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Which European power is Britain’s closest ally?

Today, after a five-year hiatus, the United Kingdom (UK) and France, traditionally close European strategic allies, will host their annual summit. To mark the occasion, the Council on Geostrategy asks eight strategic experts to identify the European power they consider as Britain’s most important ally...

Stephen Booth, Council on Geostrategy

Sweden: Bedfellows on European integration

Sweden and the UK have long shared a liberal economic worldview, which made Brexit such a political blow to Stockholm. Sweden worked closely with Britain to promote the competitiveness agenda within the European Union (EU) and, as a fellow non-eurozone economy and latecomer to the European project, it often shared the UK’s misgivings about European economic and political integration focused on the single currency, rather than the single market.

Post-Brexit, economic relations remain strong. Last year Sweden was the eighth biggest source of foreign direct investment into the UK, ahead of Ireland and Japan. Both the UK and Sweden are world leaders in the life sciences and the two countries have signed a Memorandum of Understanding committing themselves to continued cooperation – the first the UK signed with an EU member. It was a British-Swedish multinational, AstraZeneca, which pioneered the development of the Covid-19 vaccine at the height of the pandemic. 

Sweden’s proximity to Russia gives the war against Ukraine deeper resonance and has required a practical response. British support for Stockholm’s North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) application, exemplified by the security guarantees provided by the UK in May 2022, builds on Sweden’s decision to join the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) in 2017. Swedish Atlanticism is a welcome corrective to the fantasy of EU ‘strategic autonomy’ when it comes to facing the geostrategic challenges facing the continent.

Taken together, a combination of its natural disposition and geopolitical necessity makes Stockholm one of the greatest advocates for a constructive relationship between the UK and its European partners.

Klaus Dodds, Royal Holloway, University of London

Norway: The bastion of the north

Who gifts the UK with a Christmas tree every year? Who does Britain share a mutual border with in Antarctica? Which country is the largest supplier of cod, haddock and salmon to the UK? And finally who supplies the most natural gas to Britain? The answer in each case is Norway, and reveals why this Nordic country is the most important European ally to the UK. While the Christmas tree is a potent reminder of the British support for the Norwegian government-in-exile during the Second World War, the UK and Norway are very close NATO allies which share a similar strategic mindset. Their militaries train together and work closely on the defence of the alliance’s northern flank. Norway and the UK also share similar interests in the Arctic and Antarctic – both are claimant states in the case of the latter. When energy insecurity beckons, Norway has proven a reliable and safe supplier of natural gas. The trade in Norwegian seafood alone was worth over £600 million in 2022. 

The UK-Norwegian strategic relationship has revealed itself to be integral to Britain’s sense of interests – the ten-year commitment by UK military forces to Camp Viking shows the durability of this relationship. As the 2022 ‘Joint Declaration to promote bilateral strategic cooperation between the UK and Norway’ noted:

We are committed to working together to increase security, sustainability, and prosperity, in Europe and beyond. Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine underscores the importance of Allied and European solidarity, across a wide range of policy areas.

Takk Norway.

Amelia Hadfield, University of Surrey

France: Parallel visions, interoperable tools and corresponding goals

The case is a simple one. From the Entente Cordiale in 1911, to a series of increasingly deep bilateral relations throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, Britain’s closest European ally has been – and will remain – France. There are three key reasons for this.

First, the two sides are deeply entwined in terms of their security and defence ambitions. At global and European level, France and Britain together are uniquely aligned as permanent members of the United Nations (UN) Security Council; they are both foundational to the NATO; Group of Seven (G7) leaders; and have the largest armed forces and overall defence structures – with independent nuclear deterrents – out of the European countries. The 2010 Lancaster House treaties further formalised France’s role as the UK’s key European ally with a range of 50-year treaties on defence cooperation and nuclear cooperation. Few states possess anything close to this deep or enduring strategic relationship. 

Beyond this lie the shared attitudes to remaining globally relevant, whether in key multilateral forums promoting shared values on trade, investment and climate change, or deploying hard power and humanitarian support in key hotspots, from the Balkans and the Sahel, to Ukraine and the South China Sea. 

Finally, as neighbours inhabiting a shared geography, France is Britain’s preeminent partner in tackling complex challenges including those in the maritime domain, such as port and border security, as well as cooperating on policing and judicial matters. Without France, British ambitions for cross-Channel coordination, peace and prosperity in Europe in the wake of Russia’s renewed aggression against Ukraine, or a more accountable international order, would simply not be possible.

Rem Korteweg, Clingendael Institute

Netherlands: A seapower state with an entwined history

The UK and the Netherlands think very similarly about issues of foreign and security policy. A strong transatlantic focus coupled with a maritime and mercantile orientation have produced a high degree of like-mindedness in international affairs. Britain and the Netherlands work closely inside NATO and the JEF, and more broadly, cooperate on a wide range of issues, from sanctions policy, cyber security, to promoting women’s rights.

This is anchored in deep economic ties and investment links that continue despite Britain’s departure from the EU. Post-Brexit, the Netherlands has advanced policy initiatives inside the EU to keep the UK close, such as arguing for third-party access to Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) projects and energy cooperation around the North Sea.

Besides, the UK and Netherlands share strong defence links. Forget about the raid on the Medway and the seventeenth century; since the early seventies, Dutch marines have cooperated closely with their British counterparts in the UK-Netherlands Amphibious Force. If the decision is given, the 1st Marine Combat Group of the Korps Mariniers can be attached to the 3 Commando Brigade. Dutch forces have worked alongside British counterparts in theatres including Bosnia, Basra and Southern Afghanistan. Recently, in 2021, a Royal Netherlands Navy frigate was the only European vessel deployed alongside HMS Queen Elizabeth on its maiden voyage to Japan and the Indo-Pacific. 

