hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Brexit Withdrawal Agreement: Analysis, Assessment and Reflection


A frictionless future?

Alphen, Netherlands. 20 November. At last, something Brexit to analyse, so I will analyse! The Draft Agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the European Union and European Atomic Energy Community.

The draft Withdrawal Agreement implies delivery at some point (but no more than that) of many of the Brexit promises made although not in full and not immediately.  The Agreement will at some point end unfettered freedom of movement, there will eventually be an end to large annual British payments to the European Union, and Britain will in time cease to be a member of the Single Market and THE customs union, although London will almost certainly remain part of A customs union. There will also be a formal end (of sorts) to Britain’s membership of the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy.

However, a significant problem remains the status of Northern Ireland and the so-called ‘backstop’. During the transition period which is currently scheduled to end on December 31st 2020, and which Prime Minister Theresa May prefers to call the ‘implementation period’, the whole of the UK must remain within the EU customs territory. Any disputes would be settled by a joint committee but any issue relating to EU law would be settled by the European Court of Justice of which the UK would cease to be a member come March 29th 2019.

The treaty agreeing a future relationship is wholly dependent on there being a technical solution found to enable frictionless movement of goods, services and people across the inner-Irish border for fear that a restored active border could endanger peace in Northern Ireland and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that sealed it. Both the EU and the UK have committed to ‘best endeavours’ to find such a solution within the timeframe of the transition. However, if no solution is found the British face the prospect of being locked into a permanent customs union on Brussels’ terms with a high level of regulatory alignment with a whole host of EU rules and regulations without limited influence over them. Alternatively, the British could step outside of the customs arrangement but would be required to establish an implicit border in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland thus weakening the integrity of the UK (and the Good Friday Agreement if hard-line Unionists resist).  

The critical issue is that the Agreement locks the backstop into legal perpetuity once it is established, which is of dubious legality under public international law.  One very senior British lawyer, Remainer and former Attorney-General Lord Falconer claims there is no legal basis for a treaty which denies a party that has given reasonable notice the right to abrogate an instrument that affects its borders in such a way. Therefore, it is quite possible that a legal challenge could be mounted against the Agreement and without some softening of the language it is very hard to see how Parliament or future British governments can or would accept it. 

The Political Dividing Lines

May’s treatment of the Irish question also reveals her attitude towards the kind of full sovereignty Brexit Boris Johnson and other Brexiteers want. In international relations, very few states enjoy full sovereignty as most are constrained by a complex web of treaties and agreements. However, faced by a divided Cabinet and Party and under pressure from big business and HM Treasury May effectively scrapped what might be termed a strategic and political Brexit in favour of a narrow, technical Brexit and in 2017 effectively handed over ‘competence’ for its negotiation to the civil service with instructions simply to get a deal. Given that Britain was from that point on the demandeur the negotiations effectively boiled down to the actual political and financial price Britain would pay for access to EU markets.  And, as the Treasury and big business strengthened their respective grips policy issues were subordinated to supply chains. The result is that Brexit has become precisely that; a supply chain Brexit. 

It is May’s shift from Brexit means Brexit to the preservation of supply chains at almost any cost which has exacerbated the political divisions that now exist.  By abandoning the commitments she made in the Lancaster House and Florence speeches, as well as her so-called ‘red lines’, she has reinforced a sense amongst many that promises have been broken. This makes it unlikely that May will succeed in getting the Agreement through the House of Commons (at least in the first instance). Full sovereignty Brexiteers believe she has betrayed Brexit, whilst the ten MPs of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) upon which her minority government depends for survival are likely to withdraw their formal support under the so-called Confidence and Supply Agreement if Northern Ireland is treated differently from the rest of the UK. On the Remainer side, there is disquiet that the Agreement fails to commit Britain to the Single Market.   Her parlous political situation has been created by the promises she made in the immediate aftermath of Brexit and before she lost her majority in the House of Commons which implied a hard or ‘clean’ Brexit.   

