John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

Category: Britain

THE LONG HISTORY OF DISTRUST BETWEEN EUROPE AND THE MIDDLE EAST……. WAS THE BREAK UP OF THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE SUCH A GOOD THING AFTER ALL ! ?

I have just finished “A Line in the Sand, Britain, France and the Struggle that shaped the Middle East” by James Barr (Simon and Schuster). It is a great read. 

It deals with relations between France, Britain, and the Muslim world, a topic that has become tragically topical in recent days.

France and Britain were allies in the First World War, but bitter rivals, when it came to dividing up spheres of influence in the hoped for break up of the Ottoman Empire, something both correctly anticipated would be a result of an Allied victory in the War. The wishes of the local population, whether they were Muslim, Christian or Jew, were not considered to be a deciding factor at all. At most, they had to be “managed”.

While the First World War was still on, France and Britain drew up the famous Sykes/ Picot agreement in 1916, which allocated present day Syria and Lebanon to France, and allocated an area stretching from present day Israel, through Jordan, to Iraq, to Britain.

Britain wanted its chosen area, particularly Palestine, as a shield for the Suez Canal (a vital link to British India). It also wanted access to oil in present day Iraq. The French wanted access to the same oil, and saw itself as a protector of Christian interests in Syria and Lebanon. The crucial question was territory, rather than people.

But the British also wanted Arab support to defeat the Turks, so it promised support for an independent Arab state of Greater Syria ,which included areas it had agreed could be under French influence, and thus was in conflict with their agreement with the French.

Furthermore Britain wanted Jewish support in the US to push the US Administration to help the British war effort. In pursuit of the latter goal, they agreed in 1917 to a “homeland” for Jews in Palestine, in the Balfour Declaration.  This, of course, ran totally counter to Arab interests…..and led eventually to the present state of Israel on formerly Arab lands. Again the views of the local inhabitants counted for little.

These contradictory promises, made in desperate efforts to win the war, were to poison relations between all the parties for years to come. They lie behind the violent distrust that was  manifest in the vile murders in Paris last week.

When France and Britain came, after the end of the First World War, to occupy their respective areas under their 1916 deal, with the backing of a League of Nations mandate, they each faced revolts from the local populations. But there was no “European solidarity”. The Anglo/ French rivalry was such that they each gave support to the other side’s rebels!

This rivalry continued into the Second World War, and Barr argues that British support for the ejection of France from Syria in 1944/5, so poisoned de Gaulle’s relations with Britain, that it contributed to his vetoing British membership of the Common Market 20 years later. 

France also gave strong initial support to the Zionist resistance to continued British presence in Palestine in 1947/8, in revenge for the support the British had given to the ouster of France from Syria in 1945.

As we can see in the Middle East today, and also in Bosnia, we have yet to escape from the consequences of the break up of the multi ethnic Ottoman Empire, and the ignorant response of European nations to this event. Because the Ottoman Empire had fallen behind materially, it was wrongly and patronisingly assumed to have no valid lessons to teach about how to manage the intermingled ethnic and religious populations of the Middle East.   
The Ottoman system of government, while discriminatory, enabled populations of very different ethnicities, and opposed religious outlooks, to share the same cities and villages, as they did in many parts of both the Middle East and the Balkans under Ottoman rule.. This Ottoman model of qualified tolerance was bound to come under pressure once Ottoman power was removed, and free rein was given to the view that “self determination” for a single predominant ethnicity or ”nation” was the natural order of things, a view which became fashionable which before , during, and after the First World War in the western world, including in Ireland as we know only too well. 

This book shows how selfish and ill informed European interventions between 1916 and 1950, cast a long shadow today. 

THE EU IS A UNION OF RULES…NOT A UNION OF FORCE

CHANGE THE EU TREATY RULES ON DEBTS AND DEFICITS, IF NECESSARY…. BUT DO NOT BEND THEM 

The European Union is a union of sovereign states, who are sovereign in that they are entirely  free to leave the EU. This freedom to leave means that the EU is not a “super state”. There is no coercive force, no EU army, to force Britain or any other country to remain in the EU. Britain enjoys a freedom, within the EU, that colonies did not enjoy within the British or other European Empires.
 
Britain is thus entirely within its rights in considering the option of leaving the EU, although that does not mean that such a course would be wise.

The EU does not exist on the basis of coercion. It exists on the basis of common rules, or Treaties, applicable to all, interpreted independently by the European Commission and the European Court of Justice,  that EU have so far countries freely abided by, even when particular decisions were not  to their liking. If countries started systematically ignoring EU decisions, the EU would  soon disappear.

One set of particularly important set of EU rules are the ones that apply to budget deficits and debts of EU countries within the euro zone. These rules have been incorporated in EU Treaties and in Treaties between Euro area states. One of the provisions is that if a country has an excessive deficit, it must reduce that deficit by an amount equivalent to 0.5% of GDP each year until it gets its deficit below 3%.

France and Italy, big states that were founder members of the EU, have both produced budgets for 2015 that do not comply with the rules.

Initially the European Commission objected, and both countries have adjusted their budgets a little.  But, even after these revisions, the budgets are still in breach of the EU rules.

Some will argue that it is the rules that are at fault, not France and Italy. Inflation is negative, so debts increase in value, while prices are falling.

Countries are caught in a debt deflation trap of a kind that was not envisaged when the rules were drawn up.  But that is an argument for changing the rules, not an argument for ignoring them or pretending they have been complied with when they have not been.

But changing the rules would require EU Treaty change, and nobody wants to change the Treaties, because a Treaty change would have to be unanimously agreed among all 28 EU states. Other states fear that would be an opportunity for Britain to use the lever of blocking  a Treaty change to revise the fiscal rules, with  which it might otherwise agree,  simply as a means of getting  a concession of British demands for

+  a restriction of free movement of people within the EU,  
+  vetoes for a minority of national parliaments on EU legislation and
+  the  scrapping the goal of “ever closer union” within the EU.

This is a form of blackmail, but it has happened before in EU affairs.

But if the EU is unable to change its Treaties, because of blockages like this, the EU will eventually die. Necessary EU Treaty change cannot be dodged indefinitely. The EU will atrophy if it cannot change its Treaties, in the same way that states would wither, if they could not change their constitutions from time to time.
 
In a recent commentary, Daniel Gros of the Centre for European Policy Studies has criticised the European Commission of Jean Claude Juncker for failing to either 

a.) Insist that France and Italy stick by the existing fiscal rules or, if not
b.) Call for a revision of the rules to take account of the exceptional deflationary conditions that exist

He  is right .

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