Never underestimate Vladimir Putin, and certainly never underestimate his advisers. Well before the first Russian rockets exploded in metropolitan Kiev, he had achieved a major foreign policy success by sabotaging the EU’s ability to present a united front against him. Ever since the days of Gerhard Schroeder, Russia had deftly weaponised German politicians’ commitment to Ostpolitik and German people’s desire for a comfortable bourgeois life, and this undoubtedly paid off. Before the invasion the EU’s paymaster was less than enthusiastic about sanctions when reminded of the sunk costs of Nord Stream 2 and its short-sighted but temporarily lucrative decision to depend both on Russian gas and the profits it made by selling the machinery to extract it. Even after the invasion Germany took some persuading to support removing Russia from the Swift financial network.
Nor was the attack only economic; Putin successfully invoked the culture war too. Sympathy with Russia attracted the left who mistrusted the EU as a neoliberal conspiracy, the far right who saw it as an anti-national caucus, and leaders such as Viktor Orbán whose style of government Brussels overtly deprecated and sought to undermine. This no doubt explains why last December the vote on a European parliament resolution calling on Russia to back away from Ukraine and for Europe to disengage from its dependence on Russia was decisive but far from overwhelming: of 705 MEPs, 54 abstained and 69 actually voted against.
Yesterday, with the full enormity of Putin’s incursion apparent, the EU went on the attack. It backed a proposed resolution of the European parliament condemning the invasion in the strongest terms. At first sight this move seems to have succeeded. Although the parliament was far from packed for the endless series of largely platitudinous speeches (the Victorian House of Commons this isn’t: under the parliament’s rules individual MEPs get precisely one minute to gabble their lines), dissent was muted. When it came to the vote, abstentions stood at 26, with only 13 actually voting against. The latter came mainly from the left, and from their social media accounts most sounded rather like 1960s CND survivors, condemning aggression but saying violence was never the answer (one Portuguese Communist, João Pimenta Lopes, charmingly retweeted an evocative picture of American and British warplanes armed to the teeth and compared apparently unfavourably to a Portuguese craft towing a banner saying ‘F*** off Putin’). Thankfully however, on this occasion most of the far right, from groups as France’s Rassemblement national and Austria’s Freedom party, abstained.
So far so good; the EU is increasingly speaking with one voice. But it’s more complicated than that. European parliament resolutions aren’t simple motions you have to take or leave as a whole. In the manner of many European Union documents, they are divided into lots of parts (in this case about 50) expressing views on specific issues; and in Brussels you get to vote on each of these separately as well as on any amendments. And here the story is rather different. One would have thought an amendment stating that the parliament ‘pays tribute to the tremendous courage shown by the people of Ukraine, their heroic president Volodymyr Zelensky and the brave soldiers who are defending their country against the Russian invaders; calls on the free World to support their struggle for peace and freedom with all means at its disposal’, was pretty uncontroversial. But it did not fare so well. Although it did attract a majority from the centre parties, 64 MEPs abstained, including nearly all the right-wing and most of the non-aligned members; and no less than 171 voted against it.
Furthermore, one very interesting amendment was actually lost. Part 3, accusing Russia of serious violations of international law and the UN Charter, was passed. But it had been beefed up by the conservative ECR Group with an amendment stating that Russia had thereby become a rogue state. The list of party caucuses for whom this statement of the apparently obvious was too much is sobering. It included not only the entire left and a large proportion of the ultramontane right, but also almost all of the Greens; all but a handful of the Socialists and Democrats; and all but one of Renew, supposedly the most pro-European of all the groups in the parliament. In the event, this proposition was defeated by 396 to 269.
So perhaps it’s more accurate to say that while yesterday’s vote will be welcomed in Brussels, it will not be that unwelcome in the Kremlin either. And this could be a problem if and when it comes to negotiations between Russia, Ukraine and the EU. True, there may not as yet be a large caucus of Russophiles in the EU: the apparent desire of large numbers of the European great and good to appease and placate Putin rather than offend or openly oppose him most probably results from a dreary combination of pacifism, indolence and plain cowardice. Nevertheless, for the moment the signs are not good for anyone on the European side who believes in promoting muscular democracy and national self-determination and in the occasional necessity to fight for them. Even if some MEPs, especially those from the eastern European states, did not pull their punches when speaking to the parliament, worrying numbers of representatives from the ‘old’, western, EU seemed far more interested in chasing consensus and avoiding provocation rather than actually standing up to a tyrant.
It’s difficult to know what Putin will make of this. But he may well conclude two things. One is that in the end the EU, for all Ursula von der Leyen’s bluster, may well accept a fait accompli in Ukraine. The other may be a faint regret that Britain, now free of the necessity to toe the EU line, is more likely to prove a continuing and tiresome thorn in Putin’s side.
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