Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A classic non-answer

Following up the "constitutional concept" lie, Tory MP Ann Winterton asked the foreign secretary, in a written parliamentary question, to define the terms "constitutional concept" and "constitutional treaty". Europe Minister Jim Murphy replied as follows:

As the then Prime Minister (right hon. Tony Blair) set out in his statement to Parliament on 25 June, the Reform treaty will differ fundamentally from the Constitutional treaty in both form and substance.

The Reform treaty rejects the Constitutional treaty approach. The mandate for the Reform treaty agreed by the European Council states clearly: "The constitutional concept, which consisted in repealing all existing Treaties and replacing them by a single text called 'Constitution', is abandoned."
This is a classic non-answer. And not only does Murphy not answer the question, he offers the unsolicited assertion that, "the Reform treaty will differ fundamentally from the Constitutional treaty in both form and substance."

Technically, that might be true, since the one amends the existing treaties while the other replaces and adds to them. But the existing treaties, as amended by the "reform" treaty, will be fundamentally the same as the constitutional treaty, "in both form and substance".

It's how you tell 'em, I guess, but they really do not want to answer that question.


They are all so enigmatic

I think one can assume, unless there is evidence to the contrary, that western commentators are not going to understand what is going on in Russia. The number of arguments I recall having about Putin when he first came to power with people who now fall over themselves to tell us that, of course, the man is an authoritarian ex-KGB colonel, who is taking Russia back somewhere or other. At the time they insisted that he was merely introducing order after the chaos of the Yeltsin years. Oh and getting rid of the unpopular oligarchs. What he was actually doing is putting his own oligarchs into place.

As it happens, President Putin is not yearning for the Soviet Union, despite the fact that he had served in the KGB, spending much of his career in East Germany, working with the Stasi. He did once say that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the twentieth century and he has made quite sure that attempts to find out and discuss details of Soviet history have met as many obstacles as possible.

Largely, that is working on the good old Russian principle that the less people know the quieter they will be. Actually, it does not always work as numerous rebellions throughout that country’s history have shown but it is worth a try.

Interestingly enough, during the great war of the Estonian bronze soldier that we followed quite closely on this blog, it was Russian nationalism and Russian patriotism that was brought to the fore both in Estonia and in Russia by the young members of Nashi. There was little emphasis on Soviet emblems and, indeed, as soon as some members of the Communist Party in Estonia tried to introduce them, Russian support went quiet.

The recently described summer camp for members of Nashi, may have reminded people of the old Komsomol events (with a little more emphasis on marriage and child-bearing) but the symbolism was that of new Russia – strong, authoritarian, determined to destroy its enemies inside and outside the country.

The boys and girls at the camp came away, if not married or about to be married, at least certain that the likes of Gary Kasparov were fascists who are determined to destroy the country.

None of this is particularly surprising and neither is the reaction of western commentators. Most of them find it impossible to understand even what the Soviet dissidents were or are about.

Some, like the much missed Andrei Sakharov, were easy to understand – they spoke the language of freedom and democratic politics. Others are a little more enigmatic. I shall not tackle the problem of Vladimir Bukovsky yet again except to point out that his assumption that having been brought up in the Soviet Union he can understand everything in the entire world better than anybody else (an assumption that is shared by a number of Russians, dissident or otherwise) is not particularly helpful.

His extraordinary theories about the European Union, based on next to no knowledge, have, unfortunately, been picked up by too many eurosceptics and repeated as gospel truth. Easier than actually finding out some facts and thinking things through, I suppose.

Now it is the GOM of Soviet dissidence, Alexander Solzhenitsyn himself, who is causing consternation. Well, actually, he has always caused consternation, not least among a large number of Russians who dislike his nationalist authoritarian views. Many have accused him of anti-semitism but that is a hard one to discuss without detailed quotations.

I have to declare an interest. I have never thought Solzhenitsyn to be a great or even particularly good writer. His first published work, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” was extremely good largely because it was heavily edited by Alexander Tvardovsky, who was then in charge of the journal Novy Mir. Since then, I believe, Solzhenitsyn insisted on publishing the lengthy original version but I have not come across anyone who has read it.

His other novels I have found largely unreadable and gave up on The Red Circle sequence somewhere around page 5 of the first book, “August 1914”. Naturally, I read “Gulag Archipelago” from cover to cover, all three volumes, while despairing of the style and lack of co-ordination.

Still and all, the man was a symbol of the fight against the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, one needs to go beyond that and look at what he has said and at how he has behaved. This, presumably, is what Flemming Rose has not done. Otherwise, he would not be quite so surprised by the fact that Solzhenitsyn has expressed his support (not for the first time, incidentally) for President Putin, accepting a state prize from him, something that he always refused from Gorbachev and Yeltsin.

In an interview with Der Spiegel Solzhenitsyn, now 88 but that is irrelevant, explained that he could accept this prize as he was nominated by a committee of experts for his achievements in studying the Russian experience in the twentieth century. In any case, Putin may have been a KGB colonel but he was not a bad chap really – never ran a labour camp or conducted any investigations. What on earth did he do, one asks oneself.

Solzhenitsyn sees nothing wrong with Russia as it is developing now, despite distinctly Soviet overtones in some of the developments. The important point is that Russia is, once again, a strong country, not the weakling it seemed at the end of the Cold War and for fifteen years afterwards. It is a country that Europe and the United States have to take into account, says the writer happily, and for whose favours they have to bid in order to secure an alliance.

Whether, given past and present experience, that alliance is worth anything, is another matter and one that Alexander Isayevich prefers not to discuss. This is Russia. How can one criticize it? It is not like other lands.

Sad but true: the leopard does not change his spots. Solzhenitsyn’s dislike and distrust of the West, his complete ignorance and disdain for the country that took him in and gave him everything he wanted, his authoritarian nationalism have not changed. Neither has his inability to understand what is really going on.

Shortly before the disintegration of the Soviet Union he wrote a pamphlet in which he discussed the future. He was wrong on almost every count, including his certainty that Ukraine and Russia will stay together because they are brothers under the skin. It did not happen and that must be the wicked West’s fault.

The East European countries, who, Solzhenitsyn wrote, were living off the Soviet Union (the precise opposite of the truth) are not doing badly at all without big brother to direct them. That, too, must be the wicked West’s fault.

But we shall show them. As Vladimir Putin so Alexander Solzhenitsyn – they both display conviction that Russia has regained her economic and political clout.

If all these people spent less time shouting defiance and bullying all around them they might actually do something good for that country, whose economy depends on oil, gas and arms and whose political might is routinely defied by all those around her. Acknowledging that and planning for a way out, would be living by truth but it is a truth that is harder to acknowledge than to blame everything, including the Soviet system on somebody else.


