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Voices: Brace yourself – Sue Gray’s report is about to tell us everything we already know

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We’ve had the police investigation, which found Boris Johnson had broken the law while in office, and nothing’s going to happen about that, either



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Safari is crippling the mobile market, and we never even noticed

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With web apps, Apple insists on taking the pith helmet

Opinion  It has been 14 years since Apple opened its App Store with its shiny shopfront of tempting toys and gloomy back office of rules and rentier revenues, but only now has the proposed EU Digital Markets Act threatened to end Apple's web browser engine monopoly. …

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Predatory community

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A man sits at his computer and types out the story he has fabricated for the Fame Lady Squad NFT project: “we wanted to create an image of a strong and independent woman of the NFT community.” The project draws in $1.5 million from buyers, who talk of their excitement when they found a project they felt was bringing diversity to an overwhelmingly male space, and that was “all about women’s empowerment”.1 They later find out that the “all-female led project” created by “Cindy”, “Kelda”, and “Andrea” was in fact created by a group of three white men.

Three illustrations of women, under the heading "Team". The images are labeled with the names Cindy, Kelda, and Andrea.
The "Team" section of the Fame Lady Squad website, as it appeared before the project was revealed to be led by three men.

Before that, these men were “Sayara” and “Aita”, creating the “Cyber City Girls Club” to “support female and Asian artists and make charities to fight Asian Hate crimes.”2 And before that, they’d come up with “BLM Cards”: NFTs created to “depict the greatest Black People in NFT, and also collect money to donate to Black Charities”. They designed two prototype cards, depicting George Floyd and Michael Jackson, then apparently abandoned the project.34

A Latino man promises that his business will bank unbanked communities: “As a son of an immigrant, I saw firsthand as a child how my mother struggled without access to her money. This company was built to empower those like my mom.” He encourages other Latin Americans to buy his company’s crypto tokens in an initial coin offering, raising more than $9 million. The SEC ultimately charges him with fraud,5 and it turns out he has a history of allegedly running multi-level marketing schemes and investment fraud targeting the elderly.6

More and more crypto communities spring up around facets of identity. “Maricoin” promises to be the “first cryptocurrency created by and for the LGTBIQ+ community” (despite, bafflingly, being named after a Spanish homophobic slur).7

Randi Zuckerburg releases a parody music video titled “We’re All Gonna Make It”, which she says she created to be a “rallying cry for the women of web3”. Matt Binder writes in Mashable that “it looks, sounds, and feels like something you’d see at a LuLaRoe convention to get people hyped about asking their friends if they would like to invest in a new business opportunity.”8

SXSW 2022 hosts panels and events titled “Black in Web3: Now and the Future”9 and “Women Rocking Web3”10 and “Breaking the Blockchain Boys Club”.11 One event promises to discuss “segments of the population that could benefit but aren’t being included [in web3]: underserved communities; from middle America to BIPOC to women, rural and the LGBTQ+ communities”. It is titled, apparently unironically, “Web3 For the Rest of Us”, despite the fact that “the rest of us” that they seem to be alluding to are probably not among the people who paid $1,400–$2,000 for a ticket to SXSW.12


In crypto, you will hear that “community” is everything. Fan clubs form around individual coins, and NFT projects nearly always have a Discord or Telegram chat room where their collectors (or hopefuls) gather. People wish each other “gm” and “gn” and chat about their days, their families, and, of course, their crypto.

Crypto communities often mirror some of the fringes of the Internet. They draw no small portion of their memes and references directly from 4chanPepe the Frog and Wojak are everywhere, and slang that found its popularity in 4chan, like “WAGMI” and “frens”, have become core parts of the crypto lexicon. Other slang common among crypto zealots—references to “chads” and “____pilling” and that brief and weird “wordcel” craze that even Vitalik Buterin and various a16z-ites got in on—are direct nods at the incel online subculture.

Misogyny abounds. A man at Bitcoin Miami 2022 took a creepshot of a woman’s butt that apparently didn’t suit his tastes and posted it on Twitter, drawing over a hundred replies from people either denigrating her or commenting that they “still would smash”. The woman reported the harassment to the conference organizers, only to find that the person she had reported it to had himself liked the harassing tweets.13

Racism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of bigotry are also common sights in the crypto world.

When a white community manager from SuperRare held a disastrous Twitter Space to apparently try to do damage control for racist tweets that she had written in the past, Black members of the crypto community who spoke up in the Space were immediately inundated with vile and threatening racist messages.14

When a leader of ENS15 stood by his previous statements that “homosexual acts are evil” and “transgenderism doesn’t exist”, many in the crypto community seemed more horrified at the possibility that he could be “cancelled” than at the beliefs he was espousing.16

Although the communities of “cryptobros” on Twitter and Discord and Reddit and 4chan sometimes seem large, in reality there is fairly small subset of the population that is both terminally online enough and drawn to actively participating in these communities. Plenty of people who otherwise might be interested in crypto are repelled by the cryptobro aspect, and either engage with crypto without becoming a part of its community, or forego it altogether.

