The EU and Global Britain
30 Jun 2022 – Written by Joey Gurney
- After Brexit, there appears to be a more deliberate attempt from the British Government to sidestep the EU and work directly with European partners, including EU member states, through other diplomatic arrangements.
- The UK has often opted to cooperate with European countries on foreign policy issues on a bilateral or trilateral basis. This British approach to diplomacy with its European counterparts has been increasingly evident since the publication of the Integrated Review.
- Both the UK and the EU have since encountered three main foreign policy challenges: the continued rise of China; the allied withdrawal from Afghanistan; and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
- Strong cooperation on foreign policy and on defence and security between the EU and the UK can only benefit both as they aim to increase their global influence.
The 16 March 2022 marked the first anniversary of the publication of the United Kingdom’s Integrated Review. The anniversary has been seen by many researchers as a good opportunity to reflect on the last fifteen months as they consider what foreign policy looks like for post-Brexit Britain. The moment also provokes thought on what Global Britain means for the European Union, particularly in light of recent global events. To answer this, it is necessary to consider recent and ongoing geopolitical challenges experienced by both the UK and the EU, and explore any avenues for cooperation while assessing notable differences in approaches adopted by Brussels and London when addressing these shared challenges.
While the term Global Britain was coined several years before the Integrated Review was published, the review, which itself is titled ‘Global Britain in a Competitive Age’, was the first time the UK had added substance to the slogan. The document was described by British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, as “the largest review of its kind since the Cold War” (HM Government Cabinet Office, 2021).
Included within the review are four main objectives:
- For the UK to sustain a strategic advantage through science and technology
- For the UK to shape the open international order through working with partners and international institutions
- For the UK to strengthen its security at home and abroad
- For the UK to become more resilient to threats at home and overseas.
These objectives were the basis for the strategic framework laid out within the review. Also emphasised in parts of the document is the need for stronger integration of security, defence, development and foreign policy with trade being central to it for it is described as being “at the heart of Global Britain” (HM Government Cabinet Office, 2021).
Since the review was published, both the UK and the EU have encountered three main foreign policy challenges: the continued rise of China; the allied withdrawal from Afghanistan; and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The rise of China has been described within the Integrated Review as “the most significant geopolitical factor in the world today”, and that Beijing “presents challenges for the UK and our allies” (HM Government Cabinet Office, 2021). China’s emergence as a superpower predates the review but over the last fifteen months, Beijing has continued to expand and exert its global influence while increasingly challenging Western values. An example of this new era of tension between Western powers including the EU and the UK with their Chinese counterparts are the sanctions that were imposed just a week after the review was published.
Arguably in response to this shift in focus, the Integrated Review emphasises the UK’s new Indo-Pacific tilt. The tilt reflects London’s ambition to strengthen diplomatic ties, develop new trade partnerships with Indo Pacific states and increase its standing as a security actor within the area. Key to this is the UK’s application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, as Britain’s accession continues to be negotiated. Moreover, the UK has also established ASEAN Dialogue Partner status and in September 2021, the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier voyaged to the Indo-Pacific, a deployment which was perceived by Beijing as an act of provocation.
Similarly, the EU adopted its first Indo-Pacific strategy in 2021, detailing seven priority areas for the region: sustainable and inclusive prosperity; green transition; ocean governance; digital governance and partnerships; connectivity; security and defence; and human security. While the strategy is predominantly economic focused it also details how Brussels strives to “promote an open and rules-based regional security architecture”. This is reflected within the document as it describes how Europe intends to explore enhanced naval deployments by EU Member States in the region while also “boosting Indo-Pacific partners’ capacity to ensure maritime security” (EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, 2021).
Avenues of cooperation between London and Brussels in the Indo-Pacific remain unclear, and the two may even find themselves in competition as their respective strategies suggest they harbour conflicting ambitions within the region. Laid out in the UK’s Integrated Review is the Government’s desire to be the most persistent European presence in the Indo-Pacific region. However, the EU is already the top investor, the leading development cooperation partner and one of the largest trading partners in the Indo-Pacific region and its latest strategy for the region describes how the EU only intends to expand on its extensive engagement in the Indo-Pacific.
This risk of increased tension between the EU and the UK on the Indo-Pacific was brought to the surface after the AUKUS trilateral security pact was signed by Australia, the US and the UK in September 2021. Included in the deal was an agreement to construct a new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines for the Australian Navy in addition to a declaration of cooperation on “cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and additional undersea capabilities” (Joint Leaders Statement on AUKUS, 2021). Whilst some partners in the region were encouraged by the pact, France was frustrated in that not only were they side-lined in the AUKUS discussions but also felt somewhat betrayed for the pact would be replacing their existing submarine deal with Australia. This disappointment in the manner the AUKUS was formed was shared by many EU officials, including Ursula von der Leyen, as the President of the European Commission publicly expressed her regret at a Member State being treated this way by Allied states (Wintour, 2021).
The allied withdrawal from Afghanistan
Highlighted throughout the Integrated Review is the importance of the United States to Britain’s strategic objectives. The partnership with the US was described in the document as the UK’s most important bilateral relationship. This is an unsurprising yet significant inclusion. After the allied withdrawal from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021 it has become even more noteworthy.
