Thursday

2nd Feb 2023

Opinion

Vladimir Putin – the man who just united Europe

  • Europe appears to have decided to actually defend freedom and no longer tolerate Putin's oligarchs. - that leaves Britain and its capital city, now known as Londongrad, in a delicate position (Photo: kremlin.ru)
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War is famous throughout history as the midwife of revolution. But no-one could have imagined just a short week ago when Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of a European democracy, Ukraine, that in just a few days there would be a revolutionary change not seen in Europe, since — well — the days of the Bolshevik upheavals of 1917.

In short, Putin has united Europe as never before.

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We are witnessing the emergence of the EU as a military power. We are seeing Finland and Sweden consider joining Nato thus reversing decades of non-Nato policy.

We are seeing Germany increasing its defence spend by €100bn - and with the backing of the Greens and Free Democrats.

We have seen Hungary, long Putin's puppet state in the EU, breaking with its master and voting with the other European democracies.

From Ireland to Poland, Europe is opening its arms to refugee immigrants from Ukraine after years in which Europe shut or tried to shut its doors to foreigners.

It is hard to know where to stop as this Copernican revolution in what Europe is and what it can and must do takes root.

When the crisis is over, Brussels should erect a statue to Vladimir Putin as the man who woke Europe from a long sleep as its leaders decided to accept responsibilities they had long shunned.

By far the most important decision is that Europe has decided to become a military power. The European Commission will purchase and send arms to Ukraine. And everyone agrees — mainstream right, left, green and liberal parties.

The main outliers are the far-rightists like Eric Zemmour, or France's Jeremy Corbyn, the ageing leftist demagogue, Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Europe has decided to use its financial system to press the Russian elites to tell Putin to stop. Like Eisenhower in 1956 during the Suez adventurism (who froze the essential flow of dollars to a United Kingdom which invaded Egypt contrary to international law), the EU has blocked key Russian banks from accessing international funds via the global banking transfer system, Swift.

The British elite in 1956 reacted by removing prime minister Anthony Eden after being asked by Eisenhower over Suez, "Are you mad?" - much as veteran Putin-watchers wonder if the ranting Russian leader is fully stable.

The hope is that the Russian oligarchs and siloviki, the network of former KGB agents who installed Putin in 1999 to ensure they would control Russian wealth, will now turn on him as the EU and US cuts the flow of funds.

The German parliament in a short session decided to increase defence spending to two per cent of GDP. Two percent of German GDP is £66bn — and German defence spending will by 26 percent more than that of the UK.

Germany will build a new generation of warplanes and tanks with France. This is music to the ears of French president Emmanuel Macron's concept of European "strategic autonomy".

The rise of an integrated European defence industry building common planes, helicopters, warships, tanks, missiles and even rifles will marginalise the UK defence industry - which will either have to join in, as Britain did when it joined the Airbus consortium, or just roll over and became wholly dependent on the US.

The Macron-Scholz tandem

Olaf Scholz with one short but decisive speech moves into the front rank of European and democratic world leaders. Assuming (as is likely) Emmanuel Macron wins a second five-year term in April the Macron-Scholz tandem will be the dominant leadership of a European Union that has not enjoyed effective leadership this century.

Josep Borrell, the Spanish-Catalan EU foreign policy chief, initially seen as gaffe-prone when he took over from Federica Mogherini in 2019, has been effective on TV in several languages explaining how Europe was taking on Putin.

Even neutral Switzerland with its long tradition of being a home to oligarch money from all over the world has lined up with the EU to disrupt Putin's finances used to pay for his invasion and war of aggression against Ukraine.

The Polish president has called for Ukraine to be fast-tracked for EU membership. This would be a much bigger challenge to Putin – having a democracy on his borders based around European values – than Ukraine joining Nato.

It will require dramatic reform to support president Zelensky's call for the "de-oligarchisation" of Ukraine.

Europe has shut its airspace to Russian planes which will ground the private jets that ferry the Putin oligarch around especially to their luxury mansions in Hampshire and £250m apartments in Knightsbridge.

Each move is not only an effective non-military attack on Putin but also a remarkable expression of a united European polity.

Brexit Britain

Meanwhile, "Global Britain", as Boris Johnson has tried to recast Brexit Britain, has been full of bellicose rhetoric against Putin, whose oligarchs have made Londongrad their home-from-home. However, prime minister Johnson has so far refused to join the move from Ireland to Poland to open borders (and European hearts) to Ukrainian refugees.

The very essence of Brexit was that the English should deny access to Britain to fellow Europeans. The UK has a sizeable Ukrainian population but London's response so far has been cruel and mean-minded.

More important is how Brexit Britain handles this new energy, determination, and willingness to increase military spend by Europe. If Germany's Scholz and France's Macron forge an alliance to build up EU defence capability, long a demand of Washington, where does Britain fit in?

Of course, as days unfold, much of the old nation-first EU — of which Britain was a charter member — may resurface and this Putin-spawned European unity is seen to evaporate.

But history suggests that once "Europe" decides to do something, that becomes the norm.

Europe appears to have decided to do defence of freedom and to no longer tolerate Putin oligarchs. That leaves Britain and its capital city now known as Londongrad in a delicate position.

Author bio

Denis MacShane is a British former Minister of Europe who supported the Orange Revolution is 2004/5 and was in Odessa as an observer at the 2019 parliamentary election in Ukraine. He writes on European politics and policy.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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