Main Image Credit Britannia Rules the Waves by Nicholas Habbe, 1876. Courtesy of Victorian Collections / Wikimedia Commons
The UK’s Integrated Review laid down the challenge that ‘What Global Britain means in practice is best defined by actions rather than words’. The current crisis in Ukraine is enabling the UK to demonstrate exactly what Global Britain means and how it intends to develop as a post-Brexit European security actor.
So far, the UK is having a good crisis, and its European allies are noticing it. In the past two weeks alone, RAF C-17 aircraft have delivered 2000 anti-tank weapons to Ukraine, alongside additional British Army advisers, in a significant attempt to help the country defend itself from Russian aggression. This is the latest package since 2015 under Operation Orbital. Altogether the operation has included: training over 21,000 Ukrainian military personnel; a Naval Capabilities Enhancement Programme; gifts of non-lethal military equipment totalling £2.2 million; and various deployments of Royal Navy warships to the Black Sea region. These measures, alongside enhanced support to European partners, suggest an aspiration to demonstrate continued and growing leadership in European security, and have provided insights into how the UK intends to develop as a post-Brexit European security actor.
Executing the Strategy
The March 2021 Integrated Review and Defence Command Paper confirmed the ‘Global Britain’ slogan as the cornerstone of UK foreign policy to 2030. This phrase was first used after the 2016 Brexit referendum to help develop a post-Brexit vision for the UK. However, it was criticised as overly vague rhetoric, with a succession of ministers unable to fully explain what it meant or how it was different to existing UK policy. This vacuum of detail made the slogan an easy target for anti-Brexit campaigners.
Further criticism arose after publication of the Integrated Review and Command paper regarding the much-publicised ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific which, in turn, shadowed the accelerating US ‘pivot’ to Asia. The UK was accused of abandoning Europe, and there was scepticism that a middle power could effectively balance Indo-Pacific and European requirements in the light of a resource-constrained foreign service and a military whose army was shrinking, together with the dramatic reduction of the UK’s international aid budget. The desire to be a global player seemed overly ambitious.
Yet the Integrated Review was clear on the UK’s approach to European security: ‘The Euro-Atlantic region will remain critical to the UK’s security and prosperity … Russia will remain the most acute direct threat to the UK, and the US will continue to ask more from its allies in Europe in sharing the burden of collective security’.
The UK position on Russia hardened significantly after the 2018 Salisbury poisonings, and the current unequivocal support for Ukraine demonstrates a more muscular defence policy. This contrasts with 2014, when the UK ceded the European diplomatic lead to France and Germany through the ‘Normandy Format’ (plus Ukraine and Russia). The current UK defence secretary, Ben Wallace, has thus far been at the forefront of the UK response to the crisis, developing a significant military dimension. The defence and foreign secretaries have been active and engaged, visiting multiple European and Indo-Pacific partners, demonstrating that they are capable of leading on defence and foreign policy just as Whitehall and domestic politics are distracted by ‘partygate’. Moreover, there is unusual cross-party support for the UK’s Ukraine policy, with the shadow foreign and defence secretaries recently visiting Kyiv and the latter publicly backing his governmental opposite number.
Although challenging prioritisation and resourcing decisions lie ahead, the ground covered by the UK in the last year is encouraging. The Queen Elizabeth Carrier Strike Group sailed to the Indo-Pacific, the AUKUS security partnership was founded, and a deeper defence relationship with Japan is being discussed. UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss delivered her latest warning to President Vladimir Putin during a visit to Australia alongside the defence secretary, at the same time as the Royal Navy was delivering disaster relief to Tonga, demonstrating the global ambitions of the UK. This level of activity and focus is now being matched, and perhaps surpassed, within the Euro-Atlantic.
The defence and foreign secretaries have been active and engaged, demonstrating that they are capable of leading on defence and foreign policy just as Whitehall and domestic politics are distracted by ‘partygate’
A European Security Network
The UK foreign secretary has spoken of the UK desire to build a ‘global network of liberty’. This is well-advanced in Europe, and recent activity is providing insight into exactly how the UK intends to develop as a post-Brexit European security actor.
