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Integrated review ;

Global Britain and European defence: the future is flexible

This essay was first published in July 2021, in the first volume of the Centre for Defence Studies series on The Integrated Review in Context: A Strategy Fit for the 2020s?

Almost five years after the Brexit referendum, the UK has now formulated the aspiration for ‘Global Britain’ in its Integrated Review. The document remains vague on EU-UK defence cooperation, but a successful Global Britain will most likely need a successful Global Europe. Especially flexible forms of defence cooperation can create positive synergies between London and European capitals, enhancing European strategic autonomy ‘through the backdoor’.

Strengthening the EU’s military capabilities, making the EU a credible actor in international security, achieving strategic autonomy— all these objectives have never been truly shared by London, sparking fierce, long-running debates and British obstruction. Indeed, a quest to re-assert British sovereignty and independence – the idea that the UK can act alone as a credible player on the international scene – were prominent claims of Brexiteers even before the referendum. Now, almost five years after the referendum, the Integrated Review finally puts flesh on the bones of the concept of Global Britain, and clearly outlines the UK’s aspirations to secure its place as a major player in international security. With a particular focus on the Indo-Pacific, nuclear deterrence, and a comparative advantage through technological innovation,  

the UK depicts itself as a leading power in the crucial theatres of international security in the years to come. – Gesine Weber

In this context, London repeatedly underlines the importance of the ‘special relationship‘ with the US as the most important partner for the UK, and also emphasises its willingness to cooperate with other major partners like France and through multilateral organisations. In contrast, the document falls short on concrete proposals for UK-EU or UK-European defence cooperation. Given the political context in which the document was drafted, this is unsurprising — and it is therefore even more important to read between the lines. Indeed, if Britain wants to live up to its aspirations, there is little doubt that it will need willing and able partners sharing its ambitions. Whether London wants to admit this or not, it is very likely to find such partners in other European capitals.

A Marathon Not a Sprint - but Still a Race Worth Running

From an EU perspective, the UK’s recently published Integrated Review speaks a clear language, to put it bluntly: We are out, for good. Beyond the suggestion that the EU and NATO should enhance their cooperation, strategists in London abstained from drawing any roadmap of what future engagement with Brussels should look like. Traditionally, the British have been reluctant to advance security and defence cooperation through the EU because the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) was, in the eyes of the UK, first and foremost a complementary tool to the main military organisation in Europe, NATO. It is entirely consistent with the UK’s general conceptualisation of security and defence in Europe that the Integrated Review does not make a U-turn on this issue, and call for an integration of the UK as an additional partner in the CSDP. However,

it is surprising how limited the UK’s efforts to promote security and defence cooperation with the EU have been over the last months and years. – Gesine Weber

Since January 2021, the UK has officially the status of a third country, and until now, there has been no comprehensive agreement defining the EU-UK relationship in the field of security and defence. That such an agreement is not on top of the UK’s political agenda is clearly reflected in the Integrated Review: EU-UK cooperation. in the field of security and defence is not an end in itself, but a means for achieving the UK’s security objectives, because that the UK, in the words of the text, will ‘cooperate with the EU on matters of security and defence as independent partners, where this is in [its] interest.’

Yet, relying only on its military and diplomatic capabilities as key assets for a strong negotiation position, and assuming that cooperation with the EU will not potentially require concessions from the UK, is a risky balancing act for London. Earlier this year, the EU’s High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, backed up by the Foreign Ministers of the member states, has underlined that ‘cherry-picking’ on security and defence cooperation is not an option. Even in areas where the EU’s and the UK’s interests converge, cooperation will most likely be challenging, especially as the British side will be concerned – from a domestic political perspective – to avoid gestures which might be interpreted as pro-European symbolism. Quick wins in the field of defence cooperation could thus potentially be achieved through factual cooperation ‘behind the scenes’, for instance on questions of nuclear disarmament, whereas an encompassing security and defence partnership is still a long way off, rather like the finish line of a marathon. Yet, policy-makers in London will most likely need to accept this challenge, as the recent developments in European defence, especially the development of the Strategic Compass or the EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, show that the EU is stepping up its capability to act and is becoming increasingly autonomous. After stepping up its capabilities through Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), under which currently 46 joint capability projects are ongoing, and the European Defence Fund (EDF) to finance research and development, the current processes on the EU level show that the EU is now aligning its capabilities and strategy to redefine its role. Policy-makers in London will be well advised to monitor these developments closely to seize opportunities for cooperation.

While the UK will undoubtedly find common ground with the US as its most important ally on many issues, the US has limited interest in dedicating the necessary time and reassurance to military stabilisation efforts in the wider European neighbourhood. Particularly at the southern flank, military efforts can mostly be expected from the European side. Indeed, the EU’s increased engagement in the Sahel through the EU Training Mission (EUTM) Mali and the EU Capacity Building Mission (EUCAP) in the Sahel, and the control of the UN arms embargo against Libya through the CSDP mission Irini show that the EU is increasingly taking the lead in this region, while the US and NATO support these efforts. Likewise, the Integrated Review illustrates a much more cooperative approach of the UK towards China than the current line of the US administration, so that London might need to look for other partners here to gain leverage in any kind of relationship with China. To live up to its aspirations of becoming Global Britain and to translate its security interests into policies,

the UK will, in the long run, need a global EU by its side – Gesine Weber

— and it needs to be aware that this partnership is not unconditional.