After the US President, Joe Biden, made the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, it became quickly apparent that Western intelligence had failed significantly, especially after the fall of Kabul. Reaction in the UK to this American-led failure has been critical of both Biden’s administration and Boris Johnson’s Government. The disastrous withdrawal has also exposed the UK’s over dependence on American strategy, on which they have next to no influence on, as Professor Michael Clarke’s work highlights (Clarke, 2021). Clarke also argues that while the failure is recognised as a defeat for the US, they can offset it against other geopolitical successes, something London cannot easily do (Clarke, 2021). Therefore, the withdrawal from Afghanistan is more damaging for the UK Government and their Global Britain agenda, at least from a strategic perspective.
The damage of the crisis has been recognised by British politicians too. During an evidence session with the former Foreign Secretary, the Conservative MP and Foreign Affairs Committee Chair, Tom Tugendhat, described it as “the single biggest foreign policy disaster that the UK has faced since Suez”, while adding it “has exposed a weakness in our alliances” (Foreign Affairs Committee, 2021). An interesting comparison particularly as Suez is often regarded as one of the most tense and difficult moments in the history of the so-called ‘Special Relationship’ between the US and the UK.
Notably Afghanistan was only mentioned in the Integrated Review on two occasions: once to state Britain “will continue to support stability in Afghanistan, as part of a wider coalition”; and again when discussing the UK’s counterterrorism strategy, by “providing support to the Government of Afghanistan” (HM Government Cabinet Office, 2021). After the fall of Kabul, in which the Taliban drove out the Afghan Government, it is difficult to envisage how the UK Government intends on completing these specific aims.
As for the EU, its Member States considered Biden’s withdrawal to be a mistake not just for Afghanistan but for Europe too. The European Commission’s key concern is a potential new refugee crisis on a similar scale to the one Europe faced in 2015 for the EU has failed to develop an effective asylum policy since the last crisis (Winn, 2021). Moreover, there are new fears in Brussels that a significant wave of refugees fleeing the Taliban will lead to a rise in populist parties across Europe.
The failure in Afghanistan also saw discussions on the EU’s strategic autonomy resurface. In response to the withdrawal, the European Council President, Charles Michel, called for Europe to reduce its reliance on the US as he stated “what other major geopolitical event do we need to lead Europe to aim for more decision-making autonomy and capacity for action?”. This was echoed by Josep Borrell who claimed the events in Afghanistan “should serve as a wake up call” as he argued for greater investment in European security capabilities and for the EU to develop the ability to think and act strategically and independently (Borrell, 2021).
Beyond an influx of refugees, Afghanistan presents the EU with humanitarian and security challenges too. The Western-led soft-power initiatives in Afghanistan, that Brussels considers as the foundations of its global diplomacy, which include the promotion of education and the rights of women and girls, are likely to become jeopardised under the Taliban’s rule. In response, the EU launched projects worth €268.3 million with focuses on maintaining education, sustaining livelihoods, and protecting public health, including for refugees, migrants and internally displaced people (European Commission, 2022). This, and any future delivery of aid could provide Brussels with some leverage to exert a moderating influence on how Afghanistan is governed, and may see the EU become a step closer to cementing its status as a credible foreign actor.
The Afghanistan crisis also did very little to deter those who argue the UK is closer aligned with the EU on matters of foreign or security policy than the US (Whitman, 2021). In fact, the withdrawal highlighted how both London and Brussels have been too dependent on decisions made in Washington when it comes to international matters, and while both the UK and the EU strive to become global actors themselves, it is clear they would benefit by formally coordinating on shared challenges to strengthen their positions when dealing with the US on these issues. Although there were some coordinated responses to the crisis between Brussels and London (alongside other members) through the G7, there remain no structures that could allow for this to happen.
Russian invasion of Ukraine
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has rapidly become a security priority for the EU and for the UK, and both have responded quickly to the ongoing crisis, enforcing strong sanctions against Russia and providing Kyiv with various levels of economic and military support.
Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has hailed Boris Johnson for his Government’s support to Ukraine in response to the Russian invasion as he told the Ukrainian public the British Prime Minister’s leadership will go down in history (Sharma, 2022). In addition to many sanctions against Russia, the UK has provided Ukraine with military support including multiple-launch rocket systems, and has a Memorandum of Understanding with the Ukrainian government to take forward future cooperation on reconstruction efforts. Furthermore, the British Government has launched a major training operation for Ukrainian forces. Even before the conflict began in Ukraine, the UK was toughening its stance towards Russia and Vladmir Putin; within the Integrated Review, Russia is mentioned fourteen times and Moscow is described as the “most acute direct threat to the UK” (HM Government Cabinet Office, 2021).
The EU’s response to the crisis in Ukraine has been unprecedented. Shortly after the war broke out, High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, pledged to finance provision of military equipment to Ukraine – with a current budget of €1 billion committed to doing so through the European Peace Facility (Council of the EU, 2021). This is in addition to EU financial support packages for Member States sheltering Ukrainian refugees and an announcement from the European Commission stating an ambition to make Europe independent from Russian fossil fuels before 2030. Moreover, in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, EU leaders have reaffirmed their commitment to take more responsibility for European security and increase its capacity to act autonomously.
