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After Brexit: Recasting a UK-EU dialogue on foreign policy

Article by Rosa Balfour

December 16, 2020

After Brexit: Recasting a UK-EU dialogue on foreign policy

2020 will be remembered for the Coronavirus pandemic, the end of Donald Trump’s US Presidency, and the year in which Britain finally left the EU. It was also the year in which London and Brussels missed the opportunity to lay the foundations for continued cooperation on foreign policy because of the unfolding of Brexit politics on both sides of the Channel.


Looking at the past year from its tail end, with the imminent arrival of a staunch Transatlanticist at the White House and the world in disarray, a framework to support UK-US-EU cooperation on global challenges would have energised the optimism about a different steer to international politics after four years of roller-coasting uncertainty.


Instead, in 2021 the conversation between the UK and the EU on foreign policy will have to start from scratch. Whereas the British Government led by Theresa May had expressed an interest in working with the EU on foreign and security matters which was reflected in the Political Declaration, the negotiating team of the Johnson Government showed no interest in the subject matter.[1] Throughout the year, negotiations wilfully ignored any foreign and security issue.


What does Britain want?

Throughout 2020, the signs coming from the UK Government suggested that the politics of Brexit and the affirmation of British sovereignty included a deliberate detachment from any appearance of cooperation with Brussels on foreign and security policy; also for public consumption. The UK wants to move out of its European circle and take a worldwide horizon. As Boris Johnson himself put it, “we have the newly recaptured powers, we know where we want to go, and that is out into the world.”[2]


This is underscored by both the rhetoric and the poverty of practical collaboration on matters of common concern. But the rhetoric on Britain’s vision of its place in the world is still confused and confusing. The ideas circulating include the ambitions of Global Britain, the group of ten democracies, even a revival of the Five Eyes group as a political forum.[3]


To give substance to the vision of Global Britain, the Government launched an unprecedented wide-ranging Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, the results of which are still to be published. Yet the signs that Britain’s foreign policy of the next four years will be driven by ideology are strong. Ahead of the publication of the Integrated Review, the Prime Minister announced a massive investment in defence spending and a cut in overseas development aid, abandoning its international commitment of spending 0.7 per cent of GNI on development aid, a choice widely criticised as undermining the UK’s credibility as an international player.[4]


Events on the other side of the Atlantic, however, ruffled up the British Government’s feathers, which had hedged its bets on transactionalist and divisive international politics. President-elect Joe Biden’s reiteration that the US would not support any agreement with the EU that would undermine the Good Friday Agreement and his repeated insistence on reaching out to allies, with a strong emphasis on the EU, does not bode well for the UK’s Brexit-driven ideology. Since then Johnson has been playing ‘catch up’ to reach out to Washington.[5] A US Administration focused on rebuilding international cooperation will create a context more favourable to rebuilding EU-UK relations.


Haphazard EU-UK coordination

Brexit politics imposed a policy of minimal and inconspicuous cooperation outside the public eye with the partners with whom the UK until recently consulted or coordinated large parts of its foreign and security policy. Private and informal conversations and information exchanges still take place at the level of practitioners, but public statements are geared towards giving the appearance of an autonomous British foreign policy and selective engagement with partners – with the EU as the least favoured, as the Brexit-driven public discourse imposes.


Recent instances show a marked preference for ad hoc cooperation only if necessary and convenient, with few key states and within formats other than the EU. On sanctions, for example, coordination has been haphazard. With respect to Belarus, the UK (with Canada) issued negative measures against individuals in Minsk before the EU (and the US) had agreed on their packages.[6] The EU and US coordinated their respective measures, but the EU was then blocked and delayed due to its own internal divisions[7] – a case in which EU internal shortcomings affect its international credibility. By contrast, the response to the poisoning of Alexei Navalny saw the two sides coordinate their responses, following the blueprint of the Skripal case of 2018.[8]


Britain once was deeply involved with the EU on crafting policy towards Libya and Turkey. With France, it led the military intervention in Libya in 2011; with respect to Turkey, it was among the architects of the EU-Turkey relations that have been in freefall for the past few years. Today, cooperation on Libya and Turkey is ostensibly confined respectively to the UN and NATO formats.


