Little-discussed reversal of thinking means plans for formal co-operation look dead

Plans for the UK to re-establish formal foreign and security policy links with the European Union, frozen during negotiations over a trade deal, may never be revived, as UK foreign policy focuses on bilateral links in Europe and developing new alliances in the Indo-Pacific and Middle East.

The freeze marks a little-discussed reversal of thinking from Theresa May’s era, when the political declaration at the time of Britain’s withdrawal spoke about negotiating deep cooperation between the UK and EU.

May herself told the Munich security conference in 2018: “Europe’s security is our security, and the United Kingdom is unconditionally committed to maintaining it. The challenge for all of us today is finding the way to work together, through a deep and special partnership between the UK and the EU, to retain the co-operation that we have built and go further in meeting the evolving threats we face together.”

The EU even published proposals on how this cooperation might work in detail, but the UK has not picked up the ideas.

The UK shift from the May era has not been formally announced on either side, and its implications have been little discussed.

For the EU, as it tries to integrate its own foreign policy, the fear must be that Britain could undercut its foreign policy norms, in the same way as it fears the UK diverging on trading standards. But diplomats in Britain believe the UK post-Brexit has already shown an independence of judgment, and fleetness of foot, in comparison with the EU, where cumbersome decision-making requires all 27 EU foreign ministers to agree. The disadvantages of steering clear of EU foreign policy are undetectable to Tory eurosceptics.

So for the past year, the UK has cooperated with the EU on a strictly ad hoc basis, often following its own path on issues such as sanctions. For instance, in the case of Belarus, the UK (with Canada) issued sanctions against the Minsk regime before the EU (and the US) had agreed on their packages. The EU and US appeared to have coordinated their respective measures, but the EU measures were then blocked and delayed by Cyprus threatening a veto.

By contrast, the response to the poisoning of the Russian dissident Alexei Navalny led to tight coordination by the EU and UK, following the blueprint of the Skripal case of 2018.

In the case of Turkey’s drilling for gas in the eastern Mediterranean, the EU has tabled some sanctions and may table more in March, while Britain has laid low, not wishing to offend either side. As France and Turkey have traded insults, and Germany mediated, the UK outside the EU has been free to step away, perhaps thinking of the trade deal it seeks with Turkey.

The main European forum in which the UK is active remains the E3 – Germany, France and the UK. Here, in public at least, Europe’s great powers have remained in lockstep on the Iran nuclear deal, resisting US pressure to declare the deal broken and put Iranian nuclear non-compliance further into the dispute resolution mechanism, a means by which the deal could be declared dead.

The E3 have also increasingly coordinated on Iranian breaches of human rights, and at political-director level they have discussed wider issues, including Russia. But on Ukraine, the UK alone has offered a defence and political partnership with Kiev.

A Belarus activist outside Westminster
A Belarus activist outside Westminster. London was quicker than the EU to impose sanctions. Photograph: Amer Ghazzal/Rex/Shutterstock

Overall, the EU plans for institutionalised cooperation look dead, or at least dormant. Rosa Balfour, director of Carnegie Europe, writing in a foreign policy centre pamphlet, suggests: “EU needs to forego, for now, the hope that the UK will participate in any institutionalised arrangement. The foreign policy of the British government is ideologically driven; EU action is heavily process-driven. The gap between the two is one of the causes of Brexit.”

UK diplomats look at the foreign policy agenda of Josep Borrell, the EU representative on foreign affairs and security policy, and recoil. His call for greater foreign policy majority voting through “constructive abstention”, and for the EU to use the language of power, is not attractive to the UK. Similarly, to British eyes the contrast between Emmanuel Macron’s call for a stronger united Europe, and unilateral French foreign policy making, reveals the sham of integrated foreign policy.

In reality, the EU’s foreign policy has too often looked like the coalition of the unwilling. But some policy makers say the debate about EU-UK foreign policy will be revived, if only because of three deep countervailing forces.

Mundane reality may lead the UK to realise the impact of its foreign policy is multiplied if it works with the EU. The Biden administration would also prefer the UK not to be freelancing, if by so doing it weakens the EU. Finally, the EU will slowly integrate its defence arm, and has already set out a way third parties, such as the UK, could participate.

Ian Bond, at the Centre for European Reform, can see three ways in which the UK and the EU might formally collaborate: on the exchange and protection of classified information, the participation of UK personnel in defence missions and operations, and UK participation in defence industrial co-operation through the European Defence Agency.

But it may take the dust settle from the fraught trade talks, and a nudge from Biden, for these discussions to start.