltwater of the northern snows, which forms the Helmand Valley as it carves its way through south-western portion of Afghanistan. From there, it continues another 250 miles to the Sistan Basin, spanning the Iran border, losing itself in the salt marshes and lakes of the region, without ever reaching the sea.

Crucially, in Helmand province itself, it serves an area with a mere four inches of rain a year. Without the life-giving waters – which also feed some of the numerous boreholes in the area – there would have been little to support the then population, estimated at 1.07 million. Most of these - either directly or indirectly – earned their livings from agriculture.

The densest agriculture in the central area, the so-called "green zone", provided cover for Taliban movements, while a close network of irrigation ditches and canals makes movement difficult and provides natural fighting positions, from which to ward off coalition troops.

Yet it is this irrigation system which had been at the centre of the Helmand Valley Project all those years before, including a system of reservoirs and dams, the largest dam being further north at Kajaki, also fitted out to provide hydroelectric power.

Nor even had that the first attempt at development. Some of the original system went back into antiquity, with tales of an ancient "Sughra" Canal in the Seraj region. The first modern development had actually started in 1910, when some of the old irrigation canals had been reconstructed. In 1914, the government also constructed the new canals. In the 1930s, with German and Japanese assistance, nine more miles of canals were dug at Boghra.

The purpose of the development, then and later, had been two-fold. It was to improve the water management and thus increase agricultural productivity in the region, but it also aimed to bring a substantial area of land into newly production, especially in the flood plains, where the water would be channelled and the drainage improved.

Precisely that was achieved in the 1930s, when the land in the Seraj district was opened up. The government then took the opportunity to invite Uzbek and Turkamen settlers to farm the land, with unexpected results. Where perhaps 1,000 settlers had been anticipated, about 10,000, including other Afghans from the Helmand area, moved in.

There, in retrospect, almost certainly lay one of the seeds of discord. Pashtun nomadic pastoralists had since time immemorial grazed their animals on the best of this land during the winter before returning to the green mountain pastures in the summer after the snow melt.

Bringing in Uzbeks and Turkamen, some of whom had traditionally been cultivators, from the north would have done nothing to mollify the local Pashtun who regarded the land as their own - even if they had only used it for a few months irregularly each year.

This had the makings of a classic clash - like the Bushmen of the Kalahari - the Israelis taking over Palestinian "wasteland" - or the European settlers of "Happy Valley" in Kenya - marginal Maasai land.

Not until after World War II, however, did major works get underway, although the Afghans themselves managed to add another 16 miles between 1941 and 1946. By then, local engineers were coming up with plans of larger schemes, which required the use of modern equipment and engineering techniques far beyond that which the Afghanis themselves could supply.

With a healthy surplus of foreign currency – mainly in dollars - arising from reduced wartime imports and healthy exports, the government had enough funds to hire foreign expertise. The defeat of Germany and Japan ruled out those countries and Russia and Britain had long been considered foes. But the United States appeared sufficiently remote, disinterested and well equipped to meet the need. So the government turned to the Idaho firm of Morrison-Knudsen, initially as a purely commercial partner.

From detailed accounts of the technical progress of the project, and a (somewhat polemical) historical overview, it was clear that, right from the start, there were grave technical problems which, had they been heeded, would have resulted in a far more limited project.

Not least of the problems was the nature of the subsoil, and the lack of drainage, the combined effects of which brought heavy saline deposits to the surface, considerable waterlogging and silting. With the inherent poor quality of the soil, its lack of conditioning and previous tillage, the land was far from suitable for primitive subsistence cropping, yet that was precisely the purpose for which it was intended.

Alongside the civil engineering works, there was to be a major element of social engineering, resetting Pashtun hill tribes, weaning them off their nomadic existence and introducing them to a more settled, peaceful way of life.

That indeed was achieved. By January 1958, 20,624 acres in Nad-e-ali were settled by 1248 new families, averaging 5-8 persons, and another 100-150 families were awaiting settlement. Each family had an allotment of about 15 acres within one kilometre of the village, as well as a small garden plot adjoining the mud-walled, multi-family home. According to contemporary reports, between 1953 and 1973, 5,486 farm families were settled. Then, from 1973 to 1978, just over 4,000 families were moved in under an accelerated programme.

Before that stage was reached, however, the project had to overcome numerous hurdles, not least as the scope of the scheme expanded, costs spiralled to the extent that by early 1949 the Afghan government was running out of money.

It could, of course, have called a halt to the half-completed works, especially in view of the soil and drainage problems which were becoming apparent, but this would have resulted in a serious loss of face for both the government and the contractor.

The alternative was to turn to the United States and the government-owned Export-Import Bank, which was done in February 1949 with a request for a $55 million loan. This was rejected although a smaller loan of $21 million was approved in November 1949. This was not accepted until April 1950 and it was actually March of 1951 before the government could draw on the loan funds.

It was only at that point that the Afghan government, unable to provide the technical and administrative expertise to continue the partnership, was pressured to hand over the entire responsibility to Morrison-Knudsen which, by December 1952 led to the established the autonomous Helmand Valley Authority (HVA) based on the Tennessee Valley Authority model. The Authority was later reinforced by US government aid employees (pictured) and Peace Corps personnel.

