EU Referendum

Booker: the end of the EU's imperial dream


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Normally when a country's people give a referendum vote which the EU doesn't like, they are just told to vote again to put it right, writes Booker, in this week's column.

In the case of Crimea, however, where 96 percent of the people voted to return to Russia, the EU was in no position to ask them to think again. Even if they did, considering that Crimea, where the tsars, Tolstoy and Chekhov used to spend their summers, has been part of Russia for most of the past 230 years, that 60 percent of its people are ethnic Russians and that 82 percent speak Russian at home, they would be unlikely to change their minds.

Whatever questions there may be about the referendum (there was no option on the ballot paper to remain in the Ukraine), the Ukrainian government has all but accepted that the peninsular is now part of Russia.

For sure, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, jailed by her own successor, has been putting the boot in, declaring that Russia has permanently lost the trust of Ukrainians.

"Putin is public enemy number one in a Ukraine where he has taken over our territory by force of arms", she said, speaking live on a political talk show. Should Russia cross the "red line" and send troops to the Ukrainian mainland, she added, her compatriots were "ready to resist".

William Hague is also laying on the rhetoric. He talks of "illegal annexation" of Crimea and an "outrageous land grab", the referendum "a mockery of democracy". Russia, he says, "has invaded a fellow European nation, and used force to change its borders".

Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, on the other hand rejects any suggestion that the Crimea and the naval town of Sevastopol have been annexed. "When foreign colleagues use the term 'annexation', I suggest that they do one simple thing – tell their press-secretaries and press services to study the footage from Crimea in which the residents of this peninsula demonstrate their sincere joy in joining the Russian Federation", he told his own senators.

Nevertheless, this has not stopped UN Sec-Gen Ban Ki-moon high-tailing it to Moscow "in a bid to calm tensions". He also plans to travel to Kiev in an attempt to bring the two governments together but, with Muscovites hanging flags in support of Crimea's decision to join Russia, Ban Ki-Moon certainly has his work cut out – more so as Putin has responded to US sanctions with bans on US figures.

In Crimea itself, there is no serious resistance: the "mopping up" continues apace. Belbek airbase, the last substantial military facility on the peninsular, has been taken over by Russian forces after an ultimatum had been given to the Ukrainians. Shots were fired after two APCs, followed by foot soldiers, broke through the gate (picture below). An ambulance was then seen entering the base. At least one person was reported injured. 

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Earlier, several hundred unarmed protesters seized a Ukrainian naval base at Novofedorivka, western Crimea. The Russian Navy has also taken possession of the "Zaporozhye", the only submarine in the Ukrainian navy. It has been officially impressed into the Black Sea Fleet. About half of the 78-man crew expressed a wish to join the Russian Navy. The rest of the sailors left the submarine.

Nor is it over. Ethnic Russians in Kherson, the province just north of the peninsula, are believed to be pushing a secession vote of their own in what a local leader angrily denounced as "treason".

In the district of Donetsk, protester Igor Schapowal says, "the Donbass is ready to fight against this gang which has already lost the Crimea and is about to lose to the east", referring to the new [unelected] leadership in Kiev. Donbass is the name of the industrial region. The local parliament has formed a working group to prepare a poll similar to the referendum in the Crimea.

Given that Ukraine was to be the "poster child" for the EU's Eastern Partnership – the largest, and most westernised country in the group of six countries bordering on Russia – the current events represent, at the very least, a major set-back for the EU's ambitions.

Too many media commentators are completely misreading the situation, thinking that the EU has made some advances. Others believe that there is scope for Obama to exercise leadership.

The Washington Post's Fareed Zakaria thinks the crisis in Ukraine is the most significant geopolitical problem since the Cold War, involving "a great global principle: whether national boundaries can be changed by brute force". He writes that, Obama must rally the world, push the Europeans and negotiate with the Russians. In this crisis, the United States truly is the indispensable nation.

But Booker puts it in context. The hard fact, he writes, is that, whatever we think of President Putin, this episode has been the most salutary fiasco the "European project" has ever brought upon itself in 60 years.

This project has always been driven by two paramount principles: one, that it can assume ever more power over the nations which belong to it; the other, that it can suck ever more of them into its embrace (echoed in David Cameron’s boast last year of how he saw the EU one day stretching "from the Atlantic to the Urals"). But with Ukraine, their fantasy of an ever-expanding empire has hit the buffers.

For years the EU has been wooing Ukraine, with that "Association Agreement" as a step towards making it an eventual member. But by pushing its "soft power" right up to the Russian border, this strange organisation dedicated to eliminating national identity has finally run up against the rock of a national interest that will not give way.

And to what a pitiful state this has reduced our own supposed "leaders" in the West, Booker says. They haven't a clue what to do. They blether about how Russia is "isolated", and of those pathetic little "targeted" sanctions. Chancellor Merkel talks wildly of how the G8, of which Russia is currently president, "no longer exists". President Hollande calls on Britain to act against all those Russian oligarchs who have put £27 billion into London, when the UK knows it has £46 billion invested in Russia.

The EU's leaders can scarcely afford to be too aggressive when it imports from Russia 30 percent of its natural gas. They prattle instead about having to replace it with imports from the US which, thanks to fracking, has now replaced Russia as the world's biggest gas producer. But the US is only now building facilities to export some of it, and its preferred customer will not be Europe but Japan, desperate to make up for closing its nuclear power stations.

Squawking around like chickens panicked by a fox, the EU's politicians suddenly say, too late, that, to end our dependence on Russia, we must get on with fracking for shale gas ourselves. So it is that the Ukrainians are trapped between a rock and a place that turns out to be too soft to help them.

On Friday, when their acting prime minister Arseny Yatsenyuk came to Brussels to sign a truncated Association Agreement, the EU was so embarrassed that the ceremony had to take place behind closed doors, away from the eyes of the media. The poor man was not even allowed a microphone, but had to shout out his wish still to see Ukraine as an EU member.

Later, it was left to the foreign minister of the most powerful state in Europe, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, to go to Kiev and Donetsk, meeting Yatsenyuk, fresh from his "triumph" in Brussels. Ramping up the rhetoric, Steinmeier accused Russia of trying to splinter Europe, then warning that the continent's entire future was at stake.

Quoted by AFP, after meeting Yatsenyuk, he said, "The referendum in Crimea... is a violation of international law and an attempt to splinter Europe," words thought to be a show of diplomatic solidarity aimed at bolstering Kiev as it faces new rounds of pressure from Russia.

That pressure includes "threats to throw Ukraine's wheezing economy into convulsion by raising its gas rates and demanding colossal payments for disputed debts it could ill afford". Steinmeier, no doubt, is trying to avoid the inevitable. Yet he must know that the EU is powerless to prevent Mr Putin in due course absorbing Ukraine's Russian-speaking industrial heartland, leaving the EU to look after what remains of that bankrupt country, like a dismembered corpse.

But there is no sign, concludes Booker, that those impotent nonentities who pose as our leaders have yet realised that their ambition to take over Ukraine must now rank alongside the euro as the two leading examples of how their collective act of make-believe is finally hitting the brick wall of reality.