We assumed the EU’s enemies were all internal. We were wrong.

There seem to be two main narratives of the Ukrainian conflict doing the rounds in the Western media. On one extreme is the thesis that Putin is determined on expanding Russian territory. On the other, his actions are a logical and understandable response to the reckless expansion of NATO. Neither of these is quite true.

Crimea aside, Putin has resisted officially expanding the territory of the Russian Federation. The separatist statelets of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transdnistria have each asked to be admitted to the federation only to be politely ignored. The military logic of this is impeccable: the cost of incorporating and defending territory is unnecessary if the same aims can be achieved by sowing chaos. Better to keep one’s neighbours worried enough that they don’t want to provoke you, but not worried enough that they act decisively against you. The ideal outcome from Russia’s point of view is a near-abroad of buffer states that know their place in the pecking order, and for nearly two decades that’s more or less what it had.

We instinctively understand that military alliances are threatening, and it’s tempting therefore to point the finger at NATO. But to blame NATO for upsetting the balance is disingenuous. The Yushchenko government suggested in 2008 that it might join NATO, and was rebuffed after Russia (understandably) objected. The post-Maidan government initially made clear that it had no intention of repeating that mistake. NATO membership was overwhelmingly unpopular in Ukraine before the Crimean crisis, polling consistently under 20%. The threat to Russia came not from NATO, but from the EU.

Unlike NATO, the EU is consistently popular in Ukraine. The catalyst for the Maidan protests was the choice of the government to abandon a long-promised free trade agreement with the EU in favour of a Russian counterproposal. Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, three of the five largest post-Soviet economies, had recently agreed to create the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), a rival economic bloc to the EU with two distinct advantages for Putin: Russian hegemony and fewer restrictions on the exercise of state power.

Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Armenia were all close to signing free trade agreements with the EU when the EEU counter-offers started coming in. Armenia was persuaded to switch, but as the second largest economy after Russia itself, Ukraine was the real objective. When the Ukrainian people chose the EU over Russia, it not only stunted the viability of the EEU project, but also spurned what most Russians assumed was still a uniquely special friendship, even despite a decade of increasing political distance between the two countries. (The English and the Scots would surely understand.)

Ukraine is uniquely important to Russia economically. Since Soviet times, the industrial supply chain has straddled the border. Ukraine’s Donbass region relies heavily on Russian customers, and the military is one of the largest. With their relationship now probably damaged beyond repair, Ukraine and Russia have been working furiously to disentangle their economies – the most likely explanation for the mysteriously half-empty aid convoys is that they had enough capacity to asset strip entire factories and transport key machinery back to Russia. If this is true, then it demonstrates Russia has understood that it has lost Ukraine to the EU economically. But this has only increased its determination to salvage what it can and keep NATO out. The differing levels of outside commitment in Ukraine prove that Russia still claims a military sphere of influence, and NATO has little intention of challenging it.

Crimea was taken because it was easy, because it was strategic, because the Ukrainians know (even if they won’t admit) that they’ll never get it back, and because that’s what happens when you cross the wrong people. Unlike the other post-Soviet frozen conflicts, Crimea had to be annexed – Sevastopol is far too precious to be left in the hands of amateurs. The Donbass rebellion was facilitated to keep the Ukrainians tied down fighting a second insurrection while Russia quietly consolidated the first one. Now that a frozen conflict has been successfully engineered in the east, nobody is going to suggest an armed liberation of Crimea in the face of a hostile populace.

This leaves Ukraine in a nasty position – economically and politically committed to the EU, but militarily overshadowed by old-school Russian hard power. It also reminds us that the EU is not expanding into a vacuum. We have always thought about European integration as if it were a contract, where the only countries that matter are the contracting parties, and any agreement between them would naturally have the blessing of the world. The only enemies of European integration in this scenario are internal factions who disagree with their own government’s policy. The worst reaction we ever received from a third country was jealousy.

We now know that this was complacent. There is an external enemy of European integration, and he sits in the Kremlin. Some countries have decided for themselves that they don’t want to be involved in the EU project. Putin has decided that he doesn’t want other people’s countries being involved in the EU project. He has his own alternative, and clear ideas about who should be a member of which one. Talk of a new Iron Curtain is overblown, but there is an increasingly clear demarcation between the EU and Russian spheres of influence.

The Charter of Statehood

States tend to operate on the assumption that they are eternal – so they don’t normally have exit clauses – and can be neurotic about their territorial integrity. The debate over Scottish independence, and its future relations with the EU, has demonstrated once again that an agreed mechanism is required to gently manage the death of states. The attitude of Spanish politicians in particular towards a potentially independent Scotland is motivated not by concern for Scots welfare, but by fear of setting a Caledonian-Catalonian precedent. No matter what one’s views on Scottish independence, the idea that Scotland should be held hostage to a dispute between third parties should be abhorrent.

