The latest Eurosceptic move is Cameron-friendly

100 Tory MPs have today called on the PM to do something he would almost certainly do anyway. Their

More than a hundred Conservative MPs have written to the Prime Minister - via the Daily Telegraph - demanding he resist the transfer of certain justice and policing powers to Brussels. So, another rebellion brewing, indicating division in the Tory ranks and threatening to destabilise David Cameron? Er, no, actually.

This is no belligerent broadside from the intransigent europhobic ultras. The names on the list include the usual and predictable suspects. Bill Cash is on there, so are Edward Leigh and Bernard Jenkin. But there are also new MPs from the 2010 intake - Chris Skidmore, Charlotte Leslie, Priti Patel, Kwasi Kwarteng, Dominic Raab, Charlie Elphicke (those last two being, apparently, the organisers of the thing). These are thrusting, ambitious types, tipped for big things in the future. They are not the sort to casually blot their copy books with ill-judged campaigns that might embarrass their most vital potential patron in Downing Street. A key signatory is George Eustice, a former press spokesman for Cameron and, in a past political life, a candidate for Ukip. He represents the overlap between the new MPs' raw eurosceptic instincts and their preferences not to come across as troublemakers.

Many of the signatories would only have put their names to this missive with reassurance that no harm to their future careers would be done by it. Indeed, it is not so far-fetched to suppose that the Tory whips and Number 10 are supremely relaxed about this manoeuvre. Supportive, even.

Why? The move the letter urges is not as demanding as it might seem. In most respects, "repatriating" powers from Brussels would require a difficult negotiation, re-opening past treaties, building alliances with like-minded governments elsewhere in Europe and offering concessions to secure a deal. That much Cameron found to his cost when demanding special protection for the City in December (in a way that amounted to a repatriation of certain regulatory powers). The answer was an unequivocal and swift "no".

But what the Telegraph letter refers to is the exercise of an "opt out" - which just to confuse matters is really the selective exercise of an "opt in" - with regard to combined European Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) policy. This is a fast-growing body of European law to cover cooperation between different national jurisdictions on matters such as extradition, arrest warrants and, most controversially, asylum and immigration. The theory behind integrating policy in these areas is that migration issues and crime are plainly borderless enterprises, so EU policy should evolve to reflect that fact.

The idea of ceding authority over aspects of the British justice system to EU institutions is anathema to the Tories. It didn't much appeal to the last Labour government either and the UK negotiated the right to "opt in" to measures in this field on an ad hoc basis. Under the Lisbon Treaty, Britain continues to be able to pick and choose when it comes to participation in JHA measures but not forever.

After the 1 December 2014, the separate JHA "pillar" of EU policy will be merged with the bulk of EU practice and so decisions made in that area will be approved or rejected by a qualified majority vote in the European Council - the regular Brussels summits of EU leaders. In other words, from that moment onward, there would be no veto option. Six months before that happens, the UK has to decide whether it is in or out of the whole JHA integration process. No more pick 'n' mix.

So the deadline is June 2014. Now it so happens that integration in the JHA field is quite popular with the police. It has helped track down terrorists and serious organised criminals hiding out in other European countries. It has enabled the smashing of European paedophile rings. It is also popular with the Liberal Democrats. When challenged on his Europhilia in the 2010 election, Nick Clegg extolled the virtues of the European arrest warrant as an example of something practical and useful that the EU does.

But there are clearly problems too. British authorities complain about the cost and administrative hassle of dealing with mountains of extradition requests from other EU jurisdictions for petty offences - the Polish plumber who turns out to be wanted on a shoplifting charge in Krakow and has to be shipped there at UK expense. There is also understandable squeamishness about limiting British powers to intervene when citizens are hauled before other countries' courts.

Anyway, the pros and cons argument hardly matters because there is simply no way David Cameron could get away with signing up to the fully integrated JHA package even if he wanted to. It would probably require a vote in parliament and could easily and realistically be presented as a substantial cession of sovereignty, which, under the 2011 European Union Act would trigger a referendum.

Bear in mind also that the June 2014 deadline coincides with elections to the European parliament. The last time around, Ukip came second in the national vote.

What the signatories to the Telegraph are asking is that Cameron refuse to exercise his full JHA opt-in, thereby, at a stroke, "repatriating" a bunch of powers from Brussels. It is pretty hard to imagine him doing anything else. The Lib Dems won't like it, but a year before a general election it is just as hard to imagine them ramping up their anti-Tory rhetoric on the basis that they want to make it easier for British citizens to languish in Bulgarian jails as, no doubt, the eurosceptic press will depict their position.

This may come across as an arcane technical process, but it is definitely exercising strategic minds on both sides of the coalition. There is no particular reason why a bunch of Tory MPs should suddenly today decide to urge the Prime Minister to do something in 2014, which, in any case he probably means to do. Unless, of course, there is an appetite in the party for putting down markers, staking out policy territory, in case the Lib Dems start feeling a bit cocky about their influence over European policy. This is not a manoeuvre against Cameron, it is a shot across Nick Clegg's bow and I don't suppose Number 10 is unhappy about that at all.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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The view from Google Earth is magnificent - but there's a problem

Google Earth is spectacular - but it can give a misleading impression of the planet and the threats we face from climate change. 