Diversionary tactics

It is probably a coincidence that, in addition to The Times, there was a letter in The Telegraph today, both supporting in their own ways the EU's revamped constitution.

That cannot be taken for granted though, as it is now well known that the Europhiles harnessed the letter pages of the national newspapers (and particularly The Times in support of Britain's entry into the EEC).

Anyhow, the Telegraph letter is from MEP Hans-Gert Poettering, now president of the EU parliament and formerly president of the EPP Group, of which the Conservatives are still members.

Poettering is also writing to take the newspaper to task, this time over an article which reported him as saying that the EU's new "reform" treaty is in essence a repackaged European constitution the implication of which, Poettering avers, is that the "Government in London" (he does not call it the British government) has engaged in some kind of "fraud" against the British public.

However, while he admits that "a great deal of what was best in the original draft constitution has been retained," he claims that "the situation in the United Kingdom is quite different to that in the other 26 member states." The new treaty, he argues, involves a de facto British opt-out from the Charter of Fundamental Rights, as well as a much wider British exemption in Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) than previously conceded.

He thus concludes that, since making the Charter legally binding and extending community competence to JHA were two of the most important features of the original constitution, the deal struck by Tony Blair in June means that - for better or worse - much of its substance will simply not apply in Britain.

So, now we see a European politician supporting the UK government line that the treaty is not as bad as it is made out, focusing on Blair's infamous opt-outs. But, since these are largely a red herring – and the core of the treaty-to be is the changes to the institutional structures – then the letter is nothing other than another diversionary tactic.

Neither Poettering nor any of the other Euros will ever address the substantive points and will always play around at the margins hoping that, if they do not refer to them, no one else will. And, so far, he is largely right in his choice of tactics.


The acid test

In the event that Gordon Brown calls a snap election in October, The Telegraph is telling us that Cameron will make an EU referendum a key general election issue, giving a commitment to hold a referendum on the treaty.

The relevance of this relies on unattributed claims from "Labour MPs", who are saying that Brown had pencilled in 25 October as a possible date for an early general election, aimed specifically to catch the Tories off guard. However, the paper also adds that next May is seen as a more likely option if Labour remains well ahead in the opinion polls – although that does seem unlikely.

Nevertheless, this raises an intriguing possibility that Brown could be suckering Cameron, allowing him to commit to a referendum as a central plank of his election campaign, only to cut the ground from under his feet by conceding a referendum, as did Blair in 1997 on the euro and in 2004 on the constitution.

That much was raised by The Independent yesterday, and by Political Betting which speculates that such a move could undermine Cameron's attempts to unify an increasingly fractious Party.

All of this can, of course, be dismissed as political fluff, except that Party strategists from both sides will have to consider such issues in their planning for the Party conferences in late September and October.

Either way the outcome will be fascinating as it will give some clue as to Gordon Brown’s true commitment to the European Union – whether he will use the treaty for domestic political gain or whether he will sacrifice the advantage to appease the "colleagues". In many ways, though, the referendum issue could prove the acid test for both leaders.


I am putting this book on my list

Not only that but I am going to suggest that it be made compulsory reading for every fatheaded undergraduate and academic, not to mention organizers of art exhibitions. How can you resist a book called "Exposing the Real Che Guevara and the Useful Idiots Who Idolize Him".

Humberto Fontova, who has already written about Cuba under Fidel Castro, the author of this extremely useful tome, has given a long interview on the subject to CNS News, which has published the first half of it.

To sum up briefly: Fontova describes Che as Castro's Himmler, a psychopathic mass-murderer and trigger-happy executioner, trained by the Soviet military intelligence, the GRU. Eventually, he proved to be too much even for Castro who packed him off to South America, where he proceeded to create mayhem and murder many more people. It seems he was particularly fond of killing young boys.

Interestingly, when captured in Bolivia he showed himself to be an arrant coward. Far from facing the enemy courageously, he pleaded desperately for his life.

The fifth column

You would not think, from the opening paragraph in its statement of principles, that the Henry Jackson Society would be an overtly Europhile organisation.

However, appearances can be deceptive as up pops James Rogers, Director of Operations of the said society, with a strongly Europhile letter in today's Times.

Headed "EU treaty benefits", Rogers takes to task the paper's Saturday leader, which complained of the loss of sovereignty if the revamped EU constitution goes ahead.

He starts with the old canard, that we member states have "pooled" rather than "lost" sovereignty, an assertion that is so easily countered that you wonder why he bothers. Simply, sovereignty is like virginity – you either have it or you don't.

Nevertheless, Rogers has bigger fish to fry, posing "the bigger question" of whether Britain can retain sovereignty without the reform treaty – or indeed the European Union – in the years ahead. Britain's power and authority in the world, he writes:

… is going to decline in the coming years, as an expansive China, a growing India, an increasingly wild and truculent Russia and a myriad of regional powers assert themselves on the world stage. And as the United States becomes more concerned with Asian politics and security, Europeans are likely to be left on their own.
With the stage thus set, he then goes for the killer point:

As a leading member state, Britain should be actively bolstering European Union military power and its ability to represent our interests in the wider world. By providing some of the instruments and institutions necessary to increase our leverage in foreign countries, the reform treaty will enhance the security and sovereignty of all Europeans, thereby producing a better environment for domestic cohesion and the generation of economic wealth.
This, of course, is the "run to mother Europe" ploy – the vision of Britain abandoned by the USA, so weak and isolated that its only option is to accept the warm embrace of the European Union. Only within the Union will it be able to deal with vicissitudes of the modern world and counter the threats from all those nasty countries out there, whence we are able to ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after.

Needless to say, the likes of Rogers never actually deal with the detail of the treaties and the reality of the European Union. So warm and comforting is their vision that accepting the treaty-to-be is but a small price to pay.

But the really interesting thing is the list of Mr Rogers's supporters in the Henry Jackson Society. They include Michael Ancram MP, Gerard Baker, Assistant Editor of The Times Prof. Vernon Bogdanor, Paul Cornish Carrington, Professor of International Security, Chatham House, Michael Gove, Denis MacShane and Gisela Stuart.

And the organisation they support considers that the world's most powerful democracies, the United States and the European Union (yes, that's what it says) – under British leadership – must shape the world more actively by intervention and example.

If this isn't a fifth column, then it is a very good imitation.


Monday, July 30, 2007

Own goals galore

It was very nearly two years ago that we wrote a long piece about the importance of avoiding collateral damage from air strikes.

