The UK government has used its response to the war in Ukraine as an opportunity to distance itself further from the EU, says Ros Taylor.
Two months ago, Boris Johnson looked doomed after revelations of multiple parties in Downing Street during lockdown. But — from the Westminster perspective, at least — his leadership during the war in Ukraine has rescued his premiership. A walkabout with an admiring President Zelenskyy in Kyiv on 9 April was intended to position Johnson as Ukraine’s most committed ally. Even some of the Prime Minister’s harshest critics, such as the former international development secretary Rory Stewart, say they “think he’s done OK” during the crisis.
It seems important, then, to identify what is driving British foreign policy, and especially its relationship with the European Union. Six years after the UK voted to leave the EU, has it managed to build a productive relationship with its neighbours?
Brexit tensions are less obvious since the Russian invasion of Ukraine but remain very salient. The issue of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which was supposed to ease trade by allowing NI to keep elements of the single market, is leading to tensions there (though it is more or less ignored, and still less understood, by the rest of the UK). The government is now unhappy with the Protocol it brokered in 2019 and wants to rewrite it to remove the roles of the European Commission and European Court of Justice, waive EU standards for goods remaining in NI, and abolish checks between Britain and Northern Ireland. Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, has threatened to suspend the Protocol, which could lead to the EU imposing tariffs. This will reportedly not happen until May at the earliest, after local elections.
Irritation at Britain’s stance on the Protocol was compounded in March when Johnson made a provocative speech comparing Brexit to Ukrainians’ struggle against Russia, saying people always choose “freedom” — although, as most people had noticed, Ukraine is keen to join the EU. Johnson was subsequently not invited to a European Council meeting about the war; Joe Biden was.
On the climate emergency, however, Britain aspires to take a lead. Before the latest crisis, the country signalled that it wanted to set the pace on net zero and did make some progress at the COP26 summit. The Glasgow Pact was a ‘major step’, according to climate expert Nicholas Stern, albeit ‘far short’ of what is needed to limit global warming to 1.5C. The urgency of reducing Britain’s dependence on Russian oil and gas has mixed implications for the climate. On the one hand, Johnson quickly flew to Saudi Arabia to sweet-talk Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud to ensure oil remained affordable, and the government may boost North Sea oil production, reopen coal mines, and consider fracking. On the other, the government is also talking about encouraging onshore windfarms and solar and building small nuclear power stations. In the Johnson administration, initial enthusiasm often fades due to over-promising and inattention to detail. No Brussels targets will hold him to account, and that’s the way he likes it.
Moreover, the immediate priority is to ease the burden of the rise in energy prices and inflation, and the Chancellor Rishi Sunak underlined that when he cut fuel duty in his Spring Statement. It is unclear whether the UK’s emissions trading scheme, which was modelled on the EU’s but designed to be slightly stricter, will change because of the energy crisis. The government is currently consulting on whether to widen its scope to include maritime emissions and incorporate greenhouse gas removal technology.
Ignoring the neighbours
On the diplomatic front, Truss gave a speech in Australia in January in which she positioned Britain as part of a ‘global network of liberty’ in opposition to Russia and China that included Australia, India, Japan, Indonesia and Israel. The EU was not mentioned. She is perceived as more emollient than the former Brexit secretary David Frost, who resigned from his job in December after declaring himself ‘disappointed’ by the progress of post-Brexit negotiations. At a meeting with her in February, Maroš Šefčovič, Vice president of the EU Commission and Co-chair of the EU-UK Joint Committee & Partnership Council, struck a more hopeful note, saying it had neither been a ‘breakthrough nor a breakdown’.
The other cabinet minister whose brief has led to tensions with the EU is Priti Patel, the hard-line home secretary who has sought to blame France for the deaths of migrants attempting to cross the Channel. President Macron says that it is too difficult for asylum seekers to enter the UK lawfully, forcing them into small boats. Patel denies this. Britain’s limited and belated offering to Ukrainian refugees, who can enter the country if a member of the public offers them accommodation, contrasts with the EU’s visa-free offer and reflects the government’s determination that Brexit should put a permanent end to freedom of movement.
Indeed, the creation of a new ministerial role for ‘Brexit opportunities’ — which, policymakers should note, carries no responsibilities according to the government’s website — is an indication that Johnson wishes to distance himself from the EU so long as it is politically expedient. Writing about Britain’s key relationships with France and Germany, the Chatham House think-tank noted last year that ‘the dilemma for the UK is how to remain connected to EU decision-making without inadvertently being drawn into alignment with EU foreign and security policies.’
Unexpectedly, perhaps, the response to the war in Ukraine has offered an opportunity for the PM to achieve the second of these objectives. While Truss would like to see herself replace Johnson before long, they have succeeded in maintaining a distinctive, non-EU approach towards Ukraine. This prizes the PM’s ‘special relationship’ with Zelensky (an implicit contrast with Macron, who has stayed in touch with Vladimir Putin but failed to exert any influence over him); a refugee scheme that depends largely on the goodwill of individual Britons, rather than a state offering; a preference for engagement with eastern rather than western Europe, especially as the Czech presidency of the EU approaches; and the chance to align with NATO rather than the EU, sending defensive weaponry to Ukraine while avoiding the difficult discussions about Frontex and defence spending.
Johnson has also been able to frame Germany’s dependence on Russian gas as a weakness that enables the UK to go further than the EU in punishing Putin, although in truth the UK’s sanctions are not substantively different. His poor rapport with Macron, who has a low opinion of him, has chilled relations with France.
Tellingly, the EU’s new Strategic Compass for strengthening security and defence co-operation talks of working with Norway, Canada, and the United States, but has nothing to say about Britain beyond the resigned statement: ‘We remain open to a broad and ambitious security and defence engagement with the United Kingdom.’ Britain has chosen to go it alone, and there are very few signs that this will change.