It took complete authority over processing settler applications, determining plot sizes, farms and village locations. It also helped the settlers construct their homes, prepare their land and follow superior cropping and water use practices. It had become, effectively, an all-American project.

Lashkar Gah became a replica of a modern American suburb, to the extent that it was known as "little America". Mainly, it housed American staff and professional Afghan workers brought in from the capital and other provinces, creating an enclave where there was very little mixing - or communication - with the local population.

April 1953 saw the inauguration of the Kajaki Dam, towering 300-feet above the valley, spanning an 887 feet gorge was holding back a 32-mile long reservoir holding 1,495,000 acre-feet of water. But even then, the project was unravelling, as costs spiralled and engineering problems mounted.

February 1960 had the New York Times reporting on the "mistakes" besetting the project, with modern American agricultural machinery "rusting in idleness for years", with critics describing the project as "a comedy of errors". Yet, this was not for want of spending. From 1946 through 1963, to costs reached $150 million, including $60 million or 25 percent of the total US aid to Afghanistan.

As to the settlers, the original policy had been to locate related family groups in single villages, maintaining a degree of tribal and ethnic homogeneity. However, in the early 1970s, after problems with draining the unlevelled fields, the Authority decided to repossess much of the land allocated in order to carry out grading works. The villagers, unconvinced that their land would be returned, met the bulldozers with rifles and refused to be budged.

Following that, the HVA adopted a policy of settling ethnically heterogeneous groups, to avoid strong group loyalties. This not only weakened the settlers politically, it eroded tribal discipline, to the extent possibly that thirty years later, young men were easy prey to Taliban recruiters.

Such a dynamic might have been strengthened by the social inequalities unwittingly perpetuated by the scheme. Existing farmers, used to the soil and the conditions, were better able to adapt to the availability extra water. Many of the settlers, however, often without farming experience, produced lower yields, exacerbating social divisions.

In the absence of a properly functioning financial system, poorer farmers found it almost impossible to get credit, the richer farmers thus being able to afford tractors and other equipment, further widening the social divide and creating, in effect, a social underclass which transcended tribal divisions.

At the end the project was a failure in other ways. Of the 539,834 acres of land intended to be irrigated as a result of the project only 170,000 (about 31 percent) acres actually received adequate water and most of these were already being farmed. Of the several ambitious objectives only flood control seemed to have been achieved.

Of the land settled, between 1956 and 1967 period, some 7,000 acres had been abandoned and, despite the many years of continued effort and enormous subsidies, a large number of nomads left the valley because they could not make a living due to the poor quality of the soil. Many of the yields were lower than before the dams had been built.

Between 1963 and 1965 investigators were finding low crop yields, poor agricultural practices, minimal mechanisation, low fertiliser usage, major weed infestation and poor control programmes. Prices paid for many of the crops were low and marketing limited, while credit was difficult to obtain and the rates exorbitant. Taxes were low, but even then delinquency rates were high.

Interestingly, at that time, no opium was being grown. But already the problems were multiplying. In 1973, inadequate maintenance and water management was being reported, a situation which was to deteriorate with the Communist revolution and the Soviet invasion in 1979.

By 1988-9, as the Soviets departed, the canal and infrastructure in an advanced state of disrepair and surveyors were finding large acreages of poppy growing – the only crop that would thrive in the poor soil left behind after years of "development".

Nearly ten years later, in the Seraj District where it had all started, almost a hundred years previously, a report found poverty and a weak local economy due to high unemployment rate and low agricultural and livestock production levels and quality. The majority of local residents relied on agricultural and livestock activities as their primary source of income but they lacked adequate access to modern farming methods such as improved seeds and chemical fertilisers.

The district also had a high illiteracy rate and most of its schools suffered from the shortage of essential education equipment and teaching materials. The area had limited number of health centres, most of which were inaccessible to residents of remote areas, who further suffered from the uncontrolled spread of infectious diseases.

In 2006 a consultant was despairingly writing that security in the region had deteriorated. In part, he noted, this reflected the farmers' dissatisfaction with local government actions and services. This, he ventured, related to the growing belief that things were not getting better under the present system and that the promises of massive reconstruction were hollow.

He added that, in areas where military operations and bombings had killed civilians, especially women and children, no amount of reconstruction funding would help "re-win the hearts and minds of the people". If you kill a relative of an Afghan, you have made an enemy, and Pashtuns have VERY long memories.

As I then wrote, in could be no coincidence that this and the other areas in the Helmand Valley which had had the most expensive and prolonged "development" in the whole of Afghanistan had become the major poppy-growing areas in Helmand, and the seat of the Taliban power.

Not least of the problems that the coalition forces found was the lack of any cohesive "civil society", with recognised community leaders who could act for and with the approval of the local people. Little did they realise that the TVA had been there before, deliberately breaking up the social cohesion in order to weaken community reaction to the Authority's mistakes.

The mistakes of the past, though, were never to be factored in the policy of the present, thus ensuring that the misadventures could only continue. The battle for the hearts and minds of the population had been lost long before the British troops arrived, in all their ignorance, to attempt the impossible.

