Despite Brexit, the EU have an interest in further collaborating with the UK, while the UK also need to pursue a cooperative approach because of their high level of convergences of interest and objectives in European security matters, writes Nele Marianne Ewers-Peters.
The 21st century has been tumultuous and not quite straightforward for the United Kingdom and its role in European security. While it has been engaged internationally, such as in Afghanistan and Iraq, it has focused less on its own role within European security. The withdrawal from the EU has brought about new questions about the UK’s role, strategic interests and priorities for its foreign, security and defence policies. These questions have become more urgent within its overall strategy of ‘Global Britain’, its repositioning in the European and global order, and hopes for renewing the transatlantic partnership. For its post-Brexit outlook in European security, Britain therefore needs to focus on three key priorities: (1) cooperating with European states through bilateral and minilateral frameworks, (2) fostering its role within NATO, and (3) increasing resilience by sharpening its profile in cyber security, intelligence and counterterrorism.
Cooperating with key European allies
While it was still a member of the EU, the UK had already fostered bilateral security relationships with other European states outside institutional frameworks. The Franco-British security and defence partnership will still play a significant role for the UK’s overall security posture in the future. Similarly, during the negotiations of the withdrawal agreement, Britain began to sign security partnership agreements with other European allies such as Germany, Poland and the Netherlands, and now seeks to expand its minilateral frameworks with the Nordics and Baltics.
Above all, the so-called E3 format with Germany and France will be of significance because of the German-Franco powerhouse within the EU as well as the alignment of mutual interests such as in the engagement in nuclear talks with Iran, the conflict management in Syria and discussing arms control. Another way of collaborating and coordinating security issues will be through NATO and through informal mechanisms such as the European Intervention Initiative (EI2). Given the overlap of interests with Poland, the Netherlands and the Nordic-Baltic group as well as their common Atlanticist orientation, the UK will also look for opportunities to strengthen these bilateral and minilateral ties. Such frameworks will allow the UK to still have a prime voice in European security policies while not being tied to institutional commitments and limitations under the roof of the EU.
Fostering its role within NATO
As one of the militarily most significant countries in Europe – it is the only European nuclear power alongside France, and among the top defence spenders within NATO – the UK’s role as a security provider and shaper within Europe has increasingly diminished, however. With the new adjustments and shift in the UK’s foreign policy orientation, its prime focus forum for action is and will be NATO. To strengthen its own role in European and transatlantic security matters, it will need to expand and deepen its role in the Atlantic Alliance. A stronger role in NATO will also aid the UK’s Atlanticist outlook and its ‘Global Britain’ ambition.
The new US administration under Joe Biden will provide a new impetus for the ‘special relationship’ and will allow to become the new power duo in the Euro-Atlantic security community (alongside France and Germany on the EU side). What this means in practice is that the UK will (need to) align more with the US on European security and defence matters. After his first call with President Biden, Boris Johnson declared this a ‘big moment’ for their relationship and that both sides have a ‘joint common agenda’. Especially keeping an eye on the developments in the Western Balkans and the European periphery such as in the Mediterranean Sea and Near East will be of strategic interest for all – the UK, NATO and also the US. Lastly, with Brexit, the only channel where the UK will be able to shape and influence European security and defence issues because of its decision-making power is the North Atlantic Council.
Increasing resilience by sharpening its profile in intelligence, counterterrorism and cyber
Resilience has become the buzzword in European security debates of the 21st century. While no commonly agreed definition exists, resilience implies the ability to recover from crises and risks in areas such as, but not limited to, cyber security and counterterrorism. The UK has been a strong actor in these fields thanks to its intelligence capabilities, cyber forces and existing measures. Despite its withdrawal from the EU, Britain still maintains its capabilities and resources thanks to work of the MI5, MI6 and GCHQ. Though it will not have access to the EU’s data and resources anymore, e.g., on passenger flight details, legal instruments and the EU Intelligence Analysis Centre, it had already developed a wide and well-resourced apparatus to collect data and intelligence.
In addition, the UK will seek to cooperate on a bilateral level with other European EU member states on intelligence, data sharing and exchange. Such arrangements will also help to coordinate efforts and collaborate on counterterrorism measures. With already high level of engagement in counterterrorism activities and the discontinuation of EU constraints, Britain can use a wider range of measures and will be freer to trace and convict terrorists. In addition, Brexit also affects the UK’s capabilities in cyber security and defence. Its resources and activities in this field are widely respected, especially among its European neighbours. One of its post-Brexit priorities is therefore to maintain and strengthen its national capabilities while also cooperating with allies through existing institutional frameworks, primarily the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence as well as on a bilateral level.
In whatever thematic field the UK will engage in the future, it will be of key significance and highest priority to coordinate its efforts with its neighbours and to cooperate with its closest partners in the Euro-Atlantic space and beyond. Despite Brexit, not only does the EU have interest in further collaborating with the UK, but the UK should (and is very likely to) have both the interest and the need to pursue a cooperative approach because of their high level of convergences of interest and objectives in European security matters.
Nele Marianne Ewers-Peters is a DAAD Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute at John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).