Two modern blockades – an ancient form of warfare is back in fashion

Two modern blockades – an ancient form of warfare is back in fashion

by Jon Novakovic
article from Tuesday 21, August, 2018

A LEADER in Berlin styling himself “Emperor of the French and King of Italy” issued a decree on 21 November 1806. The British Isles were to be blockaded, and “whoever deals on the continent in English merchandise… becomes an accomplice.”

Coming off the back of defeat at the Battle of Trafalgar, Napoleon had decided that England’s only exploitable weakness was its economy, vulnerable due to its reliance on trade. To inflict maximum damage, this blockade would not be limited to the movement of goods, but “all commerce and correspondence”, to hit the banking system as well. In a reminder to never mess with the post office, they were coopted to ensure the capture of “any letters in the English language.”

His “Continental System” resulted in some of the consequences intended by Napoleon, including fomenting some discontent over unemployment amongst the British. It also had unintended consequences, including setting the economy of Amsterdam back decades. By 1810, Napoleon had to repeal his orders due to the damage being inflicted on French trading cities. 

Britain, historically equivocal about the continent, has decided to isolate itself from the European Union, even while the British political classes continue to equivocate over it.

The European Union, led by French President Macron who sees himself as the successor to De Gaulle, has adopted a Napoleonic stance. Thinly veiled threats emanating from Brussels today fizz with forgotten history. The United Kingdom is warned of “no deal” implications including food shortages, a multi-year traffic jam on the M20 leading to Dover, exclusion from the scientific community With barely restrained delight, Remainers, who in this case can be cast as Napoleon’s lackeys, inform the public that the British military will need to be put on standby to manage the inevitable collapse of society resulting from leaving the European Union with no deal. 

Realising London’s financial sector would not be retreating to the continent in the numbers hoped, the European Banking Authority recently doubled-down on its fearmongering efforts. While these threats are (mostly) implicit, the intent is to isolate the United Kingdom, sow fear, cause pain, and send a warning to others contemplating leaving the European Union. The EU skipped a re-run of Trafalgar to move straight to Napoleon’s forced isolation – a good idea, given two-thirds of Germany’s military assets are out of service. In a recent military exercise, German soldiers carried brooms painted to look like rifles.

Elsewhere in the world, a modern day blockade already underway has faded from the front page, though it remains a blockade where military conflict lurks closer to reality. Qatar has been blockaded by an alliance of Sunni Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates for 62 weeks. Ignore the accusations of support for Islamists and terrorism (they throw stones from very tall glass houses in the desert), it can principally be traced back to the position Qatar took during the Arab Spring of 2011. Al Jazeera provided a significant platform to many rebel movements. Doha funded Libyan and Syrian rebels. To draw a very long bow, the Arab Spring was the Middle East’s Brexit; except the populists are Islamists, the establishment are monarchies and ruling tribes with no pretense of democracy, and if you need to, replace immigration with Israel as the whipping horse du jour. Qatar was Boris Johnson, a member of the establishment who went against the grain, and whose subsequent punishment would exceed that typically dished out within Eton’s boarding houses. 

Qatar’s land border with Saudi Arabia was cut off, Qatar Airlines was banned from the air space and airports of the blockaders, and shipping routes into the regional hub at Dubai were severed. All Qatari residents of the blockaders were deported. 

As with the British Isles in the 19th Century, the blockade of Qatar has failed to bring about its aims. Qatar had seen the blockade coming, and taken measures to mitigate it. Imports from Saudi Arabia and the UAE had already become negligible. Stockpiling had occurred, so empty shelf situations in stores lasted hours, not days.  Qatar also possessed public servants with the capacity to think far enough outside the box to offer rapid solutions. Imports from Turkey increased by 90 percent in the four months following the blockade.

In fact, the Guardian wrote last May that “enforced isolation has given (Qatar) confidence to pursue a political and cultural reboot”. The Financial Times notes that unfashionable concepts such as “import substitution” have taken hold, with local, seasonal produce finding its way into stores. 

The Sunni Coalition, and Napoleon, set out to use isolation as a weapon, and both found that the world was already too interconnected. Saudi Arabia and their allies have played their cards and found them lacking. They have no more threat to hold over the head of Qatar – direct military intervention is difficult while the United States maintains its Al Udeid Air Base in the country. For the European Commission, in addition to gambling the economic health of its 27 members, the principle threat is that if nationalist opposition parties in Austria, Hungary, Poland and the Netherlands see that a former member can stand after leaving on its own terms, the EC will have lost the big stick it uses to maintain order on the continent.

Qatar’s opponents are not bound by the institutions of the EU and regardless have failed to pull Qatar into line. The European ideologues will similarly fail, either by being pulled into line by their elected continental counterparts, or by rousing British institutions from their 45-year slumber. As always, everything old is new again, but it would seem sensible that along with avoiding re-runs of 19thcentury low points like the Black Death and war with China, the EU could drop the idea of a blockade from its negotiating repertoire, so long as the UK promises not to turn the Channel into a moat.

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