“Brexit” and the Future of European Defense Integration

 /  June 22, 2016, 9:19 p.m.


On June 23, British citizens will vote in a referendum to decide whether or not the United Kingdom will remain a member of the European Union. Frequently dubbed the “Brexit” scenario, the UK’s departure from the EU would deal a massive blow to the decades-long attempt at heightening intra-European cooperation.

The union, founded in the aftermath of World War II, initially involved just six countries. Its original name, the European Economic Community, reflects the single aim for which it was created: fostering economic integration. Since then, the EU has been expanded to include a total of twenty-eight countries operating as one single market, which collectively accounts for one-fifth of global imports and exports.

What was designed as an exclusively economic union now features powerful institutions that provide for members’ political integration as well. Two legislative bodies, the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament, work together to adopt EU laws; a judicial body, the Court of Justice of the European Union, ensures that all members interpret and apply these laws consistently. In this manner, EU member states have adopted uniform policy in such diverse fields as food safety, education, and media. With unprecedented ease, citizens of one EU country can now study and work in others, retaining extensive healthcare and consumer rights in the process.   

The central argument of the “Leave” campaign, which promotes a vote for Brexit, is that the European Union has stripped its members of their sovereignty by imposing ever-closer political integration. One particularly eloquent statement expressing this concern came from former Mayor of London Boris Johnson, who has become one of the “Leave” campaign’s highest-profile advocates since announcing his support for the movement in March. Citing a report that up to one-half of the UK’s legislation now originates in the EU, Johnson likens EU law to a “ratchet, clicking only forwards,” leading to “a slow and invisible process of legal colonisation, as the EU infiltrates just about every area of public policy.” In particular, Johnson has expressed fear that EU membership will erode British control over immigration, a sentiment that tends to resonate with a British public already averse to accepting refugees after the Brussels attacks.

Back in 2013, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, now the face of the “Remain” camp that advocates against Brexit, also derided the impetus towards EU political integration. In a speech to Chatham House, he stated: “The commitment in the Treaty to an ever closer union is not a commitment that should apply any longer to Britain. We do not believe in it. We do not subscribe to it. We have a different vision for Europe.” Cameron has since engaged in an extensive “renegotiation” of the UK’s status in the EU that he claims will keep Britain “permanently out of ‘ever closer union,’” and the political integration that it entails. Although in reality the prime minister only secured a portion of his initial demands, the fact that he demanded these new opt-outs before committing to campaign to “Remain” highlights the sensitivity in Britain to the narrative of EU overreach.

The EU Army: A Conspiracy, An Ideal, and Ammunition for Euroskeptics

The Conspiracy to Integrate Europe’s Armed Forces

In late May, British daily The Times published the front-page headline, “EU army plans kept secret from voters.” The article quickly led to coverage in other major papers, with titles like “Plans for an ‘EU army’ are being kept SECRET from British voters until the day after the referendum” and “Britain will be forced to join an EU ARMY unless we leave, says Armed Forces Minister.”

The focus of the Times piece is the EU global strategy on Foreign and Security Policy, a set of proposals which the EU head of foreign policy Federica Mogherini has spent the last 18 months preparing. Mogherini has already completed the document, intended to “guide the European Union’s global actions in the future,” and EU leaders are due to discuss the proposals at a June 28 summit. However, they will not actually receive the proposals until June 24, the day after the Brexit referendum. The source for the Times article says that in order to keep the Global Strategy from leaking, only a small group of diplomats have been permitted to view it, and only in a special room without electronic devices. The excerpts leaked to the Times call for the creation of a centralized EU military headquarters and “permanent structured defence co-operation.” Together with the extensive regime to prevent leaks and the timing of the release for right after the referendum, these excerpts form the basis for the “EU army plans kept secret from voters” headline and the sub-header, “Details of Brussels power grab buried until day after referendum.”

