The EU will survive Brexit. But will NATO?
The United Kingdom is leaving the European Union. Is the EU fragmenting, or will EU governments consolidate while finally getting their act together on defense? Donald Trump is the president of the United States. Is NATO increasingly obsolete, or will Europeans contribute more and convince Washington not to scale back its military commitment to European security?
No one knows for sure. Russia is unpredictable, and the wars across the Middle East are causing huge internal security challenges across Europe, such as large refugee flows and terrorism inspired by the Islamic State (IS). But Europeans need to be able to cope – not individually, but collectively.
British Prime Minister Theresa May, during her January visit to Washington, managed to get a public agreement from the new US president that he backs NATO “100 percent.” Perhaps other European governments should be grateful, but most are less convinced by Trump’s words than they would be by his actions.
Moreover, he has also declared his admiration of Brexit, and that it would not worry him if the EU dissolved. Some in the British government think that his support will help their negotiating position with their EU partners. But US backing of the UK on Brexit could divide NATO into an Anglo-sphere and a Euro-sphere. That is in nobody’s interest, except that of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who wishes to destabilize the Atlantic Alliance. It is no wonder that other EU governments are concerned.
Following the British people’s decision to leave the EU last summer, EU governments have made much noise about deepening their military cooperation. The UK had blocked this policy area in the past, and it is easier to agree on longterm military equipment projects than to resolve the Eurozone’s woes or share the burden of housing refugees. Hence, the EU governments (including the UK) agreed on a package of three plans for military cooperation in December.
While the optics are impressive, the results are less so. In fact, there are none. Perhaps there never can be results until the EU becomes a federal super-state. Since its formal inception in 1999, EU defense policy has produced little of concrete military value. Some EU military operations have saved lives, but they have not changed the world. EU military cooperation has been notable more for its potential than for its impact on the world stage.
On some measures Europeans are not as incapable of acting as they are frequently made out to be (often because of unrealistic comparisons with the US). Collectively, the EU-28 still spends much more on defense than Russia, and around the same amount as China. Over the last 20 years, Europeans have carried out robust military interventions (unilateral, in coalitions, through NATO) in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Cote d’Ivoire and Mali, along with numerous peacekeeping missions elsewhere (through the UN and EU).
Furthermore, within a decade Europeans should have access to new aircraft carriers, transport planes, air tankers, navigation satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles and fifth-generation fighter jets. There thus exists a relatively firm bedrock of military capabilities and experiences that Europeans can build upon.
However, while Berlin and Paris are leading the reinvigorated EU military cooperation efforts, the two governments have some major differences in strategic culture. For one, France, as a nucleararmed permanent member of the UN Security Council, has a special sense of responsibility for global security and is prepared to act unilaterally if necessary. Germany, in contrast, will only act in coalition with others, and remains much more reluctant than France to deploy robust military force abroad.
Moreover, Berlin and Paris do not necessarily agree on the ultimate goal of EU defense policy. Calls for a long-term “European Security and Defense Union” in the 2016 German security white paper give the impression that Berlin sees EU defense as primarily a political integration project. The French are more interested in a stronger intergovernmental EU defense policy now than a symbolic integration project for the future, since Paris perceives acting militarily through the EU as an important option for when the US chooses not to intervene in crises in and around Europe.
Despite what their joint proposals may suggest, France and Germany’s different strategic cultures may cause strife in the development of a substantially more active EU defense policy. More broadly, the trouble for France has been its awkward position between a Germany reluctant to use robust military force abroad and a UK reluctant to act militarily through the EU.
To reinforce the European part of NATO, the ongoing and quiet deepening of bilateral military cooperation between Europe’s two leading military powers, France and the UK, based on the 2010 Lancaster House treaties, is vitally important. Despite Brexit, France’s strategic culture will remain closest to Britain’s. In 2016, London and Paris conducted a joint military exercise with over 5,000 troops, as part of their broader effort to develop a combined expeditionary force. In November, they announced that they would increase their dependency on one another for missile technology.
Strong Franco-British cooperation is vital for European security, not only because of the countries’ combined military power, but also because Europeans need to be able both to contribute more to NATO (as the UK prioritizes) and to act autonomously if necessary (as France advocates, via the EU or in other ways). The Franco- British partnership could become even more important if President Trump scales back the US military commitment to European security.
But bilateral Franco-British military cooperation may not be immune to politics. And it is important to try to avoid a spillover effect from the Brexit decision onto NATO, especially any political rift between Europe’s two leading military powers, the traditionally more “Europeanist” France and the more “Atlanticist” UK. Even before Trump’s November election victory, in a speech on Sept. 6 the British defense secretary said: “Given the overlap in NATO and EU membership, it’s surely in all our interests to ensure the EU doesn’t duplicate existing structures. […] Our Trans-Atlantic alliance works for the UK and for Europe making us stronger and better able to meet the threats and challenges of the future.”
In contrast, on Oct. 6 French President François Hollande said that there are European countries “that think the United States will always be there to protect them. […] If they don’t defend themselves they will no longer be defended.” Hollande added: “Europeans must realize […] they must also be a political power with a defense capability.” The hardening of these Franco-British positions through difficult Brexit negotiations could cause a political rift, and hinder not only their bilateral cooperation, but also cooperation between NATO and the EU.
Furthermore, some in London now expect the US to reinforce the UK’s position in its forthcoming Brexit negotiations. This could divide NATO allies, with the US and the UK on one side, and France, Germany, Italy and Spain on the other. Similar to the bitter splits in 2003 over participation in the Iraq war, this could potentially force other European governments to choose sides. In that scenario, everyone would lose out. An alternative and more optimistic scenario has the UK potentially acting as a bridge between Europe and the new US government on reinforcing NATO, which could have positive effects on the ongoing Brexit negotiations with EU partners.
Brexit is not likely to break the EU. If handled badly, however, it could break NATO.
A version of this article appeared in print in February, 2017, with the headline “EU-UK=X”.
Daniel Keohane is senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies, ETH Zürich.