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11 Nov 2022

A Changing EU

Relationship with the EU

Gesine Weber analyses the maritime security strategies of the UK and the EU, highlighting that their respective ambitions in this domain could make maritime security an area of fruitful cooperation. 

With the obstruction of the Suez Canal in 2021 and recent Chinese military exercises in the waters around Taiwan, maritime security has increasingly gained attention and importance in national security strategies.

This is even more the case for the UK: not only has maritime security always been integral to the UK’s model of an island trading nation, but Brexit and its new geopolitical position have forced the UK to endorse maritime security even further.

The maritime domain and the UK’s ambition to remain a global naval power was already palpable in the Integrated Review, published in March 2021. But the UK’s national maritime strategy, published in August, fleshed out the UK’s ambitions and approach to maritime security. The product of cooperation between five secretaries of state, the UK’s strategy ranges from border protection and resilience to mitigating threats, promoting its values, and sustainable ocean governance – and shows the priority the UK is giving to maritime security.

One of the most striking elements of the new document is its explicit announcement to ‘merge hard security and economic security’. The UK’s previous strategies, as well as those of its European partners, had often emphasised the intermingling of prosperity and maritime security given the significant dependence of their economies on maritime trade. But the link to hard security had always been more blurred.

Yet, this new level of ambition mirrors the UK’s overall objective to ‘restore Britain’s position as the foremost naval power in Europe’ and the planned acquisitions for the Royal Navy, such as the investment of £100 million in defensive submarine countermeasures. This adds consistency to the UK’s approach to security and defence policy, and gives the UK’s partners a clearer picture of British ambitions and priorities in the naval domain for the years to come.

The importance of maritime security has also grown in Brussels. But the EU’s plans are in urgent need of an update. Its current framework for addressing maritime security – the EU Maritime Security Strategy – dates back to 2014, and was last updated through an Action Plan in 2018.

The EU has quietly emerged as a major provider of maritime security over the last years. Its mission Atalanta off the coast of Somalia, for example, has palpably reduced the number of piracy-related incidents in the area, and the EU oversees the arms embargo against Libya in the Mediterranean.

Yet the EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, published in summer 2021, showed that its ambitions have significantly evolved, shifting to a much more geopolitical approach to the region in just two years. For instance, the EU aims to ‘explore ways to ensure enhanced naval deployments of EU member states in the region’, as well as providing support for EU partner states to ensure maritime security, and supporting them in capacity-building to address cybercrime.

The EU’s approach is framed around an understanding of the geopolitical importance of the region for global order, and the direct links between security and the economic importance of the region. In doing so, the EU is stepping out of its previous role as a crisis-manager and is anticipating future challenges.

Furthermore, the EU has set itself a high level of ambition as a maritime security actor in the Strategic Compass, published in March 2022. This includes the possibility of deploying maritime forces in addition to land forces, enhancing its surveillance tools, and expanding its maritime presence through the Coordinated Maritime Presence in the Indo-Pacific.

If the UK’s new maritime security strategy is ambitious, it also leaves little doubt that the UK will most likely need partners to achieve its goals.

The convergence of UK-EU interests in this domain, particularly when it comes to ensuring free trade and respect of international law, offers a window of opportunity for cooperation – at least in theory. To seize it, the UK should now, whilst the EU’s maritime security strategy is being drafted, aim to actively exchange and engage with the EU at a working level.

While any form of high-level or formalised cooperation is out of sight due to the politics of Brexit, it is in the UK’s interest to follow the EU drafting process. The strategy will likely define the means by which the EU aims to address the strategic challenges of maritime security, such as those identified in its Indo-Pacific strategy, and the partners it will work with on this.

This will directly impact how member states adjust their respective maritime strategies, including capability development and deployments. For the UK, which also works bilaterally with EU member states in the domain of maritime security, the strategy will therefore have direct implications.

But the feasibility of EU-UK cooperation will depend mostly on the UK’s political will. Forums such as the EU’s Coordinated Maritime Presences permit a ‘plug and play’ approach – in other words, enabling partner navies to support the EU’s efforts – allowing the UK to be involved, should it wish to be.

Dependent on geopolitical developments, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, the UK might want to keep this door open, at least for the medium-term. This is even more relevant in cases where British interests diverge from the US approach and therefore complicate potential transatlantic cooperation.

As in many other areas of international security where institutionalised cooperation with the EU is currently not realistic, the UK’s road to successful partnerships with other European states goes through Paris.

France and the UK are Europe’s most capable maritime powers, and share very similar strategic outlooks, particularly in the Indo-Pacific. Most importantly, Macron has always been open to flexible formats of cooperation, particularly when the EU lacks capacity or political will. So, bilateral cooperation between the UK and France could constitute a cornerstone for the formation of a coalition of the willing.

Just over a year ago the AUKUS affair generated a massive crisis of trust between France and the UK, US and Australia. Nonetheless, France continues to showcase its commitment to maritime security in the Indo-Pacific, for instance through announcing the deployment of its aircraft carrier to conduct operations with the US by 2025.

Enhancing cooperation with France could not only emphasise the UK’s commitment as a key player and ally in the region, but also generate goodwill in Paris which, if the waters get rougher in the Indo-Pacific, might facilitate cooperation with other Europeans.

By Gesine Weber, PhD candidate at the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London.

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