23 February 2008

"It will start in Kosovo and end in Kosovo"

Kosovo’s declaration of independence last Sunday was the least surprising event of this year (though, naturally, there is plenty of time to go for more dog-bites-man-supermodel-takes-drugs stories in 2008). While I am not at all surprised that Serbia and Russia are going through the motions of rage and astonishment I find the silliness and ignorance of commentators in the West – for once, I think, the blogosphere is slightly worse than the MSM – perpetually odd.

When Hashim Thaci was elected to be Prime Minister of Kosovo last November he announced that he would declare his country to be independent as soon as possible after December 10, when the international mediators were supposed to report back to the UN on the progress of negotiations over Kosovo’s status.

The negotiations led nowhere and the UN continued to procrastinate. The election of Boris Tadic, supposedly pro-Western but really little different from his more nationalist rival, as Serbia’s President earlier this month speeded up events. Mr Tadic may want Serbia to be in the EU – promising the Serbs great prosperity through that move – but he, too, was against Kosovan independence. For that matter, no Serb politician at this time is interested in any arrangements with Kosovo apart from some kind of a return to the past, something that was clearly never going to happen. But then Yugoslavia was never going to be turned into Greater Serbia either but it took ten years of war, thousands of dead, tens of thousands displaced and severe economic hardship for the Serbs to accept that.

President Tadic, backed by the Russian government, has gone to the United Nations Security Council asking for the independence to be annulled and Serbia’s “territorial integrity” to be restored.

Serbia has also recalled its ambassador from Washington and filed legal charges against Hashim Thaci and the Kosovan leadership in general. Other measures against countries that insist on recognizing Kosovo are being threatened:
Last week, Belgrade vowed to downgrade — but not break — diplomatic ties with all nations that recognize Kosovo's independence.

Later Monday, the Foreign Ministry said ambassadors to France and Turkey also were ordered back to the country, following their formal diplomatic recognition of Kosovo. They were withdrawn for "consultation until further notice," the ministry statement said.

"America and the European Union are stealing Kosovo from us, everyone must realize that," said Tomislav Nikolic, the head of the ultra-nationalist Radical Party. "From this moment on, we must count the days until we liberate Kosovo."
I haven’t heard the word “liberate” used in that sense for some time. Well, not since the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

The Prime Minister of Serbia, Vojislav Kostunica, who describes himself as being more nationalist than President Tadic, has attacked the United States for backing Kosovo’s independence bid, saying, in a way that is all too familiar to those who have ever paid any attention to Serb rhetoric, that President Bush and other European supporters of Kosovo will go down “in black letters” in Serbian history. There are rather a lot of black letters in Serbian history, so there is no real need to worry.

Prime Minister Kostunica also stated on national television:
Today on February 17, the fake state of Kosovo was illegally proclaimed on [Serbia’s] territory under the control of NATO. This was an act of legal violence. The United States puts force above law and showed that they were ready to break international laws for their own interests.
On the whole, it is not all that advisable for Serb politicians to talk about putting force above law. Those of us (and I exclude the many who have been commenting on the event in a hysterical and ignorant fashion) who recall the Yugoslav war of the nineties remember the attack on Slovenia, the bombing of Vukovar, the massive attack on Bosnia, not to mention the conduct of that war and the attempted ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. One could argue that these were all done by people who put force above law.

In fact, given the outcome of that prolonged war as far as Serbia is concerned, one has to wonder whether Serbs might not be admitting to themselves that those ambitions for Greater Serbia were a very big mistake. Without them some form of a lose federation might still have been in existence on the territory of former Yugoslavia (as created in 1918).

But then, modern Kosovo under that name has been part of modern Serbia only since 1912. The idea that Kosovo has been a Serbian province for many centuries is something of a myth propagated very successfully by the Serbs. Come to think of it, Serbia itself existed as an independent state only sporadically between the early fifteenth century and the second half of the nineteenth. At other times it was part of Hungary, of the Ottoman Empire for a very long time and, subsequently, of the Austrian one.

The argument that Kosovo is somehow naturally part of Serbia depends entirely on the fact that in the fourteenth century it was just that and the Battle of Kosovo, which was not quite a decisive Ottoman victory but which the Serbs consider themselves to have lost, was fought near Pristina in 1389.

Not many borders in the world are the same now as they were in 1389 and there is no particular reason why Serbia’s should be. This posting is not really the place for anything remotely resembling an analysis of the complicated history of the Balkans in the early modern period: the toing and froing of armies; conquests, other conquests, reconquests; alliances formed and broken; states and statelets emerging, disintegrating and reconfiguring. There has been much written on the subject by historians of the period.

The point is that none of it is of any relevance to the twenty-first century and there is no reason why decisions should be taken on the basis of what the situation was like for a few years in the fifteenth or sixteenth century.

