DExEU’s paper on post-Brexit UK-EU security and defence cooperation: a question of influence

September 16, 2017

This initial paper’s positive tone and generous approach will help improve the “mood music” around the Brexit negotiations. But eventually Britain will have to start answering the big strategic questions as well.

On Tuesday, the Government published its first position paper dedicated to the future partnership between Britain and the EU on foreign policy, defence and development matters. The document is intended to serve as an initial sketch of Britain’s vision for what it calls a new “deep and special” post-Brexit partnership with the EU27 on security in the broadest sense. It will be followed by other publications in this area in the weeks and months to come, so it is possible that some of the obvious gaps and indeterminate language seen in this “opener” will eventually make way for more substantive proposals.

As a “tone-setter”, the paper strikes the right notes – in the context of the Brexit negotiations – even if precious little in it is actually new as far as the Government’s intentions are concerned. Yet the importance of putting these intentions in writing is not to be discounted, especially since the last major UK Government document touching directly on defence and security in a Brexit context was the Article 50 letter issued in March. This was widely perceived in the EU as a signal that Britain was prepared to use its security contribution as a “bargaining chip” in the negotiations.

Tuesday’s document removes any such concerns, and reveals an “unconditional commitment” to maintaining European security. There is also an explicit assurance of UK support for a “secure and successful EU with global reach and influence”. Unless Brussels reciprocates these sentiments, such language on UK’s part brings a tint of unilateralism (in a good sense) to Britain’s positioning. This might strike some as an “over-correction” to the misunderstandings of March, but such positive unilateralism can be a useful negotiating tactic and could eventually become a central principle of Brexit – not least in the area of trade and tariffs.

In the meantime, as far as defence and security is concerned, there is a fine balance to strike between developing a genuinely-strategic vision for Britain’s post-EU future, and simply designing a package of commitments with an eye to the Brexit negotiations. The “national interest” certainly features in both cases, albeit in different forms; the trick is to reconcile them.

This can only be done by operating with reality – especially that of Britain’s exit from the EU – as it is, and will be, rather than as we would like it to be. One potential pitfall here is over differing interpretations of Britain’s status in the negotiations. The “official mind” in London quite reasonably tends to see the Brexit process largely as a matter of deciding what aspects to retain from its current role, as it “downgrades” its relationship with the EU from full membership to something else. This is a top-down approach. It is for this reason that the Government is steering clear of any “off-the-shelf” solutions and aiming for a special status, essentially a bespoke partnership; unlike countries like Norway which have never been EU members, Britain has.

In Brussels, however, the view appears to be different. In political terms, Britain is essentially seen as having forfeited its EU member status on 23 June 2016, so now the question is how it can “opt back in” to various elements of EU – including, in this case, different aspects of EU security mechanisms and institutions. In this bottom-up reading of the situation, which seems to drive the EU’s negotiating position, the UK is seen as the supplicant attempting to “upgrade” its future-non-member status and claw back influence in return for (continued) contributions in certain areas. This reflects the central quirk of these negotiations, which is that “the future is now” – literally.

All this brings us back to the issue of operating with reality, and it goes to the heart of what Britain hopes to achieve. This position paper conveys an evident – bordering on anxious – aspiration to remain a leading player in Europe. With the first 17 pages of the 21-page document offering an impressive summary of the manifold ways in which Britain currently supports, contributes and even leads on non-NATO European security issues, the message is clear: the EU cannot afford to “lose” Britain’s input. So as long as the UK essentially offers to maintain the status quo as far as its contributions are concerned – and even offering extra things on top, such as a new “classified information exchange” arrangement – there seems to be an expectation that British status and influence will likewise be conserved to an important degree, as they should. (Although it should be noted that the EU itself is evolving while we are negotiating with it, so the notion of a “status quo” must be qualified.)

The paper’s paragraph 72, dealing with the salient issue of future UK contributions to CSDP missions, is revealing of this logic. It notes that

With this deep level of cooperation, the UK could work with the EU during mandate development and detailed operational planning. The level of UK involvement in the planning process should be reflective of the UK’s contribution.

How likely is it that Britain, as a non-member, will be given a decisive say in shaping future EU military operations – especially once certain key capabilities, which now only UK can provide, will eventually be developed within the EU, and considering the sensitive politics around EU defence integration? The potential problem here – reflecting a general issue with Brexit – is one of over-estimating the readiness of other EU partners to accept returning (as they see it) a measure of power and influence to the UK, particularly in exchange for British commitments which have now been made “unconditionally”. Too often the challenge of shaping UK’s future relationship with the EU is seen strictly through a technical prism, with the fundamental questions of power and influence left out, when in fact it is the latter which are the key drivers of the Brexit process.

Taking a wider view, some will wonder what this new paper means for NATO, particularly whether it will encourage the emergence of some version of an “EU Army” that could rival the transatlantic pact and eventually weaken the Western alliance overall. Another concern might be that further “entanglements” with the EU on security matters will limit UK’s strategic freedom just when it is needed most, thus defeating an important point of Brexit.

Both of these interpretations would likely read too much into what is, after all, a quasi-exploratory paper. One hard truth of Brexit is that now-on Britain will have no real control over how EU “defence integration” will evolve; the longstanding policy of opposing an “EU Army” is hors de combat irrespective of the final “Brexit deal”. As to the prospect of “entanglements”, they involve continued cooperation on things like sanctions policy, counter-terrorism, stability and development programmes, or cybersecurity. There is little or nothing to be gained, in security terms, by withholding cooperation in these areas. Furthermore, these issues are separate from defence proper and fall outside NATO’s core remit; the EU mechanisms developed (with British help) to deal with them generally complement the transatlantic alliance, which the document explicitly acknowledges as “the cornerstone of our security”.

Nonetheless, there is one aspect where caution should be advised, especially in the next stages of the Brexit negotiations. Insisting too much on a “deep and special” relationship with the EU, particularly in the security field, can indeed create misunderstandings with respect to UK’s truly special relationship – that with US, which links into NATO. Some might mistakenly believe that it is time for a real change in emphasis, and could interpret certain phrases as an opening in that regard. This is not yet a problem, however. Nuances matter, but so does the context, and a certain flexibility in diplomatic language should be understandable in pursuit of a political settlement on Brexit that is as smooth as possible and benefits everyone.

An inescapable reality is that Brexit terminates UK’s legal obligations towards the EU, including on security and defence, even if moral obligations, as well as the British national interest in the security of Europe remain intact. As the EU moves forward with its plans to develop new solutions of its own in this area, it is worth reflecting more intently on how to ensure British influence on the continent over the next years and decades. More of “the same” might not be the best answer, not least because “the same” will not exist for much longer as far as EU’s own security arrangements are concerned. Perhaps this is a moment for a broader, more comprehensive UK-led vision for continental defence and security.

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