The Brexit Debate: What would Brexit mean for the UK and EU’s ability to deal with conflict?

Simon Duke and Silvio Rossignoli

30 May 2016


‘Conflict’ can mean different things. To start with the word can conjure up images of territorial aggression against an EU member state or against countries which have special ties to member states such as Iceland, Greenland, Serbia or Turkey. Until recently, this was thought rather far-fetched but has become at least more thinkable in the case of the Baltic states who are more susceptible to various forms of ‘hybrid’ threats from Russia. It may also take more subtle forms such as cyber-warfare against one of more EU members that is sponsored by a third party government.

In this case, we are actually talking more about ‘defence’ and to many British this has been seen primarily as the job of NATO and the underpinning guarantees provided by the United States. The EU has few pretensions in this direction and the founding treaties even acknowledge the special status of the (six) neutral or non-aligned EU members and those who see their primary defence guarantees realized through NATO membership. It is true that NATO and the EU have difficult formal relations, largely due to the unresolved Cyprus question, but there is also encouraging evidence of informal cooperation at lower levels and in the field.

‘Conflict’ can also be seen in the wider ‘security’ sense, as those situations aimed at preventing conflict, conflict management and post-conflict stabilization in situations beyond Europe. This is where the EU has built up considerable experience through military and civilian (police, rule of law, observation or training) missions. Take as an example the counter-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden. This is a multi-national operation involving vessels and aircraft from a number of EU members, including the UK, and whose operational headquarters is located at Northwood in Hertfordshire. This operation not only benefits the countries of the Horn of Africa but also the UK itself for whom the freedom of the seas is fundamental to our trade and a proud part of its maritime heritage. But, these are also aspects of conflict that demand a wider toolbox than just ‘boots on the ground’ such as different kinds of aid and assistance, security sector reform, disarmament demobilization and reintegration and ongoing political dialogue at the governmental and societal levels. When looked at through a security prism the EU is a wider, but complementary, security actor when compared to NATO.

The UK’s contribution to both types of ‘conflict’ is considerable and of enormous benefit to both organizations. There is no ‘EU army’ or, generally speaking, ‘NATO’ or ‘UN’ army. In essence we are talking about national manpower and resources adorned with different badges serving under different flags, with the full political agreement of Whitehall. The UK’s manpower, resources and experience are widely admired by close partners such as France or the Netherlands. In the event of Brexit it is not simply a case of doing what was done with the EU through NATO. Yes, the UK is traditionally ‘Atlanticist’ in its security orientation but this is something that the U.S. views positively since, with UK membership of the EU, complementarity between the EU and NATO is enhanced. Brexit would imply less leverage in Washington.

The focus of American security policy under Obama has been towards Asia whereas for many of the EU’s members it is to the east, but in this case Russia. In the absence of Britain, much of the redefining of relations with Russia will be left to France, Germany and Italy, perhaps leading to closer economic cooperation. It is also likely that Britain’s ability to shape relations with China will be similar curtailed outside the EU, quite simply because China’s principal trade partner is the EU and, within that, Germany. It is difficult to imagine three more important actors who, in their own ways, are shaping the world about us. In one fell swoop, Brexit may undermine our standing and influence with China, Russia and the United States. It is difficult to imagine a worse time for a ‘home goal’.

Brexit arguments often risk being ahistorical and portray the UK as a victim of policies propagated by Brussels. In the case of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) it was very much an Anglo-French creation. The reason for this is simple. The wars in the Western Balkans in the early 1990s showed very clearly that there are occasions on which the U.S. may not wish to be involved and, as a result, the ability to deal with such challenges should exist at the European level. This policy area would not have existed, let along developed and flourished, without both powers since they were the two that possessed the necessary political and security weight to move it forward. No other powers compare (even Germany, who for historical reasons, has always been more reticent when it comes to issues surrounding conflict). Brexit presents CSDP with two scenarios.

First, the policy area may crumble with the lack of UK input and participation. Participating in CSDP operations (or ‘missions’ as they are called) is a matter for each Member State to determine. There have been CSDP missions without the UK, often under French aegis. But, over-reliance upon one power for much of the political initiative and military wherewithal would introduce an even more overt bias into the issue of when and whether to intervene overseas. Brexit would damage, and maybe even cripple, the EU’s ability to address often complex and demanding conflicts in our littoral (such as the Western Balkans) as well as further afield (like Somalia). The EU would still be able to offer ‘carrots’ in its foreign and security policy but, without the UK, the ‘sticks’ would be weaker and less credible, as would be the EU in its entirety.  There is the more general possibility that Brexit would not only lead to the demise of CSDP, but may also prompt other EU members to exit.

Second, Brexit may strengthen CSDP. The remaining powers may be forced to think more seriously about pooling, sharing and joint procurement as a way of both enhancing capabilities and achieving economies of scale. It may lead not only to closer security integration but also to deeper defence industrial alignment. Closer UK alignment with U.S. defence industries has often been suggested and, in some instances, has occurred through mergers. Notwithstanding this, the U.S. remains deeply reluctant to share key defence industrial technologies, even with close allies. It could also be argued that a number of recent military actions, like the Anglo-French military operations in Libya in 2011, occurred outside the EU and ‘coalitions of the willing’ have been frequently used and even preferred by Washington. There is some truth to this, but part of the UK’s security attraction to the U.S. lies in its ability to operate with other key European allies and not just because it is Britain. If the U.S. has a ‘special relationship’ in military terms, it has increasingly been in France, just as economically and politically it has been with Germany. A UK that is increasingly absent from international security challenges, whose falling defence spending has caused public concern from Washington, and who is ambivalent towards the EU, is unlikely to appeal to any post-Obama presidency. Intelligence sharing is hardly enough for a solid bilateral, let alone special, relationship.

This still leaves NATO, but the utility and future of the Alliance remain in balance, especially with the uncertainties of the U.S. Presidential elections in mind. The arguments surrounding Brexit should not be reduced to treating NATO as a substitute for the EU or vice versa. They remain, in many senses, different types of security organizations that, aside from the Cyprus issue, are largely complementary. This is something that other EU members, who are also stalwart NATO members, like the Netherlands, understand very well.

The idea of a truly independent foreign or security policy is a chimera in a highly interdependent and complex world. Britain will of course continue to have national interests, as it enjoys as a EU member The United Kingdom intervened in a civil war in Sierra Leone in 2000 as a matter of national interest (although this subsequently led the UK to argue vigorously for the creation of high-readiness multinational force capabilities within the EU). Britain outside the EU could of course continue to defend and pursue its global interests, but it would lack the ability to persuade other EU members that national interests can in fact be shared interests, as France has done so effectively. It is even more doubtful that the UK can look to the U.S. to defend its interests when their gaze is not only towards Asia, but increasingly introspective. In other words, nominally independent action will be that much harder without the political and material support of close allies. Nor will Albion be left alone in splendid isolation in the event of Brexit; many contemporary security issues do not respect borders, like cyber-attacks, determined migrants fleeing from war or terrorists. Even addressing these problems as a nominally independent U.K. will still require considerable coordination with our European allies. In many cases it will imply cooperation upon the basis of the very same EU policies that the U.K. had an instrumental hand in shaping.


About the Authors

Silvio Rossignoli

Silvio Rossignoli is currently chairman at Aero Sekur Spa, a high level company involved in the Defence, Aviation and Space field, which he joined in 2001.

Simon Duke

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

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