19 September 2019

Last week MPs passed a law forcing Prime Minister Boris Johnson to request an Article 50 extension if he does not manage to agree a deal with the EU by 19 October. Despite claims that this measure took No Deal Brexit “off the table”, No Deal remains a possible outcome; extending Article 50 does not stop No Deal, it merely delays it.

There has been much attention on what No Deal means for trade. However, this outcome would have implications for future UK-EU relations in foreign policy and defence.

Procedurally, the impact would be minimal; much UK-EU co-operation on foreign policy is managed on an intergovernmental basis, or via non-EU frameworks such as NATO and bilateral relationships. However, the impact on trust between the UK and EU is more difficult to predict.

On the one hand, there could be a ‘co-operative’ No Deal where there is significant disruption in the immediate short-term, but where the UK and EU soon come back to the negotiating table to agree various arrangements.

Alternatively, there could be an ‘acrimonious’ No Deal, where UK-EU relations become more distant, although there is considerable uncertainty about how long this could last. Such an atmosphere would be much less conducive to ongoing co-operation on foreign policy.

If they are interested in preserving cooperation, both sides would need to engage in talks, in any scenario. The issues discussed are likely to be similar to those already negotiated in the current Withdrawal Agreement.

A recent Open Europe briefing (see PDF below) outlines the positions taken by the UK and the EU with regards to how they see their security partnership, the different possible frameworks, and the issues and questions that both sides will have to address in future talks. There have been many recent signs that both sides are committed to pursuing cooperation on security issues and that there is an interest to find architecture to maintain foreign policy cooperation after Brexit, even in a No Deal outcome.

The EU should recognise that without the UK’s involvement, its ambitions for developing a stronger role in the world would be undermined. In his speech to ambassadors stationed in France, Macron said that “whatever the outcome of Brexit, it is indispensable that we continue to think about [European] sovereignty with the United Kingdom,” in terms of military and strategic cooperation. A recent op-ed in Le Figaro also argued that it was crucial to “preserve a partnership more important than economic arrangements forged in Brussels” – a historic partnership between the French and British, especially on foreign policy issues, and cooperation at the UN Security Council.

Meanwhile, in his international debut in August, Johnson made clear that after Brexit he will remain committed to European security, just as Theresa May reiterated. He discussed global issues such as the situation in the Gulf and world trade during his bilateral meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, as well as at the G7 summit in Biarritz. Johnson stood along with Merkel, Macron and EU Council President Donald Tusk to resist US President Donald Trump’s suggestion to reintegrate Russia into the G8. Moreover, while the Government recently decided not to send representatives to EU meetings starting from 1 September, this does not apply to discussions related to security and foreign affairs.

Even in a No Deal scenario, the UK could be willing to contribute to EU policies and pursue close cooperation, when it is in its strategic interests. The EU also appears keen to welcome UK contributions, recognising that its ambitions, especially on defence and sanctions, are unlikely to be credible without those contributions.

The UK and EU have yet to decide the framework for continuing dialogue on foreign policy matters. Would it be a in a bi-annual ministerial forum, or UK representatives invited on an ad-hoc basis? The current Political Declaration provides little clarity, and a No Deal scenario would bring even more uncertainty. Much will depend on the level of trust and both sides’ political ambitions, as they reconsider their roles in the world.

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