Since Brexit, Britain has turned its back on Europe and fought to find natural allies as a solo global player. Now war in Ukraine can help Britain forge new ties with old partners.
April 9, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson traveled to the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, where he met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. It was secretly organized and widely regarded as an exceptional diplomatic success.
Days earlier, the city had been under attack from Russian forces, and a video in which Johnson and Zelensky walked through the city posted by the Ukrainian Defense Forces on Twitter quickly clocked up millions of views.
Just 24 hours earlier, the Prime Minister held another high-profile diplomatic meeting, this time with the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Downing Street, London. When the two leaders posed for pictures together, they talked about the band that unites their two countries.
“We will intensify our cooperation at all levels. We want to make progress and intensify relations,” said Scholz.
“Olaf and I agree that our two countries and our allies must go further and provide more assistance Ukraine“” Britain and Germany share exactly the same sense of dread and disgust at the brutality unleashed. [there]. “
It has been a while since such words of unity have been uttered between British and European leaders. Since Brexit, relations on both sides have been marked by contradictions, stalled negotiations and counter-briefings to the press.
But the war in Ukraine has united countries in the West against a common enemy of Russian President Vladimir Putin. For the past seven weeks, Britain has stood shoulder to shoulder with allies in the EU, NATO and around the world to condemn Russia’s actions and support Ukraine’s struggle.
Doing so seems to have given Britain a budding new profile on the international stage.
“It’s a huge opportunity for the UK to find its voice in a very positive way,” Dr Melanie Garson, Lecturer in International Conflict Resolution and Security at UCL’s Department of Political Science, told FRANCE 24.
“Britain should be a great power”
“Britain has taken the opportunity to raise its voice as a defender of democracy and freedoms, and to make it part of the international dialogue,” Garson said.
This position has echoes in the recent large-scale war in Europe.
“It confirms the role that ‘great power’ Britain has wanted to play since the end of World War II,” Tim J. Oliver, senior lecturer in British politics and public policy at the University of Manchester, told FRANCE 24. “It means a country that sees itself himself as a head of international order and one of the major players in charge of the system. “
A British Government 2021 foreign policy report states an ambition to be “a problem-solving and burden-sharing nation with a global perspective”. Throughout the war in Ukraine, it has involved cooperation with other countries.
As early as November 2021, British intelligence forces joined the United States to sound the alarm over unusual Russian troop movements near the border with Ukraine.
By February 21 – three days before Russia invaded Ukraine – US and EU started imposing sanctions in Russia and was joined by Britain 24 hours later. It has kept pace with sanctions since then, although it was somewhat slower to blacklist rich Russians – some of whom own significant assets in Britain.
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Britain has also joined other NATO countries that supply weapons to Ukraine. Latest a new one £ 100 million defense aid package announced on April 8, in addition to the £ 350 million military aid and £ 450 million humanitarian aid already provided.
“A future security alliance”?
Increased cooperation with other countries during the war in Ukraine has also increased the potential for renewed ties between Britain and the EU.
After Brexit, Britain tried to orient itself away from Europe and towards the Indo-Pacific region. In September 2021, it announced the Aukus Alliance – a military pact with the United States and Australia, which famously rejected France. “Britain was adapting,” Garson said. “It was to find a voice specifically on security and defense, but it struggled to do so.”
The Aukus alliance followed unsuccessful Brexit negotiations, which meant that when Britain left the EU, there was no official foreign policy security agreement in place. During the talks, a problem had been the UK’s military capacity and investment at a higher level compared to other EU Member States, except France.
“Conventional wisdom was that Britain could try to make some bilateral agreements with France, but not with Germany,” Joel Reland, a researcher at the UK think tank in a Changing Europe, told FRANCE 24. “It’s because Germany had a very Den did everything through the EU for historical reasons back to World War II. “
Since the war in Ukraine began, Germany’s military position has changed dramatically, with Scholz investing € 100 billion of the 2022 budget in defense spending. This could be the catalyst for a change in how the EU pursues security policy.
“It potentially allows the UK and the EU to build a more constructive approach and a future security alliance,” Reland said.
A leading force?
However, Reland is skeptical that Britain’s role in Ukraine has polished its image as a global player after Brexit. “It’s part of an overall Western reaction, and there’s not much that stands out as specifically British,” he says.
There is also no guarantee that the goodwill that currently exists between Western allies will continue. “Right now, everyone is on the same page about getting weapons to Ukraine,” he says. “It will get more complicated in the next few years, especially as the economic effects of the war begin to bite.”
Maintaining agreements to diversify energy sources away from Russian gas, for example, can prove to be a challenge. “This is when the acid test comes for relations between the UK and the EU,” says Reland. “Can they maintain their strategy in a coordinated way that secures their respective economies?”
Britain’s response to Ukrainian refugees could be a contentious issue. Britain no longer has the same obligation to receive Ukrainian refugees as it would in the EU. But by one an estimated 4.6 million refugees who has left Ukraine, had accepted only 12,000 from 8 April. It has also refused to waive visa rules to allow refugees to enter more easily, as countries like Ireland have done.
The current exceptional circumstances have created opportunities for co-operation and warmer relations between the UK and the EU, which may otherwise have taken years to rebuild. “But how long does it last? It’s really too hard to guess,” Oliver says.
“A huge transition”
The war in Ukraine not only tests Britain’s position on the global stage. Around the world, countries are adapting to a new political reality. In Europe, Finland and Sweden are approaching joining NATO, and the potential Russian response to such a move is unknown. “There is a huge transition going on, and it is a real turning point for security and defense policy across Europe and the Atlantic,” Garson said.
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In a changing political landscape, it is not guaranteed what role Britain can play in the future and what its allies will be. However, there is a certainty: relations between Britain and Ukraine are really stronger.
Throughout the war, leaders in Britain have been quick to support Ukraine with harsh statements against Russia, and public support is also strong. Britain’s Homes for Ukraine program, which allows individuals to apply for housing refugees, had 138,000 applications on March 16, Downing Street said.
Among Ukrainians, a March 2022 survey showed that Britain was being considered one of the country’s largest alliestogether with Poland, Lithuania and the United States.
When Johnson visited Kyiv on April 9, he was the most high-profile national leader to do so since the invasion of Ukraine.
There he received a warm welcome from Zelensky. “Boris was among those who did not hesitate for a moment to help Ukraine,” he said. “Ukraine will always be grateful to Boris and Britain for this.”
Originally published on France24