This is bad for crypto. There is nothing crypto needs more right now than more people.

Crypto, when it comes down to it, relies on greater fools. As assets without any intrinsic value, the way to make money from crypto is to find a greater fool who will buy your assets from you at a higher price. Some crypto projects are very open about the fact that they rely on new people constantly coming in to their ecosystem: game developer Sky Mavis admitted that the in-game economy of their once-popular blockchain game Axie Infinity was “dependent on growth and new entrants”.17 Other crypto projects have been exposed as literal Ponzi or pyramid schemes, only able to pay out those who bought in early from the income gained through a steady stream of newcomers.

As crypto has begun to exhaust its existing sources of greater fools, we’ve seen new strategies to reach broader audiences. Advertisements for cryptocurrencies began appearing in the London Tube system and on the sides of buses. NFTs were plastered on billboards in Times Square. Crypto companies began renaming sports stadiums after themselves, or entering into sponsorship deals with NASCAR drivers and baseball teams. Matt Damon told viewers of Saturday Night Football that “fortune favors the brave”, and prime ad real estate at the Super Bowl showed celebrities including LeBron James, Larry David, and Kyle Lowry urging people to buy crypto.

But there’s limited value in someone downloading Coinbase from the bouncing QR code at the Super Bowl, getting their free $15 in Bitcoin, and not touching it again. The holy grail for a crypto project is when they can get someone to join in their community.

This exalted sense of “community” is often trotted out as an example of all the good that crypto is apparently doing. Some starry-eyed individuals talk about how the lifelong friends they’ve made along the way have made everything worthwhile, regardless of whether they’ve gained or lost money. But “community” serves darker goals, whether by design or not.

As Bennett Tomlin put it, “The sense of community and the sense of belonging becomes an important part of the narrative because once you are a Bitcoin maxi, once you’re a LUNAtic, once you’re a LINK Marine, once you’re part of the XRP Army, once you’ve tied your identity in some way to one of these groups, coins, or whatever, it becomes that much harder for you to part and to remove that part of your identity.”18

Communities encourage each other to have “diamond hands” and “HODL” (a term that has since been backronymed into “hold on for dear life”) whenever prices drop, even at huge financial risk. Some lionize the “Dogecoin Millionaire”, who “diamond handed” beyond all reason, keeping his massive holdings of Dogecoin far beyond their peak value of over $2 million and still holding now that they’re worth around $325,000.19 Crypto communities ostracize people who sell off their crypto as “paper hands” and “ngmi” (“not gonna make it”). True believers in various NFT projects encourage one another to “sweep the floor” if interest wanes (buy more NFTs—specifically those listed for the lowest prices), and coiners tell one another to “buy the dip!”

All of this behavior is enormously advantageous for those behind the projects, who benefit when holders keep on holding and when people buy more. Crypto projects in general depend on people believing their tokens have value, and community behaviors that reinforce this are essential.

So, crypto has a problem. “Community” is a huge part of what keeps the faith alive, and crypto more than anything relies on faith. But those communities have developed for themselves a reputation that attracts a very limited group of people—”cryptobros”, if you will, and those willing to put up with them. They need more communities, and ones that will draw in those tantalizing untapped markets: women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and so on.

What better way to draw people into a community than by presenting it as inclusion? “This isn’t good for us, this is good for you. We’re doing this for you.”

That is exactly what has happened.

Crypto communities have sprung up based around gender, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, or various combinations of these. And it’s often easier for a member of a marginalized group to decide to dip their toe in the water when the person beckoning them in is someone like them, rather than a Pepe the Frog avatar spouting Bitcoin bro catchphrases.

By forming these communities around aspects of peoples’ identities that they hold very dear, it amplifies those ties to the communities that makes them harder to leave, and that make selling assets feel like a betrayal. It’s one thing to sell off some Bitcoin if your “investment” isn’t going as well as you hoped, or conversely, if you want to take some profits and rebalance a portfolio. It’s another thing entirely to do that when your asset is what makes you a part of a “World of Women” community, and where selling may feel like a betrayal to the people you’ve formed relationships with or to the ideological causes the group supports.

This is only more true when you’ve been told that buying this NFT—your Boss Beauty or Hijabi Queen or Flower Girl or Crypto Coven or Rebel Society or MetaSikh—was empowering, you were breaking the glass ceiling, you were pushing back against the crypto white boy’s club. In many ways, the identity-based crypto communities—particularly the women-focused ones that are overwhelmingly made up of white women—are reminiscent of multi-level marketing schemes, which also prey on identity and community to increase their reach. Many MLMs hawk beauty products, weight loss supplements, and women’s clothing—all appealing to women—and encourage the formation of social groups among their sellers that co-opt the language of friendship and feminism, promising to uplift one another, empower one another, and fight back against the male-dominated corporate world.

