This article was originally published on Comment Central.
Recently, images have emerged of British paratroopers wearing EU flags on their sleeves during a European Union Force (EUFOR) training exercise in Bosnia and Herzegovina, causing a storm of outrage throughout this country.
These soldiers were seen arriving for an annual international exercise, with the intention of providing a safe and secure environment in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is part of the EU’s mission – Operation Althea – which focuses on supporting the country’s transition into integration with Europe.
This major public display has led to serious concerns over our future involvement in EU defence and military union. The prospect of an EU army can no longer be dismissed as a ‘dangerous fantasy’, but is now a dangerous reality. It is clear the EU has been pushing for deeper integration, which would involve creating a range of integrated funds and policies, and like Denmark, the UK should be keeping a greater distance from entangling itself with European defence. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
One of the most worrying proposals in the Prime Minister’s disastrous Chequers plan is her intention of remaining closely aligned with the EU’s defence policy. There have been talks of staying in the European Defence Fund and participating in the European Commission’s new defence industrial programme, meaning the UK must continue to align with EU policies and directives. Since the UK will hold ‘third country’ status after the end of March 2019, it will also have to apply European Defence Agency (EDA) rules as well as paying an annual subscription. In other words, acting like an EU Member State – without actually being a member.
Industrial planning will be operated by the likes of the European Commission, the European Council, the European External Action Service, as well as significant input from the EDA and EU Military staff. Under the Chequers proposal, the Government would permit the EU to place the UK Armed Forces in the EU’s Force Catalogue, which is for the purpose of military and foreign planning. Instead of ‘taking back control’, we would be giving away greater sovereignty over the autonomy of our armed forces.
There are plenty of things wrong with the current Chequers White Paper, like the proposed common rulebook and the continued jurisdiction of European Courts for example, but it is deeply concerning there has not been enough awareness on the aspects of defence. Former Brexit Minister, Steve Baker, recently tweeted saying: “We are not talking about continuing UK-EU defence integration because almost no one understands it”. This is the underlining problem. The issue itself is becoming increasingly complicated as the Government is deciding the future implications without being properly held to account. Although it would be unfair to suggest no one has attempted to do so.
Addressing MPs in the Commons last Thursday, Brexiteer and Tory backbencher, Andrew Bridgen, pointed out: “A country which does not control its own armed forces cannot be sovereign.”. He then followed up with the question: “Can we have an urgent statement on UK participation in the EU army that doesn’t exist?”. Unsurprisingly, the Government gave a vague response claiming their position is to work “closely” with the EU.
Rather than simply cooperating with our European allies through well-established security alliances such as NATO, the Government is planning to completely integrate itself with EU military institutions and frameworks. An official from the Cabinet Office’s Europe Unit has even stated their plans to comply with the Commission’s ‘third country’ rules. In addition, the UK will remain aligned with EU defence policy, have a close arrangement with the EDA, and participate in the EU Battlegroups. The Cabinet Office Europe Unit, led by the Remainer Olly Robbins, is also preparing to adhere the UK to an EU rulebook on defence.
What is even more problematic is these commitments will be made without elected MPs having a say. The plans will be part of a defence treaty, coming into action during the implementation period – if this happens – and worryingly, this will not be subjected to a Parliamentary vote. It will be completed as an international treaty, which can be done by prerogative powers, meaning it would avoid any democratic scrutiny and accountability by our elected politicians.
This is a very dangerous partnership to be proposing, since it is far too soon for the Government to fully commit to any future military cooperation with the European Union. We need to be absolutely certain on what the EU’s new defence ambitions actually are. Our Government should currently be focusing on strengthening its role in NATO, which is a far superior platform for defence and security cooperation with European partners. The former Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, has previously labelled the EU moves for a greater role in defence as “nonsense” as it intends to “duplicate and divert from NATO”.
By staying in the European Defence Fund and the European defence industrial programme, as well as witnessing images of British paratroopers wearing the EU flag on their sleeves, this clearly shows our Government is more than happy to sacrifice sovereignty and independence over our own defence and military capabilities.
If the Government is serious about delivering its pledge to Get Britain Out of the EU, then it must act immediately to reverse its plans and maintain complete authority over our armed services. The Chequers plan should be chucked, and the Government can start with their proposals on defence.
Luke Watson is a Research Executive at the cross-party, grassroots campaign Get Britain Out.