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The Bilateralisation of British Foreign Policy

Status and Consequences for Germany and the EU after One Year of Brexit

SWP Comment 2022/C 14, 24.02.2022, 8 Seiten



Since Brexit, the United Kingdom (UK) has been increasing its focus on bilateral rela­tions with EU member states, in particular in the field of foreign and security policy. One year after the end of the transition period, London has achieved its first successes: The UK has won over Germany and a number of European Union (EU) member states in its efforts to deepen bilateral relations and has agreed on new coordination structures. In order to demonstrate their importance to European security, the Brit­ish have engaged intensively in crisis situations, such as the one on the Polish/Lithua­nian EU external border with Belarus as well as the Russian military build-up around Ukraine. The EU, on the other hand, has no interest in this bilateralisation. Instead of insisting on a standard third-country model that does not suit London and faced with the possible return of a large-scale war in Europe, the EU and the UK should urgently work towards a joint security partnership.

Under Boris Johnson’s government, the UK opted for a hard Brexit, also in foreign and security policy. In contrast to trade policy or even law enforcement and judicial cooperation, London has deliberately renounced any form of structured cooperation with the Union on foreign, security, and defence policy issues when negotiating the trade and cooperation agreement with the EU. In its strategy document Integrated Review, adopted in 2021, the Union is not mentioned as a partner. Instead, London formu­lates the ambition to assume its own global leadership position as “Global Britain” (see SWP Comment 31/2021). The approach is based on the analysis that the EU is weak enough in foreign and security policy to allow the UK to bypass it without major negative consequences, and subsequently enable the UK to focus on deepening bi­lateral relations within Europe alongside the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Selective Engagement with the EU

One year after the end of the Brexit tran­sition period, the successes and limitations of the UK’s strategy for the European secu­rity architecture are becoming more visible. Looking at EU-UK relations, cooperation has remained very selective. There has been no structured dialogue since the beginning of 2021, apart from the ongoing negotiations on the Brexit aftermath, especially with regard to Northern Ireland (see SWP Com­ment 51/2021). The UK has been the only major NATO country to not join the United States (US), Canada, and Norway in the EU military mobility project; Turkey has applied to participate, but this is still being blocked due to difficult EU-Turkey rela­tions. Nor has there been any participation on the part of the Foreign Affairs Council, as there has been by the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken.

On a case-by-case basis, there has been occasional cooperation between the UK and the EU in the context of international orga­nisations and multilateral fora. For exam­ple, in 2021 the UK held the presidency of the G7, in which the EU also participates as a member. The British chairmanship launched several joint statements by G7 foreign ministers, including the High Rep­resentative of the EU, for example on Hong Kong/China, Myanmar, and Belarus. It was also on the margins of the G7 that the only bilateral meeting to date between the British Foreign Secretary and the EU High Representative took place in May 2021. In the World Trade Organization, the UK has joined the EU’s case concerning Chinese trade practices against Lithuania.

More multilateral coordination between the EU and the UK has taken place when­ever the US has been involved – and thus, from the British point of view, it is not Brussels or the EU member states that set the tone, but Washington. This was the case, for example, with the coordination of sanctions against China in March 2021 in response to the repression of the Uighur minority and coordinated sanctions against Belarus in December 2021. Last but not least, in early 2022, Washington has been co­ordi­nating with its key European partners – in­cluding the UK, the EU and its leading mem­ber states, as well as NATO – in nego­tia­tions between the US and Russia on the Rus­sian troop build-up around Ukraine. As Russia escalated its threats against Ukraine and rec­ognised the territories of Luhansk and Donbas, coordination on the Western re­sponse also intensified between the UK and the EU, with telephone calls between both Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen as well as UK Foreign Minister Liz Truss and EU High Representative Josep Borrell.