While globally there are 17 military and civilian operations currently being run by the EU, soldiers active in these missions serve, at least ostensibly, as members of national armies; crucially, their involvement in the engagements is entirely at the discretion of the nation for which they serve. The phrase “EU army” as used in the headline could suggest a different scenario, one in which national troops serve the European Union in name and in practice, entailing less control on the part of national governments. The notion suggested by the headline—that the EU has been secretly conspiring to force all 28 members into merging armed forces into one large European army— fits the “Leave” campaign’s narrative perfectly; for voters who view the EU as requiring excessive political integration, an EU plan to mandate military integration would reinforce that perception.

“Leave” campaigners were quick to capitalize on these revelations. Nigel Farage, the leader of the far-right and pro-Brexit UK Independence Party, said, “We now see another EU lie exposed. The EU wants an EU army.” One Tory MP took the story as evidence that the British electorate was being “deceived” and “hoodwinked” by Brussels. Liam Fox, the former secretary of state for defence, warned, “This is our last chance to stop being dragged into a permanent EU military force.”

In all likelihood, however, the global strategy is unlikely to call for the establishment of an EU army, let alone one that coerces Britain into participating. First and foremost, a spokeswoman for Mogherini has, since the Times article’s release, denied the charge explicitly, stating, “There is absolutely no plan to set up an EU army with the global strategy.” But even more crucially, while many policies can be imposed on EU member states, military integration cannot be forced upon a country without the consent of all 28 EU nations. Where Article 42(2) of the Lisbon Treaty calls for “the progressive framing of a common Union defence policy” that “will lead to a common defence,” it qualifies that this will happen, “when the European Council,” a body whose committees each include one voting member for each EU member state, “acting unanimously, so decides.”

The Times describes a loophole for circumventing the unanimity requirement, but not one that would impose any binding requirements on Britain. The provision in question is most plausibly Article 329 of the Lisbon Treaty, which provides for “enhanced cooperation” among a group of nine or more member states that want to create a set of rights and obligations amongst themselves that other member states do not want to participate in. For civilian programs, enhanced cooperation does not require a unanimous Council vote, but in military cases, like that of creating an EU army, unanimity is required. The UK could thus prevent the use of this article.

A Daily Express article argues that the UK would be forced to join an EU army, but potentially misquotes a source of dubious credibility. Penny Mordaunt, the British armed forces minister and a “leading” Leave campaigner, told the paper, “If we stay in the EU the Lisbon treaty gives us the worst of all worlds: [we would be] powerless [to] prevent [the] EU army it paves the way for, and [which] we … would be bound to support, and its actual work [would be] subject to the veto of any member nation, even those who are contributing little to its support.” That statement, which mentions a veto, does not seem to necessarily translate into “revelations … that the Lisbon Treaty obliges Britain to join the EU Army.” In any case, Mordaunt is also currently under fire for “plain and simple lying” about a different part of the Lisbon Treaty, having responded, “No it doesn’t,” when asked if the UK can veto Turkey’s accession into the EU, a right provided for by Article 49.

A Unanimous Vote for an EU Army: A Fantasy

Britain would clearly veto the proposal for an EU army. In response to the Times article, a [British] Ministry of Defence spokesman insisted: “We will never be part of an EU army. We retain a veto on all defence matters in the EU and we will oppose any measures which would undermine member states’ military forces.” David Cameron has also declared outright that the UK would vote against Juncker’s proposal, stating, “national security is a national competence, and we would veto any suggestion of an EU army.” The European Union Act passed by the British Parliament in 2011 also requires that a referendum be held before the UK agrees to any proposal in the European Council related to “Article 42(2) of [the Lisbon Treaty] in relation to a common EU defence.” With steadily increasing Euroskepticism amongst voters in the UK, this would also prevent a scenario in which the UK government chooses to vote for involvement in an EU army against the will of the British people.

While the UK’s veto is often framed as the main force in the way of the European army project, other member states can—and, in the event of a Brexit, very likely would—veto an EU army proposal too. In particular, Ireland would prove a hindrance, given that the Irish have, with the aim of preserving their neutrality, also included an article in the Irish constitution and secured a provision in the EU’s Lisbon Treaty which effectively prevent Ireland’s involvement in any European common defense project. An EU army proposal would, as a result of these two clauses, require both a referendum and a constitutional revision in Ireland in order to secure its vote.

