A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities

The greatest threat to British democracy comes not from Moscow or Brussels but is “Made in England”

Two extraordinary events, both centred in historical English provincial cities, have gripped the British public this March. First came the attempted murder of the double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury. As soon as the excitement surrounding this started to subside, the Guardian and Channel 4 exposed the dirty tricks in which Cambridge Analytica indulge.

Both events have offered a distraction from Brexit-related matters but have also, at least in the short-term, provided a space for our beleaguered Prime Minister to redeem herself. She has been able to enter the ring and be cheered, even by some members of the opposition, for her speed and forthrightness in attributing the blame for the Salisbury poisoning to Vladimir Putin. Her indignation about the dirty tricks in which Cambridge Analytica, by its own admission, engages has also received general approval.

Paradoxically,  if Theresa May has been correct in pointing the finger of blame on Putin for trying to kill Skripal, then she is in the anomalous position of being able to thank him for the opportunity that he provided her to restore her credibility with British voters and to split the parliamentary opposition. At least in the short term, it has raised her ability to push ahead in negotiating the “hard” Brexit that she is pursuing in spite of the huge economic costs that it implies for us all. In this sense the “Salisbury poisonings” will have allowed the Brexiteers to heave a sigh of relief at a time when they may have been fearful of a swing in public opinion towards the idea that Britain would be better off staying in the EU.

What the Cambridge Analytica affair tells us is that it is now possible for anyone who so wishes to secretly buy highly professional privately managed services that are able to tip an election outcome or to influence government policies in the directions that their paymasters want. What they offer is not just the ability to harness social media on a massive scale to induce changes in individual voting behaviour but also, according to investigative reporters from the Guardian and Channel 4, a range of “dark arts”, handled by former British and Israeli spies. They will carry out “deep deep” research on opponents to identify and expose their vulnerabilities, put out fake news stories, set up “honey traps” and arrange “bribery stings” backed up with video evidence.

I have absolutely no intention to suggest that Cambridge Analytica was in any way involved in the Skripal affair or even in influencing the outcome of the UK’s EU Referendum in June 2016. What must concern us, however, is that they – and possibly other similar firms – are telling potential customers that they are able to exercise a determining influence on the outcome of electoral or political events, with no scruples about using dirty tricks.

The shape of Britain’s future relationship with Europe now hangs in the balance. Which way it tips in the coming months will have a fundamental impact on Britain’s prosperity and international standing for years to come. Much is at stake, notably for big business and for politicians who aspire for power. There is now a situation in which those who feel threatened by one outcome or another and who can access a few million pounds from well-hidden sources have the option of secretly hiring consultants such as Cambridge Analytica to exercise a profound but subtle influence on the decision, whether taken by the government, parliament or the electorate, as to whether to leave the EU or remain part of it.

I am sure that, if you are prepared to pay enough, they would orchestrate a Skripal II scenario for you or agree to dig up – or invent – dirt to assassinate the character of anyone who stands in your way. Running a fake news campaign would come cheaper for you but could be equally effective!

We are in an alarming situation in which the integrity and proper functioning of our democratic institutions at this critical time is threatened by an emergent web of institutions that successfully harness advances in communications and in the “dark arts” of espionage in order to subvert “normal” political processes. They will work in total secrecy for the highest bidder, eluding detection and cancelling all traces of evidence as they proceed. They exploit delays in the introduction of new legislation on the use of cyber-space and they know how to run faster than the institutions that are meant to regulate them!

The greatest danger to British democracy does not come from Moscow or from Brussels but is entirely Made in England. A largely British firm provides its services not only in its home-land but claims to have influenced the outcome of elections in the United States and countries in the Caribbean and to have operated clandestinely in eastern Europe, admitting “no one even knew they were there, they were just ghosted in, did the work, ghosted out”.

