John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

Category: John Bruton (Page 2 of 6)

To make Brexit work, Britain needs to show Europe it cares

The EU has bent over backwards for Britain during its membership. Now, during negotiations to leave, it is Britain’s responsibility to return the favour

Published in The Guardian on Saturday 1 July 2017

The British government is perhaps discovering, after the first round of negotiations, that it needs a complete change of perspective if it is to make a success of Brexit. Above all, it needs to start seeing things through the eyes of the other 27 EU members – the small nations as well as the big and powerful.

It also needs to manage the expectations of the British people so that every compromise – for example the Brexit secretary, David Davis, having to accept the timetable laid down by the EU chief negotiator, Michel Barnier – is not interpreted as a crushing defeat at the hands of enemies, but rather as an inevitable result of pulling out of an institution as legally and politically complex as the EU.

It is important for UK negotiators to remind themselves, every day, that Brexit is a British initiative. Because it is the initiator, the chief responsibility for making Brexit work for the 27 remaining EU countries rests with Britain. If Brexit damages the rest of Europe, Britain has a primary responsibility to find a way to mitigate that damage.

The remarkable thing about the discussion in the UK, over the past year, is that no ideas have been forthcoming on how to resolve the problems Brexit will cause for other EU countries. The only thought has been about what the UK should want for itself.

The EU is a rules-based institution, and EU membership is attractive for smaller countries, like Ireland, precisely because it is a rules- based institution, rather than one based on the exercise of raw power.
A country that has left the EU, and is no longer willing to submit to its common rules and to the jurisdiction of the court that interprets those rules, cannot expect to retain the main benefits of membership. That would undermine the EU’s essential nature.

Following the debate in the UK, one might think Brexit was something that was being done by the EU to an unwilling Britain, rather than the reverse.
It was Britain’s free decision to join the union 44 years ago, and since then the other members have done their best to accommodate British needs. It was exempted from aspects of EU policies such as the euro, the Schengen passport-free zone, justice and home affairs cooperation and, for a time, the social chapter of the EU treaties.

The UK’s budget contribution was modified through a rebate, and agricultural policy was modified.

And throughout, Britain remained a full voting member, with immense ability to stop policies it did not like. The UK was, you might say, having its cake and eating it.

Now that it is at last starting to negotiate to leave the EU, Britain may get a greater sense of what it is freely giving up. It will lose common arrangements on everything from flights taking off and landing, lorries on the roads, the safety of food, the movement of workers, and many more matters on which agreed standards have been built up over the past 44 years of painstaking work. It will lose the benefits of hundreds of treaties the EU has negotiated with other countries.

The UK will have to negotiate a new deal on every topic, then agree a procedure for subsequently amending, enforcing, and interpreting each one. This is what the Swiss, with their 120 different treaties with the EU, currently enjoy: a lot of very unproductive work. But it is the path the UK has chosen.

I told a London audience, long before the referendum, that as an Irishman I would regard a British decision to leave the EU – after four decades during which our two countries were bound together by our common EU membership – as an “unfriendly act” towards a neighbour. I have not changed my mind.

Notwithstanding that, I know Irish ministers and diplomats will use both their deep insight into British needs, and their highly developed understanding of EU deal-making, to find creative ways of reframing the difficult issues that will arise in this negotiation.

Ireland will be on the other side of the negotiating table from Britain, but I know too that it will aim to minimise the damage this divorce will inevitably cause. It will seek, for example, to use institutions, like the British-Irish intergovernmental council, as forums for creative thinking.
Even if it is not a member itself, a strong EU is important for Britain. Hard as it may seem, Britain needs to show that it is thinking about how that can be achieved, if it wants a reasonable Brexit outcome.



Recently I read

“On Tyranny, Twenty Lessons from the twentieth Century” by the historian Timothy Snyder.

Snyder is a specialist on the history of central and eastern Europe and has studied the origins and evolution of the genocidal policies of Hitler and Stalin. He is a Professor of History in Yale.

