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The Brexit Deal and Foreign Policy

The Brexit Deal and Foreign Policy: The UK’s ‘Global Positioning’ between the EU and the US 

Cornelia-Adriana Baciu (Dublin City University)

The UK’s withdrawal from the €10 billion Galileo programme, and the intention to build its own satellite navigation system compatible with the US Global Positioning System, might signal a British foreign policy vision more closely aligned with the US. Theresa May justified the withdrawal from Galileo with fears of not being able to influence the system’s development after Brexit: “I cannot let our armed forces depend on a system we cannot be sure of. That would not be in our national interest.” In the terms of Alliance Theory from the field of International Relations, some may say that the Brexit Deal (the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration that were recently agreed but await final approval) could be conceptualized as entrapment of the UK in the EU political structures and decisions, i.e. the equivalent of a fear of being dragged into a constellation of interests which it might not share or share only partially. As this short analysis will demonstrate, the risk of entrapment is not only a misapprehension, but embracing this as a possible point of departure to pursue foreign policy alignment with the US could unleash a greater risk for the UK, that of abandonment – i.e. the chosen partner might defect or even ally with the opponent.

US Abandonment vs. EU Entrapment

The UK’s political alignment with the US is not new. Intensive defence industrial links with the US might suggest that the UK might be inclined to choose cooperation with the US rather than with a European partner in many aspects. But an alliance with the US over a burden-sharing alternative with the EU might bear a significant risk of abandonment, inciting a difficult security dilemma for the UK. Discontinuities in US policy post-Trump indicate the probability that a UK-US alliance post-Brexit could possibly transform from ‘special relationship’ to a highly asymmetric alliance, in which the patron US will have the freedom to unpredictably impose its conditionality on a diminished UK, with a high risk of defection and weakened commitments. According to alliance theory, “abandonment fears will be higher for a state with high external threat perceptions, few alternative alliance partners [and] no internal balancing capabilities” (see Cha 2000, p. 265). The US will not hesitate to exploit those fears as well as mutual utility imbalances, and a dominating role by the US would seriously compromise the UK’s strategic choices for its envisaged ‘Global Britain’. Contrary to conventional wisdom that the risk of abandonment would be lower in bilateral alliances, this risk seems more likely in the US-UK case due to unpredictability and turbulence in US policy. This establishes the fact that such a risk of abandonment would pose more serious risks than ‘entrapment’ in EU structures and decisions. The risk of collapse of an alliance with the EU would be notably lower, as the aggregated interests of EU27 will tend more towards conflict resolution mechanisms than in a bipolar alliance with the US.

The UK’s perceived risk of entrapment with the EU institutional structures  should be weighed against the above-noted risk of US abandonment. An assessment based on common security threats and mutual reliability reveals that the EU can be a greater source of utility, making the EU a more favorable alliance partner for the UK than the US post-Brexit. Not only are the UK and the EU exposed to a similar threat environment, but an analysis of their national security strategies suggests higher compatibility between the EU27-UK strategic interests and priorities than those of the US and UK. This indicates that an alliance persistence with the EU would have positive effects for the UK on both in terms of (a) system stability, understood as robustness (resilience) or the ability of the system to maintain its power in the context of extraneous changes or shifts or power, and (b) system effectiveness, understood as the system’s capacity to fulfil strategic objectives (see Hasenclever et al. 2009, p.2). The UK commitment to EU security and defence will be preferable due to the constellation of common security threats and commonality of strategic interests. Ironically, this might have unintended consequences by increasing the risk of abandonment in the case of a hypothetical alliance with the US, as zero-sum perceptions of foreign policy might continue to prevail in US policymaking, even after Trump.

The UK’s Informal Integration in CSDP as set out in the Political Declaration

At an in-depth level of analysis, the perceived risk of entrapment might be a distorted picture or even an illusion. In its July 2018 White Paper on “The future relationship between the UK and the EU”, the UK expressed its interests towards a security partnership involving a close relationship with the EU, including coordination on foreign policy and joint capability development. This vision has been guaranteed in the Draft Political Declaration setting out the framework for the future relationship between the EU and the UK accompanying the Withdrawal Agreement, which presents comprehensive options for “consultation and cooperation” (Art. 95-98). Art 103 of the Declaration states the possibility for the UK to participate in the Force Generation conference, Call for Contributions, and the Committee of Contributors, which would enable UK to participate in the information process regarding the implementation of future missions and operations. Moreover, the Declaration (Art 103-104) guarantees that the UK will benefit from “intensif[ied] interaction and exchange of information at relevant stages of the planning process and proportionately to the level of United Kingdom’s contribution” within a possible framework partnership agreement (which could be signed during the transition period). Art 104 of the Political Declaration allows the UK to participate, by invitation, in EU co-funded EDF or PESCO projects, which would have a tremendous externality for UK firms. In terms of decision making in CSDP/CFSP decisional bodies, such as the Political and Security Committee, the Declaration includes the possibility for the UK to be invited to informal Ministerial meetings. The UK’s involvement can only have an informal character, as the CSDP/CFSP was not designed to accommodate formal roles of third-countries. To balance this statement, informal ways of UK integration in CSDP post-Brexit offer many ways of participation and manifestations of influence in CSDP spaces of power, even though they are not part of formal procedures. The intensity of these exchange dynamics will nonetheless be in direct proportionality with the level of mutual trust.


To conclude, since EU (X) and UK (Y) experience a common matrix of threats and “weak commitments by a commonly shared ally” (see Cha 2000, p.269) – i.e. the US – alliance theory predicts an alignment between X and Y. While Brexit will have transformative effects on both EU and the UK, normalising continuity with the EU would constitute a policy model with higher system stability and system effectiveness potential. An alliance with the US (or maybe other partners) might bring new ‘cascades of uncertainty’ and compel the UK to adapt its threshold equilibrium strategy in a way that would seriously obstruct British risk assessment and crisis management. Discontinuity and turbulence in the transatlantic security environment would hinder the UK’s ability to predict and control, with great substantive implications for UK security and foreign policy, while a commonality of security threats and strategic priorities makes UK more prone to an alignment and grand strategy dovetailing with the EU rather than with the US.

Cornelia-Adriana Baciu is final year PhD Candidate at the School of Government, Dublin City University and Government of Ireland Postgraduate Fellow. She is coordinating the Research Network “European Security and Strategy”. In 2019, her co-edited volume Security and Defence Cooperation in Post-Brexit Europe: Risks and Opportunities (with Springer) will appear.