How did you spend your holiday? I visited Portugal, Spain, Hungary and the Czech Republic with NATO Parliamentarians to see the defence pressures we all face.
Portugal’s parliamentary republic was overthrown in a bloodless coup in May 1926. Salazar became Prime Minister in 1932 and created an authoritarian regime which continued until 1974. Portugal was a founding member of NATO but played only a small part until the death of Salazar. It joined the then EEC in 1986. Portugal has few land forces but its historic role as a naval power remains strong. Today Portugal is involved in 40 missions in Africa, Asia, America and Europe.
In the Parliament we discussed the pressures on NATO’s southern flank. The rise of numerous jihadi groups in sub-Saharan Africa has caused people to flee. A number of NATO members are there helping to build stability and stem the flow of migrants.
The closure of the Libya Italy route has moved the people smugglers along the coast to Morocco and Tunisia. Concern was expressed that they were not receiving the help and support they need.
A visit to the Lisbon naval base brought an insight into the search and rescue, intelligence gathering, use of radar and monitoring the movements of Portuguese shipping across the world.
Then we flew to Madrid. The turbulent times following the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 are well documented. General Franco’s regime was repressive. Before his death in 1975, he nominated the grandson of the last king of Spain, Juan Carlos to be his successor. An attempted military coup in 1981 took 350 MPs hostage in the Spanish Parliament but failed. Spain joined NATO in 1982 and the EEC in 1986.
The experience of terror and repression has made Spain, like Portugal, very aware of the value of democracy. Here we visited a NATO centre of excellence for countering improvised explosive devises (IED’s). It was clear that improvised does not mean simple.
Behind every IED is a huge network of people financing, recruiting, supplying, transporting, building, planning, placing, triggering, and exploiting each explosion. They are the submerged area of the iceberg we must tackle.
Our last day was spent in Parliament meeting with the Spanish Red Cross and the Spanish Secretary of State for the European Union.
Most of the work of the Red Cross is with local vulnerable elderly but the focus for us was on Immigration. In 2018, over 1,500 died trying to cross the Mediterranean but we forget that 80 per cent of all migration takes place within Africa.
Some the world’s poorest countries host large numbers fleeing war, climate change and unemployment. Turkey alone is hosting 4 million who fled conflict in Syria and Iraq.
Simple facts can change your perspective. More migrants arrive by air than sea and in Spain of the 5m population of immigrants, 300,000 are British.
Time to move on to Hungary. During World War 2, it was occupied by Nazi forces and then by the Red Army. The occupying Soviet Forces tied Hungary into the Eastern Bloc until 1991. October 1956 saw an attempt to loosen control from Moscow, but this ended with the arrival of Soviet tanks.
Hungary’s gradual liberalisation as a result of glasnost resulted in a new constitution in 1989, a transition to democracy. Hungary’s decision to open its borders to East Germans wanting to cross into Austria precipitated protests in Germany which led to the fall of the Wall.
Hungary joined NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004.
There is much I could say about the visit to Hungary but a meeting at the excellent Central European University stands out.
We discussed how political cyber trolling increases at times of high risk. Russia’s numerous troll factories aim to spread social media conspiracy theories, create doubt about what is true so that our citizens withdraw from the conversation and become cynical. A reality recognised across the NATO Alliance.
The final leg of the tour was to Prague in the Czech Republic. Czechoslovakia was created by a Communist coup d’état in 1948 which established a regime which crushed all opposition.
In 1968, there was a brief period of liberalisation but Soviet tanks invaded bringing it to an end. The Velvet Revolution led to free elections in 1990 and an amiable split from Slovakia. The Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004.
Here we had impressive presentations on cyber defence, from Radio Free Europe and a visit to the NATO Centre of Excellence in Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear weapons (CRBN).
Ironically as we sat through a presentation on training of military personnel to deal with CBRN attacks word came through of the arrest of Russian agents attempting to hack into the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. A fitting end to the visits.
I have omitted so much. I saw too many secret police museums. I hope this gives you a snapshot of the work of the NATO Parliament.
I left Prague to monitor the General Election in Bosnia Herzegovina but that’s for a subsequent article.