The EU can’t stand up to Russia

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This article was first published on Comment Central.

Vested interests mean the EU fails to present a credible force to face up to Vladimir Putin’s ambitions. In reality, the West will be defended by a strong NATO, says Joseph Hackett.

For many Remainers, the EU is the great defender of the West. To turn your back on the European project is to turn your back on Western freedom, and to weaken the EU is to help leave the democracies of Eastern Europe at the mercy of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

In their view, with Brexit and the election of President Trump, the UK and USA have abandoned the stage, leaving the EU to stand up for the West. This mind-set has even led some more unhinged Europhiles – like Labour MP Ben Bradshaw – to accuse Russia of “interference” in last year’s EU Referendum.

The whole idea is, however, a fantasy. Not least since Putin himself rejected David Cameron’s suggestion he wanted Britain to leave the EU, and even described Brexit as “traumatic” for both Britain and the EU after the Referendum.

More importantly, however, the fantasy falls apart when one realises the EU is not serious about standing up to Russia. Brussels likes to talk the talk – Baroness Ashton, then the EU’s foreign policy chief, wasted no time in heading to Kiev to celebrate after Ukraine’s revolution in 2014, for example – but when it comes to action, the EU’s mess of competing interests, breaks its resolve.

Pro-EU liberals who worship German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her tough talk about Trump and Putin have already been shaken by her recent vote against gay marriage, but they will be truly shocked to find Merkel leads one of the West’s most pro-Russian governments. Since Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014, Germany has constantly dragged its feet on the issue of sanctions.

Last month, this came to a head when Merkel blasted American plans to toughen sanctions on Russia, which would include sanctions against non-Russian companies which support Russia’s energy export pipelines. A joint letter signed by Merkel’s Foreign Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, and Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern slammed the American proposals for “illegal extraterritorial sanctions against European companies that participate in the development of European energy supply.”

This gets to the heart of the matter. EU countries like Germany and Austria are refusing to get tough with Putin because they rely on him for their energy supply. The Austro-German joint statement essentially admitted as much, proudly declaring “Europe’s energy supply is a matter for Europe, not the United States of America”. The EU’s staunch defenders would surely be surprised to find Trump’s America proposing tough new sanctions on Russia, only to be rebuffed by Merkel’s Germany.

Germany’s reliance on Russian gas stems in part from its opposition to nuclear power. In 2000, when then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder agreed a deal to close all the country’s nuclear power plants by 2022, almost 30% of German power generation came from nuclear energy. This has halved since, and should drop to zero by 2022. Schröder aimed to fill this gap with Russian gas, and agreed to guarantee funding for the Nord-Stream pipeline from Russia to Germany shortly before he left office in 2005 – getting a lucrative job with Russian gas giant Gazprom soon after.

Last year, the German government compounded this problem by banning fracking. In doing so they followed France and, stunningly, Bulgaria – which gets almost all of its gas from Russia. Ultimately, this has left little appetite in many EU Member States for tough sanctions on Russia – after all, Russia could retaliate by either raising the price of gas exports to the EU, or shutting off the flow altogether and causing a major European energy crisis.

Perhaps the loudest EU voice against harder sanctions on Russia has been Italy. With broad and extensive trade ties with Russia, Italy is Russia’s fourth-biggest export partner worldwide, and it is believed to have lost billions of euros from the sanctions which have been imposed since 2014.

The EU’s reliance on Putin is significant, and likely to deepen in the near future as EU countries continue to eliminate alternatives to Russian gas imports. As a result, while the EU might like to present itself as the great enemy of Russia’s expansionism and authoritarianism, the political will to do anything about Putin is weak. Any effort by threatened countries, like Estonia and Poland, to take a tougher line, will struggle to get past the self-interest of Germany, Italy, Bulgaria and others.

Needless to say, this dynamic is reflected in military spending. Poland and Estonia are, like Britain and the United States, among the few NATO members who spend the expected two per cent of GDP on defence. Germany, Italy and Bulgaria are well short of the target, and have no intention of meeting the target any time soon.

It is therefore no surprise Putin was not jumping for joy over Brexit. The EU is not a credible threat to his ambitions. In reality, the West will be defended by a strong NATO, including a Brexit Britain which continues to meet its defence spending target and maintains a tough line on sanctions against Russia. As we Get Britain Out of the EU, we are not guilty of turning our back on the West – if anyone is, it’s an EU which just cannot afford to stand up to Putin.

Joseph Hackett is a Research Executive at Get Britain Out

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