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Britain’s activism in Ukraine crisis rattles Paris and Berlin

The Ukrainian crisis has removed any doubts in Germany and France about Britain’s commitment to European security after Brexit. But London’s activism has also been a mixed blessing for Berlin and Paris at a time when the two continental powers’ leadership is wavering in the face of military threats from Vladimir Putin.

The so-called E3 group of countries, which have a history of diplomatic co-operation, have sought to co-ordinate their positions as more than 100,000 Russian troops mass on Ukraine’s border. Officially, western unity is the keyword. Privately Germany and France are watching with unease as the UK reclaims its position as the US’s most enthusiastic ally.

While Berlin and Paris have been circumspect about Putin’s endgame and would prefer more discreet diplomacy, London has embraced Washington’s assessment about an imminent threat of invasion, is sending anti-tank weapons to Ukraine and has leaked details of an alleged Russian-led coup plot in Kyiv.

The UK’s desire to co-operate at EU level is seen as positive, says Jana Puglierin, head of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. But the crisis in Ukraine might reopen splits that emerged during the Iraq war between a “Carolingian west” centred on Paris and Berlin and an “Anglo-American camp”, she notes. “They insist on co-ordination,” Puglierin says, “and it is true, there has been a lot of co-ordination efforts, and more or less unity holds, but underneath there are a lot of potential risks.”

Paris remains bitter at the role London played in the sealing of the so-called Aukus deal with the US and Australia, which led to the cancellation of a $36bn French-led submarine contract in September. And according to Michel Duclos, a former diplomat and special adviser at the Institut Montaigne, it believes the current British approach might be “adding fuel to the fire”. Paris suspects that “in tune with their natural instincts, they are looking to form a club of hardliners with the Poles, the Baltics and the Dutch to hinder the Franco-German axis,” Duclos says.

In Berlin, Olaf Scholz, Germany’s new Social Democrat chancellor, would rather buy more time and seize “every channel that exists” than confront his own party’s divisions over how to respond to a Russian invasion of Ukraine, says Joseph de Weck, fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “The crisis has been a blow to German leadership in Europe,” he says.

“All of a sudden Germany is looking at the conflict from the sidelines,” Puglierin adds.

That is why it is so important for Paris and Berlin to revive talks with the Ukrainians and Russians over the fate of Ukraine’s war-ravaged eastern region of Donbas. After a meeting in Paris on Wednesday, a French official insisted they had “obtained the signal of re-engagement that we are looking for” and that more talks were planned. However, Russia may be testing French and German resolve, Puglierin warns.

The problem for Paris and Berlin is that their credibility as leaders of those talks has dwindled. Germany’s standing is low in the Baltics and eastern Europe, where there is resentment at Berlin’s inability to facilitate the sale of arms to Kyiv and its reluctance to countenance sanctions on Nord Stream 2, the pipeline designed to supply more Russian gas to Germany via the Baltic Sea.

Meanwhile, French president Emmanuel Macron is struggling to overcome “fundamental mistrust”, Puglierin says, after initiating an uncoordinated rapprochement with Putin and asserting that Nato was “brain-dead” in 2019.

In this context, an active UK on the fringes of the EU is a threat to Macron’s ambition to form a coherent European defence policy. Beyond a “certain relief” at seeing the UK back playing a role in foreign and security policy in Europe, de Weck says, “the downside is that there is now another security player in Europe that is outside the EU”. He adds: “It’s decreasing France’s leverage to convince the eastern Europeans to adopt a common EU defence stance.”

Consequently, the Ukraine crisis will be a significant test for the EU’s foreign policy ambitions. “It’s Global Britain in action, showing agility in contrast with what the EU can do,” says Alice Billon-Galland, Research Fellow at Chatham House in London. “It’s complicated to make the EU the go-to security forum for the current crisis when the most active European country sits outside the EU.”

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