Brexit: Britain-EU security and defense cooperation will (somehow) continue

Britain is leaving the EU, but of course stays in NATO. But what kind of impact Brexit may have on UK-EU defence and military relations especially taking into account possible deeper EU defence integration? Read few comments.

British and Estonian soldiers. Credit:

Manuel Muñiz, Director, Program on Transatlantic Relations, Harvard University

The truth of the matter is that nobody knows how Brexit will affect CFSP/CSDP. May’s letter to the EU seems to suggest that a full withdrawal of the UK from security and defence arrangements is a possibility. Tusk and others have expressed concern about this and wish to make sure that at least on those fields close cooperation continues. The synergies and logic of working together there are strong. My expectation would be that even if we have a hard Brexit that sees the UK leave the single market entirely there would still be a set of specific arrangements made about defence. For example some form of structured cooperation around planning and mission execution; having an open door policy to British participation in EU missions and others. But again the complexity of all of this and the uncertainty are mind boggling.

Andrea Frontini, Policy Analyst, European Policy Centre (EPC)

When it comes to the future of European defence cooperation, and CSDP in particular, I believe that Brexit is likely to translate in a seemingly contradicting, and ultimately challenging, situation for the EU and its (remaining) Member States.

While London has often been opposed to the very upgrading of CSDP, notably on the issue of the (in)famous EU military headquarters, it has also provided crucial contributions to Europe’s aggregated military capacities, and was a strong supporter of the original idea of the (still dormant) EU Battlegroups, among others.

Its departure from the EU thus provides Brussels with a mixed picture. On the one hand, the prospects of enhancing CSDP are now less dependent on London’s final agreement, although the UK will still remain in CSDP policy-making until the end of what looks like a difficult ‘divorce’ negotiation with the EU. This opens an interesting window of opportunity, and some developments such as the recent national proposals made by France, Germany and Italy, as well as the November Foreign Affairs Council Conclusions on the “Implementation of the EU Global Strategy in the Area of Security and Defence”, have delivered some limited but positive progress.

Yet, one should also note that EU Member States remain fairly divided on the ultimate goal(s) of CSDP, as well as over smaller but important themes, from the review of the ATHENA mechanism to the delicate balance between the military and civilian components of CSDP. So, London’s departure will not certainly solve, per se, all the (political) problems affecting intra-EU consensus, or lack thereof, on CSDP.

On the other hand, the shift of political and military investment by London from CSDP to NATO is set to deprive the former of the UK’s important contributions, from cutting-edge military capabilities to its civilian planning and conduct expertise, all the way to London’s push for further efficiency in the European (fragmented) defence markets, up to its historically significant strategic culture. In that respect, it is still to be seen whether greater or more joined-up defence investment across Europe, or some potential pragmatic avenues of deeper cooperation such as the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), will actually succeed in compensating for the UK’s absence from the CSDP.

As a consequence, the ultimate effects of Brexit over European defence are going to pose a further challenge to the future of CSDP, and will act as (yet another) ‘litmus test’ of EU Member States’ willingness to invest economic and political capital in this often neglected policy domain. In this regard, maintaining close cooperation between the other EU Member States and the UK, not only via NATO but also through ad hoc but comprehensive cooperation arrangements between CSDP and the UK Government, would probably be the best way to compensate for these challenging dynamics.

James Strong, Fellow in Foreign Policy Analysis and International Relations, London School of Economis (LSE)

Brexit clearly puts the long-term future of the UK in some doubt. Its consequences look especially dangerous for Northern Ireland, but we should note that the ‘leave’ vote was as much a vote against London by the rest of England as a vote by Britain against the EU. It seems more likely than not that the UK will survive, for the simple reason that the arguments against leaving the UK are the same as the arguments against leaving the EU. But if the EU begins to look more open to admitting former members of the UK as full members of the EU – an option not currently on the table – we may see Scotland in particular reconsider its position.

Igor Merheim-Eyre, PhD Candidate in International Relations, School of Politics and International Relations, University of Kent

Brexit is a complex process, impacting all aspects of EU integration in which the United Kingdom has participated for over forty years. The military dimension is no exception. After all, along with France, the UK is the most significant military actor in the EU, as well as being one of only 5 NATO states to spend 2% on defence.

