EU Security Ambitions Are Hostage to the Brexit Process

The EU faces a fundamental contradiction in its goals to become more strategically autonomous in defence matters.

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Professor Richard G. Whitman

Senior Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe

Soldiers of a Eurocorps detachment raise the EU flag at the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

Soldiers of a Eurocorps detachment raise the EU flag at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Photo: Getty Images.

Three years ago, as the UK was holding its referendum on Brexit, the EU was rolling out its Global Strategy for a more cohesive and effective security and defence policy. Since then, EU member states have set impressive goals and, as significantly, taken important practical steps to make an EU defence capability a tangible proposition, despite differing collective defence commitments, traditions of neutrality among some member states and very different strategic cultures.

All of these developments have taken place with the UK as reluctant observer. The UK has been traditionally hostile to a deepening of defence collaboration within the EU (and consistent of the view that Europe’s military security was best provided through NATO). But the Brexit referendum vote has placed the UK as a bystander as EU security and defence initiatives have been pursued which have overridden the past red lines of British governments.

There is, however, a Brexit-related paradox in all these developments.

A central goal of the security and defence-related aspects of the EU Global Strategy is for the EU to have the capacity to act independently of the United States and, through indigenous defence industries, the ability to produce the means to make that possible.

With the UK outside the EU, and its opposition absent, it is easier to create a political consensus to push for more defence integration. But without the UK there are diminished collective defence capabilities which would make European strategic autonomy much harder to achieve.

The May government has been an enthusiast for preserving close security and defence cooperation with the EU. The Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration both seek to provide for a close EU–UK relationship post-Brexit.

However, the Article 50 negotiations have made clear that the EU’s institutions are hostile to special treatment for the UK beyond that normally accorded to a third country. Disagreements over the terms of the UK’s continuing participation in the Gailleo dual-use satellite system, which has a significant security and defence utility, have signalled that there is a strong lobby in Brussels and some national capitals seeking to significantly circumscribe collaboration with Britain.

The scale and capabilities of the UK’s military, its defence expenditure (notably on defence research and development) and its defence industrial base make any British decoupling from the EU’s security and defence a major issue. Disconnecting the UK from EU developments entirely would be a costly political choice for both sides.

And excluding the UK from new initiatives in defence R&D and new defence procurement arrangements would be suboptimal in delivering a stronger European defence, technological and industrial base. Duplicating existing UK capabilities, especially strategic enablers such as strategic airlift, target acquisition and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, would be an unnecessary squandering of already hard-pressed European defence budgets.

At present the common procurement and defence industry plans driven by the EU Global Strategy are embryonic. And significant defence capability decisions are taking place detached from the EU’s plans, which could reinforce a divide between the UK and other member states.

As illustrative, the formal agreement this week between France, Germany and Spain on the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) to develop a next-generation stealth fighter is competing with the UK-supported Tempest project that shares the same objective. The 20-year timescales for the delivery of the FCAS and Tempest projects are a reminder that defence procurement decisions are of multi-decade significance.

As the EU’s ambitions are nascent, it is too early to fully assess what might be the impact of any decision by the EU and the UK to keep each other at an arms-length in security and defence cooperation. With a more detached relationship, the UK will have significant concerns if it sees the EU’s common procurement arrangements develop in a manner that actively discriminates against the UK defence industry.

Outside of procurement and defence issues there may be other areas of future concern for the UK – for example, the extent to which the EU might deepen and broaden cooperation with NATO in a manner that makes the collective influence of EU member states within NATO more apparent, or to which the footprint of future EU conflict and security activities in third countries starts to overshadow the activities of the UK.

As the UK has been grappling with Brexit domestically, the EU has been evolving its security and defence policy ambitions. These are developments that will impact on the UK and in which, therefore, it has a stake but as a departing member state it has a weakening ability to shape.

Any aspect of future EU–UK cooperation is hostage to the vagaries of how the Brexit endgame concludes.