In a post-Brexit Europe, Ireland would be just one of 27 EU member states whose votes would be necessary for the EU army’s creation. Several countries, such as Poland and Latvia, have already stated their opposition to an EU army. Consideration must be given to the circumstances of these and other central and eastern European states, which, viewing themselves as particularly reliant on the US as a security guarantor against Russia, may hesitate to provoke their transatlantic ally by disregarding NATO’s stated opposition to an EU army.

Generally, it’s impossible to rule out the possibility that states with mixed public opinions on the matter, such as Austria, Finland, and Lithuania, would also vote against a common defense project. Depending on the structure of the proposal, voting in favor of an EU army might entail ceding control over the deployment of armed forces such that a supranational defence authority could legitimately overrule a national parliament’s decision on such matters; this would entail a massive forfeiture of sovereignty. Alternatively, if the EU army structure is set up such that any government can block deployment, the program would likely be rendered ineffective; this is a reasonable conclusion from observing that EU battlegroups have been active for roughly a decade, but never once deployed. Given the unattractiveness of both scenarios, the presumption that the vote for an EU army will easily pass unanimously after a Brexit is clearly unfounded.

The Side Effect of Preaching an Idealistic Vision  

In practice, the European Union cannot force the UK to participate in an EU army and probably could not establish an EU army even after a Brexit; however, the media coverage of the conspiracy initiated by the Times article could have a considerable impact on voter mentality in the referendum. The Times may not be the most influential paper in Britain, but it does have a daily readership of over one million in print alone. Furthermore, the Times piece led to similar articles, some with even more inflammatory rhetoric, in other papers. The Daily Mail reached 18 million people in the UK each month last year, more than any other news source in Britain, and its article, “Plans for an ‘EU army’ are being kept SECRET from British voters until the day after the referendum,” is almost entirely composed of the content in The Times article (along with a few tweets from Leave campaigners).

Ironically, the phrase “European army,” while an incredibly potent weapon for the Leave campaign, was thrust into the media last year after it was used by someone who has also described a Brexit as potentially “catastrophic”: European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker. He called for the creation of a common European army in March 2015 in an interview with a German newspaper, stating, “With its own army, Europe could react more credibly to the threat to peace in a member state or in a neighboring state.” He argues in the interview that such an army would “show the world there will never be war between the countries of the EU” and that it would “convey a clear message to Russia” that the EU is “serious” about defending its values.

Juncker’s call for a “common European army” met with minimal enthusiasm among member states, with the main exception being Germany under the direction of chancellor Angela Merkel, a critic of Brexit who recently said, “From my point of view, Great Britain remaining in the European Union is the best and most desirable thing for us all.” Responding to Juncker’s EU army plan, she has positioned Germany as the most vocal and uncompromising advocate for the unattainable concept, stipulating, however, that the process of creating the EU army could be a lengthy one. An unpublished policy paper by Merkel’s CDU party is reported to call for a procedure that “[i]n the long run … leads to a European Army”; the paper, according to The Telegraph, is “understood to closely reflect [Merkel’s] thinking.” Speaking on a German radio station, German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen similarly stated, “Our future as Europeans will at some point be with a European army.”

After the release of the Juncker interview in March 2015, a European Commission spokesman eventually went on to “qualify” the president’s comments, specifying that the creation of an EU armed forces would be a very long term project. The maneuver effectively aligned the European Commission’s rhetoric with that of Berlin, establishing a coherent narrative between the two main forces advocating for an EU army. When Leave campaigners use Merkel and Juncker’s statements in support of an EU army to sow fear, however, they tend not to mention the long-term qualification.

Indeed, by remaining a steadfast advocate of an EU army as the long-term goal, Merkel continues to give ammunition to the Leave campaign. As reported by The Telegraph, in September 2015 Merkel expected “David Cameron to drop his opposition to an EU army in exchange for supporting Britain’s renegotiation.” The article quotes a “Berlin source” who indicates that Merkel intended to request that as a “favour” for support in the renegotiation Cameron not “block” her defence plans, including the EU army project.

