Foreign policy and defense
United Kingdom is a nation in Northern Europe. Its capital city is London. The UK has always had a charged relationship with the EU and the process now underway for EU exit is complicated. Relations with the EU have traditionally been balanced by the “special relationship” with the United States that the United Kingdom has had since 1945. It is occasionally mentioned that the relationship is more “special” for the British than for the Americans.
UK and EU
Ever since 1973, Britain has been a reluctant member of the EC / EU. British EU policy has often been more about avoiding giving up power to Brussels than emphasizing the benefits of cooperation. For the British, EU cooperation has primarily been a way of promoting trade between Member States and they have always opposed the idea of increased political integration. The UK therefore chose to stand outside the EU passport Schengen and not to introduce the euro as its currency. It has not helped that Margaret Thatcher in 1985 managed to negotiate a discount on the membership fee.
- Countryaah: Overview of business holidays and various national observances in United Kingdom for years of 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024 and 2025.
Ahead of the 2016 referendum, then-Prime Minister David Cameron had hoped and European Council President Donald Tusk, among other things, agreed that the UK could choose to stand outside of any closer EU cooperation and not have to contribute money to save euro countries in crisis. Cameron also faced some restrictions on EU immigrants’ access to the British welfare system, but they were not as large as he had hoped. The US then indicated that it wished the UK to remain within the EU and that any exit would affect its relations.
There was great uncertainty about how the UK would leave the EU. According to the rules, the parties would agree on a divorce agreement no later than two years after Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty was activated (which the UK did in March 2017). An initial exit agreement became clear in the fall of 2018, but it was not approved by the British Parliament. Since then, the UK has been asked twice for more time to complete the Brexit process. In the fall of 2019, the EU and Boris Johnson’s Conservative government agreed on a new exit agreement approved by the British Parliament at the turn of the year 2019/2020. Thus, the UK could formally leave the EU on 31 January 2020 (see Current policy). Until December 31, the transitional rules agreed by the UK and the EU will apply. During the year, the parties shall agree on the terms that shall apply thereafter and, inter alia, obtain a new trade agreement. Many analysts have doubts as to whether it will be available in as short a year as possible, and little progress has been reported from the talks held in spring 2020.
The UK must also negotiate its trade agreements with parties outside the EU.
During the negotiations for the UK’s exit from the EU, other EU countries have shown unexpectedly strong cohesion. One of the most difficult parts has been what will happen to the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland (see Current policy). The deliberations have been hampered by tensions between the London and Dublin governments, which have arisen after many years of good cooperation, especially around the Northern Ireland peace process. However, they succeeded in cooperating in the negotiations that led Northern Ireland to a new government in early 2020, after three years without provincial government.
Freedom of passport between the UK and Ireland
Ever since the 1920s, freedom of passport has existed between the UK and Ireland. It is part of the so-called Common Travel Area (Common Travel Area, CTA), which also allows the Irish without special permits to work, study, get access to various grants and seek care in the UK. The agreement also allows Irish citizens to vote in British elections and vice versa. The countries intend to maintain the single travel zone after leaving the EU. However, a new agreement on this that was concluded in May 2019 is not binding (see Calendar).
Great Britain, the United States and the Iraq war
From 1997 to 2010, the then Labor government played an active foreign policy role, often in collaboration with the United States. Tony Blair wants the country to act as a link between the US and the EU. Gradually, Blair was criticized at home for standing too close to the United States.
During the 1999 Kosovo crisis, Americans and Britons held a high profile in the NATO Alliance’s air war against Yugoslavia. Following the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001, only the United Kingdom participated more heavily in the United States in the military attacks on Afghanistan.
At the beginning of the 1990s, British foreign policy was very much about Iraq and the issue of the Iraqi regime had weapons of mass destruction. Together with the United States, the United Kingdom decided to invade Iraq in March 2003, despite opposition to the war at home (see Modern History).
After three weeks of war, the Iraqi regime fell, but British troops remained in southern Iraq to administer reconstruction and guarantee security in four provinces. No weapons of mass destruction were found, and in the United States and Britain a fierce debate was held over whether the threat from Iraq had been exaggerated to justify a strike.
In Basra, which the British controlled, the violence increased from 2006, but the following year the British force began to withdraw from the province. By 2009, virtually all British soldiers had left.
Gordon Brown’s government appointed in 2009 an investigation into Britain’s role in Iraq. The Commission, led by diplomat John Chilcot, held interrogations with a number of leading politicians, diplomats and military. In its final report 2016, the Commission criticized Blair.
