Why is Brexit Britain getting entangled in the EU’s defence structures?

Why is Brexit Britain getting entangled in the EU’s defence structures?

In the weeks after the release of the Chequers Plan, observers have revealed yet more reasons why it is a bad deal for our country.

One of the most troubling proposals for future entanglement is in defence policy, where Whitehall has made us more entangled since the Brexit vote and now the Cabinet Office’s Europe Unit aims to keep it all in place.

It’s an abstruse and unreported area of the negotiations, but the root problems expand outwards from the Prime Minister’s Munich Speech of February.

In that speech, the Prime Minister outlined a Europe Unit proposal known as the ‘Deep and Special Partnership’, a key part of which meant the UK would stay in the EU Commission’s new defence fund and its new defence industrial programme.

However, as you might expect, participation comes at a political cost – a non-EU ‘third country’, like the future UK, must align with the EU’s policy and directives. A third-country participant must also apply the European Defence Agency’s rules and benchmarks, take part in the EU Battlegroups and pay an annual subscription. In other words, a third country participant must act like an EU member state.

The European Commission has made all this perfectly clear to the UK several times, even before Article 50 was triggered. Recently, diplomats have even admitted they’ve been chided by the EU for the UK’s failure to understand third country participation rules.

Rear-Admiral Roger Lane-Nott, a retired former NATO commander who has tracked the EU’s mushrooming security frameworks since 2016, has warned that the EU has been as unbending over its defence rules as it is over the so-called ‘four freedoms’.

Yet for more than a year the Whitehall mantra has been that UK participation in new EU defence funding and industrial programmes could be so flexible that the policy commitment required from the UK was still either ‘unknown’ or ‘up for negotiation’. It never was unknown and never subject to change.

If we couldn’t change it while we had a veto, why did government officials believe it could be changed in retrospect?

The idea that the policy of involvement was also compatible with ‘taking back control’ was torpedoed when an official from the Cabinet Office’s Europe Unit spilt the beans. Recordings obtained by The Sun heard him addressing an event at the LSE where he outlined the Europe Unit’s plans to comply with all the Commission’s third country participation rules.

The UK, he said, would stay in alignment with EU defence policy, participate in the EU Battlegroups, stay in an arrangement with the EDA and more. Behind our backs, the Cabinet Office Europe Unit has been planning to adhere the UK to the EU defence acquis.

Was the Prime Minister aware of this and at what point were officials planning to tell her if she was not?

‘Fine’, you might think – once this is all uncovered, MPs will put an end to this nonsense and stop Olly Robbins’s Europe Unit giving away defence policy control. Right?

It should be that easy, except for two things.

First, none of this stuff has been subject to a parliamentary vote and none of it will be. It is being lined up as a successor defence treaty after Brexit Day 2019, coming into action during the implementation period. That way, it will be completed as an international treaty which can be done by prerogative powers, with MPs having no say. So much for democratic accountability and the Government pledging to “take back control”.

Second, Whitehall has been rustling up proxies. Since early 2017, government departments have been encouraging British defence companies to become tied into trials of the EU’s defence fund in long-term contracts which depend on continued UK engagement in EU rules and policies. Shakespeare has his assassins say “let us bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood/Up to the elbows” to share the guilt. Whitehall’s modern corporate equivalent appears to be in contracts.

Lieutenant-General Jonathon Riley and colleagues have researched UK involvement in the EU’s defence fund and found that it started with a European Commission charm offensive in early 2017 – once again since the Brexit vote. Lt-Gen Riley describes the whole Whitehall ploy to put us into a third-country defence arrangement as “a U-bend route for the UK to come back fully under EU authority in the future”, such is the breadth of its policy reach and the monumental importance of defence for a country’s autonomy.

In addition to growing its political influence over defence and defence procurement, the EU has been tightening its existing rules. It has empowered the Defence Procurement Directive to make member states accept EU-wide tendering and has already taken infringement action against five EU states. UK Government contracts are the mainstay of our strategic defence industry and British companies would only be harmed by third-country rules specifically designed to break that relationship.

It’s a scandal that MPs were initially fobbed off with the clear untruth that the EU’s military power play would not be relevant to the UK. Now we find that the scope of the agreements, concluded at the EU Council, has grown even since ministers first agreed them.

Rear-Admiral Lane-Nott warns that the EU has already expanded its new defence budgets and has simultaneously eroded member states’ autonomy in defence procurement. It has also grown the scope of new command structures, intelligence and defence research far beyond MPs’ initial modest estimates of what had been agreed.

At the time of the first of these EU Council agreements in November 2016, we were also told that the UK was withholding the veto in order to generate goodwill, prevent duplication with NATO and keep structures flexible for non-EU participation in future. All these objectives appear to have failed, yet the same UK officials who failed to steer the agreements now peddle the claim that the EU’s structures are flexible.

In addition, the potential for numerous EU mechanisms to duplicate NATO is now clear to see. Even while the agreements were being made, MEP and former British Army brigadier Geoffrey Van Orden objected to the in-built concept of ‘defence decision-making autonomy from NATO’, but to no avail.

As if the story couldn’t get any worse, each government document, driven by the Europe Unit, brings a new commitment to the EU military architecture. What appeared as ‘an interest in participation’ in previous versions are now solid commitments to be involved. The Chequers Plan introduces two entirely new military commitments for the UK which were not seen in early proposals:

a) permitting the EU to place the UK Armed Forces in the EU’s Force Catalogue for the purpose of EU military and foreign policy planning; and

b) taking part in projects ‘through Permanent Structured Cooperation’ or PESCO, the conveyor-belt of structural integration which the EU Commission describes as ‘the foundation of military unification’.

There is no valid case for any institutional EU tie-in for the UK and this is especially true in defence. We should focus squarely on NATO as the platform for our cooperation with European partners, a point made by Lord Owen in April, who said it’s too early to decide aspects of the future military and foreign policy relationship until the effect of the EU’s new military ambitions are known.

The Government must act immediately to reverse entanglement in European Commission defence institutions and end UK defence industry participation. There must also be an investigation to find out how this whole sorry story happened and who is responsible. The problem is a lack of awareness of the EU’s new mechanisms and the extent and effects of UK involvement.

‘Mischief, thou art afoot,’ to quote that Shakespeare play again. Now that the Prime Minister can identify the fault in what’s been done, she has the power to stop it. This in itself would reassure the country of her best intentions and bring praise. “That which would appear offense in us… like richest alchemy, will change to virtue and to worthiness.”

The Chequers Plan introduced entirely new military commitments for the UK in the EU