10 Oct 2019

Brexit: The impact on UK defence relationship with the European Union

The House of Commons Research Library has released a report examining the UK’s defence relationship with the European Union post Brexit.

Since the result of the Brexit referendum in 2016, there has been a renewed ambition within the European Union to move towards a model of closer defence cooperation.

Britain’s reluctance to countenance such steps for fears it could impact upon NATO’s role in European defence and security matters means that Brexit has presented an opportunity for the EU to step up plans to help achieve this vision.

There is also the issue of US President Donald Trump’s questioning the role of NATO and his repeated calls for its members to meet their defence spending obligation of 2% of GDP casting a seed of doubt on the reliance on the organisation in the face of persistent Russian aggression.

These factors have seen a number of initiatives agreed to advance this strategy including an expansion of EU military planning capabilities, the launch of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), and the creation of the European Defence Fund (EDF), which will see the direct use of the EU budget for military purposes for the first time in the EU’s history.

What does the briefing say?

The briefing, Brexit and UK Defence: An Explainer, provides an analysis of the legal basis for EU Defence, the UK’s position, what has been agreed within the EU since the 2016 Brexit referendum and what Brexit will mean for the UK’s armed forces.

The legal basis for European defence sits with the Treaty on European Union, which under Title V states that responsibility for EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) remains exclusively within the EU Member States.

Whilst the EU High Representative is able to make recommendations in CSDP affairs, decisions are made on an intergovernmental basis within the Council of Ministers with each EU Member State maintaining a veto.

This means that there is no EU Army directly under the control of the European Union. Instead Member States can agree, by unanimity, to an EU-led military operation.

As previously stated, Britain has a commitment to the pivotal role of NATO in matters of European defence. The UK has, however, been supportive of CSDP and has played a significant role in its development and used its influence here to oppose any attempts to establish an EU military force that is independent from NATO.

Since the Brexit referendum result in 2016, the EU has pushed ahead with plans to strengthen the European Union’s ambitions for defence. Notably, there has been an agreement for the establishment of a new permanent operational planning and conduct capability within the existing EU Military Staff in order to provide an out-of-area command and control structure at the strategic level for nonexecutive military missions.

This capability was enhanced in November last year through the decision to expand the remit into the planning and conduct of small-scale executive military operations by the end of 2020.

EU leaders also agreed to the establishment of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), which enables a smaller group of Member States to collaborate on defence projects, specifically in capabilities development.

A Co-ordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD) was signed off on by EU Member States to provide an EU level overview of defence spending, national investment plans and defence research efforts by individual Member States. Following an initial period, CARD became a standing annual activity from autumn 2019 and is intended to feed into the projects developed under PESCO.

The European Defence Fund (EDF) was launched in 2017 with the intention of supporting investment in joint research and the joint development of defence equipment and technologies. While not funded through additional financial contributions from EU Member states, the EDF represents the first time that the EU budget has been used for defence purposes.

As the UK has yet to leave the European Union, it remains a full member state and continues to play a full part in all European defence matters but is not a player in PESCO.

What are the likely implications of Brexit on defence?

The report says that the UK will retain its sovereignty over its defence policy and its armed forces. It will leave the EU’s common security and defence structures and will not be compelled to play any part in any future EU defence force.

Any decision to take part in military operations with other nations will be made following an assessment on whether involvement would be in the UK’s best interests.

The level of defence cooperation between Britain and the European Union, will however be defined by the manner in which Brexit ultimately happens.

Leaving with a deal

Should the UK leave with a deal, it is expected that the Political Declaration agreed in November 2018 will form the basis of negotiations for future cooperation.

This would see the creation of an enhanced relationship between the UK and EU that would go beyond existing EU third-party agreements.

The UK has also indicated its willingness to engage, as a third-party participant, in EU military operations and capabilities development, through PESCO and the European Defence Fund (EDF).

Any commitment from UK forces to military action will remain sovereign decision taken by the British Government.

However, it remains to be seen what role the UK would in any EU-led operational planning. As a third country, the UK would have no decision-making rights with respect to the direction of the EU-led operation, regardless of its contribution, which would remain with the EU Member States.

This scenario is understandably one that many would find unacceptable and would not be willing to commit British troops to an operation, which the British Government would have no formal input.

In terms of the UK’s involvement in PESCO, CARD and the EDF will again be as a third-country.

While the nature of a third country relationship with these projects has yet to be decided, it is expected that any participation will require a commitment to strengthening EU defence. This means that UK would need to find the terms of engagement acceptable.

CARD is different beast in that it does not directly allow for third country involvement and therefore any UK involvement is extremely unlikely.

Participation in CSDP as third country would leave the UK out of the decision making loop with no say or negotiating power. This would leave Britain without a veto in any future discussions on projects such as PESCO and the EDF but perhaps more importantly, the evolution of EU military planning into an independent capability.

As the briefing points out, the Political Declaration amounts to little more than a statement of aspirations and has no legal basis. It remains entirely possible that the Declaration could be renegotiated in the future.

Leaving without a deal

Should the UK leave the EU without a deal, it would no longer play a role in decision making on issues of foreign policy challenges facing the EU.

The report also states there would also be no legal agreement in place to enable intelligence sharing between the UK and EU.

A no deal Brexit is expected to have a relatively minimal impact on the UK’s armed force. The biggest upheaval being that the UK would no longer be able to participate in any CSDP missions or the EU battlegroups. This would see all military and civilian personnel deployed on EU-led operations return to the UK, except for those deployed on Operation Althea in Bosnia under which the UK could continue to participate as a NATO state.

It is envisaged that the UK’s prominent role in NATO would ensure that there is no loss of ability to project military power to the rest of the world.

The briefing also suggests the UK could potentially seek to re-negotiate its involvement in EU military operations and its defence programmes such as PESCO and the EDF, via a series of third-party framework agreements.

There also remains scope for defence cooperation, including intelligence sharing, to continue through bilateral or multilateral arrangements.

To read the report in full, please click here.

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