The implications of Brexit for European defence cooperation
Analysis European Union

The implications of Brexit for European defence cooperation

04 Oct 2017 - 13:46
Photo: Corporal Mike Jones / Ministry of Defence / © Crown copyright
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The Brexit negotiations between the United Kingdom and the European Commission are ongoing. Although the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) might not be the most pressing or eye-catching issue at the negotiating table, it is of great political importance.1 The insistence of various British officials that the UK brings a security surplus to the negotiations and is ready to use it as a trade-off issue has raised some hackles in the EU-27. Brexit triggered concerns within Europe on how this will affect the security cooperation between the EU and the UK after the latter’s departure. The policy paper the UK issued on foreign policy, defence and development was reassuring as it stressed that the UK will remain a committed partner to the EU.2  It also calls for a deep and special partnership with the EU that goes beyond existing third-country arrangements. However, what will be the nature of this partnership and how will it affect the CSDP?

The CSDP is the intergovernmental part of the EU’s defence policies which were initiated in 1999. This article discusses the implications of Brexit for defence cooperation, in particular with respect to the CSDP. Because of a changing Transatlantic relationship – illustrated by the refusal of President Trump to openly reconfirm the US commitment to NATO’s Article 5 at the mini-summit in May 2017 – and the deteriorating security situation in the vicinity of Europe, the CSDP has gained more priority in recent years. Enhanced security and defence cooperation is prioritised by the Juncker Commission and most member states consider it as one of the areas in which progress is most urgent. Therefore, proposals and new frameworks have been put forward in quick succession.

Although these initiatives have increasingly gained momentum, it is clear that the CSDP is going to be affected by Brexit. This article will focus on the military implications: how large was the British contribution to European defence policy? To what extent will the UK continue to participate in European defence cooperation? What kind of options are available for the United Kingdom’s continued participation in CSDP after Brexit?

Brexit in numbers
With the United Kingdom gone, one of Europe’s leading military powers is stepping out of the CSDP. With a 52 billion dollar defence budget, the UK is the largest European defence spender and one of only five NATO member states to reach the 2% of GDP spending target. Brexit will take a huge chunk out of the EU’s overall capabilities, of which the UK owns about 20%.

corps mariniers
British Marines during a training mission. Source: Peter Davies / Ministry of Defence / © Crown copyright 2016. 

However, it is important to note that the UK never made its high end capabilities available to the EU. Doubts have also been raised to the feasibility of the UK’s ambitions for defence.3 The British Ministry of Defence has been criticised for tweaking the numbers to reach the 2% target and setting unrealistic targets for defence spending. The commitment made by the UK to increase defence spending by 0.5% above inflation annually has been based on an expected GNP growth rate of around 2.5%, a percentage that no longer seems realistic after Brexit, according to the IMF and the European Commission.4

Brexit also means the EU member states will have to fill the gap without the UK’s contribution to the overall budget of the EU – resulting in a financial gap of around 12% for the next Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), starting in 2021. This will have implications across the board, including for security and defence. As part of its European Defence Action Plan (EDAP), the European Commission wants to invest in defence research & development through a European Defence Fund. The Commission is looking to earmark Euro 500 million to defence research and one billion to industrial development programmes, both annually, adding up to a total of Euro 10.5 billion over the whole MFF. Without the British contribution to the Union’s MFF, it will be even more difficult to make choices among the whole range of its priorities.

London’s political and military weight is not reflected in its contributions to the CSDP

However, as the UK proposes in its policy paper, mentioned in the introduction to this article, it is willing to consider options for participation in the Commission’s European Defence Fund, including both the European Defence Research Programme and the European Defence Industrial Development Programme. It envisions a partnership where EU capabilities could be developed in support of shared values and joint security.

Brexit will also have less tangible – but not less important – effects. As a nuclear power and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the UK backed up the CSDP with considerable political weight. Furthermore, the UK brought military and technical expertise and experience to the Brussels institutions, such as the EU Military Committee, the EU Military Staff and the European Defence Agency, that will be difficult to replace in the short term.

third country and uk personnel contributions to csdp missions and operations
Figure 1: Third country and UK personnel contributions to CDSP missions and operations 2007-2016. Source: SIPRI Multilateral Peace Operations Database

Fact remains, though, that London’s political and military weight is not reflected in its contributions to the CSDP. Both in terms of personnel contributions to missions and operations and capability development cooperation, the British have not been at the forefront. The UK has been reluctant to put its capabilities at the disposal of the EU and has refrained from participating in the largest research projects of the European Defence Agency (EDA). In terms of personnel contributions, the UK ranks 11th – behind small military powers such as Austria and Romania (see figure 1 in relation to third state contributors – the group of countries the UK will be joining after Brexit). The UK’s efforts do not therefore stand out, ranking continuously below Turkey (see figure 2).

