Editor’s Note: The following is an interview by Tetiana Popova of Dom television with British writer and journalist Luke Harding, a correspondent for The Guardian in London.
Since New Year’s Day, Great Britain has finally withdrawn from the European Union. New rules for travel, trade, immigration, and security cooperation have come into force.
This was preceded by an 11-month transition period set aside for negotiations on further trade. Agreement on this issue was reached only by the end of the designated period. Until the trade agreement is approved by all EU countries, it is valid on a temporary basis – until the end of February. Recall that in 2016, the UK held a referendum to leave the EU, with almost 52% of those who voted in favor.
Tetiana Popova: So, how did the separation from the European Union affect the British? Did it add fuel to the separatist tendencies in Scotland and Northern Ireland? How is London supposed to deal with this problem?
Luke Harding: It’s a big problem that has become worse after Brexit. What you have to remember in Scotland is that two-thirds of Scottish people, when it was a referendum back in 2016, voted to stay inside the European Union. The majority of people in Scotland wanted to be in the EU. And obviously, we know that the north – I mean when Brexit has happened, the UK has left – we know how the situation in Northern Ireland where some of the supermarket shelves are empty because it’s much harder to get food from England to Northern Ireland and so on, so Brexit is something of the mess for the mavens, and of course the party in control in Scotland, the Scottish National party – they want the second referendum they lost narrowly in 2014, and the elections of mayor which they will win overwhelmingly, and then you have a kind of struggle between Edinburg, the seat of Scottish party, and Parliament in London. I think at some point I suspect the Scottish independence will have if another referendum will happen. And the consequences of Brexit are not just about the European Union membership, it’s also about the future of the UK.
TP: In your book Shadow State you unambiguously point out Russians as those who had interfered in Brexit voting process. Do you consider Brexit a defeat of the British secret service? And how does the secret service estimate its own role in the whole process?
LH: What we know is that the Kremlin ran a big social media operation in support of Brexit in 2016. In the same way, the trolls in Saint Petersburg were pushing Donald Trump in America. Quite often, the same people were involved. I know also that a pretty big espionage operation ran outside the Russian Embassy in London to get close to the people campaigning for Brexit, British campaigners, offering them gold and diamonds, and so on. What I think is quite astonishing is that the British government, the Conservative Party which supports Brexit, has literally been looking the other way, does not want to investigate the question of Russian defense. The spying has been happening in America, in Ukraine, across Central and Eastern Europe and in the Soviet-near abroad. I think this is a mistake, I think this is right foolish because Russia supported Brexit because it hates the European Union, and wants to weaken the UK militarily, politically, economically; to make it have a smaller presence on the world stage. And when we have a second Scottish independence referendum, you can guarantee the same Kremlin trolls would be pushing Scottish independence. So, what we need is to be honest about what is going on, in the way that you guys have been in Ukraine, but so far we don’t have the government that wants to investigate.
TP: Why did the completion of the transitional period and signing of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement take almost a year of negotiations as this has been settled out only by Christmas?
LH: Yes, I mean it’s been a pantomime – we really in this country, we really didn’t know until Christmas Eve that there was going to be a deal. It seemed quite possible that the UK would crash out of European Union space: customs arrangements without any deal whatsoever. Now we have a deal – it’s a very thin deal but it’s like going back in time. We now have lorries queuing at the border in Dover to go to France. We have enormous amounts of paperwork, we have problems with trade, with Northern Ireland, and so on. I mean the whole thing – from my perspective it is a mess, and also very sad. I mean I speak as someone who has spent a lot of time in your country, I lived in Russia for four years, I lived in Berlin as a foreign correspondent for four years. We got used to the right to travel freely in the European Union, to have visa-free access to live to work, even to fall in love, and all of this has now gone. To my mind, the UK is really a much smaller and sadder place after Brexit.
TP: In your investigations, you paid special attention to the Salisbury poisoning (of Sergii and Yulia Skripal on March 4, 2018). What is London’s next move going to be, in view of the latest evidence regarding Alexei Navalny’s poisoning that came to light thanks to the fact-finding carried out by the Insider, Bellingcat and Navalny himself?
