The Missing Link? UK-EU Security Cooperation after Brexit

The war in Ukraine has prompted a renewed willingness for UK-EU security cooperation, writes Dr Benjamin Martill, drawing upon a recently published article that analyses the gradual shift from dwindling cooperation post-Brexit to re-engagement efforts.

A shock to the system

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was a seismic shock for Europe and the rest of the world, engendering immediate and across-the-board solidarity with Ukraine, and bringing about precipitous change in the security strategies of major European players, like Germany and Sweden.

Britain, which has long warned of Russian aggression, acted swiftly and comprehensively, shoring up its position in the NATO countries bordering Ukraine, sending military equipment to Ukraine to help bolster its defences, stepping up its training of Ukrainian soldiers, and enacting a series of economic sanctions on Russia. The UK also signed a host of bilateral agreements with neighbouring countries – having been on the brink of signing a pact with Poland and Ukraine prior to the invasion – and extended a security guarantee to Sweden and Finland prior to their expected accession to NATO.

The EU, too, flexed its collective muscles in response to the conflict, taking the lead on economic sanctions – of which there have been ten rounds – and fast-tracking Kyiv’s application for membership of the EU such that Ukraine is now officially a candidate country. Through a re-purposed African Peace Facility, rapidly re-branded the European Peace Facility, the EU has helped coordinate over €3 billion in assistance to Ukraine, and has established a military clearing cell to identify and coordinate supplies to Ukraine.

Major EU countries like Germany have stepped up their defence spending commitments, shaking off long-standing taboos in the process, while the EU27 as a whole have articulated a shared assessment of threats through the Strategic Compass, another partially re-purposed initiative. Meanwhile, through the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), EU countries are supporting a new military training mission for Ukraine.

Where we left off…

While it has been ‘all hands on deck’ in London and Brussels, it has not been forgotten that the security and defence policies of these actors used to be linked through Britain’s membership of the EU, which afforded London access to EU decision-making and allowed for participation in CSDP missions. Brexit put an end to this relationship.

Meanwhile, initial hopes that it would be easy to negotiate a security agreement were dashed, first by the EU’s refusal to be any more flexible in arrangements than it had been with Norway, and later by hardening pro-Brexit preferences in the UK and the subsequent decision of the Johnson government in February 2020 to eschew a formal agreement.

The upshot of these political struggles was that the invasion of Ukraine occurred at a time in which political relations between the UK and the EU were at an all-time low and the security and defence relationship was non-existent outside NATO and bilateral/mini-lateral frameworks, with no formal contacts or structured forms of dialogue existing between either side.

To be sure, London’s position has always been that NATO is – and should remain – the primary defence actor in Europe, and it is true that active containment of Russia takes place principally through the Atlantic alliance, which can bring American power to bear on European security interests. Yet, the war in Ukraine has also highlighted the indispensability of the EU and the range of tasks through which the ostensibly civilian organization is either complementing NATO activities or surpassing them. Collectively, the EU can coordinate contributions of the 27-strong bloc and lock in spending commitments over the long term, while politically, the EU can extend the prospect of membership more readily than NATO. When the time for post-war reconstruction comes, it will be the EU, not NATO, that will take centre-stage. Moreover, the EU’s economic power makes it the appropriate venue for sanctions coordination and efforts to wean European economies off their dependence on Russian oil and gas.

When the time for post-war reconstruction comes, it will be the EU, not NATO, that will take centre-stage.

The slow thaw

Russia’s war in Ukraine has highlighted the need for greater cooperation between the UK and the EU, and officials on both sides report an improved relationship since February 2022. In the UK, there is a greater recognition of the need to coordinate with European partners. In Brussels, there is a newfound appreciation for the centrality of the UK as a defence actor, respect for the UK’s efforts in Ukraine – which dwarf the collective spending of many EU states – and acceptance that the war validates the UK’s hawkish worldview.

Cooperation has steadily built-up since the invasion. High-level talks between then Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and EU counterparts occurred during the Johnson administration and talks began on the UK’s accession to the Military Mobility PESCO programme. Britain has representatives in the Brussels-based clearing cell for military supplies to Ukraine, and the UK and EU military training missions have been closely coordinated. Sanctions cooperation has been ongoing, and has resulted in a very high degree of overlap between both regimes. And officials have felt empowered to engage more with one another, to share information, and to coordinate their activities.

Yet, all is not smiles and sunshine. Cooperation was slow getting started under the Johnson regime, when both sides sought to limit cooperation for political reasons; in London because of post-Brexit optics, and in Brussels because of the ongoing Northern Ireland issue. Cooperation has been deliberately kept under the radar, lest it anger pro-Brexit constituencies in the UK, and London has preferred to have conversations bilaterally, which is far less efficient than engaging with the EU27 collectively.

The UK has also eschewed any formal ties that could be construed as ‘entangling alliances’ and the lack of structured cooperation makes it difficult to deal with all but the most politically pressing ‘big ticket’ issues. Meanwhile, the discourse in the UK – espoused by the press and politicians – has been dismissive of the EU’s efforts, with speeches and policy documents regularly omitting mention of the EU itself, which has irked policymakers in Brussels.

The inevitability of gradualism?

Gradually, many of the irritants in the strategic relationship have been overcome. Johnson’s removal from power in September 2022 allowed for a partial reset under Liz Truss, which was also embraced by her successor, Rishi Sunak. Agreement on the Windsor Framework removed a major obstacle to the normalisation of relations and has prompted serious talk of increasing security cooperation. Meanwhile, the opposition Labour Party, sensing an opportunity to repair ties, has pledged to negotiate a security agreement with the EU if elected in 2024.

A formal agreement would have many advantages, and could provide for deeper and more structured forms of engagement on security issues, but for the time being there is much that can be achieved informally, by empowering civil servants on both sides to engage with one another and continuing to repair the political relationships torn asunder during the Brexit negotiations. Now that re-engagement in security and defence is in full swing, the missing link in Europe’s response to the Ukraine war has been – at least partially – re-established.

Dr Benjamin Martill is Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Edinburgh.

The claims in this blog are based on those developed in a newly published article in the Journal of European Public Policy and in a policy report for the Independent Commission on UK-EU Relations.

Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

Image credit: European Council newsroom – G7 Summit 2023 roundtable (session 8).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s