Don't be a stranger! EU-UK foreign policy co-operation after Brexit

Opinion piece (E!Sharp)
13 April 2018

The world feels a dangerous place at present. Relations between the West and Russia are at their most confrontational since the Cold War. Britain and its allies have kicked out scores of Russian diplomats after blaming it for an assassination attempt in the UK in March using a nerve agent. Meanwhile the long-running bloody conflict in Syria has taken another perilous turn as the Assad regime, backed by Russia and Iran, is accused of using chemical weapons against its own people again. And as if that wasn’t enough, US President Donald Trump has launched a trade war with China.

These developments all affect the UK, some more directly than others. And they underline that after Brexit Britain will still need reliable foreign policy partners, and mechanisms to consult them in a crisis.

Until now, the EU has provided the UK with both partners and a forum to talk to them. The EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) is largely inter-governmental, and more flexible in its relations with non-members than other areas of EU policy, which will help the UK. The Union has various arrangements for foreign policy co-operation with like-minded countries, including Canada, Norway and the US, any of which could provide models for the EU-UK partnership.

Norway has very few formal structures for foreign policy co-operation; but its role in various international peace processes enables it to influence EU policy in the areas that matter to Oslo. Canada has negotiated a binding treaty, the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA), covering foreign policy among other things. This obliges the EU and Canada to hold regular foreign policy consultations on key issues. The US has arrangements which are similar in substance to those for Canada, but only politically binding in form.

Much of EU foreign policy is declaratory: statements supporting or condemning international developments pour out of Brussels and EU delegations around the world. The UK might choose to align itself with these, though it would resent no longer having a say in drafting them.

The UK has played an outsized role in practical aspects of EU foreign policy, including sanctions. The UK provides much of the intelligence for current sanctions listings. It would take some time for the EU and major member-states such as Germany and France to fill the gap that will be left by Brexit.

During the post-Brexit transition period from March 2019 to the end of 2020, the UK will still be bound by CFSP decisions, including on sanctions. The Union has offered Britain a consultation mechanism on CFSP, with the chance to opt out of measures that it considers to be against its vital national interests. All parties have an interest in ensuring that UK and EU sanctions are co-ordinated and effective. The EU’s experience of working with the US on the international response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine showed that it is possible for the EU and a third country to have broadly compatible sanctions regimes. It also showed that keeping sanctions lists harmonised is hard work.

If the UK wants to ensure that its voice continues to be heard in foreign policy discussions, it should negotiate a treaty with the EU on the Canadian model, providing for frequent and regular consultations at the ministerial and expert levels. The Commission seems to be open to the idea of a binding agreement. But a treaty will not be a panacea.

Regardless of their different relationships with the EU, all the Union’s Western partners agree that formal arrangements are necessary to ensure that decisions are recorded and implemented; but they are not sufficient to establish trust or manage day-to-day relations. For that, the UK will have to maintain a strong presence in Brussels, and rebuild its network of political officers in embassies in EU capitals (which has been gutted in the last decade to expand diplomatic posts in emerging markets). And British ministers will have to be willing to spend time cultivating their European colleagues, whom they will no longer see regularly in Brussels. The UK will still be a NATO member after Brexit and be able to discuss the foreign policy issues that are on the alliance’s agenda – but NATO does not have the global coverage that the EU does, for example in Africa and the Middle East.

The UK will also need to face up to a familiar dilemma, between autonomy and influence. In theory the UK could pursue a radically different line from the EU, but who would follow its lead? The events of recent weeks have shown that even Europe’s largest military power and third largest economic power can achieve more with the help of its friends than on its own.

The Prime Minister should reassure the UK’s partners that Britain’s foreign policy interests will not change after Brexit, and that she won’t be a stranger in European capitals. The more that the UK shows that it will remain a reliable foreign policy partner, maintaining close ties to the EU, the more likely it is that the remaining 27 member-states will want to keep working with London to tackle international crises.

Ian Bond is director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform.