Brexit and the Defence of Europe

Friday, July 1, 2016
Image credit: 
Poster Collection, UK 1285, Hoover Institution Archives.

Image credit: 
Poster Collection, UK 1285, Hoover Institution Archives.

Britain’s decision to leave the European Union (EU)—nicknamed “Brexit”—does not have anything like the security ramifications for the West that its opponents liked to pretend during the recent campaign. A central part of the pro-Remain campaign was to try to terrify voters into believing that Brexit entailed dire security implications, but the British public voted to leave anyhow, because they understood that far from guaranteeing peace and security on the European continent, the EU has been at best neutral in its effect, and it was always NATO that has been the bedrock.

So long as those EU members, if any, who choose to follow Britain out—and there has been talk of a Grexit (Greek exit) and even a Frexit (French)—remain in NATO, there will be no strategic ramifications for the West whatever. Since the country most likely to leave, Sweden, isn’t even in NATO, that has none either. The fear-mongering that David Cameron indulged in—including some truly absurd prognostications about future conflict in Europe arising at least partly from Brexit—were so heavily discounted by the British electorate, only 18% of whom wound up trusting him on European issues by the end, that they had no effect on the outcome of the referendum.

In one area—the creation of a European Army—there could theoretically be some ramifications for security, not least if it was eventually to undermine or replace NATO, which was at least sotto voce the intention of some of the idea’s originators. The concept of a European Army has been around since even before the formation of the EU’s forerunner, the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957. Yet the United Kingdom dragged her feet over the idea for half a century, much preferring NATO as the pillar of its international security. In November 1951, Sir Winston Churchill told his Cabinet that his attitude towards further economic developments along pan-European lines “resembles that which we adopt about the European Army. We help, we dedicate, we play a part, but we are not merged with and do not forfeit our insular or commonwealth character… When plans for uniting Europe take a federal form that we ourselves cannot take part, because we cannot subordinate ourselves or the control of British policy to federal authorities.” (This key quote also ought to put paid to the absurd idea put about during the recent campaign that Churchill would have voted Remain were he alive today.)

Today, plans for a European Army are moribund, though a recent leak of Brussels documents to the Sunday Times imply that after Brexit they might be reintroduced. Nonetheless, any serious threat to NATO is effectively removed, because the British armed forces can now never join and they were central to the scheme. Apart from the French, the British have the only significant armed forces in Europe, at a time when the Germans do not want to spend the amounts of money necessary to make the European Army a reality, and are anyway concerned about doing anything further to antagonize Vladimir Putin.1 Brexit might therefore have actually strengthened NATO: such is certainly the opinion of Americans like former U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton.

Britain’s opposition to the European Army concept waned during Tony Blair’s premiership. Since 2004, Britain had supported what are called European Security and Defence Policy forces—in the opinion of some experts the nucleus of any such future Army, which were exercising in Britain even as late as in June 2016, when Britain assigned two European Battle Groups of 1,500 personnel each to be under EU command. There were previous deployments in the first six months of 2005, the last six months of 2008 and the first six months of 2010. Had any of these been activated by the EU, it would have prevented British support for NATO operations. Because of these suspected moves towards a European Army, no less a figure than Field Marshal Lord Guthrie actually switched his support from the Remain to the Leave side of the referendum debate.2

Guthrie has argued that any European defence force would just provide another cumbersome bureaucratic structure on which precious resources would be wasted during a time of defence cuts. Although there is a Franco-German Brigade in existence—known as the Eurocorps—it is not a serious precursor for a European Army now that Britain has left the EU, not least because it speaks different languages (although it now ironically enough seems to be settling on English as its lingua franca) and does not have troops stationed in each other’s countries, partly for financial reasons. Underfunding, rather than battlefield prowess, is Germany’s most pressing military problem.3 But as Germany is unlikely to leave the EU, and the whole organization would collapse if it did, it can’t be said that Brexit will have anything other than a positive effect on NATO, especially for the United States, which strategically does not want Britain sucked into the vortex of a European superstate.4

During the referendum campaign, General Sir Michael Rose, a former commander of the SAS, the UNPROFROR commander in Bosnia, and a commander of the UK Field Army, wrote a powerful article arguing that “The combat effectiveness of our Armed Forces has already been much damaged by European legislation that seems to regard soldiers merely as civilians in uniform. I believe that, in a time of great insecurity in Europe, it would be madness to become involved in what will only ever be a hollow force.”5

NATO’s continuing centrality to Europe’s defence would be unaffected by more countries leaving the EU because of the reliance European soldiers have on the U.S. and NATO for Intelligence, for the Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) of Europe, and for a large amount of equipment, particularly aircraft, helicopters, and airlift.6 So even if the EU wished the European Army to become a counterpoint to NATO one day, it is hard to see how that could be achieved.

