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The Military Dimension of Brexit: A No-Deal on Defence?

The Military Dimension of Brexit: A No-Deal on Defence?

Lee D. Turpin (Lancaster University)

Whilst much discussion of Brexit negotiations has focused on the economic interests at stake for both sides, future UK-EU relations on military matters remain perhaps too often overlooked. As this blog post makes clear, it is important not be complacent regarding the difficulties in reconciling ‘red-lines’ on both sides that could potentially lead to a no-deal situation on post-Brexit military cooperation. Indeed, it is important to consider the increasingly valuable niche role that the EU plays in securing European interests, the UK contribution to its capacity to do so and the prospects of a no-deal on defence.

Since the launch of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) in 2003, the EU has provided an institutional framework enabling member states to agree, allocate resources and conduct 34 civilian missions and military operations across Europe, Asia and (particularly) Africa. Whilst NATO remains the premier organisation for the territorial defence of Europe, the EU has increasingly played an important role in the field of conflict prevention and crisis management (the so-called Petersberg Tasks). The UK not only opted-in to these developments in EU integration but played a vital early role in driving forward the CSDP, alongside France.

Most notably, the UK has provided an Operational Headquarters and armed forces capabilities towards the EU’s Operation ATALANTA since 2008. This EU naval force has operated alongside NATO and US-led coalition missions to deter, prevent and suppress acts of piracy and armed robbery to international shipping off the coast of Somalia. The EU has played an important role in securing this strategically and economically significant waterway, important as a trading route from Asia for goods and commodities, as well as for the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf. The added-value of the EU operation here has been its ‘comprehensive approach’ – military deployment coupled with training of Somalian armed forces, development assistance and humanitarian aid to Somalia, as well as active diplomacy with neighbouring states to allow for the prosecution of captured pirates.

Since kickstarting Brexit negotiations with the Article 50 notification of intent to leave EU membership, it has been clear that Prime Minister Theresa May has emphasised security and defence as an important area for future cooperation, calling for a “deep and special partnership”. The UK government has also been at pains to remind the EU-27 of its significant military capabilities which make it a valuable partner on defence. This may be illustrated in relation to the UK’s place as the EU’s top spender on defence, but further emphasised in relation to a number of specialist capacities that the UK armed forces contribute towards the overall portfolio of EU members’ military assets.

This includes strategic airlift capacity, long identified as a vital area of concern for CSDP operations, where the UK accounts for around 50% of heavy transport aircraft as well as more than 25% of all heavy transport helicopters among the 28 EU member states (see this IISS Report at p. 7) . However, it should also be stressed that by-and-large the UK’s military resources have not been made available to the EU. Indeed, the UK only accounts for 3.6% of allocated resources to CSDP military operations, as well as 15.5% of common costs (see this European Parliament Study at p. 33). Whilst for this reason far from indispensable to the CSDP, it would be remiss to overlook the UK as being of important to the credibility of EU defence and ambitions of ‘strategic autonomy’ as set out in the 2016 EU Global Strategy.

In this light, and despite expressing “unconditional support” for European security, the UK government has also made clear that it finds existing arrangements for third-parties to ‘plug in’ to the CSDP wholly unsatisfactory for its post-Brexit involvement in EU military operations. Firstly, these provide no access to CSDP decision-making and management mechanisms behind operations. Secondly, the UK wishes to remain capable of acting as a ‘framework nation’ for EU Battle Groups – leadership of a battalion-sized (1,500 troops) force prepared for rapid deployment in a crisis situation. Thirdly, the UK wishes to continue providing CSDP leadership in the form of operational headquarters and commanders for CSDP operations, such as it does for ATALANTA.

Instead, the UK has pressed for the creation of a ‘unique’ UK-EU Framework Partnership Agreement that would remedy these issues. Yet such a CSDP+ arrangement would be deeply problematic in that a non-member UK simply cannot hold more advantageous terms of access than EU membership. The consequences of this impasse are already being realised. The UK’s hosting of a CSDP operational headquarters at Northwood is being transferred to Rota, Spain and Brest, France. Command of ATALANTA will also be transferred in 2019, from Major-general Charles Stickland of the Royal Marines to Spanish Navy Vice Admiral Antonio Martorell Lacave. Meanwhile, the UK has pre-empted being stripped of its ability to lead an EU Battle Group scheduled for the period 2019-20 by withdrawing from its commitment.

Overall, the incentives for the UK and EU to engage in continued military cooperation post-Brexit remain clear, not least amidst calls from the US for greater burden-sharing and joint interests in the crisis management of a shared neighbourhood. However, the scope and nature of this cooperation are uncertain, with a long road ahead in negotiating a deal acceptable to both sides.


Lee D. Turpin is Associate Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Lancaster University, UK. His research focuses on the European Union’s development of a Common Security and Defence Policy, Neoclassical Realism and Strategic Culture.

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