Britain and Ukraine After Brexit
3 October, 2017

The British public voted to leave the European Union back in June 2016 and, since then, the international community has been left wondering what exactly this will entail for both Britain and its international partners.

Many view this change in the European political landscape as a challenge to European unity, and therefore a potential stumbling block for countries, such as Ukraine, hoping for closer integration with the EU.

However, while Brexit deal negotiations rumble on between the EU and the UK, Chatham House’s Robert Brinkley believes that Britain’s decision to leave will not affect Ukraine negatively. According to him, the UK government still views Ukraine as a “victim of aggression from Russia” and technological and military support are likely to continue.

Once Britain is out of the EU, it will be free to negotiate independent trade agreements. In this way, Brinkley also suggests that Brexit could open up trade opportunities between the UK - one of the world’s six largest economies — and Ukraine.

Robert Brinkley sat down with Hromadske during last weekend’s Riga Conference to discuss what Brexit could mean for Ukraine.  

Mr. Brinkley, you are dealing with how to support Ukraine and Ukrainian reforms, but really you’re not in a position to be in the UK government. What has changed since Brexit, what can Ukrainians expect? If we talk to UK officials, of course, they will say a lot of promising things, but they are officials. But have things really changed? Is Ukraine in the focus? What is the attitude? How does the UK government see it?

The UK government and the people in the UK who take an interest in these things are still very supportive of Ukraine. There’s a very strong sense that Ukraine has been the victim of aggression from Russia and that that is bad for European security, and the UK with our other partners and allies need to be doing everything we can to support Ukraine. Obviously, the decision by the British people to vote to leave the European Union has made a difference. We’ve been in the European Union since 1973, and this is going to be a change and a new chapter in our relationship with the continent of Europe, but it’s something that has been coming for a very long time. It didn't suddenly come overnight on the 24th of June last year. Britain has not had an easy relationship being in the European Union. When Winston Churchill after the Second World War made speeches talking about the United States of Europe, he didn’t think that Britain would be part of that. He thought this would be United States of Europe with Britain helping it and supporting it from outside. So you see this idea has a long background. Britain remains one of the world’s six largest economies, one of the five permanent members of the [UN] Security Council, one of the Group of Seven, and so on and so forth. And we’ll remain a major contributor to European security both through NATO and outside. And at the YES conference in Kyiv two weeks ago, the British minister who was speaking there, Alan Duncan, I thought gave a rather good answer to the question: “What does Britain have to say to Ukraine? Britain is leaving the European Union. Ukraine would like to join the European Union.” And his answer was: “Democracy.” In Ukraine, the people, more and more of the people, are saying they see their future in the European Union. In Britain, we had a referendum, and the majority have said they would prefer to be outside the European Union. Now I, like Alan Duncan, voted to remain in. But that’s not the point. The majority of the people voted to leave.

What exactly can Ukraine expect in this framework? You know there are different kinds…London has to renegotiate a lot of issues with Brussels, and with many other countries now. Would it change the trade or other security issues somehow? Or even some other people say there are now some opportunities because Britain can show her influence outside of the European Union.

Well, I think there’s one obvious opportunity, and that will be in trade. Now as long as Britain is a member of the European Union, we can’t have independent trade arrangements, but once we leave, we will. And we will be very ready to have a free trade agreement, to negotiate good trade agreements not just with Ukraine, but with countries around the world. So there’s an opportunity there. That will change. But other things like the support that Britain is giving to Ukraine — whether it’s technical assistance, whether it’s military training, all sorts of different support — that will continue. 

So, overall, I’ll use this chance to say...when Brexit had happened, right away there were all these apocalyptic kinds of discussion, including [by] the international experts, who don’t look inward but look outward. So really, do you think that nothing critical had happened with Brexit for the region, for the European Union, Eastern Europe?

No, I’m not saying that… The results of the Brexit Referendum came as a surprise and shock to many people. And I think when you look at it in historic terms, yes, this will be one of those moments when there was a significant change, and we’re now in the process of a long and complicated negotiation with a deadline for leaving the European Union. And we will have a different status once we’ve left, where we won’t cooperate as closely as possible. So yes it has made a difference. And I remember at the beginning, immediately after the referendum, all those feelings of shock and surprise. I think now, with the benefit of over a year, people have stood back a bit and said, “Well, the decision’s been made. Now, we must move forward and make the best of this and take the advantages.”

If we go to the issue of the Ukrainian reforms, we’re talking about the reforms for a few years already. Chatham House is doing a lot to analyze them, to explain them to the international public and understand. So what is your take on that? What really...You know there is all this discussion...they are too slow...other people would say they are too slow, but maybe that’s an okay path. What would be your overall assessment and what are other things you are looking at as benchmarks?

