Role of UK-EU security cooperation after Brexit

For what is expected to end, Brexit is still making headlines. Conflict continues over issues ranging from diplomatic representation in London and Brussels to coronavirus vaccine exports – and most importantly, the new arrangement for Northern Ireland. This is not a good long-term strategy for the UK. “Live by your side,” Pierre Trudeau, the then prime minister of Canada, told his American neighbors, “It’s like sleeping with an elephant.” No matter how friendly and even-tempered the animal is, everyone is affected by its every move and growl. The European Union is the same big beast, but without the anger. Britain will have to help her to sleep peacefully next to this raucous elephant. The only way for the UK to truly meet Brexit is for a more institutionalized relationship with the EU. Choice is a never-ending process of negotiation, confrontation and escalation.

Liz Truss, as the new British Brexit negotiator and a possible future prime ministerial candidate, is strongly urged to restart relations with the European Union. In this endeavor, you must recognize that security and defense are promising areas in which to find a way out of the painful divorce between the EU and the UK. But, for the time being, neither side is showing interest in developing its defense and security relationship. As has been widely noted, the 2021 UK Integrated Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy Review barely mentions the United States. References to EU-UK relations are also superficial in the initial draft of the EU Strategic Compass. However, there is an opportunity in the fact that the parties have not politicized security and defense cooperation.

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Indeed, at the EU level, this cooperation is highly technical and focuses on bureaucratic relations between the ministries of defence. This dynamic is evident in the relationship between Switzerland and the European Defense Agency (EDA). Despite the great political upheaval in EU-Switzerland relations, cooperation between the EDA and Switzerland continues. As an EDA official explained, the longer operating time for defense companies can ensure that capability projects are spared such controversy.[1] Many Swiss officials have expressed enthusiasm for this, as it has enabled Switzerland to maintain at least one functional and efficient cooperation channel with the European Union.[2]

In these highly technical cooperation formats, third country status, something the UK has been particularly keen to avoid – does not require average second-class treatment. The only way for the UK to retain its ‘sovereignty’ in EU defense and security initiatives is to accept this position, as it would allow for more politically acceptable forms of cooperation for UK citizens. In fact, as a recent ECFR survey shows, the British public will support a foreign policy that works in cooperation with the bloc, provided it can be reconciled with its core desire for independence and self-control.

Third country status, something the UK has been particularly keen to avoid, does not necessarily mean second-class treatment.

In addition, the EU’s approach to third countries is evolving. For example, the EDA recently began negotiating an administrative agreement with the United States. Following the announcement of these conversations, the EDA’s Ministerial Board passed a document that updated the organization’s principles for cooperation with third parties. Although these reviews have not been made public, the fact that the EDA conducts them indicates a rapid development in its approach to such collaborations. The EU Strategic Compass is likely to revise its ‘one size fits all’ approach to third country participation in EU defense integration in aspects of dealing with partnerships. The division of the union and discrimination between partners may make a better-suited mechanism for the United Kingdom’s desire for preferential treatment.

The EU believes that most of its growing security and defense exchange initiatives involve partnerships with third countries. This creates a plethora of opportunities for economic, innovation and science diplomacy for the UK, especially given the country’s exclusion from the Union’s Horizon 2020 programme.

Once again, Switzerland provides an instructive example for the United Kingdom. The collapse of the EU-Switzerland institutional framework agreement led to the suspension of Horizon 2020. This prompted the Swiss to take an interest in the EU’s defense initiatives as a secondary avenue for research and research. Knowledge of member states. Unlike Horizon 2020, most EU defense initiatives are not the responsibility of the European Commission but of technical agencies or individual member states. This makes it easier for countries that have complex relationships with the Commission to access these initiatives. Given that science in the UK is already bearing the brunt of Brexit, London should not overlook the opportunity to access rapidly growing research and innovation programmes.

Ad-hoc security and defense cooperation can also provide a flexible and developed framework for cooperation with the European Union. As participation in intergovernmental forums has become especially important for Britain since leaving the European Union, the country could benefit greatly from the clause on increased cooperation on common foreign and security policy in the United Kingdom. Political statement on Brexit. The foreign policy part of the declaration stated that “the High Representative may, if necessary, invite the United Kingdom to informal ministerial meetings of the member states of the Union”. Therefore, the UK can participate in informal meetings of EU foreign ministers. Similarly, the “deeper information exchange” referred to in the statement could provide a significant opportunity for the UK to shape EU sanctions. The European Union has recognized sanctions as an important means of supporting its international status and its quest for strategic autonomy. However, much will depend on London’s willingness to engage in such activity in the first place, despite the Union’s enthusiasm to formalize advanced security cooperation with the UK.

Overall, political tensions between the EU and the UK place the most severe limits on their efforts to cooperate with each other. They should therefore begin to revive their ties in the political spheres that avoid heated political debate: defense and security. This is your best chance to take the relationship beyond controversies over issues like Channel Island seafood.

Technical cooperation can help restore trust between London and Brussels, thus laying the foundation for better political relations. Both sides of the channel should see defense and security as continuing early stages of a post-Brexit marathon, not the final sprint to the finish line.

Isabella Antinozzi is a Pan-European Scholar of the ECFR.


[1] The author’s interview with an EDA official, London, December 2021.

[2] The author’s interview with the Swiss official, London, October 2021.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take a collective position. ECFR publications represent the opinions of their authors only.

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About the Author: Forrest Morton

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