Brexit has a symbolic importance for defence. Firstly, it was the UK and France that created the Common Security and Defence Policy in 1998. Secondly, it is a blow to the European Union to lose among its ranks a major global payer, not least because of the UK’s seat on the UN Security Council.

From an operational perspective, however, Brexit is not likely to have a major impact on the CSDP. No doubt questions will be asked for example about what to do about the EU anti-piracy naval mission off the coast of Somalia which has headquarters in the UK’s Northwood base but, when we look at the UK’s role in the CSDP, we can see that it has become less and less prominent – for example, the UK now ranks 5th among contributors to military missions, and 7th among civilian missions.

The fact that only 4% of all EU CSDP personnel are now British further shows that the UK has largely left the leadership of EU defence policy up to France. For example, in the French-led CSDP operations in Mali the UK’s role was largely limited to providing airlifts and army trainers for the Malian army.

It should, however, be pointed out that Brexit does not necessarily mean the end of UK involvement in CSDP. CSDP has a wide range of cooperation agreements (so-called Framework Participation Agreements) with countries from across the globe. In fact, 45 non-EU states participate one way or another in CSDP missions, whether that be by providing personnel, or in a supportive role such as logistics. Therefore, with the UK’s currently limited commitment, the only major change might be its formal say on future EU military missions, its contribution to the budget and overall voice on the future of EU cooperation in the military sphere.

I think there are also two other issues worth watching out for. Firstly, with the current UK government adding increasing emphasis on its commitments to NATO, the on-going discussions about the strengthening of EU-NATO cooperation will further determine the relationship between the UK and the EU. Most likely, this may mean that formally the UK will remain outside the CSDP, but it will continue engaged in EU-NATO projects, and in CSDP missions. Secondly, we will see more increased bilateral cooperation between the UK and individual Member States. Recently signed cooperation between Germany and the UK on issues including cyber and maritime security is a step in this direction.

Overall, therefore, Brexit is unlikely to have a major impact on EU defence cooperation – after all, defence cooperation is not the most intensive or developed area of cooperation, and neither is the UK’s participation. Rather, I see much bigger questions being asked about internal security, including intelligence sharing, fighting organised crime, or terrorism where the UK has expressed willingness to continue and perhaps even intensify cooperation. In many ways, both defence and internal security aspects highlight the complexity of Brexit – the UK may leave the EU institutions formally, but it can hardly disentangle itself from the layers of cooperation.

Artur Gruszczak, National Security Department, Jagiellonian University in Krakow

Above all, I do not believe in a possibly deeper defence integration within the framework of the EU, though I am an advocate of such a process. I would rather expect initiatives of permanent structured cooperation in the area of external crisis management, subject to the results of the coming elections in France and Germany. In this context, Brexit will have no significant impact given that the UK has not been a great fan of an enhanced CSDP. NATO alliance can provide a kind of substitute of the shrinking EU defence cooperation. UK as a staunch NATO ally can deliver considerable military capabilities and contribute to a reinforcement of NATO’s European pillar. If US warnings concerning a lower transatlantic agenda of the Trump administration come true, EU Member States may be mobilized to invest more in its military security and defence. However, it will take place on the NATO platform and the UK’s role can be crucial unless EU leading countries are determined to make it on their own, excluding London from their plans.



One Response

  1. Could you Brits please shut up and go do something else? A long, long time ago the people voted to leave the EU. Simple. But you are still in the EU and every day you argue and make noise. But you have allready decided to leave the EU, what are you guys doing? What`s the problem? Could you please pull your heads out of your asses, call Brussles and them to go ***** themselfes and move on. If I hear one more limey Brit talk about the EU, I will smack him in the face.

    PS: it`s a great move to leave the EU, everyone should leave it. My country said no to the EU twice. The EU really wants us to join of course. If we join the EU, it`s great for the EU. But it sucks for us. They get all our stuff and we get a bill from Brussel. Terrible deal, there is no upside for us, only for Brussel. I`d rather see the entire country dead than join somehting so stupid. No way will I ever be Brussels slave.

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