Hugs, handshakes greet UK's Starmer at NATO in post-election honeymoon

By Elizabeth Piper

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Hugs, handshakes and back-slapping greeted Keir Starmer on his first international outing as Britain's new prime minister at NATO this week, a warm welcome from several Western leaders who envy his big majority in parliament.

Very much a new boy among his more seasoned peers, Starmer often looked bowled over, sometimes bewildered, by his first summit, but he used it to show off a new image for Britain, a stable country in contrast to its somewhat chaotic recent past.

The timing of his landslide victory - earlier than expected after predecessor Rishi Sunak set a July date - means Starmer can use the NATO summit and next week's European Political Community meeting to build ties with world leaders.

He will stress his foreign policy goals: resetting relations with the European Union after years of Brexit rancour, reclaiming Britain's leading role in tackling climate change and building ties with the Global South.

"It's a fantastic opportunity to be here within the first week of having formed a Labour government ..., talking to our allies and being absolutely clear about our commitment to NATO," he told GB News.

"So it's a good early opportunity for me to set out my priorities, to ... engage with other international leaders."

Still in a honeymoon period at home, Starmer can project a sense of stability not enjoyed by several leaders at NATO.

With U.S. President Joe Biden facing calls to end his re-election campaign, French leader Emmanuel Macron's early election gamble ending in a hung parliament and Germany's Olaf Scholz under pressure from the far right, Starmer is in an enviable position at the start of his five-year term.

Despite that he will not have unlimited room for manoeuvre. His pledge to keep a tight grip on public finances means he faced questions over when defence spending would reach 2.5% of GDP, and any attempt to improve trade ties with Europe could entail trade-offs over sovereignty, potentially galvanising his shattered political opposition who supported Brexit.

The possible election in the U.S. of Donald Trump would also pose new diplomatic challenges for the centre-left leader.


On Ukraine, Starmer offered continuity.

Britain has long been one of the leading supporters of Kyiv since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February, 2022, and he recommitted to the former Conservative government's military and financial aid pledges, albeit to speed them up.

His foreign minister, David Lammy, toured Germany, Poland and Sweden over the weekend to emphasise their shared support for Ukraine, and Defence Secretary John Healey headed quickly to Kyiv to tell President Volodymyr Zelenskiy the Labour government would have an "ironclad" commitment to supporting Ukraine.

In a meeting with Zelenskiy in Washington, where the two hugged warmly, Starmer told the Ukrainian leader: "There's a change of government but no change of approach."

It was no surprise that his first bilateral meeting at NATO was with Germany Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a man who the Labour Party turned to for election advice after the German leader changed his centre-left SDP's election fortunes in 2021.

It was a sign that Britain's Labour government wants to move fast in resetting relations with the EU after years of rows sparked by the 2016 referendum, promising to improve trading rules over what it describes as the "botched deal" secured by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The government is likely to use its strength in security and defence as one way to rebuild bridges with Europe. A nuclear power with strong intelligence capabilities and a member of the "Five Eyes" alliance, Britain also boasts strong defence companies in the likes of BAE.

"I've been clear with international leaders here that we do want to reset the relationship with individual countries, whether they're EU or not," Starmer told GB News.

After NATO he will switch his focus to the July 18 meeting of the European Political Community, a group of more than 40 European states formed in 2022 after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, where he hopes to press his plan to secure a security pact with the EU.

In Washington, he had a "brush by" with Macron, who pulled him into a meeting room for a congenial chat, but Starmer's team said he was focusing on leaders he would not see at the EPC.

The warm welcome is likely to have provided a brief distraction from difficult domestic issues, including over Gaza after he lost votes among some left-wing and Muslim voters, and with prisons which will pose an almost immediate threat as they become close to being completely full.

For one source travelling with the Ukrainian delegation, it was a relief to see Starmer follow in the steps of Sunak and Johnson who pledged staunch support. But they accepted that politics always raises its head eventually.

"Britain is like a giant airship, it would take a lot to turn its direction (on Ukraine)," the source said on condition of anonymity.

"The UK is one of our biggest supporters but we shall see ... Give it a bit of time to see if they start fighting among themselves."

(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper, additional reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)