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The Conservatives Are Underplaying Our Hand in Europe and It Benefits No-one - Except Russia

12/03/2015 17:52 GMT | Updated 11/05/2015 10:59 BST

The Russia-Ukraine conflict, and the deterioration of human rights in Russia should be a key concern of all our political parties. If we are to stem the violence in Ukraine, we need a strong and united Europe, as much as we need wise thinking from the US and other players. But I am concerned that the Conservative leadership is crippled by an overblown and insecure fear of Ukip. We are punching below our weight in Europe. Cameron is in danger of putting party politics above peace in Ukraine and Europe - and our national interests.

With convergence between Europe and Russia looking more unlikely with each passing week, it is not enough to close our eyes and hope for a gradual drift towards an uneasy peace - or an uneasy conflict that won't affect us. It will. The same pipelines that feed Ukraine deliver around 20% of total European gas imports. If Russia punishes Ukraine for its alleged unpaid gas bill, exports to Europe could also be cut, as they were in 2006 and 2009.

Meanwhile Putin's information war inspires separatists and Russians like Pavel Rasta, a volunteer fighter in Donetsk: "What's happening here is a holy war of the Russian people for its own future, for its own ideals, for its children and its great country that 25 years ago was divided into pieces."

In this context, the Tories' absence from negotiations in Minsk and Moscow is worrying. While Hollande and Merkel were meeting in Minsk, Hammond was in Malta. To be fair, you could argue that the UK's absence is tactful, given unresolved problems such as Alexander Litvinenko's death. Was this an attempt to play good cop/bad cop?

Regardless, the consequence (and it should have been foreseen if it wasn't) is that the Conservatives are taking Britain to the margins. The ex-Nato commander Sir Richard Shirreff's observation of Cameron is damning: "Nobody is taking any notice of him. He is now a foreign policy irrelevance."

The Conservatives' foreign policy isn't foreign, it's not even domestic - it's electioneering skewed by Ukip's populism. That is not leadership and it undermines our diplomatic efforts. So Hammond meets with the Hungarian PM to discuss EU reform and refers to it as a "meeting of like minds" - the same president who cosies up to Russia and has broken an EU wide ban on bilateral meetings with Russia.

I am fully in favour of EU reform. But I am passionately against Euro-phobia. Especially in the context of a resurgent Russia, an assassinated opposition leader, 6,000 dead, an annexed Crimea and increasing nervousness around the Baltic states.

We are not the British Empire and neither should we ever wish to return to that. But we are among the seven largest economies in the world with the largest defence budget in Europe and we are a permanent member of the UN Security Council and leader within Nato. The majority of the public polled last month by Chatham House think the UK should aspire to be a 'great power' rather than accept that it is in decline.

Shrinking back from Europe will make us irrelevant - as the Norwegian minister for European Affairs noted last week, EU foreign ministers met together 19 times in 2014; Nato ministers met three times. Norway misses out on most of the negotiation around Russia- and the UK would miss out too if we leave the EU. Washington already looks to Merkel as its most reliable European partner, not to British conservatives who want to take us to the margins of European diplomacy.

It is a dangerous and tragic myth that a "holy war of the Russian people" will deliver identity, security and wellbeing for its people. It is a myth that Britain is somehow better off isolated, somehow more British than a Britain promoting her values in Europe. Blair's disastrous war in Iraq undermined our international credibility but we must not continue to throw it away. We must reclaim our confidence as a country. We must play the role in Europe that previous leaders fought to secure.