Towards a post-Brexit foreign policy partnership between the EU and the UK?

On 14 May, Michel Barnier gave a speech at the EUISS conference in Brussels in which he advocated a strong partnership between the UK and the EU in the areas of foreign and defence policy.

Whilst he made clear that the UK will no longer enjoy the same benefits of being a member, Barnier appeared overall rather optimistic in being able to forge such a close cooperation, especially in the most flexible fields of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP).

The EU’s lead Brexit negotiator also mentioned several areas that the future partnership could incorporate, such as regular consultation on issues of international politics; a UK contribution to EU development programmes or EU missions and operations; and British participation in several research/technology projects of the European Defence Agency (EDA) or in parts of Galileo, the EU’s global satellite navigation system.

This post reflects on the terms, as well as the difficulties, of a possible post-Brexit arrangement in foreign and defence policy. It is based on discussions organised in March by the 28+ project at Loughborough University and the Dahrendorf Forum, a joint initiative by the LSE and the Hertie School of Governance. The workshop, held under the Chatham House rule, invited diplomats, policymakers, scholars and think-tankers to discuss the architecture of European security after Brexit.

It has often been argued that Brexit has never been about foreign policy, and British withdrawal has not thus far been a priority for the Foreign and Defence ministries of European capitals. As both Barnier’s speech and the recently released UK paper on the Framework for the UK-EU Security Partnership reveal, this chapter of the Brexit process has nonetheless recently started to receive more attention.

Here we briefly discuss nine key points which emerged during the meeting and which will need to be taken into account when considering future arrangements in this field.

1) Unlike the future trade relations, EU member states appear more relaxed about the possibility of having a bespoke agreement in foreign policy that would go beyond existing third country structures. This is not just because the CFSP is more intergovernmental, or because the limited involvement of the Court of Justice allows more innovative thinking.

It is also because of a wider recognition that the UK has a wide range of capabilities that are valuable for the Union. However, there are risks to setting a precedent, since third countries (e.g., Norway, Canada) will look at any agreement closely. It is possible that these discussions will produce a general reform of the third country framework in EU foreign policy.

2) There seems to be common understanding between both sides in relation to the value of future consultation. If the parties recognise that consultations cannot clash with the autonomy of the EU’s decision-making process, they also express keen interest in setting up regular formal meetings, which will also generate occasions for informal contacts.

However, as many high-profile foreign policy decisions are made nowadays by/at the European Council, regular meetings among ambassadors can hardly be a substitute for European Council discussions.

3) A regular and comprehensive framework for structured EU-UK cooperation is particularly important in the field of sanctions, given the high stakes associated with sanctions in today’s increasingly insecure international environment, the strong expertise of the UK, and the added value it brings to European discussions on this matter.

4) Flexible solutions could also include participation in development projects, arrangements to allow the UK’s participation in EU strategic reviews and, interestingly, the possibility of exchanging personnel.

Post-Brexit cooperation might occur also within NATO structures and will almost certainly trigger the strengthening of current bilateral relations or indeed the creation of new ones.

5) In terms of defence, the participation of the UK in the projects/programmes of the EDA does not appear a problem, as the agency has signed administrative agreements already with third countries. Frictions may arise regarding the European Defence Fund (EDF) and space cooperation in Galileo.

It is unclear to what extent the UK wishes to stay involved in these projects and whether the EU will allow the UK to contribute; the new role of the Commission in relation to the EDF complicates the participation of third countries which are not paying into Commission budget.

There are also sensitive security-related aspects of Galileo, which might be hard to address. In general, defence is a difficult subject, as Brexit is also connected to the thorny questions of (how much) protection and (what kind of) competition for the European industry vis-à-vis the United States.

6) Another area where there is mutual interest in finding workable arrangement is the CSDP. However, the precise form of this defence cooperation is still elusive. Considerable disagreement currently exists amongst EU member states on the level of acceptable and desirable third country involvement.

While some states fear that EU institutions have become too inflexible to respond to the need to include third countries, others are more cautious and warn that preferential treatment of the UK may create an unhelpful precedent.

7) Moving away from the substance to the form a post-Brexit arrangement might take, two issues arise. One is timing. It is not clear when foreign policy could/should be negotiated. Fears existed that foreign policy might become a bargaining chip in the more general Brexit negotiations, and there is an argument for concluding this aspect of the future relationship sooner than (and independent of) the other pillars.

On the other hand, the two parties might be satisfied with a more agile agreement in foreign policy, while leaving the more ambitious format of a formal treaty to the area of internal security.

8) Transitional provisions are beneficial also in external security. The aspiration is that even in this sector there will be no cliff edge once the UK leaves the Union. Disruption might affect current CSDP missions, sanctions, Galileo projects, etc. For instance, Brexit will have an operational impact on missions such as Operation Atalanta. While the British government may regard it possible to maintain the mission’s headquarters on UK soil, other member states have questioned the feasibility.

9) More generally, EU member states question the UK’s real commitment to European foreign policy post-Brexit – and the extent to which the UK will (continue to) be a European partner. Brexit might lead the UK to spend less in foreign policy. Most importantly, there are uncertainties in the EU concerning what vision the UK has for its role after Brexit, in Europe as well as globally.

On a whole, even in this field, Europeans have stressed the importance of balancing the quality/quantity of the British commitments with the degree of British participation to EU foreign policy.

By Nicola Chelotti, co-investigator at The UK in a Changing Europe and lecturer in Diplomacy and International Governance at Loughborough University London; Lisa ten Brinke, a Dahrendorf Research Associate at the London School of Economics, based at LSE IDEAS; and Julia Himmrich and Benjamin Martill, Dahrendorf Postdoctoral Fellows at the London School of Economics, based at LSE IDEAS.

Disclaimer:
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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