EU-UK defence relations: how the UK strives to maintain a balance of power in Europe after Brexit, and what Germany can do. By Alan Mendoza, Founder and Executive Director, Henry Jackson Society and James Rogers, Director, Global Britain Programme, Henry Jackson Society
When comparing the UK and EU as strategic actors, the two powers sit very much in different leagues. One is a nuclear-armed state, which is rapidly regenerating its naval strike capability in the form of two vast aircraft carriers, armed with fifth-generation stealth combat jets.
The other is an international organisation, without any recourse to military instruments of its own.
Indeed, the UK is by some margin the leading military power in Europe. It has the largest military budget in NATO after the US; a navy with a gross tonnage that exceeds the navies of France and Germany combined; intelligence-gathering capabilities unmatched in Europe; and a strategic culture unrivalled by any European country, with the partial exception of France. The UK also guards the entrances and exits of the Mediterranean Sea, with its military bases in Gibraltar and Cyprus, and is the only European country to maintain a truly global military presence. As the UK leaves the EU, these fundamental strategic facts will not change.
British geostrategic objectives in Europe will also remain constant: to maintain a balance of power that favours a liberal Europe.
In supporting this, the UK has maintained an unbroken military presence on the continent since the end of the Second World War. With 5,000 troops in Germany, 850 in Estonia, 150 in Poland and RAF jet fighters periodically deployed to Romania, Lithuania and Iceland, it has more troops deployed in other NATO countries than any other ally, with the exception of the US. Also, unlike France, which is not part of NATO’s nuclear planning group, the UK devotes its nuclear deterrent to cover the whole of NATO ‘in all instances’.
Consequently, for the UK, NATO remains sacrosanct as the underwriter of European geopolitics, and the general European peace. As such, the EU remains secondary in a wider Atlantic order created and underpinned by British and American strategic power. Many European countries seem convinced that they should develop EU “sovereignty” or “autonomy”, through what has been described by European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, as “defence union”. However, without really substantial increases in European defence spending, this aim seems unrealisable.
After many years of military cuts, France lacks the resources – its defence budget is comparable to Germany’s, despite operating nuclear weapons – and Germany lacks the full spectrum of military capabilities, as well as the political will to use them either actively (intervention) or passively (dissuasion). This means Europeans will need to cooperate more with the UK if they are to retain existing military assets, let alone generate new ones. But British concerns about the direction of the “defence union” potentially undermining NATO may make such partnerships difficult.
Consequently, structures external to the EU but encompassing EU states may prove to be more fruitful avenues for UK-European defence cooperation, such as the French President Emmanuel Macron’s Intervention Initiative and the UK-French Combined Expeditionary Force. Some countries in these initiatives are closer to sharing Britain’s more active strategic culture, which the EU lacks collectively.
In the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, the UK decided to withdraw the remainder of its military presence in Germany by 2020. Given Russia’s revisionist aggression, this decision has now been reversed: British troops will remain in Germany. This renewed British strategic commitment forms the basis for potential cooperation between London and Berlin, particularly in relation to shared interests in keeping Russia at bay along the eastern flank of NATO.
However, the UK – like the US – is likely to lose patience with Germany if additional defence spending increases are not forthcoming, not least because Berlin has previously committed to raising its defence spending levels towards 2 % of GDP by 2024. A dim view will be taken if Europe’s economic powerhouse does not pull its weight, particularly when poorer European allies – like the Baltic states, Romania and Poland – have already managed to contribute at the agreed level.
Indeed, it cannot be ruled out that, in the event of antagonism between the EU and UK, the UK may grow increasingly hostile to any form of European strategic cooperation. This is an issue that the EU and European states must consider carefully. For Europeans, this issue may become increasingly important if the US grows tired of the unwillingness of many European countries to pull their weight, or chooses to focus more on East Asia. Old friends may therefore yet prove to be the best friends.