Tom Arms’ World Review – 6 March 2021

In this weekend’s look at world politics our foreign correspondent Tom Arms looks at political events in the UK, Boris Johnson cutting aid to Yemen, politics in the EU shifting to the left, a bad week for ex-French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and ASEAN foreign ministers pushing for the release of Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the return to democracy in Myanmar.

Interesting week in the UK. The budget, Scottish shenanigans and the Northern Ireland protocol will all have international repercussions. British Chancellor Rishi Sunak is the first finance minister to lay down the foundations of a financial road map out of the pandemic. Basically, his proposed solution is, for the moment at least, to raise taxes on business, keep income tax the same to finance consumer spending, and to limit or cut government spending on social services, local government and transport. But that is only the start. He is promised the real squeeze in later budgets. Chancellor Sunak made it clear that the British government’s spending to cope with the pandemic was on a par with the two world wars and that higher taxes and less spending was the inevitable consequence. In Scotland, the headlines were grabbed by a fight to the finish between Scottish National Party leader and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her predecessor and mentor Alex Salmond, who had been charged and cleared of sexual harassment. Salmond claimed he was the victim of a conspiracy hatched by Ms Sturgeon and her associates. This week Ms Sturgeon was quizzed for ten hours by a Scottish parliamentary committee. The result was possibly even less clarity and the appearance of a badly divided party. This could easily impact on Scottish parliamentary elections in May and the SNP’s campaign for independence from the UK. Across the Irish Sea, the government of Boris Johnson has again decided breaking international law is the lesser of two evils by unilaterally extending the Northern Ireland Protocol to October (It was due to end this month). The unilateral extension jeopardises the Good Friday Agreement; places the Republic of Ireland in a difficult political and economic position and will put Britain in the dock of the international court at a time when it most needs to be seen as a champion of the international rule of law.

Yemen is another British embarrassment. The Johnson government announced this week that because of the costs of the pandemic it was reducing humanitarian aid to the war-torn Arab country by half from $240 million to $120 million a year. One of the few things that can be said in Britain’s defence is that it is not alone. A UN-organised international pledging conference aimed at raising $3.87 billion for Yemen managed only $1.7 billion. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres urged donor countries to think again in order to stave off “the worst famine the world has seen in decades.” So far, an estimated 140,000 people have been killed and four million displaced by the six-year civil war between Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and the Saudi-backed government forces. The UN estimates that at the moment 500,000 Yemenis are starving and another 16 million could suffer the same fate this year unless aid reaches them quickly. Meanwhile, Houthi forces are closing in on the government stronghold of Marib in northern Yemen. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled to the city and are sleeping in the streets and in makeshift camps on the outskirts of Marib. The International Organisation of Migration reckons that a Houthi victory would overnight displace another 385,000 Yemenis.

Europe’s political pendulum appears to be swinging left. This week Germany’s right-wing political party Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) and Hungary’s ruling Fidesz Party both suffered setbacks. The AfD was founded in 2013 by disillusioned members of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union. After the 2017 federal elections it was the third largest party in the Bundestag, had representation in 14 of the 16 Lander parliaments and seven seats in the European Parliament. The party has always been Euro-sceptic and anti-immigration, but since its 2017 success it has swung further to the right and is now embracing Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Covid-denial and some of the more outrageous right-wing conspiracy theories. This week it was revealed that the Afd has been classified an “extremist organisation” which means that the German intelligence agency the BFV can now conduct surveillance of its activities, monitor its meetings and phone calls and intercept members’ emails. The AfD claims the move is purely political and designed at weakening the party before September’s federal elections. Hungary’s Fidesz Party is led by Europe’s darling of the far-right Viktor Orban. His moves to politicise the courts, ban immigrants and muzzle the press have brought into question Hungary’s continued membership of the EU. One of Orban’s major tools in combating Brussels has been his party’s membership of the European Parliament’s largest political grouping—the European People’s Party. This week the EPP changed its rules to allow it to expel Fidesz from its ranks and Orban quickly withdrew from the EPP umbrella just before he was given the boot.

Ex-French President Nicolas Sarkozy has had a bad week. And it is likely to get worse. The 66-year-old former president and leader of the conservative Union for Popular Movement (UMP), was sentenced to a three year prison sentence. Two of the years were, however, suspended and the third is likely to involve an electronic ankle tag and house arrest. His crime? Attempting to bribe a French judge with the promise of a lucrative post in Monaco in return for information about an investigation into Sarkozy’s affairs. Sarkozy has predictably claimed he is the victim of a witch hunt and is appealing. However, at the same time he is facing another trial for alleged election campaign violations in his 2012 bid for a tenure in the Elysee Palace. That trial is due to start on 17 March. Sarkozy is also being investigated for allegedly receiving millions from the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gadaffi and was named in the Panama Papers scandal. Sarkozy is not the first former French president to fall foul of the law.  In 2011, a Paris court declared Jacques Chirac guilty of diverting public funds and abusing public confidence. He received a two-year suspended prison sentence.

ASEAN (or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) is the closest thing Southeast Asia has to the European Union. It is a well-established trading bloc dating back to 1967, has its own overseas missions and international agreements and is a recognised force on the world stage. It is also known for its quiet internal diplomacy based on consultation and consensus-building which is another way of saying that its ten members refrain from criticising each other’s human rights records. They even have a name for it – “The ASEAN Way.” There is a good reason for their mutual reticence. None of the ten members have sterling records when it comes to upholding democratic values. All of which makes it surprising that this week ASEAN foreign ministers pushed for the release of Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the return to democracy in Myanmar.  The fact is that the need for regional stability has trumped quiet diplomacy. The other Southeast Asian nations are rightly concerned that the riots and demonstrations in Myanmar will undermine regional prosperity and possibly spill over into their own domains. In the meantime, the demonstrations continue. At the last count 58 people have died and neither the demonstrators nor the military have shown any signs of backing down.

* American expat journalist Tom Arms is LDV's foreign affairs editor and author of the forthcoming book “America: Made in Britain.”

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One Comment

  • Peter Hirst 8th Mar '21 - 5:25pm

    It would seems a complete arms embargo on the Middle East is going to be the only way to lessen the blood shed and human rights violations.

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