May has also failed to communicate effectively the sheer complexity associated with disentangling 45 years of deep statutory engagement in the EU. One problem she faces is that the extent of Britain’s entanglement in EU law went far beyond what most British political leaders were ever willing to admit to the British people.  The EU’s Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier has suggested that the transition period will now need to be extended to December 2022. This is almost certainly correct. Unfortunately, May continues to deny the length of time it will take for Brexit in any form to be realised.

A fait accompli

In essence, Britain is now faced with a fait accompli because foolishly (or deliberately) there are insufficient plans in place to deal with a 'no deal' scenario.  Without an Agreement in place, Britain’s formal departure from the EU next March generate real friction at the UK’s borders with profound implications for the vital relationships upon which Britain’s trade depends.  The paradox is that Britain now has little alternative but to rely on an Agreement that will please no-one and which future British governments will doubtless seek to overturn. As such this agreement reflects May’s singular political talent for delaying the consequences of hard choices until a later date.   

The Agreement effectively leaves Britain in a strategic no man’s land between two extremes. Those who envision Britain becoming a ‘Singapore of the Atlantic’, which is highly unlikely and those who simply seek to cancel Brexit. What the Agreement will ensure is that Brexit will remain a toxic issue in British politics for the foreseeable future as it leaves Britain’s relationship with the EU wholly unresolved.  

Worse, there is now every possibility that some EU member-states will seek to change the terms of the Agreement or at least insist that so-called ‘side agreements’ are tacked on. France, Spain, the Netherlands and Denmark have expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of a British commitment to permit their respective fishing fleets to access British waters. Spain has expressed deep concerns about the status of Gibraltar.  

Assessment

There was a certain symmetry reading some of the details of the Withdrawal Agreement in Rome on a seat overlooking the ruins of the Circo Massimo and Nero’s palace.  History has been in full flow this week with anaemic analogies all over the place.  Dunkirk? Suez? In fact, one need look no further than Brexit I for an appropriate analogy. In November 1534 King Henry VIII of England began in earnest the first Brexit by breaking with Rome and the Catholic Church. To suggest that the first ‘withdrawal agreement’ was a tad complicated is perhaps a masterclass in English understatement. It was probably not before Cromwell won the English Civil War in 1649, or even the Glorious Revolution of 1689 before Brexit I was finally concluded. Brexit II?  

Whilst it is unlikely to take that long to confirm Brexit II reading the draft Agreement confirmed to me that this flawed deal marks only the end of the beginning not the beginning of the end of this new schism. Such moments are times for pragmatism and it would be useful if all parties to this conflict took a step back and saw Brexit in its wider strategic context. Europe stands on the verge of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and a revolution in civil-military technology that imply as much threat as opportunity. It is vital Europeans stand together in the face of such change.  

The exercising of statecraft imposes discipline and at this moment of fracture, it is to be hoped that the relationships therein are maintained and that the very process of transition/implementation introduces some much-needed calm. And, that the process itself will also lead responsible figures on both sides to recognise that the Agreement on offer will simply not stick if it continues to create resentment on both sides of the Channel. Finally, a real, equitable and sustainable political settlement will need to be fashioned.

Personal reflection 

Some months ago I was asked by someone in Downing Street very close to May for ideas. My answer was simple and to the point: Prime Minister May must show some bloody leadership, Prime Minister. In the email to Downing Street, I also suggested that there was no way out of the Brexit trap in which Britain is currently enmeshed without a major political and constitutional crisis,. That crisis is not breaking.  My specific advice was that whilst I might not like everything she does I would accept her leadership if I felt she was acting in the best interests of the country. It is my contention that given the circumstances Prime Minister May is providing such leadership.

Having dissembled for two years for the past six months she has done exactly what I asked – lead (and no I am not claiming it was my influence). She has also done things I do not like. So be it. She is the prime minister and I am not.  She also continues to infuriate me at times with her lack of trust in the British people and she has made some egregious political errors which have made an already hard mission nigh on impossible.  There is no other option but to give May and the Withdrawal Agreement the benefit of my very considerable doubt. There is no sensible alternative. Equally, my faith in May and the wider British government (the Mediocracy?) has been much undermined by what can only be described as strategic and political incompetence.

