It is hardly surprising that we have little time for reflection, as the New Year dawns, about matters beyond our own back yard. The “tidal wave” of Omicron has struck, the Nightingale hospitals are understaffed, the PCR tests have run out, the hospitality industry has been hit by panic, and large parts of the economy seem barely able to function as hundreds of thousands self-isolate. And yet, however bad matters of public health might be, and however diverting the implosion of possibly the most dishonest and incompetent government in British history, there is scope for life to get much, much worse.
Recently, I found myself in an intelligent conversation with a minister in the present government. That itself was something of an achievement: one reason why the government is so bad is that the present prime minister has as far as possible surrounded himself with yes-men and deep mediocrities. His hope, perhaps, was that they would be slow to recognise his laziness, unseriousness and inability to cope with his job; and that their inadequacies would distract the electorate from focusing on him. My interlocutor slipped through the net — and had been thinking about the wider world quite deeply.
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His conclusions were depressing. They were, in short, that it is an exceptionally dangerous place, far more so than most realise; and that however grim 2020 and 2021 were, 2022 could be the most perilous year, particularly for the West, since the end of the Cold War.
We talked through his reasons for this gloom, beginning close to home. Since it was at the forefront of most people’s minds, we discussed the fear, promoted by the government, that the National Health Service could collapse as a result of the supposedly highly-transmissible Omicron variant. Before the NHS reached that stage (with its inevitable effects on public morale), action would have to be taken that would badly affected the economy here, with the promise of a renewed taxpayer-funded furlough scheme if businesses were forced to close. The Conservative party was divided over the need for such measures, not least because the lethality of the Omicron variant had yet to be proved. Now, although the rate of infections has reached record levels, the rate of hospitalisations and deaths lag far behind. This is encouraging a substantial cadre of MPs to argue that we must learn to live with Covid, supported by a vaccination programme. Should Boris Johnson remain prime minister, such dissent in his own party would, if his form is any guide, lead to an unclear and confused response by the government and therefore by other agencies. That, too, would be costly, but it would be only the start.
The new wave of Covid has attacked Europe, disrupting “normal” life. Even “rich” nations such as Germany (where the cost of the pandemic now exceeds €2 trillion, and inflation is above the EU average of 2.2%) are feeling the financial effects of a long period of subsidising non-productivity; in poorer countries in southern and eastern Europe, the prospects are even more stark, and tempers are fraying. Italy has a budget deficit of around 10%, and a new wave of restrictions will cause growth targets to be missed. Inflation will drive up interest rates across Europe, and the higher cost of servicing debt would put pressure on everyone with a bank loan or a mortgage: a factor behind, it seems, the Bank of England’s reluctance to raise rates in Britain, a reluctance that cannot be maintained indefinitely.
Poland and Hungary have both been sniping with Brussels over what they consider to be undue EU interference with their internal affairs — Poland about its justice system, Hungary about migration. Both countries, with an eye on the money that Brussels contributes to them — stress in public their commitment to a future within the EU, but an internal debate is being cranked up in both countries about when a breaking point will come, as it did in Britain in 2016. The EU has learned nothing from Brexit — quite the reverse, it seems — which is always a sign that history may repeat itself.
On the eastern, western and southern fringes of the EU, there is a respite in illegal immigration, brought on by the fact that, even in the balmy Mediterranean, it is winter. But the constant traffic (and trafficking) of predominantly economic migrants from Africa into Greece and Italy will keep up and doubtless expand during 2022, with the EU apparently as incapable of restricting it with a coherent policy for all 27 of its members as it was to fight the arrival of the pandemic.
In the East, with the cynical and mischievous support of Vladimir Putin, Belarus has been allowing illegal migrants to mass on its borders with Poland and Lithuania in the hope of destabilising the Union still further. And Anglo-French relations have, according to various historians, reached a low not seen since Waterloo (the less hysterical might point to the results of the Royal Navy sinking much of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in 1940, before the Nazis could get their hands on it), because of France’s willingness to allow its own illegal migrants easy passage out of its jurisdiction while attempting to enter the United Kingdom. This has now been compounded by President Macron’s decision (made with an eye to grandstanding before his attempt at re-election) to close his borders to visitors from Britain for fear of importing more Omicron — a disease with which his country is now, in any case, swamped.
The divisions in the EU over the management of the pandemic exploded the myth that the only difficulties in the bloc were over Brexit, and once Britain had gone all would be serene. That serenity has turned out to be elusive, with fissures opening up not just between eastern and western states, but between southern and northern ones.
And there are other aspects of politics within the European Union that make matters seem highly unstable, and inward-looking, as 2022 arrives. Olaf Scholz, the new German Chancellor, has a near-impossible act to follow after Angela Merkel’s 16 years in office. One of his difficulties is that the man who would succeed Merkel as the leading political figure in Europe, Emmanuel Macron, must fight a presidential election in April and May; and despite being notionally of the centre is engaging in straightforward Gaullism — or rather populism — to get himself back into the Élysée palace.
