Comment

The case for an ambitious UK/EU security cooperation pact

Julian King / Feb 2024

Image: Shutterstock


Much has changed in seven plus years since the Brexit vote. Tempers have cooled; there’s greater pragmatism in the relationship. But, crucially, the world has changed around us. It’s both more complicated and more dangerous. Not just the immediate challenges of Ukraine and the Middle East, but wider instability across sub Saharan Africa, developments in US/China relations and the emergence of a range of ‘middle powers’ looking to carve out greater influence. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine refocused attention on hard, collective defence. At the same time, the urgent need to reduce dependence on Russian oil and gas reignited wider debates on the importance of reinforcing economic and societal resilience.

Geopolitical uncertainty will continue through 2024, this year of elections, with all eyes on what happens in the US. There’s a renewed focus on the challenges from a range of state, and non state, actors; on the need to build economic and energy security, to counter terrorism, cyber, hybrid threats, and dis and misinformation.

These challenges, both defence and wider security, affect the U.K. and our EU neighbours; there is a shared interest in tackling them and the response would be improved by closer cooperation.

The U.K. should continue to reinforce bilateral security and defence relations with European allies, like France and the Nordics. But should also look again at its security relationship with the EU: it’s not a question of either/or. There are some, encouraging, signs this is starting to happen. The U.K. Government has worked closely with the EU on particular challenges, like reinforcing sanctions on Russia for example. The Labour Party has argued for sometime that Johnson’s rejection of structured foreign policy cooperation was wrong and that it supports developing closer U.K./EU foreign policy and security cooperation.

Resuscitating structured dialogue arrangements would be a good first step. But given the shifts in geopolitics over recent years, it’s time for a fundamental look at what is in the mutual interest. The EU members, increasingly, tackle a range of security challenges collectively. The U.K. is not in the EU; it has no role in defining the EU’s ambitions. Indeed, neither side should be seeking to bind the other into particular undertakings if the other side has reservations. A new framework for cooperation should be enabling, not restrictive, driven by its own logic. It should allow for joint discussion of a particular challenge and provide a process to look at how the EU and the U.K. could coordinate their response - including, with common agreement, organising a joint response.

What might that mean in practice? I’m not pretending all these proposals are necessarily right, or could easily be agreed, but they show the range and scope of the issues that should be considered in developing a comprehensive security and defence partnership - and why leaving this discussion to the TCA review wouldn’t do it justice.

Missions: While Ukraine has underlined the crucial importance of territorial defence and deterrence, delivered through NATO, there will be a continuing perhaps increasing need for civilian/military missions. The U.K. should be ready to participate where there’s a clear shared objective: in Bosnia (Operation Althea), and against the Houthi threat to international shipping (supporting cooperation with Operation Prosperity Guardian), for example. Issues around funding, organisation, how missions are badged have been resolved in the past; no reason why they can’t be again. There’s a particular subset of training missions, notably in support of Ukraine, where greater coordination between the parallel U.K. and EU efforts could benefit everyone.

Capability development: There’s a pressing need to boost capability development, and share better the capabilities and expertise that exists. For a range of military capabilities the U.K. should be ready to participate in EU development programmes where there’s a clear shared benefit. The Government has already said it will join the programme to develop military mobility across Europe (as the US has), but this is held up politically at the moment on the EU side (which needs to shift). Both sides stand to gain from this kind of cooperation. It gets more complicated when it comes to longer term defence industry development and procurement. But, again, the need is clear. The EU promised last spring to deliver 1 million rounds of ammunition to Ukraine, so far they’ve only managed half of that. Despite efforts, production and procurement are failing short. There’s a strong case here for greater coordination and cooperation between allies and partners, including U.K. and EU.

There should be scope to look at flexibility for the U.K. to contribute to the costs of projects in which it is participating and where there is a clear shared benefit (both sides would need to agree the terms, ie agree it was in the mutual interest). In any case, funding for military support to Ukraine has been organised ‘off budget’, financing collective support without getting tied up in EU budget contributions.

The U.K. reaching an agreement with the European Defence Agency, like the US has done, would be a good place to start exploring the opportunities for collaboration. The focus is often on top end, complex projects like the rival next generation fighter plane programmes (there’s a strong argument for combining these), but there’s a lot to do at the less glamorous, more basic level too, like ammunition production.

