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Friday, 28 February 2014

A letter to Angela Merkel


Dear Chancellor

It was really sweet of you to pop over to London yesterday afternoon, but frankly I'd much rather you'd cancelled the trip and flown to Moscow instead.

I mean, priorities? David Cameron's forlorn attempt to hold his party together, or a potentially imploding Ukraine? Surely you don't have time to waste on fripperies. An email would have done just as well, wouldn't it? "Hi David, sorry can't make Thursday after all, but as you know, there's not much to talk about anyway. Let's see what things look like after May '15. Herzliche Grüsse, Tante Angela."

Admittedly, London was a don't-pack-your-toothbrush visit. A midday speech at Westminster; a quick lunch at Downing Street; tea with HM at Buck House; home in time for supper. And the point was what, exactly?

Meanwhile, in Ukraine, as you know, armed men have seized airports and government buildings in Crimea, and Russian fighter jets have been put on combat alert. On a crisis scale of 1-10, I reckon we're already at eight and rising rapidly …

Someone at yesterday's Downing Street press conference referred to you as the Queen of Europe. Not quite right, perhaps, given that queens these days don't have any real power. No, Mrs Merkel, you're the de facto president of Europe (not José Manuel Barroso, or Herman Van Rompuy, or even Antonis Samaras of Greece, all of whom, in the wonderfully wacky world of the EU, currently have claim on the title).

You are the single most powerful politician in Europe. You know it (you may not much like it, but you know it nonetheless), and, more importantly, Vladimir Putin knows it. That's why I think you should have diverted your plane yesterday morning and headed straight for the Kremlin.

Ukraine is the most serious crisis that Europe has faced since the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the wars that disfigured our continent for much of the 1990s. Germany is acknowledged as Europe's dominant power, as France fades from view and the UK mutters grumpily from the sidelines. Ergo, Mrs Merkel, you're the one in the driving seat.

I wrote last week: "Putin understands the nature of power, and he knows better than any other current world leader how to use it." Little did I imagine then how quickly his Ukrainian protégé would turn tail and flee. I imagine there were some choice epithets hurled in his direction from the Kremlin as Putin was left looking weak, and -- worse -- wrong-footed by the power of the Ukrainian street.

Madam Chancellor, you know perfectly well why this crisis is so dangerous. Ukraine is where the Russian president has chosen to make a stand. He faced down the US over its plans to erect anti-missile defence systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, and now he's facing down Europe over its attempts to woo Ukraine into the EU camp.

That's why someone urgently needs to talk to him. Not to warn him or threaten him, but to seek common ground, and identify how to lower tensions, not raise them. Madam Chancellor, that someone has to be you. And what you have to tell him is this: Europe is not trying to snatch Ukraine away from Russia's orbit, and it fully acknowledges the historic ties between the two countries.

The bottom line is that the people of Ukraine must be allowed to make their own decisions about their own future. In the words of Mark Leonard, of the European Council on Foreign Relations: "Rather than aiming to drag Ukraine into the Western sphere of influence and absolve its elites from national responsibility, the goal of the West should be to help Ukraine to help itself."

Last May, a global opinion poll carried out for the BBC asked 26,000 people in 25 countries to say which nation they viewed most favourably. I'm sure you remember who came top: Germany. So now, please, it's time for you to use some of that goodwill, and the power that comes with it, to avert another European disaster.

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