This was followed by several more pieces, most recently this one, in which we drew attention to a report published on 18 February 2004 which set out the case for more discrimination in the use of air power, noting that civilian casualties were an important tool in the propaganda war.

And here we are again, with The Financial Times and others reporting Nato plans to use "smaller bombs" in Afghanistan as part of a change in tactics aimed at stemming a rise in civilian casualties that threatens to undermine support in the fight against the Taliban.

Mounting civilian casualties have been causing considerable concern in this theatre occasioned in part by the reliance by Nato forces on air power to make up for shortages of troops on the ground, and lack of suitable armour.

Another major factor has been a change in tactics used by the Taliban, who have been deliberately increasing civilian casualties by hiding among Afghan villagers and sometimes holding them in their bases against their will.

The result, according to aid agencies, has been the death of at least 230 Afghan civilians, killed by western troops this year – and the rate has been increasing. In 2006 the number of civilians killed by both sides was 700-1,000, the highest figure since the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001.

Needless to say, the figures themselves are not agreed, but the very fact that a considerable number of civilian deaths have been caused by Nato air strikes is ammunition enough for the Taliban propaganda machine, to be seized upon by their fellow travellers and anti-war activists.

What is troubling though is that, even without the change in Taliban tactics, collateral damage (i.e., killing civilians) has always been an issue yet, only now, does there seem to be a serious effort to do something about it.

In the first piece we published on this issue, we wrote a rather glowing (and perhaps over-optimistic) account of how technology was being developed to enable more precise targeting which, with the use of smaller warheads, could allow combatants to be killed without harming those in the vicinity.

Yet, from the current reports on the issue, we are reminded that the most frequently used ordnance are 1000lb bombs (pictured), the effect of which is illustrated in the photograph above (from an MoD publicity still of exercises in Poland). The explosion is from a single 1000lb bomb, delivered by a Harrier, exactly analogous to the situation in Afghanistan.

With that size of explosion, it is no wonder that collateral damage is being caused but, even with this, Nato is only talking about using 500lb bombs which, although better, are still fearsome weapons to be used in areas where civilians might be present.

However, it is easy for this blog to pontificate about what Nato should or should not be doing in Afghanistan, except that we were raising this issue two years ago, and others – with greater authority – were doing it much earlier.

When one takes on board also the failure of our own MoD to minimise avoidable deaths amongst our own troops, you really do wonder about the competence of our own government and the military in prosecuting this war.

Time and time again, we have written about the powerful, debilitating effect of propaganda on the ability of western powers to fight low-level wars, the thesis we are promoting being common sense and well known. Despite this, our people continue to score what amount to "own goals", with what appear to be very little (or tardy) understanding of the issues involved.

As I wrote in that other piece, "this, we cannot afford". And indeed we cannot. Our government and the military, needs to raise its game.


Irish troubles

It is perhaps ironic that, on the eve of the formal termination of Operation Banner – the military operation in Northern Ireland - fresh troubles of an entirely different kind are about to break out in Ireland proper.

These, according to a Reuters report, are to do with the EU's "reform" treaty, which must be subject to a referendum before it can be ratified in Ireland. And Irish Europe minister, Dick Roche, is now conceding that a negative vote is "a real possibility".

The Irish, of course, have been there before, with their rejection in 2001 of the Nice Treaty, and the stitch-up in 2002 when they were made to repeat the exercise. That second poll has left a legacy of distrust, which is still fresh in the memory of many Eurosceptics.

It is also clearly to the forefront of Roche's mind, who had told Reuters that, "Anyone that thinks this referendum will be a walkover will be deluding themselves. It will have to be a very strong mobilisation of the 'Yes' vote - more Nice II and not Nice I where people were taken for granted."

In terms of statistics, the Irish voting pattern was quite interesting. In 2001, the "Yes" vote surged from 453,000 in the first poll to 906,000 in the second after the government managed to mobilise voters to turn out in much larger numbers. Yet the "No" vote also rose, from 529,000 in the first poll to 534,000 in the second, indicating a solid underlay of public opposition to European initiatives.

This time round, there is also at considerable hostility to the EU among Irish farmers and dissatisfaction in some of the business community. The Irish Farmers' Association (IFA), says Reuters are hostile to world trade talks involving the EU and have indicated that they will vote "No" if there is no improvement in the EU's position, while many "business bosses" are concerned over the EU's meddling in corporate tax.

So far has the farming industry deteriorated that the IFA, which represents nearly 100,000 farmers, could even end up campaigning for a "No" vote, which could make the difference between a "Yes" and a "No".

Roche adds that this referendum "will require all the political parties, trade unions and business leaders who believe in this treaty to get behind it," yet Irish trades unions had already indicated their hostility to the EU constitution and may yet fall behind the "No" campaign.

If they do, there will be supported by Eurosceptics from around Europe, who will be using the Irish contest as a proxy, fighting in Ireland because they are not allowed a referendum. Not for the first time, therefore, Ireland is set to take centre stage in the ongoing drama of European political integration.


The "constitutional concept…" lie

Former Europe minister Keith Vaz is in print today in The Daily Telegraph letters column, arguing that the new "reform" treaty is fundamentally in British and European interests.

He then avers that there is "no need for a referendum on a text that had been directed to abandon the constitutional concept, and meets British demands on foreign policy, tax and the judicial system."

It is interesting how so many of the EU groupies are relying on the weasel-worded "constitutional concept… is abandoned" defence of their sleight of hand and doubly so that they all manage to sing to the same hymn sheet.

As you might have expected, it was the BBC that was one of the first to confuse the term “constitutional concept” with the constitution. This it did as early as 20 June when it noted that Merkel's report to the European Council included the words, the "constitutional concept... is abandoned", which it duly reported under the headline, "EU to drop idea of constitution".

Since then, we have seen Tony Blair, David Milliband, Jim Murphy, Gordon Brown, Harriet Harman and now Keith Vaz all relying on the same formula.

What is surprising (why am I surprised?) is the slowness of the Eurosceptic community to pick on this (quite clearly) deliberate confusion, and the failure of the Tories to address in Parliament and at other venues.

Pedantry it might seem, but since the "constitutional concept... is abandoned" lie has developed as one of the central planks on which the Labour government is basing its case for refusing a referendum, it seems logical that attempts should be made to debunk it.


Going private

If Gordon Brown refuses to hold an EU referendum, the Tories might just back a privately funded poll. That is from William Hague via The Guardian who is looking at an initiative by former minister Lord Young of Graffham.

If Daniel Hannan is right, though, Alex Salmond, the Scottish First Minister, could also call a referendum on the revamped EU constitution.

