If the recent and ongoing debacle surrounding the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukraine has taught us all nothing else, it has shown, beyond any doubt at all that the much talked about myth of a single European political entity, a conjoined international presence, or even a unified voice on foreign policy is little more than a sham, a pretence, an invention of the most epic proportion. In fact anything other than what the EU's leadership would have us believe it to be.
Nearly two weeks after Flight MH17 was shot out of the sky over Eastern Ukraine, an as yet undisclosed number of dead passenger's bodies still remain scattered over the Ukrainian countryside, along with many of their possessions and much of the wreckage of the aircraft that they had been travelling on. Generally those innocent, as yet unidentified victims still remain there, not because no-one cares, but because they have been allowed to become hostages to a bitter national insurgency that has been cynically aggravated and encouraged by third party states, most of whom have their own political agendas to pursue.
The point has been made before, but it is worth reiterating again perhaps. If Flight MH17 had been carrying a large contingent of Russian, American or even Ukrainian passengers, does anyone imagine for a moment that their bodies would still be lying out in the fields, nearly two weeks after their deaths, or that the crash site itself would still remain unsecured? Were they Russian, American or Ukrainian bodies still lying there, what are the odds that significant military resources from any of those countries would have been brought into play; and the good offices of the United Nations, the ICRC and other international welfare bodies forced to involve themselves in any subsequent humanitarian recovery?
It's hard to imagine that Russian, American or even Ukrainian troops wouldn't have already secured the area, recovered all of the bodies and taken away all of the necessary diagnostic evidence within hours, if not days, of the crash itself. Yet because its primarily a European-led recovery mission, with no single person taking such vitally important decisions, some two weeks later it still has all the hallmarks of a tragic farce in the making, one that seems to go on; and on; and on; and on!
One wonders just how many Britons would need to have died in the tragedy before Prime Minister, David Cameron, might have felt compelled to actually commit military resources to bringing our dead citizen's bodies back home to their loved ones, assuming of course that he had the personal gumption to make that sort of decision in the first place, which one doubts that he has. Even the Australian government, which is located on the other side of the world, has given serious thought to such a proposal, as have the Dutch, although both have made the same fundamental mistake of deferring to the Ukrainian government in Kiev when it comes to making any firm decisions on such an action. One cannot imagine that the US or Russia would have requested any sort of permission, for what both countries would probably regard as doing the right thing in their own national interests and in the interests of their citizens at home.
Quite why Britain, Australia, the Netherlands, or any other country that lost citizens on Flight MH17, would expect a highly dysfunctional nation like Ukraine, to be able to guarantee anything is a highly questionable approach anyway. It is clear that any international mission to recover bodies, personal possessions and diagnostic wreckage is going to play a secondary role to their own military conflict with the Russian backed separatists, as has been the case in recent days when fresh fighting erupted close to the plane's crash site. Obviously, neither insurgent, nor Ukrainian regulars have any real interest in helping the international community to bring some sort of conclusion to the MH17 tragedy, by removing the remaining bodies and other vital evidence out of what is rapidly becoming an active war zone.
Russia's own actual complicity in the shooting down of MH17 aside, it has become abundantly clear that the imposition of economic sanctions against Mr Putin, his associates and increasingly against wider Russian interests were never likely to be a straightforward matter to begin with. Each and every one of the European Union's 28 member states will always have their own national interests in mind when being asked to consider imposing sanctions against one of their own major international trading partners. Britain's financial markets do a great deal of business with Russia, while France has significant arms dealing with Moscow, Germany is heavily involved with major cross border commercial ventures, whilst a number of other member states rely heavily on Russian oil and gas supplies to heat their homes and power their industries. As is the nature of modern business, a great deal of continental commercial activity takes place between Russia and the European Union, worth billions of Euros and Roubles every year; and nobody in their right mind would want to put that business at risk.
Unfortunately for everybody though, with Vladimir Putin's Russia choosing to act as the continental bully of the 21st century; and with no-one being prepared to go to war in order to curtail his worst excesses, the most obvious way for western nations to punish the Russian President is through a range of increasingly severe economic measures, depriving him of the financial income and economic muscle that he will need in order to rebuild his country's ageing infrastructure, industry and military.
Even though Europe has now started to co-ordinate their economic sanctions, with the likes of the United States and some of Asia's leading economies, the fact that it has taken nearly two weeks to agree them; that a range of specific national exemptions have been written into the agreement in order to protect the interests of certain member states; and that whole industrial sectors, along with particular Russian businesses have been purposefully overlooked, has simply helped to exaggerate the size of the international stick currently being waved at Mr Putin and his wealthy associates.
Such is the desperation of the West to find a solution to the current crisis that it is rumoured that the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is prepared to do any sort of backroom deal with Vladimir Putin, even if that means coming to some sort of accommodation regarding Crimea, which the Russian President has managed to wrest from Ukrainian control. Quite whether there is any truth to such rumours remains unclear, but in the event that Mr Putin was somehow rewarded for his illegal land-grab, then it truly would be reminiscent of the 1930's and Adolph Hitler's annexation of various continental territories, which later led to a much wider and much bloodier European conflagration.
