The December 2020 EU-UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement marked the start of a new phase in EU-UK relations. The agreement does not include foreign and security policy, even though in theory this should be one of the least controversial areas of co-operation, as it is a field in which the EU and the UK are natural partners. During the Brexit negotiations, the EU had proposed a foreign policy agreement similar to those the EU has with Canada and Japan. But the UK thought that the EU’s offer did not give it enough influence and that most European foreign and security policy co-operation happened outside the EU anyway – bilaterally, in small groups like the E3 (France, Germany and the UK), and in NATO.
Since Brexit, the UK has continued to be sceptical of working with the EU on foreign policy, although it concluded an agreement to exchange classified information and it reversed its initial decision to not grant the head of the EU delegation in London full ambassadorial status. London has not applied to join an EU project to remove physical and regulatory barriers to moving troops and equipment across European borders – even though the US and Canada have joined, and Turkey has applied to join. The UK has also sought to present itself as a more agile and effective power than the EU, emphasising how it was able to impose sanctions more quickly than the Union in response to China’s actions in Hong Kong and Belarus’s post-election crackdown on the opposition.
The UK’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, released in March 2021, mirrors London’s unwillingness to work with the EU. The review makes very limited reference to the EU’s role in European security. However, it acknowledges that the UK’s security priorities will remain focused on Europe as a region. The review emphasises London’s contribution to NATO, including through planned increases in defence spending totalling £24 billion over a four-year period, and states that the UK will continue to co-operate closely with its European allies.
With no formal EU-UK agreement on co-operation on foreign and security policy in the Trade and Co-operation Agreement, EU member states and the UK are both adjusting to the post-Brexit state of affairs, whereby both sides recognize that co-operation will have to take place in other formats. These will range from bilateral interactions, to small groups like the E3 and the Quad, ad-hoc informal groups and existing institutions like NATO. Working together would be easier with an EU-UK foreign policy agreement, although the lack of a formal agreement does not in itself preclude substantial direct consultations between the EU and the UK, or even US-EU-UK ‘trilateral’ co-operation. Much will depend on the state of broader relations between the UK and the EU.
It would be in the UK’s and the EU’s interest to strike a foreign policy agreement. It is primarily up to the UK to overcome its deep scepticism to co-operating with the EU. But if the EU offered more frequent and broad-ranging consultations and staff secondments to the EEAS, perhaps as part of a broader overhaul of the Union’s partnership offer to third countries, this could help persuade London to strike an agreement. In the meantime, it would be in the interest of the UK and of EU member states to involve the EEAS, the High Representative or the European Commission in their discussions. For Europeans, this would guard against the risk of undermining the EU’s internal cohesion. But it would also be to the UK’s advantage, because many issues cannot be addressed without bringing in the EU, and because involving the EU institutions will make the UK’s European partners less worried about undermining the Union’s cohesion and more willing to work with it.
Ultimately, working with the UK will continue to be essential for the EU and its member states: the UK’s security and diplomatic capabilities and its commitment to multilateralism, human rights and the rule of law make it an indispensable partner. Europeans want to keep the UK closely involved in European security and keep it aligned with their own positions.
‚Bridging the Channel: How Europe and the UK Can Work Together in Foreign Policy‘ – Policy Brief by Luigi Scazzieri – Centre for European Reform / CER.