Richard Whitman / Jun 2022
The EU’s Strategic Compass, agreed by the Member States in February doesn’t take much of a bearing on the UK’s role in European security. This might be expected as the EU’s document is focused on the ambition to make Europe a security provider. However, as its role in supporting Ukraine fight against Russia’s invasion has demonstrated, the UK is committed to an activist role in Europe’s security order.
Explanation for the EU confining itself to three short references to the UK in the Strategic Compass can obviously be found in the form of Brexit sought by the British Government. It was the decision of the Johnson-led Government to ignore the provisions of the joint EU-UK Political Declaration agreed alongside the Withdrawal Agreement not to seek inclusion of EU-UK foreign, security and defence policy cooperation in the negotiations that resulted in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). This means that the UK is the only non-EU member of NATO (including Canada and the United States) and the only one of the EU’s European neighbouring states (excluding hostile neighbours Russia and Belarus) not to have a functioning agreement in place that provides for cooperation with the EU on foreign, security or defence issues.
Mapping the same challenges
The Strategic Compass frames one possible future for the relationship as one where the EU ‘remain[s] open to a broad and ambitious security and defence engagement with the United Kingdom.’ The UK’s ambitions for its relationship with the EU, as set out in its own Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy (published a year earlier than the Strategic Compass) are rather less ambitious. There is no mention of the EU in the UK’s Defence in a competitive age March 2021 document that set out the implications for the UK’s defence policy based on the analysis contained in the Integrated Review. It is, however, peppered with references to the Euro-Atlantic, European states (including EU member states) as key partners and allies and the centrality of NATO and European security for the UK’s defence. However, the Strategic Compass and the Integrated Review largely shares the same analysis on the major security challenges that need to be addressed by European states in the coming decades. The EU and the UK are consequently both trying to navigate more complicated security futures but with without the ability to map where they could cooperate to mutual benefit.
The new landscape of European security
Significant stress has been placed on the transformative effects for the EU and its member states as a consequence of Russia’s war on Ukraine. The effects on EU member states have been substantial: from commitments to raising national defence expenditure (most spectacularly demonstrated by Germany), breaking the taboo on member states collective funding defence equipment purchases (via the European Peace Facility) and mobilising a range of collective capabilities to support Ukraine and to hamstring Russia’s ability to wage war. These developments have set new possibilities for what can be achieved through collective EU action and with yet uncertain implications for the (still) ambiguously defined goal of EU Strategic Autonomy. The UK will need to adjust its thinking to accommodate the prospect of EU member states with greater collective security and defence capabilities.
One of the more dramatic consequences of Russia’s war on Ukraine has been the decision of Finland and Sweden to seek EU membership. With these two states joining the Atlantic Alliance there will be a redrawing of the overlapping memberships of NATO and the EU. Finland and Sweden are already security and defence partners with the UK in the ten nation Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) of high readiness armed forces, led by Britain. The UK’s joint bilateral declarations with Finland and Sweden, signed two weeks ago and following both countries stated intentions to join NATO, create an obligation to offer military assistance in the event of attack (and will cover the period before NATO’s Article 5 collective defence guarantee will be activated). The UK commitment will also operate alongside the existing mutual obligation between EU member states of aid and assistance in the event of armed aggression that holds under the Treaty on European Union Article 42.7 (and which the UK relinquished on its departure from the EU). The new agreements between the UK and Sweden add to a plethora of deepened bilateral security and defence cooperation and upgraded agreements between Britain and number of EU member states agreed post-Brexit. In addition to intensified cooperation with JEF partners, both collectively and individually, there has been notable upgrading of security and defence relationships with Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland. The bilateral Lancaster House treaties also enshrine significant security and defence cooperation obligations between the UK and France. All of these relationships, alongside the military deployment commitments undertaken by the UK with NATO partners in EU member states, and notably through the Enhanced Forward Presence and Tailored Forward Presence, see Britain enmeshed in the defence and security of EU member states through bilateral and multilateral arrangements. None of this is reflected in the text of the Strategic Compass where the UK is presented as just one of a list of prospective partners for the EU.
Taking a better bearing
The current UK Government may be reluctant to reach a substantive agreement with the EU on foreign, security and defence policy but the Strategic Compass is on its radar. When questioned on the Strategic Compass in the UK Parliament on 19th May 2022, the UK’s Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace stressed the familiar British position that the EU should complement rather than compete with NATO but also conceded that he was ‘incredibly supportive’ of the EU where it can do well in coordinating in areas such as ‘cyber, transnational crime, transnational migration and disinformation, and also in infrastructure-readiness across its member states.’ And also expressed the view that the UK ‘should be open to joining’ EU member states in the PESCO cooperation project on military mobility.
A fair assessment of the role being played by the UK as a European security provider would see a recalibration of the EU’s Strategic Compass to accommodate the reality of the UK contribution. For the UK, a recognition that the Compass sets a direction for the EU in which Member States have made a significant political investment deserves a serious response rather than the repetition of a mantra that European defence is always, ultimately, the preserve of NATO. In contrast, the Biden Administration has demonstrated a greater receptivity to the security and defence ambitions set out in the Compass. The U.S. President supported the EU’s ambitions in a joint declaration with the European Council. The UK’s continuing reticence to make similarly supportive pronouncements on the ambitions set out in the Compass risks conflates its preference for the direction for EU security and defence policy with taking a better bearing on the direction it might be heading.