Two years after the activation by the British Prime Minister of the Lisbon Treaty’s article 50, there remains little certainty on how the United Kingdom might exit the European Union. Much still depends upon the outcome of the political process in London, the ability of the House of Commons to resolve the differences entrenched across its political spectrum, and the resulting capacity of the UK to clarify its policy choices in the matter. The coming weeks may provide a modicum of clarity and high-level political guidance.
There are still four main scenarios on the table. The first is that the United Kingdom elects to remain a Member of the European Union. The second is that the UK exits the EU on the terms agreed between Brussels and London during the discussions between the two parties – or very similar ones. The third is that the UK exits the EU on different terms than those negotiated. The fourth is that it exits the EU without negotiating any terms. All four of these scenarios have an impact on European security – either in political terms, strategic terms, capability terms, operational terms, financial terms, or legal terms. In all four scenarios there are mostly downsides to Brexit.
Any one of these outcomes will offer up a new political context – even a protracted remain scenario. Irrespective of the new political outcome, it will be in the interest of both of the United Kingdom and Europe to maintain as strong a link as possible, both at EU level, NATO level, and at bilateral level – particularly for France and Germany. The new political context would no doubt benefit however from a renewed intellectual framework, which can either translate into a variety of fresh policy initiatives, or serve as an umbrella for highlighting existing ones.
In the strategic sphere, the notion of Global Britain is not best suited to the task. Despite its partial success as a political narrative and putative merits in the economic sphere – which have yet however to yield tangible benefits – it is not a paradigm which carries great strategic credibility. Notwithstanding the potential impact of Brexit on the UK economy, Britain is not currently in the position to jostle for a rewarding global role in a regionalised international system. Its main interests will remain linked to the European continent through the forces of history, geography, values and the economy.
An alternative notion worth exploring in the field is that of European strategic autonomy. The reasons for giving credit to this notion are both of substance and of form. The first is that it represents a political halfway house: it would appropriately represent British interests, but also present them in a manner which facilitates political understanding in Brussels and Member States. By using ‘EU-speak’ and providing a go-to concept that is already common parlance in Europe, it would help plug British efforts into European initiatives, and vice versa.
The second is that European strategic autonomy probably best encapsulates the challenges of the new political and strategic context. It is broad enough to cover intelligence, industry, capabilities, foreign policy and even nuclear deterrence. As such it can provide an umbrella for any promoted initiatives, from an increased investment in NATO to a putative European Security Council, from increasing intelligence cooperation to capability cooperation.
European Security After Brexit
The first scenario has the UK ultimately electing to remain in the EU. Nothing will change in legal terms under this outcome. In political terms however, the UK risks facing a lower level of trust in the robustness and the sustainability of its policy decisions, as well as a diminished reputation as a reliable actor in the European order. This may be counterbalanced by a general show of good will demonstrated by all parties involved to demonstrate the continuing links between Britain and the continent: the UK to show that it is fully invested in EU efforts and prepared to pull its weight; the EU to show that it harbours no ill will towards its prodigal partner. This may sporadically result in increased involvement by the UK in projects supported by the European Defence Fund in the context of PESCO, the E2I or the EDA. However, for historical reasons the UK remains unlikely to show any long term interest in CSDP as a policy project per se.
The opposite scenario, in which the UK leaves the EU without a deal, will have significant consequences. In legal terms, the UK would immediately cease to be a Member State and forsake the rights and duties associated therewith. Its participation in all common EU initiatives would become legally problematic overnight: capability programmes, CSDP missions, institutional structures, intelligence sharing. UK funding for the EU budget would cease, which would open a gaping hole in the finances of the EU and its agencies.
However, the most important fallout would be political. It is difficult to imagine a “No Deal” Brexit occurring without a significant political backlash and blame game between the UK and the continent. The acrimony ensuing from such a spectacular development would no doubt be serious, and is liable to cripple trust and confidence in the short, but also – crucially – mid and long term. This could have a substantive impact down the line on the whole range of security and defence cooperation, from terrorism to the development of the fifth generation fighter plane, and from sanctions vis à vis Russia to tackling illegal immigration.
Similarly, the outcome of scenarios two and three would depend on the contradictory effects of political acrimony and political reconciliation, in a general context of diminished trust in the UK as a coherent and reliable international actor. However, the most pivotal variable in scenarios two and three is whether the UK is inside or outside the single market. The deal in its current format places the UK outside the single market.
This excludes the UK from EU research funding, and makes it more difficult for EU-funded activities to benefit from UK participation. Because the UK possesses significant financial means in the defence area, as well and high-end technological capabilities and industrial know-how, Brexit is unwelcome news for EU member states. Much of procurement however occurs in an intergovernmental setting, so European projects such as the fifth generation fighter plane will not necessarily be impacted other than by the spillover from political distrust and potential budgetary difficulties resulting from Brexit. It remains that people, goods and intellectual property will be more difficult and expensive to move across borders, and make it more difficult for companies to be efficient and competitive.
Nor can the broader institutional and regulatory impact be dismissed. The UK will face an increasingly international market environment, with fewer opportunities for collaboration, less access and less foreign investment, in particular that attached to higher EU funding of defence research. If the UK is to progressively peel off a single market area which is likely to pursue integration, the trend will likely reinforce in coming years and decades. In itself, the lasting uncertainty caused by the negotiation of a free trade agreement will have a significant impact on businesses and investment.
