Why the UK Has Taken Foreign Policy Out of Brexit Negotiations

The UK government is no longer pursuing agreement with the EU on foreign policy, development and defence because it thinks the stakes are low and better alternatives exist in pursuing its international objectives.

Expert comment Updated 27 January 2021 Published 1 July 2020 3 minute READ

Professor Richard G. Whitman

Senior Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe

João Vale de Almeida, the EU’s first post-Brexit ambassador to the UK, recently bemoaned the British government’s opposition to starting negotiations on a future EU-UK foreign policy relationship, while EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier expressed his frustration at the UK’s refusal to discuss future cooperation on foreign policy, development and defence. Many in the EU are surprised and disappointed by the UK’s position.

These sentiments are strengthened by the fact that the political declaration outlining the ambitions for the post-Brexit future relationship, agreed by both the EU and UK government alongside the withdrawal agreement in October 2019, contained extensive detail on the proposed terms for the future relationship on foreign, security and defence policy. The declaration envisioned cooperation in areas like sanctions, defence industry and research, consular cooperation in third countries, as well as the UK being invited to EU foreign minister meetings and potentially participating in EU military operations.

Yet when the UK published draft texts for future EU-UK agreements in May 2020, there was no text or provisions covering cooperation in these areas. The government’s current refusal to enter negotiations on foreign, security and defence policy is a direct departure from the political declaration.

Three factors explain this shift in position. First, the UK has other priorities in the negotiations. The Johnson government’s focus has been on reaching agreement on the terms of the EU-UK trade and market access relationship and arrangements for managing the consequences of UK policy where it diverges from EU policies, such as in competition, environment, fisheries, farming, and in areas of cooperation such as policing and criminal justice. COVID-19 has played a part in limiting what can be currently achieved in negotiations, as has the decision of the UK government to not extend talks beyond the end of the year.

Second, the lack of an agreement in this area creates minimal disruption. Unlike the consequences of failing to reach an EU-UK trade deal, the costs of failing to reach an agreement on foreign, security and defence policy are negligible for the UK. The UK has already taken the hit on foreign policy cooperation with the EU by being outside its decision-making structures since the end of January, and therefore having no direct influence on EU policy formation.

It has also largely retreated from the debate on the EU’s aspirations for a defence union, unwound its participation in the common security and defence policy (CSDP) missions in third countries, and remained outside developments to enhance member state military capabilities via policies such as permanent structured cooperation (PESCO).

Setting aside the rhetoric of an ‘ambitious, broad and deep and flexible partnership’, the UK was being offered little more than a standard EU ‘third country’ arrangement of consultation with the EU, rather than a decision-shaping role.

Third, the UK has begun to pursue partnerships and initiatives beyond the EU. Although overshadowed by the international focus on managing the pandemic, the UK’s post-Brexit ‘global Britain’ foreign policy has come into sharper focus. Despite being committed to following EU foreign policy positions during the transition period, the UK has already proved willing to push beyond EU27 collective positions - most notably on Hong Kong.

Trade policy is to the fore, with negotiations on new trade agreements with Japan, the US, Australia, and New Zealand are underway. The merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and Department for International Development (DFID) was a statement of intent marking a new approach to UK foreign aid policy. And a fast-evolving position on China has seen the UK coordinate a collective response on the imposition of a new security law on Hong Kong.

The UK now joins the US, Australia, and Canada in holding positions on China which are more strident than that of the EU, and there is work underway to build a ‘D10’ alliance of democracies – incorporating G7 members plus Australia, South Korea and India - to create alternative suppliers of 5G equipment and other technology to reduce reliance on China.

None of these forms of cooperation would have been prohibited if the UK was an EU member state. But taken together these new developments offer scope for a greater flexibility in UK foreign policy than the arrangements for EU-UK foreign policy cooperation outlined in the political declaration.

Being outside the EU, the UK has other important opportunities for influencing the foreign policies of its European neighbours through its roles in multilateral institutions such as the UN Security Council, G7, and NATO, as well as via informal groups such as the E3 - with France and Germany - and bilateral diplomacy.

Although none of this precludes an EU-UK agreement on foreign, security and defence policy, it does now appear increasingly unlikely before the end of 2020. In the absence of a fully-fledged agreement, cooperation will continue on an ad hoc basis and, where necessary, minor enabling agreements, such as a framework participation agreement covering any decision by the UK to be involved in EU military missions, can be made.

A ‘no deal’ on foreign, security and defence policy would be indicative of a lowering of ambition and a move away from an all-encompassing comprehensive future relationship. For its part, the UK Government is content with this significant downgrading of the foreign, security and defence policy relationship. For the EU, there is a risk that, without a formal arrangement, foreign policy positions may become misaligned, and the UK’s diplomatic and security capabilities used to pursue competing rather than complementary objectives.

This does not necessarily mean the EU-UK foreign policy relationship is on course for conflict, but it may evolve in a less institutionalised direction than the existing relationships between the EU and its other key foreign policy partners.