Now, as the Taliban crow, "We have won the war, America has lost", it might be useful to reflect that the war was lost a long, long time ago – before it had even started.

Also published on Turbulent Times.



Richard North 16/04/2021 link

Foreign policy: a good time to start

Thursday 15 April 2021  



One small entertainment I allow myself in the few hours that I have spare each week is to build up my collection of model armoured vehicles, mostly to 1/72 scale.

I have been doing this for over ten years, amassing nearly 200 models, of which I have exactly 60 types of tank. My ambition, possibly somewhat forlorn, is to acquire a model of each type of tank which has seen service anywhere in the world, from when the British first fielded their Mark I tanks at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette (part of the Battle of the Somme) on 15 September 1916, to the present day.

That is probably not as ambitious as it sounds, as in the process of a little more than 100 years since the tank was invented, there have probably been not much more than 100 distinct types built, with the largest number of types appearing during the Second World War.

During that period, from 1939-1945, it may surprise some people to learn that the operator of largest number of distinct types was the British Army (although not all saw action). As last count, I put the number at 20 (including US types), which is quite a staggering array of firepower.

However, for most amateur historians in this field (and I would myself as one), we are imbued with the tales of Allied inferiority when compared with the Germans (although, arguably, the Soviets outclassed them in the later years of the war). The perceived inferiority of the Shermans and the Churchills against the German Panthers and Tigers during the Normandy campaign is a matter of historical record.

However, it was not always so and recently I have been focusing on early British tanks, of the 1939-41 period. And while it is fair to say that we built some serious lemons (the Cruiser Mk I and II and the Matilda Mk I, for instance), a shining exception is the Matilda Mk II (pictured).

What emerges from a study of this vehicle is quite how good it was for the period. Its frontal armour was impervious to all German anti-tank guns, short of the Flak 88, and its 2-pounder gun (40mm calibre) was capable of taking out any of the German (and Italian) tanks in the field.

The use of the Matilda II by the BEF in the one and only armoured counter-attack in Northern France, in the Battle of Arras on 21 May 1940, so spooked the German High Command that it is credited with causing Hitler to issue his famous "stop" order on the panzer advance, thereby permitting the evacuation at Dunkirk and possibly changing the course of the war.

The point of this lengthy introduction, apart from a modicum of self-indulgence, is to support an argument that, in the field of human conflict, forces will rarely prevail unless they have the necessary equipment to give them (at the very least) a tactical advantage – an argument that might go back to Agincourt, where English archers prevailed against a numerically superior French army.

And it is here, that history might guide us in evaluating the current situation as between the Russian forces massing on the Ukrainian border, and the Ukrainian forces themselves. By any measure, it has to be said that much of the Russian equipment being fielded is far superior to that which opposes them, giving the Russians a clear qualitative, if not quantitative advantage.

Equipment, of course, is only part of the story. The quality of the generalship and political will are vital parts of the equation. However, it might be said that the equipment (to an extent) reflects both these elements. Good generals, with political support, will ensure that troops have the right equipment – and vice versa as we saw in the UK's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Although I would take care not to over-emphasise the role of equipment, though, I would nevertheless argue that it is a vital factor in evaluating both intentions and capabilities in any emerging hotspot – as is the case currently with the Ukraine.

But it also helps us evaluate the quality of any analysis, as to whether there is an intelligent appreciation of the type and scale of the equipment being deployed. I've alluded to this before, but now we have The Sun describing clearly identifiable 2S35 Koalitsiya-SVs as "tanks".

Given the role of artillery in the earlier clashes between Ukrainian and Russian-backed forces, the presence of this advanced equipment is very much a game-changer. Reports which mark the units as "tanks" or generic "military equipment", are written by children who have no understanding of the implications of what they are looking at.

But, when it comes to equipment and the intentions of the Russians, it is not only what we're seeing that matters – it is what we're not seeing that counts. If the Russians had in mind a major armoured push, perhaps aiming to cut the Ukraine in two, with counter-attacks from Crimea and Belgorod, one might have thought that they would hold off for a while until their lead formations had taken delivery of sufficient numbers of the next-generation T-14 Armata tanks and the matching MICV platforms – not due until next year.

Arguably, with the types of equipment in place – and the numbers of troops deployed - the Russians are gearing up for local interventions to block any Ukrainian incursions into Donbass, rather than contemplating vast, strategic sweeps, settling control of eastern Ukraine once and for all. In effect, the picture on the ground suggests no more than a holding operation.

With that in mind, it is perhaps easier to see past the superficial analysis which the UK media has on offer, with the Guardian writing of Russia’s "unexplained build-up along Ukraine's border".

The paper seems to consider only two options, "an attention-grabbing feint or a prelude to an escalation", suggesting that the outcome "will depend on the Kremlin's will". It then goes om to say that, through the build-up, "Russia has already signalled that if a larger war does take place, it is prepared to deliver a hammer blow to its neighbour".

But actually, while the presence of elite forces and high-grade equipment points to the Kremlin's serious intentions, the force mix and scale does tend to point to a reaction force, there to deter Ukrainian forces from attempting serious incursions across the Line of Contact.

