Brexit and the Paradoxes of European Security

Benjamin Martill, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Edinburgh, begins by outlining the limitations of EU security and defence cooperation. He then explains that cooperation post-Brexit will be difficult, as the EU will set a high bar for UK participation in its security initiatives, and both sides have an incentive to show they can function without the other.

Brexit has created challenges across a number of policy areas. The field of security and defence, however, is characterised by distinct dynamics, given the somewhat different nature of this field of collaboration. The effects of Brexit will be mitigated in some respects, but crucial challenges remain.

This article suggests that it is helpful to think about the paradoxes of Brexit which emerge out of the complexities of drivers in this policy area, since these will inform UK-EU security and defence collaboration over the years to come.

Limitations of EU Security and Defence

When thinking about Brexit and European security, we need to first consider some of the limitations of the EU’s own security and defence policies, since these have implications for the severity of Brexit in this area.

To begin with there is NATO – the elephant in the room. The Atlantic alliance is the cornerstone of European defence and has been since the early Cold War. This should make dealing with the Brexit fallout far easier. The UK, of course, is not leaving NATO. Rather, it has been one of the greatest supporters of the alliance’s pre-eminent role in European security and defence.

Then there are the limitations of the EU’s own security and defence initiatives. Unlike other areas of EU policymaking, decision-making in the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) is taken by unanimity, and the community institutions hold a more limited role. Given the emphasis on unanimity, post-Brexit collaboration is easier to envisage that it is in core areas of the EU single market which are governed by Community law.

The UK also lost interest with CSDP over the years, in part because the policy never proved to be as ambitious as London hoped, owing to the need for consensus and the difficulty of managing high-risk deployments. The disagreement between member states over the invasion of Iraq in 2003 certainly didn’t help in this regard. In the end, the UK gradually reduced its investment in CSDP, meaning there is less to sort out once the Brits are gone.

And finally, EU security and defence policies have never been especially salient, since they are limited, reasonably ‘technical’ in a number of respects, and don’t involve the kind of contentious deployments which have aroused public opposition in the member states, such as the Iraq war or the Libyan intervention. There was little discussion of EU security policy in the Brexit referendum campaign, which should make things easier.

Emerging Challenges

But the limitations of EU security and defence have not prevented the emergence of serious challenges from the Brexit process.

First, there are the troubles to which NATO is itself subject, epitomised by French President Emmanuel Macron’s provocative comment that the alliance is ‘braindead’. NATO members are threatened on a number of flanks, the credibility of the alliance’s famous ‘Article V’ commitment is waning, political divisions between members are on the rise, and the key axis of the organisation – the United States – appears to be losing interest.

Then there is the issue of institutional development on the EU side. Further integration in this area was often blocked by the British, who feared duplication of NATO’s role. With the UK veto over the development of EU security and defence initiatives removed, the Union has been moving forward with a host of institutional developments – a combined operational headquarters, a European Defence Fund, and so-called ‘Permanent Structured Cooperation’ – which make British participation more difficult, since they involve binding commitments, the use of community funds, and imply a greater sovereignty cost.

Moreover, the UK is – paradoxically – keen not to miss the boat when it comes to the EU’s new initiatives, and Theresa May’s idea of a ‘deep and special partnership’ sought to keep the UK plugged into a host of arrangements, from intelligence sharing to participation in EU missions. This is for a number of reasons, including concern at American disengagement, a desire not to be left behind as Europe moves forward, and the need to replace lost ties post-Brexit. The EU, however, has set the bar for UK participation high, excluding London – as is its right – from participation in the decision-making process.

And finally, the politics of European security collaboration is now more evident. Brexiteers still invoke the spectre of an EU army and have accused the British government of looking to sell out the country after Brexit. Meanwhile, both the UK and the EU have political incentives to demonstrate divergence – most evident in the development of the ‘Global Britain’ narrative in the UK and the EU’s emphasis on ‘strategic autonomy’ in the wake of the Brexit vote. In short, both sides have an incentive to show they can function without the other.

The Paradoxes of European Security

This combination of enabling factors and challenges – coupled with post-Brexit changes – leaves us with a number of paradoxes which may well come to define European security collaboration for the foreseeable future.

One paradox is that the British seem keener to engage with EU security and defence initiatives than they were before they considered withdrawing. Right on the eve of British withdrawal, the UK was setting out ways it could plug into evolving EU initiatives. Another paradox is that Britain is courting a global identity at a time when there is the least demand from it – both from established partners like the US and from other rising power centres. Britain is less useful to countries outside the EU and the emergence of a more multipolar (and more dangerous) world creates pressures for regional integration, not disintegration.

The paradoxes on the EU side are no less visible. The EU has started to speak of ‘strategic autonomy’ just as one of its most powerful member states – with significant military capabilities – is leaving the club. Achieving European strategic autonomy will be extremely difficult without London on board. Moreover, when the UK begins to express a greater interest in the CSDP than it had before, the EU rebuffed British offers and placed considerable constraints on UK participation.

Much is still to play for as the UK and EU embark on detailed negotiations over the future security relationship in the months ahead. Some of these challenges may prove relatively easy to overcome, while others – such as disagreements over the UK’s role in decision-making – may prove more intractable. The crucial decision for Brussels is whether the UK’s value as a security actor outweighs the need for the British to ‘lose out’ from Brexit and the risk of having the UK as a potential spoiler in EU initiatives.


Dr Benjamin Martill is Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Edinburgh

This blog was originally posted by the Scottish Centre on European Relations and is reposted with permission.

Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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