The Strategic Partnership Agreement concluded last year marked a new milestone in bilateral relations between Ukraine and the United Kingdom and. Despite difficult pandemic times, cooperation between the two countries is developing rapidly, which is especially noticeable in the political and security spheres. Therefore, it is not surprising that Ukrainian-British relations have become a top topic in Ukraine’s international policy.
Where are Ukraine and the United Kingdom heading? When should Ukrainians expect visa-free travel with Britain? What really was Brexit? We welcome the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United Kingdom to Ukraine, Ms. Melinda Simmons, as our “Persona Grata”.
THE UK’S GEOPOLITICAL POSTURE: SECURITY AND ALLIES
– Newly released Integrated Report on Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Relations proclaimed new geopolitical agenda for the United Kingdom. This includes both adapting to the challenge involved and also proclaiming a new stance for Britain in the global arena. So, is Britain back as a global player?
– I don’t think Britain ever went away as a global player. I think what the Integrated Review did was two things. First of all, it really needed to set out the new strategic vision, taking into account changes in the defence and security field, which we all know have happened in the last five years since our last Integrated Review. Cyber and technological advancements have really changed that game. And I know that our ministers have wanted for a while now to set that out and explain what that means for our current security stance. But also, as you hinted, we’ve left a major block. And that, of course, requires a country to set out how that impacts on the nature of future strategic relationships when it comes to the field of defence and security. And therefore, it sets those out. I think it does a really good job of updating the way in which we understand our security challenges in those contexts. But I think probably one of the most important things it says is that the UK remains interested in working with and through others. And I think that’s quite important, because in the context of us leaving the EU, there was an awful lot of debate about the UK looking inward, going smaller. I don’t think there’s any sense of that in the Integrated Review. And I think that even in the run up to the publication of that review, there’s enough evidence to show that
a key part of our posture on any part of our security challenges, whether it’s public health or whether it’s relating to new adversaries, is about working in partnership with others.
– So you rightly pointed out working with others as an integrated part of this report. And special relations with the United States is, as far as I’m concerned, one of the most important parts of the UK’s foreign policy. However, there are some rumours that new economic and trade deal will not be here for at least several years. However, at the same time, we see great cooperation and contacts at the highest political level. So, concerning these different narratives, what are the new relations with the United States or is there nothing new, just as they were before Brexit, before the political disturbances?
– Well, I can’t speculate on how long it takes for a bilateral trade deal to be confirmed. It will really differ from country to country. I can say that with the experience now of having been part of the negotiating team for the strategic partnership agreement between the UK and Ukraine. If you look at the size of that one, it is over 500 pages long. Any bilateral trade agreement with any country takes time to progress. And the UK and the US go back several generations. So there’s a lot there to discuss. I don’t think that the relationship has changed. I think the things that have changed within it are the obvious, which is that the US has a new administration. And every time a government has a new administration, you need to adjust for the priorities of that administration. And that’s the same with the Biden Administration. But also, given that that’s happened at about the same time as we’ve published our integrated review, what’s new within it is the issues on which the US and the UK would work, and a conversation about coming to a joint understanding about those modern challenges and opportunities. So, that for me is what’s new about the relationship.
NO VISA-FREE YET, BUT SUPPORT FOR EUROINTEGRATION
– And you mentioned the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) with Ukraine as of the previous year. In our annual report Scorecards of Ukraine’s foreign policy “Ukrainian Prism” mentioned this particular agreement as one of the main successes of Ukrainian foreign policy last year. And by the way, Britain was ranked as one of the top allies of Ukraine, according our expert survey. So will we see some evolution of our relations concerning this agreement, maybe some new spheres of cooperation? Ecology was mentioned as one of new spheres, but maybe some more on education, culture or other soft topics, so to speak?
– So it’s interesting because, actually, none of those you mention are new. The British Council has very good relationships with the Department of Education, Department of Culture, and has been a really important force here on the softer end of our foreign policy engagement. And I expect that to continue and grow. Perhaps the difference is that all the different parts of UK presence and UK assistance and UK partnership in Ukraine, they all come together in that Strategic Partnership Agreement in a way which they never have before. I think that’s probably one of the most exciting things about the SPA. We’ve got a military assistance programme and we’ve got cultural ties. We have now our new bilateral trade areas that we’re working on. We have a shared foreign policy interest with Ukraine as an international partner on the multilateral stage, as well as issues that Ukraine wants partners like the UK to be working on. That’s what I think is so exciting about the SPA – it brings it all together.
