Are calls for European common defense just following the path of NATO and will serve as an offensive alliance in all corners of the world? This must be explained, says Willy Wimmer, European security expert and former German Deputy Defense Secretary.
Europe’s largest military powers can’t defend it from external threats; and the protection of the region can’t be “outsourced,” EC chief Jean-Claude Juncker said.
His comments come after Donald Trump called on the bloc to contribute its “fair share” to NATO-led defense.
Juncker said that Washington had “fundamentally changed” its foreign policy long before President Trump was elected to office.
“Over the past decade it has become crystal clear that our American partners consider that they are shouldering too much of the burden for their wealthy European allies. We have no other choice than to defend our own interests…” he said.
RT: What are your thoughts on this? Could an EU military union ever become a reality as some fear? If so, could it rival NATO?
Willy Wimmer: I think it’s a wrong signal at a disastrous time. The world is more fragile than we want it to be, and there is a fear of war everywhere, in all corners of the world. And in such a situation, I think it is disastrous when the European Union comes up with such a proposal. If you pursue such an idea, I think it is necessary to have a public and political debate in all our member countries… where you explain why you are doing it – not only because of your own laws and regulations, but also because of the structure of the charter of the United Nations. And nothing has been done by the European Commission, therefore it’s a disaster.
RT: What’s driving these calls for increased military co-operation?
WW: I think this proposal has been made just to overcome the Brexit impression of last year. It was interesting when the British decided on the Brexit, the European Commission and Angela Merkel started a debate on ‘common European defense.’ I think we shouldn’t forget that British forces have to leave Germany within the next two years. But this is not a reason to have this debate now. We live under really difficult circumstances because what does the European Union want? Is this for defensive purposes, or is it following the path of NATO and going for an offensive alliance in all corners of the world? This has to be explained to the European public.
RT: How will these ideas go down in America? Will it affect Europe’s relations with the US? Washington recently asked for members to increase their NATO contributions.
WW: Things have changed. NATO is no longer a defensive alliance; it is an offensive force in other parts of the world… In Germany, there is an ongoing debate. German soldiers don’t want to fight French wars in other parts of the world. And we do not want to have German soldiers for American and British wars. Such a debate will be very crucial in Europe.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) holds the key to Theresa May remaining in Downing Street but what do we know about this Protestant party drawn from the pro-union side of Northern Ireland’s deeply sectarian political spectrum?
As Britons scramble to learn about the party that will prop up May’s mandate to execute Brexit, a swathe of the online conversation has focused on the party’s past comments on homophobia, Islam and creationism.
The DUP was at the center of a bloody sectarian divide during Northern Ireland’s Troubles – a conflict involving rival paramilitary groups and the British Army which claimed more than 3,000 lives over 30 years.
The Conservatives and the DUP won’t form a formal coalition government but the latter will support the government regardless.
“We want there to be a government. We have worked well with May. The alternative is intolerable. For as long as Corbyn leads Labour, we will ensure there’s a Tory PM,” a DUP source was cited as saying in by the Guardian.
Comment: What a telling statement. They detest Corbyn for class reasons, not ethno-religious ones. Corbyn, being protestant English, should be an acceptable leader for them, right? No! He’s ‘of that same mindset we’ve always fought against.’
That statement, incidentally, is the real source of the Irish civil war and subsequent ‘troubles’: most Irish people have known for a long time that the unionists tend towards irrational right-wing extremism. The bigots leading them would sooner destroy the UK than allow a decent government in power.
The party is the creation of firebrand Protestant Evangelical Minister Ian Paisley. Reverend Paisley also founded the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster and was characterized by his entrenched Unionist views and his hostile opposition to the Catholic Church.
In its early years, the party was heavily involved in a campaign against homosexuality and fiercely opposed gay rights.
Paisley, who was famed for his extraordinarily fiery speeches, routinely preached against homosexuality and the party picketed gay rights events as part of their ‘Save Ulster from Sodomy’ campaign.
The campaign was ultimately unsuccessful as homosexuality was decriminalized in 1982.
Paisley became infamous in 1988 when, as a member of the European Parliament for Northern Ireland, he caused uproar by interrupting an address by Pope John Paul II. During his protest he shouted: “I refuse you as Christ’s enemy and Antichrist with all your false doctrine,” while brandishing posters reading: “Pope John Paul II ANTICHRIST.”