It is fair to say that Kosovan resentment has been in existence since 1912 and was certainly strengthened by the gay abandon with which it was included into a country of Southern Slavs after the First World War. The Albanians are not Slavs but neither are they Turks or close cousins thereof, as described by one blogger, whom I shall not name, not wishing to embarrass him.

The history of Yugoslavia between the wars consisted to a great extent of attempts to turn the country into the Kingdom of Serbia and resistance to that from other member states. This may sound familiar to those whose memory extends as far back as the mid-nineties.

The history of the Second World War in the region is muddled and contradictory while being possibly more violent and ferocious than anywhere else. There was a great deal of collaboration with the Nazis but also a great many uprisings and various guerrilla campaigns, sometimes against the Germans, sometimes against other guerrilla groups.

Yes, indeed, there were Albanian partisans, just as there were Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian ones. And there were collaborators among all those people. That’s the way it goes under occupation where there is a certain amount of internal resentment already. Britain supporting first one group, then another did not help matters.

Moving right along we come to Tito’s Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, built on the bodies of those murdered by him and his henchmen in the years after the Second World War. He did, subsequently, keep some kind of a balance between the various republics by a mixture of oppression and mild economic reform.

Even before Tito’s death it was clear to many that the country will not survive him for long. Furthermore, it was said, the trouble “will start in Kosovo and end in Kosovo”. Tito died in 1980 and the country staggered on for a few years.

Trouble did begin in Kosovo in 1987 when a youngish party apparatchik saw that he could turn a more or less routine episode of nationalist trouble-making by Serb and Montenegrin activists to his advantage.

The best description of what happened can be found in Noel Malcolm’s “Kosovo: a short history”, which may not be unbiased (no history book is) but is remarkably detailed and knowledgeable (apologies for all the funny names and spellings but that is what you get when you deal with the Balkans):
In April 1987 news came from Kosovo that the group of Serb and Montenegrin activists round Bulatovič was intending to bring another large protest to Belgrade. They asked the Serbian Party president, Stambolič, to come and speak to them first in the town of Kosovo Polje; reluctant to enter such a hostile bear-pit (he had already made several speeches criticizing Serbian nationalism), he sent his deputy, Slobodan Miloševič, instead.

As Stambolič later recalled, Miloševič had never shown any interest in Kosovo, and had even said to him on one occasion: “Forget about the provinces, let’s get back to Yugoslavia.” But the events in Kosovo Polje on 24 April 1987 were to change all

While Miloševič listened to angry speeches by local spokesmen in the ‘House of Culture’, fighting broke out between the large crowd of Serbs outside and the police, who responded with their batons. The fighting had been carefully planned by one of the local Serb leaders, Miroslav Šolevič (local, at least, in the sense that he lived there: he had moved to Kosovo from the Serbian city of Niš): as he later admitted, he had arranged for a truck full of stones to be parked outside the building, to give the Serbs a copious supply of ammunition.

Miloševič broke off the meeting and came out to speak to the crowd, where he uttered – luckily for him, on camera – the words on which his entire political future would be built: “No one should dare to beat you!”

The crowd enraptured by these words, began chanting “Slobo, Slobo!” With a skill which he had never deployed before, Miloševič made an eloquent extempore speech in defence of the sacred rights of the Serbs. From that day his nature as a politician changed; it was as if a powerful new drug had entered his veins.
Phrasing it slightly less eloquently, I would say that he transmogrified himself from a second-rate Communist thug into a first-rate nationalist thug, in the process ridding himself of his friend and political patron Stambolič, elevating himself to the presidency of Serbia and, in a somewhat unconstitutional fashion, of Yugoslavia and acquiring a large number of either foolish or knavish supporters in the West.

The rest is history of a particularly unpleasant kind but one that seems to have disappeared down the memory hole as far as many people are concerned. The truth is that few people bothered to follow the story of the celebrations of the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo; or read the subsequent reports of oppression and human rights abuses that were coming out of Kosovo in the early nineties; or bothered to understand how Yugoslavia disintegrated and what Serbia under Miloševič was trying to achieve by what methods.

Just a few points to be noted: the war did not start in 1999; that was the end-game with NATO intervening decisively to prevent a repetition of the events that had taken place in Bosnia. It was not started by the German recognition of Croatia and Bosnia, which came about six months after the start of the bombing of Vukovar (that’s in Croatia and was bombed by the so-called Yugoslav but, in fact, Serbian air force) and after an EU-sponsored referendum in Bosnia had produced a decisive pro-independence result.

Once again, this is not the place to go into all the details of the war of Yugoslav disintegration that took up the nineties. In a way, it was historically satisfying to see that the end of the century resounded with problems in and around Sarajevo, the place of those famous shots (fired by a Bosnian Serb) that plunged Europe and the world into the mess from which we have not, as yet, extricated ourselves.

