The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

27 Jan 2021

Relationship with the EU

We ‘are friends and allies, our citizens share the deepest of links. Together we have built an unprecedented … partnership rooted in common history and shared values … As the world continues to change … our renewed partnership will be of particular importance.’

This was the message addressed by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to US President-elect Joe Biden. It could equally have been written to Boris Johnson.

Everything in it applies to the UK-EU relationship. But don’t hold your breath.

As the climate crisis worsens, as authoritarian regimes become yet more assertive, as the United States prepares to engage anew with partners and allies around the world, and as the liberal international order comes under still greater strain, we’ve been treated to ridiculous spats over ambassadorial status and accusations of ‘vaccine protectionism’.

Before that, of course, the two sides were threatening a stand-off over … fish.

Revealingly, foreign and security policy cooperation were not even on the agenda of those negotiations.

Boris Johnson resiled on the commitment he made in the Political Declaration a little over a year ago to ‘establish a broad, comprehensive and balanced security partnership.’

Not that there was much in the way of progress under his predecessor. The EU, while acknowledging the unique nature of the security relationship with the UK, insisted that post-Brexit the UK would be a ‘third country like any other.’

And so, we had a negotiation dominated by debates on customs procedures, rules of origin, regulatory standards and the like.

Meanwhile, the need for the UK and its European partners to collaborate in addressing the shared challenges posed by an increasingly unstable world has effectively been ignored.

This omission is unconscionable, not least because neither side alone possesses the tools and the heft to weigh decisively on world politics.

As a medium-sized power in a world dominated by continent-sized players, the UK’s only option is to work with others.

And viewed through the lens of our interests and our values, it is clear who those ‘others’ should be.

Note how London consistently came down on the side of European partners against the Trump administration, whether that be on NATO, the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate agreement or the US decision to unilaterally withdraw US troops from Syria.

As for the EU, losing the military, diplomatic and intelligence assets of the UK represents a significant blow to its global ambitions. Whilst the EU talks a good game when it comes to security, its actions imply otherwise.

EU Battlegroups, on standby for over a decade, have never been deployed. The defence spending of the 14 member states that first signed up to the EU’s defence policy was lower as a share of their economies in 2018 than in 2000.

More recent initiatives such as the European Defence Fund are potentially interesting, though far from being game changers.

So Britain struggles to punch above, while the EU punches below, its weight.

Moreover, the tried and tested method of dealing with these shortcomings — reliance on the United States to do the heavy lifting — will no longer cut it.

President Biden will, like his predecessor (albeit more diplomatically), encourage greater burden sharing, not least as his focus will be largely domestic.

And the President himself will, as respected foreign affairs observer Tom Wright has put it, be anxious to work with both the UK and the EU. The new administration can hardly be encouraged by the current squabbles.

Happily, given the absence of security matters from the Brexit talks, the very ineffectiveness of EU foreign and defence policies means that collaboration in these spheres does not need to be institutionalised to be effective.

Indeed, the unanimity requirement means that it might prove more effective to work with like-minded member states rather than the Union as a whole.

And there have been encouraging signs.

The defence ministers of the E3 grouping of France, the UK and German met for the first time in August 2020 at the invitation of German Defence Minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.

Their foreign ministers met in Chevening, Kent on 10 September and agreed to resist US calls for a return to full sanctions on Iran.

The obvious question is the degree to which this kind of arrangement can be formalised. The French and German governments have repeatedly floated the idea of a ‘European Security Council’.

A grouping including the E3 and perhaps one or two others could certainly provide more heft than the UK can manage alone and more decisiveness than the EU seems capable of.

Ideally, it would be institutionalised to the point of at least allowing for regular exchanges of view between Political Directors from the respective Foreign Ministries.

There will be pushback on both sides against this idea. There are those in the UK Government who believe that, now Brexit is done, the EU can simply be ignored. They are wrong.

Equally, on the EU side, there will be complaints from states who feel left out, from smaller EU member states who might feel overridden, and from those who see security cooperation as a means to advance European integration rather than as a priority in its own right.

However, the need for effective cooperation should trump such concerns.

It is time for Boris Johnson to realise that European states are his most natural allies. And for the member states to accept that security is simply too important to be subordinated to the ‘integration project’.

By Anand Menon, Director of UK in a Changing Europe and Professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs, King’s College London.

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