E3 Cooperation Beyond Brexit: Challenging but Necessary

In the current uncertain strategic context for Europe, the E3 is establishing itself as a go-to format for diplomatic cooperation for Europe’s ‘big three’.

Expert comment Updated 28 April 2021 Published 2 September 2020 3 minute READ

Alice Billon-Galland

Former Research Fellow, Europe Programme

Professor Richard G. Whitman

Senior Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (R), French President Emmanuel Macron (C) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) speak upon their arrival for a round table meeting as part of an EU summit in Brussels on 17 October 2019. Photo by Olivier Matthys/Pool/AFP via Getty Images.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (R), French President Emmanuel Macron (C) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) speak upon their arrival for a round table meeting as part of an EU summit in Brussels on 17 October 2019. Photo by Olivier Matthys/Pool/AFP via Getty Images.

As the UK’s post-Brexit foreign policy takes shape, it is increasingly clear that joint cooperation with France and Germany will be of key importance. The current dispute with the US over imposing further sanctions on Iran shows that the UK values continuing strong cooperation with its European partners on key international issues, even at the cost of a major transatlantic dispute. Moreover, the recent first meeting of the German, French and British defence ministers in an E3 (European/EU 3) format signalled political commitment by all three partners to double down on joint diplomatic cooperation despite troubled UK-EU Brexit negotiations.

The UK working with France and Germany as part of the E3 has evolved in recent years from a shared approach to diplomacy on Iran’s nuclear programme to include a broader range of international security issues, such as the conflict in Syria and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. E3 cooperation has so far been largely low-key, marked by close relationships and daily contacts between officials rather than high-profile summits between the leaders of the three countries. In the absence of any EU-UK negotiations on a future foreign, security and defence policy relationship, the E3 represents a key arrangement for aligning and mobilizing Europe’s ‘big three’ states. In a recent Chatham House research paper, we argue that Germany, France and the UK could and should maintain the E3 as a platform for flexible diplomatic coordination and crisis response, and expand its focus to address a new set of thematic, regional or multilateral topics. These could range from further cooperation on arms control to a reform agenda for multilateral institutions or a joint approach to the broader European neighbourhood.

The E3 countries have complementary reasons for wanting to make the format work. France and Germany recognize that the high degree of shared foreign and security policy interests with the UK require a pragmatic format for close cooperation, to provide insurance against an underdeveloped EU-UK relationship, help efficiently combine European forces and bring added value to the EU and NATO – but also to see the UK aligned with Europe on major international issues. Close foreign and security policy relationships with France and Germany will remain of interest to the UK as well, in order for it to keep playing an effective role in European security and to work with like-minded partners on key international issues.

Brexit presents both a major challenge for the E3 relationship and a major rationale for developing the format further. Neither France nor Germany see E3 cooperation as a substitute for a deal on a future EU-UK relationship or for the development of the EU’s own foreign, security and defence policy. Failure to reach a Brexit deal and a collapse of the EU-UK relationship into hostility and antagonism could make E3 cooperation politically difficult in the short term. In the longer term, were the UK and the EU to adopt very different foreign and security policies, E3 cooperation would also make less sense.

Even if an agreement is reached on the future EU-UK relationship by the end of this year, for France and Germany the challenge will be to reconcile their work with the UK through the E3 with their commitment to the EU. France and Germany have different rationales for favouring E3 cooperation. While France is more relaxed about its intergovernmental approach and prioritizes deliverables, Germany is worried about the perceived competition between the E3 and the EU. However, they both share the view that E3 cooperation should complement rather than undermine EU foreign, security and defence policy cooperation, while acting to bridge or smooth cooperation between the EU and the UK. If E3 cooperation were to conflict with broader EU policy by generating hostility from excluded member states (such as Poland or Italy) and therefore distract from building consensus for broader EU initiatives, such as post-COVID economic recovery, E3 cooperation may falter.

Another key factor for the E3 will be the evolution of transatlantic relations, and whether the next US administration presents Europe with the dilemma of choosing between broad alignment with the US or open confrontation, as in the case of the Iran nuclear deal’s ‘snapback’ mechanism. As a non-EU state, the UK may have more autonomy to set its own policies but it will not be able to escape a choice between either a broad alliance with European states or a more ambivalent and ad-hoc relationship with the continent, while also creating new formats for cooperation with other democracies such as the Five Eyes states. This type of diplomatic ‘venue shopping’ could create tensions with European partners, especially Germany and France who hope to anchor London into a broad European approach. The UK’s ongoing Integrated Security, Defence and Foreign Policy Review should provide clarity as to the UK’s future European ambitions and what that means for the E3.

Given the growing instability surrounding Europe, reinforced by an eventful summer 2020– with the Iran nuclear deal in limbo, renewed tensions between Turkey and Greece in the Mediterranean, protests in Belarus, increasing US-China rivalry and further instability in the Sahel – the E3 has recently been developing a more visible profile. By convening the first meeting of E3 defence ministers in August, Germany showed leadership and a commitment to the format despite its fears of hostility from other EU member states towards increased E3 cooperation. Officially widening E3 cooperation to include defence, while mostly symbolic for now, satisfies Berlin by marking a step towards institutionalization, appeases Paris by putting on the joint agenda issues such as the recent coup in Mali and the crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean, and shows some political commitment by London at a time of tense UK-EU Brexit negotiations.

France, the UK and Germany all agree that the E3 is a necessary cooperation format that needs to be developed further. Recent events seem to show willingness on the part of the three countries to make it work, both in spite of and because of upcoming Brexit tensions. Longer-term challenges – relating to intra-EU tensions over the role of the E3, the future EU-UK relationship and transatlantic divergences – are still to be addressed and managed for the format to reach its full potential. Nevertheless, in today’s uncertain strategic context for Europe, the E3 is establishing itself as a go-to format for cooperation for Europe’s ‘big three’.