It would also weaken the European solidarity that would be essential in the event that a less Europhile administration take power in 2024.
Looking ahead, a combination of different formats – bilateral, mini-lateral, and via formal institutions – seems the likeliest path for UK cooperation with its European partners.
Maintaining the current focus on working with individual European states is an important starting point. Whether judged as a function of their respective military potential, attitudes towards the use of force, or global interests, France and the UK are natural partners when it comes to security and defence. As early as 2019, President Macron had stated that he wanted to establish a ‘very special relationship’ with the UK after Brexit. As one of us has argued, the Integrated Review implies that the UK aspires to become more like France when it comes to foreign and security policy. The Combined Joint Expeditionary Force became operational in 2020 and allows for the rapid deployment of military personnel. The UK has also joined the European Intervention Initiative spearheaded by Paris. However, the main obstacle to cooperation – namely the tension between the French emphasis on the EU and strategic autonomy and the UK’s clear preference for NATO as the only hard security institution in Europe – may yet limit the potential for collaboration.
Equally, trilateral collaboration with Paris and Berlin might be a practical option. The E3 has increased its scope since the 2016 referendum. In 2019, the three countries published a joint statement on the South China Sea, and all three have enhanced their naval presence in the Indo-Pacific. A Germany more committed to a muscular foreign policy stance might see greater value in such an arrangement, while France and Germany have both spoken of the possibility of creating a European Security Council, not least to facilitate cooperation with the UK. Such a format, however, might well spark difficult debates within the EU over questions of membership, decision-making power, and the relationship of any such body with the EU itself.
Which brings us to the EU itself. In the short term, it seems highly unlikely that a Conservative Government in London – under whatever Prime Minister – will seriously consider negotiating formal security relations with the Union. Yet over time, this may impede the UK’s ability to achieve the ambitious objectives it has set itself in the foreign and defence policy spheres. Clearly, the absence of such relations will be an issue when it comes to foreign policy challenges with an economic dimension – where the EU has competence. And even when it comes to security per se, there are grounds to think that UK-EU collaboration might be in the interest of both sides. It is clear, for instance, that both have similar perceptions of China: the EU sees it as systemic rival, while the UK describes China as ‘the biggest state-based threat to the UK’s economic security.’ Both view Beiing, in other words, as part rival, part commercial partner. As the strategy towards China on both sides of the Channel is likely to become a determining factor for their position in the international system, coordinating approaches makes sense.
Underpinning all this, however, is the need for stable political relationships between the UK and its putative European partners. The Integrated Review declares that ‘we will enjoy constructive and productive relationships with our neighbours in the European Union.’ Yet here is an ambition the Government has clearly not achieved to date. Brexit continues to unsettle relations between the UK and both the EU and its member states. A succession of crises – over fisheries and the Northern Ireland protocol – have rendered even bilateral relations with member states far less constructive and productive than they might otherwise have been. In a situation of continued tension and uncertainty, it is hard to see how closer security ties – either with individual member states or with the EU itself – can be built.
The Integrated Review is full of ambitious intent. As it acknowledges, however, the UK cannot be an effective ‘problem-solving and burden-sharing' nation acting alone: ‘collective action and co-creation with our allies and partners will be vitally important in the decade ahead’.
Writing on the day of the publication of the Integrated Review, the Prime Minister declared that the ‘objective of “Global Britain” is not to swagger or strike attitudes on the world stage.’ Yet both his Government and the EU seem caught in a rhetorical arms race. While EU officials talk about a ‘geopolitical Commission’ and European Council President asserts that 2022 will be the ‘year of European defence,’ the UK acts as if the EU does not exist and need not trouble it, while the Integrated Review itself was full of Johnsonian boosterism such as the claim that investment in private technology is ‘ahead of the rest of Europe.’