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LONDON — Whisper it, but Britain and the EU get along.
While the years following the UK’s vote to leave the European Union were characterized by one-upmanship, communication failures and outright disagreements, the days following the invasion of Ukraine by Russia saw politicians and officials from both sides of the Channel come together to coordinate their response.
Disputes over trade rules in Northern Ireland and fishing quotas might not be resolved, but as Vladimir Putin’s forces hit Ukraine, everyone has bigger concerns.
And despite grave predictions by many pro-EU members of the Brexit debate that the UK will now be marginalized on the global stage, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has taken his place alongside his counterparts in Washington and Brussels as the West wonders how to react. . Britain, with its military and intelligence strength, and as one of the economies where Russian oligarchs have sought for decades to wash away their dirty money, is well placed to play a key role.
On Friday, the EU invited British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss to attend its Foreign Affairs Council meeting, a first since Brexit. Arriving at the meeting, Truss said it was ‘vitally important’ that the UK and its allies ‘show complete unity’ in their response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine .
Although others, including US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, attended FAC meetings on an ad hoc basis, this meeting was long in coming.
For more than a year, EU countries including Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden preferred to invite the British foreign secretary when there was something relevant to discuss, according to reports. responsible. They saw the British minister’s participation as a way to fill the void left by Britain’s refusal to enter into formal security and foreign policy structures with the EU after Brexit, opting instead to limit commitments to non-European forums such as NATO, the G7 and the E3 group comprising France, Germany and the UK
Three diplomats from different EU countries said France had resisted the idea, saying lingering differences over post-Brexit trade rules across the Irish Sea needed to be settled before EU-Kingdom relations -Uni cannot warm up. Indeed, Truss was in Brussels for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers a few weeks ago while his EU counterparts discussed Russia’s military buildup on the border with Ukraine, but didn’t were not invited to participate in the discussions.
Just last week, an ambassador from an EU country said the bloc would not invite Truss until France handed over the rotating EU presidency to Sweden.
In fact, the foundations for such a rapprochement began much earlier in this crisis. Contacts between British senior ministers and the European Commission are now frequent, according to diplomats. A delegation led by Stefano Sannino, secretary general of the European External Action Service, visited London last month and met with ministers, including Europe Minister James Cleverly and the head of intelligence service MI6 . The meeting, which focused on the Ukrainian crisis, was cordial and Cleverly was considered by Europeans to be “accessible” and “committed”.
There were also more direct contacts with EU institutions: Johnson spoke with Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and Truss did the same with the EU’s chief envoy, Joseph Borrell.
“We all agree that the top priority is Ukraine and having a united front against Russia and doing whatever we can to help on that front,” a British official said. “It has been very encouraging to see how united we have been with the EU and all of our allies around the world in this regard. Brexit does not change the fact that we are liberal democracies living in peace, freedom and security, and of course, when this is threatened, Brexit does not affect our desire to work together.
However, no matter how the relationship thaws, the comparisons between the two never end.
The length of their respective lists of sanctions against Russian oligarchs and companies represents the most recent example, with British ministers highlighting their push for tough measures against Russian banks and hydrocarbons and Frans Timmermans, one of the deputy Commission presidents, saying on Thursday that Britain was now following the EU’s lead on sanctions.
The UK’s response? A call for unity, far removed from the incendiary remarks of the past.
“We do not seek to draw distinctions between our actions and those of our allies,” the prime minister’s official spokesman said.
The first British official quoted above said that the sanctions against Russia issued by Western allies are “all fairly aligned” despite some slight differences between the packages, and it “doesn’t really make sense to say that a side goes faster than the other”.
“There will always be a bit of a rivalry there, but it’s a friendly rivalry,” they said. “We’ve seen that particularly between Britain and France over the years, it’s a bit like a sibling rivalry between them. Our view has always been that we can have a win-win relationship – just because one side is doing well doesn’t mean the other has to do badly.
Observers are divided on whether the current crisis will mend long-term relations and many believe Brexit disputes will resurface with the same force of sentiment once the heat of this crisis has passed.
“The question is whether the [Ukraine war] helped solve problems or he just parked them and paused them,” said Anand Menon, professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London. “I would be surprised if we went very far because the only thing that is clear is that the UK is not talking about cooperation with the EU.”