The #bossbabe #girlboss lingo of MLMs feels right at home in the emerging women-in-crypto space these days, where groups of beautiful women “investors” take photos clinking mimosas at brunch, show off their CryptoChick profile pictures, and receive airdropped NFTs of friendship bracelets symbolizing their membership in the girls-only club.

The rhetoric often echoes the same sort of “Lean In feminism” pushed by Sheryl Sandberg in the early 2010s that encouraged women to be assertive in the workplace and grab themselves seats at the metaphorical table—without upsetting the apple cart too much, of course. “We have watched a lot of these bros get together and earn a lot of money, and I think we deserve to be in this space just as much,” said Gwyneth Paltrow, encouraging women to buy NFTs in January 2022. “I think that there’s a high probability that crypto will really be the future, and even though some people are still skeptical I think it’s here to stay and we should really be part of it,” she said—only months before NFTs and crypto in general would experience a serious downturn, and Paltrow’s crypto and NFT posts would trail off to nothing.2021


Some of these identity-based groups and projects are outright frauds. The interest in diversifying crypto has also caused a boom in projects focused around diversity, which have found interested buyers in members of marginalized groups as well as those hoping to support them. And this interest, of course, has drawn the scammers hoping to cash in as well: there are many instances now of men pretending to be women and promoting “women-led” NFT projects. Affinity fraud has also become rampant—the practice where scammers appeal to specific groups that have formed around shared identity.

Most of these identity-based groups, however, appear to be sincere. They are run by people who are who they say they are, who truly believe that they’ve found financial opportunities in crypto, and who are trying to open the doors to more people like them.

The distinction largely doesn’t matter.

Groups that operate under the guise of inclusion, regardless of their intentions, are serving the greater goal of crypto that keeps the whole thing afloat: finding ever more fools to buy in so that the early investors can take their profits. And it is those latecomers who are left holding the bag in the end.

With projects that seek to provide services and opportunities to members of marginalized groups who have previously not had access, but on bad terms that ultimately disadvantaged them, we see predatory inclusion.22 With projects that seek to create new communities of marginalized people to draw them in to risky speculative markets rife with scams and fraud, we are now seeing predatory community.

Notes

  1. Archived version of the Fame Lady Squad website↩︎

  2. Archived version of the Cyber City Girls Club website↩︎

  3. BLM Cards NFT Twitter account↩︎

  4. Stokel-Walker, Chris (August 12, 2021). “This $1.5 million ‘women-led’ NFT project was actually run by Russian dudes”. Input↩︎

  5. SEC Charges Issuer for Conducting Fraudulent and Unregistered Digital Asset Security Offering” (Press release). U.S Securities and Exchange Commission. August 4, 2021. ↩︎

  6. Uulala Review: Oscar Garcia triples down on securities fraud”. Behind the MLM. October 29, 2021. ↩︎

  7. Street, Mikelle (January 3, 2022). “1st LGBTQ+ Cryptocurrency, Maricoin, Launches With Questionable Name”. The Advocate↩︎

  8. Binder, Matt (March 3, 2022). “Why is Randi Zuckerberg making cringe music videos about cryptocurrency?Mashable↩︎

  9. Black in Web3: Now and the Future”. SXSW 2022. ↩︎

  10. Women Rocking Web3”. SXSW 2022. ↩︎

  11. Breaking the Blockchain Boys Club”. SXSW 2022. ↩︎

  12. Web3 For the Rest of Us”. SXSW 2022. ↩︎

  13. Pardes, Arielle (May 10, 2022). “Miami’s Bitcoin Conference Left a Trail of Harassment”. Wired↩︎

  14. SuperRare parts ways with its community manager over racist tweets, she hosts a disastrous “apology” Twitter Space”. Web3 is Going Just Great↩︎

  15. Ethereum Name Service, and the reason you keep seeing “.eth” suffixes everywhere. ↩︎

  16. ENS governance put to the test as a bigoted 2016 tweet from its director of operations resurfaces”. Web3 is Going Just Great↩︎

  17. Axie Infinity: Infinite Opportunity or Infinite Peril?Naavik. November 12, 2021. ↩︎

  18. Tomlin, Bennett and Marx, Paris (May 19, 2022). “(Un)Stablecoins and the Crypto Crash”. Tech Won’t Save Us. (Timestamp 21:35). ↩︎

  19. The Dogecoin Millionaire (April 17, 2022). “Why Elon Buying Twitter Is Bullish for DOGECOIN”. (Timestamp 9:44). ↩︎

  20. Tiku, Nitasha (April 6, 2022). “Famous women join the crypto hustle, but it could cost their fansThe Washington Post↩︎

  21. WTF is an NFT?!? Crypto for Beginners + BIG SURPRISE!” BFF. January 26, 2022. ↩︎

  22. See Seamster and Charron-Chénier’s 2017 “Predatory Inclusion and Education Debt: Rethinking the Racial Wealth Gap” and Taylor’s 2019 Race for Profit↩︎

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Lawbreaking, rich lists and yet another ‘shakeup’: it’s a normal week at Tory HQ | Marina Hyde

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Any bright spots as No 10 continues to put misconduct above problem-solving? Well, Rishi Sunak has £730m to fall back on

News that the Partygate investigation has concluded with no further fines for Boris Johnson is arguably a setback for long-game prime ministerial assassin Dominic Cummings. The stop-Boris movement’s trackie-bummed antihero now has to regather, regroup and confront his own reflection in the bathroom mirror with the timeworn war cry: “We go again.” At this point, I don’t even know what you’d call this movie. Day 396 of the Jackal?