The SNP, he says, like all the other parties, fought the last election arguing that the EU constitution should not come into effect without a referendum. Salmond could call such a referendum in Scotland, a move that would almost certainly force Brown to do the same on a UK basis.

Sticking to his manifesto promise would differentiate Salmond pleasingly from the oath-breaking Mr Brown, and would allow his voters a surrogate vote on sovereignty.

Meanwhile, the British blogosphere is beginning to stir, with three bloggers (in addition to Hannan) carrying pro-referendum stories yesterday: Critical faculty dojo, Martin Curtis and Rachel Joyce. The day before, we saw Curly’s Corner Shop, the The Purple Scorpion and Pedestrian Infidel.

Others have included The Huntsman, Bill Cameron, Common Sense 4 Britain, the Adam Smith Institute, Devil’s Kitchen and, of course, England Expects plus the excellent Tangled Web.

Considering how significant a role the internet played in the Dutch and French referendums, it is vital that the British blogosphere pulls its weight and it is good to see that it is beginning to mobilise. Gordon Brown may not be aware of the power of blogs but it looks as though he is about to find out.


Cynicism and modernization

From the moment we all became aware of the Tory jaunt to Rwanda, some of us have been engaged in furious altercations about it. Inevitably, whenever I raised such questions as what can one actually build in two weeks and do these people have any building skills, I was told that I was a cynic, as if that were the worst kind of accusation in politics.

As it happens, I do have my fair share of cynicism, much of it to do with politicians and their shenanigans. It does not seem to me to be particularly sensible to go around pretending to be like the mushy Madeleine Bassett created by the incomparable P. G. Wodehouse, who was given to pronouncements on the subject of stars being God’s daisy chain and babies being born every time a fairy blew its wee nose. She was, needless to say, an idealist, who would not even understand cynicism, let alone experience it, and a considerable pain in the neck to all those around her, especially Bertie Wooster.

There is a longish rant about the real cynics of the Rwanda jaunt and the non-modernization of Dave Cameron's Conservative Party here.


Sunday, July 29, 2007

Government begins at home

If one concedes that there has been an element of climatic warming – an entirely natural cyclical phenomenon that alternates with cooling – then it is also entirely reasonable to postulate that such a change will bring with it consequences. Those include, it has been argued, the extreme weather events that have brought with them the extensive flooding in Yorkshire and, latterly, Gloucestershire and surrounding areas.

With or without warming, though, extreme weather events are a fact of life. And what is emerging from the extensive press coverage over the last few days (not least here), is how ill-prepared the public authorities have been to deal with the events of past weeks.

Enter Booker is his column, who picks up on the warning by Baroness Young, head of the Environment Agency, that we all face soaring water bills to pay for the deficiencies in "infrastructure" brought to light by the recent floods.

As most of us are aware, writes Booker, water bills have already been soaring in recent years but, by far the greater part of that money, has been spent, not on repairing pipes and drains, to avoid floods and provide us with extra water, but on complying with three over-the-top EU directives on water purification, which absorb time, energy and cost at all levels.

Booker's figure is based on the government admission extracted by Lord Pearson of Rannoch, which told us that EU water directives have so far cost us no less than £65 billion, leaving the water companies with only £14 billion to spend on infrastructure. And, says Booker (as indeed have we), anyone genuinely wanting to know why our water infrastructure and flood defences are in such poor shape, this is where they might start looking.

However, it is not only the money that us at issue, but the distortion of priorities and the diversion of attention and blame

It is these issues, perhaps, that have the most malign effect. Consider the amount of time spent on the EU agenda by national politicians, the Environment Agency, local authorities and all the other agencies which deal directly and indirectly with issues such as water supply, drainage and water treatment, and then think what the effect might have been if that resource and effort had been devoted strictly to national issues.

There can be no better example of that distortion of priorities than the recent commission policy paper "water scarcity and droughts" – to which Booker also refers.

For sure, in Southern Europe, this is (currently) a real problem. For us, last year, it was a problem – although the bigger problem was leakage and lack of investment in reservoirs. And that highlights the fact that, as far as the UK goes, there is no European problem. The problems we have need to be addressed at a national level and the only contribution of the EU is to diverst resources away from them.

Nor is this the only area that the EU has this effect. Whether it is transport, waste management, air purity, food hygiene, animal welfare, road safety – and a host of other issues – our priorities do not accord with those perceived as important by the EU. We should not be looking for "European" but national solutions.

There is the rub. If the treaty-to-be comes into effect, the situation gets immeasurably worse. Our own government and those of the member states become even further integrated into the maw of the Union and the national perspective will be relegated further down the line.

Water, therefore, provides the object lesson which we need to re-learn: government begins at home.


It certainly isn't going away

No less than five pieces in The Sunday Telegraph today: a front page story, a background piece, a robust opinion piece from Gisela Stuart, a leader and Booker.

"One of Tony Blair's last acts was to renege on a promise and it is almost unbelievable that one of Gordon Brown's first has been to do the same," says Gisela Stuart . "There is still time for Gordon Brown to put this right."

It is not the lie that offends so much as the brazenness, adds the leader. When Gordon Brown claims that the EU's "Reform Treaty" is different from the rejected constitution, he is making a claim so risible that an eight-year-old would see through it.

And from Booker, we get:

Yet the more we examine this plan to hand over, irrevocably, all our remaining powers to govern ourselves to this new form of government, the more apt it seems that the final extinction of our parliamentary democracy should be rammed through on the basis of such a breathtakingly shameless lie.
On top of that, we get references in The Observer and The Sunday Times.

However much Brown may wish it to go away, the EU referendum is remaining firmly fixed in the media.


Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Saturday "toy"

A Lynx Mk8, one of the Royal Navy display pair, taken at Teeside Airport this afternoon. The aircraft was returning from Sunderland where it had been performing at the beachside airshow.


That's the way to do it

Courtesy of Defencetalk this little snippet comes our way:

In Iraq, an MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle observed insurgents fire two mortar rounds then load the tube into the trunk of their vehicle before striking the target. The Predator then launched a Hellfire missile at the mortar team in the vehicle. The missile impacted the front of the car and it was destroyed.
The success of this missile strike highlights an issue we have been "banging on" about for some time, with miltiple posts (and here) written on and around this issue.

With technology such as the Predator available, there is very little excuse for tolerating the daily routine indirect fire attacks on British bases yet, recently, we have lost four servicemen to such attacks, one killed at Basra Palace and the other three at Basra Air Station.

The MoD is extremely reluctant to talk about force protection measures – except when it suits it - and while we accept that counter-measures are improving and will continue to improve, whatever is being done is not enough or fast enough.

