Great Britain
As crises mount, the new UK Prime Minister will need a positive Europe strategy

UK Europe
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The next UK leader will inherit a string of security, political and economic crises requiring bold actions to reassure an anxious population. To add to the challenge, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought the spectre of nuclear war and critical shortages right to our doorstep. It has also seen Global Britain assert itself on the world stage. With effusive solidarity for Ukraine, Johnson has pushed European and G7 allies for tougher sanctions, more heavy weapon deliveries and faster energy alternatives. UK-EU cooperation has gone well in terms of sanctions, coordinated diplomacy and war crime investigations. But will this united front last? Or will the UK goal to differentiate itself after Brexit, and derive competitive advantage over neighbours, trump strategic cooperation?

Uncertain Times

The UK’s desire to go it alone outside the EU came at an inopportune time. Recent crises have exposed our vulnerabilities as nations, regions and an inter-connected global community. But they have also shown the ability of all Europeans (including Britons) to achieve remarkable things when we work together and with overseas partners – like the production of Covid vaccines in record time.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is testing us again, affecting many countries beyond Ukraine’s borders and building on 15 years of Russian-supported interference across the region. The Kremlin’s campaign to undermine Euro-Atlantic cooperation, models of democracy and the rules-based international order has succeeded by capitalising on fractures and empowering internal disrupters. And it’s not over. The weaponization of our politics and information space will continue and requires concerted counter-activity.

China too has invested in its own long-term global economic and political strategy to advance its interests. Its calibrated support for Russia’s invasion emphasizes shared goals to challenge Western hegemony. Allied fragmentation at this point, therefore, poses great risks. The UK needs to strengthen its overall resilience, elevate new areas to matters of security and harness its strengths as a nation and region. It’s time to face up to tough realities, move on from the hard Brexit era, and cooperate more effectively.

Here are suggested elements of a new UK resilience strategy.

1. A united front at home and abroad

Reconciling divided communities at home is essential to projecting strength and getting through tough times. But this is not just about bringing together the Conservative party. The whole country has been immersed in febrile arguments around questions of identity and Britishness, the nature of democracy and where powers should lie. The new leader must contain efforts to inflame culture wars, convey exclusive definitions of patriotism or use aggressive rhetoric in political debate. They would also win approval for genuine efforts at reconciliation between the four nations and across political parties and identity battlelines. An accommodation with pro-EU supporters would also help bring the country together by acknowledging at least some Brexit damage, and opening up dialogue on ways forward. This would not limit Brexit opportunities but recognise that six years on; the country is still split on the issue and compromises are needed on both sides.

In terms of European solidarity, arguments with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol don’t help. They weaken cooperation and divert collective energies from addressing other pressing matters. Compromises will inevitably be needed so the UK should shortcut past the pain to the landing zone that even Prime Minister Johnson said existed. Then it would be possible to promote a new era of positive UK-EU cooperation publicly. This is essential in order to confront Russia and other threats.

The allied front needs to be airtight to counter the information and diplomatic war pursued by Russia at home and in the global south. Kremlin propaganda, amplified by China, is spreading the message that its invasion is due to NATO expansion and that food shortage are due to sanctions. Countries like South Africa, India, Ethiopia and Egypt are being persuaded. To counter this, European and G7 allies need a common diplomatic plan to win over key nations and expand pressure on Putin.

Russia needs to be prevented from breaking our resolve by exploiting fractures, whether in the Western Balkans and Caucasus, between EU members or between Britain and the EU. Maintaining sanctions, aid to Ukraine and deterrence measures means regular consultation and division of labour. For the UK, this means working productively with EU institutions and the Member States on the basis of trust, as well as with NATO, G7, UN and others.

2. Defence collaboration through EU & NATO

Second, we need to enhance defence collaboration. As the use of military power again proves consequential, stronger deterrence is needed and troops readied for confrontation.  Given new ambitions in the US, Europe and Indo-Pacific, collaboration is essential to manage costs. While the AUKUS agreement adds another dimension to British defence, the UK is also being urged to contribute to European defence initiatives. The new NATO Strategic Concept drops a hint: “For the development of the strategic partnership between NATO and the EU, non-EU Allies’ fullest involvement in EU defence efforts is essential.”

