Fostering deeper security collaboration among EU’s ‘big three’

By Volker Perthes  / 

Wed, Sep 05, 2018 - Page 9

Despite the tensions generated by Brexit, the leaders of France, Germany and the UK have stood together in disputes between the EU and the US. If their unity can be sustained, Europe’s “big three” would serve the EU well in a tumultuous future.

French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May seem to have read from the same script regarding US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and his rejection of the final communique of the G7 summit in June. They all disapprove of Trump’s decisions to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council. They have all criticized his escalating trade war with China.

This unity is not merely rhetorical. The UK has supported EU integration projects concerning foreign and security policy — much more so than before the Brexit referendum. This includes the decision to establish new headquarters for military training missions — which many view as the nucleus for a potential European military — in Africa. Britain had long resisted this initiative.

The catalyst for the UK’s change of course, it seems, is Trump. There is significant evidence suggesting that Trump views the EU and some of its member states as adversaries, rather than allies. While the US would remain the most important ally of the EU and NATO’s European members, it is no longer the most reliable one. This shift has dashed hopes in the UK that post-Brexit Britain would be able to capitalize on its “special relationship” with the US, and it has highlighted for the EU the urgency of increasing its own strategic autonomy.

While the North Atlantic alliance would remain critical to European security, the EU seeks to build the capacity to define its own strategic priorities and, if needed, act upon them, whether alone or with partners. Achieving this objective, as defined in the EU’s 2016 Global Strategy, would be much easier with the UK on board.

The EU and the UK have more international clout together than separately. The UK has significant diplomatic experience, international influence and military and economic resources that can be brought to bear on joint ventures, just as the EU’s backing can provide a major boost to UK policies on the world stage. This applies to measures taken regarding major actors such as China or Russia, sanctions regimes, international agreements and strategic programs such as Galileo, the European satellite navigation system.

How exactly a post-Brexit UK can be institutionally associated with common EU decisions on foreign policy, security and defense would have to be determined in the exit agreement, but it is possible to create a format that gives the UK a voice, not a veto.

Meanwhile, no decisions should be taken that would prevent or undermine the UK’s post-Brexit coordination with EU foreign-policy positions, actions and instruments. Moreover, steps can and should be taken to strengthen EU-UK ties.

Collaboration among the “big three,” in particular, is crucial. They have proved their potential. They initiated negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program as early as 2003, and became the nucleus of the “big three” plus three (China, Russia and the US), which — along with the EU — concluded the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran in 2015.

In the wake of Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Iran nuclear deal, the “big three” — together with the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy — would prove integral to saving it, and to developing more wide-ranging solutions for dealing with Iran.

However, the “big three” have an important role to play in other areas, too, including the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, the ongoing Israel-Palestine dispute, instability in North Africa and maritime security in the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.

Depending on the issue, other relevant EU member states — such as Italy, Poland or Spain — would have to join the “big three” in developing policies or negotiating agreements. Initiatives by the “big three” should always be coordinated with the EU’s high representative, to take full advantage of the bloc’s legitimacy and resources.

More frequent and visible strategic coordination among the “big three” would support the ability of the EU and the UK to reap the benefits of mutual cooperation. It might also serve as a foundation for a pragmatic Brexit agreement that maintains close cooperation between the UK and the EU on foreign and security policy.

Whether the EU likes it or not, a credible joint initiative by France, Germany and the UK would have a greater effect on the likes of Iran, Russia, China or even the US than a common EU position emanating from a debate in the EU Political and Security Committee.

Fostering deeper collaboration among the “big three,” of the kind that has been seen recently, must remain at the top of the EU’s foreign-policy agenda, before and after Brexit.

That France, Germany and the UK are all members of the UN Security Council for 2019-2020 — France and the UK as permanent members and Germany as an elected member — adds heft to cooperative action among them. Moreover, close collaboration within the Security Council could help to structure EU-UK foreign-policy coordination in the immediate post-Brexit transition period.

Volker Perthes is chairman and director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.

Copyright: Project Syndicate