Anyway, signs of a healthy politics: an MP from the governing party is arrested on Tuesday on suspicion of rape, sexual assault, indecent assault, abuse of position of trust and misconduct in a public office – but it’s basically been forgotten about by Friday on account of the police confirming the end of their investigation into pandemic lawbreaking by the people who made those laws. The cops confirm the most-fined address in the entire country is No 10 Downing Street.

Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist

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Britain is being choked by the knotweed of Brexit lies

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It is difficult to make sense of what Johnson’s Brexit government is doing, or trying to do, as regards the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP). I discussed the background in last week’s post, much of which remains relevant, but since then there have been daily, almost hourly, contradictory signals and reports.

What has been confirmed is the recently trailed shift from threatening to invoke Article 16 of the NIP to the much more confrontational threat to pass UK legislation to supposedly unilaterally and permanently override much of the Protocol. This, in itself, is an implicit admission of the failure of the Article 16 threat tactic that has dominated the UK’s approach for well over a year. In truth, it was never viable because, whatever some Brexiters persuaded themselves to believe, it couldn’t do what they thought it would. Another delusion bites the dust, though it continues to be mentioned.

On the ‘legislation’ plan, having failed to act on the rumoured intention to include it in last week’s Queen Speech, it was then set to be announced this week by Liz Truss. This duly happened, on Tuesday, marking the end of any possibility that Truss would ‘re-set’ relations with the EU. But, again contrary to some other previous rumours, the legislation was not tabled and may not be until the summer. So there’s been some slight softening of stance over just a few days. And talks will continue with the EU, although it has previously rejected the substance of Truss’s outline proposals, and the atmosphere will be even more sour as a result of this new threat.

As presaged in my last post, this is a significant escalation but not a decisive moment. Next October is now being spoken of as the deadline for a resolution, its significance being that that is when new elections would have to be held in Northern Ireland if no government has been formed there. But we have seen such deadlines come and go before.

Meanwhile, on Monday, to coincide with a visit to Belfast, Boris Johnson published an article that was more serious and somewhat more emollient than anything he has said before, and he has generally seemed to downplay the significance of the proposed legislation, for example by referring to it as being concerned only with “some relatively minor barriers to trade”. So this seems like a ‘softer’ approach than Truss’s.

The government's tactics are as unclear as ever

Thus, beyond continuing the game of Tom Tiddler’s Ground that has been dragging on for months, it remains unclear what the government’s tactics are. Is the idea of the new threat to satisfy the DUP sufficiently for them to join the power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland? If so, it seems already to have failed since their leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, has suggested that only with the passing of the legislation will that happen.

Is the idea, as discussed in my previous post, to try to garner US support by tying this new approach so closely to upholding the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement (GFA)? Certainly Truss made this central to her announcement, although border expert Professor Katy Hayward, writing in this morning’s Irish Times, argues strongly that the government’s present approach is actually “giving succour to those who want to destroy" the GFA. Moreover, Suella Braverman, the “stooge” Attorney General, has apparently made the “primordial significance” of the GFA key to her advice that the legislation would be legal, although several leading experts say this term is legally meaningless and that there is no hierarchy of treaties whereby the GFA would 'trump' the NIP. 

This marks a shift in tactics from early attempts to justify the UK position primarily in terms of the economic effects on Northern Ireland (presumably in part because Northern Ireland is actually doing better than the rest of the post-Brexit UK as a result of the NIP). It is also a shift from framing the legal justification in terms of the supposed priority of parliamentary sovereignty over international law in the way that Braverman absurdly advised over the Internal Market Bill (IMB).

Another possible reason for this focus on the GFA, apart from the US dimension, is illustrated by the revealing comment in an otherwise predictably fatuous article by David Davis this week (£) that it gives the UK “the moral high ground”, which I suppose is an implicit acknowledgment of the evident moral low ground of seeking to renege on an agreement the UK negotiated and signed only a couple of years ago. It is hardly compelling, though, since, like the government, it signally fails to answer the question of why the NIP is a threat to the GFA now, whereas at the time of signature Johnson declared the two agreements to be fully compatible. Nor does it explain why a consent mechanism was created, despite the opposition of unionists already being known, that didn’t require cross-community agreement which is now deemed inadequate because of … unionist opposition.

