In international debut, new UK PM Starmer offers strong support for Ukraine at NATO summit

Newly elected British Prime Minister Keir Starmer has made his maiden appearance on the international stage with a strong signal of support for Ukraine and a pat on the back from President Joe Biden

WASHINGTON (AP) — Newly elected British Prime Minister Keir Starmer made his maiden appearance on the international stage Wednesday with a strong signal of support for Ukraine and a pat on the back from President Joe Biden as they met on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Washington.

After a full day of meetings — interrupted briefly to watch part of the soccer match in which England triumphed over the Netherlands — Starmer met Biden at the White House, where the leaders extolled the U.S.-British special relationship.

Biden said he sees the U.K. as the “knot tying the transatlantic alliance together.” He praised Starmer for “seeking closer ties with Europe,” saying it would be good for the entire NATO alliance.

"The special relationship is so important," replied Starmer, who was elected July 4 in a landslide over the Conservative Party, which had been in power since 2010.

Besides the coveted one-on-one with the U.S. president, Starmer jumped into major meetings with congressional leaders, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy — where the two men embraced — before joining other NATO leaders at a dinner at the White House.

But Starmer also found time to watch a portion of European Championship semifinal. England will face Germany in the finals on Sunday.

"Picked the right moment to pop out from NATO meetings and check the score," he wrote on the social platform X. "What a game @England and what a winner," he said in a separate post. "Berlin here we come!"

Starmer also got a taste of the U.S. political turmoil so soon after his own election. Biden's disastrous debate performance against former President Donald Trump last month has led to growing calls for him not to run in November's election.

At their meeting, Biden appeared to ignore a barrage of questions from reporters about his political future. He responded to a question about Democratic donor and actor George Clooney calling on him to step aside by saying "AFL-CIO, Go, Go, Go," appearing to reference his appearance Wednesday with the union.

Starmer came out strongly on the other big theme at the NATO summit this week — Ukraine. He reaffirmed Britain’s backing for Kyiv as it battles Russia’s invasion and said his new Labour government will “use our opportunity here with our allies to make sure that that support is agreed.”

He told Zelenskyy "there is no reduction in our support," according to a video posted on Starmer's X account. The Ukrainian leader replied that his country was "very thankful for your words and steps" and for the U.K. being an ally since the beginning of the war.

As he arrived for the summit, Starmer added that it was important to "reinforce, in a sense as a message to (Russian President Vladimir) Putin, the resolve of NATO — bigger now than it’s ever been, more united than it’s ever been and absolutely clear-eyed about the threat of Russian aggression.”

In his international debut, Starmer says his message to the world from the U.K. is “We’re back,” after years spent fighting with European neighbors over Britain’s divorce from the European Union and an exhausting political soap opera at home.

He’s put security — encompassing the economy, energy and defense — at the heart of his plans. He wants to rebuild ties with the EU following Brexit, including by signing a defense and security pact with the 27-nation bloc, and to reassure Ukraine that there will be no change in Britain’s support.

He has promised to increase U.K. defense spending to 2.5% of gross domestic product, from the current 2.3%. But he has not said when, in contrast to the previous Conservative government, which pledged to do so by 2030. The Conservatives also presided over cuts to the U.K. armed forces during 14 years in power.

The new prime minister says he has transformed the center-left Labour Party since taking over in 2020 from Jeremy Corbyn, a left-wing critic of NATO who once promised to get rid of Britain’s nuclear-armed submarines.

Starmer “will want to really show his credentials as a credible international statesman. And he’ll also want to fight against those old conservative attack lines, of Labour being bad for security, that they’re bad on foreign policy,” said Victoria Honeyman, associate professor of British politics at the University of Leeds.

Starmer now says Labour is “the party of national security,” with an “unshakeable commitment to NATO” and a promise to keep Britain’s nuclear weapons.

But even as he tries to make a strong first impression on the Biden administration, Starmer and his team, like other NATO allies, are trying to prepare for the potential return of Trump.

Starmer's new government insists that the transatlantic “special relationship” transcends individual prime ministers and presidents. But some of Starmer’s priorities, such as fighting climate change and making the U.K. a clean energy superpower, are not likely shared by Trump.

At the NATO summit, Starmer underscored how important those issues are to his government.

Starmer said his meetings at the summit are “an opportunity to make sure that those relationships are reset, for me to be able to say that our position on the world stage — leading on issues like defense and security, on climate change, and on energy — are so important.”

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Lawless and Kirka reported from London. Seung Min Kim in Washington contributed.

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