Stephen Booth: The Ukraine war has revived American leadership and dashed dreams of European autonomy

7 Apr

Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.

In the 1990s, Mark Eyskens, then Belgium’s foreign minister, described the EU as an economic giant, a political dwarf, and a military worm. This depiction has since been invoked in dozens of articles and speeches about EU foreign and security policy.

The unprecedented speed and scale of the EU’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine therefore displayed a surprising degree of unity and capacity to act, from what was admittedly a rather low base. The EU agreed to provide Ukraine with €450 million worth of weapons, and joined the US and the UK in imposing significant economic sanctions on the Russian financial system. Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, described it as the EU’s “geopolitical awakening”.

Maintaining a unified EU response will be increasingly difficult as the crisis goes on and tougher decisions are called for. For example, this week, the EU agreed sanctions on Russian coal and shipping but was unable to extend this to oil, amid resistance from large energy importers such as Germany.

And while some in Brussels might hail the response as giving fresh impetus to the concepts of “European sovereignty” and “strategic autonomy”, in many ways the crisis has only underlined and intensified the EU’s reliance on the US and NATO.

The first references to the concept of EU “strategic autonomy” date back nearly a decadem but Emmanuel Macron has sought to put the idea at the heart of French and European foreign policy since assuming office. He first drew on this theme early in his presidency in a 2017 speech at the Sorbonne as a response to what he described as “gradual and inevitable disengagement by the United States”.

While pitched as a “complement” to NATO and the transatlantic alliance, Macron was clear that the concept meant equipping the EU with the tools to take decisions and action independently based on its own interests, from foreign and security policy to energy and technology. In 2019, Macron described the “brain death” of NATO.

The EU institutions in Brussels were keen to run with the theme. In 2019, the incoming Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, promised a “geopolitical Commission”. This promise was made in response to the decline in multilateralism and growing great power rivalry between the US and China. Brexit, and the loss of one of the EU’s two major foreign policy and security players, no doubt also acted as a catalyst for the renewed emphasis on developing the EU’s geopolitical role.

However, the EU has struggled to define what strategic autonomy means in practice. Economically, the French desire to create European champions clashes with the instincts of more liberal member states. Clément Beaune, France’s EU minister, said last month that the war should push the EU “to reduce our interdependence with the outside world, to create not an autocracy but a form of European independence.” Mark Rutte, Holland’s Prime Minister, has stressed the need for “open strategic autonomy”.

On security, there has been a renewed focus on increasing investment in defence capabilities, which has been accelerated by the Ukraine crisis, particularly dramatically in Germany. However, there had remained an unresolved tension between those states for whom strategic autonomy is a means of regaining political independence from Washington, and others for whom it should be avoided precisely for fear of accelerating US disengagement. The Ukraine crisis has strengthened the hand of those in the latter camp, including the Eastern and Nordic states.

Observers have noted that, on assuming the EU’s rotating presidency at the start of this year, Macron dropped the term “strategic autonomy” in favour of “European sovereignty”, precisely because the term autonomy risked becoming divisive.

The EU recently published its Strategic Compass for Security and Defence, which was supposed to be the centrepiece of the French EU presidency and a landmark signpost towards a more geopolitical EU. Based on the “first-ever comprehensive EU threat analysis”, conducted in 2020, it has been rather overtaken by events.

The Compass has been hastily updated to reflect the Ukraine war, but the major threat analysis was conducted before the Russian invasion changed the geopolitical landscape, and that threat analysis also did not anticipate the risk of Russian military action. Notably, US and UK intelligence warnings of an imminent Russian attack proved to be correct, whereas French and German agencies appeared unconvinced, leading to the departure of the head of French military intelligence.

One of the key proposals of the Strategic Compass is the development of an EU Rapid Deployment Capacity of up to 5,000 troops for different types of crises. However, the Ukraine crisis has only underlined that, for hard power, NATO is the only game in town. In the words of NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, “so all these efforts – as long as they complement NATO – we welcome them, but the EU cannot defend Europe.”

The crisis has amplified the voices of the more Atlanticist member states, particularly in Eastern Europe. Estonia has called for a larger permanent presence of NATO forces on the eastern flank to act as a stronger deterrent. Romania has also called for more troops and has pledged to increase defence spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP. Meanwhile, Poland has quietly lowered the temperature in its legal disputes with Brussels, giving it the opportunity to rekindle ties with the Biden Administration and urge the EU to do more on sanctions and support for Ukraine.

The US is also poised to play a significant role in the EU’s transition away from dependence on Russian energy. The US and the EU recently reached a deal to secure greater shipments of US liquified natural gas up to 2030 to help reduce energy dependence on Russian gas in the coming years. Von der Leyen noted that the target to import 50 billion cubic metres per year “is replacing one-third already of the Russian gas going to Europe today.”

