UK response to Ukraine crisis contaminated by narrative on immigration

Insular Brexit politics undermines ‘global Britain’ mantra

No one really knows what the “global Britain” slogan/mantra – worked up in the fervour of Brexit – really stands for. It was meant to signal that the UK would not become inward-looking after leaving the European Union. Beyond that, it’s a vague notion: a blend of Thatcherism (less tax, less regulation) and Boris Johnson’s Churchillian fantasies about reasserting Britain as a global power.

"In leaving the European Union we restored sovereign control over vital levers of foreign policy," Johnson said last year in a speech at the Munich Security Conference. "For the first time in nearly 50 years, we now have the power to impose independent national sanctions, allowing the UK to act swiftly and robustly."

Fast forward a year and we're getting a taste of "global Britain" in action. The UK led the international condemnation of Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine, swiftly imposing financial sanctions on Moscow while freezing the assets of high-profile officials and oligarchs linked to the Kremlin. It was one of the first to call for Russia to be kicked out of the Swift payments system and pushed – alongside the United States – for a complete oil and gas embargo contrary to the wishes Germany and Italy.

Immigration

Then came the other side of the country’s new narrative and the current that drove Brexit more than any other: immigration. Despite the ribbon-wearing and rhetoric of solidarity from Johnson and his ministers, the UK government flung a veritable wall of paperwork at Ukrainians fleeing the violence, insisting they first acquire a visa, with all the paperwork and processing that entails, before setting foot on UK soil.

In the first days of the crisis, hundreds turned up in Calais only to be told they had to travel 70 miles away to Lille to obtain a visa from a centre that didn't appear to be open yet. A week into the Russian invasion and the biggest refugee crisis on the continent since the second World War, the UK had granted just 50 visas to fleeing Ukrainians. That number has since increased – as of Sunday it was 3,000. To put this in context, Moldova, which has a population of just four million, has taken in more than 80,000 refugees. The Republic plans to take in a similar number. In response to criticism, UK authorities have moved to simplify the visa process, allowing applicants to upload documents online, which helps but only if they speak English, have a phone and data roaming on their phones.

Security threat

Home secretary Priti Patel justifies the tough stance on the rather bogus notion that Ukrainian refugees represented a security threat as they may include Russian saboteurs sent by president Vladimir Putin to attack Britain. Getting people into western countries has never been a problem for the Kremlin. London has been a playground for Russian oligarchs since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the capital's real-estate market a slush fund for dirty Russian money.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin confirmed that Patel had informed Dublin of her concern that the Republic’s policy towards Ukrainian refugees would allow them to reach the UK by the back door.

An anonymous briefing from a UK government source on Tuesday suggested that Ukrainian criminals or drug dealers could take advantage of the common travel area between the UK and Ireland to gain access to mainland Britain, a notion reminiscent of Donald Trump's labelling of Mexicans as criminals and rapists.

Patel has undoubtedly misjudged the mood and played Brexit politics with the issue of refugees. She has a combative style, once suggesting that the UK use the threat of food shortages in Ireland to persuade the EU to drop the backstop arrangement. Either way, it appears the UK home office has done its utmost to trip up refugees rather than help them.

Its stance contrasts with the open-arms policy of the EU, which is granting temporary residency to all Ukrainians fleeing the invasion, giving them access to employment, social welfare and housing for up to three years. It signals that the UK has yet to emerge from the insular bounds of Brexit and yet to detoxify the issue of immigration.

A country’s foreign policy is typically a reflection of its trade policy. As of January 1st this year, the UK had signed post-Brexit trade deals with with 69 countries and one with the EU.

Most are a continuation of what pertained when it was part of the EU, in other words rollover deals. The rewards – at this point in time – appear to pale in comparison to the damage wrought by the trade barriers erected in the wake of Brexit. And there are more potentially disruptive border controls on the way.

The UK needs to find an approach to immigration so it that can meet the needs of a modern trading nation and to avoid “global Britain” becoming another meaningless slogan like “take back control”.