Northern Irish police use water cannon on an Orangeman marcher in July 2013. Photo: Getty
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Laurie Penny on anti-protest equipment: In London, the only choice the poor and discontented get is this: water cannon or rubber bullets

The Met wants the weapon ready for use this summer. But the question should not be why now but why at all.

London is a city that resists anno­tation. Graffiti, especially the political sort, gets scrubbed away as quickly as it appears. But in the boroughs where the Metropolitan Police’s controversial “stop-and-search” policy has made a generation of black and Asian youths feel unwelcome in their own city, one tag – “ACAB” – keeps getting scrawled in angry capitals on walls and hoardings in the margins of urban space. You can even see the letters faintly on Google Maps, badly erased from the wall of Tottenham Police Station.

If you associate with a lot of anarchists, squatters or people under the age of 25, you will probably know that “ACAB” stands for “All Cops Are Bastards”. Whether or not you agree with the statement, it is hard to disagree that relations between civilians and the police, always a better barometer of the public mood than any poll, are not friendly.

The Met and the Mayor of London want water cannon ready for use this summer. Although these have been used for decades in Northern Ireland, they have not yet been part of the machinery of riot control on the so-called British mainland. The mayor will soon decide whether to spend £200,000, at a
time of drastic budget cuts, on high-pressure water jets designed to clear rioters from the streets. At the public consultation I attended on 17 February at City Hall, the police officers tasked with making the case for water cannon in London had profoundly misjudged the mood in the room.

The audience was full of middle-aged academics, journalists, teachers and charity workers, the sorts of people who go to anti-war protests with foil-wrapped sandwiches and a flask of tea. These, technically, are the kinds of “peaceful protesters” the Metropolitan Police are supposed to be protecting from the “pure criminality” of young rioters – but the unrest of the austerity years and the savage response of law enforcement have made the precarious middle classes feel a new sense of solidarity with the urban poor. Several members of the audience stood up to tell the assembled officers how they or their children had been assaulted while attending public demonstrations.

What had been intended as a genteel, perfunctory public presentation descended into chaos and shouting: at several points I wondered if the deputy mayor Stephen Greenhalgh would get out the water jets then and there. “It is the responsibility of the police to preserve life,” barked Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley. At this, there was uproar. The name of Mark Duggan, the Tottenham man whose death at the hands of the Met sparked the 2011 riots, rang out. Footage of those riots failed to provoke the intended outrage. “That was a reaction to the police murdering someone!” yelled a student at the side of the hall.

Then an elderly man, Dietrich Wagner, stood up in the front row clutching his cane. He spoke quietly, in German; a polite young lady in a dark coat translated for him and steered him so he was facing the right direction. Wagner is blind. The pensioner’s eyes were destroyed by water cannon four years ago during a protest in Stuttgart.

Wagner told the officers present that he had travelled to London to “stop this nonsense”. If he had been outraged, weeping, taking off his thick spectacles to show the ruined pits where his eyes used to be, the officers might have been able to brush it off as a publicity stunt. But he was soft-spoken as he described how the water weapons had been turned on a screaming crowd with nowhere to go, how the jets had got stronger and stronger and the high-pressure hosing had shattered the bone behind his eyes.

“Why isn’t Boris here to hear this?” yelled a voice from the crowd. Neither the mayor nor the police commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, had shown up. The deputy commissioners sat grimly under a Power­Point demonstration plastered with the Met’s Orwellian new slogan: “Total policing”. Well, it was certainly total something.

The police want to convince the public that water cannon are no more dangerous than mounted officers, batons or rubber bullets in a situation of civil unrest. But concerned Londoners want to convince the police that officers should not be using any lethal weaponry against citizens who are exercising their democratic right to protest. The question is not whether water cannon will be used, or whether or not they are dangerous – doubtless the answer is yes, they will and yes, they are. The question is how it has come to this.

Why does the Metropolitan Police want water cannon right now? It was impossible to get a straight answer from Mark Rowley on why precisely city officials are so anxious to have the weaponry ready in time for the summer. He fell silent when asked if he predicted further riots this year. We were reassured that water weapons would be “rarely used and rarely seen”.

Water cannon are the sexy designer underwear of the modern police arsenal. It’s not whether you do anything with them that counts, but the way they make you feel. If you’re packing that sort of specialist gear, you feel cheeky and confident and just a little bit daring, and yes, it’s pretty expensive for something you’ll probably never use, though you secretly hope that some day you might get the chance. It’s even better if you make people know you’ve got them – for example, if you hold a high-profile public consultation about the brutal anti-riot kit you’re about to buy.

Stephen Reid, one of the organisers of the campaign against water cannon, was also a founding member of the anti-austerity protest group UK Uncut. He is very clear about why this is happening: at a time of austerity and increasing inequality, the only choice being offered to the young and poor of the capital is whether we would prefer the water cannon or rubber bullets. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.