When the Brexit transition period ended in 2021, the UK also eschewed the EU as a partner in foreign, security and defence policy. Instead, under the ambition of ‘Global Britain’, it sought both a global reach beyond the European neighbourhood, and to upgrade its bilateral relations with EU member states.
The approach was based on the analysis that the EU is weak enough in foreign and security policy to be able to bypass it without major negative consequences for the UK, and to focus on deepening bilateral relations within Europe alongside NATO.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, however, is quickly changing the European security architecture. In February 2022 the UK and the EU cooperated more on foreign policy on a practical level than in the whole of 2021. It is time for both London and Brussels to put their Brexit differences behind them and work on a new security partnership.
A network of new bilateral agreements
Before the Russian war on Ukraine, the UK’s foreign policy strategy for Europe was clear: Focus on the bilateral relationships and ignore the EU’s foreign policy as much as possible. In this vein, the UK rejected foreign and security policy when negotiating the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. Instead, it was successful in concluding a series of bilateral security agreements with several EU countries after Brexit.
The first was the Statement of Intent with Estonia in March 2021, followed by joint declarations or partnership agreements with Germany, Latvia, Denmark, Belgium and Greece; later, a dialogue on exports and investments with Italy and agreements with Iceland (2020) and San Marino (2021). Dating back to pre-Brexit days it has bilateral cooperation treaties on security and defence with France (2010) and Poland (2017).
The new bilateral agreements mainly focus on foreign, security and defence policy, with a few regional nuances. The British-German declaration is the most detailed in the area of foreign policy; the UK and Greece plan to work together on initiatives in the Western Balkans and in the Mediterranean; the UK-Danish declaration focuses on military cooperation and working together in the Baltics, which are also mentioned in the declaration with Estonia. All declarations stress the importance of NATO.
The extent to which the EU itself is referred to is also noteworthy. While the Common Foreign and Security Policy was mentioned in several places in the 2010 treaty with France, it is not mentioned in the treaty with Poland of 2017, illustrating the effects of the Brexit referendum. Most of the other new bilateral declarations advocate good cooperation and collaboration between the EU and the UK (Germany, Latvia) and/or support good NATO-EU cooperation (Germany, Latvia, Denmark).
At least on a declaratory level, the UK has therefore accepted to align its upgraded bilateral relationships with the EU. For their side, EU member states have also regularly consulted with the Commission while negotiating the bilateral declaration with London.
Establishing new structured dialogues
EU foreign and security policy is not the most effective, but it does one thing well – organise almost constant coordination and information exchange between the EU member states. This is now lost to the UK.
To make up for it, the UK’s bilaterals all include some form of structured dialogues: for example, an annual British-German Strategic Dialogue is to take place, as well as regular consultations between the foreign ministries.
A British-Belgian strategic working group consisting of high-ranking officials is to meet at least once a year. The treaties with Poland and France provide for similar mechanisms: with Poland there is a dialogue on defence and joint meetings of foreign and defence ministers, and there’s a yearly summit between the French President and the UK Prime Minister.
Overall, these regular dialogues may provide for closer exchanges with various member states, but they fall far short of the regular exchanges between EU members. Since Russia invaded Ukraine there have been countless EU meetings at all levels without the UK present, which have contributed to an EU reaction that was more unified than expected.
At the same time, the UK has organised visits: Johnson to Poland; the Visegrád-Four Prime Ministers to London. Together with its early decisive action in delivering weapons to Ukraine and supporting sanctions, this has secured the UK a place in the European security architecture, even if it is not at the table at some of the more important EU meetings.
A thawing of EU-UK relations on Ukraine
In addition, there has also been a thawing of EU-UK foreign policy relations under the shadow of first the Russian military build-up around Ukraine and then its invasion. They have taken place in multilateral formats where both the EU and the UK were present, in the G7, at NATO with EU representatives taking part in the meetings, and through ad hoc coordination between Western allies coordinated by the US.
In addition, there has also been some cautious direct coordination. Ahead of the war, Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen held a coordination call, as did UK foreign minister Liz Truss and EU High Representative Borell. For the first time since Brexit, Truss participated along with colleagues from the US, Canada and Ukraine in an EU Foreign Affairs Council.
Time for a more flexible EU-UK relationship in foreign policy
Despite this thawing, the EU-UK foreign policy relationship remains problematic. There are no structures for coordinated sanctions or regular consultations. The end result of this development is a Europe that is more fragmented in foreign and security policy.
For the EU, this is not a desirable direction. Until now, the EU member states have collectively decided to treat the UK like Norway, which participates in EU military operations and the European Defence Agency, but without a political say.
This is not an attractive option for London, but neither is it in the EU’s interest that member states engage bilaterally with London in foreign and security policy – and in the worst case even be played off against each other. The EU should therefore be open to a sui generis model of UK involvement in foreign and security policy.
The UK, on the other hand, has reiterated its relevance for the European security architecture, but the bilateral agreements are still no substitute for cooperation with the EU. While a war is raging in Europe with potential for further escalation, furthering divisions within the Western community can hardly be in London’s interest.
Putting Brexit behind them, both the UK and the EU should be open to a more flexible cooperation in foreign, security and defence policy – building upon, rather than conflicting with the relationship the UK wants to have with the EU’s member states.
By Nicolai von Ondarza, head of the EU/Europe Research Division at SWP, and Julina Mintel, student assistant in the EU/Europe research division at SWP.