THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain

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Book review: The Shortest History of Germany by James Hawes

The Shortest History of Germany: Amazon.co.uk: James Hawes: 9781910400418: Books.

I mentioned this book in a recent post and read it with great pleasure the following day. I commend it to you. 

 

Sadly, most Brits only study the least appealing parts of German history. Arguably the only true historical consensus in divided post war Britain is that the Nazis were not nice chaps. I hope I can claim to have done better than that because I studied European History to A level and have also read a fair amount since for my own amusement but this book nonetheless covers parts of German history of which I knew little and understood less.

 

I have to confess that I had the mental stereotype of Germany; one of "state worship, puritanical zeal and scar-faced militarism" that the author feels the need to refute. In fairness that stereotype — apparently more Prussian than German — was in some cases reinforced by German colleagues with whom I worked closely in my career. That might be because they act up to it. Just as Brits abroad, when tired of pointing out that we're not all floppy haired effeminates like Hugh Grant, eventually give up and act the part to comic effect. I did actually attend meetings with an elderly German colleague who sported duelling scars, for example. No really. I know. I would have called myself racist to imagine him, if I had not actually met him.

 

Some of the most interesting parts of the books are about prehistory. The Romans invented Germany as a term to describe the disparate and unconnected mutually warring tribes who lived beyond the Rhine. Rather like the British made a polity (and later, mistakenly, two) from mere geography in India, the Romans invaded, recruited to their armies and civilised this imaginary ethnic group and then defined its furthest limit by giving up at the River Elbe. What I mostly learned from reading this book is that when we Brits respond emotionally to the idea of German-ness we actually have the people beyond the Elbe in mind. The "real" Germans (as defined by the author) respond to these trans-Elbians, interestingly, rather as we do. Hitler's support was largely to be found there as today is more of the vote for extremes of Right or Left. 

 

The era of West Germany was a Golden Age not just because of Marshall Aid and the Economic Miracle but because those pesky Trans-Elbeans were sequestered in the DDR living down to our mis-targeted stereotype. "Why are the Chinese so happy?" goes a modern German joke. "Because they still have their Wall". 

 

For much of our history Brits thought of Germans as cousins. The Common Law probably began in long forgotten forests in Saxony and English is arguably German garnished with French. It has been a long sad collapse from that familial feeling to the present unpleasantness of shouting "two world wars and one World Cup" at their football fans. 

 

I don't regret Brexit a bit but sadly it probably won't help with this estrangement, given how devoutly Cis-Elbean Germans believe in the EU. The best that those of us who like Germany (and not just its excellent cars and kitchens) can do is read this book, encourage fellow Brits to read it, play nicely with such German friends as we may have and hope. Mostly we should hope for our two nations to feature in each others history books more, and more peacefully, in future. When they shake off their misguided obsession with the EU (or more likely it collapses under them) we will still be neighbours and - let's hope - friends.


Legal analysis vs bluster in the Brexit negotiation

The current public discussion about the so-called "divorce bill" or "financial settlement" claimed by the European Union in relation to the UK's termination of its membership is ill-informed on a cosmic scale. I decided to flex my neglected skills as a retired international lawyer and do a bit of research.

The EU has yet to produce any legal justification for its claim. It is simply asserting, as a negotiating position, that it will discuss nothing else until a payment has been agreed. This is an oddly weak stance. If there is a legal basis for the claim, they don't need it signed off in advance. It would simply be a contractual consequence of the treaties. The European Court would rule if the principle or amount were disputed.

To someone who negotiated for a living for decades, it has the aroma of, to be polite, bravado or, to be less polite, something else beginning with a "b".

That impression is reinforced by the fact that the EU has not produced its calculations. According to press reports it is demanding between sixty and one hundred billion Euros. Nor has it offered any legal analysis. We are told that the British government has clear legal advice that no such payment is due. Of course it won't publish that advice until the EU has offered some justification. 

Lawyers for Britain (disclosure: a campaign group in support of Brexit) has however commissioned and published a counsel's opinion by Martin Howe QC entitled The withdrawal of the UK from the European Union: Analysis of potential financial liabilities. The full opinion can be downloaded here. I have also hosted a copy of it on this site and put a link in the sidebar. It is well and clearly written. I suspect many of my esteemed readers will actually enjoy reading it even if they are not accustomed to such documents. 

