By Michael Glackin
The Daily Star
Tuesday, May 17 2016
George Bernard Shaw wittily remarked that “the English are not very spiritual people, so they invented cricket to give them some idea of eternity.” If he were alive today, Shaw might have used the U.K. government’s long-running inquiry into why the United Kingdom went to war in Iraq in 2003 to make the same point.
Almost seven years after the start of the inquiry, led by career civil servant Sir John Chilcot, and more than five years after it finished taking evidence, it was revealed last week that its findings will finally be published on July 6.
The date is significant, but we will come to that in a moment.
Chilcot has said the principal reason for the delay was the U.K. government’s refusal to declassify secret documents which included the all-important 25 letters the then-Prime Minister Tony Blair sent to U.S. President George W. Bush, along with the transcripts of 130 telephone calls between the two men, in the run-up to the invasion.
Further delays were caused by allowing those criticized in the report the right to respond before publication. This has led to claims that some, including Blair, former U.K. foreign secretary, Jack Straw, the former head of MI6 Sir Richard Dearlove, and senior defense chiefs were able to dilute criticism of their roles by challenging details and demanding changes.
But at long last Chilcot’s report, which cost $16 million and runs to more than 2.5 million words – or if you prefer four times the length of Tolstoy’s War and Peace – is now complete and was handed to ministers earlier this month. Many had expected it to be published immediately. Indeed Cameron had previously insisted he wanted to publish the report within two weeks of receiving it.
The reason it won’t see the light of day until July is because the government doesn’t want it published until after the U.K. has voted in the upcoming referendum on whether it should remain in the European Union, which takes place on June 23.
Cameron has been accused of delaying the report’s publication to avoid embarrassing key “In” campaigners in the European Union debate – not least of whom is Blair. Just as the political establishment supported the Iraq War in 2003, it is also supporting the U.K. to remain in the EU. One politician told me Chilcot’s inevitable criticism of senior political figures has the potential to “significantly undermine” public trust of the political establishment and therefore “it’s unsafe to publish Chilcot until after the vote.”
The stakes are high for Cameron. With just five weeks to go before voting opinion polls show the public is evenly split between those who wish to leave the EU and those who wish to remain in the world’s biggest trade bloc.
Defending the U.K.’s membership of the EU Cameron has gone as far to suggest that “Brexit” – the term coined to describe a U.K. exit from the EU – could result in Europe descending into World War III.
In response, the leader of the Brexit campaign, former Mayor of London Boris Johnson – who many believe will succeed Cameron as Prime Minister – compared the EU to Hitler, insisting both sought to unify Europe under a single “authority.”
Suddenly Lebanese politics looks quite sane.
While opponents of the EU argue about its impact on national sovereignty and the unaccountability of its powerful unelected officials, immigration is the issue that will decide the outcome of next month’s vote.
Brexit campaigners consistently cite the U.K.’s inability to “control its own borders” as the primary reason for leaving the EU. The EU principle of free movement across its borders has seen a sharp increase in people from the bloc’s poorer member states coming to the U.K. to find jobs – often accepting lower wages than U.K. nationals – and in the view of many voters has put pressure on public services and the U.K.’s welfare state.
For this reason, the potential for a flare up of the Middle East refugee crisis as the referendum approaches threatens to deliver the result Cameron fears most.
It is bizarre that the issue of refugees, largely from Syria and fleeing a conflagration caused in no small part by decisions taken in the West, should be the dominant issue. For a start, few of those escaping the violence have got as far as the U.K. Indeed the government has steadfastly refused to accept even a token number for settlement in stark contrast to Germany and Sweden.
But Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since the end of World War II, which saw an influx of more than 1 million refugees from the Middle East last year, has led to a sharp increase in anti-immigrant sentiment in the EU and the rise of far right populist parties. This has also happened in the U.K. despite the fact that few of the refugees that crossed the Aegean have reached its shores.
The EU’s hapless response to the issue has also increased fears among Britons that thousands of well-trained Daesh (ISIS) terrorists have used the refugee crisis as cover to slip undetected into Europe and then across its open borders, complete with freshly issued European passports.
Regardless of the reality, perception is paramount and this narrative fits into a growing fear that Islamist terrorists will eventually be able to enter the U.K. (joining incidentally a number of existing home-grown wanna-be extremists) and carry out similar atrocities to those that have taken place in Brussels and Paris.
Brexit campaigners are capitalizing on these fears and hoping to turn them into votes. This explains why Cameron is one of the loudest cheerleaders for the distinctly dodgy deal the EU brokered with Turkey – effectively a bribe to Ankara to lock Middle East refugees outside Europe’s borders.
Since the deal was agreed the number of refugees crossing the Aegean to Greece has fallen sharply despite the fact that few have so far been returned to Turkey.
However, the deal has been on borrowed time since the recent sacking of Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, its principal architect, by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a man who does not appear overly concerned about stemming the flow of refugees from a conflict he has played no small part in escalating.
The deal’s unravelling looks set to lead to a fresh surge of asylum-seekers arriving on Europe’s shores in the final weeks before the U.K. referendum takes place.
There is perhaps some poetic justice in this. Erdogan increasingly resembles the kind of autocrat the West was not so long ago keen to remove in the Arab world.
Turkish prosecutors have opened more than 1,800 cases against people for insulting Erdogan since he became president two years ago. These include journalists, cartoonists, playwrights, actors and teenagers. Earlier this year his government seized control of the popular daily newspaper Zaman and removed its editor-in-chief.
Germany’s desperation to appease Turkey has even resulted in a largely unfunny German comedian facing prosecution in his own country after mocking Erdogan on television.
If getting into bed with this kind of regime is the future of the EU maybe we are better off out of it.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR. This article first appeared in the print edition of The DAILY STAR on Tuesday, May 17 2016, on page 7.