Thursday, November 25, 2004

It’s not cricket

It was fascinating to hear Commons leader (and former Europe minister) Peter Hain condemn Mugabe’s "murderous rule" today, and his frank admission that he did not believe the England cricket team should be visiting Zimbabwe.

And, for such a senior member of the government, he was remarkably outspoken, describing the situation in Zimbabwe as "outrageous", saying President Mugabe’s power was "tyrannical". But he then continued: "We are opposed to this tour, we wish it hadn’t happened but the England Cricket Board is not a department of the government and it’s free to make its own decisions."

However, as always, Hain is being a more than a little disingenuous. The problem for the ECB is that is it contractually bound to fulfil its international fixtures, on pain of a substantial penalty - unless prevented from doing so by force majeur. But that force could include a government ban on nationals travelling to Zimbabwe, in which case the ECB could have called off the matches without penalty.

So, if Hain is so convinced that the tour should not go ahead, and he is clearly an influential member of the government, why did he not press for such a simple and attractive solution? After all, it was the sports ban on South Africa which is widely credited with breaking the grip of apartheid in South Africa.

The answer, is seems, is also remarkably simple. The UK no longer has the power to dictate its own foreign policy over Zimbabwe. Under the terms of the Common Foreign and Security Policy, the UK government has agreed to a "common position" on Zimbabwe which, once agreed, prevents any member state from taking unilateral action.

The only the way that the UK could now take any action to prevent our cricketers being used by Mugabe as a "political tool" is with the permission of the EU – which has not been asked for, probably on the basis that it would not be given. Thus, poor little Hain, despite his enthusiasm for "Europe", is left squawking impotently on the sidelines.

Had we still the freedom to act independently, perhaps a better option might be to send in a battalion of paras – Mugabe’s regime is so rotten that it would probably collapse at the first sight of a red beret.

But we can’t afford this, I hear you all cry! Well, an infantry battalion costs something like £10 million a year. We have 78 MEPs which cost us £1.2 million a year each – just over £90 million, or nine infantry battalions. Simple really – we ditch the MEPs. And which would bring us more influence on the international stage: 78 MEPs or nine infantry battalions? Another no-brainer.

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