As far as Britain and the EU are concerned we need to remember that the part played by our own Conservative government was disgraceful. One needs to go no further than Douglas Hurd’s justification of the arms embargo of people who wanted to fight for their own and their countries’ survival by the words “we do not want to see a level killing field”.

(Subsequently, Mr Hurd was found negotiating a special deal with President Miloševič for NatWest Bank. The deal fell through after a certain amount of publicity. As I recall Dame Pauline Neville Jones, fresh out of the FCO, where she, too supported Serbian claims to keeping Yugoslavia together, was involved in those negotiations.)

The EU was in the process of being formed through the Maastricht Treaty and saw the Balkan troubles as a wonderful opportunity to assert itself on the international scene. With Jacques Poos, the foreign minister of Luxembourg, who held the presidency at the time proclaiming that this was “Europe’s hour” and Jacques Delors sniffily telling the Americans to mind their own business, the EU was all set to sort the problem out.

Unfortunately, the EU’s idea of sorting out the problem was to insist on the inviolability of federal Yugoslavia, to brand all opponents of it as nationalist extremists, to encourage Miloševič in keeping the “sovereign” state together, no matter what it took and to deny Bosnian and Croatians the right to defend themselves.

It all ended very badly, indeed, with NATO, led by the Americans and the British under a Labour government having to intervene to stabilize the situation, at least temporarily. As the Dayton Agreements refused to deal with the Kosovan problem, that temporary state was short.

In 1999 NATO had to intervene again and in effect separate Kosovo from Serbia, who has, since lost its junior partner, Montenegro, as well.

Why the EU should take that view is understandable. As the push to speed up integration in Western Europe gathered momentum, the disintegration of existing federal states, first the Soviet Union, then Yugoslavia, was distinctly unwanted. While guaranteeing the borders of the Soviet Union as Commission President Delors proposed at the infamous Rome meeting of the European Council was beyond the Europeans’ capabilities, something, they thought, could be done to keep Yugoslavia together.

The subsequent crisis clarified two problems: one is that “Europe” was not quite as united on various international issues as its leaders pretended to be; and, secondly, that in the absence of a clear policy and, above all, a military force to support that policy, neither the ideology of integrationism nor the desire to stand up to the Americans was sufficient.

A more peculiar development was among eurosceptics. While many, as could have been expected logically, supported the break-away member states of Yugoslavia, many if not the majority, astonishingly, bleated about the sovereign state of Yugoslavia, the evil Croats and the non-existent Bosnians (that was before anyone who was even theoretically Muslim was described as being evil by definition).

Much of it was half-digested propaganda emanating from Belgrade, whose officials had been well trained in such matters, being high-ranking members of the Communist Party. Some could be attributed to lack of interest until British troops were involved and since this was Blair’s war, it had to be a bad one.

There were idiotic rantings about German plots to send storm troopers into Croatia or wherever. And there were badly argued references to something called the Westphalian system, which is not quite what people seem to think it is. (At which point I must excuse myself. The Treaty of Westphalia and its implications will have to wait for another posting.)

It would have been sensible for eurosceptics to stop looking for parallels to the EU in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union under Stalin (parallels that do not stand up for one minute) and to look a little closer to home. No the EU is not like Yugoslavia, though there are certain similarities, not least that strange system of rotating presidency.

The point is that Yugoslavia was an artificially created federal state, whose members decided that for various reasons they wanted out. For eurosceptics to support the representatives of the federal state in their fight to suppress those movements for national self-determination is illogical to put it mildly.

To swallow the image of Miloševič and his thugs as fighters either for Yugoslav sovereignty or freedom from Islamic jihad (as defined some years afterwards by people who have clearly never met a Bosnian or a Kosovan) and to support the “sovereignty” of whatever state he happened to be in charge of is fatuous in the extreme.

Let us imagine a situation in which the European Union has managed to transform itself into a sovereign state by considerably more peaceful means than the creation of Yugoslavia, let alone its re-creation under Tito. According to the logic outlined above, no member state will have the right to secede and no outsider will be able to help with that secession because that would be breaking up a sovereign state, which is clearly against the Westphalian system. Think about it.

So we come to the situation as it developed since Sunday’s widely expected declaration of Kosovan independence. Understandably, it has caused certain flutterings in various dovecots though why there was so little preparation for this event remains something of a mystery.

For the rest of the posting I shall ignore the stupid and ignorant comments made by eurosceptics on the subject of Kosovo and Serbia (have I used the word ignorant before?) as being par for the course. As we have said on this blog many times, the reason we keep losing lies in ourselves not in our enemy.

