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Despite Brexit, the UK is unlikely to disengage from the EU in their defence and security cooperation. Why?

  Shreya Sinha

Although Brexit will have consequences for the European Union as well as the United Kingdom, the cross-border cooperation in terms of defence and security is likely to be minimally impacted, as compared to other aspects of their bilateral relations.

The United Kingdom's split from the European Union, commonly known as Brexit is likely to impact all aspects of the bilateral relations of the two actors. Up to 31st December 2020, when the deliberations between the UK and the Union are to be concluded, the UK will still remain a part of the EU's Single Market and the Customs Union. In the final act that is yet to come, the midnight of 31 December 2020 will see Britain's complete departure from the EU structures. Regardless of the direction in which the Brexit negotiations will ultimately proceed, there will be consequences for both Europe and the UK in virtually all branches of their social, economic and political lives. 

The primary concern is defence and security cooperation. During the transition period of these eleven months, all existing defence arrangements and security agreements will need to be reassessed, completely altering the security landscape of Europe. Although when compared to other aspects of bilateral relations such as economy, travel and cross-border cooperation, the defence sector is expected to be minimally impacted because it is still the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and not the EU that is the main security guarantor of the European continent. As the UK has already vowed to remain committed to NATO following the Brexit, the repercussions on the security actors are bound to be nominal. 

Although the EU is currently attempting to develop more comprehensive cooperation between EU27 in the defence sector, various initiatives like the European Defence Fund and the European Peace Facility have lost velocity owing to the COVID-19 pandemic creating further stress on the already unequal economies of Northern and Southern Europe. In response to the inability of the Union to establish itself as a credible security actor in an ongoing international environment of distrust, it is still NATO and not the EU that undertakes the vast majority of defence-related activities and decisions in Europe.

Besides France, UK is the only other of the two European countries that possess the nuclear capability in the form of Trident nuclear ballistic missiles. It also has two capable aircraft carriers that have an advantage in military and peacekeeping operations around the globe. The British Army is also one of the most modern and capable forces on the continent, playing an important role in all modern conflicts during which other European nations have been involved. From an economic perspective, the British arms industry is also one of the biggest in the whole of the European Union, being surpassed only by France and Germany. Further, the UK is involved in several international projects (Eurofighter Typhoon, F-35, etc.) where it is only one of the several participating states. The UK also sports Europe's largest defence budget and is one of only six states within NATO spending two per cent of its annual GDP on defence.

Thus, the Foreign, Security and Defence policies of the UK are not pursued solely through the Union, but through a variety of multilateral organizations like the UN and NATO, and also through their key bilateral relationships with prominent security actors like the USA.

As the EU does not have exclusive law-making powers in the area of defence and it is the Member States that work together on a number of defence-related issues, Brexit is likely to only impact UK's involvement in these programmes. Moreover, by not participating in the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), the British Armed Forces may over time, become less compatible with their European counterparts as no common goals will be set anymore. Furthermore, the UK will be excluded from training opportunities during the EU-led peacekeeping missions and future projects of a similar kind. In the above context, it is unlikely that the UK would prefer to disengage with the military and civilian missions of the Union, keeping in mind the commonality of threat perception for both the actors.

Examining the road ahead for EU-UK defence and security cooperation, the October 2019 political declaration accompanying the Withdrawal Agreement expressed the intention of the UK and EU to "support ambitious, close and lasting cooperation on external threats". However, any future cooperation should respect both sides' "strategic and security interests, and their respective legal orders". The EU's mandate for negotiations on the future relationship with the UK adds that the UK and EU should explore new dialogues on foreign policy and be prepared to share information, including on sanctions. Further, these dialogues could be set up before the end of the transition period. The UK could participate in EU defence missions and projects on a case-by-case basis, though any participation in EU projects and programmes must accept oversight from the European Court of Justice for matters of EU law.

At some level, Brexit offers an opportunity to readjust priorities and investments towards an effective multilateralism at the European as well as transatlantic level. It is also possible that owing to the apparent overlap of threats and challenges shaped by the strategic environment and the priority concerns of both actors, the UK would continue to engage in civilian missions and military operations as a third country as well as continue to enhance NATOS's commitments as a security actor. In an age of increasing globalization and continuing porosity of borders, it is evident that UK would not want to weaken the Euro-Atlantic security partnership or restrain its multilateral commitments towards European and global security and defence.

About the author

Shreya Sinha is a PhD Scholar at the Centre for European Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

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