Britain is offering commitment and cooperation to Europe on security and intelligence. It should do the same in its Brexit strategy
Fri 16 Feb 2018 22.30 GMT
A year ago, the annual Munich security conference – the most important gathering of international defence chiefs and ministers in the calendar – met to debate the proposition: “Post-truth, post-West, post-Order?” A year on, this weekend’s Munich conference has a new theme: “To the Brink – and Back?” The sense of relief implicit in the difference between the 2017 and the 2018 themes is unmistakeable and, to an extent, justifiable. The Trump administration has not, after all, trashed everything in the policymakers’ world, as it threatened to do 12 months ago. Explosions in relations with Iran, North Korea and even China have been averted, for now. Washington has not so far rolled over in the face of Russian aggression in eastern Europe. The so-called Islamic State has been pushed back, for the moment. The insurgent political tide that swept the US and the UK in 2016 has mostly been kept at bay elsewhere.
Yet while the worst may have been avoided, genuine positives are thin on the ground. Global confrontations continue and in some cases – the Middle East, for example – to deteriorate dangerously. The alliances that exist to control and resist them are still in shock at the Trump effect. Theresa May is in every context except Brexit a traditional multilateralist. She will certainly give a less thoroughly provocative speech at the Munich conference on Saturday than the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, did at the same venue 12 months ago, when he ludicrously described Brexit as a national “liberation”. Yet, viewed from elsewhere in Europe, Mrs May still leads a country that, by voting for Brexit, has made a serious contribution to the problem of instability, not one that is playing a reliable role in solving it.
Mrs May’s rhetorical answer is the mantra that Britain is leaving the European Union but not leaving Europe. Her visit to Angela Merkel in Berlin on Friday and her appearance at the Munich conference are designed to underpin that message and to make it a springboard for her Brexit strategy. Britain, Mrs May says, is fully committed to European cooperation, through Nato and in other ways, to deal with common threats to security. She will cite the fact that British troops are on the frontline against Russia in Estonia, that she has just pledged a new support role with France in the Sahel, that planned troop withdrawals from Germany are now being reexamined, and that the UK is a heavy-hitting and reliable partner in intelligence sharing and police coordination.
Security and intelligence have now been placed squarely in the vanguard of Mrs May’s political effort to persuade the rest of Europe that Britain remains a reliable and committed post-Brexit partner. The head of MI6, Alex Younger, appeared in Munich on Friday with his French and German counterparts to commit themselves to cross-border information sharing. His predecessor Sir John Sawers and the former GCHQ chief Robert Hannigan took to the media with a similar message. And the prime minister will cap this all off on Saturday in a speech that repeatedly urges closer cooperation with Europe and proposes a new UK-EU security treaty.
There are things to welcome here. After a grim two years of government negativity about the EU, it is a relief to hear the prime minister praising the union and being practical about it. Yet it is hard to see what EU partners are supposed to make of a prime minister who embraces the union at one moment then turns her back on it the rest of the time. The one thing that she could do to make her protestations more credible is to bolster it with a soft Brexit strategy. But this, disastrously, is the one thing she is terrified of doing.
Renewed interest in philosopher fires celebrations of 200 years since his birth on 5 May 1818
A spectre is haunting Europe in 2018 – to borrow from one of his catchier one-liners – the spectre of Karl Marx himself. Two hundred years after the philosopher’s birth, a small industry is gathering pace, from plans for major events in Trier, the city on the Moselle where he was born, to a new tour of the Manchester streets that he and Friedrich Engels walked as they discussed the condition of the city’s emerging working class. The bicentenary on 5 May will be marked with exhibitions, lectures, conferences, histories and novels.
The books are starting to pile up. Last month saw a new edition of Marxism – a Graphic Guide, a collaboration by philosophy lecturer Rupert Woodfin and comic book artist Oscar Zárate, while titles by heavyweight specialists on Marxism are on the way. They include a reprint of literary theorist Terry Eagleton’s bestselling Why Marx Was Right, along with a new edition of The Communist Manifesto – which starts with the “spectre” quotation – including an introduction by the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis.