Julian Lindley-French

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Armistice, War and Peace


“When eleven o’clock came, all was silent: not a gun to be heard, nor any other sign of war. It seemed almost uncanny. The war – that long and bloody and ghastly war – was over! Not only over, but it had been won – decisively won – by us and our Allies”.

Lieutenant Edward Allfree, 111th Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery, British Army

The fog of peace?

Alphen, Netherlands. 11 November 2018. What did the Armistice of 11 November 1918 really teach Europeans about war and peace? When the guns on the Western Front finally and suddenly fell silent on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 the shrapnel of Europe lay strewn across the Continental battlefield and far beyond.  The war to end all wars was over. Of the ‘main’ power players of World War One on that November day a century ago Britain and France appeared triumphant and restored, whilst the dark, grand ambitions of Imperial Germany lay in shards of hot, angry denial across a battlefield and a country that stretched from Belgium to Berlin.  In fact, all was not as it seemed. Broke Britain and broken France were just beginning a precipitous fall from the pinnacle of power, whilst for the Germans, the ‘war’ would continue via Versailles, Weimar, Hitler and the Nazis until 1945 and again engulf Europe in another cataclysm of violence.  Only relatively untouched America, America the Banker, really gained the prize of strategic power for which the Kaiser had fought the war.  But, Woodrow Wilson’s America neither wanted nor accepted a particularly European idea of power as prize. For over twenty years thereafter America turned its isolationist back on the ‘prize’ it had won and in so doing helped condemn itself and others to a repeat of rapaciousness.

It was a particular honour and privilege for me to be in Berlin this past week at the appropriately timed, named and placed conference Europe’s Strategic Choices jointly hosted by Britain’s Chatham House and Germany’s ISPK. Why? War and peace are the most strategic of choices and we must work hard together never to have to make that choice again. Berliners understand that more than most because History (with a hard capital ‘H’) hangs over Berlin like one of those heavy mist shrouds that the city’s many lakes and rivers regularly spawn. If those with a penchant for stereotypes wished to be disabused of their prejudice go to Berlin and speak to senior Germans. It is almost galling at times how determinedly reasonable and respectful they are, and why I so value and appreciate my friendships with them.

My sense of being a ‘fellow’ European is always reinforced when I am in Germany. This is in spite of my being an Englishman who harbours deep concerns about the EU, the championing of order over democracy, the ambitions of a ‘we know best’ Brussels elite to concentrate ever more distant, unaccountable power in their distant, unaccountable hands, and the growing gap between voting and power in Europe. The spiteful curse of history is that Europeans, with Germans to the fore, must eternally and repeatedly forge a balance between power, order and freedom. There is also a certain irony for in a Continent which bloodily rejected three German (1870, 1914 and 1939) attempts to lead Europe by force of arms modern, democratic Germany is unable to provide the leadership Europe desperately needs by a constitution British lawyers helped write, and the very past that today commemorates.

Europeans, war and power

The commemoration of war is itself telling in Europe as it has helped to make Europeans distrustful of the very idea of power itself. Rather, Europeans have re-invented ‘power’ as ‘non-power’, defanging it, imprisoning it within rigid, set in stone EU ‘laws’, containing and constraining it in grand institutions designed to prevent Europeans doing ghastly things to each other, but preventing Europeans from the ghastly doing ghastly things unto them and others.  It is as though Europeans fear the ghost of Marlowe’s Faustus or Goethe’s Faust and that power could once again corrupt the European political soul.  

Such fear of self has been apparent at times these four years past in much of the coverage of World War One.  World War One has been presented as a European civil war with much of the homage to it one of pacifism. It is apparent in many of the books that have been written that have Europeans sleepwalking into World War One rather than being forced towards catastrophe by the outrageous militarism of Kaiser Bill and his Prusso-German cronies. It is apparent in the endless reading of the war poets Causley, Owen and Sassoon who invoke a sense of understandable hopelessness in the midst of carnage when in fact most Frenchmen and Britons who went to war believed their cause to be just. It is as though Sir Edward Elgar’s mournful I Sospiri has been playing on a permanent loop since the commemorations began in August 2014.