This much is reflected in the patronising report from the BBC, which has the sense to cite Andrei Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council. His take is that the Russian moves are about "deterrence". He draws attention to Kiev's reinforcements in eastern Ukraine and argues that Russia's actions are to avert any move to retake areas controlled by Russian-backed militants.

When this fits in with the facts on the ground, then we really don't need to divine deeper motivations, such as an attempt to block Ukraine's membership of NATO (which is not really on the cards), or sending messages to Biden.

But there is another element which mitigates against large-scale military action by the Russians. Kortunov points to there being little sense that all-out war would be popular among Russians already coping with Covid, sanctions and the impact of a low oil price. He believes the "mobilising potential" of foreign policy adventures is now "almost depleted" with people more concerned with their own problems.

When one bears in mind the domestic response to the Afghan war, which eventually forced the Soviet withdrawal from the region – and played a part in the downfall of the USSR – even Putin will need to think twice about mounting a major, and protracted military adventure.

What could make the difference, though, is overt Western support for Kiev, which might engender overconfidence in the Ukrainian government, to the extent that it risks taking on the Russians. With that, most analysts concede that the situation could quickly spiral out of control.

It is thus vitally important that Western governments read the situation correctly, including the UK government. Yet, all we have for the moment is th3e G7 Foreign Ministers' statement, which aligns the British with the US and the EU position, calling on Russia "to cease its provocations and to immediately de-escalate tensions".

Ostensibly, this does not demonstrate any great appreciation of the situation and risks sending the wrong message to Kiev. If an independent "Global Britain" is to make a difference, now would be a good time to start.

Also published on Turbulent Times.



Richard North 15/04/2021 link

Brexit: those trade figures

Wednesday 14 April 2021  



As before with the January trade figures, it is better to by-pass the legacy media altogether and go straight to the ONS website for the February results.

There, by way of the highlights, we will find that exports of goods to the EU, excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, partially rebounded in February 2021, increasing by £3.7 billion (46.6 percent) after a record fall of £5.7 billion (negative 42.0 percent) in January.

The increases in exports to the EU in February 2021, we are told, were driven by machinery and transport equipment and chemicals, particularly cars and medicinal and pharmaceutical products.

Imports of goods from the EU, excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, showed a weaker increase of £1.2 billion (7.3 percent) in February 2021 after a record fall of £6.7 billion (negative 29.7 percent) in January.

The more modest increase in imports from the EU were driven by machinery and transport equipment, and chemicals, particularly cars and medicinal and pharmaceutical products.

Interestingly, total imports of goods from non-EU countries, excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, increased by £1.7 billion (10.2 percent) in February 2021 while exports fell by £1.5 billion (negative 10.5 percent).

The total trade deficit for February 2021, excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, widened by £0.5 billion to £1.4 billion; imports increased by £2.9 billion (6.5 percent) and exports increased by £2.3 billion (5.4 percent).

The total trade deficit, excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, narrowed by £2.1 billion to £6.3 billion in the three months to February 2021; imports decreased by £5.7 billion (negative 3.8 percent), while exports decreased by £3.6 billion (negative 2.5 percent).

Trade in services imports and exports have consistently remained at a lower level since Q2 2020 as services accounts such as travel and transport trade continue to be affected by coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions.

Given the circumstances, the ONS cautions that recent trade estimates are subject to more uncertainty than usual. Monthly data are erratic, it says, and it encourage users to apply caution when making short-term comparisons of trade movements.

January 2021, it reminds us, saw significant falls in imports and exports of goods from the EU, particularly in machinery and transport equipment, and chemicals. The data from that month were the first to show trade after the transition period ended on 31 December 2020.

In addition to the changes facing the UK after the transition period ended, England joined the rest of the UK in another national lockdown at the beginning of January 2021, which continued through February. The falls are also consistent with the unwinding of stocks, after businesses stockpiled in November and December 2020 in preparation for the end of the transition period.

The ONS goes on to say that the 7-day average of daily shipping visits increased from 290 visits on 31 January 2021 to 344 on 28 February 2021. The Office expects shipping indicators to be related to the import and export of goods, and therefore these early indicators suggest partial recovery consistent with the increases seen in February trade figures.

Despite the evidence of partial recovery from the substantial January falls in some commodities, though, it states that it is still too soon to determine to what extent the monthly changes in trade for January and February can be directly attributed to the end of the transition period.

From evidence adduced by the Business Insights and Conditions Survey (BICS), it is suggested that additional paperwork and higher transportation costs were the biggest challenges facing UK importers and exporters in February, which most businesses attribute to leaving the transition period.

However, trade patterns are likely to also reflect the impacts of the unwinding of stocks, coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic restrictions, and lower demand due to the UK and global economic recession. It is too soon, says the ONS, to be able to assess to what extent recent trading patterns are short-term or reflect more lasting structural changes.

Adding some detail to the broad sweep of figures, the ONS notes that the increase in exports of machinery and transport equipment to the EU was driven by a £0.2 billion (26.3 percent) rise in exports of cars. The monthly export of cars to the EU in February 2021, it says, was at similar levels to what was seen in February 2020.

However, the increase in car exports has not seen a corresponding increase in manufacturing activity. The latest figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) suggest that car manufacturing for exports decreased 8.1 percent between January and February 2021.

