2016 has been a year of political paradoxes in Europe. 52% of UK voters in the so-called Brexit referendum decided it was time to cut membership with the European Union. Meanwhile Ukrainians continued on the difficult path towards implementing European values and systems. Strengthening democracy, rule-of-law and reforms are the main ambitions many fought for during the Euromaidan uprising.
Following the UK’s June 23 vote, analysts have been pouring over statistics and statements, trying to predict any future fallout on Ukraine and the broader European bloc. John Whittingdale, the UK’s former culture secretary and staunch Brexiter is one of them. He told Hromadske the UK government will remain a strong voice globally and that the UK’s future support for Ukraine will not waver.
“The fact that our new foreign secretary (Boris Johnson), after the referendum, chose Ukraine as one of the very first countries to visit; and he and other members of the British government have also spoken out very strongly in condemning Russian activity, both against Britain as well as in Ukraine, shows that we remain a very strong supporter of Ukraine. We tend to continue to punch our weight and more in the international arena,” Mr. Whittingdale says.
Whilst serving as culture secretary under Prime Minister David Cameron, John Whittingdale faced backlash for his plans to overhaul the BBC. The ‘white paper’ in May 2016 set out several key changes to the BBC Trust, the governance that’s independent of the broadcaster’s management as well as how finances were audited and how programme making would be opened to more outside competition.
“I think the BBC is one of the finest broadcasters, if not the finest broadcaster in the world. I wanted to strengthen it...I argued very strongly that against the increase in propaganda which we were seeing from Russia and indeed elsewhere, the need for that strong, independent voice which the BBC provides was even greater so we actually agreed to a significant increase in the BBC World Service budget.”
But the visits by Mr. Whittingdale to Ukraine have not come without controversy. In an Atlantic Council report titled ‘The Kremlin’s Trojan Horses’, the authors concluded he had ‘long-standing links to a questionable figure’ Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash. Asked how often he communicates with Mr. Firtash, the British MP replied ‘I do not’.
“Now, I was, before I joined the government, supported in a couple of my visits (to Ukraine) by the British-Ukrainian society, who allowed me, by arranging, for instance, my attendance at the Yalta European Strategy Conference. It was there that I first met Mr. Poroshenko, Mr. Yatsenyuk, Vitaliy Klitschko. I probably couldn’t have made those trips if I hadn’t had that support and at no point did Mr. Firtash ever try to influence my opinion, he never paid me money but the British-Ukrainian society did help me make those trips and I learnt an awful lot about your country as a result.”
Mr Whittingdale meanwhile defended the UK government record on clamping down on oligarchy money washing up in the London.
“I would say the British government has done quite a lot already to try and prevent illegal activity, money laundering and dirty money passing through London...We will not wish to see people who are pursued in Ukraine being able to hide money in London. That is something which is not about Ukraine. It’s a general rule which we would wish to apply across the globe”.
Hromadske’s Nataliya Gumenyuk interviewed British MP and Conservative Party member John Whittingdale on December 9 in Kyiv, Ukraine.