“On Tyranny “ is a short book and can be read in a few hours.

The thesis of the book is summed up well in the quotation

“ In politics, being deceived is no excuse”

from Leszek Kolokowski, a Polish philosopher .

The quotation, and Snyder’s book, are addressed to all citizens of advanced societies ,rather than just to politicians.

Drawing on the experience of the 1930’s and 1940’s, Snyder attempts to show how, in Germany in 1933 and in Russia in 1990, citizens conspired in their own deception.

They voted for authoritarian options because they were tired of  taking responsibility.

Snyder fears a similar development is taking shape in the United States. This is as a result of a blocked political system, and the substitution of organised partisanship for compromise. Social media add to this blockage by allowing voters to isolate themselves from points of view other than those with which they already agree.

Snyder  argues that this creates the conditions in which tyrants could take power. While he overstates his case, he is right when he says

“Post truth is pre fascism”

If voters accept lies without critical examination, just because the lie feels right, they are liable to elect the wrong politicians.

The more complex political issues become, the more likely it is that voters will give up on trying to make intelligent choices, and opt instead for emotionally satisfying simplifications. The Brexit vote in the UK is an example of this.

 Fears of outsiders or distrust of elites are easier to whip up than is support for a complex, and costed, political programme. Ill defined threats like “terrorism” or “extremism” incline voters to accept restrictions on their liberty and their privacy. Voters come to believe that they have no choice, and no responsibility.  As Snyder puts it,

“The politics of inevitability is a self induced intellectual coma”.




This article by Robert Hunter, a former US Ambassador to NATO, is well worth reading

It shows the risks of current US policy in the Middle East. Under successive US Administrations a close bond has developed between the US and two countries, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

This has involved the West in taking sides in a civil war within Islam, taking the side of the Sunni  against the Shia, notably in the vicious civil war in Yemen. This is no business of the US.

These bonds have also made the reaching of an accommodation with Iran exceptionally difficult. There is a danger that the nuclear deal with Iran will be allowed to collapse.

They involve tolerating Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza which make a two state solution physically and geographically impossible.  The alternative to a two state solution is integration of the occupied territories into Israel, with equal voting rights for all, but that would change the fundamental character of Israel. So the military occupation continues, forty years after the war ended….

European countries are geographically nearer to the Middle East than is the United States, and are not self sufficient in energy, as the US is.

But the European Union seems to have no influence on US policy in this area,  which directly affect Europe’s interests.  

Traditionally Ireland took an even handed approach to these issues. It needs to assert itself on these matters within the EU.


I wish to pay tribute to Austin Deasy, long time TD for Waterford, and a distinguished Minister for Agriculture, who dies recently.

Austin was forthright in his views and worked hard for Irish farmers. He was a courageous politician and will be greatly missed.

I extend sympathy to all his family.


Statement by John Bruton, former Taoiseach


I found this article  by Brian Walker, reproduced  below, about the neglect of the implications of Brexit for Northern Ireland to be particularly interesting.

Although Mrs May promised “no return to the border of the past”, her Brexit Secretary admits he has no idea how this can be achieved.

Meanwhile Sinn Fein is finding participation in power sharing, in a time of limited resources, too difficult. It prefers street politics to responsibility.

There is a lot of happy talk about “a united Ireland”, with no discussion of what that would mean for the rest of the country in terms of tax increases, expenditure cuts, reduced social cohesion, and increased spending on security.

I am afraid many on my side of the border give as little thought to to the real complexities of governing Northern Ireland, as many UK voters gave to what Brexit would mean for Ireland, on 23 June 2016.


The Irish government is pursuing Northern Ireland’s interests more actively than the UK government

Posted on May 23, 2017 by The Constitution Unit

Northern Ireland has been on the sidelines of the UK general election campaign, despite continuing political deadlock and the major unresolved questions resulting from Brexit. Brian Walker suggests that this reflects a general disengagement with Northern Ireland from the May government, which has taken the view that the North’s political issues are for their politicians to sort out. The Irish government can now be said to be pursuing Northern Ireland’s interests more actively.

