Sunday, 30 November 2014

The Transatlantic Relationship, the European Union, and British Politics: Negotiating a British Foreign Policy

Amani El Sehrawey discusses the transatlantic relationship between the European Union, Britain, and the US. 

Britain finds itself negotiating an increasingly complex position in global affairs, in a time where it is juggling multiple and at times competing relationships and identities. The famous, longstanding “special relationship” ties UK foreign policy to the United States, and more broadly, to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The European Union provides another highly integrated member body for the UK. On the one hand Britain has attempted to maintain involvement in a European intergovernmental Common Foreign Security Policy (CFSP). On the other, it must work to assure its American partners that although the CFSP has grown in influence and subsequently risen as a potential future competitor to NATO, the UK is still firmly committed to the Atlantic partnership. [1] In many respects, Britain finds itself in a position of dependence on two organizations that have duplicate and often competing aims as well as a marked lack of strategic dialogue with one another. Meanwhile, the Americans have expressed increasing frustration with European powers’ inability to make credible commitments to the organization, most notably in funding, troops and equipment.  As the US shifts its strategic focus towards Asia, American frustration with the Europeans is compounded by its desire for the EU to take a greater stake in managing their own neighborhood.

In many respects slthough the recent Ukrainian crisis and ongoing threats in the near East may prompt a reassessment of strategic priorities for the US, the trajectory of diminishing focus on the “special” relationship as well as NATO by the Americans must prompt Britain to reassess its dependence on the Atlanticist foreign policy and defense infrastructure. Europe, however, poses a different host of challenges, ranging from sovereignty, to funding, to logistical bureaucracy, and the UK finds itself hesitant to become more deeply entrenched in the Union. The complicated relationship Britain has had with the European Union is further problematized by the domestic politics at home. Many of Britain’s European and foreign policy decisions are dictated not by geo-strategy and international relations, but by domestic party politics in Britain. This phenomenon can be described by Putnam’s two-level game theory that postulates an interplay between international and domestic decision-making, with the “games” at either level influencing the outcomes of the other.[2] In the British case, the negotiations taking place at the EU, US and NATO level are fundamentally impacted by the win-set at the domestic level.

Massive cuts in British defense spending necessitate closer relationships with Britain’s European partners, both with the EU and, to a lesser extent, with NATO. UK skepticism towards European defense and security mechanisms has often been framed by its concern over preserving NATO primacy and by extension the transatlantic link with the United States.[3] However, the Americans have expressly stated a strategic shift away from Europe and towards Asia, with a desire for the Europeans to take a greater stake in managing security in their region.[4] This means several things for the UK: first, that the American commitment to NATO (which the UK has been hedging its power in) is decreasing in strategic importance for the US, and therefore overall strength, and second, that the US is advocating for, rather than impeding, a stronger European foreign policy mechanism.

However, a domestic political scene averse to EU membership, as well as the rise of the far right, most notably UKIP, compromises Britain’s very membership in the EU. Euroscepticism is a key determinant, perpetuated by media and present in the British public, which drove the charge towards a treaty referendum, and has influenced David Cameron’s pledge for an in/out referendum on the EU, causing a split in the Conservative Party. Eurosceptic discourse to a large degree dictates the terrain on which policy debates on the EU, and by extension EU foreign policy, can be based upon.[5] Subsequently, the current win-set in which Cameron is able to negotiate on Europe has become very small. As Putnam’s theory describes, neither domestic nor international analysis alone can explain policy decisions, rather the two feed off of one another and are entangled.[6]

Geopolitical events are demanding strong leadership from Western powers more than ever. Budget cuts in defense spending across Europe and in Britain make the pooling of resources to maximize power more important than ever. Particularly given US strategic realignment and interest in greater European accountability in NATO, diversifying its foreign policy partners is in Britain’s best national interest.  EU involvement should be viewed as an asset in addition to involvement in the NATO alliance, rather than in replacing it. Britain has most to gain from membership in both organizations. However, national interest on the geostrategic level is not the only determinant of policy outcome. British political drivers have had a significant influence on Britain’s capabilities as a foreign policy actor. Britain has long grappled with a fundamental identity crisis regarding Europe, dictated by national public debate, and this has stunted its ability to exert itself on the international stage. 

Amani El Sehrawey is a Program Development Assistant at the Harvard Kennedy School.



[1] O’Donnell, Clara Marina. “Britain’s coalition government and EU defence cooperation: undermining British interests”, International Affairs, 87:2 (2011) p426. Date accessed: 7/10/14.
[2] Putnam, 434
[3] Lehne, Stefan. “The Big Three in EU Foreign Policy”, The Carnegie Papers (July 2012) p22. Date accessed: 7/2/14. http://carnegieendowment.org/2012/07/05/big-three-in-eu-foreign-policy/ck4c
[4] Menon, Anand. “Between Faith and Reason: UK Policy Towards the US and the EU”, Chatham House (July 2010) p7. Date accessed: 7/16/14. http://www.chathamhouse.org/publications/papers/view/109403
[5] Hawkins, Benjamin. “Nation, Separation, and Threat: An Analysis of British Media Discourses on the European Union Treaty Reform Process” JCMS, 50:4 (2012) pp573. Date accessed: 7/10/14 http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-5965.2012.02248.x
[6] Putnam, Robert. “Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games” International Organization 42:3 (Summer, 1988) p430, MIT Press. Date Accessed: 1/22/14. http://web.pdx.edu/~noordijk/Noordijk/EU_Readings_files/putnam_1988_two-level.pdf

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