The defence implications of Brexit

A summary of the RUSI conference on the defence implications of Brexit

The defence implications of Brexit

Earlier this week RUSI held a conference to consider the defence and security implications of Brexit for both the UK and the EU. The following piece summarises some of the key points discussed.

The view of many of the speakers was that defence as a policy area in the European Union hasn’t enjoyed the same focus or discipline as other policy areas such as counter-terrorism. Although some structures do exist, such as the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) or the Organisation for Joint Armament Cooperation (OCCAR), defence cooperation within the Union hasn’t been particularly well coordinated historically for a number of reasons, including reluctance on the part of some member states to engage on defence matters, the strongly law-based nature of the EU and a prevailing perception in some quarters that increasing EU activity on defence and security matters could be incompatible with NATO. Some speakers pointed out that while the UK has played its part in restricting greater cooperation, there has been limited consensus more widely regarding the difficult decisions around capability and spending that are required to create a properly unified approach, in part because of unwillingness on the part of EU voters to pursue this.

Despite this lack of coordination, the general feeling among the panellists was that the UK’s departure from the EU represents a significant loss for the EU in defence terms. 25% of the Union’s defence capability will now be lost, 80% of NATO contributions will now come from non-EU allies and increasing pressure will fall on Germany and France to maintain the bloc’s defence capabilities and spending. Furthermore, the UK is seen as playing an important role in keeping the EU’s outlook more global than it might otherwise be.

On the UK’s part, it was felt that there are also strong incentives for remaining part of the EU’s defence architecture post-Brexit, not least its geographical proximity. Promoting goodwill during the negotiations and its existing commitments to projects may also be factors. It is also important to note that the EU has provided a useful framework for dealing with foreign policy issues, for example, Gazprom has been kept in check through the EU competition directive.

However, the lack of rigid structures for cooperation in defence and security might make it easier for the UK to retain a place at the defence table even after Brexit t. There are established mechanisms in place for third party involvement – the UK could look to create its own special relationship with the EU for defence and security issues on this basis. The UK also already has bilateral arrangements in place with France which it could look to replicated with other member states. Challenges lie in issues such as integrated defence offerings, such as Eurofigher or MBDA, and supply chains which are often cross-border and will come under threat if the UK leaves the Single Market and Customs Union.

As the global landscape shifts, threats and uncertainty rising from Trump’s unpredictable foreign policy choices, Russia’s assertiveness in Eastern Europe and Turkey’s increasingly tricky relationship with Europe (as we have seen play out this week) to name but a few, all increase the motivation for greater defence spending and cooperation between the UK and EU. For the UK, its strong capabilities in defence and security, upon which the EU is heavily reliant, is a useful point of common interest in negotiations, although the speakers emphasised that it should resist using this as a bargaining chip. While the UK’s security and defence capabilities will remain important to the EU, it may struggle to translate this into political influence unless it defines its relationship with the EU early on. As the panellists warned, the short time frame in which negotiations need to be concluded, and the priority of other policy areas, such as shared competencies, means there is a danger that defence and security could find itself overlooked and this is something the UK will need to guard against.

Speakers at the event included Professor Malcolm Chalmers, Deputy Director-General, RUSI; Sophia Besch, Centre for European Reform; Sir Robert Cooper, LSE IDEAS; Bruno Maçães, Partner at Flint Global and former Minister of Europe, Government of Portugal (2013-2015); Professor Anand Menon, Director, The UK in a Changing Europe; Sir Christopher Meyer KCMG, Senior Associate Fellow, RUSI; James de Waal, Chatham House; Nick Witney, ECFR and, Professor Richard G. Whitman, Director of the Global Europe Centre, University of Kent.

Full details can be found here: