With spy poisoning, Brexit Britain finds out who its friends are

PUBLISHED: 00:01 14 March 2018

Russian president Vladimir Putin

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Whatever else you can say about an assassination attempt with a powerful Russian nerve agent on its soil, it has certainly told Britain who its friends are.

The US, the power the Brexiteers and their press supporters told us repeatedly would be our firmest ally after Brexit (party, and curiously, because Donald Trump's mother liked seeing the Queen on television) has proved itself at best fairweather and at worst dismissive.

In pretty much his last act as secretary of state, the hapless Rex Tillerson had told reporters the attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal “clearly came from Russia” and would have consequences. He was duly sacked by Trump. By tweet.

Whether Tillerson's comments were the direct precursor to his removal from officer are unclear - tensions between the president and the former oil statesman had existed for some time over the Iran deal and, more recently, the former's unilateral declaration he would be meeting Kim Jong-un. Tillerson had also allegedly called Trump a "f***ing moron" for asking for a staggering increase in the US' nuclear arsenal, a comment which prompted Trump to suggest both sat an IQ test. Because this is entirely normal.

Trump went on to say that "as soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be", as if the powerful Russian nerve agent might have been administered on behalf of Andorra or New Zealand or somewhere. It hardly amounted to standing foursquare behind its foremost partner by the man who Nigel Farage assured us "likes our country and understands our post-Brexit values".

And what of the European Union, the group of nations the Brexiteers have spent the past year-and-a-half mocking, attacking and antagonising, painting it variously as an overpowered Soviet-style evil empire and a failing economic backwater on the brink of collapse?

European Commission deputy head Frans Timmermans called on the bloc to express “its full solidarity with the British people and the British government” and make a collective European effort to find and punish those responsible. Foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini called it “shocking” and said the EU was “ready to offer support if requested”. France said it was a “totally unacceptable attack”; outgoing German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel that "it’s clear the perpetrators must be held accountable".

It is true that EU-Russia relations are complicated. The union is reliant on Russia's oil while simultaneously maintaining sanctions over its seizure of Crimea from Ukraine and its military intervention in the east of the country. But it is also true that the Brexiteers have no greater or stauncher a friend than Vladimir Putin, who yearns to see the bloc break up and whose propaganda channel, RT, cheerleads for it.

Can the Brexiteers see that the spy poisoning crisis has shown Britain who its true friends are? Probably not. In an ill-tempered session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg yesterday, Farage again referred to the European Commission as bullies (Putin, of course, is not a bully. The man who will romp home at the weekend in Russia's presidential election is, in Farage World, an “operator” whose handling of the civil war in Syria was “brilliant”). In the same debate Conservative MEP David Campbell Bannerman rolled out the widely-discredited canard that, basically, German carmakers will ensure Europe bends to the Brexiteers' will.

But perhaps others will notice. For this week, when Britain found itself in a time of danger, it turned around and found Europe was behind it - and the other half of our 'special relationship' was not.

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