Northern Ireland is accustomed to being tucked away on the sidelines of a UK general election. While it is part of the constitutional nation, it is barely part of the political nation, if that is defined by electing members of the UK government. (Scotland look out!). Its electoral cycle and political interests can fundamentally clash with those of the government at Westminster. ‘Westminster will always put its own interests first, even if ours are about life and death’, is a familiar refrain. The snap 1974 ‘Who Governs Britain’ general election did for the first fragile power sharing Executive within weeks of its formation when voters returned a full house of MPs bent on bringing it down. Power sharing did not return for a quarter of a century.

The collapse of the 2016 Assembly

Power sharing suddenly collapsed in the New Year under the impact of the Remain referendum result locally, which put the minority coalition partner Sinn Fein on the winning side and provided them with a test run for a bigger challenge. Devolved government remains in limbo, at least until after the snap general election on 8th June. In Ireland many nationalists rate Brexit as creating the biggest crisis since partition almost a century ago. Unionists and the British government are more circumspect.

Before the EU referendum, the Assembly had seemed to be going quite well. It had survived two terms with deadlocks but avoided collapse. Nationalists seemed broadly content with the constitutional status quo. The Sinn Féin vote had dipped and the DUP were comfortably ahead by ten out of 108 seats. A Fresh Start agreement brokered by the British and Irish governments at the end of 2015 ended a deadlock over welfare cuts that had lasted a year. It even led to behind the scenes talks between the DUP and Sinn Féin to settle a new style budget, as they campaigned for the Assembly election of 2016.

But the combination of a regional Remain majority, a bitter row over holding the DUP First Minster Arlene Foster responsible for a botched renewables heating scheme and the fatal illness of deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness created enough combustible material for Sinn Féin to pull out of the Assembly early this year, obliging the British government to call another election. The campaign unleashed a flood of resentment at what republicans regarded as DUP majoritarian behaviour and lack of respect for Irish culture. In particular, they pointed to the failure of unionists and the British government to implement totemic equality measures like the Northern Ireland Bill of Rights provided for in the Good Friday Agreement and the Irish Language Act provided for in the St Andrew’s Agreement.

Unionists as usual saw Sinn Féin as exaggerating minor grievances to advance the republican cause but were thrown on the defensive over resisting Sinn Féin’s demand for Foster to be suspended from office. A nationalist ‘surge’ in turnout in the Assembly election that followed in March, bluntly to ‘stick it to Arlene Foster’, brought Sinn Féin within two seats of replacing her as First Minister, as the overall nationalist result overturned the unionist bloc majority for the first time. The Sinn Féin boycott won the endorsement of their voters.  Northern Ireland had turned a chapter. The Westminster election on 8 June will be another sectarian contest to gain advantage in the existential question of Irish unity, ahead of the interparty talks on the Assembly’s future which it is hoped will resume immediately afterwards.

The political scene – changing utterly?

There are profound doubts that the talks can succeed anytime soon. It remains a sticking point for Sinn Féin for Foster not to return to office until a public inquiry rules on her conduct in about a year’s time. Moreover, when the prospect of a hard border began to emerge, Sinn Féin quickly saw the political possibilities. A re-erected border would not only be a throwback to an unlamented past; it offers a potential new route to a united Ireland. Perhaps the time has come for Sinn Féin to abandon the frustrations of power sharing in a coalition of opposites, and build on the nationalist-dominated Remain majority to create momentum for a united Ireland within the EU, launched by a border poll, followed if necessary by another poll in seven years time as the Good Friday Agreement permits?