The party has been the largest in Northern Ireland since the Stormont assembly election in 2007.
That election saw a greater polarization in Northern Ireland politics with the electorate shifting their votes towards the hardline Nationalist and Unionist parties (Sinn Fein and the DUP) at the expense of more moderate groups such as the the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).
At the age of 81 Paisley and the DUP gained worldwide praise for taking the astounding step of sharing power in the Northern Ireland government with bitter enemies Sinn Fein.
This arrangement was characterized by Paisley sharing the job of leading the government with Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein, who was once a leader in the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
Paisley was succeeded as DUP leader and first minister by Peter Robinson. Robinson’s term was marred by a high profile scandal in which his wife, Iris Robinson, had an affair with a teenager and procured £50,000 in loans for the teen to open a restaurant.
Comment: Classic fundie hypocrisy!
She also failed to declare her interest in the restaurant, despite serving on the council which leased the premises to her lover. Before the scandal broke Iris Robinson had famously said that “gays are more vile than child abusers.”
She was expelled from the party as a result of the scandal and she retired from politics.
Similar views on homosexuality have been expressed by others in the deeply Christian party. Paisley’s son, Ian Jr, who is also a DUP politician, gained notoriety for saying he was “repulsed by gay and lesbianism.”
Peter Robinson himself came in for severe criticism for saying he “wouldn’t trust Muslims devoted to Sharia Law, but I would trust them to go to the shops for me,” and for backing a pastor who labelled Islam “satanic”.
Ahead of the election the party was backed by the Loyalist Communities Council, which is an umbrella body comprised of three of the main Loyalist Paramilitary groups, the Ulster Defence Association, the Ulster Volunteer Force and Red Hand Commando. The party’s leader, Arlene Foster, was criticized for being slow to distance the DUP from the paramilitaries.
The DUP support for the Tories looks set to have implications for the Brexit negotiations. In the wake of last year’s Brexit vote, it campaigned against affording a “special status” for Northern Ireland after the UK leaves the EU. Sinn Fein, its ideological antithesis, has repeatedly called for special status.
Comment: This alliance – and possibly the Union itself with it – has nowhere to go but down.
The media tried to smear Corbyn by calling him an “IRA terrorism supporter”. It didn’t work, and now the Tories are planning on forming a government with Loyalist terrorism supporters. Here’s the former leader of the ‘democratic’ unionist party:
Ten Million Brits cry, “This is not our country anymore!”
as these two Zionist puppets fight for the upper hand
I wake up this morning to scenes of total chaos. The first thing I do is throw a few clothes on and stagger off to Wetherspoons, my local pub restaurant in the little market town of Newton Abbot in the south of England. Here I intend to grab a light continental breakfast and catch up on the television news.
I am greeted by the Pub Philosopher, nicknamed Redneck Ron, who is surrounded as usual by his coterie of foul-mouthed fans. Redneck Ron (‘RR’ for short) has seldom been known to utter a sentence without the F-word in it.
RR says to me as I totter into the pub:
“Come and join us, bitch! So what do you think of the f***ing election, huh? Me and my buddies here are all thinking of emigrating to f***ing Antarctica. You comin’?”
I join RR at his table, not because I like the guy and his subhuman clique but because I like mixing with them lower classes. I’m an awful snob. I get a perverse delight from rubbing shoulders with the common people and getting to know how they think and speak.
Soon I am sipping my coffee and learning all about the general election.
“I think this country would be a lot better off if all you horrid people pushed off to the South Pole,” I remark pleasantly. “Only trouble is, the penguins will not be too pleased at the new arrivals!”
RR grins, baring his yellow fangs. He is in late sixties and is not at all put out by my rudeness. Politeness from me he would regard as a serious threat. Foul language wrapped in smiley badinage is the only language he understands.
“You wanna hear about the f***ing elections? Listen up good, bitch. Cos you ain’t heard nothing yet. That f***ing twat Theresa May has ended up with a f***ing hung parliament. She needed 326 seats to get a f***ing majority and she ain’t got that. She’s only got 318!”