Let us concentrate on what matters. Kosova, as it is known, is now an independent state. Well, at least, it is independent from Serbia, though it has been described as an EU Protectorate. Dusan Reljic, the Kosovo expert interviewed by Der Spiegel sounded doubtful about the effect this will have on the international system. In particular, he was worried about the situation the UN might find itself in:
The fact that the majority of Western countries are recognizing this move by the parliament in Kosovo means that the West has opted for a resolution to this situation outside the UN system. And this of course is not strengthening the UN.
Very few things do strengthen the UN and, in particular, it is not strengthened by its venality and corruption or its inability to come to any kind of decision in emergency. Come to think of it, the UN was in the Balkans for a couple of year in the nineties – a great effort that was in Bosnia, that culminated in the Srebrenice massacre.

This seems to have been forgotten as the latest news is that Serbs in northern Kosovo have threatened the UN police.

What of that other transnational organization that once, a long time ago, felt that the Balkans were its problem not to be solved by anyone else?
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you think that EU's failure to show a united front on Kosovo has damaged its attempts to have a coherent foreign policy?

Reljic: It shows that there is a plurality of thinking within the European Union and the EU is not a homogenous bloc. I don't think that any one expected the EU to act as a single state. The EU is not a single state.

The decision of the Kosovo Albanians to proclaim independence is not something that the EU has endorsed. The EU has been pushed by the US into this position. This was not original EU policy.
Then again, original EU policy was not all that successful.

Before we go into the details of what the EU might or might not be doing about the latest twist of Balkan history, let us look at the notion that the international system will suffer irrevocably by this upheaval. The chances are that there will be a fall-out, though it is hard to predict where.

The most immediate result was South Ossetia and Abkhazia declaring that they wanted independence from Georgia – much to Russia’s horror but more of that later.

The question is surely whether there is something sacred about the international system as it stands. Like the climate which has been changing ever since its existence the international system has never stayed in one place for very long. The very idea of that is ludicrous.

As it happens, there was relatively little change in the years between 1945 and 1990, apart from the fully expected disintegration of the French and British empires. The descendants of those have stayed more or less in the borders defined by the “imperialists” and all joined the existing international structure, particularly the United Nations.

Is there some reason why the post-1945 construct should last for ever? Right until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the assumption among many commentators was that it would do just that. That event was not the end of a process but the beginning. Many things will change in the international system, some for the worse, some for the better.

After all, the international system, as it exists now, includes the United Nations with all its outpost organizations, the European Union and many other transnational organizations that are claiming ever more power, pointing to the Second World War as the reason for it.

In other words, many of us would like to see changes in the international system as it exists. We do not necessarily mourn events that undermine it.

So what is the European Union doing about its backyard? In the first place, as Javier Solana pointed out:
The EU has already decided to send a mission, a mission of stability, a mission of rule of law. It should contribute to the stability of the Balkans.
A mission always seems like a good idea but whether it will contribute to anybody’s stability is open to question.

The defence ministers are discussing “the possibility of building a special security force in Kosovo as well as measures needed to prevent clashes spreading to Bosnia and Herzegovina”, though Chief Foreign Affairs Honcho, Javier Solana does not seem to think that there will be any necessity for reserve forces to be employed. More like, there will be no reserve forces to employ.

KFOR is there, led by NATO with some UN involvement, trying to keep the peace in northern Kosovo, which is predominantly Serbian.

While the EU is playing some part in Kosovo in terms of its structure, its members seem unable to agree on whether to recognize the new country or not. Germany, France, Italy and the UK have more or less recognized its independence, following the lead set by the United States. Greece, Cyprus, Spain and Romania have announced that they will not do so. Slovakia and, presumably, Bulgaria are undecided. In other words, that common foreign policy remains as elusive as ever for the same reason as before: there are few common interests across the European Union.

Countries that have potential seceders are worried about the effect Kosovan independence will have on them. Others maintain that they have close relations with Serbia, what with them all being Orthodox though this does not stop Greece or Serbia from opposing the war against terror, despite most terrorists at the present being Muslim.

Serbia is once again doing is best to antagonize its possible supporters. Not only have there been riots in northern Kosovo, where the Serbs are, presumably, hoping that the Bosnian situation will repeat itself and the “motherland” will come to their rescue. Unfortunately, the situation has changed and it might be worth the Kosovan Serbs’ while to work out how they can work the system peacefully.

There have been riots in Belgrade itself. A large, government-backed rally of 200,000 or so, dissolved into violence as groups attacked embassies of western countries that had recognized or semi-recognized Kosovo. The American embassy was set on fire and an unidentified dead body was found when it was put out. The embassy staff is all accounted for so the body must be one of those who had invaded the building but did not get out in time.

