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  • You bastards!

    I’m wrapping up for a summer break, just as more Brexit stuff is about to be released: tant pis.

    While we wait for that – and it might not come to much – I’d like to revisit a theme that has long floated about the Brexit debate, namely the weak/strong paradox.

    Simply put, many of those who argue(d) for Brexit said that the UK was weak within the EU. It is pushed around, made to do things that it didn’t want or like, and generally got the sharp end of the stick. But if the UK left, then it would be strong, able to play a major role in the world and pursue its interests with much more ease, including with the EU, who would have to take what the UK offered.

    Hopefully the paradox is evident, especially when one asks why it should be that as an insider the UK should have less power and agency than as an outsider.

    As much as an answer exists, it points to the UK becoming stronger by no longer having to be involved in the large amount of EU activity that it never cared for – a ‘getting back to basics’-type argument – and to the presence in the British polity who have betrayed the national interest by working to support the EU – the ‘fifth column’ line. You can see where both come from, even if neither stands up to very close inspection.

    I’ve been reminded of all this by some of the news stories and discussions this week (like this and this), that come back to a core frame of “it’s the EU’s fault”.

    “It” here means pretty anything you like.

    Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen the EU blamed for not giving enough to Cameron in his renegotiation, giving too much, giving the wrong sort of thing, getting involved in the referendum, not getting involved enough, pushing too hard for Article 50 notification, not negotiating outside Article 50, pushing its agenda too much in Article 50, pushing the UK around too much in Article 50, trying to backslide on Brexit, trying to push for punishment of the UK: at that’s off the top of my head. You’ll have other examples.

    Think of this as the manifestation of the weak side of the paradox: if it weren’t for those pesky Europeans, we’d be fine.

    Oddly, the strong side has become more muted of late. Yes there is still talk of how the UK is – comparatively – a strong and stable partner, but the language is very much on the lines of “we can work something out”, “it just needs some common sense” and “it’s in our mutual interest”, i.e. more phatic than substantive.

    The big gaping hole remains the lack of a clear plan from the UK for the process: I’ll not rehearse that again, except to say that the biggest surprise is that this should still be an issue, so late in the day.

    You might think of this as an extension of the referendum campaign: both sides fought hard to win the vote, but neither engaged in a debate about what their outcome was good for.

    Of course, the EU makes a very convenient scapegoat: it does lots of things, it is easily portrayed as ‘other’ and it isn’t good at defending itself. It’s not just the UK who does this, which is why euroscepticism is a continent-wide phenomenon.

    But here, in the context of Brexit, the most striking thing is how the EU continues to be treated as the source of all woes. I have no doubt at all that whatever results from Article 50, the EU will be blamed for making/letting it happen. Indeed, there will be even greater incentives to do so: I mean, what can the EU do? Kick us out?

    The point to be kept in mind is that this is a reflection on the UK’s agency.

    As a first cut, it highlights the thinness of the British position now: if there was a plan, then the plan would be the focus of discussion, instead of how the EU is being difficult. In the absence of a constructive agenda, one falls back on to sniping.

    As a second cut, it remains us that the international system is not one where states have anything like complete agency: whatever its relationship with the EU, the UK is going to be buffeted about by the world and its events. It may not be anarchic but it is tough (doubtless there’s a bunch of IR theorists who can argue this at much greater than I can).

    When we talk about the UK needing a plan for Brexit, it has to be a plan that is not just about the EU and Article 50, but also about the wider future. Grumbling about the water in the meeting room isn’t going to be enough.

  • Kachin State Day celebrations

    Kachin civilians celebrating Kachin State Day in Myitkyina. Source: David Brenner


    In May 2017, Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi invited representatives from across her deeply divided nation to a new round of peace talks. About 1400 delegates from government, parliament, military, political parties, civil society and ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) attended the meeting that covered political, social, economic, military and environmental issues. Unsurprisingly, a binding agreement on the most fundamental issue, the nature of federal power-sharing mechanisms between the country’s ethnic groups, remained elusive.

