This article was originally published on BrexitCentral
As Britain leaves the EU and also its Single Market and Customs Union, the Prime Minister has been keen to stress this does not mean Britain will stop engaging with Europe. In addition to seeking a comprehensive free trade deal, the Government wants to continue and even enhance its co-operation with European countries on matters of defence and security, as confirmed at the meeting with President Macron last month. However, this approach risks tying the UK into the emerging European Defence Union, with the worrying potential to undermine our own national defence independence and also to sideline NATO.
In December, EU leaders agreed a new framework for defence cooperation – Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). 25 EU countries will participate as core members of this programme, combining resources and undertaking joint missions. Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative, hailed this as an “important moment” which assembled “all the building blocks of a defence and security union”.
Although Britain is one of the three Member States which did not sign up, the Government seems keen to be as closely involved as possible, with the possibility of joining fully in the future. Sir Stuart Peach, the Chief of Defence Staff, wants us to “keep the door open” to full membership of PESCO, while Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has promised Britain would assist PESCO “like a buttress to support a cathedral”. British defence companies, not wanting to miss out on new procurement opportunities, are exerting their influence. On the EU side, Member States including Poland and the Baltic countries are reportedly keen for Britain to be closely involved, given Britain’s expertise and capabilities.
Recently, the Government confirmed its intention to participate in EU defence programmes which form the financial and organisational foundations of PESCO. This echoes the UK’s Brexit position paper on defence, which suggested Britain is willing to pay into the European Defence Fund and participate fully in the European Defence Research Programme and the European Industrial Development Programme after Brexit.
This level of involvement would require us to make substantial payments to the EU, to adhere to Single Market regulations in the sphere of defence, as well as requiring us to concede a degree of military decision-making power to Brussels. Major-General Julian Thompson warned this “would bind the UK to collective decision making… heavily controlled by the EU Commission.” Participation in background programmes by the Government, and participation in supply chains by defence companies, could constitute a dual process by which Britain becomes unwittingly yet inextricably linked to EU defence integration.
The Government’s unwillingness to recognise these serious risks is of grave concern. Ploughing money into EU defence operations via the European Defence Fund would be a reckless and illogical decision at a time when our Armed Forces feel they are being starved of funds.
At the recent UK-French summit, Prime Minister Theresa May also endorsed President Emmanuel Macron’s proposal for a European Intervention Initiative (EII). In his federalist Sorbonne speech last September, Macron stated he wants the EII to “go further” than PESCO. EII will be a quick and agile defence force, led by the European countries with significant defence budgets.
French defence chiefs know the limits of EII without the involvement of Britain (the biggest spender on defence in Europe). In view of what was being discussed at the summit, it might help explain why the PM arranged for the summit to take place at Sandhurst, the British Army’s internationally-renowned initial officer training centre. However, Britain must be extremely cautious before committing our extensive experience and capabilities to involvement in a wider European defence force.
There is also a very real danger of both PESCO and EII being a significant threat to NATO. While their advocates claim these European defence unions will “complement” the NATO alliance, the reality is any parallel strategic centre will inevitably be a serious cause for concern for NATO chiefs. European leaders have openly acknowledged their push for European defence integration reflects a discontent with reliance on NATO. EU countries, including France, Germany and Italy, have long failed to meet their NATO spending obligations. EU leaders should be rectifying this issue instead of pursuing a costly rival defence structure.
The British Government has always recognised NATO’s role as the cornerstone of European defence over many decades. The UK should be discouraging these European initiatives, which are clearly creating a new power base and will inevitably rival NATO.
Theresa May might be right to reiterate our commitment to bilateral defence ties with France and the general security of Europe. However, as we Get Britain Out of the EU, Britain must be very wary of any co-operation which damages our military independence, threatens the role of NATO and requires considerable sums of money. Otherwise, the likelihood is the UK will end up becoming involved in a European army by the back door. This would be totally unacceptable at a time of huge defence cuts by our own Government, depleting our domestic capabilities.
Peter Lyon is a Research Executive at cross-party grassroots campaign Get Britain Out