David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street earlier today. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Cameron wants airstrikes in Syria - but fears Labour opposition

The PM believes that there is "no legal barrier" to action, but wants to "proceed on the basis of consensus". 

When David Cameron last summer became the first prime minister to lose a vote on a matter of peace and war since 1782, many spoke as if an epochal shift comparable to Suez had occurred. William Hague, the then foreign secretary, considered resigning and told colleagues that he didn’t want to represent "a country that is not prepared to act". Paddy Ashdown lamented that the UK had lurched "towards isolationism". One Conservative MP told me after the vote: "We won’t be involved in military action for the foreseeable future and certainly not in this parliament."

But just 13 months later, parliament will vote today in favour of UK airstrikes against Isis in Iraq. Britain will demonstrate that it has not entered a new age of isolationism, and Cameron will regain some of the standing that he lost last year. But the issue of Syria has loomed large in the opening stages of the debate. To many MPs, there is little purpose in targeting Isis in Iraq without also doing so in its neighbour. Ken Clarke warned that the group's advance meant the border between the two countries was now merely a "theoretical line on the map" , while Peter Hain declared that allowing Isis to regroup in Syria after strikes in Iraq was "no answer". 

Cameron, who has pledged to give MPs a separate vote on any action in Syria, made it clear that he believes there is a case for action in the country, and that there is "no legal barrier". But he emphasised that he wanted to "proceed on the basis of consensus". In other words, he feared that he would not win Labour's support for intervention in Syria (unlike in the case of Iraq) and would risk a repeat of last summer's humiliation. 

He told MPs: “I do believe there is a strong case for us to do more in Syria. But I did not want to bring a motion to the House today which there wasn’t consensus for. It is better if our country can proceed on the basis of consensus. In this house there are many concerns about doing more in Syria. And I understand that.

“I don’t believe there is a legal barrier, because I think the legal advice is clear that – were we to act or others to act – there is a legal basis. But it is true to say that the Syrian situation is more complicated than the Iraqi situation. It is more complicated because of the presence of the brutal dictator Assad, it is more complicated because of the state of the civil war.”

In his response, Miliband raised three concerns over strikes in Syria. He argued that while there was "a strong legal argument for action" under Article 51 of the UN Charter, it would "be better" to seek a UN Security Council Resolution (which Russia would almost certainly veto); that the mission would require regional ground troops; and that "a lot more work" needed to be done on a "route map" for action. While not ruling out intervention, he has again set tough conditions of the kind that prevented British involvement last year. 

Milband also offered five succinct reasons why airstrikes in Iraq were not comparable to the 2003 war: the intervention was about supporting a democratic state, not overturning a regime; there was no dispute about its legal basis; it was a last resort; there was broad international support; and the use of British ground troops had been ruled out by the government. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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“We don’t BeLiviu”: how Romania is rising against corruption

Night after night, activists gather in Victory Square to demand the resignation of the government.

For much of the year, the large tarmac square in front of the main government building in Bucharest is little more than a glorified roundabout, busy with traffic and surrounded by towering, communist-era blocks on one side and a wedge-shaped park on the other.

But when Romanians gather to protest, as they have done these past weeks in record numbers, it becomes a place of pent-up frustration; against the ruling class, the direction in which the country is heading and the way many politicians continue to use the public purse as a source of cash for their personal use. This was not how it was supposed to be, ten years after the country joined the European Union.

On 31 January Romania’s new government, in power for less than a month, sneaked in a piece of emergency legislation during a late-night session to weaken the punishment for abuse of power, negligence while in office and conflict of interest. In effect, the move decriminalised some forms of corruption, if the financial damage caused amounted to less than roughly £38,000.

Many Romanians and international observers saw it as a brazen attempt to help politicians facing legal problems, prominent among them Liviu Dragnea, the leader of Romania’s largest political party, the Social Democrats, and the president of the Chamber of Deputies (Romania’s House of Commons). Dragnea is facing trial for supposedly getting colleagues added to the public payroll even though they do not work for the state. He is one of many public officials facing a day in court; in fact, he has already faced the courts, earning a 2015 conviction for electoral fraud that barred him from becoming prime minister despite his party’s strong showing in parliamentary elections last December.

The backlash against the ordinance was swift, as night after night tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, and, once, half a million took to the streets to protest. On 5 February, between 500,000 and 600,000 people protested across Romania, with 300,000 in the government square alone. Demonstrations have also taken place in 50 towns and cities in the country, as well as in the Romanian diaspora.

The government backed down on its immediate plans and repealed the decree, but trust was by then long gone. Protests are now in their third week and, despite snowfall, show little sign of ending.

“This government needs to go. You can’t be elected in December and have hundreds of thousands on the streets in a month,” said Dorial Ilie, a 33-year-old PR worker, one cold evening in the square.

Romanians are fed up with corruption. The country sits 57th in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index – up from 69th place in 2014, but corruption remains endemic, and Romania is near the bottom of the list when it comes to EU countries.

Despite the efforts of the country’s much-admired National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA), set up in 2003 and responsible for the successful prosecution of thousands of politicians, civil servants, judges and business leaders, there is a sense that the rich and powerful still operate as if they were above the law. This was certainly not helped by the attempts to change the anti-corruption legislation.

“They had been planning to do this for years,” said Dan Popescu, a 46-year-old priest protesting in the square, echoing the sentiments of many of those around him.

The demonstrations, the largest in the country since the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, have been an impressive display of people power in a country that is increasingly using the streets as a communication platform. Large-scale protests in Romania also brought down the last elected government in November 2015, after corruption was blamed for a fire in a Bucharest nightclub that left 64 dead, and before that, mass protests during the 2014 presidential election, this time over mismanagement of diaspora voting, arguably helped tip the balance in favour of the now-incumbent, Klaus Iohannis.

Protesters are hoping for a similar impact this time around, although, having survived a no-confidence vote in parliament on 8 February, the new government shows little willingness to depart.

At the same time, most of those gathering night after night in Victory Square – as the drab square outside the government building is officially known – are still loudly demanding the resignation of the government, but would probably settle for the resignations of Dragnea and the prime minister, Sorin Grindeanu.

After so many nights standing out in the cold, protesters have become very creative. Elaborate banners filled with puns (“We don’t BeLiviu”) have appeared, as have messages written with lasers and projected on to nearby buildings. Some have shone the Batman symbol on to the roof of a nearby museum, a funny (or perhaps desperate) plea for help. The national anthem is often sung. On Sunday, a sea of protesters held up pieces of paper coloured over their phone lights to create a vast Romanian flag.

Despite these touches of humour and inventiveness, there is a steely determination evident and it has only grown since the first night or two.

On 13 February the national parliament approved a referendum related to the fight against corruption, as proposed by the protest-supporting president. But most of those on the streets these past weeks would argue that they have already given their opinion on the matter.

Many Romanians are increasingly frustrated that they have to head out to protest time and again in order to hold their elected officials to account. Few believe that the present political class can change. “They’ll try again, in another way. Maybe in parliament, where they have a majority,” said Ioana David, an administrative worker for a construction company.

Even so, she – like so many others – is likely to continue to go out into Victory Square in the days and perhaps weeks ahead, in order to make sure her voice gets heard.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times