The E3 format has its origin in the 2003 initiative of France, Germany and the UK to embark on collective negotiations with Iran over its nuclear reprocessing and enrichment activities. The E3 subsequently developed to accommodate the evolution of diplomacy with Iran to halt the country’s development of a nuclear weapons programme. From 2004, the E3+EU format extended participation to the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, connecting EU foreign policy and the other EU member states to Iranian nuclear diplomacy. Since July 2015, the E3 has remained integral to implementation of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), agreed between the P5+1 (the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) and Iran.
Over the years, diplomatic coordination between France, Germany and the UK in the E3 format has broadened beyond the JCPOA to address other international security issues. This has generally taken place on an ad hoc basis and through joint declarations. Issues in the Middle East have been a notable area of E3 collaboration (for example, the conflict in Syria, the events in the Golan Heights and the killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi). Other issues have included freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and instability in the Sahel.
However, the UK’s withdrawal from the EU means that the E3 now exists in a different context from that of the early 2000s. It no longer brings together the EU’s ‘big three’ players, nor does it act as a vanguard for foreign policy initiatives that can be presented to the other member states. The decision of the British government not to pursue an agreement on cooperation on foreign, security and defence policy within the December 2020 EU–UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement also means that there is currently no formal relationship in this area between London and Brussels. Consequently, alongside NATO’s North Atlantic Council and bilateral/minilateral cooperation, the E3 provides an important format for regular foreign and security policy consultations between Europe’s key diplomatic players.
This research paper explores the opportunities and challenges for continuing cooperation in the E3 format, as well as the prospects for a shared strategic agenda for France, Germany and the UK in this new context. It examines whether the E3 might be repurposed in a manner that both (a) addresses the concerns of France and Germany to ensure that cooperation with the UK does not undermine the EU, and (b) keeps London connected to decision-making on shared European foreign and security concerns and actions in a mutually beneficial way. The authors argue that a pragmatic, issue-oriented approach should be adopted towards future E3 cooperation. This would involve setting ambitious yet realistic objectives for the extent of collective action by the three countries. It would also recognize the political limits on cooperation in the format, as well as the crucial need for continued trilateral engagement.