Bilateralisation in Practice

Instead of cooperating with the EU, London is focussing on expanding its bilateral co­operation in Europe. This is not too differ­ent from its previous behaviour as an EU member. Even within the EU, foreign, secu­rity, and defence policy remains a special­ised area in which member states cooperate voluntarily and retain their vetoes, and the EU is only one of several possible forums for action alongside bilateral and multilat­eral formats as well as organisations such as NATO, the United Nations (UN), and others. For no EU member state was this more true than the UK, which – as a permanent mem­ber of the UN Security Council with its focus on close relations with the US and NATO and special relations with the Com­mon­wealth – regularly set itself apart in EU foreign and security policy. Accordingly, there was no de facto restriction of national sovereignty here and no additional sov­er­eignty gained by Brexit. What London has lost, however, are the regular consultation formats within the EU, in which the foreign ministers meet at least monthly; at the work­ing level, consultations take place almost daily, now without the UK.

Since Brexit, London has therefore also been focussing on intensifying its bilateral relations within Europe. The UK has achiev­ed some notable successes in this regard. For­mally, London has expanded its bilateral rela­tions with a number of EU member states through partnership declarations. The UK began this process with a Statement of Intent on enhanced cooperation with Estonia in March 2021, and it concluded the first more comprehensive Joint Dec­la­ra­tion with Germany in June 2021, setting out concrete objectives and mechanisms.

That Germany – one of the strongest sup­porters of the approach that Brexit should only be negotiated through the EU and not bilaterally – signed such a decla­ration seems to have been a precedent for other member states to make their own declarations of this kind. Since then, four more such bilateral partnership declara­tions have been added (see map, p. 4), and more are under negotiation.

In addition to the 2021 Joint Declarations with Germany, Latvia, Denmark, and Bel­gium, the Strategic Framework Agreement with Greece, and the Statement of Intent with Estonia, there are also treaties with France (2010) and Poland (2017) on co­opera­tion in security and defence policy. In addi­tion, the British government has started a dialogue with Italy that is intended to pro­mote exports and investments through annual talks at the ministerial level and new forums for exchange between gov­ern­ments and companies. In addition to EU states, since Brexit the UK has concluded agreements with Iceland (2020) and San Marino (2021) within Europe.

Focus on Foreign, Security, and Defence Policy

The Joint Declarations and Framework Agree­ments adopted in 2021, as well as the two treaties under international law, are all largely related to foreign, security, and defence policy but with different nuances. The two treaties with France and Poland relate exclusively to security and defence and provide for the exchange of personnel, joint exercises, operations, and procurement. The British-French treaty allows for even deeper cooperation. Bilaterally, how­ever, despite the close military cooperation in 2021, the UK-France relationship has turned out to be particularly conflictual, both in the implementation of post-Brexit relations (e.g. over fisheries) and in security terms after France was forced out of a sub­marine deal through the AUKUS agreement between the UK, the US, and Australia. The Polish-British deal, on the other hand, was sought by the Polish side in 2017 after the Brexit referendum in order to keep the UK engaged on NATO’s eastern flank in terms of defence policy. It has fostered British-Polish military cooperation, including on the border to Belarus and in support of Ukraine (see below).

Among the agreements concluded last year, the British-German declaration is the most detailed in the area of foreign policy. It emphasises the global responsibility of both states to combat climate change and addresses a reform of the UN Security Coun­cil and the goal of a permanent German seat therein. In addition to references to almost all world regions and NATO-EU co­operation, the declaration also contains a detailed paragraph on international dis­armament and arms control.

The other declarations in contrast focus more on security and defence: The UK and Greece plan to work together on initiatives in the Western Balkans and in the Medi­ter­ranean and MENA regions. The UK-Danish declaration is rather short and focusses on cooperation in the Baltic states and the Northern Group as well as military coopera­tion in various areas, such as joint exercises and frigate maintenance. The security and stability of the Baltic states, as well as in­creased security and defence cooperation, especially in NATO, are also mentioned in the declaration with Estonia, but they are not specified further.