It is all America’s fault, say the Serbs. They should not have encouraged or recognized Kosovo.
Meanwhile, to continue the policy of antagonizing potential friends and supporters, the Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic issued all kinds of threats as he spoke to the European Parliament.
In an emotional address to MEPs just three days after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, the country's foreign chief argued that Serbs "will not go quietly. We shall strive for what is just and rightfully ours."
In the subsequent debate there were references to the events of 1999 (though not 1989) and suggestions that Kosovo’s case was unique. Mr Jeremic, apparently, laughed though whether bitterly or not is unclear.
"The case of Kosovo is truly unique, because the international community had to step in to protect it on humanitarian grounds, and it became a protectorate for nine years," argued Dimitrij Rupel, the foreign minister of Slovenia, the current EU presidency country.

But his Serbian counterpart, Mr Jeremic, laughed off this assertion, saying: "Do any of you honestly think that just by saying that Kosovo is sui generis, you will make it so? That there will be no consequences to the stability and security of the international system, just because you say it won't?"

Mr Jeremic also confirmed that Serbia would break off diplomatic relations with all EU countries that have already recognised Kosovo or will do so. "And we shall undertake all diplomatic, political, measures designed to impede and reverse this direct and unprovoked attack on our sovereignty."
On the whole, I think we can live with those threats. Presumably, when Serbia refused to contemplate what might happen if Mr Thaci fulfils his promise, its politicians thought that the threats were of some real significance. The idea of saving us the cost of another embassy, several consulates and other diplomatic paraphernalia sounds quite attractive. Can we have a few more threats of that kind, please?

The Americans have already started evacuating some of their non-essential staff from Belgrade.

One presumes, the EU will go on discussing and debating for some time, contributing some security forces and aid to Kosovo; also criticizing Serbia for its behaviour, trying to bribe the country out of its intransigence. Will it work? With the support of the United States, probably. But on its own the EU, as ever, will achieve very little. After all, it is no use pretending we can actually afford to make members out of the detritus of former Yugoslavia, given that we are still trying to recover from taking in Romania and Bulgaria.

Serbia is being supported in the UN by Russia and China. Birds of a feather, I suppose, and I have no doubt those commentators in Britain who are weeping about Serbia are very proud of being on the same side as those two countries.

China has no dog in this fight and will do very little. Its reaction is partly an almost automatic anti-Western stance and partly a statement of its own attitude to regions that might break off. The problem is not so much Taiwan that is de facto independent, though that might change one day, but Tibet and Chinese Turkmenistan.

These are countries whose claim to independence is stronger than Kosovo’s but it is not even discussed by the Chinese government or media. There is not the slightest possibility that, unless China implodes, the example of Kosovo could be followed by Tibet. After all, the example of East Timor was not.

That leaves Russia as Serbia’s supposed patron. Back in 1999 Russia still had a free media and I used to read the newspapers avidly. Their reporting and analysis of what was going on in the Balkans were far better than anything seen in the British ones. Of greatest interest was “Izvestiya”, which has since sunk back to almost its Soviet level of boringness and inconsequence.

It was quite clear from all that was written by various people, whose opinion on what was going on in Serbia/Kosovo was different, that nobody thought Russia should get involved. Every time President Yeltsin staggered up in a drunken haze and threatened Russian retaliation, his ministers immediately made it clear that he didn’t really mean it and the old man has had one too many again. He-he.

As a result, I confidently predicted to all those in various parts of the political world who got all excited about us upsetting the poor Russians that nothing would happen. I was right. Apart from that odd and only marginally successful dash to Pristina airport after which the Russian soldiers had to be fed and watered by NATO troops, nothing happened.

Mark my words, so it will prove now. Russia is not worried about Serbia and is not going to waste its inadequate forces in the Balkans. The Wall Street Journal pointed out on Monday [subscription only, I fear]
With no troops or permanent interests on the ground, however, Moscow seems likely to be happy to score political points against the West – and then, as always in its dealings with the Balkans, abandon the Serbs to their fate.
What Russia is interested in is developments on her own borders. No, I do not mean Chechnya or Dagestan or Ingushetiya. Kosovo’s independence will not make a jot of difference to that problem, which has been going on intermittently since the end of the eighteenth century when the Russians first moved into that part of the Caucasus.

The problems I am talking about are South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both at present in Georgia and both regions where Russian has been stirring up trouble and, on various occasions, getting involved in military activity. The point that journalists here have missed is that Russia is not at all keen on these two autonomous republics becoming independent of Georgia.

Once they have shaken off the shackles of Georgian oppression (or so they seem to think) they will become Russia’s problem and the latter will lose many of the excuses for interfering in Georgian affairs, at least militarily. Furthermore, it is true, as Russian officials say (and there is good reason to suppose that they might even be telling the truth) that Chechnyan terrorists and fighters (boyeviki) routinely hide out in South Ossetia then acquiring the region all for their own may not be seen as a bonus by the security forces.

