Since Brexit, the UK has turned its back on Europe and struggled to find natural allies as a lone global player. Now the war in Ukraine could help the UK forge new ties with old partners.
On April 9, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson traveled to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, where he met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Organized in secret, the trip is widely considered an outstanding diplomatic success.
A few days earlier, the city had been attacked by Russian forces, and a video of Johnson and Zelensky walking through the city posted by Ukrainian Defense Forces on Twitter quickly racked up millions of views.
Just 24 hours earlier, the Prime Minister held another high-level diplomatic meeting, this time with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Downing Street, London. As the two leaders posed for photos together, they spoke of the bond between their two countries.
“We will intensify our cooperation at all levels. We want to make progress and intensify the relationship,” Scholz said.
“Olaf and I agree that our two countries and our allies need to go further and provide more assistance to Ukraine,” Johnson added. “Britain and Germany share exactly the same sense of horror and revulsion at the brutality unleashed [there].”
It has been some time since such words of unity have been spoken between British and European leaders. Since Brexit, relations on both sides have been characterized by antagonism, stalled negotiations and counter-briefings to the press.
But the war in Ukraine has united Western countries against a common enemy in the person of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Over the past seven weeks, the UK has stood with its EU, NATO and global allies in condemning Russia’s actions and supporting Ukraine’s fight.
This appears to have given the UK a rising new profile on the international stage.
“This is a huge opportunity for the UK to find its voice in a very positive way,” Dr Melanie Garson, senior lecturer in international conflict resolution and security in the Department of Political Science told FRANCE 24. UCL.
“Britain should be a great power”
“The UK has taken the opportunity to raise its voice as a defender of democracy and freedoms, and to ensure it is part of the international conversation,” Garson said.
This position finds echoes in the last large-scale war in Europe.
“It reaffirms the ‘great power’ role that the UK has sought to play since the end of the Second World War,” said Tim J. Oliver, senior lecturer in British politics and public policy at the University of Manchester. , to FRANCE 24. “It means a country that sees itself as a manager of the international order and one of the major players in charge of the system.
A 2021 UK Government Foreign Policy Report sets out the ambition to be “a problem-solving, burden-sharing nation with a global perspective”. Throughout the war in Ukraine, this meant working with other countries.
As early as November 2021, British intelligence forces joined the United States in raising the alarm about unusual Russian troop movements near the Ukrainian border.
On February 21 – three days before Russia invaded Ukraine – the US and EU began imposing sanctions on Russia, and were joined by the UK 24 hours later. Since then it has followed the sanctions, although it has been somewhat slower to blacklist wealthy Russians – some of whom have significant assets in the UK.
>> UK imposes sanctions on Chelsea FC owner Abramovich and six other oligarchs
The UK has also aligned itself with other NATO countries supplying arms to Ukraine. Most recently, a new £100m defensive aid package was announced on April 8, in addition to the £350m military aid and £450m 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 the UK and the EU.
After Brexit, the UK tried to move away from Europe and towards the Indo-Pacific. In September 2021, he announced the Aukus alliance – a military pact with the United States and Australia, which France snubbed. “The UK was realigning,” says Garson. “He needed to find a voice, especially on security and defence, but he was struggling to do that.”
The Aukus alliance followed the failure of Brexit negotiations, which meant that when the UK left the EU, there was no formal foreign policy security agreement. Throughout the talks, a sticking point has been the UK’s high-level military capabilities and investments compared to other EU member states except France.
“The conventional wisdom was that the UK could try to do bilateral deals with France, but not with Germany,” Joel Reland, a researcher at the academic think tank UK in a Changing Europe, told FRANCE 24. “That’s because Germany had a very define approach to foreign policy. It did everything through the EU for historical reasons going back to World War II.
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Germany’s military posture has changed dramatically, with Scholz devoting 100 billion euros of the 2022 budget to defense spending. This could be the catalyst for a change in the way the EU conducts security policy.
“This potentially allows the UK and the EU to build a more constructive approach and future security alliance,” Reland said.
A leading force?
However, Reland is skeptical that the UK’s role in Ukraine has bolstered its image as a global player after Brexit. “It’s part of an overall Western response, 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 last. “Right now everyone is on the same page about the flow of weapons to Ukraine,” he said. “It’s going to get more complicated over the next few years, especially as the economic impact of the war begins to be felt.”
Maintaining agreements to diversify energy sources away from Russian gas, for example, can prove difficult. “That’s when the litmus test for UK-EU relations will come,” says Reland. “Can they maintain their approach in a coordinated way that secures their respective economies?
The UK’s response to Ukrainian refugees could become a point of contention. The UK no longer has the same obligation to accept Ukrainian refugees as if it were in the EU. But of the roughly 4.6 million refugees who have left Ukraine, it had only accepted 12,000 by April 8. It has also refused to waive visa regulations to allow refugees easier entry, as countries like Ireland have done.
The current exceptional circumstances have created the opportunity for warmer cooperation and relations between the UK and the EU which would otherwise have taken years to rebuild. “But how long is it left? It’s just too hard to guess,” says Oliver.
“A huge transition”
The war in Ukraine is not only testing the UK’s position on the world stage. Around the world, countries are realigning with a new political reality. In Europe, Finland and Sweden are moving closer to NATO membership, and Russia’s potential response to such a move is unknown. “There’s a huge transition going on, and it’s a real tipping point for security and defense policy across Europe and the Atlantic,” says Garson.
>> You are no longer neutral? War in Ukraine tests Finland’s stance on Russia
In a changing political landscape, what role the UK might play in the future and who its allies will be is not guaranteed. However, there is one certainty: the relationship between the United Kingdom and Ukraine is truly stronger.
Throughout the war, British leaders were quick to support Ukraine with sweeping statements against Russia, and public support is also high. Britain’s Homes for Ukraine program for individuals to apply to house refugees had 138,000 applications as of March 16, Downing Street said.
Among Ukrainians, a March 2022 survey found that the UK was seen as one of the country’s biggest allies, along with Poland, Lithuania and the US.
When Johnson visited Kyiv on April 9, he was the highest-profile national leader to do so since the invasion of Ukraine.
There he received a warm welcome from Zelensky. “Boris was one of those who didn’t hesitate for a moment to help Ukraine,” he said. “Ukraine will always be grateful to Boris and Britain for that.”