The logic for E3 cooperation on international security is based on bringing together Europe’s strongest diplomatic and most military-capable states. However, the political rationale and ambitions of each of the three countries are distinctive, and their respective bilateral relationships on security and defence differ in scale, scope and ambition.
Overall, France and Germany are closely aligned in their assessment that the current state of EU–UK relations limits the agenda for joint action and impedes a higher profile for the E3. Despite differences of interpretation of concepts such as ‘European strategic autonomy’, both countries want to see a stronger EU in the world. France and Germany also want and need to keep a close working relationship with the UK, but they cannot afford to do so at the cost of EU unity. London similarly acknowledges that its interest lies in maintaining close channels of cooperation with its two key European partners. However, it also recognizes that other European interlocutors (for example, Italy and Poland) are reticent about the use of the E3 format beyond JCPOA diplomacy and crisis management. This impacts the UK government’s willingness to use the format, as the UK also needs to manage its relationships with other EU countries beyond the E3.
Germany is particularly conscious of the danger of undermining the EU. It sees its role as being a defender of small member states and guarantor of EU unity, and it therefore favours institutionalized multilateralism over loose intergovernmentalism. However, Berlin demonstrates realism by using formats such as the E3 in cases when relying on the EU would lead either to inaction or to Germany being sidelined from important Franco-British discussions, particularly as the Germany–UK relationship is currently the least developed side of the triangle. Germany’s short- to medium-term goal remains to achieve structural cooperation between the UK and the EU as a whole on foreign and security issues. The value of wider E3 cooperation for Berlin is as a way to keep open an important line of communication with London for urgent matters; however, Germany does not want the format to become a means for the UK to bypass the EU.
In France, the E3 is viewed as part of a broader set of flexible intergovernmental arrangements that have a low level of institutionalization. These include the European Intervention Initiative (E2I), a French-led defence cooperation framework that brings together a dozen ‘willing and able’ European countries (including Germany and the UK). Such small groups and intergovernmental cooperation are considered as catalysts for strengthening result-oriented multilateralism. There is thus a pragmatic approach to E3 cooperation, which provides France with another tool for agile policymaking and efficient decision-making. The E3 also adds to the strong bilateral relationships that France has with Germany and the UK respectively. Nevertheless, just as in Berlin, the view in Paris is that there are limits to what can be achieved in a non-institutionalized format. France therefore draws a clear line between E3 cooperation and EU foreign, security and defence policymaking, arguing that the former should not aim to establish joint positions or a distinct approach on topics on which there is an existing EU policy position or a French ambition to reach one.
The UK’s perspective is somewhat similar to France’s. The government has a clear appetite for flexible, strategic cooperation with France and Germany – particularly in the post-Brexit context – but within a specific set of constraints (though these are distinct from those affecting Germany and France). The Integrated Review makes only one reference to the E3, in the paragraph on Germany, which indicates that London perceives the format as a possible vehicle for strengthening the bilateral relationship too. The E3 is not currently pushed publicly in any of the capitals as a major vehicle for pursuing European foreign and security policy positions, although there is clear interest in exploring its potential. From London’s perspective, the E3 should not operate as a mechanism for bringing the UK into alignment with EU foreign and security policies, nor as a caucus for developing a European perspective which could be presented to the US or leveraged to bypass American policy. Forging a European capacity is seen as having value mostly if this provides utility to the transatlantic relationship. With the Biden administration eager to revitalize transatlantic relations, the UK has expressed a clear interest in – and a preference for – working in the Quad format, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson made clear in his speech at the Munich Security Conference in February 2021.
At the moment, France and Germany agree on the need to find a balance between the risks and opportunities associated with working with the UK in the E3 format, while keeping an eye on the extent to which the UK may wish to privilege working through other groupings, such as the Five Eyes with Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US. France and Germany are also waiting for the UK to settle into a new, post-Brexit foreign policy and to make its Europe policy clearer. The Integrated Review does not provide a full-fledged European strategy for the UK beyond the commitment to European security via NATO and some key bilateral relationships. The review recognizes ‘the important role played by the EU in the peace and prosperity of Europe’ but is cautious towards cooperation with the EU as an institution, noting that the UK will work with the EU ‘where our interests coincide – for example, in supporting the stability and security of the European continent’. An EU–UK agreement (or set of agreements) on foreign, security and defence policy would be considered a positive signal by the rest of Europe. However, the extent to which this would create more space for a long-term joint approach (and possibly an active E3) is uncertain. There are limits to what can be achieved in the E3 format in any case: an agreement would not change the fact that the UK is outside the EU, and that the E3 format excludes other European partners and is mostly useful for creating momentum to move forward on certain issues.
Despite divergences over the next steps for the E3 format, France, Germany and the UK have continued to stress the importance and utility of their strategic cooperation. This is based on the understanding that informal groupings can help plug policy gaps on some issues, and can potentially act as catalysts for action in bigger multilateral forums. However, the need for trust among participants is at the core of the E3’s working practice; that trust is susceptible to, and already being eroded by, friction in the EU–UK relationship. Episodes such as the recent tensions around the diplomatic status of the EU delegation to the UK will further complicate the acceptability of E3 cooperation for Paris and Berlin. So, too, will the disputes on the Northern Ireland Protocol and the COVID-19 vaccine supply.
Despite divergences over the next steps for the E3 format, France, Germany and the UK have continued to stress the importance and utility of their strategic cooperation.
Maintaining a routine of close consultations and the reflex of working together is therefore crucial to compensate for political tensions and the UK’s loss of structured contact and consultations with the EU. Although there is a reluctance on the part of all three countries to formalize the E3 too much, there may be an argument in favour of a more timetabled cycle of consultations, at least at the working level, to maintain the frequency of contacts, close networks and familiarity needed to underpin trust between the three governments. This is particularly crucial for the UK in the long term, as Franco-German dialogue on virtually all policy topics will remain highly intensive bilaterally and through the EU. Maintaining the E3 will require active formal and informal engagement from UK officials in Brussels (including at NATO) and EU capitals. However, it will be for both the UK and the EU to decide the degree to which they wish to adopt a pragmatic approach to case-by-case cooperation, in the absence of a formal agreement on foreign and security policy cooperation. In the meantime, the E3 format can help ensure that UK and EU policies and statements are mutually reinforcing, even if these are negotiated behind closed doors, and even if there are now different policy delivery mechanisms for the UK.