Whereas Belgium and the UK only for­mulate the goal of strengthening their bilateral defence cooperation, the declara­tion with Latvia is much more detailed. It mentions the strategic unity of Europe, addresses the cultural and personal rela­tions between the British and the Latvians, and – in addition to the fight against dis­information – focusses above all on the countries of the Eastern Partnership. Mir­ror­ing the wording of the German-British declaration, the importance of NATO is emphasised, but without the provision that cooperation should also be strengthened with regard to dealing with China. In the area of security and defence, the parties agree to cooperate more closely in countering hybrid threats within the framework of existing cooperation (Joint Expeditionary Force, Northern Group) and bilaterally.

Content beyond Foreign and Security Policy


Some of the declarations, however, also address objectives beyond foreign, security, and defence policy that may have conflict potential for cooperation in the EU due to overlaps with mixed EU competences. In comparison, the German-British declaration is the one that focusses the most on foreign and security policy.

In contrast, the agreement with Greece stands out because it addresses numerous other policy areas: In addition to strengthening bilateral cooperation, including in the areas of digitalisation, education and research, tourism, and maritime affairs, cooperation is to be improved in the area of law enforcement as well. Furthermore, a structured exchange of information on the topic of migration is to be established.

The declarations with Latvia and Bel­gium, on the other hand, contain more eco­nomic policy goals. The former en­visages increasing bilateral trade and investment volume and building closer economic ties in key sectors such as renewable energy and the digital economy. Other areas of cooperation are education, science, and culture, but also law enforcement. Unlike the other declarations, this one also men­tions the goal of cooperating on gender equality and girls’ education opportunities. While the British-Estonian Statement of Intent also provides for increased coopera­tion in the areas of digital, trade, education, and culture, it also emphasises the joint commitment to press freedom and more engagement on climate protection. The British-Belgian declaration also provides for the strengthening of business relations and cooperation between administrations, for example between ports in the UK and Belgium. It also addresses cooperation in the fields of science, research, energy pro­duction, and innovation, and it reinforces the states’ efforts regarding global access to Covid vaccines. Unlike the other declara­tions, this one emphasises that illegal mi­gration via the sea towards the UK should be stopped through various methods. The decla­ration also stands out on the issue of inter­nal security: Cooperation in the field of law enforcement is even planned to be strength­­ened through a cooperation agreement.

Thus, several of the bilateral declarations clearly reach into areas of mixed compe­tences of the EU, which, however, were not regulated between the Union and the UK in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. Legally, the member states are free to fill in unused mixed competences themselves. However, this could become problematic for the Union if the UK purposefully dis­criminates between EU member states through bilateral agreements and/or plays them off against each other in competition.

Bilateralisation and the Relationship with the EU

The extent to which the EU is mentioned in the declarations and treaties also points to national differences in emphasis. While the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy is mentioned in several places in the 2010 Franco-British treaty, it is not mentioned in the treaty with Poland of 2017, which is similar in content, illustrating the effects of the Brexit referendum and the UK’s changed position vis-à-vis the EU. At that time, how­ever, the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, was still seeking a security partnership with the EU.

Although the EU is not mentioned spe­cifically in the British-Estonian declaration, the other bilateral declarations advocate good cooperation and collaboration be­tween the EU and the UK (Germany, Latvia) and/or support good NATO-EU cooperation (Germany, Latvia, Denmark). In addition, the declarations with Greece, Belgium, and Germany contain similar passages that refer to implementing their goals in line with EU membership. The British-German declaration is the most detailed in this respect. It emphasises that EU membership is a fixed reference point for Germany and that Ger­many will ensure the highest level of trans­parency in all bilateral matters vis-à-vis the other member states and EU institutions. A comparable passage is missing in the other declarations. However, since Brexit, the Coun­cil of the EU has regularly asked mem­ber states about the state of bilateral rela­tions with the UK, and the member states have consulted with the Commission when negotiating the declarations.

