By taking a mechanical approach to establishing a post-Brexit security partnership with the UK, the European Union risks missing out on pragmatic solutions that could enhance the security of all European citizens.

Michel Barnier press conference in Brussels. Credit: Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

By Bastian Giegerich, Director of Defence and Military Analysis

As Brexit deadlines loom, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Federica Mogherini and its Chief Negotiator for Brexit Michel Barnier have offered some positive messaging on EU and United Kingdom common defence and security interests, and a hope for close cooperation. But the legalistic rigidity that they continue to espouse and a lack of pragmatic proposals from the UK to back up its aspirations remain barriers to finding a beneficial solution on the security front. So what needs to change?

The occasion for the latest remarks by Mogherini and Barnier was a panel discussion on the future of EU security and defence policy post-Brexit, convened by the EU Institute for Security Studies, the Union’s in-house think tank.

First, the positive mood music. According to Mogherini and Barnier, once Britain leaves, the EU would welcome regular consultation with the UK on foreign policy, as well as a UK contribution to European development aid and Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) operations and missions. The UK could also participate in research projects of the European Defence Agency and might be invited to participate in projects agreed under the EU’s new Permanent Structured Cooperation or  ‘PESCO’ on defence. In-depth exchanges on matters of cyber security would be highly desirable and an agreement to allow for the secure exchange of classified information would certainly be appreciated. These are talking points that could also feature in British presentations on Brexit and defence.

But then comes the steelier message: Britain has to deal with the consequences of its sovereign decision to leave the EU. Half-membership does not exist, and rules are rules. The current problems around British participation in the EU’s Galileo programme for satellite navigation illustrate what this means in practice. Barnier explained that the UK post-Brexit could use the military-grade encrypted navigation service, the so-called Public Regulated Service signal, provided appropriate agreements were in place. But London should not expect to be allowed to continue to play an industrial role in the ‘security-sensitive’ technology behind it. The rules of the programme do not allow third countries to be involved in sensitive technologies – and third-country status is what Britain will have.

As Barnier said on Monday, this is about managing the ‘legal and mechanical’ consequences of the decision to leave the EU. Those consequences imply, Barnier continued, that the UK would not be able to play a role in shaping or leading operational EU CSDP activity, not even if London decided to make a contribution of strategic importance for the overall success of that activity.

Legally and mechanically, Barnier and Mogherini are on solid ground. It is also true that the British government in its most recent presentation on the security partnership post-Brexit has outlined what it wants, but has not put any proposals on the table on how to get there. What is lost in the mechanical approach is what should matter most: how to find pragmatic solutions to make sure that the post-Brexit UK–EU security partnership enhances the security of all citizens on the European continent. Barnier said, ‘there is no added-value in Brexit’, but even if true that should not be an excuse to allow security cooperation to lapse.

What should both sides do?

Two things should be tackled urgently to move the discussion on Brexit and defence beyond its self-imposed impasse. The UK should put practical and pragmatic proposals on the table on how it wants things to work post-Brexit. How about participation in the European Defence Fund? On what terms and with what money? A privileged role in operations and their preparation commensurate with the UK’s contribution? What are the military enablers that make that contribution strategic and when is a role privileged? Even if rejected, ideas at least force a merit-based discussion rather than legalistic exchanges.

At the same time, the EU should revisit its notion of decision-making autonomy. In effect, it means that EU decision-making is the exclusive preserve of member states and cannot be diluted by giving non-members a say. The UK’s argument is that Britain has something to offer in terms of security and defence for which it is worth making an exception in those cases where that special something is made available.

The auxiliary argument promoted by Mogherini and Barnier is that the UK cannot get a better deal than any other third country on security and defence, because countries such as Norway and Turkey would ask for the same. Norway, and perhaps to a greater extent Turkey, may have significant levers to pull, not least because of their geographical situation. And yet neither Norway nor Turkey can offer what the UK offers. Besides, an actor confident in its decision-making autonomy would not find it strange to allow for diversity in its approach to partnerships – all we need is a miracle.

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