Sergei Skripal’s poisoning dominated the news again this week, with it pushing tensions ever stronger between the UK and Russia. Elsewhere, there were potentially harmful developments in the EU, and Phillip Hammond delivered his Spring Statement.
Since last week‘s high-profile attempted murder of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter at a Zizzi restaurant in Salisbury using the military-grade Novichok nerve agent, tensions between the UK and Russia have escalated. Theresa May accused Moscow of either directly coordinating the attack, or letting a chemical agent they had developed fall into the wrong hands. After failing to provide an explanation, the UK and allies have pointed the finger at Moscow. Novichok is one of the world’s most deadly nerve agents, and was developed in the Soviet Union. Several hundred people near the site of the attack were warned by police to wash their clothes.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said on Friday that President Putin most likely ordered the attack, reinforcing the statements made in a joint press conference between the UK, France, USA and Germany on Thursday which condemned the first nerve agent attack in Europe since World War II. The UK will respond by expelling 23 Russian diplomats (approximately half of the total), freezing Russian assets that may threaten human life, increase checks on flights and customs, cease all high level bilateral contact, and the Royal Family will boycott the Fifa World Cup in Russia later this year. Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson announced a 48m investment towards a new chemical weapons defense center. In a Guardian column, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn condemned the attack and highlighted the need for a thorough criminal investigation, but cautioned not to ‘rush ahead of the evidence’ and create an international conflict with Russia if the state was not responsible, drawing parallels to the run-up to the Iraq war and suggesting that Russian ‘mafia-like groups’ cannot be ruled out. Other Labour MPs disagreed, signing a motion saying that Russia itself was ‘unequivocally’ behind the attack.
The death of Russian businessman Nikolai Glushkov in his London home, who left Russia after falling out with Putin in 1999, is also being treated as a murder inquiry and handled by a counterterrorism team, although no evidence currently links this to the chemical attack. Other Russian exiles in the UK have also been contacted by police to discuss their safety. The Russian embassy and Moscow deny any involvement, retaliating by annoucing its expulsion of 23 UK diplomats, closing the British Consulate in St Petersburg and closing the British Council, which promotes cultural ties and educational opportunities such as study exchanges, in Russia. Sergei and Yulia Skripal remain in critical condition.
In Brexit news, Gibraltar threatened to rescind EU citizen’s rights there if Spain vetoes it from from being included in a Brexit deal. Gibraltar is a small UK Overseas Territory that encompasses a rock and a small strip of land where the airport is located, which Spain considers an illegal occupation. Spain reinforced its position that Gibraltar should not be covered by a Brexit deal and the airport should be joint managed by Madrid. Spain was granted a veto over any UK-EU deal by the EU last year over any issues encompassing Gibraltar. Meanwhile, dispute continued over the Northern Irish border during an EU27 summit. The EU, UK and Irish governments are committed to avoiding a hard border in Ireland, which could undermine the peace process in Ireland outlined by the Good Friday agreement in 1998. Solutions discussed include a Northern Ireland-EU free trade agreement or Northern Ireland or putting the EU-Ireland border outside of Ireland and encompassing Northern Ireland effectively within the EU. The Northern Ireland affairs committee expressed that ‘little progress‘ had been made so far on Friday. A proposal backed by some MPs on the Brexit select commitee to delay the process of Brexit beyond March 2019 provoked divided criticism and support. Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable received criticism this week for suggesting Leave voters were spurred by “nostalgia for a world where passports were blue, faces were white and the map was coloured imperial pink”. The UK’s third largest company Unilever announced it will be moving its central offices from London to Rotterdam, and despite claiming this was unrelated to Brexit, critics of May’s government have suggested this is indicative of the falling appeal of locating businesses in a post-Brexit UK.
Chancellor Philip Hammond delivered his Spring Statement on Tuesday, highlighting modest ecomonic growth and a falling national deficit as a result of cautious use of the National Budget and reduced borrowing over the last few years, saying ‘there is light at the end of the tunnel’. He suggested the possibility of increasing spending on the NHS, local governance and other public services. He also highlighted that the EU referendum had not weakened the economy ‘as much as expected’. Meanwhile, Labour accused him of ‘astounding complacency‘ in the face of underfunded public services, highlighting issues with public transport, the NHS, the police, the disabled, unemployment and the ‘destuction’ of the solar industry as the result of spending cuts. The Equality and Human Rights Comission also concluded that ‘1.5 million more children’ will be in poverty by 2022 as the result of spending cuts between 2015 and 2018.
The Integrated Communities Strategy will also receive 50m to help improve integration and reduce segregation problems in Bradford, Blackburn, Peterborough, Walsall, and Waltham Forest in London. This funding will be used for English classes, encourage children from different ethnic or religious backgrounds to interact, and help women from minority communities to find employment.