UK personnel contributions to CSDP missions and operations 2003-2014
Figure 2: UK personnel contributions to CSDP missions and operations 2003-2014. Source: European University Institute EU Global Engagement Index

As the British capabilities were never really put at the disposal of military missions by the EU, the effect of Brexit on these particular CSDP operations will be limited. The largest effects will be felt on the civilian side of CSDP, as the majority of British contributions have been civilian in nature. When it comes to ongoing missions and operations, Brexit will most likely not have a large impact, because Brexit does not necessarily mean that the UK’s contributions to these missions and operations will end, as is also indicated in the UK’s policy paper.5

A blessing in disguise?
Since the UK was never a real champion of the CSDP, the effects of Brexit on EU defence policy will be limited – in particular as compared to other policy terrains such as Justice and Home Affairs where the UK takes an active role. Some even take this a step further by arguing that Brexit will be a blessing in disguise for EU defence, claiming that with the UK – and its veto power – leaving, a major impediment to deeper defence cooperation will be removed.

The UK cannot solely be blamed for preventing EU defence policy from flourishing

London has indeed often used its veto power to block proposals for extended cooperation. It has been notably critical of plans for an EU military headquarters and has long blocked an increase in the mandate and budget of the EDA, thereby preventing the agency from working on ‘hard defence’. With the end of the British veto in sight, some member states – notably France and Germany – have tabled new proposals that were hitherto out of the question. The initiative to start cooperating in core groups (Permanent Structured Cooperation, or Pesco) has been taken up at full speed, with the criteria being defined in the coming months and the launch of Pesco scheduled for the end of this year.

Despite this newly-found enthusiasm for the CSDP, however, Brexit will not be the panacea that some have claimed it to be. The UK cannot solely be blamed for preventing EU defence policy from flourishing. Although it is the most outspoken, the UK has certainly not been alone in its criticism of the CSDP. With the UK no longer there, those member states that have hitherto been conveniently hiding behind the UK’s assured veto will now need to show their hand.

The UK as a non-member state in EU defence
The UK will leave the EU, and thereby the CSDP, but mutual security interests across the Channel will remain. Both parties have an interest in maintaining close security and defence relations. The EU needs the UK for its capabilities and political weight. The UK also has a vested interest in still being involved in EU security and defence policy. Especially in border security and the civil-military area (anti-piracy, anti-human trafficking, training, security sector reform, etc.) the CSDP puts something on the table that NATO cannot. These types of CSDP missions and operations are likely to get UK post-Brexit backing.

However, there is also a sense of British ‘exceptionalism’ when it comes to the future EU-UK security and defence relationship, in the sense that the UK is ‘special’ for the EU, particularly in this area. In its policy paper, the UK offers a ‘future relationship that is deeper than any third country partnership’.6 However, it is not cut and dry what this relationship is going to look like. What are the options for the UK’s continuous involvement in European defence?

Third countries have been participating in the CSDP since its inception. So far, around 45 non-EU countries have contributed troops to CSDP missions and operations. The EU presently offers two ways in which third states can be involved: (1) by concluding a participation agreement for a specific mission or operation; or (2) by concluding a Framework Participation Agreement (FPA) by which third countries can participate in any mission or operation in which the EU invites them to participate.

Although the structure and content of these agreements vary from partner to partner, all affirm the decision-making autonomy of the EU. In practice, this means that non-member states are largely kept outside the decision-making process. It is only at a later stage of operational planning that third states are currently being involved (mostly to fill the gaps). At that point in time they will have to accept the EU’s timelines and procedures. Even after the launch of the mission or operation, options for third state involvement are limited, leading some to label them as “second-class stakeholders”.7

The UK will find it problematic to accept such a subordinate role within the CSDP. However, creating a privileged partnership position for the UK only within the EU security and defence policy – as has been indicated by the UK government – will be difficult for the EU as other third states with major troop contributions, such as Turkey, will demand equal treatment. It would therefore be wise to review the EU’s current partnership arrangements and look for ways in which the involvement of third states could be improved.

The EU could draw some inspiration from the way in which NATO engages its partners, which allows for more differentiation among types of partners. In contrast to EU partners, NATO partner countries are given a much larger role in the decision-making process at a much earlier stage in the life-cycle of a mission. This does not alter the fact that at the end of the day – similar to the current practice within the EU – it is only the NATO members who take the decisions and have voting rights on missions. Ultimately, there should be a qualitative difference between those who are a member and those who are not.

