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Brexit and defence: where is the strategy?

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Should the UK decide to leave the EU, its leverage on many of the strategic decisions that shape the framework within which its military deployment takes place would be negligible.

This article was first  published in European Geostrategy.

(Photo credit: Charles Clegg)



Brexit and defence: where is the strategy?


Defence does not usually figure very prominently in the debate about a possible Brexit. Neither those in favour nor those against seem to think defence very relevant to their cause. And indeed, why would they?

Having just announced a £178 billion investment programme over the next decade in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDRS), the United Kingdom sees itself as a ‘pocket superpower’ in its own right, as Julian Lindley-French puts it. And the UK has distanced itself from its own creation, the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) anyway, disappointed with many other Member States’ meagre defence efforts. Instead Britain focuses on NATO and on bilateral cooperation with capable European partners, France in particular, as it is stressed yet again in the latest SDRS, which adds Germany as an important partner. The British public’s aversion to European defence can be witnessed whenever the tabloid press raises the spectre of a European army, most recently when European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker himself floated the idea. Enlisting defence might thus undermine rather than further the pro-EU cause.

That, however, is a tactical consideration – and good tactics will not produce success if the strategy is wrong. Strategy often does not receive much consideration when Europe’s defence efforts and the role of states, NATO and the EU are discussed. The focus tends to be on how much the different countries spend on defence, on who deploys how many troops on expeditionary operations, and on which big capability projects they participate in. Yet strategy is precisely the dimension in which the role of the EU has become crucial. It may not necessarily explicitly set out to do so, but the EU takes strategic decisions, some of them sound, others less so, that lead to the need for military engagement, under the EU flag or not. By decoupling itself from the EU, Britain risks excluding itself from what, for better or for worse, is emerging as the main forum where decisions are made that shape Europe’s strategic environment.

The strategic emergence of the EU

This is a relatively recent development. During the Cold War Europeans made (or subscribed to) strategy mainly in NATO. The Alliance remains the forum where strategy is made for the collective defence of the territory of all Allies. And because of the strong transatlantic link, Europeans often also deploy on expeditionary operations in support of their American allies. This is why all European allies deployed to Afghanistan after the initial intervention in 2001 and why some also joined the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. In both cases the strategy came from Washington and Europeans made little effort to shape it, in spite of the impressive troop numbers that the UK in particular fielded.

Since 2003 however the geopolitical context and the European security architecture have very much evolved. A prime example of the growing importance of the EU for the making of strategy is the contribution of European troops to NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), a six-monthly rotation of a brigade-sized force that will deploy to the eastern borders of the Alliance. Ostensibly, this is an Article 5 commitment. But why is it necessary? Because of Europe’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis, which is a consequence of an EU strategic decision: the signing of a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with Ukraine, in the context of the EU’s Neighbourhood Policy and its Eastern Partnership with its six eastern neighbours.

Russia’s perception of this as an encroachment on its sphere of influence and its subsequent overreaction by annexing the Crimea and fomenting armed rebellion in eastern Ukraine produced the crisis in the midst of which we still are today. The strategic objectives of Europe’s management of the crisis as well can only be defined in an EU-context: Which degree of partnership and support are on offer to Ukraine and the other eastern partners? Which long-term relationship with Russia, formally a strategic partner of the EU, does Europe aspire to, in political, economic (including energy) and security terms? Even the main instruments to address the crisis are EU instruments: diplomacy underpinned by a sanctions regime. The role of NATO is deterrence in support of EU diplomacy: to signal to Russia, but actually first and foremost to the Eastern European Allies themselves, that Article 5 will guarantee the territorial integrity of all Allies.

If in such a scenario the UK would not be a member of the EU, its leverage on the strategic decisions that shape the framework within which its military deployment takes place would be negligible. Britain would of course play its full role in NATO decision-making, but in a case like this NATO provides key instruments but does not set the ‘grand strategy’. Which is why even for coordination with the Americans, in the Ukraine case direct communication between the EU and the US is at least as important a channel as the North Atlantic Council.

