Filling the void – What does Brexit mean for a common EU defence policy?

(c) Dahrendorf Forum / Jorge Martin

Current Brexit discussions focus primarily on the next procedural steps in the UK’s exit or cover possible negative or positive economic consequences following Great Britain’s withdrawal from the Union. But what are the implications for the EU’s defence policy? Will Brexit lead to its breakdown or will it herald a new beginning with the omission of the veto country? Especially in light of current terrorist attacks in Europe, defence and security policy is on the table of European policymakers with pressure generated by society and the media.

I argue, however, that although there are several promising developments, such as the EU Global Strategy (EU GS) and a new French-German declaration on EU security, Brexit will not turn into an opportunity for EU defence policy, as the following issues will stand in its way: the development of Germany’s defence policy; nationalist tendencies within the Union; the exit-threat of further Member States; declining defence budgets; and discussions about EU defence policy in relation to NATO.

Time to strike new paths?

The EU GS, which was presented to the European Council by the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy in July, clearly emphasizes the importance of collective security and defence cooperation as well as a common defence approach within the EU. The strategy is guided by a Realpolitik approach when claiming “[t]he idea that Europe is an exclusively “civilian power” does not do justice to an evolving reality”. Even though sovereignty in Member State’s defence decisions is still guaranteed, cooperation is simultaneously called a must, as “nationally-oriented defence programs are insufficient to address capability shortfalls”. It also points out to the fact that deeper defence cooperation increases the output of defence spending. Hence the strategy demands a “gradual synchronization and mutual adaption of national defence planning cycles and capability development practices [as it] can enhance strategic convergence”. And instead of keeping alive national defence monopolies and creating duplications the strategy focuses on the requirement of “a concerted and cooperative effort […] to create a solid European defence industry”. Additionally it recommends the participation of small- and medium sized enterprises to create more innovation and investment.

In reaction to Brexit the German and French foreign minister further declared in a joint statement in late June that Europe is a security union which aims at gaining a common security and defence policy. The ministers propose permanent structured cooperation of groups of Members States for military operations. Additionally they suggest concrete mechanisms such as the introduction of a European semester in the area of defence to increase the coordination of national defence planning, enable synergies and balance out priorities; the creation of a European research program enabling innovation to foster the European defence industry; and an annual meeting by the European Council functioning as a European Security Council to discuss questions of internal and external security as well as defence within the EU.

Additionally the Dutch government’s proposal for a European defence White Paper and the creation of a European Commission Defence Action Plan as well as the establishment of a European Defence Research Program are in discussion. Not to forget the introduction of an EU army that is still a hot issue when it comes to common EU defence policy. All these initiatives can counter decreasing budgets, meet increasing demands and, with the UK’s veto disappearing, might even become more plausible.

Five structural obstacles

Despite these developments five issues make a strong common EU defence policy nevertheless unlikely:

1.) The UK represents the leading military power within the EU followed by France and in contrast to all other EU Member States the UK, Poland and Greece are the only countries complying with the 2% GDP ratio for national defence spending demanded by NATO. Additionally the UK has a range of military bases and expertise at its disposal. Instead Germany, even after two-years of intensive political discussion within the government and society about military responsibility still seems to be struggling regarding its role as a military power within the EU. While its strong economic and political standing in the Union places expectations on Germany, its military history raises uncertainty about the extent of its military engagement. Additionally its huge problems regarding equipment and force levels make it unlikely for Germany to follow in the footsteps of Britain. As a start the recently released White Book of the German Ministry of Defence reconfirms Germany’s responsibility to act as a global power. Although this sounds promising, many issues on material and societal level would need to be solved to empower the Member State to take over the UK’s strong military position in the two years until Brexit is eventually carried out. Even with the new White Book this does not seem plausible.

2.) 80% of contracts for defence spending are awarded nationally. This leads to both a concentration on quality due to the high costs for production of military commodities instead of (an also necessary) quantity and to a lack of unity in the equipment. For example, there are almost 20 types of armoured infantry fighting vehicles within the EU versus one type in the US. An advanced integration of the Member State’s arms industries seems unlikely as defence is still very much subsidized by national governments, making sure that competition remains stronger than cooperation within Europe.

3.) Defence has always been a policy area of a strong sovereign decision-making will among Member States. With the exit-threat the EU could conceivably try to avoid discussing hot topics in this field. Although terrorism could be a trigger for more cooperation, it can also increase the demand for national defence policies among Europe’s policymakers and within its societies.

4.) By looking at military budgets in single Member States it is obvious that there is a trend of declining defence spending. From 2005 to 2015 there was a 10.7% decrease in defence spending in EU Member States in real terms (as well as an 18.5% decrease in R&D and a 32% decrease in R&T from 2006 to 2014). Additionally there is a decline of young people joining the national military forces in many Member States. Professional armies have faced competition by private employers in the security and defence field, in particular since the abolishment of the compulsory military service in most EU Member States (21 Member States have abolished the involuntary system). And a generally declining number of soldiers due to the demographic change could create serious difficulties for national armies in the near future.

5.) With the Lisbon treaty defence cooperation has been given a greater role in the institutional arrangements of the EU. Ensuing discussions around duplication and undermining of NATO structures are a standard occurrence – especially brought forward by the UK government. With Brexit the transatlantic relationship will gain more weight, as the UK will surely boost NATO as its main security alliance. In this case a lot will depend on the next President of the US.

Despite the numerous promising approaches such as the EU GS, too many obstacles seem to hinder the development of an EU defence policy worth its name. Germany’s indecisiveness regarding its military role, strong nationally supported arms industries, nationalistic tendencies among EU Member States, decreasing defence budgets and the parallelism of EU and NATO in the field, make a stronger commitment for EU defence policy among member states unlikely. Even though some new (and old) initiatives will be taken up after Brexit, a revitalised EU defence policy won’t be established any time soon.

About the author:

Franziska Pfeifer is a Research Associate to Helmut Anheier for the Dahrendorf Forum at the Hertie School of Governance.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School of Governance and London School of Economics and Political Science or its funder Stiftung Mercator.

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