The E3 is an informal foreign and security cooperation arrangement between the UK, Germany and France.
Kamila Kwapińska and Richard G. Whitman set out what its purpose is, why it was established, what the UK’s position is on it, and how it might evolve.
What is the E3?
Established in 2003, when the UK was still a member of the EU, the E3 is an informal foreign and security cooperation arrangement between the UK, Germany and France. It is more of a working practice than a formalised institutional arrangement. It could be described as an informal kind of ‘minilateralism’, i.e. a small group of like-minded parties working together, either outside or inside international organisations.
“The original purpose of the E3 was nuclear negotiations with Iran.”
The E3 involves the diplomatic forces of the three states coming together to work on foreign and security policy. Foreign ministers and diplomats of the E3 meet regularly to identify mutual interest on certain issues and consult and coordinate actions. The E3’s work is mostly visible in joint declarations, but it also engages to a limited extent in lobbying and campaigning other states and international organisations.
Why was the E3 established?
The E3 met for the first time after the US attacked Iraq in 2003 to identify a trilateral strategy towards Iraq, and manage nuclear risks coming from Iran. The E3’s main task soon became to negotiate with Iran due to growing security concerns. In 2003, the UN nuclear watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued a statement that Iran had failed to report on certain nuclear activities, and it was suspected to be engaged in nuclear reprocessing and enrichment activities. The E3 was formed as a reaction to evolving nuclear diplomacy and it played a mediating role in collective negotiations between the US, the UN Security Council and Iran.
How has the E3 evolved?
The original purpose of the E3 was nuclear negotiations with Iran. These took place primarily between 2003 and 2015, but to some extent are still ongoing. In 2006, the nuclear dialogue expanded to the E3/the EU format, so as to involve the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy. Negotiations then enlarged further to the E3/the EU+3 to include China, the US, and Russia (members of the UN Security Council).
In 2015, Iran signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (also known as JCPOA or the Iran nuclear deal) with the E3/EU+3. The deal outlines monitoring of Iran’s nuclear facilities and a plan for lifting UN sanctions. The E3 was integral to implementation of the deal. In 2018, President Trump withdrew from the treaty and re-imposed sanctions, but President Biden has since reinstated negotiations in which the E3 continues to play a significant role.
“Since its initial primary focus on Iran, the E3 has expanded the scope of its activity”
Since its initial primary focus on Iran, the E3 has expanded the scope of its activity and employs a common diplomatic agenda on a range of international security issues. For example, the three countries have worked together on issues in the Middle East, such as the conflicts in Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Egypt, and responses to a constitutional crisis in Moldova, struggles in the Sahel,and rights of coastal states over their territorial waters in the South China Sea.
The E3’s activities have been recognised as a positive contribution to common European and American security concerns, and collaboration continued despite the challenges posed by the Trump administration’s decreased engagement in Euro-Atlantic politics. Trump’s presidency was marked by scepticism towards the EU as well as other formal international organisations. However, he was more positive about engagement with the E3 due to its more informal set up.
The E3 continued to meet during and after the Brexit process on a relatively regular basis, but the UK’s departure from the EU impacted bilateral relations between the UK and its partners in the context of UK-EU disputes over UK withdrawal.
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has become the focal point of German, French, and UK foreign policy. The EU developed new approaches to military support to assist Ukraine, and the US coordinates responses to the conflict with the EU and the UK. In this context, the E3’s cooperation on Ukraine has been somewhat superseded by the work of the Quad (the E3 states and the US) and the coordination of provisions for Ukraine by the G7.
This said, UK-EU security relations are not formalised which means the E3 could potentially serve as a useful platform for dialogue beyond the primary focus on nuclear diplomacy with Iran.
What is the UK’s position on the E3?
The UK’s Integrated Review published in 2021 (the most comprehensive review of the UK’s foreign policy strategy since the end Cold War) mentioned the E3 only once briefly in explaining British relations with Germany.
The Integrated Review was refreshed in 2023 (IR23) to respond to a more volatile world and security issues that arose with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The E3 is still mentioned only once, but this time as a grouping suited for its original purpose of managing nuclear diplomacy between Iran and the US. This is understandable insofar as Russia’s war on Ukraine increased the risk of proliferation, and the risk of nuclear weapons being used.
Since 2020, Iran has not been committed to the pledges of JCPOA after the US killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani via a drone attack, and two other attacks on its territory took place (one of them was an assassination of a top Iranian nuclear scientist) that Iran blamed on Israeli army. After these events, Iran passed a law that resulted in uranium enrichment and limited the activities of the IAEA. Since 2022, Iran enriched enough uranium to build a nuclear weapon.
On the basis of IR23, the E3 is not currently considered by the UK as the main framework for cooperation on transatlantic security issues – this role has been mostly taken up by the G7 and the Quad, and to some extent by NATO. Nevertheless, the E3 continues to play a role in nuclear diplomacy with Iran.
What do France and Germany think about the E3?
Brexit created difficulties for the agenda setting of the E3. France and Germany are firm believers in EU integration and avoid actions that could be perceived as detrimental to EU unity. Setting an agenda that could compete with the EU is not in line with their broader outlook on foreign policy making.
Germany released its first ever Security Strategy after the full-scale Russian invasion on Ukraine to present its position in the face of changed security environment. The document expresses its commitment to UN values, the liberal world order, European Unity, and transatlantic peace. It names France and the US as the main partners and does not mention either the E3 or the UK. The main frameworks for cooperation mentioned are the UN, the EU, NATO and the G7.
“Brexit created difficulties for the agenda setting of the E3.”
France reviewed its security strategy in 2022 to also reflect the shift in the geopolitical landscape. It states that the war in Ukraine revealed how reliant European security is on the US and reaffirms the French commitment to NATO and EU integration. It also recognises that in the post-Brexit environment, there is a need for ‘constructive dialogue on the basis of bilateral treaties’ with the UK. The E3 is not mentioned.
Germany and France both emphasise their role in EU structures, and strengthening the EU’s security capacity. It may be therefore that they would rather see formalisation of EU-UK security relations than an additional framework for cooperation in the form of a deepened E3.
What could the future agenda of the E3 look like?
The E3’s main purpose could remain diplomatic engagement with Iran. Iran is one of the key providers of drones to Russia that are being used in the war against Ukraine. Reportedly, Iran engaged in training Hamas and helped to manufacture rockets that were used during the recent attack on Israel from Gaza. The recent Joint Statement from the UK, France, Germany, Italy and the US on the conflict signals that an ‘E3 plus’ might be a relevant arrangement. In this context, combining diplomatic capabilities through the E3 to engage in nuclear diplomacy may have added urgency.
Beyond nuclear diplomacy
At this stage, aside from the work on the Iran nuclear deal, the scope of the E3 is not clearly defined. Nevertheless, it’s possible that the E3 grouping could serve as a framework for cooperation to identify foreign policy gaps and be a catalyst for action in multilateral forums. Furthermore, the E3 could potentially act as a bridge to formalising UK-EU security relations. To avoid overlapping with the EU, the E3 may focus on issues further away from the EU’s borders, as in 2020 when the E3 cooperated on responses to issues in Mali and the Sahel.
Euro-Atlantic security coordination
The security strategies of the three states note the importance of the alliance with the US, which plays a central role in Euro-Atlantic security structures. However, the E3 might be an important forum if there is divergence between Europe and the US. If Trump wins the 2024 US Presidential election and his foreign policy strategy continues to be sceptical of formal international agreements, the role of the E3 in transatlantic security might become more significant again.