The UK has developed a security network that stretches from the Arctic to the Black Sea, including the High North and the Baltic states. These sub-regions are closely interlinked, with activity in one having the potential to spill over into the other. A chain of partners – Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine – is underpinned by a patchwork of bilateral, trilateral and mini-lateral arrangements, including the 10 member UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force, the Northern Group of Defence Ministers and a new trilateral defence collaboration with Poland and Ukraine. Therefore, the UK is playing a significant role in protecting Europe’s northern and eastern flanks by providing diplomatic and military support, including unique capabilities.
The UK leads the NATO enhanced forward presence in Estonia under Operation Cabrit and contributes to the US-led force in Poland. It has already committed to bolster these countries – with whom it shares NATO commitments – if Russia re-invades Ukraine. In addition to anti-submarine capabilities in the Arctic and High North, the UK has committed a Carrier Strike Group to the NATO Readiness Initiative, making good on the Command Paper’s commitment to have it ‘permanently available’ to NATO. The UK is also standing up a Littoral Response Group North with an area of responsibility covering the Atlantic and the Baltic and Mediterranean Seas.
A Widening Gulf Between the EU and UK
By contrast, the EU is, thus far, having a bad crisis. It is the latest strain on the requirements of commonality in the face of geopolitical realities, and unity is fragile. Actions by the bloc’s leadership are undermining this unity in military and non-military responses to the crisis.
Of most concern to the UK is the fact that the new German coalition government’s position seems confused. Not only has it refused to arm Ukraine, citing ‘historical reasons’ – despite record arms sales of over 9 billion euros in 2021, including to Egypt – it has also actively blocked Estonia from sending artillery to Ukraine, drawing heavy criticism from Poland. This confusion has already led to the resignation of the head of the German Navy.
France seems to be moving to fill the vacuum left by former German Chancellor Angela Merkel and taking the lead on the Russian brief, which it feels has been abdicated by Germany in the current crisis. However, President Emmanuel Macron has seen his attempts to initiate an EU dialogue with Russia fail before, and he must therefore find a way to speak for Europe and not only France. Indeed, Macron has already undermined European unity with his own proposals. While there is some merit to such ideas, announcing them at such a delicate time was counterproductive.
The UK’s policy of a strong NATO having primacy has been vindicated, and the Alliance will likely be strengthened following this episode at the expense of the EU
The EU has been completely side-lined by Russia. This has reinforced the Cold War maxims that the US and NATO are the leading European security actors. It vindicates the UK’s policy of a strong NATO having primacy, and the Alliance will likely be strengthened following this episode at the expense of the EU. Moreover, the EU seems fixated on sticking to its original plan for 2022 and publishing its new defence strategy: the EU Strategic Compass in March. However, the strategy is based on a November 2020 threat assessment that does not take account of renewed Russian aggression and the potential for a rewriting of the European security order by force. This might lead policymakers in the UK to conclude that it is not negatively impacted by the absence of an institutional defence and security relationship with the EU, and that it would be supporting a flawed strategy when it has its own that appears to be working. Politically, the current government will be encouraged and seek to enhance the Global Britain narrative of the UK as an independent middle power.
However, both the Integrated Review and the first draft of the EU’s Strategic Compass declared respectively that: ‘We (the UK) will cooperate with the EU on matters of security and defence as independent partners, where this is in our interest’ and ‘We (the EU) remain open to a broad and ambitious security and defence engagement with the United Kingdom’. With the UK moving in a different direction to the larger EU countries, it seems unlikely at this stage that such cooperation will occur. Instead, the UK has diversified its options by using its patchwork of alliances to its advantage and leveraging the key capabilities that are of most value to smaller European countries: high-end military capabilities; signals intelligence through GCHQ; and civilian and military cyber capabilities. There is also an opportunity for the UK to use these partnerships to shape the direction of European security to reinforce NATO’s primacy in Europe. This will both maximise its value to the US and fulfil the UK’s traditional transatlantic role, all while outside of the EU.
Europe Still Matters to London
The current crisis has enabled the UK to demonstrate its continuing desire to be a leader in European security, both via NATO and as an independent actor. UK actions in defensively arming Ukraine and reinforcing NATO’s eastern presence have now been followed by other European countries: the Czech Republic, Denmark, Spain, the Netherlands, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, among others.
Regardless of whether Russia renews military operations in Ukraine in the coming months, this episode will have profound repercussions for the extant European security order. Ukraine and other allies in Europe will remember that the UK did all it could to help, and that it remains a reliable and valued defence and security partner post-Brexit.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Research Fellow for European Security
International Security Studies