There follows a modest proposal for a Charter of Statehood, which should be adopted by the member states of the EU. It provides an orderly process for regional secession, combined with a promise by existing powers to act generously in their relations with newly-independent states. In particular, it commits regional bodies to keeping a secessionist state within the fold – for example an independent Scotland (or Catalonia) would be entitled to near-automatic membership of the EU.

It is intentionally limited, and provides for unilateral secession as only one of several options – the intent being that the existence of such a safety valve will normally be sufficient to dissuade brinksmanship. It deliberately does not cover redrawing boundaries to arbitrary levels of precision – unilateral secession can only take place on the basis of existing local government units and only after the formation of a functioning autonomous state on the seceding territory. The final clause commits states to refrain from abolishing local government units for the sole purpose of thwarting secession. The language is also drafted to be portable – it applies equally to the breakup of an autonomous region within a federal state as it does to secession within the EU.

The Charter

  1. For the purposes of this charter, a “state” is a jurisdiction with a body of constitutional law, and both legislative and executive competence over its internal affairs. It need not be sovereign under international law, and may be part of a larger containing state, e.g. a federation.
  2. A state may dissolve itself into multiple states through its own processes. Each new state shall have the right to retain membership of overarching bodies, and these bodies shall provide an equitable mechanism for integrating each new state into their structures as a member of equal standing without undue hindrance or delay.
  3. Two or more states may merge into a combined state by mutual consent, as expressed through their internal processes. The combined state shall have the right to retain membership of any mutually overarching bodies, and these bodies shall update their structures to take account of the union in an equitable manner without undue delay.
  4. A state of more than two years’ standing may unilaterally declare independence from a containing state through its own processes. The containing state shall facilitate such a declaration, however it may impose a reasonable and proportionate transition procedure. The leaving state shall have the right to retain membership of overarching bodies, and these bodies shall provide an equitable mechanism for integrating the state into their structures as a member of equal standing without undue hindrance or delay.
  5. One or more local government areas may individually or collectively declare themselves a state by adopting a constitution through simple ballot of their electorates. Such a constitution must be consistent with both the ECHR and this charter. The containing state shall provide a mechanism to hold such a ballot if a significant fraction of public opinion is shown to be in favour, but may impose reasonable and proportional restrictions on the frequency, timing and conditions of the ballot. Those local government units whose electorates pass a common constitution shall have the right to form a new state on their collective territory subject to that constitution. The containing state shall provide a mechanism for integrating the new state into its structures as an autonomous jurisdiction without undue hindrance or delay.
  6. States shall provide a system of local government with boundaries and functions based on objective economic, social and geographic criteria, while taking due account of the views of the electorate. Local government boundaries must not be altered for the purposes of thwarting the declaration of a state.

After Lisbon – a heretical view

So Ireland voted no. May I make some humble suggestions to the great and good:

  1. Take it like a man. I’m talking to you, Barroso. I don’t know what you wanted to achieve by claiming the treaty was still alive, but all you did was prove the No campaign’s point for them.
  2. Don’t panic. There’s nothing in Lisbon that’s so urgent it can’t wait six or twelve months for the dust to settle. It’s not like you don’t have other things to be getting on with.
  3. Deal with specific problems. If there’s something in particular holding up Croatia’s membership, treat it as part of their accession deal. Don’t try to do too much at once (e.g. consolidate the treaties, write a constitution and increase the powers of the EU).
  4. Make the best of what you have. The Nice Treaty states that after the number of members exceeds 27, the size of the Commission will be reduced to less than 27. It could be argued that this is already sufficient legal basis for reform, so long as that reform is seen to be fair.
  5. Be generous. It’s already accepted practice for the Council to nominate the EP’s suggested name for Commission President. How about letting him suggest the names of the other Commissioners? And you could voluntarily let your national parliaments have their debates on proposed directives. It’s amazing how much you can get done with a gentleman’s agreement.
  6. Try to be popular. Aw, go on. You never know, the electorate might even grow to like you.

Nigel Farage of the UKIP was on Newsnight last night claiming, inconsistently, that a) if you don’t understand something, voting no is a good idea, but b) the result “obviously” means the Irish don’t want more political integration. It’s always hard having a debate with a Eurosceptic on such issues, as they have a habit of changing the subject to “get out” at the first opportunity. ;-)