The Brief – Poking the Bear

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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It only took a few short months for the accusation that the 2016 Brexit referendum was rigged, unfair and corrupt to start doing the rounds.

This week, Boris Johnson’s government finally published the Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee report, which was supposed to nail down once and for all the myth of Russian interference in the referendum and UK public life.

Instead, it left nothing but more questions.

According to the report, whose publication ministers have blocked for months, Russian “influence campaigns” were at work during the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, but the government made no effort to investigate possible Russian interference in the EU referendum.

Scottish National Party MP Stewart Hosie said that “the report reveals that no one in government knew if Russia interfered in or sought to influence the referendum, because they did not want to know.

No one in government wanted to touch the issue of Russian interference when it came to elections with a “10-foot pole”, Hosie added.

Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov says the report is nothing more than ‘Russophobia’. He will have been reassured that the attitude of Boris Johnson and his ministers has been one of ‘nothing to see here’.

Indeed, Johnson said that “the people of this country did not vote to leave the EU because of pressure from Russia”.

He’s almost certainly right about that and, in any case, Brexit is done and almost all Britons have accepted it and moved on. The idea that Russian hacking and disinformation decided the referendum or, indeed, any other UK election, is rather far-fetched.

But that doesn’t mean that Russian political interference isn’t real and doesn’t get successive UK governments off the hook for having been complicit in allowing Russian money and power to become more influential.

Oligarchs are allowed to buy multi-million pound London properties only to leave them unoccupied and derelict, while Conservative party donors cosy up to them, and the party treasurers take their money.

There are plenty of things in this saga that don’t add up.

Last month, the UK announced plans for its ‘Magnitsky-style’ sanctions list against oligarchs and human rights abusers, prompting an angry reaction from the Russian embassy.

Foreign Minister Dominic Raab then claimed last week that Russian hackers had been responsible for the leaked US-UK trade mandate which the Labour party used to campaign against Johnson’s Conservatives ahead of last December’s general election.

Both moves appeared to be calculated to distract attention from the report.

And the nagging question is: if there really was nothing to see, why did ministers sit on the Russia report for 10 months before deciding to publish it?

It could just be indecision. After all, good-natured bumbling and bluster is one of Boris Johnson’s calling cards. Yet it’s hard to avoid the sense that there is a stench wafting around Westminster.

The Roundup

The presidents of the European Council and Commission mounted a charm offensive to gain the European Parliament ‘s support for the recovery plan agreed earlier this week by the EU27 but lawmakers insisted on renegotiating the budget cuts. 

At the EU summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a U-turn as German advocated for the assumption of joint debts and dissociated itself from other donor countries for the first time and not just for economic reasons. This time, Merkel is fighting for her legacy as a shaper of the EU.

Don’t forget to check out the weekly Global Europe Brief to stay on top of the EU’s foreign affairs agenda.

Four years after the EU adopted its Arctic Policy, it is preparing work on a new strategy document. In the meantime, the race for the Arctic accelerates.

Ukrainian, Russian and negotiators from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reached an agreement for a full ceasefire between government forces and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine from 27 July.  European leaders had demanded a truce before they would agree to holding new Normandy talks.

The Commission’s economy boss, Valdis Dombrovskis, and Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal signed a large loan package supposed to stabilise the ex-Soviet country’s ailing finances amid international concern that its leadership is backtracking on reforms.

In a three-way call with the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia, the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell called for an end to armed confrontations following a flare-up of tensions last week along the international state border between the two countries.

A trade agreement between the EU and the UK is increasingly unlikely to be reached this year, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier warned following the last round of formal negotiations before a three-week summer break.

It is of the ‘utmost importance’ for the EU to do more to reign in the unregulated environment of online political advertising by establishing more stringent transparency obligations, said a  European Commission-backed report on media plurality.

Look out for…

  • European Commission presents EU Security Union strategy

Views are the author’s

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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