The EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP/formerly ESDP) were established by the 1992 Maastricht Treaty. The UK has been a key player, influencing the EU’s approach to foreign policy crises. At the same time, the UK has exercised its veto when EU ambitions, particularly in defence cooperation, have threatened to diverge from British interests.

This Insight examines the nature of that cooperation now that the UK and EU have entered the Brexit transition period.

Will defence and foreign policy co-operation continue?

The CFSP and CSDP have evolved in a distinct way from the rest of the EU. They are key vehicles through which the EU exerts its influence on the world stage. Under article 127(2) of the Withdrawal Agreement, provisions on CFSP and CSDP will continue to apply to the UK until the end of December 2020.

This means the UK will be required to implement EU sanctions adopted during the transition period, and support agreed EU foreign policy positions.

The UK can continue to participate in CSDP operations. The decision to commit forces remains a sovereign decision taken by the British Government.

The UK will also continue funding several defence-related agencies, including the European Defence Agency, and CSDP operations. During transition involvement in the capability projects launched as part of the pilot for the European Defence Fund, will continue. The UK will, however, remain outside of the PESCO initiative.

What changes?

Although the provisions of CFSP/CSDP continue to apply, there are some important changes affecting the UK. These are primarily at the decision-making level. The changes reflect the UK’s new status as a third country.

The UK is no longer represented in the EU institutions and will not participate in EU decision-making. This includes those bodies relating to the conduct of EU external action. The UK will not be represented at the Foreign Affairs Council. It will also no longer be represented on the Political and Security Committee, which oversees EU military operations.

UK representatives will be able to participate, on a case-by-case basis, where discussions are directly relevant to the UK or there is a need for foreign policy coordination. But the UK will not have voting rights. The UK will effectively lose its veto.

The UK will be able to abstain from any decisions on CSDP, if it is in the national interest to do so.

Although the UK can participate in EU-led operations, it cannot provide:

  • Commanders for civilian operations, heads of mission, or military operations conducted under CSDP.
  • Operational headquarters for CSDP operations, or serve as a framework nation (the nation providing the core command, staffing and logistics) for EU battlegroups.
  • The head of any operational actions taken under CFSP Council Decisions.

Is an early agreement on future cooperation possible?

The Withdrawal Agreement makes provision for the early implementation of an agreement on foreign policy and defence, should the UK and EU so decide.

The possibility of an agreement before the end of the transition period has been mooted in the past by both sides. However, the current negotiating positions of both parties suggest that this is increasingly unlikely.

Beyond transition – what do both sides want from negotiations?

The need for close cooperation between the UK and EU in external action has long been recognised. The Political Declaration (PD) reiterates the need for “close, flexible and scalable cooperation”.

The PD states that such cooperation must respect the autonomy of both Parties. It calls for structured consultation and regular thematic dialogue in areas of mutual importance. the PD envisages the ongoing exchange of information and stresses the need for “close cooperation in Union-led crisis management missions and operations, both civilian and military”.  The PD also envisages close consultation and cooperation on sanctions and intelligence sharing.

The UK position

Government statements since leaving the EU, however, have indicated that it is no longer seeking an institutionalised future UK-EU relationship in foreign affairs and defence. Instead the Government appears to be favouring a flexible, ad-hoc approach.

The UK negotiating objectives published on 27 February stated that foreign policy will be determined “within a framework of broader friendly dialogue and cooperation between the UK and the EU”. The document makes no direct reference to defence or participation in EU programmes such as the EDF and PESCO.

Yet, the UK is a significant military power in Europe. It has often been noted that, in defence terms at least, the EU needs the UK more than the UK needs the EU. The Government’s use of defence cooperation as a bargaining chip in the broader negotiations on a future relationship cannot, therefore, be discounted.

The Government is also likely to want to link up any future cooperation framework with its Integrated Security, Defence and Foreign Policy Review, the outcome of which is expected towards the end of the year.

How this affects future relationship negotiations remains to be seen.

The EU position

It has been the EU’s longstanding view that, as a third country, the UK cannot have the same rights and benefits as an EU Member State. Any partnership should preserve the autonomy of the EU’s decision making, including in the shaping of its foreign and defence policies.  There will be no standing invitation to participate in CSDP operations; while the regulations governing third party access to the European Defence Fund and PESCO are expected to be strict.

The EU also makes clear in its adopted negotiating mandate that it now views any partnership agreement as a “single package”. Foreign policy and defence will be one of three main components. The EU negotiating mandate does state, however, that “structured consultations” on CFSP and CSDP, where appropriate, could be put into operation before the end of the transition period.

Further reading

The UK-EU Future relationship negotiations: process and issues, House of Commons Library.

Brexit and UK defence: an explainer, House of Commons Library.

EU defence: where is it heading?, House of Commons Library.

About the author: Claire Mills is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in defence.

Photo: 1 RIFLES soldiers, by the Ministry of Defence, licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.