Illustrating the interplay of the various factors involved, it suggests that this is due to the ongoing impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic as showrooms remain closed in the UK and across Europe.

Despite the ongoing pandemic challenges, though, the EU remains the UK's largest car buyer as demand for UK vehicles remains high. Despite the 14.0 percent fall in overall UK car production, production for electric vehicles, plug-in hybrid and hybrid vehicles increased by 25.3 percent.

This, in part, is believed to be a response to government initiatives such as the introduction of Clean Air Zones and improved charger infrastructure, driving demand for electric vehicles.

Total exports of chemicals increased by £0.5 billion (13.4 percent) in February 2021, with a £0.9 billion increase in exports of chemicals to EU countries, specifically Belgium.

Significantly, the increase in exports of chemicals to Belgium was largely seen in medicinal and pharmaceutical products. Countries in Europe began to see significant rises in cases of the (COVID-19) coronavirus throughout February, increasing demand for medical products.

Then the exports figures for food and live animals to the EU are especially interesting. They actually increased by £0.3 billion (77.4 percent) in February 2021, after being significantly impacted in January.

Confounding the wailing from some quarters, exports of fish and shellfish to the EU also saw an uptick in February 2021. Exporters, it seems, have adjusted to new regulations following the end of the transition period. Says the ONS, the disruptions to food exports in January 2021 appear to have largely been overcome and may have only had short-term impacts on trade.

As for non-EU trade and the prospects for "Global Britain", total exports to non-EU countries fell by £1.5 billion (negative 10.5 percent) in February 2021, driven by a £0.6 billion (negative 24.2 percent) fall in exports of "miscellaneous manufactures".

Illustrating how easily one month's figures can be distorted, the lower value of miscellaneous manufactures exports in February is partly explained by the export of a single high value "erratic good" in January. The nature of this "good" is not specified.

The total trade deficit for February 2021, excluding non-monetary gold and other precious metals, widened by £0.5 billion to £1.4 billion. This was due to imports increasing by £2.9 billion and exports increasing by a lesser £2.3 billion.

Removing the effect of inflation, trade in goods commodities volumes largely followed the same trend as current prices. An exception to this was trade in fuels, which saw decreases in February following an erratic 2020 picture. In February 2021, imports and exports of fuels fell by £0.7 billion (19.5 percent) and £0.5 billion (6.9 percent) respectively on the month.

Needless to say, there are those who have been quick to overlay their brand of spin on the figures, although the more sanguine commentators have for some time been expecting a slow-burn effect.

For my part, I entirely concur with the ONS view, and stand by my comments from my earlier piece, that it is far too early to draw any firm conclusions. The data are far too “noisy” and many of the effects due to Brexit many take some time to appear, especially when Covid continues to be a confounding factor.

Soon enough, we'll see which way the wind is blowing, by which time we might even have more pressing things to concern us.

Also published on Turbulent Times.



Richard North 14/04/2021 link

Brexit: wishful thinking

Tuesday 13 April 2021  



There is a limit to the number of times I can write about the same things, even if they concern the all-absorbing issue of Brexit. One of those which keeps popping up is the idea of a "veterinary deal" to ease the passage of foods of animal origin into Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, and presumably into EU Member States.

Yesterday, we saw it here in the Guardian, with an unsourced piece from "Brexit correspondent" Lisa O'Carroll telling us that the UK is edging towards a new deal with the EU on Brexit arrangements.

Mirroring a piece on the RTE website, we are told that this "deal" has the potential for easing border checks on certain goods, to which effect unnamed officials in London and Brussels have been involved in intense "technical talks" in the past two weeks over the future checks on food, plants and parcels going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

Undoubtedly, there is something going on here. I've been seeing such vague references for some weeks, alongside the strange disappearance of any news about the infringement proceedings that the EU is supposed to be pursuing against the UK government.

But while detail is completely lacking – on an issue where detail is everything - O'Carrol manages to tell us that Downing Street's official spokesman said the discussions had been constructive but that there were "still significant differences that need to be resolved".

This was the sort of phrasing – or something very much like it – that we were getting through the latter stages of the negotiations on what eventually became the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which left unresolved precisely those issues which seem to be being discussed now, and probably for much the same reasons.

Meanwhile, says O'Carroll, there have been suggestions that the border checks could be significantly eased if the UK adopted an agreement along the lines of that operating for Australia and New Zealand agrifood trade. However, she adds, "industry insiders" say this would not address loyalist concerns as it still requires paperwork.

We know the sort of "insiders" who have been pushing this idea – mainly representatives of trade associations who failed to see coming the impact of Brexit on food industries and who are now thrashing around with increasing desperation, looking for a way out for their beleaguered members.

But, as an illustration for how easily the technical language becomes debased, we only have to look at O'Carroll's latest offering. Although she writes about an agreement along the lines of that operating for Australia and New Zealand agrifood trade, all she is doing is pocking multiple errors into a single sentence.

There is, for instance, no common agreement operating for Australia and New Zealand. There is a special agreement for New Zealand, but this does not include Australia. And neither does it cover the "agrifood trade", as such – merely a limited range of products of animal origin.