As NATO-EU cooperation deepens, the UK cannot afford to shut itself out of EU projects on military mobility or security missions, let alone lucrative industrial investment and technological innovation. For its part, the EU offer to the UK as an important third country on defence should be broadened in exchange for enduring commitments. The US and other allies would welcome the détente.

3. Protecting against hybrid threats

Third, the UK must bolster security in non-military areas in tandem with alliesResisting threats in all their forms requires a comprehensive approach, with the whole region moving in the same direction, sharing expertise, dividing labour and pooling resources. The next Prime Minister needs to reboot a strategy to harness collective hybrid assets.

Cyber security and emerging technologies are cited as special areas for coordination in the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement, but other joint actions could boost broader resilience. For example, to manage the energy crisis, secure supply chains and critical infrastructure, manage technological change and manipulation, resist economic coercion, money-laundering and illegal funding, and protect democracy on both sides from interference, disinformation and polarisation tactics.

Building on the provisions of the TCA on law enforcement, terrorism and judicial matters, the UK could develop a new multi-domain framework for cooperation with the EU to cover all aspects of a hybrid security. However, since the Government’s proposed legislation on the Northern Ireland Protocol, the UK is excluded from ever more EU discussions and risks being out of the loop. Solutions must be found quickly so the UK can move on to develop these other vital areas of cooperation systematically.

4. Amplifying UK influence and global rules

Mending fences with the UK’s biggest trade and cooperation partners will also advance the Global Britain agenda. A “constructive and productive relationship” with Europe, as called for in the Integrated Review, would further UK aspirations to bolster free trade, amplify influence and “play a leading role in advancing European and international security and an international rules-based system.”

This can be done through harmonising UK-EU positions ahead of international meetings, which will then help coordinate with the US, G7 and beyond. This greater alignment will maximise the collective impact to resolve conflicts and advance value-based positions. It will also inspire more joint action on climate change, migration, trade and technology and other areas requiring regional, as well as national and global responses.

5. Boosting economic growth

Tackling the cost-of-living crisis is now a challenge for many countries. It makes sense for the next UK Government to explore all options to minimise inflation, enhance economic growth and ensure critical supplies and public services for citizens. Developing closer trading relations with the EU would provide a welcome boost for business and lower costs for consumers by reducing obstacles to trade, travel and cooperation and addressing crucial labour shortages. Various trade commissions have proposed ways forward for consideration.

The next Prime Minister should also avoid the wholesale shredding of regulations adopted as an EU member, rather than on a case-by-case basis, as this could create a vacuum, unnecessary deviation and even more bureaucracy for business, sectors and the civil service.

To conclude, the UK cannot sustain confrontation with Europe if it wants international clout and forward-looking policies that strengthen its economy, security and progress. Doubling down on bilateral and mini-lateral relations is worthwhile for Britain but not enough. The most effective way to agree on complex issues across many countries is through the EU. A new European construct like Macron’s European Political Community may or may not offer new ways to work together. We cannot wait. Crises are piling up. The US and EU are already working more closely together – the UK risks being left out. The UK need not compromise freedom of action by cooperating with EU but instead can spread its influence, save money and join forces where needed. Where the UK sees a better way forward, it can still act alone or try to persuade neighbours of its views.

None of this betrays Brexit. After all, the country was split on EU membership, and many Leave voters wanted to maintain close ties. So the UK must balance cooperation with Europe with being competitive. The UK has a lot to contribute - and to resolve - so needs to renew its role as a reliable European ally in words as well as deeds. This will require creativity and commitment. But it’s necessary to work. The EU is not going anywhere despite predictions and remains the preeminent forum for the UK’s 27 European neighbours. They all share the same geographical space, lifestyles and worldview, so it makes sense to work together. The UK faces too many problems to do otherwise.

Sandra Khadhouri is Director of Keeping Channels Open, a new dialogue forum for UK, European and American stakeholders, supported by Friedrich Naumann Foundation.