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The Prigozhin mutiny
+ UK-EU relations 7 years after the Brexit vote + 650 years of Anglo-Portuguese friendship
History of the Present (three weeks ending 1 July 2023)
The Prigozhin mutiny
Future historians will almost certainly find the most important European event of these weeks to be the mutiny by Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner group, who seized the Russian military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, got halfway to Moscow, and so far seem to have got away with it, with a deal brokered by Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko allowing Prigozhin and his distinctly unmerry men to relocate to Belarus. (The FT has a useful chronology here.)
This spectacular development has been extensively analysed, and I have only one observation to add. For many months, Ukrainians have been explaining to me their theory of victory. It's not about outright victory on the battlefield, regaining every square kilometre in the hard grind of combat. It's that success on the battlefield and successive blows to Russia eventually catalyse some political change in Moscow – either a decision by Vladimir Putin himself to make a partial or full withdrawal, or a change of power relations in the Kremlin, up to and including the removal of Putin. For months, Western 'realists' have been dismissing this idea as unrealistic; then this happens.
Even if Prigozhin's primary motive was anger at the prospect of his Wagner group being taken over by the Russian army that he spends so much time denouncing, this development is clearly evidence of cracks and weakness within the Putin system. For after all, Prigozhin was Putin's creature. The fact that it happened at all; was furiously denounced by Putin; and the Russian leader then had to compromise, humiliatingly relying on President Lukashenko to broker the deal – all this sends a clear message to Russian elites, and to some extent even to the wider Russian public: the strongman is weak!
That's good news for Ukraine. And Ukraine needs good news at the moment since the counter-offensive has not yet scored any decisive successes, breaking through Russia's formidable defences in the south. The big push is yet to come, and so much depends on whether it succeeds. I'll be in Kyiv next week, and will write about that in my next newsletter.
Meanwhile, as we marked the seventh anniversary of 23 June 2016 Brexit referendum vote, I've been reflecting on the future of UK-EU relations…
UK-EU 7 years on: can a new government reverse the current drifting apart?
This commentary first appeared in the Guardian, 22 June 2023. Please use this link if quoting on social media.
As we approach the seventh anniversary of Britain’s fateful vote, on 23 June 2016, to leave the EU, the state of UK-EU relations is superficially encouraging and structurally depressing.
Britain is like a sailing boat faffing around in the middle of the Channel. Most of its passengers want it to steer closer to the continental coast and even the captain seems willing to make some modest adjustments to his course. But strong winds and currents are pushing the boat further away from the continent. It will require a much more decisive change of course from a new captain, after a different crew comes onboard next year, for the forces of convergence to prevail over those of divergence.
In YouGov’s most recent regular poll, taken last month, 56% of those asked said Britain was wrong to leave the EU against 31% who said it was right; 62% said Brexit has been “more of a failure” against just 9% for “more of a success”. In a poll by Opinium, which offered four options for the future relationship, 36% of British respondents chose “we should rejoin the EU” and another 25% “we should remain outside the EU but negotiate a closer relationship with them than we have now”.
The politics lag behind the public. Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, can see the pragmatic case for better economic relations with the UK’s biggest single market, but he’s also a more genuine Brexiter than his disgraced predecessor Boris Johnson ever was. Sunak’s world is Silicon Valley at one end, dynamic Indo-Pacific capitalism at the other. He is even hesitating about paying the bill for Britain to rejoin the Horizon programme of scientific cooperation, despite an almost unanimous chorus of scientists from both sides of the Channel in favour of doing so. Given the continued strength of the Brexiters in his party, and the intimidating power of the Eurosceptic press, only small incremental improvements can be expected on his watch.
Keir Starmer, Labour’s leader, is relentlessly focused on winning next year’s general election. He believes this requires winning back voters in “red wall” seats who felt passionately about Brexit and, therefore, switched to the Conservatives in Johnson’s 2019 “get Brexit done” election. (In her book Beyond the Red Wall, the public opinion researcher Deborah Mattinson, who advises Starmer, records one such voter saying that when he heard the referendum result in 2016, he felt “as if England had won the World Cup”.)
Starmer recently had an article in the rightwing, fiercely Eurosceptic Daily Express in which he roundly asserted that “Britain’s future is outside the EU. Not in the single market, not in the customs union, not with a return to freedom of movement. Those arguments are in the past, where they belong.” He went on to say that “the paper-thin Tory deal has stifled Britain’s potential and hugely weighted trade terms towards the EU. Every day it isn’t built upon, our European friends and competitors aren’t just eating our lunch – they’re nicking our dinner money as well.”
