Flexible, circumstantial, and heavily reliant on informal consultations. That seems to be the future of the UK-EU relations in terms of foreign policy, if one is to follow the Political Declaration that was recently published together with the Withdrawal Agreement.
Despite grandiose promises of future collaboration and shared values and interests, there is very little in terms of the future institutional architecture that will frame relations between Brussels with London. The document is very clear in that the UK will not have a seat at the table in any of the relevant EU Common Foreign and Security Policy institutions and agencies. The possibility of the UK being invited for informal meetings, included in the Political Declaration, was already qualified, after Cyprus raised concerns that allowing the UK to participate in informal meetings could lead to the redefinition of the EU’s relation with other third countries, including, obviously, Turkey.
In reply to Nicosia’s concerns, the European Council’s legal services “ensure[d] that the work of the Council and its preparatory bodies is effectively protected from outside interference” and that the UK "as a third country, is not a party to any institutional deliberation at whatever stage."
The future relationship between London and Brussels in this field seems to be very much along the same lines the EU currently has with other third countries. The Political Declaration makes reference to the creation of ‘thematic dialogues’, which again, is common practice for the EU when dealing with partners outside its borders.
The same applies to defence. Despite having, together with France, the most advanced within the European Union, – not to mention its instrumental role in developing a Common Security and Defence Policy in the late 1990s – the UK’s future role in European defence will be closer to that of Turkey, than of a member state.
The UK’s withdrawal from the Galileo satellite project, further reveals this tendency. It highlights the progressive institutional decoupling of the UK from EU security and defence institutions, and a potential strategic shift of priorities towards its Five Eyes partners. As in other areas of Brexit, it also shows a clear mismatch between political moves and economic realities. Airbus, has already announced the transfer of 80 jobs to continue collaborating with the project, the EU announced that UK companies will not be able to bid for projects associated with it, and the UK will possibly lose the £1.2 billion already invested into the project. To this one has to add the additional cost of setting a parallel project, as seems to be the intention of Whitehall.
In reality, the UK’s defence contribution was often fraught with difficulties, from the constant refusal to set up an operational military headquarters in Brussels to the limited military contribution to EU’s missions and operations. It is not entirely surprising that the remaining member states feel they will be losing a key player, but one whose star behaviour often played against the overall interests of the team.
Paradoxically, the UK is set to leave the EU at a time in which the EU is consolidating its foreign policy architecture – set out in the Lisbon Treaty, with the creation of the High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy and the European External Action Service – and investing in defence research and development, both areas in which the UK could have had significant influence.
The UK will obviously continue to play a key role in European defence – mostly through NATO – and its permanent seat in the UN Security Council will remain a pulling factor next to its European neighbours.
Both from the Political Declaration and from multiple declarations from political leaders on both sides of the Channel, one can easily conclude that the UK will keep collaborating with the European Union in matters of foreign and security policy in a post-Brexit scenario. But the depth and scope of that collaboration is still to be decided. As it currently stands, the UK will not have a seat at the table in Brussels, and as stated by former British Foreign Secretary William Hague, “nothing can beat being in the room”.