After Egypt and Syria, there's never been a worse time to host an arms fair

Next week London hosts the world’s largest arms fair, the "Defence Security Equipment International" (DSEi) exhibition, organised with the help of the British government and part-subsidised by the UK taxpayer.

Events over the past month have dramatically illustrated the true nature of military power in the world today: not, for the most part, a means of self-defence, but a tool of internal repression and external power projection.

In Egypt, having toppled the elected president in July, the new military government moved to eradicate the political opposition, arresting its leaders and murdering hundreds of activists during a few days in August. In Syria, the armed forces of a regime with deep roots in the military appear to have used chemical weapons on civilians in rebel-held areas, again killing hundreds. In Western capitals, cruise missile strikes are threatened against Syria for reasons that clearly have nothing to do with self-defence, nothing to do with humanitarian principle (witness the continued, substantive support for the junta in Cairo), and everything to do with a geopolitical game being played with the lives of the Syrian people.

Britain’s place at the heart of global militarism is well established. It is a member of the elite club of nuclear states, spends more on “defence” by proportion of GDP than most developed nations, regularly involves itself in armed conflicts abroad, and holds perhaps 15 per cent of the global market in arms dealing, second only to the United States and ahead of Russia and France. In terms of exports, recent revelations that the UK allowed the sale of chemical precursors to Syria highlight the degree of commercial cynicism at work. But often, as one would expect from an industry largely dependent on the nanny state, political concerns shape the destination of exports. Britain mostly sells weapons to allies such as Saudi Arabia (with whom Margaret Thatcher signed Britain’s largest arms deal) not to strategic opponents like Iran.

Next week, with atrocious timing given recent events in Egypt and Syria, London hosts the world’s largest arms fair, the "Defence Security Equipment International" (DSEi) exhibition, organised with the help of the British government and part-subsidised by the UK taxpayer. One of the participating firms hoping to network and make deals at the event is the Russian State Technologies Corporation  (Rostec), whose arms export wing supplies weapons to the Assad regime. It is not yet known which states the British government has invited to attend this year, but past guests provide an indication. Colonel Gaddafi’s notoriously brutal son Khamis appears to have received a personal invite in 2009, while 2011’s guests included delegations from Bahrain and Egypt. A few months before the 2011 event, Bahrain had violently crushed a broad-based pro-democracy movement with the help of a Saudi-led intervention force, while later that autumn the Egyptian military massacred two dozen civilian protestors in Cairo . Many states have pavilions at DSEi to showcase their wares, including Israel, which boasts that its kit has been battle-tested. Clearly the enemies of democracy and self-determination will once again be out in force at this year’s event.

The mindset of militarism has been reflected in the debate over Syria this past fortnight, with even the most liberal of those advocating direct intervention repeatedly insisting that the choice is between waging war and “doing nothing”. In the Syrian case, it is hard to see how serious attempts at diplomacy and serious provision of humanitarian aid (unlike the wholly inadequate efforts made on both fronts so far) can credibly be classed as inaction. Elsewhere, people wanting to do something to counteract the forces of state violence and repression, in the Middle East and elsewhere, could do worse than get involved in the range of creative anti-DSEi protests planned by campaigners for next week, including a mass action on Sunday by Occupy London, a ‘meet-and-greet’ for arms dealers and protests against government support for the arms industry outside Parliament. These too are “humanitarian interventions”, conducted at the level of civil society, aimed at ending British complicity with violent anti-democratic forces around the world.

David Wearing is researching a PhD on British relations with the Gulf states at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Find him on Twitter as @davidwearing

Military hardware on show at the 2009 DSEi exhibition. Photo: Getty
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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. 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 Wednesday 29 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.