Despite the two autonomous republics declaring their wish to become independent, Russia has not so far recognized them and has not indicated that it intends to do so. Let us face it, the international structure that some people are so worried about is, at present, in Russia’s favour and she does not want to upset things too much. Oh, and by the way, it does not matter what we do or say. That nice Mr Putin will still be unpleasant to us. Live with it.

The informal meeting of the 12 CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States – all the former Soviet republics apart from the Baltic ones) heads of state yesterday has passed without any incidents. In fact, it was quite successful, as normally there is a boycott or two and you rarely get the whole dozen together.

According to Interfax, Abkhazia and South Ossetia were not planning to appeal to the CIS heads of state to be recognized, anyway. President of Abkhazia Sergei Bagapsh explained that a great deal of preparatory work will have to be done before that appeal can be made. I would guess, at least some of the preparatory work will be finding out what the Russians really want from their unreliable allies.

Will Kosovo survive? For the time being yes. One can never really predict much for the Balkans but it is protected by NATO and aided by the EU. Its chances of survival are as good as those of any new Balkan state.

Will it be a democracy as the Kosovan government promises? Again, the chances of that are as good as in any other former Yugoslav country. Much will depend on the behaviour of the Serbs in the north of the country when they realize that Serbia will not come to their aid. Much will also depend on the behaviour of the Serbian government. As we know from the example of Northern Ireland, having a larger neighbour who helps troublemakers is not conducive to peaceful existence.

Much will also depend on the Kosovan government and whether they live up to their fine words.

Meanwhile we have to live with the fact that the Balkan kaleidoscope has been given another shake and this situation is likely to remain for some time. With a bit of luck, the international system has also received another blow from which it will find it hard to recover.

08 February 2008

Who will rid us?

There is no avoiding variants of Henry II’s alleged comment, which sent the four knights on their deadly mission to Canterbury. The Sun was the only one to do so successfully by the headline “What a Burqua”. As good a reaction as any other.

When the first news of the latest faux pas by His Bloviation, the Archbishop of Canterbury, hit the internet, this blog had every intention of staying out of the mess, on the grounds that we have covered the man’s pronouncements in the past and need not do so for a little while.

Sadly, the story has become too big for us to ignore and it does fit in with one of our usual themes – the need for a British identity to be defined. There has been a great deal written about Dr Williams’s lecture and interview on Radio 4 both in the MSM and on the blogosphere. A lot of it is quite good, a lot of it uninteresting and predictable, a good deal very silly.

We have little time for the Blair Derangement Syndrome, for instance, that has informed some of the postings. We have even less time for the hysteria that sees the inevitable or even probable supremacy of Sharia law everywhere in the UK. A little calculation and study of the situation on the ground should disabuse people of that one (though there is none so blind as those who do not want to see).

For all of that the Archbishop’s latest pronouncements are extremely stupid and dangerous. The best account of how this mess developed is on Melanie Phillips’s blog. It seems that the Archbishop was due to deliver one of his “nuanced” lectures yesterday evening in which, as many knew, he intended to argue that there should be some accommodation between English law (or, presumably, Scottish law) and Sharia law. He was, one assumes, also intending to explain that Sharia law in some form or another was “unavoidable”.

In itself that is nonsense. Nothing on this earth, except death is unavoidable and the Archbishop of Canterbury ought to know that. In particular, the introduction of any kind of law or legal form is not unavoidable. You avoid it by not doing it.

The Archbishop’s lectures are notorious in that they confuse and annoy people in about equal parts and Lambeth Palace thought that the media aspect of it all should be controlled. For that purpose Dr Williams’s staff restricted even the embargoed copies of the text and organized an exclusive interview with Radio 4’s “World at One”, reckoning, perhaps, that there would be friendly sympathy from the interviewer.

As an exercise in damage limitation this was not a howling success. The Archbishop cast all restraint to the wind and said all the things some well-meaning fluffy individuals are pretending he did not say. One cannot help feeling sorry for those unfortunate officials at Lambeth Palace who have to deal with the extraordinary phenomenon with the completely undisciplined mind that is at the head of the Church of England.

By the time he stood up to deliver his lecture, the internet and some parts of the media were buzzing with the man’s unfortunate statements.

While Dr Williams asserted that he would not like to see the extreme forms of Sharia law in this country but he did think that apart from being “unavoidable” some form of it was a good thing as Muslims should not have to choose between “the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty”.

That raises several issues immediately. In the first place, how does His Bloviation intend to control what kind of Sharia law emerges in the various communities as soon as its equality to the law of the land is accepted? The fact, that his source for analyzing, however superficially, Sharia is the highly dubious Tariq Ramadan, well-known for writing different things in different languages, a book on whom will soon be published by the Social Affairs Unit, fills one with some scepticism about his understanding of the whole subject.

