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UK Proposes an Unprecedented Relationship with the EU in Defence

This week, the UK released a future partnership paper on foreign policy, defence and development, one of a series of papers intended to explore key issues setting out aspects of the government’s vision for a future “deep and special” partnership between the UK and the EU after Brexit.

In negotiating its future relationship with the EU, this is an area where the UK will need to tread carefully. Defence and security is a UK strength and ought to be helpful in painting the country as a more attractive future partner. However, Theresa May has already received a sharp lesson on the risks of overplaying these strengths when a statement in her letter triggering Article 50 – “In security terms a failure to reach agreement would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened” - was widely criticised as a crude negotiating gambit, if not an attempt to blackmail the EU into accepting UK terms. In any event, the government will be hoping for a better reception for this paper, previous position and future partnership papers having been roundly and publicly criticised as inadequate by both Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.

The paper states that in foreign policy, defence and security, and development, the UK seeks to develop a “deep and special partnership with the EU that goes beyond existing third country arrangements” and makes the case that shared values and shared threats compel the UK and EU to continue to work closely together after Brexit. It details – at some length – the UK’s current role in European foreign and security policy. In defence, the UK certainly has a lot to offer. Its defence budget amounts to more than 25% of the combined total of the 27 EU Member States that participate in the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), and its defence investment expenditure (research and development, and procurement) is almost 30% of the EU27 total. It hosts one of five operation headquarters available to the EU for military operations. It is one of few states worldwide to be able to field a full spectrum of capabilities and the expeditionary force of 50,000 it expects to be able to deploy by 2025 will be larger than the entire armed forces of most of its European partners.

But despite its assertions that it was a founding member of the CSDP and contributes to all CSDP operations, the UK’s involvement here has been moderate. Only 5% of troops on EU operations are British – far fewer than France, Germany, Italy and Spain - and it has rarely assumed a leadership role in CSDP operations. Indeed, its reputation as a difficult partner in EU defence was at least partly responsible for last year’s burst of optimism that progress was, at last, possible after the Brexit referendum.

Nonetheless, the UK’s willingness to remain involved is very welcome. It removes a great deal of uncertainty from the European security landscape (in a report last year, ICDS argued that the degree of UK participation in CSDP was a leading uncertainty in future Baltic Sea security). The positive tone of the paper and its readiness to display what the UK has to offer the EU – apparently without conditions – should be well received by the other Member States. But, as with previous UK papers, there is little by way of concrete proposals. It is not until page 18 (of 22) that the paper turns to the question of the future partnership with the EU and even then the discussion is couched in terms such as “could take a range of forms” and “could consider options and models”.

In defence, it addresses four areas. First, it proposes that the UK may continue to take part in CSDP operations, but also has an expectation that arrangements will be made to allow it to be involved in “mandate development and detailed operational planning” according to its level of contribution. While political decision making is not referred to, UK officials have suggested elsewhere that they may wish to continue to participate in the Political and Security Committee, the EU Member State body responsible for the Common Foreign and Security Policy and the CSDP. This is probably the easiest area to accomplish. The involvement of third parties in various capacities has been a regular feature of expeditionary operations since the end of the Cold War and there are many models to build upon.

Second, the UK stresses its readiness to drive forward EU-NATO cooperation. However, as it can do this from the NATO table whether it is associated with the CSDP or not, it is hard to see this as anything other than a political statement. Third, it emphasises the importance of the defence industry, in which UK is a leading player, to the overall European defence picture, including a plea for “open markets and customs arrangements that are as frictionless as possible.” This is an area that will need to be handled during wider negotiations on future trade and customs agreements, but the suggestion does play to the narrative that the UK is reluctant to accept the consequences of its intent to withdraw from the single market.

Finally, in the context of industry and defence capabilities, the paper offers that the UK could collaborate in European Defence Agency (EDA) projects (although in the past it has consistently blocked even small increases to the Agency’s budget) and even to participate in the European Defence Fund – an initiative that the UK had previously blocked and which would require – a difficult sell for the government - a continuing financial contribution to the EU. Non-Member States are already involved in EDA projects (for example, Norway participates in Air-to-air refuelling) – again, there are models to build upon. But finding mechanisms for the UK to participate in the European Defence Fund will be challenging. Demonstrating fairness in the distribution of the Fund among the Member States will be hard enough – the need to do so with regard to a third country probably makes this suggestion a non-starter.

To the extent that they appear workable, these are relatively modest ideas (although apparently not modest enough to placate the sceptics, who claim, ludicrously, that the UK is walking in a “carefully planned EU ambush”). They are welcome and offer a good basis for a practical relationship, but they will not place the UK at the heart of EU security and defence. Non-membership inevitably means a lower standing, no matter what the non-member may have to offer. For all that the UK may desire a relationship that is unprecedented in breadth and depth, its opportunities to steer the continent’s defence arrangements were far greater inside the EU then they ever will be outside.

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