It is unclear whether Merkel actually ever made this request, which, in any case, Cameron has not obeyed. Merkel actively engaged with Cameron through the “renegotiations” and consented to the final agreement, but Cameron has since made public statements pledging to veto any proposal for an EU army. Thus, the Merkel plan described in the Telegraph article, whether real, fake, successful, failed, or abandoned, contributes to a body of press focused on the continued push for the creation of an EU army. In addition, the secret EU maneuvering to create an EU army described by an unnamed source in the Telegraph article, as in the May Times article about the World Agenda, led to sensationalist responses in the media. A representative for business lobbying group Business for Britain told one paper, “This is further proof that inevitable EU integration means that the UK will lose control of its destiny and, possibly, its military strength inside an unreformed EU.”

Looking Forward: How a Brexit Could Facilitate EU Military Cooperation

As stated above, regardless of how the British people vote in their referendum on EU membership, there will not be an EU army any time soon. However, certain initiatives to improve military coordination in the EU have previously been blocked by the UK and could gain new traction following a Brexit.

A Permanent EU Military Headquarters

Currently, there is no single EU military headquarters to coordinate EU military ventures around the globe; instead, the EU is dependent upon a mixture of ad hoc and NATO structures for the management of its 17 ongoing operations. Generally, planning for each EU mission is assigned to one of five different national headquarters located in the UK, France, Germany, Greece, and Italy. While the EU does have a mechanism by which it can activate an EU Operations Centre to orchestrate CSDP missions, the use of this structure has been rare relative to the total number of EU missions, with its first activation taking place in May 2012.

The institutional weakness of the EU Operations Centre can be directly attributed to British leadership. When France, Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg began lobbying for the creation of an EU civil-military planning cell entirely independent of NATO in 2003, the UK intervened. Britain successfully pushed for a watered-down version of the proposal, with the result that both NATO and any national operational HQ now have the ability to unilaterally block the use of an EU Operations Centre in planning.

Ever since, the British have unwaveringly opposed the creation of a permanent EU military headquarters on the grounds that it would duplicate functions already provided by the NATO Shape headquarters in Belgium and thereby weaken the transatlantic alliance.

In 2008, the French circulated a five-page document among European governments outlining its security priorities, which included the creation of a permanent operational headquarters in Brussels for planning EU military engagement abroad. A representative British response came in a British MEP’s statement: “I don’t see anything in this that will benefit the United Kingdom … This will end in tears.”

Then, in 2011, the push for a permanent HQ regained political momentum as part of the Polish agenda for the EU presidency. The European experience in Libya, where the NATO campaign relied on an unanticipated degree of American support, bolstered calls for the HQ’s necessity, but when proposal came to a formal vote, the UK vetoed, effectively halting the proposal. Explaining the veto, the British foreign secretary stated, “I have made very clear that the United Kingdom will not agree to a permanent operational HQ. We will not agree to it now and we will not agree to it in the future. That is a red line.”

Most recently, a major surge in support for a permanent HQ took place in September 2012, when 11 EU Member States, including France and Germany, released a report on the “Future of Europe.” The report calls for a defense policy with “more ambitious goals,” and—with a clear nod to Britain—it requests that the EU “prevent one single member state from being able to obstruct initiatives.” Around that time, a senior official in the French defence ministry leaked to the media that Lady Ashton, the foreign minister of the EU, had suggested to the French that if Paris could obtain more support for the HQ she could persuade the British not to veto. But nonetheless, this push for the creation of a permanent operational HQ, like those before it, failed to result in the establishment of an HQ because British support has remained evasive.

