Europe’s security architecture has significantly changed over the past ten years. The deteriorating security situation around Europe prompted a movement to remodel European security architecture, and more specifically a rethink of how Europeans do defence cooperation. The political crisis following the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in 2016 accelerated this trend and resulted in a flurry of new initiatives with the potential to reshape European security. The recent achievements are remarkable, but risks related to the politicisation of defence may limit their effectiveness and durability. While Brexit is harming the political willingness towards and practical implications of European defence cooperation, other risks relate to changes in leadership in the EU, and disagreements among Member States on labels framing defence cooperation.

European Defence in 2019: An Orderly Alphabet Soup?

The dual security and political crisis in Europe’s neighbourhood created a window of opportunity to develop novel mechanisms for regional defence cooperation. These new initiatives are constructed around three mutually reinforcing axes: NATO, the EU, and informal, minilateral mechanisms.

Firstly, NATO has been revived around its core tasks of territorial defence, of “keeping the US in Europe”, and of reinforcing the Euro-Atlantic defence posture and the interoperability of European and American armed forces. This work is ongoing to make NATO troop mobility in Europe more effective – in a novel and joint effort with the EU.

Secondly, the EU has not only maintained its core business of civil-military missions but has significantly extended its scope. In particular, the creation of the European Defence Fund (EDF), the European Defence Industrial Development Programme (EDIDP), Permanent structured cooperation (PESCO) and the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD) open a wide range of new roles for the EU, including a reinforcement of the European Commission’s role. Overall, PESCO, CARD, the EDIDP and the EDF – all framed by the 2016 EU Global Strategy (EUGS) – create opportunities for the EU to develop a coherent set of capabilities in areas that are not covered by NATO including emerging technologies.

The third axis of European defence cooperation is the tip of the spear: the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF), the Franco-British Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF) – and the most recent one: the European Intervention Initiative (Ei2). These are military tools that fill a gap in the existing architecture as they aim to provide smaller groups of highly capable military forces to undertake any types of operations including high intensity operations around Europe and in areas where the US is less engaged. They also build on prior military experiences and convergence among some of the European countries and allow the UK or Denmark to stay engaged in military cooperation.

The Side-Effects of Brexit

Brexit is happening in the midst of this changing landscape of European defence cooperation. In a way, Brexit has facilitated this change, as the UK was effectively blocking progress on PESCO. And in turn, Brexit is already having effects on the UK’s cooperation with its European partners: it severely limits the UK’s participation in recent EU initiatives and changes the incentives of EU Member States towards bilateral cooperation with the UK. But it also has side-effects for other EU Member States that are outside of the CSDP and PESCO frameworks.

Firstly, Brexit impacts defence research, development and procurement, although a lot will depend on the final deal and the ‘future relationship’ agreement. As it stands, UK-based defence firms will not be able to receive funds from the EDIDP or the EDF, although they will be able to participate in consortia with EU-based firms. Besides, CARD, EDIDP, EDF and PESCO all aim to become cohesive policy programmes. PESCO programmes in particular will receive more financial support than non-PESCO initiatives. Consequently, PESCO participants have already started developing projects among themselves. The brainstorming phase, de facto, excludes countries that are not participating and are only allowed to be invited on a case-by-case basis, thus making it less likely for UK-based companies to be involved. Finally, cross-border industrial collaboration could also suffer from additional delays and costs, and the preservation of integrated industrial groups, such as the missile manufacturer MBDA, is at risk.

Secondly, Brexit is affecting bilateral defence relationships. In principle, the UK leaving the EU reinforces the case for bilateralism – and the UK has indeed been reaching out to individual European partners. However, governments choose countries to collaborate with partly based on favourable institutional, legal and financial settings. Consequently, Brexit is affecting defence and security cooperation with some European partners. Illustratively, regret at the UK’s very decision to leave the EU, combined with France’s demanding vision of European integration have led the French to take a hard stance in the Brexit negotiations. This quickly spilled over to bilateral relations between France on the UK. Talking to British and French officials, it is clear that – while the strong bilateral partnership between the two countries is maintained – working relations between officials on both sides of the Channel are being affected by difficult Brexit negotiations.

Thirdly, it is worth recalling that the UK will not be the only country outside of the CSDP in the future. Interestingly, Brexit already has side-effects for a country like Denmark, which has a CSDP opt-out. The Danish government and defence community strongly supports opting back into the EU’s CSDP. This is for two reasons. One is an unease created by the uncertain future of the transatlantic relationship. If the US’s security guarantee were to falter durably, or NATO to crumble, Denmark would find itself isolated. Another reason is that Denmark, which is not part of PESCO, is now missing out on a range of issues, collaborative projects and funding opportunities, as the EU has introduced the above mentioned projects with unusual speed after the Brexit vote.

