16 July 2008

Shouldn't Brown and Cameron do "foreign"?

A little while ago I was asked by the BBC Russian Service to comment on the ongoing problems in Russo-British relationship. What will happen at the Brown-Medvedev meeting at the G8 Summit? Not a lot, was my prediction, and I seem to have been right.

The larger point is one that I had made before in the selfsame studio: Gordon Brown’s views on foreign policy are completely unknown. Does he even have any views? Does he even know that there is a world out there? He certainly has no concept of what Britain’s foreign policy might be based on. And, sad to say, neither does the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, whose Shadow Foreign Secretary seems to be a part-time member of the front bench, even though he is shadowing one of the great offices of state.

This became painfully obvious during the last NATO summit when important matters were discussed. The question of whether Ukraine and Georgia should be asked to participate in the Membership Action Plan (MAP) went to the heart of several rather tricky problems. How far should NATO extend? What is to be done about making the Caucasus – important for all sorts of reasons, not least oil – secure? And, above all, is Russia to be allowed to interfere in internal NATO matters? Subsequent developments in the Caucasus with Russia, to all intents and purposes, invading Abkhazia, known as the break-away region of Georgia, have confirmed the importance of all these issues.

The summit divided rather sharply between those, led by the United States and Canada, who wanted to invite Ukraine and Georgia to participate in MAP and those, led by Germany and France, who opposed it, largely because they did not want to upset Russia, from whom Germany and some other West European countries are buying an ever larger proportion of their gas and oil and will do unless, as seems likely, Russian production is steeply reduced.

The final outcome was unexpected. While Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy with their acolytes, the Spanish and the Benelux governments, strutted round boasting of how they had stood up to America, President Bush quietly lined up his allies and the final statement promised both Ukraine and Georgia eventual membership of NATO. This went further than the original offer of the Membership Action Plan that had been defeated by Russia’s proxies.

What was Britain’s position? Did Gordon Brown line up with George Bush and Stephen Harper with their allies or with Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy and their allies? Neither. Prime Minister Brown sat on the fence, whining that there was no consensus he could adhere to. What was the Opposition’s attitude? Did they think Britain should go with the pro-MAP or the anti-MAP group and did they demand a debate because HMG had shown itself to be so utterly feeble? Well, no. The whole episode seemed to pass Messrs Cameron, Hague and Fox by without so much as a raised eyebrow.

The main problem here is the European Union, a subject, which seems to mesmerize most politicians, particularly the Conservatives. When asked what their views on foreign policy are, they (and their Labour counterparts) inevitably start talking of the EU and, possibly, the Lisbon (formerly known as Constitutional) Treaty. The trouble is that the EU is not a matter for foreign policy only. As it is the fount of most of this country’s legislation it has to be discussed under domestic matters. At the same time, it is well-nigh impossible for Britain to develop a coherent foreign policy as long as such matters as international trade agreements remain in the hands of the European Union and the Common Foreign Policy is an avowed aim of the integration process.

Of course, if neither the Government nor the Opposition express any ideas of what Britain’s foreign policy should be, the situation becomes even more difficult. Apart from an insistence that we must ratify the Lisbon Treaty, no matter what happens with promises to support the French desire to create a European force and a generalized bleating about the situation in Zimbabwe, we have heard very little from the youthful Foreign Secretary. Gordon Brown makes the odd comment about the need to send either more aid or just as much aid to countries that clearly need to be weaned off it in order to develop their economy. He is also sometimes in favour of a close alliance with the United States and sometimes against it.

On the other side David Cameron shows no interest in matters of foreign policy beyond the odd trip to help some African country and getting into a muddle as to what he intends to do or not do about the Lisbon Treaty. This would not matter if the Shadow Foreign Secretary made it clear what the Conservative ideas on British foreign policy are. William Hague, who cannot be seriously described as an opponent of the European Union or even of the integration process, has been known to make the odd comment about the Lisbon Treaty (he is against it) and the remote possibility of Tony Blair becoming the first President of the European Council (he thinks it’s funny).

There are the compulsory comments on the need to help poor countries without any serious ideas as to how this might be done and there was at least one major speech. In it the Shadow Foreign Secretary explained that Britain should move away from a close relationship with the United States and look to other countries, the growing economies of Asia such as China and India. The speech appeared to be rather random, written after a cursory glance at the atlas.

