Bolivian President grounded in Austria over Snowden fears, sparking fury in Latin America

Evo Morales' plane was refused leave to overfly four Western European nations in the early hours of this morning.

The Bolivian President, Evo Morales, was forced to redirect his plane home from Russia last night due to apparent suspicion it was carrying Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower. Morales had to make an unscheduled landing in Vienna, which his staff blamed on France and Portugal, who, the staff say, withdrew their permission for the plane to pass through their airspace.

Both Austrian and Bolivian officials say that Snowden was not, in fact, on the plane. The Bolivian foreign minister, David Choquehuanca, told reporters that "We don't know who invented this lie. We want to denounce to the international community this injustice with the plane of President Evo Morales."

The suspicion seems to have been based on comments Morales made on Monday, while attending an energy conference in Moscow. Asked on Russia Today if he would give asylum to Snowden, the New York Times reports that he responded, "Yes, why not? Of course, Bolivia is ready to take in people who denounce — I don’t know if this is espionage or monitoring. We are here." He added that the country had not received a request for asylum.

Based on those fears, it appears that France and Portugal – as well as Spain and Italy, according to Bolivian defence minister Ruben Saavedra Soto – decided they were better off not getting involved, and refused the plane leave to fly through their airspace.

The fallout from the decision has been major. Morales was "kidnapped by imperialism", in the words of Bolivia's Vice President Alvaro Garcia; Argentine President Cristina Kirchner is tweeting regularly about the incident, saying "No se si ponerme a reír o llorar" (I don't know whether to laugh or to cry); Kirchner also says she has spoken to Uruguay's president, José Mujica, who is "indignado" (indignant) at the situation; and Rafael Correa, President of Ecuador, writes "Decisive hours for UNASUR! Either we graduated from the colonies, or we claim our independence, sovereignty and dignity. We are all Bolivia!"

 

 

The most important question remains unanswered, though: what was the extent of US involvement in the affront? Saavedra, Bolivia's defence minister, thinks so, saying "This is a hostile act by the United States State Department which has used various European governments". If it turns out that the American government did explicitly tell the European nations to ground Morales, that is a wound which will not heal quickly.

Morales with Putin yesterday. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Getty
Show Hide image

Q&A: Would Brexit really move “the Jungle” to Dover?

The 2003 Le Touquet treaty was negotiated outside the EU.

What is David Cameron’s most recent claim about Britain leaving the EU?

The Prime Minister is claiming that Brexit could result in France ending the agreement by which British immigration officials carry out checks on those seeking to enter the UK in France.  

More specifically, Cameron thinks that a vote to leave the EU would give the French government an excuse to revoke the Le Touquet treaty of 2003, and that this would cause refugee camps akin to the Calais “Jungle” to spring up along the English south coast.

What’s the Le Touquet treaty?

In February 2003, Tony Blair went to the northern French resort of Le Touquet to try and persuade President Jacques Chirac to support British and American military action in Iraq. (He failed). 

Blair and Chirac hogged the headlines, but on the summit’s sidelines, Home Secretary David Blunkett and his French counterpart, an ambitious young politician named Nicolas Sarkozy, negotiated a treaty establishing juxtaposed controls at each country’s sea ports.

This agreement meant that British border police could set up and run immigration checkpoints at Calais – effectively moving the British border there from Dover. The treaty also enabled French border police to carry out checks in Dover.

British border police had already been operating at French Eurostar terminals since 2001, and manning the French entrance to the Eurotunnel since 1994.

What’s all this got to do with the EU?

Technically, nothing. The Le Touquet treaty is a bilateral agreement between the UK and France. Both countries happen to be member states of the EU, but the negotiations took place outside of the EU’s auspices.

That's why eurosceptics have reacted with such fury today. Arron Banks, the co-founder of Leave.EU, said the Prime Minister was “resorting to scaremongering”, while Ukip’s migration spokesperson, in a surprising role-reversal, said that Cameron’s argument was “based on fear, negativity, and a falsehood”.

Cameron’s claim appears to be that Brexit would represent such a profound shift in the UK’s relationship with other European states that it could offer France an excuse to end the agreement reached at Le Touquet. That is debatable, but any suggestion that the treaty would instantly become void in the event of a vote to leave is untrue.

Does France actually want to revoke the treaty?

Local politicians in Calais, and in particular the town’s mayor, have been arguing for months that the treaty should be abandoned. Le Monde has also criticised it. The current French Interior Minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, hinted today that he agreed, saying that a British vote to leave “will always result in countermeasures”.

On the BBC's Today programme this morning, Rob Whiteman, a former head of the UK Border Agency, said that it was “almost certain” that the treaty would end if the UK left the EU. He said that France has benefited less from the deal than it expected:

“I think at the time the French felt there would be an upside for them, in that if it was clear that people could not easily get to Britain it would stop Sangatte building up again. The camp was closed. But history has shown that not to be the case. The French authorities still have a huge amount of pressure on their side.”

That said, the French government receives money from the British to help police Calais and its camps, and various French officials have acknowledged that their ports would receive even more traffic if refugees and migrants believed that it was easier to travel  to the UK than before.

If the treaty ended, would “the Jungle” just move to Dover?

There’s little doubt that because of linguistic and familial ties, and perhaps the perception that the UK is more welcoming than France, many refugees and migrants would come to the UK as quickly as they could to claim asylum here.

Whiteman also said on Today that since the 2003 agreement, the annual number of asylum claims in the UK had declined from 80,000 to around 30,000. So the UK could expect a significant spike in claims if the treaty were to end.

But the British asylum process makes it unlikely that anything like “the Jungle” would spring up. Instead, those claiming asylum would be dispersed around the country or, if authorities are worried they would flee, held in an immigration detention centre.

Why is Cameron saying this now?

This looks suspiciously like one of the Tories' election strategist Lynton Crosby’s dead cats. That is, in an effort to distract his critics from the detail of the renegotiation, the PM has provoked a row about migrants and refugees. Cameron is clearly keen to move the debate on from the minutiae of different European agreements to bigger questions about security and terrorism. Though getting bogged down in competing interpretations of a treaty from 2003 may not be the best way to move onto that broader terrain.