Theresa May outlined her ambition for a strong UK-EU security partnership at the Munich Security Conference last year. And in the run-up to this year’s gathering the EU’s Deputy Chief Brexit negotiator, Sabine Weyand, encouragingly insisted that ‘foreign policy, security and defence are the least controversial parts of the political declaration’.
But the current arrangement proposed in the political declaration – the part of the Brexit deal which sets out the future EU-UK relationship – is not fit-for-purpose; it is also short-sighted.
Weyand is correct to point out that it may be easier for the UK and EU27 to find common ground on external security and defence than on trade. For starters, the EU has played a limited role in these areas. Most member states are NATO allies. Of the six that are not, almost all engage with NATO either directly or through EU-NATO cooperation agreements.
Second, there are special agreements between two or more EU countries, for example the 2010 Lancaster Agreement between France and the UK. These would continue – irrespective of whether the UK exits the EU with a deal or not.
The EU has a small number of civilian and military training missions abroad in which the UK has played a key role in the past – from contributing troops to designing and leading the missions themselves. The EU also has an important external budget which it uses for capacity and institution-building in areas of conflict, such as in the Sahel and the Central African Republic.
The Political Declaration holds out the prospect that the UK could continue to participate in EU missions and contribute to the budget, but is vague on whether it could have more say over strategic decisions than other third countries.
The EU has already shown reluctance to think beyond existing rules, with the exclusion of UK firms from bidding on contracts for the security elements of the Galileo programme the highest profile case to date.
But this approach is counterproductive. It is true that third countries have limited say over EU decisions, but the UK plays an influential role in the EU’s approach to defence and security – notably as a key member of the political and security Committee in the Council of the EU.
On Russia for example, it has traditionally taken a tougher stance than Germany or France – a position that was supported by Poland and Romania. It also championed closer cooperation with Canada and the US in Ukraine and the Western Balkans.
If the EU27 are serious about working closely with the UK on security and defence, they may need to go beyond the offer of regular dialogues on areas of shared interest. Instead, the EU should consider giving the UK a role in shaping the EU’s long-term strategic planning.
The UK will need to be realistic on how much influence it can exert over the EU once it has left. It will need to work harder on building support for its positions in Europe as well as increase its engagement in Brussels and EU capitals.
On the EU side, it may require adapting the way it cooperates with third countries – reluctant though it may be to make an exception for a departing member state.
Sabine Weyand and Theresa May are right that a strong UK-EU strategic security and defence partnership is possible, and indeed desirable. But for it to be effective, it cannot be constrained to the EU’s existing models for cooperation with third countries. Instead, it should go above and beyond the structures prescribed in the political declaration to ensure that the UK and the EU not only cooperate, but also determine joint priorities going forward.