For now, I will cut to the chase however and quote the conclusion of pages of dense analysis: 

For the reasons set out in this paper, there is a powerful legal case that the UK will not owe the EU any monies on withdrawal, and will be entitled to a net payment representing the value of its capital in the European Investment Bank.

Those readers who, like, me, actively want a "hard Brexit" should take the following comfort. If the EU's negotiators stick to their present position, there can be no further negotiation. The UK will exit without any agreement. It might even be possible (though I doubt any possible government after the election would have the testicular fortitude to go for it) to dispense with the two year notice period and stop subsidising our Continental chums sooner.

We would then trade with the EU on World Trade Organisation (WTO) standard terms, which will allow either side to impose tariffs averaging 2.3% on imports of non-agricultural goods (agriculture is a pampered business everywhere and the WTO has failed to broker any agreement to reduce protectionist tariffs). Britain is of course free to impose no tariffs on EU goods. The WTO sets a maximum, but no minimum. In my view that is precisely what we should do. It helps our consumers not one jot or tittle to pay more for our Audis and Camembert. As a supporter of free markets, not crony capitalism, I favour the consumer over the producer every time.

One can love capitalism without loving capitalists - or at least not loving them more than ones fellow humans in general.

It is likely of course that the mercantilist, anti-free market, corrupt crony capitalist EU will impose such tariffs. It will be true to the antiquated and discredited ideology that made us want to leave. However the adjustment in the value of the pound sterling (the genius of the Free Market at work) has already more than covered the effect of WTO tariffs and the Government has (rashly and wrongly in my view) promised British farmers that they will be compensated from public funds for any negative effects.

Much as I disapprove of that, it will cost far far less than our payments to the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which routes subsidies not just to jolly Continental peasants but to rich people such as the French, Austrian and German partners in the international law firm to which I used to belong, who owned farms and vineyards not to feed and cheer the masses, but to garner CAP subsidies from their far poorer fellow-taxpayers. 


Of Brexit and Divorce

I spent most of my career working in Continental Europe. This is not a "some of my best friends are Jewish" thing (which they are by the way) but most of my best friends are Continental Europeans. As the farcical Brexit "negotiations" continue, my personal Facebook page is therefore full of their whingeing, sniping and moralising about Britain's supposed "rejection" of Europe. Perhaps it's as well I have retired as a lawyer because my advocacy skills and negotiating experience are not good enough to persuade them that is NOT what is happening.

Only this morning, for example, one of my German friends wrote the following

Hmmm, folks when I look back at my divorce, it was not easy and I could not terminate my contract and run away, just to get the state of freedom (I have taken over responsibility during the time of marriage and felt to take care of it). In addition, how to explain such behavior (give notice and wait until the term of notice expired to get freedom and feel not any longer responsible for the everything I did together with my partner in the past) .... maybe somebody of you can help me how to explain this to my kids?

The "divorce" analogy keeps coming up in the Brexit debate but it could not be more false. The British people were persuaded to confirm Britain's entry into the "Common Market" (as the EEC was routinely described at the time) on the basis that it would have economic benefits. It was not a marriage. It was a "trade agreement" (that much misunderstood term which socialists and other statists seem to think means "an agreement authorising trade" whereas in truth – since trade is a basic human activity that needs no permission – means "an agreement to reduce government interference with trade"). The EEC as it was at the time was routinely spoken of as "the Common Market" and it takes very little research to find the press coverage, speeches and pamphlets of that era promising that it was nothing more than that. Here for example is an extract from the official government leaflet distributed before the 1975 referendum;

Remember: All the other countries in the Market [my emphasis] today enjoy, like us, democratically elected Governments answerable to their own Parliaments and their own voters. They do not want to weaken their Parliaments any more than we would."

Fact No. 3. The British Parliament in Westminster retains the final right to repeal the Act which took us into the Market on January 1, 1973. Thus our continued membership will depend on the continuing assent of Parliament.

