The Tories and Europe: a moral reckoning

We cannot rely on Obama to shame Cameron over Europe

Jonathan Freedland is right to call the media out in his column today on their shameful silence over the Conservatives' sinister European alliance. The mainstream media, most notably the BBC, have consistently failed to scrutinise Michal Kaminski's disturbing political record. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that journalists are putting their Tory sources before their ethical responsibilities.

As he writes:

[W]here is the outrage? Where is the revulsion at David Cameron becoming partners with men who cheer those who fought for Hitler and against Churchill? The Guardian, the Observer, the New Statesman and now the Jewish Chronicle have been shining a light in this dark corner, but from the rest of the media there has been little more than silence.

Despite the attempts of Kaminski's apologists, including Iain Dale and Stephen Pollard, to present the head of the Tories' Eurosceptic group as a moderate Atlanticist, it is clear he is nothing of the sort. This is a man who first denied and then admitted to wearing the Chrobry Sword, a notorious fascist symbol. This is a man who still defends his past membership of the far-right National Revival of Poland. This is a man who not only believes his country should not have apologised for a 1941 massacre of at least 300 Jews but suggests that Jewish involvement with the Communist Party is morally equivalent to this crime.

That the Obama administration should be troubled by this state of affairs is no surprise. Obama is the most pro-European US president for decades and, like his predecessors, wants to deal with a Europe that is united and strong. So the question remains, why has Cameron taken this bizarre risk?

It's important to remember that Cameron's pledge to withdraw from the European People's Party was first and foremost a political move, designed to outflank his right-wing leadership rival Liam Fox. But beyond this, his Eurosceptic alliance reflects the revival of the debased realist belief that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend".

Just as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were prepared to support General Pinochet and the Contras as bulwarks against communism, so Conservatives today are willing to align themselves with the far right in opposition to a united Europe.

The US is clearly troubled by the geopolitical implications of Cameron's decision, but there is unlikely to be a moral reckoning. In any case, it is not one we should outsource to the Obama administration. As a political issue Europe has never detained either the electorate or the media for long. In response, the Conservatives believe they can masquerade as progressives at home while supporting reactionaries abroad.

The challenge for all Europeans is to destroy this moral complacency -- and soon.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.