In the packed news agenda of the past week – from Theresa May’s visit to Africa to seek potential trade partners, growing concerns about the prospect of ‘no deal’ Brexit and now the suspects in the Salisbury poisoning being identified as two Russian military intelligence agents – it would have been easy to miss a development across the Channel that may nevertheless have significant implications for the UK.
Last week saw French President Emmanuel Macron call for a collective European Union defence mechanism; a position outlined in more detail a few days later by Florence Parly, the French Army Minister, in a speech I attended at the Sciences Po University in Paris.
The move follows both Donald Trump’s repeated criticisms of Nato and the European Parliament adopting a new programme to “scale up” the EU’s defence capabilities, in terms of both researching and acquiring military equipment and technologies.
But what do a no deal Brexit, the EU’s defence initiatives, and President Macron’s repeated push for a continental version of Nato point towards? Quite simply, the UK risking a military alliance limbo in case of a no deal Brexit. Let me elaborate.
The UK has long played a key role in both European and transatlantic defence. Albeit opposing deeper political integration, the UK, jointly with France, signed the St Malo declaration in 1998, calling for an operational EU force capable of autonomous action. The move, aimed at increasing EU’s defence autonomy, was also among the first concrete policies of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy initiative that followed the Treaty of Amsterdam.
In terms of Nato, the transatlantic defence alliance founded in 1949 as a collective defence mechanism against the Soviet Union, the UK was the essential transatlantic bridge. British Prime Ministers and Foreign Secretaries committed their diplomatic skills towards finding a common ground between the transatlantic allies that the EU and the US once indubitably were.
However, in the past two years, a completely new reality has set in. The British public voted to leave the European Union and the United States elected a president who has advanced a series of policies which are incompatible with the post-war world order.
The combination of the two will, aside from other effects, also likely impact upon Britain’s security and her place in the global military theatre – through losing the EU as an ally and through being unable to rely on Nato.
First, the UK will lose its influence over the EU defence policy and simultaneously its closest allies (speaking both politically and geographically). Michel Barnier has, since the triggering of Article 50, stressed that in a no-deal scenario, the UK will lose its access to Europol databases and any defence cooperation will be based on agreements rather than treaties. Equally, Britain will likely be denied entry into common EU defence projects.
The UK has already seen the EU’s contribution towards its universities decrease and it was made clear that the UK will not be involved in the EU’s satellite programme. I believe it is only a matter of time until we see the EU reject the UK’s access to its defence initiatives.
Moreover, after Brexit takes effect next March, the policy of solidarity advanced by the EU will extend to the UK to a much smaller extent than if Britain was still a member. There goes ally number one.
Secondly, the UK may soon not be able to rely on Nato as a framework for military co-operation. While many remain optimistic about Nato’s role, the signs - Macron’s overtures to his EU counterparts and Trump’s isolationism - are telling. The EU no longer trusts Nato when the biggest partner therein refuses to commit to collective defence. And the UK should no longer trust Nato, either. There goes ally number two.
Of course the UK will be able to join European defence initiatives under bilateral EU-UK agreements, but these cannot be thought of as equivalent to a collective defence mechanism like the one Macron seeks to establish. After all, the UK has already joined France and seven other EU member states under a European Intervention Initiative. However, according to UK officials, the EII is more concerned with policy co-ordination for events such as natural disasters and perhaps the operation of a small military contingent, but is definitely not aimed at creating any kind of new and substantial force.
Others will say that the UK can find military allies within the Commonwealth, but this would again be wishful thinking – not least because the largest of these potential partners, India, has military ties with Russia and uses Russian military technology.
Let’s hope Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab will manage to deliver a post-Brexit deal that will allow the UK to retain her global military influence and her military alliances.
Samuel Ribansky is a politics graduate from the University of Sheffield and a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Sciences Po University in Paris.