15 May 2018

The EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, yesterday presented Brussels’ post-Brexit vision of EU foreign, security and defence policy. She called for a “positive and constructive” security partnership with the UK, adding, “We are ready to work together at the diplomatic level, on the ground, and when it comes to our capabilities.” But she stressed that after Brexit, the UK “will be a partner, but as a third country…Britain will not be a “half-member”, or a member “ad honorem”: because there is no such thing.” This comes after the UK government last week set out its detailed proposal for a bilateral future defence and security partnership “of unprecedented depth and breadth.” Little space in negotiations has so far been given to establishing a practical framework for ongoing security cooperation, with the spotlight currently focused on trade, including the future customs relationship and “regulatory alignment.” But security and defence collaboration will be a crucial element of bilateral cooperation post-Brexit – greater clarity on what the UK and EU want to achieve in this area is welcome. 

UK proposal is ambitious

The government last week published an ambitious model that goes beyond the EU’s existing third country agreements.  It envisages three distinct pillars of cooperation: internal security, external security, and wider cooperation on topics such as cyber security, migration, and counter-terrorism.

On internal security, the UK is calling for continued access to the European Arrest Warrant (EAW) and the European Investigation Order (EIO), and an agreement to facilitate cooperation through EU agencies such as Europol and Eurojust. It is also seeking “a framework for sharing and protecting classified information with the EU institutions” to continue the capability-sharing currently supported by EU systems such as the Schengen Information System II (SIS II), or the Passenger Name Record Directive (PNR) to be protected. It is telling the head of MI5, Andrew Parker, delivered a speech in Germany yesterday urging European leaders to protect the vital “shared strength” of UK and EU intelligence sharing after Brexit – his first ever speech delivered abroad.

On external cooperation, the UK is seeking to go beyond an agreement on foreign, security and defence policy, to include cooperation on development aid, defence research, capability-sharing, and space security. It is seeking continued case-by-case participation in EU Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) operations and missions, and is willing to contribute financially to these. The government argues that the scope of UK involvement in EU missions would be “scalable and commensurate” to capabilities it contributes. It also wants to “keep open the option” of UK participation in EU Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) projects. To support coordination of UK and EU foreign policy, the UK suggests establishing regular structured consultations, including at the highest political level.

The government’s proposal emphasises the strength of UK defence and security capabilities. The UK is currently one of the EU’s biggest military powers, and one of only two member states with full-spectrum defence capabilities. Its competitive advantage in this area means it has much to offer – and consequently, it would leave a significant gap in EU capabilities if no new agreement is found after Brexit. The government does not fail to make this point:

There would be a clear mutual loss of operational law enforcement and criminal justice capability if the UK ceased to participate in and contribute to this toolkit, with substantial security consequences.

Relying on precedents for EU agreements with third countries as a basis for the future relationship would result in a patchwork of capability with a real drop in cooperation and serious attendant risks.

The UK therefore recommends enhancing current third country arrangements in a range of areas to achieve a “deep and special” security partnership – for instance, it argues that potential EU changes to third country involvement in CSDP could redefine the scope of UK involvement and contribution. Indeed, Mogherini yesterday said that the EU is planning to revise its framework for third country participation in EU operations and missions to allow for “closer and more constant coordination,” which she stressed would be “essential” to the future UK-EU security partnership.

Galileo row could jeopardise “special” UK-EU security partnership

But recent events suggest the EU is hesitant to map out a truly “special” security partnership for the UK. The clearest example of this is the recent row over continue UK participation in the EU’s space programme, Galileo. Galileo is the EU’s own global navigation satellite system that was developed as an alternative to the US GPS, China’s Beidou and Russia’s GLONASS. The UK has played a key role in its development, and is seeking to maintain access to Galileo after Brexit and continue bidding for contracts. It also wants to retain use of Galileo’s encrypted capability, the Public Regulated Service (PRS).

However, the EU has imposed a number of obstacles that raise questions about the reality of establishing an unprecedentedly ambitious security relationship. For instance, it has introduced a new break clause in contracts, allowing it to terminate deals if the supplier is not based in the EU. This has effectively frozen UK companies out of bidding for contracts even before Brexit over concerns that the break clause could be triggered in less than a year. There are undoubtedly economic interests at play here, with France, Germany and Spain set to benefit from the relocation of agencies and expertise. But the EU risks reducing long-term intelligence-sharing and undermining UK-EU trust by pursuing these short-term economic gains.

