Beware the European threat to the UK’s defence autonomy

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This article was originally published on BrexitCentral

Brexiteers have repeatedly pointed out the scale and ambitions of EU defence integration. The formation of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), so far involving 25 Member States, has escalated this integration process. British politicians are apparently unaware of the serious consequences to our defence autonomy of involvement in these structures. In the drive to secure a “deep and special partnership” with the EU, the Government risks permanently submitting our money and forces to EU control.

The first projects of the newly formed PESCO include: standardisation of training in national armies; integration of command-and-control systems for EU missions; and the development of a multinational disaster relief capability.

PESCO is just one part of the EU’s increasingly complex web of defence programmes which make up the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). It is supported by financial contributions through the European Defence Fund (EDF) and Single Market rules on procurement through the European Defence Industrial Development Programme (EDIDP). Unsurprisingly, both these programmes are under the decision-making control of Brussels. Other aspects of this overarching CSDP include the European Defence Agency (EDA) and EU battlegroups (joint ad hoc missions under EU control).

The Government has made clear its desire to continue participating in the EDF, EDIDP and EDA after Brexit. Theresa May says she wants Britain to “agree a future relationship” with these bodies. The language used by Mrs May indicates a cooperative relationship between mutual partners. However, it is clear this is not on offer. Any third-country relationship with EU defence programmes will clearly involve giving up money, operational control and procurement rules to the EU.

The draft Withdrawal Agreement states the UK will continue its current status in EU schemes – such as the Single Market, Customs Union and Common Fisheries Policy – until the end of the Transition Period. However, defence is a notable exception to this rule. The Agreement allows us to participate in PESCO projects and enter into a new defence relationship before the end of the Transition Period. This reflects the urgency with which UK and EU officials are keen to sign Britain up to the Defence Union. According to Lt-General Jonathon Riley, the Agreement “provides a u-bend route for the UK to come back fully under EU authority in the future”.

Concerns about Britain being hoodwinked into EU defence commitments were reinforced by a recently publicised recording of a civil servant describing Britain’s “Kit-Kat” tactic – the chocolate representing political cover. Beneath the chocolate lies the politically contentious reality of “significant contributions” to EU defence programmes, potentially including PESCO. This echoes the infuriating stance of Defence Minister, Lord Howe, of the Government keeping its options open and “possibly signing up to PESCO in the future”. Simply put, we could end up with membership of the EU Army by the back door.

It was announced last week that Britain would withdraw its offer to lead an EU battlegroup in 2019-20. However, this is only a temporary decision. Officials at the same leaked meeting as above revealed the true intention is to re-join these programmes once the political cover has been achieved.

Surprisingly, there has been no debate in either House of Parliament on future UK-EU defence cooperation so far. We are limited to examining Select Committee transcripts, which display the naivety of politicians in this area. MPs and Ministers talk of committing to certain projects on a “pay and play basis”, rather than making standard contributions via the EDF – a suggestion which will be immediately dismissed by EU negotiators. Ministers are reluctant to disclose the likely reality of Britain becoming a permanent institutional participant in the EU Defence Union, with little to no operational control.

The proposed “deep and special partnership” constitutes a clear threat to UK defence autonomy, which MPs do not seem to realise and civil servants do not want to admit. Far-reaching scrutiny is urgently needed to ensure the UK does not sign up to giving up our money and defence independence to the EU. It is vital we Get Britain Out of the European Defence Union.

Peter Lyon is a Research Executive at cross-party grassroots campaign Get Britain Out

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