It may be good for the Prime Minister’s ego and her standing with the electorate to bash Putin for the botched murder of a couple of Russians. The risk, however, is that this raises international tensions when it must be in our long-term interest to nurture peace in the region and that it risks damaging valuable trade relations when we are seeking to expand British exports. Surely the priority for any UK government should be to clear up the rot in its own backyard, closing down the companies that live by subverting democracies and clapping proper controls on the finance houses domiciled in British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies that offer financial safe-havens for multinationals and the super-rich.

In the meantime, it would seem prudent for the government to propose to the EU that the Brexit process should be put on hold until we have complete confidence that our democratic institutions are fully proofed against subversion and manipulation by Cambridge Analytica and institutions of that ilk. Only then can we and the countries of the EU be sure that they are “fit for purpose” and able to take transparent decisions on the most important policy issue of our lifetime.

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The European Medicines Agency

 

UK’s decision to leave the Single Market drives the EMA out of London

In her letter of 29th March 2017 to Donald Tusk, notifying him of the UK’s intention to invoke Article 50 so as to set in motion its departure from the European Union, Theresa May stated that the “UK does not seek membership of the single market”.

One implication of leaving the single market is that the UK would automatically lose its membership of most of the 40-odd EU decentralised agencies which orchestrate and continuously update EU policies and programmes in all sectors in which members stand to benefit from coordinated strategies and activities.

One of these agencies is the European Medicines Agency (EMA) which is headquartered in London. Probably very few British people who voted in the EU Referendum had heard of the EMA, let alone knew what it did, until the European Commission announced that it was planning its transfer to another EU member country as of the date of UK’s exit on 29th March 2019.

On 20th November 2017, Amsterdam was selected as the new location for EMA headquarters and planning began for the transfer of staff. At that time, L4E posted an article entitled Mindless Brextruction: £500,000,000 down the drain as a sop to politicians’ vanity – and nobody turns a hair! We lamented that loss of EMA and the failure of the Government to take any steps to halt the process.

At the time, it was assumed that Britain would have to meet the full costs of the transfer, estimated at about £500 million. Some 900 staff and their families would have to be transferred to a new office in Amsterdam;  EMA’s annual budget of about £300 million would no longer be spent in London, and the city would forfeit about 30,000 business visitors per year. Many UK-registered pharmaceutical industries would find it advantageous to shift management staff to Amsterdam.

Early this month the Dutch government signed a Euro 255 million contract for the construction of the new EMA headquarters building and its maintenance for 20 years.

May’s late awakening

In her recent Mansion House speech on post-Brexit arrangements with the EU, May belatedly awoke to the advantages of continued membership of EU decentralised agencies including the EMA. She said:

“We will also want to explore with the EU, the terms on which the UK could remain part of EU agencies such as those that are critical for the chemicals, medicines and aerospace industries….

I want to explain what I believe the benefits of this approach could be, both for us and the EU.First, associate membership of these agencies is the only way to meet our objective of ensuring that these products only need to undergo one series of approvals, in one country.

Second, these agencies have a critical role in setting and enforcing relevant rules. And if we were able to negotiate associate membership we would be able to ensure that we could continue to provide our technical expertise.

Third, associate membership could permit UK firms to resolve certain challenges related to the agencies through UK courts rather than the ECJ…..

Fourth it would bring other benefits too. For example, membership of the European Medicines Agency would mean investment in new innovative medicines continuing in the UK, and it would mean these medicines getting to patients faster as firms prioritise larger markets when they start the lengthy process of seeking authorisations. But it would also be good for the EU because the UK regulator assesses more new medicines than any other member state. And the EU would continue to access the expertise of the UK’s world-leading universities.”

The main flaw in this argument is that it comes at least a year too late, long after May irresponsibly drew a red line that told us of her determination to leave the EU single market – and hence also the EMA and other decentralised agencies. The EMA has already made it abundantly clear to the pharmaceutical industry that, as of 30th March 2019, the UK will be treated as a “third country”. It has already invited all concerned entities to plan for this in a letter entitled “Regulatory guidance for pharmaceutical companies to prepare for UK’s withdrawal from EU”.