And Ukraine is not the only example. European engagement in the air campaign against IS and the provision of trainers and other support to the Iraqi armed forces has come about as the result of an American initiative, and takes place under American leadership. But if this time even some of the countries who vehemently opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, such as France and Belgium, are now part of the coalition, that is because the rationale is very different. The French, the Belgians and others deploy not in the first place to support their American ally – that would not be sufficient ground to convince their publics and parliaments to embark on such a risky endeavour – but because European security is directly at stake. The 13 November 2015 attacks in Paris made this abundantly clear. The problem with operations against IS is the absence of a strategy: apart from containing IS, it is not clear at all to which political objectives the intervention is supposed to contribute.

Only at the end of 2015 did a diplomatic process begin that is inching its way towards an agreement on the political order in Syria, Iraq and the region that has to follow defeat of IS. This ‘Vienna Process’ involves the US, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Saudi Arabia – and the EU. The EU is not involved in the military operations, not even after it activated the so-called Mutual Assistance Clause (Article 42.7 of the Treaty on European Union) at the request of France. Military support is being agreed bilaterally between France and the other Member States. But only through the EU can Europeans forge a foreign policy for the region that gives meaning to their military operations, and mobilise the political and economic instruments and means to support it.

Investing in EU strategy

None of this is to say that the EU is always performing very effectively as a forum for strategy-making – unfortunately it is not. The point is that nevertheless, if and when Europeans make ‘grand strategy’ or overall foreign policy strategy together, they nearly exclusively do so through the EU. And it are these EU strategies, such as the Eastern Partnership, the Sahel Strategy, and the Strategy for the Horn of Africa, but also the strategic partnerships with the BRICS countries and others that then create the prism through which potential European military engagement is viewed when actual contingencies arise. NATO’s military response to the Ukraine crisis has taken shape within the context of Europeans’ broader view on their eastern neighbourhood and relations which Russia, which they forge through the EU. NATO itself cannot make this kind of truly holistic ‘grand strategy’, for the Alliance does not wage a foreign, trade or development policy. It is an instrument of, not a maker of ‘grand strategy’. Individual European States lack the will or the means (and in many cases both) to engage strategically with issues of this magnitude. Of course, a Member State like the UK can defend its interests alone some of the time, just like France and Germany. But no European country can defend its interests alone all of the time.

In a case like Mali in 2013, for example, France might have intervened alone anyway even had there not been an EU Sahel Strategy. Indeed, it probably would have, given its long-standing ties with the country and the French national interests at stake. But the positive effects that Opération Serval created could never be sustained without the subsequent long-term involvement of the EU in the political and economic sphere – and to some extent even in security, through the deployment of the EU Training Mission that is to help create an effective Mali fighting force. Such EU involvement is only possible where an EU strategic consensus exists that the interests of all Member States are sufficiently at stake in the issue at hand. It can be said therefore that for France it has been crucial to influence EU strategy beforehand, in order to put a region that it considers of strategic importance for itself but also for Europe firmly on the EU’s radar screen, so that when a crisis erupted in that region collective European involvement was more likely.

The 2011 air campaign over Libya provides a mirror image of the Mali case. Britain and France together assumed leadership and, once they had convinced the US, initiated the intervention. European governments were very much divided about the opportunity of military action however. Hence the EU was not effectively involved during the intervention, in spite of its attempt in the same period to engage with the Arab Spring in general by revising its Neighbourhood Policy and in spite of its earlier strong statements on Libya in particular – the EU was one of the first to call on Kaddafi to step down. Even after operations had ended Member States remained very cautious, as a result of which the EU’s political, economic and security engagement was too feeble to have much impact on the ground. No individual government could or wanted to step in. The end result of the absence of a comprehensive long-term strategy is there for all to see: Libya is now more unstable than before the intervention.

Thus, at the strategic level, almost every European military intervention, be it undertaken through NATO, an ad hoc coalition or the CSDP, requires a degree of long-term political and economic as well as security engagement that only the EU has the resources to provide for the achieved military effect of the intervention to produce durable strategic effects. Ideally, such long-term engagement is planned simultaneously with the actual military intervention and put into effect alongside it or immediately afterwards. For that reason those European governments that want Europeans to be capable of early and rapid military action, in whichever framework, have an interest in contributing proactively to EU strategy-making.

