The E3 is, and will likely remain, an instrument of informal minilateralism. France, Germany and the UK value above all its low level of institutionalization and its informal and flexible nature. They have not invested much political capital in its survival or in deepening the E3 brand beyond the JCPOA, and all agree that trilateral cooperation should be driven by mutual interest on certain issues rather than by the need to keep the format alive for its own sake. This section examines the possible functions of the E3 in the future, and the issues on which it might focus. We also propose a pragmatic approach to identifying specific areas on which France, Germany and the UK can cooperate using the E3 format.
Functions of the E3
Cooperation in the E3 format can have three functions:
- As a forum for consultation when the positions and strategic objectives of the countries do not necessarily align, but there is scope and added value in private joint discussions.
- As a space for coordination when the positions and strategic objectives of the countries are close, and there is some added value in private or public policy coordination.
- As a grouping for action when the three countries decide to act together, through joint statements or initiatives, either in the E3 format only or in larger groupings.
Given the new context and different perspectives outlined above, and the JCPOA aside, the scope for action beyond joint statements is currently limited. There are also political and strategic constraints on engaging in too much policy coordination – or on being seen to do so. One question mark remains linked to the future balance between cooperation and competition among the three countries. Overall, therefore, the E3 is most likely to be used as a forum for consultation and perhaps some informal coordination.
The next question is what specific issues are the most promising for France, Germany and the UK to consult and perhaps even coordinate on. As a rule of thumb, E3 cooperation on a new issue is most likely to be acceptable and successful when there is enough convergence on it, and when the E3 format brings clear added value to all three countries and is seen as legitimate internally and externally. In such cases, and in the current political climate, the following conditions apply in considering areas for future cooperation:
- There should be broad alignment in the security interests, strategic objectives and diplomatic investment of the three countries.
- Cooperation through the E3 should complement, rather than duplicate, that in other forums – especially the EU, the G7, the UN and NATO.
- France and Germany should see the UK as bringing added value, and vice-versa, therefore creating an incentive and a necessity for the three countries to work together despite political sensitivities.
- The US position should differ from, or be in opposition to, that of the E3, or there should be relatively little US interest in the topic.
- The topic should not be one exclusively discussed at the EU level.
- No other key country should have the same interests, or be able offer similar added value on the issue, as France, Germany and the UK.
The conditions set out above are to determine purely E3 topics. With all this in mind, the scope for new issues to be moved forward by France, Germany and the UK through the E3 is rather limited. Some topics could be addressed in expanded ‘E3+’ formats that would bring in other countries (for more details, see the section ‘ ‘Building out’ E3 cooperation’), or through the Quad format. This would be possible if the topic in question met the ‘added value’ criteria, even if it did not meet all the ‘legitimacy/acceptability’ ones.
Focus of the E3 strategic agenda
All three E3 countries acknowledge that they need to prioritize issues for trilateral cooperation, and that they would rather focus on major issues crucial to their interests than spread themselves too thin on every crisis. The E3 as a format is therefore likely to stay active in crisis management on the big issues of the day – i.e. issues on which the three countries both wish to work together even in the current context and cannot afford not to work together. The mechanics of such crisis management are likely to include joint communiqués and consultations, as was the case in the E3 response on Belarus and Mali at the first E3 defence ministerial meeting in August 2020.
Geography does not provide a consistent basis for the identification of topics for potential E3 cooperation. On the one hand, proximity can sometimes mean that there is a clear collective interest in France, Germany and the UK addressing an issue. Developments in Europe and its neighbourhood can not only create a greater imperative for each country to take action, but can incentivize close cooperation to avoid policy conflict. Where the three countries share geostrategic and geopolitical interests, such as in relation to conflicts in their immediate neighbourhood, the impulse for collective action is likely to be greater. The E3 could therefore be more useful in tackling issues in Europe and its neighbourhood, which would also see it bring added value to the transatlantic partnership. This could build on the E3’s experience in Iran diplomacy to tackle wider Middle East security issues on which the US has been disengaging (and where it expects European countries to take more responsibility), and which affect Europe more directly.
On the other hand, issues in and around Europe are also more likely to require an EU response and/or be of interest and concern to other European countries as well. The added value and acceptability of the exclusive E3 format would therefore be reduced: for instance, on topics such as Libya where the inclusion of Italy is essential. This is why E3 cooperation is likely to be less politically sensitive on issues beyond the immediate European neighbourhood, where there is greater scope for Europe’s ‘big three’ to align their approaches without the E3’s remit and interests overlapping with those of other European institutions or countries. The Indo-Pacific presents one such (very broad) topic, discussed in more detail below, on which there is currently both (a) little risk of direct E3 competition with the EU and (b) appetite for more exchanges between the three countries, and therefore more scope for productive discussions.
