The U.K, with its nuclear arsenal and seat on the U.N. Security Council has a special role in Europe’s defense. Just how special it will remain post Brexit will be up for discussion from next week.
The future defense relationship will be on EU officials’ agenda next Thursday as part of their internal preparatory work anticipating the second phase of Brexit negotiations, which will outline the future relationship between London and Brussels. In theory, the second phase could begin next month.
EU countries in Central Europe and on the Baltic, from Bulgaria to Lithuania, favor giving London special status to enable it to take part in the decision-making process regarding military missions and, potentially, also on industrial projects in the defense sector, according to diplomats who follow the topic closely.
In Western Europe, countries like Denmark support the possibility of countries from outside the EU being able to take part in EU-funded military projects — opening the door to potential U.K. participation.
But other, more powerful countries are more likely to make any such future arrangement dependent on the nature and outcome of the current first phase of Brexit talks.
“Paris and Berlin want first to see how the first part of the talks ends,” said one EU diplomat involved in the negotiations.
A deal between the U.K. and Brussels riven with animosity, or indeed one that leads to a “hard Brexit” where Britain departs without a deal, would kill off any chance of a special defense relationship in future.
“If the U.K. moves towards hard Brexit, it will be very difficult to build the trust that is needed [for close future cooperation],” argued Rosa Balfour, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a think tank.
Third countries can already join EU military operations but they have almost no role in designing them. They can also take part in defense-sector industrial activities led by the European Defense Agency, with the prior approval of EU member countries.
But Britain’s departure comes as the European Union is embarking on a major upgrade of its own defense ambitions, meaning the U.K.’s future role needs to be redefined in that new context.
Next Monday, about 20 EU countries will officially declare their intention to take part in enhanced defense cooperation — a kind of two-speed Europe in defense matters, which is expected to boost the bloc’s capabilities and interoperability.
To reach this goal, the European Commission launched a European defense fund in June which, among other things, put on the table €90 million from now to 2020 for military research (increasing to €500 million a year after 2020), and €500 million for 2019 and 2020 (increasing to €1 billion a year thereafter) for development and acquisition. The goal is also to leverage about €5 billion per year in coordinated spending on arms and equipment such as drones or helicopters.
That makes a very tempting prospect for the U.K. arms industry.
When it comes to disentangling the U.K. from the EU’s defense architecture, it should be less complicated than the post-Brexit extrication in other areas because there are fewer legal obligations in the defense area and there is less integration than, for example, the EU single market.
However, some defense-related aspects of Brexit could still be problematic, particularly because of NATO.
The Brits have traditionally owned the role of the NATO deputy supreme allied commander Europe. This role has specific responsibilities regarding NATO-EU cooperation, including the command of some EU-led operations such as EUFOR Bosnia, where the EU military mission is led from NATO HQ.
In all likelihood, the next officer to hold that position will not be British, diplomats say. And even if that role did remain in British hands, some European officials suggest building a separate EU capability to lead such military operations.
Britain’s departure means Europe will be torn between granting London special status — at the risk of alienating other third countries — and not granting it, at the risk of increased military fragmentation.
Granting special status to London would be problematic, for example, for the EU’s already strained relationship with NATO member Turkey.
“Ankara has been asking for the same thing for decades,” said a senior EU diplomat closely involved in the discussion. When relations with Russia were warmer, Moscow had also enquired about special status and “the U.S. is a third country too,” noted the diplomat.
If Britain is not granted special status, it could seek to reinvigorate military links via regional formats, such as the Lancaster House Treaties with France signed in November 2010, or the Northern group, launched just a few days after the announcement of the Franco-British treaty, which groups the U.K. together with Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Poland.
“There is a risk that Brexit might create a more fragmented and inward-looking EU,” warned researchers Claudia Major and Alicia von Voss in a paper for the German Institute for International and Security Affairs published last April.