While European leaders are not quite prepared to cede control of their troops in EU missions to Brussels, the drive for a permanent headquarters to improve coordination of such missions has survived a decade of British obstruction. Drafts of a German white paper on military integration pending release in July reportedly call for a joint civil-military headquarters for EU operations. While a spokesperson for Frederica Mogherini denied that the 2016 global strategy would call for an EU army, the Times article that made that allegation also said the document will call for a headquarters, and this claim was not refuted. Furthermore, in what is arguably the most widely acclaimed report on EU military integration of the decade, former EU high representative for common foreign and security policy Javier Solana also recommends “creating permanent EU military headquarters in Brussels” in the 2015 report “More Union in European Defence.” With political and expert support, as well a history of unilateral obstruction by the United Kingdom, a Brexit could lead to the establishment of a permanent EU headquarters.

A Decline in Security Commitments in the UK and Across Europe

While these discussions about a Brexit and an EU army have taken place, the United Kingdom has begun to decrease the scale of its contributions to European security. Financially, this has manifested itself in a steadily decreasing British defence budget. Between 2011 and 2014, the UK spent a progressively smaller percent of its GDP on defense each year, ultimately arriving at the NATO-pledged threshold of 2 percent in 2014. While the UK has since committed itself to maintaining at least 2 percent spending on defense through 2020, that proportion alone has not been enough to appease American concerns that the UK’s military capabilities are faltering.

Nor have the British compensated for their lackluster financial contributions with greater troop commitments. In 2014, of the 4,300 local and international personnel contributed to “on land” CSDP missions, the UK contributed less than 50. For the same year, statistics for other EU Missions reveal similar proportions: 40 UK staff for EULEX Kosovo compared to 734 international staff; 9 UK staff for EUPOL Afghanistan compared to 250 international staff; and 10 UK staff for EUAM Ukraine compared to 80 international staff.

Britain is by no means the only country in Europe closing its wallet to defense spending. Despite the backdrop of Vladimir Putin’s nationalistic rhetoric to the east and the destabilizing havoc being wrecked by ISIL to the south, the biggest financial contributors to EU defense are instituting major military budget cuts and freezes, and these cuts only represent an extension of long-term downward trends that predate the Eurozone crisis.

Many European nations attempted to reverse this trend in 2014, when the heads of state and government of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) gathered in Wales to discuss European security. Of the 28 EU members, 22 are NATO member states as well. These 22 nations joined in issuing the Wales Summit Declaration, setting forth an aim for each NATO member “to spend a minimum of 2% of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defence.” But in the short term, the non-binding declaration appears to have had little effect. In 2015, of the 22 countries in both the EU and NATO, only four agreed to meet the NATO defense spending goal of 2 percent of GDP; several countries actually cut their spending, and, as is frequently the case in Europe, many did so without first consulting one another, accentuating the present imbalances.

Earlier this year, the NATO secretary general announced with much fanfare that “in 2015, defence cuts were almost zero.” But a lack of defense cuts does not necessarily mean that European nations are on track to reaching their self-imposed goal of 2 percent of GDP. Meanwhile, defense budgets are increasing in every other region in the world with the exception of North America.

Historically, Europe has been able to depend on the United States as its unwavering defense guarantor. The United States currently pays for about 22 percent of the NATO budget as calculated on the basis of gross national income and adjusted regularly; when unadjusted, the figure is actually closer to 75 percent. However, American officials have recently suggested that Europeans should not take the status quo for granted. In June 2011, the US secretary of defense cautioned that “if current trends in the decline of European defense capabilities are not halted and reversed, future U.S. political leaders … may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.” Shortly afterwards, President Obama announced his plan for America to “pivot to Asia” as the focus of its military and diplomatic attention.

Maybe not an EU Army, But Europe Would Benefit From More Military Integration

The lack of national commitments to the European defense budget, combined with the sudden American demand that Europe become more militarily self-reliant, creates a situation where Europe must be as efficient as possible with its own defense resources in order to maintain the security of its eastern and southern borders.

To be more efficient, Europe could heighten its defense cooperation and pursue integration. To give an example, Michel Barnier, the special advisor on European defence and security policy for the European Commission, has identified at least seven different national frigate programs and 23 different systems of light armored vehicles in the EU. Had the EU member states that made these redundant purchases better coordinated with one another, they could have obtained a much broader range of defense capabilities for the same amount of money. European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker adroitly captured the current state of EU security in October 2015 when he said, “If I look at the common European defense policy, a bunch of chickens would be a more unified combat unit in contrast.”

