Cameron's EU speech set to clash with Obama's inauguration

Speech now scheduled for Monday would coincide with the US president's public swearing-in ceremony.

David Cameron's apparently jinxed speech on the EU will now be delivered on Monday. That's according to today's FT, which reports that as Downing Street advisers gathered to discuss the Algerian crisis and reschedule the speech, "Cameron made it clear he wanted to give it on Monday".

Whether or not the Prime Minister gets his way largely depends on the outcome of the hostage standoff, with no guarantee that all British citizens will be accounted for by the end of the weekend. But has Number 10 considered another potential obstacle? Monday 21 January is also the date of Barack Obama's second inauguration. Since 20 January - presidential Inauguration Day - is a Sunday, only a private ceremony will be held with the public ceremony, as is traditional in such circumstances, pushed back to the following day. It will be the seventh time in US history that the constitutionally mandated inauguration date has fallen on a Sunday, with Ronald Reagan the last president to be inaugurated on a Monday in 1985.

Given the attention that will be on Obama and the US administration's publicly expressed scepticism of Cameron's EU strategy, Downing Street would be advised to postpone the speech again. According to a White House readout, Obama told Cameron on Thursday that "the United States values a strong UK in a strong European Union, which makes critical contributions to peace, prosperity, and security in Europe and around the world." The US, which has long sought to support European integration (recall Henry Kissinger's question, "Who do I call when I want to speak to Europe?"), has been troubled by speculation that the UK could withdraw from the EU at some point in the next five years. Earlier this month, Philip Gordon, the US assistant secretary for European affairs, warned that "referendums have often turned countries inwards". He added: "every hour at an EU summit spent debating the institutional makeup of the European Union is one less hour spent talking about how we can solve our common challenges of jobs, growth, and international peace around the world."

Number 10 has already been forced to move the speech once to avoid a diplomatic incident. After months of delays, Cameron was due to deliver his address on 22 January but Angela Merkel's office complained that this would clash with celebrations to mark the celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the landmark Élysée Treaty between France and Germany, which cemented the two countries' post-war reconciliation.

Tory MPs were promised an address from Cameron on Europe as long ago as last autumn but when the speech failed to materialise this was changed to "before Christmas". When this deadline too was missed, Cameron ill-advisedly remarked at a press gallery lunch in Westminster: "Thanks for reminding me that my Europe speech remains as yet unmade. This is a tantric approach to policy-making: it’ll be even better when it does eventually come." But Monday would appear the wrong day to deliver.

Barack Obama told David Cameron that the US "values a strong UK in a strong European Union" during a phonecall on Thursday. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage