The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union will have an impact on the way European countries organize their defense policies. The bloc has traditionally managed its defense through a variety of channels – individually on the level of member states, in the EU and through NATO. Brexit will alter the interplay among these three formats and will likely cause greater fragmentation in European defense, thus increasing the risk of a weaker political and military capacity of the Europeans to act. Although Brexit is not very likely to damage Europe’s single set of forces – the sum of all military forces in Europe – Europe’s political capacity will probably suffer from the poisoned atmosphere and the uncertainty about Europe’s future in the light of Brexit negotiations.
The main challenge for both sides – the UK and the EU – will be to think about the very meaning of European defense. The existing third-party agreement – the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) – which has more than 40 non-EU beneficiaries, offers a starting point for future UK contributions. It allows non-members to join EU operations but does not give them much, if any, space for their own vision, strategy and design. Therefore, in case of the UK, it may be worth thinking about giving London a special position and involve the country in planning processes earlier in order to provide incentives for Britain’s contributions.
Non-EU countries also have the option to participate in the European Defense Agency (EDA) and a regular EU-UK dialogue could produce common ground on operations, capability cooperation, and industrial collaboration of their mutual interest. NATO would welcome a healthy and well-functioning EU-UK relationship since it would facilitate and simplify the implementation of the 2016 EU-NATO Joint Declaration.
The next main step is obviously to rethink European defense itself. Most Europeans connect the solutions to their security problems to institutions, mainly the EU and NATO. Yet, both have limitations. NATO has always been and remains to be a military alliance. Non-military threats largely remain on the EU’s agenda. The CSDP contributed to the continent’s security but the main tools and instruments sit with the Commission and member states. Therefore, it is misleading to ask which institutions will organize European defense.
The key questions are how Europeans can ensure effective defense and identify the needed capabilities to protect populations, states, and borders. The significance of institutions draws on the bundling of forces and ideas and fostering agreements wherever necessary. In contrast, the individual states’ role is to ensure the coordination between the various formats and offer political leadership.
‘European Defence in View of Brexit’ – Commentary by Claudia Major and Alicia von Voss – Stiftung Wissenshaft und Politik (SWP).
(The Commentary can be downloaded here)