There has been some limited debate about the implications of Brexit for Britain’s defence and the wider defence and security implications in Europe. Defence and the EU do not easily go together in British political debate. Some post-Brexit debate about UK defence has focused on the future of relations with NATO and bilateral defence relations such as with the USA or Norway. This overlooks how the wider economic, political, social, constitutional, diplomatic and bureaucratic aspects of Brexit – for both the UK and the remaining EU (rEU) – will be more important to shaping the longer-term context of UK defence and security than is to be found by looking at what now happens in bilateral relationships.
As a process and not some short term event, Brexit is something that will shape UK defence and security over the longer-term and be one that is defined as much by what happens elsewhere in Europe as by what happens to Britain. We can group the implications for UK defence into five groups, many of which cross over from defence to broader foreign and strategic matters.
1. Uncertainty over UK-EU/European defence relations and the EU/Europe’s future. Too often the wider geopolitical implications of developments such as Brexit are analyzed last. Before examining the immediate implications of Brexit for defence – for example in terms of defence spending – we need to appreciate the wider context in which Brexit may now unfold. The UK government has tried to tackle fears about post-Brexit British isolationism through decisions such to commit forces to the new NATO battle groups deployed to Eastern Europe. At the same time, there have been rumors that some in UK government have been prepared to contemplate using Britain’s commitment to NATO and Eastern Europe as a means of leveraging a better Brexit deal from these states. Britain’s commitments should not be overlooked, including to EU defence operations. While such operations are small, and the UK’s contributions also small, they do signal intent by the EU to develop some form of stick to complement its economic power. Even if the EU remains something of a dwarf in military terms, its role in non-traditional security matters – for example in social, environmental, crime, sanctions, and providing hard cash – remains considerable, something that if played right can complement NATO. Being a central player in this relationship is something the UK is likely to seek. Whatever role the UK secures, and however promising it looks, it will ultimately place Britain in a second tier place to existing EU members and one where it will be in the shadow of relations between the remaining EU and the USA. Obstacles will inevitably arise, for example over the sharing of data and risk. This, of course, depends on the EU remaining united, something Brexit has helped throw into question. Should the EU unite further then that warrants careful questions in the UK where avoiding a single, dominant power in the rest of Europe has been a long-running concern. The EU would be a benign power compared to those who have tried in the past, but such a development would change the UK’s place in Europe and the world. The alternative is European disintegration (or fragmentation or reordering), something that would also profoundly shape the geopolitics and security of Europe. Like the future of NATO, European stability and EU unity should not be taken for granted. The never-ending debate about US decline means many – including in Britain and the rest of Europe – have failed to debate and appreciate the decline of Europe. Britain is a part of this decline and its security and place in the world will be shaped by it. Division and further decline will draw in external powers as Europe’s three hegemons – Germany, the USA and Russia – struggle to shape the future of the continent.
2. The spending implications. These can be divided into short and long term. Short-term implications revolve around the increased cost for the UK of buying defence equipment as a result of the decline in the value of the Pound Sterling. This will certainly weigh heavily on UK defence spending given the spending commitments the UK has entered into such as the F35. Longer-term implications revolve around the possible impact on defence spending if the UK economy does not grow as much, something that already seems likely. Post-Brexit, the UK government has eased up on austerity, but pressure on government spending remains considerable. Given the large spending hole the UK military has only recently dug itself out of, it remains likely that the Ministry of Defence will remain under tight pressure financially. The UK only just meets NATO’s 2% defence spending commitment, and this looks likely to remain the case. If the economy grows less then the UK can still meet the 2%, but the actual cash will be less. It is unlikely the UK will increase its defence spending. It is not a priority for Theresa May, especially domestically in the political games she faces to manage Brexit. Making commitments to increased defence spending will not appease those on the Eurosceptic right of the Conservative party. Their focus will be on the Brexit negotiations and they will not be distracted – or appeased – by defence spending commitments.