Establishment of Bilateral Coordination Structures

All of the bilateral declarations provide for structured dialogue formats. They can be seen as substitutes for the coordination possibilities that the UK lost within the EU, but they differ significantly in their speci­fications and the political level at which they take place. Whereas the declarations between the UK and Denmark as well as Estonia do not provide for separate struc­tures for their implementation, the Joint Declaration with Latvia establishes regular bilateral dialogues at all levels and annual dialogues at the ministerial level. The Stra­tegic Framework Agreement with Greece also provides for an annual dialogue.

In contrast, the structures created by the Joint Declarations with Germany and Bel­gium are more detailed. An annual Stra­tegic Dialogue between the UK and Ger­many is to take place, as well as regular consultations between state secretaries, political directors, and permanent representatives, among others. Shortly after signing the agreement, the then Chancellor, Angela Merkel, held out the prospect of regular UK-German government consulta­tions in 2021 during her farewell visit to London.

Similarly, a British-Belgian strategic working group consisting of high-ranking officials is to meet at least once a year. In addition, there are annual meetings of the foreign ministers and, in contrast to the other bilateral declarations, additional gov­ern­ment consultations. The treaties with Poland and France provide for similar mecha­nisms: With Poland there is a dia­logue on defence and joint meetings of foreign and defence ministers. The British-French treaty provides for annual summits between the British Prime Minister and the French President.

Overall, it remains questionable to what extent the numerous annual dialogues with a large number of states can be integrated into the workload on the British side. Even if they involve different ministries, they not only tie up ministers’ working time, but also considerable resources in preparation. A series of annual bilateral meetings may allow for more specific cooperation, but it would not substitute for regular exchanges with all other 27 EU members.

Bilateral Engagement in European Hotspots

In addition to the strengthening of bilateral relations with many EU member states, the UK’s increased engagement in “hotspots” of European security stands out. Particularly noteworthy from an EU perspective are two examples in which the Union itself has only been able to act with difficulty, and the UK wants to position itself as a more effective partner.

The first is UK support for Poland when faced with the smuggling of refugees to its borders by Belarus. For normative reasons and to protect its own sovereignty, Poland in particular has rejected the deployment of Frontex at the EU’s external border, while the EU Commission, for its part, initially refused financial support for the construc­tion of border facilities. London, on the other hand, reacted early to a Polish request for military support and was the first Euro­pean country to send (limited) military assis­tance to Poland. Although in the end it was mainly the EU’s pressure on the air­lines that helped defuse the situation on the border with Belarus, it is telling that Poland and Lithuania turn to the ex-mem­ber UK in what they perceive as a hybrid attack on the EU’s external border.

Equally, the UK has been one of the Euro­pean countries most willing to provide military support to Ukraine in the face of the Russian build-up at its borders in early 2022. Although the UK is actually one of Ukraine’s guarantor powers under the Buda­pest Memorandum, it played only a minor role in the diplomacy during the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and in the Minsk negotiations; the negotiators on the European side were Germany and France. In 2022, the initial negotiations have taken place between the US and Russia, though with further engagement of Russia by the French President, the UK Prime Minister, and the German Chancellor. In the diplo­matic consultations from Washington, the British are fully on board as a central NATO state. As an early signal of their commitment, they have also sent their own weap­ons to Ukraine, something that Germany and France have not been willing to do so far. Other NATO/EU countries such as Poland, Canada, the US, the Baltic states, the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic are also sending defensive weapons. To this end, the UK also agreed on a trilateral ini­tiative with Poland and Ukraine in January 2022 and promised to deepen the security partnership and increase its military pres­ence in Poland. With these actions, London also wants to make it clear to both Washing­ton and its partners in Central and Eastern Europe that, even after Brexit, a European security order is only possible with strong British participation.

