Integrated Review Refresh 2023 – towards a more pragmatic chapter in UK foreign policy?

Opinion piece (The UK in a Changing Europe)
21 March 2023

Luigi Scazzieri analyses the recent ‘refresh’ of the 2021 Integrated Review, arguing that it marks a new more pragmatic chapter in UK foreign policy and underscores a renewed willingness to engage with the EU.

The 2021 Integrated Review on Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy was permeated by a go-it alone mindset and an arguably too rosy view of the UK’s global power and influence. This was epitomised by the ‘Global Britain’ branding of the document, which was underpinned by the need to stake out a new ambitious post-Brexit role for the UK.

The Review stressed how the UK could have a more agile and effective foreign policy outside the EU. It also played up the global dimension of British foreign policy, including by setting out an ambitious ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific and – in the eyes of some analysts – de-emphasising European security.

On 13 March, the UK government published its much-anticipated 2023 ‘Refresh’ of the 2021 Review. The Refresh, which was first announced by Prime Minister Liz Truss in September last year, was prompted by the need to address the rapidly deteriorating global security environment following Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February. The new strategy marks a departure from the 2021 Review, and suggests that we have entered a new chapter of UK foreign policy. Global Britain, along with the ‘boosterist’ rhetoric that accompanied it and annoyed many of the UK’s allies, has been jettisoned. Instead, the Refresh hits a more sober note.

It takes stock of the more threatening global security environment after Vladimir Putin’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. At the same time the Refresh should be seen as part of a broader transition towards a more pragmatic UK policy and a shift away from the acrimonious relations with the EU that characterised the initial post-Brexit years.

The Review Refresh sets out a realistic assessment of the global security environment and of how the UK can navigate its challenges. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year ‘brought large-scale, high intensity land warfare back to our home region’. China’s increasing assertiveness in Asia and globally marks it out as an ‘epoch-defining and systemic challenge with implications for almost every area of government policy’. The risk of unintended military escalation is ‘greater than at any time in decades’ and requires maintaining communication channels with rivals.

In light of these threats, the Refresh highlights how the UK’s core security interests are in its own continent, Europe – and particularly in countering the threat posed by Russia. It is notable that the Refresh emphasises the economic and diplomatic ambitions of the tilt to the Indo-Pacific and suggests that they have already largely been achieved, for example with the launch of the AUKUS submarine partnership and the UK becoming a dialogue partner to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

The Refresh, which follows the UK-EU agreement on a Windsor Framework on Northern Ireland and a markedly improved Franco-British relationship after years of tension, should be seen as part of a broader upward trend in the UK’s relations with its European allies.

The document places considerable emphasis on how engaging closely with European partners is essential for the UK. It highlights the work done in strengthening ties with allies across Europe over the past few years through a plethora of bilateral and mini-lateral co-operation agreements and frameworks like the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force. The Refresh also stresses how the newly born European Political Community – originally a French idea – has the potential to be a forum to foster co-operation between European countries.

The Refresh recognises that relations with the EU have become warmer, and that there has been good UK-EU co-operation in countering Russia’s war on Ukraine, particularly in terms of sanctions. Whereas the 2021 Review made minimal reference to the EU as a foreign policy partner, the Refresh signals openness to the possibility of even closer UK-EU co-operation in security, singling out the UK’s (existing) participation in the EU’s Permanent Structured Co-operation in defence as a starting point.

Still, the scars of Brexit are visible in places. The Refresh does not mention the possibility of more structured UK-EU foreign policy engagement, for example by concluding a formal UK-EU security co-operation agreement. The UK did not want such an agreement during the post-Brexit negotiations, even though other non-EU partners like the US and Canada have similar agreements with the EU.

A formal agreement would be a precondition on the EU side for more regular dialogue with UK officials and for UK participation in any EU military missions, like the one currently training Ukrainian soldiers on EU soil. However, for the time being the UK is still reticent to conclude one, mainly because security co-operation with the EU remains a difficult sell to large parts of the Conservative party. A more structured EU-UK foreign policy co-operation arrangement will have to wait.

The Refresh will be welcomed by the UK’s European allies, which will see it as part of a broader trend towards a more sober and grounded foreign policy under Rishi Sunak after the more haphazard tenures of Johnson and Truss.

For most of the UK’s European allies however, the UK’s material contribution to European security will be more important than the language of the Refresh. In that sense, the UK’s ‘aspiration’ to raise defence spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP is encouraging. However, whether realising that ambition proves politically possible, given the relative weakness of the UK economy and the competing pressure to fund public services, is a different matter.

By Luigi Scazzieri, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for European Reform.