Britain should use its leading role in the Ukraine war urgently to repair its relations with the EU by offering to help strengthen European security both via Nato and rapidly evolving EU defence plans, the director of Chatham House, Dr Robin Niblett, has proposed.
That will require working more formally with Brussels on foreign policy and defence, including issues such as cyber, intelligence and disinformation, said Niblett, who heads Britain’s leading foreign policy thinktank.
He said the move would not only strengthen Europe following “Vladimir Putin’s decision to rip up the post-cold war security arrangements in Europe”, but help indirectly to repair EU-UK economic trade relations.
But he warned: “The risk remains that allowing these areas of dispute and friction in the economic sphere to persist, and possibly fester, will undermine both sides’ desire to forge a closer relationship on foreign and security policy – as is now even more critical.”
Niblett suggested that as the parallel processes to develop a new Nato “strategic concept” and the EU’s “strategic compass” are under way, options could be found to embed the UK, Niblett said, alongside the US and Canada, in more regular transatlantic coordination.
“The risk otherwise is that the UK could find itself excluded from deeper defence industrial and technological cooperation within the EU.
“A more specific UK–EU dialogue on security could also emerge from the Russia–Ukraine crisis. That could include the establishment of a sanctions review group that would ensure alignment on the timing and targets of sanctions, as well as conditions for their lifting.”
His ideas, likely to be influential within Whitehall, come in a sweeping 70-page report looking at how the UK has implemented its year-old landmark integrated foreign and defence review. Niblett argues that the UK has made progress in setting out on its own as a global trading nation, adding the UK has been self-evidently out in front on training and arming the Ukrainians, but points to many weaknesses on aid, human rights, moral hypocrisy and economic performance.
At the time of the strategic review’s publication, with its focus on a UK tilt to the Indo-Pacific, there was criticism of its relative silence about the UK’s future foreign and defence relations with the EU, a subject that was deliberately untouched in the final Brexit agreements at British insistence. Through the Ukraine conflict, Britain has on ad hoc basis worked either bilaterally or through Nato, G7 meetings or impromptu groupings.
The foreign secretary, Liz Truss, has attended one EU foreign ministers meeting in early March, along with Ukraine and the US, but Boris Johnson, for instance, was not asked to attend the lengthy EU heads of government meeting last week attended by Joe Biden on further economic sanctions against Russia. Niblett described the antagonism Johnson has shown to the EU as counterproductive at a time of acute danger for Europe. “Continuing to fuel a fractious relationship with this major neighbouring institution carries clear risks for the UK’s economy,” he said.
He also pointed out that over the past year the UK has retreated from global health and poverty challenges, due to aid cuts. Inconsistencies on human rights policies and climate change, including their relationship to the pursuit of new trade deals, have “opened the government up to damaging accusations of hypocrisy and being are out of step with the UK’s role as a champion of liberal democratic governance”, the report says.
Niblett said: “As a newly minted solo power that is still reintroducing itself on the world stage, justifiable accusations of double standards and evidence of hypocrisy will be deeply damaging. There will be no more precious asset in the future for Britain’s influence in the world than a reputation for consistency.”
The way in which major cuts to the UK’s overseas aid budget were implemented, for example, “revealed a callous side to Britain” which has been further amplified by its approach to refugee applications, not only from Ukraine but from around the world.