As Britain’s parliamentary apparatus remains gripped by the scramble to deliver a viable exit from the European Union next year, one key area of British politics among many seems worryingly overlooked; the UK’s role in European defence. In this piece, Alex Stafford examines the potential impacts of this oversight on both the UK and EU.


Of all the topics being negotiated ahead of the looming Brexit in March next year, the UK’s future security and defence relationship with the European Union (EU) has garnered little attention. In fact leaving aside the all-consuming panic to obtain some sort of a trade deal, immigration issues and the so-called “divorce bill”, even questions around the availability of sandwiches seem to have enjoyed more prominence in the media than any future role Britain could play in European security. Other than public apathy and the incompetence in the negotiations on the part of the UK government, this could be because – until the result of the 2016 referendum – EU defence cooperation was largely a theoretical endeavour, confined to luxury conference rooms in major European cities and with little real-world impact. However, the decision to leave the EU has acted as something of a catalyst for the EU Commission to take steps towards a more integrated and institutionalised European defence arrangement, with potential ramifications for UK-EU defence engagement in the future.

The UK has long been opposed to greater European defence integration efforts, using its position as one of only two of Europe’s comparative military heavyweights to veto any moves towards a EU command headquarters for fear that such an establishment would undermine NATO and the US’ involvement in European security. But since the Brexit vote, the UK has ceased to resist proposals for greater security integration, allowing the introduction in November 2016 of the Security and Defence Implementation Plan (SDIP) by EU foreign and security High Representative Federica Mogherini. The proposal met with tacit approval of then-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and then-Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, who both failed to raise any objections while the bill went almost unnoticed by UK defence corespondents.

The Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), which was lurking in the Lisbon Treaty since 2009 and which the SDIP in some ways paved the route for, also followed a year later with the signatures of all EU members save the UK and Malta. Aimed at establishing a number of voluntary initiatives to better coordinate and integrate defence research, procurement and force structure, PESCO is regarded by some as a fundamental step towards an EU armed forces. The EU Commission’s European Defence Action Plan (EDAP), which outlines how PESCO will be implemented, followed only weeks later.

Because of Brexit and the UK’s refusal to sign up for PESCO it would be easy to assume that the creation of yet another EU institution would have little effect on UK defence. Indeed, when one considers the criticisms of PESCO and the different visions its signatories seem to have for it, it seems the the initiative could well become just another EU talking shop that achieves nothing tangible. However, EDAP could throw up a number of sticking points that have to be addressed. The use of European Investment Bank (EIB) money to fund EU procurement programmes and joint EU military units has been cited by Brexit supporters as a possible accounting trick to skirt the 2% GDP defence spending agreed at the NATO summit in Wales 2014; a major point of contention within the current US administration. The UK also holds 16% of EIB shares, posing the question of what if any influence the UK will have on future funding programmes. There are also concerns that the EDAP will bring about a “defence single market” which could lead to lobbying by the UK defence industry to secure access to European Defence Research Programme (EDRP) money, further complicating any Brexit deal.

Of course, there is a huge assumption in all of this – that the UK armed forces will continue to be a major player in Europe. A far more damaging effect of the Brexit vote and negotiations is the so-called parliamentary paralysis that has been a catalyst to the ongoing funding crisis of UK defence.

None of this is at all insurmountable, and at the minute the greatest impediment to long-term UK-EU defence cooperation appears to be the attitude of officials on both sides and the lack of a clear mandate outlining what Brexit actually means. The UK has already pulled out of a previous offer to lead a post-Brexit battlegroup in 2019 and looks unlikely to participate in the future unless the UK can negotiate greater decision-making powers than normally granted to a third nation. Mogherini said in 2017, “Obviously, once you are not a member state you cannot take part in the decisions but you can take part [in the missions]”. These impasses have been a hallmark of a range of Brexit issues from both sides, and in this case risk leaving the EU and any potential future institutions without the contribution of one of Europe’s most capable militaries, while the UK defence industry risks finding itself locked out of a major market.

Of course, there is a huge assumption in all of this – that the UK armed forces will continue to be a major player in Europe. A far more damaging effect of the Brexit vote and negotiations is the so-called parliamentary paralysis that has been a catalyst to the ongoing funding crisis of UK defence. Earlier this year the National Audit Office produced a report into MoD spending that found a potential £20.8 billion funding shortfall for the 2017 – 2027 procurement period. The funding crunch is not helped by the costs of big ticket items such as the Astute and Dreadnought submarine programmes, which appear to be spiralling out of control. All of this has led the UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson to launch the already overdue Modernising Defence Programme; a misleading title for a process that will inevitably attempt to justify further cuts to the already bare-boned force structure outlined in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review. Williamson has gone begging cap-in-hand for additional funds only to be rebuffed by Chancellor of the Exchequer, Phillip Hammond, who has declared that there is no money available beyond a boost to the strained National Health Service.

Indeed, as the embattled Conservative government lurches on, Hammond and the equally strategically myopic Prime Minister Theresa May have opted to try for domestic political support through the NHS at the expense – largely due to the limits of damage control available in a post-austerity Britain – of the UK’s defence and future military role in the world. While US Defence Secretary Mattis has issued hints that the UK needs to up its game or be supplanted by France as the US’ go-to defence partner in Europe, and Britain’s own Defence Select Committee has recommended that defence spending rise to 3% of GDP, according to the Financial Times May caused a mass panic in the MoD by asking Williamson to rethink what a so-called “tier one” military power was and to instead focus on the (conveniently inexpensive) cyber capabilities versus Russia, although she later denied having made such remarks. May, like most UK politicians it would seem, has no conception of the utility of Britain’s military not just in its role as the guardians of UK territory and interests, but in the prestige it still (just about) brings Britain around the globe through membership of the UNSC and as a leading power in the ever more diluted NATO.

What is most concerning is that at a time when Brexit should be bringing UK strategic thinking into sharp relief, the UK’s leaders appear focused elsewhere. When Britain’s armed forces should be being viewed as a vital tool for engagement and leadership in the world outside the EU, the UK government instead continues down the path of further cuts and weak justifications in favour of bare-bone spending policies borne of desperation. This is not to say that defence projects should not be reviewed, and indeed the UK’s propensity to acquire prestigious cutting-edge platforms in uselessly small numbers and at vast expense could well do with reform, but reducing UK capabilities even further while withdrawing from EU initiatives and doing nothing to endear Britain to its allies certainly does not look like a sensible strategy.


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Alexander Stafford is a geopolitical and defence affairs writer specialising in naval and maritime issues, insurgencies, military history and strategy. He is a graduate of King’s College London’s War Studies programme who has spent several years based in the Asia Pacific region, where he now focuses on South China Sea maritime issues.

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Photo credit: PO (Phot) Ray Jones

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