Britain and Europe after Ukraine

Scotland Europe Initiative
Publication Date
15/12/2023
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Knowledge in sound
Britain and Europe after Ukraine
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December 8 2023, by Benjamin Martill

Britain and European Security Cooperation

For the United Kingdom, European foreign and security policy cooperation has often been viewed as a helpful complement to existing transatlantic cooperation through NATO – something that can allow the Europeans to cooperate in areas where the Americans had little interest or responsibility.

For this reason, Britain championed the creation of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy in the late 1990s alongside France, but engaged less than other large member states through these structures whilst vetoing developments that might undermine NATO’s primacy as the forum for defence collaboration.

Through their mutual engagement with the CSDP as well as the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and its precursor, the looser framework of European Political Cooperation (EPC), the UK came to develop a close coordinative relationship with partners on foreign and security policy issues.

 The Brexit Challenge

Britain’s vote to leave the European Union (EU) in the June 2016 referendum brought about a significant rupture in the foreign and security policy relationship with European partners. As EU structures – albeit ones with largely intergovernmental frameworks – the CFSP/CSDP were conditions of membership. And even though Britain had much it could contribute to these frameworks, participation as a non-member would rub up against the EU’s aversion to cherry-picking and any Brexit arrangement that would undermine the EU’s decision-making autonomy.

The May government did table proposals for a comprehensive security agreement, but early indications were that the EU was sceptical of some aspects of the proposals, even though it welcomed a security agreement overall. Within the heated post-Brexit environment, significant opposition emerged on the Tory right to the proposals, though security and defence was still included in the Political Declaration on which the future talks would be based.

In the end the security partnership was never negotiated, since it was slated for the talks on the future relationship, which began under May’s successor, Boris Johnson, in February 2020. One of Johnson’s first decisions was to remove security and defence from the negotiations, partly as a sop to hard-line Brexiteers who wanted to see more autonomy, since this was one area where this could be achieved relatively easily, given the UK’s strength and its range of alternative options in this area.

The War in Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 acted as a seismic shock to Europe’s political and geostrategic order as the Europeans and US raced to support Kyiv’s efforts to dispel the Kremlin’s forces. The invasion engendered unprecedented solidarity among the European states and the disparate political forces within Europe, at least in the initial months. Yet it occurred against the backdrop also of the post-Brexit rift between the UK and the EU and the absence of any formalised mechanism for coordination in foreign and security policy.

Britain had already been active in warning about the risks of Russian aggression and dependence on the Kremlin. Since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the UK worked with allies to fortify NATO’s presence in the East, pursue naval cooperation in the Baltic Sea and train the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Along with the US, Britain had also warned that intelligence indicated the military build-up on Ukraine’s borders from March 2021 signalled a genuine possibility of invasion, not a bargaining chip.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that Britain came swiftly to take on an important leadership role in the response to the crisis. The Johnson government pledged unwavering support for the Zelensky government and Ukraine’s territorial independence and Johnson would personally visit Kyiv every few months in a show of public support. Britain was the single largest contributor of military aid to Kyiv after the US and acted as first mover in committing major capabilities like tanks and helicopters. When Sweden and Finland indicated their intention to join NATO, the UK signed mutual security guarantees with both countries prior to their expected entry into the alliance.

The robust UK response conforms to Britain’s worldview but also reflects Johnson’s personal conviction and his decision to expend significant capital at home defending the strongest response possible. It is also rooted in the conflict’s validation of Britain’s worldview – the centrality of NATO and the US for European security, the threat from Russia – and the opportunity for Britain to play a leading role in Europe post-Brexit in a manner that both improved relations with member states and reinforced narratives of British power and prestige.

Renewed UK-EU Cooperation

The war in Ukraine also brought about re-engagement in security and defence between the UK and the EU. High-level talks took place between Johnson and senior EU leaders, including Ursula von der Leyen and Josep Borrell. Britain worked with EU partners in the design of successive sanctions packages and has aligned with the Union’s position. UK representatives have been present in the EU’s military clearing house in Brussels to coordinate capabilities sent to Kyiv and avoid duplication. British-designed curricula were used to inform the EU’s own training mission for the Ukrainian Armed Forces and by the end of 2022 it was announced that the UK would join the EU’s Military Mobility PESCO project.

Cooperation intensified after Johnson’s departure, not least because his successors – first Liz Truss then Rishi Sunak – were easier for the EU to deal with. The reset in the political relationship also contributed to a renewed effort to solve the underlying issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol, leading to agreement on the Windsor Framework in early 2023. Security and defence cooperation intensified throughout 2023 on the basis of the agreement, albeit remaining informal and ad hoc.

Re-engagement between the UK and the EU is a product both of the circumstances in which Europe finds itself but also what the Britain and European responses say about the respective actors. Britain has shown itself to be an indispensable component of the European security order and a strong thought-leader in its response to the crisis, while the EU has demonstrated the value of its collective heft, its ability to coordinate the actions of the disparate EU27, and the centrality of core EU policies – energy, enlargement, aid, sanctions – to the broader Western effort.

The Future

UK-EU re-engagement is likely to continue to develop regardless of which government is in power in the UK, though a Labour government might be keener to reach a formal agreement in this domain, and has indeed already pledged to do so. The prospect of a second Trump administration in the US makes collaboration between Britain and its EU allies even more vital and may reinforce the drive to establish new European structures. Whether formal or otherwise, much has been achieved by the UK and EU working together in a short space of time, and it is vital for the effort in Ukraine that this continue.

Benjamin Martill was a speaker at the ninth workshop in the RSE Scotland and Europe Initiative series co-sponsored by the SCGA and Edinburgh University’s Europa Institute where he is Associate Director. He is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Edinburgh and an Associate at LSE IDEAS, the foreign policy think-tank of the London School of Economics. His research examines the politics of foreign policy, with a focus on Brexit and European security.

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.

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Scotland-Europe Initiative

This Initiative will examine Scotland’s and the UK’s relations with Europe and the effects of Brexit on our daily life by exploring public policy issues such as trade and investment, energy policy, and migration.

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Scotland Europe Initiative
Publication Date
15/12/2023
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