Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.
The crisis in Afghanistan has understandably prompted a renewed foreign policy debate in the UK and throughout Europe. Questions are being asked about how much reliance should be placed on Washington in the future. The answer, for some in the UK and continental Europe, should be a greater focus on strategic UK-EU foreign and security policy cooperation.
The Government’s critics accuse it of an ideological aversion to greater cooperation with the UK’s former EU partners. It is true that the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement, reached last year, did not include any formal framework for UK-EU foreign policy cooperation. Meanwhile, the UK’s Integrated Review, published in March this year, introduced the “Indo-Pacific tilt”, and was notably light on direct references to the EU.
However, crucially, the Integrated Review also stated that “the precondition for Global Britain is the safety of our citizens at home and the security of the Euro-Atlantic region, where the bulk of the UK’s security focus will remain.” It added, “We will work with the EU where our interests coincide – for example, in supporting the stability and security of our continent and in cooperating on climate action and biodiversity.”
The question facing the UK and EU member states in the post-Brexit era is how to work together. The EU was keen to include an institutionalised foreign policy strand to the relationship. But Boris Johnson’s Government decided not to pursue a formal agreement, instead favouring ad hoc cooperation with the EU on individual issues, and with the member states through other fora, such as NATO, the G7, and the E3 grouping of the UK, France, and Germany.
There remain several reasons why such cooperation is likely to remain ad hoc, rather than formal or strategic, for the foreseeable future. Firstly, there is unfinished business in establishing the new UK-EU economic and political relationship, with the implementation of the Northern Irish Protocol continuing to cast a shadow.
The Government this week announced an indefinite extension to the various grace periods and easements it has applied to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The EU’s low key response was simply to “take note” of the decision, effectively informally agreeing to the legal standstill requested by the UK in July. The prospect of another political crunch point has therefore been avoided for now but fundamental disagreements remain.
At the weekend, David Frost held out hope “for a new era of cooperation between like-minded states in a world which needs us to work together effectively.” However, he warned that, without a satisfactory resolution to the current problems, the wrangle over the Protocol could generate a “cold mistrust between us and the EU which could spread across the relationship”.
Just as importantly, advocating greater strategic foreign policy cooperation via Brussels, as opposed to national capitals, also presumes a united and established EU position on these matters. However, there is a lively debate within the EU about how foreign policy cooperation should develop amongst the EU27 that is far from settled.
The EU has well-developed collective mechanisms for police and justice cooperation, and across some foreign policy instruments, such as development aid and economic sanctions. However, Brussels’ ambition for similarly advanced integration in security and defence has been frustrated by fiercely guarded national vetoes and ideological differences.
This debate has been reenergised partly in response to Brexit. The EU lost a member state with the biggest defence budget and, at the same time, the UK’s veto over greater integration was removed (although it may turn out that others are just as reluctant as the British).
The EU is due to adopt a “Strategic Compass” in March next year, designed to “define what kind of security and defence actor it wants to be.” Emmanuel Macron, who faces a Presidential election in April next year, has long led the argument for greater EU “strategic autonomy” on foreign policy. The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Policy, Josep Borrell, has recently suggested that the Afghanistan debacle will “catalyse” the EU to establish its own permanent military force.
However, eastern member states tend to share the UK’s instinct that boosting European capabilities within NATO, should be the aim, rather than establishing new EU structures. Kristjan Mäe, head of the Estonian defence ministry’s NATO and EU department said, in response to Borrell’s remarks, that “you will not see any appetite for the European army amongst member states.” NATO’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, also intervened to say that, while he welcomed more European efforts on defence, attempts to establish parallel structures would weaken the transatlantic alliance.
And, viewed in the context of internal EU politics, “strategic autonomy” is not merely an end in itself, but also a bid for a greater French leadership role, given that Germany remains the bloc’s economic powerhouse. Many member states could be forgiven for asking whether “strategic autonomy” means replacing their dependence on the US with greater dependence on France?
It remains unclear how these internal EU debates will play out, since they are inevitably complicated by other issues. For example, the European Commission this week called on the European Court of Justice to fine Poland, the fifth largest member state, over a long-running dispute over Polish government reforms, which the EU says threaten judicial independence. Brussels has also threatened to use a new legal mechanism – linking the disbursal of EU covid recovery funds to respect for the rule of law – as a means to put pressure on Poland and Hungary’s governments, which is likely to harden their euroscepticism.
In short, there are many reasons why the Afghanistan experience may not be the galvanising force within the EU that many in Brussels and Paris might hope. There may come a time when the UK is confronted with decisions over how to engage strategically with a unified EU foreign and security policy apparatus, but it is unlikely to be any time soon.