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UK-EU defence cooperation

The Integrated Review in context: One year on
Gesine Weber and Professor Anand Menon

School of Security Studies

21 April 2022

‘Events, my dear boy, events.’ So Harold Macmillan responded when asked about the greatest threat to his administration. Events, of course, provide opportunities as well as posing threats. And events have played a key role in shaping how the Integrated Review has been translated into action when it comes to the UK and European security.

The Review contains only one reference to UK-EU cooperation in matters of security and defence. Equally, its emphasis on the ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific led many to wonder how real the UK’s commitment to the security of Europe would prove to be. For all its insistence on the continued importance of Euro-Atlantic security, it leaves little doubt that the Atlantic aspect is the priority. NATO is referenced frequently. 

In contrast, while European states are described as key partners, security cooperation with them, and particularly with the EU itself, is downplayed in the review."– Gesine Weber and Professor Anand Menon

A little over a year since the publication of the Review, events are helping define what it means in practice. Participation in the AUKUS deal has underlined the concrete implications of the ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific – in terms both of the opportunities it affords (such as the new partnership to start work on hypersonic missile technology and electronic warfare capabilities) and its potentially negative impact on relationships with European partners.

More strikingly, the crisis over Ukraine has underlined the UK’s continued commitment to European security. 

In asserting the real risk of a Russian invasion, and moving quickly to provide practical assistance to both Ukraine and neighbouring NATO allies, London has demonstrated that what it says about the Euro-Atlantic region will be matched by actions." – Gesine Weber and Professor Anand Menon

In prioritising NATO and bilateral links with European partners, it has also, for the moment at least, maintained its formal distance from the EU. However, whether the longer-term consequences of the war confirm the conclusions reached by the British Government last year will ultimately depend on many factors, not least on developments within the EU itself.

The Integrated Review

The Integrated Review emphasises the UK’s commitment to the Euro-Atlantic region. The precondition for Global Britain is ‘the safety of our citizens at home and the security of the Euro-Atlantic region, where the bulk of the UK’s security focus will remain.’ Consequently, the UK’s ‘commitment to European security is unequivocal.’

NATO is key to this vision. Even prior to the current crisis, London made it clear that it intended to do more for the security of Europe. Russia is identified in the Integrated Review as an ‘acute threat’ and the Defence Command Paper that accompanied it revealed that the UK intended to store more military equipment in Germany, would continue to base troops in Estonia and Poland and would contribute to the Alliance’s standing naval forces. The ambition was that the UK would be ‘the leading European Ally [sic] within NATO’. While this commitment was welcomed by other NATO members, however, some Europeans voiced criticism about the UK’s insistence on the threat posed by Russia, arguing that this focus on a revisionist power was not commensurate with Russia’s diminished weight in international affairs. Events would prove them wrong.

Equally striking is what Ian Bond of the Centre for European Reform calls an ‘EU-shaped hole’ in the Review. There are only two references to the European Union in the whole 114 page document. The Defence Command Paper, for its part, does not mention the EU at all. There is more in the Review on the ‘tilt’ towards the Indo-Pacific than about relations with the UK’s nearest neighbour. And allusions to the EU tend to emphasise the ability of the UK to differentiate itself from it, on London’s ‘freedom to do things differently and better, both economically and politically’ (Prime Minister’s foreword).


The UK’s willingness to do things differently was first manifested in its participation in AUKUS, a defence pact between Australia, the US, and UK concluded in September 2021. The UK’s role and the benefits to be gained from it are still not entirely clear: some describe the UK merely as a broker between the US and Australia, while others see it as providing the UK with a unique opportunity to play a larger role in the region and put some flesh on the bones of its Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’. 

Not only did the AUKUS pact blow up a multi-billion-dollar deal on submarines concluded between France and Australia; it also excludes France from the US-US approach to the region."– Gesine Weber and Professor Anand Menon

This is particularly problematic since the French strategy in the Indo-Pacific relies on partnerships with Australia and India, with Paris having played a key role in encouraging greater EU interest in the region. Unsurprisingly, therefore, AUKUS was described as a “stab in the back” in Paris, and although France saw the US as the driving force, the implications for relations with the UK should not be downplayed.

The convergence of French and British interests in the region, not least their shared commitment to freedom of navigation, could have provided a basis for bilateral and potentially European cooperation in the region."– Gesine Weber and Professor Anand Menon


The Russian invasion of Ukraine has fundamentally altered the European security landscape in terms of both the geopolitical order and the dynamics of security cooperation. It has also shed light on two key elements of current UK policy.

First, London takes its responsibilities within the European security order seriously. While the Integrated Review had sparked concerns regarding those responsibilities, London’s response to Russian actions helped counter any suspicion that the Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’ might prevent the UK from living up to its responsibilities closer to home. London acted fast in not only recognising the possibility of war but in delivering supplies, including anti-tank weapons, as well as posting advisers. And it has continued to offer material, including military, backing for Ukraine throughout the conflict, while loudly trumpeting its solidarity with the country. Its Defence and Foreign Ministers have been highly active and outspoken during the crisis, and of course the Prime Minister made a surprise trip to Kiev during the first weekend of April.

None of which is to deny shortcomings in the UK approach, most strikingly a marked reluctance to address the flow of money into the UK from individuals closely connected to Russia. Research by the Center for American Progress - an influential Democratic-aligned US think tank – singled out the UK as a ‘a major hub for Russian oligarchs and their wealth’ and pointed to links between Kremlin-linked oligarchs and the UK’s ‘ruling Conservative Party, the press and its real estate and financial industry.’

