Britain’s take on Russia is not the same as Greece’s, which has religious and cultural ties to it, and has been drifting into Vladimir Putin’s orbit; or Viktor Orban’s who, short of friends in Brussels, is looking for others elsewhere, and has met the Russian President four times in two years; or Germany’s, given the commercial and economic relationship between the two countries. In Italy, both Lega and the Five Star Movement have criticised sanctions against Russia. Emmanuel Macron has an anti-Putin record, but he has been offering the latter a kind of tough love, and French attitudes to Russia are more accomodating than British ones, partly because their take on America is (traditionally) less.
If all this is taken into account, it isn’t hard to see why Theresa May will find it hard to get the EU where she wants it on Putin, in the wake of the Salisbury incident. France and Germany lined up with Britain last week to finger Russia as responsible: there is “no plausible alternative explanation”, they said. But the EU collectively, taking into account the view of Hungary, Italy and Greece, said that it takes our Government’s view on the matter “extremely seriously”, which is not quite the same thing.
Jean-Claude Juncker went so far as to congratulate Putin (which Macron and Angela Merkel did not) and wish him “every success”. This was too much for Donald Tusk, who knows a thing or two about the Russian state: “after the Salisbury attack, I’m not in the mood to celebrate President Putin’s reappointment,” he said. And for Guy Verhofstadt, who tweeted bluntly that “this is no time for congratulations”. The Prime Minister will be hoping to toughen up the EU’s language in a joint communique that will be issued at the end of today’s summit.
All of which, you may say, reminds us all why we’re leaving. Either the EU doesn’t take a coherent position, in which case it is ineffective. Or it does, but its stance isn’t ours, in which case it is unsupportive. Perhaps – but Putin will not have welcomed a statement critical of his government at all. And the head of government of our strongest post-war ally hasn’t been any firmer. True, America signed last week’s statement with France and Germany, and Donald Trump was reported to be “with the UK all the way”.
But that form of words came from Downing Street, not the White House. The President’s original reaction was to say that the attack “looked like the Russians”, which is not quite “no plausible alternative explanation”. And he too has, since, done a Juncker – calling Putin to congratulate him (apparently against the advice he was given, in a note reading DO NOT CONGRATULATE), before defending his decision, in characteristic style, on Twitter. The Prime Minister has reportedly not asked the EU for new sanctions on Russia, and given the background this is not surprising. As we’ve said before, the most effective action she can take is to deprive Putin’s cronies and allies of the pleasures of life in London’s fleshpots and the English countryside. Garvan Walshe has some other suggestions below.