If the horrors of the crisis in Ukraine have finally revealed the dangers and consequences of strategic ambiguity towards Putin’s Russia, European policies (in the EU and in the UK) towards China are also likely to come under increased scrutiny. During the recent EU-China summit, Xi Jinping reportedly called on the EU “to pursue an independent policy towards China,” in a thinly veiled warning to Brussels not to coordinate too closely with the US. But if China continues to support Russia, currently Europe’s gravest security threat, then greater proximity to Washington is the only likely answer.

This crisis has demonstrated the enduring power of the US. If this gives fresh momentum to Atlanticism within the EU and a greater focus on improving capabilities rather than stressing autonomy, this would be good for the West. It would also provide a more productive atmosphere for UK-EU cooperation on shared threats and challenges.

Stephen Booth: AUKUS has been an encouraging test for post-Brexit Britain

23 Sep

Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.

The landmark security partnership recently announced by Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States reflects the new geopolitics of great power competition, prompted by the rise of China.

The new alliance, dubbed “AUKUS”, will see deeper integration of security and defence-related science, technology, industrial bases and supply chains, ranging from artificial intelligence to cybersecurity and quantum computing.

The first initiative will be a collaboration on future nuclear-powered submarines, providing the Australian fleet with the US and UK technology for the first time. Canberra’s mounting concern at China’s growing naval capacities encouraged it to cancel an order for French diesel-electric submarines, prompting fury in Paris, and seek the higher spec US and UK nuclear-powered technology instead.

The new trilateral alliance is the latest pillar in US-led efforts to ensure a “free and open Indo-Pacific” and balance China’s increasingly assertive behaviour in the region. The US President has highlighted that this new phase of security cooperation will take place alongside a network of other relationships in the Indo-Pacific, such as the Quad, comprised of the US, Australia, India and Japan, whose leaders will meet in-person for the first time in Washington tomorrow.

New polling commissioned by Policy Exchange illustrates that the British public strongly welcomes a continuing US leadership role supported by allies. 54 per cent of Britons believe that when the US has strong cooperation from allies like the UK, the UK is more safe, as opposed to just eight per cent who believed it was less safe.

It is notable that Toshimitsu Motegi, the Japanese Foreign Minister, was quick to welcome the AUKUS announcement. Predictably, China has responded negatively to AUKUS, criticising its “cold-war mentality” and describing it as “extremely irresponsible”.

Ultimately, security is only one dimension of the changing strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific. Chinese growth has been central to Asia’s rising global economic importance.

But China has also sought to use economic levers to exercise its power in the region. Following Canberra’s public calls for an independent investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, Australia has had to weather formal and informal Chinese trade restrictions on several of its export industries.

It may or may not have been a coincidence but, the day after AUKUS was announced, China formally applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) – the most advanced trade agreement in the region.

The forerunner to the 11-member CPTPP, known simply as the TPP, was not originally conceived as a grouping of geopolitical importance. However, when the US became involved and took a leading role in developing it, the Obama Administration was keen to highlight the strategic dimension. “With the TPP, we can rewrite the rules of trade to benefit America’s middle class. Because if we don’t, competitors who don’t share our values, like China, will step in to fill that void,” a White House factsheet said.

Ultimately, President Trump pulled the US out of the deal and it is Japan, as its largest economy, that has taken an increasingly important role within the CPTPP, including encouraging the UK to join it.

China’s application is unlikely to progress for the foreseeable future, since it will struggle to demonstrate adherence to some of the key elements of the deal, particularly the disciplines on state-owned enterprises, intellectual property, the free flow of data and labour standards.

Moreover, accession requires the unanimous approval of the existing members, including Australia and Japan, which would need some convincing given the current political climate. However, China’s application may be designed to throw a cat amongst the pigeons, forcing the wider CPTPP membership to debate the pact’s geopolitical role in relation to Beijing.

The UK is ahead of China in the queue to join the CPTPP, after all the existing members recently agreed to commence the formal accession process. If the UK’s membership bid is successful, it could work with others to facilitate US reengagement with the pact.

Biden’s team has suggested that trade agreements (not simply with the UK) are not a short-term US priority. However, China’s application might act as the catalyst for a reassessment of the CPTPP in Washington, which would greatly increase the economic and strategic benefits of membership to the UK.

Taken together, AUKUS and the UK’s CPTPP membership bid provide long-term substance to the UK’s “Indo-Pacific” tilt outlined in the Integrated Review. Policy Exchange’s Indo-Pacific Commission, which presaged the tilt, stressed the need for a mutually reinforcing “twin-track” UK approach. One focused on trade, economics and technology issues, and another on security. Both aspects of Global Britain are now very much in action in the region.

Meanwhile, French anger at the loss of a lucrative submarine contract has been compounded by its exclusion from a new strategic alliance. In the aftermath of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Paris sees further evidence of the need for European “strategic autonomy” to reduce dependence on Washington. However, the same formidable hurdles to realising this ambition remain.

