Playing defence in the Brexit chess game
13 April, 2017
The UK's contributions to European defence will play a role in Brexit negotiations. But both sides should keep the long-term objective of close co-operation in mind. PM Theresa May considers Britain's contributions to European defence to be one of her best moves in the Brexit negotiation chess game. But how could it help her win a favourable Brexit deal from the EU?
Crude blackmail would not work, and thankfully seems unlikely in any case. It is true that some Brexiters are asking why British troops should risk their lives for EU Member States that want to impose a 'punitive' Brexit deal on the UK. But May knows that any open threat – for example to withdraw troops from NATO deployments in Central and Eastern Europe if Poland or the Baltic states dig in their heels over freedom of movement for their citizens – would not just be unhelpful, but would also lack credibility. May knows that her negotiating position depends on the support of allies in the EU.
Many EU leaders, however, do not want the UK to be a go-between in their relations with the Trump administration. They see Trump's erratic approach to the EU and NATO as a real concern. In Brexit negotiations, playing the 'defence card' as an open threat would backfire: it would be considered an assault on core common interests and European values; and it would put the UK's own security at risk. Instead, London should make clearer how it aims to contribute to European security, prosperity and stability once it has left the EU.
The EU would benefit from Britain's input in combating the threats of terrorism in Europe, a belligerent Russia, an unstable southern neighbourhood, and the weakening of transatlantic relations and American security guarantees under President Trump. EU governments would be well advised to take a pragmatic stance on security and defence policy co-operation with the UK. It is not just the EU that will benefit from cordial relations, however. Britain would also gain from European goodwill, and not just during the divorce negotiations. The less obstructive Britain is now, the more it can ask for voting and operational planning privileges in the future.
But in reality the EU cannot afford to lose British capabilities at a time when the European security situation has deteriorated significantly and there is a risk the United States might withdraw from the world. Close defence co-operation between Britain and the EU, guided strictly by shared interests, should be the end game for both sides. (abridged)
The author is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform. The artical was originally published by the CER.