Colin Freeman, the Telegraph’s fine chief foreign correspondent, made a remarkable claim the other day that merits wider attention. What, he asked, was Britain’s view on the crisis in Ukraine? The answer was revealing for many reasons, not the least of which being the extent to which eurosceptic myopia has, according to Freeman, caused Britain to misjudge the dramatic events unfolding in Kiev and elsewhere. According to Freeman:
The depth of Euro-scepticism in Britain meant it cared little either way when Ukraine was gearing up last year to sign an EU trade agreement that would have brought it out of the Russian orbit. In Downing Street, the view was that Europe’s outer borders were already quite extended enough. So when Ukraine failed to sign the deal, following pressure from Mr Putin, No 10 deemed it a blow only to empire-builders in Brussels.
If true – and there is little reason to doubt Freeman’s sources – this is, as I say, both remarkable and revealing. Wrong and stupid, too.
It suggests that Downing Street believed – perhaps still believes – that the battle for the Ukraine is a zero sum game between the European Union and Vladimir Putin. A kind of Iran-Iraq War on the Dnieper in which Downing Street and the FCO hoped both sides might lose. At the very least better a stalemate than a clear victory for either side.
Perhaps this should not surprise us. There are, after all, plenty of Conservatives (and Kippers, of course) happy to talk about something called the EUSSR. In one of many such examples, Janet Daley once suggested that with regard to Europe ‘our hope can only be that the peoples of the EU will one day walk out from under their oppressors, just as the people of the Warsaw Pact walked out from under theirs.’
I suppose it is too much to expect that she, or anyone else minded to witter on about the EUSSR might reconsider the comparison given the slaughter of recent days. I suspect it is because Europhobia – Euroscepticism is much too mild a term – knows no bounds.
Of course the situation in the Ukraine is complicated. The country is divided and no-one thinks Victor Yanukovych lacked support when he came to power. Nor does anyone fail to forget that the opposition are not without blemishes of their own. There are good reasons for a cautious approach.
But if Downing Street really drew some comfort from the breakdown of the EU’s trade talks with Kiev – a satisfying rebuke to the little empire-builders in Brussels – then this is both small-minded and depressing. Even, perhaps, humiliating.
I am not surprised that the likes of Peter Hitchens don’t care about the Ukraine or its people but you might hope the British government could take a bigger, broader, deeper view.
If it is not quite so simple as endorsing (almost) anyone who happens to make life difficult for Vladimir Putin, it is nearly that simple. Europe offers the Ukraine a better future than Russia does. As Charles Crawford, formerly our man in Warsaw, writes in the Telegraph today:
The wise way forward now is to look again at some of those bold ideas that emerged when the Cold War ended, and open discussions on a new historical deal between the EU, Ukraine and Russia complementing the Transatlantic Free Trade Area discussions now proceeding between Brussels and Washington.
Security guarantees might be included, ruling out further enlargement of Nato and other confidence-building gestures. The core of this process would be a shared understanding that both the EU and Russia need to modernise their attitudes, with the European Union also committing to changing its structures to create flexible membership-lite options for countries such as Ukraine and Turkey and maybe, in due course, Russia itself. Who knows, maybe this process could also help the UK itself define a different relationship.
Such a project would be fiendishly complicated to set up. It would drag on for years. But it would have significant strategic advantages. After centuries of war and misery, all Europeans at long last would be sitting around a table to work out where and what Europe actually is. And all European governments would have a say in deciding the outcome, rather than letting violent events on the streets of Ukraine – and perhaps later in western or central Europe and up into Russia if this one is badly mishandled – take their course.
Fiendishly complicated understates the matter, of course, but there we have it. Any such process will be a challenge for the EU too and many of the arguments will be difficult and even the best-case solutions flawed. That is the way of such things.
Nevertheless, the prize is a great one and one that you’d think the British government would want to pursue. But it cannot play a part in this game if its view is determined by short-sighted Euroscepticism. Opting-out is an option but it is one that comes at some cost. To the Ukraine, to Europe and, in the end, to the United Kingdom too.