"Fact No. 3" remains true as a simple matter of British constitutional law. Parliament is sovereign. It can do anything it damn well pleases (alas in many ways, but hurrah in this one). This is why I have said before that our Article 50 notice, observance of the two year exit period and participation in the farcical "negotiation" (which Juncker is trying to turn into a ritual humiliation to deter others thinking of leaving) is pure politeness. I think we should go through these motions because we have an interest in promoting the myth of "International Law." It's a myth very largely of our devising and is a  useful diplomatic construct to avoid conflict in future. However, if I were leading the negotiation on the British side, I would be watching like a hawk for a gaffe by Juncker and his team that would allow me to walk out without further ado. I have enough confidence in the abilities of our Civil Service (if not our politicians) to hope that is what the person actually leading the negotiation is doing. 

To return to my German friend's emotional plea on Facebook, I am astonished that a citizen of the greatest industrial power on Earth; a wealthy nation with a strong economy and vibrant culture would think of his country in such an odd way as to compare it to a spurned wife.  To me it seems frankly degrading but then "victimhood" is now in many ways the highest aspiration of modern Westerners. Perhaps this is Germany's Rachel Dolezal moment in which it sheds its unloved identity as a privileged white nation with a history of racist aggression and joins an "oppressed minority" in favour of which one must now positively discriminate?

If you insist on thinking of it as a marriage, then let's at least perfect the analogy. Britain was a reluctant bride. We didn't find the other member states attractive and were very reluctant to get in bed with them, but we wanted the financial benefits that the relationship promised to bring. Whereas my German friend seems to see the 27 as a spurned family to be supported by the errant, unfaithful husband, we see ourselves as a disappointed gold-digger who has been ****ed long enough by this ugly old brute and wants out.

In this week's Spectator there is a review by William Cook of a book called The Shortest History of Germany by James Hawes, which seems to go some way to explaining why Germans and Brits see Brexit so differently.  I have bought it and will be reading it but here's a passage quoted in the review;

…the solutions nations seek are shaped by past experience, and in this respect Germany and Britain could scarcely be less alike. Germans have been familiar with federal institutions ever since Charlemagne. Germany has only been a nation since 1871 and its experience of nationalism was a disaster. History has taught the British that we’re best off one step removed from Europe, whereas it has taught the Germans that they’re far better off as part of a supranational superstate. Really it’s a wonder that we agree about anything at all…

I have failed so far to persuade my Continental friends but I shall persist in explaining that we have not rejected Europe. We have not fallen out of love. We are not a heartless brute of a faithless husband casting one German wife and 26 children out into the cold to starve. We are their friend and want to remain so. We have done them much good in the past and will do them more. We will buy their Audis and their Camemberts just as we always have and will holiday in France and make pathetic schoolboy attempts at their language for their amusement while they relieve us of our money. Our rejection is not even of the "Common Market" as it was sold to us (though we have to leave it because they have tied it together with the rest of the plan) but of the federal dream (to them) and nightmare (to us) of a United States of Europe.

 


Am I alone in seeing in this a golden opportunity for Britain post-Brexit?

Apple faces €1bn bill for Irish tax loophole

Apple has conducted itself in Ireland in full compliance with Irish tax law. The so-called "loophole" (aka lawful structuring) was not something devious used deceptively but was well known to — and accepted by — the Irish tax authorities. The Irish government agrees that Apple has done nothing wrong and is embarrassed at being put into this invidious position.

The EU Commission — probably at the behest of the leaders of core EU "boss states" envious of the high-tech jobs Ireland's well-educated, English-speaking young workers are enjoying. — has argued, and the European Court has now decided, that the arrangements were illegal "state aid" and the Apple should pay up to €13bn in taxes neither it, its legal advisers nor the Irish tax authorities think is due. As an Irish politician has already commented, "they want us to tax Apple here on money made elsewhere".

There is no doubt that Apple, Inc. acted in good faith. Its shareholders (probably including you, gentle reader, if you have a pension plan, life assurance policy or other investment as few portfolios lack some holdings of the world's largest company) have every right to be furious at the EU's attempt to rewrite the laws in retrospect to their detriment.

Theresa May's government should make it clear that it will replicate whatever attractive arrangements Ireland had been offering in return for the relocation of Apple's European operations here. Under longstanding arrangements that predate EU free movement, Apple's existing Irish employees are able to move here without restriction and even vote in our elections. They will be most welcome.