The US Presidential election is focusing minds. A second Biden administration would support the kind of measures set out here; were Trump re-elected they would be needed even more. If, at some point in the future, the US is doing less in Europe, that means other allies will need to do more (indeed, there’s a strong case for this in any event). Done right, closer cooperation between EU allies and the U.K. can help underpin those efforts.

Agencies: There are a range of EU security and law enforcement agencies that are tackling key shared security challenges. The U.K. has maintained, or started to rebuild, relations with the agencies that promote cooperation between European police and law enforcement (EUROPOL), prosecutors (Eurojust), and border forces (Frontex). But in each case, with limitations. Fully re-engaging with them, to combat cross border security threats like serious and organised crime, terrorism, trafficking, smuggling, crucially the international gangs involved in people smuggling and behind the small boats, would involve taking on new commitments. But the, shared, benefits are potentially significant. Fully sharing the data these agencies hold; helping set the policy priorities for future cooperation; potentially leading operations targeting the gangs and individuals involved. The costs would be limited; most practitioners consider it a sound investment.

Law enforcement and judicial cooperation: There are important provisions in the TCA for cooperation, in particular sharing data, to tackle criminality (crime scene data, fingerprints, dna, vehicle registrations), follow cross border movements (air passenger data), and to extradite criminals across Europe. But these need to be kept up to date. This is an area where maintaining alignment works for everyone.

Cyber: The U.K. has recently launched a dialogue with the EU, but there’s scope to go further, and real mutual benefit in strengthening cooperation on these challenges.

Crisis management and disaster response: The U.K. and, increasingly, the EU have well developed civil protection mechanisms, bringing together military, other state, and voluntary sector resources. Again, there’s obvious potential mutual benefit in strengthening cooperation.

Space: The U.K. and EU have agreed to restart cooperation on environment and climate change earth observation through the Copernicus satellite system. But not, yet, on security. The U.K. was excluded from the restricted part of the EU’s satellite navigation system Galileo during Brexit because it wasn’t deemed a trusted partner. Again, the world has moved on. The EU should be encouraged to review this decision, and the U.K. to explore the full range of options for non EU members’ involvement with Galileo.

Economic security/sanctions: The U.K. and the EU have established close cooperation on sanctions policy and implementation against Russia following the invasion of Ukraine. This has been an important part, working very closely with the US, of implementing G7 and international sanctions (and now tackling circumvention). Building on this positive experience, the U.K. should explore expanding this cooperation with the EU to wider sanctions policy and implementation in other cases. As sanctions play an ever bigger role in crisis management and security policy this will be important in its own right and as a basis for wider security cooperation.

Indeed, economic security, building resilience - physical, infrastructure and societal - and reducing dependencies is increasingly key to security policy. The EU, playing to its strengths, has been active: coordinating Europe’s radical reduction in dependency on Russian oil and gas, exploring alternative energy sources, tackling emerging dependencies from Chinese telecoms, tech and chips to critical minerals, and building or reinforcing links with like minded countries from the US, through the Trade and Technology Council, to Asia, Africa and South America through the Global Gateway initiatives. The U.K. has pursued a number of initiatives in parallel. All would benefit from closer cooperation on this range of issues. To take one example, as the US works to define its technology relationship with China, including through a series of restrictions on trade and investment, the U.K. and EU could benefit enormously from closer coordination of their responses to the fallout from the push to ‘de risk’ relations.

Energy security: One specific aspect of economic security where the U.K. and the EU have an obvious shared interest is energy security. The U.K. has re-engaged with the framework for energy cooperation in the North Sea, with neighbouring countries and the EU. This is a good basis for cooperation on off shore wind and electricity interconnection. But given the increasing importance of energy security policy across Europe and internationally, and the interlinkages with green economic and climate policy, the U.K. should seek a wider dialogue with the EU on these issues, including on the coordination of our emissions trading systems and the implementation of the EU’s and U.K’s respective carbon border adjustment measures.

I realise this covers a lot of different aspects of security, raising different opportunities and issues. But the world has changed. Defence and security challenges are more important, in urgency and scope. The U.K. and the EU face many of the same challenges, and they would face them better working closer together. It’s time to develop a new security pact.

A lengthier version of this article can be found on the website of the European and International Analysts Group.

Julian King

Julian King

February 2024

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