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Johnson set to unnerve allies with ‘Global Britain’ defence review

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Boris Johnson’s eagerly awaited new security strategy risks creating tensions with the UK’s closest allies if it spreads its armed forces too thinly and neglects key defence duties in pursuit of a “Global Britain” agenda, experts have warned.

The integrated defence and foreign policy review — which has been repeatedly delayed as Downing Street battles to control the coronavirus pandemic — will be published next week as a statement of the prime minister’s post-Brexit vision for the country.

But the document, grandly titled “Global Britain in a Competitive Age”, is likely to be controversial with foreign defence partners. Core defence capabilities will be retired to pay for digital warfare technology and the UK’s promised focus on the Indo-Pacific risks detracting from its responsibilities in the north Atlantic. It also remains unclear how a post-Brexit UK will co-operate with EU countries on security.

“I’m sure the review will be a powerful essay about Britain’s role in the world,” said Lord Peter Ricketts, the UK’s former national security adviser. But he added: “Will our ambitious plans actually feed through into something which makes sense?”

‘Troop numbers still matter’

The most contentious decision is on the size of the army, which is widely expected to be cut from a notional force of around 82,000 to something closer to 72,000. Even though the Ministry of Defence secured an unexpected £16.5bn spending boost from the Treasury in the autumn, the department is still seeking savings to reduce a £17bn budget black hole and fund better cyber defences and new military capabilities in space. 

US military officials say privately that while they value UK special forces and are impressed by Britain’s growing cyber expertise, troop numbers still matter. Washington has traditionally relied on the UK to field a heavy division, which means an army of roughly 100,000 personnel. Michael Shurkin, a security expert at the Rand Corporation, insisted that the US’s historical default to military co-operation with the British is based on a recognition of its quality, rather than troop strength. “It’s not just that we expect the British to show up when we call — we really want the British to show up when we call, because they’re good,” he said.

However, he made clear that “it becomes a real problem” if suddenly a trusted ally can no longer provide the troop numbers it once could.

The challenge for ministers is how to present cuts to the army without causing alarm in Washington and Nato headquarters. “How well it goes down with our allies depends very much on how honest we are about what we’re doing,” said Jack Watling, a land warfare specialist at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank.

He argued that if the UK offers to provide attack helicopters, long-range precision rocket artillery and reconnaissance troops to assist other nations, this could help compensate for a reduction in overall personnel. “If we set out a credible roadmap that admits it’s going to be rough for the next decade but by 2030 we will deliver something that is clearly defined, then the US will probably respond positively,” Watling said.

Countering China

Another potential flashpoint will be the review’s focus on the Indo-Pacific, as the UK pursues deeper defence ties with Asian allies such as Japan, India and South Korea in an effort to counter China’s growing military assertiveness. China now has the world’s largest navy and is honing its long-range ballistic missile capabilities. Beijing’s $12bn boost to its 2020 defence budget ($193bn) was greater than the combined defence budget increases in all other Asian states combined, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

The Royal Navy’s flagship aircraft carrier will deploy later in the spring on her maiden voyage to East Asia, and is due to carry out joint exercises with Japan, among others. But some experts have questioned whether the UK’s commitments are real or merely symbolic — especially since Britain does not have enough of its own fighter jets to equip the carrier, and is relying on the US Marine Corps supplying F-35B Lightning aircraft.

The UK’s HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier is to be deployed on its maiden voyage to East Asia this spring © Dan Rosenbaum/MoD

“For Australians, Blighty showing up in the old neighbourhood is very easily seen through the lens of imperial nostalgia or post-Brexit hubris,” said Euan Graham, an Asian defence expert at the IISS, based in Singapore. “The Brits should be judged on their consistency of presence, not a once-in-a-generation deployment of a carrier group, that’s not really of much use.” 

There are suggestions from some analysts that the US — which is refocusing its own military efforts against China — might prefer Britain to strengthen its presence in the north Atlantic, the Gulf and the Mediterranean, allowing American forces to concentrate on Pacific defence themselves. “Maybe strategically speaking, the better way to [counter Beijing],” Shurkin suggested. 

‘A tilt away from Europe’

The UK’s European allies may also be wary of British ambitions in Asia. Ricketts — a former British ambassador to France — described Johnson’s enthusiasm for a return to the seas east of Suez as “a tilt away from Europe as much as a tilt towards the Indo-Pacific”. He said the French will be keen to see the integrated review acknowledge the EU’s contribution to European security. But he noted: “I think they’ll be disappointed.”

One solution to the MoD’s financial shortfalls would be to find savings through collaboration. Nicolas Baverez, a defence expert at the Paris-based Institut Montaigne, argued Britain and France share a challenge in funding new hypersonics, robotics, and space capabilities. “It will be very difficult for each of our countries alone to finance all these fields of research,” he said. “The answer will be to make bets and choices, and maybe to co-operate, to mutualise certain costs.” 

