by Robert Walter, former MP and President of the European Security and Defence Association, London
On 16th March, the United Kingdom published its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. This document, in the words of the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was clear that “Having left the European Union, the UK has started a new chapter in our history”. He reiterated that the UK will exceed its NATO spending commitments, at 2.2% of GDP, and embark on a modernisation programme that embraces the newer domains of cyber and space, equipping the armed forces with cutting-edge technology.
Leading European ally within NATO
Focussing on Europe, he said that the UK would continue to be the leading European ally within NATO, bolstering the Alliance by tackling threats jointly and committing British resources to collective security in the Euro-Atlantic region. As a European nation, he stressed that the UK would enjoy a constructive and productive relationships with its neighbours in the EU.
Disappointingly, although it was clearly stated as the third pillar of the October 2019 Brexit Political Declaration, discussions on future foreign policy, security and defence cooperation did not feature in the discussions on the new EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement. This was despite the EU’s adopted negotiating mandate suggesting that any partnership agreement was a single package including foreign and defence policy.
However, the new UK policy reinforces its commitment to European security, through NATO, the Joint Expeditionary Force and strong bilateral relations. It states “Our European neighbours and allies remain vital partners. The UK will be the greatest single European contributor to the security of the Euro-Atlantic area to 2030. We will work with our partners to defend our common values, counter shared threats and build resilience in our neighbourhood”.
The UK acknowledges the important role played by the EU in the peace and prosperity of Europe and it will find new ways of working with Brussels on shared challenges. Collective action and co-creation with allies and partners will, in the government’s view, be vitally important. But it emphasises quite clearly that “The United States will remain our most important bilateral relationship”.
Cooperation with individual nations continues
In a more positive vein, it goes on to detail the current cooperation with individual European nations including what it describes as “the deep and long-standing security and defence partnership with France, underpinned by the Lancaster House treaties and exemplified by our Combined Joint Expeditionary Force”. Then Germany is described as an “an essential ally, with which we have deep economic ties and a growing foreign policy partnership, as members of the E3 and bilaterally” and looks forward to a Joint Declaration on Foreign Policy they hope to sign in 2021.
The document names other European partners, both within and outside the EU, who will remain essential to the UK approach. It is clear that they will work with all allies in support of common objectives, to meet what Britain sees as shared defence and security challenges. Finally, the UK commits to continue to develop a Future Combat Air System (FCAS) with Italy and Sweden.
Whilst there may be some disappointment in Brussels at the lack of commitment to work directly with the EU on defence initiatives it must be recognised that the United Kingdom spends more on defence than any other European nation. It is also one of the two nations in Europe both with nuclear weapons capability and permanent seats at the UN Security Council.
In my view, it would therefore be very short-sighted to exclude post Brexit Britain from the wider European security and defence debate. We must work to ensure that all the initiatives both within EU structures and those created outside are properly coordinated. That must be done without undermining the existing NATO architecture, but be complimentary to it.