On 13-14 January 2022, NEXTEUK had its second international conference. Attendees had the opportunity to listen to the opening speeches from Sylvie Bermann, President of the Board of Directors of the Institut des Hautes Etudes de Défense Nationale and former French Ambassador to the UK, and from Menna Rawlings, incumbent British Ambassador to France, on UK-EU and Anglo-French relations. This was followed by a roundtable gathering high-level experts on the topic of EU-UK Security Relationship.
Written by Jacob Hickey, post-graduate researcher at Northumbria University and research assistant for NEXTEUK.
NEXTEUK’s second international conference, ‘Global Order and the Future of EU-UK relations’, began with opening speeches from Sylvie Bermann, President of the Board of Directors of the Institut des Hautes Etudes de Défense Nationale and former French Ambassador to the UK, and from Menna Rawlings, incumbent British Ambassador to France. They reflected upon the status of UK-EU and Anglo-French relations, as well as possibilities for future developments.
Sylvie Bermann began by drawing attention to the current disorder in state of world affairs and the importance of cooperation on security issues, pointing to the two main problems faced by the global community as Russian aggression in Ukraine, and a burgeoning new cold war with China with issues in the South China sea and Taiwan. In assessing the situation, she believed that the reactions of democratic states should not be a crusade against autocracy but instead a pragmatic approach, with Europe finding a middle ground between its views on China as systemic rivals and partners, pointing out that the European view that it is “allied but not aligned’ with the United States, and must find its own path, being where the UK differs. In this, the role of the EU is important, and the Strategic Compass being created will allow the states to analyse common threats and move forward with appropriate reactions. However, this must involve cooperation with the UK, made difficult because of recent acrimony but which has in the past proven effective in close NATO and UN Security Council cooperation.
The US, she stated, is disengaging from Europe, and the UK and France’s differing views on seeking autonomy are rooted in a misunderstanding that France seeks to compete with NATO and America, whereas the true goal is to defend interests in which their transatlantic allies have no stake in. She continued to illustrate how these diverging views had played out in the sudden ceasing of US support in Afghanistan, with France being prepared to mobilise to withdraw earlier and more quickly than the UK and avoiding the kind of political quagmire that played out in the House of Commons. The lack of technical cooperation was also noted, such as AUKUS and the British launching a rival future fighter program to France and Germany, showing the UK’s seeking of new defence partners. However, the possibilities to work effectively together are numerous, evidenced by previous missions, and though the UK positioned themselves as “non-believer in European defence” they still participated in all operations. Despite the new special procedures needed as a third country it is still possible, and desirable for the EU in terms of British expertise, to work together, with Frontex, European intervention initiative, NATO, and E-3 cooperation all showing benefits for both sides in dealing with hybrid threats and intelligence sharing.
Menna Rawlings continued, agreeing that the pace of change in international relations has resulted in a “fragmentation of old alliances, quite an unstable context for the international community, a lot of conflict”, and a lot of challenges to the rule based international system, though overall trends show we are not doing that badly in a long-term perspective. The democratic world has however “taken its eye off the ball”, and Covid has brought to light issues such as supply change dependencies, gas supply and prices, dependence on foreign nations for technology such as 5G which necessitate democracies cooperating to tackle together and lead on. Quoting new Foreign Secretary Liz Truss calling for an end to the “age of introspection” and a new age “of ideas, influence, and inspiration”, Rawlings believes that this idea is what is reflected in the UK’s 2021 Integrated Review and shows Britain’s desire to work with friends and allies to tackle issues. In terms of China the commonality between the UK and EU approach outweighs the differences and illustrate the similar pragmatic approach both have.
Whilst the UK is still steadfastly committed to NATO, seeing it as the absolute centre of Euro-Atlantic security, the Indo-Pacific is also an important strategic area to Britain shown by the AUKUS deal with aims to protect sea routes and stability. Whilst divisive, the AUKUS deal is aligned to the UK’s aims and is not an exclusive initiative that rules out closely working with EU nations in the area. The UK sees the EU as friends and partners and wants to work together on contemporary security and economic challenges, as despite not agreeing on all things they both agree on the core principles of “freedom, democracy, and liberty.”
Concerning Anglo-French relations Rawlings noted the importance of the EU as a factor and the difficulties regarding trade and cooperation agreements, as well as the withdrawal agreement, but stressed that negotiations are ongoing, and some resolutions have been met. She also explained that whilst the issue of illegal migration gets a lot of attention in media, it is also where France and the UK work closely together to effectively fight human trafficking. This deep operational cooperation is ongoing and discussions on further expansion of cooperation are happening “behind the headlines.” The Lancaster House Treaty further illustrates effective cooperation and sets the scene for further bilateral military ventures in security and defence, providing an indication of the importance and enduring nature of British partnership with France. Rawlings concluded with a quote she felt summed up the relationship by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in Airman's Odyssey; “Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”
The conference proceeded to bring together experts in its first roundtable to comment and discuss the topic “The future of the EU-UK Security Relationship: Re-establishing Trust.” The participants each brought their knowledge to bear to tackle the issue from differing viewpoints, illustrating the amount of moving pieces and complexity of the issue.