However, the integrated review is more likely to seek alliances further afield. In a speech to the Munich Security Conference last month, Johnson boasted that in leaving the EU, the UK had “restored sovereign control over vital levers of foreign policy”. Johnson added optimistically that European leaders were increasingly looking to American allies “to rediscover that far-sighted leadership and the spirit of adventure and transatlantic unity that made our two continents great in the first place”.

Lord David Richards, former chief of the defence staff, suggested Britain should not forget threats such as Russia in its own backyard.

“We could have a very useful role closer to home which is logistically possible, militarily feasible, and we could have real clout within Nato,” he said. “But the risk is that we fritter it all away by going all around the globe and don’t achieve any real strategic influence anywhere.”



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CDU leadership backs Armin Laschet’s bid to be German chancellor

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Armin Laschet won a key victory in his campaign to succeed Angela Merkel when the party he leads, the Christian Democratic Union, backed him as their candidate for chancellor in September’s Bundestag election.

The CDU governing executive’s decision to back Laschet was a setback for Markus Söder, governor of Bavaria, who has also laid claim to the title.

The move was expected, but could prove controversial. Söder is by far the more popular politician, and many CDU MPs had argued in recent days that the party would have a much better chance of winning September’s election with Söder as their candidate.

After throwing his hat into the ring on Sunday, Söder said he would accept the CDU’s decision. However, it is still unclear whether his party, the Bavarian Christian Social Union, will accept Laschet as the CDU/CSU’s joint candidate. The CSU’s executive is meeting later on Monday.

Sunday’s events threw the process for finding a successor to Merkel, who will step down this year after 16 years as Germany’s leader, into confusion. The CDU and CSU traditionally field a joint candidate for chancellor: that person is usually the leader of the CDU, which is by far the larger party.

Volker Bouffier, governor of the western state of Hesse, said the CDU’s executive had unanimously backed Laschet at a meeting in Berlin on Monday morning. He added, however, that no formal decision had been made on the issue.

Bouffier said the executive had made clear “that we consider [Laschet] exceptionally well-suited and asked him to discuss together with Markus Söder how we proceed”. He added that “the current polls should not determine the decision over [who we choose as] candidate”.

Since Laschet was elected CDU leader in January, the party has suffered a precipitous slump in the polls and that created an opening for Söder. He has frequently argued that the CDU/CSU’s joint candidate should be the politician with the best chances of winning in September.

Voters have blamed the CDU for the government’s recent missteps in its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, in particular the slow pace of Covid-19 vaccinations. Revelations that a number of CDU and CSU MPs earned huge commissions on deals to procure face masks also badly damaged the party’s image.

The malaise in the CDU was highlighted last month when it slumped to its worst ever election results in the two states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, which for decades had been Christian Democrat strongholds. National polls currently put support for the CDU/CSU at between 26 per cent and 28 per cent, way down on the 33 per cent it garnered in the last Bundestag election in 2017.

There was more bad news at the weekend for Laschet, who as well as being CDU leader is also prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state. A poll for broadcaster WDR in NRW found that only 26 per cent of voters in the state are satisfied with the work of the regional government Laschet leads and only 24 per cent of voters consider him a suitable candidate for chancellor.

The slide in the CDU’s fortunes contrasts with the rise of the Greens. The party garnered 8.9 per cent of the vote in 2017 and is now polling at 23 per cent. It is seen as a racing certainty that it will be part of Germany’s next government.



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EU and UK edge towards accord on trade rules for Northern Ireland

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The UK and the EU are making progress in talks on how to apply post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland, raising hopes of an agreement that could help reduce tensions that have spilled over into violence on the streets of Belfast.

Officials on both sides said that recent days of intensive contacts had given cause for optimism that the UK and EU can craft a “work plan” on how to implement the Northern Ireland protocol, which sets the post-Brexit terms for goods to flow between the region and Great Britain. EU Brexit commissioner Maros Sefcovic and his UK counterpart David Frost may meet to review progress this week. 

“They are advancing on a technical level and probably we will see a [Frost-Sefcovic] meeting rather sooner than later”, said one EU diplomat, while cautioning progress depended on firm commitments from the UK and its “unequivocal support” for the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

Other EU diplomats and officials said strong UK engagement in the technical talks on implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol had raised hopes that an understanding could be reached. 

“The mood seems to have warmed up a bit — the tone of the discussions is quite good,” said one British official. 

The talks are a follow up to a draft plan about implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol that was submitted by the UK to Brussels at the end of last month — a step the EU said was essential to rebuilding trust after Britain unilaterally extended waivers for traders from some aspects of the rules in March. This move prompted EU legal action.

The discussions between British and EU officials in recent days have taken place against the backdrop of violence in Northern Ireland, stoked in part by resentment within the unionist community at how the protocol treats their region differently to the rest of the UK.

From April 2 there were eight consecutive nights of unrest in Northern Ireland, involving both unionist and nationalist areas. The police responded by deploying water cannons for the first time in six years.

