October 20, 2014
Country’s Crimea votes leads to questions
From Where I Stand
SEVRES, France — This was the first time that I came to France aboard a sleek Eurostar train to the Gare du Nord in Paris from St. Pancras Station in London. The journey conjured a medley of memories. St. Pancras, a marvellous example of Victorian railway architecture, was the station that my mother and I departed from for a respite from the London blitz to stay at my grandmother’s house in a village in Derbyshire that was not a target for German bombers.
Speeding under the English Channel at speeds up to 186 mph to arrive in Paris in two hours trammelled up recollections of a time when Britain saw the narrow strip of water between Dover and Calais as the first line of defence against invasion from the Continent.
Throughout my childhood I heard my elders’ arguments for maintaining Britain as an island stronghold and recall how often my father noted how fortunate it was that the long-planned but never completed Channel Tunnel was not in existence in 1940 when a Nazi invasion loomed large, not only in my imagination, but in reality.
I always associated the liberation of France with freedom and for me, personally, to be free to go to Paris, the dream city. For someone with memories of World War II, returning to Europe is an encounter with a shimmering miracle. That miracle is the European Union.
I was aboard the first ferryboat to resume service after the war to Boulogne and since then have used most of the available forms of transport to cross the Channel. They all gave me a thrill, even one maddeningly ear-shattering, shuddering trip by Hovercraft. There is romance in a sea voyage, however short. Flying is prosaic, even when the destination is Paris.
I didn’t expect burrowing under the sea to be as enjoyable as sailing over it. But it was. The smooth ride through the chalk-splashed green of the English countryside followed by the brief interval in the tunnel before France welcomes you was for me a first-time experience that deserves the French word frisson to describe the feeling.
There is no Orient Express glamour to enhance Eurostar. It doesn’t need it. It is simply a wonderful way to travel comfortably and trouble free. I had heard from friends that they often took the Eurostar to have lunch in Paris and return to London in time for tea. The Eurostar is a symbol of the achievement of the European Union, which has overturned history by bringing 28 countries and myriads of people together.
London today is the most cosmopolitan city that I have known. Because of the centuries’ old feud between the French and the English, much has been made of the startling fact that there are today more French citizens living in London than in most French cities, some 400,000. According to the BBC, in terms of population, London is the sixth biggest city in France, which means that French presidential candidates place London high on their campaign agenda.
We were living in Chelsea, and Maud, my French-speaking wife, soon discovered that the mademoiselles in chic French stores along the King’s Rd. speak French, not English, as a matter of course. But we discovered that we were in the midst of another foreign invasion. Our rented flat, our Home-from-Home, was in the heart of the area taken over by the so-called “Russian Oligarchs.” A cartoon in the satiric magazine Private Eye depicted a poster on a newspaper stand: “Russians invade Crimea.” A bystander asks: “What do they want Crimea for when they’ve already got Kensington and Chelsea?”
The Russian oligarchs are buying up property throughout the two royal boroughs, extending the basements under the old terraced houses to add swimming pools and other un-English luxuries. But the community is fighting back in an attempt to stem the tide of development to retain the remaining modest homes and maintain the character of the neighbourhood.
The other invasion, of Crimea, brought a chill to the early Spring which bathed London in sunshine for 10 unbelievable golden days. Memories of the time when Europe was a cockpit of war and turmoil were stirred.
It was galling to read that at a time when democracy was again threatened by a despot, Argentina once again appears to have chosen the wrong side. It is true that Vladimir Putin is a modern despot in that he gets himself elected and re-elected. But, like the despot who shall not be named, he has made his intentions clear. He views the collapse of the Soviet Union as a catastrophe. He wants to reassemble it.
I am still not certain where President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner stands on this. First there was the heartening vote in the UN Security Council condemning Russia for intervening in Ukraine in support of the despicable Victor Yanukovich, who was ousted by public opinion. On March 15, Argentina voted with the democratic countries. Russia, which vetoed the resolution, suffered a severe rebuff.
But on March 29, Argentina abstained when the same resolution was voted on in the General Assembly. There is a tortuous explanation of the change in voting by the Argentine representative to the UN which, to my mind, is an attempt to cover the fact that the significance of the referendum supporting annexation by Russia finally became clear to the Argentine foreign ministry when it was approved on March 16.
On March 19 in Paris President Fernández de Kirchner said it was “worthless,” but not for the same reasons it was rejected by a majority in the General Assembly. She saw that Argentina’s claim to the Malvinas/Falkland Islands could be undermined if Argentina appeared to be supporting self-determination for Crimea after rejecting a similar referendum voted by the Malvinas/Falkland islanders. She denounced the “double standard” of Britain and the Western powers and said: “We should support the integrity of all countries. At the end of the day the Malvinas have always been Argentine while Crimea belonged to the Soviet Union and was handed to the Ukrainians by (former Soviet leader Nikita) Khrushchev.”
Putin was delighted by this and sent a message of thanks. So, after voting first with the democratic countries and then not voting on the same resolution, Argentina missed an opportunity to demonstrate its democratic credentials. Fernández de Kirchner and Putin must think alike.