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Politics, Not Interests, Will Shape the UK-EU Security Relationship

Politics, Not Interests, Will Shape the UK-EU Security Relationship

Benjamin Martill (London School of Economics)

Monika Sus (Hertie School of Governance)


The Easy Question?

It was once thought that managing the security and defence aspects of Brexit would be easy.

The intergovernmental nature of EU security and defence policy has always meant that the sovereignty cost was lower in this area than in others. For instance, there is no recourse to the European Court of Justice in this area, meaning one of the key British demands from the Brexit process would not be at stake.

And, of course, NATO has always been the primary defence and security provider on the European continent, and Brexit was never likely to change this. Moreover, with the exception of its brief flirtation with EU structures at the end of the 1990s, the UK’s commitment to the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) had been steadily waning, meaning that there was little in this regard to actually disentangle.

Security and defence collaboration, meanwhile, has always been something of a technical endeavour, allowing it to remain under the radar and out of the public eye. Hardly any mention of CSDP could be found in either the Leave or Remain campaigns in the run-up to the referendum, and British Euroscepticism manifested more in concern about immigration, the democratic deficit, and curtailments of trade policy.

Above all, it was thought that the commonality of interests on both sides for a close relationship in security and defence would carry the day. The similar profiles of European countries – especially the larger ones – and their geographical contiguity both augur for careful collaboration, as does continuing pressure on European defence budgets, pressure from the US for greater spending, and the rise of geopolitical threats (especially from Russia) in Europe’s near abroad. Britain stands to gain from any continuation in the ‘multiplier effect’ of collaboration in security and defence, while the EU gains from the credibility and resources associated with the UK’s status as a major security and defence provider.

Politics Meets Interests

But the easy scenario has not come to pass.

Britain and the EU cannot agree on the terms of UK participation in EU defence and security initiatives. Both sides are at loggerheads on the terms of Britain’s association with the CSDP and the extent of British ‘voice’ in missions to which it may contribute. Meanwhile, the EU has insisted the UK cede commitments it was keen to continue, including hosting the operational headquarters of the anti-piracy Operation Atalanta in Northwood (the HQ will now be shared by France and Spain) while the UK has relinquished control of the Battle Group it was due to lead from 2019 onwards. The EU has made it clear that UK participation in a number of schemes will depend on its ability to demonstrate its credibility as a reliable partner in this regard. Trust, it seems, is thin in the air.

Domestic political cleavages are also opening up around British participation in EU security and defence initiatives. Prominent Brexiteers, including Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson, have raised the spectre of the British military being absorbed into an ‘EU Army’ and have accused the government of seeking to sell out British interests. Coverage of opposition to the EU Army has received prominent media coverage while a number of organisations, including those such as Veterans for Britain which have significant support from a number of high-profile individuals from the security sector, have stepped up their campaigning efforts against British participation in EU schemes.

Meanwhile, mechanisms for British participation are looking increasingly complicated. Since Brexit a number of deliberate moves on the EU side have resulted in the creation – albeit in different forms – of institutions and structures which the UK had previously sought to block (including Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), the European Defence Fund (EDF), and the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD). Not only do these take EU security and defence away from the British position, but they also complicate the intergovernmental nature of the policy domain, given the binding nature of commitments in, for example, PESCO, and the reliance of the EDF on the community budget. Even intergovernmental initiatives, such as Macron’s European Intervention Initiative, may become more complex, given Germany’s keenness to see the initiative eventually folded into EU structures.

Underlying all this is a clear common problem which has been insufficiently acknowledged in much of the commentary on security and defence: Interests are not always sufficient to guarantee cooperation. If they were, Britain would likely not even consider leaving the single market or the customs union. In other works, politics matters.

Two Political Problems

There are two political problems in particular that will need to be overcome if talk of a ‘deep and special partnership’ – to quote Theresa May’s preference – is to be secured on mutually beneficial terms.

