THE EU is upgrading its foreign policy and defence tools as it faces an increasingly uncertain world. This has ramifications for us in Scotland – both as (currently) part of the UK but also (crucially) as an aspirant independent member state of the EU.

On Monday, the Foreign Affairs Council met to discuss the EU’s current foreign policy position. As I have outlined previously, the Council of the EU plays a crucial role in the EU’s governmental structures by getting together Member States governments together to discuss issues of common interests to their departments.

This is not about controlling the individual countries, it is about finding common cause and working together, getting more done.

There certainly wasn’t a shortage of issues to talk about for the respective foreign ministers in the room. What makes foreign affairs so compelling is that the world is a big place.

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Global inequality leads to divergences in outcomes for ordinary people from the Sahel to Latin America. Climate change is the common threat facing all of us. Sadly, there is also the spectre of global conflict as the ongoing crises in Gaza and Ukraine tragically demonstrate.

The EU’s Member States are independent and can interact with the world as they see fit according to their interests and capacity. Yet individually they can only do so much – by working together, they have influence.

The conclusions of the Council’s meeting were telling and are easily accessible. The EU launched a new defensive maritime security operation intended to restore and safeguard freedom of navigation in the Red Sea and the Gulf.

There was a focus on the humanitarian situation in the Middle East and Gaza. Alexei Navalny’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya (below), attended to share her insight about the level of repression of Putin’s regime and the state of political opposition in the country.

The National: Wife of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Yulia arrives to attend a hearing at a court in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Feb. 1, 2021. Yulia Navalnaya was detained in Moscow during an unauthourized rally to support her husband on 31 January 2021. (AP Pho

The Council was briefed by Ukraine’s minister of foreign Affairs, Dmytro Kuleba, on recent developments in his country’s defensive war against Putin’s Russia. The discussion included further sanctions on Russia and how to provide further support to Ukraine.

More can be read on the Council’s website but you get the idea. The world is a big, scary place for states on their own. By banding together, the EU is able to punch above its weight in a world characterised by increasing multipolarity, the climate crisis, and multiple points of tension that could lead to wider conflict.

The EU has a range of options at its disposal to navigate these choppy waters. Its institutions and countries combined make it the world’s leading donor of development assistance and co-operation – this helps to prevent conflicts occurring when they otherwise might have as well as provide relief to civilians caught up in it.

Its approach to international trade means it helps set the global regulatory framework – as well as push for raising worker standards for all. Its diplomatic reach means that if you are an EU citizen you can reach out to another member state for diplomatic assistance if your country does not have a presence in a particular part of the world.

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Its economic weight means that sanctions deployed by member states can have a powerful impact on global markets, as seen by its shift away from Russian energy to more diversified sources.

Its main weakness has traditionally been its lack of hard power but even this is changing at lightspeed. As I pointed out in the House of Commons on Monday at Defence Questions, the EU has 68 different military projects through Pesco (Permanent Structured Co-operation (because they couldn’t just call it Defence Policy) which the UK could, and to my mind should, be part of.

There is also the news that the current EU Commission president Dr Ursula Von der Leyen is going to seek a second term. At the Munich Security Conference, she gave some indication of what this could look like by stating she would like to see the creation of a dedicated defence commissioner which would join up procurement and scientific collaboration across the EU and help scale up production. Later this month, it is expected that the commission’s plan for how to gear up Europe’s military industrial complex will be published.

A similar joint approach helped the EU push for the rollout of Covid vaccines and maintaining gas supply in the aftermath of Russia’s renewed invasion.

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Given the risk of a Trump presidency leaving Europe to its own defences, this focus on strategic autonomy is welcome.

The implications for us in Scotland now is that a stronger EU will be helpful to our own national security, both now and in the future. As I outlined last week, Nato will play a crucial role in our security but the EU’s own position in foreign policy and security is evolving at light speed before our eyes.

An independent Scotland both in Nato and the EU will stand to gain hugely from working together with European partners, not by engaging in foreign misadventures like the UK, but to ensure peace and stability in our neighbourhood against external threats.

By being in the room with our EU partners, we can also push for a more progressive foreign policy which first considers how we can use a range of tools to prevent conflict escalation instead of relying only on the blunt hammer of military force.