UK’s defence pledge creates goodwill but doubtful leverage in Brexit talks

31 January 2017 9:55am
Union Flag with Military

15 December 2016. By Matthew Holehouse.

Theresa May will today assure her European counterparts that the UK is committed to defending the continent militarily, despite leaving the EU.

The UK premier is also prepared to assist in challenges such as controlling irregular migration from Africa after Brexit.

The sentiment will reassure EU leaders who fear the UK’s exit from the bloc could spill over into a weakening of its military ties. These are conducted through bilateral agreements, and through NATO.

Uncertainty around the stance of US President-elect Donald Trump towards Russia and NATO has made the question of European defence more pressing. Some UK politicians think this plays to their advantage in the coming Brexit negotiations.

Europe’s desire to keep the UK as a close ally will set a constructive tone for the coming talks, and incentivize parties to strike a durable deal and avoid unnecessary economic damage.

Pierre Moscovici, the EU’s finance commissioner, has said Europe needed to keep in mind the UK’s “very, very important” role in defence as it navigates Brexit.

“After Brexit, France will be the number one country with the burden of defending Europe, due to the fact that other countries do not have such a strong defence,” he told an audience in London recently. “We need to reflect on that.”
But, once negotiations get under way, it is mistaken to think the UK’s military clout will secure it concessions on specific issues such as market access for financial services, or curbs on free movement of labor.

Welcome contribution

At the meeting today, May will encourage EU leaders to do more work in states such as Egypt and Libya, which are transit countries for migrants seeking to reach Europe.

The UK is prepared to help Europe tackle “the shared challenges that we face” after leaving the bloc, a Downing Street official said.

In a discussion on defence policy, attended by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, May will tell her counterparts that the UK’s military commitment to Europe is “unwavering”.

“Even once the UK has left the EU, we will continue to play a vital role in the security of the continent,” the official said.

This sentiment will be welcomed. The UK accounts for a quarter of defence spending by Nato’s European members. It is investing in new hardware such as aircraft carriers and nuclear-armed submarines.

The UK is to deploy RAF patrol aircraft to Romania and 800 troops to Estonia next year as part of NATO exercises aimed at deterring Russia. It already conducts air policing missions over the Baltic states.

It is also a major contributor to the European counter-terrorism effort, with well-resourced intelligence agencies that have close links to their US counterparts.

Through the EU budget and ad-hoc spending measures, the UK also helps to pay for the bloc’s aid work in Turkey and North Africa designed to curb migration flows.

Less tangibly, the UK’s departure will also risk poorer decision-making as the EU seeks to grow its foreign policy footprint, officials say.

Limited leverage

However, once negotiations get under way, officials on both sides acknowledge the UK will struggle to use the broader issue of defence to its advantage. British negotiators will struggle to link the strategic issue of regional stability to the specifics of trade terms.

Military deployments can only be used to extract concessions if the UK is prepared to threaten to withdraw its forces if things do not go their way. But the UK regards this as an irresponsible course, and not one it would pursue. The European side knows this.

Furthermore, officials in the European Commission, which is handing the details of negotiations, want greater defence co-operation within EU structures. The UK has long-opposed this, and so its contributions to NATO may carry less clout.

Funding options

Europe’s security challenges may present an opportunity to address the difficult question of future budget contributions.

The UK is likely to be asked to continue paying, in some format, for access to the single market.

This spending is likely to be dedicated to a separate fund, rather than entering the EU’s central budget. Norway, a non-EU member, has a similar arrangement and funds environmental and social projects in eastern and southern Europe.

One option for the UK may be to pay into a regional aid and security fund using contributions from its overseas aid budget, which is ring-fenced at 0.7 per cent of GDP.

Some of this spending is currently accounted for through the UK’s current budget contributions to the EU’s aid projects.

Such an arrangement could help the EU, as spending in Turkey and North Africa to address the refugee crisis places its budget under serious strain.

It may also be an acceptable compromise for UK lawmakers who question whether aid spending is worthwhile.

Brexit Special Report