Liz Truss, the former foreign secretary, won the Conservative Party’s leadership contest, and on Tuesday 6th of September she officially replaced Boris Johnson as the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
On relationships with the European Union, the overall sentiment in Brussels is that so little is expected from her and that the bar is so low that she can’t really disappoint. A new leader is always an opportunity for a reset, but Truss brings a baggage to the UK-EU relationship from her past role as UK Brexit negotiator. Furthermore, she has consistently demonstrated poor diplomatic skills and political carelessness towards two of the UK’s main allies.
When asked whether France is a friend or a foe, she provocatively replied that the “jury’s still out”, upsetting allies and, most likely, pleasing opponents. Similarly, when Truss met Blinken for the first time, the conversation was hardly diplomatic. She questioned the US-UK special relationship, a constant of the Transatlantic alliance since Churchill, saying that had seen few concrete examples to uphold the notion that the relationship was particularly special.
These episodes encapsulate her modus operandi: a tendency to embrace maximalist positions without thinking of the consequences, and an appetite for disruption, improvisation and impulsiveness. But in politics, perceptions matter and it is not wise to lightly make such disruptive remarks about your key allies, all the more at times of war when the Western front is expected to show unity and coordination. As war in Ukraine rages on, it would be sensible to stop wasting energy over avoidable conflicts, but she seems impermeable to this notion. Thus, realistically, it is likely that Truss will remain on a collision course with the EU and the notion of "perpetual Brexit" — regularly and deliberately sparking arguments with the EU to boost domestic popular support — will most probably continue to underpin UK-EU relations.
Yet, on the security and defence cooperation front there are reasons for cautious optimism.
Truss re-appointed Ben Wallace as Defence Secretary and he has so far proven to be skilled at nurturing relationships with foreign ministers. Once a defence salesman, Wallace knows how to engage pragmatically and persuasively with his foreign counterparts. Furthermore, the war in Ukraine represents an urgent imperative for cooperation among Europeans and, since support for Ukraine certainly won’t diminish under Truss, there is a window of opportunity for more coordination and dialogue at least on the Ukraine issue. When it comes to defence cooperation on other fronts, it is likely that Truss won’t favour formats for cooperation under strong institutional oversight of the European Commission, given the rocky relationship between the UK and the EU’s executive body.
Defence cooperation with EU partners is more likely to take place on a bilateral basis or with smaller groups of countries (e.g. the UK-led project with Italy and Sweden to develop the future Tempest fighter jet) rather than under EU structures and EU-branded initiatives, at least in the short term. To date, third party engagement rules in EU-led defence projects are quite restrictive and do not contemplate a special treatment for the UK. Such rules, however, are not set in stone and they could be flexible to accommodate the needs of key partners with a strong willingness to contribute, but the UK has yet to demonstrate such an interest. The upcoming first meeting in October of the "European Political Community" — an initiative proposed by France's President Macron — to which the UK has been invited to participate, will represent a new forum to discuss formats of cooperation, not least on defence and security, between the EU and third countries.
Europeans are well aware that a stronger European defence requires engagement by the UK. On defence, everyone on the continent wants the UK to be on board, so the real challenge is for Truss to make this engagement politically acceptable at home. The fact that there is a war in Europe should serve as a good enough reason, but the urgency of addressing serious domestic issues should make relations with the EU recede in the background, giving Truss a bit more room of manoeuvre to liaise with Europe in a fashion that does not necessarily align with the hardliners in her party, at least on the defence and security cooperation front.
Will she seize the moment? The jury is still out.
Isabella Antinozzi is a Research Analyst at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) — a London-based defence and security think tank — and a Research Associate at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).