Seizing the Benefits of Brexit
Despite the many political shocks of 2016, European policymakers might still get something positive out of it. Brexit has removed a major veto player from the European Union and the increased potential for US-Russian rapprochement under President Trump has created a clear window of opportunity for greater European defense collaboration. How can Brussels, Berlin and Paris agree on a way forward?
The discussion of enhancements of a purely European defense cooperation or even the formation of a European army has been around for years (or even decades, when considering the vetoed French initiative of a European Defence Community (EDC) in the 1950s). Recent attempts to foster common European defense policies date back to the Treaty of Maastricht and the creation of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) in 1991 and the creation of the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) in 1998. Nonetheless, the status of defense integration today can be described as rudimentary, at best.
Ironically, it is the United Kingdom which, together with France eighteen years ago, gave birth to the then-called European Defence and Security Policy (ESDP). The intentions of the two founders, however, differed: France sought to enhance Europe’s strategic autonomy vis-à-vis the United States, whilst the UK was more interested in demonstrating to the government in Washington that Europe takes its responsibility for defense seriously. This culminated in the creation of the European Defence Agency (EDA) and the EU-Battlegroups in 2004. Since then, British interest in common European defense projects has declined, which led to a gradual “Brexit” from common defense policy efforts.
Despite this trend, coping with Brexit has not been any less difficult. Together with France, the UK is the only country on the European continent which still possesses a full range of military capabilities, including nuclear weapons, a seat in the UN Security Council and a high-performing defense industrial base. The UK is the only European country with considerable and battle-proven naval forces and infrastructure – a fact reinforced by its selection as the headquarter for the EU’s anti-piracy Atalanta mission off the Horn of Africa. Besides, the UK contributes roughly a quarter to the EU’s military budget. There is no doubt that a prospective European army without the UK would be much less powerful and play a merely peripheral role.
On the other hand, with the UK leaving the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy, breakthroughs in several policy areas can be achieved, if the political will in European capitals is strong enough. Some examples: in recent years, the UK vetoed any further increase of budget for the EDA, thus limiting its scope. The UK subsequently vetoed the establishment of an EU military headquarters, which should now be a priority on the agenda of the remaining EU-27. Both increasing the EDA’s budget as well as creating a headquarter should now be top priorities. Above all, it is essential to enhance “Pooling and Sharing” activities as well as collaborative productions and procurements.
European policy makers should now seek to get the maximum out of Brexit. They should stimulate further defense collaboration and undertake reforms previously blocked by the UK, including an increase of the EDA’s budget, harmonization of defense procurement processes, and piecemeal integration of operational military capabilities. It is irrational, from both a military and financial standpoint, for individual EU members to retain full military capacities. Countries must therefore overcome their strategic hesitation to merge their armed forces. The way ahead may be exemplified by the Benelux countries. Since 1995, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg have a common single command for their naval forces. France and Germany too have a common brigade, although frequently criticized for its mere symbolic character.
At the same time, the EU-27 must attempt to keep the UK as far as possible within the Union’s defense architecture. This could be achieved by extending and intensifying common procurement projects, such as the Eurofighter. The EU could thus profit from British expertise and manpower, and the UK would have a stake in shaping Europe’s foreign and defense policy. Additionally, with the Framework Partnership Agreement (FPA), a mechanism for non-EU states to participate in CSDP missions exists and has already been used by over thirty non-member countries of the European Union. Besides, the UK will remain a strong ally in NATO, and thus of the European Defense architecture, and is even likely to deepen its commitment in the transatlantic alliance.
As the UK leaves the CSDP, the Franco-British engine of European defense integration needs to be altered. In past months, it turned out that Britain’s place is going to be filled by Germany – and possibly by Italy too. Their governments already published some joint declarations on further steps.
It is crucial that France and Germany find common ground on what European defense should look like and what role should be attributed to European military operations. Over the past few years, their positions have continued to differ considerably. Germany remains attached to its post-WWII pacifist, rather civilian and diplomatic approach in conflicts, whereas France has underlined its willingness to engage in robust fighting missions, such as in Mali or in Syria. Although they attained meaningful achievements such as the Minsk agreement, there is still a lot to be desired. On an operational level, policymakers should extend projects such as the Franco-German brigade and harmonize legal frameworks. Strategically, both countries should merge their military, industrial, and diplomatic capacities.
If this agenda is tackled decisively, Brexit might boost European defense collaboration. Given the unpredictability of the Trump Administration and Europe’s growing tensions with Russia, it is imperative that Europe have a strong common defense community alongside NATO. The EU’s defense pillar should not duplicate NATO’s structures, but rather ensure the highest level of strategic autonomy possible. It is now up to France and Germany to take the lead and seize this opportunity.
 Vivien Pertusot, “European Defence: Do not confuse speed with haste,” European Leadership Network, October 28, 2016, http://www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org/european-defence-do-not-confuse-speed-with-haste_4202.html.
 “Defence Implications of Brexit – Further Thoughts,” Think Defence, http://www.thinkdefence.co.uk/2016/06/defence-implications-brexit-thoughts/.
 Andrej Matisak,“Brexit: What are the Security Risks for EU and NATO,” May 28, 2016, http://defencematters.org/news/brexit-security-risks-eu-nato/872/.
 Rüdiger Soldt and Michaela Wiegel, “Sag’ zum Abschied leise au revoir,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, October 24, 2013, http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/inland/deutsch-franzoesische-brigade-sag-zum-abschied-leise-au-revoir-12630958.html?printPagedArticle=true#pageIndex_2.
 Thierry Tardy, “CSDP: getting third states on board,” European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS), March 7, 2014, http://www.iss.europa.eu/publications/detail/article/csdp-getting-third-states-on-board/.
“Joint Declaration by the Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, the President of the French Republic and the President of the Council of Ministers of the Italian Republic,” Government of Italy’s website, accessed December 1, 2016, http://www.governo.it/sites/governo.it/files/dichiarazione_congiunta_ita_fra_ger.pdf.
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