The Covid-19 pandemic, Russia’s war against Ukraine, and intensifying US-China competition and its repercussions on EU member states have prompted the bloc to increasingly reflect on its position on the geopolitical chessboard and forced it to take concrete action.
As a result, the EU has adopted many new instruments and policies allowing the bloc to act in a unified and more resolute manner: the Covid recovery plan and the European Green Deal as economic answers aim to restore growth and economic recovery whilst also making the EU economic fit for the future. In the field of security and defence, the adoption of the Strategic Compass was a major achievement to outline the EU’s ambition and planned tools as a security actor. And lastly, the combination of its different tools to react to Russia’s war against Ukraine — sanctions, massive economic support for Ukraine, enlargement as a geopolitical tool, and funding of lethal weapons through the European Peace Facility — shows that the EU has beefed up its role as an actor in international security.
Strategy for European Sovereignty: In the Making
These actions are also increasingly underpinned by strategy based on the objective of European sovereignty: this implies reducing dependencies and define European approaches to global challenges based on European interests, while working with partners wherever possible. The EU’s strategies published over the last year — such as its maritime security strategy and or cyber security strategy — as well as the announced economic security strategy reflect that specific strategies slowly merge into an embryo of grand strategy for European sovereignty.
As such, the European sovereignty agenda is good news for the European continent. A European Union that is more able to act in strategic domains can generate concrete benefits for member states and ultimately EU citizens, but is also a more capable partner in international affairs.
Nevertheless, the EU’s sovereignty agenda also implies the need to adapt for the country that deliberately decided to leave the bloc: the UK. While relations between the EU and Britain have visibly been warming up since Prime Minister Sunak has taken office, EU-UK relations still need to catch up with the EU’s sovereignty agenda. The UK’s relations with the bloc mostly rely on the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), which entered into force in 2021 and focuses mostly on free trade, but also includes provisions on judicial cooperation. In contrast, there is no framework on cooperation on geopolitical challenges, such as security and defence, or questions like jointly securing supply chains for the European continent. London has managed relations in these fields either with EU member states on a bilateral level, coordination within NATO, or more informal international formats like the G7 or the G20.
Challenges of EU Engagement
The EU’s increasing actorness in security and defence can hence pose a challenge to London – but also constitute an opportunity. The fact that member states have enhanced their cooperation through Brussels makes the EU institutions more important interlocutors in strategic domains; the creation of the EU-US Trade and Technology Council, as well as its EU-India equivalent, are just one example. Similarly, Brussels is seeking closer ties with partners in the Indo-Pacific on supply chains, or aims to install a dialogue with the US on working with partners of the “Global South”. All these issues are also of high strategic importance for the UK, and both the “Refresh” of the Integrated Review and recent statements from the British government show that London is aware of the necessity to work more closely with the EU. In fact, the EU is the most salient framework for the UK to engage on many of these issues — and this is something that other partners already realised earlier. Through the Johnson years and following its quest for “Global Britain”, London has lost time to think about constructive engagement with the EU as a bloc. In other words, it now needs to catch up.
This phase of catching up can also be a significant opportunity for London. Besides the fact that public opinion now creates a permissive political environment at home than a few years ago, the financial weight of the EU still makes it an attractive partner not only for the UK, but also for EU-UK cooperation with partners outside the European continent. A first concrete example for enhancing cooperation could be cooperation on supply chains with Indo-Pacific countries. In the field of security and defence, the UK’s participation in the military mobility project of the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) shows that this cooperation on practical matters is not only possible, but objectively a reasonable solution.
In the end, the UK cannot escape its geography, and geography makes that the UK will remain part of the European continent. That’s also why the UK must take reflections on European sovereignty – which goes beyond EU sovereignty – seriously and actively engage in them.
The UACES microgrant allowed me to travel to London for field research, and gather additional data through exchanges with policy-makers and experts on the UK’s view on current developments in the EU and the debate on European sovereignty. This was also part of the interviews I conducted for my PhD research on ad hoc formats in European defence cooperation.