May 15, 2023 - 11:30am

Ukraine: was it Brexit wot won it? That’s the suggestion made by Jacob Rees-Mogg in a weekend interview with Sky News:

We were able to show global leadership over Ukraine. Putin would probably have invaded Ukraine successfully if the UK had been bound in by the requirement of sincere cooperation and had to follow a Franco-German line in dealing with Russia, which is what we did in 2014.
- Jacob Rees-Mogg

Cue scorn from British Remainers: “Insulting to the heroism of the Ukrainian armed forces,” thundered Gavin Barwell. “The Brexit fantasy has no limits,” spluttered Will Hutton. “What a balloon,” guffawed Chris Daw.

It has to be said that Rees-Mogg’s case is overstated. For a start, the highest honour does indeed belong to the Ukrainian people (though I don’t think he would deny that). Next, we should thank the Russian military command for their sheer ineptitude. And, of course, there’s no ignoring the military support provided by the United States of America, which greatly exceeds that of any other nation.

It is then and only then that we can assess the European contribution — including that of the United Kingdom.

In this regard, Britain stands head and shoulders above France and Germany. When our Ministry of Defence was working round the clock to get weapons to Ukraine, the Germans were still blocking vital shipments. The French, meanwhile, were still ‘negotiating’ with Putin long after the Brits had seen through his smokescreen.

Nevertheless, to substantiate Rees-Mogg’s hypothesis we’d have to show that British leadership was what stiffened French and German backbones — and, more importantly, what ensured America’s continuing involvement. But, of course, we’ll never know what would have happened had the EU’s appeasers gone unshamed.

The other plank of the Rees-Mogg argument is that, without Brexit, Britain would have been prevented from taking the stand that it did. In particular, he argues that, stuck in the EU, we’d have been bound by the principle of “sincere cooperation”. This is a reference to Article 4 of the Treaty on European Union, which states that “pursuant to the principle of sincere cooperation, the Union and the Member States shall, in full mutual respect, assist each other in carrying out tasks which flow from the Treaties.”

This is one of those pieces of EU big-talk that simultaneously mean everything and nothing. Though it applies to the EU’s common foreign and security policy, it could not have been used to force the UK to toe the EU line — at least not without a new treaty.

However, it could have been used by a Europhile UK government as an excuse for German-style passivity. Then again, there’s no way of telling who would have been prime minister in 2022 had we voted Remain in 2016. Both Rees-Mogg and his outraged Remainer critics are arguing over a counterfactual.

So let’s concentrate on what we do know — which is that when European values came under brutal attack in Eastern Europe, the country in Western Europe that leapt to their defence was Brexit Britain. As Ukraine’s shattered cities are rebuilt, they are naming streets after Boris Johnson, not Angela Merkel, Olaf Scholz or Emmanuel Macron. 

For British Remainers this is simply too much to contemplate. They should therefore thank Jacob Rees-Mogg for providing a distraction.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.