With such images repeatedly and constantly invoked it would even be easy to re-imagine the final Act of Brexit Capitulation when it comes being signed in some forlorn Belgian railway siding deep in the woods south of Brussels. In fact, one need only witness the respectful manner in which German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier laid a wreath at the Cenotaph to understand no German with a brain wishes to humiliate Britain a century on from the Armistice. It was wonderful to see such a historic act of reconciliation which brought a tear to my eye. Let’s remember this moment in the coming days, weeks and months.

Democracies and war

At times democracies are faced with a terrifying choice between fighting for freedom or appeasing autocrats. It was just such a choice that faced Britain and France on 4 August 1914. Some historians deny that. For example, Niall Ferguson argues that Britain could have stood aside from the Prusso-German conquest of Europe and have consoled itself with Empire. Really?  Would Erich Ludendorff and Reinhard Scheer have been content with ‘Europe’ as they stood on Cap Gris Nez victorious looking across the Channel at the White Cliffs of Dover?  Would Kaiser Wilhelm II have assuaged his British psychosis without his Imperial Garde marching down Whitehall? Surely not.

Some other historians, Max Hastings to the fore, argue that Britain fought the war incompetently. There can be no question that at times both Britain and France fought the offensive war between 1914 and 1917 incompetently. That is because in 1914 unlike the Kaiser and General von Schlieffen neither power had prepared to fight an offensive grand strategic continental war.  The democracies had first to survive and then learn, and learn they did. Consequently, there can be no comparison between that contemptible little British Army that the Kaiser so dismissed at Mons in 1914 and the massive 6 million strong British Imperial Army that arrived back at Mons in November 1918 triumphant. The force that on 8 August 1918 broke the German Army at the Battle of Amiens and began the crushing One Hundred Day Offensive and which led Ludendorff to describe Amiens as the “blackest day of the German Army”. Or, the Grand Fleet of the Royal Navy that decisively and patiently prevented the Imperial German Navy from breaking the blockade at the strategically-decisive May 1916 Battle of Jutland, or from starving Britain into submission during the U-Boat offensive of 1917.

Contrast that with today. One has only to look at the bonsai militaries of contemporary Britain, France and Germany to see that once again the European democracies are not really preparing to fight any war at all and that to a very real extent the European democracies are once again back in 1910 and 1935. If a major war were to break out in Europe over the next decade, Heaven forbid, the major European democracies would again be pretty much unable to fight it – NATO or no.  But, that is the way of democracies which between major wars tend to purposively forget the lessons of them. Could it be that one-day future historians will look back on this age and ask who made war possible through neglect and weakness? 

The strength of democracies

On 3 August 1914 Britain’s then Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey went for a walk at London Zoo in Regent’s Park. A lover of birds he spent a despairing hour in the Bird House trying to work out how a war might be avoided before concluding it could not be. War for Grey was failure for he foresaw what war between industrial titans would entail. For all that the real, terrifying reality for him was that Britain would have to fight just such a war and the price would be enormous, as it was. However, the alternative he realised would be worse, the effective subjugation of Britain and the rest of Europe to Prussian militarists.

Fantasy? Reimagine Europe had it been the Allies who had been forced to sign an Act of Capitulation in some German railway carriage deep in some Belgian wood somewhere near the German Imperial Military Headquarters in Spa.  The ‘Europe’ far too many of us today take for granted would simply not exist. Yes, the terms of the Treaty of Versailles were harsh, but so was the damage Imperial Germany had inflicted on much of Europe.  What if the Americans had forcefully backed Wilson’s Fourteen Points? What if the League of Nations had been endowed with Realism rather than simply Idealism? What if the Wall Street Crash of 1929 had not happened…what if…if…if…maybe Hitler, Tojo, even Stalin and World War Two might have been avoided.

The eleventh hour…

Today I commemorate the millions who lost their lives in World War One. Specifically, I remember and pay respect to the 900,000 of my own countrymen who lost their lives in World War One. In paying my respects I do not do so in the belief that their sacrifice was futile, or that they were lions led by donkeys, even though at times they were. No, I celebrate them as ordinary heroes, ordinary men and at times women in extraordinary circumstances without whose sacrifice the freedom which is today taken far too much for granted would not have been possible. There is thus no spirit of pacifism in my commemoration even though as a historian and strategist I strive every day to maintain the legitimate and just peace I crave.  

