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01 Feb 2023

Richard Whitman analyses the Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy’s recent speech setting out Labour’s foreign policy priorities, looking in particular at the proposal of a UK-EU security pact. 

Last week, David Lammy, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, set out his party’s foreign policy stall.

The overall message was that a future Labour government would see ‘Britain Reconnected’, addressing what Lammy identified as the current “lack of purpose in Britain’s foreign policy [stemming] from both bad choices and institutional dysfunction.”

Inevitably, significant attention was paid to the parts of the speech that set out Labour’s position on the UK’s relationship with the EU. The formulation adopted in the speech was that Labour would keep the UK outside the EU but become “a leader in Europe once again”. And this leadership was defined as acting as a “reliable partner, a dependable ally and a good neighbour.”

Lammy’s speech recapitulated Labour’s position that it would not seek to rejoin the EU’s single market or its customs union but set out a modest shopping list of ambitions to reduce friction and ease the burdens on EU-UK trade. The most eye-catching proposal was to seek a new ‘EU-UK security pact’. The notion of a pact would appear to imply more than just reaching mutual understanding on issues with the EU but seeking a structured formal agreement and, in Lammy’s words, the “specific areas of cooperation are a matter for negotiation.”

The idea of a formal agreement with the EU on foreign security and defence policy can be viewed as an unfinished part of the EU-UK negotiations that resulted in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). In the Political Declaration (PD) that accompanied the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement there was a commitment to undertake negotiations on formal cooperation arrangements for foreign, security and defence policy. The then Johnson-led government decided not to proceed with these negotiations when it came to the discussions that resulted in the TCA – to the surprise of the EU.

Foreign, security and defence cooperation agreements are a standard accompaniment to the EU’s deepest trade agreements with third countries. As illustrative, they are components of the deals signed with Japan and Canada.  The accompanying agreements to their trade deals – Strategic Partnership Agreements – set out ambitions for broader political and sectorial cooperation beyond trade and are, essentially, the guiding framework for relationships between the signatories, who are viewed as like-minded in their approaches to shared global challenges.

In its negotiations with the EU in Spring 2018 the UK government led by Theresa May proposed an ‘UK-EU Security Partnership’, alongside an economic partnership with the EU, that would have surpassed in scale and scope any of the existing agreements in place between the EU and third countries. It would have encompassed ‘internal security’ cooperation on law enforcement and criminal justice and ‘external security’ cooperation on foreign, security and defence and wider security issues.

It was a proposal that was not embraced by the EU and become a casualty of the vicissitudes of May’s management of the Brexit process.

Lammy’s speech does not contain as great an ambition as the May government’s security partnership proposal. There is, for example, no reference to seeking an agreement with the EU on ‘internal security’ issues – but this is an area that would fall under the purview of the Shadow Home Secretary. Pursuing further cooperation with the EU on justice and policing issues is possible within the current provisions in the TCA. But were the scale and scope of cooperation greatly expanded, this would raise more complicated political issues and formidable legal obstacles with the UK as a non-member state outside the EU’s legal order.

Deepening EU-UK foreign, security and defence cooperation is, on the other hand, a less formidable undertaking. Russia’s war on Ukraine has already created a new climate for EU-UK foreign and security policy cooperation. A mixture of pragmatism and shared interests has driven cooperation which has operated in the absence of a formal agreement. The requirements to coordinate the definition and implementation of the sanctions regime against Russia and to ensure the effectiveness of military support to Ukraine’s government belie the difficulties of the broader EU-UK relationship.

EU-UK pragmatism has prevailed in the absence of a formally structured framework for foreign and security policy cooperation. This, of course, has been facilitated by the response to Russia’s war on Ukraine being conducted through forums – for example, the G7 (for sanctions), NATO (for defence coordination), and in concert with the United States (proving leadership and military resources) – where the UK and EU leaderships interact in a manner distinct from the arrangements for managing their more troubled bilateral relationship.

In the light of the cooperation already underway, Lammy’s wish list for future foreign policy cooperation with the EU “through regular EU/UK summits and structured dialogue” seems rather modest – and is, essentially, a restatement of what was envisaged under the PD. It is akin to the consultation arrangements already in place between the EU and Norway, for example. In this messaging Lammy was signalling that a future Labour government would no longer want to occupy a different status to the EU’s other neighbouring non-member states by not having this form of cooperation in place.

Lammy’s speech made a passing reference to EU-UK defence cooperation. He referenced prospective cooperation on hybrid threats and defence industry cooperation, echoing statements made by Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey. The defence landscape that the next UK government will inherit, and the role that the EU will play in Europe’s defence arrangements is more difficult to predict.

Russia has upset the European security order and it is uncertain what form the EU’s ambitions to create its own defence union will take. The central role of the US in responding to the Russian invasion and the scale and scope of its military support for Ukraine has recredentialed America’s role as Europe’s security guarantor.

Further, the debate over the EU’s role in Europe’s security and defence is in a state of flux as EU member states Finland and Sweden seek NATO accession and the EU’s Baltic and eastern member states drive a robust response to Russia’s invasion.

The defence aspects of Lammy’s speech suggested a high degree of continuity with that of the current Conservative government in terms of its emphasis on support for Ukraine, the centrality of the UK’s relationship with the United States and NATO, and approving reference to the AUKUS security agreement with Australia and the US.

Whilst the party will have to fill in the details ahead of the next election, Lammy signalled that Labour has adopted an approach of seeking a normalisation in EU-UK foreign and security policy relations.

By Professor Richard G. Whitman, Senior Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe.


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