The only European format in which the UK has continued its engagement since the 2016 referendum is the E3 group formed by the France, Germany and the UK, which has continued to meet and issue joint statement regardless of Brexit negotiations. Originally formed to engage in talks with Iran, and still focused mostly on JCPOA-related matters, the group has gradually started to discuss broader issues, including since the Brexit referendum, and may be seen as an embryonic European Security Council as proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron.[9]


The view from Brussels

Seen from Brussels, the struggling talks have led to a progressive loss of trust in the UK as a future partner and a hardening of the EU’s position. From the very start of Brexit talks, the EU coalesced around an unexpectedly strong defence of the Single Market and of Ireland’s sovereignty, fending off every attempt from London to undermine the unity among the member states. These have only served the purpose of bringing the EU closer together in ways that are rarely seen in other matters and that could help the EU ‘bounce back’.[10] Until the very end, the EU refused to grant the Prime Minister access to his peers to discuss the negotiations and was forced to engage with the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.[11]


The biggest hit to trust in the UK was the Internal Market Bill and its breach of good faith obligation of the Withdrawal Agreement with respect to the solutions found to protect the integrity of the Good Friday Agreement. Eventually, following the launch of legal procedures, the EU and the UK solved their differences, but the loss of trust in the UK’s commitment to international law will take time to rebuild.[12]


In the EU, so long as the negotiations were ongoing, the debate on how to cooperate with Britain on foreign and security policy was frozen. The unit to deal with the UK was created in the directorate dealing with Western Europe, the Western Balkans, Turkey and the UK of the European External Action Service – the EU’s diplomatic arm – but crafting a policy and rebuilding the relationship, even at an operational level was put on hold pending the outcome of the negotiations. British diplomats stationed in Brussels do entertain informal channels for dialogue, also with officials of EU member states’ representations, but there is no official protocol or method for engagement.


The case for rebuilding relations UK-EU relations

The erosion of trust between the two sides casts a dark shadow over the future of cooperation between them. The UK, determined it can do better without the chains of the EU, has taken every opportunity to prove so; the EU has sought comfort in the notion that without Britain it can move ahead more easily. The case for turning the page after these difficult years of negotiations is harder to build but is still compelling. Cooperation is in dire need at a time of great international turbulence. Joe Biden’s victory in the US Presidential elections present a unique opportunity. His Administration will insist on bringing allies closer together and on strengthening US dialogue with the EU.


From the point of view of the EU’s security policy, the departure of one of the two European countries with meaningful defence and military capacity is a net loss. And on foreign policy, the UK was a key player in shaping EU foreign policy, thanks to its global network of relations and diplomats.


But even from the point of view of the UK, cooperation with the EU can provide benefits. However, Global Britain’s ambitions, Europe’s neighbourhood is also Britain’s neighbourhood. Britain’s preferences with respect to Russia, for example, will benefit from cooperation with both the US and the EU—on sanctions and intelligence sharing, on fighting money laundering and organised crime, and on countering foreign interference in domestic politics.


The global balance of power has been shifting towards rising actors which position themselves in adversarial contrast to a shrinking ‘West’ and giving space to actors promoting disorder and confusion on regional scales. The return of the US to global governance and to the politics of alliances is a unique opportunity to strengthen the international values Britain claims to hold dear and strengthen the ‘West’. Doing so will require working with the EU.


What can be done?

Prior to the abysmal negotiating year of 2020, there were plenty of pragmatic proposals to keep the UK involved and even associated to EU foreign and security policy through formal and informal procedures and solutions.[13] The time for those ideas has gone. EU needs to forego, for now, the hope that the UK will participate in any institutionalised arrangement. The foreign policy of the British Government is ideologically driven; EU action is heavily process-driven. The gap between the two is one of the causes of Brexit. But this does not exclude the possibility of ad hoc cooperation where principles and interests converge.


Still, there are plenty of other areas where the UK and European counterparts can re-engage, especially under the rubric of resetting the Transatlantic relationship. Europeans will be expected to lean heavily into supporting the Washington’s return to the JCPoA. Here France, Germany and the UK have an uninterrupted history of cooperation at the level of the E3 in which the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy was present as a key negotiator vis-à-vis Iran.


At the multilateral level, the EU and the US are likely to work in tandem on health, vaccine distribution, and reform of the World Health Organization.[14] The UK should join these efforts as a natural partner and avoid the temptation of competing with peers on vaccines. WTO reform, trade issues, taxation of digital revenue flows, and fighting the climate crisis are all areas where there could be joint action, especially in 2021 when the UK will chair the G7 and COP26 conferences. If such cooperation is framed under the aegis of the Transatlantic relationship, the UK Government may avoid giving the impression that it is working with Brussels.


The EU recently approved the rules to engage third parties in defence cooperation.[15] The UK is highly unlikely to be interested, but other forms of engaging the UK on security and military affairs can be found through NATO. NATO-EU cooperation has been an achievement of recent years and is likely to be strengthened.[16] This could provide a venue for the European NATO members and the UK to engage. It will then be a responsibility for the EU to bring the EU non-NATO members up to speed on security policy – as well as on all matters of EU relevance conducted outside the EU format, such as the E3 talks.


