Most of the current discussions on the possible ‘Brexit’ — the United Kingdom leaving the European Union — are concerned with issues of the Eurozone and its economic implications, the ongoing migration and refugee crisis, and the potential economic, political and social consequences for the UK in case of leaving the EU. What has been missing from the heated debates though, is the question about the implications of the Brexit for the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) as well as the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). During the Cold War, European states relied on the security community in the form of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. With the fall of the iron curtain and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and thus the downfall of the biggest threat to Western states, the EU slowly developed its own security and defence structures. In 2003, the Union declared its full operability and launched two of its exemplary military operations, Operation Concordia in the FYRO Macedonia and Operation Althea in Bosnia Herzegovina. So far, the EU has launched 22 civilian missions and 9 military operations. In several of these operations, the United Kingdom played a significant role in terms of operational planning and contributing military capabilities. What would therefore happen to the EU’s security and defence structures as well as its military capabilities if the UK were to exit? How will it cope without the contributions of the UK in future operations?
The UK’s Position in the EU’s Security and Defence Structures
In most of the EU’s military operations, the UK has played a key role. The Union’s operational headquarters are situated in Northwood, just north of London. The UK maintains a great share of the overall defence budget of the 28 member states. Even though it has often hampered the process of developing the EU’s security and defence structures further, it remains as one of the most important contributors to operations under CSDP. The EU’s overall military expenditure amounts to €192.5 million and with €43.7million, UK’s military expenditure represents more than a fifth (22.7%) of the EU’s expenditure. Also, it possesses the second biggest troop contingent and has currently deployed a great quantity of its personnel in current military operations as well as civilian missions, such as in Bosnia Herzegovina under Operation Althea which was taken over from NATO under British command. And in the case of Operation Concordia, the UK was even among the key actors in brokering the peace deal between the conflicting groups. By signing the Franco-British Joint Declaration in St. Malo in 1998, the UK has committed itself for a defence policy on the EU level and thus paved the way for further developments. This demonstrates the country’s importance to the Union’s operability and effectiveness as a military actor.
Brexit’s Implications for CSDP
Without the United Kingdom, the European Union might not be able to make such contributions to future military operations. Numerous questions concerning the relationship between the UK and the EU would need to be raised especially in security terms. What would happen to operational planning of future CSDP operations? How would the EU deal with a decreased military budget and less military personnel? And since the UK is the most important linkage between Europe and North America, what implications would a European Union without the UK have for future EU-NATO relations?
Regarding all of these questions, the EU and especially its security and defence policy would not make such a good image. This would then have negative effects on Europe’s role on the global stage. The EU would lack a great amount of important personnel, strategic planning capabilities as well as potentially loose its operational headquarters. Unless the UK would become a strategic partner of the EU and would still participate in operations under CSDP, the Union would not be able to develop its security and defence structures any further and the desire to become a global player would once again be at stake. As far as EU-NATO relations are concerned, the gap might become even wider. This special relationship already suffers from deeply rooted issues between its member states. Having another European member state without EU membership would complicate relations, especially in terms of collecting and exchanging intelligence as well as sharing military capabilities and assets.
Brexit would thus have severe implications for the EU as a security and defence actor not only in Europe but also beyond its borders. It is therefore essential, from the European security perspective, for the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union.
Nele Marianne Ewers-Peters is PhD Candidate and Teaching Assistant at the University of Kent, Canterbury.