“Too bad,” I sigh. “Goodbye, Theresa!”
“Nope, it ain’t goodbye. Not by a long chalk! The weak c**t is hanging on grimly to power. She’s gotta cosy up to the DUP and she’ll have a working majority if the DUP give her their full support.”
One of the fan club, a well-nourished lady in her forties who has just worked her way through a 2000 calorie English breakfast, chirps up: “Wot’s the DUP, Ron?”
Ron glares at Well Nourished Lady.
“DUP stands for ‘Democratic Unionist Party’. Doncha know that, silly bitch? Them’s the Northern Ireland blokes wot want to remain in the Union with the Brits. And they’re strongly pro-Brexit. They won 10 seats.”
“So if they join Theresa and her Tories, with their 10 seats, that gives Theresa a working majority. Theresa needs 326 seats to get a government that works. She’s got 318. Not enough!”
“Right. So if DUP give her their 10 seats she’s got 318 plus ten. That’s 328 seats, right?
Ron looks at Well Nourished Lady in mock stupefaction.
“You never told me you was a f***ing mathematical genius,” he says.
Well Nourished Lady looks pleased.
The facts, I was to learn over breakfast, are these. The Conservatives have captured 44 per cent of the vote, Labour 41 per cent. With the help of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland, the Conservatives will be able to form a working government. Just about. But it’s not going to be easy. Because the Northern Ireland party is going to exact a stiff price for its support.
Theresa May, who seemed to be in an almost invincible position only six weeks ago, with a huge lead in the polls, took a gamble by calling a general election. She thought she would win easily. That it would be a piece of cake. Her gamble failed spectacularly. She has lost all authority. All her charisma, such as it was, has evaporated in a puff of smoke. She is now a lame duck prime minister.
Later today, Theresa will have tea and cucumber sandwiches with the Queen of England. This is a time-honoured tradition. The PM pops over to Buckingham Palace and tells her Majesty: “Hey, Queen, I’ve got a working government. So it’s full steam ahead. I’ve just come to tell you this.”
And the Queen nods politely and says: “Well done, Theresa! You have my blessings. So off you go and get on with it!”
Not those exact words maybe, but something like it.
Meanwhile, back at the chalkface among the rabble, it’s all gloom and doom as the pound plummets and Brexit lies in tatters. Redneck Ron and his rotten borough are up in arms. “Wot we got here? More of them f***ing n*****s pouring in from Africa and wotnot, it ain’t our f***ing c***ry any more!”
Right. That’s about it. The Brits are not happy bunnies this morning. Gnashing of teeth has reached epidemic proportions. Rope sales have soared as more Brits plan to hang themselves. Most popular google search engine question from UK this morning: “How do I tie a noose?”
The only winners in this election? I won’t mention their names. Ron and his rabble ain’t got a clue who they are. They think all their miseries spring from “them rich toffs”.
European Union foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, has criticized the “unpredictable” US foreign policy under Donald Trump, and says the EU can become the main international partner of Russia, India and China.
During a Q & A during a State of the Union conference in Florence, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs was asked if Trump’s “unpredictability” has given him an advantage in dealing with North Korea’s volatility.
“Sometimes you can play with unpredictability and predictability that can surprise… but sometimes you can also scare. And sometimes it’s too late to fix it. The European way is not that of playing,” answered Mogherini.
In the wake of Washington’s decision to bombard a Syrian airbase last month as well as the massing of US forces near North Korean shores, the Italian diplomat said the EU is seeking a more flexible approach.
“One thing is true for the European Union that is not necessarily true for our partners in NATO and the US. We know very well that there is not one single security threat in our world that can only be faced with military means.”
Mogherini said she was surprised during recent visits to Beijing, New Delhi and Moscow, that all these countries want a “strong EU” and desire closer ties “not just in economy and trade, but security and humanitarian development, climate change, and foreign policy.”
“People want to work with European Union, not because they always like us… But in this geopolitical dynamic, being predictable, reliable and strong is an added value we should use,” said Mogherini.
Mogherini said that Europe could “occupy the space” that is being vacated by Washington, which has enjoyed a thorny recent relationship with Brussels, over trade, NATO funding, and immigration.
