Opportunity Cost: Why Brexit is not quite the security and defence moment Brussels has been banking on

Benjamin Martill   Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, University of Edinburgh

French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent claim that NATO was ‘brain-dead’ and that Europe needed to focus on building up its own security and defence capabilities was the latest in a long line of public pronouncements on the future of European defence in recent years.

A number of factors, including the ‘resurgence’ of Russia under Vladimir Putin, the rise of instability on Europe’s borders, and the election of President Donald Trump in the US, have pushed the Europeans to think more about providing for their own security.

But it is Brexit that has provided the catalysing force for these discussions, with the British vote to leave precipitating months of sustained discussion – and action – on EU security and defence initiatives.

Brexit and EU security

A growing constituency of opinion in Brussels and other national capitals in the EU regards Brexit as a golden opportunity for European security and defence. There are a number of arguments frequently put forward in this regard.

One is that Brexit has provided the necessary moment of crisis for the EU to push forward, given the insecurity – and soul-searching – which the British vote to leave engendered on the continent. Brexit, on this view, has started a conversation on the future of Europe, and the outcome has been cautious support for the integration project.

Another is that Brexit has created incentives for EU-level initiatives given the departure of one of the major security and defence providers. The absence of the Brits, it is supposed – coupled with the troubles faced by NATO – creates a gap in European security which the EU will need to fill.

Then there is the absence of the British veto. With the UK the staunchest defender of NATO’s primacy as the defence and security provider in Europe, and of strong transatlantic relations more generally, it was perhaps understandable that the British had vetoed – or threatened to veto – efforts to further develop indigenous EU initiatives. With the Brits gone, however, much that was not possible might be on the table again.

To some extent, the proof of this is ‘in the pudding’, to rely on a quintessentially British phrase. A number of recent initiatives show that the EU is serious about overcoming some of the well-known problems it has faced in the past.

The 2016 Global Strategy, launched the week of the Brexit vote, aims to articulate a vision for the EU in an insecure world, underpinned conceptually by ‘principled pragmatism’ – a cautious blend of strategic and normative goals. This has become the guiding normative framework for EU trade policy and for relations with non-democratic powers (such as China), with the EU committing to a values-based foreign policy that simultaneously recognises the need to recognise the realities of power and its inability to push as far as it would wish – and at all costs – for human rights reforms. The Global Strategy aims to show that Europe could acknowledge – and deal with – the realities of power politics.

Institutional reforms followed the strategy. The launch of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) will see all but two member states collaborate on a range of specific initiatives with (supposedly) binding governance structures to keep them invested. And the European Defence Fund (EDF) bring the Community budget to bear on defence projects for the first time, allocating a hefty sum for investment in joint projects. Meanwhile, the EU has established a permanent operational headquarters for military missions for the first time – the MPCC – and has initiated a process of review for national armed forces aimed at identifying shortfalls in capabilities and opportunities for greater interoperability.

EU-level movement in this area is real, and it will no doubt have important implications for the future of European security and defence. But this does not mean either that Brexit-inspired initiatives will be able to solve the problems afflicting NATO, nor that the benefits will outweigh the costs of the UK leaving.

The opportunity cost

Indeed, there are considerable dangers associated with over-egging the movement in EU security and defence, as I will expand upon in a moment. But first, it is worth considering four important caveats to existing European initiatives.

The first is that they are both practical and political initiatives. There may be good reasons to push ahead with common schemes in this field, but these were not necessarily at the forefront of leaders’ minds. Rather, they were focused on showing the EU could emerge from the Brexit crisis with life in it yet, and integration remained a viable project.

Security and defence was identified as a prime candidate in this regard because it is both the least integrated aspect of the EU and because it is symbolically connected to identification with the nation-state and to the principle of state sovereignty itself. It also happens to be one of the areas where a major crisis cannot be attributed to the EU itself in recent years – unlike migration or monetary policy.

The political incentives for demonstrating movement in this key area need to be acknowledged, lest we lose sight of the impact of these policies ‘on the ground’, or become overly confident about the EU’s ability to act.