As a unit, the European Union’s 28 members constitute the world’s second-largest military spender, but due to the lack of coordination in that spending, the EU is by no means the world’s second-largest military power. According to one study that compared transatlantic defense statistics, “At a cost of half that of the US, the Europeans obtained only a tenth of the capacity.” Now that the US is moving to abandon the burden it has historically taken on in providing for European defense, Europe needs to close the tremendous gap between European and American defense spending efficiency.

With Brexit, A Clear Path to More Effective Military Spending

Funding for drone research is a fairly representative example of an area of defense spending likely be made more effective with the UK out of the EU. The EU has been funding research on Unmanned Airborne Vehicles (UAVs), colloquially known as drones, since the late 1990s, with an increased focus on security applications beginning after 9/11. When UAV assassinations became a key facet of US military policy, fierce debate arose in Europe regarding the use of drones to conduct extrajudicial killings, but EU funding for drone research has nonetheless remained steadfast, and, like most EU military spending, has been made inefficient by a lack of coordination.

According to Marcel Dickow, a senior associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, joint drone development at the EU level “is the right” approach. “The money is there,” he says. “[T]hat’s not the problem … The technology is there with the companies, so that’s not a problem as well. It just needs the political willingness to do it together because it’s not possible that a single nation can do that by their own.”

In November 2013, France, Germany, Poland, and four other EU member states agreed to develop joint drone technology and requested that the EDA play a central role in coordinating the endeavor. Britain blocked these proposals, with reports in the media stating that David Cameron “personally intervened” to remove all references to “Europe’s armed forces” from a draft communiqué on defence cooperation prepared in advance of an upcoming EU summit in December.

For the British, opposition stemmed from the stipulation in the Commission's proposals that the UAVs be “directly purchased, owned and operated by the Union.” Speaking on the proposals, Cameron stated, “[I]t isn’t right for the European Union to have capabilities, armies, air forces and all the rest of it. We need to get that demarcation right.”

In a move highly representative of the British approach to defense cooperation, the UK prevented the creation of a large-scale EU drone program while working bilaterally with France, the EU’s other main military power, to conduct drone research. In 2012, Paris and London agreed to begin working in conjunction to develop UAVs, and this past March, Cameron and French president François Hollande made public their intentions “to proceed to the next phase in 2017 to prepare for the full-fledged development of operational demonstrators of air combat drones by 2025.”

To the same end, the British and French signed their own bilateral defense cooperation treaty, the “UK-France Summit 2010 Declaration on Defence and Security Cooperation,” in 2010. The agreement set out a range of programs for defense collaboration, including cooperation in the deployment of aircraft carriers, the joint deployment of ground troops, industrial procurement, and research and development related to, among other things, naval systems and complex weapons.

An EU structure, the European Defence Agency (EDA), serves to coordinate defense partnerships of the sort that the UK has pursued bilaterally with France, including joint capability and procurement, defense research, and market integration; however, the UK has consistently blocked any increase in the EDA budget. One of the main functions of the EDA is its “Pooling & Sharing” program, a systematic approach for promoting, as the name suggests, cooperation in the purchase and use of different military capabilities on a national and voluntary basis. In 2011, the EDA adopted a list of eleven initial priorities, including air-to-air refueling and maritime surveillance. Despite the fact that the arrangements the EDA sets up for pooling and sharing are on a voluntary basis, the UK vetoed a proposal to increase funding for the EDA for the fifth year in a row on November 17. By blocking this proposal for a 3 percent budget increase, Britain kept the EDA budget stable at 305 million euros, which, adjusted in real terms, constitutes a 15 percent budgetary decrease for the EDA since 2010. Following a Brexit, an increase in the EDA budget would be far more likely to pass than it is now, increasing the EDA’s ability to facilitate European defense cooperation.

