At the time of writing this viewpoint only two weeks remain before the United Kingdom is officially due to leave the European Union. There is still no clarity as to how, when or even if departure will take place. The resulting political crisis speaks volumes about the inadequacy of Britain’s political class to deal with the challenges that confront them. With the country’s two main parliamentary parties seemingly vying to trump each other’s dysfunctional behaviour, Brexit has become the ‘Project Chaos’ of the UK’s governing elite.
Whatever the ultimate outcome of the current crisis, what is clear is that the aftermath of the UK’s Brexit vote is already having significant consequences for European security and defence. From a domestic, British, perspective, the country’s previous leading position in Europe’s security architecture is being weakened, perhaps irreversibly so. The UK has become seen as a less reliable partner and this is impacting collaboration with allies. For example, the ambitious objectives for strengthened Anglo-French defence cooperation heralded by the 2010 Lancaster House Treaties have been increasingly overtaken by events. Britain’s exclusion from European security projects, most notably the encrypted elements of the Galileo satellite programme, will further reduce its influence over time.
The UK is attempting to counter these negative consequences by talking up its worldwide military potential as part of the post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ vision. In February 2019, British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson majored on this theme in a speech entitled ‘Defence in Global Britain’ given to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Stating that the UK “must be prepared to compete for our interests and our values far, far from home”, he announced a range of initiatives. They included the creation of two new littoral strike groups, one to be permanently deployed East of Suez. The establishment of new bases in the Caribbean and the Asia-Pacific region is also being investigated. Ironically, the unanswered question remains whether the British Armed Forces can be provided with the financial resources needed to achieve these ambitions given the economic headwinds produced by Brexit uncertainties.
From a European perspective, the new political backdrop will be seen by some as an opportunity but by others as a threat. For federalists, the removal of the UK’s restraining hand could facilitate a welcome acceleration of moves to develop a true European military. A strengthened Franco-German alliance is likely to be central to this process. This is evidenced by the signature of the Aachen Treaty on 22 January 2019. Although a bilateral document, the agreement has a significant emphasis on developing joint military capabilities to bolster Europe’s ability to act autonomously. Subsequently, influential German Christian Democratic Union leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has proposed a “symbolic project” to build a common European aircraft carrier. It remains to be seen whether the upgraded partnership can overcome fundamental differences in French and German approaches to defence strategy and spending.
Whatever the outcome, the prospect of a closer Franco-German alliance dominating Europe’s political and military trajectory is unlikely to receive a universal welcome across the continent. The two partners’ flagship project is for the new Future Combat Air System. This will replace the existing EUROFIGHTER and RAFALE jets in the 2040s. French and German dominance of the programme has already drawn the ire of the Italian aerospace sector, which sees its own industrial capabilities being marginalised as a result. For other European countries – notably those to the east – the litmus test of further EU defence integration will be its impact on the stability of the NATO alliance, the final guarantor of their security against a resurgent Russia. The potential loss of the UK’s role as an arbiter in EU and NATO relations will be a concern.
Brexit uncertainty comes at a time when European security faces a multitude of challenges. The hazards posed by, for example, mass migration, terrorism, Russian adventurism and US neo-isolationism are diverse in nature. However, all require a considered and well-resourced response. The United Kingdom has brought considerable know-how and capabilities to the EU’s efforts to combat these threats and gained much in return. Whatever the outcome of Brexit machinations, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the security of both the UK and the rest of the Europe has been damaged by the Brexit debate.