Why UK-EU defence and security deal may be difficult

Why UK-EU defence and security deal may be difficult | INFBusiness.com

The scope of the EU's first-ever defence industrial strategy is limited to single market members, and Ukraine. This will not change unless the EU rethinks its approach (Photo: NATO)

With an election looming in the UK, war raging in Ukraine, and the prospect of a second Trump presidency, a new UK in a Changing Europe report analyses the possible evolution of the foreign and security policy relationship between the UK and the EU.

Much will depend on politics. The Conservative Party sees current informal and ad hoc arrangements as the best option because it allows the government to be more agile. In stark contrast, the opposition Labour Party aims to formalise relations with the EU if it wins the election.

Addressing the Munich Security Conference, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary David Lammy called for a new UK-EU security pact built on “the fact that we obviously have war here in Europe”. The wording is vague. What is clear is that securing the kind of deal Labour wants might prove more difficult than they may think.

Lammy wants to introduce regular dialogues between the UK and EU at different levels, including ministerial meetings on a biannual or quarterly basis. These would discuss issues of mutual concern such as hybrid threats, energy security, organised crime, intelligence exchanges, and new technologies.

Labour also wants a formalised sanctions partnership with the EU. And shadow defence secretary John Healey signalled openness to participation in EU missions in the Western Balkans or Somalia. When it comes to defence he has stated that Labour would pursue a ‘properly bespoke relationship’.

Most of these ideas are not new. In 2019, the EU and the UK signed a Political Declaration on the future of the relationship, calling for ‘ambitious, close and lasting cooperation on external action’.

Besides structured dialogue and (where appropriate) UK attendance at meetings of EU foreign affairs ministers, it proposed UK participation in EU civilian and military missions and collaboration in EU-led projects to deepen defence cooperation. While the Boris Johnson government rejected these ideas in early 2020, UK-EU foreign and security relations under Labour may well come full circle.

The EU is likely to welcome this. It has similar arrangements and political dialogues with other key partners, including the US, Canada, and Norway. The Russian war on Ukraine has only reinforced the sense that the EU and the UK share the same interests and face the same threats, and many in the EU still see the lack of an agreement in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) as a missed opportunity.

But the prospects are less rosy when it comes to Labour’s ambition for a bespoke defence relationship. Currently, even apparently easy cooperation is held up, and the situation is still worse when it comes to defence-industrial cooperation.

The UK government has sought participation in a Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) project to facilitate the movement of soldiers and equipment across borders. The UK was formally invited to join in November 2022, but this has been held up by disagreements with Spain over Gibraltar.

Yet, it might be the lowest-hanging fruit for cooperation in the sense that military mobility is a priority for Nato and the EU. And other countries, including the US, have already joined.

One might think the danger of Russia capitalising on a Trump presidency to test Nato’s solidarity clause might lead to a sense of urgency to develop a competitive European defence industry. However, the EU’s offer to its neighbours does not reflect this.

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The scope of the EU’s first-ever defence industrial strategy is limited to single market members, and Ukraine. The aim is to enhance the competitiveness of the EU’s domestic industry. While the UK could bring a lot to the table, its firms are mostly excluded. This will not change unless the EU rethinks its approach, or Labour decides to rejoin the single market. Neither seems likely in the short- to medium-term.

So, while there is scope for deepening political contacts between the two sides, these foreign policy and security dialogues may well be the most substantive change under a Labour ‘security pact’.

The party is unlikely to get a bespoke deal involving EU and UK defence industries. Rather than assuming a pro-European Labour government in London will automatically open doors in Brussels, Labour needs to accept these constraints and consider what it may be able to offer to incentivise EU leaders to factor the UK into their thinking.

Source: euobserver.com

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