Marx’s ideas, running through the Russian revolution to the present day, will be the focus of Marx and Marxism, a new book by one of Britain’s foremost historians of socialism, Gregory Claeys. The influence of the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn – as well as factors such as reduced employment prospects and a desire to challenge austerity – are credited by Claeys as helping to engender a renewed interest in Marx, particularly among the young.
“Marx’s prose may seem somewhat obtuse to modern readers,” Claeys said. “But Marx’s central premise – that the most obvious and extreme forms of oppression and exploitation can be removed from everyday life – retains a robustness and daring paralleled by no other thinkers in the modern period.”
Fact is accompanied by fiction. The Murder of Warren Street by Oxford university historian Marc Mulholland, published at the end of May, promises to tell the story of villain Emmanuel Barthélemy (“the man who wanted to kill Marx”).
Marx Returns, due out on 23 February and written by Jason Barker, is billed as combining historical fiction, psychological mystery, philosophy and extracts from Marx’s and Engels’s collected works to reimagine the life and times of Marx.
Among a plethora of gatherings and conferences being organised by the various families of the left, one of the most eagerly awaited is Marx 200, a major conference due to take place at Soas University of London and organised by the Marx Memorial Library.
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell – arguably Britain’s best-known Marxist – will speak on the theme of “Into the 21st century: Marxism as a force for change today” alongside guests from around the world, including Sitaram Yechury, the general secretary of the Communist party of India (Marxist), and Luo Wendong, a professor from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Meirian Jump, archivist at the memorial library, said interest had increased in Marxism in the past couple of years, while numbers attending lectures on Marxism and conducting research in the library’s reading room have risen in recent months.
“In the autumn our venue reached capacity and we had to turn people away from our lectures celebrating 150 years since the publication of Das Kapital,” Jump said. “It was noticeable that a large number of those queuing outside Marx House were young people and students.”
Away from the political calls to arms or Marxist think-ins, exhibitions include the Karl and Eleanor Marx Treasures Gallery, from May to early August at the British Library. The display aims to explore the role that the British Museum reading room, a predecessor institution of the British Library, played in the life and work of Marx and his daughter, a writer and political activist in her own right.
Items on display will include correspondence by Marx, his family and Friedrich Engels, covering both personal and political affairs, as well as rare copies of first editions of Marx’s writings, several of which he donated to the library. Among these is a copy of the first French translation of Das Kapital, believed to feature annotations in Marx’s own hand.
To the likely chagrin of committed Marxists and eurosceptics, the distinctly un-Marxist figure of European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker will open a series of exhibitions in Trier. Visitors will be able to view a new permanent exhibition at the Karl-Marx-Haus Museum, and a bronze figure of Marx donated by China.
Those unable to make the trip might instead consider the Marx 200th birthday walking tour in Manchester, where Engels lived on and off for almost 30 years and was visited by Marx.
“We’ve been doing Marx-themed walks for a while. He and Engels were great drinkers so we did one based on the pubs they used to go to, and there was a great response,” said Ed Glinert of New Manchester Walks.
“You get a real range of people. I took the Chinese consul around one time, for example. We don’t get too many Americans, though.”
As for what Marx would make of it all, Claeys asserted he had “a fine, robust sense of humour” and would certainly have mocked many who have taken up his name over the past 150 years.
“He would, I think, be a ‘deep green’ thinker who would advocate sustainable development, an end to planned obsolescence and production based on the profit rather than global human need,” he said.
Simon Schama, Howard Jacobson and Natasha Kaplinsky among supporters of campaign to protect Jewish heritage
Its gothic twin turrets and stained-glass window featuring a six-pointed star look out from a hillside over a town in south Wales. A Welsh dragon decorates the building’s gable. But rooms that once resonated to the murmur of prayers and readings from the Torah are abandoned; windows are broken, plaster is crumbling and the roof is open to the sky.
But now the Old Synagogue in Merthyr Tydfil, built in the 1870s, could be reborn. It is part of an extraordinary scheme – to be launched this week by the historian Simon Schama – to map more than 3,300 historic synagogues across 48 European countries, and restore the most significant sites.
The synagogue in Merthyr Tydfil was the centre of a community of around 400 Jews, many from eastern Europe. Its members ran a button factory, a chocolate business, a betting shop, property companies and other local enterprises. The annual Jewish Ball was attended by many of the town’s citizens, Jews and non-Jews.