Secondly, Muslims are not the only people who have to accept that cultural and state loyalty might occasionally clash. What of those Christians who think abortion is murder? Ah well, I hear people say, they do not have to have abortions. Nobody has to have abortions but it is hard to live in a state that not only allows such things to take place but apparently encourages them, if you happen to hold strong views on the subject.

If memory serves, a far greater man than the Archbishop of Canterbury dealt with that particular issue a couple of millennia ago. Something about rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s. Might one suggest that the Archbishop spends some time meditating on the second part of that saying?

One does find some senior prelates perplexing. After all, one has to assume that the Archbishop is a Christian and has read the Bible. He is supposed to be highly intellectual though the comment that is attributed to both Henri IV and Sully about James I of England and VI of Scotland that he was “the wisest fool in Christendom” seems remarkably appropriate.

Surely, His Grace recalls St Paul’s insistence, repeated both to the Galatians and to the Colossians in different forms:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female.
St Paul, a great man and not nearly as much of a misogynist as some of his self-appointed followers are, was writing that “for ye are all one in Christ Jesus”. But it is that equality that is mirrored in the legal structure that has been painfully built up over centuries in the West. It is that equality that His Grace seems to want to destroy by his suggestion that there should be many different, equal laws in this country.

It is hard to imagine a subject more calculated to annoy just about everybody, those who think, with some justification, that Muslims are allowed to get away with a great deal already and those among Muslims who have finally recognized that the only way forward is integration and acceptance of a British identity.

What His Grace seems unable to recognize though a number of people, starting with Trevor Phillips, Chair of the Commission for Equalities and Human Rights, have been trying to tell him that removing people from the legal structure and putting them into a separate one may seem like a privilege. In actual fact it gives them a huge disadvantage. What His Bloviation is rather vaguely proposing is a form of apartheid – separate development for certain communities and denial of civic rights to all members of those communities as well as human rights to the female ones.

As Melanie Phillips explains, acknowledging Sharia courts in certain matters, including family law, as the equal of this country’s courts would not recreate the situation of the Jewish religious courts, the Beth Din:

Yes, Jewish religious courts, like sharia courts, deal with such issues as dispute arbitration, family issues, marriage and divorce. But the Jewish courts have never sought official recognition of their rulings, and these are not recognised under English law. Their dispute resolution is informal and voluntary. Their religious marriage and divorce rituals have no status in English law (with the exception of one tiny wrinkle designed to help resolve an anomaly in Jewish divorce law which causes otherwise unavoidable distress); for the state to recognise their marriages or divorces, Jews have to marry or be divorced according to English law just like everyone else.

If sharia courts were to operate in this way, there would be no problem. Why should anyone care, after all, what minorities are doing in the private sphere as long as it doesn’t break the law? But the crucial difference is that such Muslims want their rulings to be accepted by the state as having the same legal authority as English law — and Dr Williams is endorsing this. But it breaks the fundamental precept that Jews have always acknowledged — that as a minority they live under the law of the land and do not seek to change it to accommodate them.

And all that is before we get to the point that Jewish family rules are not quite the same as Sharia family rules, which can include such delights as forced marriage, wife-beating, even honour killing.

To be fair, not all Muslims want their rulings to be accepted by the state as having the same legal authority as English law. A number have criticized His Grace. As have politicians of all parties though their criticism left something to be desired, namely an understanding how legislation is carried out in Britain these days.
Baroness Warsi, the shadow minister for community cohesion and social action, said: "The Archbishop's comments are unhelpful and may add to the confusion that lready exists in our communities. "All British citizens must be subject to British laws developed through Parliament and the courts."

Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, said: "I think there is one law in this country and it's the democratically determined law.

"That's the law that I will uphold and that's the law that is at the heart actually of the values that we share across all communities in this country."

Quite apart from the somewhat nebulous concept of British values that no-one has yet been able to define, it might be a good idea if the good Baroness and the hapless Home Secretary understood that British laws are no longer developed through Parliament and the courts. To recap our endless theme: between seventy and eighty per cent of our legislation comes from Brussels, most without even touching Parliament. What does go through that institution cannot be rejected by our democratically elected parliamentarians.

Oh yes, and our courts are routinely over-ruled by the ECJ, whose decisions are binding. But I digress.

The curious thing about the Archbishop is that he has been known to make quite sensible speeches and the lecture he gave in Liverpool, entitled “Europe, Faith and Culture” raises some interesting points about that convoluted subject. Among other matters he emphasised the importance of the individual in western culture, in Christianity and in the modern world.

