The post-Brexit foreign, security and defence policy relationship between the EU and the UK has attracted far less attention than the future arrangements for trade and terms of access to the single market. This is, however, one of the most significant areas in which agreement needs to be reached before the UK leaves the EU on 31 March 2019.
The ‘transition’ (or ‘adjustment period’ as the UK Government prefers to define it), which the UK and EU have now mutually conceded is necessary, does not easily translate into a set of obvious set of transitional arrangements in the area of foreign, security and defence policy.
The need for special attention in the area of foreign and security policy has recently been recognised by the EU27 when adopting their collective negotiating position for phase 2 of the Article 50 negotiations. In a statement tucked away in an annex to their formal decision to agree on mandate for phase 2, they acknowledged that this is an issue that requires consideration.
In the vapid prose of the annex, “the EU is ready to establish partnerships with the UK in the areas of security, defence and foreign policy as well as the fight against terrorism and international crime.
Specific arrangements with the UK in these areas could also be considered during the transition period, taking into account the framework for the future relationship.”
Without agreement on the specific arrangements that will hold during the transition period the UK will depart the EU decision-making structures for foreign, security and defence policy next March.
The UK will be outside the other member states’ collective discussions on major foreign policy issues such as the managing the refugee crisis and the relationship with Russia (including the renewal/withdrawal of sanctions for the occupation of Crimea and conflict in Eastern Ukraine) – where the UK has significant interests.
But it will also be bound by decisions taken by the EU27: the EU’s conception of transition is for the UK to be outside EU decision-making bodies but bound by their collective positions.
The UK will also cease to be directly involved in the decisions on the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), but it will continue to contribute the financing, staff and other assets to missions which are underway.
This includes the personnel and military capabilities for EU conflict-management missions in Africa, the Balkans and the Middle East. Additionally, it is most likely that the UK’s current contribution of the operational headquarters for the EU’s anti-piracy Operation Atalanta (EU NAVFOR Somalia), operating off the coast of Somalia, will be relinquished and relocated to another member state.
Discussions among the EU27 on the future of collaboration on foreign, security and defence policy are taking place on the premise that the UK’s future relationship with the EU will be ‘cooperation’ on a third country basis.
There does not appear to be a high degree of ambition for the EU-UK foreign and security policy relationship during the transition period.
In contrast, the UK Government’s thoughts on future cooperation in this area have been rather more ambitious. In her Florence speech on 22 September 2017 Theresa May proposed a Security Treaty that would see future EU-UK collaboration “broad, deep and integrated.”
The tone of the September 2017 UK Government Partnership Paper on the same theme was that the degree of integration sought was so extensive that the UK would be a ‘member’ of the EU in this area in all but name.
Since the Brexit vote the EU has stepped up its work, with a new implementation plan on security and defence. The moves include the creation of a common European Defence Fund (EDF) that allows for co-financing from the EU budget for the member states’ joint development and acquisition of defence equipment and technology.
There is also an intention to share defence spending plans through the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD), and to deepen defence cooperation through the intergovernmental agreement between 25 member states on permanent structured cooperation (PESCO) with the purpose of creating shared capabilities.
Furthermore, and in contradiction to the UK’s longstanding opposition, they have agreed to establish a new command centre for EU military training and advisory missions (MPCC).
Consequently, for the UK, the decision on future security and defence collaboration is not just about continuing existing collaboration, but also the degree to which it wishes to be involved in projects which it will no longer have a role in defining.
There are very difficult choices ahead for the UK in the degree to which it wishes to contribute to the EU’s security agenda. These are not dissimilar to discussions around whether or not the UK should remain in the customs union – a move which, in turn, involves sacrificing an autonomous UK foreign trade policy.
Retaining a high degree of convergence with EU foreign, security and defence will greatly limit the scope of the new ‘Global Britain’ foreign policy that has been espoused by UK Government ministers.
During transition the UK looks set to be co-opted into the substance of the EU’s security and defence policy while also simultaneously being out of its decision-making structures.