AUKUS was announced on the eve of the publication of EU’s own Indo-Pacific strategy and caught Brussels somewhat on the hop. Interestingly, Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister, was in London in the days immediately after the AUKUS announcement.

Rutte was reportedly laying the ground to invite the UK to take part in discussions about greater European security cooperation. Whether or not the current Government is open to exploring such an offer, the overture demonstrates that many smaller and Atlanticist EU member states are wary of a greater European role in defence and security, if no role can be found for the UK.

Ultimately, the UK might have entered the AUKUS were it still a member of the EU. But one of the major question marks against Brexit was whether it would see the UK lose its influence over global affairs as an independent nation state.

Recent events demonstrate that economic and security interests are becoming increasingly intertwined and adaptable alliances are becoming increasingly important. A flexible and nimble Global Britain has much to offer in such a world.

The AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine. A run down of the developments across Europe extreme caution takes hold.

15 Mar

Over the past few months, there have been lots of issues across Europe with the vaccine roll out. From the EU’s difficulties in acquiring vaccines, culminating in its attempt to control exports across the Irish border, to Emmanuel Macron casually deriding the AstraZeneca-Oxford jab (AZ) and causing vaccine hesitancy, it’s been problem after problem. Today there was more trouble on the AZ front, with leaders concerned about whether it leads to blood clots. Without further ado, here’s a round up of some of the developments:

  • Germany has made the headlines today for two reasons. For one, Angela Merkel’s centre-right party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), suffered its worst ever results in two regions it once considered strongholds. The drop in support has been attributed to Germany’s problems obtaining vaccines, and will have huge implications for the CDU’s fate in September’s election. To complicate matters, this afternoon it was revealed that Germany has suspended use of the AZ jab, citing fears that it could lead to blood clots.

  • Soon after Germany’s decision, it was reported that France had also suspended the AZ vaccine. Macron already has one of the most dreadful records in regards to vaccination strategy. He claimed the AZ vaccine was “quasi-ineffective” in over 65s – based on no evidence. With reports of intensive care units filling up in Paris and with France having the world’s sixth-highest total of Covid-19 cases, it is extremely troubling that European leaders are planting more doubt about the vaccine. On Twitter, political pundits did not hold back when speculating about the reasons for Merkel and Macron’s decision to suspend the vaccine.

 

  • But Germany and France are not the first to suspend the AZ vaccine. The Netherlands has paused roll out until at least March 29 for the same reasons (worries about blood clots). In the meantime, the country has had some of the most extreme lockdown protests. Over the weekend, the Dutch police used a water cannon and other shocking methods to control protesters (see the video below). So who knows how much worse this will get with the vaccine roll out being so slow. All of this has happened three days before the country’s election, in which Mark Rutte, the Prime Minister, will stand for a fourth term in office. Unlike the CDU, his party is expected to do well – and build even more seats than it did in 2017.

  • One big surprise is that Italy’s Piedmont region has stopped using the AZ vaccine. This is in spite of the terrible time Italy is having, with it recording 27,000 new cases and 380 deaths on Friday, and going into lockdown. Luigi Genesio Icardi, head of regional health services, stood by Piedmont’s decision, suggesting that suspending AZ roll out was “an act of extreme prudence, while we verify whether there is a connection”. After a teacher died from a vaccination shot, authorities have been trying to find the batch responsible to examine it.
  • Lastly, Austria has suspended the use of a batch of AZ vaccines after a 49-year-old nurse died of “severe blood coagulation problems”, and four other European countries (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Luxembourg) have stopped using vaccines from the same batch. It was sent to 17 European countries and consists of one million jabs.

So all in all, there is still huge scepticism about the AZ vaccine. Are leaders right to stop the AZ roll out? The European Medicines Agency and World Health Organization have both said there’s no evidence of a link between the jab and blood clots, although the EMA is apparently going to advise further tomorrow. In the UK there have been 37 reports of blood clots among 17 million people (and there is no strong biological explanation of why the vaccine would cause a clot). So it all looks slightly strange.

Leaders are using what is known as the “precautionary principle”; a scientific method that means you pause and review something if you’re unsure about it. It’s the ideal thing to do, of course, but the consensus from scientists elsewhere seems to be that leaders need to press ahead given the urgency of the pandemic situation. Suspending AZ can mean that many more lives are lost from the direct impact of the virus. Either way, you get a sense that “extreme prudence” may not have been the right move.

Stephen Booth: The Brexit trade talks, the romance and realities of fishing, and its crucial importance for Scotland

29 Oct

Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.

UK and EU negotiators are now targeting a mid-November deadline to reach a trade agreement. This would give the European Parliament enough time to consider the treaty and hold a vote on it in the last session of the year, due in the week of December 14 – only two weeks before the Brexit transition period ends.

