For several days in late July and early August, thousands of farmers across North East France used tractors to obstruct roads from Germany. The aim was to prevent trucks carrying agricultural goods from crossing the Rhine. In South West France, too, more Gallic protesters, similarly mounted on tractors, blocked farm produce coming from Spain.
In Russia, meanwhile, customs authorities invited TV cameras to film the destruction of 20 tons of French and Spanish cheese using a bulldozer, while crushing a range of other foods – including bacon, tomatoes and nectarines.
These two bizarre events – French tractors stopping food imports from within the EU, and televised “fromagicide” – are not unrelated. Both stem from Moscow’s decision a year ago to ban farm produce from America, Canada, Norway, Australia and, most significantly, members of the EU.
I spent much of last week in Tbilisi, a city of around 1.5m people on the south-eastern fringe of Europe. Sitting at the juncture of historic East-West trade routes, the Georgian capital has long been a melting pot of cultural mingling, a place where rival empires collide.
With its mix of medieval, classical and Soviet architecture, some of it charming, some of it not, Tbilisi is a good place to think about the broad sweep of foreign affairs. That was particularly true during my latest visit, as the city was hosting the annual meeting of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). For several days, some of Tbilisi’s most prominent downtown buildings – including the ornate old parliament and several beautiful museums – were inhabited by a multi-cultural gaggle of officials, bankers, investors and journalists.
The dissolution of parliament last Monday, and subsequent television “debates”, means campaigning has officially begun ahead of the most uncertain election in a generation. There’s no easy way to summarise what might happen on Thursday May 7 – suffice to say that we’ll almost certainly see an indecisive hung Parliament.
The identity of the British government will then depend on frenzied negotiations that could leave the world’s sixth-largest economy in political limbo for weeks or even months. A prolonged struggle over power-sharing – which, as in 1974, might result in a second general election – could unleash big constitutional uncertainties as parties press their respective agendas. A resurgent Scottish National Party may demand another independence vote. We could even see a snap referendum on the UK’s European Union membership.
Global equity markets ended the week on a positive note, buoyed by signs of progress on EU debt talks with Greece and a glimmer of East-West rapprochement at the Minsk summit. Stocks rallied on both Thursday and Friday, with investors’ risk appetite rising as German Chancellor Angela Merkel shook hands with, and then smiled at, Greek Finance Minister and Negotiator-in-Chief Yanis Varoufakis. That came alongside a Ukraine ceasefire deal – again, brokered by Merkel – which pushed European shares and bonds higher, amid hopes of easing tensions between Russia and the West.
Then we had news of better than expected eurozone growth during the fourth quarter of 2014. The combined economy of the 19-country currency bloc expanded 0.3pc during the final three months of last year, reported Eurostat, with GDP rising at an annual rate of 0.9pc. This improvement was led by a 0.7pc increase in German national income, compared to just a 0.1pc expansion the quarter before. There were also indications of stronger growth in some “periphery” member-states, with Spain and Portugal notching-up figures of 0.7pc and 0.5pc respectively.
After months of escalating tensions over Ukraine and talk of a new cold war, Russia and the West could soon reach a sanctions rapprochement. The eurozone economy is suffering badly and sanctions are partly to blame. Winter is also upon us, and that reminds everyone Vladimir Putin still holds the cards when it comes to supplying gas.
The clincher, though, is that Kiev is in a deep financial hole and fast heading towards financial meltdown. Unless an extremely large bail-out is delivered soon, there will be a default, sending shockwaves through the global economy. That’s a risk nobody wants to take – not least in Washington, London or Berlin.
The partial ceasefire in Donbas and Lugansk has done little to ease the East-West information and diplomatic argy-bargy relating to Russia and Ukraine. If anything, the rhetorical exchanges have become more testy during September, after the EU and US expanded their sanctions program. This happened after the ceasefire – patchy, but thankfully still holding – was agreed between Kiev and rebel-fighters in East Ukraine.
The new measures are designed to target top state-owned energy, defence and financial services companies – including Gazprom, Lukoil, Rostec and Sberbank. The list of Russian officials subject to asset freezes and travel bans has also been extended. “Given Russia’s direct military intervention and blatant efforts to destabilize Ukraine, we’ve deepened our sanctions, in concert with our European allies,” said US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew.
William Hague was on rather shaky ground when he argued this week that Moscow has chosen “the route to isolation” by recognizing Crimea’s referendum. On the contrary, it is the European Union and the United States who look as if they have seriously overplayed their respective hands in Ukraine. Across Asia, Africa and Latin America, the cry of “Western hypocrisy” has been heard much louder than complaints about Vladimir Putin.
Even in the UK, mainstream opinion is steadily becoming more critical of Western interventionism and our “New Cold War” posturing – despite some pretty one-sided media coverage and much establishment “tut-tutting”. Independent thought is still viewed with suspicion, and even disgust, by some – and I should know, having consistently argued we should negotiate with Moscow, not threaten tough sanctions we’ll never impose.
This Crimean crisis is, perhaps, reaching its apogee. As a referendum is held on the Black Sea peninsula, a territory 25pc bigger than Wales and home to 2m people, the stand-off between Russia and the West continues, dominating the global news-cycle.
Talk of a new Cold War is deeply alarmist. Politicians on both sides are posturing in front of each other and their respective electorates. Be in no doubt, though, relations between Russia and the US are now at their lowest ebb since the Soviet Union collapsed over 22 years ago.
I’ve been struck in recent days by the growing gulf between conflicting points of view towards the crisis in Crimea. I’m not referring to the firmly held differences in opinion between respective governments in London and Washington on the one hand and Moscow on the other. What I have in mind, after numerous conversations and broadcasts about Russia and Ukraine over the last week, and having closely followed events in this region for many years, is the polarization of opinion within the West itself.
As far as our politicians and diplomats are concerned, Russia remains the Cold War enemy, our implacably foe, where little or nothing has changed since US President Ronald Reagan dubbed the Soviet Union “the evil empire”. Never mind that the USSR collapsed almost a quarter of a century ago, or that it was 31 years ago yesterday that Reagan made that speech.
Who cares if post-Soviet Russia has transformed itself, via the chaos of the 1990s, from a closed, sclerotic, planned economy based on armaments and commodities, into a nascent capitalist society, well-integrated into global commerce and, unlike any other large emerging market, with a fully-open capital account?
It would appear that a deal has been struck in Ukraine. We must hope that it holds. The plan is to hold early presidential elections, by December 2014, while immediately returning to the 2004 constitution, which bolsters the power of Parliament.
It remains to be seen if these concessions will placate those who’ve protested so angrily and forcefully against incumbent President Victor Yanukovich. While keeping our fingers crossed for calm in Kiev, we should also watch closely the reaction of the many millions of Ukrainians in the Russian-speaking South and East of the country, who voted for Yanukovich as their President back in 2010. That election, let us not forget, was judged by the internationally-respected and Western-backed Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to be “fair”, “truly competitive” and an “impressive display” of democracy.