Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou bailed in Canada; Donald Trump’s lawyer jailed. By Hamish McDonald.

Conservatives vote for Theresa May to remain

A gilets jaunes protester waves a French flag in front of burning tyres at a road blockade this week in Aimargues, near Montpellier, southern France.
A gilets jaunes protester waves a French flag in front of burning tyres at a road blockade this week in Aimargues, near Montpellier, southern France.
Credit: Pascal Guyot / AFP / Getty Images

A spectre is haunting Europe – not the communism of the Marx and Engels manifesto, though some of Britain’s Tories see its revival in Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, but that of atavistic nationalism and anarchic revolt by the self-perceived underclasses and forgotten people.

Western Europe is seeing a bonfire of the elites, with French President Emmanuel Macron forced into backdowns from his attempt to wrench subsidies out of his country’s finances by repeated weekend rampages through Paris and other cities by the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protesters.

Only a year-and-a-half into his term, it remains to be seen whether Macron and his inexperienced team can win back his assumed “Jupiterian” authority. It was also unclear how the gilets jaunes anger would translate into electoral politics. Aside from some left and right radicals joining in destructively, it was spontaneous, the high-vis work vests symbolising a wish to be seen, not ignored. The gloom in France deepened when a young gunman, a petty criminal turned radical Islamist in prison, attacked crowds at a Christmas market in Strasbourg on Tuesday, killing at least three people.

In Britain, the “forgotten” ones had got their voice in the Brexit referendum in June 2016. The elites are still struggling to put it into effect, despite advice it will be bad, even disastrous. Theresa May backed down from her plan to put her “Chequers” plan for a gradual exit from the European Union to the House of Commons on Tuesday, as it faced certain defeat from both Labour and the hardline Brexiteer wing of her Conservatives. She went to Brussels to see if she could get some easier terms on the Irish border question. Germany’s Angela Merkel told her straight out the terms agreed in November could not be renegotiated. The pound slumped in value.

Tory anti-Europe fogey Jacob Rees-Mogg got the numbers for a Conservative leadership contest, but May won it on Wednesday night, making her immune from further challenges for a year. But she promised to step down before the next election, due in 2022. She now has to get her Brexit plan approved somehow. With the March 29 deadline nearing for the end of Britain’s EU membership, the European Court of Justice meanwhile affirmed London could withdraw its EU exit without consulting other member states, raising hopes of a second referendum among Remainers, especially in Scotland.

Company of Meng

Almost as soon as a truce was declared in the United States–China trade war, it was shattered by the arrest in Canada on a US extradition warrant of Meng Wanzhou, deputy chair of Chinese telecom and mobile phone giant Huawei, for breaking sanctions on Iran by supplying embargoed equipment via a Hong Kong trading company. The arrest took place on December 1, just as Donald Trump was sitting down to dinner in Buenos Aires with Xi Jinping. Neither was informed at the time.

Human rights activists worldwide got some sardonic amusement from the Chinese foreign ministry’s reaction, which called Meng’s arrest “inhumane” and a “violation of human rights”, and summoned the Canadian ambassador to warn of “grave consequences” if she were not released.

It got less amusing when Chinese police took away Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat who works in Beijing for the political risk consultancy International Crisis Group. Hú Xījìn, editor of the Communist Party’s nationalistic tabloid Global Times, all but confirmed it was retaliation.“If so, it won’t work,” said former Canadian ambassador in Beijing Howard Balloch. “The Canadian court system is not susceptible to pressure. It is truly independent.” Meng was released under guard to her Vancouver home on Tuesday, on $C10 million ($10.4 million) bail.

Undeterred by China’s reaction, the Trump administration was expected to ramp up pressure on Beijing this week to offer precise measures to limit forced technology transfers and cyber theft of intellectual property during the 90-day truce in tariff increases. This would come via new rules limiting Chinese access to US-made equipment, controls on Chinese-made semiconductor imports, and indictments of individuals in the Chinese spy service for cyber hacking.

Trump said he would intervene in the Meng case, “If I think it’s good for what will be certainly the largest trade deal ever made” and national security, making the Huawei heiress a trade war hostage ,too.

Cohen bothers

Beleaguered by Robert Mueller’s inquiry into his election campaign support from Russian hackers, Trump is reverting to his anti-immigration schtick as well as trade-bashing, with a bizarre on-camera tirade at Democrat congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, threatening a government shutdown if they won’t allocate $US5 billion for his Mexico border wall.

Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, got three years’ jail after pleading guilty to charges brought by Mueller. Cohen told the court he’d been “living in a personal and mental incarceration” since agreeing to work for a “real estate mogul” left unnamed. “I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds,” Cohen said. Now the question is, shouldn’t Trump go down too for at least one of Cohen’s offences – paying off Trump’s women during the 2016 election?

The Trump show continued abroad, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week telling an incredulous NATO meeting in Brussels that Trump was actually building a new “liberal order”. Australia was part of the show elsewhere this week. In Katowice, Poland, our environment ambassador Patrick Suckling was supporting act to Trump adviser Wells Griffith telling the UN climate change conference fossil fuels are okay, with carbon capture. Suckling’s minister, Melissa Price, declined to lift our emissions reduction target.

At another UN conference, in Marrakesh, Morocco, Australia announced it was following the US in withdrawing from the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, in the company of Austria, Chile, the Czech Republic, Italy, Hungary, Poland, Latvia, Slovakia and the Dominican Republic. The remaining 164 nations renewed the compact.

Capital investment

Scott Morrison was also expected to take Australia part of the way with Trump by announcing the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, following a cabinet discussion on Tuesday. But he will not immediately move our embassy from Tel Aviv, unlike the US in May this year, because of the estimated $200 million cost, and may open a small consulate in Jerusalem instead.

Such a move is reported to be against the advice of Canberra’s foreign policy and security agencies, and several former diplomatic and defence chiefs. But Morrison would not look like he was backing down to Indonesia’s objections after he floated the embassy move to win over Jewish voters in October’s Wentworth byelection, a tactic that flopped.

Morrison said then it would help progress towards a two-state solution to the Israel–Palestinian stalemate, but did not explain how. Critics say it rewards Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for actually making a Palestinian state less possible by expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank, held since the 1967 war.

Hit by defections over a botched commando raid into Gaza, and with Israeli police this month recommending he be indicted for bribery – his third corruption case this year – Netanyahu has a twofold stance on the two-state solution. Abroad, he professes support. At home, to keep his right-wing coalition together, he talks of “the disaster of Oslo” – referring to the Oslo Accords signed in 1993 that launched talks on a Palestinian state alongside Israel – and this week vowed no Jewish settlers would be uprooted from the West Bank while he leads. Indeed, more homes would be built for them. “These places come straight from the Bible to the heart of our homeland and we will continue to strengthen the settlement there,” he said.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 15, 2018 as "Conservatives vote for May to remain".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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