‘She doesn’t care’

The May government’s response to the Assembly breakdown is strikingly different from the close involvement of the Blair years, when peace through paramilitary disarmament and disbandment was the main objective. Without such a big issue to compel her attention, Theresa May has followed the Cameron precedent and has remained immune to appeals from local politicians and civil society to intervene personally. ‘Leave it to themselves to sort out’ is the mantra. This UK government displays less sensitivity to the Northern Ireland implications of key policy issues than the old days of the peace process. For instance, motivated it would seem by the Prime Minister’s frustrations over deporting Abu Qatada and a visceral dislike of European courts, the Conservative manifesto looks forward to a review of the Human Rights Act when the Brexit process has concluded, even though the HRA is entrenched in the Good Friday Agreement and any change is strongly opposed by Northern nationalists and her Irish government partners.

May’s former junior minister at the Home Office, Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire, paid more attention to his party than his ministerial interests when he spoke out in favour of halting prosecutions of soldiers for actions long ago, giving support to a Conservative backbench campaign first sparked by what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan rather than Northern Ireland. It therefore came as no surprise to local opinion when Sinn Féin rejected him as a mediator in interparty talks to get the Assembly going again. Brokenshire has remained on the sidelines, his role largely limited to extending time limits for the fitful and so far unproductive talks without an active chair, an agreed agenda or any obvious sense of direction. His main leverage is to threaten another Assembly election in what would be Northern Ireland voters’ twelfth trip to the polls since the Westminster election of 2010. In fact creeping direct rule restored by primary legislation is the more likely option if the talks drag on much beyond the summer Orange marching season.

‘Our, precious, precious Union’

To her critics May is over-identifying her successful management of the Conservative Party with British national interest. She is uniting the Conservatives around a ‘hard Brexit’ to see off the challenge of UKIP in England and the threat of Scottish independence from the SNP. As she has no real party interest to guide her she has a tin ear for Northern Ireland. But by identifying withdrawal from the EU on hard Brexit terms with a stronger United Kingdom so closely, she may be increasing the longer term threat to its survival.

With some cause no doubt, she distrusts the devolved governments where nationalists are in power, although she is careful not to slap down Sinn Féin. A  proper reluctance to takes sides against Sinn Féin’s revived pressure for Irish unity may be one reason why she has not intervened meaningfully in the Assembly stand-off. But it contrasts with her refusal to authorise a second Scottish referendum on independence even after a vote in favour of it in the Scottish Parliament.

On Brexit May rejected nationalist arguments that the Remain votes in Scotland and Northern Ireland gave them the mandate to pursue different courses from England and Wales. The case to remain in the single market and the customs union pressed by nationalists in Scotland and both parts of Ireland was rejected without a public dialogue before the Article 50 withdrawal terms were published. As endorsed by the Supreme Court in the Miller judgment, negotiating EU withdrawal is a reserved matter for Westminster, full stop. The Sewel convention was brushed aside as easily as the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. If May’s government seems to have reverted to the character of a centralised unitary state, it has also increased the stakes in the next battles over the future of the UK.

The Irish view of Brexit

The Irish see Brexit as bad for Ireland and bad for Britain, an aberration of English nationalism. Because of the land border with the EU, Northern Ireland will be the UK region most adversely affected by the immediate impact of Brexit and the long term effects on the Republic may be greater than on the UK, hitting £60 billion a year two-way trading. Agribusiness and the energy market are substantially integrated. More than 40 per cent of Irish agri-food and drink exports go to the UK market, compared with 31 per cent to the rest of the EU. Fifty-two per cent of Northern Ireland exports go to the EU, including 38 per cent to the Republic of Ireland. Eighty-seven per cent of farm income in Northern Ireland comes from EU. The Irish greatly fear a British policy of cheap food imports that would shut off their farm exports.

As Brexit negotiations begin later in June, the British strategy remains opaque while the EU is pledging transparency. Now that the initiative has shifted to the EU, the Irish government has embraced the interests of Northern Ireland on the grounds that the whole island is crucially affected. While this has ruffled feathers on the Conservative right, the British government is ‘relaxed’.

In his swansong as Taoiseach, Enda Kenny made two important gains with his EU colleagues. After settling EU citizen rights and free movement and the cost of Britain’s ‘divorce bill’, he secured third place in the EU’s order of negotiating priorities for avoiding a hard Irish border, a factor ‘of paramount importance… to protect the peace and reconciliation process’.