A European Defense Union: the Possibility of PESCO

The reason that both the establishment of a permanent EU military headquarters and an increase in the EDA budget seem likely given a Brexit is that both proposals have been unilaterally vetoed by the United Kingdom in the past. In contrast, another project some experts suggest might occur after a Brexit—Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO)—could have already taken place despite vehement British opposition.

Provided for by several different clauses of the Lisbon Treaty, including Article 42(6), Article 46, and Additional Protocol 10, PESCO essentially enables “a core group of countries to take systematic steps towards a coherent security and defence policy without dividing the Union.” Participation in PESCO is voluntary and could even hypothetically involve as few as two member states. Because the activation of PESCO only requires a qualified Council majority, the UK could not unilaterally veto its activation.

The original aim of PESCO was to establish a European Defence Union (EDU) loosely based on the European Economic and Monetary Union, the group of EU member states that have adopted the euro. The five fields of cooperation required by PESCO promote the integration of Europe’s defense apparatuses gradually into an EDU and are as follows: commitment to agreed upon defence budget objectives; pooling and sharing, as well as specialization, with equipment; increased interoperability and deployability of troops; coordinated elimination of capability gaps; and participation in major EDA equipment programs. The fragmented nature of the PESCO provisions in the Lisbon Treaty—with the two conditions, five commitments, and one activation mechanism scattered across the text—obscure the intent of its original authors to provide a path towards an EDU; unsurprisingly, it was the British who pushed for the removal of clauses explicitly highlighting this aim and generally weakened PESCO in negotiations.

Now, the use of PESCO as a means towards creating an EDU has been revived. In the Solana report, the call for a permanent operational headquarters is just one element of a larger call for a European Defence Union with its internal cooperation managed by PESCO. A number of other recent academic and expert reports support the use of PESCO. In 2014, Juncker described PESCO as one of his three foreign policy objectives for the EU. Germany has also expressed support for the use of PESCO, and the French have set forth a proposal to establish a structure that is nearly identical to PESCO, but would be outside of the Lisbon Treaty framework.

It is an open question whether a Brexit would lead to the activation of PESCO. Germany, France, and other countries that have expressed interest in activating PESCO could already have done so at any time. Former head of the EDA Nick Witney argues that, despite statements of support for activation, “there is no appetite currently … Germany is not going to allow its troops to be deployed or its defence budget spent by anyone other than its own government and parliament.” If a Brexit were to provoke the activation of PESCO, it would not be by eliminating the UK’s ability to veto, but would instead involve an increase in political will resulting from Britain’s absence. The UK currently provides the EU with one of its most expansive and capable militaries; one possibility is that the absence of British military contributions to EU missions leads to the activation of PESCO.

The Tremendous Ironies of a Brexit that Promotes EU Military Integration

Britain Initiated the Military Integration Movement That They Now Loathe

While ambitious plans for European defense integration have been set forth since the 1950s, no one took any concrete steps toward realizing them until 1998. In December of that year, British PM Tony Blair released a joint declaration with French president Jacques Chirac, stating that the EU “must have the capacity for autonomous action, backed up by credible military forces, the means to decide to use them, and a readiness to do so, in order to respond to international crises.” The Saint-Malo Declaration effectively reversed the UK’s prior position of vetoing every EU defense initiative, and it provided not only the stimulus but also the basis for much of the language for the European Council’s call for a Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) the following year.

Under Franco-British leadership, the EU proceeded to erect two large-scale defense mechanisms in the early 2000s: EU battlegroups and the European Defence Agency (EDA).

With the battlegroups, the UK’s influence can be identified at every stage of development. The concept was the product of two Franco-British summits in 2003. At the second, the two countries called for the establishment “credible Battlegroup sized forces” of roughly 1,500 soldiers each, aimed at increasing Europe’s response time for contributing to UN operations. In response, the European Council endorsed a set of goals in June 2004, which included the “complete development by 2007 of rapidly deployable battlegroups,” using what had primarily been, up to that point, the British name for the program (the French preferred “Tactical Groups”). Then, later that same year, a European Commission sub-body suggested that an “Initial Operational Capability” be ready by 2005, prior to the 2007 “Full” capacity deadline. The United Kingdom, along with France, volunteered to provide these initial troops, and the UK has since consistently contributed battlegroups, volunteering soldiers in 2008, 2010, and 2013.