Is the idea to play ‘mind games’ with the EU to try to get maximum concessions, the kind of ‘madman’ negotiating approach which was attempted throughout both the trade negotiations and last year’s NIP negotiations? If so, the EU may have noticed that, ultimately, the government backed down on ‘no (trade) deal’, on the illegal IMB clauses, and on Article 16. But, in the nature of that approach, this time might be different. Or is the idea to present impossible demands to the EU knowing they won’t be met but then enabling the UK to scrap the NIP blaming EU intransigence? To put it another way, is the UK using madman tactics, or is It actually mad?

Do the oscillations in the ‘hardness’ of tone reflect differences within the government between, especially, Johnson and Truss, as some reports have it (£)? Or is it Johnson’s own habitual dithering? Or does it (also) reflect blowing in the winds of, on the one hand, diplomatic pressure from the US and feared economic pressures from the EU, and, on the other, of contradictory political pressures from different groups of Tory MPs? Certainly, as so often throughout these Brexit years, negotiations with the EU seem almost secondary to internal negotiations within the Tory Party.

Within that, what is the significance of David Frost’s now constant background chorus of bellicose, and often frankly silly, rhetoric both in the UK (£) and in the US? Of course it may well reflect his ambitions for new political office, despite the failures, abundantly obvious to all but himself, of his previous ministerial career. But is he, as a result, also now taking a similar role to that played over the years by Nigel Farage (now rather silent about Brexit though, tellingly, he and Frost are now cosying up), pressuring the government from the sidelines to stay true to ‘pure Brexit’?

The government’s strategy is as unclear as ever

Along with, and plainly related to, these tactical questions are the bigger, strategic questions of what the government actually wants. Sometimes, Johnson and other ministers have talked as if the entirety of the NIP, and certainly its core provision of an Irish Sea border, is unacceptable in principle, and many Brexiters have called for it to be entirely scrapped because they have never accepted the need for any border at all. Yet at other times they talk as if what is at stake is only operational reforms to the practical application of the agreed deal, albeit going beyond what the EU has offered so far. In Truss’s proposed changes, this question is fudged: she says she does not want to scrap the Protocol, whilst seeking to change the operations so drastically that, in effect, it would amount to doing so.

One problem with this lack of strategic clarity is that, if the real aim is to gain fresh concessions, it reduces the incentive for the EU to offer them: why do so, if it will just lead to the demand for even more, or if the UK isn’t really seeking concessions but an excuse to collapse the whole agreement? But if the real aim is to collapse the agreement, then for how long can it be credible to keep making threats without carrying them out?

Perhaps an even bigger problem is that, despite what Brexiters think, the EU really isn’t pre-occupied with Brexit in the way that, at times, it once was. So even if there is some cunning British negotiating strategy designed to wrongfoot Brussels, it’s more likely to irritate and exasperate than produce sleepless nights. There’s certainly no longer any great interest in accommodating UK domestic politics. That largely ended when the Withdrawal Agreement was signed. Ironically, having left the EU, Brexiters and the Brexit government spend far more time and energy thinking and talking about the EU than the EU spends on Brexit or Britain. That lack of interest, quite as much as border checks, is part and parcel of what it means to be ‘a third country’.

There can be no clarity because there is no honesty

These and related issues can be endlessly debated. But I think the key to making sense of all of them is to recognize that the government can’t be clear about what it is doing because it can’t be honest about how it got to where it is now, and can’t be honest about where it wants to get to in the future. As was always likely, the skein of contradictory lies told over the last six years is thickening and spreading so as to overwhelm the entire post-Brexit polity. So, like knotweed, it is now choking the very Brexit it created and, with that, British politics more generally. That Northern Ireland should be the most visible manifestation of this is not surprising because, certainly since the announcement of ‘hard Brexit’ by Theresa May in her January 2017 Lancaster House speech, it has been at the epicentre of these contradictory lies.

First and foremost are all the lies of the referendum campaign and since, lies about what Brexit would (or would not) mean for Northern Ireland but, more broadly, about how it would be possible to have hard Brexit and yet have frictionless trade, or have ‘the exact same benefits’ as the single market and customs union membership yet without belonging to either. Perhaps most fundamentally, the lie was the idea that the UK could leave the EU and yet, in some ways, still be treated as if it had not. The implication was that Brexit would be a fundamental change, and yet many things would remain exactly the same, or at least could do, if only the EU did not want to ‘punish’ Britain, or was not ‘sulking’ about Brexit, accusations that have become articles of faith to Brexiters (as much as, once, it was an article of faith that ‘we hold all the cards’).

Johnson was the front man for all this and his “cakeism” precisely encapsulated its central ‘out and yet keep the benefits’ dishonesty. But it’s important to understand that he was not the architect of the lies, nor by any means their sole spokesperson. These were the lies of Brexit itself, and they are why the entirety of Brexit, and not just Brexit in Northern Ireland, is failing.

