Russia EU UK
BSSB.BE theguardian.com 24.07.2015
As the only British MP to have been born in a Communist-occupied country, I have no illusions about the Russian bear. In the spring of 1983, when I first returned to Poland after the lifting of martial law, it broke my heart to see the country I loved struggling to survive under the Soviet-imposed regime. Everything was rationed, including petrol, meat and sugar. It was a life of almost interminable queuing, appalling indignities for the elderly and vulnerable and, for members of the generation growing into maturity during that period, little hope of ever achieving their dreams.
Late at night, behind locked doors in my grandfather’s house, I recall listening with him to the BBC World Service – a station that it was illegal ever to tune in to under the oppressive regime of General Wojciech Jaruzelski. All of this misery for an entire nation because the old guard at the Kremlin had decreed that there had to be a series of buffer states between themselves and the west.
I remember how moved I had been when my classmates at school in England had clubbed together to send food parcels to Poland, but how I wished, too, it hadn’t been necessary. If only more could have been done after the war to save the central and eastern European countries from this disastrous occupation. A more hardline approach then could have improved the lot of millions of people.
For all that, I believe we might now be antagonising the Russian bear too much. These are words I could never have imagined writing in my wildest dreams as a young man. This month, however, I have submitted a written question in the Commons asking for an estimate of the lost revenue to the UK from the sanctions we have imposed against Russia both in terms of lost foreign direct investment and a loss of British exports.
This may raise eyebrows. The consensus in the House of Commons up until now has been that Russia is an aggressor that must at all costs be isolated and contained and few, if any dissenting voices have been raised in the chamber about this policy. It has, however, been arrived at as a reaction to events, rather than ever being carefully thought through.
There are significant figures in the military establishment – including Lord Richards, the former chief of the defence staff – who believe, given the strength of Moscow’s convictions and its historical propensity to accept pain in the perceived national interest, that an increased escalation will not work and could indeed be more damaging to Great Britain than to Russia.
It is important, of course, that militarily we always carry as big a stick as possible when it comes to Russia, but the other part of Theodore Roosevelt’s old dictum we seem to forget – the “speaking softly”.
Chancellor Merkel – rightly representing her country’s business interests – has been more effective at that than we have been. She has invested a huge amount of time in trying to build a personal relationship with Vladimir Putin. How canny this looks when old hands in the City tell me that it may well be Russia that will eventually bail out Greece, with all of the political and financial ramifications that would entail.
Of course we must always show solidarity with our central and eastern European Nato allies during what is obviously a challenging time for them. Our proactive involvement in the Nato “tip of the spear” force is an example of that. At the same time we need a dialogue in the region with all the neighbouring countries and we need to ensure that they all have voices.
Still, not being on speaking terms – let alone trading terms – with a country as large and influential as Russia is simply not practical in a world that is crying out for global co-operation. On issues such as terrorism, we simply cannot afford not to stand united as fellow members of the UN security council.
We need to ensure, too, that Ukraine is protected from any further escalation of fighting in its eastern region. We must do this with cross-country talks between the UK, France, Germany, Belarus, Poland, Ukraine and Russia at the earliest opportunity in a neutral country to be agreed by all sides. The Minsk I and Minsk II talks have not yet produced any meaningful progress towards a long-term peaceful solution, but the fact that the UK has not participated in them may appear bizarre to some.
Our sanctions against Russia are of course understandable but they come at a huge cost to us. At this difficult time in the financial markets, with such instability in the eurozone, we have to ask how much longer we can afford to block British companies from trading with Russia. The prime minister may have set a target of £1 trillion exports by 2020, but the outgoing UK trade and investment minister Lord Green told me two years ago that we would be doing very well to reach 80% of that target. It is hard honestly to see how we are going to fill this £200bn black hole in the exports target unless we start trading normally again with the Russian bear.
It is not, however, just about money. My grandparents’ generation cared so much about a united Europe precisely because they had lived through the second world war. The lessons of history too often seem lost on their children and grandchildren. The time has come to look to the future, not the past.