Comment

The EU’s strategic autonomy matters for the UK

Richard Whitman / Feb 2021

Dominic Raab, UK Foreign Secretary. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

 

The decision by the British Government to not include provisions on foreign, security and defence policy within the Trade and Cooperation Agreement has created uncertainty as to the basis for future EU-UK cooperation in these areas.

Whether this is a short-term condition which the EU and the UK will muddle through, or a position that the current British government wants to maintain, is uncertain. The consequence is, however, that there is currently no structured basis for the UK to be engaged on the key EU’s key future objective of strategic autonomy.

The definition and implications of a strategic autonomy objective for the EU have been more actively debated since its appearance in the 2016 Global Strategy. And in more recent incarnations, against the backdrop of the Covid 19 pandemic, it has expanded in scale, scope and ambition beyond foreign policy, security and defence to encompass the economy and technology. A succinct definition of strategic autonomy was provided in Council Conclusions in November 2016  “capacity to act autonomously when and where necessary and with partners wherever possible”.

The security and defence implications of strategic autonomy have attracted attention for the implications for NATO and transatlantic security. The election of President Biden has also given rise to disagreements between Paris and Berlin as to whether the EU’s ambitions for greater defence autonomy should be curtailed as a recommitment of the U.S. to NATO and European security has been part of the messaging of the new Administration.

The UK is on the cusp of publishing of its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Foreign Policy and Development, which it is anticipated will signal a greater prominence for the Indo Pacific in the UK’s security and defence posture. This is something of a ‘back to the future’ moment for the UK reversing its decision in the late 1960s to withdraw from substantive security and defence policy commitments East of Suez. The UK has already trailed an increased defence budget for the next four years and with a focus on enhancing and transforming the technological basis of security and defence through increased military research and development. And the deployment of the Queen Elizabeth-led Carrier Strike Group 21 (CSG21), alongside ambitious plans for future naval vessel acquisitions, provides capabilities for more ambitious deployments outside Europe.

All of these developments should give the UK the confidence, alongside the capabilities, to engage with the implications of the EU’s strategic autonomy ambitions. The EU and the UK are both seeking greater relevance in a context of a transformation of geopolitics and geoeconomics.

At present the UK government has no inclination to be directly connected to any of the EU’s security and defence ambitions. It is, however, indirectly connected through EU-NATO cooperation and notably the 74 joint actions agreed between the two organisations. And there would be implications for the UK if the EU’s PESCO projects and initiatives under the European Defence Fund (EDF) facilitate a greater pool of collective capabilities available to the EU. The EU has been slow to provide for third country cooperation in PESCO capability development projects and is at a very early stage in an opening of the EDF (under very limited conditions) to non-EU companies. Consequently, as the third country conditions for participation are not yet settled the UK does not yet have to contemplate whether it would give consideration to participating in these aspects of EU defence in the short-term. The UK’s major defence industrial base, defence programme collaborations with individual member states, alongside its role as a defence products exporter, will, however, generate close interest in the direction of EU-funded defence industrial cooperation.

The EU’s work in realising its ambition of strategic autonomy is still nascent and it is a project for the long haul. Therefore the immediate implications of the absence of EU-UK structured dialogue encompassing strategic autonomy might seem to be insignificant. There is also a significant degree of scepticism among decision-makers in London as to whether strategic autonomy is a tenable proposition and therefore something with which the UK should be concerned. Further, the UK might also reassure itself that, if necessary, through NATO and bilateral, multi- and mini-lateral fora it has an ability to shape the direction of EU debate and strategic autonomy-related activities.

The UK’s interests would, however, be better served by actively promoting dialogue between the EU and all European states (EU member states and non-member states) on the collective implications of the push for EU strategic autonomy. Not least this would encourage the EU to reflect further on an ‘open’ approach to strategic autonomy (open to all European states including non-EU members), as opposed to a ‘closed’ arrangement as the exclusive domain of EU member states. In the absence of an EU-UK framework for cooperation on foreign, security and defence policy the UK might also be better accommodated within a larger forum where European states coordinate, rather than compete, on the long-term strategies intended to address shared global challenges.

 

Richard Whitman

Richard Whitman

February 2021

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