The UK will still need foreign policy, defence ties with the EU


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Paul Taylor
Paul Taylor

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe

The UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement, clinched in December in the final days before the expiry of the transition period after the United Kingdom left the European Union, left a gaping hole concerning cooperation on foreign policy and defence.

That hole will need to be filled, given the depth of common interests and challenges, but it may not be for some time, since the British government is now obsessed with asserting its absolute sovereignty and independence.

While both sides had initially aimed for an ambitious, far-reaching partnership in diplomacy, security and external relations after the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016, Prime Minister Boris Johnson deliberately excluded those topics, with the exception of police and judicial collaboration vital for public safety, from the negotiations.

In the view of the hardline Brexiteers who took over the Conservative government in 2019, ‘global Britain’ doesn’t need any formal framework for political cooperation with the EU. Foreign policy and military affairs should be transacted first and foremost with the United States, then bilaterally or trilaterally with the big European powers, through NATO or ad hoc. Anything but deal with Europe collectively.

That ideologically driven taboo is likely to be mugged by reality in the coming months.

Brussels is the crucial partner – not Paris or Berlin

The current thinking in London is that the UK can achieve its objectives by working closely with France and Germany, expected to ‘deliver’ the rest of the EU, and by giving primacy to NATO in the belief that the US will side with Britain, which had made a substantial increase in its defence budget, over its former EU partners, who spend less on their armed forces.

The UK has also stepped up military ties with France, its fellow European nuclear power and UN Security Council member. It has sent helicopters and peacekeepers to Mali and joined the French-led European Intervention Initiative – an informal grouping of 14 nations meant to develop a common strategic culture and ability to act together in external crisis interventions.

At the same time, Britain has embarked on a pivot to Asia – with which it has far less geopolitical or economic interdependence than with Europe – in the quest for new friends and business. It is expanding its military footprint to make itself a useful junior partner to the US in the Indo-Pacific. There is excited talk in Whitehall of the UK joining the Asian Quad – an informal strategic dialogue forum of the US, Japan, India and Australia – although it has not been invited so far.

Yet many of the international issues facing the UK – from responding to a coup in Myanmar to extending sanctions on Russia, responding to China’s assertive behaviour to regulating global tech platforms – require common action with the EU as a collective player. To deliver results at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow this November, Brussels is the crucial partner – not Paris or Berlin. In the World Trade Organization, the EU negotiates as one entity.

Foreign policy and defence remain in limbo

In a 2018 report published by Friends of Europe, I recommended an institutional relationship between the UK and the EU that would respect the former’s sovereignty and the latter’s autonomy of decision-making. Some of the proposals on internal security, crime fighting and exchanging confidential information have become reality, but foreign policy and defence remain in limbo.

“To maximise foreign policy cooperation between the UK and the EU27, the two should create a permanent consultation forum on international affairs, the UN agenda and development policy”, the report said. “This forum, which would not have decision-making powers, could meet monthly at ambassador level in Brussels and, where appropriate, at UN headquarters.”

Among other benefits, it would give London an opportunity, by sharing intelligence on individuals and entities, to influence EU decisions on sanctions. It would also be quicker and more efficient than having to lobby 27 EU states individually. And it would avoid resentment in Rome, Madrid and Warsaw, and among smaller traditional UK allies like the Dutch, Danes and Swedes, against a perceived triumvirate directoire of European powers.

The British foreign secretary could be invited to meet EU foreign ministers occasionally and an informal annual EU-UK leaders’ meeting could permit an unscripted debate of strategic priorities.

The view from London is that the EU has lots of institutions and processes producing little output

As for defence, the EU will need to achieve more practical results with its Common Security and Defence Policy, and create more joint capabilities through Permanent Structured Cooperation, to convince the sceptical British that they are missing out on something important. For now, the view from London is that the EU has lots of institutions and processes producing little output, and that any important European military operation is likely to be planned and run outside EU structures.

Nevertheless, the UK and European aerospace and defence industries remain intertwined and require a political impulse to sustain cooperation. Otherwise, British manufacturers may end up being absorbed into the US military-industrial complex as sub-contractors. A first step would be for the UK to conclude an administrative arrangement with the European Defence Agency.

My 2018 report suggested that NATO’s ‘Enhanced Opportunities Partnership’, as it applies to Sweden and Finland, could be a model worth emulating for EU-UK strategic cooperation. The two Nordic EU member states are not NATO members and do not benefit from its Article V mutual defence guarantee. But they are often invited to North Atlantic Council meetings, participate in discussions of new threats and challenges and take part in NATO exercises, including on Article V scenarios. When Sweden and Finland join NATO operations, they are fully integrated into the committees that manage the mission and get the same classified information.

The EU and the UK would both benefit from similar arrangements, but for now, dogmatism in London and legalism in Brussels make that, sadly, a remote prospect.

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