If this is not enough to claim the status as closest ally in Europe, perhaps it is worth reviewing the profound historical and cultural ties between the two countries. After all, which other country can claim to have introduced the British palate to gin? Or should it be called jenever?

Lord Risby, British-Ukrainian Society

Ukraine: Bearing the brunt of Russia’s aggression

When contemplating the UK’s closest European ally, which country would like to have that role should be considered. Indisputably it is Ukraine. The UK and Ukraine are not formal allies with a binding treaty, but historically British people quite simply do not like bullies.

Britain greatly admires a country fighting off grotesque Russian aggression that will define effective sovereignty and independence, not only in Europe, but indeed beyond.

To back this up, of all European countries in recent years, Britain has spent more diplomatic and military capital on Ukraine than any other, underscoring its importance to British security. Operation Orbital – a British initiative launched in 2015 to provide military training and support to the Ukrainian Armed Forces – trained around 22,000 troops. In October 2020 the two signed a Political, Free Trade and Strategic Partnership Agreement, elevating cooperation in a structured way that allows for specific issues to be targeted and goals set. 

Since Russia renewed its vile aggression, deepening the bilateral relationship has been at the forefront of British strategic thinking. The UK has sent the most arms to Ukraine to ensure it defeats Russia, and pledged to train 10,000 Ukrainians every 120 days in June last year.

Ensuring Ukraine is victorious in its fight against Russia’s offensive is His Majesty’s (HM) Government’s main foreign policy prerogative for the foreseeable future. All of this makes Ukraine Britain’s most important ally in Europe.

James Rogers, Council on Geostrategy

Estonia: The focal point for Britain’s European defence effort

Estonia is far from the UK’s most powerful European ally. It is a small country – not far from a microstate – but it now forms the focal point for the British defence effort in Europe. After working together in Afghanistan, Estonia offered to host the British Army and Royal Air Force as NATO set up the Enhanced Forward Presence in 2016. Since then, over 1,000 British troops, tanks, and artillery have been deployed to Tapa barracks while an air wing of Eurofighter Typhoons has been deployed to Ämari air station. Consequently, Estonia holds up the British nuclear umbrella over the whole of Northeastern Europe.

The two countries have close historical connections; HM Government helped Estonia secure independence from Russia and the Soviets in 1918-1919 and hosted Estonia’s gold reserves during the Soviet occupation (1939-1991). They remain closely aligned on all key issues, particularly the importance of defence investment, where Estonia exceeds even British levels of relative spending. Both are avid Atlanticists and active participants of the JEF. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, Tallinn and London have cooperated extensively to push back against the Kremlin’s aggression.

Thus, with a similar strategic worldview and as the focal point for Britain’s contribution to the defence of Europe, Estonia can lay claim to being the UK’s most important European ally.

Brendan Simms, Centre for Geopolitics, University of Cambridge

European Union: Two unions with enormous potential

The closest ally of the UK is, or should be, the EU, or at least the EU as it should be. Let me explain. Britain needs a full political union on the European mainland which is capable of promoting economic growth, managing migration, defending its territory (if necessary without British and American help), and reaching a lasting and mutually-beneficial modus vivendi with the other great union in Europe, the UK. So London should give up its belief in a multipolar ‘balance’ within Europe, and replace it with a bipolar understanding between the two great unions on our continent, one long-standing, the UK, the other still under construction.

HM Government should now ‘nudge’ mainland Europe in the right direction. It should call upon the individual member states to withdraw their national representations from the UK and be represented only by a single EU diplomatic mission. Britain should only maintain full embassies in Brussels, Norway, Berne and other truly sovereign states. It would tell the EU member states that it would deal with all political and economic matters through Brussels, and all military matters through NATO (at least until the EU gets its act together in defence and security policies). This would enable the EU to be the close ally of the UK it surely wants to be.

Richard G. Whitman, University of Kent

Poland: An essential ally in the defence of Europe

Poland has become the UK’s essential European ally. At the core of the present (and future) significance of British-Polish relations is Russia as the enduring threat to European security, and Ukraine as a crucial bulwark against the revanchist and kleptocratic regime in the Kremlin. 

The national security postures of Poland and the UK on Russia are closely aligned. Coordinating approaches has been greatly facilitated by the 2018 British-Polish security and defence cooperation treaty, building on what were increasingly intensive defence ties and UK military deployments in Poland. These ties are of increased importance as NATO has focused on bolstering its eastern flank. Alongside NATO membership, Poland and the UK are also strongly connected through plurilateral formats such as the Northern Group. Furthermore, Poland’s defence plans could make it Europe’s largest land power and a complement to Britain’s position as Europe’s premier maritime and cyber power. 

What gives Poland its key importance as the UK’s essential ally is the position of Ukraine as the fulcrum for European security. Supporting Ukraine through a trilateral security pact since February 2022, the British-Polish stance is to help Kyiv resist and defeat the Kremlin. London and Warsaw have demonstrated leadership in the provision of weapons, intensive diplomatic advocacy and the necessary off-battlefield training and equipment support to sustain Ukraine’s ability to defend itself. 

The key importance of the Poland-UK alliance is its bringing together of the large European states which are the most strident advocates of a militarily secure future for Ukraine.

The Council on Geostrategy would like to thank Prof. Richard G. Whitman for his assistance with this article.

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