The referendum to leave the EU has created a situation of high uncertainty. In such a situation, policy-makers and pundits alike tend to work with a set of assumptions to make the uncertainty more manageable.
The area of security and defence has been seen as one of the least controversial issues during the Brexit process. But even in this area assumptions have been important. The question is: have the major assumptions matched the reality that has evolved during the last three years?
Assumption 1: The UK is one of the two most capable security and defence actors in the EU. This will ensure a special partnership between the UK and the EU after Brexit
This assumption is reflected in particular in the British government’s decision to push for a special partnership in matters of security and defence in the early phases of the Brexit negotiations.
In this area, the government’s future partnership paper highlighted the UK’s unique contributions to European security and defence as well as the common interests between the UK and the EU. It did so to an extent that tested the tolerance of various Cabinet members to the very limit. In her speech in Florence in September 2017, Theresa May even proposed a broad UK-EU security treaty.
At the same time, the government refrained from playing the ‘security card’ – the ploy of using the UK’s ability to make major contributions to European security and defence as a bargaining chip in the Brexit negotiations. Security and defence was seen as a special, separate area.
The reality is, however, that this approach has largely failed. While some EU member states might cherish British security and defence capabilities, the EU as a whole was keen to prevent any kind of third-party meddling in its internal decision making through the backdoor of a special status for the UK in security and defence matters. The remaining EU member states concluded that the cooperation between them only works in the long-term if non-members can’t have their cake and eat it too.
Although both the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration show that the EU is open to having a close security and defence partnership with the UK after Brexit, the UK has been confronted in the last three years with the stark reality of becoming a non-EU member. The most prominent example so far has been the UK’s participation in the EU’s Galileo satellite navigation system.
So, the only real option for a future UK-EU security and defence partnership is to re-build it from scratch after Brexit.
Assumption 2: The UK is one of the most reluctant supporters of EU defence integration. Thus, Brexit will facilitate increasing defence cooperation in the EU
As a major RAND report highlighted in early 2017, ‘Brexit offers an opportunity and potential catalyst for increased defence integration, with many experts ascribing slow progress to date in this field on the UK’s veto’. In the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum, the threat of a British veto against closer EU defence cooperation seemed to confirm this assumption.
At the same time, the EU has advanced rapidly with major defence integration projects since the 2016 Brexit referendum. Only five days after the referendum, the EU adopted the Global Strategy, its most important strategic document in more than a decade.
2017 saw the launch of major military integration projects, including the Military Planning and Conduct Capability (a type of operational headquarter), the Permanent Structured Cooperation or PESCO (a flexible integration mechanism), the Co-ordinated Annual Review on Defence and, perhaps most importantly, the European Defence Fund.
In reality, however, these projects are neither a result of Brexit nor do they show that EU defence integration has become easier with Brexit. Although they were activated after Brexit, their origin lies in developments well before anyone spoke even about Brexit. PESCO, for instance, was established by the 2009 Lisbon Treaty.
Admittedly, progress so far has been steady and in a few cases substantial, especially in the case of the European Defence Fund, a financing tool for defence-related research projects. However, none of the current EU defence integration projects can guarantee in any way that the EU turns into a ‘strategically autonomous’ actor in the foreseeable future.
The EU has a track record of being good at establishing processes but not necessarily at producing strategic outcomes, especially in the defence field. Like many other initiatives before, the current projects might remain just that: acronyms in an alphabet soup.
The fact that 25 member states participate in PESCO – presumably a flexible mechanism for a small number of member states to advance more quickly with defence integration projects – doesn’t bode well for PESCO’s future; nor does the fact that PESCO has a de facto competition outside the formal EU framework in the form of the French-led European Intervention Initiative.
Assumption 3: The most important European defence organization is NATO. Therefore, Brexit hardly affects European defence
As Boris Johnson highlighted during the referendum campaign, it was ‘the NATO guarantee that has really underpinned peace in Europe’. Since the referendum, nothing has occurred that would question the role of NATO as both the UK’s and Europe’s premier defence organization, at least in the narrow sense of territorial defence.
Coincidentally, it was right after the Brexit referendum that NATO decided to deploy its ‘enhanced forward presence’ to eastern and south-eastern Europe – arguably the Alliance’s most important military deployment in recent years. The UK has also retained its traditional leadership role in NATO in the form of the Alliance’s Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe. Most importantly perhaps, NATO has shown to be resilient enough to survive the criticism and scepticism by President Trump.
So, the mantra that ‘we’ll always have NATO’ still holds. However, NATO is only a military organization. So, unsurprisingly the reality has also shown that NATO hardly deals with any of the contemporary non-military security issues, including Iran, domestic terrorism or transnational crime, to name just a few.
Reflecting upon European security and defence since the Brexit referendum shows that it has become necessary to adapt widely held assumptions to the realities of the last three years. Although assumptions are an important tool to cope with uncertainty, they cannot eschew reality – even less so once Brexit really happens.