Conclusions for Germany and the EU

The UK remains an independent actor in the European security architecture and, in addition to its joint membership in NATO, now also offers itself to targeted EU states as a bilateral security partner. It is true that the new British network of bilateral con­sul­tations will not compete with cooperation within the EU in terms of intensity and regularity. Moreover, in terms of content, the various “joint declarations” often con­tain such general formulations that any other NATO or EU state could also sign them. The growing network of bilateral relations, however, poses two different challenges for Germany and the EU.

Germany faces the conflicting goals of being interested in close foreign and secu­rity policy ties with the UK, but at the same time wanting to strengthen the EU in for­eign and security policy with the goal of strategic sovereignty. In many cases, Euro­pean capacity to act will therefore not be possible without British participation, but British participation through bilateral chan­nels and/or minilateral forums such as the E3 weakens the EU. In the further development of bilateral relations with London, the new German government will have to weigh very carefully how far it wants to intensify them without harming the EU. British-German bilateral initiatives in for­eign and security policy that have not been coordinated with the European partners beforehand, thus potentially weakening the EU, should be avoided. On the other hand, Berlin should aim to “Europeanise” formats such as the E3 – if possible through the participation of the High Representative – and rely on close coordination of EU ini­tia­tives in bilateral and minilateral initiatives with the British. Germany can also act as a bridging power if, for example, it coordi­nates sanctions with the UK in parallel to the EU decision-making process and works towards the simultaneity of sanctions.

For its part, the EU faces the dilemma of how to treat London in foreign, security, and defence policy. To date, the mantra in Brussels has been that the UK could co­operate with the EU in foreign, security, and defence policy like other neighbouring states such as Norway and Switzerland. But being a mere recipient of decisions that is allowed to participate in individual mis­sions, sanctions, and EU civilian missions or military operations without a say is not an attractive option for London. If the Union insists on treating the UK like a normal third country in foreign and security policy, there will be no structured cooperation in this area in the future.

On the other hand, it should not be the EU’s goal in the medium term for its mem­ber states to act exclusively bilaterally with London in foreign and security policy – or even in areas with mixed EU competences such as migration – and in the worst case even to be played off against each other. EU member states and EU institutions should therefore collectively reflect on whether there is a more flexible model for engaging the UK in foreign and security policy in the common interest.

Firstly, the EU member states should immediately establish transparency among themselves as to what agreements they make with the UK as a third country. The UK-German declaration establishes such a transparency mechanism, while most others at least enshrine the importance of EU membership. In the Brexit negotiations, this mutual transparency contributed greatly to preserving the unity of the EU-27, and this should also be the goal in the long term. This is particularly true where the agree­ments touch on EU competences, for exam­ple in trade policy and internal security.

Secondly, the EU should be open to a sui generis model of UK involvement in foreign and security policy. It cannot be in the Union’s interest to keep London on the out­side in foreign and security policy and thus promote bilateralisation. As the threat of a large-scale war returns to Europe, it should be of imperative interest both to the UK and the EU that they put their Brexit differences behind them and work together in foreign and security affairs as closely as possible. The EU should, for instance, be open to in­volv­ing the UK as closely as possible in co­ordinating its response to Russian aggres­sion. At the same time, London should put its ideological attempts to bypass the EU aside and embrace an EU-UK security part­ner­ship.

Thirdly, the EU and Germany in particu­lar must ask themselves why the UK, now as a non-EU member, is nevertheless an attractive partner, especially for Central and Eastern European member states. This also has a lot to do with the EU’s credibility and disunity as an actor vis-à-vis Russia. Lon­don’s resolute support in the current crisis over Ukraine – compared to Berlin’s hesi­tant or even obstructive reaction, for ex­ample, from a Polish perspective – has reinforced this perception. Only when the EU can convince its own members of its ability to act in foreign and security policy will it also be a convincing partner to do so.

Dr Nicolai von Ondarza is Head of the EU / Europe Research Division. Julina Mintel is a Student Assistant in the EU / Europe Research Division.

© Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, 2022


Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik

ISSN (Print) 1861-1761

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(English version of SWP‑Aktuell 16/2022)