In 2005, Britain pledged to send troops to the NATO led operation in Afghanistan. As the violence there increased from spring 2006, British soldiers were drawn into fighting Taliban and other armed groups in the province of Helmand. At most, there were 9,000 British soldiers in Afghanistan. The operation there was not as politically sensitive to the British as it was to Iraq, as the mission had a mandate from the UN. From 2012, the foreign troops began to withdraw and in 2014 NATO formally ended its efforts in the country. From 2002–2014, 456 Britons were killed in Afghanistan.
Libya and Syria
The Iraq War and its aftermath have created strong opposition in the UK to the country embarking on new military operations in conflict zones. But as the violence escalated in the context of the Libyan uprising in early 2011, Britain pushed for the United Nations to establish a no-fly zone in Libya to defend its civilian population. One was approved by the UN Security Council in March of that year, and Britain, in addition to France and the United States, played a leading role, but several other countries participated. In the autumn of 2016, a parliamentary committee harshly criticized David Cameron’s Libyan policy. The questioned motives for the intervention, but the government was also criticized for lacking a plan for what would happen when Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown.
When Cameron in 2013 advocated that the British military be deployed against the Syrian regime, which used chemical weapons against the rebel strongholds, the lower house voted no. Following the Islamic State’s (IS) violent advance in Iraq and Syria the following year, the House approved British airstrikes against the extreme group in Iraq. From the end of 2015, air raids were also conducted against IS in Syria.
Tense contact with Iran
The relationship between Britain and Iran has been periodically tense ever since the 19th century. In recent years, the United Kingdom has mainly been concerned about Iran trying to acquire nuclear weapons. In the fall of 2011, then-Prime Minister David Cameron raised the tone against Iran and Britain tightened economic sanctions against the country. The decision led to the British embassy in Tehran being stormed by protesters and the countries lowering their diplomatic relations to the lowest level.
In connection with a breakthrough in negotiations on Iran’s nuclear weapons in 2015 (see Iran: Foreign Policy and Defense), contacts between the countries and the United Kingdom improved again, opening its embassy in Tehran. The then Foreign Minister Philip Hammond soon visited Iran for talks. However, he highlighted that Britain intended to proceed with caution and that disbelief between the countries was still high. Following the entry into force of Iran’s nuclear agreement between Iran (JCPOA 2015) and the outside world in early 2016, the United Kingdom appointed an ambassador to Iran in the fall of the same year. The arrest of six British-Iranian people in the spring of 2016 contributed to continued tensions between the countries.
The United Kingdom, together with France and Germany, regretted the US decision to withdraw from the nuclear agreement with Iran in 2018. At the same time, the countries stated that the agreement was still important for the common security.
When tensions between Iran and the United States rose in early 2020, after the US military killed an Iranian general in the Revolutionary Guard, Boris Johnson initially tried to keep a low profile (see Calendar). Together with Germany and France, in mid-January, Britain made a mark against Iran, which it said was not keeping its part of the agreement. This could eventually lead to a breach of contract by the UN Security Council. Shortly thereafter, Johnson stated that (JCPOA 2015) would be replaced by a new agreement negotiated by US President Donald Trump. However, a spokesperson for the British Government later pointed out that it did not mean that the UK intended to withdraw from the JCPOA in 2015.
Trump and Johnson
Trump’s actions caused many British judges to question whether the special relationship would survive. It was not just about the US decision to unilaterally leave the nuclear deal with Iran, but to have a new plan for how the problems would be handled. In the summer of 2019, a leaked message to the government prompted the British ambassador to the United States, Kim Darroch, to criticize Trump for calling him home. The incident prompted Trump, in harsh words on Twitter, to criticize Darroch and the British government.
After Boris Johnson took over as British Prime Minister in 2019, relations seemed to improve. Trump was also positive that the British would leave the EU, which he sees as a major competitor in the trade. As it is today, 45 percent of UK exports of goods and services go to the EU and 19 percent to the US. In early May 2020, talks started on a possible UK-US free trade agreement. Among other things, the British want to increase exports of food and agricultural products to the United States, and try to lower tariffs on a number of goods. The United States hopes to be able to sell more goods produced under US rules that in many cases differ from the EU that the British are following today to the UK. The United States also hopes to gain greater access to the UK market in healthcare and pharmaceuticals,
Argentina and the Falkland Islands
Argentine demands on the British Falkland Islands in the southern Atlantic have created tensions between Britain and Argentina. When the Argentine troops invaded the islands in 1982, it led to a war between the countries won by the British (see Modern History). Hopes that there would be oil and gas in the sea around the islands led to Argentina in the 00s raising the tone towards the British.
