Why ‘defence’ does not serve as a suitable argument in the Brexit debate


Only one month remains until British voters can decide if the UK should leave or stay in the EU. Naturally, the debate about the benefits and disadvantages of British membership in the EU is heating up. Almost each day, the supporters of ‘Brexit’ and ‘Bremain’ vie with each other for the best punch line in the national media. Whereas most of the original debate centred on economic issues, the discussion covers now virtually every single imaginable policy field. Defence – or better military cooperation in the EU – has become one of them. Both the ‘leave-’ and ‘in-campaign’ have come up with terrifying visions should the UK either leave or stay in the EU. Vote Leave claims that ‘A vote to remain in the EU is a vote to keep giving the EU more and more power over our military and defence.’ In contrast, Britain Stronger in Europe argues that ‘If we left, the UK would lose its veto and its influence over EU policy [in the area of defence]’. Both campaigns have also been able to muster the support from some of the UK’s most senior military leaders. Major General Julian Thompson, the British land commander during the Falkland War, expounded his views in The Sun: ‘I find it quite extraordinary that they are trying to set up a separate defence organisation. It makes us less safe. It muddies the water.’ Yet, his comrade Colonel Angus Loudon MBE comes to a very different conclusion in The Telegraph: ‘Only by remaining and leading European defence co-operation can we protect ourselves from the threats and instabilities we may face in the future.’ So, the question is: who is right? The short answer is: none of them. Defence, in the narrow military sense, is simply not an issue on which leaving or staying in the EU will have major repercussions for the UK. After all, the EU is not, by and large, a defence organization.

To be sure, the EU has a defence policy in the form of the so-called Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). However, it is not a widely developed policy field. The notion of a common defence policy dates back only to 1998, with the European Security and Defence Policy. Interestingly, it was actually an Anglo-French bilateral document, the so-called St Malo Declaration, that kick-started EU defence cooperation. In this Declaration, the governments of the EU’s two most powerful military actors agreed that ‘the Union must have the capacity for autonomous action, backed up by credible military forces, the means to use them, and a readiness to do so, in order to respond to international crises.’ However, the British and French governments did not agree on the reasons behind this initiative. While the British thought it would strengthen the European pillar in NATO, the French saw it as a way to become independent of the United States in military affairs. Be that as it may, in the following years EU member states have adopted a number of ambitious ‘headline goals’ to implement the new-born European and –since the entry into force of the 2009 Lisbon Treaty – Common Security and Defence Policy. Yet, these goals have never been met. This does not mean that the CSDP has ceased to exist. On the contrary, the EU has implemented over thirty CSDP missions all around the world. There have been even missions with real military teeth, in particular the anti-piracy operation off the Somali coast, but the majority of them were rather civilian than military missions. So, in many respects, the EU has remained a military dwarf.

What does this mean for the Brexit vs. Bremain debate? The low level of defence cooperation in the EU leads to a rather paradoxical situation for both camps.

On the one hand, the supporters of Brexit can argue – quite convincingly – that leaving the EU would not have major repercussions in the defence field. Institutional integration is almost non-existent. For instance, there is no permanent EU military headquarters. So, the institutional disentanglement could be almost done overnight. On the other hand, EU defence cooperation looks in many respects like the type of cooperation that the Brexit supporters want for the whole of the EU: It is almost purely intergovernmental, each member state has a de facto veto power on all decisions, most financial contributions are paid for by the member states on a voluntary basis, and the European Court of Justice (as opposed to the European Court of Human Rights, which is not an EU institution) has virtually no power. And this creates two problems for the Brexit arguments: First, defence does not appear to be a particularly good reason for leaving the EU; second, if the rest of the EU would be run like defence cooperation, does this mean that new forms of cooperation in Europe would be as ineffective in all other areas as it is in defence?

At the same time, defence is also a double-edged sword for the supporters of Bremain. On the one hand, they can point out that Britain remains fully in control of defence cooperation, i.e. nothing can be done against her will. Furthermore, while there are only few positive outcomes of CSDP missions, in particular off the Somali coast, there have been no missions with clearly negative outcomes. Yet, on the other hand, the supporters of Bremain cannot point to any major example that could show that Britain really needs to be in the EU for defence purposes. In fact, the UK could still cooperate with her European partners in defence matters even from outside the formal EU structures – and she might be even more eager to do so, as the example of France leaving the military structures of NATO shows.

At the end of the day, the bottom line is: in narrow military terms, staying in the EU does not make the UK a safer place – but neither does leaving the EU! Especially in the short- and medium term the Brexit referendum will not have major defence implications for the UK (though it might have for the EU). NATO is and will be Europe’s main organization for defence cooperation. In particular nuclear deterrence is dealt with exclusively in the NATO framework. National security in a broader sense is, of course, a very different matter. International terrorism, the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, or transnational criminal networks, are very different types of threats to the UK and cannot be compared to defence cooperation in a strict military sense. In fact, they might be very good reasons to vote on 23 June. But military defence in a strict sense is not one of them.

Image: NATO forces practice amphibious assault near Ustka, northern Poland, on 17 June 2015, via NATO image library.

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