Brexit has given an impetus to reshape Europe’s foreign, security and defence policies


This post originally appeared on the LSE’s Brexit Blog – a multidisciplinary, evidence-based blog run by the London School of Economics and Political Science. Follow the LSE’s Brexit blog on Twitter @lsebrexitvote

Foreign policy, security or defence are traditionally considered matters of ‘high politics’, i.e. areas over which governments are particularly keen to maintain control. In the context of European integration, however, the heads of state and governments of EU member states have agreed on a rather wide range of political and legal instruments to facilitate coordination and cooperation in these bastions of national sovereignty. Despite the comparatively low degree of institutionalisation which characterises these policy realms, and even though national governments have demonstrated time and again that they find it difficult to give up the driver’s seat when it comes to strategic foreign policy decisions, numerous initiatives have demonstrated that EU member states frequently do see an added value in a joint approach to international politics.

While a rather large body of academic literature has analysed the preconditions for and various forms of cooperation in foreign, security or defence policies in Europe, Brexit has given new impetus to such enquiries and shifted attention to the relevant frameworks, including the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) and Permanent Structured Cooperation. As the literature on these and other foreign, security and defense-related aspects is rather vast, Dr. Benjamin Kienzle and Dr. Inez von Weitershausen created an online compendium to provide researchers and practitioners with an overview of academic publications. Focusing on six key areas, namely

  • strategy,
  • policy-making,
  • British contributions to EU policies,
  • Europeanisation,
  • EU-NATO relations, and
  • developments that occur in the context of Brexit,

the Reader is designed to enable an informed and fact-based discussion about the potential and anticipated consequences of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union in the area of security and defence. 

Key Findings

Strategy-related work discusses to what extent the EU as a whole possesses a ‘grand strategy’ and in how far the convergence of national strategic thinking has allowed for the emergence of a common European strategic culture. As the majority of studies conclude that there is some degree of convergence, but only few argue that there exists a strategic culture that is shared across member states as such, the question arises whether in strategic terms the UK is closer to other actors and how this will be reflected in its policy priorities post Brexit. Yet, in general terms, the literature on strategy reveals fairly little interaction between British and EU strategic thinking, in terms of both the existence and analysis of the various strategic approaches to foreign, security and defence policy.

Concerning policy-making, the Reader reveals that while there is widespread agreement in the literature that the UK, together with France and Germany, has played a key role in the making of European foreign, security, and defence policies, systemic analyses on the role of each of these EU member states individually remain relatively scarce. Rather, key debates in the literature focus on how power influences cooperation among the ‘Big Three’, the roles of institutions in the policy-making process, and the development of informal norms and rules. As the literature furthermore suggests, the multi-layered and often cumbersome policy-making process in the EU could become even more complex as an important external voice is added to the existing decision-making process after Brexit. Finally, insights into the central role of informal policy-making arrangements suggest that once the UK leaves the formal structures of the EU after Brexit, these less-apparent efforts to divide labour and achieve sustainable outcomes could indeed remain a crucial feature of foreign, security, and defence cooperation in Europe and even grow in importance over time.

The Reader also sheds light on the UK’s contributions to EU policies in terms of political support and capabilities, showing that parts of the literature suggest that Britain has been of considerable value for EU foreign, security, and defence cooperation. Stressing London’s support for the enlargement of the EU, initiatives to bring Europe closer to NATO, and attempts to further the development of the Common Security and Defence Policy, often in cooperation with France, these accounts contrast, however, with insights regarding the UK’s minimal or even negative influence on the CSDP and the CFSP more broadly. In particular British attempts to block permanent military structures in the EU are used as a prime example in this regard. Meanwhile, a major gap in the literature on British contributions is identified with regard to the lack of systematic analyses of capabilities in terms of personnel, military hardware, logistics or intelligence – a fact which arguably reflects the low degree of European cooperation in this area.

A review of the phenomenon of Europeanisation reveals that the penetration of British systems of governance through the dual processes of ‘uploading’ and ‘downloading’ has been addressed in numerous ways. While some scholars stress the converging policy contents as well as institutional changes which are meant to increase the UK’s relationship with and its influence in the EU, others underline that Whitehall has maintained an overall sceptical attitude and sought to resist the influence of EU foreign, security, defence policies on UK positions and activities. Among the reasons suggested for the apprehension of parts of Britain’s foreign policy elites are geopolitical considerations, institutional blockages, and the Euroscepticsm that characterises in particular the older population. Against this background, whether and how Europeanisation will continue after Brexit is questionable, as the tools, forums, and mechanisms which so far have been crucial are likely to undergo a number of changes once the UK is no longer a regular member of the EU.

