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  • It’s the summer, so rather than try to write up what’s not happening with Brexit, I thought you might like some more infographics.

    The first comes from the continuing failure of many politicians to use the correct terms for various sorts of trade deal/economic integration. I’ve avoided the usual ‘ladder of integration’ metaphor because (as the footnote makes clear), you don’t have to proceed in order and there is an element of pick-n-mix about it. However, the more exemptions one puts in, the less stable the edifice.

    Economic Models

    PDF version: Economic Models


    The second infographic just pulls together some key names for the negotiations, now that the EU teams are coming together. It’s not exhaustive, but just my take on who to watch. You’ll note the ommissions as much as the inclusions: in particular, other EU27 heads might play much more of a role and the EU people might be much more behind-the-scenes. And no, I don’t see a role for Boris Johnson in this.

    Brexit key people

    PDF version: Brexit key people


  • “We assume from afar, and you can kill someone based on assumption. We have learned a bitter lesson”[i]

    What does the future hold for those who would intervene across national boundaries to address situations of insecurity, crisis, and conflict? Are the justifications for intervention changing; are new ways of intervening emerging, and what are the residual challenges? These questions were addressed at a conference on 18 and 19 July at the University of Surrey, the concluding event in a three-year, ESRC-funded, series “Explaining the Intervention Matrix: Theory and Practice from Northern and Southern Perspectives.” The conference came shortly after two events that could well have an impact on the future of European intervention at least: the UK’s referendum vote to leave the EU, and the tragic loss of life in the Bastille Day terrorist attack in Nice.

    Are we at a turning point in international intervention? Many of our speakers and panellists thought we were. The Western, neo-liberal, approach to intervention – resting on “the mythology of precision”[ii] and often cloaked in a “humanitarian alibi” or justified with reference to human rights – is discredited as a result of our getting “stuck in the engrenage” in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya – to mention only those crises most visible to the Western eye – plus the tragic failure to intervene effectively in Syria. This may be a temporary phenomenon, but there are pointers to its being more fundamental: the West, and in particular NATO, now finds itself in a more “contested environment”, in terms both of challenges to its own legitimacy and of a wider range of actors engaging in intervention.

    While challenges post-Libya to the West’s interpretation of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) by, successively, Brazil, China, and Russia[iii] may not have succeeded in establishing an alternative normative paradigm, the West’s failure to intervene effectively to address the humanitarian crisis in Syria testifies to its lack of confidence in the power of its own traditional legitimising framework. Meanwhile the agenda for international intervention is determined less by the Western powers and more by the actions of non-state actors such as Al Qaeda and ISIL/Da’esh, ensuring that the counter-terrorism narrative prevails over one of human rights and humanitarianism.The more generous political project in favour of the oppressed, the poor, and the marginalised is struggling to hold its own; ‘the responsibility to rebuild’ is but one victim of the new circumstances.

    The lens through which the West views the world also needs to  be examined, and not just because ‘our’ view is relatively less important now. When ‘we (’the West) talk about ‘security’, whose security are we concerned with? The interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya were all to an extent sold to our publics in terms of the security and human rights of the inhabitants of those countries, but the reality hardly matches the rhetoric. That could certainly be construed as a failure of implementation, but also casts doubt on the sincerity of the justification.

    More fashionable ways of looking at intervention, for example through the lens of ‘Women, Peace, and Security’, are revealed on closer analysis to instrumentalise and disempower their subjects; “the person is international but gender is treated as a variable, rather than a prism through which everything should be viewed”. In similar vein, the ready categorisation of certain societies as lawless or anarchic can simply reveal an ignorance about their complexity and functioning. Public education activities to build support at home for expeditionary interventions abroad can be designed in such a way that local voices are not heard. And sometimes norms used to justify intervention in other societies are not given the same status in our own – for example the EU’s approach to gender-based violence at home vs. abroad.