The specious argument one sometimes hears that the EU has kept the peace because nations that trade with each other seldom fight each other, flies in the face of thousands of years of history, when nations have both traded with and fought against their closest adjacent neighbours. In the modern world, one doesn’t have to be adjacent; Britain’s greatest export-import partner in the world in 1914 was Imperial Germany. Meanwhile one cannot envisage so sclerotic, corrupt, bureaucratic, and unwieldy an organization like the EU committing to anything like Article 5 of the Atlantic Treaty, which commits all signatories immediately to go to the aid of any one of them who’s attacked. What guarantee is there that all EU member states would or could jointly support military action if attacked? Austria, for example, is fiercely proud of its neutrality, enabling Vienna to act as host capital for UN and international organizations. The fact that Eastern European states wish to join both NATO and the EU is an indicator that they believe in the security that NATO provides. Neutral Sweden is considering joining NATO, but voted against joining the euro. In practice, during Britain’s war against Argentina in 1982, the French were obstructive, the Italians and Spanish positively hostile. The USA and Canada, by contrast, provided tangible support.

The capacity for the EU to keep the peace in Europe—for which it ludicrously won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012—was demonstrated during the Yugoslavian civil war in the 1990s, when over a quarter of a million Europeans were killed over several years— easily the worst bloodshed in Europe since World War Two—while the EU had minimum impact. Indeed several distinguished historians have plausibly argued that it made matters worse. By total contrast, when NATO was finally permitted to intervene, the war was over in a little over 24 hours after its jets bombed Serbia out of Kosovo. Withdrawal of countries from the EU will not have a positive or negative impact on Western security, for the simple reason that the EU itself doesn’t have a positive or negative impact on Western security either.

After the recent fall of Fallujah, the The Telegraph’s defence correspondent Con Coughlin wrote, in an article entitled “Even if we leave Europe, we will still defend it—as we have always done”7 that “The EU per se has been totally irrelevant to the success of the coalition effort, which will continue irrespective of whether or not Britain maintains its membership.” The same will be true for any future countries which choose to leave too. Coughlin went on: “It is Britain’s willingness to deploy its Armed Forces in support of Nato operations such as [in the Baltic states], not its membership of the EU, that has constrained the Kremlin’s attempts to extend its sphere of influence through central Europe and the Baltics.” That can only be achieved within the American-led military alliance, the most successful in keeping European peace in the history of the continent.

Remainers tried to make Leavers look like irresponsible warmongers for wanting to remove Britain from the EU, and will doubtless make the same argument for any other country that wants to escape its coils. Yet as time goes on and nothing happens, the argument will lose its potency, assuming of course that nothing is done to weaken the true organization which the continent needs to thank, the one that ought to have won the Nobel Peace Prize: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.


1See Justin Huggler "German fighter jets unable to fly and mechanics forced to borrow spare parts, claims magazine," The Telegraph (August 26, 2014); and Justin Huggler "German army used broomsticks instead of guns during training," The Telegraph (February 15, 2015).

2See Charles Moore, “Field Marshal Lord Guthrie: Why I now back the Leave campaign,” The Telegraph (June 17, 2016). 

3See Kyle Mizokami, “Is Germany’s Military Dying?The National Interest (September 1, 2015).

4See "Ignore Obama, Brexit will make the Special Relationship even more special," The Telegraph (March 14, 2016).

5Michael Rose, “Our best defence is to stand apart and save Europe by our example,” The Telegraph (June 20, 2016).

6See the NATO Review magazine topical page on Missile Defense.

7Con Coughlin, “Even if we leave Europe, we will still defend it—as we have always done,” The Telegraph (June 21, 2016). 

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