So for the first time, you’ve got a properly integrated look at what that partnership is going to be. Will it evolve? Well, yes, of course, because our SPA was negotiated at a time when we were still in a transition out of the EU and we hadn’t yet negotiated the finalised terms of our deal. And therefore that deal that we struck, which is a good deal with Ukraine, that trade agreement, is predicated very closely on the EU Association Agreement, which is a very good agreement. But of course, now that we have left the EU in the terms of the deal being finalised, we can now grow it. And that means that the next time we come as two partner countries to review the trade deal will be looking precisely at deepening cooperation in sectors, as well as looking to see whether there are others that we now want to grow. You mentioned ecology. We are co-leading the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26) later this year with Italy. I am really keen that we start to find areas of cooperation with Ukraine on climate and environment, and the signs on that look good.
– We should explain to our listeners and viewers: the United Kingdom left EU, but Ukraine is still aspiring to be a part of the EU. So will the United Kingdom still support Ukraine’s aspirations or post Brexit era is “no EU” or “no Europe” whatsoever?
– I agree with you that it’s important to explain it. And I think it bears repeating that when the UK public, the majority of them, voted to leave the EU, that was not a statement about the EU. That was a statement about the UK’s aspirations. The question they were being asked was not what do you think of the EU? It was, do you think the UK should be inside or outside the EU? That was the question. And so what we have done is respected the wishes of the majority of the country and we’ve left the EU because the majority of the country wants to determine our destiny outside it. That’s not a commentary on what other countries may want to do with their destiny. And it’s not a commentary on the value of our relationship inside or outside the EU. In fact, actually my relationship here with EU colleagues and with the EU ambassador and EU programmes remains incredibly strong. And I expect it to. Our interests dovetail very, very closely as European country and we remain, of course, geographically in Europe. But I think in terms of what Ukraine is after, and as we are an ally country, as you point out,
part of our job as an ally country is to support Ukraine’s aspirations. If the Ukrainian people want to join the EU, then it is the job of the UK as one of its allies and partners to help Ukraine down that road.
– One of the phases of the narratives of Ukraine joining the EU is visa-free regime with European countries. But also a year ago, Ukraine granted to UK citizens a visa free regime and this year we prolonged it. And so I suppose it’s one of the most interesting and intriguing topics for Ukrainian citizens. Will our real political cooperation evolve into a visa-free regime for Ukrainians? In some time in foreseeable future, of course.
– So I think that needs a little bit of correction. It’s not that Ukraine granted the UK visa-free regime for the first time. It’s important to remember that when the EU granted visa-free regime to Ukraine, the UK was not a part of Schengen. But that visa-free arrangement remained because we were members of the EU. So that was an administrative thing that needed to be done, a task that needed to be completed as part of us leaving the EU. Of course, at the same time, it highlighted the issue that a visa regime existed between Ukraine and the UK. And of course, we know that there have been conversations about this which have got thicker, particularly in the context of the Strategic Partnership Agreement. But at the end of the day, it’s not a political decision. It may be built as such, but it’s not. It has its own dynamic as it relates to issues of our own border control and issues about organised crime and issues that relate to our own Ministry of Interior assessment, which is not linked to a thickening of political relations or trade relations. It’s about our security concerns that kept us out of Schengen in the first place.
The conversation, therefore, that our Interior Minister had was about those issues, not about a political thickening, but about how Ukraine and the UK could work together on those organized crime issues, migration issues and border control issues.
And that would be added to our Home Office’s assessment against this kind of global assessment of visa requirements.
– And so going on with bringing Ukraine and the UK together in all vectors. How can we make Ukraine interesting for UK citizens, not just like a piece of news or some politically interesting topic. But generally, as a wholesome interesting topic for UK citizens. I know it is hard, but still soft power and cultural diplomacy are now one of the main narratives for Ukrainian foreign policy.
