Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Europe appears to have a severe shortage of both sticks and carrots

 

Some Eurocratic wit – it may have been the unusual British diplomat Robert Cooper – was the first to define the EU motto on foreign policy as: “Speak softly but carry a big carrot.” In the scornful view of several MPs, that was about as far as the Europeans had gone in standing up to Russia over Ukraine.

In the aftermath of Vladimir Putin’s statement declaring Crimea a “sovereign and independent state” – it’s reassuring to know that the old tsarist habit of issuing draconian decrees has survived through the Soviet era to the present day – there were MPs across the party divide in favour of wielding the big stick instead.

Among those questioning the widespread consensus – held by William Hague and his supportive shadow, Douglas Alexander, and others – that military options were a non-starter, Labour’s Chris Bryant promised MPs that he was “not arguing for war” but contrasted the approach to Russia with that of not ruling out military action against Iran.

“I want to ask now why we ruled out any military intervention, in whatever set of circumstances… from the very beginning of Putin’s advances into Ukraine,” he said.

The right-wing Tory Gerald Howarth went even further. Noting that Russia was “repeatedly” conducting exercises on Ukraine’s border, he suggested: “Nato should have a maritime exercise in the Black Sea to serve notice on the Russians: ‘You do not go near Odessa.’”

The problem with these threats from the safety of the Commons, however, is that they had the ring of the old Glasgow bar-room joke: “You want a fight? I’ll hold your coat.” Former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who condemned the “pathetic and feeble” measures so far taken by the EU, did not suggest military measures.

Instead Rifkind, who in the 1980s played a key ministerial role in Margaret Thatcher’s “Ostpolitik”, culminating in her political love affair with Mikhail Gorbachev, urged real financial sanctions which would oblige Putin “to live with a Russian economy in which no other part of the world would invest and in which billions were coming off the Russian stock exchange”.

You didn’t need to be a Bletchley decoder to realise he meant sanctions that might actually hurt the City of London.

Far from being alone in invoking pre-Second World War appeasement, Rifkind, speaking as usual without a note, added: “We must be able to look ourselves in the eye and say that we did all that we could… to ensure that the horrors of the 1930s were not repeated, not in exactly the same form, but in a form that will damage European security and stability for a generation to come.”

Against this background, it was pretty brave of his fellow Tory Sir Edward Leigh to be the lone voice appealing to MPs to appreciate the “sensibilities” of Russians over Ukraine.

Declaring an interest – namely his absorption with Russian history and culture “since my wedding to my Russian Orthodox wife” – Leigh insisted that he was neither “pro Russian nor pro-Ukrainian” but said: “We must stop playing power games. It is too dangerous a situation, and the West must realise that it cannot tear Ukraine away from Russia.”

Earlier, Hague had been at his most eloquent in warning, more sharply than before, that there is a “grave risk that we have not seen the worst of this crisis” and that “the credibility of the international order would be at stake” if it did not stand up to Putin’s “profound breach of international agreement”.

But while he promised that Britain would push for further EU sanctions, he acknowledged only that “preparation is under way” for the kind of measures that might satisfy Rifkind.

So Hague spoke not softly but harshly. It was hard, nevertheless, at the end of the debate to escape the feeling that faced with Putin’s determination, the Europeans lack a carrot, let alone – so far at least – a big stick.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Sport
footballLive blog: Follow the action from the Capital One Cup semi-final
Life and Style
food + drink
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
2015 General Election
May2015

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Intervention Teacher Required To Start ASAP.

£125 - £150 per day + Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: A 'wonderful primary ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Maths Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Our client is an 11-16 mixed commun...

Recruitment Genius: PHP / Drupal / SaaS Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly developing company in...

Ashdown Group: Application Architect/Developer - Peterborough

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Application Architect/Developer - Peterborough, Cam...

Day In a Page

Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century