The EU & Strategic Autonomy After Brexit
Brexit will have an impact on British and European strategic autonomy under all scenarios considered, although the notion of strategic autonomy itself is disputed. The term first appeared at European level in the Commission’s documents in 2013 and in the EU Global Strategy in 2016. The idea originated in Paris, where it is conceived of primarily as a capacity to act alone. To act alone, one needs to be able to decide alone. To decide alone, one needs to have the capacity of collecting the information necessary to decide to act.
In sum, the simplest definition of strategic autonomy is that an international actor is able to do what it wants to do. Naturally, it may have difficulty in identifying what it wants to do. As such, there is a difference between national strategic autonomy and European strategic autonomy. In the French perspective, the EU should allow the emergence of common security interests, according to which it should set a level of ambition. It would then be easier for the EU to know what it wants to, and then to act upon it in a given situation.
The European Global Strategy goes some way towards advancing common interests. On the one hand however, it does not expand on analysis of current big power plays. On the other, it lacks operationalisation and has not resulted in a clear level of ambition: what does the EU want to do? Is it simply about out of area operations, or also collective defence? This type of decision has a significant impact on what capabilities should be developed or acquired, and therefore on what skills, technologies, industry and funding should be endowed.
Finally, one should distinguish between European strategic autonomy and EU strategic autonomy. Would EU strategic autonomy be possible after Brexit? Is European strategic autonomy a precondition for EU strategic autonomy? Is EU strategic autonomy a precondition for European strategic autonomy? Whether strategic autonomy is about collective defence or out of area operations, there are several layers to take into account to answer this question: operations, capabilities, funding, political will, foreign policy, and nuclear deterrence.
As things stand, the most that EU strategic autonomy can currently hope for is the capacity to act alone in its neighbourhood. However, the EU does not in fact have the capacity for high intensity operations in its near abroad, as the Libya operation showed. CSDP missions are limited to crisis management and the lower end of the engagement spectrum. Brexit will not improve this state of affairs, because it puts UK capabilities and political outside the orbit of CSDP. On the other hand, it may not worsen it either: serious intervention does not take place within the institutional bounds of CSDP.
As such, EU operations may suffer mostly from the absence of the UK at the table, the resulting diminishing of political appetite for intervention, and the loss of UK funding. The opposite might be true of capabilities. The UK has long frustrated EU efforts at developing its own capabilities, for fear of duplication with NATO. With the UK outside of the European Defence Agency’s decision-making power, the hurdle may be lifted for Europeans to develop more in-house capabilities and be less dependent on the United States.
The UK & Strategic Autonomy After Brexit
The issue that matters for European security however is less EU strategic autonomy than European strategic autonomy. The latter entails a form of strategic solidarity between Europeans that far exceeds the institutional boundaries of CSDP. It is based upon the assumption that Europeans would come together in the case of a serious strategic challenge, including if the European territory was to come under threat. European strategic autonomy therefore pertains both to out of area operations and to collective defence. As such, it necessarily entails a nuclear dimension. In the military realm, the natural forum for European strategic autonomy is therefore the Atlantic Alliance, which rests in the last resort upon the American security guarantee and French and British nuclear deterrence. The latest French Strategic Review is clear on this front: NATO remains the cornerstone of collective European security.
As such, there is a strong British case to be made for building European strategic autonomy within NATO, with strong European means to complement American capabilities, and hedge against the American retrenchment from Europe that current president Donald Trump did not kickstart as a policy, but inherited from his predecessors. CSDP in its current form bears little to no relationship to collective defence, nor will it in the foreseeable future. The UK is therefore in a position to argue that the EU would benefit from a broader notion of European strategic autonomy that includes conventional and non-conventional means – from high end capabilities to industrial know-how, and from intelligence gathering to nuclear deterrence.
In addition to the military dimension however, European strategic autonomy has to do with foreign policy: if European countries have different foreign policy priorities, it will be difficult for them to react together, including militarily. In this regard the technical aspects of Brexit have little bearing. And as a military machine, NATO is not the ideal forum or vehicle for foreign policy convergence. In such cases, the main actors remain the national governments and the feeling that they share a sense of strategic solidarity: the aftermath of the Skripal affair and the Paris terror attacks are but recent testimonies to that. This is where the spillover from potential political acrimony might do the most damage.
If Brexit damages the idea that Europeans are primarily partners, friends and allies, it would undermine Europe’s capacity to react to foreign intervention or terrorist attacks through common foreign policy, common sanctions, or common military action. One course of action that the British government might consider helpful to mitigate the damage of Brexit might be to invest in projects that are symbolic of current European efforts to do more in security and defence, whilst also being consonant with UK strategic interests – although not necessarily Britain’s immediate financial interest, as would be the case with vying for European defence fund budgets. In particular, cooperation in one emblematic and/or unexpected area might go some way to securing good will on both sides. Such areas include supporting, participating in or re-joining counter-terrorism or counter-piracy operations off the African coast, intelligence cooperation, high end technological projects like the next generation fighter jet, and contributions to the European border guard.
Although EU strategic autonomy and European strategic autonomy are different issues, one is likely the condition for the other, and vice versa. From outside the European Union, the United Kingdom would have a strong case to make that European strategic autonomy is a prerequisite of European security, and indeed a necessary precondition of EU strategic autonomy.
Olivier de France is Research Director at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS) in Paris, where he runs the European affairs programme.