Britain must play to its strengths on defence after Brexit

Britain must play to its strengths on defence after Brexit

“The clock is running out on how long we can live in a house half built,” said Jean-Claude Juncker as the European Commission published its proposals on the future of European defence. After the UK’s exit, the EU looks set to push ahead with creating a Defence Union, so Geoffrey Van Orden MEP looks to what future defence arrangements the UK should have with continental Europe.

Britain’s defence relationship with continental Europe has been a major factor in our foreign policy calculations for centuries. Our massive financial and naval power enabled us to enlist major allies on the continent to curtail the rise of a dominant enemy. However, the Treaty of Rome, and Britain’s diminished economic and strategic standing in the late 1950s, signalled major change.

In 1959, the then British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, remarked: “For the first time since the Napoleonic era the major continental powers are united in a positive economic grouping, with considerable political aspects, which, though not specifically directed against the United Kingdom, may have the effect of excluding us from European markets and from consultation in European policy”.

Our concerns today, as then, have not changed. We are highly conscious of the impact of EU policy on Britain, whether we are inside or outside its structures. We want to continue to have some influence over the foreign and security policies of continental nations. We worry that the United States will lose interest in the UK and shift its European focus to the EU.

At the same time, we have been conscious of the unique role of Britain in the wider world, of the need to minimise the erosion of British sovereignty, and to maintain the NATO alliance, which guarantees the commitment of the United States and Canada, alongside the European nations, to the security and defence of Europe.

Successive British Prime Ministers have tried to square this particular circle using our armed forces as their instrument. However militarily and strategically ill-advised, a section of the military leadership has usually enthused about engagement with the EU. Of course, this is not surprising when, for 50 years now, our armed forces have suffered salami-slicing or guillotining of the defence budget. On the basis of ‘use it or lose it’, any additional operational commitment has been welcome.

We know that the driving motives for EU defence policy have little to do with military capability and are all about European political integration, promoting the EU brand, and “autonomy” from the United States. Successive American Presidents have wanted their European allies to contribute more to defence and to be reliable security partners. The EU would do neither of these. It is a deceit to imagine that the EU is the answer to the “burden-sharing” quandary.

There is no evidence that the intervention of the institutions of the EU in defence – creating more HQs, manipulating the statistics – will somehow produce more defence potency. It is additional military capability and political will that counts. Many European countries see the EU option as an excuse to do less. Many of their defence budgets have declined. They lack the political will for robust military operations. And there is no evidence that the involvement of the EU will produce greater technological defence capability. There have been many collaborative defence projects involving several European partners – the Jaguar, Tornado and Typhoon aircraft and the Meteor missile, for example – without the EU.

What is needed is real, unambiguous commitment by all European allies to a revitalised NATO, all meeting at least the minimum obligation of spending 2% of GDP on defence, and minimising the distraction, waste, duplication and division of a separate EU defence structure.

However, what has become clear is that key decision-makers in Brussels, Berlin and Paris want to push ahead with further EU defence integration. They are conscious that Britain’s departure from the EU means there will no longer be a UK brake on these ambitions but at the same time they recognise that they will lose their most capable military power and a significant chunk of the EU budget.

So what should Britain do now? Under dramatically changed circumstances, and reluctantly perhaps, we have to recognise a new reality without encouraging it. It is important we do not lose influence in Europe or Washington. We have something to offer the EU which would be mutually beneficial.

So firstly, we should have a seat at the EU defence and security table, albeit as an “observer” or possibly “associate partner”. There are plenty of precedents for such an arrangement. France, for example, left the military structures of NATO in the 1960s but for four decades continued to sit as an “observer” on NATO’s top military decision-making body. Many non-EU countries contribute to EU military missions and are therefore welcomed to join the decision-making structures on an ad hoc basis. Our presence would enable our involvement in mission planning and help minimise duplication with NATO.

Secondly, we should be willing to contribute to relatively soft EU military missions – training and humanitarian, for example – which are not necessarily suited to NATO.

Thirdly, we should become associate members of the European Defence Agency to ensure access to defence procurement opportunities and promote joint defence research projects.

Fourthly, we should further develop our bilateral defence arrangements with a number of European countries, but ensuring that we do not thereby become dependent on others for crucial capabilities.

Finally, and most importantly, Britain needs to play to its strengths. In particular we should recognise the professional pre-eminence of our armed forces and security and intelligence agencies. We need therefore to greatly improve our own national defence capabilities and the potential of our defence industries. Our first concern should be the security of our own people and the solidarity of the Western democracies.

We should also demonstrably become the leading European power in NATO and an even more capable and essential partner for European and transatlantic allies and for friends in the Gulf, in South Asia, and the wider Commonwealth.