The first problem concerns the institutional foundations of British participation in CSDP missions and the conflict between the EU’s desire to safeguard the autonomy of its decision-making process and the British insistence that it not become a rule-taker like Norway. The UK seeks a more comprehensive version of a Framework Participation Agreement (FPA) which would allow it to have a say over any operations in which it would wish to take part before they are agreed upon in the Foreign Affairs Council. Under a standard FPA, the UK would have no say over such operations, making it politically unfeasible, the UK argues, to commit troops. The EU worries that to offer the UK such an arrangement would amount to moral hazard, since it would afford the UK – which would by then be a third country – a more generous deal than other EU member-states, and that it would undermine the autonomy of the EU’s decision-making process.

Whilst the two sides are at loggerheads on the issue, it is not clear whether the logic of the EU’s principled opposition to an FPA+ style agreement is wholly convincing. To begin with, it is not clear that the moral hazard argument applies to the security and defence field as readily as it does to trade, given the extent to which the UK’s capabilities distinguish the British contribution from other member-states. If the EU offers the UK a generous trade deal, other member-states may question their membership of the Union. But if it offers the UK a generous deal in security and defence, few other countries could reasonably expect any such generosity. Nor is it clear that affording the UK a say on operations serves to undermine the EU’s formal decision-making autonomy. It is only natural that decisions on foreign affairs take into account the expected preferences of other actors. The EU would remain free to proceed without the UK, or to collectively agree to the form of operations jointly negotiated with the British.

The second problem concerns the rise of more difficult rhetoric on both sides of the Channel as the negotiations have dragged on. Both sides have used damaging rhetoric to refer to their negotiating partners, which risks undermining the prospects of a deal or undermining the credibility of any informal arrangements in the eyes of external partners. Moreover, negotiating positions have stayed firm throughout the talks, and it is increasingly difficult to discern whether key demands in the domain of foreign affairs represent initial salvos in the bargaining game or key demands from which neither side will budge. The politicisation of the issue is also a problem. This is particularly evident on the British side, as participation in EU defence and security initiatives has turned into a red line for those opposed to Theresa May’s Chequers deal, including the former Foreign Secretary and the membership of the European Research Group.

The decline of trust, the rise of bellicose rhetoric, and the increasing salience of the security and defence relationship will continue to create problems for achieving an agreement on security and defence collaboration until the negotiations on the withdrawal agreement and the outline of future relations are concluded. Only then are the two sides likely to be able to engage in a more open and honest discussion about how their mutual security and defence needs may be provided for without inviting an immediate negative response from their respective audiences. Much here depends on the success of the Chequers agreement and whether Theresa May – or a suitable ‘moderate’ successor – can succeed in reaching a compromise between the existing EU and UK positions and subsequently getting any such ‘softer’ form of Brexit past the British and European parliaments. It is foreseeable, still, that in the absence of a ‘no deal’ scenario, EU-UK collaboration in security and defence will become less contentious.

Towards an Agreement?

Given the extent of political divergence that exists between the UK and the EU at present, it is doubtful that swift agreement is likely to be reached on the bases of close security and defence collaboration any time soon. More likely collaborative ventures will take place through existing NATO or bilateral forums, such as the 2010 Anglo-French Lancaster House agreement, or through the development of informal collaboration between the UK and the EU on a bilateral basis.

As ever in international relations, mutuality of interests is insufficient. Although collective interests may triumph in the long-term, in the short- to medium-term they will need to work through existing political constraints on both sides. As positions soften in the months following the negotiations and as the blurred lines between bargaining rhetoric and calculated positions begin to sharpen, the prospects for a meaningful agreement will increase.

Benjamin Martill (London School of Economics) and Monika Sus (Hertie School of Governance)base the argument presented here in part on a recent article in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations in which they explore in greater detail how the politics on both sides of the Channel are likely to impact the nature of collaboration in the security and defence domain after Brexit.

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