Surely Mr Hague must know that Britain’s relationship with India, with whom there are historic links, which is an Anglospheric country with similar political, legal, constitutional and, intermittently, economic ideas must be different from that with China, which is an oppressive Communist gerontocracy where political and economic tensions are becoming more and more apparent. Surely Mr Hague is aware of that entity we call the Anglosphere. Perhaps not, as he has never referred to it and has ignored the fact that both India and Australia have separate and close relations with America and both are developing into serious regional powers. In other words, there is no suggestion that under William Hague’s guidance and David Cameron’s leadership the Conservative Party has the slightest intention of developing a foreign policy.

Given Britain’s history it is, to put it mildly, disconcerting to find the country in a situation where neither the Government nor Her Majesty’s Opposition has the slightest interest in her position in the world.

09 July 2008

Anything better than this!

Monday 12 June 2000 and I was riding the suburban train from Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport to Paris Nord, then to switch stations and get the train to Strasbourg where I was to spend the next few days at the European Parliament.

When disaster struck, it was all so natural. About halfway through the journey, a young lad - of Arab appearance, maybe late teens or early twenties – came up to me as we were stopped at a station. He came quite close, asking me in French whether this was the train to Charles de Gaulle.

It took me a time to work out what he was saying but once I understood, I told him he was on the wrong train. In my best pidgin French, with much gesticulating, I told him he wanted one going the other way. The lad dashed for the doors, which were just closing, and the train moved off. Only then did I notice that my computer bag, containing my laptop, was gone. The bastard had nicked it!!

At Gare du Nord I was minded to report the theft to the police, but I could not see a police station or any sign of one. I thus resolved to report it at Gar de l'Est, where I recalled seeing a police post. I found it easily enough but the two policemen and the one policewoman behind the counter – none of whom, incidentally, spoke English - told me that it was outside their jurisdiction.

The crime had occurred "sur le train" so it had to be dealt with by "le bureau chemin de fer". Fortunately, or so I thought, their office was just round the corner, an anonymous door in the wall with only the tiniest of signs alongside. I pressed the entryphone button and was admitted, only to be told by the police there – who also did not speak English - that I had to report it to the police in Gare du Nord. "Forget it!", I told them – I had my train to catch to Strasbourg. I would report it on my way home, that Thursday – which indeed I needed to do in order to claim the insurance.

A mere routine, I thought. It was something I was going to regret.

Come the Thursday, I left Strasbourg on the 2.39 pm train, headed for Paris. A colleague had written me a letter in French, explaining the details of the theft, asking the police to prepare a certificate for the insurance claim. She also had written a letter on European Parliament writing paper, explaining that I was very pressed for time, having to catch an aeroplane at Charles de Gaulle at 8.15 that evening.

The train was due in at Gare de l'Est at 6.40pm and the trip from there to the airport would take an hour. Since I had to check in half an hour before the flight, that gave me only ten to fifteen minutes to make the report and get the certificate. I was going to be pushed.

At Gare de l'Est, I walked across to Gare du Nord – that was the quickest way. I had already found out that the police post was situated on Platform 3, but what I hadn't reckoned on was how big Gare du Nord really was. Needless to say, platform 3 was at the opposite end of the point I entered it. I made my best speed and found the bureau Chemin de Fer halfway down the long platform. There were absolutely no signs directing people to it, and only the tiniest name plaque adjacent the door, when I finally got there. No wonder I couldn't find it on my way out and, if I hadn't known to look for the "bureau Chemin de Fer", I wouldn’t have known what I was looking for anyway.

As with the other bureau – at Gare de l'Est – the door was guarded by an entryphone. I pressed the button and was admitted, to find three policemen. I gave them my colleague's letter and one of them read it, conferring with his own colleague.

As before, none of them spoke English but the first officer explained that this bureau only dealt with immigration matters relating to the Eurostar. In French, he explained to me that there was another "bureau" on the station, and I had to go there.

Here I was, at a major international station, dealing with police whose job was immigration, and none of them spoke English. Nevertheless, they did give me a photocopy of a hand-drawn map. Obviously, this was not the first time they had been confronted with this problem. As an additional clue, one of the policemen told me to look for the "porte bleu".

According to the map, the proper "bureau" was back the way I had come, but fortunately – as I thought – in the direction of the suburban station from where I was to catch my train to Charles de Gaulle. Indeed, as I followed the map, I found myself led into the very part of the station where I wanted to be.

But, for the life of me, I could not see the "bureau Chemin de Fer". In desperation, I asked the assistant of a newspaper kiosk, who pointed beyond the electronic barriers which guarded the entry to the platforms. I had to get a train ticket in order to get to the police station!