The Road to Europe Leads Through Paris

In light of the difficult Brexit negotiations and the challenge to define a ‘new normal’, the UK’s road to European defence cooperation does not, at least for the moment, lead directly through Brussels, but rather through the European capitals. Indeed, the Integrated Review could even be described as a ‘pivot to Paris’: the UK’s aspirations reflected in the ambition of becoming ‘Global Britain’ rhyme very well with the French conceptualisation of the Grande Nation, a great power with global influence. Besides the fact that the UK and France share similar characteristics — similar population size and GDP, nuclear powers in Europe, permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — they both aspire to play a key global role. Similarly, both are facing the increasingly important role of China and other rising powers, and thus the threat of relative decline. While France has a traditionally more important regional focus on Africa, most recently manifest in counterterrorism and stability operations, both countries describe the Indo-Pacific as the key theatre for international security in the upcoming years, calling for more European action in this region. Consequently, there is a high level of convergence of strategic interests between London and Paris. Franco-British security and defence cooperation is traditionally close and has, in the past, often worked as a catalyst for more European action in the field. Bilateral France-UK cooperation could once again become a door opener for European defence cooperation in the age of Global Britain. The Lancaster House Treaty (2010) facilitated cooperation on the operational level, but bilateral defence cooperation in terms of grand strategy-making or ambitious joint projects between London and Paris have been slowing down over the last two decades. It would therefore need policy-makers with the objective to give new impetus to Franco-British cooperation for Europe to benefit from positive synergies. 

Besides the fact that the UK’s aspirations for Global Britain have been assessed in a mostly positive manner in France, policy-makers in Paris will be keen to deepen practical cooperation with the UK. Since his election, French president Macron has regularly seen his high ambitions for European defence cooperation fail because of concessions made to other European states in the framework of the CSDP. As a reaction, Paris decided to launch more flexible formats of defence cooperation outside this existing institutional framework: consequently, the European Intervention Initiative, with a small secretariat in Paris, aims at creating a European strategic culture and enabling Europeans to better act together, and the Task Force Takuba, composed of European special forces for the fight against terrorism, is fully integrated in France’s Barkhane mission in Mali. Interestingly, the UK participates in both formats, as it is a member state in the European Intervention Initiative and was among the countries launching Task Force Takuba, although the British support for this project remains only political for the moment. Even though the UK does not deploy special forces explicitly to the task force, it supports the French Barkhane mission with helicopters from the Royal Air Force, and operates alongside the European partners and other countries within the UN Mission MINUSMA through its Operation Newcombe. This underlines the willingness in London to assess opportunities for European defence cooperation on a case-by-case basis, and the general awareness that cooperation with European partners can be beneficial because of the multitude of shared security interests.

Flexibility is Key - for Successful Cooperation and Strategic Autonomy

Indeed, these flexible forms of European defence cooperation can emerge as a win-win cooperation for all sides: they allow a flexible and targeted response to a security problem through European states willing and able to participate in this grouping, and might therefore. accelerate responses to security challenges in the European neighbourhood more efficiently. Besides, these formats perfectly align with the UK’s quest for Global Britain by allowing the UK to participate in the concrete resolution of security challenges as a meaningful actor without abandoning its autonomy, as all these formats are intergovernmental and work without a transfer of national sovereignty or decision-making powers. For the EU member states, flexible formats of defence cooperation with the UK in areas where security interests converge can be equally beneficial and serve as an ‘add-on’ to the existing CSDP. The UK’s quest for Global Britain can thus constitute an important incentive for EU member states who are willing and able to seek cooperation beyond the existing CSDP framework, and to enhance factual cooperation. Indeed, the UK itself has, through its leadership of the Cooperative Joint Expeditionary Force, played a key role in advancing these flexible formats of cooperation of willing and capable states. Already before the UK left the EU, other non-EU member states participated in this project, which underlines that this form of ad hoc coalitions aligns well with the post-Brexit environment because it provides an efficient alternative for interstate cooperation in a complex institutional context.

Paradoxically, the UK’s ambition to become Global Britain and the emergence of more flexible cooperation with the UK might benefit European strategic autonomy both within and beyond the European Union. The concept of

Global Britain forces the EU member states to define the areas where they are willing to cooperate with the UK; – Gesine Weber

this implies the need for EU strategy-making process and the development of capabilities to act independently for the cases where the EU cannot rely on its partners. Indeed, this is exactly what is understood as European strategic autonomy – the ‘capacity to act autonomously when and where necessary and with partners wherever possible,’ as laid out in the November 2016 Council conclusions and regularly reiterated by the EU’s High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, Josep Borrell. At the same time, flexible, ad hoc cooperation among the UK and other European states independent from EU membership can lead to the factual emergence of European strategic autonomy, demonstrating that Europeans can take their destiny in their own hands. This is even more important, as interests among the EU member states themselves do not always converge, and cooperation through the EU is in these cases often an approach of the lowest common denominator that fails to achieve the determined objective. Global Britain might, five years after the presentation of the EU’s Global Strategy, sound like British hubris or overconfidence in the ears of some Europeans. Nonetheless, it can constitute an opportunity both for the EU and the individual member states to create positive synergies in security and defence cooperation. That is why policymakers in London, Paris, Berlin and Brussels should assess possibilities of ‘going global’ together.

Gesine Weber is a PhD candidate at the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London. Her research interests include European defence cooperation (with a particular focus on France, Germany, and the UK), the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), and questions of global order in a broader sense. Gesine also works as Program Coordinator at the Paris Office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, where she conducts research on European security and defence, transatlantic relations, and geopolitics. She holds an MA with distinction in European Affairs from SciencesPo Paris and an MA in Political Science from Freie Universität Berlin.

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Gesine Weber

Gesine Weber

PhD Student

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