    The most controversial negotiation point at the meeting was the issue of “non-secessionism”. Fearing the disintegration of Myanmar, government officials insisted on inserting the term in any final agreement. Representatives of most EAOs indeed officially reject secessionist aims and commit to finding a negotiated federal settlement. Against the background of a decades-long civil war, however, many feel that the option of self-determination should be retained as a matter of last resort.

    Importantly, the negotiation positions of EAO leaders cannot be understood in isolation from wider societal trends. This is because many of Myanmar’s ethnic insurgencies are strongly dependent on local support among ethnic minority communities. In fact, the organisations are inextricable parts of larger ethnonational projects. While some EAO leaders have demonstrated considerable willingness to compromise with the government, the perspective of their movement’s grassroots has often become more intransigent.

    In the country’s war-torn northern Kachin State, for instance, civilians have lost faith in Aung San Suu Kyi’s ability and sincerity to negotiate a peaceful settlement and increasingly call for independence. For years, most of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, including the Kachin, have put their faith in Aung San Suu Kyi to reconcile the country. Her landslide victory in the country’s historic 2015 elections, was not least secured through the support from ethnic minority voters. As armed conflict has continued and even intensified since Aung San Suu Kyi’s rose to power, many of these erstwhile supporters feel betrayed.

    They articulated this clearly at this year’s Kachin State Day on January 11th, five days after Myanmar celebrated its 69th anniversary of independence from British colonial rule. About 5,000 Kachin gathered in the ritual Manau Park of Myitkyina, the provincial capital of Kachin State where war between the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) and Myanmar’s government has broken out again since a 17 years-long ceasefire collapsed in 2011. The conflict has escalated particularly since the government military started large-scale offensives in August 2016.

    The site featured two parallel events. While the official NLD festivities lay deserted, young and old flocked to an unofficial alternative stage, organised by student groups, activists and local churches (most Kachin are Christians). Throughout the morning, youth groups were dancing and singing to revolutionary tunes. Actors of a local theatre group dressed in KIO uniforms revisited the history of the Kachin rebellion and their struggle against Myanmar’s central government that has lasted for 55 years. The scene was covered in a sea of red and green flags, featuring two crossed swords, an insignia traditionally associated with the KIO.

    Most remarkable were the passionate speeches given by local politicians, activists and pastors. Not only were they calling on the NLD to stop the escalating war in Kachin and neighbouring northern Shan States. Many demanded full-fledged independence of Kachin State from Myanmar to the cheering of the crowd. One year ago, most Kachin still rallied behind the slogan “Awng dang!”, which literally means “towards victory”. Kachin normally use it to express their desire for greater autonomy rights within a federal union, which is the officially stated aim of the KIO. Today, many Kachin prefer the expression “Awng dawm!”. The latter means “towards independence” and leaves much less space for negotiation.

    To understand why Kachin society has lost trust in Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s peace process one year after voting for her, it is important to appreciate that the situation in Kachin State has not improved since her government took power. Far from it, Myanmar’s military – the Tatmadaw – has expanded its campaign against positions of the KIO and its various allies since August 2016. At the same time, an alliance of ethnic rebel groups, which includes the KIO, Kokang and Palaung movements, has taken more offensive action as well. Most Kachin rebel units however remain dug into defensive positions around pockets of territory controlled by the KIO. This gives them a strategic advantage in fending off infantry operations. Yet, they stand little chance against the Tatmadaw’s increasing reliance on air power and artillery.

    The escalation of war has not only resulted in heavy casualties on both sides. It has also deteriorated the humanitarian situation of the several thousand civilians trapped in the fighting. The plight of internally displaced people (IDPs) in the conflict zone has additionally worsened since the military has blocked aid deliveries by international and local agencies. Today, relief supplies are at a literal standstill, leaving IDPs to fend for themselves in impossible conditions. This situation has made it difficult for many Kachin and other ethnic minorities to believe in the ongoing peace negotiations.

