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Bridging the Channel: How Europe and the UK can work together in Foreign Policy.

by Luigi Scazzieri

This paper is the first of a three paper project ‘Bridging the Channel’, published by Centre for Centre for European Reform and the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung. The aim is to assess how EU states and the UK can continue work together in foreign and security policy after Brexit. This paper focuses on diplomatic co-operation, while the other two will focus on the defence industrial and nuclear dimensions respectively.

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Britain’s exit from the EU, combined with London’s unwillingness to deal with the EU as a foreign policy actor, is pushing member-states and the UK to explore new ways of working together in foreign policy.

The most obvious route to working together is through intensified bilateral co-operation and consultation. Small informal groups like the E3 (France, Germany and the UK) can also play an important role in maintaining trust, facilitating consultations, and potentially acting jointly. The make-up of such groups is likely to vary, with some combination of the US, European countries and non-European countries involved depending on the issue. The use of small groups will be particularly likely when the EU cannot easily reach consensus on foreign policy.

The UK also wants to co-ordinate more closely in NATO, and London has tried to use its G7 presidency to boost the group’s role. In the past, French and German politicians have said they wanted to establish a European Security Council (ESC) to strengthen EU foreign policy and co-operate with the UK. But they never fully fleshed out how an ESC would work. In the near term, there is unlikely to be much appetite in the EU or the UK to set up such formal structures.

By working together bilaterally, in small groups and in institutions of which they are members, EU member-states and the UK can continue to consult and co-operate. But there are limits to what these formats can achieve. France and Germany want to work with the UK but are also wary of bypassing the EU, as this causes friction with excluded member-states.

There are ways for the UK and the EU institutions to work together even without a foreign policy agreement. But the UK’s reluctance to deal with the EU as an organisation will make co-operation on many issues difficult. Forums like NATO and the G7 can be useful for consultation, but it will be hard to address challenges that have an economic dimension without involving the EU. The EU is the forum where member-states agree and implement economic policies, and member-states can only impose economic sanctions through the Union. 

Finally, on some issues the UK may find itself squeezed out of intensified transatlantic dialogue between the EU and the US. And co-operation will be vulnerable to broader tensions in the EU-UK relationship, which could easily spill over into bilateral relationships and undermine trust. Much depends on whether the UK government can decrease tensions and overcome its deep scepticism towards working with the EU.

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