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How the E3 can help British-EU co-operation overcome Brexit

France, Germany and Britain have an interest in strengthening their collaboration, writes FT’s Martin Sandbu.

Germany’s defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer recently hosted what her department trumpeted as the first formal meeting of defence ministers in the ‘E3’ grouping — France, Germany and the UK. The E3 have worked together for almost two decades, above all on Iran. The potential of collective action by Europe’s big three was illustrated this month when they rebuffed a US attempt to “snap back” sanctions on Iran in the UN Security Council, leaving Washington isolated.

Expanding the E3 configuration from foreign policy to defence may be more symbolic than anything else. “I don’t expect very specific defence co-operation to come out of the E3”, said Ulrike Franke, policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The main idea is to have the UK involved one way or another.”

The interest in the format shows how all three countries have something to gain. Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer and her French counterpart Florence Parly were “very keen to engage with the UK in new formats”, said Alice Pannier, professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University. “Working with Paris and Berlin is politically easier” for the UK than dealing with the EU, she added.

Ulrike Franke said that Germany “would like to see the E3 format as a hinge between Nato and the EU”. For the UK, it “shows its role on the global stage without being in competition with the EU — or even that the EU can’t do it alone”.

How does this shared interest in collaboration square with the much more confrontational stances in the slow-going future relationship talks between the UK and Brussels? “France and Germany share the common position on preserving single market autonomy and not giving the UK special treatment”, Ms Pannier pointed out. “It is also a matter of timing — the priority now is to get the trade deal done. Then one can talk about what the UK can offer the EU defence-wise.”

“The idea is just that these are separate issues. [Collaborating on] defence and foreign policy questions is a no-brainer” and could be expected to continue, Ms Pannier added. “Everybody agrees it is silly not to have some sort of institutional arrangement that allows the UK to participate in some EU programmes, but this is easier to do after trade is settled.”

Economic frictions can, however, get entangled with defence. Ms Franke said it was “pretty clear that the UK will lose out” with respect to “the EU’s efforts to build defence equipment together”. Border delays weakened the economic case for UK participation in European production chains, said Ms Pannier, citing the example of Airbus, which manufactures wings in Britain.

There are also overlaps between trade and domestic security issues such as police and judicial co-operation, information transfers and data governance. The political declaration that accompanied the UK-EU withdrawal agreement foresaw security and defence co-operation covered in the future relationship talks, but the UK then blocked this.

British resistance to accepting existing EU institutional structures limits the extent of possible co-operation, as was recently noted by Julian King, who served as the UK’s last EU commissioner for security.

This reflects a broader clash between a European predilection for codified, treaty-based co-operation and a British preference for relationships based on political understanding between “sovereign equals” rather than formal ties. This would limit UK participation in new EU-wide defence structures, said Ms Franke.

But this was mostly just “annoying” for the EU, said Ms Pannier, because in security matters a lot was still decided nationally. “What Europe needs is a UK that wants to work with Europe on security issues even if not through EU structures.” With the political will from the UK, the E3 could be the foundation of a “geopolitical Europe” if not a “geopolitical EU”, said Ms Franke.

That, said Ms Pannier, required the UK “to co-operate and show goodwill, not take hardline positions for domestic political reasons. Hardline Brexiter positions are harmful to national security.”

Martin Sandbu is the Financial Times’s European Economic Commentator. This article was initially published in the FT on 26 August