The Big Questions: Is Vladimir Putin rebuilding the Soviet Union? How will the populist parties fare in the European elections?

This week's questions answered by former director of the LSE Anthony Giddens

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The Independent Online

There is much talk of Western impotence in the face of Russia’s actions in Crimea. Is that how you see things?

“The West” is no longer a single entity, if it ever was. There is an array of actors jostling for influence. They include the US, the EU’s foreign affairs agency, the leading states of the EU, Nato and, further afield, the UN. The diversity of individuals and groups involved is one reason why a co-ordinated and effective policy response is proving difficult to achieve, quite apart from the complexity of the issues on the ground inside Ukraine. Mr Putin has been able to act much more decisively thus far, but he also has his weaknesses and fallibilities.

To what extent is Russia under Vladimir Putin just the Soviet Union reborn?

The Soviet Union is gone for ever and there is no chance of its return. Russia is a country of only 140 million people today and one whose population is shrinking. Its economy is based substantially upon its mineral resources and only limited progress has been made with modernisation and diversification. There are clear continuities of leadership style between Putin and his communist predecessors, but very marked differences too, because of the influence of the oligarchs and the role of private capital. I don’t think Putin’s project of rebuilding a Russian-dominated analogue to the EU will work. But he may very well be able to establish a protectorate of sorts in the Crimea, and such is clearly his aim.

Has the EU overplayed its hand in courting a country with such eastward-looking roots as Ukraine?

The EU has actively sought to influence the future of Ukraine and to draw the country into its orbit. There is no choice now but to back up the overtures made with concrete actions, including the provision of large-scale funding given the fact that the country is effectively bankrupt. It will be an extremely difficult path to tread. The situation in Ukraine is potentially chaotic, with consequences that could overflow the country’s borders. Without determined action – and effective pressure to political and economic reform within the country – the promise of positive change that is clearly there after the events of the past few days could vanish.

Angela Merkel has been keen to emphasise Britain’s centrality to the European project. Is she just flattering us?

Angela Merkel is the informal “president” of the EU. For better or for worse, she wields more power than any other European figure. Her influence will be needed in responding to the crisis in the Ukraine as well as in the more mundane task of keeping the UK inside the union. When she came to London, she told it like it is. Should he be re-elected, David Cameron has no chance of getting treaty change to be able to repatriate further powers to Britain. Some sort of facing-saving formula might be on the cards, but that is all. Even this won’t be easy to achieve. Thus member states such as Romania, Croatia or Bulgaria are likely to try to block any attempts to reduce freedom of movement across the EU or impose restrictions on access to welfare benefits.

How do you view Ofcom’s decision to grant Ukip equal broadcast coverage ahead of the European elections?

It is a fair decision. Ukip now has widespread support and gives voice to views quite widely held. I’m a strong pro-European, but to me Ukip and the populist parties in other EU countries voice concerns that all of us should be preoccupied with. The populists in an odd way are doing pro-Europeans a favour. They are helping to ensure that these will be the first genuinely “European” elections ever held. For the first time, they are likely to be focused mainly upon transnational rather than local issues. A European political space is being created.

And after those elections, will the EU’s raison d’être be strengthened or weakened?

The populist parties are certain to be strongly represented in the European Parliament after the May elections. But “populism” is a vague category and the parties grouped under that label have widely different ideologies. Ukip, for example, has rejected co-operation with some of the other Eurosceptic parties, such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France. The populists will not form any sort of consolidated bloc. The most likely outcome will be that the Parliament will be dominated by the centre-left, since the populists will attract votes mainly from the orthodox parties of the right – including, of course, the Conservatives.

Would it be right for a newly independent Scotland to gain automatic membership of the EU? And is it likely?

When he visited the UK, the President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, laid things on the line just like Ms Merkel did. Should Scotland separate from the rest of Britain, he made clear, its incorporation into the EU would be far from automatic. All 28 member states would have to endorse Scotland’s membership as an independent country. Several, most notably Spain, have their own worries about separatism and will be reluctant to support Scotland’s entry in the short term. The Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, stated last November that an independent Scotland would have to reapply to enter the EU. The negotiations could be protracted, but it is very likely that at some point the Scots would be accepted into the EU.

Anthony Giddens is a former director of the London School of Economics and a member of the House of Lords. His most recent book, ‘Turbulent and Mighty Continent: What Future for Europe?’, is published by Cambridge: Polity Press