Then at the EU summit in May, following the precedent of a united Germany, the leaders agreed a declaration that ‘the entire territory’ of a united Ireland would be part of the EU in the event of a successful future referendum on unity, allowing Northern Ireland to automatically rejoin the EU. The Irish are at pains to point out that this in no way undermines the constitutional guarantees of the Good Friday Agreement and that they are opposed to holding a border poll in the foreseeable future.

The ideal for both governments is to leave things as much as possible as they are, including open trade and common citizenship through the British Isles. The Irish will argue for a Brexit transition period of at least two years, which they hope will extend indefinitely. The Irish analysis of economic relationships concludes that if continuing membership of the single market and the customs is excluded by the British the EU should offer ‘special status’ for the North, as close to single market membership it as possible. Nobody believes this can be done without custom checks to prevent illegal third country trading in both directions. The Irish are working independently on solutions a few miles south of the actual border on the Dublin-Belfast motorway. These would involve joint EU/Irish-British paperwork, electronically monitored self assessment by the big carriers, and rare spot checks for motorists no more intrusive on the main route that the toll booths further south. However, there are hundreds of other routes to be considered.

British and Irish positions compared

The British are sceptical about achieving a special deal for Ireland anytime soon. As the Brexit secretary David Davis has pointed out: ‘How on earth do you resolve the issue of the border with Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland unless you know what our general borders policy is, what the customs agreement is, what our trade agreement is. It’s wholly illogical’. To be fair, the Irish are privately every bit as sceptical.

The Irish argue that the EU treaties underpin the entire Good Friday Agreement. Under the GFA everyone in the North can opt for Irish and therefore continuing EU citizenship. EU citizens could therefore be marooned in alien territory. The Irish are concerned that their rights cannot be guaranteed without the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. The British demur: most problems have their solutions in existing bilateral arrangements such as the common travel area.

In all of this the British are essentially bystanders at this stage. The Conservative manifesto pins faith on achieving ‘a deep and special partnership including a comprehensive free trade and customs agreement’Apart from the obsession with identity politics, other old realities remain. For all the concerns about the north-south integration of agribusiness, energy and tourism, the British market for Northern Ireland is around seventeen times greater than the Irish market. Faced with the prospect of unity, Ireland would balk at replacing the £10billion annual subvention from Westminster.

But in one key area, the Irish could prove more effective than the British. With the election of a new Taoiseach to head the minority coalition, a general election in the Republic cannot for long be delayed. Both main governing parties, Fine Gael currently and a reviving Fianna Faíl, have it in their power to state terms to Sinn Féin that their eligibility to join a future coalition in the Republic would depend on their returning to the Assembly in the North. While the Conservative manifesto makes the remarkable admission (no doubt with Scotland mainly in mind) that the UK government ‘has in the past tended to devolve and forget’, followed by ‘we will put that right’, the British have no comparable leverage. Whatever the outcome of the EU withdrawal negotiations, the balance of power over Northern Ireland has shifted a little towards Dublin.

About the author

Brian Walker is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow and media adviser at the Constitution Unit. He is a former political editor for BBC Northern Ireland.



Theresa May has decided to call an early election, before the practical outworking of her Brexit strategy becomes obvious to voters. She wants to be free to modify her strategy, and ,for that, she needs a bigger parliamentary majority.

She claims otherwise. Instead she says she is calling the election because Opposition parties oppose her Brexit strategy. They don’t oppose it, actually. They have cooperated with it, to a point that makes little of parliamentary sovereignty.

The only opposition party that opposes her strategy outright are the Scottish Nationalists, who take that position because that is the way Scotland voted in the Referendum. In any event, the Scottish Nationalist Party could not bring Mrs May’s government down on Brexit, unless Labour, the Liberal Democrats and, most importantly, a significant number of Mrs May’s own Conservative MPs, voted with them, which is not at all likely to happen.

