E3 cooperation on Iran gained acceptance from other EU member states thanks to its successful contribution to the development of a collective EU position on an issue of common concern to both Europeans and Americans. This nuclear diplomacy allowed for a shared sense of purpose to be maintained even in the difficult transatlantic political context during the presidency of Donald Trump in the US, and during the negotiations on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
However, the shared approach to working together in the E3 to preserve the JCPOA in the face of the challenge posed by the Trump administration did not alter the fact that the relationship between France, Germany and the UK had fundamentally changed because of Brexit. With all its unresolved points of tension as part of the ambiguous new EU–UK relationship, Brexit continues to contribute to a drastically changing political and strategic environment. It also raises the possibility of EU–UK disputes spilling over into the E3 relationship.
Paradoxically, the UK’s exit from the EU makes E3 cooperation simultaneously more necessary and more difficult.
In the absence of provisions for foreign, security and defence policy cooperation in the EU–UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, the E3 provides an obvious way for France and Germany to work with the UK. Yet a fear that this might undermine the EU also limits Franco-German willingness to use the E3, and circumscribes the agenda of topics for discussion within the format. Paradoxically, the UK’s exit from the EU makes E3 cooperation simultaneously more necessary and more difficult.
Meanwhile, the EU has become more committed to developing greater collective capacity for action through the agenda for ‘European sovereignty’ or ‘strategic autonomy’. Already under the previous European Commission (2014–19) there was an ambition for the EU to become a stronger actor in foreign and security policy. This has been reinforced by the objective of President Ursula von der Leyen to make the European Commission more ‘geopolitical’, with its focus increasingly extending to topics related to critical infrastructure and supply chain dependencies since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The development of an enhanced EU foreign, security and defence policy is not, however, a foregone conclusion. Consensus and decision-making are still difficult, as highlighted by the recent debates on the need for qualified majority voting. There has also been criticism of the EU’s foreign policy performance in recent months under High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell, and this has led to some further disenchantment with the EU’s collective diplomacy in Paris, Berlin and beyond.
The Joe Biden administration has already reinvigorated the US relationship with the E3 through an increased number of meetings of the Euro-Atlantic ‘Quad’ – which brings together France, Germany, the UK and the US. These meetings have covered a range of issues, but have especially focused on changing the tone of engagement on the Iran nuclear issue. The Quad format has existed for years as a means of consulting on difficult defence issues within a broader NATO context. After a pause during the Trump administration, there is now a renewed rationale and desire for Quad discussions on issues relating to transatlantic security, as well as on topics for which the US is a key partner for Europe, such as arms control, China, Ukraine and Russia. This ‘new transatlanticism’ has been welcomed in France, Germany and the UK. Yet use of the Quad has already created a new climate which will likely impact the broader E3 agenda, and which may weaken the E3’s added value in certain cases, as discussed in more detail below (see ‘ ‘Building out’ E3 cooperation’).
Finally, a certain desynchronization of the political agenda in the E3 countries could prove challenging. While the UK has ended its Brexit transition period, has published its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, and is eager to look outwards, attention in Berlin and Paris will increasingly turn inwards over the coming months as Germany gets ready for federal elections (and the end of the Angela Merkel era) later this year and as France prepares for a presidential election – and for its stint in the Presidency of the Council of the EU – in 2022.