European nations are too cowardly to stand up to President Putin - and you can't blame them, when their economies are so fragile
By Janet Daley
First Published in the Daily Telegraph 26 Jul 2014. Republished for The Atlantic Council of the United Kingdom by permission.
Well, now we know what a common EU foreign policy would look like: an unedifying charade of bickering, followed by mutual recrimination, ending in paralysis, with only Britain prepared to take any genuine action. Why does this not surprise me?
As Russia swaggers across the world stage, stopping just short of firing a revolver in the air in belligerent defiance, the great fellowship of European nations descends into ineffectual procrastination, laced with internecine sniping and name-calling. The French will go on selling their warships to Putin’s rogue empire, and the Germans will remain his faithful gas customers. It seems that not even the deaths of hundreds of their fellow Europeans will cause them to rethink those arrangements. So much for being a model for the preservation of peace and social solidarity.
In a speech in Glasgow last week, David Cameron was still somehow maintaining that being a member of the EU allowed Britain to “punch above its weight in the world”. Seriously? We scarcely seem able to hold our own in the ring with our European partners. When Mr Cameron suggested that it was unacceptable for France to be providing warships to a Russian regime that was militarily undermining Ukraine, a democratic sovereign state that once saw the EU as its friend, he was publicly accused by the French of “hypocrisy”.
This is the kind of undiplomatic language that is generally not even allowed to leak from summit meetings. Angela Merkel, who may still be nursing the delusion that she has some special rapport with Putin – even though he clearly lied to her over his intentions on eastern Ukraine – will not co-operate with any serious programme of sanctions because Germany’s economy is too fragile and too dependent on Russia.
For his pains then, Mr Cameron will, truly honourably, watch his own country carry the burden of punishing Russia for its criminal behaviour through financial penalties that will damage the City. Britain will make the sacrifices – and it will be characteristically admirable to do so. And the effect of our (and the Government’s) commitment to this course of action will be in spite of our membership of the EU, not because of it. Europe’s ignominious failure to rise to what should be seen as the most serious threat to world stability in a generation is worse than appeasement. It is now helping to arm and to enrich a regime that is unashamedly providing advanced weaponry to gangs of criminal terrorists – which seems a long way from the idealistic vision of a Europe whose economic interdependence and political union would be a permanent protection against war.
In fact, it is the original members of the pact, France and Germany, whose interests will always dominate any “common” policy that the EU cobbles together. Britain’s voice – far from being strengthened – will be drowned out (sometimes in a cacophony of insults) rather than amplified by its membership of the club. Will any of this cause Washington to have second thoughts about its bizarre belief that it is somehow in American interests for Britain to remain in the EU? The Obama administration (and a slew of Republicans, too) castigates Europe for being utterly useless in its response to the downing of the Malaysia Airlines flight and the hideous aftermath, which has prevented the victims’ remains from being treated with even basic decency, and still the lesson appears not to have been learnt.
Europe will not and cannot act as an effective entity whose policy might be influenced – as America hopes – by British principle. There can be no decisive unified foreign policy emanating from the EU because it is nothing more nor less than a collection of separate nation states, each with its own historical memory and its own economic imperatives.
At which point, it is only fair to say that there is nothing invidious about the decision of the German government – whose national economic recovery is dubious, to say the least – to refuse to reduce its imports of gas and oil from Russia. It is the proper business of elected governments to put the present needs of their own populations first.
In this case, that decision may be terrifyingly short-term and ill-considered in its consequences but it is not without democratic legitimacy. (Much as the decision of the US not to intervene in Syria, while being dangerous in the long term and carrying dreadful moral implications, was not without justification: a democratic leader, whatever his views, cannot dismiss overwhelming public opposition.) Even the indefatigably arrogant French may be excused – a bit – by the dire state of their finances and the need to preserve the jobs of those shipbuilders who will be helping to arm an imperial Russia.
So much of this collective cowardice comes back to the EU structure itself: it is the failure of the eurozone to recover that makes the governments of the EU so desperately self-serving. What re-stabilising of their economies has occurred has been the result of a massive money-printing programme and an influx of cheap labour. There has been no permanent solution to the endemic problems of over-spending and low productivity. The EU is powerless in the world because it is crippled by its own insoluble difficulties.
If American exasperation does not lead it to a reassessment of the value of the European project and Britain’s place in it, what about the rest of the world? It is perfectly clear what lesson Russia will draw from this pusillanimous retreat, which saw the EU unprepared to make a proper stand even over the bodies of its innocent dead. Putin has won another round. His popularity at home – helped by a controlled media churning out paranoid fantasy about Western conspiracies to frame him – is soaring. What effect there may be from Europe’s feeble sanctions policy will be cheap at the price. He is apparently even now increasing his weapon transfers to the Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, having annexed Crimea so effortlessly. Just as the Ukraine forces had begun to get the upper hand, American intelligence reports that greater supplies of heavy weaponry are coming across the border from Russia. The US ambassador in Kiev, Geoffrey Pyatt, has said that the Kremlin is “pouring gasoline on the fire”.
And why shouldn’t it? All the noisy condemnation from the world seems to amount to nothing: what this is all about in the end is who has the gas and oil that everybody needs. (Ironically, this is just what the Left used to say about America’s invasion of Iraq: it’s all about the oil.) So yes, Russia will certainly learn from this. And so will the hapless Ukrainians who thought they had reason to believe that their friends in the EU – who seemed so welcoming – and their helpful protectors in Nato would stand by them. They will have learnt something, too.