William Hague at a Foreign Affairs Council meeting in Brussels. Olivier Hoslet/EPA

Ukraine highlights a crisis in British foreign policy created by its retreat from an EU role

Events in Ukraine mark not only the start of a momentous shift in the region, but serve to chart the disturbing erosion of Britain’s global clout. If only the UK government would take its lead from the approach taken by its embassy in the heart of Kiev.

Foreign Secretary William Hague began his term in office by issuing instructions to his entire diplomatic core to resist by all legal means any attempts to increase the “actorness” of the EU in foreign and security policy. This led to a year of obscure diplomatic blockages, where common positions by the EU in various international forums could not be adopted, because the UK in a minority of one was contesting the legal basis for EU representatives to speak on behalf of the EU and its member states. At one point no less than 100 common positions were held up. That particular episode was brought to a close by the adoption of an agreement stating the obvious by the council of foreign ministers in October 2011.

While this must go down as one of the most boring and non-substantive wastes of diplomatic time in the history of Europe, it was not without serious reputational consequences for the UK.

The UK, with its privileged seat as one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, has been now for decades sitting on its reputation as one of the “big three” of EU foreign policy, alongside France and Germany – although the latter still lacks status at the UN Security Council.

This reputation has been wasting away, and the episode I’ve mentioned is just one reason why. Further evidence of it surfaced during recent weeks in Ukraine in two ways.

Out of the picture

Institutionally, the Ukraine crisis was tackled with the aid of mediation by three EU foreign ministers, from France, Germany and Poland, co-signing the agreement that preceded the end of the Yanukovych regime. This was a new “big three” in action on behalf of the EU. Why was the UK not there, since in the past it would automatically have been invited in these informal self-selection process to be part of the leading action? Answer: some combination of Poland’s successful diplomatic activism by foreign minister Radoslav Sikorsky, and the UK having vacated its seat through persistenly wanting to minimise the “actorness” of the EU.

On a substantive point, what does Ukraine want? In the most profound sense Ukraine wants Europe. As one citizen on the Euromaidan put it last week, “we do not want to go to Europe, we want Europe here”. Ukraine as a society does not “want” the UK, or France, or Germany individually. And of course these countries are seen to be part of Europe. But where should the action come from? It is absolutely clear that Ukraine is not strategically interested in any specifically UK action, unless it forms part of EU action. There is no sense in any distinctly UK bilateral policy of political significance there.

Curiously, while the top-level speeches and attitudes of the Conservative Party ministers of the Coalition government have been vacating the UK’s effective seat on the international stage, the competent staff work of the Foreign Office has been doing some excellent things, including in Ukraine. An example is a low-cost project to map out how an enhanced EU communications strategy in Ukraine could be designed. This has turned out to be an excellent piece of professionalism, in which the UK embassy in Kyiv has been doing an impeccable job of acting itself with and on behalf of the EU.

But back now to the big picture for the UK in the world. The UK needs now to decide pretty fast on its strategic orientation for its European and foreign policy. The Ukraine episode is a warning. The UK’s perceived position on the world stage is on the slide. Let’s relate this more broadly to the UK’s standing in the world at large, for example its permanent seat in the UN Security Council, the jewel in the crown of the Foreign office. This may be tactically secure through the veto powers of permanent members. But the process whereby the rest of the world considers the UK’s position to be an increasing anomaly is ongoing. As US president Barack Obama has said with clarity, the UK as a vigorous part of a strong EU is what the US wants; the UK as a seceding or semi-detached, minimalist member state is not of interest.

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