Will Brexit leave Europe’s defences depleted in the face of an increasingly aggressive Russia?

Image credit: Tanju VarlıklıImage credit: Tanju Varlıklı

Brexit is just one of the many destabilising influences that face an increasingly precarious system of European cooperation. In fact, the haste with which the EU wishes to reach an agreement with Britain is largely driven by the need for Europeans to concentrate on more existential threats. Issues such as rising discontent over the migrant crisis and the rise of right wing populism across Europe that has ensued are creating a rift which undermines the concept of a united Europe. Critically, a more assertive and confident Russia has invaded and annexed sovereign territory on the fringes of Europe and brought chemical weapons to a quiet cathedral town in southern England.

Part I – Capability loss

It is precisely because of this dangerous and unpredictable international climate that Brexit has the potential to be so damaging. At a point when Europe needs to be united to face a new threat from an old enemy in the form of Russia, Britain could be seen as abdicating responsibility by abandoning Europe. In areas such as sanctions for instance, Britain may be moving towards a more relaxed system of implementation. Since the annexation of Crimea and operations in Ukraine, the EU has imposed a series of strict sanctions on Russia. These range from asset freezes on targeted individuals to economic measures against certain Russian industries. Sanctions only work with multilateral action; if Britain does not enforce European sanctions on individuals from Russia this could embolden the Kremlin. There is now more than one precedent for Russian military intervention in countries it borders, Latvia could be next.

Perhaps more importantly, considering that Britain and France are the only EU nations that are generally considered to have a viable independent defence capability, Britain’s exit from European defence co-operation would be a monumental loss. The UK’s armed forces have been cut in size but they retain their reputation for first class training and crucially, their ability to quickly deploy abroad. Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse, has disproportionately weak armed forces and those of other European nations are small. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany’s investment in its armed forces plunged. Whilst in the late Cold War era the Bundeswehr numbered 500,000 personnel and 5,000 main battle tanks; in 2018 it looks to be a shadow of its former self. Since the Ukraine Crisis, funding has increased, but the revitalisation of the German Army has been a slow process. There is also a reluctance to commit German troops to active service, to some extent a relic of World War Two and the anti-war culture that has developed in response to the terrors of the Nazi regime. If Europe were to lose the support of Britain’s armed forces it would leave it with a much reduced defence capability.

Although the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) is separate from the EU, Britain’s place within it will most likely be affected by Brexit. The role of Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe has traditionally been a British post and is currently held by a British General, Sir James Rupert Everard. The next holder will likely be a European commander according to diplomats and there is talk in the EU that there should be a separate EU capability to lead joint military operations. One of the main US worries about Brexit is the loss of Britain’s role in the EU as a proponent for the importance of maintaining European defence. The UK has always acted as a quasi-representative for American interest within European institutions and so, when the UK leaves, there are concerns that Brexit will go some way to sever the link across the Atlantic – between the US and EU.

Part II – European destabilisation

Recent comments from the UK’s foreign minister comparing the EU to the Soviet Union have an exquisite irony to them considering the key importance of systematic European co-operation in preventing such a tyranny arising in Western Europe. Let us not forget that it was the rising threat from the Soviet Union that provided the impetus for European integration and reconciliation. Great war-time leaders like Churchill saw that Britain’s place was with Europe and that European integration was the only route to reconcile French and German interests. His call for a “United States of Europe” as a bastion against external threats shows that he was not merely a proponent of British exceptionalism. Whether or not the UK wishes to be part of the EU, a British foreign minister is mistaken to compare it to the Communist Bloc. After two world wars and centuries of conflict before that, peace and conciliation in Europe stand as the EU’s greatest achievement.

It is therefore not the nuts and bolts of defence co-operation between the parties after Brexit that are the main concern, but the potentially de-stabilising effect that Brexit may have on the spirit of European unity – it may cause another member to secede or an economic depression that further destabilises European politics. It is all too easy to forget less than thirty years ago Europe was carved into East and West by the Soviet bloc. Our generation has lived in an era of democracy in Europe but if history is anything to go by we should not take such progress for granted. The fragility of democracy is consistently highlighted in Eastern European states with the growth of far-right nationalist parties. The EU Parliament recently voted to start sanctions proceedings against Hungary (controlled by Viktor Orban’s right-wing Populist Party, Fidesz) for the erosion of democratic institutions and in other countries like Austria and Poland the far right is on the rise. It does not take a great leap of imagination to visualise a disunited and highly vulnerable Europe.

Part III – Opportunities

However, so long as Brexit is managed in a way that does not destabilise overall European co-operation then harm to defence cooperation can be minimised. If the European Union has provided the conditions for defence cooperation it is NATO that has provided the engine of Europe’s defence from external threats. Since its creation in 1948 it has remained an important institution for both Europe and the US; the primary languages of NATO are both English and French. Aside from instances like the posturing of Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s, NATO has always remained at the forefront of European defence priorities. Recently European nations have renewed commitments to the 2% of GDP required by NATO treaties and defence spending is on the rise.

The main sticking points in the current Brexit negotiations are over trade and immigration. It is significant that both sides have unequivocally committed to maintain security and defence cooperation: it shows that there is still resolve to present a united front to Europe’s enemies. Macron’s European Intervention Initiative launched in June 2018 seeks to create a “common strategic culture”, in his words. This is not an EU institution, but an agreement entered into by 12 European countries that include Denmark and the UK. An increasingly assertive Russia has to some extent provoked European countries to re-assess their defence situations and Britain will not be excluded from cooperation agreements because of Brexit. It is therefore entirely possible with continued commitments to NATO and agreements such as this that there will be an even tighter defence community in post-Brexit Europe.

Part IV – An uncertain future

It is crucial that regardless of Britain’s new economic relations with Europe, military cooperation is not just maintained, but increased. The annual Vostok military exercise performed by Russia in September was a stark reminder that Europe should not dismiss the threat from Moscow. Over 300,000 personnel and 900 tanks took part in military drills: a scale not seen since the height of the Cold War. Arguably more worrying was the inclusion of Chinese military units in Russian combat exercises for the first time. For a long time exercises in Eastern Russia were designed to simulate an attack from China, as for much of the Cold War period there was an ideological rift between the two communist states. Throughout the 1960s there were clashes on the border. As China increases its ambitions, aiming to become world leader by the middle of this century, a military partnership with Russia is one of many signals that we may be heading for a more unstable international situation.

If anything, we must avoid complacency at all costs. In the face of an increasingly volatile international climate, European nations must be a bulwark of liberal democratic values; continued defence cooperation is crucial to maintaining this.