Outside the statist, near fascist mindset of the EU, there is nothing to stop Britain abolishing corporation tax (a pointless tax anyway as the burden of it — as a company is a mere legal fiction — always falls in truth on its employees, shareholders or customers). Then watch all the great companies of Europe as well as the Americas move here to be based in a place with the rule of law, the greatest reservoir of international legal, accountancy and other expertise in the world, no retrospective legislation and with the world's financial centre at hand.

With the extra taxes earned not from stupid corporation tax but from the income tax of the new British companies' employees etc., the government could pay for the infrastructure and educational improvements required to make sure the country and the new corporate arrivals reap the long term benefits of their short term decision.


Can we change the subject yet?

Once again, leaving the UK does not get me away from the topic of Brexit. My Continental friends on Facebook are still burbling away about how (a) we're doomed without them because our economy will wither and die if not tied to their withering, dying economies and (b) they're doomed because we have given stupid ideas to their proles who must at all costs be ignored for fear of the return of fascism. Which is it guys? A big happy European family that we are being rude by leaving, or a seething mob of would-be fascists that we must help repress?

My Russian friends are asking questions too. They expressed mild amusement at the way President Putin was used by Remain as a bogeyman in the referendum campaign. Unfortunately that also reinforced their long-held and utterly-misguided view that the West lives its entire life in negative relationship to Russia. They imagine we think of them like SNP voters think of England; vicious, calculating hostiles who are the cause of every problem in our lives. I spent six years here trying to convince them that we were happy that Russia had rejoined the free world and wished it well. David Cameron blew that, along with everything else in his political career.

We had some discussion over drinks as to whether Brexit opened opportunities to ease economic sanctions which are hurting them almost as much as they are hurting us. The U.K. is correctly perceived to have been a sanctions hawk within both the EU and NATO. With us already out of the EU equation when it comes to forming policy, I suppose it's possible things may ease up. On the other hand, the sanctions that hurt the Russian elite the most are those applied through the City of London and Wall Street.

Perhaps it may help Russia to have a new party to talk to. However I have encountered no celebrations of the kind Cameron so dishonestly predicted.


Warsaw visit

SDS-1
Soldiers provide an honour guard at the tomb of the unknown solider in Warsaw, as they do 24 hours a day throughout the year.

I worked in Warsaw from 1992 to 2003 and have been visiting it in the past three days. Watching a nation rebuild itself on the smouldering ruins of a communist economy had, I think it's fair to say, a profound influence on my life. I had been a Leftist in my callow youth, was a mainstream Thatcherite Conservative when I arrived here in my early 30s but learned, as I watched the Polish people rebuild, that she had not gone nearly far enough. The sheer joyful power of unrestrained market forces was not something I had experienced in the grey, regulated, socialist Britain of that era. It was akin to magic as the invisible hand did its stuff.

In business we talk of "the hog cycle". Demand for pork rises and more farmers switch to pig farming to chase the profit. Supply rises to match demand and prices fall. Too many farmers switch and prices crash. Lots of pig farmers (especially the new, inexperienced ones) go bankrupt. Pig farming becomes unpopular as the risks become clear. Farmers switch to more promising products and supply falls until it meets demand and prices rise again. Farmers will not return immediately to raising pigs when prices rise again because the memory of the last cycle lingers. Only when a new generation that doesn't remember the last crash arrives does production rise again.

All the young people I worked with in early post Communist Poland had grown up in a socialist society with its shortages, corruption and oppression. They went to with a will to build a modern economy and achieved startling success. They had largely done it by the time I left Poland – the Remainers claiming that the EU rebuilt post-communist Eastern Europe don't know what they are talking about. Poles welcomed EU accession as a symbol of acceptance back into the free world but the business people and professionals I know here are – although the country is a net gainer from the EU budget – little more enthusiastic about it than the French and Germans. And let's not forget French and German polls suggest their voters think less of it than the British who may be about to leave!

