The EU will follow Britain's lead in the post-Brexit world. At least, that is the opinion of some British officials, who are quietly praising the UK's quick response to the Ukraine conflict.
In the two months since Putin's forces invaded, Britain has sought to take the lead in efforts to assist Ukraine in its fight, sending weapons, imposing sanctions on Russian fuel exports, and lowering import tariffs on Ukrainian goods.
Skeptics argue that some of the United Kingdom's actions are merely posturing in order to score Brexit points. London failed to set up a system for assisting desperate Ukrainian refugees quickly enough, and it took its time sanctioning Russian oligarchs.
In other areas, Britain has been quicker to make important decisions, whereas European Union countries have struggled to reach agreements. The UK's move to lower tariffs, for example, was a forerunner to the EU's proposal.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has even praised British Prime Minister Boris Johnson for "helping more" than other leaders — and chastised EU members who have refused to compromise on key issues such as reducing reliance on Russian oil and gas, which is still funding the conflict.
Ministers are congratulating themselves. Brexiteer International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan told POLITICO that the government had reduced tariffs on Ukraine as part of its free-trade agreement with the war-torn country "because that means we can do it at pace." Before Brexit, that would have been impossible.
Anand Menon, the director of the UK in a Changing Europe think tank, said it was understandable that a post-Brexit British government would try to beat the EU to the punch during a time of crisis. "The politics of Brexit meant that the government wanted to be out there and being seen," he explained. "It has a political point to prove."
Officials claim that the United Kingdom has not been puffing out its post-Brexit chest. "If there was an opportunity to make that case, this would be it," one of them said. "But we haven’t been, it’s just kind of happened without us shoehorning Brexit into everything."
Inside the government, not everyone is impressed. The prime minister has been embroiled in a number of domestic political battles, including a cost-of-living crisis and law-breaking lockdown parties in Downing Street. Johnson is now being accused of using Ukraine to divert attention away from his own problems.
Another government official explained, "The problem is that this government is so shambolic in most of what it does that the response to Ukraine isn’t credible. If it had its shit together and then cracked down on Russia it would feel more effective. But since the rest of what it does is so chaotic, the response on Ukraine looks like posturing."
EU diplomats are defensive when it comes to their perspective from Brussels. One argument was that the EU has been talking about lowering trade barriers with Ukraine since before the war, leaving the UK to play catch-up. Because the 27 EU countries trade with Ukraine at a much higher volume than the United Kingdom, even minor liberalizations have a greater impact.
The diplomat scoffed, "Johnson seems to spend a lot of time comparing himself with the EU, but not a lot of time checking his fact. ," another joked.
"In the area of refugees, for example, there’s nada," the second diplomat said, emphasizing the UK's reluctance to open its doors to those fleeing the conflict. In response to questions from EU legislators, the European Commission stated: "While reforms carried out by third countries can serve as an inspiration for our policies, the EU develops its competitiveness by pursuing its own proactive agenda."
One thing is undeniable: the Ukrainians adore the British response, whether or not it is fueled by Brexit. Menon pointed out that if the UK had not been a member of the EU, it could have been overlooked in the crisis. "But we've seen the reaction of the Ukrainians themselves to the actions of the British government, and you can't just dismiss that," he said.
Brexit, according to Bate Toms of the British-Ukrainian Chambers of Commerce, has allowed the UK to lower tariffs, expedite weapons shipments to Ukraine, and move faster than the EU in targeting Russian fossil fuels.
"Britain is now again in its historic role protecting Europe from conquest, freed from having to get along within the EU," Toms said. "Historically, the Duke of Marlborough, the Duke of Wellington and Winston Churchill saved Europe from itself, and the U.K. has this role again."
By fLEXI tEAM