It is here that I've lost track of the number of times I've written about the New Zealand agreement, most recently here and here. but it must be clear to anyone who has read the raft of documentation and, in particular, the 2015 amendment that this is not an easy option.

In prosaic terms, one must appreciate that the New Zealand economy depends to a great extent on its meat and dairy exports and has thus geared its industries towards meeting the disparate regulatory requirements of its customers.

In the UK, export is ancillary to servicing the domestic market and it would hardly be possible to cope with the specific controls which are imposed on third countries. It simply would not be economically practical.

To that effect, there is a glimm4er of understanding from Peter Hardwick from the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) – but only a glimmer.

This can be seen from his discussion of "new-found trade friction" between the UK and the EU which, he says, explains the declining level of red meat exports from the UK.

At last the industry seems to have come to terms with the fact that many of the controls traders are encountering are systemic and will lead to a longer term, possibly permanent, loss of trade with the EU.

Even the most optimistic exporters, we are told, are talking about 15 percent, and most around the 25 percent mark as an estimate as to what this long-term loss of trade might be. Some fear this is much higher.

There are three key factors, Hardwick writes: cost, time and the loss of groupage. The loss of groupage, he says, has had a massive effect and, broadly, the costs of exporting have doubled in most cases. Increased costs include the costs of certification, customs procedures and clearance and the corresponding charges from agents and increased charges from hauliers.

In the case of the latter, as hauliers have to factor in waiting times at BCPs they are charging for this at £45 to £55 per hour. Some don't even want the work because of the uncertainty. Importing customers are also facing import customs charges ranging from €250 to €500 per load, and many are finding this a major disincentive to importing from GB.

End to end, the additional time required for EHC processes, customs processes, border delays and waiting times is adding a good 24 hours to delivery times, often more and this affects freshness and shelf-life which are critical in a fast-moving fresh trade.

Finally, he concedes, groupage trade has effectively ceased. Within a few days of the end of the Transition Period hauliers, understandably, withdrew from offering groupage for products of animal origin.

This is not just about the complexities of certifying multiple consignments and sealing vehicles but about the commercial risk of an entire truckload being turned back because one pallet is rejected.

The effect on trade, Hardwick argues, is disproportionate, because consignments are often very high value, low volume products. Sending chilled meat using groupage, he states, is no longer an option. But there again, we see the refrain that there needs to be a more comprehensive SPS agreement between EU and UK "that markedly reduces the regulatory burden and facilitates trade".

Well, there is scope for reducing the regulatory burden, not least if both parties develop electronic certification systems. But, as the New Zealand agreement indicates, this requires a secure link enabling data transfer between the respective systems. And, as electronic certification provides equivalent guarantees to paper based certification, the Parties have to agree a legally watertight legal mechanism to enable this to happen.

One of these days, I suppose, the pundits will actually read the New Zealand documentation, and perhaps talk to some established third country exporters to see what the system entails, instead of building castles in the air, based on unrealisable hopes.

And even then, when the chips are down, any aspirants for an easier life must understand that any concessions which the EU gives the UK cannot go further than is on offer to other third countries, where similar conditions apply, without breaching WTO trade discrimination rules.

However, so entrenched is the wishful thinking in the system – compounded by the staggering ignorance in the political and media domains – that I am not at all confident that we are about to see an outbreak of realism.



Richard North 13/04/2021 link

Foreign policy: re-thinking Ukraine

Monday 12 April 2021  



The art of prediction in war, as in peace, is fraught with difficulty, but attempts to divine the immediate future nevertheless proceed apace, especially in the troubled border region of Ukraine where the Russian military build-up continues.

Whether or not this inevitably means war is hotly disputed, as is the question of which party – the Ukraine government or the Kremlin – is the prime mover in stoking up the tensions.

And in what may or may not be a prelude to another round of blood-letting, both sides are fighting an increasingly intensive propaganda war, both for domestic purposes and to elicit support from – or deter – interested third parties such as the United States.

For the western media, the increased military and political tension has only recently been of interest, the New York Times, for instance, not devoting significant attention until 30 March when it noted a sharp escalation of tensions after an unusually prolonged exchange of fire over the so-called Line of Contact in the Donetsk Region of eastern Ukraine.

At that point, the NYT reported that the Ukrainian parliament had acknowledged that a ceasefire, negotiated the previous July had broken down, claiming a "significant increase in shelling and armed provocations by the armed forces of the Russian Federation" – while referring to the activities of the Russian-backed separatists.

In fact, there have been 29 separate ceasefires since the start of the conflict in March 2014, with the latest effectively having been over at the end of January, while efforts by the OSCE and others to broker a permanent end to the conflict had stalled.

Since the end of January, therefore, there has been a steady escalation of military action, with opposing forces moving back into the positions they occupied in 2018, along a 250-mile line of trenches redolent of the fortifications of the 1914-18 Great War. Especially relevant to understanding the position of the separatists and the Russians is a detailed early analysis in the Russian-language The Voice of Sevastopol (The Voice) which on 15 March set its context for the movement into the region of Russian military assets, by asking "Is the Ukrainian army preparing to attack in Donbass?"

