While it now appears that British Prime Minister Theresa May and her government will opt for a hard exit, the exact consequences remain unclear and it is relevant to think a step further. Since Theresa May’s announcement to go with the so-called hard Brexit, both the British government and the European Union will need to reconsider relations with international organisations. The United Kingdom plays a vital part in the EU’s interorganisational relations, most importantly in foreign, security and defence issues.
Despite its ongoing aversions to further EU integration in the realm of security and defence policy, the UK has played an important role as a driver with signing the bilateral Franco-British agreement in St. Malo in 1998. Also, thanks to its long-lasting partnership with the United States, it has often served as a bridge over the Atlantic. It also maintains close trade relations with Asian countries, especially with Commonwealth countries such as India and Malaysia, but also with China, because of the regions’ increasing economic importance.
The gains and losses of Brexit for both the EU and the UK
Prior to the UK’s EU referendum and the subsequent decision to leave the Union, the British government has strengthened its bilateral relations with international organisations such as ASEAN and WTO. However, with Brexit not only will the UK’s relations with international organisations change, but so will also international agreements of the EU. While the UK government will have to re-negotiate economic agreements with the EU’s Free Trade Partners (e.g. Canada and EFTA countries), it will also have to re-negotiate its status within the WTO. Being outside the EU, the UK will no longer benefit from the special rules for trading blocs under WTO regulations.
On the other hand, there is no need to re-negotiate international agreements and Brexit will not affect negatively the Union in this sense. Yet, the EU will have to miss out on a significant security partner and the most important defence capabilities. As a member state, the UK has contributed vitally to military operations under the framework of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy. With Brexit the EU will loose the Franco-British driver and motor since the capabilities of these two member states account for 40%.
On a positive note, the EU will also loose a veto player with Brexit. This might enable the EU to finalise its security and defence project. In the weeks after the referendum outcome, renewed ideas of an EU army emerged. Brexit might open new avenues and opportunities for the EU, such as stronger EU defence as proposed by Germany and France.
Implications for the EU-NATO relationship
Yet, the implications of Brexit for the EU’s interorganisational relations with crucial partners, such as NATO, will not be this positive. As outlined by former Secretary General of NATO, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Brexit was sad news for both security actors, and will hurt the EU-NATO relationship. As a bridge and advocate of EU-NATO cooperation, this relationship needs to be re-considered. The UK is amongst a few states that have achieved a 2% defence spending. Additionally, it possesses nuclear assets, a large military force and, above all, the motivation to conduct military crisis management operations.
The future EU-UK relationship will be important for shaping EU-NATO cooperation since the UK has not only contributed to the organisational structure of CSDP and has served ever since as a bridge between these two organisations. Whether the UK will be an integrated, associated or detached partner will affect interorganisational relations. It is suggested that Brexit can lead to three possible scenarios for the EU-NATO relationship: (1) The UK continues to contribute to CSDP operations through a special agreement that would allow to further strengthen the EU-NATO relationship. In this case, the UK would also need a special status with the EU, i.e. a EU+1 partnership which would enable the UK to participate in CSDP operations. (2) The UK withdraws completely and the EU lacks financial contributions to CSDP and becomes more reliant on NATO through Berlin Plus. Accordingly, the UK would be more autonomous, but the EU-NATO relationship would suffer more asymmetry. (3) The UK withdraws completely and EU member states are able to compensate for the financial loss and establish stronger capabilities including EU OHQ. This would contribute to the EU’s autonomisation as well as to a more equal and symmetric EU-NATO relationship.
Implications for the EU’s interorganisational relations
While Brexit would have a detrimental effect on the EU-NATO relationship, this will not be the case as such with the EU’s interorganisational relations with organisations such as WTO and the UN. In the case of WTO, the EU will still be considered a trading bloc, and thus benefit from WTO’s specific regulations in regard to tariffs for international trade. In the case of the UN, some member states, e.g. Germany, Italy, Spain and Poland, would favour a permanent EU seat in the Security Council. In addition, due to the Franco-British Lancaster House Agreement, the UK government will continue to cooperate with at least France in matters of security and defence, which can then be related back to the EU and its interorganisational interaction with the UN.
The extent of Brexit’s implications for the EU-UK relationship and for the EU’s interorganisational relations with international organisations such as NATO, will hopefully be determined in the upcoming months. The decision by Theresa May and her government to opt for a hard Brexit have important effects on the future of the EU’s interorganisational relations and the strength (or weakness) of European security. With a strong British engagement, the EU might be better off due to the UK’s capabilities, but without a close relationship, new avenues might be open for the EU to finally strengthen and expand its security and defence policy – the question of how exactly this will happen remains.