“There is an opportunity for the Europeans and the European Union to position itself as a partner to all our interlocutors in the world, be it on the big global issues where maybe Washington is losing leadership,” Mogherini said.
Mogherini’s comments comes amid the negotiations on the protracted process of Brexit, accompanied by vocal statements from both UK and EU officials.
With emotions running high on the terms of the UK-EU divorce, and a suggested hefty exit bill of up to €100 billion (£84.5 billion/US$110 billion) being discussed, both sides have been making self-assertive remarks and accusations.
Those included that of the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, who claimed the EU was trying to “affect the result of the general election” in the UK on June 8, and May being allegedly described as “living in another galaxy” after putting London’s expectations before European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker during talks in late April.
Most recently, Juncker on Friday joked that he would stop speaking English because “slowly but surely, English is losing importance.”
French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has vowed to regain national sovereignty by pulling France out of the eurozone, bringing back the French Franc, and debarring the Rothschild cartel from controlling the central bank.
“We need to control the currency, to adjust it too because today the single currency is a burden,” Le Pen told Le Parisien newspaper. “We will have a national currency like all other countries, and we will have a common currency together.”
Le Pen, who campaigned on undoing decades of globalist policies and holding a Brexit-style referendum should she win, said that the world’s sixth largest economy should abandon the “Rothschild controlled” euro currency in favor of a national currency that can be controlled by French interests.
“We must control the currency and adapt it to the economy because today the single currency [the euro] is a ball and chain.”
The differences between the candidates the French must choose from could not be more clear-cut – the former Rosthchild banker who was lured into the world of elite pedophiles as a teenager, or the woman who has vowed to debar Rothschild banks from France, regain national sovereignty, and destroy the pedophile rings running European politics from behind the scenes.
The decision last year by a majority of British voters to exit the European Union was more than a simple vote of the people. The Brexit campaign was promoted and financed by the most influential banks of the City of London and by the British Royal House. Far from the end of Britain, Brexit is far more likely to be the beginning of the end of the disastrous Euro single currency experiment.
Since the global financial crisis of 2008 little significant has been done by Brussels or the governments of the 19 member Eurozone countries to bring the largest banks of the Eurozone into a healthy stability. On the contrary, even venerable mega-banks like Germany’s Deutsche Bank are teetering on the brink.
In Italy the world’s oldest bank, Monte Paschi di Siena, is on state life-support. That is but the tip of an iceberg of Italian bank bad debts. Today in total Italy’s banks hold Italy’s banks hold €360 billion of bad loans or 20% of Italy’s GDP, which is double the total five years ago.
It gets worse. Italy is the fourth largest economy in the EU. Its economy is in dismal shape so bank bad loans grow. State debt is almost as high as that of Greece, at 135% of GDP. Now, since the 2013 Cyprus bank crisis, the EU has passed a stringent new bank “bail-in” law, largely under German pressure. It stipulates that in event of a new banking crisis, a taxpayer bailout is prohibited until bank bond-holders and, if necessary as in Cyprus, its bank depositors, first “bail-in” or take the loss. In Italy, most holders of bank bonds are ordinary Italian citizens, with some €200 billion worth, who were told bank bonds were a secure investment. No more.
German Austerity Medicine Killing Patient
A major problem is that the Eurozone economies have been forced to impose the wrong medicine to deal with the 2008 financial and economic crisis. The Eurozone crisis has been wrongly seen as states spending too wildly and labor costs rising too high. So, under again German pressure, the Eurozone countries in crisis such as Greece, have been forced to impose draconian austerity, slash pensions, cut wages. The result has been even worse economic recession and rising unemployment, rising bank bad loans. By 2015 Greece’s GDP had declined by more than 26%, Spain’s GDP by almost 6%, Portugal by 7%, and Italy’s GDP by almost 10% compared with 2008.
Austerity is never a solution to a state economic crisis. The example of the German economic crisis that erupted in 1931 in depression, unemployment and a banking crisis as a consequence of the severe austerity policies of Chancellor Heinrich Brüning ought to be clear enough to German authorities whose historical memory seems to have amnesia today.
