Thursday

21st Feb 2019

Opinion

Brexit is an opportunity for EU defence policy

  • The Atalanta counter-piracy operation has its headquarters in the UK, but the British contribution to EU civilian and military missions remains low. (Photo: Council of European Union)

It would be an understatement to say that there is a degree of uncertainty surrounding the ultimate consequences of the British referendum of 23 June.

It is difficult to assess at this stage the definitive impact that the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union will have on the EU itself - its policies, its institutions, its priorities and its role as a global actor. Still, it is possible to envision potential and likely scenarios in various areas.

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In this perspective, what can we expect the effects of Brexit to be on the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP)?

It is easy to understand why the United Kingdom’s departure can be seen as a substantial setback for the Union’s ambitions as a defence player.

The UK has the highest defence expenditures of any European country, and it is one of the few Nato members meeting the organisation’s guideline of spending 2 percent of GDP on defence.

Although it will still be able to participate in CSDP missions in the future, it would likely have to do so through a "framework participation agreement" which would not allow it to participate in the defining of the missions’ mandates nor in their initial planning stage.

A diminished potential

The UK’s military capabilities will therefore be less readily accessible to the European Union. The EU will also no longer benefit from the expertise brought by the British personnel employed in its External Action Service, in particular the civilian and military officials working within the CSDP crisis management structures.

EU-NATO cooperation, which has been marked by recent efforts to collaborate on such issues as hybrid warfare and cybersecurity, will not be helped either by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. Overall, the post-Brexit picture is that of a CSDP with a diminished potential.

This initial diagnosis only tells part of the story, however. Although it is essentially the 1998 Franco-British Saint-Malo declaration that spurred the birth of what is now the CSDP, the United Kingdom has long been lukewarm about further developing various aspects of the policy, and about engaging its capabilities in CSDP missions.

While the operational headquarters of the EU’s Atalanta counter-piracy operation is located in Northwood, and while the UK has provided two ships to the EU’s operation Sophia in the Mediterranean, its overall contributions to field personnel of CSDP civilian and military missions remain rather low (around 5-7% of the current total of deployed personnel).

Possible renewed momentum

Fearing a duplication of structures and instruments with Nato (among other reasons), the UK has also opposed some institutional reforms in Brussels, as well as different CSDP-related budget increases. The disappearance of the British veto on these matters could bring renewed momentum to initiatives that have been long blocked, and open the door to new proposals.

An emblematic example is the idea of a permanent operational headquarters (civil military or strictly military) in Brussels, to plan, monitor and conduct EU missions. The UK has since 2003 staunchly opposed the idea, in fear that it would constitute a first step towards the setting up of functions and structures that would parallel those of Nato.

Other examples include possible adjustments to the budget of the European Defence Agency (which has been frozen at €30.5 million for the last five years) and to the financing of the Athena mechanism, which covers the common costs of EU military operations – although the UK is not alone in its reticence to increase common funding.

Ultimately, however, the possible revitalisation of the CSDP following Brexit will depend on the political appetite for such a path among the remaining EU member states - in particular France and Germany - as well as within the EU institutions themselves.

Caution still advised

At the EU level, the high representative for external relations Federica Mogherini and commission president Jean-Claude Juncker have displayed more interest in security and military defence issues than their immediate predecessors.

The new EU Global Strategy, unveiled last week by the high representative, calls for a strategically autonomous EU, stresses the need for soft power and hard power to go hand in hand, and puts forward various lines of action to foster CSDP synergies and increase effectiveness.

Meanwhile, the French and German foreign ministers published last week a joint declaration supporting several initiatives reflecting precisely a deepening of CSDP integration - including the introduction of a permanent civil-military chain of command, the establishment of “standing maritime forces”, and a return to the idea of permanent structured cooperation on defence between member states.

Caution should nonetheless still be in order. France’s initial enthusiasm for a "Europe puissance" (European power) has transformed over the last few years into disillusion with the shortcomings of the CSDP, in particular when it comes to providing capabilities on the ground.

Political will to achieve progress

Time will tell to what extent the various proposals on the table get translated into commitments, policies and actions, especially since both France and Germany will hold general elections in 2017.

Other EU member states that may have been hiding conveniently behind the UK’s veto until now may also come out in the open to object to specific proposals.

Still, there seems to be a certain degree of political will to achieve progress in the development of the CSDP at the institutional and operational levels, as indicated by the French, German and EU calls for periodic reviews of security and defence-related issues at the EU level.

While the EU’s possible ambitions as a defence actor, and its potential to muster and deliver capabilities, will be reduced with the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the Union, the CSDP might therefore paradoxically receive renewed attention within the post-referendum framework.

Lorenzo Angelini is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB – REPI

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