E3 cooperation is likely to remain at the political and security end of the spectrum. Exclusive military cooperation between France, Germany and the UK is unlikely, as their strategic cultures differ (although those of France and the UK are closely aligned). The three countries have access already to many forums for military cooperation, including via bilateral relations, NATO, the E2I, and other regional and minilateral formats. There has been little follow-up so far to the first E3 defence ministerial meeting, held in August 2020, despite some interest from Germany’s defence minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. More strategic-level discussions between officials in the French, German and British defence ministries could be beneficial, in part if the three countries aimed at forming a more active European core, or ‘pillar’, within NATO. Ways forward for EU–NATO cooperation also constitute a promising topic for E3 discussions. However, unlike their foreign ministry colleagues, defence officials have less of a need to make up for the loss of EU-based discussions or any loss of familiarity post-Brexit, as the EU is not yet an established actor in this sphere and as defence ministers still meet regularly in NATO ministerial meetings. In the future, the UK’s absence from regular debates in the EU’s defence policy forums could become more problematic as the EU invests more in defence, as seen recently with the launch of the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) framework and the European Defence Fund (EDF).
In the future, the UK’s absence from regular debates in the EU’s defence policy forums could become more problematic as the EU invests more in defence.
The rationale for an exclusive dialogue between France, Germany and the UK is possibly also less relevant outside of the diplomatic sphere. All three are big economic players with regional soft power, but they have less need to caucus in these spheres. In spite of the increasing strategic attention to international environmental and trade issues – especially in relation to supply chains, critical infrastructure or data – such issues are also likely either to fall within EU competencies or be areas in which Paris and Berlin prefer an EU approach. Generally speaking, these issues will be more appropriately tackled through the UK’s bilateral relationships with EU countries, through the G7/G20, through NATO, or as part of future EU–UK sectoral arrangements.
A problem-solving mindset
At present, it seems more likely that E3 common action, beyond crisis response, could arise as a consequence of coincidental and parallel national policy development that would benefit from coordination. The new and evolving strategic approaches to the Indo-Pacific offer an example of one area in which trilateral consultations would be welcome, as European countries still need to work out their positions in terms of tensions, competition and shared interests in the region.
There have already been E3 statements and UN coordination on issues relating to Indo-Pacific security, particularly in the South China Sea. France and Germany have been pushing for an EU strategy for the Indo-Pacific, with the Council adopting conclusions on an EU strategy for cooperation on 16 April 2021. Nevertheless, the UK remains a crucial like-minded partner in the region. Trilateral consultations will therefore remain necessary and complementary, particularly relating to defence issues and the three countries’ deployment of naval assets in the region. For its part, the UK sees France and Germany as bringing added value in the economic sphere in the Indo-Pacific. A coordinated approach to Indo-Pacific security would also likely offer a welcome European contribution to the transatlantic relationship, and could support cooperation with the proposed ‘D10’ grouping of democratic middle powers.
Overall, the way forward for E3 cooperation seems to be via a problem-solving approach, especially on multidimensional thematic and regional topics that are also being addressed at the EU level. In identifying where prospects exist for small-scale initiatives that could contribute to major international and regional issues, it will be easier to flag the specific policy areas in which British interests are better served by cooperation with France and Germany (and possibly with the EU, too), and where UK inclusion also brings added value for the other two countries (and maybe for the EU as well). In the western Balkans, the security dimension would necessarily bring both NATO and the UK into any cooperative action, including on organized crime. In the Indo-Pacific, the maritime security aspect is definitely not a topic on which the EU has a monopoly. A focused, problem-solving approach as outlined here would be particularly relevant for issues on which the UK has historical links and established communications channels, or for those – such as Hong Kong – on which it is a policy leader and where there would be a cost in France and Germany ruling out a joint approach.
One policy area in which E3 engagement has arisen on an ad hoc basis more than by design is in efforts to address political instability and insecurity in the Sahel region of Africa. Germany and the UK have progressively been drawn into France’s extensive commitments in this region, where the interconnection of state failure and security issues offers a test case for whether the E3 can provide an effective platform for blending its members’ security, military and national development policies – as well as those of the EU – to maximum effect.
There could also be opportunities for the E3 to work together on delivering development aid to specific parts of non-francophone Africa where the EU is less active, and where the UK has more established links and programmes and would like to cooperate more with France and Germany. Enhanced cooperation would bring mutual benefits, and would be less likely to become politicized as long as it remained at the technical level rather than extending to wider political alignment.
Finally, there are topics on which France, Germany and the UK share many objectives but have different approaches. In these cases, there would still be added value in using the E3 format to talk through and iron out such differences. Consultations could enhance cooperation and facilitate common positions on issues that are complicated for NATO to address. For example, there is a rationale for deepening consultations on how to make the most of the E3 partners’ distinct bilateral relationships with Turkey, and how to choreograph their approach on issues related to the country. Similarly, eastern Mediterranean issues would benefit from sustained E3 or ‘E3+’ (see next section) dialogues in order to limit policy drift between the three countries. And, despite their different approaches to Russia, dealing with the many challenges Russia presents should remain a topic of discussion for France, Germany and the UK even if the Quad format is likely to be preferred for this task. The E3 members also have different approaches to countries affected by Russia’s actions – such as Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia and the other Caucasus states – so there is scope for more coordination on the broader region.