An Israeli tank, part of Operation Protective Edge. Photo: Getty
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Leader: A collective punishment being visited on all Palestinians

The New Statesman view.

For global leaders, foreign crises come not as single spies but in battalions. The shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet by pro-Russian separatists, the Israeli assault on Gaza in retaliation for missile attacks by Hamas, the murderous rampage of Isis in Iraq, the perpetual civil war in Syria – all have shaken and demoralised western elites.

Never has the UN Security Council, which is divided along old cold war lines, seemed more irrelevant. Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the UN, is an especially forlorn figure, a symbol of the decline of the world’s multilateral institutions.

The graphic images of the bodies of passengers, lying in the wreckage of Flight MH17, have concentrated the public mind on the war in Ukraine. It has been said that Vladimir Putin’s determination to rebuild Russia’s sphere of influence and bolster his nation against western expansionism is a sign of weakness rather than strength. But the ease with which the Russians were able to annex Crimea and enter eastern Ukraine merely reinforces western impotence.

The challenge for the United States and the European powers is to agree a set of policies that would ensure that support for rebel groups such as the one that shot down Flight MH17 has profound economic and political consequences for Russia and its leaders.

Meanwhile, Israel’s long war against the Palestinians goes on. Israel has a right to defend itself from incoming rocket fire from Gaza but, however ruthless and cynical Hamas may be, no state, least of all one that purports to be a liberal democracy, has the right to shell a hospital deliberately or indiscriminately kill civilians. It can seem at times as if a kind of collective punishment is being visited upon all Palestinians.

On page 24, Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East editor, writes that he “saw no evidence during my week in Gaza of Israel’s accusation that Hamas uses Palestinians as human shields”. This is an important insight: the Israeli justification for bombing hospitals, schools and a home for the disabled was that Hamas militants were hiding inside the buildings. Even if they were, this would still offer no justification for the state-directed murder of the innocent, who include children.

Before this latest small war, Hamas, corrupt and nefarious, was weak. The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – the country’s then president, Mohammed Morsi, brokered the last ceasefire between Hamas and Israel in November 2012 – had left the Palestinian militant group even more isolated.

Yet the ferocity of Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip has served only to bolster Hamas. By killing civilians and destroying homes, the most recent offensives by the Israel Defence Forces may prove to be the greatest recruiting sergeant Hamas could wish for.

If any ceasefire is to be permanent, it must be followed by substantive moves towards a political settlement of a kind that, in truth, has never seemed more unlikely. The economic blockade of Gaza – which Palestinians liken to an open prison – must be ended and the 1.8 million people who live in the blighted Strip must be given hope and a sense of possibility, as suggested by Uri Dromi, a spokesman for the Rabin and Peres governments between 1992 and 1996, writing on page 16.

At present, there is no sign that Israel, its people traumatised by decades of war and by Hamas rocket attacks, is willing to make unilateral moves towards a lasting peace. The settlement building continues in the West Bank and the Likud-led coalition government remains belligerent.

What unites the crises in Ukraine and the Middle East is the world’s powerlessness to resolve them. The UN Security Council is riven and ineffective; the EU cannot agree over what should be done in Ukraine. Under the leadership of the cautious and pragmatic Barack Obama, the US is in retreat from world leadership, exhausted by its occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Before Gaza, I’d spent most of the past two months in Baghdad, Beirut, Jerusalem, Aleppo and Damascus,” Jeremy Bowen writes in his NS Notebook. “The Middle East is on fire. I haven’t seen anything like it since my first reporting trip to the region in 1990. I don’t think anyone knows how to put the fire out.” Such is the weakness of the western powers in an age of insecurity. 

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

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 31 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.