Brexit negotiations may be stalled, to put it kindly. But Britain has another set of complex negotiations ahead, whether the divorce from the European Union ends up being soft or hard — the United Kingdom’s military relationship with the European Union.
The U.K. and France are the two major military powers in Europe. Both have nuclear capabilities, permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council and significant abilities to project overseas military power. With Russia increasingly aggressive to the east, the E.U. and the U.K. agree that they don’t want a security vacuum in Europe and that they both want to maintain a strong, cooperative military relationship.
But the politics of that relationship have been fraught for decades. Prime Minister Theresa May’s government has made clear that it wants a new international role as “Global Britain.” Many in the E.U. are suspicious about London’s long-term intentions.
Of course, those discussions will be affected by the chaotic and bitter Brexit negotiations. But the tension on military cooperation goes way back and will continue, no matter what happens next. Here’s what you need to know.
Britain’s ambivalent role in European defense
For 40 years the U.K. blocked the E.U. from having any military role, arguing that NATO was the only legitimate and viable security force needed for the region. That changed in 1998, when the E.U. launched its Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP). British Prime Minister Tony Blair had changed the U.K. position and worked to increase European military strength because he believed that the United States might retreat into isolationism and pull back from its NATO commitments. London helped draft many of the CSDP’s foundational documents and working papers.
But in 2003, President George W. Bush built a small coalition to invade Iraq, arguing that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. Blair’s government changed direction, not only joining that coalition but emphasizing the U.K.-U.S. “special relationship.” After that, the U.K. distanced itself from the CSDP and sought to apply the brakes. A 2012 report on the “Future of Europe” by 10 E.U. foreign ministers spoke of the need “to prevent one single member state from being able to obstruct initiatives.”
Then came the Brexit referendum. Although on the whole the E.U. did not want Britain to leave, some factions viewed Britain’s retreat with relief: Finally, Europe might be able to make progress on coordinated defense. Since 2016, many claim, the E.U. has made more progress on the CSDP than in the previous two decades. A raft of new initiatives on military capacity, funding and cooperation has been agreed upon.
At the same time, since the Brexit vote, the U.K. has strenuously tried to build a “new, deep and special partnership” with European defense and security efforts. That has puzzled some observers. One analyst said that the U.K.’s overtures seemed more like “a state trying to join the EU, not one trying to leave it.” But President Trump’s hostility to NATO and the E.U. have undermined London’s hopes of emerging as the United States’ key European ally, leaving May little alternative to staying close to the E.U. on defense.
Post-Brexit, the U.K. wants a major role in E.U. security. That would be awkward.
As the U.K. and E.U. discuss security and defense, the difficult issue has been how much say the U.K. will have in making relevant decisions. London at first asked just to keep things as they are, with the U.K. remaining fully involved in key decision-making institutions and agencies. But legally, once the U.K. leaves the E.U., that’s impossible.
In February, May gave a speech at the Munich Security Conference in which she pleaded with her E.U. partners “to demonstrate some real creativity” and come up with a new treaty allowing the U.K. to stay involved in proportion to its military might and contributions. In a July white paper, the U.K. proposed “consultation across all foreign policy areas, with regular dialogue between officials, ad hoc invitations to meetings, for example to the Political and Security Committee in informal sessions, provisions for discussion between EU27 leaders and the UK Prime Minister and at other political levels.”
But the E.U. has been firm: It has welcomed the U.K.’s willingness to remain involved, but the U.K. can consult on security only after the union’s 27 nations have agreed on strategic objectives. How stalled is this discussion? Well, at November’s end, the U.K. and E.U. released a statement setting out their hopes for the future relationship — but with no clear statements about London’s coming role in European defense.
E.U.-NATO relations will also be awkward.
The U.K. would seem to be a good candidate as a go-between in this relationship. But Trump’s disdain for NATO has pushed European leaders to call for strategic E.U. autonomy, including what some call a “European army.”
France and Germany now seem interested in using expanded military involvement as a way to deepen E.U. integration post-Brexit. If that happens, it’s hard to imagine the U.K. staying deeply involved. All the U.K. documents outlining its defense vision insist that NATO remain central, with the E.U. merely complementary.
For the E.U., military autonomy is becoming an imperative. If that’s the direction of travel, the U.K. will have to decide whether a strategically autonomous Europe is more of a threat than a promise.
In short, after the divorce, things will remain awkward.
Jolyon Howorth is professor emeritus and Jean Monnet professor ad personam of European politics at the University of Bath and visiting professor of public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.