Across the Eurozone more than 19 million workers are jobless. Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain have a total of an unprecedented 11 million unemployed workers. In France and Italy unemployment is over 13% of the labor force. In Spain it is 20%, and in Greece a staggering 25%. This is all the state of economic affairs more than 8 years after the 2008 crisis. In short there has been no economic recovery in Euroland. Since 2009 the European Central Bank (ECB), the bank of the Euro, has made unprecedented moves to try to stabilize the banking crisis. They have only postponed not improved the situation.
Today as a result of ECB buying of mortgage bonds, corporate bonds, state bonds, and asset-backed securities, the ECB balance sheet is more than €1.5 trillion. The ECB, whose President is Italian Mario Draghi, has held interest rates in an unprecedented negative interest rates around -0.4% since June, 2014. The ECB has made clear that negative central bank interest rates will remain “for some time.” This is leading some to try to convince voters to go to a cashless society as India did last year with catastrophic consequences and as Sweden, not a Euro country, has largely done. If banks begin to charge their customers a fee for using customers’ deposits, an incredible thought for most, people would simply “take the money and run,” into gold or other safe assets, or cash.
The ECB negative interest rates are a sign of desperation to put it mildly. With interest rates on bonds across the Eurozone so low, many insurance companies are facing severe liquidity problems meeting their future obligations unless Eurozone interest rates return to more normal levels. Yet were the ECB to end its negative interest rate policy and its quantitative easing so-called, the debt crisis of many banks would explode from Greece to Italy to France to even Germany.
A Coming Currency War?
So, to put it gently, the Eurozone is a ticking debt time bomb ready to blow at the slightest new shock or crisis. We may well see that shock in the next two years, once Britain has completed its exit from the EU. Already the new Administration of Donald Trump in Washington has signaled a potential launch of currency war against the Euro. On January 31, US Trade Czar Peter Navarro accused Germany of using a “grossly undervalued euro to exploit” the US and Germany’s EU partners. Navarro went on to call Germany, the core of the Eurozone economies, a de facto “currency manipulator.” Navarro has stated, “While the euro freely floats in international currency markets, this system deflates the German currency from where it would be if the German Deutschmark were still in existence.”
Britain with the vast financial resources of the City of London, once free from the shackles of the EU membership, could well join with Washington in a full-scale covert currency war to bring down the Euro, something that would have devastating consequences for the Eurozone economies. Britain’s Pound is the third largest global payments currency after the dollar and the Euro. If Britain, free from the restraints of the EU can bring down the Euro, the Pound could become a major gainer–currency war with Britain on the side of Washington against the fragile Eurozone with their Italian, Greek, Spanish and other problems. Already British Prime Minister Theresa May is in discussions with the Trump Administration about forging a bilateral US-UK trade agreement and some in influential UK circles are talking of inviting the USA to become an associate member of the British Commonwealth. For the US dollar and Wall Street banks, wounding the rival to the dollar as central bank reserve currency is a very tempting thought. Now with Britain and the City of London soon to be free of EU restraints, the temptation might become reality.
All of this is because of the dysfunctional nature of the entire Eurozone project, a supranational currency with no democratic elected authorities to control abuses. The half-way dissolution of national sovereignty that the Maastricht Treaty introduced with the European Monetary System back in the 1990s, has left the EU with the worst combination in event of future crisis.
F. William Engdahl is strategic risk consultant and lecturer, he holds a degree in politics from Princeton University and is a best-selling author on oil and geopolitics, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”
Martin Rees is Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics, at the University of Cambridge, the Astronomer Royal, a member of Britain’s House of Lords, and a former President of the Royal Society. The following interview was conducted at Trinity College, Cambridge, by The Conversation’s Matt Warren.
Q: How big is the universe … and is it the only one?
Our cosmic horizons have grown enormously over the last century, but there is a definite limit to the size of the observable universe. It contains all the things from which light has been able to reach us since the Big Bang, about 14 billion years ago. But the new realisation is that the observable universe may not be all of reality. There may be more beyond the horizon, just as there’s more beyond the horizon when you’re observing the ocean from a boat.
What’s more, the galaxies are likely to go on and on beyond this horizon, but more interestingly, there is a possibility that our Big Bang was not the only one. There may have been others, spawning other universes, disconnected from ours and therefore not observable, and possibly even governed by different physical laws. Physical reality on this vast scale could therefore be much more varied and interesting than what we can observe.
