Michel Barnier, the former lead negotiator for Brexit on behalf of the European Union, has proposed that the opportune moment has arrived for the UK and EU to enter into an agreement concerning defense and collaborative foreign policy. This serves as the most distinct sign so far that the EU is keen on fostering a fresh and enhanced diplomatic relationship with the UK post-Brexit. Regrettably, the signals emanating from Brussels are not likely to be well-received by the current UK administration. The United Kingdom is presently disinclined to contemplate a formal partnership in these specific domains. As history would recall, the governments led by Boris Johnson and Liz Truss adopted a confrontational stance toward Brussels, thereby complicating any discourse about collaboration. Undoubtedly, there has been a warming of relations between London and Brussels during the tenure of Rishi Sunak, particularly following his endorsement of the Windsor framework, designed to simplify the intricate web of trade regulations involving the EU, mainland Britain, and Northern Ireland.
Notable appearances at one-on-one and multi-party gatherings with European leaders ensued. One could argue that this injected a renewed vigor into diplomatic efforts on both sides, thereby creating an opportunity for novel modes of cooperation and potentially, partnership, between the UK and the EU. However, relying solely on symbolic gestures will prove insufficient in a world where substantial security challenges transcend borders, encompassing issues ranging from warfare to cyber threats and terrorism. The predicament lies in the fact that the UK administration is not actively receptive to input. Despite having initially included foreign policy and defense collaboration in the initial political declaration of October 2019 regarding the future UK-EU relationship, the UK government subsequently reversed its position. It then solidified its stance against any official exchange of ideas, mechanisms, or platforms that would enable comprehensive discussions on UK-EU foreign affairs matters.
Truly, throughout the complete duration of the Brexit negotiations, it remained consistently disinterested, intentionally shaping the significant post-Brexit EU-UK trade and cooperation agreement (TCA) in a manner that would exclude any kind of overseas, safety, and protection collaboration. The pact overtly declares that “official foreign and protection policy” is not included in the arrangement. Rather than an organizational structure, or an accord integrated into a pact – similar to the TCA – the UK government chose an inherently case-by-case, improvised strategy to overseas policy, safety, and protection collaboration between London and Brussels. This choice immediately diminished any capacity from 2020 onward for Britain to officially realign with Brussels in any of these spheres after Brexit. And that is how the situation persists.
Certain rearrangements have shifted the Conservative party closer to the center than the firm right when reevaluating relations with Brussels, but the administration still remains indifferent to any such gestures. Possibilities have emerged in different forums, including the European Political Community, and proposals presented by EU leaders like European Council president Charles Michel that intimate cooperation is crucial. However, the UK has rejected such overtures. Party politics still wield significant influence, it appears, with the outcome that “domestic political considerations in the ruling Conservative party about appearing to gravitate too closely to Brussels” are still of the utmost importance, as one UK official articulated. This precludes any notion of a pact and even a loose dialogue on protection.
Similar to much within the realm of international affairs, broader occurrences possess a tendency to interrupt intentions. In a mix of bitter and sweet destiny, the illicit incursion into Ukraine during February 2022 has surpassed the UK’s favored distant approach to foreign policy connections with the EU. The conflict necessitates unwavering diplomatic, safety, and safeguard cooperation between the UK and European allies, both within and outside the customary realm of Nato. Ranging from collaborating with the EU on punitive measures against Russia, furnishing lethal and non-lethal assistance to Ukraine, to backing wider European battle objectives in other assemblies including the G7, the Ukraine conflict has aided in “restoring the connections” between London, Brussels, and additional European capitals. An accord might not be impending, but in action, security relationships have intensified.
The UK has even perceived sufficient involvement to pledge to Pesco (continual structured collaboration). This enduring EU endeavor is aimed at streamlining the coordination of cross-European troop and equipment transportation. The UK’s choice to participate in late 2022 indicates closer defense collaboration through particular undertakings, if not through institutionalized accords. Could the pressing needs of Ukraine, amalgamated with the broader regional and worldwide safety necessities, combined with the primary stages of defense collaboration with the EU, lead the UK government to change its stance? Barnier certainly appears to believe so. From his perspective, both the context and timing align:
When observing the circumstances in Africa, contemplating the conflict in Ukraine, and recognizing the fresh trials to our safety and the stability of the Continent — I reckon it would serve our mutual benefit to negotiate a new treaty concerning defense, external strategy, foreign affairs, and partnership between the UK and the EU. Undoubtedly, cross-Channel collaboration has attained pleasingly harmonious novel altitudes over the past few months. However, the TCA – essentially the singular basis of post-Brexit UK-EU associations – remains a complicated, imperfect instrument. It omits much regarding police and judicial collaboration, leaving room for ongoing disparities and disputes spanning from fishing to trade. And at this juncture, the UK government seems to lack eagerness to create a completely new dialogue outside the TCA to converse about any types of bilateralism. The TCA’s slated assessment in 2025 might offer the subsequent prospect, but global incidents might merely not wait that duration. Impending elections in the UK (and likewise the EU), though, might act as a catalyst in reevaluating both the necessity and immediacy of a more official and pragmatic UK-EU foreign and security strategy.