‘New’ and ‘Old’ Europe are at loggerheads

So many of the gains made in Europe, Russia and the US have been lost thanks to how we all handled the Ukrainian crisis

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The hue and cry surrounding Ukip has dominated coverage of the European Parliament elections in Britain, to the exclusion of almost everything else. It is not just other aspects of the European vote that have been crowded out here, however, but Sunday’s presidential election in Ukraine. This, probably more even than these European elections, has the capacity to determine not just whether there will be peace or war in Ukraine, but also the future shape of the whole region.

We should all be grateful that the propaganda war that so dominated the airwaves – from the US through all Europe and Russia – has died down in the past couple of weeks. Russia’s tentative support for the election – to produce a legitimate successor to the fugitive Viktor Yanukovych – and Moscow’s hints that it will recognise the result offer some of the last shreds of hope that Ukraine will remain one country. The country is now awash with observers. An effective boycott by part, or all, of eastern Ukraine would be damaging and possibly fatal. But at this stage there is little outsiders can do except cross their fingers.

A greater difficulty, however, is that although Washington, Brussels and Moscow all seem to have drawn back from the brink, at least for the moment, the longstanding divisions that have surfaced in Ukraine over the past half year have revived all the post-Cold War divisions outside Ukraine that had been healing. At a conference in Bratislava last week – the first international security conference in the region since the toppling of Yanukovych in Kiev – those divisions were clear for all to see.

“New” Europe and “Old” Europe are at loggerheads again about the extent and nature of the threat that may be posed by Russia. “New” Europeans insist that they were always right to be fearful of Russia, right to join Nato and right about the need for more (American) military protection, specifically missile defence. “Old” Europe is by and large more circumspect, and not just because it has economic ties to lose. There is an inkling of an understanding that Russia’s security fears may have played a role in its recent actions and are only increased by a more aggressive stance from Nato. It hardly needs to be said that this view is not shared by Poland and the Baltic states.

There are divisions, too, among the “new” Europeans, with disagreement among the Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians and Poles about how much, if at all, they should be ready to up their own defence spending – for fear that this would jeopardise their economic growth – and how far it might be legitimate (in principle) to intervene to protect ethnic brethren in another country. Just a year ago, these four countries were talking cheerfully, and seriously, about military as well as economic co-operation. Now the tone is more conditional.

The old divisions have emerged, too, between “old” Europe and the US, not only about the best way of dealing with Russia, but also about the role – if any – of the US in Europe. President Obama may still be intent on his “pivot” (or rebalancing) to Asia, but US troops are returning to Europe, along with investment in expensive anti-missile and other installations.

Disagreement about the future of Ukraine has reversed most of the gains – in attitudes and co-operation – that had brought Europe, Russia and the US to an approximate consensus about the future of Europe. That is an enormous, and probably irreversible, loss.

France is finally in the thick of it

The French, at least in recent times, have not been particularly inclined to laugh at themselves, and especially not at their political institutions. TV programmes, dramas and their cinematic spin-offs – such as Yes, Minister, The Thick of It and The West Wing – have remained pretty much an Anglo-Saxon pursuit. But help, as it might be said, is on the way, in the form of Quai d’Orsay, a film based on a satirical comic-strip book about the French foreign ministry that became an improbable French hit.

Shown to an appreciative audience under the auspices of the French embassy in London recently – and deserving wider circulation over here – it might be loosely based on the former French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, and his much-praised UN speech in opposition to the Iraq war. Might be, but of course neither I nor anyone connected with the French foreign ministry could possibly comment.

The film, directed by Bernard Tavernier, follows a young speechwriter, Arthur, recruited to introduce some modern pizzazz into the minister’s communications – the minister, Alexandre Taillard de Vorms, being a high intellectual, poet and womaniser whose thinking is swayed by the last person he speaks to. We are treated to a foreign ministry where access to the internet is banned, leading the chief civil servant to keep a PC in the safe for use in the event of crisis; a building with endless ceremonial halls, but no office space for its latest recruit, and a tense discussion among the Quai’s crème de la crème about the exact time difference between Washington and Paris. 

All’s well, of course, that ends well. But if Quai d’Orsay sets a trend for political satire across the Channel, that is all to the good. A nation that can laugh at itself and its elite – whether that reflects just a passing popular cynicism, or a more enduring, and healthier, disrespect for power – is the stronger for it.

Theresa May was right: the police got what they deserved

The Home Secretary stunned the Police Federation into silence when she used her speech this week to tear strips off the organisation – akin to a police officers’ trade union – and announced that it will have to rely on its own income, rather than money from the taxpayer.

Theresa May did not hold back. She catalogued the shortcomings of the police – from Hillsborough, through Stephen Lawrence and Plebgate – and threw back at the federation its prediction that reduced spending on the police would lead to an escalation in crime. The figures – collected by the police themselves, whether you believe them or not – show that crime has actually fallen.

This all seemed good sound stuff. So why was her tour de force not allowed to stand on its own merits rather being reported as new evidence of May’s further political ambitions? Just because a woman stands up and makes her case assertively does not mean she has an ulterior motive. It might mean that she is serious about what she is saying: in this case the need to reform the police. That message should not be obscured.

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