Starmer gets first big diplomatic win with ‘irreversible’ Ukraine Nato membership plan

Less than a week since becoming prime minister, Sir Keir Starmer has set about repairing Britain’s reputation on the world stage

David Maddox
Political editor
,Andrew Feinberg
Wednesday 10 July 2024 23:42
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Starmer meets with Senate leaders and German chancellor during visit to Capitol Hill

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Sir Keir Starmer has begun to reset Britain’s relations with key allies as his plan to ensure Ukraine’s pathway to joining Nato is irreversible is set to be adopted.

The new prime minister arrived in Washington with support for his aim to protect Ukraine’s entry process into the Nato alliance from any potential interference from a Trump presidency.

He has spoken of his hopes that military and economic aid to Ukraine from Nato will be Donald Trump-proof should the former US president retake the White House in November.

With Nato leaders making the war in Ukraine one of their main topics, Sir Keir’s long-term call – which he made as Labour opposition leader – for the “irreversible” membership strategy is expected to be a key part of discussions.

Prime minister Keir Starmer meets Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky ahead of the Nato summit in Washington on Wednesday
Prime minister Keir Starmer meets Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky ahead of the Nato summit in Washington on Wednesday (via Reuters)

One of his first Nato meetings was with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky who is also in the US capital to discuss Russia’s war against his country. The UK’s new defence secretary John Healey flew to Ukraine on Friday immediately after being appointed.

Following Wednesday’s meeting, Sir Keir said: “I've just had a very good meeting with President Zelensky, where I made it absolutely clear that as far as the UK is concerned, the change of government makes no difference to the support that we will provide.

“We'd been united on this when we were in opposition, and it was really important to me to be able to affirm that face to face at the meeting.

“I did speak to him immediately after I was sworn in as prime minister last week. And so we build on it here at Nato at this important summit because it is an opportunity for our Labour government to reaffirm our commitment to Nato.

“We obviously signed the original treaty, way back, we reaffirm today, but also to discuss with President Zelensky what further support that he needs and to use our opportunity here with our allies to make sure that that support is agreed.

“And to reinforce, in a sense as a message to Putin, the resolve of Nato, bigger now than it's ever been, more united than it's ever been and absolutely clear-eyed about the threat of Russian aggression.”

In a statement posted to X, Mr Zelensky said he had thanked Sir Keir for the UK’s military and financial support for Ukraine.

He added: “This morning, I learned about the permission to use Storm Shadow missiles against military targets in Russian territory.

German chancellor Olaf Scholz was among the world leaders meeting the new British PM in Washington
German chancellor Olaf Scholz was among the world leaders meeting the new British PM in Washington (AP)

“Today, we had the opportunity to discuss the practical implementation of this decision. I’m grateful to the UK for its unwavering support for Ukraine and our people.”

Sir Keir has a wider strategy as he pushes for a united defence against the threat of Vladimir Putin’s Russia to the European continent.

With plans already moving to rewrite Brexit with a defence and security pact with the EU, Sir Keir’s first meeting at the summit was with German chancellor Olaf Scholz.

After the meeting, a UK government spokesperson said: “The chancellor welcomed the prime minister’s commitment to resetting the UK’s European partnerships, noting how important our friendships with like-minded countries will be in a challenging international environment. They discussed the importance of having the widest possible cooperation across all aspects of the relationship.

“They agreed that the Nato summit was an opportunity to strengthen our support for Ukraine. The two leaders agreed a firm commitment to deepen in particular UK-Germany defence ties, working at pace to deliver those objectives.

“The prime minister and the chancellor look forward to meeting again at the European Political Community summit in the UK next week to continue these discussions.”

Sir Keir also set about building relations on both sides of the political divide on Capitol Hill, having meetings with Democrat Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer and Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell. He is due to meet Republican House speaker Mike Johnson and Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries.

But the most important meeting of the day was with Joe Biden, whom he met for the first time since the US president called to congratulate him on his election victory last week.

Sir Keir meets Joe Biden in the Oval Office on Wednesday
Sir Keir meets Joe Biden in the Oval Office on Wednesday (REUTERS)

The Labour leader took part in a full bilateral meeting with the president, while the pair also enjoyed dinner with their wives Victoria and Jill at the White House on Wednesday evening.

Speaking as he met Mr Biden at the White House on Wednesday, Sir Keir said the special relationship between the UK and the United States is stronger than ever.

“The special relationship is so important, it was forged in difficult circumstances and endured for so long and is stronger now than ever,” he said.

Mr Biden called the US and UK the “best of allies” and described Britain as “the transatlantic knot” that ties Nato together.

Under the Tories, the special relationship cooled between the White House and Downing Street.

President Biden made it clear that he was unhappy about Brexit, particularly the impact on the Northern Ireland peace process.

When he visited Northern Ireland to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, he held the briefest of meetings with Rishi Sunak in a cafe.

The difference between his warm welcome for the Starmers and chilly responses to Mr Sunak, Liz Truss and Boris Johnson has already been noted by officials.

Ms Truss felt forced to shelve US/UK trade talks because of the issues with the White House, while Mr Sunak never initiated them.

In contrast, Sir Keir has stated in an interview with The Independent that he believes he can get a trade deal “over the line” between the UK and US.

But White House officials have suggested that an Anglo-American trade accord isn’t a priority for Mr Biden given the pressures of his re-election campaign, making it unlikely that there will be any movement to open negotiations until a second term begins for the 46th president — if he is successful in winning one.

With the uncertainty over who will control the White House after Americans go to the polls on 5 November, the prime minister is throwing an eye forward towards the prospect of Mr Trump retaking the White House.

He has insisted that he will deal with whichever president American voters choose and still hopes to do a trade deal with a Trump administration if he is elected.

Sir Keir has also recommitted to the UK’s £3 billion support for Ukraine as he joins Nato allies in attempting to make aid for the war “Trump proof”.

Sir Keir held meetings with Democrat Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer (right) and Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell
Sir Keir held meetings with Democrat Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer (right) and Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell (Getty Images)

With all the allies aware that a Donald Trump led White House after a potential election victory in November could see a new policy on Ukraine, Sir Keir has used his first major conference as prime minister to “lock in” support.

On Thursday, he will warn allies that the frontline defence of the Euro-Atlantic region is the Ukrainian trenches which comes after the UK pledges to accelerate lethal aid support to Kyiv.

The confirmation of the UK’s multi-year £3 billion military funding package for Ukraine comes after President Putin unleashed a string of attacks this week, including a devastating strike on a children’s hospital in Kyiv.

Nato officials believe that the attack may have been a deliberate provocation by Putin ahead of the summit this week.

The UK has also confirmed today it will contribute £40 million to Nato’s Comprehensive Assistance Package for Ukraine. The UK is the third largest donor to the Package, ensuring Ukraine can access vital assistance in key areas including counter drone protection, demining of recaptured land and medical rehabilitation of its injured military personnel.

In addition, the UK-administered International Fund for Ukraine will place a new order, worth £300million, for 120,000 rounds of 152mm soviet-era ammunition bolstering Ukraine’s defences against Russia.

In his speech to the summit on Thursday, Sir Keir will say: “Nato was founded by the generation who defeated fascism. They understood not just the value of our strength, but the strength of our values.

“Those values are under attack once again. Putin needs to hear a clear message ringing out from this summit – a message of unity and determination, that we will support Ukraine with whatever it takes, for as long as it takes to uphold our shared values and our shared security. “

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