Sanctions and human rights, now that the EU too has caught up with the US and the UK in giving more teeth to its sanctions toolbox, could offer other opportunities for cooperation.[17] Here, however, the EU will need to show its worth as it often lags behind its partners in condemning human rights abuses as well as following up with policy.


Even if the current British Government will evade any appearance of institutionalised cooperation with Brussels, dialogue can restart at the operational level to share information and exchange views of emerging challenges and approaches to solve them. In particular, the EU Delegations working in third countries and international institutions can find ways to engage systematically with British representatives alongside the EU-27. Cooperation in the field, a daily feature of the work of diplomatic staff posted abroad, is a strong vehicle for rebuilding trust bottom-up and could be helpful in recreating formats from which the UK is excluded because of Brexit.


The EU too needs to learn its lessons from Brexit. The EU’s preference for process and institutionalisation, which is one of its strengths, also has its downsides. It is unattractive and burdensome to engage with third parties – and in this case the third party is allergic to it. In the likelihood of a new investment on rebuilding transatlantic and multilateral alliances, the EU needs to be flexible in how it presents itself to the world and facilitate engagement in various forms. Once trust is rebuilt, the time will have come to make sure those new relations between the EU and the UK are anchored to a firmer ground.


Rosa Balfour is director of Carnegie Europe. Her fields of expertise include European politics, institutions, and foreign and security policy. Her current research focuses on the relationship between domestic politics and Europe’s global role. She has researched and published widely for academia, think tanks, and the international press on issues relating to European politics and international relations, especially on the Mediterranean region, Eastern Europe and the Balkans, EU enlargement, international support for civil society, and human rights and democracy. Balfour is also a member of the steering committee of Women in International Security Brussels (WIIS-Brussels) and an associate fellow at LSE IDEAS. In 2018 and 2019, she was awarded a fellowship on the Europe’s Futures program at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. Prior to joining Carnegie Europe, Balfour was a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. She was also director of the Europe in the World program at the European Policy Centre in Brussels and has worked as a researcher in Rome and London.


[1] Political Declaration Setting out the Framework for the Future Relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom, HM Government, October 2019,

[2] Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street and The Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP, PM Speech in Greenwich: 3 February 2020,, February 2020,

[3] Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, Global Britain: delivering on our international ambition,, September 2019,; Lucy Fisher, Downing Street plans new 5G club of democracies, The Times, May 2020,; Peter Martin, Kitty Donaldson and Kait Bolongaro, In Echo of Cold War, the West’s ‘Five Eyes’ spy alliance focuses on China, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 2020.; Following a coordinated statement of Australia, Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand and the United States warning China against repression in Hong Kong – Joint Statement on Hong Kong, US Department of State, November 2020,

[4] Prime Minister’s Office and 10 Downing Street, PM to announce largest military investment in 30 Years,, November 2020,; Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office and The Rt Hon Dominic Raab MP, Changes to the UK’s aid budget in the Spending Review, November 2020,; Paul F. Webster, The Observer View on the role of ‘global Britain’, The Guardian, November 2020,

[5] James Landale, US Election: What a Biden presidency means for the UK, BBC News, November 2020.

[6] Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office and the Rt Hon Dominic Raab MP, Belarus: UK sanctions 8 members of regime, including Alexander Lukashenko,, September 2020,

[7] Council of the EU, Belarus: Alexandr Lukashenko and 14 other officials sanctioned over ongoing repression, Consilium, November 2020,

[8] Laurenz Gehrke, EU Sanctions Senior Russians over Navalny Poisoning, POLITICO, October 2020,

[9] Erik Brattberg, The E3, the EU, and the Post-Brexit Diplomatic Landscape, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 2020,; Emmanuel Macron, For European renewal, Élysée, March 2019,

[10] Michel Barnier, Speech by Michel Barnier at the EPC Breakfast, Brussels, European Commission, April 2019,

[11] Chris Giles, High Stakes as Boris Johnson Heads for Dinner-Time Showdown in Brussels, Financial Times, December 2020,

[12] Joint Statement by the Co-Chairs of the EU-UK Joint Committee, European Commission, December 2020,

[13] Sophia Besch, Ian Bond, and Camino Mortera-Martinez, Plugging in the British: Completing the Circuit, Centre for European Reform, June 2018,

[14] Join Communication to the EP, the EC and the Council: A New EU-US Agenda for Global Change, European Commission, December 2020,

[15] Council of the EU, EU Defence Cooperation: Council Sets Conditions for Third-State Participation in PESCO Projects, Consilium, November 2020,

[16] NATO 2030 Reflection Group, NATO 2030: United for a New Era, NATO, November 2020,

[17] Council of the EU, EU Adopts a Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime, Consilium, December 2020,

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