Facing the world, together and apart


Picture of Nathalie Tocci
Nathalie Tocci

Director at the International Affairs Institute (IAI)

Nathalie Tocci is Deputy Director of Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI)

In the hours after the dramatic news of the UK’s vote to leave the EU, Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative, had a decision to make. She was due, days later, to publish the Union’s new “Global Strategy’” for foreign and security policy – the first since Javier Solana published the initial European Security Strategy thirteen years ago.

Her decision to go ahead was not an obvious move. Some may have thought it was yet another instance of the EU’s detachment from political reality. Indeed, in the months leading up to the UK’s referendum, many of us in the High Representative’s office thought that we would delay in the event of a Leave vote. As the devastating news of Brexit hit home, I assumed it would all be called off – and this was Mogherini’s first inclination. Yet as the hours went by, it became clear that the months ahead would see the EU all-consumed by Brexit, and the magnitude of the earthquake risked being so great that the Global Strategy, known as the EUGS, would probably have been dropped if it were delayed.

Mogherini felt that scrapping the EUGS would have done a grave injustice to the Union, given the depth and breadth of its internal crisis. The EUGS has been the outcome of almost two years of EU-wide strategic reflection that has seen the active involvement of all member states and EU institutions, along with the broader foreign policy community. The process involved input from academics and students, human rights NGOs, defence industryassociations, think tanks, trade unions, business associations and religious organisations. As Mogherini put it to me on 24 June, ‘the work is done’. And after all, isn’t it an act of political responsibility, precisely at such times of crisis, to show the world that Europe can still be united?

Scrapping the EUGS would have done a grave injustice to the Union, given the depth and breadth of its internal crisis

The content of the EUGS was never going to change because of the UK’s decision to leave the EU. The first purpose of the strategy was to engage in a broad strategic reflection, an extensive and in-depth process that achieved unity among all players. What we must do in the Middle East and Africa, in Latin America, or at the United Nations; what we should aim to achieve on defence, trade, development, climate or migration; this has not fundamentally changed. The second purpose of the EUGS was to outline our common action. And this is the most important reason why the
EUGS could not be postponed. It had to be published to start the engine on implementation, with or without the UK.

There is no doubt that Brexit has altered our capacity to deliver. By losing the UK, the EU has lost one of its largest member states, perhaps the one with the most global outlook, be it in terms of trade, development, defence or diplomacy. The UK’s diplomatic network, defence capabilities, development budget and outward-looking trade agenda have been critical assets of Europe’s projection abroad. But likewise, without the EU, the UK has lost the ability to magnify its global voice and priorities. Successes such as the Paris climate agreement, the Iranian nuclear deal, reconciliation between Serbia and Kosovo, or the work towards a national unity government in Libya are all examples that have seen the EU, and the UK within it, occupy centre stage. Perhaps even more importantly, both the EU and the UK have already suffered a major blow to their respective soft power capabilities. The EU, which for decades has prided itself on its power of attraction, has repelled one of its largest member states. The UK, which has long prided itself on its openness, multiculturalism and tolerance, is now seen as a country stuck in a time warp, lured by the illusion of retrenchment and the return to a grandiose past that cannot be rediscovered. The extent to which these perceptions reflect reality is of secondary importance. In today’s world, perception is as important – if not more so – than reality.

The time has come to discover the extent to which the UK was the real block to deeper security and defence integration, or whether other member states hid behind the British

Others may argue that without the UK, the EU will finally be able to press the accelerator on integration in a number of key areas, most significantly security and defence. There are a number of issues on which the UK has acted as a brake in recent years. These include the establishment of a permanent headquarters and common financing for Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions and operations, permanent structured cooperation between groups of member states on security and defence, and the institutionalisation of deeper defence cooperation. Whereas the UK has cooperated on defence with other member states, notably France, it has resisted doing so within an EU framework. More broadly, it has opposed moves that would question national sovereignty on defence matters or rival NATO’s role in collective defence. The time has come to discover the extent to which the UK was the real block to deeper security and defence integration, or whether other member states hid behind the British. The onus is on the remaining 27 member states to demonstrate how far they are now willing to go.

Both the EU and the UK will, in any case, have an interest in developing a structured relationship on the Common Foreign and Security Policy and the CSDP, among other areas. Back in the early 2000s there was a lively debate regarding the participation of non-EU NATO members, such as Norway and Turkey, in the CSDP. The debates revolved not only around their participation in CSDP missions and operations, but their involvement in decision-shaping (not decision-making). After the 2004 enlargement, those ideas and plans were shelved. But there is no reason why some
of them could not be dusted off today. This would benefit both the EU and the UK, and could offer a model for other non-EU European partners too. In other words, the blow to the EU and the UK’s standing in the world can be tempered over time – if Brexit is well managed.

The interests and goals that the EUGS set out remain vital after Brexit. The EU has more, not less, of a duty to keep its citizens secure, free and prosperous, and to do so by being united and engaging responsibly in the world. If the EU and the UK succeed in developing a structured relationship on foreign and security policy, both will gain, and the prospects for successful implementation of the EUGS will grow. In many ways, now is when the real work starts.

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