The universe we can observe is governed by the same laws everywhere. We can observe a distant galaxy and see that the atoms emitting the light are just the same as the ones in the lab. But there may be physical domains that are governed by completely different laws. Some may have no gravity, or not allow for nuclear physics. Ours may not even be a typical domain.
Even in our own universe, there are only so many ways you can assemble the same atoms, so if it is large enough it is possible that there is another Earth, even another avatar you. If this were the case, however, the universe would have to be bigger than the observable one by a number which to write down would require all the atoms in the universe. Rest assured, if there’s another you, they are a very, very long way away. They might even be making the same mistakes.
Q: So how likely is alien life in this vast expanse?
We know now that planets exist around many, even most, stars. We know that in our Milky Way galaxy there are likely millions of planets that are in many ways like the Earth, with liquid water. The question then is whether life has developed on them – and we can’t yet answer that.
Although we know how via Darwinian selection a complex biosphere evolved on Earth around 4 billion years ago, we don’t yet understand the actual origin of life – the transition from complex chemistry to the first metabolising, replicating structures. The good news is that we will have a better idea of how that happened within the next ten or 20 years and crucially, how likely it was to happen. This will give us a better understanding of how likely it is to happen elsewhere. In that time, we will also have technologies that will allow us to better search for alien life.
But just because there’s life elsewhere doesn’t mean that there is intelligent life. My guess is that if we do detect an alien intelligence, it will be nothing like us. It will be some sort of electronic entity.
If we look at our history on Earth, it has taken about 4 billion years to get from the first protozoa to our current, technological civilisation. But if we look into the future, then it’s quite likely that within a few centuries, machines will have taken over – and they will then have billions of years ahead of them.
In other words, the period of time occupied by organic intelligence is just a thin sliver between early life and the long era of the machines. Because such civilisations would develop at different rates, it’s extremely unlikely that we will find intelligent life at the same stage of development as us. More likely, that life will still be either far simpler, or an already fully electronic intelligence.
Q: Do you believe that machines will develop intelligence?
There are many people who would bet on it. The second question, however, is whether that necessarily implies consciousness – or whether that is limited to the wet intelligence we have within our skulls. Most people, however, would argue that it is an emergent property and could develop in a machine mind.
Q: So if the universe is populated by electronic super minds, what questions will they be pondering?
We can’t conceive that any more than a chimp can guess the things that we spend our time thinking about. I would guess, however, that these minds aren’t on planets. While we depend on a planet and an atmosphere, these entities would be happy in zero G, floating freely in space. This might make them even harder to detect.
Q: How would humanity respond to the discovery of alien life?
It would certainly make the universe more interesting, but it would also make us less unique. The question is whether it would provoke in us any sense of cosmic modesty. Conversely, if all our searches for life fail, we’d know more certainly that this small planet really is the one special place, the single pale, blue dot where life has emerged. That would make what happens to it not just of global significance, but an issue of galactic importance, too.
And we are likely to be fixed to this world. We will be able to look deeper and deeper into space, but travelling to worlds beyond our solar system will be a post-human enterprise. The journey times are just too great for mortal minds and bodies. If you’re immortal, however, these distances become far less daunting. That journey will be made by robots, not us.
Q: What scientific advances would you like to see over the coming century?
Cheap, clean energy, for one. Artificial meat is another. But the idea is often easier than the application. I like to tell my students the story of two beavers standing in front of a huge hydroelectric dam. “Did you build that?” asks one. “No,” says the other. “But it is based on my idea”. That’s the essential balance between scientific insight and engineering development.
Q: Michael Gove [the British politician who was a leader of the campaign for the UK to leave the EU] said people have had enough of experts. Have they?
I wouldn’t expect anything more from Mr Gove, but there is clearly a role for experts. If we’re sick, we go to a doctor, we don’t look randomly on the internet. But we must also realise that most experts only have expertise within their own area, and if we are scientists we should accept that. When science impacts on public policy, there will be elements of economics, ethics and politics where we as scientists speak only as laymen. We need to know where the demarcation line is between where we are experts and where we are just citizens.
