Why Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit is a major coup for Brexit Britain
When news of Volodymyr Zelensky’s secret trip to Britain broke, you could almost hear the lips pursing in irritation in Europe if you closed your eyes and listened hard enough.
In Brussels, officials have been boasting that the Ukrainian president would, of course, choose the EU for his second overseas visit after the US.
It is, after all, an economic superpower that was ready one day to welcome Ukraine into the fold of its 477 million-strong trading bloc.
Instead, Mr Zelensky picked the UK and Rishi Sunak.
By doing so, he placed a big feather in the cap of Global Britain.
He also triggered a huge collective frown as European diplomats and officials got the news on their gleaming smartphones on Wednesday morning.
Ukraine’s president is expected to address the gathered leaders of the remaining 27 EU member states at a summit in the Belgian capital on Thursday after a visit to Paris on Wednesday evening.
Those top-secret plans were leaked by loose-lipped MEPs in the European Parliament earlier this week.
The EU’s institutions were still indulging in the blame game when they found out that Mr Zelensky was in London.
In Paris, Emmanuel Macron’s officials put a brave face on it when journalists asked if it was a diplomatic coup for Brexit Britain.
“It’s a very good thing that he is going to the UK,” a discomforted Elysée said before adding that the French president had spoken to Mr Zelensky just last week.
“We have also just welcomed Ukraine’s defence minister, Oleksiy Reznikov, to talk about our support in terms of equipment for Ukraine. So all that is positive.”
Mr Macron, like all of Europe’s major leaders, has been competing to show the strength of his support for Ukraine.
The ardently pro-EU president will be smarting but he has only himself, and his allies to blame.
France and Germany were slow to recognise the Russian threat to Ukraine, unlike the US and UK.
French and German efforts at diplomacy with Vladimir Putin failed, and the perception grew that Paris and Berlin did not back Kyiv to the hilt.
Mr Macron has repaired much of that damage since. But Olaf Scholz, despite promising huge sums and weapons to Ukraine, has earned a reputation for dithering over the war.
Mr Zelensky may well have chosen to visit Britain first for security or logistical reasons but, in diplomacy, the pecking order matters.
Brussels will point to the European Commission and European Council president’s visit to Kyiv last week to spare EU blushes.
However, it is undeniably significant that the UK was chosen ahead of 27 gathered heads of state and government, including the French president and German chancellor.
Onwards and upwards from Brexit
British foreign policy is finally moving beyond Brexit after years of being consumed by it.
The UK has worked well with the EU to co-ordinate sanctions on Moscow and relations with the bloc, and France in particular, have improved.
A deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol should bring further closure on the painful years of the Brexit negotiations.
Britain has carved out a leadership role in the war in Ukraine, despite predictions its global standing would wane after leaving the EU.
Poland and the Baltic nations see London as a key ally in holding a tough line against Putin in Nato, where British influence is still strong.
Mr Zelensky’s visit proves that Britain really has not left Europe, even if it has left the EU.
Britain was close to being an international laughing stock after jettisoning a string of prime ministers and tanking the economy.
But Mr Zelensky has shown that he, and Ukraine, still takes this country seriously.