On a close reading, this article was actually making the case for a new deal with the EU, but it was also playing the old New Labour game of appeasing the Eurosceptic tabloids – and thus giving hostages to fortune. (Shortly before the May 1997 election, Tony Blair got a commentary placed in the Sun saying he would “slay the Euro-dragon”.) The Express savaged its own guest author, gleefully quoting a Conservative MP who said “trusting Sir Keir with Brexit is like trusting Dracula at a blood bank”.
If Labour wins the next election, with or without the need for some kind of parliamentary support from the Liberal Democrats or Scottish National party, the new government will undoubtedly seek a better deal with the EU. Shadow foreign secretary David Lammy indicated as much in a speech to business leaders this week. It’s not implausible to think that by the 10th anniversary of the referendum vote, in June 2026, the review of the EU-UK trade and cooperation agreement, which is scheduled for 2025, might have opened the door to a closer economic relationship.
This might include significant elements of involvement in the single market and customs union, with corresponding regulatory alignment. It’s hard to see how Labour can even remotely hope to achieve its hugely ambitious target of “securing the highest sustained growth in the G7” without reducing the post-Brexit friction with the country’s largest market.
There’s an interesting connection here with the war in Ukraine. The debate about Ukraine’s future relationship with the EU is now focused on incremental, progressive integration, in areas such as energy, environment, transport and the single market. If Ukraine can have progressive integration, can’t the UK have some progressive reintegration?
Yet there remains the underlying dynamic of cross-Channel divergence. With every passing month, the UK and the EU are visibly drifting apart. Previously strong cultural, commercial, artistic, scientific and political ties are weakening. A British university vice-chancellor tells me that his intake of EU students has fallen by 90%. Britain actually has more immigration overall than before the Brexit vote, but less from the EU.
I have spent time recently in Ireland, Estonia, the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden. In all these north European countries, which once looked on the British as special partners and friends inside the European Union, Britain is now barely mentioned, except as the object of pity, ridicule and contempt. The grimy farce around Johnson’s resignation honours list and his disgracefully Trumpian departure from the House of Commons have only reinforced those sentiments. These countries have forged new partnerships, as people do after they separate. They have moved on.
So has the EU itself. In response to the Covid crisis, and above all to the war in Ukraine, Europe’s core political community is experiencing a period of rather dynamic integration in areas of vital interest to Britain: security policy and defence procurement; digital policy and the regulation of AI; large-scale support for industry to make the green transition, competing with US Bidenomics on the one hand and Chinese industrial policy on the other.
Britain is not standing still either. Both the Conservative government and the Labour opposition are developing their own variants of those policies, which may diverge from and compete with the EU’s. In several key areas, such as tech, AI, creative industries and financial services, Britain still has strengths that make it a serious competitor.
It will take a lot of bold strategy from a new British government, and goodwill from both sides, to counter these deeper currents of divergence.
‘Homelands’ in Portugal & 650 years of Anglo-Portuguese relations
As relatively light relief from these heavy matters, I spent three delightful days at the Estoril Political Forum, invented and magisterially chaired by my old friend João Carlos Espada. Over dinner on the first day, João and I reflected on how far Europe has come in the 50 years since, back in 1973, he was an underground Maoist revolutionary opponent of the Salazar dictatorship. Today, João is a bow-tie-wearing liberal conservative – or conservative liberal – who has performed an extraordinary service in educating generations of young Portuguese in liberal thought and European and international affairs.
Other distinguished Portuguese former Maoists include José Manuel Barroso, whose personal history I tell in Homelands. I was very glad to be able to present the Portuguese edition of the book, Pátrias, in Estoril, and to talk about it to the Portuguese media – including two leading Portuguese journalists who, back in the day, were also Maoist revolutionaries alongside José Manuel and João. They all carry within them what I call the 'memory engine’, driving Europe forward.
This year's forum marked the 650th anniversary of the Anglo-Portuguese treaty of 1373, which swore 'perpetual friendships, unions [and] alliances' between Portugal and England. There have been one or two rough patches along the way, which were elegantly glided over by the British ambassador in his celebratory speech, but the relationship is, in truth, extraordinarily solid and long-lasting. Indeed, it can probably claim to be the longest-running alliance in the world. (If you know a rival to that claim, please put it in the comment thread.)
But a minister in the Portuguese government told me how Portugal, like all the other erstwhile particular friends of Britain in the EU (see the commentary above) has been forging new partnerships with other EU member states, to replace the Britain that has abandoned them.
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