The Brexit deal placed a trade border down the Irish Sea in order to keep commerce seamless on the island of Ireland. The Northern Ireland protocol requires customs and food safety checks for goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

Officials said the EU-UK talks now under way about implementation of the protocol cover a wide array of practical issues ranging from trade in steel and medicines to the policing of food safety standards, how to deal with residual soil on plant bulbs, and the construction of border inspection posts. 

“Technical talks are ongoing”, said an EU official. “Depending on the progress made at technical level, a political-level meeting may be held soon.”

But EU diplomats and officials also cautioned that more work remains to be done, especially on the thorny issue of applying food safety checks. Difficult talks also lie ahead on the timetable for putting particular measures in place.

Meanwhile Downing Street played down a report in The Observer that it was resisting proposals by Dublin for a special crisis summit to address the outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland.

“We have not refused anything,” said a Number 10 official. “It’s something we will consider.”

However there are concerns on the British side about the wisdom of holding a summit in Northern Ireland with Irish government ministers at a time when pro-UK loyalist groups have been engaged in street violence.

Irish officials said taoiseach Micheál Martin and British prime minister Boris Johnson have spoken and would “maintain close contact over coming days”.



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France to offer mRNA jabs as second dose after AstraZeneca 

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France has become the second country after Germany to recommend that younger people who have had a first dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine be given a different jab for their follow-up shot.

The mixed-dose approach has been recommended by health experts in both countries — despite there being little clinical trial data to support it — because of the slim risk that younger people can develop blood clots when given the AstraZeneca jab.

The World Health Organization reiterated its position on Friday that there was “no data on interchangeability of vaccine platforms”, noting further research was needed.

The move comes as the European Medicines Agency said it is also probing a possible link between the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and four serious cases of unusual blood clots in the US, where it is currently being rolled out. It is not yet being distributed in the EU or UK. The vaccine is based on an adenovirus vector, similar to the AstraZeneca shot.

The EMA said it was not yet clear whether there was a causal link. J&J said it is working with experts and regulators to assess the data. “Our close tracking of side effects has revealed a small number of very rare events following vaccination,” it said. “At present, no clear causal relationship has been established.” 

In France, the policy will affect roughly 530,000 people under age 55 who were given a first shot of AstraZeneca from early February to mid-March when they were eligible under its strategy of giving healthcare workers the vaccine, while reserving the mRNA vaccines for elderly people most at risk.

The Haute Autorité de Santé, a panel of medical experts which advises the government, has said they should be given booster shots from BioNTech/Pfizer or Moderna. France has changed course to use AstraZeneca only in people aged above 55 since the blood clot issue emerged.

France announced its decision on Friday after the HAS recommended the mixed-dose strategy. Germany took a similar stance in early April. 

Health minister Olivier Véran told RTL radio on Friday that the mixed-dose approach was “totally logical” given the analysis of European regulators and France’s desire to continue its vaccination campaign as the scientific evidence evolved.

European countries, whose vaccination campaigns have been slower than world leaders such as the US, Israel, and the UK, have been grappling with how to use AstraZeneca doses since the blood clot reports emerged, with some countries applying new age restrictions and others pausing its use entirely.

But with Covid-19 still spreading, officials are also seeking to reassure people that the AstraZeneca vaccine’s benefits still largely outweigh the risks. 

The European Medicines Agency recently established that there was a “possible link” between the AstraZeneca vaccine and unusual blood clots with low blood platelets that have mostly affected women under 60 years old, though regulators have said there is no specific risk factor by gender.

The EMA said it had examined at least 86 such reported cases and 16 deaths, and recommended updating the vaccine’s safety information to list the clots as a possible side effect.

Élisabeth Bouvet, a vaccine expert and member of the HAS, said on Friday that the mixed-dose approach was a practical solution intended to protect younger people, who are at lower risk of developing severe forms of Covid-19, from the risk of blood clotting side effects. “It is really a choice based on safety,” she said.

“Given that the protection of the Covid-19 vaccines begins to diminish after three months, these people need an additional dose,” she added. “The idea is to give mRNA vaccine as a second dose for this population in a ‘prime-boost’ strategy.”

Even in the absence of clinical data, Bouvet said that they believed the approach carried low risks of side effects and was likely to offer people additional protection given that the Covid-19 vaccines all aim at the same spike protein on the coronavirus.

“We think that this approach will work,” she said. “There is no reason to expect any particular side effects with mixed dosing but it would be good to study the immune response it creates.” 

Peter English, a retired Public Health England consultant in communicable disease control, said it was “reasonable” to use other vaccines, particularly in younger patients, until the risk of blood clots caused by the AstraZeneca vaccine has been clarified.

“If we are to achieve vaccine-induced herd immunity [not just through masks and social distancing] a high uptake of vaccination will be required in the groups most likely to spread the virus, not just in those most at risk if infected,” he said, noting vaccine mixing and matching has been done for other diseases. 

Trials studying a combination of vaccines, including AstraZeneca’s and Russia’s Sputnik V shots, are under way.



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