Rather more bizarrely, Mrs May justifies her call for an immediate General Election on the ground that the Labour Party has threatened to vote against the final agreement she may come back with, in two years time. What does she expect? That the main opposition party would give her a blank cheque on the terms of Brexit?!

Usually negotiators actually find it useful to be able to say, when looking for a concession, that if they do not get it, the overall deal might be opposed in Parliament .  If she is to be believed, Mrs May apparently wants to give up that negotiating chip.

Mrs May ostensibly defend the sovereignty of the UK Parliament. But now she is calling an election because the opposition will not promise not to exercise their sovereign parliamentary rights.

My own sense is that none of the reasons she has advanced are the real ones for which she has sought an early election.

She is seeking an election to increase her overall majority, so she will no longer be dependent on a hard core group of around 60 Euro hostile Conservative MPs, who hold disproportionate power at the moment because the Conservative overall majority is so small.

For these MPs hostility to the European Union has become a religion, a religion which brooks no argument, and a religion for which any economic sacrifice can be justified, even the sacrifice of the livelihoods of their own constituents. Mrs May does not want to find her day to day negotiations with the rest of the EU subject to the whim of these people, by whom the slightest compromise  with the EU 27will be portrayed as a betrayal.

It is important to remember that Mrs May, like the rest of her Party, have never taken much interest in how the EU works, in its procedures and rules, and in the compromises that underlie its very existence. She has this in common with many politicians in bigger European countries, who treat the EU as a sideshow to national politics.

So, even though her Party sponsored the idea of holding a Referendum on leaving the EU, she did not give much thought to what leaving the EU might actually mean, until the last few months, when it suddenly became something real, something that was going to happen. In a sense, she and her party, are now finding out a lot about the EU for the first time, just as they are leaving it!

Her first reaction to the Referendum was to get her Party behind her as their new Leader. So she told the Conservative Party Conference last year that she would go beyond the mere terms of the Referendum.

She would not just leave the EU.  She would refuse to join the European Economic Area (unlike non EU member Norway), and also refuse to join the EU Customs Union ( unlike non EU member Turkey).  This hard line bought the temporary quiescence of the Euro hostile MPs, up to and including on the  terms for triggering of Article 50.

But now come the actual negotiations.

This is where Mrs May’s rhetoric at the Conservative Party Conference, meets the reality of a rules based international trading system. In a rules based international trading system, unpleasant compromises are essential if  you are to persuade others are to open up their markets to your exporters,  to your bankers,  to your planes,  and to your people.

In a rules based international  trading system, you cannot, unilaterally, make, interpret and enforce the agreed rules, in a way that suits only you. There has to be a common system, which involves some concession of sovereignty.

You often have to accept an external enforcer, like the European Commission or an International Court.

And you often have to accept an external body interpreting the meaning of the rules, someone like the European Court of Justice, or a Disputes Panel of the WTO.

But this is unacceptable to those who have made national sovereignty into a religion. It is unacceptable to some of Mrs May’s Euro hostile MPs, and also, incidentally, unacceptable to some of the supporters of Donald Trump.

I have been reading publications of Conservative supporting think tanks, like the Bruges Group and “Leave means Leave”, and they are discovering now, how costly it will be for the UK to leave the EU Customs Union.

The UK will have to introduce Customs controls on the goods bought and sold between the UK and the EU. This will involve checking where the goods came from, if they are properly labelled, if they are safe, and if the tariffs due have been paid. The delays will be horrendous.

Customs clearance alone will add 8% to the cost of goods arriving by sea from Ireland or the rest of the EU.

At the moment  90million customs declarations have to be checked in the UK for goods arriving from outside the EU. Once the UK itself leaves the EU Customs Union, UK customs officials will have to check 390 million documents!

By leaving the EU Customs Union,  the UK will not only exclude itself from duty free access to the EU market, which represent over 50% of UK trade, but it will also lose the benefit of Trade agreement the EU has negotiated with 60 other countries, which account for a further  17% of UK exports.

For example, since the EU negotiated a trade deal with Korea ten years ago, UK exports to that country increased by 110%. Leaving the EU means giving that up, temporarily, and, perhaps, permanently.

