Today’s papers report that up to ten EU member states are preparing to expel Russian diplomats in the aftermath of the Salisbury poisoning. This follows the news that the EU has withdrawn its own ambassador from Moscow.
According to the Guardian, the countries involve include not only obvious Russo-sceptics such as Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania but also both France and Germany.
Even Italy, which apparently has stronger relations with Russia than other Member States, claims to have been persuaded by “the information we got from [the British] prime minister”.
Obviously, not every EU country is going to take the same approach. Nonetheless, this sort of backing is still a coup of sorts for the Government, especially considering that it initially looked as if leading players such as France might not support stronger action against Moscow.
Nor is this the only bit of good foreign policy news that Theresa May has received in recent days, at least as far as a tough stance against the Kremlin is concerned.
Donald Trump’s designation of John Bolton, the neocon’s neocon, as his new National Security Adviser suggests that the White House may be about to adopt a much more traditional, NATO-focused foreign policy. Granted Bolton’s immediate priorities are likely to be North Korea and Iran, but he is nonetheless unlikely to support a conciliatory approach to America’s traditional Cold War enemy.
This newfound united front will need to be converted into action if it is to have any hope of constraining Vladimir Putin, who has been ruthless in exploiting the fact that the West’s will often falls short of its rhetoric. He would not have seized the Crimea if he had not worked out that the guarantees offered to Ukraine by the UK and US when we persuaded them to abandon their nuclear arsenal were, in fact, worthless.
But short of that, might there be other benefits for the Government? It feels optimistic to hope that this outbreak of Anglo-European solidarity might smooth the next stage of the Brexit negotiations – although one can live in hope – but Jeremy Corbyn’s mishandling of the Russia issue does seem to have handed the Tories a small bump in the polls.
Whether or not the Party can sustain public interest in the issue until polling day remains to be seen. But if they do struggle, at least it looks as if the Opposition are going to keep serving up dysfunction for a while yet: just last night Corbyn sacked Owen Smith, his Shadow Northern Irish Secretary, for demanding a second EU referendum.