In terms of EU-NATO cooperation, the literature analysed in the Reader suggests that, in line with its self-perception as a ‘transatlantic bridge’, the UK has traditionally been one of the staunchest supporters of a close relationship with NATO, whereas other member states pushed envisioned the EU as the primary actor in providing military security in Europe. Moreover, the scholarly literature has underlined the successful cooperation between NATO and EU institutions within the C/ESDP framework, highlighting in particular the 2002 ‘Berlin Plus agreements’[1], and relations at the political and strategic level. Despite these cooperation and coordination mechanisms, some authors see the relationship between between the EU and NATO mainly in terms of competition. These voices tend to stress that C/ESDP and NATO cover the same political areas and compete for political space, influence, and resources.  As the literature furthermore suggests that there is still a subliminal conflict between ‘Atlanticist’ countries, which give preference to NATO and transatlantic relations, and ‘Europeanist’ countries, which prefer an independent EU as a European security actor, a future key question is if Brexit will strengthen the coordination or the competition between NATO and the EU.

As consensus on the security and defence implications of Brexit has yet to emerge, many relevant peer-reviewed journals have not yet published research articles on the topic. Exceptions include journals with a clear policy focus such as International AffairsSurvival, and the RUSI Journal. These articles either argue that Brexit will not have major negative security and defence repercussions, especially in the short term, or they express scepticism about any net security benefit for either Britain or the EU after Brexit. A number of studies have also developed scenarios and possible steps forward. Contextualising recent developments, they tend to share the assumption that continued cooperation between the UK, the EU and specific member states is the best way to preserve both national and European interests. Overall, however, this kind of literature is still in its infancy and it is difficult to predict how it will develop during the next couple of months and years.

In general, the Reader finds that the academic literature does not offer a coherent picture of the UK’s relationship with and contribution to the EU, and therefore does not allow for straight-forward responses regarding the security and defence implications of Brexit. At the same time, it appears, however, that informal groups and decision-making processes, the intricate relationship between NATO, the EU, and their member states, and the future of transatlantic relations will emerge as particularly interesting avenues for future research.

Image: An author talks to soldiers at CatterickContains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.

2017 – the Year of the Royal Navy: time to get real?

Professor Andrew M Dorman and Professor Matthew R H Uttley

Centre for British Defence and Security Studies

As we entered 2017 the Ministry of Defence earmarked 2017 as the ‘year of the Royal Navy (RN)’. In the press release that accompanied the announcement key milestones for 2017 were highlighted, including the new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth leaving Rosyth and commencing sea trials, the launch of her sister ship HMS Prince of Wales and the fourth Astute-class SSN, the arrival in the UK of the first of four new Tide-class tankers and the opening of the first permanent RN base East of Suez in more than half a century.

This built on the government’s 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review (NSS/SDSR pp.30-1). As part of Joint Force 2025, the RN would continue to maintain the continuous at sea deterrent with four new nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines. The NSS/SDSR also pledged to bring into service both of the large aircraft carriers currently under construction in order to have ‘one available at all times’. The government also promised to bring forward the purchase of F-35B Lightning II aircraft so that there would be 24 aircraft available by 2023. Looking further ahead, the 2015 review committed the government to buy three new logistic ships to support the fleet, in addition to the four tankers that were due to have entered service from 2016. The government also confirmed that a fleet of 19 destroyers and frigates would be maintained with the hope that ‘by the 2030s we can further increase the total number of frigates and destroyers’ (NSS/SDSR pp.30-1).

Since then, the Defence Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, has confirmed ‘… that the expansion of the Royal Navy is fully funded’ (Oral Questions on defence 30 January 2017). Yet, behind this rosy façade, however, is a somewhat different picture. In the second half of 2016 the financial pressure on the RN’s budget had become evident. Over the summer, technical problems with the Type 45 destroyer’s power plant emerged leading to all the ships being temporarily moored alongside. In November 2016, it emerged that the Harpoon anti-ship missile would leave service in 2018 without a replacement in the near term rendering RN ships reliant on their deck guns until the Wildcat helicopters are equipped with an air to surface missile. Since Christmas the government has been plagued by revelations concerning the test of one of its Trident missiles last June.

Looking behind the veneer of the 2015 NSS/SDSR a whole series of other cutbacks are evident. The Landing Pad Helicopter (LPH) HMS Ocean is scheduled to leave service in 2018 without replacement. Instead, the second aircraft carrier will be equipped with some amphibious capability. The obvious question this raises is what happens if HMS Prince of Wales is fulfilling the strike carrier role and the government needs both a strike carrier and LPH? The pledge to bring forward the acquisition of the planned 138 F-35Bs so that 24 frontline aircraft would be available from 2023 sounds like a positive development for the RN. However, with each carrier capable of carrying 36 F-35Bs in the strike role, the planned frontline of 24 F-35Bs by 2023 leaves the UK dependent on the US Marine Corps to fill the deficit. Moreover, sustaining the planned Maritime Task Group will be hampered by delays in the delivery of the four new tankers and the continuing absence of an order for the promised three stores ships.