But then that's the problem with bullies of any shape or size, the more they are appeased the more emboldened they become. So the West allows Mr Putin's Russia to keep the illegally seized region of Crimea, but what then? As has been reported in any number of the quality newspapers, there are millions of ethnic Russians living in any number of newly independent eastern states, most of which share borders with Russia. Using a similar premise to that which led to the illegal annexation of Crimea, what's to stop Mr Putin fomenting discord in any of these former soviet satellite countries; and then ordering his troops to cross their shared borders in order to protect those ethnic Russian citizens? Wouldn't that be exactly the same reason that President Putin used for his invasion of Crimea; that he's currently attempting to use in Ukraine; and that he might well chose to use elsewhere in the future? If Crimea wasn't worth a concerted western effort to confront Mr Putin, then why is Ukraine, or Poland, or Latvia, or Lithuania, or anywhere else for that matter? Just where does the EU draw the line when it comes to protecting the principle of international law, or is it simply a case of individually measuring profit and loss, or cost and benefit when it comes to the rights of various European states?
This piece isn't really about the rights and wrongs of Russia's actions in Eastern Europe. Aside from any trade that our country has with the likes of Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, etc. the chances are that most British people don't care about who controls what in Europe, just so long as it doesn't interfere with or impact on their own daily lives. Similarly, most people in the UK don't have more than a passing interest when it comes to the European Union, or its leadership, save for when its mountain of rules and regulations directly impact on their daily lives, which is increasingly the case, thanks to successive British governments.
What is probably more important to a large number of people in the UK is the basic principle of international laws, those that state that a modern, supposedly democratic nation like Russia shouldn't invade a neighbouring country on a complete pretence, for no good reason. Another basic principle of international law requires that the dead, no matter what their ethnicity, creed, gender, or age, should be treated with appropriate respect and that their remains should be delivered up, so that they can receive a dignified and respectful burial from their families and friends, in a place of their choosing. Under international law, perfectly innocent civilians shouldn't be shot out of the sky, their remains shouldn't be mistreated, they shouldn't be looted or exploited, nor should they be allowed to fester and rot in a field, when the means exist to have them recovered and returned to their grieving families for burial. These are likely the sorts of issues of principle that many Britons would be concerned about regarding the Ukraine crisis, not whose entitled to live where and to be governed by whom?
Unfortunately, the major fly in the ointment regarding Ukraine appears to be one of responsibility, or rather the choice by multiple people, countries and organisations, not to take any sort of responsibility at all. President Putin doesn't want to admit responsibility for arming and supporting the armed separatists in Ukraine, whilst the administration in Kiev doesn't want to take responsibility for creating the conditions that might allow for unfettered international access to the crash site. The international organisations, like the OSCE who have gained limited access to the scene won't take responsibility for retrieving human remains, while the separatists won't take responsibility for helping to create the sorts of conditions that would allow other outside groups to undertake that particularly gruesome and arduous task. The likes of the UN and the ICRC have both been conspicuous by their absence in Ukraine, possibly because they don't want to take responsibility for the crash site either, or indeed the retrieval of the remaining passenger's bodies.
And then there are the various overseas governments whose citizens actually died in the crash, most of whom have been equally poor when it comes to taking responsibility for overseeing the retrieval of their citizens, investigating the events surrounding the crash itself; and imposing far-reaching penalties on those who caused MH17's destruction, or those who have deliberately sought to impede a speedy resolution to the incident.
But here in a sense, we end up back at the beginning, with the European Union and its seemingly monolithic inability to achieve anything at all, such is the divisiveness of the union, when individual member states national interests are somehow threatened by co-ordinated actions. So you have the Germans advocating punitive measures against Russia, but at the same time trying to preserve its national trade worth billions of Roubles and Euros in automotive parts and energy supplies. Then you have the former Eastern Bloc states, who have most to fear from an expansionist Russia, but who at the same time are some of the most reliant on oil and gas from the East, whilst trading their fruit, vegetables and arable crops the other way. France has its multi-billion Euro arms trade with Russia, while the Dutch sell their flowers. The UK provides financial services and safe havens for Russian oligarchs; whilst Italy is another significant consumer of Russian gas and oil.
Although virtually all of the EU members are publicly aghast at Russia's actions in the Crimea and the Ukraine, for each in turn their principles have a price, be that in terms of oil and gas, arms deals, financial investments, property values, or whatever other benefits their country derive from its trade with modern Russia. Where at one time Russia's intransigence and military interference might have led to almost total international isolation and condemnation, today we are governed by a class of politician who will almost always put a price on pretty much everything, be that international treaties, agreements or even laws. Rather than looking at how they might strengthen the various economic and political sanctions against Russia, European politicians are thought to be thinking of ways to lighten the pressure on Mr Putin, believing that encouragement, rather than discouragement will ultimately lead them out of the current international crisis, a strategy that history tells us never works. Confronting a bully is always far more effective in the long run rather than simply ignoring or even condoning one.
The wider point is of course that the crises in both Crimea and Ukraine are minor by comparison to the sorts of issues that Europe may or may not face in the future, whether they were to come from Russia or elsewhere around the globe. The fact is though that the EU has singularly failed to offer an effective co-ordinated response to Mr Putin's troublemaking in Eastern Europe, which should make us all question their ability to resolve any possible problems in the future, if and when they do arise. To even consider that Britain's future defence might be put in the hands of European leaders whose own narrow national interests will almost certainly outweigh those of the UK should make us all shudder at the prospect; and if the EU can't defend Europe, ALL of Europe; and speak with one voice on all such vital subjects, then just what is the point of the European Union project anyway?