Such concerns notwithstanding, the UK has acted decisively in support of Ukraine. It was among the first to impose harsh sanctions on Russia, and led calls to exclude Russia from the SWIFT agreement, despite (initial) wariness on the part of some EU member states. This pattern is being repeated in current debates about a possible energy embargo (though clearly the UK is nowhere near as exposed as some EU member states on that front).

During the early stages of the crisis, the UK’s proactive approach stood in stark contrast with the early hesitancy of the EU. The EU finally shed its initial reluctance, agreeing a severe sanctions package, banning Russian state media, and deploying the European Peace Facility to equip Ukraine with lethal weapons."– Gesine Weber and Professor Anand Menon

What some have seen this as the EU‘s geopolitical awakening (consisting not only of immediate measures taken to support Ukraine but also, and perhaps more importantly, of the shift in Germany defence policy brought about by Chancellor Olaf Scholz) clearly has significant consequences for London.

Some UK officials privately express the concern that the US will increasingly turn towards Brussels rather than London when seeking a reliable western ally."– Gesine Weber and Professor Anand Menon

Indeed, the failure of EU leaders to invite Boris Johnson to a European Council meeting attended by US President Joe Biden was seen by some observers as a sign of the UK’s increasing marginalisation.

Yet to date there has been no sign of the UK rethinking its reluctance to countenance formal security cooperation with the EU. Rather, it has stepped up its collaboration with individual states or groups of states. The “Euro Quad”— the UK, France, Germany, and the US — as well as an enlarged Euro Quad (including Italy) have become key forums for coordination. Moreover, the attendance of Foreign Secretary Liz Truss at a meeting of EU Foreign Ministers spoke to the willingness of London to countenance at least informal coordination within an EU framework.

The crisis has also served to cement London’s relations with the EU’s northern and eastern states. These latter still harbour some suspicions of larger EU allies, generated both by German prevarication (notably on extending sanctions to gas and oil) and French President Macron’s desire to deal directly with Putin (‘nobody negotiated with Hitler’, as the Polish Prime Minister put it).

Events have thus given some credence to the notion that the UK will continue to play a leading role in European security, albeit dealing directly with NATO, individual EU member states, or groups of states, rather than the EU itself. As a result of the crisis, the UK has reinforced its claim to be a key security provider in Europe.

Looking Ahead

Yet while events may determine the short-term agenda for cooperation, they tell us relatively little about the longer term. 

It would be all too easy for policy makers in London to draw the conclusion that the EU can safely be ignored when it comes to security matters. Yet recent events, not least the reforms announced in states such as Germany and the new-found EU determination to play a full role in European security (as outlined in the new Strategic Compass) imply that such thinking might be misplaced."– Gesine Weber and Professor Anand Menon

The focus of much of the Integrated Review – implicitly or explicitly – is the United States, which ‘will remain the UK’s most important strategic ally and partner.’ It is hard to avoid the impression that some of the language in the document – particularly concerning China – was written with half an eye on how it would be received in Washington (indeed the similarities with the Biden administrations’ National Security Guidance are striking). However, the security interests of the US and UK do not always converge – not least when it comes to the European neighbourhood. Moreover, the UK has, like the EU, learnt lessons from the Trump years.

Whoever replaces Joe Biden as President in 2024, the US will remain an unreliable partner as long as a significant strand of political opinion there takes issue with some of the key tenets of post-Cold War US foreign policy."– Gesine Weber and Professor Anand Menon

Even given a Europhile administration in Washington, the UK has work to do.

The current administration has a strong interest in a united West working together to address common challenges. The increasingly intense US-EU dialogue, not least in the context of the EU-US Security Forum, suggests that Washington is coming to endorse a stronger security role for the Union. 

The more London turns its back on cooperation with the EU, the greater the risk that it finds itself sidelined. This would undermine the western unity that is a key objective of current American foreign policy."– Gesine Weber and Professor Anand Menon

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.’

One argument used to justify Brexit was that it would enable the UK to pursue a foreign policy of its own choosing. It is hard to see any rational basis to this claim."– Gesine Weber and Professor Anand Menon

EU member states were free to make their own foreign policy decisions, as the Iraq war underlined all too clearly. It was the UK, after all, that insisted on – and obtained – the declaration attached to the Lisbon Treaty underlining that the treaty’s provision on foreign policy ‘do not affect the responsibilities of the Member States, as they currently exist, for the formulation and conduct of their foreign policy nor of their national representation in third countries and international organisations.’

It is perfectly possible, in other words, to be part of the EU and enjoy an autonomous foreign policy. All the more possible to collaborate with the EU without constraining foreign policy autonomy – albeit that, if considerations of ‘strategic autonomy’ shape EU thinking, the Union itself might find it harder to collaborate formally with non-member states. Given the scale of the challenges they face, it is hard to see how either the UK or the EU can be as effective acting alone as they could be, when the need arises, acting together.

Author bios

Gesine Weber a PhD candidate at the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London. Her research interests include European security and defence, EU-UK relations, the E3 (France, Germany, UK), and the EU’s role in geopolitics. She also works for the Paris Office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Anand Menon is Director of the UK in a Changing Europe, and Professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs at Kings College London.

In this story

Gesine Weber

Gesine Weber

PhD Student

Anand  Menon

Anand Menon

Professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs

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