Strange Company

by Andrew Stuttaford

The curious dance between the EU’s euroskeptic ‘right’ (yes, yes, I know that adjective is a gross oversimplification) and Vladimir Putin continues.

Reuters:

Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right National Front, blamed the European Union for declaring a new Cold War on Russia that would hurt all concerned, Russian media reported on Saturday as she paid an official visit to Moscow. Europe-Russia relations are at their lowest ebb in decades after President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea prompted the EU to impose sanctions on dozens of prominent Russian officials and lawmakers. However Le Pen, along with other Eurosceptic leaders of the far left and nationalist right, believe the original fault lies with Brussels for offering closer ties with Ukraine, a move Russia opposes.

“I am surprised a Cold War on Russia has been declared in the European Union,” French National Front leader Le Pen said at a meeting with Sergei Naryshkin, speaker of the Russian parliament’s lower house.

“It’s not in line with traditional, friendly relations nor with the economic interests of our country or EU countries and harms future relations,” Russian news agency Interfax quoted her as saying in its Russian-language service.

Her comments echo those of Austrian far-right leader Heinz-Christian Strache who has openly sided with Putin, condemning the EU sanctions as a farce. Le Pen’s Dutch political partner Geert Wilders has also said the EU made the first mistake.

The way Europe has handled the crisis over Ukraine could become an issue in the European Parliament elections in May. Opinion polls suggest right-wing nationalist parties will perform well. French polls show the National Front emerging as the leading French party in the European elections….Le Pen, a tough-talking former lawyer, said Ukraine’s eastern regions should be allowed to choose greater independence from Kiev.

“The idea of federalism would give regions the chance of broad autonomy, to determine their destiny independently,” Interfax quoted her as saying.

By which she presumably means something akin to a “Bosnian” solution (Bosnia is essentially a loose federation between the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and a Bosnian Serb republic) for Ukraine. That may, in the end, be the least bad option. The question is whether this is something that Putin will leave Ukrainians to decide for themselves. The omens are not, shall we say, encouraging.

It may well be that Le Pen’s stance on this issue is colored by a broader sympathy for what Putin stands (or purports to stand) for, social conservatism, an assertion of the national over the supranational, protectionism and strong state involvement in the economy, but I continue to think (I posted a bit about this here the other day) that Putin’s fellow travelers on the more liberally-inclined wing of the euroskeptic right (including some in Britain’s UKIP) are driven as much by contrariness as anything else, their position a reflection of the way that the EU has poisoned so much of the continent’s debate.

But the fact is, amazing as it may seem, not everything that Brussels does is bad. In Eastern Europe the EU has, in general, been a force for good. To argue that it represents a threat to Russia is far-fetched. Whatever else EU President van Rompuy may be (and UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s enjoyably brutal description of this gray non-eminence will do very nicely; you can watch it here), he is not some Napoleon about to send a mighty EU army (about five soldiers and a guidance counselor at the latest count) Moscow’s way. Closer ties between the EU and Ukraine would, if they worked and by force of example alone, represent a challenge to Putin’s authoritarianism, but that’s an altogether different issue.