The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

14 Jun 2021

Relationship with the EU

Foreign, security and defence policy is the odd one out in the post-Brexit EU-UK relationship: the December 2020 Trade and Cooperation Agreement covered almost all areas except how the EU and UK would cooperate in that specific realm in the future.

There is currently no framework for the EU and the UK to work together on Russia, China or Myanmar, or for the UK to participate in EU operations or defence industry programmes.

This is no accident. The UK Government deliberately decided in 2020 that it was no longer interested in formal arrangements in the area of security and defence policy; never mind that this very decision contradicted the Political Declaration on the post-Brexit EU-UK relationship signed by Boris Johnson in January 2020.

This adds to the frictions between the UK and the EU. For Berlin, London certainly remains an important partner with whom other Europeans share interests, values, and challenges, from maintaining regional stability to managing China.

But the UK Government’s choice to categorically reject foreign and security policy cooperation with the EU is complicating coordination immensely.

The first few months of the post-Brexit EU-UK relationship were poisoned by distrust, from spats over vaccines, to tensions over Northern Ireland, to perceived provocations such as the UK’s (luckily only temporary) refusal to recognise the EU ambassador to London.

Consequently, countries such as Germany and France feel like London wants them to choose between coordination in the EU or bilateral/multilateral cooperation with the UK. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that they are likely to choose the EU.

Short term pragmatic cooperation

EU member states understand that an institutionalised EU-UK cooperation is currently unlikely, but they still want to coordinate with the UK. The way forward seems to be a mix of ‘adhocism’, informal contacts and cooperation in smaller formats. Issue-based coordination in case of common interests, such as on sanctions, is likely to dominate.

One way is the currently much-discussed E3 format of France, the UK, and Germany. Formed in 2003 and based on personal networks, it allows the three countries to coordinate on foreign policy despite Brexit.

For London, it is a comfortable way to be linked to EU decisions and to coordinate positions and joint action, without having to enter an institutional agreement with the EU.

Another promising format is a Quad composed of Germany, France, the UK, plus the US. Since US Secretary of State Blinken took office this year, the four foreign ministers have met several times, for example on Iran, Myanmar, and China.

However, both the E3 and the Quad face the same problem: EU states which aren’t involved, mainly Italy, Spain and Poland, criticise these formats for being exclusive and non-transparent.

They claim they undermine European unity, fail to take into account the interests of other states, and dictate decisions.

On certain issues, these countries rightly claim they can bring as much or more to the table than the E3, for example on the Southern and Eastern neighbourhood.

On the other hand, Paris, Berlin and the EU fear that London wants to showcase a successful E3 or Quad as a failure of EU foreign policy, thereby trying to demonstrate why cooperation with the EU is not worth it.

The most promising approach to make these formats a success would be to go for an issue-specific extension. For example, when debating the Eastern neighbourhood, Poland could participate in the E3 or Quad. The EU’s Foreign Policy High Representative should also attend, as is custom when the E3 deal with Iran.

At the global level, the G7 is another flexible coordination format. London is using it already during its current G7 presidency, as the meeting on 4-5 May showed, covering a wide range of topics from Myanmar to vaccines.

And images count: we can take the official picture showing Dominic Raab standing happily between his EU and US counterparts as a promise for a more cooperative future?

The current US approach to US-EU relations also offers inspiration.

After four difficult years under Trump, the two are cheerfully re-engaging. Just recently, the US has joined the EU’s military mobility package, Biden himself attended the European Council, and Blinken has twice joined EU foreign minister meetings.

No one would claim that any of this ad hoc cooperation impedes on US sovereignty. And neither would it if the UK was to participate as a guest when the EU’s foreign ministers debate Russia or the Indo-Pacific.

Long-term: institutionalised cooperation ahead?

For Germany, the long-term goal of such ad hoc cooperation is to normalise and institutionalise EU-UK relations.

This would require several conditions to change first: both the EU and the UK would need to show greater political willingness to engage, and the overall EU-UK relationship needs to overcome the wounds and mistrust of the Brexit process.

It would certainly help if the EU’s foreign policy would become more successful and turn the Union into an attractive partner for the UK. Not desirable but likely is a change in the international security situation that would require increased cooperation.

Until then, the EU and its members are likely to focus on smaller formats and NATO. Make no mistake: they will prioritise the EU over bilateral relations with the UK. Any UK activities perceived as wanting to use smaller formats against the EU or play EU states off each other will go down badly.

On the flipside, the more the UK and the EU turn the page towards a real partnership in foreign and security affairs, the more comfortable EU states will be in also upgrading their bilateral ties with London.

This is particularly true for Germany, which has prioritised the integrity of the EU27 in the Brexit negotiations, but remains interested in a strong partnership with the UK in NATO, the G7, the UN and bilaterally, as long as this relationship is not perceived as being used to divide the EU.

By Claudia Major, head of the International Security Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin (SWP), and Nicolai von Ondarza, head of EU/Europe Research Division at SWP.  

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