Force protection is not an academic issue but central to the successful prosecution of a counter-insurgency operations. We remarked on this recently: the MoD and Army must begin to understand that the currency of counter-insurgency is soldiers' deaths. As we noted, "The more the casualty rate builds, the harder it is to sustain operations in the face of mounting public opposition."

These indirect fire deaths come firmly in the category of "avoidable deaths" – and neither is the mounting toll of injuries (many of them serious) at all acceptable. If Brown (and Browne) have any hopes of maintaining even the vestige of support for their operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, they must focus on this issue and deal with it. And Mr Predator shows the way.


It isn't going away

We are entering the "Bermuda Triangle" of the silly season, when political news dries up and, we predicted, coverage of the EU treaty-to-be would disappear. But it isn't so – not just yet.

The leading tabloid newspaper, The Sun carries the referendum in its leader, using the hook of the statement by former Labour minister, Frank Field, which we covered yesterday, while its sister paper, The Times, also offers a longish opinion piece.

There is just a glimmer of hope that the issue will run through what is laughingly called "the summer", ready for a rise in the tempo come the conference season starting in September. Perhaps on this, the media can see the weakness of Brown and scents blood.


Friday, July 27, 2007

Have these people no shame?

Contrary to some people’s opinion, it is not often that I get incandescent with anger. But the story of the Elders, chaired by Bishop Desmond Tutu, which I have posted about once, is one of those that get me into that state. I am told that I give good interviews on such occasions, so something useful comes out of the process.

This afternoon I recorded a brief interview on the subject with More4, from which they were going to pick one or, maybe, two comments. I don’t know which ones they picked but they were all absolutely furious.

What was it, they asked me, that I so disliked about it, the concept or the people involved. Both I said unequivocally, the concept being fatuous and a number of the people involved despicable.

Let us have a look at the concept. A number of past politicians of dubious record and some present tranzi activists are going to get together at the behest of Richard Branson, whose business, I should have thought, requires some attention at the moment, and Peter Gabriel, another fading rock musician.
The Elders will be independently funded by a group of "Founders", including Branson and Gabriel.

Desmond Tutu serves as the chair of The Elders—who will use their collective skills to catalyze peaceful resolutions to long-standing conflicts, articulate new approaches to global issues that are or may cause immense human suffering, and share wisdom by helping to connect voices all over the world. They will work together over the next several months to carefully consider which specific issues they will approach.
What could be more fatuous? These people have no wisdom to share as they are demonstrating by assuming that all global issues that cause immense human suffering can be solved by the same people. Even Edgar Wallace’s “Four Just Men” did not take anything like that on.

As it happens, I have an immediate suggestion for Bishop Desmond Tutu, ex-President Nelson Mandela and his wife, Graça Machel. There is this country, called Zimbabwe, right on your doorstep. Plenty of immense human suffering there. You have time to spare on world problems, which all just happen to be caused by the United States in President Mandela’s estimation? Well, how about spending some of it on that country on your doorstep?

Or if you think matters have gone too far there and one needs to nip problems in the bud and conflicts when they start brewing (as they did in Rwanda when former SecGen Kofi Annan refused to strengthen the UN contingent more than ten years ago), then how about South Africa?

There are numerous indications that the country is not having a good time and that time is going to get worse. Why not try to solve those problems now? An added advantage will be that you will not have to leave carbon footprints all over the world, which is undoubtedly a consideration for the Elders, as you are already there.

Of course, former SecGen Kofi (father of Kojo) Annan and former President “Jimmah” Carter will have to fly out to help you but that cannot be helped.

Well, said the interviewer, you don’t like the concept but it was based on the African idea of an Elders’ council. I think I came near to taking off into the stratosphere. Africa? I spluttered. Africa is hardly an example to the rest of the world politically or economically. Surely, we want Africa to become the rest of the world (well, some of it) not the rest of the world like Africa.

I am surprised, I added caustically, that they have not asked that African Elder, President Robert Mugabe to join the group. Now, there is a man who knows how to settle conflicts. Or what about former President Giscard d’Estaing, erstwhile best friend of Emperor Bokassa?

So much for the concept. Now, let us have a look at the members of this august organization: Nelson Mandela we have spoken about and Desmond Tutu. Then there will be, as I mentioned in the previous posting, former SecGen Kofi Annan, the man responsible for the Rwanda genocide and the Iraq oil-for-food scandal to mention but two of the best-known episodes in his life. Our readers can be assured that I mentioned both of them.

Former President Jimmy Carter, I said, is without any doubt the worst president the United States had in the twentieth century, bar none. Ah but, my interviewer said, he is a very good ex-President. I went back to being incandescent. As an ex-President, I said contemptuously, he certified a clearly fraudulent election in Venezuela as being absolutely free and fair. On top of everything else the man “achieved” he enabled Hugo Chávez. And let’s not even talk about his pronouncements about the Middle East.

Then there is the former Chinese Foreign Minister, Li Zhaoxing. To be fair to my young interviewer, she thought that very peculiar. Exactly how is a Chinese politician an independent person? As Foreign Minister, he represented one of the worst tyrannies in the world, where they arrest and torture people for meditating or writing journalism.

Oh and by the way he was “Deputy Director General and Director General of the Information Department of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Spokesman of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs” when the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square and over the people who were sitting there. Another one who has a fair idea how to solve conflicts.

The rest of the Elders (Mary Robinson, Muhammad Yunus, Ela Bhatt and Gro Harlem Brundtland) are not quite so obnoxious though they are not all that attractive, being the usual bunch of tranzis, many of them, curiously enough also directors of the United Nations Foundation, one of the funders of this global caravan serai. Come to think of it, I wonder how much Gro Harlem Brundtland, the inevitable Scandinavian representative of political wisdom, had to do with Norway’s despicable behaviour over the funding of terrorists in the Middle East.

Well, there we are, ladies and gentlemen, another bunch of incompetent and worse tranzis, who will travel round the world, get themselves photographed in various picturesque places, preferably with lots of suffering people in the background, weeping crocodile tears, blaming America and/or Israel, then demanding that American sort out whatever problems has cropped up.

I ask again: have these people no shame?


Ratification woes

Funded by the EU commission and living on the same street in Brussels, the European Policy Centre (EPC) is something of a mouthpiece for the project, often flying kites on issues which the commission does not want to express directly. And the EPC is worried about losing the treaty-to-be through the ratification process which suggests, by proxy, the commission is also worried.

So it is that in a short report published today, Sara Hagemann, a Policy Analyst at the EPC, is articulating the fear that the "reform" treaty may be easier to get signed than it may be to ratify.