The Risks of Politicising Defence Cooperation Initiatives

There is a big momentum for European defence cooperation – and a potential to create complementary forums that could form a virtuous circle of European security cooperation. In the EU, none of the policy decisions flow rationally from an objectively-assessed security situation. Instead, European defence is a political arena, and many policies are the result of political agendas, leaders, and political battles. This politicisation of European defence cooperation presents a number of risks – for the EU itself and for the future role of Britain in European defence which has to be negotiated in this context.

A first risk is that the recent defence cooperation initiatives are associated with specific governments, initiators or political leaders. If this is the case, defence becomes, like any other policy, victim of the political shifts that punctuate democratic political life. When a political leader finishes their mandate, an initiative that was associated with them may disappear, lose momentum or not be sustained – if it is not strongly institutionalized. For instance, the Ei2 can clearly be identified as Macron’s initiative. On the EU level, both Commission President Juncker and High Representative/Commission Vice-President Mogherini have pursued an agenda of expanding the EU’s role in defence. But their mandates – like that of the French President – will end sooner or later, and we will have to make sure that there is no loss of momentum or, worse, rejection, of the current cooperation dynamics based on political reasons. In the context of Brexit, the UK might want to keep that risk in mind and pursue a strongly institutionalised partnership, rather than betting on ad hoc participation in defence cooperation. The latter could prove easier to negotiate initially, but harder to maintain over time.

A related risk of politicising defence is that politics can get in the way of effective cooperation – say, if there are bad relations between certain heads of states and governments. This became visible when Italy did not join Ei2 due to poor relations between the French and Italian governments at the time the Letter of Intent was signed: what was previously a strictly military initiative became highly politicised.

A more mundane risk is that of ‘overselling’. It is not the first time that European defence has undergone some sort of political momentum around cooperation initiatives with new labels. But those initiatives that are considered the most efficient in fostering European security cooperation are those that are the least political. We can think of the European Air Transport Command (EATC), or other sub-regional cooperation such as the one between German and Dutch armed forces, the Dutch and Belgian, or the multiple, low-key exchanges between European intelligence services. In other words, creating political momentum and giving ‘big names’ to initiatives does not guarantee success, and it could lead to a disappointment vis-a-vis the EU that the Union clearly does not need today.

What is more, certain lexical choices for the framing for otherwise pragmatic initiatives – such as the term “European army” – make it more difficult to gather the support of public opinion or political parties in certain European countries. This is especially the case in countries where other cooperation arenas – namely NATO – are traditionally favoured. Some Danish officials have for instance explained to me that in a context where the CSDP opt-out could be reconsidered, talks of a “European army” make this prospect less likely as it is exactly the type of language that puts off Danish political representatives. Political framing can be misleading especially in this case when there are no actual prospects for anything like actual “European” armed forces. Such language thus risks being either ineffective or outright counter-productive. Whether we are dealing with Brexit or Denmark’s potential reconsideration of the opt-out, we have to keep in mind those risks and how they are affecting national debates as well as future EU-UK relations.

Finally, politicisation is a particular risk for the UK’s future relation with the EU. Despite experts’ and practitioners’ warnings, Brexit negotiations have been politicised. This has been illustrated in the Galileo case, where existing EU procedures have been used by British political representatives and the press to denounce the EU’s inflexibility in the negotiation process. It is indeed an unlucky coincidence that Brexit occurs right at the time where the EU is acquiring a greater role in defence – in areas that the UK was supporting, including satellite navigation or the EDIDP and EDF. Such programmes are under the control of the EU Commission, and thus distinct from the CSDP on which the UK and the EU will negotiate as part of the ‘future relationship’ agreement. There is a good chance that both sides will agree on some UK access in those areas in the future, but in the meantime the British government has announced national plans for satellites, as well as combat aviation. The UK has presented its own version of a future combat air system equivalent to the former UK-French – and now French-German – plan. Overall, politicisation of defence issues has meant that the Conservative Party seeks to present Brexit as an opportunity for the UK to become an independent military power. There is thus a real risk of industrial decoupling between the UK and EU member states, with strategic consequences.

Overall, the current reconstruction of European defence cooperation bears of lot of potential and should be taken forward. Maintaining the momentum and fostering effective cooperation – i.e. institutionalising these practices – requires sustained efforts, and we have to be careful to not let short-term political considerations get in the way. Besides, a challenge remains to tie those cooperation frameworks, and the security interests of European countries, together despite divergent institutional memberships. A sound agreement with the UK for the future relationship will be the first test of Europe’s ability to make a forceful common political statement without falling into the trap of politicisation.

Alice Pannier is an Assistant Professor of International Relations and European Studies at SAIS, Johns Hopkins University. Her research interests cover security and defence cooperation in Europe, French and British defence policies and transatlantic relations.

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