I made a welcome escape from sweltering Warsaw to the cloudy cool of Bodø, halfway up the coast of Norway, north of Iceland. Bodø’s harbour stays ice-free all year round only thanks to the Gulf Stream. The fjords bubble with whirlpools and offer some of the best cold-water scuba diving in the world. When the mist clears, the air in this visibly prosperous place has an Alpine, colour-enhancing quality. It’s my first time beyond the Arctic circle and the dusk through the night makes it hard to sleep. ‘Now imagine,’ says the wife over the phone from Washington, ‘what it was like to try to go to sleep in a Soviet-era hotel in Vorkuta, in late June, without curtains.’
During our talks, Norway’s genial foreign minister, Børge Brende, gets feedback on his decision to join EU sanctions on Russia over Ukraine. The social democratic opposition leader, Jonas Store, backs him. But on a boat ride to see eagles nesting, Brende’s phone heats up with messages from his opponents on the right. During the Cold War, the right resisted Bolshevism. Today’s hard right loves Putinism. They don’t have an ideology exactly, but they do have a slogan: ‘Enemies of liberal democracy, competitive markets, gays and the EU, unite!’
In Reitan, not far from Bødo, we visit Norway’s National Joint Headquarters, a vast bunker carved 300 metres into a mountain, originally constructed by the Germans using POWs. Huge screens show activity all over the Arctic: Russian strategic bombers, nuclear submarines, ICBMs aimed at the US. Russia’s new gas and oil fields, abundant fisheries, traffic through the northern route to the Far East, even coalfields in Spitsbergen make the Arctic denser with military and economic activity than ever before. In addition, the long northern border between Russia and Norway probably demarcates the widest gap in standard of living across any international border: the Russian Arctic is as impoverished as the Norwegian Arctic is rich. The Norwegians are admirably pragmatic, keeping their border permeable for ordinary Russians and maintaining a hotline with Russia’s Northern Fleet. And if things go badly? The US Marines have stashed equipment in caverns all over the area, just in case.
In an interview, a Norwegian journalist wanted to know if we regarded a Russian ‘health’ ban on Polish apples as being politically motivated, like a similar ban on Norway’s salmon once was. Can it be a coincidence, I asked, that Moldovan wine, Georgian mineral water or Ukrainian vegetables become poisonous for the Russian public at precisely the moment when their government finds it politically convenient to apply pressure? Poland is the world’s largest apple exporter, and we will develop alternative markets. The Russian ban probably rescued Georgian vineyards by forcing them to compete and make Georgian wine excellent, rather than merely drinkable. Polish cider will be next. And in the meantime, if you want to show what you think of Putin, eat a Polish apple and then give one to a friend.
From the Arctic, I had to hurry back to the Polish countryside to prepare for the historic first visit to our house, Chobielin, by @MayorofLondon and Mrs Johnson. HMG had asked Boris to represent the UK at the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, and I asked through official channels if the Mayor might consider a detour to the provinces afterwards. His office cheerfully wrote back: ‘The mayor remembers your articles in The Spectator 20 years ago about restoring an old manor house and would be delighted to see how it’s turned out.’ First, we visited Bydgoszcz, my home town and my constituency. Secretly, I was wondering how he would handle the fact that here I am a bigger celebrity than him. But as we walked into the town square, a roar of English voices rose up from the cafés: ‘Boris, what are you doing here?!’ He spent the next 20 minutes posing for photos with fans of Speedway motorcycle racing, who had come to Bydgoszcz for the World Cup. Apparently, our track is one of the best in Europe.
This amazing scene reinforced one of my long-held views. Every Tory politician I talk to is incredulous when I tell them that the European Commission is a Thatcherite, pro-market institution that heroically resists potty protectionist schemes devised by member states. Boris and Marina returned to London via Ryanair, which maintains three daily flights to the British Isles from Bydgoszcz. I’ve no doubt that the Speedway fans travelled the same way. The resurgence of regional European airports like ours has only been possible because the EU’s open skies policy has smashed the monopolies of national carriers, allowing a thousand runways to bloom. It was decent of Boris to acknowledge it, and Poland’s success, in his Bloomberg speech.
Radek Sikorski is Poland’s minister for foreign affairs.
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