The EU’s decision to curb UK access to the secure system, PRS, also threatens to sour post-Brexit security relations. The EU has argued that security issues prevent the sharing of EU classified information with the UK after Brexit, meaning the UK can only secure limited access to PRS. This could enter into force as early as next March, given the draft Withdrawal Agreement appears to the UK from gaining “access to security related sensitive information” during the transition.

The presentation of the UK as a threat to EU security after Brexit seems a needlessly rigid and hostile approach to take if the EU is sincere in wanting to maintain strong cooperation with its close strategic ally. Brexit does not change the fact that UK and EU security interests remain the same. David Davis is right to argue that the EU must choose between treating the UK “as a third country according to existing precedents, creating something that falls well short of our existing relationship” or taking “a more adaptable approach in which we jointly deliver the operational capability that we need to tackle the ever-evolving threats to our security.” As the government says, the final agreement on cooperation in Galileo will form “an important test case” that helps define the parameters of how ambitious a future security partnership will be.

The internal debate in the EU on third country participation in PESCO will also determine how deep a relationship the EU envisages on defence cooperation. Thirteen member states, including the Benelux and Central and Eastern European countries, support a proposal for the UK, the US and Norway to be able to participate in PESCO defence projects: “Certain PESCO projects can benefit from participation by non-EU countries in terms of providing capacities, specific expertise or financial contributions that are useful for either capacity development or operations.” However, France and Germany are reportedly keen to see how Brexit negotiations progress before agreeing a framework to open PESCO up to the UK.

Negotiations on the economic deal and the broader strategic partnership cannot easily be separated. Prime Minister Theresa May was criticised last year when she said that a “no deal” Brexit scenario would risk weakening UK-EU cooperation on combatting crime and terrorism. But a breakdown in Brexit negotiations would have negative consequences beyond trade relations – the damage to mutual trust and goodwill could weaken the potential for cooperation in broader strategic areas. Similarly, the fight over Galileo has already undermined political goodwill on both sides – the government has this week urged UK companies to seek security authorisation before agreeing to new Galileo contracts as “a necessary consequence of the position taken by the European Commission.” If this dispute is not resolved, it risks having a knock-on effect in broader Brexit negotiations.

EU desire for strategic autonomy should not mean reducing defence and security ties with UK

The debate on post-Brexit defence and security policy comes at a time of increasing geopolitical instability. In particular, the growth of US protectionism and isolationism under President Donald Trump has forced Europe to prioritise strengthening its own defence and security capabilities. After Trump’s recent decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “It is no longer such that the United States simply protects us, but Europe must take its destiny in its own hands, that’s the task of the future.”

The credibility of the EU’s “strategic autonomy” is undermined by its investment in defence. A 2016 report by the European Commission found that EU member states reduced defence spending by 12% over the previous decade – although EU countries stepped-up investment last year. In 2017, the UK represented one of only three member states to meet the NATO 2% target. German Chancellor Angel Merkel said yesterday that Germany will miss the 2024 NATO deadline to increase defence spending and accepted that this “raises questions of Germany’s credibility” as a defence ally. There is a difference between the EU establishing autonomy from the US – with the implications that may have for its relationship with NATO – and taking greater responsibility for its own near-neighbourhood. If the EU is aiming at the latter, it is unclear how it could achieve this without collaboration with the UK after Brexit.

Some security and defence cooperation will undoubtedly take place outside of EU structures. Last month’s joint strike by Britain, France and the US against the Syrian government’s chemical weapons capabilities is a good example of extra-EU cooperation. As is the international expulsion of Russian diplomats in response to a chemical attack in the UK this year. It is also interesting France is looking to establishing new means for cooperating with the UK beyond EU frameworks. The UK and France announced new capability-sharing initiatives at this year’s bilateral defence summit in Sandhurst, and the French government recently proposed establishing a European Joint Intervention force to allow for crisis planning and operations outside EU structures. But the UK-EU partnership will remain crucial to protecting common security and stability in Europe.

The broad ambition – expressed by both the UK and EU – for a strong post-Brexit defence and security relationship has faced its first encounter with reality in the ongoing row over Galileo. How this is resolved will set the tone for negotiations on other security issues, including information-sharing, the EAW and cooperation with EU agencies, and will likely determine just how “special” the UK-EU security partnership will be.