A quantum solace - defence in Brexit negotiations

Opinion piece (Berlin Policy Journal)
Sophia Besch
01 March 2017

The UK's exit negotiations with the EU have not yet officially begun, but it is already becoming clear that no policy area will remain unaffected by the breach between the EU and Great Britain - not even security and defence policy cooperation.

In fact, Prime Minister Theresa May considers British contributions to European security one of her strongest ‘cards’ in the Brexit negotiations – but she is walking a tightrope between fostering goodwill in Europe and alienating Europeans by issuing hollow threats. For their part, many European governments are too quick to dismiss British security capabilities, prioritising principles over pragmatism instead of looking for ways to keep Britain close.

The UK is one of only two credible military powers in Europe, and has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. London commands over extremely effective intelligence services with substantial skill and know-how in the fight against terrorism and organised crime. And while the British military has been subjected to budget cuts in recent years, the global outlook of the British, their diplomatic network and the professionalism and training of their military personnel all contribute to European security.

How could the UK use its defence and security capabilities to win a favourable Brexit deal from the EU? Crude blackmail would not work and thankfully seems unlikely in any case. It is true that some Brexiteers are asking, in private and in public, why British troops should risk their lives for EU member-states that want to impose a ‘punitive’ Brexit deal. But Theresa May knows that any open threat to, for example, withdraw troops from NATO rotations in Central and Eastern Europe if the Baltics block a tariff-free trade agreement between Britain and the EU27, would not just be unhelpful, but would also lack credibility.

Britain, unlike Donald Trump, knows that the value of collective defence and security is greater than the sum of its parts. During the EU referendum campaigns, ‘Brexiters’ and ‘Remainers’ alike stressed the enduring value of NATO as the bedrock of British security.

And the UK Government has a continuing interest in investing time and resources in Europe’s defence not only to protect its own national interests, but also to generate goodwill abroad as Brexit negotiations unfold and demonstrate to other allies (not least the US) Britain’s enduring or – as Brexiteers argue – re-energised ambition to be a global player. Almost immediately after the Brexit vote, Britain signalled its continuing international engagement at the Warsaw Summit, when it announced the deployment of 650 British troops to Estonia and Poland as part of a new deterrent force on NATO’s eastern flank.

Still, the UK government is well aware of the value of its military capabilities. In her "Brexit speech" at Lancaster House in January, Theresa May said she was optimistic that the Britain and the EU would come to “the right agreement”, because the EU needed the UK as a partner in matters of security and defence. She stressed that Britain had led Europe “on the measures needed to keep our continent secure”, on implementing sanctions against Russia, working for peace and stability in the Balkans, and securing Europe's external border. She reminded all EU countries that British intelligence services were "unique in Europe" and had saved countless lives, thwarting “very many terrorist plots” in countries across Europe.

May is right: the EU needs the UK’s capabilities - and the election of Donald Trump has the potential to further strengthen the British negotiating position. Notwithstanding recent attempts by General Mattis and others to reassure European allies: Trump’s "America First" nationalism and his scepticism of multilateral organizations calls into question the American security guarantees that Europe has been relying on for decades.

May wants to leverage the UK’s ‘special relationship’ with the United States in conversations with other European leaders, by offering to act as a ‘bridge’ between the US and the EU. On a visit to D.C. she has managed to wrest a commitment to NATO from Donald Trump, whereas in Brussels she has conveyed Trump’s message that Europeans need to invest more in defence spending through NATO.

Most EU leaders agree with the May’s message, but disapprove of the messenger: they know that the Trump administration’s erratic approach to Europe and NATO is a real concern, but they find it difficult to accept that the EU needs the help of May and her Brexit government. They want to spend more money on defence for the EU’s sake, not

because Trump or May ask them to. To make her offer more acceptable to Europeans, May should coordinate her next meeting with Trump with other EU leaders.

With its embrace of the Trump administration, the UK government is attempting a difficult balancing act: Britain will appear more alien to the EU-27 the more it fails to criticise Trump on his most egregious policies.2 But if Britain uses its 'special relationship' to promote European security and the crucial role the EU has played in consolidating a troublesome continent, it can earn European goodwill for the upcoming negotiations.

Trump’s election, and, more importantly, Europe’s unstable neighbourhoods to the east and the south have spurred EU leaders to boost their support for European defence. France and Germany in particular have thrown their political weight behind a reform of the Union’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). Here lies a potential European vulnerability during Brexit negotiations: as long as the UK is still officially a member of the European Union, London also retains its veto on EU defence policy initiatives that require unanimity. For now, it seems unlikely that the UK would block the CSDP ambitions of the EU27,: the British administration is aware of how badly the EU would take such obstructionist behaviour.

But Many Britons are worried about the potential of EU defence policy duplicating and undermining NATO. In the months before the EU referendum, the old bogeyman of the EU army became a favoured trope of Brexit campaigners. If over the course of Brexit negotiations, the mood worsens significantly between the UK and the EU27, these concerns could take centre-stage once more, and May’s government could find itself pressured to put a hold to EU defence initiatives.

Britain could disrupt the EU’s defence initiatives, but it would not be in its long-term interest to do so: once the UK’s exit has been negotiated, London will want to agree some form of association agreement on EU defence. The less obstructive Britain is now, the more it can ask for voting and operational planning privileges in the future.

Turning its contributions to the European security architecture into a bargaining chip, London risks undermining European goodwill. Playing the 'security card' as an open threat would backfire, as it would be considered an assault on a core common interest and European values. Instead, London should make clearer how it aims to contribute to European security, prosperity and stability once it has left the EU.

However, it is not just Britain that needs cordial post-Brexit relations. Some EU governments would be well advised to take a more pragmatic stance on security and defence policy cooperation with the UK. The EU's negotiating strategy is currently guided by one basic principle: Britain cannot be better off outside the EU than as a member. This is aimed at undermining Eurosceptic movements in other member-states. Following this rationale, many EU member-states are quick to dismiss ‘privileged’ association formats for the UK post Brexit, for example on CSDP operational planning or on European Defence Agency projects.

But Europe cannot afford to lose British capabilities at a time when the European security situation has deteriorated significantly. Close cooperation between Britain and the EU in the area of security and defence, guided strictly by shared interests, would be a good thing for both sides.

Sophia Besch is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.