Fortunately – or so I thought – I had the return half of my ticket bought earlier in the week to get me to the Gare du Nord, but when I pushed it into the slot to open the barrier, all I got were insistent electronic bleeps. The damn thing refused to open.

By now I was running seriously short of time and, with no railway officials in sight, I resolved that the quickest way to get access was to buy yet another ticket. That cost me ten minutes, working up the interminable queue to the ticket office, and left me 49FF (£5.00) poorer. Nonetheless, I did get past the barrier, into a cavernous hall, with no sign whatsoever of the fabled "bureau Chemin de Fer". On the verge of giving up entirely, I tried walking up what appeared to be a completely unused area of the expanse. Lo and behold, at the very end, I spotted a blue door.

Once I got right up to it, I spotted the tell-tale plaque alongside, announcing the presence of this fabled bureau. I pressed the button on the entryphone – what else did I expect? – and the door clicked open. Inside, I was confronted with… another door and another entryphone.

After the ritual pressing and pushing, I then found myself in an enormous room, an absolute hive of activity with policemen in uniform rushing hither and thither. In the corner was an American-style lock-up cage, housing a very unsavoury-looking character. At the very far end of the room was a small counter, behind which stood a single policeman, with a single chevron on his epaulettes. He looked at me expectantly as I approached, almost quizzically as if to say, "What are you doing here?"

To my complete lack of surprise, he did not speak English. I gave him my colleague’s letters, and made sure he read the one saying I was in a hurry. He read both slowly and deliberately and then asked, "Passport, monsieur?" That was my big mistake. I gave it to him, whereupon he disappeared, with it and my letters. Ten minutes latter, with me still standing at the counter, he reappeared, drinking a cup of coffee from a vending cup, sans passport and letters, completely oblivious to my presence.

As I summoned up the courage to challenge him, I was approached by a sergeant who had my letters – but no passport. Would I look at some photographs, he asked – in French. Like his colleagues, he could not speak English. I demurred, saying a had only seen the thief for a matter of seconds, and in any case, I had a plane to catch.

The sergeant disappeared, only to be replaced by another. Suivez moi, this officer commanded, leading me to a booth in which there was a desk and a computer terminal, and my original sergeant. I was given a chair and told to wait.

Alongside me in the booth, also seated, was a young man. It turned out he was another "victim" who had managed to discover where the police were hidden. He was there – like me as I now discovered – to look at photographs. Once the sergeant returned, it was obvious he did not know how to work to computer, and had to ask for help from his fellow sergeant – who had little more idea.

Once they got the machine working, they turned to my fellow victim. He had fallen foul of a black perpetrator, aged between 35-45. Between them, the sergeants loaded up some rather poor pictures of blacks between 35-45, all of whom looked the same. Despite my letter telling the police my perpetrator was an Arab in his late teens to early twenties, the sergeant thought it a good idea if I looked at each the photographs as well, requiring from me a ritual "non" as each picture came up on the screen.

My fellow victim was dismissed – with equally negative results - and the sergeant then tried to load the "Arab" file. To my horror, the database then kindly reported that there were over 7,000 entries to review. By now I had visions of being there all night.

However, perhaps prompted by my increasingly despairing cries of "l'avion", accompanied by my tapping my watch, the sergeant relented and, with a Gallic shrug, switched off the computer. It was now just gone half-past seven and, a pinch, I could just make Charles de Gaulle. If I was very, very lucky, they might let me on the plane. But I did not have my certificate for the insurance.

The sergeant led me to an interview booth and left me there, where I was joined across the desk by the original sergeant. He had my passport, which he returned to me. I considered making a bolt for it but the man demanded my attention. He was going to fill in a form on the computer.

Working from a type-written instruction sheet, he started asking me questions, in French, the answers to which he laboriously tapped in to the computer, one-finger style. At least I learned the words for "Windows 98", which had been in my bag with the computer: "Windows quatre-vingt dix-huit".

At last, after what seemed an age, but in fact wasn't very long, he finished. There was just an outside possibility I could catch the plane. But it was not to be. With a flourish, my sergeant pressed the button on the keyboard to print out my coveted certificate, but nothing happened. He looked puzzled and called over his fellow sergeant. "Il a disparu", he complained. He had wiped the file from the computer and we had to start all over again.

By the time he had finished, it was five to eight. My flight was 8.15 and the train took at least 25 minutes. You will have to hurry monsieur, said my sergeant, exhausting his English vocabulary. What could I do? I thanked both officers gravely, shook them each by the hand, and departed. I arrived at Charles de Gaulle at 8.35. My flight had long gone.