The children of the youngsters I worked with are now young adults themselves. They regard the Communist era as pure history and are making political noises that suggest a hankering, at some level, for the "good old days". My friends can't understand it but it's really just the political version of the hog cycle. Freedom needs advocates in every generation, no matter how clear the lessons of history may seem to those who lived through it. No battle, however noble, is every finally won.

It was not a great time to visit with Brexit in the air. I wanted to hear about my old friends' careers, families and general health and welfare. They wanted to know if Britain was going to Leave, how I would vote and what were my reasons. Although I had no time to blog, I was talking politics all the time alas. Not least of course when I had a pre-lunch drink with Dick Puddlecote on Sunday! He happened to be in Warsaw for a harm reduction conference and it was good to catch up.

It was a great weekend. I am back in Britain tomorrow in readiness for referendum day.


The most dangerous man alive

Thomas Paine (January 29, 1737 – June 8, 1809) is my political hero. I didn't adopt his name as a nom de guerre because I agreed with all he wrote. I hubristically purloined it because I admired the force of his writing. "Common Sense" was the most influential pamphlet in the history of the world and - had the internet existed in the 18th Century - it would have been a blog post. In a vain (in both senses of the word) attempt at sympathetic magic, I hoped - when I began this blog over eleven years ago - that it might have half as much effect.

He left school at 12 and never went to university. He was an autodidact, spending spare cash on books and spare time on attending lectures and debates. It speaks to his greatness that he is claimed these days by both Left and Right - each conveniently ignoring those parts of his thought that don't match their thinking. He believed in society taking care of the weak and unfortunate but he did not confuse society in any way with the state. He was a sceptic when it came to government. He was reviled and assaulted in the USA he helped found because no sooner was the revolution over than he was attacking corruption in the new government. He was sentenced to death in Revolutionary France, where he sat in the National Assembly, for opposing the execution of the King and denouncing the Terror.

He died thinking himself a failure; disappointed with the outcomes of both the French and American revolutions and sad that he had not been able to incite one in England. But his words still echo. He proved that one person can make a difference if prepared to put his work before his safety. He's not alive any more but he's still dangerous. More so perhaps than the Lenin and Marx with whom Steinbeck once bracketed him. His ideas will live as long as free men breathe.

I was pleasantly surprised by the even-handed approach of Melvyn Bragg - a Labour luvvie if ever there was one - in presenting Paine's story in his "Radical Lives" series. I commend his programme to you. 


Melvyn Bragg's Radical Lives E02 Rights of Man... by DemonPreyer1 

At this moment of British Crisis, with rogues on both sides of the referendum debate playing on our fears, I also commend to you the words from Paine's American Crisis that Washington read aloud to his troops before the Battle of Trenton;

“These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value.” 

I will not lower myself to conscript the dead to my cause as both Leave and Remain have done with Thatcher and Churchill. For all I know, Paine might have supported the EU, while demanding more effectively than we have ever done the application of real democracy and the extirpation of corruption in its governance. Still, I feel sure that the emotional response of free men and women to the aristos of the European elite should be the same as that of Paine to the "asses for lions" of the 18th Century. Our modern aristos are self-selected, rather than picked at random by nature, but their contempt for the people they seek to rule and their sense of entitlement to lord it over us, is every bit as profound. They should meet the same fate and I hope - in my own name not Tom's - that June 23rd begins their procession to a figurative guillotine.


On not over Stating our case

My Sunday Times today has an article about the booze culture of Westminster. It's an interesting enough piece but what struck me most was the title; "Drunk in charge of the nation". Are our political leaders — drunk or sober — really in charge? Does the government "run the economy?"

The Executive and its minions in the Civil Service run the state. The Legislature determines (directly, or by delegation to Quangos or treaty organisations) the extent of that state's rôle in the affairs of the nation. The Judiciary adjudicates disputes both between citizens and between citizen and state. But the state and the nation are not the same thing.

The British state is undoubtedly too big, too costly, too intrusive, too wasteful, too stupid and generally too big for its boots but we, the more or less willingly governed, are the nation. The state and its employees are our — more or less humble — servants. The money they mostly squander comes from (or in the case of its drunken sailor borrowings is underwritten by) the private sector in the broadest sense of the term. Everyone who pays taxes from earnings *not* paid to them by taxpayers funds the state.