3. Geopolitical implications for the UK state, British Isles and UK territories. If the first aim of any state is its unity then Brexit could threaten that unity in a way not seen since 1940 and the Easter Rising of 1916. Granted, polling has not shown clear increases in support for Scottish independence (and Scottish pro-Europeanism can be somewhat exaggerated), although the possibility of Scottish independence should not be dismissed. The Northern Ireland peace process ahs in part been based on the UK and Irish Republic’s shared membership of the EU. Scottish independence would add to the political convulsions in the UK. It would cause a headache for the future of the UK’s armed forces, the most British of large-scale British institutions. An immediate concern would be the future of the UK’s nuclear weapons based in Scotland. Violence in Northern Ireland should not be overlooked. There is also the issue of Gibraltar and the British bases in Cyprus, each of which do have some connection to the EU thanks to Spain and Cyprus. Gibraltar (the only overseas territory of the UK to be in the EU and therefore allowed to take part in the referendum) voted overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU. What the future now holds for the territory is unclear.
4. The impact on Britain’s strategic outlook. The topic of defence and security did not figure highly in the EU referendum, although mention – often given over to hyperbole – was made of an EU Army. David Cameron also found himself attacked for arguing that UK membership was a matter of war and peace. He was right to argue this, because the EU – along with NATO (and therefore the US security commitment to Europe) – has played a key role in the security of Europe. Yet Cameron was rightly lambasted and called out for his position given that only a few months before he had argued that he was prepared to walk away from the EU if the UK did not get the renegotiated relationship he was then seeking. This is typical of the British political elite’s view of the EU: one that has taken it for granted domestically, often attacking it for easy political point scoring. It also reflects a degree of denial – at least publicly – in the UK about the important role of the EU in European politics and security and the UK’s own power and ability to shape Europe. Brexit now confronts Britain with some awkward choices, ones that will shape the way in which British defence moves forward. The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review and National Security Strategy both avoided the elephant in the room of the forthcoming EU referendum. As so often with defence reviews and national security strategies, politics came first and the threats and risks facing the UK second. The review did not touch on Britain’s position vis-à-vis the EU, or the role of the EU and Britain’s membership in it for UK security. Nor did it ask any fundamental questions about the UK-US relationship, questions that are now being asked in light of what President Trump could mean for the relationship. Instead David Cameron used the defence review as a means to increase defence spending and therefore placate some Eurosceptic Conservatives who had been left angry at cuts to defence spending during the 2010-15 Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. Brexit –like Trump’s election – raises some awkward questions about UK priorities. Brexit challenges Britain’s fundamental post-1945 grand-strategic commitment to sustaining close relations with both Europe and the United States. Several options have begun to emerge: isolationism best captured by the phrase ‘Switzerland with nukes’; a ‘pivot’ away from Europe towards Asia and emerging powers; an EU-UK ‘special relationship’ that sees the UK develop a close working relationship in foreign, security and defence matters, albeit outside the orbit of Union membership; a ‘Global European balancer’ where Britain tries to pursue global ambitions while also engaging in European politics, often using the global links to enhance its position but one which risks overstretch; and ‘adrift and lost at sea’, a muddling through strategy. It is not yet clear which option Britain will, or can, pursue.
5. UK political elite consumed by Brexit, but disconnected from public. British politics and decision makers are going to be consumed by Brexit for several years. Leading diplomats have been recalled to London to work on Brexit, leaving behind important work. The Prime Minister and Cabinet face some difficult decisions ahead. The complexity of the Brexit negotiations will consume time and resources. Europe has plagued successive prime ministers and been key to destroying several of them, not least Conservative prime ministers. It is likely that Theresa May will find the issue of Europe defines her premiership and potentially destroys it. In a twist, it may be no bad thing that British government and politics is too distracted by Brexit to deal with other international matters. The referendum revealed a disconnect between the British public and their political elite, the majority of whom – especially in the diplomatic and security community – were in favour of the UK remaining in the EU. That disconnect has raised questions about whether the elite is also disconnected from the UK public over views of overseas military intervention and ideas of Britain as a great power. For a long time the support of the British public for Britain as a global player was taken as a given. While the referendum result was not a clear mandate for isolationism, the vote did reflect a degree of weariness and hostility towards the outside world and Britain playing the role it has traditionally pursued.