The paper thus points to "confrontational rhetoric" from Kiev and repression of political forces which are calling for the restoration of relations with Russia. Thus the escalating situation is framed as the Russian military moving into position so as to be ready, if needed, to protect the Russian-speaking Donbass separatists from Ukrainian "aggression".

What seemingly makes the difference from the earlier military actions, when the two sides fought each other to a standstill, are several factors. Firstly, with more and better-trained troops, improved weapons in greater numbers, and more effective support, the Ukrainian General Staff believe they have a decisive advantage over the separatists, despite what they claim is direct Russian reinforcement.

Additionally, the General Staff have been studying the Nagorno-Karabakh war between Azerbaijan, supported by Turkey, over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, protected by Armenia with the support of the Russians. What marked out this conflict, which lasted from 27 September to 10 November 2020, was the extensive use by the Azerbaijanis of drone strikes in combination with the effective use of electronic sensors and long-range artillery.

The use of drones, it was said at the time, offer small countries very cheap access to tactical aviation and precision guided weapons, enabling them to destroy an opponent's much-costlier equipment such as tanks and air defence systems. In any event, this equipment appears to have given the Azerbaijanis the advantage in bringing the conflict to a rapid conclusion.

Whether this experience has emboldened Kiev remains to be seen, but is certainly a factor to which The Voice draws attention. But, it also suggests that, even with this technology, a necessary condition for success is the non-intervention of the Russians.

Given that an attack across the border with Donbass could incur major troop losses and heavy civilian casualties, it is suggested that the Russians might instead try to cut the Ukraine in two, with counter-attacks from Crimea and Belgorod, with a simultaneous attack on Kiev from Bryansk and, possibly, Belarus.

At the moment, it is conceded that such an open invasion looks unrealistic, it is certainly the case that, over the last six weeks or so, the Russians have deployed significant forces which keep that option open if needed.

On that basis, while conventional wisdom has Putin as the aggressor poised to invade Donbass, there is an alternative view of the situation This has the Russians responding to the threat of renewed violence by positioning sufficient credible forces in the region to act as a deterrent, forcing the parties back to the table to consider the OSCE "roadmap" for peace.

Meanwhile, such minimal reportage as we are seeing in the UK is both lightweight and predictable in tone. We have, for instance, the Mail reporting on the latest military clash - in which a Ukrainian soldier is said to have been killed – while having foreign secretary Dominic Raab urging Russia to "immediately de-escalate" the situation.

From a Russian perspective, that would appear to be a complete misreading of the position on the ground. And if the Russians see themselves as responding to Ukrainian "aggression", they will not be inclined to respond positively to what will be seen as Raab's knee-jerk intervention.

Despite this, The Times dismisses Russian concerns as "the Kremlin's mischief" and argues that Russia is again testing the West. Nor is comprehension assisted by the superficial, knowledge-free approach of the Mail which labels a photograph of what are probably 2S19 MSTA self-propelled guns (or something very similar) as Russia moving "tanks" (pictured).

As I suggested earlier, it is not only the fact of the Russian military movements that are important. It is also the type and quality of the weapons being deployed, alongside the presence of elite units, which makes the action credible.

Clearly, the presence in the region of these powerful, long-rage artillery pieces gives the Russians a highly flexible capability which will help neutralise any advantage the Ukrainian military thinks it might have.

If the pieces are, in fact, the 2S35 Koalitsiya-SV, rumoured to be on their way to the Ukrainian border - with the ability to conduct high-precision fire from a distance of about 70 km – this adds a further dimension to the Russian response.

Currently, the Kremlin is firmly denying this it is "moving towards war", with Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov stressing that Russia "will not remain indifferent" to the fate of Russian speakers who live in the conflict-torn region, while asserting that, "Russia is making every possible effort to help resolve this conflict".

Now, with Brexit, the UK is no longer tied to the EU position, which commits unconditional support to Ukraine, there is room for a more nuanced approach to the situation which would stop short of automatically branding the Kremlin as the aggressor – recalling that it was the EU's interference on Russia's doorstep which is, at the very least, partly responsible for the current situation.

For those who constantly demand to see a "Brexit bonus", the opportunity to re-think our foreign policy is surely one. And that would argue for revisting our previously fixed positions on matters such as Ukraine.

Also published on Turbulent Times.



Richard North 12/04/2021 link

Media: a sense of duty

Sunday 11 April 2021  



The death of HRH the Duke of Edinburgh is, without the slightest shadow of doubt, an important event, and a moment of great sadness to the Queen and the Royal Family.

That said, his death wasn't the only thing happening in the world, although you would have struggled to find anything else in the broadcast media on the Friday afternoon. And come the next day, the Daily Mail boasted of its longest edition in history at 144 pages rolling off the printing presses "as Britain mourns the death of Prince Philip". So self-absorbed had it become that it even published a "news" story on how this extravagance was produced.

It wasn't always like that. I recall reading a number of newspapers covering the outbreak of war in September 1939 and, although most national newspapers largely gave over their front pages to the event, they did cover other news as well.

But, over the years, and with greater intensity over the last decade, the media have lost any semblance of restraint. Given any event of any significance, they abandon any pretence of covering the news agenda and devote themselves to that single issue, to the exclusion of all else.