A fortnight ago, a public row erupted due to the apparent suggestion from EU leaders that further compromises all had to come from the UK side and that this was a precondition for “intensified” negotiations. After Downing Street declared the talks “over”, some on the EU side, including Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, and Mark Rutte, Dutch Prime Minister, sought to immediately defuse the situation, saying the bloc was also willing to make concessions. Ultimately, it took Michel Barnier’s speech to the European Parliament, in which he said it was his intention to “seek the necessary compromises on both sides”, to get the UK to confirm that talks were back on track.

After these theatrics, the EU does appear to have dropped its insistence that the most difficult areas must be settled before progress can be made on lower hanging fruit. The Financial Times reports that much of the talks this week have been engaged with the technical process of agreeing common legal text in areas where there is already considerable agreement, including many of the rules for trade in goods and services, with a mixture of EU and UK drafts being used to reach a consolidated text.

The fact that very little has leaked out of this week’s round of talks is a positive sign that these negotiations are now serious and, indeed, “intensive”. Simon Coveney, the Irish Foreign Minister, this week stated optimistically that: “We’re likely to get a deal, but it won’t be easy.” Charles Michel, the EU Council President, was more equivocal, noting that the two sides have yet to overcome their differences on “level playing field” guarantees, fishing, and the deal’s enforcement.

As I noted in my previous column, the differences over subsidies seem to be narrowing and fishing is increasingly emerging as the major sticking point.

Fishing’s political symbolism is outsized compared to its economic importance to either side. The industry is not significant across the UK – it makes up only around 0.1 per cent of gross value added. The economic contribution is similar in Spain, Denmark and France, which together account for over half the total EU catch.

On the UK side, we know that the Common Fisheries Policy was long viewed as one of the major inequities of British membership and fishing communities were among the most vocal supporters of Leave in the EU referendum. In 2017, around 35 per cent of fish landed by EU vessels from the north Atlantic came from UK waters. By contrast, only 13 per cent of fish landed by UK vessels came from EU waters.

There is a certain romance that an island nation attaches to the sea-faring industry. But cold, hard political realities also explain the significance of fishing in this negotiation. Although not a major national employer, the industry is of course very important to particular communities – often remote, such as along the west coast of Scotland, in Wales and Northern Ireland, with limited other employment opportunities – and, ultimately, the negotiation is a zero-sum game for both sides. More fishing quota for the UK means less for the EU.

For a Conservative Government with increasing reason to be concerned about the state of the Union, there is obvious political benefit to ensuring a better settlement. According to the Government’s statistics, the UK’s largest and most valuable fish landings are in the north-east of Scotland, where larger trawlers tend to operate. 40 per cent of fishers working on UK boats are on Scottish boats. Should the UK gain extra quota, this region is likely to benefit the most. A Brexit dividend for Scotland would be an important win.

The EU knows that the UK has leverage when it comes to fishing access. A failure to reach a deal would mean the UK was under no obligation to provide access to foreign boats at all. Brussels had therefore wanted a deal on fishing rights settled in July, well before the final horse-trading of end-game negotiations.

Nevertheless, a wider trade deal – if it includes a better quota share – is also in the interests of the UK fishing industry. The UK imports most of the fish British consumers want to eat but exports most of the fish UK vessels catch. The EU is by far the biggest market for UK exports. It should also be noted that the wider fish processing industry is a larger, although less vocal, employer than the catch sector. Failure to reach a trade deal would increase costs for UK exports and the processing industry via new trade barriers.

Brussels’ starting position – described as “maximalist” by Barnier – was essentially that its fishing rights in UK waters should not change after the transition period. The EU has so far turned down the UK’s request to move to a new regime of annual quota negotiations – a model the UK recently agreed with Norway.

A possible compromise is likely to rest on establishing a process under which EU fleets’ catch would be phased down over a number of years. The UK would regain a much greater share of future catch opportunities but EU fishing communities would be assured of their rights over the medium-term. How the 100 or so stocks that are up for discussion might be apportioned could also present opportunities to ensure certain political constituencies are prioritised.

So far, Emmanuel Macron, the French President, has been steadfast in his belief that the EU should stand firm on fishing access, vowing to scupper any Brexit deal that “sacrifices” French fishermen. He is aware of a potential political backlash in coastal and rural areas.

However, despite the rhetoric, reports suggest that in private, at least, the French government is preparing the industry for a compromise. It should be noted that Macron is also effectively negotiating with the rest of the EU about how much of the residual quota France will get in the future.

Given the wider economic and political issues at stake, it still seems unlikely that fishing will be the deal-breaker. Macron is likely to come under increasing pressure from member states most exposed to no deal – Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany – to moderate his position. However, it is clear that the political choreography of reaching a deal on this issue is vitally important on both sides of the table.