Sometime last year I got into a rather heated exchange with a Latvian lady on the subject of Brexit. I think she’d done what I described here: raise a subject on which it was a near certainty I’d agree with her, only I didn’t. She seemed to think that those who voted to Leave were completely idiotic and that a matter of such importance should not have been put to a popular vote; she thought such issues are too complex for ordinary people to understand and that is why we elect representatives to handle such matters on our behalf.
It is not an unusual view to hold, but what interested me was that it came from a Latvian. Had this conversation not come at me so quickly I might have asked her whether Latvian independence from the Soviet Union ought not to have been decided at the discretion of the representatives of the Latvian SSR and their masters in the Supreme Soviet back in Moscow. After all, the issue of Latvian independence from the USSR was no less complicated and fraught with potential pitfalls than Britain exiting the European Union, so perhaps it would have been better to leave it up to the representatives of the people rather than the people themselves? Okay, there is the issue that the Latvian people’s representatives were not elected, but then nor were those demanding independence.
I couldn’t help but be a little cheesed off that somebody, whose own people demanded independence from a supranational political system they didn’t want and never asked for, and who personally enjoys the benefits of that independence, would be so critical about British people wanting similar independence (as they see it).
What makes this interesting is that the Baltic States aren’t quite out of the woods yet. They are fully paid-up members of the EU, having received enormous funding to get their infrastructure and institutions up to scratch – with quite some success, I would add. However, they all share concerns that Russia might have designs on some or all of their territory and after the seizure of Crimea and the abysmal attempt to do the same with Eastern Ukraine, people are wondering whether Putin & Co aren’t trying to restablish their Soviet spheres of control. If that is the case, the Baltic states aren’t going to get very far asking the EU for help: the Germans would sell them down the river if it means Siemens didn’t lose its operating license in Russia, and the French probably don’t even know the Baltics are part of the EU. The Poles would make a lot of noise but not be able to do much about it; the Netherlands was unable to raise as much as a squeak when the Russian military shot down a plane full of Dutch citizens; and everyone else is flat broke or has an army that could carry out manoeuvres in a pub car park, including armour.
In other words, the Baltic states are completely reliant on Nato to keep the Russians out, which in this case means the United States. However, in diplomatic terms (and probably a token military one as well) it also means the Brits. If we can imagine a scenario in a few years time when the Russians are massing tanks and troops on the borders of Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania on some pretext and revving the engines noisily, Britain will be one of the countries they will be pleading with to intervene (meaning, persuade the United States to intervene). How Britain responds ought very much to depend on how the Baltic states behaved during the Brexit negotiations.
It is a given that these countries are minnows in the EU and will be desperate not to rock any boats, but nevertheless the future threat from Russia might focus their minds a bit, particularly on the issue of sovereignty and independence. If the Baltic states decide to vote in favour of hardball tactics designed to punish Britain’s insolence for voting to leave, many Brits – including this one – may be forgiven for thinking independence and self-rule aren’t really important to the Baltic peoples after all. So if Putin does come a-knocking one day, don’t look at us for help: you’re on your own.
Whereas if they vote down any attempt to punish Britain, and make certain gestures towards recognising Britain’s right to withdraw and govern themselves from now on, then they will be demonstrating that these are principles that they do still hold dear themselves, and perhaps they are worth putting ourselves in harms way for.
In short, I think the behaviour of the Baltic States during the Brexit negotiations will be interesting and worth watching closely. If I were Theresa May I’d be reminding the respective leaders of their Soviet past and the Russian army nearby, and having a quiet chat about the principles of democracy, freedom, and sovereignty. Or, to save the busy woman’s time, she could just send each of them a link to this post and they could let us know their stance in the comments.