But by the 1980s, a minyan – a quorum of 10 men – could no longer be reached, and the synagogue was sold. The grade II-listed building became a Christian centre and later a gym; today it lies empty and vandalised.
Now, however, there is hope that it will be preserved and restored as a Jewish museum, part of the scheme being rolled out this week. The project, commissioned by the Foundation for Jewish Heritage, has identified synagogues built before the second world war, from Cork in Ireland in the west to Vladivostok in Russia in the east. Each has been catalogued with construction dates and materials, the Jewish community it served, its present use and condition, and a “significance rating”.
Schama will launch the project in parliament on Wednesday with the backing of more than 40 high-profile supporters including Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, architect Daniel Libeskind, television newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky, artist Anish Kapoor, authors Linda Grant and Howard Jacobson, and former government ministers Malcolm Rifkind and Tristram Hunt.
Before 1939, there were an estimated 17,000 synagogues across Europe, but the majority have been lost. Of the 3,318 surviving buildings, only 718 still function as Jewish places of worship; others are abandoned, in ruins or used for other purposes such as warehousing, factories, restaurants and theatres. One houses a swimming pool; others are funeral homes or fire stations.
The project faced “special challenges around Jewish heritage”, especially in eastern Europe, said foundation member Michael Mail. “The Holocaust was followed by communism. Many buildings were abandoned and essentially lost their communities of users. In preserving these buildings, we also preserve the stories of the communities that for hundreds of years were the heartlands of the Jewish people. These places can serve as profound portals into the worlds that were once there.”
The inventory was undertaken by the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, assisted by heritage experts in individual countries.
“We can’t save them all, so let’s save the best, the most important, the most at risk,” said Mail. “We’ve homed in on 160, and narrowed those down to 19 that we’re particularly looking at, where there’s a good chance of saving and restoring the buildings. Each one of those has a different story. In many cases, these buildings are the last witnesses to a Jewish life that was. This is not just Jewish heritage: it is Europe’s cultural and historical heritage and we’re in a race against time to save it.”
One of the first buildings in line for restoration is the Great Synagogue in Slonim, Belarus, built in the 1640s. Before the second world war, 17,000 Jews lived in Slonim, more than two-thirds of the local population. An estimated 200 survived.
The synagogue, a baroque building overlooking the marketplace, was used as a warehouse after the war but has been abandoned for 18 years. It has been vandalised and is in danger of collapse, but some of the interior paintings and carvings are intact.
Among those rounded up and killed in Slonim were Kaplinksy’s relatives. The newsreader discovered her Jewish family history when she travelled to the city for the television series Who Do You Think You Are?
“It was devastating to find out that a large number of my family were killed by the Nazis,” she told the Observer. “One key moment [in the Slonim trip] was going to the synagogue where most of my family used to worship before being rounded up and burned alive.”
The synagogue is a “majestic building, absolutely stunning. You can see its history on its walls, but it is falling apart. I was horrified to find swastikas painted on the outside walls.”
After the programme was made, 27 Kaplinsky family members from all over the world met in Belarus to learn more about their history. “We ended up in the synagogue,” Kaplinsky said. “It was hugely symbolic that the building that tore our family apart brought us back together. It was a very special moment.”
There were lessons to be learned from the past, she added. “When you look around the world you can see the devastation caused by prejudice and hatred. We need to educate future generations and remind them of history.”
Discussions are now under way to restore the Slonim synagogue as a Jewish museum, educational and cultural centre, and a place of worship.
In Merthyr Tydfil, the proposal to restore the Old Synagogue as a Jewish museum of Wales and cultural centre is supported by the city council and local politicians.
Gerald Jones, the Labour MP for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, said the restoration plan “would see this building once again playing a part in the life of our community”. The foundation is seeking funding from partners including the Heritage Lottery Fund in the UK. It is also hoping for donations from people with family connections to synagogues.
Brussels had less than 11 hours of sun last month, while Lille has had less than three in January
Sunshine is in short supply across a swathe of north-west Europe, shrouded in heavy cloud from a seemingly never-ending series of low pressure systems since late November and suffering one of its darkest winters since records began.
If you live in Brussels, 10 hours and 31 minutes was your lot for the entire month of December. The all but benighted inhabitants of Lille in France got just two hours, 42 minutes through the first half of January.
