Richard North, 18/03/2018  
 

 
Of all the things that the UK might want to do as an independent nation, freed from the obligation to shadow EU foreign policy, picking a fight with Russia was probably not at the top of the list. But if we are going to take on Russia, it would be best if we understand what we're taking on.

Some interesting insight into this comes in Booker's column today when he recalls his visit to the Soviet Union in 1980 to cover the Olympic Games.

Sitting in Moscow, as the capital of the largest country on earth, at a time of high Cold War tension over the invasion of Afghanistan, it became obvious that Russia saw itself ringed on all sides by enemies, all along its thousands of miles of frontier from Nato Norway in the west to China in the east. It was a country gripped by an intense sense of paranoia.

The charge sheet against Russia in recent years may be long, from Putin's ruthless suppression of dissent to saving the Assad regime in Syria. But the one disaster the West has never understood was one entirely of its own making.

On this, there is a public figure who correctly read the crisis erupting over Ukraine in 2014. That was Tony Brenton, our ambassador to Moscow from 2004 to 2008. He recognised only too clearly that the trigger for that shambles was the hubristic desire of the West to see Ukraine, the historic cradle of Russian national identity, absorbed into the EU and Nato.

The crisis was set off by the coup whereby one corrupt but pro-Russian ruler of Ukraine was replaced by another willing to sign the agreement leading to Ukraine's EU membership.

Thus, the response of the Russian-speakers of eastern Ukraine and Crimea was wholly predictable. They wished to be ruled by their fellow Russians in Moscow rather than by some mysterious, alien bureaucracy in faraway Brussels, and were prepared both to vote and to fight for it.

They were, after all, confronting the question of why people with such a fierce sense of national identity should want to become part of an empire deliberately set up to eliminate national identity. Yet, to this day, the West remains powerless to do anything about it except make indignant noises of protest at the ineluctable consequences of its own actions.

Some understanding of this psychology might have helped inform our response to the poisoning incident in Salisbury, where finger-wagging condemnations were only going to elicit one, very predictable response.

That we are now in a confrontational situation, with the wall-to-wall coverage given to President Putin, is doubly unfortunate. Says Booker, it is diverting attention from the possibility that this week may see the near-breakdown of what have been billed as "the most important international negotiations Britain has been involved in since the Second World War".

It is now four months since David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, assured MPs that all our difficulties with the EU would be happily resolved at "the 59th minute of the 11th hour". That moment has now arrived.

The European Council meets this week to consider its "draft withdrawal agreement", still without any sign of resolution to the impasse that could prevent negotiations continuing.

The key as ever is the Irish border, which, for trading purposes, the EU insists will have to move to the Irish Sea, to protect the "integrity" of its single market, but which Theresa May insists no British prime minister could possibly accept.

To narrow it down still further, as Booker explained in February last year, just after Mrs May announced that we were to leave both the single market and the European Economic Area (EEA).

Following this blog, he reported on the disaster looming over the arrangements whereby the multi-billion-pound racing industries of Ireland, Britain and France can move racehorses between their countries to race or for sale without any hindrance.

The moment we leave, as the EU again warned on 27 February of this year, these arrangements, mandated by directive 2009/156, will lapse. As with so much else facing Britain's trade with our largest export market, up will go complex (and in the case of racehorses, prohibitive) border controls.

Last week's Cheltenham Festival, the highlight of our racing calendar, could be the last but one where those all-conquering Irish horses can appear (although "transition" might allow one more in 2020).

At least in that respect people will finally see the kind of thing we are letting ourselves in for by choosing to become a "third country", not just outside the EU but also the wider EEA (where, to avoid all these difficulties, we could have chosen to remain).

But this of course is only a small part of the story. This week seems likely to mark the moment when the "irresistible force" of Brexiteer wishful thinking collides with the "immovable object" of those implacable EU rules. And, by the way we have chosen to play it, this could be the moment when any further meaningful talks with the EU are at an end.

That, at least, was the situation when Booker left it, his column going to press on the Friday. But since then, we've had further talks in Brussels at official level and there are to be face-to-face discussions between M. Barnier and David Davis on the Monday. The leaves open the possibility that there will be a last-minute compromise that will keep the show on the road.

Perversely, one factor which could work in the UK's favour is precisely the situation which has been dominating the headlines for nearly two weeks – the Salisbury poisoning. More or less obliged to show solidarity with the UK, to avoid a public rift with a Nato ally, the Europeans may be disposed to apply temporary patches to the cracks in the Brexit agreement, and kick the cannery down the road to the June European Council.

According to The Times, what may be on the cards is the device of a political declaration on the transition. This will be provisional and still dependent on full implementation of the "Irish protocol" in the draft withdrawal agreement. Sources suggest that both sides are confident that a deal will be brokered.

As it stands, if there is no closure on the withdrawal agreement there will be no transition agreement. There cannot be a transition agreement on its own. But is some sort of accommodation isn't reached, then the Brexit negotiations come screeching to a halt on Friday.

However, the "colleagues" have far too much invested in their current stance to give much away on a permanent basis. Not least, there is Mr Tusk's credibility. If they give ground on the transition period without settling the Irish question, they will seriously weaken his authority. And in the EU, such things matter.

What could get everyone off the hook, for the time being is the one being mooted in London – the possibility of extending the negotiations past the two-year period, and then adding to the transition period. This is being suggested by the Brexit select committee, to the chagrin of committee member Rees Mogg, which itself is sufficient to commend it.

Without a fundamental shift in the UK's position, though, this can only be seen as an attempt to stall. It does not solve anything in its own right. Either Mrs May's government will have to solve the problem of how to ensure Ireland has a "soft" border, or it's game over. And if that is to be the case, many would prefer it to be sooner rather than later.

But in all this, there is something we've never really factored in. If it is going to take time for the UK to prepare for Brexit – which indeed it is – the same will apply to the remaining EU Member States and the institutions. There may be less political opposition to the idea of an extension than we first thought.

That notwithstanding, to my mind it was touch and go as to whether the talks collapsed this coming Friday. It will be hugely ironic if Putin's Russia is the immediate factor which takes the heat off. But if the respite is only temporary – then it must be, then all we've managed is to stay in the frying pan, while toasting our feet in the fire.

And maybe it will be too much to expect the headlines to recognise the real reason for any delay in execution, but I will be looking for that single line on the coming Saturday which declares: "from Russia with love".






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