Prior to Brexit, few people in Britain spoke passionately about the EU on either side of the divide. There was Nigel Farage and his supporters who hated everything about the EU and there were people like Tony Blair and Michael Heseltine who couldn’t get enough of the EU.
Brexit changed all this, making Britain’s status vis-a-vis Brussels the major talking point among voters. Now that the EU is facing its biggest ever crisis in recent memory with its traditional partner the United States, one would expect Britain which frequently self-styles as the ‘bridge’ between Washington and Brussels to say something. One would certainly expect those who suddenly discovered their love of the European Union in the aftermath of the unexpected Brexit vote to raise a trans-Atlantic howl in support of their European cousins.
But no, total silence. If those in Britain who argue for remaining in the EU were so concerned with a wider European crisis, they would be standing up for those in Europe who are violently opposed to the US sanctions on the grounds of being deeply detrimental to EU businesses.
As Alexander Mercouris recently wrote in The Duran,
“For years following the coming of President Putin to power the Western and especially the US media ran a shrill campaign warning that President Putin was intent on locking Western investors out of Russia and reversing the privatisation process begun in the 1990s. It is extremely strange therefore to see the US Congress working hard to achieve that very thing, which Putin as it happens never did.
No doubt that is why significant business sectors in the US – especially the US oil industry which has been hankering to invest in Russia – have made their unhappiness with the new sanctions clear.
Regardless of that the idea that there is insufficient capital and technology in Russia to enable the country to develop its economy successfully on the basis of its own resources is a myth, though one which obviously dies hard.
However if the macroeconomic impact of the new sanctions on Russia will be minimal, the same cannot be said of their political impact, and of the dilemma they pose Europe.
At their simplest the new sanctions will make it all but impossible for the US and Russia to establish normal inter-country relations with each other.
It was only a few years ago that the Congress – very reluctantly and under heavy pressure from the Obama administration and the US business community – rescinded the Jackson-Vanik amendment. Since then the US has however in effect nullified that step by imposing one set of sanctions on Russia after another, starting with the Magnitsky Act sanctions and now culminating in the latest sanctions package.
The Russians have got the message, which is that normal commercial relations between Russia and the US will never happen. The point was made very clearly by Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov in a television interview on Wednesday
We are aware that those sanctions, which are imposed now, [will not be lifted], whatever we would do. Even if we say we agree to anything and hoist a white flag, anyway hearings and motions will be in full swing. Senators and Congresspersons will find a million excuses for not lifting anything.
This incidentally explains the tough line Russia is taking over the return of its diplomatic property, which was illegally seized by the Obama administration in a straightforward act of confiscation of what is actually the Russian state’s private property last December. Here is what Ryabkov had to say about that
We do not allow for any conditions in order to have this property given back to us. It is not a bargaining issue. We are far from seeing merely any signs of preparations for certain deals. We see no reason why such categories should be allowed for because we just need to have ours back.
Since the new sanctions will render it impossible for the Trump administration to return the property or lift the sanctions the Russians lose nothing by taking a tough line on the question of its return.
Whilst political cooperation between the US and Russia remains possible on certain specific issues lingering hopes that one day they might one day establish a normal trading relationship are now surely dead. Every attempt to achieve such a relationship going back to the detente era of the 1970s has ended in failure because the political opposition in the US is too strong. As Ryabkov says, there is no reason to think that will ever change, and the Russians clearly no longer believe it will.
However it is in Europe where the new sanctions pose the greatest challenge.
Back in 2014 Angela Merkel and the EU leadership worked closely with the Obama administration to agree the sanctions that the US and the EU would jointly impose on Russia. This was done so as to ensure that the sanctions did not directly impact on either the US’s or the EU’s fundamental economic interests, though in the event Russia’s apparently unexpected counter-sanctions hurt some EU agricultural producers badly.
The new sanctions are however being imposed without any prior discussion between the US and EU whatsoever. No one in the US has asked for Angela Merkel’s or the EU’s opinions about them, or has shown the slightest concern for German or European interests. Instead the sanctions are being imposed for domestic reasons, as a spin-off of the Russiagate scandal, and as part of the feud between the Democrats and the Trump administration. The result is that they have been negotiated between Democrats and Republicans in Congress without Angela Merkel and the Europeans being consulted about them at all.
The new sanctions explicitly target Russian pipelines projects to Europe, specifically the Nord Stream 2 pipeline recently agreed between Germany and Russia.
Back in April I discussed Nord Stream 2 in detail and explained the rationale behind it – that it provides Germany and Europe with cheaper pipeline gas from Russia than gas they could obtain elsewhere – and the way that recognition of this reality amounted to a Russian victory in Europe’s decades long energy war”.
In such a trans-Atlantic schism, Britain’s seemingly pro-EU factions have been nowhere to be heard. So much for the myth of Britain’s ability to unite the English speaking world with Europe. Another narrative has officially been shattered.