– You know, in some ways I think this is one of the most important questions. I never used to think it was, but recently I’ve come around to thinking this is actually one of the most important questions for Ukraine. Because I think earlier I used to think: “You know what, if you had better PR and you showed some really lovely pictures of how lovely it is in Ukraine, you just got that out there and people will think Ukraine’s a really pretty country, maybe I’d like to visit”. I don’t think that’s true. I think the answer, sadly, is much more boring and actually much more difficult. The perceptions of Ukraine aren’t just perceptions. I think that’s quite important to remember that when Brits think about Ukraine, by large (we know that there have been surveys and polls done in the past) they think about corruption and they think about war. It therefore follows that
positive stories about progress in tackling corruption and positive stories about Ukraine growing in strength as a confident democracy, these are the things that will alter the perceptions of Brits
who live in a country which is a strong democracy and values those ideals, ways of living. Seeing those reflected in another country will help. I’m not talking about investors right now. I’m just talking about people. That’s one of the key things that will help change their mind.
Pretty pictures of the Carpathians and beautiful parts of Odesa etc. are lovely, but they won’t get people over the line in balancing out that traditional narrative. So that’s one of the things. But the other thing, which I think is really hopeful and which I’ve started talking with the British Council about ways in which I can help here is that since independence there has been this explosion of Ukrainian culture, particularly in filmmaking, and everybody loves accessible film. And of course, streaming giants like Netflix have really helped with the accessibility of a much more diverse range of access to culture. And that also is one of the ways in which I think investment can help people begin to think about countries like Ukraine as a place of opportunity, where you’re looking for different ways of accessing cultural references compared to your past. So those are the two. The latter actually just needs a bit of leadership and a bit of resource because the creativity is already there. The former, I’m afraid, is about continuing the hard slog of working to combat vested interests and really show what real progress has been made, particularly in the last five or seven years that help people think of Ukraine as a country that is on that road and not just a country that is stuck.
– So showing the results and staying positive, that’s the recipe?
– Showing results, staying positive, but also showing modernity. This point about Ukrainian film, Ukrainian books, Ukrainian music is a really important sign of Ukraine defining its own culture in a way that Brits really, really love and really, really appreciate. It just needs a bit of focused attention to help it get out there.
POST-BREXIT BRITAIN: SECRETS OF RESILIENCE
– Now let’s shift to British life, because many of my co-citizens and colleagues are interested in post-Brexit era, in post-Brexit Britain. Many experts suggested that would be a disaster for the United Kingdom – political crisis, economic instability, and some even suggested some territorial disintegration. However, nowadays we see stable, resilient Britain with new strategies and up for new challenges. So my complementary question is what is the secret of British resiliency? What is the secret of British strength in such daring times?
– It’s kind of amazing that you’re asking me that question now, actually, because, you know, we are living through a pandemic. And I think our resilience in every country is being tested in a way it never has before, not even with the leaving of a really important trade block like the EU. And yet it’s absolutely true that the UK looks resilient within that context. I was discussing with colleagues recently how extraordinary it is that
something like over 95 percent of Brits are prepared to take a vaccine. That’s quite important measure of trust by the UK in its institutions.
And that forms part of my answer to your question. How is it we were able to get through those three or four incredibly difficult years after the outcome of the referendum, which, as you know, was close enough for there to be a sizable number of people who didn’t want that to happen. And what did they do with that? They tried to challenge it through the courts and through parliament. So they went to our institutions, and our institutions provided a trustworthy and a transparent process for that challenge to progress. And when that challenge didn’t provide the outcome that people who opposed leaving the EU were seeking and when an election returned the majority of leave-favouring parties (because, of course, at that point the Labour Party had signed up to the Exit Deal and the Conservative Party was committed to staying on the path), the majority of people who had voted to stay in the EU came to the conclusion that the democratic will of the people now needed to be respected. They had gone through parliament, they had gone through the courts. And we were now in a world where we needed to engage positively with the outcome. These things are a function of really strong and trusted institutions and a really confident democracy that people, a sizeable number of people would say we are trusting that our society will come together and make this work is, I think, an extraordinary symbol of the kind of confidence that I know Ukraine is after and I know Ukraine will get one day. But these are the things that show that in the toughest times people are willing to trust both to a set of values, but also to a set of tried and tested institutions.
– Well, that’s truly extraordinary. But how can we make people trust democracy as a concept, as a number of institutions in the times when populists win elections both in Europe, Asia and other parts of the world, when democratic states are, as they say, less effective economically during the crisis and pandemics? How can we make democracy lovable to general public or how can we make institutions trustworthy?