Secondly, her arguments for membership of the EMA are hardly likely to cut much ice with other EU members, given the huge upheavals she has already caused for the Agency and the pharmaceutical interests with which it works.

Thirdly, even if she managed to gain some form of associate membership, this would exclude Britain from any management role, prevent UK nationals from working in the EMA, and cost a hefty annual fee. The UK would also end up at the back of the queue for medicine approvals, putting our health at risk.

 

What’s true for the EMA applies to most Decentralised Agencies

It is high time for May not simply to acknowledge the beneficial role of these institutions in a speech but to admit the full extent of damage being caused to our livelihoods by her decision to draw a red line on single market membership. This extends well beyond its trading dimensions, affecting many aspects of our daily lives. Many of the EU agencies address issues that have transboundary dimensions – such as air travel safety, food safety, climate change, animal disease control – which will impact on us whether or not we are EU members. There can be no justification for us abdicating a role in the decision-making processes of these vital entities.

It is time for the government to come clean and to accept that sufficient evidence of the harmful effects of leaving the EU on the future livelihoods of the British people has emerged in the last few months to justify a U-turn on our future place in Europe.

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The Inherent Contradictions of May’s Mansion House Speeches

The Inherent Contradictions of May’s Mansion House Speeches

Thinking that I was reading the speech on Brexit strategies that Theresa May delivered last Friday at the Mansion House in London, I found to my surprise that I had mistakenly opened the text of her oration on Britain’s foreign policy, delivered at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, also in the Mansion House, in November 2017.

What is extraordinary about the November speech is that the policies that the Prime Minister then breezily advocated are in complete contradiction with her own actions in support of Brexit before and since then. Let me share with you what she said so that you can draw your own conclusions:

“….we meet here at a moment when the international order as we know it – the rules based system that the United Kingdom helped to pioneer in the aftermath of the Second World War – is in danger of being eroded.

A moment when some states are actively destabilising the world order to their own ends, claiming that the rules and standards we have built, and the values on which they rest, no longer apply.

So as we reach out into the world and write this new chapter in our national history, the task of a global Britain is clear.

To defend the rules based international order against irresponsible states that seek to erode it.

Our starting point must be to strengthen the commitment, purpose and unity of those allies and partners with whom we have built this order.”

Interestingly, May used the same speech to vaunt Britain’s exceptional capacity to offer global leadership at this time of change, claiming: “And perhaps above all we have that defining British spirit – and the fundamental values of fairness, justice and human rights – to use our influence in the world for good.”

The most telling word here is “perhaps” as it casts doubt on the validity of the claim she is advancing. Could it be that the vicar’s daughter deliberately said “perhaps”, because she saw that she herself, through promoting the policy of creating a “hostile environment” for immigrants and condoning the indefinite detention of asylum seekers in Immigration Removal Centres, was not the most credible advocate for these British values?

As Theresa may implies, Britain has a potentially great future but this will only be attainable if, as she says, it deepens rather than erodes its relationships with its allies, and if its leaders show, through their individual actions, respect for “fairness, justice and human rights”, and, I would add, “tolerance”.

Cooperating with other countries in the pursuit of shared values and in nurturing peace and prosperity is entirely compatible with patriotism and with taking due pride in one’s own nation. The “rule-based systems” which May sees as so positive are in constant evolution: new challenges, often of a transnational nature and driven by the processes of globalisation, are continually emerging and, more often than not, can only be successfully addressed by well-orchestrated actions between affected countries. If, as implied in her second speech, Britain were to unilaterally abdicate its responsibility to contribute to joint decision-making in matters of common concern to it and its nearest allies, such as those handled by many of the EU’s 40 decentralised agencies, it would not only lose its influence in shaping their actions but also, in many cases, find itself having to implement decisions to which it was not a party.

Once again, we are seeing that the Prime Minister’s approach to Brexit is an exercise in national self-harm that fails to fit with the principles to which she claims to subscribe.

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