Macron and Merkel

UK, Huawei and the EU

Britain’s decision in late January this year to allow the Chinese tech firm Huawei to be used in its 5G network came as a surprise to some – with a handful of the members of the National Security Council seemingly staunchly against the move given the firms links to the Chinese government.For a country angling for a favourable trade deal with the US, the decision to ignore US pressure to block the firm seemed counter intuitive. 

Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State, had warned that use of Huawei’s equipment posed a spying risk, suggesting the the US would be unable to share information with nations that put such equipment into their ‘critical information systems’. A Trump administration official has since said the US ‘is disappointed’ with the UK’s decision, although no further action has been taken by the US.

Billed as the biggest test of Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit strategy to date, what does the decision to grant Huawei some access tell us about Johnson’s post-Brexit foreign policy? Prime Minister Johnson faces a difficult task of balancing competing pressures on the UK. The decision to allow Huawei only 35% access in the UK’s move to 5G mobile networks in order to mitigate potential security risks marks a compromise in many respects. Some networks, such as EE and Vodafone, have already enlisted Huawei to help them build 5G infrastructure, and will actually have to roll back some of this access.

Sir Simon Fraser, former permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, speaking at a recent British Foreign Policy Group event, noted that Britain faces a balancing act between China and the US. Ultimately, the UK will side with the US, but must be cautious so as not to alienate China. These tactics can be seen playing out here.

If the UK had banned Huawei totally from 5G, it could have faced retaliation from China. Granting the firm a higher level of access, however, would have been met with a harsher line from the US as well as putting UK security at risk.

The decision to allow Huawei partial market access most closely aligns with the policies of other European countries. Across Europe, governments are reviewing their own decisions as to how much market access to grant Huawei. Countries including France have largely followed the UK’s playbook, setting out new security requirements that will exclude Huawei from core parts of the network. 

An EU official told POLITICO that a blanket ban on Huawei ‘won’t be the preferred choice for most [European] countries’. Instead, a ‘toolbox’ of security measures will be implemented by the EU, including recommendations that EU capitals impose restrictions on ‘high-risk’ vendors. 

In this case, then, the UK has set an example to other European countries, which they are likely to follow. Post-Brexit, some were expecting to see a stronger divergence of the UK from the EU, perhaps with a closer alignment between Britain and the US. In this instance, at least, such a divergence has not happened. Is this a sign that foreign policy unity between the UK and the EU27 will remain relatively closely aligned – except in some areas – post-Brexit?

After all, Huawei is not the first decision that the UK has sided with the EU over rather than the US. Indeed, following the US’ decision to assassinate Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, the Prime Minister released a joint statement with his fellow ‘E3’ leaders in France and Germany. 

The fact remains that on most foreign policy issues, the UK’s interests are still most closely aligned with those of western Europe, rather than the US. Geographical and ideological alignment between the region persists despite the UK’s departure from the European Union, particularly the alignment between the UK, France, and Germany. The EU, for its part, appears somewhat fragmented in its foreign policy between eastern and western Europe. The UK’s departure may bring closer alignment between the ‘E3’ states on foreign policy and further fragmentation within the European Union itself. The UK’s independence will perhaps lend greater legitimacy to the E3 as an independent voice in international disputes.

Further solidifying the UK-EU bond is the unpredictable nature of the Trump administration. Indeed, the US apparently did not inform the UK of its decision to assassinate Soleimani prior to the action, thus putting the UK on the back foot in terms of its response. It was France, Germany and the United Kingdom who acted in harmony to diffuse the escalating tensions – evidence that when in tandem, the major European economies can be a significant voice in foreign policy debates. It would be a risk for any British government to further strain ties with Europe in return for an unpredictable alliance. 

2020 will bring with it big foreign policy decisions for the UK government, in terms of trade, alliances, and in hosting key international conferences like COP26 in December. On vital matters of security, however, we should not expect much divergence from the EU.


Flora Holmes

Flora Holmes is a Researcher at the British Foreign Policy Group.