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UK has lost influence on world stage

The general election was fought on domestic issues, but the international observers have focused on the part foreign affairs played in the Conservative party’s crushing defeat, particularly Brexit and the global rise of populist politics.

Prime Minister Sir Keir Starmer will have to contend with a number of pressing foreign policy issues, with his first full week in the role seeing him travel to Washington to attend a Nato leaders’ summit.

“Keir Starmer will be considering the issue of how Britain can try to regain some of its influence [on the world stage],” Patrick Diamond, a former policy adviser for the Labour government led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, told i.

“There’s been a sense that since Brexit, the UK has become more insular, it’s not been as present on the global stage, perhaps it’s lost some of its reputation for being a significant global player. I think Starmer will be focusing on how to restore that.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and his wife Victoria Starmer are cheered at a watch party for the results of the 2024 General Election in central London, as the party appears on course for a landslide win. Picture date: Friday July 5, 2024. PA Photo. See PA story POLITICS Election. Photo credit should read: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Sir Keir and his wife, Victoria Starmer, are cheered at a watch party for the results of the 2024 General Election in London (Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire)

Brexit

“Brexit annihilates the Tories“, a headline on an opinion article in the Spanish El Mundo newspaper proclaims. In it, historian and columnist Joaquim Coll paints the Labour leader as a mundane figure who “lacks the brilliance and popularity” of former prime minister Tony Blair – who led the party to victory in the nineties – and argues that Sir Keir “did not campaign on any measures that would inspire enthusiasm”.

Nonetheless, Sir Keir’s win in Thursday’s election was “a foregone conclusion after 14 years of chaotic Conservative governments”, Mr Coll added.

He observed that Labour’s campaign made little mention of Brexit, but that Sir Keir would at least improve UK relations with the EU, a view shared by European Union officials.

Jacques Lafitte, a former top Commission trade official, said that while the Labour leader will be welcomed by the EU, he could not expect relations to change overnight. “No one will cry about the departure of the Conservatives, that’s for sure. They were very unserious in many, many ways,” he said. “But the UK is part of the EU’s past and even under Starmer, it does not seem to have any ambition to be part of its future. And we have many more pressing issues to deal with here.”

Sir Keir has said he cannot foresee any circumstances under which Britain would rejoin the EU, the single market or its customs union within his lifetime – but that a Labour government would seek better trade agreements in some areas.

Mr Lafitte, now a business consultant, said the EU’s response to this would depend on what Sir Keir could offer. “The fact that Starmer is not Boris Johnson does not necessarily mean we will roll out the red carpet and say, ‘Please come in, let’s have another negotiation,’” he said. “If he wants an improvement, he will need to table something. The door is open, but it will have to come from him. And the suggestions he may come up with may not necessarily be good enough.”

Rise of populism and France

Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia reported “the far right makes spectacular progress in the UK“, in relation to Brexit darling Nigel Farage and the Reform UK party eating into Conservative votes.

“Never before has the far right gone so far, to the point of sowing fears that what is happening in France and Italy could one day happen in Britain,” the paper reported, referring to the rise of Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration National Rally (RN) party in France and the right wing firebrand Giorgia Meloni who became Italy’s Prime Minister in 2022.

In a tale of two elections, French citizens head into a second round of voting this Sunday that could prove devastating for President Emmanuel Macron. RN is projected to win the largest share of the votes and on the cusp of forming France’s first far right government since the Second World War.

Mr Macron has largely stayed out of public view since the first round of the parliamentary election on Sunday. But he emerged on social media to congratulate Sir Keir. “We will continue the work begun with the UK for our bilateral cooperation, for peace and security in Europe, for the climate and for AI,” he posted on X.

Professor Diamond, who teaches public policy at Queen Mary University of London, said Sir Keir is likely to pursue a “pragmatic” approach in forming alliances with global leaders, and to try and leverage as much influence for the UK as possible.

“That approach is going to be tested,” he added. “We can see in France there is a lot of instability and it’s possible that there could be a government with participation of the National Rally, which would clearly pose challenges.”

Sir Keir ‘looks prime-ministerial’

Biographies in US media focused on Sir Keir’s humble beginnings and long career as a barrister.

“Keir Starmer brings working-class roots, a forensic legal style and a ruthless approach to politics,” The Washington Post said in its report on his “intriguing real-life story”.

“He was a lefty lawyer who defended vegan anarchists before prosecuting terrorists on behalf of the British crown,” the paper added, noting that Sir Keir was rumoured to be the inspiration for the “Mark Darcy/Colin Firth urbane-human-rights-lawyer character” in the Bridget Jones book and film series, before confirming “he was not”.

Jill Rutter, a research fellow at the UK in a Changing Europe think tank, told the New York Times: “He [Sir Keir] has been ferociously — some would say tediously — boring in his discipline.

“He’s not going to set hearts racing, but he does look relatively prime-ministerial.”

How world leaders have reacted

World leaders have shared congratulatory messages with Sir Keir, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky saying his country and the UK “will continue to be reliable allies through thick and thin”.

Ukrainian MP Oleksiy Goncharenko, of the European Solidarity party, said he knew Sir Keir personally and met Labour MPs at the party conference in Liverpool last year, saying the Prime Minister “understands very well what Russia is”.

“I have already managed to see Russian propaganda write about this, and I can say that they are already dissatisfied,” he told i.

“If Russians are dissatisfied with something, then everything is being done correctly. I am sure that the new Prime Minister and the new government will continue close cooperation with Ukraine on the way to our victory.”

While Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent his “heartiest congratulations” to Sir Keir, he lamented the end of Rishi Sunak’s premiership, thanking him for actively deepening ties between India and the UK. People in India rejoiced when Mr Sunak, a British-Indian, won the Tory leadership in 2022 and became prime minister, with Indian broadcaster NDTV reporting at the time “Indian son rises over the Empire”.

Ireland’s Taoiseach Simon Harris congratulated Sir Keir and said, “I look forward to working together as close neighbours and friends”, while Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he hoped to build a “progressive, fair future” with the Labour leader.

In the US, where Americans celebrated Independence Day on 4 July, President Joe Biden is yet to send a message of congratulations and commiserations to Sir Keir and Mr Sunak, but his Republican opponent, Donald Trump, has reacted in his usual off-piste manner by praising Mr Farage, his loyal ally.

“Congratulations to Nigel Farage on his big WIN of a Parliament Seat Amid Reform UK Election Success,” Mr Trump wrote on his Truth Social platform. “Nigel is a man who truly loves his Country!”

The Gaza issue

Some media organisations in the Middle East paid particular attention to Labour’s position on Israel’s war on Gaza, which has lost the party some seats in constituencies with a sizeable Muslim population.

The National, a UAE state-owned newspaper, led its coverage of the UK election on former Labour leader and lifelong Palestine supporter Jeremy Corbyn winning back his seat as an independent MP. “After laughter, came chants of ‘Free Palestine’ as the former Labour leader began to speak,” the newspaper reported.

Professor Diamond said the Labour government will have to consider how its foreign policy approach “can be as inclusive as possible”, saying it has potentially alienated some voters.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated Sir Keir, writing on X: “I am confident that we will continue working together to strengthen the historic friendship between the UK and Israel and to advance the twin goals of security and peace.”

Politicians in Israel’s centre-left applauded the new British Prime Minister. Prominent figures from the Israeli Labor Party, including President Isaac Herzog, leader Yair Golan and Knesset member Merav Michaeli, said they were looking forward to working with their “sister party”.

There was no immediate word from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, but Mustafa Barghouti, secretary general of the Palestinian National Initiative political party, congratulated Mr Corbyn in a message on X.



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