With another five-year term under his belt, Macron could successfully pull rank on the novice Scholz. There is nothing in Scholz’s political DNA that suggests he is remotely interested in such a virility contest; instead, he is likely to assume that because Germany has a significantly larger population, and significantly larger economy both in absolute terms and per capita compared with France, that leadership of the EU is his by right. Macron had no choice but to defer to Merkel; he would defer to Scholz only with insincerity and ill-grace. Suddenly, however, he faces a highly plausible Républicain candidate in Valérie Pécresse, and an off-the-wall populist in Éric Zemmour, who shares many of the views of Marine Le Pen but has none of her movement’s baggage. The French election is one of the least predictable in the history of the Fifth Republic: an outcome that destablises not just France, but the EU, is not beyond possibility.
Yet it is in wider geopolitics that my ministerial friend believed the real dangers lie. Until recently, these were questions that attracted the interest only of foreign policy wonks, but they have started to force their way out of the foreign pages and into the front parts of newspapers and home pages of websites. Might Russia continue to unsettle Europe, and especially Germany, with threats to limit gas supply, and so push up energy prices during the coldest months of the year? Perhaps not, since those higher prices wouldn’t compensate for the loss of business, and Putin needs all the money he can get. But is Russia massing 100,000 of its troops on the border with Ukraine purely to twist the tail of the West, or does it propose to invade and raise its flag over Kiev? The answer to that, given Putin’s populist tendencies, is less predictable.
Similarly, have China’s naval exercises off Taiwan been merely a show of strength, or does it intend to attempt re-incorporating into the homeland the island that resisted the Communist takeover in 1949, and has flourished by comparison ever since? And if you were an aggressive power that has either little idea of western democratic standards, or little interest in emulating them, what better time could you choose to engage in lethal provocation than when an under-performing Joe Biden is, nominally, leader of the Free World?
Recently Biden admitted that if either China or Russia were to engage in acts of aggression the United States would be unable to intervene. Contrast this with the highly ambitious rhetoric of our Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, who has warned Russia of “severe consequences” were it to invade Ukraine. But both Biden and Truss feel economic sanctions would bring Russia to heel, which would seem to be the triumph of hope over experience. Sanctions have been operating on Russia since Putin’s first attack on Ukraine in 2014, and have been tightened progressively. However, they have had no effect on the behaviour of the country’s kleptocratic leadership, whose management of rivals to Putin ensures that the “electorate” in Russia has nowhere else to go, despite the existence of courageous resistance groups. All gung-ho threats of sanctions need to be tempered by a recognition of Russia’s indifference to the views of tens of millions of its people. Recent protests by the West about the treatment of Alexei Navalny, one of Putin’s highest-profile opponents, have done nothing to get him released from his corrective labour camp just over 100 miles from Moscow.
No-one expects America or any other western power to send troops in to resist an invasion of either Ukraine or Taiwan. But the West has forgotten one Cold War lesson, which is that neither of these potentially aggressive powers — Russia very much one in decline, in terms of its population, wealth and demand for its resources, whose international last hurrah this might conceivably be; China very much one in the ascendant — gives the slightest respect to other “powers” they consider decadent. And decadence in this case has been the determination of the West, and particularly of Britain and of EU nations, to run down their armed forces since the end of the Cold War. Again, the purpose of these forces was not aggressive: it was to observe the old truth that no nation can engage in serious diplomacy unless it has force as a last resort. When Russia and China spot so-called powers that take a relaxed view of defending themselves, they act accordingly.
Biden could take a detached view of the Ukraine problem (as the Obama administration did when Russia helped itself to the Crimea and much of eastern Ukraine in 2014) because no NATO power was involved. But what if Russia were to engage in further provocation, by demanding permit- and visa-free travel across Lithuania from its puppet state of Belarus to its exclave of Kaliningrad, formerly Konigsberg in East Prussia, a spoil of the Second World War? If Putin really wants to turn ugly, he would demand a 100km land corridor across the Suwalki gap, which runs from Belarus along the border between Poland and Lithuania. Both are members of the EU and NATO. What would Biden, or for that matter the EU, do then?
It could be that we sail through 2022 with vaccination programmes bringing down Covid, with the West’s economies reviving rapidly, stability reasserting itself in its democracies, America establishing a new authority in the world and the bullies of Beijing and Moscow abandoning their aggressive designs. For good measure, inflation could suddenly fall, and the West’s ambitious climate change policies could be implemented without some of the feared economic consequences. Sadly, however, the alternative to each of those conjectures appears the more likely short-term outcome.
But what should perhaps worry the West most of all, at the dawn of this dangerous year, is that none of its constituent nations has a leader of the experience, the clout and the moral authority required to deal with this bouquet of challenges if, or when, they arrive.