Opinion

Boris Johnson is using Ukraine crisis to launch a British comeback in Europe

Oh the irony! Boris Johnson, the Brexit ringleader who turned his back on the EU, now boldly leads the defence of Europe in the face of Russian aggression. An exaggeration? Yes, but behind the hype lies an intriguing story. Even as he risks another major rift with Brussels over Northern Ireland, Johnson is using the Ukraine crisis to mend fences with some old European allies. His aim: to re-establish the UK as a continental power.

The signing last week of bilateral defence pacts with Nato aspirants Sweden and Finland – “our friends in the north” – was the latest manifestation of an apparently concerted British drive to revive political ties with eastern and central European and Nordic countries that were natural UK allies before the Brexit rupture. Johnson and senior ministers have repeatedly visited Poland and the Baltic republics as the Ukraine crisis has unfolded.

Britain’s rapid deployment of extra troops and equipment along Nato’s “front line” with Russia, and this month’s pledge of an additional $1.6bn in sophisticated weaponry and aid to Ukraine itself, has been praised by regional governments and Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who hosted Johnson last month. In sharp contrast, the EU’s “top two”, France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Olaf Scholz, have yet to visit wartime Kyiv.

Central to British pushback in Europe is the Joint Expeditionary Force, a Nato-aligned, non-EU military grouping embracing the UK, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and the Netherlands. The JEF is deeply involved in Ukraine-related defence. Seen one way, it’s the “European army” the EU often talks about but never manages to organise – and it’s led by Britain.

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban
Before Ukraine erupted, Hungary’s hard-right leader Viktor Orban was welcomed at Downing Street. Photograph: Bernadett Szabó/Reuters

Johnson is undoubtedly sincere in prioritising Russia’s defeat. For him, the war symbolises the global struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. In this, he sticks close to the US, Nato’s leader and post-Brexit Britain’s essential ally, without whose agreement he dares do little.

Yet competing with France and Germany for power and influence in Europe, and challenging the grand panjandrums of Brussels, at a time of profound geopolitical upheaval is for him a very different matter – and a potentially politically rewarding pursuit.

Before Ukraine erupted, Johnson was already courting rightwing governments in Warsaw and Budapest which, like Britain, are fighting running battles with the EU. Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s hard-right leader, who is blocking oil sanctions on Russia, was warmly welcomed in Downing Street last year.

Britain’s wooing of Europe’s eastern and northern flanks dates from the period between 1995 and 2004, when numerous EU applicants were backed by London to offset and weaken the dominant France-Germany-Benelux axis. Since then, Paris has mostly opposed further EU enlargement. Macron warned Ukraine last week that it could wait decades for full membership.

Johnson’s more positive Ukraine activism is favourably compared, in London, Washington and parts of eastern Europe, with perceived hesitancy, division and weakness at the heart of the EU.

Germany’s Scholz, clinging to the wreckage of Ostpolitik, has become synonymous with foot-dragging. Despite belatedly agreeing to supply heavy weapons and ban oil imports, he has left Germans distinctly underwhelmed, if his party’s Schleswig-Holstein state election flop is any guide.

Fresh from winning a second presidential term, and observing Berlin’s travails, Macron now seems to think he’s boss of Europe. But on the continent’s most urgent issue, the reality is different. The value of French military assistance to Kyiv ($105m) is less than half of tiny Estonia’s ($220m). Macron’s vainglorious pre-war “phone diplomacy” with Putin badly backfired – in truth, he was played. And France’s EU presidency is still struggling to agree energy sanctions.

More broadly, Macron’s cherished plans to create a “strategically autonomous” Europe, independent of the US (and China), have shattered into pieces amid the Ukraine maelstrom. In 2019, he declared Nato “brain dead”, a reckless claim that, with hindsight, may have helped convince Putin it really was.

Now, in a few frantic months, a rejuvenated Nato, buoyed by multibillion-dollar US arms packages and with Britain to the fore, has saved Europe’s as well as Kyiv’s figurative bacon. Naturally, the EU does not agree. Brussels reckons it’s doing a fine job and on refugees, for example, it is – unlike Priti Patel’s Home Office. In truth, everyone could and should be doing more.

Yet the uncomfortably brutal bottom line is this: were it not for the swift, courageous and generous commitments made by the US and UK, plus anglosphere countries such as Canada and Australia, Ukraine might well have lost the war by now, free democratic Europe would be in headlong retreat, and Putin could be eyeing his next victim while keeping Macron on hold.

Huge, uncertain shifts in relative power balances across Europe are now in train as a consequence of the war. The EU, under strong internal pressure to reform from its own “Conference on the Future of Europe”, which reported last week, faces big questions about relevance, cohesion and decision-making.

French and German leaders badly need to forge a shared vision. The US has re-engaged in Europe – but for how long? As for the UK, recent events have surely reminded the most recalcitrant Brexiters that Europe is Britain’s home turf, the inescapable neighbourhood where primary national interests lie. Less is heard, thankfully, about “global Britain’s” Asia-Pacific tilt or US free trade nirvana.

Ukraine gave isolated Johnson an opportunity and, true to form, he seized it. But never underestimate his ability, and that of his attention-seeking foreign secretary, Liz Truss, to throw it all away. Suspending aspects of the Northern Ireland protocol and abrogating the Brexit treaty, as they threaten to do this week, is one sure way to unite Europe against Britain – again – and wreck the anti-Putin alliance.

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