She does not anticipate problems in Germany, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Sweden, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovenia, Estonia, Cyprus or Malta, as all should ratify with absolute or simple majorities in parliament but those which require two-thirds parliamentary majority are more potentially troublesome. Of those Austria and Finland will ratify, but there may be "complications" in Poland and (surprisingly)Belgium.

Even more problematic are the situations in France, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, where three-fifths majorities in parliament are required, although Hagemann predicts that Sarkozy will be able to resist calls for a French referendum and that parliament will ratify the treaty.

But the real danger points are the UK, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Portugal and Denmark. These are all under intense pressure to call referendums with the UK the biggest threat. She predicts that the result would be a "resounding 'No'" in the UK.

To neutralise the threats from the various quarters, Hagemann argues that there is "no time to lose" if "majorities in favour of the treaty in national parliaments and the wider public" are to be mobilised. Governments must launch a wider debate on the treaty now or face "potentially serious consequences". Leaving it until after the treaty is signed to launch a wider debate would be too little, too late, with potentially serious consequences.

She thus warns that a "carefully orchestrated" process is required to ensure the new treaty is ratified and comes into force, not least to counter criticisms that the entire deal is being "stitched up". Interestingly, she is also worried by the fact that the IGC is sovereign in deciding on the content, form and path of the new treaty, meaning that "the claim that the text is already 'closed and sealed' could be legally challenged."

Ultimately, though, Hagemann writes, "success or failure depends on whether any member state other than Ireland calls a referendum". If they do, it would be difficult for others to avoid following suit. Governments must thus recognise that the support of their parliaments and citizens cannot be taken for granted.

One cannot help but feel, however, that Hagemann is a little too late. When it comes to the "stitch-up", which is undoubtedly going on, the word is already out.


Will he ever die?

One by one all the truly evil villains of the twentieth century, which seemed to produce a more than average number of them, shuffle off this mortal coil. I have no wish to speculate as to what happens to them afterwards.

There is, however, one who is still around despite numerous and, unfortunately, exaggerated reports of his demise. I refer, of course, to Fidel Castro, the man who not quite single-handedly but with very little help, destroyed Cuba’s economy, reduced its people to absolute poverty, destroyed any political and cultural (except for the state-subsidized dance companies) life.

Oh yes, in case you are wondering, that famous health service so beloved by Michael Moore and numerous easily befuddled lefties in the West, who would not dream of using it, is so good that Castro himself in his recent illness, had doctors flown in from Spain.

Conditions in his country are so wonderful that anyone who can, escapes. Recently we had Cuban boxers defecting during the Pan-American Games (they must be among the most privileged sections of the population). Then there is the rarely published story of those doctors sent to Venezuela who are leaving for Colombia or the USA in droves.

For a year or so, all the Cubans have seen of their leader has been pictures, which frankly do not show him in the pink and his rambling articles in the Communist Party newspaper.

Yesterday, for the first time it was his brother Raúl who led the great celebration of the Cuban revolutionary take-over. Raúl was handed temporary power soon after last-year’s celebrations, when Fidel collapsed. It seems that he was suffering from various complications arising from diverticulitis. There were several operations only some of which were successful – possibly the ones conducted by the Spanish rather than Cuban doctors.

The temporary hand-over has become more permanent and Raúl has been talking openly of reforming the centralized Soviet-style agriculture, which has ensured that a potentially rich country has been unable to produce nearly enough food for itself or to produce anything at all to pay for the importation of food and that famous oil from Venezuela.

What keeps a number of people going is remittances sent back by their relatives in the United States, which Castro would like to crack down on but, perhaps, does not dare.

However, while Fidel is alive Raúl does not seem to be able to carry out any reforms. It is, of course possible that he is using Fidel’s possible existence as an excuse for his own lack of action. That would be a rather macabre development of the Soviet habit of talking of the long-dead Lenin as one who was still with them. Or, as Mayakovsky wrote: “Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will go on living”. Same with Castro.

It seems that Raúl has lightened burdens a little, though only the International Herald Tribune could take this sort of thing seriously:
Since becoming acting president, Raúl Castro has twice offered to open negotiations with the United States to end a half-century of enmity and sanctions. He repeated that stand Thursday, noting that President George W. Bush would soon be leaving office "along with his erratic and dangerous administration."

"The new administration will have to decide whether it will maintain the absurd, illegal and failed policy against Cuba or if will accept the olive branch that we offered," he said.
There has been less harassment of dissidents and opponents of the government, it appears. While not actually promoting any new reforms
the younger Castro has allowed the importation of televisions and video players. He has told the police to let pirate taxis operate without interference. He has pledged to spend millions to refurbish hotels, marinas and golf courses. He even ordered one of the state newspapers to investigate the poor quality of service that state-controlled bakeries and other stores provide to people.
None of this is earth-shaking or is likely to lead to anything much except temporary cessation of grumbling.
But perhaps the most important step he has taken was to pay the debts the state owes to private farmers and to raise the prices the state pays for milk and meat. Ordinary Cubans still live on rations and cope with chronic shortages of staples like beef. Salaries average about $12 a month, and most people spend the three-quarters of their pay on food, according to a study by Armando Nova González, an economist at the Center for the study of the Cuban Economy.

"What a person makes is not enough to live on," said Jorge, a museum guard who asked his last name not be used because he feared persecution. "You have to resort to the black market to get along. No, not just to get along, to survive." He said he and his wife together make about $30 a month, just enough to support their family of four.
Then again, perhaps Raúl Castro can recall when Mikhail Gorbachev started fiddling a little bit with the Soviet system and how quickly that fell apart, sweeping away the CPSU and its First Secretary.


Time for opposition

With Brown's Labour Party soaring in the polls – enjoying a nine point lead over David Cameron's Conservative Party – even the staunchest of the Cameroons can no longer deny that "project Dave" is veering off the rails.

This is no mere "Brown bounce", but a decisive rejection of Cameron, who attracts a mere 27 percent approval rating as Conservative leader, compared with 43 percent in February.

But what stands out in the poll is the broad support for a referendum on the EU constitution, with 58 percent in favour with only 17 against (25 percent don't knows). Given that this issue is one of the very few where there is clear blue water between the opposing parties, the inference is obvious. Rather than avoiding "banging on about Europe", Cameron has everything to gain by pushing hard to achieve the referendum that the majority want.

That much is articulated in The Telegraph by Frank Field, minister for welfare reform in the Labour government from 1997-98. He writes that the EU leaders' attempt to foist a new constitution on their respective electorates offers both Gordon Brown and David Cameron their first real chance to impose their image on the politics of the post-Blair era.