Both Marxism and Islam are in their basic conception morally serious and philosophically sophisticated visions which seem on the face of it to have relatively little place for pluralism or irony on the classical European model; both assume that the presence of a finally satisfactory human order sanctioned by God or by the objective forces of history is at least a possibility within the world we know, and both are critical of the 'interior' focus of Christian language and the pessimism or even passivity which this can, in their eyes, generate.

In both cases, the experience of searching dialogue with Christianity makes it quite clear that we are not talking here about worlds that simply can't communicate with each other; but there is no doubt that the divergences are plain and significant. Even when the Marxist or the Muslim shares substantial aspects of the cultural inheritance of the European world, they will write very different kinds of novel or drama.

This is nothing to do with the clichés about clashing civilizations that we regularly hear, nor to say that Islam is always going to be 'other' to Europe: Islam has long been bound up with Europe's internal identity as a matter of simple historical fact, and it stands on a cultural continuum with Christianity, not in some completely different frame. It is simply to underline that there is a genuine distinctiveness about the cultural mindset that most directly inherits the Christian perspective; whether this is good or bad, true or false, we ignore the distinction only at the cost of honest and effective conversation across boundaries.

More to our present point, we ignore the history of this distinction at the same cost. If we want to know why Europeans and their cultural relatives take it for granted that appearances can be deceptive and that we always need to 'decode' even the most innocent-looking claims, why we take it for granted that even our talk about what is most sacred and serious carries a shadow of incongruity, the answer is in a theology that has encouraged us to think of the world around us as never being a place to settle down for good.

In this context, the challenge posed to the classical European legacy by Marxism or by contemporary Islam is important and constructive; a growing number of European thinkers in recent years have acknowledged that the pure pluralism of some sorts of postmodernist theory does not provide a very robust or compelling alternative to the 'monotheistic' certainties of other philosophies,even within the historic territories of Europe itself. If Europe is to go on being culturally alive, it will need to ask if it has understood its own legacy too narrowly and exclusively.

It is hard to see how the same man could elaborate in his lectures the ideas of Sharia law becoming the equal in certain parts of this country to the accepted law of the land. Clearly the Archbishop understand the difficulties with Islamic law; he must know that handing over large numbers of British subjects, particularly the female ones to Sharia courts on the subject of family matters will deny everything that is essential to our country and our culture.

Then why is he saying things like:
The danger is in acting as if the authority that managed the abstract level of equal citizenship represented a sovereign order which then allowed other levels to exist. But if the reality of society is plural – as many political theorists have pointed out – this is a damagingly inadequate account of common life, in which certain kinds of affiliation are marginalised or privatised to the extent that what is produced is a ghettoised pattern of social life, in which particular sorts of interest and of reasoning are tolerated as private matters but never granted legitimacy in public as part of a continuing debate about shared goods and priorities.

As Melanie Phillips puts it:
If therefore we really don’t have the right to uphold the primacy of our own western liberal and Christian laws and traditions, the way is open for fragmentation and eventual rule by the religious culture which exercises the strongest muscle. Which is Islam.
What is to be done with the impossible Archbishop of Canterbury? I am reminded of an episode of “Yes, Prime Minister”, as I so often am. I think it must have been “Bishop’s Gambit” in which Jim Hacker has to appoint a new bishop and Sir Humphrey discusses the two candidates, making it clear that one is preferable on a number of political and social grounds.

Hacker expresses some doubt about the candidate’s faith. Suavely, Sir Humphrey explains that for a bishop in the Church of England, belief in God is an optional extra. What is not an optional extra is an understanding of the standing of the Church in British life. It has been tarnished, agreed, but the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury is to try to revive that standing and, if possible, support the constitutional and legal structure. The last two are, of course, the duty of everybody in this country. If those structures have been undermined, it is our duty to restore them. Certainly, the Archbishop of Canterbury should be leading that effort.

There is another aspect to this issue. The Church of England is a large world-wide organization with many members in African countries where they are under constant threat from either Marxist governments or their Islamist neighbours. People are murdered and tortured; churches are torched; villages destroyed. The people in those circumstances who courageously continue to profess their faith need the support of their leader, who seems unable to work out the simplest facts about law, Christianity, Islam or Shariah.

If, however, the Church of England and its Primate, reject their role in the definition of British identity (this does not imply in any way that to be British one has to be C of E) then we must start thinking whether the institution is quite as useful as it was for several centuries after the Elizabethan settlement.

Is there, in fact, any way of getting rid of an Archbishop of Canterbury apart from Henry II’s solution to the problem of Thomas á Becket or Mary I’s to that of Cranmer? He can be forced to resign but the man seems rather too fond of himself to fall on the metaphorical sword. Can anyone sack the man?

Or should we start thinking considerably more seriously than we have done so far about disestablishing this very fine old institution? Would the cure then be worse than the disease itself?