Johnson’s serial dishonesty

That said, it would be politically astute, and not unfair, for the Labour Party in particular to denounce what has happened as Johnson’s Brexit. To do so would certainly be more realistic and reasonable than the present approach of barely talking about it all. For, indeed, much of the current situation does bear the imprint of Johnson’s trademark dishonesty. For it partly arises from his invariable attempts to avoid hard realities and difficult decisions by lying, which have now caught up with him, badly.

Thus the reason he can’t be clear if the strategic aim is to scrap the NIP as unacceptable in principle is because he lied to the electorate in 2019 when he told them he had negotiated a great oven-ready deal. As a result, this week, under robust questioning, he had to say that he had signed the deal but had not anticipated that the EU would implement it in the way it did. However, because he can’t be clear if his aim is to scrap the NIP, he is unable to satisfy the DUP (and other unionists parties) or the ERG because he lied to them in promising that he would do so and, at least as regards the ERG, secured their support for his deal on that basis. For them, in principle and not just in practice the NIP is unacceptable. So anything the EU might conceivably agree to will not satisfy the ERG, if only because they have become so extreme that the very fact of the EU agreeing it would be enough to damn it in their eyes. As Rafael Behr put it in a superb article this week, “there is no concession big enough, no deal good enough” for them.

Yet if Johnson could give these hardliners what they want, and somehow bamboozle voters into forgetting his electoral promises about his 2019 deal, he would face opposition from what’s left of the centrist or traditional right amongst Tory MPs. It’s clear that Theresa May – who no doubt also reflects on how Johnson’s disloyalty and dishonesty undermined her – and some other Tory MPs will oppose a move to break international law, as will many Tory Peers, just as they did the illegal clauses of the IMB. Some, it seems, may tolerate the threat (but not the passing) of legislation as a ‘negotiating ploy’ with the EU to obtain further flexibilities within the NIP, but that just brings back the same questions: is it such a ploy, or is there a real intention to unilaterally disapply the NIP? Johnson can’t tell them the truth of that, either.

The realities of power

Beyond these domestic considerations, if Johnson does satisfy the hardliners then he faces the formidable problem of EU economic power and US power full stop. Neither the old Brexit lie that ‘they need us more than we need them’, nor the wider Brexit fantasy of untrammeled national sovereignty, survive contact with the realities of those powers. As I said in my previous post, a full-on trade war is not in immediate prospect, not least as the whole process of passing, let alone using, legislation to disapply the NIP will take many months.

But there will be at least some EU retaliations if the hardline path continues, and ultimately it will become impossible to avoid the issues which in essence go right back to 2016-17 and the arguments about ‘sequencing’: the prior condition for a trade agreement with the EU was and is the Withdrawal Agreement, with its three planks of the financial settlement, citizens’ rights, and Northern Ireland. Hardline Brexiters conned themselves that there was no need to accept that, and still blame May for doing so. But the reality is that she did, and she did so because in reality she had to.

Thus, in the very final analysis, if the UK completely reneges on the NIP then the EU will, justifiably, regard the trade agreement as void, as already more than hinted at by Maros Sefcovic. Because all the Brexit lies of 2016 are still lies now. If anything, ‘German car makers’ are even less likely to care than they did in 2016, and the UK is even less well-placed to surviving ‘on WTO terms’ than it was when ‘no deal Brexit’ was in prospect. But, again, Johnson and his fellow Brexiters are not able to admit those truths, either to themselves or the electorate.

So although this will all drag on for a long time yet, what is happening is that Johnson’s reported psychological desire to be liked by everyone, his political modus operandi of telling different lies to please different audiences, his predilection to defer making decisions, and his basic ‘cakeist’ refusal to accept that decisions really need to be made are all, finally, catching up with him. You can’t fool all of the people all of the time. Now, no one believes him, and for this lack of trust, at least, Labour do seem willing to criticize Johnson’s Brexit policy. However, to re-iterate, Johnson’s dishonesty and untrustworthiness, whilst important, have exacerbated rather than created the dishonesty inherent in Brexit.

The most fundamental problem: Brexit itself

One fundamental part of that dishonesty is the avoidance of the paradoxical question: how can you have a border without having a border? That question is central to the running sore of the NIP, but is also implicated in the knots the government is tied in over EU-GB import controls over conformity assessment marking, and over regulatory duplication/ divergence (£)*. Of course one might say that resolving irreconcilable, or even just bitterly contested, issues is the stuff of politics. The peace process and GFA actually provides a good example. However, the politics of Brexit never even attempted the kind of process in which irreconcilabilities and bitter oppositions could be fudged into some kind of workable, durable consensus.

That would have entailed acknowledging the closeness of the vote, the variety of views amongst Brexiters about how it should be done, and the fact that two out of the four nations had voted to remain, as well as the implications for the GFA. This may seem like pointless jobbing back, but it’s crucial to understand that it lies at the heart of the rolling political crisis we have been in since 2016. And the reason is precisely because the realities and the various trade-offs were never honestly admitted, and, worse, that even to try to do so was dishonestly dismissed as undemocratic. That honesty still eludes the British polity, whilst the dishonesty still haunts it.

