Britain’s Europe minister went to Ukraine to extol the virtues of democracy and the EU. It didn’t go very well

‘What lesson does Boris Johnson proroguing parliament send to a fledgling democracy like Ukraine?’ Christopher Pincher was asked. He replied by assuring the audience the PM was working very hard to secure a deal

Kim Sengupta
Wednesday 25 September 2019 11:00 BST
Chuka Umunna says he would campaign to rejoin EU after Brexit

Both countries happen to have the letters U and K in their name. One is in a state of political turmoil, with a population bitterly divided and facing a future of uncertainty, the other is Ukraine.

The first visit by the UK’s latest Europe minister, Christopher Pincher, in his new post was to the eastern European country. He came with advice of the need for political stability, the imperative for politicians to abide by the rule of law and the importance of European alliances in ensuring security and prosperity.

It is a kind of Holy Grail for many in Ukraine – still in a state of war, but with a president with a governing majority following recent elections – to join the European Union. The British government is fully backing this bid, ministers from London have assured repeatedly, while in the next breath declaring that Britain must break free from its servitude to Brussels.

Appearing at the Yalta European Strategy (YES) conference in Kiev over the weekend Mr Pincher firmly stuck to this line. There was a slight tweaking of language with Britain’s backing extended to any transatlantic ties Ukraine may seek, but, he stressed, the government was staying firmly behind Kiev’s European Union aspirations.

The script was the same as that of former ministers in international settings, some since sacked by Boris: “Britain is leaving the EU, not Europe”; “the UK is determined to play a leading role in European defence”; “Britain will continue to play a full part in European affairs.”

It would not be unfair to say that not many people at the conference, let alone in Ukraine itself, had heard of Mr Pincher. They listened to him say that Britain would defend Ukraine against Russian aggression in polite silence and with a smattering of applause. He did not take any questions from the floor.

It was noticed in the audience that he called their country “the Ukraine”. It may seem a minor point, but it matters here. It has been officially Ukraine since gaining independence in 1991 and many Ukrainians regard the use of the prefacing article as a casual ignoring of their wish to change the name from that of the Soviet times.

Mr Pincher said he was glad to be in Kiev, dwelling on this year’s YES theme, “Happiness Now”, and using it to focus on how nations can be happy at such troubled times.

The Yalta conferences were originally held in Yalta before the Russians took over. I was in Crimea during the annexation and saw the venue, Livadia Palace, where Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill signed the Yalta Declaration turned into a monument to the triumph of Russian diplomacy. Talks with Moscow are due to be held by the new government of Volodymyr Zelensky soon. A highly symbolic prisoner exchange has already taken place and there are tentative hopes of a possible settlement to the strife.

Mr Zelensky is a former professional comedian as opposed, went a joke at the conference, to some current amateur comedian leaders of states. Yet the new Kiev administration is keen to impress its very serious intention to seek membership to the European Union and Nato.

“With all the things going on in London, just getting out of London makes me happy... As it will also make some of my parliamentary colleagues,” said Mr Pincher. He then decided to speak for the nation: “What will make British people happy will be when Brexit is finished,” he announced to general silence.

The minister then went on to explain what will make Ukraine a happy nation. One vital ingredient was “the rule of law, which is the bedrock of all democracies”. There should be, he wanted to stress, the “rights of recourse to law, the right to go to court.”

The minister praised the Ukraine’s government for the sheer volume of action in parliament since coming to power. “One hundred and eighty-eight pieces of legislation – we can’t match that in Westminster, would that we could...” he said wistfully . Sitting next to me a new MP in the Rada shook her head. “Wasn’t it his government that shut down parliament?” she mused.

The Europe minister was asked whether he recognised the irony of the UK backing Ukraine’s bid for European Union membership at the same time his own government was “desperately” trying to get out the union.

“We are leaving the EU, not leaving Europe. The people voted to leave the EU and democrats execute the will of the people. I am confident we can get a deal; we are working flat out to get a deal, we are doing that,” he explained.

The journalist moderating, Fareed Zakaria, pointed out that both the European Union and the Irish government have said that London has not provided a viable alternative to the Irish backstop. Leo Varadkar had been quite encouraging at his last press conference, the minister insisted. Many in the room begged to differ.

Mr Zakaria pointed out that parliament had voted against a no-deal Brexit, but Boris Johnson and his supporters had threatened to ignore the vote. “This is happening in the mother of parliaments, what lesson does this send to a fledgling democracy like Ukraine?” Mr Pincher assured the audience that the prime minister was working very hard to secure a deal.

Mr Pincher was asked about the peculiarity of urging Ukrainian politicians to uphold the rule of law while some in the British government have been saying Boris was prepared to break it. The “chief lawbreaker is your prime minister”, held Mr Zakaria. Mr Pincher assured that there was no contradiction involved here.

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“I didn’t realise the prime minister can pick and choose which laws to follow and which he laws he’ll break”, sniffed Mr Zakaria.

Mr Pincher’s response was essentially “there’s nothing to see here, let’s move on now...”; all the while reiterating British support for Ukraine and the prospect of trade deals between the two countries in the future and support against Russian interference in Ukrainian politics.

The minister was asked about allegations of Russian interference in the Brexit referendum and British politics. “There is no evidence that it had a significant effect on British elections,” he insisted, but acknowledged the need for vigilance on matters like cyber warfare and misinformation.

“I'm glad you didn't question me about Brexit!” Mr Pincher said with a hint of sarcasm to Mr Zakaria at the end. “You knew they were coming” the moderator responded. The Europe minister, according to diplomatic sources, was surprised to be questioned so intensely about the subject.

Brexit was not going to go away. Next up was Tony Blair, while Mr Pincher sat in the audience. The former prime minister commented that Brexit “is all going according to plan, but whose plan it is isn’t clear. There is now a blockage in parliament - I think there will be an extension. This extension has to come from Europe, but everyone wants a resolution.”

Mr Blair reiterated his recently expressed view that there should be a second vote on Brexit before another election to clarify where people stood three years on from the referendum.

“There shouldn't be a Brexit question in the election: that should be about issues like the economy, education, how the country is governed... But one can ask [in a referendum] ‘do you want to continue with it?'” he said.

“This is something which will affect generations to come. This was a generational thing: two-thirds of over 65s voted for Brexit, two thirds of under 35s voted to stay. Having another referendum is perfectly democratic.”

Mr Blair spoke about the worrying rise of populism and the stated aim of some hardline Brexiters to turn the people against parliament. The backbench MPs who are critical of the government, he pointed out, were doing their job. “They are studying the details of what’s being proposed. But if you listen to some, like right wing newspapers, these Conservative MPs who are doing this are somehow ‘traitors’.

“These people are giving up their jobs, I can think of no higher principle than giving up your livelihood to correct something wrong being done to your country.”

As the session ended my Ukrainian MP friend mused: “It was Boris Johnson who kicked out the Conservative MPs, isn’t it? This British minister Pincher should have been asked about that.”

Then she paused and reflected: “It’s funny, we are sitting in Ukraine hearing about your civil war in the UK. But maybe that is enough for one morning – we would be here all day if we had to discuss the war in the Conservative Party as well.”

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