Given how fraught negotiations between the UK and EU27 over the Withdrawal Agreement and Irish Backstop have been, even seasoned Brexitologists could well be forgiven for feeling a sense of Brexit fatigue. But we’re not done with Brexit yet. In fact, whether it’s the shape of a new trade deal, or the architecture of a future UK-EU security agreement, Brexit is likely to remain a key European question for years still—however long its process may be extended.
The political declaration between the UK and EU on their future post-Brexit relationship comes in at a compact 26 pages—compared to nearly 600 in the actual exit agreement. Though the British Parliament has voted both down multiple times, it still gives us a blueprint for how both parties envision their future relationship. Much of it is an aspirational statement of common principles—still light on specifics that could take years to negotiate into a legally binding deal. Even so, it envisages “a broad, comprehensive and balanced security partnership” that addresses a laundry list of modern security threats—including state-based threats, terrorism, cyber-attacks, and disinformation campaigns.
Crucially, the political declaration states that any future security partnership will have to respect both the UK’s sovereignty and the EU’s autonomy. For the UK, it likely signals its longstanding unwillingness to integrate its own military chain of command too far into EU frameworks. For the EU, the statement is meant to emphasise still further that membership must matter—and that non-members can never have full access to or influence within Union institutions. These caveats, coupled with differences in political philosophies over the EU’s place in European foreign policy, will constrain just how ambitious a future EU-UK security partnership will be.
“We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe,” British Prime Minister Theresa May declared in her lengthy Lancaster House speech on Brexit in early 2017. Her intended message was clear—May wanted to assure the UK’s European partners that Britain was still committed to their security.
However, May’s conceptual separation of the “EU” and “Europe” is much less commonly shared among the UK’s continental partners. France and Germany—despite some disagreements—are keen to further Europeanise foreign and security policy.
In fact, after the British referendum we saw further developments in PESCO, signaling a movement towards greater defense cooperation at the EU level—without the UK. France and Germany also signed the Aachen Treaty this year, highlighting the ambition of both countries to closely cooperate on foreign and security policy issues—at the EU, NATO, and UN. In a recent interview, German Chancellor Angela Merkel emphasised the need for the EU to take a greater international role.
All this is happening at precisely the same time as Britain prepares to leave the EU, and it is likely that negotiations over a future partnership agreement will be more difficult as a result. There are some ideas to involve the UK to some degree, such as French President Emmanuel Macron’s suggestion to establish a European Security Council that could involve the UK. However, the general political momentum among the EU27 signals a wish to deepen CSDP and strengthen EU capabilities.
What Previous EU Strategic Partnerships tell us about Future EU-UK Relations
Assuming the UK and EU stick to their respective red lines on sovereignty and autonomy, a future security partnership is likely to be modeled technically on ones the EU already has. In this case, even an EU-UK security partnership unprecedented in ambition will fall well short of the cooperation reserved for EU members—at a time when that cooperation is becoming more consequential in the global arena.
Given the political factors mentioned above, Strategic Partnership Agreements (SPAs) the EU has with other third countries give us the best preview into the shape of a future EU-UK security partnership. Crucially, British access to EU institutions post-Brexit will depend on how closely it aligns with—and agrees to be overseen by—those institutions.
The EU has more than ten other SPAs with third countries, including Canada, Brazil, and most recently Japan. These agreements go further than a trade deal, emphasizing shared positions on weapons proliferation, counterterrorism, and the International Criminal Court. They also formally establish the bilateral consultation mechanisms that will exist between the signatories, such as the annual EU-Canada Summit and a Joint Ministerial Committee, co-chaired by the Canadian Foreign Minister and EU High Representative, that we find in the SPA the EU has with Canada — a member of both NATO and the Commonwealth.
The EU-Japan SPA mandates that a Joint Committee between the two meet once a year or at the request of either party, and gives Japan the right to be informed and consulted about any future EU accessions—should they be deemed relevant to the SPA.
Given such precedents with a large economy like Japan or a multilaterally-committed Canada, a future EU-UK SPA will herald a significant downgrade in the access and influence Britain enjoyed as an EU Member—even if such an SPA were to mandate more frequent or higher-level meetings. Crucially, the EU’s express wish for a future EU-UK partnership to respect its autonomy will not allow for a UK European Council vote at a time when it is taking more and more decisions with implications for the continent’s security—from sanctions against Russia for the Crimean invasion, visa liberalization for Georgian citizens as an inducement for greater democratization and political reform, or future EU accessions. Britain’s weighty Council voice will no longer be in the room to propose or vote on such non-military measures, and even an ambitious SPA is not likely to require the UK’s EU partners to do anything more than ask for Britain’s opinion.
The EU’s Political and Security Committee (PSC) is perhaps best set up to allow for more regular consultation at a working level, rather than the infrequent high-level summits mandated under SPAs. It consists of Member State ambassadors and meets twice a week on average. The PSC is a central body for coordinating and taking decisions under the Union’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP), receiving key briefings from the EU Military Committee, among others. The PSC presently invites candidate countries and non-EU NATO states to ad hoc “PSC+7” meetings and “PSC+9” meetings that involve the US and Canada. Although these meetings are currently infrequent, they could be made more regular if the UK were involved. That said, non-EU ambassadors remain without a vote and outside the room when certain sensitive matters are discussed. Although the UK could participate in CSDP missions, as Ukraine, Georgia, and even the US already have, British contributions will only go so far in mitigating the loss of political influence and agenda-setting power that comes with being a full voting member of the EU—and thus the PSC.
Even on internal security, an area where the UK’s exceptional intelligence capabilities make a disproportionately high contribution to counterterrorism in Europe, political and institutional red lines are likely to result in a downgrade. One estimate holds that approximately 40 percent of all cases Europol sees involved British police in some fashion. However, there is no precedent for a non-EU state to enjoy full access to Europol. Norway is estimated to enjoy up to 80 percent of Europol benefits, yet British insistence on leaving the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, at least as far as it can, could prevent it from achieving even a Norwegian level of agency access. A well-resourced British liaison office to Europol is possible even under the hardest of Brexits though, given the 20-officer strong office the US maintains with the agency. The US also posts liaison officers to the EU Intelligence and Situation Centre (INTCEN). The UK could do the same once an intelligence sharing deal is struck, although this too will take time to negotiate.
All together, even the most technically ambitious post-Brexit security partnership between the UK and EU is likely to amount to little more than a damage limitation exercise. In this way, such negotiations have echoes of Brexit itself, where technical solutions remain constrained by the diverging political priorities of Brexit Britain and its EU partners. While there are ways to keep the UK at the table for consultations, red lines on both sides will prevent a non-EU UK from attaining its previous level of agency and influence—at a time when more consequential foreign policy decisions are made at the EU table.
Aaron Burnett is a Berlin-based Writer and Foreign Policy Analyst. He is a member of the Emerging Voices Group at the Institute of International and European Affairs in Dublin and holds degrees from the War Studies Department at King’s College London and the Hertie School of Governance.