Cameron, he adds, has found some of the right words to denounce the treaty, but has not seriously engaged the prime minister on this issue. He should snatch up the gauntlet of Brown teasing him with the prospect of an early election by declaring that, if an election was held during this year or next, he would commit a Cameron government to holding a referendum on the treaty.

For sure, as is already evident, Brown (and his acolytes) will mock Cameron, seeking to denigrate his new-found Euroscepticism

But the fact is that an EU referendum is one of the few issues on which Cameron can score and where Brown can be easily wrong-footed. And, at the moment, as the polls demonstrate, he has nothing to lose.



Following yesterday’s news of a British soldier being killed and two injured after their Pinzgauer Vector have been targeted by a roadside bomb, we learn of a different fate experienced by Canadian troops.

Near Kandahar yesterday, in a convoy comprising two RG-31s and an LAV, one of the RG-31s was targeted by a suicide bomber driving a car packed with explosives. According to some reports, the car rammed the RG-31 and, in what was described as "a huge explosion", caused it to roll over into a ditch (pictured). However, the four occupants emerged unscathed - no one was injured.

So, in the space of just over a week in Afghanistan, we have a Dutch operated Bushmaster attacked by an IED – no casualties. We have a Canadian RG-31 targeted by a suicide bomber – no casualties. And we have a British Pinzgauer Vector attacked by an IED – one dead and two injured.

The MoD really have some explaining to do.


A good and faithful servant

In 204 pages, Dame Pauline Neville-Jones has produced her commission’s report on defence and security for the Conservative Party. Headed "An Unquiet World", much of it is dedicated to national security with a mere 32 pages dealing with defence.

In what will have to be a series of posts, we look at this report and the implications for Tory policy and the wider debate. In this first post, we look specifically at the Neville-Jones "take" on "the role of the USA in British Defence Policy", the implications of which, her commission argues, will greatly affect our policy.

In the first few lines of this short section, however, we see immediately where Neville-Jones is coming from as she immediately raises what to her is the “crucial choice” - whether the UK should continue to align itself so closely with US forces and doctrine.

That we should even be considering whether to make such a choice is, in fact a major political statement, as both UK and Conservative Party policy traditionally has been to foster a continued and close military alliance with the US – both multilaterally through Nato and bilaterally.

The reasons for this alliance are many and varied, but not least self interest. The US is the most powerful military force on this planet and it is this, through Nato, has kept the peace in Western Europe since the last World War. Furthermore, even to this day, it contributes considerably to the defence of this country, stationing considerable assets in the UK, which are available to the British government.

Yet, such factors Neville Jones does not even consider. Instead, she boils down the rationale for the alliance into a single aim: to gain influence over American policy. It is only for this reason, and this reason alone, that Neville-Jones will allow that we have sought to shape our own defence policy "with a view to what would be taken seriously by the United States, militarily and politically." This, she says, "has had a determining effect on the structure of our forces", although she also allows that, in its own terms, "this policy has had considerable success."

The distortion thus introduced is stunning in its breadth, but it is essential, as we will see, to the Neville-Jones narrative. Not for one moment, it seems, can she permit a more obvious reason for the alignment of our defence policy with the US – that simply, as allies, we might expect to fight against a common enemy, to which effect, it is essential that there is an element of harmonisation in both equipment and doctrines.

Through the distorting lens of the Neville-Jones view, however, her thesis is developed to make a case that alignment with the US has involved a huge investment which, she argues – in the context of Iraq – "has not on the face of it resulted in the effective exercise of customary influence over American policy and most certainly has not led to an outcome in the British interest." Indeed, she avers, since the damage to British interests has been very considerable, "we need to ask what end is being served by the big investment."

The foundations thus laid, she poses three heavily loaded questions: do we have special access or is the special relationship all an illusion; is its very large military and intelligence component any longer affordable; and what kind of bang are we getting for our invested bucks?

Having thus framed, very tightly, the argument, Neville-Jones accepts a continued need for intelligence cooperation but is able to cast doubts on our ability to finance a continuing military relationship with the US.

To strengthen her case, she asserts that, through developments in military technology, the US will leave all other militaries behind and unable to operate in tandem with their forces. "It is unlikely", she says, that our armed forces will be able to plug into American systems unless they keep up continuously. And this, of course, has "substantial financial and doctrinal implications" for the UK military, the underlying theme being that we cannot afford the financial cost.

If we go with the Americans, we shall have to integrate more with them, she adds and, if we do not, "we shall rapidly be no more useful to them militarily than other allies already are."

Such an argument seems persuasive, but it is wrong. Military cooperation stems primarily from the political level. Given the political will to cooperate and, compatible command structures, differences in equipment and doctrines can be reconciled by allocating different areas of operation to different militaries within the same theatre.

That was the option in Italy in 1944-5, when British forces drove up the west while US forces fought in the east. It worked in Northern Europe, where the British-led forces took the north and the US Armies went south. This is what is happening in Iraq, where the British have occupied the south while US forces occupy the centre and north. It is also working in Afghanistan, with the Americans in the West, the British in the centre and other coalition forces in the east.

This, Neville-Jones partially acknowledges but she over-rides this option with the assertion that "the financial challenge of keeping up with the US is becoming formidable". The UK procurement budget is inadequate to cover the agreed programme. Thus, she introduces the possibility of British forces accepting the "trend towards force specialisation", playing to UK strengths such as our special forces but cutting out other capabilities.

That, in fact – although unstated – is the modus operandi of the European Rapid Reaction Force, but it is not one which the UK has yet espoused. Neville-Jones is suggesting we follow the European route. It should be possible, she says, for the UK to retain forces which are advanced and affordable, but they would need to be structured somewhat differently from today.

That the Americans could perceive this as a degradation of the capability of the UK junior partner is not something that seems to be of concern. What is of more concern, Neville-Jones writes, "would depend on factors important for the UK and going well beyond UK/US relations" such as inter alia the "degree of multilateralism to which the US were committed". There is, the unspoken condition - we work with the US only if it is prepared to embrace multilateralism.

From there - in a thoroughly rigged argument – the conclusion is pre-ordained. The UK continues its close alignment with the United States, but only for the time being, planting the real agenda – the possibility of "important variation in detail in the future". This is nothing more or less than a heavily coded plan for progressive detachment from the current bilateral relationship with the US.

Of course, Neville-Jones, the great Europhile, is not going to declare it openly, but the agenda is there. British armed forces should become a specialised component of a multilateral structure, through which they relate with the US. And, for "multilateral structure", read European Union.

A good and faithful servant to the "project", she has planted the seed.