The state is to some extent a necessary cost to the nation. In Britain, as in the rest of the free world, political debate largely turns upon the "someness" of that extent.

In that crucial debate, confusing the ideas of "state" and "nation" helps statists. It allows them to brand as disloyal any opposition to state projects. I certainly saw that during my days in Russia where the ruling kleptocracy allows no such distinction. Though the Russian nation is as cultured, enterprising and lovable as the Russian state is vile, vulgar and putrid the fallacy that to oppose the state is unpatriotic prevents rational debate. In truth, as Edward Abbey (and not, as mistakenly suggested on the Internet, my illustrious namesake) said

A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.

We anti-statists don't help clarify this state/nation confusion by constantly focussing on the centrality of the state. Almost everything that's good about our nation; its culture, its wealth, its inventiveness, its civil society, its philanthropy, its charity, even its sport flourishes in spite, not because, of the great bloated parasite that hectors, lectures, condescends to and tyrannises us.

In our darkest moments perhaps we should remind each other that our nation may not flourish as it deserves because of our defective state, but that it still flourishes. Only a healthy beast could gambol on with such an enormous bloodsucking parasite draining its vitality. Certainly not one that was "run" or "controlled" by it.


Second thoughts

I gave up political blogging for selfish reasons. I felt I had said my piece, that's true. I was afraid of repeating myself, that's also true. But I found it stressful, was dispirited and was seeking to avoid personal conflict with those around me (i.e. most people in my circle) who do not share my views. My career had ended. My marriage had ended with the death of my wife. The life I had known was over. Throwing my blog onto the burning longboat seemed natural.

There are important developments in the political world - some of them encouraging. In a democracy every humble voice should matter but to matter, it must first be heard. There is still no political party in Britain that wants to hear views like mine. I don't own a newspaper or a TV station but I do still have a blog. Candle, darkness, curse etc.

After giving up political blogging I attended an event at the Adam Smith Institute. A few young people inclined to a liberty-driven view of politics were kind enough to buy me a drink and tell me they had had enjoyed reading my posts here. Their own intellect and studies had led them to where they stood politically, but it was good to feel I had encouraged them a little. I have often thought about that since and smiled.

I have also enjoyed reading and watching Trevor Phillips, formerly of the National Union of Students (where I first encountered him in the 1970's) and latterly of the Equalities Commission, express Guardian-annoying views in the past couple of years. It's probably coincidence of course (or a good example of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacybut these views seem to have emerged since an encounter with him at a Battle of Ideas event.

I have strong feelings (and some relevant experience) on the subject of the EU. The voice of the late Mrs Paine has been in my ear on that subject. Years ago, she asked me to stop talking about it because (a) I was becoming a bore and (b) there was no hope of change. But she would have thought it odd for me not to speak about it when there is a chance to fix what she always viewed as an historic national error.

Many drops of water, over time, can form a canyon. Perhaps I owe a duty to drip a little more?


Breaking News

I have nothing constructive to say on Ukraine. You may imagine, given my years living in Moscow where this blog began, and given the news from former colleagues in my old firm's Kiev office, that I am pretty depressed by the news.

I have spent my years since I left Russia telling people to forget what they thought they knew and believe in the future of a cultured, civilised and friendly people. I still believe that's what they are, but their system for choosing leaders - and restraining them once they are chosen - seems to be as catastrophic as ever it was.

Whatever else Vladimir Putin thinks he is up to, he has restored every thuggish stereotype of Russia in an instant. Time will tell if the Cold War is back, but there's no doubt now that Francis Fukuyama made a major fool of himself when he published this book.

The BBC is reporting that Putin has said there is no need to send in troops yet. They are of course already there, but Russia and the West are pretending they are not; each for its own reasons. My favourite miliblogger, Sean Linnane, clarifies that for us, commenting;

Always some guy in the unit who can't figure out what "sterile" fatigues means

Before Russia I lived in Poland for eleven years and you can imagine how many "I told you so's" I am hearing from my friends there. I apologise publicly to those I called paranoid about Russia. Przepraszam.

Amid those communications however came one Polish joke about what's going on. Enjoy! (click to enlarge)

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Translation: In view of the situation in the Ukraine, France has surrendered.