One of the key challenges for the E3 has always been how to include other EU member states, and how to position itself vis-à-vis the EU institutions. The format can only be effective if it is seen as legitimate by such institutions; this need has become more acute post-Brexit. With no institutional relationship between the UK and the EU on foreign policy, and the UK government reluctant to be seen to be closely associated with the EU, tensions between Brussels and London are high. It is hard to imagine that an expanded E3+EU format would be politically acceptable on either side at the moment. Resistance on this matter could be problematic in the long term, given that the public choreography between the E3 and the EU on the Iran nuclear deal was in part what made the format acceptable to the rest of the EU.
The concern of other EU states about E3 cooperation dovetails with their opposition to the emergence of a Franco-German foreign policy directoire – whereby the two states would take the de facto leadership of EU foreign policy away from other member states, leaving those other states with less influence on EU foreign policymaking. In some respects, however, the UK’s presence in the E3 could ease such concerns by diluting Franco-German influence. This could contribute to a wider European foreign and security approach more in line with the priorities of northern and eastern EU member states, which could therefore view the inclusion of some British leadership as a positive factor – for instance, to strengthen a ‘European pillar’ at NATO. However, the fear remains that the E3 countries will reach a consensus on decisions to which other EU states will be asked to consent, and with their interests possibly ignored. This is of special concern for smaller member states which place a premium on the EU as a force multiplier for their foreign policy. The creation of a European Security Council, as France, Germany and others propose, could provide a forum for including the UK in discussing and tackling European strategic challenges, while the E3 could retain a competitive advantage for crisis management. However, detailed plans for such an arrangement have not yet been advanced.
A pragmatic and efficient option is to consider the E3 as an open cooperation format, in which its current members would form a core and partner with other European states depending on the issue at hand.
A pragmatic and efficient option is therefore to consider the E3 as an open cooperation format, in which its current members would form a core and partner with other European states depending on the issue at hand: for example, with Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden on Arctic/High North issues; or with Italy, Greece and Spain on topics relating to the Mediterranean and southern neighbourhood. Widening the format on an ad hoc ‘E3+’ basis – i.e. for cooperation on specific issues – would most likely result in Italy being frequently included. Italy’s input would be especially relevant for initiatives on Libya, the western Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean, and the country’s G7 membership adds to its attractiveness as a potential partner for the E3. Italy is already a partner of choice for the UK on climate change, as a consequence of the two countries’ joint presidency of the COP26 process. Italy and the UK also share extensive defence industry cooperation. However, Italy could be a more problematic partner on issues related to China and Russia, as its positions have been different to those of the E3 countries in the past. Overall, Italy does not match the E3’s global outlook and role. The inclusion of another country in the grouping, creating in effect an ad hoc ‘E4’, would likely prompt questions about why other EU members were omitted. Unless the rationale is clear, this could lead to even more diplomatic complexity in terms of negotiating the E3’s role and relationship to the rest of the EU.
Cooperation with other countries on long-term global issues to which France, Germany and the UK are all committed (such as climate change, the energy transition and multilateralism) makes sense. However, there is little scope for the E3 to become a full-spectrum format through which the three partners maintain an all-encompassing dialogue on international issues. Outside of collective statements, there is at present limited E3 lobbying and campaigning in other countries or cooperation in international organizations. The three countries will remain active participants in multilateral forums such as the UN, and could form a more active core in such settings. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is also a forum in which the E3 could engage in greater joint leadership. The E3 countries have not operated as a caucus within the G7, but their membership of it provides access to a platform for intensive consultation and cooperation with key global partners on a wide range of issues. Consequently, issues for E3+ cooperation would likely be ones not already addressed at the G7 level.
Operating on a case-by-case basis in concert with other states, or within non-European minilateral groupings such as the Five Eyes or a D10, most likely presents the best way to ‘build out’ E3 cooperation beyond European states. This is because France, Germany and the UK will necessarily prefer to work with democratic, like-minded partners. For instance, Japan is an obvious prospective partner, as it shares good relationships with the E3 countries, which are currently increasing their defence arrangements with Tokyo. France and Germany have also recently joined the Five Eyes partners in the Combined Space Operations (CSpO) initiative to work collectively on space security requirements. Beyond ad hoc arrangements, determining which other states or groupings might be included in more formalized cooperation with the E3 implies that France, Germany and the UK would be willing to give the format a higher profile and able to agree on the appropriate partners. This is not the case today.
E3 cooperation has already been expanded beyond European states since the emergence of collective nuclear diplomacy on Iran. Expanding the use of the ‘Quad’ format with the US may be a more comfortable mode of operation for the E3 countries in the short term. The recent opportunities presented by the Biden administration to work on a shared and reinvigorated agenda, where transatlantic differences are less pronounced than they were under the Trump administration, may diminish the relative utility of the E3 format for France, Germany and the UK. For Berlin and Paris, more frequent cooperation within the Quad would mitigate criticism that the E3 format might allow the UK to shape aspects of EU foreign and security policy. There have also been instances of so-called ‘Quad+’ cooperation: for instance, in March 2021 with Italy on Libya. More Quad cooperation would also be welcomed by the UK, given its strong preference for transatlantic cooperation. However, the UK government could find such an approach problematic if the result were less E3 cooperation at a time when Britain is excluded from the US–EU partnership and looking for flexible ways of working with France and Germany.
Although its relations with Europe are now friendlier and more cooperative, the US still expects France, Germany and the UK to take more responsibility for their security and that of their neighbourhood. The US will likely support the E3 format if this leads to European countries taking greater responsibility for regional challenges, both inside and outside of NATO, and if the E3 proves more effective at making and implementing decisions than the EU. Policy towards China may be an example of this, given that the E3 countries are becoming more clear-eyed on the issue than some other European states. It is also likely that the US will insist on the UK being included in joint actions with Europe (especially if the use of military and intelligence capabilities is required), so the E3 could well remain the preferred format on certain topics. If the E3 were to become more of a European engine in NATO, a possible development could be meetings between the E3 and NATO’s secretary-general. However, just as with the EU, debates around the exclusion of other European Allies would likely occur.