Sweden’s foreign minister was confident. In the course of an interview with Monocle in London two months ago, Carl Bildt believed a European arms embargo on Russia had to go ahead. “To continue to sell arms to Russia, I don’t think that should be possible any longer,” he said. France, which had planned a €1.2bn sale of Mistral assault ships to Valdimir Putin’s government, would just have to take the hit. They would be “distinctly unhappy”, Bildt admitted, but they knew it was the right thing to do.
It turns out he was wrong. French diplomats this week acknowledged that the sale was still going ahead. Germany has been equally reluctant to turn away the rouble: the country’s top companies have all lobbied Angela Merkel to go easy and she, so far, has acquiesced. And let’s not even start delving into the UK’s unwillingness to do anything that might stop the flow of dodgy Russian cash into our capital city. Or – and this is a personal bugbear – Gazprom’s vainglorious sponsorship of European football’s biggest prize, the Champions League (see more on that here).
That our economies are increasingly interconnected should be something to celebrate. It is a way for countries to work together and build trust; it encourages movement of people and spreads cultures. And it should also mean that the risk of political fallout, the possibility of conflict, is somewhat reduced: a nation is less likely to go to war or provoke a confrontation if there will be a major economic cost.
This is something the countries of Europe, more than any other continent, should have little difficulty recognising. However, when it comes to their nearest neighbours, Europe’s leaders have shown a dangerous inability to learn from the past. Turkey’s slide away from Europe began in 1997, the moment the EU refused to put the country on the list of would-be new members. Russia’s began in the early years of Putin’s first reign when his requests to join Nato (yes, he actually asked) and the World Trade Organisation were blocked. Closer, friendlier ties would surely not hurt right now. Whether that would have meant a different outcome in Ukraine is a counter-factual too far.
That engagement can – indeed should – be used as a diplomatic tool as well. By all means provide aid to a democratic if unsteady Egypt but take it away when the military carries out a coup. Help Nigeria bring back the girls but make it clear to Goodluck Jonathan that he must listen to those protesting against his government. Bring Russia into the fold but make the price of the annexation of part of a neighbouring country so high that no one, not even Putin, would think it wise.
Instead, we bumble onwards. Engaging for a moment here, wagging a finger there, never quite outlining our principles or our red lines, other than the one that’s always stuck to: what makes us the most money for the least trouble?
Steve Bloomfield is Monocle’s foreign editor.