Charles Marquand | Amid Europe tumult, will UK rejoin single market?

The Asian Age.  | Charles Marquand

Opinion, Columnists

If Mr Putin loses, Russia’s weaknesses will be glaringly obvious and he will probably be finished.

Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Photo: AFP)

It’s been a long while since I last wrote for these pages and much has happened since. Two major events stand out, one at each end of the European continent. First and most dramatic is the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February last year. To wind the clock back: in 2014, Russian forces seized the Crimea from Ukraine. The territory was swiftly incorporated into Russia. There were protestations and condemnation, but little practical effort was made to stop Russia.

That was a real-time demonstration by Russian President Vladimir Putin of his worldview. There are great powers and there are lesser ones. Might is right. Winner takes all. And as for Ukraine, it is not a real country. Ukraine is really Russia, Ukrainians are really Russians, and Ukraine should return to the motherland.

Mr Putin’s justification is of course insulting in its absurdity. To dare to venture a comparison: it is the equivalent of a British leader claiming that since India was under British rule for two centuries it should now be forced to return to the fold of the British empire, because this is what Indians really want and where India really belongs.

However, Mr Putin’s invasion goes far beyond differing historiographies. It is a gross violation. When the news broke it came as a surprise. It should not have, given what had gone before. But it also provoked a gut reaction — at least in me. There have of course been many invasions in many parts of the world during my lifetime. Perhaps they should have provoked similar feelings, but they did not. Russia’s actions felt different. This was an attack on my territory — Europe — and on my ideals — liberal and internationalist. In some atavistic way I felt I had to take up arms to defend Ukraine. Its resistance was, is, our resistance. Of course, going to fight was clearly mad and absurd. Middle-aged and with no military experience whatsoever, I would be a danger to myself and those around me. But interestingly, speaking to male friends and acquaintances of roughly the same age, I learned that they too had had similar feelings.

As the war grinds on, and as Russian forces engage in wanton destruction, torture and the execution of Ukrainians, it is clear that Mr Putin has failed. He has done more than anyone else to forge a Ukrainian identity, an affinity with the rest of Europe, and a desire to do things differently: cooperation and mutual respect rather than domination and force of arms. If Mr Putin loses, Russia’s weaknesses will be glaringly obvious and he will probably be finished. Even if Russia wins on the battlefield, which appears increasingly unlikely, Mr Putin will rule over a people who hate and despise him and all he stands for.

Europe should have done stood up to Mr Putin in 2014. It is now paying the price for not having done so. That it makes it all the more imperative that Europe stands up to Mr Putin now; since this is a war for Europe’s soul.

At the other end of the continent, we have the absurdity of Brexit. On January 31, 2020, the UK formally left the European Union: the sunlit uplands of fond Brexiter imagination beckoned. Unfortunately, in reality, the UK is still very much stuck in the dank foothills. There is always an excuse: first the Covid-19 pandemic, then Ukraine, now the burdensome legacy-EU regulations. None of these excuses holds water. They apply equally to the countries of the EU. Yet somehow the UK’s economy is the worst performing in the G-20, above only Russia’s — not much to boast of. Mark Carney, former Bank of England governor, provoked Brexiter ire a couple of months ago when he pointed out that in 2016 — before the Brexit referendum — the UK’s economy was 90 per cent of the size of Germany’s and now it is only 70 per cent. Brexiter commentators trotted out convoluted arguments about the impact of sterling’s devaluation to explain this inconvenient fact. They forget of course that the devaluation itself was the direct consequence of Brexit. No convincing counter-argument has been forthcoming — but then many Brexiters have never really been fully paid-up members of the reality-based community. Myths and make-believe are so much easier to deal with than facts.

This tendency can take grotesque forms. Shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Boris Johnson then Britain’s Prime Minister, claimed that Ukraine’s fight for freedom from Russian domination was akin to the British fight to free itself from the EU. I told this to some Ukrainian lawyers I met in March last year in Paris. Their sense of offence and incomprehension at this crass comparison was palpable.

Liz Truss, Mr Johnson’s successor, was no better. She claimed not to know whether President Emmanuel Macron of France was a “friend or foe”. Alliterative maybe, ignorant and insulting certainly. There are of course myriad cultural, social, personal, and commercial ties between the two countries. But more than that, the UK and France — Europe’s only serious military powers — have very close defence ties. These have led to joint combat operations and, not least, arrangements for the joint testing of nuclear warheads.

Next up, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Unlike his two predecessors he is discreet and, mercifully, not prone to public gaffe and insult. But he is a Brexiter and cannot or will not admit that Brexit was a mistake of monumental proportions. Until autumn last year, avoidance of the subject was a feasible stance. Apart from a few lone voices no one in public life was prepared to point out that the emperor has no clothes. Since then, the lone voices have been joined by many more. They include commentators, business and politicians, mostly recently Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London. They call for the government to recognise the harm caused by Brexit and for the UK to rejoin the European single market. So far, they have been ignored by the government. And the Labour Party Opposition cringes and repeats the mantra that it can “make Brexit work”. It can’t. No one can. The UK is fewer than 35 km from one of the largest economies in the world. These are geopolitical facts that cannot be wished away. It is a colossal act of national self-harm to maintain trading barriers with it.

So, Europe starts 2023 as it left 2022: a tragedy at one end, a farce at the other. Let’s hope that humanity returns in the East and rationality in the West.