Thursday, July 26, 2007

Party funds

As the UKIP case makes its tortous way through the court (hearing completed, decision due in the first week of August) other parties' finances are looking a little moth-eaten, too. The Electoral Commission has published their accounts for 2006, as the Guardian reports.

Entitling the story "Donations to Cameron's Tories run at four times rate to Labour", which would imply that somewhere in the country there was another bunch of Tories, the article explains that the Conservatives are doing considerably better financially than all their opponents (especially those whom the Electoral Commission takes to court).

Mind you, all those donations will probably swallowed up in a big increase in staffing in GCHQ, whose value we have yet to see, not to mention the salaries some of the top staffers earn. In fact, the situation resembles somewhat the NHS and the money that Gordon Brown as Chancellor kept chucking at it, only to see it disappear into ever more and ever higher salaries.
The Conservatives report a £4.2m surplus after paying £2.2m to boost the pension scheme for party agents. At £19.9m, income from donations is £6.4m more than the party raised in the general election year under Michael Howard. This includes £4.9m in conversions of loans to donations. Revenue from membership was also up, from £843,000 to £899,000. Overall debt was halved from £18,082,000 to £9,011,000, while £2m was invested in a new computer system to help fight the next general election.
The Labour Party has done considerably worse, which prompted a Labour supporting acquaintance of mine to suggest that this was another reason for Brown not wanting to go to the country in a hurry. (That was before I explained to him the timetable for the "reform" treaty. He had already bought the coffees, I ma glad to say.)
Labour cut its deficit from £14.5m to less than £1m, but to achieve this had to reschedule loans from big donors, take up a bridging loan from the bank and sell its old headquarters. It made a profit of £26,000 on the £5.8m sale of its Old Queen Street headquarters. Expenditure has been cut by 15%, 133 staff have lost their jobs, and overall debt has been cut by £2m to £25m.
There are, needless to say, some complications with those involved in the no-longer-cash-for-honours-scandal.

The Lib-Dims are not doing too badly but are having problems because of a certain injudiciousness in their choice of donors:
The Liberal Democrats report a turnaround from a deficit of some £207,000 to a surplus of £1.17m. Most of the new money comes not from individual donations, but from the state and Joseph Rowntree. The party's auditors insisted the Liberal Democrats record a £2.4m donation from Michael Brown, owner of 5th Avenue Partners, given during the last election, as a contingent liability depending on the outcome of a City of London police inquiry.
The Electoral Commission seems in no hurry to deal with the issue any more than it wants to sort out the postal votes mess but that is another rather disgraceful story.

Never mind, the Commission has been busy and not just with UKIP:
The commission says the Co-operative party has been fined £500 for being six days late and the British National party, which has still to submit accounts, could face a much higher fine.
Funny how they always go for the littlies.

What happens if a political party goes bankrupt the self-same Labour supporting acquaintance asked me. We might yet be privileged to see such an event. Not, of course, if they manage to pass legislation to fund them even more extensively from taxpayers' money.


Intellectually dishonest

UK demands for a referendum on the EU are "absurd" and "intellectually dishonest" says Labour MEP Richard Corbett.

As his party's spokesman on constitutional affairs in the toy parliament, he declares: "The Labour government promised a referendum on the treaty precisely because it was constitutional… The reform treaty is not constitutional and amounts to a set of modest reforms to the existing EU structure."

"Britain has never had a referendum to ratify an international treaty and it is absurd to demand one on a treaty that does modest things like changing the length of the European council presidency from 6 months to 30 months," he adds.

So, 277 pages of text are "modest reforms to the existing EU structure", eh? And what about this?

Now who's being intellectually dishonest?


The £40 billion sting

In the wake of the House of Lords Report on VAT fraud, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee have just come up with theirs. The "executive summary" is admirably succinct, and I can do no better than reproduce it here:

VAT missing trader fraud is a large scale criminal attack on the EU VAT system. The most serious form—known as Carousel Fraud—involves a series of contrived transactions, within and beyond the EU to create large unpaid VAT liabilities and fraudulent claims.

The Department has been tackling missing trader fraud for over six years, yet has failed to stem the flow of tax losses: the fraud has continued to cost the exchequer at least £1 billion a year. In 2005–06, the level of fraud increased to its highest level yet, with the estimated cash loss to the exchequer of between £2 to £3 billion.

There are no reliable or comprehensive EU wide estimates of the cost of this fraud because most member states have not produced estimates. The EU Commissioner for Taxation has estimated the annual loss from VAT Fraud across the European Union at £40 billion (€60 billion).

The Department has introduced a range of legal and operational measures to tackle the fraud. The fraudsters are, however, resourceful and react quickly to such measures. In February 2006, the Government sought from the European Union authority to apply a special measure—the “reverse charge”—derogating from the Sixth VAT Directive for a wide-range of electronic goods, including those currently associated with the fraud, such as mobile phones and computer chips.

In principle, once in force, this measure would prevent fraudsters from receiving VAT on the sale of mobile telephones and computer chips and would eliminate the opportunity for the fraud. The Council of the European Union approved the derogation on 16 April 2007, but the Council’s decision only allows the Department to apply the “reverse charge” to commerce in mobile phones and computer chips, rather than the wider range of products that the United Kingdom had originally requested. The Government now expects that this narrower measure, combined with other operational interventions, will protect revenue of £50 million in 2007–08.

The reverse charge can only be a provisional measure pending a more comprehensive Euwide solution. The Commission is in favour of VAT being charged on all intra-community transactions in the country of purchase thereby eliminating VAT free operations and the opportunity for the present type of missing trader fraud. The United Kingdom and some other Member States are not in favour of this system. The Department considers that it would open the way for major new frauds.

Individual Member States cannot tackle VAT fraud on their own. The Department recognises that it has to work closely with the tax authorities of other member states and third countries, as well as with the accounting, tax and legal professionals to tackle the problem effectively. Ultimately the European Union will have to agree a new legislative framework for administering VAT, if missing trader fraud is to be eliminated in the long term.
Although the £40 billion a year loss is somewhat less than the Lords' estimate (which went to £170 billion), this is still a huge amount of money – more than our entire defence budget.

However, one notes that the Committee says the EU will have to "agree a new legislative framework for administering VAT" in order to eliminate fraud. Since the chances of that happening are precisely nil, VAT fraud is set to continue, another of those EU scandals which the MSM seems quite incapable of reporting with any degree of emphasis.

What is wrong with people that they cannot take on board the huge scale of this fraud and the eye-watering amounts that are being stolen? If ever there was an open-and-shut indictment of the way the EU works, this is it. But what do we get? A smattering of low-key reports! I really do not understand what is going on here.