General Jean-Marc Vigilant, director of the Ecole de Guerre and previous representative of France in the combined command of operation Inherent Resolve, began with a global view of the security relationship between the EU, UK, and USA. Beginning by looking at the Suez crisis, Vigilant drew comparisons between the UK and French reactions to the successful pressure by the USA (amongst others) and their contemporary security outlook. While the French left the NATO common structure to develop its own nuclear deterrence and strategic autonomy in reaction to the diverging views of its ally, the already nuclear capable but American dependent Britain drew closer to the USA under the framework of its special relationship – hoping to avoid future surprises and influence the superpower to preserve its interests. These differing outlooks have continued, with France, despite fully reintegrating into NATO in 2009, favouring European autonomy whilst the UK prefers to maintain the pre-eminence of NATO in European defence. He noted that despite a willingness to work together, the two nations on this were opposed.
Vigilant continued to examine the contemporary political situation, noting a security environment now characterised by complexity, rapid change, unpredictability, and the return of great power competition. The blurred lines caused by non-state actors and hybrid challenges have led to a climate in which “the peace-crisis-war continuum has given way to the triptych competition-contestation-confrontation.” The permanent competition in new fields of warfare such as space, cyber and information, as well as contestation of global norms and hegemonic conflict have resulted in increasing danger of conflict. Still the two security visions still clash in Europe, with NATO being the premier security guarantee for most European states. Some fear a strengthening Europe will result in a weakening of US commitment to the continent, whilst others believe that should America be preoccupied with issues in the Indo-pacific the EU and UK must be prepared to take responsibility within their neighbourhood, and in turn become a better strategic partner for the USA.
Strategic autonomy however does not mean a European army, which Vigilant dismissed as a simplistic and unrealistic concept. Instead, the EU should build a strategic culture, as strategic capability is not about just equipment but investment in strategy, training, and planning. A convergence of professional military education for officers of different member states would allow the EU to face future challenge more capably. In terms of the EU-UK relationship, Vigilant states that geography matters, and that the common interests of the EU and the UK is greater than that of the USA. When it is ready, he stated that the UK will be free to join all the EU initiatives that It wishes as a third country within flexible structures.
Alice Pannier, head of the Geopolitics of Technology program at the French Institute of International relations followed, focusing on dialogue and opportunities for coordination in security between the EU and UK. Pannier drew attention to the need for UK political elites to look for opportunities to give policy makers in terms of room for manoeuvre, noting that Boris Johnson had removed defence and foreign policy from negotiations of the Brexit agreement and that generally treaties are not the UK’s favoured way of working with partners. The UK then would more likely be inclined to a looser framework from a commitment standpoint but strong politically, therefore unless necessary for UK domestic security, interests, or research programs the EU should not aim for institutional agreements.
Moving forward, Pannier explained the need to think about new ways to make cooperation in security work beyond the CSDP, as the UK’s preference in dealing with aspects of foreign and security policy is for bilateral and multilateral approaches. With policy coordination and convergence necessary across key policies such as international trade and investment, data policy, privacy, big platform regulation, hybrid conflicts, disinformation, AI ethics (such as in military), space security and cyber defence it would make sense to create a new vehicle for discussion and coordination as opposed to aiming for direct UK involvement and integration with EU policy. Pannier also noted that the UK is seeking to position itself halfway between the USA and the EU on these important issues, creating an opportunity to act as a balance between the two and open possibilities of reaching compromise. She concluded with a note on building trust, stating that alongside building bridges between diplomats, public language and discourse gives an important opportunity to both sides of the channel for outreach, which will be especially valuable with younger generations as “neighbours are here to stay.”
Violeta Moreno-Lax, full professor of Law at Queen Mary University and Director of the Centre for study of Borders, Migration and Law, continued the roundtable with a focus on the contentious area of migration in Brexit. She began by asserting that the future relationship on migration will be predicated on the slogan ‘taking back control’ and what this has meant to the UK in relation to Brexit. Prior to its decision to leave the EU, the UK was in a special situation in comparison to other member states, not being a member of Schengen, retaining dedicated opt-outs from migration, external border and asylum policy and only being party to selected legislation and policy initiatives (such as the Dublin Regulation). The UK had preserved its sovereignty intact on migration, free to decide on admission of third country nationals while only subject to international law obligations. Paradoxically, Britain lost rather than gained control of migration post Brexit, no longer being part of policy initiatives, the EU Readmissions Agreements and Dublin Regulations, as well as losing access to EU databases. This has resulted in less possibility to return irregular migrants, no ability to return asylum seekers to France (estimated costs of which are around one billion euro) and less capacity to counter security threats, respectively.