Wars are not prevented by democracies renouncing war. No, wars are stopped by democracies that show they understand the dark art and science of war and by so doing prepare to preserve and thus ensure peace. That is the true lesson of this mournful day. Have Europeans learnt it? Will they ever learn it?

Requiescat in Pace.  Lest we forget.      

Julian Lindley-French                       

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

NATO Trident Juncture 18: Plugging NATO's Thirty Day Gap?


“But this, that men are evill by nature, follows not from this principle [that every man will distrust and dread each other]; for though the wicked were fewer than the righteous, yet because we cannot distinguish them, there is a necessity of suspecting, heeding, anticipating, subjugating, self-defending, ever incident to the most honest and fairest conditioned”.

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

Trident Juncture 18

Alphen, Netherlands, 6 November. There is a certain historical symmetry to NATO holding a major Article 5 collective defence military exercise that spans the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month centennial of the Armistice that brought the First World War to an end.  Exercise Trident Juncture 18 (TJ18) is designed to test deterrence and response, as well as send a strategic message to Russia.  As such, TJ18 is part of the Alliance’s increasing effort to ensure no NATO ally anywhere, ever again, faces a major war attack. Given that noble aim, how does Trident Juncture 18 compare with Russia’s recent Vostok 18 exercise and has TJ18 really strengthened deterrence?

Some facts. TJ18 is a maritime-amphibious (hence ‘Trident’) joint exercise designed to test Alliance forces and systems in a short, high-end war. TJ 18 is taking place in and off Norway and began on 25 October and will end on 23 November.  The exercise involves some 40,000 troops, 250 aircraft and 65 ships from 30 nations. TJ18 involves air, sea, land, maritime, amphibious and Special Forces forged into a so-called ‘spearhead force’ designed to seize back NATO territory taken by a well-armed aggressor.  TJ18 is divided into two main elements. The main ‘live’ exercise began on 25 October and ends tomorrow. After the Armistice commemorations (and deliberately so) a command post exercise will take place between 14 and the 23 November in which lessons will be identified and the scenario played out further.  Although Russia claims TJ18 threatens its border with Norway even though the exercise is taking place some 200 km from it. That said, the exercise is clearly designed to send Russia a message about NATO’s determination to defend the strategically-vital North Cape of Norway and the Svalbard Archipelago.

TJ18 versus Vostok 18

How does TJ18 compare with Russia’s recent Vostok 18? Vostok 18 was somewhat bigger in scale and probably involved some 75,000 Russian troops (plus a relatively small number of Chinese forces), 1000 aircraft and up to 2000 tanks, possibly more. Moscow claimed Vostok 18 ‘involved’ some 300,000 troops but that inflated figure was arrived at by including whole units even if only small elements from them were actually engaged.

The respective aims of the two exercises are revealing.  TJ18 is designed to test and validate NATO’s efforts to reconstitute a heavy defence through the re-creation of a ‘deep’ joint, mobile heavy reserve focussed on the NATO Response Force (NRF). The task of the NRF is to support small forward deployed units in the event of an emergency and act as a holding force until larger NATO forces can be generated and deployed. Vostok 18 was part of the military-strategic development plan of Chief of the Russian General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov. His over-arching aim is to enhance the force projection of Russian forces by making then more joint, agile and ‘intelligent’.

Improved theatre and battlefield mobility are central to Gerasimov’s thinking and to that end, he is replacing the old motor rifle and old-style tank divisions that were the main strike elements of Soviet forces with more airmobile forces similar to those pioneered by the Americans. He is also trying to create much greater tactical autonomy at junior leadership levels to enable Russian forces to better ‘think’ their way around an operational problem.   During Vostok 18 General Gerasimov emphasised the need for ‘innovation’ via what he called ‘non-standard solutions’ when he set the Central and Eastern Military Districts against each other on opposing strategic directions.  Significant elements of the Western Military District facing NATO were also engaged during Vostok 18.  General Gerasimov was only partially successful during Vostok 18 but his unstinting efforts to create a new form of ‘shock army’ will doubtless continue

Sufficient Notice to Surprise?  

