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08 Mar 2023

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UK-EU Relations

Simon Sweeney sets out why it would be beneficial for the UK government to use the refresh of the Integrated Review to signal closer defence and security cooperation with its European partners.

The UK government will shortly release the delayed refresh of its March 2021 Integrated Review of Security and Defence (IR). A recent report for the European Council on Foreign Relations argues that there has been a decisive break from Cold War duality towards a more multipolar and unstable environment – with growing rivalry between the US and China, and a more aggressive and assertive Russia.

In this new context, European NATO allies face critical choices about how to defend their interests, values, and democratic way of life. How should the UK update to the Integrated Review go about addressing these important changes in the geopolitical environment?

Responding to geopolitical changes

The original IR was somewhat vague and strategically incoherent. While it identified Russia as the major threat to UK interests, it did not articulate a clear plan for how to address the threat. It also coincided with a post-Brexit deterioration in the UK-France relationship and made only non-specific references to the European Union as a partner, focusing instead on sovereignty and UK interests.

The updated IR needs to give clear signals on how Britain is adapting to the change in circumstances since 2021. First, it must be clear on whether China is merely a competitor, or a strategic threat. If it is a threat, how should the UK respond, especially as British and European attention is now firmly focused on Russia? London’s relations with Beijing have deteriorated in the past two years just as Washington’s have. The western alliance has taken note of Xi Jinping’s equivocal response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine, where a long and expensive war may benefit Beijing.

Second, it should explain to the public that increased defence spending is vital to defend Britain’s security, and its interests.

And, third, it should signal that the UK needs to cooperate fully with its European Union and NATO allies in confronting growing threats. This will not only enhance security, it also makes economic sense.

The demands of the IR refresh will have to be met by Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s budget on 15 March. Reports suggest the government accepts the need to spend more on defence, but these costs can be mitigated by close cooperation with European partners. Improved EU-UK relations following the Windsor Framework agreement offers an opportunity that the refresh should exploit.

The British army has been considerably impacted by the Russia-Ukraine war – much more so than the navy or air force. Supplying £2.3 billion worth of military support to Ukraine has diminished UK stocks. The Ministry of Defence faces procurement problems and previously indicated cuts in army personnel from 82,000 to 72,500 by 2025 have been overtaken by events.

The war has underlined the need for properly equipped conventional land forces, something the original IR downplayed. Defence experts are concerned that a squeeze on resources may mean that maintaining existing commitments is the most that can be hoped for.

Many voters will not welcome increased defence spending compared with competing demands on the public purse, notably from the NHS. Given this, the IR refresh must explain the rationale for strengthening UK, European, and NATO defence. This will require not only more money from the Treasury, but also pragmatic choices to find ways to pool defence resources and undertake joint research and development with Britain’s European NATO allies.

Such bold initiatives would reduce duplication, enhance the interoperability between allied forces and transfer of equipment, including tanks, military vehicles, weapons, and munitions. It would also encourage others to do likewise.

To this end, Britain should seek mutually beneficial participation in more projects under the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). PESCO is an initiative for joint development of military assets among groups of EU member states. It includes non-EU members Norway, Canada, the US, and UK and currently comprises 60 joint projects. The UK has joined the EU’s military mobility (MM) platform designed to facilitate swift movement of forces and equipment across borders by land, air, or sea in the event of a crisis.

Strengthening the NATO alliance

A concern for NATO is that Ukraine is using weapons and ammunition at a rate faster than its western allies can supply them and the war is diminishing NATO resources, according to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

A clear UK commitment in the IR update to enhanced cooperation with its European allies would also strengthen NATO.

As well as PESCO, the improving UK-EU relationship could lead to a British role in the EU’s European Defence Technological and Industrial Base (EDTIB). This is a platform for developing research and manufacturing projects that support hybrid (dual use) applications used for both civilian and military purposes. Like PESCO, the EDTIB can deliver economies of scale and efficiency gains. It also provides high quality employment and other economic benefits.

The war in Ukraine has brought a coordinated response from NATO and the European Union with convergence in defence-related matters, especially through the European Peace Facility. An EU-NATO joint declaration in January reaffirmed NATO as the foundation for Europe’s collective defence but it also highlighted tangible results in countering hybrid and cyber threats, enhanced maritime cooperation, military mobility and defence capabilities, defence industry research, military exercises, counter-terrorism measures, and capacity-building among partners.

Such cooperation is central to building resilience and securing critical infrastructures on land, at sea, and in space. It also helps to combat climate change and address its consequences.

NATO enlargement through Finnish and Swedish accession, the European Union’s progress towards a genuine defence identity, and a deeper NATO-EU partnership demonstrate Putin’s strategic failure in seeking to capitalise on apparent western weakness by invading Ukraine. The UK should use the Integrated Review refresh to capitalise on this failure by developing a closer defence-oriented relationship with the EU.

Deeper UK-EU defence and security commitments would be fully compatible, integral, and beneficial to NATO. NATO members share common interests and should work in harmony to defend them.

By Dr Simon Sweeney, Reader in International Political Economy and Business, University of York. 


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