If you want to influence public policy as a scientist, there are two ways to do it. You can aspire to be an adviser within government, which can be very frustrating. Or you can try and influence policy indirectly. Politicians are very much driven by what’s in their inbox and what’s in the press, so the scientists with the greatest influence are those who go public, and speak to everyday people. If an idea is picked up by voters, the politicians won’t ignore it.
Q: Brexit – good or bad?
I am surprised to find myself agreeing with Lord Heseltine [former UK Conservative government minister] and Tony Blair [former Labour prime minister], but it is a real disaster, which we have stumbled into. There is a lot of blame to be shared around, by Boris Johnson et al, but also by Jeremy Corbyn [leader of the UK Labour party] for not fighting his corner properly. I have been a member of the Labour Party for a very long time, but I feel badly let down by Corbyn – especially as Labour voters supported Remain two to one. He has been an ineffective leader, and also ambivalent on this issue. A different leader, making a vocal case for Remain, could have tilted the vote.
On the other side, Boris Johnson [now UK foreign secretary – who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU] has been most reprehensible. At least Gove has opinions, which he has long expressed. Boris Johnson had no strong opinions, and the honourable thing to do if that is the case is to remain quiet. But he changed his stance opportunistically (as in the Eton debating society) and swung the vote.
Q: But why is it such a disaster?
My concerns are broad geopolitical ones. In the world as it is now, with America becoming isolationist and an increasingly dominant Russia, for Europe to establish itself as a united and powerful counterweight is more important than ever. We are jeopardising something that has held Europe together, in peace, for 60 years, and could also break up the United Kingdom in the process. We will be remembered for that and it is something to deplore.
One thing astronomers bring to the table is an awareness that we have a long potential future, as well as the universe’s long past – and that this future could be jeopardised by what happens in the coming decades.
Q: More broadly, how much danger is the human race in?
I have spent a lot of time considering how we as a species can make it into the next century – and there are two main classes of problems. First, the collective impact of humanity as its footprint on the planet increases due to a growing population more demanding of resources. Second, the possible misuse by error or design of ever more powerful technology – and most worryingly, bio-tech.
There is certainly a high chance of a major global setback this century, most likely from the second threat, which increasingly allows individual groups to have a global impact. Added to this is the fact that the world is increasingly connected, so anything that happens has a global resonance. This is something new and actually makes us more vulnerable as a species than at any time in our past.
Q: So terrorism will pose an even greater threat in the coming century?
Yes, because of these technologies, terrorists or fanatics will be able to have a greater impact. But there’s also the simple danger of these technologies being misused. Engineering or changing viruses, for example, can be used in benign ways – to eradicate Zika, for example – but there’s obviously a risk that such things can get out of control.
Nuclear requires large, conspicuous and heavily-protected facilities. But the facilities needed for bio-tech, for example, are small-scale, widely understood, widely available and dual use. It is going to be very hard indeed properly to regulate it.
In the short and intermediate term, this is even more worrying than the risks posed by climate change – although in the long term, that will be a very major problem, especially as both people and politicians find it very difficult to focus on things further down the line.
I have been very involved in campaigns to get all countries involved in research and development into alternative, clean energy sources. Making them available and cheap is the only way we are going to move towards a low carbon future. The level of money invested in this form of research should be equivalent to the amount spent on health or defence, and nuclear fusion and fourth generation nuclear fission should be part of that.
Q: In the medieval world, people would start building cathedrals that only later generations would finish. Have we lost that long-term perspective?
That’s right. In fact, one very important input behind the political discussion prior to the Paris climate agreement was the 2015 Papal Encyclical. I’m a council member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which helped to initiate the scientific meetings which were important in ensuring that the encyclical was a highly respected document. Whatever one thinks of the Catholic church, one cannot deny its long-term vision, its global range and its concern for the world’s poor. I believe that the encyclical, six months before the Paris conference, had a big impact on the leaders and people in South America, Africa and Asia. Religion clearly still has a very important role to play in the world.
Q: Have you ever encountered anything in the cosmos that has made you wonder whether a creator was behind it?
No. Personally, I don’t have any religious beliefs. But I describe myself as a cultural Christian, in that I was brought up in England and the English church was an important part of that. Then again, if I had been born in Iran, I’d probably go to the mosque.