Brexit Op-ed – Global Reach and Global Influence: Without the EU?

Simon Duke

4 April 2016


Foreign and security policy will be one of the key issues in the lead up to the referendum on whether the UK should remain in or leave the EU on 23 June 2016.  This this will take place in the same month that a grandly-titled ‘EU Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy’ will be presented to the 28 Heads of State or Government comprising the European Council (europa.eu/globalstrategy/en/). This strategy is part of an attempt by the EU to define its basic role, purpose and visibility in a rapidly changing world.  Notwithstanding the fact that this is an enormously important chance for the EU to adjust to a rapidly changing world, eyes are bound to be focussed across the Channel. By the same token, the referendum will also do much to determine how ‘secure and prosperous’ the UK will be – to borrow form the title of the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review. Although Cameron’s renegotiation of the UK’s terms of membership was not explicitly about foreign and security policy, it already features in the developing campaigns for and against ‘Brexit’.

The ‘Bremain’ camp argue that, ‘We are stronger and more secure as part of Europe than on our own’ (www.strongerin.co.uk). There is something to be said for this since many of the challenges facing the EU, whether terrorism, irregular migration, organized crime or cyber-attacks demand transnational and coordinated responses.  Not all EU members can of course bring the same skills and capabilities to the table and they look to the UK for leadership on many foreign and security issues. Take the EU’s counter-terrorism strategy which is modelled on the UK’s CONTEST strategy. Although the UK is generally under-represented in diplomatic circles within the EU institutions relative to its population, British officials are widely admired and watched for the aplomb with which they negotiate the Brussels bureaucracy. The UK has also provided its fair share of senior appointments in EU’s foreign and security apparatus who have helped shape and steer EU foreign and security policies.  The UK has one of the most capable militaries in the EU and is also one of five countries capably of deploying an operational headquarters within the EU (the EU’s naval operation Atalanta to stop piracy off the Horn of Africa and Western Indian Ocean is managed by multinational civilian and military staff based outside London at Northwood).

The value of the UK’s role within the EU institutions is recognized by the likes of NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, both of whom have made it clear that they would prefer to work with the UK within the EU. So has Chinese President Xi Jingping. Cameron’s fellow European Council members are also in favour of continued British EU membership and that largely explains the eventual concessions granted to the British Prime Minister by the 27 other Heads of State or government. By the same token, the UK cannot expect any favours from the remaining EU members in the event of a Brexit. Tellingly, President Putin is one of the few who stand to gain from Brexit.

Those who may  be ‘Brexit’ inclined (such as www.voteleavetakecontrol.org) observe that the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) has completed 15 missions since 2003 and 17 are ongoing, but with relatively little to show for it in terms of change on the ground. Most missions have been ‘soft’, such as training, and demand relatively little of the UK (who contributes less staff than the Netherlands or Finland to ongoing civilian missions).  Moreover, EU decisions in this policy area are made by consensus which, it could be argued, are a constraint on the UK’s global foreign and security interests. Freed of these constraints, the UK could concentrate on NATO which, since it is backed by American guarantees, is the ultimate guarantor of Europe’s security (a position popularized by Liam Fox, former UK Defence Secretary, for the Grassroots Out campaign at grassrootsout.co.uk/). The UK will continue to benefit from its ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence agreement with the US and it will retain its permanent seat on the UN Security Council.  There is always the option of cooperating with European allies either bilaterally or through multilateral fora like NATO. Nor would a ‘Brexit’ exclude UK participation in future CSDP missions as a third party, but obviously without representation at the decision and planning stages.

Many of the arguments forwarded will be broadly political in nature, but there are also the geo-economic arguments to be considered.  ‘Bremain’ advocates argue that even as one of the larger EU members, Britain has problems affording its security and defence aspirations. The logic of joint procurement, sharing and pooling is therefore appealing. This is exactly what the long-suffering European Defence Agency in Brussels has been advocating for the better part of a decade. Even if the UK is one of the few European allies to attain the pledge made at NATO’s Wales Summit to devote 2% of gross domestic product to defence expenditure, questions of affordability still abound.

Contrary to this, it could be argued that the UK has stronger defence industrial ties across the Atlantic than its Franco-German counterparts and that relations in this domain with its strongest counterpart, France, are largely addressed via the 2010 Lancaster House treaties. In retrospect, the plea by Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, in March 2015, for an EU army as a symbol of the Union’s seriousness to Russia about defending its values, has played into the hands of Brexit campaigners.

What is rather lost in all of this toing and froing is the big picture. The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review is full of high-flying rhetoric about the UK’s global reach, influence, engagement and projection (www.gov.uk/government/). But, to what extent is this aspiration possible outside the EU or complicated by continued membership? Will the UK gain any significant leverage over the U.S., Russia or China from outside the EU? Will the UK be able to increase its influence with other significant European allies in the EU, like France or Germany? Will the UK be in a better position to contribute to peace and stability in the Middle East? What impact might Brexit have on the UK’s role in multilateral institutions, like the UN, the World Trade Organization or the International Monetary Fund?  Would Brexit make NATO stronger or weaker, given the UK’s traditional Atlanticist orientation within the EU? Or, would the UK find itself constrained by the EU in much of its foreign and security policy, even if it not a member?

Although this is a debate that primarily engages those who are eligible to vote in the referendum (disclosure: the author is not), there is an urgent need for concerted debate in other EU Member States about the implications of a potential Brexit. Would the EU actually be better off without the UK? Or, would it mean others might follow the UK in either renegotiating membership terms and possibly further ‘exits’ and thus continue to the unravelling of the EU? On security and defence more specifically, is it possible to limit the damage to the likely demise of CSDP and the subsequent decline in the EU’s international stature?  In the absence of the UK, would the remaining members encourage further integration to this end and, perhaps, even the emergence of an EU army? Might the remaining EU members create a standing EU military headquarters, which the UK has strongly opposed in the past? What would the impact of Brexit be upon the EU’s public diplomacy? Thought will also have to be given to the appropriate forms of relations between the EU and a post-Brexit UK at the bilateral and multilateral levels.

These are some of the questions that might usefully be debated in the pre-referendum debates on both sides of the Channel. There will inevitably be an element of conjecture to all of this since no one can be certain of exactly what a post-Brexit Europe will look like. While the British electorate mull over the debates surrounding the June referendum, it is just as important that the existential choices facing Europe need to be thought through and reflected in the EU’s forthcoming Global Strategy. Fans of Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ will recall the gathering of activists in Reg’s house when he asks, ‘What have the Romans done for us?’. This is an appropriate question to be asked of the EU in the UK, and of the UK in the EU.


About the Author

Simon Duke

Simon Duke is a Professor at the European Institute of Public Administration (EIPA), Maastricht, Netherlands.

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