On February 20, the starting gun was fired for the campaign that will lead to a referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU. Although economics is expected to be the most important issue during the four-month campaign, British Prime Minister David Cameron plans to make security a central topic too. A dozen former British military chiefs have already written a letter to the Conservative-leaning Daily Telegraph underlining the value for the UK of security cooperation through the EU in an increasingly unstable world.
Conversely, that Brexit would damage EU security and defense policies should be self-evident, as the UK is the strongest European military power in NATO. But even if Britain left the EU, the country would remain a nuclear-armed member of NATO, so surely a British withdrawal shouldn’t really change anything for European defense?
Think again. Brexit could damage European defense cooperation because it would greatly strain political relationships with other European allies, especially with the next two leading military powers in the European part of NATO: France and Germany.
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It is no secret that some Brexit supporters have long been hostile to EU defense policy, perceiving it at best as a distraction to Western military cooperation or, worse, as a threat to NATO. From this viewpoint, a British exit from the EU should encourage even greater cooperation through NATO, because other Europeans would still wish to work militarily with the UK. If the June 23 referendum on EU membership resulted in a Brexit, so the argument runs, then only weeks later at the July 8–9 NATO summit in Warsaw, Western leaders would want to show their unity more than ever, especially on defense matters.
Beyond supine summit statements, this seems optimistic, if not naive. The EU was largely co-founded by France and Germany, and they have invested enormous political effort and resources over six decades into constructing the single market, the eurozone, the Schengen passport-free travel area, and common foreign, security, and defense policies.
Berlin and Paris would therefore likely view Brexit vote as a hostile act. For one thing, they made a big political effort to meet London’s demands to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership, because they want the UK to stay in the union. For another, the EU is already fraying from an unprecedented confluence of complex security crises (think the confrontation with Russia, Middle Eastern disorder, terrorist attacks, and refugee flows), and Brexit would further harm the credibility of European cooperation in the face of these challenges.
The dramatic European split over the 2003 Iraq War gives some pointers on the potential impact of Brexit on European defense cooperation. At that time, Britain strongly supported the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, while France and Germany vehemently opposed it. In response, among other things, Berlin and Paris proposed setting up a de facto EU military headquarters, an idea always formally blocked by London for fear that it would undermine NATO structures. But following Brexit, London could no longer block such a proposal, and some in Berlin and Paris might be tempted to revive the idea.
Moreover, the Iraq spat long hampered EU-NATO cooperation. It took the guts of four years for Berlin, London, and Paris to fully reconcile themselves afterward—mainly because by 2007, new leaders had come to power in each country, bringing fresh ideas. Reconciling relationships following Brexit could take longer, given the mind-boggling legal complexities involved. But as Britain’s EU membership is a very different issue from the Iraq War, the hope is that the political consequences of Brexit wouldn’t directly harm the daily EU-NATO working relationship.
That is all the more so because the EU and NATO are stepping up their cooperation on issues such as cybersecurity and countering hybrid threats. European security needs the two Brussels-based institutions to work more closely together, as between them they can connect everything from internal policing and intelligence networks to external military operations, from economic sanctions on Russia to territorial defense. At the very least, Brexit would hardly help EU-NATO cooperation, because the UK would no longer be a party to EU security policies.
Another misfortune of Brexit is that it would occur just when British, French, and German defense policies are showing signs of real convergence. Each capital recently promised to increase defense spending in the coming years, reflecting the difficult security crises that Europe faces today. All three have made important contributions to NATO’s reassurance measures to allies in Eastern Europe, such as participating in a mission to police the airspace over the Baltic states. And all three have deployed forces to help fight Islamist terrorists in Africa and the Middle East.
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Granted, Germany has traditionally been reluctant to take on full-blown combat roles abroad. But its beefed-up support to the coalition against the self-styled Islamic State, following the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, suggests that the German defense debate is evolving. France has sometimes been suspected of being too Russia-friendly, but it canceled the delivery of two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships to Moscow after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Britain has long been accused of being against EU defense policy. But the EU’s most successful military mission to date, an antipiracy operation on the waters off Somalia, is run from a British military headquarters.
In essence, European defense cooperation is a tale of three cities, because it can work fully only if Berlin, London, and Paris agree. A British exit from the EU would only make such political alignments more difficult to achieve.
Daniel Keohane is a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zürich.