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Ensuring Europe’s Security Post-Brexit

Europe faces numerous challenges to its security, including renewed Russian aggression, spillover from ongoing instability in the Middle East and North Africa, and potential entanglement between the United States and China in their standoff over trade and technology. Successfully responding to these threats requires effective cooperation among all European countries, especially its most powerful. However, the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union (EU) risks disrupting this necessary cooperation unless proper steps are taken to ensure a close relationship between the UK and EU on security matters moving forward.

Previously, the UK contributed to European security through its participation in NATO, multilateral arrangements such as the European Intervention Initiative, and the EU. While Brexit does not affect the first two, a fractured UK-EU relationship could disrupt Europe’s security architecture in three ways. First, the EU actively engages in civilian and military missions in order to build resilience in its neighborhood. As one of the bloc’s two largest military powers alongside France (with Germany lagging behind), the UK has been a key contributor to these missions, providing 16% of their total funding through the EU budget and even serving as the operational headquarters for some, such as Operation Atlanta. Without British capabilities, the impact of these missions will diminish.

Second, the EU plays an increasingly large role in military R&D and procurement through new initiatives such as the European Defence Fund (EDF) and Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). Lacking access to these joint projects and funds, the British defense industry will compete, rather than collaborate, with those of EU Member States. This can already be seen, for example, in the parallel development of the Franco-German-Spanish Future Combat Aircraft System and the British Tempest fighter. Third, the UK will no longer take part in the EU foreign policy decision-making process, reducing the capacity of Europe to speak with a single voice globally and to exert influence in the current climate of increasing great power competition.

One possible solution to mitigate these disruptions could be to continue British cooperation within the EU’s institutional security and defense efforts after Brexit. This depends, of course, on the political will of both sides. There is precedent for third country inclusion in EU missions, suggesting the bloc may welcome the UK’s participation in these operations. The British government, for its part, stated its intention to contribute in this area in a 2018 white paper. This same document expressed a desire to remain within EU defense industrial initiatives; however, prospects for agreement from the EU are foggier.

While it is desirable that the UK remains plugged into EU defense frameworks to the greatest extent possible, this alone cannot fully resolve the security issues posed by Brexit. To address the critical challenge of common European foreign policy decision-making, it would be prudent to consider the calls by France and Germany for the creation of a European Security Council (ESC), in which Britain would also be a member.

Thus far, the French and German proposals have lacked specific details on what structure an ESC may take; however, a few possibilities come to mind. One is to simply formalize the existing E3 format, through which France, Germany, and the UK collectively formulated their Iran policy and negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The risk for such a body would be alienating other EU countries from the decision-making process. Another idea is to make the ESC a special summit of the European Council, with Britain joining as an observer. However, this is not ideal either, as the UK’s unequal status could cause it to neglect the forum.

The most promising solution is to create a new institution outside the EU, dedicated solely to issues of European security. A European Security Council in this form could be modeled after the United Nations Security Council (U.N.S.C.), with France, Germany, and the United Kingdom as permanent members, and rotating membership for other, smaller European countries. This would allow for effective policy-making among Europe’s largest powers (as demonstrated in the case of Iran) while still including other voices.

Continuing negotiations over Britain’s future defense and security relationship with the EU should, therefore, follow a two-track approach in order to guarantee and enhance European security. First, the UK should continue and be permitted to participate within EU security and defense initiatives where possible. Second, a European Security Council with membership modeled after the U.N.S.C. should be established. Failure to take these actions will bring about a decline in Europe’s ability to both protect itself and to influence the rest of the world.


Nick Lokker

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