The strategic reorientation of the US

The US’ increasing focus on China and Asia, confirmed yet again in its 2015 National Security Strategy, is an additional important factor, which constitutes a structural change in the transatlantic security relationship. Not when it comes to territorial defence: as the US has demonstrated in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, it will continue to deter and defend against any aggression aimed at Europe itself. Indeed, until this day deterrence and territorial defence cannot be assured without the US, which should give Europeans pause to think. But when it comes to crises around Europe that do not directly threaten NATO/EU territory, more and more the US prefers Europeans to take the initiative themselves and to address such crises before they escalate and require large-scale American intervention. The more Europeans manage this, the more the US can focus its time and efforts on its other strategic concerns, notably in Asia. Many in Europe seem to have forgotten that this has actually been American policy ever since the end of the Cold War, which was marked by the beginning of the civil war in Yugoslavia, and the US’ refusal to engage in what it, rightly, saw as a European problem.

What has changed is that the US no longer insists that Europeans always act through NATO. The Alliance naturally remains the US’ organisation of choice, because that is where it has a seat around the table, and through NATO it channels the American contribution to the defence of Europe. But what matters most to Washington is that Europeans act when it is necessary to act, regardless of the flag under which any specific action is undertaken. Therefore the US has become quite supportive of EU strategy-making, for it increases the chances that Europeans will act and that, when they do, they will be successful.

The American ‘pivot’ to Asia potentially has important consequences for the operational level and for capability development as well. Some interventions certainly can start as national operations, but to be sustainable over a longer period most will require a coalition of Europeans, put together through NATO or the CSDP or in an ad hoc framework. But even for the initial intervention, in the majority of scenarios at least some support from Allies and partners will be needed, notably in the area of strategic enablers such as transport and intelligence. And even when a coalition of Europeans wants to act, in many scenarios they will not be able to act quickly and decisively without the participation of American strategic enablers. The Libya campaign is a case in point: Europeans contributed combat aircraft that performed gallantly and effectively – thanks to mostly US air-to-air refuelling, targeting, and precision-guided munitions.

Inherent in the ‘pivot’ however is the expectation that Europeans will increasingly acquire their own strategic enablers, so that they can undertake crisis management in their periphery without recourse to American assets. This was also the rationale of NATO’s Smart Defence initiative: to stimulate Europeans to invest together and acquire some enabling capabilities. Unfortunately, Smart Defence has not produced any real result in the area of enablers. Governments have not been willing to invest, and contradictory industrial interests have played a part as well. Yet if the US will insist that Europeans increasingly rely on their own strategic enablers, Europeans will have no choice but to cooperate. No single European country has the capacity any longer to acquire, let alone to develop, all required enabling capabilities on its own.

The EU has in fact been somewhat more successful in this area. Through the European Defence Agency, projects have been launched in the areas of air-to-air refuelling, satellite communication, and unmanned aerial vehicles. It will be a while before actual additional capabilities will enter the European order of battle, but for now at least the EU has proved to be the most promising avenue for the collective development of European strategic enablers. There are of course many other multinational frameworks within which European governments, including the UK, cooperate on capability development and deployment. The Franco-British Lancaster House Agreements are one of the most important. There also are good examples of multinational coordination of the use of enablers: European Air Transport Command in Eindhoven does exactly that for the air transport fleets of the participating states, and has successfully increased efficiency. But developing and acquiring strategic enablers, if that is the goal, requires such a big critical mass, in view of the capital involved, that none of these other frameworks are able to generate it – only the EU appears capable of that.

A strategic reappraisal by the UK?

Leaving the EU would not affect the performance of British arms. But it would have an enormous and immediate impact on Britain’s ability to shape the strategies that will in ever more instances shape the context in which those arms will be used, be it under NATO or EU or UN command or in an ad hoc coalition. A Brexit would weaken the EU, but, as Daniel Keohane states, the UK itself ‘would certainly become a much-diminished diplomatic player’ too. But Britain is too important a player to become another Australia or New Zealand: nations that contribute significant capabilities to European and American operations, but which, much appreciated as their efforts are, do not really shape the key strategic decisions. That would be in direct contradiction to Britain’s view of itself as a strategic actor ‘with global reach and influence’ as the 2015 SDRS has it, which has a view on the world and substantial means to act upon it. But whether one likes it or not, strategic engagement with the world increasingly means engaging with Europe first.


Prof. Dr. Sven Biscop is director of the Europe in the World programme at the Egmont – Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels, and teaches at Ghent University and at the College of Europe in Bruges. He is an Honorary Fellow of the European Security and Defence College.