Urusula von der Leyen, like Boris Johnson, has received widespread praise for her response to the crisis in Ukraine and, like the British Prime Minister, has visited Ukraine more than once since the conflict began. It was during a visit to Kyiv when the European Commission President pledged her support for Ukraine’s bid for EU membership and, in June 2022, the European Council granted the country with EU candidate status.
While there have been some coordinated sanctions on Russian representatives from the UK and the EU (as well as the US and others), the invasion of Ukraine has further exposed the need for London and Brussels to cooperate more closely on defence and security. Geography ensures they are both close to the frontline, and so the impact of the crisis not only hits both actors first but is likely to be felt the hardest. Moreover, both the EU and the UK have reacted strongly to the crisis albeit through slightly different approaches. A more coordinated response by London and Brussels on Ukraine and other security issues would be another blow to Vladimir Putin, as he strives to destabilise his Western rivals.
Interestingly the UK has used other diplomatic avenues to work with their European counterparts on the issue of Russia and European security which has led to the creation of a new security alliance consisting of the UK, Poland and Ukraine. The British Government has also recently signed mutual security deals with Sweden and with Finland in response to the increasing threat of Russia. This indicates the Johnson administration does recognise the importance of closer coordination with at least some of the UK’s European neighbours.
Since leaving the EU, the UK has often opted to cooperate with European countries on foreign policy issues on a bilateral or trilateral basis as described above. This British approach to diplomacy with its European counterparts has been increasingly evident since Brexit, and even more so since the publication of the Integrated Review. Detailed in the review is a British intention to cooperate bilaterally with European states with France and Germany mentioned specifically. Following the publication of the review the UK has signed several trilateral pacts including the security agreement between the UK, Poland and Ukraine.
This form of “mini-lateralism” with its European counterparts is not a new concept for the UK although it is increasingly a preferred option for the British Government. The E3, a small diplomatic coalition comprising of the UK, Germany and France, has been in existence since 2003 and has provided a platform for the three states to work together on a variety of issues, most notably Iran and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. This avenue of diplomacy has continued after the Brexit vote although Johnson’s Government has so far been reluctant to utilise the E3 in response to the crisis in Ukraine.
After Brexit, there appears to be a more deliberate attempt from the British Government to sidestep the EU and work directly with European partners, including EU member states, through other diplomatic arrangements. This is likely a consequence of domestic British politics and the continued tensions between London and Brussels on issues such as the Northern Ireland Protocol. The UK is reluctant to recognise the EU as either a foreign policy or security actor which is born from a British desire for itself to be a security leader in Europe, as stated in the Integrated Review, and from the UK Government’s attempts to avoid any gestures that could be perceived as pro-EU. This is reflected within the document for it is overly vague on EU-UK cooperation on any of the issues the review highlights, and fails to offer any foundations for the relationship between Brussels and London to build from.
To state the EU-UK relationship has experienced some difficulty in recent years would be an understatement. This was recently typified by the latest disputes on the Northern Ireland Protocol with a potential trade war between London and Brussels threatening to break out. However, despite the various difficulties associated with Brexit, it is clear that the EU and the UK not only share common security objectives but have – and likely to continue to – experience similar foreign policy challenges too.
It is encouraging the UK Government is seeking to improve relations with European partners on a bilateral or trilateral basis, and it is reassuring for European allies that detailed within the Integrated Review is a reinforcement of British commitment to NATO. Moreover, Emmanuel Macron’s call for a European Political Community – a forum for the EU to engage with non-member European states (including Great Britain) that share ‘core values’ to coordinate on political and security issues – reflects a recognition from European leaders that there is potential for the UK to cooperate with its EU counterparts on these challenges (French Presidency of the Council of the EU, 2022). Interestingly, it has been reported that Boris Johnson has been receptive to this idea (BBC, 2022).
Strong cooperation on foreign policy and on defence and security between the EU and the UK can only benefit both as they aim to increase their global influence. Former National Security Adviser to the British Government, Lord Peter Ricketts, argues the Government’s refusal to pursue “any structured relationship with the EU on foreign policy, security or defence will weaken the UK’s capacity to play a leading role” as on most issues the EU wields greater influence than the UK acting alone (Ricketts, 2021). Closer alignment on foreign policy matters with a neighbouring nuclear power will only strengthen the European bloc’s journey in becoming a more meaningful international actor too.
Even six years after the Brexit vote, and fifteen months after the UK’s Integrated Review was published, the potential for cooperation on security, defence and/or foreign policy between London and Brussels remains ambiguous at best. However, there are reasons for (very) cautious optimism, some of which this report has touched upon.
One thing is for certain though, if Global Britain is to be effective in securing many of the objectives laid out in its Integrated Review, then it must seek to cooperate more closely with a Global EU on a variety of different international challenges and issues.
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Gurney, J. (2022) The EU and Global Britain, IDRN, 30 June. Available at: https://idrn.eu/the-eu-and-global-britain [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].