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March 05, 2020

EU keen to avoid a repeat of 2015 migrant crisis

EU interior ministers met in Brussels yesterday for an emergency meeting about the Greek border. More than 25,000 migrants have arrived at the Greek border seeking passage into Europe after Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested the borders were open on Turkey's side. 

The EU ministers came up with a joint statement criticising Turkey sharply for using the migrants for its own political reasons. They also showed a hard stance on border issues. It is worth quoting this paragraph in full: 

"The EU and its member states remain determined to effectively protect EU’s external borders. Illegal crossings will not be tolerated. In this regard, the EU and its member states will take all necessary measures, in accordance with EU and international law. Migrants should not be encouraged to endanger their lives by attempting illegal crossings by land or sea. The Council calls upon the Turkish government and all actors and organisations on the ground to relay this message and counter the dissemination of false information. The EU will continue to actively fight human smuggling."

We agree with Lucas Guttenberg that all necessary measures is a belligerent message, though compared to a tougher draft version the ministers added the qualifier that these measures are to be in accordance with EU and international law. But what about those laws? EU member states are silently tolerating Greece's suspension of its own asylum procedures. Surely this is not in accordance with international law. And videos are circulating on social media suggesting Greek border guards opened fire on a group of migrants and refugees attempting to cross yesterday morning. If this is confirmed, what will be the EU's response? 

EU member states are keen to avoid another 2015-style migration crisis. But how will they deter the migrants from coming? There will be more Frontex staff at the borders and patrolling the sea, and more EU money for Greece. And Turkey? Erdogan said before that the €6bn agreed under the migrant deal with the EU is not enough. Will there be a council majority to reopen the deal with Turkey, and all the fundamental questions it raised about European values? Will there be a coalition of the willing to support Erdogan? The German finance ministry suggested to the budget committee in the Bundestag in its letter to give €32m to help Turkish coast guards, in the name of Germany's state interests. 

Angela Merkel is also active on the political front, advocating a safe zone in Idlib to stabilise the situation for the refugees. Her defence minister AKK is putting sanctions against Russia on the table, just in case. There are many more actors moving behind the scenes. But it is also the front end image that counts. If the EU ends up erode its value system, it will have shown blackmailing it can be successful.

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March 05, 2020

Sir Humphrey R.I.P.

We noted a couple of perceptive articles on the nature of Boris Johnson's government, which try to dig a bit deeper into what his administration is all about. Both start with the resignation of a senior civil servant who complained about being bullied by Priti Patel, the home secretary. She is now under investigation by the cabinet secretary. The two articles go together. One explains why this minister is so critical for the Johnson agenda. The other explains the deeper aspects of that agenda.

Katy Balls writes that Patel is one of Johnson’s most important ministers because her crass law-and-order radicalism gels with the Tories’ new voter base. Boosting police numbers and toughening sentences for criminals was one of the big non-Brexit themes in the latest elections.

Tom McTague writes in the Atlantic that the Patel case goes to the heart of what the Johnson administration is all about: a revolution in how the state operates. This is about the future of the UK’s politically-independent civil service. McTague studied the writings of Dominic Cummings about this, and found that it is the defining issue. This is not about left-wing versus right-wing politics, but about the relationship between elected politicians and civil servants. Brexit is not about Europe as such, but about the relationship between politics and bureaucracy. Cummings studied Tony Blair’s attempts to wrest control from the civil service when he set up Cobra, a crisis-response system that is still operational today. Cobra consists of a small group of cabinet ministers and their advisers who take decisions in a crisis bypassing the usual civil-service procedures. For example, Johnson is using Cobra to co-ordinate the Covid-19 response. 

McTague writes that Cummings wants to revolutionise the way government works by going way beyond the informal Cobra process. We thought McTague was most interesting in his attempt to figure out why Cummings and his lot are so distrustful of expert advice. The issue is not the experts’ failure to confront their errors. We think the following passage goes to the heart of the issue. He writes that the discussion on experts

"misunderstands the core of the Johnson-Cummings project. It is not that they disagree with experts’ forecasts, or that they are attempting to be populist. They actively reject this model of government, believing it to be systemically and empirically flawed. They argue that Britain needs to free itself from centralized bureaucratic control, rather than rely on it, to be able to react both to domestic crises and the ever-changing international environment."

We ourselves have noted a similar issue about economic forecasts and economic policy analysis. No forecast error or policy disaster, like austerity, has been big enough to force the economics profession to question the underlying assumptions of their models, such as rational expectations. Over the last ten years a random number generator would have consistently outperformed the ECB’s inflation forecast. We should not be surprised if, one day, a central bank governor or finance minister were to draw similar conclusions to Cummings'. 

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