Euro-View: Peter Round on Brexit & defence
The news in the UK is almost exclusively about Brexit and “leadership,” and usually both in the same breath. In an attempt to show leadership, the UK government of Prime Minister Theresa May has issued a series of papers which can be seen as laying out ‘Why Europe needs us’.
One in particular is its September 2017 ‘future partnership paper’ on foreign policy, defence and development. There is no surprise that security and defence feature strongly in it. Why shouldn’t they? On these subjects, everyone has a view and everyone thinks they know what it’s about.
We know that the EU has been a key part of sustained peace in Europe for all our lives. May’s government tell us that the UK is leaving the EU but not Europe and, as the UK is the biggest defence contributor in NATO (after the United States), it is de facto a vital player in European defence.
So, will restating the UK’s commitment to European defence help its Brexit negotiations? Conversely, would there be any post-Brexit security scenarious where the UK would refuse to help?
London’s key message to the Great British Public is: ‘You’ve told us what you want and we will deliver it’. Although the real costs of the delivery are starting to become clear, this is a cost many are prepared to pay.
In one of its papers on foreign policy, defence and development, the UK government tell us their aim is to “develop a deep and special partnership with the EU”. While this idea is coherent with the UK public’s acceptance the cost of leaving, are the publics of the remaining 27 EU member-states prepared to carry a cost to keep the UK in the EU defence arena? Importantly, do they need to?
There already exists the joint declaration between NATO and the EU, which recognises that a stronger NATO means a stronger EU. Moreover, the EU’s 2016 global strategy says European security “entails a parallel interest in preventing conflict, promoting human security, addressing the root causes of instability and working towards a safer world” – all of which are similar priorities in the UK’s last strategic defence and security review of 2015.
The most superficial glance at any European country’s future geopolitical analysis reveals a line similar to the following: “In today’s environment no country has the resources to go it alone.”
So everyone needs partners. NATO is primarily a defence alliance but it is also functions as a great partnership. It has flexibility in that the allies can work alone, bilaterally, in groups or under common funding to deliver defence output and clear demonstrations of collective will.
The UK has made clear that its commitment to NATO will become even greater as time goes by. It has just provided the next chairman of NATO’s Military Committee as a clear demonstration of intent. At the same time, the UK has considerable commitments to a range of European programmes and much to lose in current investments and possible future defence sales in Europe.
Let us never forget that, although British defence companies regard the defence sales market in Europe with great interest as other markets become more challenging, the UK has never really fully exploited it. Yet UK’s contributions to the EU’s common security and defence policy operations have brought nationally desired outcomes and, at times, a controlling influence on how those operations are carried out. All indications are that the UK sees the defence value in Europe, and really can’t afford to leave it behind.
In sum: the UK role in the security of Europe as vital to its own interests as it is to those of the remaining EU27. European defence simply has no bargaining power – by either side – in the Brexit negotiations.
By history, geography or any other measure, the UK isn’t going anywhere. It will continue to contribute and, in times of crisis, will continue to be involved because to do the contrary and turn away would risk all the things so important to its very soul. This a country which has long ‘punched above its weight,’ but now faces being counted out and, in terms of influence, moved to retirement. Strong leadership is needed, and soon.
Influence, industry, sales and foreign policy outcomes are all heavily influenced by the European scene. To misquote a lyric of The Eagles’s song, Hotel California, in defence terms the UK ‘can check out of Europe, but it can never leave.’