– Well, I mean, institutions that are transparent and achieve fair outcomes are the ones that build trust. And that’s why I keep coming back to judicial reform is the most important thing for the UK. You have to have courts that are trusted. You have to have police that are trusted. You have to have all the people involved in ensuring outcomes where you require the judicial system to deliver outcomes that people will trust. And until you get that, then, yes, confidence that a democratic process will yield an outcome is always going to feel a bit fragile. And that’s the answer. And that’s always going to be the answer.
GREEN BORSHCH AND ST. SOFIA CATHEDRAL: BEST WAYS TO DISCOVER UKRAINE
– And maybe for our last part, some personal touch. What was your first impression about Ukraine when you came here? Maybe some first memorable moments in Ukraine?
– I will discard the very first time I came because it was a work visit, and of course nobody ever sees anything interesting during the work visit, I can barely remember it, frankly, just meetings. But when I first properly came here, it was before I started my job. I was studying Ukrainian and I went to stay with a family who lived in a high-rise block of flats at a time. I studied in central Kyiv and had some time to get to know the city.
And the first impression that I had was of how unexpectedly European it felt. I wasn’t expecting it to feel quite so buzzy with so many cafes and so many people out kind of doing stuff in such a really great atmosphere.
This is, of course, pre-pandemic when people were actually on the streets. But that was what struck me most was the sense of things happening and of excitement of things to do, places to go and see that I don’t think I quite expected of Kyiv. And that was really exciting for me to know that I was coming to live in that kind of environment.
– Putting pandemic aside, has this feeling changed somehow during your stay here?
– So that hasn’t changed. If anything, it’s deepened because of course in my job I’ve been able to travel even within the context of the pandemic. I’ve still been able to do some travel, not as much as I would like, but some. And I’ve been east and I’ve been west. And I recently went south-west and I’ve been down south to Odesa and I’m trying to get out and get as much as possible of sense of the diversity of people and the views across the country. But
there is one thing that unites all the visits that I’ve done, it is the extraordinary commitment of people to get things right for where they live, the extraordinary passion and engagement of people with politics and with power and with change and the risk that people are prepared to take to try to make things better.
It really, really hits me every time and every time I leave, wherever it is I’ve been, I come back with a renewed sense, really, of energy for the work that I can do that either directly or indirectly helps those people to do the work that they can do. That’s been the thing that’s deepened for me. On the flip side, the thing that I don’t think I’d appreciated – and no one can without spending time in Ukraine – is the immense complexity of its history. You spend a lot of time trying to work out what is at the root of tensions between Ukraine and Russia, and what is it that makes the road for Ukraine to build its democracy so hard. And most of it is to be found within a lot of unresolved issues within its history. And that just is deeply and endlessly interesting.
– That’s true. And returning to your passion for travel, after the pandemic, when your British friends, for example, will have an insight to come to Ukraine, what will you advise them to see, to visit, to do? Well, how will you organise their vacation here?
– It’s such a great question. If we would have the same conversation tomorrow, I’d probably give you a different answer because there are so many different things. The first thing I would advise my British friends when they do come to do is to eat green borsch because green borsch is the standout, biggest discovery for me of living in Ukraine. I was studying Ukrainian for my C1 exam, which was the last one that I did. I had to do a presentation and I decided to do this presentation on things to do in Ukraine and I actually hadn’t been to Ukraine. So the thing is, I had to use pictures, so I did my presentation on Sofiivsky Sobor and on the Lychakivski Cemetery in Lviv, because they looked beautiful, and I took that presentation really well. I’d talked through how beautiful these things were and I gave the history, etc. And I did really well on that presentation without ever having seen Sofiivsky Sobor or ever having been to Lviv. So, of course, when I arrived in Ukraine, the first thing I wanted to do is see these things. And I discovered that I was right. These two places are absolutely beautiful. And therefore, the first thing I actually do continue to think of, if someone had 24 hours in Kyiv, what should they do? I still believe that going to see St. Sofia’s Cathedral is one of the most extraordinary things you can do. I’ve still never seen an interior like it, but also the history that put it there and the centrality of that history, I think is the best starting point. An eye-opener for anybody who comes here. So
green borsch and then Sofia’s Cathedral, this is a really good way to start their holiday.
– Well, that’s all for me now. Thank you very much. Thank you for your time.
– Thank you very much.