Instead of contemplating a ‘UK-only’ format for a CSDP-UK relationship, the EU could also devise a programme for a type of enhanced partnership for countries that are of strategic and political importance, are prepared to subscribe to the principles of EU foreign, security and defence policy and have a willingness, in principle, to be substantially engaged in CSDP missions and operations. In this graduated partnership model the level of influence on the decision-making process is dependent on the country’s involvement and commitment to CSDP missions.

By leaving the EU, the UK and its research institutions could miss out on considerable sums of money for defence research

When it comes to the EDA, the UK has always had a somewhat difficult relationship with this agency. Despite the fact that the first Chief Executive was British (Nick Witney), the British attitude towards the Agency has mostly been that it could be useful for other member states, but not so much for the UK. Since the EDA’s inception in 2004 the UK has very selectively participated in EDA projects and London has consistently shown itself to be allergic to the institutional strengthening of the EDA.

Outside of the EU the UK would no longer have a seat on EDA’s Steering Board and would not have a say on how the EDA is run or on which projects it focuses. The UK would have to drop out of the projects in which it is currently participating through the EDA. Although the UK states that future partnership could include collaboration in EDA projects and initiatives through a so-called Administrative Arrangement, non-EU members have a limited say in EDA decision-making. The question is whether these will be suitable for the ‘exceptional’ third country that Britain claims to become.

british marine
Heavily packed British Paratroopers during a training mission. Source: Ministry of Defence / © Crown copyright 2017. 

Moreover, by leaving the EU, the UK and its research institutions could miss out on considerable sums of money for defence research. Before, UK universities, research institutions and defence firms have been highly successful in winning European research grants. The implementation of the European Commission’s proposal to boost defence research by aiming to make available a total of Euro 10.5 billion through the European Defence Fund will start after the end of the UK’s EU membership. Associated countries contribute to the EU research budget based on their GDP, but the precise contribution is the subject of negotiation. The UK would nevertheless lose its influence on establishing priorities and would remain outside the decision-making process.

The UK in European defence after Brexit
NATO membership will continue to provide the UK with another forum to play a key role in European defence. The UK government has never left any doubt as to the importance of the Atlantic Alliance as the cornerstone of its defence. After Brexit, London is likely to further underline the role of NATO as a key contributor to Europe’s security. However, the UK would in all likelihood have increased its commitment to NATO regardless of whether Brexit happened or not, as there are other, more important factors that call for a stronger UK role in NATO.

These are, firstly, the worsening security environment at the Alliance’s Eastern borders, which has reactivated NATO’s core Article 5 task of territorial defence; and, secondly, the increasing pressure of the United States under President Trump on European countries to take more responsibility for their own security. Outside the Union the UK becomes part of the group of non-EU NATO Allies, which harbours close friends like the US, Canada and Norway, but also troublesome Turkey.

Increased EU-NATO coordination will continue to be in the UK’s interest, as London points out in the policy paper. NATO needs the EU in all these areas where the Alliance has little or no responsibilities. Equally, the EU cannot be effective without the Alliance increasing the Article 5 defence posture to deter any military adventure by Moscow. For a post-Brexit UK this implies the country will remain dependent on the EU as a security provider. Thus, London has a clear interest in promoting EU-NATO relations in a positive sense.

Conclusions: towards a graduated partnership model
It is clear that in terms of capabilities, knowledge, experience and resources the EU will suffer a considerable diminished potential in defence. However, it has to be kept in mind that the UK “is leaving the EU, not Europe” and that these capabilities will still be available to European security in – more likely – NATO and coalitions-of-the-willing contexts. Nevertheless, the EU increasingly needs to fend for itself and has ambitions in the defence area, while the UK’s and the EU’s security interests converge to a large extent. Hence it is in the interest of both parties to find formulas as to how the UK can be engaged in European defence and CSDP after Brexit.

It is evident that security and defence issues are of vital importance for both the EU-27 and the UK. The topic of security and defence cooperation should therefore not be held hostage to the core issues of the UK-EU existing negotiations. With that being said; “Out is out”. The EU-27 should not provide the UK with any veto power in EU defence affairs. On the other hand, recognition of the UK’s prominent status in European defence is also needed.

Instead of contemplating a ‘UK-only’ format of the CSDP-UK relationship the EU could devise a programme for a type of enhanced partnership, a so-called graduated partnership model: the level of influence in decision-making depending on the country’s willingness to engage and its strategic importance. With London stressing its willingness to continue existing cooperation, it remains to be seen whether the EU is able to find a defence partnership model for the UK that balances the UK’s ‘exceptionalism’ with its third state status.


Anne Bakker
Research Fellow at the Security cluster of Clingendael Research.
Margriet Drent
Former coordinator of and Senior Research Fellow at the Security Unit of the Clingendael Research Department.
Dick Zandee
Senior Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute.