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13 March 2018

If we really want to annoy Russia, we should cancel Brexit

Not like we can rely on Trump is it?

By Jonn Elledge

Oh god. Oh god oh god oh god. It’s bad enough that we’re all going to die, painfully and probably quite soon. But does the end of the world really have to be this embarrassing? The First World War started with an assassination in Sarajevo. The way things are going, the Third might start with an attempted murder in the Salisbury branch of Zizzi. I mean, it’s just tacky, isn’t it? And anyway, what’s wrong with Pizza Express?

There are several levels on which this whole “PM says Russia used nerve agents on British soil” thing is scaring the bejesus out of me. The most obvious of them, the fact it happened at all, is thrown into sharp relief by the sheer banality of it. A couple of dozen people who’d done nothing more reckless than visit a chain Italian in Wiltshire ended up needing medical attention and having to frantically scrub their possessions.

I mean, you just don’t expect that at Zizzi, do you? Disappointing pasta, yes; Russian nerve agent, no. And why is it always chains? In 2006, Alexander Livtinenko got Polonium-ed in a branch of Itsu. Somehow I’d always assumed that, in the world of international espionage, people would eat at better restaurants.

This whole mess gets even more frightening when you wind the tape forward and think about what happens next, because it’s really not obvious what the correct response is. Ignoring it and hoping it doesn’t happen again doesn’t seem like a great option, but telling the England football team that they have to boycott the World Cup in Russia this summer seems like the sort of thing that might finally finish this wreck of a government off. As a result, the best that ministers have come up with so far is to let the football team attend the tournament, but telling Prince Harry that he can’t. The most terrifying threat we have seems to be to tell the fifth in line to the throne that he’s grounded.

In normal times, of course, the obvious step would be economic sanctions – but those, like almost everything else, have been complicated by the lack of clarity around Brexit. To make matters worse, it’s not clear who Britain’s allies even are any more. The President of the United States is going out of his way not to support Britain against Russia, Secretary of state Rex Tillerson did speak up, but he was out of a job within hours.

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That his comments may have been response to, rather than cause of, his imminent sacking doesn’t make me feel better, somehow. Because this is the administration that Brexit has forced us to cosy up to, in the desperate and irrational hope that Donald Trump will get all teary eyed about the special relationship and accidentally offer us a decent trade deal of the sort which would never get through Congress anyway.

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So: economic sanctions are hard, war is bloody stupid, and we probably don’t want to get into the habit of trying to knock people off in Moscow restaurants. What we really need is a non-violent action that will definitely undermine Russian interests, doesn’t require US leadership and, ideally, doesn’t cost any money.

Over on Twitter, Jonnie Marbles, who you may recall from his sterling work in the field of hitting Rupert Murdoch with pies, has come up with the perfect idea: cancel Brexit. It’ll make us less dependent on the whims of Donald Trump. It will, if anything, strengthen the economy. And we all know that steps towards European unity annoy the hell out of Putin.

What’s more, the response to the events in Salisbury that’s come from Brussels has been far, far warmer than the one that’s come from Washington. Earlier today, the European Parliament’s Brexit supremo Guy Verhofstadt tweeted that, “An attack against one EU & NATO country is an attack on all of us.” It’s like we’ve been beaten up, and the only one who gives a shit is the ex we just dumped in the most humiliating possible way.

At any rate: this time of Russian belligerence, US ineptitude and international strife is no time for us to be abandoning our allies. If Britain is really under threat, we need all the friends we can get.

So let’s stop waiting for an American response that’s never going to come, and stop mucking around with Prince Harry’s social engagements as if that’s any substitute for real diplomacy. Let’s hit Putin where it hurts: in Brussels.