    This series of seminars and conferences has attempted to take a broader view of ‘international intervention’, not restricted to the traditional interpretation of something that is coercive – and usually military. The main rationale for this broader approach is that, as one of our speakers put it, “There is something about the use of violence as a means of resolving political problems that is deeply problematic”. Therefore, in addition to exploring new ways of delivering ‘hard power’, e.g. by the provision of military aid (at the risk of “offering a military solution to what is essentially a state legitimacy crisis”) or the deployment of “western vanguards”, i.e. Special Forces supported by remotely piloted aerial weapons systems (“drone chic – beguiling for politicians…keeping boots off the ground, but creating new costs for the future”) this conference therefore also explored ‘soft power’ approaches, including attempts to strengthen the international criminal justice system, a greater emphasis on diplomacy (“we are going to have to sit down with a lot of unsavoury people”), mediation, military capacity-building, a broader approach to peace-keeping missions, and even the use of documentary film as a potentially transformative tool in peace processes.

    In these areas, no less than in the more coercive forms of intervention, it is fair to ask how much intervention can truly be in support of local systems as opposed to the intervener’s own foreign policy goals, and how honest is our understanding of the distorting effect of our own intervening ‘power’. But in an inter-connected world – even one that may increasingly be characterised, as it was by another of our speakers, as “neo-mediaeval and fragmented”, where “bricolage and brokerage” represent the order of the day – it is important to understand the various ways in which intervention takes place, if only because what ‘we’ are doing to someone today, ‘they’ may be capable of doing to us tomorrow. Or what ‘they’ are doing today – something that we don’t like – is in fact their attempt to replicate what we did yesterday (e.g. Nigerian attempts at counter-insurgency in their own country).

    Ultimately, intervention is about power – the power to change the course of events. Exercising that power responsibly, and understanding its limitations as much as its potential to do good, is perhaps the greatest challenge facing international interveners in future.

    [i] From An African Answer, FLT films, 2010, available on DVD at

    [ii] I offer the same disclaimer as after the 2015 event: “This pot-pourri of a summary can hardly do justice to the contributions at the conference; my aim is merely to provide a flavour of a fascinating two days of discussion on a very diverse range of topics. My apologies to those I have quoted without attribution; to have done so would have made this piece unmanageable. In addition what I have quoted is based for the most part on what I heard people say, rather then what they have placed on the written record – so all responsibility for the quotes is mine.”

    [iii] Viz. Brazil’s initiative on “Responsibility While Protecting”, China’s on “Responsible Protection”, and Russia’s stance on “Responsible Intervention”.

  • 6849902928_45596aec61_b

    Look! A distraction!

    Another day, another upheaval in British politics. In the 21 days since the EU referendum, we’ve had more changes of more consequence than in any time since the second world war.

    All very grand to say that, but where are we going with all this?

    Until yesterday, it was very hard to say, precisely because so much was up in the air. However, with Theresa May’s installation as Prime Minister and his first round of senior appointments to her Cabinet we now have a bit more of a clue.

    The starting point is that there is no Tory split, and there is little chance of one any time soon. With the speedy and painless removal of Cameron and Osborne, May has led the pragmatists that make up the bulk of the parliamentary party over to a Brexiting position and brought in the more genuinely sceptic into some positions of consequence. We can take the comparison with Labour as the most instructive one here.

    May is also trying to not be overly-defined by Brexit – to listen to her speech outside Number 10 last night, it was only a part of her bigger project to tackle social injustices – and so she has taken several steps to try and achieve this.

    The first is to ensure Leavers got the Brexit briefs. David Davis will head up the new department running the negotiations with the EU27, while Liam Fox takes on the establishment of new trading links with the rest of the world. This makes it much harder for critics to say May is backsliding in her approach, but it also ring-fences Brexit so that other ministers have half a chance to get on with their own projects. That’s a sensible move, if an optimistic one: as Brexit proceeds, it’s clear that it will touch (or, more accurately, go to the heart of) many areas of public policy, so May will find herself arbitrating more and more between competing dynamics.

