The Integrated Review and what it means for EU-UK foreign policy

06 May 2021 – Written by Amal Anzari

The British government published the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development, and Foreign Policy on 16 March 2021 – the United Kingdom’s foreign policy roadmap to engage with the world order post-Brexit. The landmark UK-wide referendum, which took place in June 2016, is arguably one of the major foreign policy shifts that the world has witnessed in the 21st Century. Hence, the newly published document can be considered to be one of those timestamps of history that reveals the biggest shift in Britain’s foreign policy and security interests, possibly since the end of the Cold War. What exactly does this mean for the European Union and the relationship between Brussels and London?

The Integrated Review marks a significant step in the UK’s policy decisions outside of the EU. The review can be seen as the promotion of British values, the reinvigoration of the international multipolar world order, and a request for partnerships and collaborations between regions. The Review makes clear that “we will work alongside others, and within existing structures, to enhance the voice of the openness agenda.”

While Brexit has brought forth the need for a nuanced look at the UK’s foreign policy, the Review pretty much deals with the subject of the country’s future relationship with the EU in a concise manner. Although the Review celebrates the UK’s new freedom to “pursue different economic and political approaches,” it does recognise “the important role played by the EU in the peace and prosperity of Europe” and, envisages finding “new ways of working with the EU on shared challenges.” In this context, there is a need to look into the potential for cooperation between the UK and the EU as well as understand whether Brexit has led to a shift in the political dynamics of the two entities.

The future of international alliances

The Review states that international alliances and institutions are not created equal. With a major emphasis on global trade, health and security, the document implies that Britain will work towards a dynamic international landscape that will uphold the said values and instigate the formation of new areas of cooperation between countries. The UK’s emphasis on the primacy of national external action is not new. It should be noted that the EU’s 2007 Lisbon Treaty states that the treaty’s foreign policy provisions “do not affect the responsibilities of the Member States, as they currently exist, for the formulation and conduct of their foreign policy nor of their national representation in third countries and international organisations.” The declaration was attached primarily due to London’s insistence on the need for strengthening national foreign policy tools independent of collective foreign and security policy. 

On-going crises in the Middle East and North Africa are where the UK can build on its strong global networks. The EU has suffered internal divisions from member states when it comes to policies regarding regional conflicts. Additionally, the UK’s views have often been at odds with those of France and Germany. Thus crisis management is a potential area in which the UK can lead its independent policies and form collaborations with its European allies to support the policies to diffuse tensions in these regions.

Trade – the core of the UK’s foreign policy

The emphasis on trade as a central aspect of the UK’s foreign policy is a pivotal aspect of the Review. Trade is described as standing “at the heart of Global Britain.” This is a clear identification of the Government’s confidence in its newly formed independent trading policy and is taken as a platform to advance Britain’s diplomatic, security and development goals and values. With the UK disrupting its largest trading partnership with the EU, promoting trade across regions has become a necessity to the country’s foreign policymaking. The Review states that trade is both a strategic and moral instrument for the UK.

However, the economic damage of leaving a single market, along with the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, which has led to greater border controls between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, is already highly contested. These tensions could further lead to a serious political crisis and could be a permanent cause for friction between Brussels and London. Any divergence from the established EU standards will lead to countermeasures and legal battles.

Areas of contention

While the Review is cautious in its approach towards cooperation with the EU, significant emphasis is given to forging bilateral cooperation with European allies – France, Germany and Ireland in particular. In relation to the UK’s position regarding European security, while the need for greater cooperation with NATO is emphasised, there is little to no information on cooperation with the EU as an institution.

The Review’s proposed Indo-Pacific tilt emphasises increasing involvement in regional trade via the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). The first operational deployment of aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and Asia Pacific is a clear signal of Britain’s need for bolstering defence partnerships in the region. Alongside is the stress on supporting action on climate change and the promotion of British values, besides the reinvigoration of relationships with countries in the region, especially the ASEAN member countries.

A certain degree of competition will arise with the UK’s ambition to become “the broadest and most integrated presence” of any European nation in the Indo-Pacific. The EU, having already blurred the lines between an economic actor and a foreign policy actor, has recognised the “growing importance of the region” in its EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, which was adopted on 19 April 2021. The adoption of the strategy “demonstrates the EU’s commitment to reinforcing its role in cooperation with its partners there.” This would further complicate Britain’s ambitions of becoming the leading European power in the region.

Ways forward

The factors that will determine EU-UK relations are plenty. Firstly, the political fallout of Brexit can have both short and long term effects on how the two entities forge better cooperation. Conversely, the subject of transatlantic security and defence could lead to cooperation for the collective good. External challenges such as climate change, nuclear proliferation, and security and conflict in regions can act as harbingers for a more collaborative approach to systematic and institutional functioning. At the same time, respective internal policies of the EU and the UK can either unravel a more comprehensive Eurocentric vision of the future or further push them apart, leading to independent, nationalist policies.

The Review highlights the UK’s close partnership with the United States and emphasises it as the country’s topmost foreign policy objective. The administration of US president Joe Biden considers its main allies, one of them being the EU, the country’s key assets in global politics. Thus, a renewed engagement in US-EU relations will be a significant diffuser for any political tensions between the EU and UK that might arise.

On the matter of security in Europe and its neighbourhood, both the EU and the UK have broadly similar views. A comparison of the EU Global Strategy and the Integrated Review warns that the renewed pressure from Russia on former countries belonging to its empire, along with disinformation and cyberwarfare are policy issues that need to be addressed urgently. The integrated review considers Russia “the most acute threat” to the UK’s security.  Thus any contestation on the topic of security in Europe’s neighbourhood remains unlikely because the two sides’ fundamental interests are largely aligned.

Apart from the geopolitical challenges, geoeconomic challenges such as climate change, health, cybersecurity, counterterrorism, along with reforming International Organisations, are issues that both London and Brussels have a common foreground in. For efforts along these lines to succeed, there’s an inherent need for a close partnership between the EU and the UK. The geographical identification of belonging to the European region should be at the heart of matters since a stable neighbourhood is a mutual need.

Both the EU and UK share a common vision of a rules-based international order, effective multilateralism, open societies, and an open and resilient global economy. This shared world view should be a good enough objective to work alongside each other and set the space for constructive cooperation.

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Recommended citation:

Anzari, A. (2021) The Integrated Review and what it means for EU-UK foreign policy, IDRN, 05 May. Available at: [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].