“Europe is not an actor in international affairs, and does not seem likely to become one” were the opening words of a 1982 article by Hedley Bull, a prominent member of the English School of International Relations. Almost forty years later, things look quite different and the EU has become an institutional mechanism that not only has been able to integrate diverse actors such as the UK, Germany and France but has also been able to develop an institutionalised foreign and security policy (CSDP/CFSP). Brexit however will change Europe’s security governance. The key question here is whether the UK can be aligned with the future development of CSDP/CFSP.

One finding of my recent book “Peace, Security and Defence Cooperation in Post-Brexit Europe. Risks and Opportunities” is that the 2016 referendum (along with a particular US leadership) has opened a window of opportunity for the EU to start thinking about strategic issues with the aim to formulate a positive agenda for international peace and stability.

The EU Post-Referendum Strategy in Global Affairs

Just after the Brexit referendum, the EU adopted the 2016 Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy setting a new level of ambition and strategic autonomy among its visions. The adoption of a series of new institutional structures for security cooperation (the alphabet soup, as Alice Pannier calls it) may transform EU security. For the new instruments to be effective, it is important to manage member states’ expectations and ensure that those new instruments will enable the EU to reach its strategic objectives. To compensate for a potential UK absence from future CSDP activities, EU27 will need to increase their investment in defence.

The EU’s power is rooted in its understanding as a multidimensional operator, which seeks to empower others to pursue reasonable choices leading to cooperative and less divisive outcomes. While many have criticized the EU’s strategy for not specifying the ‘end goal’, I argue that this may be its strong point. Instead of setting an end goal which will genuinely be met with friction and resistance during its top-down implementation, the EU works on establishing mechanisms and procedures in which policy outcomes can emerge bottom-up, through negotiations with the aim of building a compromise. Especially in the case of Brexit, this may be a useful consideration as there could be multiple policy arenas to negotiate new EU-UK partnerships.

One domain that has consistently been singled out as a potential field for close cooperation after Brexit is security as it presents a unifying issue between the EU and the UK. There is a commonality of security threats and strategic priorities that unites both actors and may make the UK more prone to align its interests with the EU (and vice versa). Some experts have therefore suggested that the UK and the EU should aim for a ‘special security relationship’ after Brexit.

The Difficulties of a EU-UK Special Relationship in Security and Defence

Security partnerships exist between the EU and third countries such Switzerland, Norway, Serbia or Montenegro, allowing them to contribute to civilian and military missions and defence cooperation on an individual or ad-hoc basis. Existing arrangements with third countries, however, do not provide a formal role in CSDP/CFSP decision-making structures such as the Political and Security Committee (PSC) or the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) to non-member partner states. Yet, that third countries, “are well integrated into CSDP missions (…) and have some influence”, particularly at operational level, was the conclusion of the UK’s own assessment of these types of arrangements. In the Political Declaration (Art. 92-104) the EU affirmed its commitment to grant the UK an informal role in CSDP.

The UK reiterated on many occasion its interest in a security partnership with the EU, although the UK is a modest contributor to EU crisis management and missions overseas. Here, the UK has only been the fifth largest contributor to missions after France, Italy, Germany and Spain and in total it accounts for only 3.6% of total contributions to military operations  (see Lee David Turpin for details). However, its military contributions in terms of EU defence budget and specialized equipment, e.g. strategic airlift, airborne early-warning and control aircraft or unmanned aircraft systems, was considerable. While CSDP & CSFP’s intergovernmental nature is believed to increase utility for the UK’s involvement post-Brexit, one needs to consider to what extent the EU will be willing to grant any kind of formal access or shared institutions to a possible Trojan actor, which has vetoed many initiatives in the past.

In our recent book, Sven Biscop proposes a future “special relationship” between the EU and the UK, involving a special British “opt-in” in the CSDP/CFSP, including a seat in the FAC when discussing operations with UK involvement. This would be accompanied by continued UK contribution to the EU security and defence budget. However, while most EU Member States would probably welcome a further UK involvement in CSDP operations, the UK’s participation in formal EU meetings seems highly unlikely not only because it could become a precedent for other countries, including Turkey, but also because the EU would not risk a future UK veto, when member states have recently showed so much unity.

Observer status in FAC or PSC was also part of the initial British proposals for possible avenues for future UK involvement in CSDP structures. Observer status might resemble the form of a special partnership, even though no other country has observer status in PSC or FAC.

Nonetheless, the EU has declined this proposal as it would risk discriminating between third-countries and the UK. What seems more acceptable to the EU would be a ‘special dialogue framework’, which at the moment remains an ambiguous concept. To enhance a possible future EU-UK security partnership and ensure smooth cooperation, UK strategic alignment with CSDP/CFSP objectives might however become inevitable.

While deep political alignment may be difficult to achieve after Brexit, defence cooperation offers multiple opportunities for a closer EU-UK partnership.

In the case of the European Defence Fund, the UK’s participation would be limited to cooperative projects as funding for companies and SMEs from third countries would only be available in exceptional occasions. This distinction is necessary to ensure that benefits for members are different from those of non-members. The UK’s consideration for EDF projects under exceptional circumstances would almost compel an association agreement between the UK and the EU or EDA, which – especially in the case of a no-deal Brexit –  might be difficult to achieve. While many have argued that the Organisation for Joint Armament Cooperation (OCCAR) could be an alternative for military cooperation outside the EU structure after Brexit, my research suggests that the specific conditions of OCCAR collaboration may be revised in case a third country (which the UK will be after Brexit) becomes a member (see Art. 15.6 of the Administrative Arrangement between OCCAR and EDA). If this will be the case, it might result in the UK’s preclusion from OCCAR.

The Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF), European Intervention Initiative (E2I) and bilateral agreements (e.g. the Lancaster House Treaties with France) would constitute avenues which would allow the UK to exert influence without being in EU decision-making structures. However, cooperation in these frameworks will not offer the same level of opportunities which would be possible in a more institutionalised framework in the form of a bespoke security partnership with the EU. In the eventuality of a no-deal, an enhanced security partnership between the EU and the UK would probably be less likely in the short-run, and it cannot be ruled out that it might be vetoed by Ireland and other member states in case of a Brexit deal that includes a hard border in Northern Ireland – a violation of the Good Friday Agreement.

Towards a future EU-UK security cooperation Framework?

While a ‘special relationship’ between the EU and the UK in the form of a special FPA seems less likely, there may be possibilities to negotiate a special dialogue framework after Brexit. This however will largely depend on the EU27’s political preferences. The experiences during the Brexit negotiations may also play a role in making decisions about the future relationship. Another factor is the UK’s ability to demonstrate its commitment vis-à-vis the EU. De facto, this could mean a strategic alignment with the EU. But whether London will be able to normalise relations with European structures might also depend on key actors such as France and Germany, which after the revival of their partnership – symbolised by the recent Aachen Treaty – are expected to increase their efforts to lift obstacles encountered by CSDP/CFSP and advance European security after Brexit.


Cornelia-Adriana Baciu is a final year PhD Candidate in International Security at the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University and Government of Ireland Postgraduate Fellow. She is the founding Director of the Research Network ‘European Security and Strategy’ and specialised in international peace and security, strategy, civil-military relations, regime complexity and research methods. In 2019, her co-edited book Peace, Security and Defence Cooperation in Post-Brexit Europe: Risks and Opportunities was published.

Photo: Tauno Tõhk (EU2017EE) (CC BY 2.0) 

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