It has recently become fashionable to say that May’s deal did, if belatedly, face up to the realities and trade-offs but this isn’t really true, or at best it’s only partially true. It is the case that her backstop did so, but the deal was still dishonest because it pretended that this backstop might never need to be used if the subsequent trade agreement was sufficiently deep, or if ‘alternative arrangements’ that would enable a fully open border were to be developed. However, since leaving both the single market and customs union were already red lines, there was no prospect at all of the future trade agreement avoiding the backstop whilst – as realists always said, and has been seen subsequently to be true – there are no ‘alternative arrangements’ sufficient to have replaced the backstop.

If May’s deal is considered honest, it is only by comparison with the infinitely more dishonest deal that Johnson did. But both were dishonest to a degree. May’s by agreeing to what was ostensibly a temporary ‘backstop’ but was actually a permanent ‘frontstop’; Johnson’s by agreeing to what was actually a permanent ‘frontstop’ whilst intending to treat it as a temporary bridge to a much more minimal, or non-existent, border.

A polity choked by lies

The reality is that the only way Brexit could fully be squared with the Northern Ireland situation (and also the only way it could be done without huge economic costs) was through single market membership (perhaps via EFTA) along with a UK-EU customs treaty. Alternatively, within hard Brexit, a deeper trade agreement would – and still could – have allowed a thinner Irish Sea border (and a thinner GB-EU border generally), as would an agreement on dynamic alignment of Sanitary and Phyto-sanitary regulations. Instead of accepting these realities, Brexiters have spent six years lying that there can be a border without having a border and, unsurprisingly, failing to achieve that outcome. In the latest developments, the government is again trying to enact that lie, and it is still failing. And it will inevitably go on failing until reality is accepted (or, perhaps, until Northern Ireland leaves the UK).

The swirl of the current, sometimes confusing, events only postpones facing up to reality, and leaves the country in the limbo which, in one form or another, we have been in since 2016. And it is not cost-free. The general economic damage of hard Brexit is now self-evident except to those who will always deny it. This latest NIP row is also economically damaging, especially to investment (a country on course to a possible trade war with its biggest trade partner isn’t very attractive), as well as being damaging to the fabric of Northern Irish society. It is also damaging to the UK’s international reputation even to be making, yet again, these threats to international law and it is obviously damaging to the UK’s strategic interests in strong, harmonious relationships with the EU and US, especially given the Ukraine war.

But our politics is stuck. It can neither admit reality but nor can it entirely deny it. The consequences of Brexit, including for Northern Ireland, are undeniable. Yet their causes, namely the lies inherent in Brexit, are barely discussable, at least in England. The Tories are too invested in Brexit to be honest about it, and Labour are too scared by Brexit to be vocal about it. So we stagger on, choked by the same old lies, and daily adding new ones, a spreading knotweed first suffocating all other plants in the garden and then undermining the very foundations of the country that used to be our home.

  

*These are all ultimately border questions because hard Brexit has created both a regulatory and a customs border with the EU, so even if not necessarily about what happens ‘at the border’ they all relate to the territory over or within which something (e.g. regulation, conformity assessment, data sharing, tariffs, origin of goods components, recognition of qualifications, validity of passports) applies or happens.

Due to other commitments, I don’t expect to have time to post again until Friday 10 June.

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Turkey’s unstated goals in blocking Sweden and Finland

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Despite tough talk from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey is likely to ultimately greenlight NATO membership for Finland and Sweden. The military alliance will just have to pay a price first.

Ankara has raised objections to the two Nordic countries’ bids to join NATO, blocking the organization from proceeding with the accession process. Turkish officials have accused both Finland and Sweden of supporting Kurdish “terrorists” — an issue related to a militant group in Turkey — while also expressing concerns about arms export restrictions. 

“NATO is a security alliance, and Turkey will not agree on jeopardizing this security,” the Turkish leader said earlier this week.  

Yet current and former officials and diplomats say Turkey’s motivations likely go beyond simply wanting Stockholm and Helsinki to change their policies. Erdoğan is in the middle of protracted negotiations with the U.S. over the purchase of fighter jets. He also likely sees a chance to score political points domestically with his international pugilism over “terrorism.”

Now, in a flurry of activity, diplomats are racing to figure out what will get Erdoğan to budge, not wanting Finland and Sweden’s bids to linger, which would give Russia longer to meddle before the countries have fully joined the alliance.

“The price is unknown at the moment, but that there will be a price is clear,” said Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, a former head of NATO. 

It’s a pattern

While Turkey has a track record of supporting NATO expansion, Erdoğan has experience using big alliance decisions to elicit concessions. 

