My Lords, in 1997 I stood before you to deliver my maiden speech. My priority then was to draw your attention to the ludicrous EU regulations that were inflating the cost of theatre productions in mainland Europe and almost doubling ticket prices as a consequence.
Today, thanks to us being forced to adopt some of these regulations, our ticket prices are unfortunately creeping up, too. Yet, while EU practices have undoubtedly caused great problems for the entire entertainment industry, I am not here today to burden you with further industry-specific tales of woe. These, with almost every other issue, pale into insignificance when compared to what I believe to be the greatest threat to our people for a generation.
This is undoubtedly a time of great uncertainty for our country. The issues being discussed are of immense importance, particularly those so eloquently raised by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury earlier in this debate. However, I fear that, as we continue to look in on ourselves—as we continue to work out what has happened to our country since the referendum—we are at the same time walking blindly into a threat, the gravity of which far surpasses any of the issues that we have indulged ourselves in to date.
Let us not forget that last week’s commemoration of the Battle of the Somme—where more than 57,000 British servicemen forfeited their lives—was a timely reminder of a moment when the continent of Europe and its people were jeopardised for a generation.
Today, I believe that Europe is once again facing a terrible threat and, with that threat, the security of the continent is in the balance. The greatest single threat to peace, in both the United Kingdom and Europe—and with it our stability and safety—is Putin’s unopposed meddling in Syria. While the Syrian situation was, of course, not created by President Putin, his actions and involvement remain a cause for huge concern.
Over the past six months, Russian bombs have decimated hospitals, schools, markets and homes in Syria. They killed more than 4,000 people between September 2015 and early March this year. Russia’s actions have displaced millions more and, in doing so, have played an active role in fuelling the European migrant crisis.
While the United Kingdom and Europe feign to quarrel over what sort of trade agreements we may or may not have in two, three or 10 years’ time, Putin’s involvement is steadily destabilising our European borders and unleashing the fury of war in a sinister echo of the Somme, about which we swore, “Never again”. We should be under no illusion that Putin’s forces rage—and they rage not just against those in combat but against civilians, too.
When the referendum was called, the Syrian migration crisis had not yet exploded. Now the goalposts have moved, and they continue to move all around Europe in many different ways. The frozen conflicts in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, as well as the direct armed intervention in Syria and aerial provocations to NATO members, demand that we recognise the Moscow regime as being a huge threat to the stability and security of Europe. It is Putin who continues to move the goal posts, with ever more devastating consequences.
While we immerse ourselves in the aftermath of a referendum and the rest of Europe looks on, trying to make sense of our decision, Putin carries on his airstrikes in support of a discredited Assad regime. Our parents’ generation sacrificed their lives for peace; now is the time to ensure that we are trustworthy custodians of that inheritance. So I shudder to think how Putin must be looking on our travails with glee. By fuelling the migrant crisis and commanding the atrocities of war, he has, directly or indirectly, made historic European divisions bubble to the surface again. Things are working out well for him. He knew that the refugee crisis would strain Europe to breaking point and he was right.
In quitting Europe, I fear that we are hastening Putin’s dream of the break-up of the EU—and with it, potentially, western civilization. Austria recently missed electing an extreme right-wing President, and I understand that the election is to be rerun; Marine Le Pen could become President of France next year; the far right has made advances in Norway and Finland; nationalists run Poland, Hungary and Slovakia; the Putin-fuelled refugee crisis has undermined Angela Merkel, once the most powerful and stable politician in Europe; and the German far right is back in business.
So now, more than ever, we must stand united, as a country and as a continent, to honour our reputation as a great kingdom and provide the moderating voice that Europe needs in order to remain peaceful. I just hope that in five years’ time we will not look back with incredulity at the way in which we wallowed in self-serving arguments about our economic prospects and how to better ourselves financially, while failing to help those in desperate need and completely missing one of the greatest threats of our lifetime looming ominously on the horizon. Our nation’s safety and that of our people has to be our overriding priority.
Discussions about the future of our children and our children’s children are foolhardy and misguided if first we have not addressed their safety. There was much talk during the referendum of securing their future, but they will have no future if Putin’s continued involvement remains unchecked. Instead, we need to seize the initiative and to quickly see ourselves as a nation that looks outwards, geared towards being united against this very real danger, and as the generation who, like our parents before us, pulled together despite the mayhem that surrounds us.
I very much welcome the Defence Committee’s report regarding the Russian threat to UK security today. It rightly questions our understanding of a Russian military strategy and Putin’s ultimate ambitions, and it expresses a fear that he is employing many of the old Soviet tactics that so terrorised generations before us. The committee’s call for improved communication and greater understanding of the Russian mindset is also vital.
By contrast, the inflammatory tone of some of the spokespeople in Brussels fills me with a mounting sense of dread. It fills me with dread because now more than ever we need to build bridges and the next Prime Minister needs to restore faith, trust and good will between this country and our European neighbours. Without that, we have nothing, and I fear that we will leave ourselves and our children open to an insecure and consequently frightening future.
I honestly believe that we are in a race against time, which is why I feel compelled to speak today with a very real sense of urgency. There is no time to lose. Although I do not claim to have the answers, raising this vital question in order that we tackle it head-on, united together, is surely the best way to avoid a situation that has the potential to be truly perilous not just for our people and not just for our country but for Europe at large.