    Interestingly, EAO leaders might actually be more willing to compromise than their civilian counterparts in Myanmar’s ethnic borderlands. One Kachin youth leader expressed this as follows: “Even in the KIO many generals want the peace process… But for us, we need ‘Awng dawm!’” The criticism many Kachin are expressing with regard to Aung San Suu Kyi is not only the escalation of fighting. In fact, they understand that her government can only exercise limited control over the country’s generals. More distressing to them is her silence, which makes them feel betrayed after they have helped her come to power as well as what they view as an embracement of the Tatmadaw. For many Kachin, the last straw was when she praised the “valiant effort of the Tatmadaw and security forces” for their combat against the KIO-led rebel alliance in Northern Shan State. According to a KIO officer, the ever growing demands for independence by force of arms among the Kachin “street” indeed complicate the movement’s ability to negotiate a federal settlement with the government.

    A similar disconnect between compromising rebel leaders and less conciliatory grassroots can be observed in EAOs across Myanmar, including the country’s oldest ethnic insurgency: the Karen National Union (KNU). While a ceasefire between the latter and the government has ended decades of war at the Thai-Myanmar border, many local Karen face new sources of impoverishment and insecurity, including investment induced-displacement and militarisation. In order to solve recent impasses on the negotiation tables in Naypyidaw, it is thus not enough for Aung San Suu Kyi to reach out to EAO leaders. Similarly important it seems is to rebuild broken trust among local minority communities in her government’s willingness and ability to address their long-standing and genuine grievances.


    This post originally appeared as part of the T.note series of analysis papers published by the Torino World Affairs Institute (TWAI), and is reposted with permission.



  • On a clear day, you still can’t see the UK from here

    As everyone (semi-)winds down for the August break, and the pace of events slows, it is a useful point to consider Article 50 and Brexit once more.

    While I have usually looked at this from the British end, this time I’d like to look at from the EU’s perspective, not only because I’m now in a large research project with Hussein Kassim doing just this, but also because the structure and process of Article 50 is very much driven by the EU.

    Moreover, I have a number of thoughts that I’m trying to marshal together and this is as good a time as any.

    With all that in mind, I want to suggest that the EU’s position is conditioned primarily by salience, and only secondarily by substance.

    Salience as a key driver

    The opening observation is that the EU faces a wealth of issues and difficulties at any given time, by virtue of its size and nature. Because it reaches into a very large number of policy areas and because it covers many states (both as members and as external partners), there is always copious scope for something to go wrong.

    Moreover, at present, the EU faces a particularly large number of grave problems, above and beyond the normal noise. Most obviously, the long-running eurozone crisis remains highly problematic, despite nearly a decade of efforts to address it, with a model of economic governance that still lags far behind monetary centralisation. The migrant/refugee crisis might not be quite as hot as in 2015, but it is still highly political and increasingly pervasive in its effects. And Russian challenges to security are as poor as they have been at any point in the post-Cold War era.

    And that’s just to pick on the three most obvious candidates, alongside Brexit.

    But Brexit differs in one crucial aspect. It looks manageable, in a way that the others do not.

    By this, I mean that it is a ‘going-away’ problem, a bit of difficulty that is contained to one country that wants to get away. Sure, it’s still tricky to work out the details, but the basic intent of the UK appears to be to get further away, not closer. By contrast, the other issues are ‘coming-closer’ ones, pervasive and structural, with higher cost implications for the EU. Put differently, if nothing’s now, the UK will stop being the EU’s direct problem, while the others will just get worse.

    To be clear, this is an attitudinal view, rather than an objective one, as we’ll discuss below. But the point remains that in the grand scheme of (EU) things, Brexit is low down the list.

    You can find markers of this all over the place.