The second is that they are naturally limited by the impending absence of the Brits. The UK, along with France, is a major player in security and defence. It maintains sizeable arms forces, a global network of bases, expeditionary capabilities, a nuclear deterrent, and a world-class navy and air force. These are supplemented by not inconsiderable intelligence-gathering capabilities, diplomatic networks, bureaucratic capacity and a globally-leading defence-industrial base .

These assets have proven crucial at various times for EU foreign and security policy initiatives. To be viewed as credible, EU initiatives may need to find ways to keep the Brits involved, especially when it comes to defence-industrial developments. Involving the UK might also keep initiatives more balanced, and allay concerns of French hegemony. This imposes a potentially self-limiting nature to the sovereignty cost these initiatives can engender. If it is too high, British participation is precluded, but if it is too low then the rationale of the initiatives is undermined.

It is not that the Brits are the only big investors in military hardware. France, Italy, Greece and a number of other member states invest seriously in defence. It is simply that the relative weight of British capabilities – and specificity of some assets, such as heavy airlift – will create a gap which might persist for some time. The trade-off between capabilities and actorness may well be overcome, but it will take many years. Meanwhile, Macron’s EI2 may offer a means of keeping the Brits in, but it is not an EU-level initiative, any may end up competing with EU proposals rather than complementing them.

The third is that the same issues encountered by the Europeans in the past are likely to persist in existing initiatives. Typically EU defence initiatives have floundered as a result of commonly reoccurring problems, including a lack of will among member states, divergence in strategic cultures, a lack of interoperability (even when procurement has been collective), budgetary constraints and shortfalls in capabilities, and the inability to act rapidly to crisis whilst relying on collective decision-making. Brexit removes the opposition to important schemed aimed at ameliorating some of these problems, but it does not remove the problems themselves. And, as current events demonstrate all-too-well, consensus among the member states remains hard to forge on substantive issues, even in the post-referendum context.

Consider also in this regard the half-hearted manner in which many member states signed up to PESCO, either hedging their bets with alternative initiatives (France) or indicating only qualified support (Poland). Moreover, many of the PESCO projects were on the table anyway, and a more expansive set of initiatives might not have received the level of support across the board. It is still pretty much a lowest-common-denominator exercise.

The fourth is the rise of euroscepticism and the growing politicisation of the EU, demonstrated most recently in the results of the 2019 elections to the European Parliament, in which around a third of seats went to eurosceptic parties.

These parties have their own views of what Europe’s foreign policy priorities should be, and they diverge from the prevailing liberal consensus on questions of development aid, transatlantic relations, dealing with Russia, migration, and enlargement. Moreover, they are none too keen on European integration, and especially keen to prevent any incursions of supranationalism into military and defence matters.

It is true that many European populist parties are neither committed to withdrawal nor keen to mention Brexit, since it has become a by-word for political crisis on the continent. But this does not mean they are not closely watching the UK example to see what the outcome is, nor that they have any more love for the EU. The re-politicisation of foreign policy in Europe is a recent phenomenon, of which Brexit is but one manifestation, and it may well impose important strictures in the years to come on EU security and defence initiatives.

Calibrating capabilities and expectations

Is Brexit a golden opportunity for EU security and defence initiatives? Maybe. But we will only know for sure when the initiatives of 2016-18 are better developed than they are now, and their success will depend on the EU overcoming not only pre-existing limitations to successful collaboration in this area but also a host of new challenges introduced by the Brexit vote, including gaps in capabilities and growing the increasing politicisation.

This is not to undermine the importance of these initiatives, simply to caution against overblown rhetoric, to which the Brexit moment appears to lend itself. As Monika Sus and I claim in an upcoming article, if political rhetoric about the EU becoming a serious security and defence actor is not reined in by the realities of the task ahead then there is a real risk that the capabilities-expectations gap identified in the 1990s will be re-opened. The damage to the EU’s credibility in this case would be significant.