Can the UK's new European diplomatic strategy work?

Opinion piece (Encompass)
06 July 2021

Since it left the EU, the UK has been vigorously trying to emphasise the purported benefits of Brexit. In foreign policy, this has meant trying to present itself as more agile and effective than the EU. For example, London has emphasised how was able to impose sanctions more quickly than the Union in response to China’s actions in Hong Kong and Belarus’ post-election crackdown on the opposition.

At the same time, the UK has been deeply averse to working with the EU in foreign policy. The December 2020 EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement does not include foreign and security policy, even though this should be one of the least controversial areas of co-operation. The EU wanted a foreign policy agreement, but the UK thought the Union’s offer did not give it enough influence and that most European foreign and security policy co-operation happened outside of the EU.

The UK plans to maintain co-operation with its European partners in three ways. First, through intensified bilateral exchanges. The Integrated Review singles out France and Germany as the UK’s most important bilateral relationships. Although Brexit has created a toxic atmosphere between them, London and Paris have deep diplomatic and security links. They have set up the Combined Joint Expeditionary Force – a common force for military operations – and they co-operate closely in the nuclear field. The UK’s diplomatic and defence links with Germany are less developed, although the two recently signed a joint declaration on foreign and security policy co-operation. London also says it wants to deepen ties with partners like Italy, Spain, Poland, Portugal, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden.

Second, the UK wants to make greater use of small informal groups, already an important avenue of co-operation. There are two kinds of small groups. The first concerns military co-operation and is made up of initiatives like the Joint Expeditionary Force, which focuses on promoting military interoperability and includes Denmark, Finland, Estonia, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Sweden and Norway. The second kind of informal small groups are frameworks for diplomatic co-ordination. These can help facilitate dialogue and allow rapid diplomatic action. The most prominent are the Quad (France, Germany, UK, US) and the E3 (France, Germany UK). The E3 have sometimes been joined by other European countries, becoming an ‘E3+’.

Third, the UK wants to co-ordinate more closely with its allies in institutions like NATO. The UK, together with other allies like the US, wants to increase political consultations in NATO, and at the recent summit allies pledged to “make greater use of NATO as a platform for political consultation among allies”. The UK also wants to use the G7 as a forum for co-operation, including with its European partners. London has used its presidency of the G7 to boost the group’s role.

How well will the UK’s strategy work? Member-states want to keep London closely involved in European security and keep it aligned with their own positions. The UK’s security and diplomatic capabilities and its commitment to multilateralism make it an indispensable partner. Most member-states recognise the importance of deepening bilateral relationships with the UK to make up for the lost interactions within the EU. Many member-states are also keen on working with the UK in military-focused small groups like the Joint Expeditionary Force.

However, member-states are more guarded about working in diplomatic small groups. Diplomacy-focused groups like the E3 are contentious. They undermine EU unity and create friction with excluded member-states, who fear that policies directly affecting them will be decided without them having a say. And EU countries don’t want co-operation with the UK to undermine EU foreign policy, which constrains their willingness to use small groups. More broadly, bilateral and small-group co-operation between the UK and EU member-states will be vulnerable to broader tensions in UK-EU relations. There are many potential sources of friction, from fishing to citizens’ rights and the Northern Ireland protocol. Tensions in the UK-EU relationship will undermine trust and inevitably affect bilateral relations.

The UK’s plans to use NATO as a platform for co-operation won’t be straightforward. It is likely that allies will consult more on issues like China, climate change, and AI and tech in NATO. But it won’t be easy for the alliance to be an effective forum for practical co-operation on issues that are mostly outside its traditional remit. Challenges that have a large economic and regulatory dimension will more naturally fall to the EU – at least in the eyes of EU member-states. As to the G7, its members are not fully united over how to address issues like China, which limits the group’s usefulness. And the G-7 is an informal group, with no permanent chair or secretariat to implement decisions – which reduces its ability to act as an avenue of effective co-operation.

In general, it will be difficult for the UK and European countries to co-operate on foreign policy challenges that have an economic dimension without involving the EU. The EU is the forum where member-states agree and implement economic policies. In the security field, the EU is a weaker actor, but the Union is an important player in the field of sanctions, as they can only be imposed by unanimity. Since Brexit, the UK has sometimes consulted with the EU, for example to co-ordinate imposing sanctions on China, but the UK remains deeply averse to working with the EU institutions.

The lack of a EU-UK foreign policy agreement does not in itself preclude direct consultations between the EU and the UK. But both sides would benefit from an agreement. It is primarily up to the UK to overcome its deep scepticism to working with the EU. But if the EU offered more frequent and broad-ranging consultations this could help persuade London to strike an agreement. In the meantime, it would be in the interests of the UK and of EU member-states to involve the EEAS, the High Representative or the European Commission in their small-group discussions. For EU states, this lessens the risk of undermining EU cohesion. But it would also be to the UK’s advantage, because many issues cannot be addressed without bringing in the EU, and because involving EU institutions will make the UK’s European partners less worried about undermining the Union’s cohesion and more willing to work with it.

Luigi Scazzieri is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.