The UK and Russia: how to end the paralysis

Rather than approaching our relationship with Russia from a humanitarian or social perspective, we should move past this web of irritants and seek a deeper arrangement.

In recent months, British-Russian relations have become increasingly fraught. The cultural divide, at least between their governments, grows ever clearer. For Britain, fresh from celebrating the passage of gay marriage, but now reeling at Russia’s recent laws against "promoting" homosexuality, it’s clear that an alignment of cultural values is not a realistic goal.

But in a new book out this week, post-Soviet scholar Robert Legvold argues that the UK (and Europe) has to aim for a better relationship with the country. This connection should not be based on case-by-case provisions for mutual interests, but on a deeper and more beneficial arrangement.

Rather than approaching a relationship with Russia from a humanitarian or social perspective, we should move past this "web of irritants, only loosely related to vital national interests, which has ensnared ties between two countries," Legvold writes. Vital national interests certainly lie beneath the surface of the fractious relationship between Russia and Europe and, in the UK’s case, trade has taken a turn for the worse. In 2011, Russia accounted for just 1% more than in 2001, while the UK slid out of the top 10 of the country's trading partners, and now represents less than 3% of Russian trade.

Legvold uses the analogy of Russian dolls to suggest that the bilateral UK-Russia connection sits inside that between Russia and the EU, Russia and NATO, and the US and Russia. The problem, he argues, is the missing doll: the Euro-Atlantic security community that American, European and Russian leaders have regularly promised us since the 1990 Charter of Paris for a New Europe. The formation of this group could effectively meet the real security threats that they all face; military cooperation, rather than competition, would go a long way to causing much of what mars the other three dolls to disappear.

The UK and Russia’s relationship has been made particularly complex by events such as the Iraq war and the death of Alexander Litvinenko, and the "special relationship" with the US has left Britain an "unhappy outlier" among European states. As Legvold suggests, while the UK’s role in Russia diminishes, energy continues to constitute the heart of the EU-Russia relationship, and when it comes to centrepieces, Germany and the EU commission "control the action". Ultimately, though, the NATO-US dimension of the UK-Russia relationship "creates its deep underpinning".

From Russia’s nuclear choices to its energy and climate change policy, (it is the third largest emitter of greenhouse gas) the stakes are high. But the two largest issues, argues Legvold, are transforming the "broader Euro-Atlantic region, including Russia, into a real, working security community, from cyber-warfare to health pandemics". 

It is down to Britain, he concludes, to "help break the lethargy and paralysis that has left the Euro-Atlantic world pinned under the detritus of the cold war" and "dismantle the barriers that prevent progress on the hard, practical issues on the agenda." Despite David Miliband’s assurance during his 2009 Moscow visit that he was there "to talk, not growl", the UK’s relationship with Russia, both in its own right and as part of the EU, is more Russian bear than Russian doll. Whether or not it can evolve in the way proposed by Legvold remains to be seen.

Natalie Cox is Communications Intern at IPPR. Influencing Tomorrow, by Rt Hon Douglas Alexander MP & Dr Ian Kearns, is published on 7 November 2013 and is available from Guardian Bookshop

Vladimir Putin welcomes David Cameron during the G20 summit on September 5, 2013 in Saint Petersburg. Photograph: Getty Images.

Natalie Cox is Communications Intern at IPPR

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Theresa May’s Brexit speech is Angela Merkel’s victory – here’s why

The Germans coined the word “merkeln to describe their Chancellor’s approach to negotiations. 

It is a measure of Britain’s weak position that Theresa May accepts Angela Merkel’s ultimatum even before the Brexit negotiations have formally started

The British Prime Minister blinked first when she presented her plan for Brexit Tuesday morning. After months of repeating the tautological mantra that “Brexit means Brexit”, she finally specified her position when she essentially proposed that Britain should leave the internal market for goods, services and people, which had been so championed by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. 

By accepting that the “UK will be outside” and that there can be “no half-way house”, Theresa May has essentially caved in before the negotiations have begun.

At her meeting with May in July last year, the German Chancellor stated her ultimatum that there could be no “Rosinenpickerei” – the German equivalent of cherry picking. Merkel stated that Britain was not free to choose. That is still her position.

Back then, May was still battling for access to the internal market. It is a measure of how much her position has weakened that the Prime Minister has been forced to accept that Britain will have to leave the single market.

For those who have followed Merkel in her eleven years as German Kanzlerin there is sense of déjà vu about all this.  In negotiations over the Greek debt in 2011 and in 2015, as well as in her negotiations with German banks, in the wake of the global clash in 2008, Merkel played a waiting game; she let others reveal their hands first. The Germans even coined the word "merkeln", to describe the Chancellor’s favoured approach to negotiations.

Unlike other politicians, Frau Merkel is known for her careful analysis, behind-the-scene diplomacy and her determination to pursue German interests. All these are evident in the Brexit negotiations even before they have started.

Much has been made of US President-Elect Donald Trump’s offer to do a trade deal with Britain “very quickly” (as well as bad-mouthing Merkel). In the greater scheme of things, such a deal – should it come – will amount to very little. The UK’s exports to the EU were valued at £223.3bn in 2015 – roughly five times as much as our exports to the United States. 

But more importantly, Britain’s main export is services. It constitutes 79 per cent of the economy, according to the Office of National Statistics. Without access to the single market for services, and without free movement of skilled workers, the financial sector will have a strong incentive to move to the European mainland.

This is Germany’s gain. There is a general consensus that many banks are ready to move if Britain quits the single market, and Frankfurt is an obvious destination.

In an election year, this is welcome news for Merkel. That the British Prime Minister voluntarily gives up the access to the internal market is a boon for the German Chancellor and solves several of her problems. 

May’s acceptance that Britain will not be in the single market shows that no country is able to secure a better deal outside the EU. This will deter other countries from following the UK’s example. 

Moreover, securing a deal that will make Frankfurt the financial centre in Europe will give Merkel a political boost, and will take focus away from other issues such as immigration.

Despite the rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party, the largely proportional electoral system in Germany will all but guarantee that the current coalition government continues after the elections to the Bundestag in September.

Before the referendum in June last year, Brexiteers published a poster with the mildly xenophobic message "Halt ze German advance". By essentially caving in to Merkel’s demands before these have been expressly stated, Mrs May will strengthen Germany at Britain’s expense. 

Perhaps, the German word schadenfreude comes to mind?

Matthew Qvortrup is author of the book Angela Merkel: Europe’s Most Influential Leader published by Duckworth, and professor of applied political science at Coventry University.