 

Google Earth wants you to “get lost” in its updated interactive map. Collaborations with new media partners mean you can now climb Mount Everest, swim with sharks or visit Afghanistan with Zari the purple muppet. No, really:


Source: Google Earth

Yet as Trump slashes support for the science behind satellite imaging, is Google’s emphasis on spectacle leading us down the wrong path?

Google Earth's new look all starts well enough. Opening the new site on your browser takes you to an image of a blue earth floating through the blackness of space. Back in the 1970s, similar images taken from the Apollo space missions helped kickstart the modern environmental movement. As the astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle put it: “Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from the outside, is available, a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.”


Source: GETTY and Google Earth

And it gets better. Enter a destination in the search bar and you are greeted with the option to link directly out to the Wikipedia page: nerds of the world, rejoice! 

A guided tour from NASAearth is also on hand for anyone whose nerdery is in need of a prompt: “Geostationary satellites in geosynchronous orbits. Greenhouse gases and global warming. Glaciers... going, going, gone,” says the Bob Dylan-esque entry on its "ABCs from Space".

You can then choose to orbit your landmark of choice in 3D. And let’s face it - who doesn’t want to glide around the top of Mont Blanc, pretending to be an eagle? It’s almost as good as the BBC’s actual eagle-cam

But then it hits you. This is no soaring eagle, buffeted by wind currents and having to constantly adjust its flightpath in the face of real-world obstacles. This is a world surveyed at a safe and sanitising distance. Tourism for the Trump age – focused on providing “a consumption experience”. Certainly it is the opposite of “getting lost”.

In fact if anything has been lost or downplayed, it is the principles of scientific enquiry. The program is littered with human choices. Local versions of Google Maps, for instance, have shown different national borders depending on where in the world you log in. And while new, open-data imagery from America's Landsat 8 program is helping bring many regions up to date, other high-resolution imagery comes from commercial providers, such as Digital Globe. And as this Google 'help' page implies, there are issues of time-lag to face. 

You can’t even be sure what you’re looking at still exists. In 2015, Bolivia’s second largest lake vanished - a combination of climate change, El Nino, and irrigation withdrawal caused 2,700 square kilometres of water to evaporate into a dry salt pan. (It has not recovered, and seems unlikely to do so.) Yet on the new version of Google Earth the lake is still a healthy green:


Source: GoogleEarth

The much lauded film clips from the BBC’s Planet Earth II are similarly short on context. As I've argued before, David Attenborough's latest TV series did little to explain the stories behind the spectacle – there was no mention, for instance, of the arctic anthrax outbreak which caused thousands of reindeer to be culled, nor the role of climate change in worsening locust swarms. 

Finally, the new update actually shows you less of the world than it did before. Gone is the “Historical Imagery” tool that allowed you to see how a place had changed through time. Now, the Citadel of Aleppo in Syria is only visible as a bombed-out ruin. A surreal street-view reveals two women cheerily taking a selfie – with debris all around and their legs spliced out of shot:


Source: GoogleEarth

So why do these omissions matter? Because they take users further away from the evidence-based approach of earth science. It turns out that satellite images on their own are of limited use when it comes to quantifying change. Instead researchers must turn the raw pixels into numbers, which can then variously represent everything from forests to cities, glaciers and farms.

As Dr France Gerard at the UK’s Centre for Hydrology and Ecology explains, this process enables us to live in a better managed environment – be that by measuring air pollution or the impact of fertiliser on soil. The centre's landcover map, for instance, has been mapping British land use since 1990. Similar methods allow Sam Lavender’s company to provide Ugandans with a Drought and Flood Mitigation service, as part of the UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme.

Sadly, the need for public engagement has never been more urgent. Brexit and austerity have cast doubt over important projects in the UK. While in Donald Trump’s America, funds for earth monitoring are set to be slashed. Two missions already under the knife are PACE, a spacecraft set to track global ocean health, and CLARREO, which would have produced highly accurate climate records. Trump has also called for the earth-viewing instruments on the DSCOVR satellite to be turned off. Phil Larson, a former space advisor to President Obama, describes this decision as “baffling”.

So what can be done to reverse this trend? Experts I spoke to believe that collaboration is key. With government programs being squeezed, the earth monitoring industry may come to rely increasingly on the trend towards smaller, commercial satellites. These are great for increasing the quantity of data available but their accuracy needs to be constantly checked against the data from the larger and more reliable state-launched equipment.

There’s also still more data out there to share. As Bronwyn Agrios from Astro Digital points out, many countries have been gathering region-specific data – which could, in future, be made open source. “The neat thing about space is that there’s no border,” she concludes.

To help this process, Google Earth could do far more to raise public awareness of the science behind its special effects. Yet at least in one way it is already on the right path: its own new range of collaborations is impressively large. As well as the BBC, you can take interactive tours with The Ocean Agency, the Wildscreen Arkive, and the Jane Goodall Institute – all of whom put conservation up front. The Goodall journey to Tanzania’s Gombe National Park even describes the use of satellite imagery to measure conservation success.

 

More links with other citizen science projects around the world could turn the program into something truly ground-breaking. If it can incorporate these, then desktop-tourism may yet save the planet from Trump. 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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