UK
Subscriber Only

Ukraine crisis is drawing Britain reluctantly back towards Europe

London Letter: EU’s response to Russian invasion has made Johnson look slow-footed

When Liz Truss attends a meeting of the EU's Foreign Affairs Council next week, she will be the first foreign secretary to do so since Britain left the European Union. The United States, Canada and Ukraine will also be present but Truss's attendance, unthinkable only a week ago, illustrates how thoroughly Vladimir Putin has upended the diplomatic status quo in Europe.

Until now, Britain saw itself as almost alone in western Europe as a country that took defence seriously, with only the French, the Dutch and the Danes boasting armed forces worth serious consideration. But Germany’s decision to spend €100 billion on upgrading its forces and to commit 2 per cent of its annual economic output will allow it to supplant Britain as the biggest defence spender in Europe.

The EU's decision to deploy the dubiously named European Peace Facility to fund the supply of weapons to Ukraine took British ministers by surprise. So too did the scope, the speed and the force of the economic sanctions the EU imposed on Russia and on individuals associated with the Kremlin.

The EU’s response has left Boris Johnson’s government looking slow-footed in cracking down on Russian oligarchs and the dirty money in the City of London and miserly in its offer to accept only Ukrainian refugees with close family ties in Britain. But the war in Ukraine has brought Britain closer to its European neighbours, just as it has drawn the United States back into Europe, whether it likes it or not.

The crisis has raised fundamental questions about Johnson's vision of Global Britain and the strategy outlined in last year's Integrated Review of seeking a role in Indo-Pacific Asia. Regardless of how the war in Ukraine ends, Britain will for the foreseeable future have to keep its security focus on a new cold war frontier in eastern Europe, not least because that is what the US will demand of it.

Protocol

The war has also put in perspective the dispute between Britain and the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol, which shows no sign of being resolved soon. Truss and her EU counterpart Maros Sefcovic have indicated that they will not meet often, if at all, before next May’s Assembly elections in Northern Ireland.

Both sides report a more cordial atmosphere in the talks but little progress on the substance of such issues as customs and animal health checks. And there is little confidence that an agreement will be easier to reach after the Assembly elections than it is now.

Labour leader Keir Starmer has exploited the war in Ukraine to present his party as a fierce champion of Nato and a strong defence and a hardline policy towards Russia

Before Putin invaded Ukraine, there was speculation in Westminster that Johnson could trigger Article 16 in an attempt to persuade Conservative backbenchers not to trigger a confidence vote in his leadership. The immediate risk to Johnson's leadership has receded but it could return when the Metropolitan Police decides if Downing Street parties during lockdown were against the law and Sue Gray publishes her full report on Partygate.

One poll last week saw Johnson's approval rating improve, but he was still under water, with a net negative rating of 18 per cent. Labour remains ahead in the polls and a new Savanta ComRes poll on Thursday showed the Conservatives falling further behind.

Labour leader Keir Starmer has exploited the war in Ukraine to present his party as a fierce champion of Nato and a strong defence and a hardline policy towards Russia. His whips briefed that 11 Labour MPs who signed a declaration from the Stop the War Coalition condemning Putin but also criticising Nato enlargement could be expelled from the parliamentary party.

Watching closely

Labour MPs were also warned ahead of a Stop the War rally in London on Wednesday addressed by former leader Jeremy Corbyn that the whips would be watching closely what they said. Left-wingers point out that Tony Blair did not ban Labour MPs from supporting the Stop the War Coalition during the Iraq war and Corbyn recalls that he was condemning Putin's actions in Chechnya when Blair was embracing the Russian leader as an ally in the war on terror.

There is a long, honourable tradition of dissent and anti-militarism in Britain, including the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp and the rallies against the Iraq war. There is less space in the public discourse for such dissent today, and in Starmer’s Labour Party, criticism of Nato is perceived as evidence of disloyalty.

The Labour leader's tough stance on anti-war MPs contrasts with his reaction when deputy leader Angela Rayner said: "On things like law and order, I am quite hardline. I am like, shoot your terrorists and ask questions second." Starmer, a former human rights advisor to the Northern Ireland Policing Board, neither threatened Rayner with expulsion nor uttered a single word of disagreement, much less reproof.