Why European defence cooperation still matters for the UK – despite Brexit

European Council President Charles Michel recently declared 2022 the “year of European defence”. Indeed, the EU’s plans for stepping up its defence efforts this year are ambitious.

The Strategic Compass plan, which the EU aims to adopt in March, outlines the bloc’s ambitions for crisis management, resilience and other security capabilities. It clearly shows that the EU is willing to level up in the coming years. Although the UK is mentioned as a partner, a defence cooperation agreement between the two is not yet in sight.

The UK’s Integrated Review – its post-Brexit foreign policy and defence plan – was published one year ago. This document focuses much more on the UK’s role as “Global Britain” than on partnership with the Europeans, except for cooperation within NATO.

The UK’s participation in AUKUS, a submarine and defence deal with the US and Australia, has underlined its appetite for strengthening its transatlantic links. This was at the cost of France, its most important European partner in security and defence, which lost a major submarine supply contract with Australia because of the pact.

While the focus on Global Britain may seem tempting now that the UK is out of the EU, it is still located in Europe and shares interests with other European countries. Particularly in 2022, European defence cooperation should matter more than before to the UK, despite – or rather even because of – Brexit.

One opportunity for more British engagement with its European partners is so-called “coalitions of the willing”, also known as ad-hoc coalitions. In these formats, states cooperate on a specific security challenge outside existing institutions like the EU or Nato. These coalitions are exclusively based on common interests and ambitions. In the absence of a formal agreement or treaty to join this coalition, states are only bound through their political declaration.

In recent years, European states have increasingly made use of these coalitions, for example to ensure freedom of navigation in the strait of Hormuz, and the France-led counterterrorism task-force Takuba in Mali. While the UK has not deployed soldiers into the task force, it supports the political declaration. In 2017, France also created the European Intervention Initiative, a joint military project involving 13 European states, the UK included.

British interests

These coalitions of the willing would give the UK an escape from a political dilemma: on the one hand, the Integrated Review does not outline specific plans for defence cooperation with the EU, and changing that course might harm the credibility of the British government. On the other hand, the UK faces a gap between its global ambitions and what it can afford given the decline of British defence spending over the last 50 years.

However, its options for partnerships are limited. The UK traditionally seeks close cooperation with the US on security challenges, but will not find a good ally in Washington to address security crises in the European neighbourhood. For the US, this is European business – and in light of the US focus on the Indo-Pacific and its willingness to decrease its military footprint, US-British military cooperation in Europe’s near abroad seems highly unlikely.

The fact that the UK has joined the European Intervention Initiative and politically supports the Takuba task force is a good starting point. It shows that London understands that this form of engagement is a promising opportunity for achieving British objectives.

Many years of defence cooperation with other European states, particularly France, have already established mechanisms for cooperation. Maintaining these links is crucial for Europeans, inside or outside the EU, to ensure their security in the long term.

Pros for Europe

Conversely, Europeans should step up their efforts to cooperate with the UK on issues of European defence. The UK might not be an easy partner to deal with, but it brings critical military capabilities, for instance through its navy and as a nuclear power. British participation in European defence efforts can motivate other European countries or international partners, particularly those traditionally wary of French influence, to cooperate. The UK’s diplomatic network and status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council are also important strategic assets.

Lastly, if Europeans want to remain an attractive partner for the US, there is barely a way around working with the UK. Although US and UK interests might diverge to some extent, AUKUS shows that the US still sees the UK as a key partner in international security. Support from Washington for European defence cooperation, such as logistical support for ad-hoc crisis management coalitions, is much more likely if the UK is involved.

Those hesitant about the added value of European defence cooperation need to ask themselves a simple question. What is the concept of Global Britain, of multilateralism as a key principle, and the aspiration to play an important role in international security, actually worth, if it does not start in the UK’s immediate neighbourhood?

If partnerships between the Europeans and the UK in defence and security do not go beyond consultation, Global Britain could quickly turn into “Britain all alone”. This is neither in the interest of the UK nor other European states. If the UK is serious about its defence objectives, participating in European defence cooperation is an opportunity it must not miss.

Gesine Weber works for the Paris Office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.