Nick Westcott / Mar 2023
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Rishi Sunak’s visit to Paris this month has signalled that the government is at last willing to reset its relations with Europe. Cooperation not just on migrants, but on foreign and security policy should be at the forefront of that re-set. This article sets out why, and what a new agreement should cover.
After its brief flurry of post-Brexit, post-imperial nostalgia for a Britain bestriding the globe, pivoting to Asia, sending the Royal Navy to rule the waves, or building a future on our relations with the old Dominions, reality has finally, inevitably, returned to the British government’s foreign policy. Boosterism may work (for a while) at home, but was never going to work abroad.
We have Liz Truss to thank for comprehensively crashing the Brexit bus into the brick wall of reality. Its passengers have emerged, dazed and confused from their fantasy trip, back into a world they once knew, but had tried to ignore for five years.
Britain’s most important relationships are with the countries closest to it: Ireland, the closest of all, and France – if only because what happens there still directly affects what happens here. The same goes broadly for all of Europe. One of the longest-running themes in British history, over many centuries, has been the constant effort to maintain influence over, and even control of, continental Europe in order to maintain our security and our prosperity through friendly governments and regular, free commerce. Even in its imperial heyday, Britain needed the Entente Cordiale with France to preserve stability.
Brexit was an explicit reversal of this long-standing principle of British foreign policy. Politically and economically, Britain turned its back on Europe and went into self-imposed exile from ‘the room where it happens’. To the rest of the world, Britain might as well have resigned its Security Council seat: it appeared to be simply throwing away power. The experiment has not gone well, resulting in a significant weakening of both Britain's economy and its influence in the world.
This policy led to the omission of any provisions for foreign policy cooperation in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement agreed in December 2020. In removing any institutional way to influence the foreign policy of the EU and its member states, Britain had to rely on bilateral lobbying. From being one of the most influential voices in European foreign policy-making – as I witnessed at first hand – Britain became an outsider, struggling to make its voice heard, except when it served EU interests to listen.
Far from sustaining the habits of cooperation, maintaining the contacts and ensuring continued access to decision-making, as some of us advised, the British government pursued a policy of complete rupture, exemplified by the long, futile and ultimately fruitless efforts of Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to downgrade the EU’s Ambassador to the UK.
Finally, the penny has dropped, and Rishi Sunak has begun the long, slow process of rebuilding the relationship with our most important neighbours. It became increasingly obvious that without it, Britain would remain marginalised, weaker, and unable to solve some of its most pressing domestic problems such as the impact of migration. Bilateral links and membership of NATO alone could not substitute for the relationship we had through the EU. This change in policy has been driven partly by economic imperatives, partly by the collapse in public faith in the benefits of Brexit, and partly by a recognition that the Russian threat to Ukraine and Europe as a whole requires much closer political as well as security links.. Sunak appears to have realised that unqualified support for Ukraine alone is not enough to define British foreign policy.
So what is needed with the EU if we are to re-build more fruitful foreign policy cooperation? A new arrangement should have four key features:
Firstly, we should recognise that the EU works by institutional means: informal, day-by-day lobbying has its place, but it will be much more effective if accompanied by a formal mechanism that provides a structure for cooperation and regular meetings at senior level. The EU has such mechanisms with almost all its most important partners, including the US, China, Canada, as well as Norway, Brazil and Turkey. The UK puts itself at a disadvantage by not having one. So the first step is to agree to start negotiating a foreign and security policy cooperation agreement. This need not take long in technical terms, the templates exist, as long as the political willingness is there.
Secondly, however, there was – and may still be – the opportunity as a former member state for the UK to have prioritised access to crisis management and joint action. We already see this in the close consultations on sanctions, but it should be extended and institutionalised to enable the UK and its diplomats to act in concert with EU colleagues on a regular basis. The UK is currently taking a wholly disproportionate risk in threatening to disregard or abrogate the European Convention on Human Rights. This may play well for a few weeks with the Daily Mail, Tory backbenchers or ‘Red Wall’ voters, but it risks long-term damage to Britain’s international reputation and ability to cooperate on security issues with EU neighbours. On this issue at least, the government must prioritise the national interest over Conservative electoral calculations, or the whole country will suffer for years to come.
Thirdly, an agreement needs to cover secure information sharing with EU institutions and member states. The latter’s decisions were significantly improved when the UK, as a member, was able to share its analysis of situations where our intelligence, experience and relationships gave us insight and judgement that others did not have. Britain still has a superb diplomatic service: to share its output and capabilities would increase Britain’s influence rather than diminish it.
Fourthly, we need to re-establish regular staff exchanges, not only bilaterally with EU member states but with the EU institutions. This should happen in all areas of our relations, but is especially important in foreign and security policy. The UK is still tiding over on personal contacts at working level that were established when we were EU members. But these will decay fast, and if not replaced by personal experience of working inside the institutions, alongside EU military and diplomatic staff, Britain will be much less able or effective in making its voice heard and its interests protected. These arrangements should be put in place at once.
In 2018, I predicted that if Britain did not sign a foreign and security policy cooperation agreement with the EU then, “it will probably need to do so within five years, when circumstances may be less propitious”. That time has now come, and it is urgent.