Since Brexit, the UK has turned its back on Europe and struggled to find natural allies as a solo global player. Now war in Ukraine could be helping the UK forge new bonds with old partners.
On April 9, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson travelled to the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, where he met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Organised in secret, the trip was widely viewed as an exceptional diplomatic success.
Days earlier the city had been under attack from Russian forces, and a video of Johnson and Zelensky walking through the city posted by the Ukrainian Defence Force on Twitter quickly clocked up millions of views.
Just 24 hours earlier, the prime minister held another high-profile 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 uniting their two countries.
“We are going to intensify our co-operation on all levels. We want to make progress and intensify relations,” Scholz said.
“Olaf and I agree that our two countries and our allies must go further and provide more help to Ukraine,” Johnson added. “Britain and Germany share exactly the same sense of horror and revulsion at the brutality being unleashed [there].”
It has been some time since such words of unity have been spoken between UK and European leaders. Since Brexit, relations on both sides have been typified by antagonism, stalled negotiations and counter briefings to the press.
But the war in Ukraine has united countries in the West against a common enemy in Russian President Vladimir Putin. For the past seven weeks, the UK has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with allies in the EU, NATO and around the world to condemn Russia’s actions and support Ukraine’s fight.
Doing so seems to have given the UK a burgeoning 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 in UCL’s Department of Political Science, told FRANCE 24.
‘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 make sure it is part of the international conversation,” Garson says.
This position has echoes in the last large-scale war in Europe.
“It is reaffirming the role of ‘great power’ the UK has been looking to play since the end of World War II,” Tim J. Oliver, Lecturer in British politics and public policy at the University of Manchester, told FRANCE 24. “That means a country that sees itself as a manager of international order, and one of the big players in charge of the system.”
A 2021 UK government foreign policy report states an ambition to be “a problem-solving and burden-sharing nation with a global perspective". Throughout the war in Ukraine, this has meant collaboration with other countries.
As early as November 2021, UK intelligence forces joined the US in sounding alarms over unusual Russian troop movements near the Ukraine border.
By February 21 – three days before Russia Invaded Ukraine – the US and EU started imposing sanctions on Russia, and were joined by the UK 24 hours later. It has kept in step with sanctions since then, although it was somewhat slower to blacklist wealthy Russians – some of whom own significant assets in the UK.
>> UK slaps sanctions on Chelsea FC owner Abramovich, six other oligarchs
The UK has also aligned with other NATO countries providing weapons to the Ukraine. Most recently, a new £100 million defensive aid package was 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 bonds between the UK and EU.
Post-Brexit, the UK attempted to orient itself away from Europe and towards the Indo-Pacific. In September, 2021, it announced the Aukus alliance – a military pact with the US and Australia, that famously snubbed France. “The UK was realigning itself,” Garson says. “It was having to find a voice particularly on security and defence, but it was struggling to do that.”
The Aukus alliance followed failed Brexit negotiations that meant when the UK left the EU there was no official foreign policy security agreement in place. Throughout talks, a sticking point had been the UK’s higher-level military capabilities and investment compared with other EU member states, excepting France.
“Conventional wisdom was that the UK might try to make some bilateral agreements with France, but not with Germany,” Joel Reland, researcher at the academic think tank UK in a Changing Europe, told FRANCE 24. “That is because Germany had a very set approach to foreign policy. It did everything through the EU for historic reasons going back to World War II.”
Since the war in Ukraine began, Germany’s military position has shifted dramatically, with Scholz committing €100 billion of the 2022 budget to defence spending. This could be the catalyst for a change in how the EU conducts security politics.
“It potentially allows the UK and the EU to build a more constructive approach and a future security alliance,” Reland says.
A leading force?
However, Reland is sceptical that the UK’s role in Ukraine has burnished its image as a global player, post 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 getting weapons to Ukraine,” he says. “It's going to become more complicated over the next few years, especially as the economic impact of the war starts to bite.”
Maintaining agreements to diversify energy sources away from Russian gas, for example, may prove challenging. “That's when the acid test will come for UK-EU relations,” says Reland. “Can they maintain their approach in a coordinated manner that secures their respective economies?”
The UK response to Ukrainian refugees may become a point of contention. The UK no longer has the same obligation to accept Ukrainian refugees as it would if it were in the EU. But of an estimated 4.6 million refugees who have left Ukraine, it had accepted just 12,000 as of April 8. It has also refused to waive visa regulations to allow refugees to enter more easily, as countries such as Ireland have.
The current exceptional circumstances have created the opportunity for cooperation and warmer relationships between the UK and EU that may otherwise have taken years to rebuild. “But how long that sticks around? That's really too hard to guess,” Oliver says.
‘A huge transition’
The war in Ukraine is not just testing the UK's position on the global stage. Around the world, countries are realigning with a new political reality. In Europe, Finland and Sweden are edging closer to joining NATO, and the potential Russian response to such a move is an unknown. “There’s a huge transition happening, and it’s a real tipping point for security and defence policy across Europe and the Atlantic,” Garson says.
>> No longer neutral? War in Ukraine tests Finland’s stance on Russia
In a shifting political landscape, the role the UK may play in the future and who its allies will be is not guaranteed. However, there is one certainty: relations between the UK and Ukraine are genuinely stronger.
Throughout the war, leaders in the UK have been quick to back Ukraine with hardline statements against Russia, and public support is also high. The UK’s Homes for Ukraine scheme allowing 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 considered one of the country’s greatest allies, along with Poland, Lithuania and the US.
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 whether to help Ukraine,” he said. “Ukraine will always be grateful to Boris and Britain for this.”