Moreno-Lax continued to delve into the post Brexit redefinition of the UK’s external borders, beginning by noting how protocol leaves Northern Ireland inside the EU common market, therefore requiring customs controls in the Irish sea and creating an internal border affecting traffic. Gibraltar has been left in a more precarious position, with Spain pushing for co-sovereignty as a phase towards reintegration into Spain, and the border at Calais rendered less effective, leading to insecurity and an ongoing political quagmire in the English Channel rendering the French less inclined to assist. The presentation concluded with possible future options, the most likely being bilateral agreements between the UK and France or unilateral action by the UK, such as the Nationality and Borders Bill already critiqued by the United Nations on human rights grounds.
Paul Taylor, columnist for POLITICO, Senior Fellow at Friends of Europe, and former European affairs editor for Reuters, followed with a talk examining the institutional aspects of the EU-UK relationship. Judging that for any concrete agreements we may be in for a long wait, Taylor looked at the desire of the UK to continue free trade and police and judicial cooperation whilst avoiding an institutional relationship concerning defence and security matters, despite common interests on both sides that require common solutions. With the UK looking for “friends everywhere in the world beside their on doorstep” discursively disregarding the EU, Britain has reaffirmed its commitment to European security but framed in the terms of NATO or bilateral/plurilateral agreements with continental states. Similarly, the EU in its new strategic compass has mentioned the UK sparingly, with Taylor noting the situation has diminished both the global status of the UK and the EU.
Looking at British domestic politics he continued to illustrate how the Conservative government has made talk of European cooperation taboo and undermined trust considerably as it “jumped gleefully into AUKUS deal”, behaved confrontationally over cross channel migration and fishing rights for French trawlers, and tried to renege on trade agreements it had wilfully agreed to over Northern Ireland. Whilst there is still limited cooperation, such as in P5+1 talks, Taylor reiterated that the UK and EU would benefit from some institutional arrangements for regular consultation in many policy areas such as foreign security and development, military operations, and defence industry cooperation, though so far, such proposals have fallen on deaf ears in London and reluctance in Paris. Comparing UK to US engagement with the EU, he drew attention to the latter’s negotiation of administrative agreements with the European Defence Agency, joining of PESCO and negotiated cooperation with CSDP missions and how it makes no sense for the US to have a more of a security and defence relationship with the EU than the UK has, noting that the longer the UK fails to reach agreements the harder it will be to rebuild. Taylor’s reluctant conclusion, with the state of UK politics, was that building a practical security and defence relationship is unlikely to start before next general election in 2025, with it likely the UK must await a change of governing party, and the “best we can hope for, sadly, is events driven muddling through, with minimal cooperation.”
Valsamis Mitsilegas, Dean for Europe at Queen Mary University, and Professor of European Criminal Law and Global Security gave the final presentation of the roundtable focusing on the operational and constitutional challenges facing future EU-UK relations. Pre-Brexit the UK was against EU integration in criminal matters and supranational EU criminal justice, as it was believed to be under the domain of state sovereignty, with UK still wanting to maintain its own border control. The UK also secured opt-outs in the field of immigration from criminal law and internal security measures. Paradoxically the UK has also been on the of the key shapers of EU integration in the field of internal security, regarding judicial cooperation in criminal matters, the development of EU agencies (Europol and Eurojust) and most importantly the exchange of personal data for security purposes. In the Trade and Cooperation Agreement then we saw political will by both parties to include something on internal security within the treaty, whilst interestingly not pushing for migration or defence cooperation. The challenge that faces the parties is to what extent to replicate the UK’s status as a member state in an era in which it will be a third country.
Mitsilegas proceeded to break EU-UK cooperation in internal security into three levels of ambition, taking the UK’s constitutional status into account. Areas of high ambition, where both parties wish to replicate pre-Brexit legal framework concern extraditions and EU arrest warrants, confiscation of the proceeds of crime, and data exchange (PNR, DNA). The mid-level of ambition consists of mutual legal assistance and UK participation with Europol and Eurojust, where we see political will but constitutional limits as the UK is now a third country. Areas of low ambition stem from this new status as a third country and therefore not able to access the Europol and Schengen database, leading to the operational and constitutional challenges for the UK of how best to compensate for this.
Mitsilegas concluded by summarising these two challenges, with the operational challenge being even in the areas of high ambition the UK must convince its EU counterparts to continue to prioritise their requests in same way they do from fellow EU member states – a challenge in practice. To accomplish this the UK must make agreements to continue seamless and quick response. The most important challenges are constitutional, of regulatory alignment and of observance of benchmarks, which are contingent on the UK respecting and enforcing human rights at domestic level and providing an adequate amount of data protection. Whilst the EU commission has concluded that UK currently provides adequate data protection, assessments will be made regularly to observe how the UK diverges from GDPR and how this delimits future cooperation.
The roundtable illustrated not only the pragmatic benefits of cooperation between the UK and EU in dealing with the myriad of security and economic issues, changing political landscapes, and new hybrid threats that both parties face, but also of domestic pressures in the UK and institutional quandaries within the EU causing reticence in seeking agreements. With the pace of global events impacting the continent increasing, we may yet see the EU-UK relationship driven into further cooperation as the benefits of a united front outweigh the domestic and operational costs.
All the videos from the conference are available here.