In 2013, a referendum was held in which 99.8 percent of the residents voted for the Falkland Islands to remain British. An initial progress was reported in September 2016, when the countries agreed among other things that the restrictions on the extraction of gas and oil around the Falkland Islands would be removed, and that air connections could be established between the Falkland Islands and countries in the region.
The change of power in Argentina 2015 paved the way for a thunderstorm between the countries. In May 2018, Foreign Minister Boris Johnson visited Argentina. It was the first time in 25 years that a British Foreign Minister visited the country. In the fall of 2018, Prime Minister May also left for Argentina to attend a G20 meeting there.
The murder of a defunct Russian intelligence agent in 2006 led to tensions with Russia, not least since Moscow refused to extradite the suspected perpetrator. In connection with the Ukraine crisis in 2014, the UK imposed sanctions on Russia in cooperation with other EU countries. The following year, the British sent military personnel to Ukraine to train the country’s defense forces. They would be stationed in western Ukraine, far from the fighting in the east.
In the fall of 2016, the British government sharply criticized Russian bombing of civilian targets in Syria.
Relations were further complicated after the attempted murder of a Russian double agent and his daughter in the spring of 2018, where Prime Minister May singled Russia out as responsible. If Russia did not carry out the murder trials, it meant that they did not have full control over the nerve poison used, she said. However, Russia denied that interference. Among other things, the UK expelled 23 Russian diplomats from the country, and Russia responded by expelling the same number of British diplomats (see also Calendar). The United Kingdom, France, Germany and the United States condemned in a joint statement the nerve gas attack which they believed infringed on Britain’s national sovereignty.
Many of Britain’s former colonies are part of the Commonwealth (and now also Mozambique and Rwanda which were not part of the British colonial empire). The purpose of the organization is to maintain cultural and social value sharing between the former colonies. The Commonwealth is also important for channeling aid from rich to poor countries within the organization. It also exerts pressure to improve respect for human rights in the Member States.
The United Kingdom is one of the five countries that have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
The end of the Cold War in 1989/1990 led to heavy reductions in conventional defense and the British army began to adapt to the new situation in Europe, where crisis management had become an important task for the military forces. In 2010, new savings were announced in the Armed Forces, and since then several thousand people have been allowed to go and investments in new equipment have been managed in the future.
In 2010, the United Kingdom and France signed a defense agreement that allowed the countries to cooperate in a new joint military force of up to 10,000 men. At least one aircraft carrier would also be present in the French and British coastal areas. The countries would also jointly develop new technology for testing nuclear weapons. Two new research centers would be built, one in the UK and one in France. The British emphasized that the settlement was outside EU cooperation and that there was no attempt to undermine NATO’s position.
At the launch of a new defense strategy in the fall of 2015, Cameron said that up to 10,000 soldiers could be deployed in the event of a major terrorist attack, such as it was in Paris that autumn. The defense would also build new capabilities to combat cyber threats.
Britain has its own nuclear weapons program, Trident, but the British are reducing their arsenal of nuclear warheads and there are no longer any US nuclear weapons on British bases. The country has four nuclear-armed submarines located in Scotland. In 2016, the lower house approved that they be replaced with new ones by 2025, at a cost of £ 31 billion. The Scottish Government opposes that nuclear weapons should be allowed to remain in Scottish territory.
British soldiers are also stationed in Brunei, Cyprus, Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands and Germany. However, the approximately 11,000 soldiers in Germany would be taken home in several stages until 2019.
At most, there were 30,000 soldiers in Northern Ireland. Nowadays, the strength is down to about 5,000 men.
The United Kingdom has participated in several UN peacekeeping operations, including in Bosnia and Kosovo. In 2000, a British special forces force intervened to prevent the brutal RUF guerrilla advance in Sierra Leone. In 2015, 1,300 British soldiers were again sent to the country to assist the authorities in the fight against Ebola.
READING TIP: read more about the UK in the UI’s publication Foreign magazine:
Brexit again raises the idea of a united Ireland (2019-02-20)
Unrealistic Britons cause deadlock in Brexit talks (10/17/2017)
FACTS – DEFENSE
Army: 85,000 men (2017)
The air Force: 32 900 men (2017)
The fleet: 32 350 men (2017)
Military expenditure’s share of GDP: 1.8 percent (2017)
Military spending’s share of the state budget: 4.7 percent (2017)