In 2009, Turkey objected to appointing Anders Fogh Rasmussen as NATO’s top official, only relenting after high-level talks. De Hoop Scheffer, who was the outgoing secretary-general at the time, recalled overnight negotiations involving U.S. President Barack Obama.

Ultimately, the former alliance chief told POLITICO, Turkey relented on Rasmussen’s appointment and “got as a prize an assistant secretary-general in NATO.” 

Finland and Sweden’s applications are now giving Erdoğan another opportunity to capitalize on NATO’s consensus-based model, as well as to rally his base ahead of elections scheduled for next year. 

De Hoop Scheffer said a combination of factors could be behind Turkey’s maneuvering. 

The first, he said, is internal politics. Erdoğan has always styled his appeal in part on talking tough about terrorism, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is a long-time foe in that campaign. Turkey, the U.S. and the EU have labeled the militant group a terrorist organization, although the designation is considered outdated by some in the U.S. and EU. Erdoğan, conversely, frequently uses the group as a rallying cry. 

“You can always rally large parts of the population by linking terrorism and PKK,” the former secretary-general said. 

The second, according to De Hoop Scheffer, is that Finnish and Swedish accession would “change the internal political weight balance inside NATO, because you have two fully-fledged and heavily armed” democracies joining the alliance.

Finland and Sweden are both expected to significantly add to NATO’s defensive capabilities. Finland can offer naval power in the Baltic sea and a presence in the Arctic north, where Russia has shown interest in expanding its reach. Sweden boasts an advanced air force. 

It’s also about military equipment

Another critical element is lingering tensions between Turkey and the U.S. over fighter jet purchases. 

For years, Ankara was a reliable customer for U.S. defense companies, buying up scores of F-16 fighter jets. Turkey later turned to the more advanced F-35s as those began to roll out. 

But the relationship ruptured in 2019 when Turkey purchased the Russian-made S-400 missile system — a move the U.S. said would put NATO aircraft flying over Turkey at risk. In response, the U.S. kicked Ankara out of the F-35 program and slapped sanctions on the Turkish defense industry. 

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg greets Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for a NATO summit in 2021 | Francois Mori/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

After that spat, Turkey began toying with the idea of buying Russian fighter jets and even developing its own program. However, it is also seeking to both upgrade its F-16 fleet and purchase new F-16 planes. The request has been pending for months with the Biden administration and U.S. Congress. 

“That price might well be that the Americans lift their block on F-16s,” De Hoop Scheffer said.

The U.S. seems inclined to pay that price. The U.S. State Department has tentatively supported Turkey’s request, which is now being considered by the White House and Congress.

The matter was one of the open questions surrounding a meeting in New York on Wednesday between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu. 

Çavuşoğlu hinted that NATO members could be part of the solution to the impasse. Speaking alongside Blinken, Çavuşoğlu stressed that he understood Finland and Sweden’s security concerns, “but Turkey’s security concerns should be also met. And this is also one of — one issue that we should continue discussing with friends and allies, including United States.”

That issue may include the F-16s. In separate comments published in Turkish media that day, the Turkish foreign minister underscored that talks about the potential sale are “going on positively.”

In Helsinki, there is also a sense that Turkey’s hold may be linked to its current tussle with the U.S. 

“Finland has a good relationship with Turkey and we share the objective to fight against terrorism,” said one senior Finnish official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I don’t think our bilateral relations are any problem. This is possibly about Turkey’s issues with the U.S.”

But it’s still about Kurdish groups

Some analysts insist, however, that the Finnish and Swedish approach to the PKK remains key for Turkey’s government. 

“We can’t solve this problem” by simply smoothing out the Washington-Ankara relationship, said Sinan Ülgen, a former Turkish diplomat who is now a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Europe think tank. 

It might help speed the process, he added, but “there’s no way to escape” addressing Sweden and Finland’s policies on Kurdish groups.

The negotiation with Sweden is expected to be tougher than with Finland, according to Ülgen. 

“There are bigger expectations from Sweden,” he said, referring to what he described as Stockholm’s “more lenient approach to the activities of what Turkey considers to be a terrorist organization, the PKK, and its offshoots.”

The Swedish government “will have to demonstrate that it has changed its outlook on this,” he said. 

Swedish and Finnish officials have said that they are open to dialogue with Turkey. And senior figures from across the alliance have insisted a consensus on Helsinki and Stockholm’s accession will be found.

“I am confident that we will come to a quick decision to welcome both Sweden and Finland to join the NATO family,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a press conference on Thursday. 

“When an ally, an important ally as Turkey, raises security concerns,” he said, “the only way to deal with that is to sit down and find ways to find a common ground.”

The same message was echoed in The Hague, where German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was meeting with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

“My confidence is very high” that Turkey’s opposition can be overcome, Scholz said.

“I trust that it will eventually be possible to find a common position on the accession of Finland and Sweden,” Rutte agreed. 

Paul McLeary and Hans von der Burchard contributed reporting.

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