At the same time, the RN is beset with personnel challenges as the most recent personnel statistics have shown with shortages in a number of specialist areas(MoD 2017). As a consequence, the MoD has acknowledged that one of its frigates, HMS Lancaster, was being effectively mothballed pending a refit later this year. Similarly, as the LPD HMS Albion is brought out of reserve and refit her sister ship will be put into reserve ahead of a forthcoming refit. These factors suggest that the uplift of 400 in personnel numbers announced by the 2015 NSS/SDSR is insufficient to allow the RN to crew its existing ships, let alone ensure that one of the new aircraft carriers is always available. As a result, there are rumours that Royal marine numbers will be cut to free up posts for the dark blue element of the navy.

Personnel shortages only partially explain the decision not to restore the amphibious brigade capability taken as a cut in the 2015 review despite the growing fears expressed about Russia and the need to support the UK’s NATO partners. Instead, much of the amphibious capability is fulfilling other tasks in place of other ships. Thus, HMS Ocean is currently acting as the command ship for the US/UK deployment to the Gulf. At the same time, the RN has struggled to commit ships to the various NATO standing forces and some of its tasking is being gapped. Put simply, the RN appears simply too small for its mandated tasks but the government remains unwilling to acknowledge or address this.

One might be forgiven for holding out for the longer term. Before Christmas, Sir John Parker published his report designed to influence the forthcoming ‘National Shipbuilding Strategy’, which called for major changes and investment in the UK’s naval shipbuilding industry. Many of the recommendations appear sound, including gearing the new Type 31 frigate for export and seeking to break BAE Systems’ monopoly of the construction of major warships. Such recommendations are, however, strangely familiar: both the Type 23 frigate which the Type 31 will partially replace and the Upholder class of conventionally powered submarines were originally designed with the export market in mind in the 1980s. It is noteworthy that no foreign sales were achieved and the Upholders and three of the Type 23s were ultimately sold-second hand to Canada and Chile respectively. Moreover, if the government truly wants to implement a viable long-term national shipbuilding strategy, then it needs to bear in mind the life-cycle of its ships and how this will influence the RN’s force size. For example, a RAND study of the UK’s nuclear submarine industrial base concluded that to maintain the industry’s capacity a submarine needed to be ordered every two years (Schank 2005). If one assumes an average lifespan of 30 years then the submarine force needs to comprise some 15 boats. Currently the force comprises just four SSBNs and seven SSNs with no planned future increases.

Moreover, lurking in the background are question marks over the wider affordability of the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) overall Equipment Plan between now and 2026. The most recent edition was published in January 2017 and the financial risks contained within were highlighted in the accompanying National Audit Office report. Four risks stand out. First, previous iterations of the Equipment Plan had contained significant amounts of uncommitted ‘contingency’ funding to cover unforeseen programme cost increases and new requirements. This reserve has been almost entirely allocated to new programmes with the result that there is little flexibility in the budget despite the MoD’s extensive previous experience of unforeseen programme overruns and cost increases. Second, one of the results of the Brexit referendum vote has been a fall in the value of Sterling against both the US Dollar and Euro. Whilst the MoD has taken some mitigation steps, the January NAO report highlights that these ‘hedges’ will be insufficient unless the value of Sterling starts to rise. In particular, the significant cost of existing equipment orders in US dollars from the US – including the Boeing P8A Apache AH-64E, F-35B and successor missile compartment tube programmes – means that further cuts to the MoD’s equipment programme are almost certain. Third, the affordability of the Equipment Plan is predicated on a shift of funds from other areas of the defence budget. The risk here is that MoD assumptions that personnel costs will rise below the rate of inflation, significant income can be generated from the sale of assets and major efficiency savings can be achieved might prove overly optimistic. Indeed, failure to achieve the requisite savings in any of these areas could derail defence budgeting assumptions and, by implication, the future viability of the MoD’s Equipment Plan. Finally, the budget is predicated on a 1% real terms increase in defence spending for each of the next ten years. Ironically a similarly optimistic outlook was ultimately the undoing of the ill-fated 1981 Nott Review.

These factors, together with concerns over whether the UK’s GDP will continue to grow in the post-Brexit era, raises serious doubts about whether 2017 will be the ‘year of the Royal Navy’ or the nadir before which financial chickens finally come home to roost.

Image: HMS Arc Royal, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Suggested further reading

‘2017 is the Year of the Navy’, Ministry of Defence Press Release, 1 January 2017,

‘An Independent Report to inform the UK National Shipbuilding Strategy’, Ministry of Defence, 29 November 2016,

Cabinet Office, ‘National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015: A Secure and Prosperous United Kingdom’, Cm.9,161, (London: TSO, 2016),

Ministry of Defence, ‘Royal Navy and Royal Marines Monthly Personnel Situation Report for 1 January 2017’, 9 February 2017,

National Audit Office, ‘Ministry of Defence – The Equipment Plan 2016 to 2026’, HC.914, session 2016-17, (London: TSO, 2017),

John F. Schank, Jessie Riposo, John Birkler, James Chiesa, ‘The United Kingdom’s Nuclear Submarine Industrial Base, Volume 1’, Sustaining Design and Production Resources RAND, 2005), file:///C:/Users/Andrew%20Dorman/Downloads/RAND_MG326.1.pdf