“Sound the alarm and announce the disappearance,” read a despairing headline in photon-deprived northern France’s regional paper, La Voix du Nord. “A star has been kidnapped. We still have no sign of life from the sun.”
Belgium’s Royal Meteorological Institute has declared December 2017 “the second darkest month since 1887”, when it began measuring, after the 10.5 hours of sun recorded at its Uccle weather station last month were beaten only by a bare 9.3 hours in 1934.
France’s northern Hauts-de-France region did better with 26 hours of sunshine in December, but that was against a norm of 48.
But Météo France described the paltry 2.7 hours of sun recorded from 1 to 13 January in Lille, the region’s biggest city, as “exceptional”. The January average stands at 61.4 hours, according to the agency – meaning Lille and its unfortunate residents were deprived of perhaps 30 hours’ worth of rays in the first part of the month.
The previous low of 13 hours, dating back to 1948, could well be beaten, Frédéric Decker of Météo News told La Voix du Nord this week. “The forecast isn’t looking too great,” he said. “The weather’s going to stay pretty damp and dull.”
Rouen in Normandy had an even more depressing first half of the month, with just 2.5 hours of sunshine compared with a full-month norm of 58.6, Météo France said, while Paris’s 10 hours were also a far cry from the 62.5 hours the capital usually averages in January.
Even southern French sun-traps such as Bordeaux and Marseille fell a very long way short of their usual ray quota in the first half of the month, basking in just 10.3 and 26.9 hours respectively against monthly averages of 96 and 92.5.
Health experts say a shortage of sunshine can lead to seasonal depression, whose symptoms include a lack of energy, a desire to sleep and a perceived need to consume greater quantities of sugar and fat.
“Exposure to morning light inhibits the secretion of melatonin that promotes sleep and favours the production of hormones that will stimulate the body,” Matthieu Hein, a psychiatrist at the Erasmus Hospital in Brussels, said.
In the absence of light, we are “rather slow, tired, which is characteristic of SAD, or seasonal affective disorder”. Florent Durand, who runs a massage studio in Lille, told France 3 TV that his €39 light therapy sessions were booked out.
The inhabitants of north-west Europe, however, can count themselves lucky. Moscow recorded just six paltry minutes of direct sunshine in the whole of December, shattering the previous record low of three hours, set in 2000.
The Russian capital normally averages a bleak 18 hours of sunshine in the last month of the year. “December was just amazing,” Roman Vilfond of Moscow State University’s meteorological unit told the Tass news agency.
“The darkest month in the history of our weather observations. When they hear this, people will say: ‘Now I know why I was depressed.’” The daily Moskovsky Komsomolets reported a surge in visits to psychiatrists.
“We don’t recognise elections without competition,” Navalny wrote on Twitter after the ruling on Saturday. He did not attend the hearing, which his lawyers say they will appeal against at the European court of human rights.
The ruling was widely expected and came after Russia’s central election committee said on 25 December that Navalny, 41, was not allowed to stand for public office until at least 2028 because of a previous fraud conviction.
An anti-corruption lawyer with a huge online following, Navalny says the charges were trumped up to prevent him taking on Vladimir Putin in the presidential election in March. He says Putin, who has been in power for 18 years and is widely expected to win re-election, is only prepared to face handpicked rival candidates.
Navalny has called for mass demonstrations on 28 January and asked his hundreds of thousands of supporters to boycott the election. He has brought tens of thousands of people onto the streets across Russia for anti-Putin protests twice in 2017. The Kremlin has said Navalny’s calls for an election boycott may be illegal.
Although he is currently polling at around 2%, Navalny says he would defeat Putin in “honest elections” if he were allowed to freely promote his anti-corruption policies.
The Kremlin critic, who is barred from state television, has been jailed three times in 2017 as he campaigned across Russia in a bid to force his way onto the ballot. He was also nearly blinded when a pro-Kremlin activist threw a chemical into his face.
Putin has never publicly referred to Navalny by name , but he said earlier this month that he was a dangerous influence whose calls for protests could plunge Russia into the kind of chaos that engulfed Ukraine after anti-government demonstrations toppled its Moscow-friendly president in 2014.