    The European Parliament Think Tank’s review of 2016 European Council conclusions showed that only 5% of space was devoted to Brexit, as against 50% on migration, 20% on economic governance and 20% on foreign policy. Also consider how most EU27 discussions of Brexit have also been bound up in (and increasingly are subservient to) wider discussions about the future of the Union. It also accounts for the common view across the continent that the British have been crazy to decide to visit Brexit on themselves when there are many more important things to be dealing with. More prosaically, Jean Claude Juncker spends maybe some more time than half-an-hour per week (as claimed by his chief of staff), but evidently not much more.

    In short, for most member states and most institutions, there are more pressing issues to deal with than Brexit.

    The upshot of this is two-fold:

    Firstly, it means that EU preferences are formed primarily by those who do find the matter salient. And secondly, it means that the EU’s position might not be as stable as it currently looks.

    When actors care

    Taking each of those points in turn, we can observe that there have been parts of the EU that have seen Brexit as a key priority for action.

    Exhibit one includes the Commission and the President of the European Council. As guardian and figureheads of the Treaties they have been the logical point of contact in the initial phases of the process, firstly as Donald Tusk managed the renegotiation, and then as the Commission slotted into its conventional role as negotiating partner in Article 50. From the day after the referendum, both have worked together to pull together a management plan and then a negotiating mandate. This latter is clearly informed by the central idea that the EU’s legal order needs to be preserved, not least because to have otherwise would compromise their own positions within the Union: if a departing state can change the treaty architecture, then what might a extant member state require or demand?

    These bodies are thus pursuing both their official role and engaging in an (indirect) defence of their position: recall that in June 2016, it wasn’t clear what would happen with populists in the Netherlands, France, Hungary, Poland or elsewhere. Brexit was (and is) an opportunity to demonstrate the value of membership to all and sundry.

    Exhibit two is Ireland. Of all of the EU27, this is the member state that most obviously has a stake in how Brexit unfolds. It is no accident that the border question is included in the opening round, since Irish politicians and diplomats worked very hard indeed to get it positioned there, working on the basis that the UK didn’t seem to be too bothered about it all. Quite aside from the apparent intractability of the matter, the willingness of the country to make such a strong push reflects on this idea of salience: economic modelling suggests Ireland will suffer much more than any other member state as the UK transitions.

    Exhibit three are the ‘odds and sods’ group, which currently includes Spain and Croatia. The former saw an opportunity to include references to the status of Gibraltar in the mandate, while the latter has become the only vocal critic of that mandate, focusing on free movement restrictions that arise from the on-going transition arrangements the country has had since joining in 2013. While neither of these have been big issues, they highlight how particular issues can become important as negotiations progress.

    What matters

    Of course, to argue that most member states don’t care is misleading. And the argument here is that low salience combines with a Commission-led mandate that addresses most concerns, leading the rest to leave this to one side until a more critical juncture. That juncture will be at the end of the process, when decisions are actually made. As such, we might expect that the relative harmony of the EU over Article 50 is conditional, not structural.  To pick just a couple of  examples, the European Parliament might decide it needs more on citizens’ rights before it accepts a deal, while accommodations in any transition deal might cause problems around the financial settlement, to the displeasure of net budget contributors.

    It is also important to underline that Article 50 is not the whole game of Brexit. Equally as important is the way in which the UK’s departure will change the balance of the EU. Those countries that saw the UK as a counter-weight to Germany or France, or who used it to promote liberalising, Atlanticist agendas will now find that the environment is less conducive. Security will be a key part of this, as there is a potential to return to the old cleavages and a structural boost to Europeanist models.

    This means that states have to think about what Brexit means for the rest of the UK’s relationship with Europe, through NATO, WEU and all the dense network of multi- and bilateral agreements. And it also means that states have to think about how to adapt their EU strategy: there will have to be a realignment of alliances and coalitions.

    And this brings us back to the starting point: Brexit qua Brexit is only ever going to be part of a much larger picture for most member states, and much of what will matter will be in their own hands and have little to do with the choices that are reached within Article 50. That leaves a lot of opportunity for those who do care to shape matters.

Forthcoming events