This time, though – despite the gravity of the moment – some people had had enough. As The Times records, under the headline, "Viewers reach for the remote as broadcasters clear schedules for Prince Philip", on television on Friday night, the Duke of Edinburgh was everywhere — but the ratings battle was won by a motley crew of armchair TV critics holding forth on Line of Duty and Louis Theroux’s latest documentary.

Gogglebox, which started at 9pm on Channel 4, was the most-viewed programme on a single channel on Friday, attracting 4.2 million viewers. All the main broadcasters suffered pronounced slumps in their viewing figures as they shelved scheduled primetime programming in favour of rolling royal news.

The decision was hardly universally popular: the BBC was forced to take the unusual step of setting up a dedicated complaints page as the extent of its multi-channel royal coverage drew protests from viewers.

The Observer takes the story further, recording that BBC One and BBC Two cleared their schedules of Friday night staples, including EastEnders, Gardeners’ World and the final of MasterChef to simulcast pre-recorded tributes from the Duke of Edinburgh’s children.

It appears, though, that TV viewers were not best pleased. BBC One, which is traditionally the channel that Britons turn on at moments of national significance, was down six percent on the previous week.

For BBC Two the decision was disastrous – it lost two-thirds of its audience, with only an average of 340,000 people tuning in at any time between 7pm and 11pm. ITV suffered a similar drop after it ditched its Friday night schedule to broadcast tributes to the duke. The highest rated programme on Friday, with 4.2m viewers, was Gogglebox on Channel 4.

Says the Observer, the BBC's handling of Philip’s death points to a deeper issue over the ability of a national broadcaster to force the country together to mourn a single individual, in an era where audiences are fragmented and less deferential.

When Diana, Princess of Wales died in a car crash in 1997, most of the UK population had only just gained access to a fifth television channel. Although the BBC’s reach among the UK population remains enormous, the growth of Netflix and YouTube means audiences have somewhere else to turn.

Matthew Bannister, who was controller of BBC radio in 1997, recalls that: "It was an extremely difficult and extremely different set of circumstances. We had in 1997 the death of a 36-year-old woman in a car crash coming completely out of the blue in the middle of the night. Whereas now we're talking about the death of a 99-year-old man, which is very sad, but not unexpected and not shocking in the same way".

Many other newspapers have piled in to cover the BBC story, even the Express which, without so much as a blush given its own extensive coverage, offers the headline: "BBC inundated with complaints about 'wall to wall coverage' of Prince Philip's death".

The BBC has received so many complaints about their "wall-to-wall coverage" of Prince Philip's death that it has set up a streamlined system for viewers to formally make their criticism known, the paper says.

It is joined by the Telegraph, which covers much the same ground. However, this paper adds that the move to set up a special complaints website has prompted criticism from "royal experts", who say it has given "special legitimacy" to negative reactions.

Richard Fitzwilliams, the royal commentator, has told The Telegraph: "The BBC’s coverage after the passing of the Duke of Edinburgh, has, as far as I have seen and heard, been exemplary so far. Any viewers who wish to send in a complaint to the BBC are always free to do so. However, to put up a special page for complaints is an extraordinary thing to do, as it appears to give them a special legitimacy".

As today's papers are once again dominated by the royal death, evident here is a complete lack of self-awareness. Far from abating, the coverage in the Sundays is just as intense as it has been, with much coverage of the 21-gun salutes (one pictured). At we're seeing gunners "taking the knee" in an honourable cause.

But so marked is the retreat from anything resembling a news agenda, that it has prompted the Independent to publish a piece headed: "All the news you missed amid wall-to-wall Prince Philip coverage". For a man who dismissed The Times as a "Murdoch rag", I somehow think Prince Phillip might have approved.

Apologists for the BBC's coverage suggest that the corporation is doomed to be criticised by all sides, with the Observer citing the "right-wing" Defund the BBC campaign, described it as "disgraceful" that the corporation was making it easier to complain about its coverage, saying: "The anti-British BBC has set up a form to encourage complaints about the volume of coverage of Prince Philip’s death".

This, of course, misses the point that the media coverage, in general, been vastly over-the-top, representing a self-indulgent tendency on the part of the media which seems to suggest an unwholesome detachment from reality. The tendency is for the media to be more interested in certain things that their audiences, making the arrogant assumption that, because they are interested, we must also be.

For my part, the excessive coverage diminishes the event. Gone are those two crucial elements of dignity and restraint, the exaggerated response inviting irritation and even ridicule in what should be a solemn occasion.

And while the media luvvies and the self-important commentariat indulge themselves, there is a price to pay – the so-called opportunity cost. The focus on this one event, almost to the exclusion of everything else, leaves issues which should be reported to go wanting. But the rest of the world – or even this nation – has not stopped because Prince Phillip has died.

Long before he died, we have seen the death of any sense of proportion in the media, and that corrosive self-indulgence distorting the news agenda. Yet, oddly enough, the Mail gives pride of place to a quote by the Duke, with him declaring: "Everyone has to have a sense of duty. A duty to society, to their family".

Sadly for us, the media seems to think that delivering the news is no longer part of their duty to society. We are all the poorer for it.

Also published on Turbulent Times.



Richard North 11/04/2021 link
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