LH: Yes. I mean British-Russian relations are terrible. They’ve been really bad for a very long time. They were awful when I was in Moscow as a correspondent a decade ago, following the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London with a radioactive cup of tea which was actually a similar kind of assassination to what we saw in Salisbury in 2018. And indeed in Siberia with the legacy of Navalny in August of this year. Now though the UK government together with the European Union has sanctioned various senior government officials, it sanctioned Alexander Bortnikov, the head of the FSB, but actually, so far the action has been rather narrow – it’s been rather narrowly focused on obvious top-level individuals. I mean there is so much more that we in this country could do, because as you perfectly know London over the past couple of decades has become Londongrad – it is full of oligarchs who have bought up the most expensive houses in our capital, who send their kids to British private schools, buy out businesses and so on. And not all of them are bad people, but we’ve had a flow of dark money from Moscow into the UK which has corrupted our politics and to some extent our democracy. I would argue and you know it’s easy to sanction Bortnikov, but there seems more reluctance to deal with the big problem, the macro problem which is bad cash coming in and affecting our political life and undermining our democratic processes.
TP: The cases of poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, the Skripals, and arms dealer Emilian Gebrev in Bulgaria, as well as the murder of the Chechen rebel leader Zelimkhan Khangoshvili in Berlin make utterly shocking examples of insolence. In your opinion, how should NATO countries respond to such demonstrative executions of those whom the Kremlin finds “inconvenient”?
LH: Yeah well, you’re completely right – I mean, what we see I mean this is right. Why I wrote my book Shadow State is we see a revisionist and hyper-aggressive Russia which really believes itself to be at war, a kind of unofficial war with NATO, with America, with the UK, with the European Union. And in recent years has had groups of undercover assassins, secret diversionary cells operating out of France, going to places like Bulgaria, as you mentioned, the UK, Berlin to kill state enemies. And it’s a huge problem for NATO, it’s a huge problem for the West generally. And I think the point we’ve reached after two decades of Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin is really Western policymakers have to understand – what Kyiv already knows – that Mr. Putin is not interested in mutually beneficial solutions. He’s not interested in dialogue. He has a kind of absolute KGB mindset which is adversarial and zero-sum. So I think the place we are now in terms of international relations is all about containment a kind of Cold War doctrine where actually you recognize you can’t change Russia or Moscow – you may have to contain it. And so I think we have to investigate these murders we have to sanction the individuals who are involved, and we have to stay vigilant because we live in pretty dark and precarious times.
TP: Luke, last December the Guardian, the newspaper you’re working for, has been picketed by those dissatisfied with your publications. Who are these people and how reasonable their demands are? Is it common to picket major media outlets in Britain?
LH: Well, coming next defense. I have to admit I don’t know anything about this – I mean the Guardian building has been empty since the start of the pandemic in March almost a year ago, and we’re all working from home, so it’s possible people were picketing. But if so, I don’t know who they were or what they wanted. And you know it’s a free country – if people don’t like what we publish, of course, they can protest. But I haven’t seen any kind of major demonstrations that I can remember outside the Guardian. And of course, if people are unhappy they can write a letter, they can write an opinion piece. I mean I think that comment is free and facts are sacred – that’s the kind of Guardian’s motto, and we try in our paper and our website to reflect a very broad spectrum of opinion, and I think we do that pretty well.
TP: Those picketers accused you of stating some untrue facts in an article you wrote in 2018: they say Julian Assange did not meet Manafort at the Ecuador Embassy. What can you say about this?
LH: We included Assange’s denial at the time that we published the article. He has a lot of passionate supporters in this country and what you have to remember and bear in mind is that the Guardian has absolutely opposed his extradition to the United States. I mean now actually it’s clear that he’s not going to be extradited. He’s still in jail, he’s still in custody, and yeah we collaborated with Assange in 2010. But Adam Rusbridger, my former editor-in-chief of the Guardian has also written very well and very influentially, saying that what Wikileaks did together with many media analysts in 2010, what was journalism, and if you prosecute him you have to prosecute all of us. So I mean I think actually the Guardian’s support for Assange and his core battle has been very clear.
TP: How exactly may the UK top court’s decision to block the extradition of the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the USA affect the US-UK relations?
LH: We have to wait and see – I mean it’s the legal process isn’t over yet. It’s not clear what will happen. I suspect – I mean I don’t know but I suspect the Biden administration will have other priorities going forward. Joe Biden has a huge entry – the pandemic to start with. Then a whole host of international issues, from Iran, from climate change to Russia, to what you do about Vladimir Putin who keeps on hacking American, or his spies keep on hacking American federal government agencies. So I think Assange is down the list. And also the great irony of this is that Hillary Clinton actually in the Obama administration – they didn’t do anything against Assange when they were in power, so I suspect that the case may quietly go away rather than being pursued by the new Biden administration.
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