Brexit or not, Britain must stay in the EU’s security team

Parliament’s historic vote on Tuesday against Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plans now leaves a huge question mark over how – or even if – Britain will leave the EU. But whatever happens, we have to prepare for it. This challenge puts a special responsibility on those of us in European defence sector: we risk seeing Britain split from its European allies in NATO, and a weakening of our combined defences. We have to do whatever we can to prevent Brexit from tearing us apart and leaving us vulnerable to the threats of the modern world.

There many reasons for the rest of Europe to regret Brexit. When it comes to European defence, the United Kingdom has been a major player: along with France, it has been the leading military power in Europe. The UK has been a mainstay in NATO, a pioneer in EU missions, and a key force in defence research and procurement. Brexit will take Britain out of the world’s most integrated political alliance, and thus represents an enormous challenge to UK and European security, not least because of the great uncertainty it heralds.

Yes, the British have often been a brake on EU defence projects. But even when the European Intervention Initiative was launched in 2017 outside the existing institutional frameworks, it included the UK amongst its ten European members. Perhaps ironically, the UK is now underlining its pledge to Europe’s security, and calling for the closest possible post-Brexit partnership.

Although the EU tends to keep its distance from defence issues, Brexit nonetheless has major implications across the security space for both the EU and the UK. From a long list, these include:

  • Research and innovation: Britain benefits from hefty EU research funding, claiming a fifth of all EU grants since 2007, worth €8 billion. Now it risks losing access to this, which could have significant consequences for British research. Additionally, UK companies will have limited access to the European Defence Fund, the €500 million per year initiative supporting investment in R&D in cutting-edge military equipment and technologies.
  • Defence spending: Brexit itself threatens the UK’s government spending: the value of sterling has already fallen (affecting orders for the F-35 fighter jet and Apache attack helicopters, which are paid for in US dollars), the economy is slowing, and the overall budget will face new constraints.
  • Joint projects: the UK has been a key partner on projects like the European combat aircraft, the Airbus A400M airlifter and the Meteor missile. While all sides are still committed to these projects, they will be harder once the UK is out of the EU.
  • EU missions: the UK has lent its credibility to the EU’s various missions and operations as part of its Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). The UK was given operational control of Operation Atalanta, the high-profile anti-piracy naval mission off the Horn of Africa – but the EU last year decided to move Atalanta’s operational headquarters from Northwood in the UK to Rota in Spain.
  • The European Defence Agency (EDA): the UK has been a strong supporter of the EDA, which promotes defence cooperation, stimulates defence research and works to strengthen the EU defence industry. It remains unclear if the UK will leave the EDA altogether or seek associate status without any voting rights, like Norway, Serbia and Ukraine.
  • Foreign policy: the UK has been a forceful in pushing strong foreign policies like sanctions, notably against Russia after its meddling in Ukraine. But Brexit is likely to weaken the EU’s resolve.
  • Relations with the US: the US is losing confidence in Britain’s ability to rally allies, and the Trump administration has warned that unless the British invest more in defence, the UK might one day no longer be “the US partner of choice”.
  • Relations with NATO: by leaving the EU, the UK could undermine its own position in NATO. Experts at the UK’s Royal United Services Institute have already warned that Britain could lose the prestigious position of NATO deputy supreme allied commander in Europe, a post it has held since 1951.
  • Security cooperation: beyond defence policy, the UK’s departure will complicate cooperation on transnational issues like terrorism, organised crime and cybersecurity, and the work of Europol, and the European Arrest Warrant. Brexit puts at risk the deep organisational and personal bonds built up by the military, civil servants, intelligence services and police on both sides.

This range of defence and security issues shows how broad the connections are, and how complicated Brexit will be. Make no mistake: Brexit will damage our security. It will weaken the UK more, but it will weaken the EU too.

We need to ensure that whatever the institutional arrangements, the UK remains anchored to the EU’s security. We have to find ways to mitigate the formal break-up, so that links between the EU and the UK are forged across the security environment.

From a practical perspective, both the EU and Britain should work to keep the UK close: the two sides have a mutual interest in strong defence and security relations. The EU would benefit from the UK’s resources and expertise, and the UK would want the broader support of the EU.

It becomes complicated in the formal settings, when most decisions are taken. But workarounds could be found through “multilateral” arrangements.

Some of them could be bilateral: we can and should expect the UK and Netherlands will continue their existing close collaboration. This UK-Dutch collaboration is outside the EU and NATO structures, and includes officer swaps: Dutch drill sergeants currently train Royal Marines, and vice versa. Other examples of cooperation include a submarine commanders qualification course, the UK-Netherlands amphibious force, and the Royal Navy’s Flag Officer Sea Training.

There is a personal element for me as the UK was my first port of call when I began as an officer in the Royal Dutch Navy in the 1970s. Having worked closely with the Royal Navy over all these years, I can testify to the value of the human component that makes these collaborations extremely worthwhile.

I can also point to the values and historic bonds. In the Netherlands, we remain eternally grateful to the British for their role in freeing use from the Nazi occupation during the Second World War, and this year we will show our gratitude with a series of events celebrating the 75th anniversary of the liberation.

As for Brexit, it will be messy. But we now have to develop new arrangements. We cannot lose time mourning Britain’s departure. We need practical solutions, because our security depends on it.

Author: Matthieu Borsboom, Vice Admiral rtd – Senior Advisor 

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