Mrs May is also beginning to discover that her hard line on immigration will have costs. 20% of employees on UK farms, and 29% of employees in UK food processing plants are EU nationals, who will lose their right to live and work in the UK.   When the UK tries to negotiate trade deals with countries outside the EU, like India, it will find that it will face demands for more Indian migration to the UK.

UK Airports will find themselves losing business when the UK has to leave the EU Open Skies Agreement with the United States. More US transit traffic will be routed through Dublin. The UK will also have to try to join the European Common Aviation Agreement as a separate member, if UK owned airlines are to have the right to fly passengers between EU airports. Rivals will not make it easy for them.

UK farmers and food producers will find themselves facing tariffs of 35% on dairy exports, 25% on confectionary, and 15% on cereals. UK lamb production will be hard hit.

If Mrs May wants to be able to make deals to avoid some of these bad outcomes, she will need the sort of flexibility, that her Euro hostile backbenchers would not allow her.

That is why I think she is calling a General Election now.

The strategy may backfire.

If during the election, she is forced into explicitly ruling out various possible compromises with the EU, she will end up with LESS flexibility that she has now. .

A lot will depend now on what the Conservative Party manifesto says about how the practical problems of Brexit will be tackled. Will it deal with these issues specifically at all?  Will Theresa May be able to get through to 8 June relying on reassuring generalities about problems like customs delays, bureaucracy, higher air fares, the end of farmer income supports, migration policy after Brexit, and the loss of access to markets for British exporters?

Given that Mrs May is avoiding taking part in debates she may be able to avoid these questions, but six weeks is a long time in politics!


I visited Washington this week and was here for an eventful week.

At a time when there is persuasive evidence that drought is causing a huge famine in East Africa. Yet the Trump Administration is announcing plans to scale back America’s already modest contribution to the battle against man made global warming.

Under the Paris Agreement of 2015, the US committed itself to cutting its CO2 emissions by 26/28% compared to 2005 levels.

The new Administration wants to increase fossil fuel production in the US.

The limitations on CO2 emissions by US power plants will be cut.

Coal production will be boosted .

One study suggests that the policy changes will mean that the US will only cut its CO2 emissions to 14% below  2005 levels , rather than  26/28% below as it had promised under the Paris  Accord.

Meanwhile in East Africa, lack of water is causing crops to wither and animals to die of thirst. I heard former Vice President Al Gore claim recently that a similar drought in the Middle East contributed to the start of the Syrian Civil War because of the hardship it caused. Lack of water leads to poor sanitation. This, in turn, leads to diseases like cholera.  This risk is especially high in camps, where climate refugees congregate.

A human being can survive for weeks without food, but can only survive for five days without water.

And global warming evaporates water. That is the price paid for  CO2 emissions in wealthy, water rich, countries.

As Isaac Nur Abdi, a nomad in Southern Sudan, said

“There is no such thing as free water”


Meanwhile President Trump has had to withdraw his Health legislation because of a lack of support.

There is no doubt that US health policy is in need of reform.

It is exceptionally costly.

The incentives in the system are often perverse.  Over prescription of painkilling pharmaceuticals is generating major addiction problems.

The proposed reforms would have put some check on the open ended growth of the cost of Medicaid, a health programme for lower income families. There would have been losers from this.

But the cost of Medicaid has risen from $180 billion in 2005 to almost $360 billion today, but without any clear evidence that it improved health outcomes.

The cost of providing health care for ageing populations will eventually pose a threat to western democracies, because democracies have difficulty making choices in this field, as demonstrated again in Washington this week.


I visited Saudi Arabia recently on business. It is a country that is going through a fiscal crisis because of the fall in the price of oil, the main source of government revenues. As a result the government’s budget deficit reached 15% of GDP in 2015. That said, the country has large financial reserves.

Salaries have been cut and subsidies on fuel, food, water and electricity are also being reduced. VAT and a tax on undeveloped land are being introduced.

