As NATO leaders convene for a summit meeting in the UK, it’s a good time to consider the European Union’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), its relevance to NATO, and the potential impact of Brexit on European and UK security and defence.
CSDP accounts for little more than two percent of the EU budget. Nevertheless, it is a significant crisis intervention instrument increasingly relevant to NATO capability.
Recent criticism of the Alliance from President Macron has focused minds on the need for stronger European defence, with Germany’s Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer calling for realist thinking about Germany’s responsibilities within NATO.
The challenge for the EU and Britain is how to ensure strategic relevance and capability through NATO.
European security and defence policy began with the Franco-British Saint Malo Declaration in 1998, which sought to give the EU the ‘capacity for autonomous action backed up by a credible military force’.
In 2003 the European Security Strategy called for a culture that would support ‘robust intervention’ in crisis situations, and later the EU launched military peacekeeping and police training missions in DR Congo, FYR Macedonia and in Bosnia Herzegovina.
To date there have been 35 CSDP missions, including six military operations. Seventeen are on-going, including EU NAVFOR MED Sofia to combat human trafficking in the Southern Central Mediterranean, and EUNAVFOR Atalanta off the coast of Somalia, an anti-piracy operation.
CSDP has had important stabilisation impact in various countries and has contributed to post-conflict peacekeeping, especially in the Balkans.
It endorses and strengthens the rule of law and security sector reform and conducts police and military training under an EU flag.
Interventions benefit from high legitimacy and local support. Military operations require UN authorisation and in Africa, backing from the African Union.
CSDP epitomises EU soft power, bringing assistance and material benefits to vulnerable communities often in post-conflict settings.
This feature is naturally a weakness in terms of winning greater and more equitable contributions from all member states.
Brexit may have a seriously adverse impact on CSDP.
The UK has long opposed any EU defence identity, but CSDP is overwhelmingly security-focused, to the extent that critics ask, ‘Where is the D in CSDP?’
Nevertheless, its defence relevance is that several CSDP-related initiatives are designed to enhance military capability, and CSDP provides a framework to achieve this.
Given the threat from Putin’s Russia, and President Trump’s questioning whether the US should continue to guarantee European security without Europe taking on more burden-sharing, this is surely an imperative.
Within CSDP, Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) is designed to enhance EU military capability and strengthen the European contribution to NATO.
Indeed, NATO supports both, and disputes the view sometimes aired in Britain that the EU/CSDP risks duplication of Atlantic Alliance responsibilities.
Duplication is not the issue: more significant is whether the EU becomes a stronger strategic partner to NATO by developing autonomous defence capability.
After the Brexit referendum, the EU27 launched – without British participation – several defence-related initiatives.
Federica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, issued the EU Global Strategy arguing for greater multilateral commitment to defence capability.
PESCO was finally activated, and now comprises 47 joint projects, although none are ‘big ticket’ like the potential Franco-German-led development of a new fighter aircraft.
To be a game-changer, PESCO needs to facilitate key strategic enablers.
The Union also established a Brussels-based headquarters for military planning and conduct capability (MPCC), previously resisted by London.
None of this signals an EU Army.
Security and defence are resolutely intergovernmental spheres within which member states have absolute sovereignty over the deployment of their armed forces.
Initiatives since the Brexit referendum suggest that member states support deeper cooperation, but not integration.
Brexit may turn out to be highly significant and damaging for both European and UK security and defence. For the EU, there remains the hope that were Brexit to be avoided, a future UK government might engage more fully with CSDP and PESCO.
Moreover, in defence terms, losing one of only two member states with genuine power projection capability is a serious blow.
The UK accounts for 20 percent of EU armed forces and like France, has full-spectrum military capability and a strategic culture that tolerates out-of-area combat operations.
The UK accounts for 40 per cent of the European military-industrial complex together with related research and development, much of it for dual use civilian and military applications, such as unmanned aerial vehicles (or drones) or satellite technology.
Losing the UK’s defence industry contribution would be a major loss to the EU and this is why PESCO does allow for third country participation.
For Britain the risks are no less great.
Exclusion from joint European defence projects under PESCO or relocation of Airbus manufacturing to France would be bad news for high-end technology employment and research.
Exclusion from military encryption technologies in the Galileo satellite system would be extremely costly and would undermine the UK’s industrial base.
While Britain has often been a reluctant participant in EU security and defence structures, London has welcomed bilateral initiatives with Paris, especially since the 2010 Lancaster House treaty on military and nuclear cooperation.
French and British armed forces cooperate intensively in the Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF) with land, air and maritime components under joint command, benefiting from considerable systems interoperability.
However, it seems certain that if they take a particularly toxic turn, the negotiations over Brexit will damage Franco-British relations, affecting not only politics and economics, but also the military partnership.
France will look to its EU partners while Britain will seek closer engagement with American defence interests but as a junior partner, rather than in a relationship of equals with European neighbours.
With Brexit, Britain risks becoming a supplicant to American corporations and servant to Washington’s military command.
We may hope that notwithstanding the Brexit process, London and Brussels settle on a pragmatic partnership that deepens security and defence ties and strengthens the European arm of NATO. Current signs are not encouraging.
If the UK absents itself from CSDP, or settles for a mere observer status, detached from European projects, EU/UK cooperation will be seriously downgraded.
This will undermine the UK’s soft power, its industrial strategy and its political and economic interests. It will also inflict harm on UK and European security.
By Dr Simon Sweeney, senior lecturer in International Political Economy and Business, University of York.