Is Russia planning an attack? All of the time. Is Russia going to attack tomorrow? No. There are four things that make contemporary Russia dangerous (even to itself) and thus a vigilant NATO. First, Russia is developing military capabilities and capacities that could give it local superiority for a critical period at a time and place of its choosing. Second, neither Russian society nor its economy is being reformed to adapt to the twenty-first century. Third, the weight and burden of the security state (including defence) are too high on a Russian economy that is overly-dependent on the export of oil and gas for income. Fourth, there is no obviously peaceful succession plan for the orderly transfer of power from President Putin when he dies, or when he and his family are sufficiently secure for him to step down.  In other words, Russia is strategically and politically volatile         

To properly understand the strategic utility of Vostok 18 it is necessary to look beyond the exercise itself. Russia is fast developing a new concept of warfare that I have dubbed ‘4D’ warfare. In a Gerasimov-led 4D war disinformation, destabilisation, disruption and destruction, flavoured to taste with a ‘liberal’ sprinkling of deception (Maskirovka), would be unleashed in sequence. One objective would be to keep NATO allies politically and socially off-balance so that they were singularly and collectively distracted from Moscow’s real aim – strategic surprise. It is vital for General Gerasimov to mask any strategic surprise so that Russian forces could concentrate prior to an attack either unnoticed or uncontested. The maximum moment of vulnerability for Russian forces would be as they concentrate, however, ‘dispersed’ General Gerasimov would like his forces to remain prior to any attack.

Plugging NATO’s thirty-day gap

Does TJ18 suggest NATO could combat my worst-case scenario? Not as yet. There is a strange symmetry between Vostok 18 and TJ18 which should worry NATO planners.  General Gerasimov is building, in effect, a thirty-day crash, bang, wallop force. If the force has not achieved its political and strategic goals after thirty days President Putin would likely face one of four options: threaten to use short and theatre range nuclear weapons, stop and hold what ground has been gained; embark on a much longer war than for which his forces are designed, or withdraw.

The NATO dilemma, which is also implicit in the time it took to get TJ18 in place, is that the bulk of its forces could not move in any strength prior to ‘D plus 30’. On paper at least, given the so-called ‘Notice to Move’ of both the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) and NATO Response Force (NRF), they might meet the thirty-day challenge. In reality, it is highly questionable that NATO has sufficient forces at sufficient readiness in sufficient strength to counter any such Russian military adventure. It is even more questionable whether the ‘heavier’ forces NATO European nations are required to have ready would be available to Allied commanders by ‘D plus 90’, let alone ‘D plus 60’.  

That is why my friend and colleague Hans Binnendijk pioneered the 4 x 30 concept for the 2018 Brussels Summit by which 30 combat battalions, 30 combat squadrons and 30 combat ships would be ready to go within 30 days of an emergency being declared. Tellingly, the Americans wanted those forces ready to go in 10 days, but it was the Germans who led efforts to ease it out to thirty days. In other words, NATO European forces might be ready to go just when President Putin could be picking up the phone to some future German chancellor to tell her he has achieved his strategic objectives of rebuilding a buffer between the Russian Federation and NATO. The Baltic States?

No Action Talk Only?

Exercise Trident Juncture has revealed the progress towards the enhanced readiness and responsiveness of Allied forces NATO has made through its significant command and force structure reforms. As such the exercise is an important step on the road to reinforcing deterrence. However, TJ18 has also revealed NATO’s eternal weakness: that reforms of the Alliance itself also require the European Allies to reform and improve their own forces and that the defence of Europe is still too dependent on over-stretched Americans combat forces. As yet, NATO Europeans are still more talk than action. 

Such strategic sloppiness matters because to be truly credible NATO needs to convince the likes of President Putin and General Gerasimov that the thirty-day gap has well and truly been plugged. If not, and assuming the Americans are not mired in a crisis elsewhere, Washington, not NATO would need to take command in an emergency and move with a few trusted allies. NATO?  Coalitions would well prove the death of it.    

Julian Lindley-French