Finding a way forward for EU-UK foreign policy collaboration

Adam Hug | February 2021

Though the dust has slowly begun to settle after tumult surrounding the final UK-EU deal, the subsequent spats about vaccine distribution, the Northern Ireland Protocol and the practical implementation of the deal all clearly show that both parties have some way to go before relations can evolve into the warm, productive partnership that many still hope for. The eventual deal has a number of major omissions; however one of the most glaring is the lack of anything that would facilitate a structured relationship between the UK and EU on foreign and security policy.

It is something of an understatement to point out that the change of leadership between Theresa May and Boris Johnson saw a radical shift in thinking on this point, as on many others. In September 2017 the UK set out a negotiating goal that it ‘will seek to agree new arrangements that enable us to sustain close UK-EU cooperation that will allow us to tackle our shared threats. The UK therefore envisages cooperation on external action to be central to our future partnership, complementing broader national security and law enforcement collaboration to tackle complex, multi-faceted threats.’ The May Government not only saw continued close cooperation in foreign and security policy as being in the UK’s interests but also as a potential ‘carrot’ that could be used to encourage the EU to make concessions in other areas of the putative deal.

Under Johnson, the idea of structured cooperation that would place obligations or restrictions on the UK’s action was taken off the table, seen as undesirable for the type of flexible approach to Global Britain that the government is seeking to build. The UK has already taken steps to proactively partner with non-EU countries on initiatives and statements, most notably and fruitfully Canada, and the Foreign Secretary has actively encouraged diplomats to act in ways which show the UK has left the EU. As both Rosa Balfour and I point out in the Foreign Policy Centre’s recent publication on the future of the UK’s international relationships, now is not the time for grand plans for formal cooperation.

However while the UK Government has a clearly expressed preference to pivot its policy focus to the Asia-Pacific region, its security priorities are still overwhelmingly focused on Europe. It is important therefore to ensure that diplomats, officials, and, where political will exists, politicians, are not discouraged from finding ways, both traditional and creative, to keep working together. The UK Government may wish that more could be achieved by purely bilateral initiatives with key EU partner countries, but the experience of the negotiation process may have given it a greater understanding of how many member states (including most relevantly the Germans) try to avoid undermining EU institutions in areas where they hold competence. The UK is no longer a member state seeking to build alliances with like-minded partners to shape EU decisions from the inside, but is now a third country, which necessitates closer working with the EU External Action Service and EU Commission where these institutions are delivering the agenda of the union in foreign policy and other matters.

This process of reengagement can start at an operational level where UK Embassies and EU Delegations can find ways to protect or re-establish cooperation and information-sharing on the ground in third countries and international institutions. The UK will also need to show it is still willing to form common positions with European partners, not only in other European-focused organisations such as NATO, the OSCE and Council of Europe, but also at the UN and other international forums. Increasing its active engagement with the Franco-German-led Alliance for Multilateralism might be helpful in this regard.

It is in the UK’s long-term interest to show that it understands and still shares many of the interests of European partners as it tries to build on existing areas of cooperation and find new ones. One way to help it do this is by improving Inter-Parliamentary dialogue. For far too long the level of understanding about how EU institutions operate at Westminster has been sub-optimal, perhaps fatally so for the UK’s EU membership. In the past the average UK Parliamentarian’s engagement with EU institutions was often mediated through interactions with their party’s MEPs, usually in either social or political campaigning contexts that didn’t provide particular illumination about the details of the European Parliament’s role or ways of working.

At present, there is no EU Parliament Delegation to the UK and no equivalent UK grouping focused on the EU, with delegations previously reserved for the Parliamentary Assemblies of the OSCE, NATO and Council of Europe and there is not even an informal All-Party Parliamentary Country Group. The final EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement contains provisions for the creation of a Parliamentary Partnership Assembly that would facilitate dialogue between the Westminster and European Parliaments. It is to be hoped that efforts are made to swiftly operationalise such a body, not least in order to fulfil its function to exchange views on the implementation of the agreement.

In the medium to longer term, as tensions cool and as the UK feels less of a need to accentuate the clear blue water in the channel, there would still be clear benefits for both parties for some kind of structured agreement or at least a semi-structured engagement with the EU collectively and institutionally in the areas of foreign and security policy. This would be particularly helpful given the way the EU conducts its foreign policy is more process-oriented, as it has to manage the collective interests of 27 member states, than London’s normal approach. Before either party is ready for this formal step however there is still much that can be done together to strengthen EU-UK foreign policy collaboration and it would be in the interests of both parties to explore those opportunities.