Thursday

16th Sep 2021

Opinion

Post-Brexit UK vs EU on Ukraine's future

  • The agreement, which was signed by Boris Johnson and the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, on 8 October and will take effect once the Brexit transition period ends on 31 December, is noteworthy for having political as well as economic dimensions (Photo: UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

The question of what the UK's foreign policy will be after Brexit is one of the key items on the agenda of Boris Johnson's government.

Specifically, the decision to merge the Department for International Development with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office reflects the goal to place the use of Britain's overseas aid budget under the direction of the UK foreign policy-making process as a whole.

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  • Volodymyr Zelensky (centre) demanded a clear plan for his country's path to joining the bloc at the EU-Ukraine summit in October (Photo: Vadim Chuprina)

The latest effort by Downing Street to consolidate this new approach to international affairs is the Strategic Partnership Agreement with Ukraine.

The agreement, which was signed by the UK prime minister and the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, on 8 October and will take effect once the Brexit transition period ends on 31 December, is noteworthy for having political as well as economic dimensions.

While it seeks to maintain Britain's liberalised trading relationship with Kiev under the existing EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, it goes one step further by establishing scope for broad cooperation in areas such as conflict resolution, defence and security, and human rights.

These political aspects of the UK-Ukraine deal represent an initiative to forge closer relations between the two countries in light of Britain's task to define a new foreign policy identity outside the EU.

Johnson hopes that the new partnership demonstrates to his counterparts on the continent that, despite withdrawing from the EU earlier in the year, Britain will remain a key player in European security affairs in the form of a commitment to upholding Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Arms sales

An indication of the lengths that the UK government is prepared to go to this end is found in its willingness to provide Ukraine with a large lethal weapons contract and a £1bn [€1.1bn] loan to its navy as the strategic partnership was agreed, according to Andriy Yermak, a senior aide to the Ukrainian president.

The relative ease at which the UK managed to secure an agreement with political and economic commitments stands in contrast to the difficulty in Brussels to pursue a coordinated EU policy when it comes to European security matters.

The EU's high representative for foreign affairs, Josep Borrell, has called on member states to make a unified response to the crises in the eastern Mediterranean and Belarus after the EU-27 failed to come to an agreement over the imposition of sanctions in the case of the rigged Belarusian election in August.

This impasse at the meeting of EU foreign ministers to inject a degree of coherence within EU foreign policy-making follows a pattern where Brussels has struggled to develop a common strategy towards relations with its key security partners.

Deep divisions within the EU remain over how the bloc should confront the issue of Russia and its hostility to European interests following the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

In her maiden State of the Union speech, Ursula von der Leyen issued a tacit rebuke to French president Emmanuel Macron's aim to reset relations with Moscow by aligning with German interests to impose sanctions against Russia over the poisoning of Alexey Navalny.

The problem of a lack of EU foreign policy consensus is compounded by the fact that the components of the EU's Association Agreement with Ukraine do not go beyond an economic engagement.

The agreement makes no guarantee of forging a close EU-Ukraine political relationship. While more than 40 percent of Ukraine's trade is with the EU, Brussels is yet to give an indication of committing to a plan for deeper Ukrainian integration with the EU.

Instead, the EU makes it clear that its support for Ukraine is conditional upon progress in areas of domestic reform. On the issue of corruption for example, the Commission responded to the Ukrainian Constitutional Court's moves to reverse key parts of anti-corruption legislation passed in 2014 by threatening the continuation of the macro-financial assistance programme.

While the UK-Ukraine Strategic Partnership serves to formalise Britain's consistent support for Ukraine and condemnation of the Russian annexation of Crimea, relations between Brussels and Kiev face uncertainty as the EU fails to provide concrete reassurances to Kiev's interest to bind itself to Europe.

This is clearly shown by Zelensky's demand for a clear plan for his country's path to joining the bloc at the EU-Ukraine summit in October.

The status of the EU as Ukraine's closest ally is at risk of being diminished unless it seeks to evolve its relationship with Kiev under the current Association Agreement.

The comprehensive nature of the UK-Ukraine agreement demonstrates that Britain is capitalising on the difficulties Brussels is experiencing in standing up for core Ukrainian interests.

Author bio

Hugo Blewett-Mundy is an MA researcher from the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies specialising in post-Soviet Russia and eastern Europe, and a writer for Lossi 36.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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