The formation of the EDA took place roughly within the same timeframe as that of the battlegroups and with similarly extensive British involvement. In June 2003, the European Council declared that it would “undertake the necessary actions towards creating, in the course of 2004, an intergovernmental agency in the field of defence capabilities research, acquisition and armaments.” Immediately, a working group began to convene in Brussels in order to come up with a proposal for the Council. At these meetings, the British representative Nick Witney, then a deputy head at the UK Ministry of Defence, played a central role in planning the EDA.  According to Witney, at that time there was “a clear agreement between London and Paris that an Agency would be a good thing and that we would make it happen.” The European Council adopted a Joint Action establishing the EDA in July 2004, and shortly thereafter, Witney was nominated and approved to be the Agency’s first Chief Executive, a position he served in for three years.

For the British to have now unilaterally prevented any growth in an EDA that is largely their creation would be the first major irony described by historians of the future.

Britain Opposed Integration Because of NATO, but NATO Promotes Integration Because of the British

The United States has long been critical of the potential for EU defence initiatives to harm American and NATO interests in Europe. In 1999, then-US secretary of state Madeleine Albright published an op-ed outlining what are now known as “Albright’s three D’s”: No decoupling (of the US from European security), no duplication (of pre-existing NATO structures), and no discrimination (against non-EU NATO partners, such as Turkey, in EU defense programs).  

In its opposition to and obstruction of EU military integration over the years, the United Kingdom has consistently invoked the concerns of its “special relationship” partner, manifested in “Albright’s three D’s,” in defending its position. The British opposition to a permanent EU military headquarters was based on these grounds, with the British foreign secretary stating in 2011, “We are opposed [to a permanent headquarters] because we think it duplicates NATO structures and permanently disassociates EU planning from NATO planning.” A 2011 British House of Lords publication blames a lack of coordination between the European Union police mission in Afghanistan and NATO forces also active there for “putting the lives of [British] personnel at risk.” During the negotiations over the Lisbon Treaty, the British government warned that its Mutual Defence Clause duplicated Article V of the NATO treaty, arguing, “Common defence, including as a form of enhanced cooperation, is divisive and a duplication of the guarantees that 19 of the 25 Member States will enjoy through NATO.”

As national governments have failed to muster the political to increase their military spending and the British have continued to block military integration, declining European defense capacities have led to harsh rebukes from the United States and NATO. In 2011, the US secretary of defense described “a dim, if not dismal future for the transatlantic alliance” if capabilities continued to decline. President Obama recently complained in an interview with The Atlantic that Europeans are “free riders” who have refused to pay their “fair share” in joint military operations.

The United States and NATO are still wary of duplication, and especially the prospect of an EU army, but they now appear more open to the prospect of military integration in the EU as a means of increasing Europe’s defense contributions to NATO. The US secretary of defense described the European members of NATO as both “individually … and collectively” able to reverse trends of decreasing military capacity. Vice President of the Atlantic Council Frances Burwell has stated that the US would “welcome” European military integration aimed at increasing spending efficiency.

However, Burwell also points to the cruel irony facing the British in a Brexit scenario. She writes that the special relationship could be “downgraded” without Britain’s involvement in such EU-wide military integration, with the US likely diverting its attention to France and Germany, the new military powers of Europe, as its preferred allies. The British would have then spent a decade opposing more military integration out of loyalty to its “special relationship” with the US only to have that relationship downgraded precisely as a result of its opposition to more military integration. The sentiment in Britain that the EU is overreaching with military integration could itself potentially provoke a Brexit and compounding that would downgrade in the transatlantic alliance, a strange fate for the EU member state that initiated military integration in the EU in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Yet the decision ultimately rests in the hands of the British people, and on June 23, they will make their choice.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here

Nick Romanoff


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