The State sector is 60% of the economy and the government is committed to increasing the role of the private sector.

 It is also committed to increasing the proportion of women in the paid workforce from 22% to 30%. The position of women is anomalous. They are not allowed to drive a car, but make up more than half of students in higher education.

Meanwhile Saudi Arabia is the third biggest military spender in the world, and is engaged in an expensive civil war in neighbouring Yemen.

In the longer run the prospects for Saudi Arabia are good.

As well as oil, it has large untapped reserves of aluminium, gold, copper and uranium.

It has a very large immigrant population. Only one fifth of the people working in the retail sector are Saudi natives. But the question must be asked if Saudis would work at the prevailing wage level in the sector, and , if not, if Saudi consumers would willingly pay the higher prices that would arise if immigrant workers were replace by Saudis. A similar debate is taking place in the UK and the US, where curbs on immigration are being advocated.

Immigrants in Saudi Arabia send home $38 billion in remittance to families in their home countries,. So a downturn in the Saudi economy is keenly felt in countries like Egypt, Yemen, Lebanon and Jordan.

Saudi Arabia is a relatively recent creation, dating from the early 20th century.

The Al Saud family were dominant in the peninsula in the 18th century, and were at the time allied itself with the Wahabi branch of Islam which came into being around then, an alliance that continues to this day.

 But the Al Saud family lost their strong position in the 19th century, eventually finding themselves exiles in the British protectorate of Kuwait. It was from there that they launched their comeback in 1902.

Starting in Riyadh, the family, led by Abdul Aziz, gradually conquered most of the peninsula by a combination of force, guile and religious fervour.

The only areas they did not eventually take over were Yemen and the British protectorates along the Gulf (now UAE and Oman).

Then oil was discovered and their position was immensely strengthened. Initially much of the benefit of the oil discoveries went to the US investors, but following the oil crisis of 1973, Saudi Arabia took control of its oil.

Saudi Arabia, is a mix of tradition and modernity. There are brutal aspects to its traditions, like the extensive use of the death penalty. It has a very youthful population, some of whom have been attracted to terrorism. The country needs to find a more constructive outlet for their energies. So the country’s successful economic transformation is politically important for the world.



I would like to join the many, well deserved, tributes to the late Peter Matthews. He was a brave, good humoured and principled politician.  He always had the best interests of his country at heart. He served as a member of  Dail Eireann for a relatively short time, but made a major impact.


I visited India in the past week on business.

India is the largest democracy in the world.

The United States is the second largest.

Politics is robust in both countries, but in India the mood is one of increasing openness towards the rest of the world, whereas that in the United States is in favour of building walls.

India is a good vantage point from which to contemplate the moral content of the anti globalisation rhetoric of Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and their followers.  

Given that the United States is one of the richest and best endowed countries in the world, “America First” seems to me to be a particularly selfish motto for a great country. Yet it is espoused by left wing anti trade Democrats, just as much as it is by the new President

Looking at this from the standpoint of India, one realises that it is thanks in part to globalisation, to  the opening of markets, and to the transfer of western technology to the country, that in India

  •   its economy is growing at  7.5% pa, faster than China
  •   85 million people  exited poverty in India in  the three years from 2010 to 2012
  •   life expectancy  has doubled from  31 years  in 1947 to  65 today
  •   trade represents a higher share of India’s GDP than it does of China.

India is urbanising rapidly. It is estimated that another 250 million people will arrive in India’s overcrowded cities in the next 20 years.

8 million young people enter the Indian workforce every year, many in rural areas where few job opportunities exist outside agriculture. In fact only 16% of India’s existing workforce is in waged employment.

The opportunities to invest in the development of India’s infrastructure are enormous. Sanitary services and road building are seriously deficient. Air pollution and unsanitary living conditions continue to damage the health of many Indians.

Europe needs to work with India to protect the open global economy, while enabling states to put in place robust taxation systems that can distribute the fruits of  globalisation fairly.


Page 2 of 6

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén

Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word :)