The UK and European security co-operation, post-Brexit

Opinion piece (Aspenia Online)
22 January 2020

The UK’s departure from the EU at the end of January raises the question of what security co-operation between member states and the UK will look like after Brexit. Unlike in trade, where interests can be opposing, in theory a close partnership in security and defense is in both sides’ interests. The UK has valuable military capabilities and intelligence assets that can add weight and credibility to EU foreign policy, and the British defense industry is an important component of the European defense industrial base. On its part, the UK will no longer have a seat at the European Council or the Foreign Affairs Council, and will be unable to directly influence EU decisions. London will need to maintain close links to its European partners if it does not want to fully embrace Donald Trump’s US.

Security cooperation could, in theory, take the form of a very close and highly institutionalized UK-EU partnership. This was the British government’s position during the withdrawal negotiations, set out in its July 2018 White Paper. A close security partnership could involve the UK regularly participating in meetings of the Foreign Affairs Council as a non-voting member to help shape European foreign policy positions. A close and institutionalized relationship could also see the UK remaining closely associated to the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), with no significant restrictions placed on its role in planning and conducting CSDP missions. Finally, the UK could also be involved in the EU’s incipient defense initiatives, such as its Defence Fund (EDF) and Permanent Structured Co-operation (PeSCo), on highly favorable terms not very different from those granted to member states. This would allow British firms to be fully involved in European defense projects, and potentially make it more likely that European defense will result in more ambitious cooperative projects.

While such a close partnership would be mutually advantageous in many ways, and may materialize at some point in the future, it is unlikely in the near term. Boris Johnson’s government appears cautious of seeking a close relationship with the EU, with Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab arguing that while the UK wanted a close security relationship with the EU, it also had other options. Additionally, the withdrawal negotiations showed that member states have little appetite to grant the UK the status of privileged EU partner, in large part because they fear other partners such as the US could then ask for the same close relationship and level of access to European defense initiatives. Moreover, many member states remember the UK as highly skeptical of European defense, blocking European defense initiatives for years, and therefore see no reason to risk recent progress by giving London a privileged role.

This means that any participation of the UK as an observer in the Foreign Affairs Council is likely to remain ad hoc rather than regular and institutionalized. London is also unlikely to be given better access to EU defense initiatives than other third countries currently have, or to be granted a privileged role in the planning and conduct of CSDP operations. With limited decision-making powers, the UK is unlikely to contribute meaningful assets to CSDP missions, and the involvement of British firms in EDF and PeSCo is also likely to remain limited.

The fact that a deep and highly institutionalized EU-UK security relationship appears unlikely will not spell the end of cooperation between member states and the London. Instead, cooperation is increasingly likely to take place outside of the EU framework. Ad hoc small group cooperation already plays an important role, with Germany, France and the UK coordinating policy towards Iran in the E3 format. The E3 could gain further prominence post-Brexit, as long as the UK’s foreign policy stance remains aligned with France and Germany. Paris’ European Intervention Initiative, designed to foster a common strategic culture, is also likely to gain further importance as a forum in which to liaise with the UK. In defense procurement, the EU only plays a limited role, and we could see a further proliferation of bilateral and minilateral cooperation between some member states and the UK.

There is also talk of wholly new institutions as a framework for member states’ cooperation with the UK. France and Germany have recently revived the idea of forming a “European Security Council” to keep Britain closely involved in European foreign policy decision-making. The notion of a European Security Council (ESC) remains vague, and still needs to be fleshed out. Depending on how it might be structured, it could take different forms. The ESC could be a wholly new EU body to act as a framework for EU-UK consultations – an option that would require treaty change. The ESC could also be an institutionalized meeting of all member states plus the UK outside of the EU framework. The ESC could also take the form of a more exclusive format, in which large member states continue to coordinate with London. Finally, it could also be a body with permanent and non-permanent members like the UN Security Council.

The more exclusive and formal the format of co-operation, the greater the potential for it to lead to discord between EU member-states. There is a risk that member states that are left out of a ESC may interpret it as a move to make Europe more independent of the US – especially in the context of Emmanuel Macron’s recent comments on the “brain death” of NATO. In contrast, a broad ESC, including the largest states and the UK as permanent members, and other member states depending on the issue under discussion, could be a useful addition to the European security landscape. It could help replicate the institutionalized and regular contacts of EU membership, contributing to fostering greater cooperation.

Ultimately, while new institutions can help, security cooperation with the UK post-Brexit will depend mainly on the degree to which London remains aligned with European positions. If it does, then ways to cooperate will be found. Conversely, if the UK positions itself as a closer US ally and moves away from the European consensus on issues such as Iran, then trust may erode and cooperation could become more challenging whether through the EU or other institutions.

Luigi Scazzieri is research fellow at the CER.