    Secondly, she’s played the distraction card, early and hard.

    It would be fair to say that in the round of interviews I’ve done since last night, the main topic has been Boris Johnson. I’ve been asked why he got appointed, was he any good, and was it true he ruffles his hair to make it look even more dishevelled than it seems. Let’s tackle the first two elements of this.

    Johnson has been brought in close to May by his selection as Foreign Secretary. He was clearly as shocked as everyone else by the decision, because he’d worked out the consequences.

    Cast out by his failure to contend the Tory leadership, he looked like toast, destined for a career on TV chat shows. But May has taken the emblematic Brexiteer and stuck him in a position that plays to his strengths, while also limiting his capacity to cause trouble, either for the UK or for May.

    It’s fair to say that the past couple of decades have seen a considerable down-grading of the status of foreign ministers, especially in Europe. Prime Ministers and Presidents have become much more engaged in international diplomacy (think of the EU, but also the G7 or G20): at the same time, the intrusion of international cooperation into the full spectrum of public policy has meant other ministers also are taking more of a role. Consequently, foreign ministers’ traditional gate-keeping role has shrunk considerably. They now do some coordination, manage a centre of diplomatic expertise and sell their country around the world.

    Seen in that light, Johnson is ideal as Foreign Secretary: charismatic, charming, intelligent, multilingual. Yes, he’s got some apologies to make, but as the UK’s salesman, he’ll do a stand-up job.

    Moreover, recall that he’ll be a Foreign Secretary deprived of the two key tasks he might have done: re-forming the UK’s relationship with the EU, and setting up new trading arrangements with everyone else. A man who’ll be spending much of his time on a plane to press the flesh is also a man with less energy and less opportunity for plotting. And ultimately, if he’s no good at his job, he’ll not be able to blame anyone else: it’s not a push to imagine May say, more in sorrow than anger, that Johnson is simply not up to the job and she’ll have to move him on (and out).

    So far, then, so clever. Unite the party, sell potential opponents a dummy [sic], contain Brexit and generally make a good fist of things. What could go wrong?


    Firstly, we still lack a clear timetable on Article 50 notification. Logically, this will still be in the autumn, when the new government is a bit clearer about things. The EU27 will wait until then too, because they have process and substance debates to settle themselves. But if we get to October without a firm date for notification, then things get much harder for May. The EU27 will be very unhappy (but will have to wait), markets will start making waves, and Brexiteers will start wondering what’s going on.

    This said, it’s hard to see this being an issue, as May looks to be very firmly pursuing Brexit, albeit on her timetable and terms. It’d be surprising if we don’t have some indication in the next week on this.

    Secondly, there’s the containment issue mentioned above. Brexit is almost inevitably going to eat up much government time and effort, both on the big questions and the fine print. Even if Article 50 is essentially a process of the UK deciding whether to accept the EU27’s offer – rather than a negotiation of equals – there’s still lots of scope for disagreement and surprise.

    And this leads to the third element. As decisions and choices are made, some people are going to be unhappy. The Brexit coalition was always far too broad to be satisfied by any given deal, so May has to decide who she’s going to annoy. Right now, that looks like being the harder end of the spectrum, who reject the EEA/Norwegian style model that May seems to favour.

    That’s not only an issue with the public, but also within the party. Recall that there is a very small majority, so it only takes a small number of rebels to make May’s life very hard, especially because she doesn’t look like someone going for a snap election.

    This is the final paradox. An autumn election would be a distraction, but it would strengthen May’s personal mandate and muzzle Tory critics much more (both through the manifesto commitments and the likely increase in Tory majority). Unfortunately, this is a card she can best play now: if she waits until things look more tricky, then the benefit is likely to be much smaller.

    If the past three weeks have been unsettled, then you shouldn’t hold out for a quiet summer.


    UPDATE: And he does ruffle his hair up on purpose [in response to various queries on this]

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