I think my summary would be: A lot has been done and there’s a lot still to do. Again, if you look at the big picture, what has happened since the “Revolution of Dignity” is far, far more reforms, deeper reforms than in all the twenty and more years of independent Ukraine before that. Now, you’ve got a government with pressure from civil society, with support from the international community, that has got serious about reform in many, many areas. There have been a whole series of free elections, the economy — from being a real mess early in 2014 — has now been stabilized, and is growing again. The gas sector isn’t buying gas from Russia, and all those opportunities for corruption have been taken away, the subsidies have been taken away. And I could go on and on. The banking sector is being cleaned up. Higher education has been…new laws there. But, of course, there’s a lot still to do. And one of the most important areas is what to do about the courts and the judiciary, where the government has made a start, the constitution has been changed, the law’s been changed, but they’re now grinding through this process of choosing who should the new judges be — are they qualified? Are they the right people? And it’s going to take time to work through that. They haven’t really started yet on the prosecution service, the prosecutor general. And there are the other difficult big economic questions. There’s still a huge number of state-owned enterprises in Ukraine. They need to get on with the process of deciding if they need to be owned by the state. If not, do they need to exist? Should they be privatized? What about land? How to encourage people to invest in the land, and so on.

And there would be the question – and maybe there would be the result of the number of forums that have taken place in London as well — that therefore we don’t see a huge number of investors, a lot of small investors, but truly the significant one, which would be the sign for the others to come. So what would be that? How do you look at that? And what really would be the signs of success? And if they are not coming, why?

Well, this is a fact. You look at the statistics, the level of foreign direct investment in Ukraine is very low. It’s much lower than it should be given the resources and the skills in the country. And the reasons are not difficult to find. If you ask foreign companies what they find difficult, what deters them, it very often comes back to lack of trust in the courts. If they have contracts, will those contracts be enforced fairly? I think, on top of that, since 2014, you’ve had the conflict in the east. And when you ask people outside Ukraine what they think of Ukraine, most people say, “Oh, there’s a war going on, isn’t there?” And they think of that as if it’s the whole country at war, not just a bit in the Donbas. So, stabilizing, bringing a peaceful resolution to that is important. But also providing the institutions and particularly the courts and the prosecution service, which are trusted by Ukrainians, but also trusted by foreign investors to be fair and enforce their contracts.

So, and then we can’t speak without having the elephant in the room...I’m mentioning it: To what extent do you think the status quo in Crimea and the Donbas is manageable for Ukraine? Because there is a feeling that the situation wouldn’t move anywhere further considerably in the visible future. We have this separation line, we have the Minsk Agreement, but it doesn’t look like there will be any major change. So what is your opinion on that? And what really could be done? Because maybe some people think the answer is when the President of Russia will change his mind, and then things could move. Do you share that view?

The first thing I would say, and this is more for people outside Ukraine, is: “Don’t forget Crimea.” Crimea was illegally annexed. The United Nations General Assembly by a large majority said that it was an illegal act. And on that basis, the international community has imposed sanctions on Russia — Crimea-specific sanctions — which should stay in force until that illegal action has been reversed. But I accept that that may take a long time. Turning to Donbas, it has looked in the last two years as if it has settled into a sort of stalemate, where there’s fighting going on, but at a low level and areas of control are not changing hands. So it’s still tragic and people are getting killed and losing their lives and there are still many, many thousands of people who can’t go back to their homes, but I think that in the last few months, and even more recently, the last few weeks, there have been one or two signs for hope. One sign of hope is that the United States is now showing more interest in finding a resolution to that. They’ve appointed a very good man, Kurt Volker, as the special representative to Ukraine. And he’s getting involved with all the parties to the Normandy Format and the Minsk negotiations, I think in a very helpful way. And the other is that, after about two years when Ukraine has put forward the idea of a peacekeeping operation, and Russia didn’t want to hear, Russia has now started talking about a possible peacekeeping operation in the Donbas. Now, the proposal that Russia has put forward is not acceptable as it stands because for a peacekeeping operation to be successful — and, first of all, there has to be a peace to keep. There isn’t at the moment — you need a peace and then you need a group of forces to come in who are not from the conflicting parties, but are impartial. So you can’t have Russia in that peacekeeping force. It can’t be like Transnistria or South Ossetia, with “Russian peacekeepers.” It’s got to be from other countries. And then the peacekeeping force has to cover the whole of the area in dispute, the occupied area, and obviously, very importantly, the border between Ukraine and Russia. It mustn’t just reinforce the contact line and the separation between those territories. Now, if those conditions will be met, that will show if Russia is really interested in finding a peaceful solution to the Donbas. So we will see.

So, then the UK is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. So, really, what in...having Russia on board, what can be done, what is the leverage? What can the UK do with that? In particular, if you speak about the opportunity to have the peacekeepers.

Well, Russia, as you’ve indicated, is another permanent member, and they’ve shown in the last few years, that they’re very ready to veto things that they don’t like. However, again, just in the last few months, when it came to North Korea, Russia and China have joined a consensus on the Security Council and have agreed to further sanctions. So coming back to Ukraine, I think if Russia is serious about finding a peaceful solution, is ready to find a way out of the difficulties and the conflict in Donbas, then we will see if they’re ready for a serious peacekeeping operation, then that would have to be agreed in the Security Council. I don’t know if they are, but this will be the test.

READ MORE: Britain Will Leave the EU, Not Ukraine – UK Minister Alan Duncan

/ Edited by Tanya Bednarczyk