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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury

WHAT DOES THE UK ELECTION MEAN FOR UKRAINE AND BELARUS?

The United Kingdom goes to the polls this week (4 July). What does the election mean for the UK’s foreign and security policy? Does the result matter at all for Ukrainians and Belarusians?


This text was originally published on the Warwick Ukraine-Belarus Hub blog here.


The United Kingdom goes to the polls this week (4 July). Many topics are contested between the main parties – from the cost of living to the state of public services, from immigration to house building, and from green policies to crime.


Foreign and security policy has barely featured in the election campaigns. Both the Conservatives and Labour want to strengthen cooperation with the EU (no one dares to mention Brexit); both temper the challenge of China with a pragmatic note: the Conservatives say that they will ‘engage’ with China when it is in the UK’s interests and Labour sees ‘opportunities’ as well as challenges. Both main parties broadly support Israel, too, and seem to have preferred not to mention the war in Gaza because they know many voters dislike their stance.


The main parties’ foreign policies therefore have similar contours. Despite this, thinking about how the election will affect policy towards Ukraine and Belarus brings out some differences as well as reiterating the similarities.

 

Ukraine


In respect of Ukraine, there is little reason to foresee any major change in UK policy. There is consensus among the main parties that the UK should continue to provide military and humanitarian support to Ukraine.


The incumbent Conservative party is clearly proud of its support for Ukraine. Its manifesto claims the UK government has ‘led the way’ in helping Ukraine’s defence following Russia’s invasion. The manifesto outlines three ‘strategic defence priorities’ which include ‘guaranteeing Ukraine the support it needs for the long haul’; that includes lobbying other states so that the international community makes use of Russia’s frozen assets to support Ukraine.


Labour, in its manifesto, speaks of its ‘steadfast’ support for Ukraine and promises that in government it would ‘play a leading role in providing Ukraine with a clear path to NATO membership’ – this focus on Ukraine's future gives a slightly different emphasis from the Conservatives' focus on supporting Ukraine today. The Labour party also asserts its ‘unshakeable’ commitment to NATO.


The smaller parties’ manifestos chime with these claims. The Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party both promise to support continued military aid from the UK to Ukraine. Even the Green Party of England and Wales, traditionally seen as the most pacifist of British political parties, vows to continue support for Ukraine.


Perhaps the clearest evidence of the consensus within the UK political elite came when the leader of the populist Reform Party, Nigel Farage, suggested that EU and NATO enlargement had ‘provoked’ Vladimir Putin into invading Ukraine. Farage was roundly condemned for his comments. It is easy to imagine that in the US, where such consensus is lacking, there would be politicians lining up to endorse such a claim with an implicit suggestion that aid to Ukraine should be drawn down.


At the same time, the Reform Party – likely to pick up an appreciable vote share but unlikely to win many (if any) seats owing to the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system – pledges to increase defence spending quicker than any of the main parties and is committed to NATO. In the very unlikely situation that it is part of a future government, it probably wouldn’t harm support for Ukraine all that much.


There is some difference on policy towards those Ukrainians who have settled in the UK. Labour has been critical of the Conservatives for recently changing the visa scheme for Ukrainians, making it harder for Ukrainians to join family already settled in the UK. Notwithstanding that detail, the UK will be staunchly committed to continuing support for Ukraine whoever forms the government after 4 July.

 

Belarus


In a way, the question in respect of Belarus is more enlightening about the future of UK foreign policy. No one expects Belarus to feature high on the agenda of the next foreign minister, unless something dramatic happens involving the country. And yet, in so far as we can infer divergence between the positions of the political parties, this does matter for Belarus.


The Conservative manifesto mentions Belarus, proclaiming it as an example of the UK’s ‘independent’ sanctions policy. But one of the biggest concerns about Belarus, and one of the reasons the country is under sanctions, is the human rights situation – and the Conservatives’ position on human rights is far from reassuring.


The party is actively toying with withdrawing from the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), which is deeply alarming in the signal it sends to others. The origins of this idea stretch back a decade or more: David Cameron as prime minister raised the prospect of withdrawing from the ECtHR in 2013, as did his successor Theresa May three years later. But the government’s latest migration policies, and the disapproval of the ECtHR towards them, have given the notion renewed impetus. The current Conservative Party election manifesto says: ‘If we are forced to choose between our security and the jurisdiction of a foreign court… we will always choose our security.’


It is routinely pointed out that such a move would put the UK in company with Russia and Belarus as the only European nations outside the Court. The more serious point is that, alongside the severe concern that it would set a precedent for other states to withdraw, the Court is an important mechanism for monitoring the obligations states have to their citizens and empowering victims of human rights violations. Leaving the ECtHR will also mean leaving the Council of Europe and reducing the UK’s ability to influence human rights norms regionally, but also globally since the Council of Europe is the best developed regional system for upholding and promoting human rights, democracy and the rule of law.


By contrast, the Labour Party, should it form a government after 4 July, is led by Keir Starmer, who started his career as a human rights lawyer. Consequently, while Belarus is unlikely to be prominent in the foreign policy agenda of the UK, those lobbying in respect of action on human rights violations in Belarus could at least expect a sympathetic ear from a Labour government and will see him as a more likely ally in their fight against the regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka than current prime minister Rishi Sunak has been.


A Labour government should also be better news for the exiled Belarusian democracy movement which is pressing hard to hold Lukashenka to account for his role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Starmer’s experience and knowledge of international human rights law and international criminal law puts him in a strong position to lead a country that could take a leading role in such actions.

 

Sources of change


Ultimately, though, change in UK foreign policy – especially in respect of Ukraine and Belarus – is more likely to be determined by external shocks than the vote this week.


To some extent, this concerns what happens in Ukraine or Belarus themselves. A significant escalation in the war in Ukraine is likely to prompt a UK foreign policy response beyond what has been envisaged in the campaigns. The lack of debate on foreign policy during the campaigning risks leaving the next UK government unprepared. Whatever permutation such escalation takes could affect policy towards both Belarus and Ukraine. If Russia used a nuclear weapon in Ukraine, for example, then Belarus is implicated having tied itself to Russia’s nuclear policy.


A spate of recent changes in senior personnel in Belarus are a reminder that that the situation in that country could become more severe as its dictator prepares to claim another election victory in 2025.


More obviously still, both the main UK parties will be looking to the US election and shaping their foreign policy priorities according to who they expect to see in the White House come 2025. Given uncertainties about the expected Republican nominee Donald Trump’s commitments to both Ukraine and NATO, that will be the far more consequential election for both Ukraine and Belarus.


The next UK government’s foreign policy could see marked change from the present, but it is unlikely to be seen soon after the vote. It will more likely result from what happens in the US in November and key European elections during the coming months. In the meantime, there is little hint as to which direction policy might move.


All the main parties recognise that the election winner must govern in a time of heightened geopolitical competition. Yet none of them is offering a serious commitment to defence and security spending, which acknowledges the economic constraints they will be operating under. (Sunak’s promise to increase defence spending to 2.5% of GDP by 2030 is risible.)


Ironically, the first foreign trip the British prime minister will make after 4 July will be to Washington for the NATO summit. The UK’s allies will get their chance to give their vote on the direction of Britain’s foreign and security policy.

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