Letter from Lvyv: an elegy for a lost British foreign policy

So the Brexit journey is at last upon as. As metaphors go, leaving the EU on the night sleeper from Kraków to Lvyv is pretty bloody unmetaphorical. Even the timing of our journey was down to Mrs May and her election.

So it was fitful sleep, getting disturbed by border guards demanding papers and not to mention an hour of banging and hammering as the non-tarif barriers were sorted. The EU-Ukranian border may be visa-free now, but the trains tracks are a different distance apart either side of the border. Measurements and regulations are also, like facts, cheils that winnae ding – though there was a goodly amount of clanging and dinging that night.

I sleep lightly on a train, and my sleep was shot through with regret for a lost foreign policy. The EU is such a light thing, 25,000 civil servants across the continent, but one half of one percent of government expenditure, that it is sometimes hard to see, a veil, a light mist of a thing. But not on the Ukranian border, if you cross by foot, as I did last year at Przemśl.

The great European expansion to the east was a British priority. Like Corbyn on Iraq, the Brits were right for the wrong reason – putting the Franco-German gas at a peep being the motivation, expansion being a stick in the spokes of deeper integration, as per.

But the EU proved its mettle, providing infrastructure pump-priming, the threat of a good example, carrot and stick legality that citizens could use against their own governments and by opening up economic opportunities.

The Poles leapt at them, sending workers west to earn better money and learn better trades, and to send money east to transform Poland. A few hundred quid from a brother for a sister’s hairdressers here, a taxi there, tax paid on the new holiday home, prosperity building on itself, capitalism in action.

These successes of British foreign policy seem tiny and insignificant next to our bombastic set pieces – the stentorian debate on sending 4 jet fighters to Syria – each but a grain of sand.

Not on the Ukranian border. The invisible institutions of law and economic regulation (and deregulation) jut into the vast sea of Slavs like a giant groyne, and on one side the sand piles up with a golden glow of prosperity, and on the other a rockier headland.

History rarely runs controlled experiments but Western Ukraine is one of them. Polish until 1945 it went into the Soviet zone with the rest of Poland but emerged on its own. To cross the border is to see bright, lively, thriving Poland through a time machine, 10, 15 years behind, the cars older, the trams more clapped out, the roads more potholed, the cities more shabby, prices lower and wages likewise.

It is not because the Ukrainians now are less motivated, their hustle is exhausting. Nor it is because of some imagined cultural alignment with the old Soviet world as anyone who has slogged through to the end of The Gulag Archipelego can attest; replete as it is with heroic Ukrainians.

But Ukraine also stood outside the EU. It was the ‘great’ powers, the US, the UK and Russia that guaranteed her borders with the Budapest Treaty of 1996. And whilst we were bogged down in Iraq, Putin struck. Our need of Russian money too much, for our overheated London housing market, to pay our imported footballers, to provide regional newspapers for former Chancellors to strut and preen the intra-Tory civil war, for us to move against them.

As so, in Ukraine, it is the EU that is taking back control, with Trump absent, presumed golfing, Nato sidelined and the UK, lacking self-awareness, humiliated in this matter.

As it happens last weekend was the end of roaming charges on phones across the EU – a great new single market created at the heart of the modern economy. As we walked into Lvyv at 7am to where we are staying I left the maps on my phone on – and hit the £40 a month roaming limit in an hour.

I yearn for boring politics, for the slow quiet adjustments of law and regulation, like the hanging of a door, sand it where it sticks here, sand it where it sticks there.

That is the EU that is, at the cost of paying our bills and sharing sovereignty with our European neighbours. My share of this bill is a ludicrous £120 a year – just 3 goes on a phone on yer holidays.

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