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CSDP without the UK: bad for Europe but even worse for Britain

© Army Amber

Image credit: Army Amber

Experts are often asked: could the European Union (EU) develop a robust security and defence capacity without the United Kingdom (UK)? The answer comes in two parts. The first is that the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) without the UK would be a pale shadow of what it might be if the UK were fully involved. The second, however, is that, because the European defence and security project arises out of the movement of history’s tectonic plates, CSDP would have no alternative but to continue to develop, even without the UK. By the same token, the UK, because it is a significant defence player geographically situated in Europe, would have no alternative but to continue to have some sort of relationship with the CSDP. This might involve the negotiation of a special status for the UK (similar to that of Turkey?) within the European security project. But whatever the precise nature of such an arrangement, the UK would clearly henceforth wield significantly less clout in CSDP than it has to date. There would be a serious cost to pay in terms of the UK’s influence over this crucial policy area.

Some in the UK may nevertheless, for one reason or another, and despite the cost, welcome their country’s adoption of a more arms-length relationship with the CSDP. They might be tempted to think that Britain, once outside the integrated structures of the EU, would be in a good position to prioritise and leverage its bilateral relationship with both the United States (US) and France. This would be an illusion. The US has consistently pressured the UK to become a full and active participant in all EU policy areas, including defence and security. That was one fundamental reason why Tony Blair went to Saint-Malo. If the UK found itself outside the EU, what could it offer the US in terms of security and defence? Apart from a traditional role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), which would in any case become more complicated in the hypothesis of a British stand off with the CSDP, the UK might be tempted to respond to various recent American invitations to EU member states to accompany the US in its ‘tilt to Asia’.

Yet, in the context of the current draconian cuts in the UK’s defence budget, it would make no sense whatsoever for Britain to relocate its strategic profile to the Asia-Pacific region. Nor would there be any reason for the US to welcome such a shift. Seen from Washington, the UK’s contribution to collective security only makes sense if centred on Europe. Furthermore, if the UK were to emerge as a kind of ‘large Singapore’ off the coast of mainland Europe, America’s strategic interest in such an actor would wane significantly. On the other hand, the evolving EU with its CSDP project would continue to feature as the US’s primary strategic partner in the greater European theatre, however relative the US interest in European security might be in the context of Washington’s other global priorities. It is difficult to imagine how the US would interpret a hypothetical ‘Brexit’ in any way other than extremely negatively.

The same would be true of any hypothetical ‘post-Brexit’ UK special defence relationship with France. The 2010 Franco-British Defence Treaty has already begun to demonstrate its fragilities. The unilateral, cost-driven UK decision to opt for vertical take-off F-35B aircraft to equip its sole remaining aircraft carrier means that French Rafale aircraft will not be able to land on the British vessel, thus severely undermining the two countries’ plan to have an integrated carrier capability. François Hollande has proven less interested in a privileged security relationship with the UK than his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy.

But above all, France will continue, as it has throughout, to give pride of place to the development of a viable EU security and defence capability, and the absence of the UK will undoubtedly lead to ever closer security and defence cooperation between France and Germany (however fraught with problems programmatically and strategically), and, beyond that, with the Weimar group (France, Germany and Poland) supplemented by Italy and Spain. It would be very difficult for France to find a justification for establishing a privileged partnership with a ‘post-Brexit’ UK that looked fixedly across the Atlantic rather than across the Channel. Britain, in short, would have lost its main security anchor and failed to find any acceptable alternative. This would be all the more serious for London in that NATO, post-Afghanistan, is likely to become a very different type of actor.

If the UK were to find itself outside the formal structures of the European Union, its central role in the development of an effective and robust security and defence policy, both via NATO and via CSDP would be massively diminished. It is highly likely that the necessary recalibration of the relationship between CSDP and NATO would take place with Paris, Berlin and Washington as active players and the UK as an increasingly bemused onlooker. A sad fate indeed for the country that has always prided itself on being the foremost military player in Europe and the guardian of the transatlantic relationship.

Vol. 7, No. 7 (2015)


The CSDP: National Perspectives series, Article 12 (United Kingdom No. 2).

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