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The UK and EU need better security cooperation – or we’ll all be worse off

The invasion of Ukraine highlighted how closely the UK remains tied to Europe. It's time these two major foreign policy powers started talking to each other again

Ukrainian Ambassador to the UK, Vadym Prystaiko and Minister for the Armed Forces James Heappey during the Ukrainian National Anthem during a service in February near Salisbury ahead of the anniversary of the Russia invasion. Photo: Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images

The UK narrowly avoided a ‘no deal’ Brexit on Christmas Eve 2020, averting the nightmare scenario of a crash-out. Yet in foreign and security policy the decision to forego an agreement was taken unilaterally by the Johnson government in February 2020, prior to the talks on the TCA, with nothing negotiated on cooperation in this area.

No deal in foreign and security policy is not the same as ‘no deal’ in the trading relationship. Foreign policy has always been – and will likely always remain – an intergovernmental affairs, even in densely institutionalised Europe. Britain collaborates with its European partners through NATO and has worked quickly to sign bilateral security and defence agreements with many member states.

But the decision was not costless. From 1 January 2021 the UK found itself with no voice in the EU’s foreign and security policy system, leaving UK officials in Brussels scrabbling to meet with their EU colleagues, who in any case were precluded from engaging with London. The period between the end of the transition period and the invasion of Ukraine showed that bilateralism could not substitute for UK-EU level talks, since the member states could not fully engage until the EU position was agreed, effectively cutting the UK.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 saw an uptick in European solidarity as the EU and non-members alike rallied to support Kyiv. It also validated the longstanding British line on the Russian threat and the indispensability of NATO and the transatlantic relationship, leaving civilian countries like Germany exposed to charges of naivete and hypocrisy. And the Johnson government unsurprisingly used the occasion to showcase Britain’s strength and global leadership to the world, with robust support for Ukraine.

But the invasion also coincided with a low-point in relations between London and the EU27 and highlighted the difficulty of effectively coordinating a European response in the absence of UK-EU ties. While NATO has led the strategic and defence response, the EU has also become a major player in coordinating supplies and committing funds for them. On issues such as sanctions, energy policy, EU enlargement, and civilian reconstruction – all big parts of the debate – the EU is the central actor, not NATO.

It is true that engagement between both sides stepped up in the aftermath of the invasion. High-levels talks have taken place, the UK has attended a special session of the Foreign Affairs Council, sanctions packages have been aligned, and the UK has sent representatives to the clearing house cell in Brussels responsible for coordinating the military equipment sent to Kyiv.

But cooperation has also been stymied by ongoing political disputes and Brexit hangovers. The UK wanted to avoid anything that looked like a formal agreement, limiting the nature of engagement, and sought to keep cooperation on sanctions out of the public narrative, which embellished UK leadership and ignored the EU role. The Union, for its part, was unwilling to commit to deeper discussions until the Northern Ireland Protocol issues were solved.

There are two pieces of good news, however.

One is that recent events have rebuilt trust in the EU-UK relationship and made rapprochement more likely. The departure of Johnson removed a significant obstacle to cordial relations, allowing for a (brief) reset under Truss, and a more sustained one under Sunak. The negotiation of the Windsor Framework, which addressed many of the Northern Ireland Protocol issues, was unveiled in February 2023 and has gone a long way to regularising relations. In the days after the framework both sides pledged to increase cooperation on security and defence issues, stepping up existing dialogues and contacts.

The other is that the relationship reached such lows under Johnson that there are plenty of easy wins for the current or future government. Small steps could go a long way to fostering efficient forms of cooperation that could have a big impact on Europe’s clout in international affairs. And these small costs would come with a very small political price tag, since the sovereignty cost of talking with European partners is effectively nil, and this area of cooperation so distinct as to preclude re-opening debates around ‘cherry picking’ and the ‘four freedoms’.

A formal agreement – of the kind Theresa May hoped for and the Labour Party has recently promised – would solve many of the ongoing issues, clarifying the UK’s relationship to EU structures and designing an institutional framework to sit atop this, which could insulate cooperation from the whims of future governments. But re-engagement can take place informally too. What is needed is regular structured dialogue between both sides, empowering officials on both sides to foster deeper links and to pursue cooperation across a wider range of areas. 

This is a good moment to be aiming for renewed engagement. Russia’s war has highlighted the risks of leaving gaps in security and defence frameworks. Surveys show support for harder variants of Brexit draining away and there is cross-party support for increasing security cooperation. Solidarity amongst Europeans is high and the UK has engendered considerable goodwill with its robust support for Ukraine. And as the Brexit negotiations recede into the past, the chances of both sides agreeing to a ‘special’ framework for British engagement may well increase.

The invasion of Ukraine has highlighted how closely the UK remains linked to Europe. We’ve seen prices rising and a huge movement of people across the continent. It’s highlighted how much the UK needs the EU – and vice versa – as well as the significance of both parties when it comes to defence and security. Surely this is the right time to ensure that these two major foreign policy actors are talking to each other.

Ben Martill is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Edinburgh and a member of the Independent Commission on UK EU Relations.

The Commission exists to research the impact of the UK departure from the European Union and to propose changes to the existing agreements which if implemented would improve outcomes. The Commission website can be found here

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