Is WikiLeaks grinding to a halt?

It's hard to undock Assange from WikiLeaks. And that's a problem.

Who wasn't secretive enough in their mission to make secretive things less secretive? The accusations are flying between Wikileaks and its former partners, and Julian Assange is getting dragged into the whole mess, once again hitting the headlines; but now, the organisation of which he has become the public face seems to be getting more attention for his rows and behaviour rather than the news it's breaking.

I suppose the problem with the Assange/WikiLeaks thing is that Assange isn't WikiLeaks, but at the same time he is. His glowering face looks down at you from the Cablegate and Wikileaks pages, reminding you of who is at the centre of this all. Never knowingly troubled by a tremendously self-effacing nature, WikiLeaks proclaims "HELP WIKILEAKS KEEP GOVERNMENTS OPEN". That's some claim.

The banner is a bit of a nod to Jimmy Wales's ubiquitous appearances on Wikipedia's pages a while ago, where the founder would regularly pop up and plead for a bit of cash to keep things ticking over. Which is fair enough, of course. But does WikiLeaks really help keep governments open? Or is the grand project beginning to go off the rails?

Part of the personalisation of WikiLeaks into Assange comes from the media, and from us, the way we seek to understand culturally complex movements and forces by turning them into the actions of men and women; but the other part - perhaps the greatest part - comes from Assange himself.

That's not to say that the whole project, the whole movement, is a vast self-aggrandising ego trip, because that's almost certainly not the case; but that doesn't mean that things couldn't have been done differently, because they in all likelihood could have been done differently. It's hard to undock Assange from WikiLeaks, and perhaps that's deliberate.

The problem with this highly centralised, highly personalised approach is that when Assange the man comes up against the kind of personal criminal allegations he has faced; or has been alleged to make the kind of statements about "Jewish journalists" he apparently did to Ian Hislop, the Private Eye editor, that cannot be untangled from the WikiLeaks brand.

The latest dump of WikiLeaks revelations and cables appears not to have attracted the same mainstream interest as previous ones. There is one cable in particular, about the alleged execution of children - youngsters handcuffed and then shot in the head by US forces - which seems, at first glance, to be an astonishing and shocking story.

So why aren't the mainstream picking it up and running with it? Are there doubts about the veracity of the information, or is further digging and checking taking place to ensure that it's correct before the larger news outlets will publish? Or is it just that an unverifiable allegation from five years ago about a few dead Iraqi kids isn't a 'good tale'?

It's easy to turn up at this point with a conspiracy theory or two, to suggest that the mainstream have been waved away from exposing such revelations, to imagine that this is the kind of story that doesn't fit in with our news agenda, and therefore won't be considered worthy of national and international exposure.

I don't think that's the case, though, and I am loath to believe conspiracy theories of any kind unless there's a pretty substantial amount of compelling evidence behind them - so what's going on here?

The concern is that the whole WikiLeaks project is grinding to a halt, that the revelations of unredacted private information -- regardless of whose fault it is -- will dissuade further whistleblowers from coming forward, to WikiLeaks or any other organisation.

Will WikiLeaks really help keep governments open? Or will they struggle to keep themselves open?

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On 31 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.