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Brexit will weigh heavily on European security. Here’s why.

- October 18, 2018

Over the coming months, the British government will almost certainly lead its country out of the European Union. A lot has been written about the economic consequences of Brexit. However, its security implications are equally important. Contrary to official British assurances, Brexit is likely to have serious consequences for European security, transatlantic cooperation and the ability of the E.U. and NATO to coordinate.

Britain has played a key role in E.U. security institutions

Nonspecialists might not know very much about the E.U.’s role in international security. Britain’s Labour government, together with France, pushed for the creation of an E.U. security institution. Since then, the E.U. has formulated two security strategies and intervened abroad in more than 25 civil and military operations, including in Kosovo, the Aegean Sea, Congo, the Gulf of Aden and Afghanistan. Although Britain did not provide many troops for these operations, it did a lot to build the E.U.’s role, providing strategic guidance, personnel, expertise, intelligence and equipment. As the country with the largest military capabilities and defense budget in the E.U., it also added to the E.U.’s international credibility on security issues.

Britain will no longer be able to act as a go-between

In a recent article, I show that while the E.U.’s security policy and NATO are formally distinct, they are deeply intertwined. However, the E.U.’s security activities sometimes make an uneasy fit with NATO obligations. Both ask national armed forces for commitments and troops, but their goals may sometimes clash.

The British government played an important role in managing these relations. It acted as a broker, negotiating across both organizations to help reach solutions. States such as Turkey, the United States and Cyprus have sometimes held military cooperation between the E.U. and NATO hostage to their own national interests. Turkey in particular has used its veto liberally to express its displeasure with Cyprus, which is an E.U. member but which Turkey does not recognize as a state. This has hampered communication and coordination between the two organizations on the ground in places such as Kosovo, the Aegean Sea, the Gulf of Aden and Afghanistan.

The British government helped the E.U. and NATO overcome such impasses by, for example, providing the same military headquarters for both E.U. and NATO maritime operations so they could informally coordinate on operations in the Gulf of Aden. Since triggering Brexit, the British government has all but abandoned its efforts to broker relations between the E.U. and NATO. This leaves coordination between the two more vulnerable to hostage-takers like Turkey.

The E.U.’s security independence will grow

Anticipation of Brexit has already led countries such as France and Germany as well as the European Commission to strengthen E.U. security institutions parallel to NATO. This will possibly weaken the transatlantic bond if it is not coordinated with NATO. The European Union will certainly not replace NATO, but it can provide an alternative to E.U. states that want to become more autonomous or do not want to be dragged into U.S. misadventures like Iraq. For years, the British Tory government pushed back against these kinds of E.U. institutional changes, because it feared their consequences for NATO. For example, the British government pushed back against an increase in the European Defense Agency’s (EDA) budget for six years. In 2011, it vetoed the creation of a E.U. military headquarters. Now, Brexit means that Britain can no longer shape E.U. security policy from within.

The European Union has already increased the EDA’s budget, created an (admittedly small) military headquarters, devised mechanisms to increase investment and cooperation in military capabilities, established a European Defense Fund and increased consultation and review mechanisms, all involving “tens of billions of euros.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently observed that these investments “are an opportunity to further strengthen the European pillar within NATO and contribute to better burden-sharing. But with opportunity comes risk. The risk of weakening the transatlantic bond.” Katie Wheelbarger, U.S. principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, has further remarked: “We don’t want to see E.U. efforts pulling requirements or forces away from NATO and into the E.U.”

Bilateral coordination may overtake NATO-E.U. multilateral dynamics

Although Britain initially insisted on remaining part of the E.U.’s security decision-making structures over E.U. objections, the two sides have reached agreement in principle. The E.U. will treat Britain as a third country. This gives non-E.U. NATO states opportunities to build stronger bilateral relations with the E.U. NATO members like Turkey, Norway and the United States now can use Britain’s third-country status and deals as a precedent for more involvement in E.U. security decision-shaping and intelligence gathering and sharing. This emphasis on bilateral agreements may well sideline the overall E.U.-NATO relationship and create asymmetries between non-E.U. NATO members that, in the end, may disadvantage countries like Turkey.

The E.U. will give Britain an unprecedented number of agreements: Not only will Britain receive an information security agreement allowing the exchange of classified information (which the United States and Norway already have) but also administrative arrangements with EDA (which Norway has), a framework agreement to allow Britain to participate in E.U. operations (Norway, the United States and Turkey have all signed such agreements), and a consultation mechanism on foreign policy issues. French president Emmanuel Macron’s European Intervention Initiative may keep Britain attached to the E.U.’s military structures. Britain is still negotiating access to the E.U.’s encrypted signal of its satellite system Galileo, a technology that it helped create and finance. These deals will probably inspire other non-E.U. NATO members to ask for more access to the E.U., as well.

While the E.U. and Britain disagree on economic issues, security issues are less hotly contested. However, the E.U. has lost a broker between itself and NATO at a time when it is worried about the policy actions of an unpredictable U.S. president. It could be that an alternative broker — such as Germany — will emerge. If not, new institutional developments in the E.U. partly financed by increasing defense budgets as well as bilateral relations between the E.U. and non-E.U. NATO members might begin to sideline NATO.

Stephanie C. Hofmann is a professor of international relations and political science and co-director of the Executive Master in International Negotiation and Policymaking at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.