Since June of this year, a major effort has been made at EU level to give new impetus to European Defense. A ‘Global strategy’ was presented at the end of June by the High Representative; a joint EU-NATO Declaration was issued during the NATO summit in Warsaw in July; a German white paper announcing an enhanced German participation in defense efforts was also published in July, and a Franco–German paper was issued in September with audacious proposals for a better-structured European defense. On top of this, European defense was one of the few highlights of the Bratislava summit on September 16, from which the UK was excluded.

It is at first sight paradoxical that all these initiatives emerged after the June 23rd referendum in which a majority of UK citizens voted to leave the EU. The UK is indeed one of EU’s biggest members, contributing 25 % of current EU defense capabilities.  But the current developments are not so irrational for those who have practiced European Defense in the last decade.

An autonomous European defense, using the EU framework, was originally proposed by Tony Blair in a speech in August 1998, when he thought this would help convince the people of the UK to join the Eurozone. An agreement with France was concluded in December of the same year in Saint Malo, and the concept was then adopted by the other EU members and confirmed in the Nice Treaty of 2001.

But soon after, the British military establishment succeeded in sabotaging a process that they had never really accepted. The reinforcement of the ‘privileged relationship’ with the US at the time of the Iraq war in 2003 encouraged them to block, systematically, the development of the so called ‘Common Security and Defense Policy’ of the EU (‘CSDP’), which they accused of ‘duplicating’ NATO’s means and weakening the transatlantic link.

The danger of having the ‘supranational’ EU Commission interfere with military matters – seen by them as a step towards the creation of a ‘European army’ – was presented to the British public as a threat to national security. The proposal of Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt in 2003 to establish a European headquarters in Brussels for EU operations was rejected with no discussion, under British-American pressure. And each year until now, when the budget of the EU Defense Agency is discussed, the UK blocks automatically any increase, thus discouraging the development of joint armament programs and the restructuring of the European Defense Industry.

In the new geopolitical environment of the last few years, the United States has developed a more positive attitude towards EU autonomous defense efforts – which they now see as a useful way to encourage burden sharing. But this did not help British behavior in CSDP matters to evolve. When the Brexit vote arrived, many of those involved in European defense secretly rejoiced and started drawing plans they would never earlier have dared to propose, out of fear of a British veto. This explains the multiplication of initiatives since the end of June and the defense chapter in the Bratislava roadmap.

The objective of the Bratislava summit of September 16th was to demonstrate that the ‘27’ were sticking together, that there was no ‘contagion’ from Brexit, but also to send the message to the increasingly Eurosceptic population of the continent that the EU had a future and could even increase co-operation among its members.

The best illustration could have been a further integration of the Eurozone, as the UK is not part of it. Indeed, the completion of the Banking Union and further measures to integrate the fiscal and economic policies of the Eurozone members have been on the table for a long time and most economists consider them as key for the survival of the common currency. But progress in this field will have to wait: with Matteo Renzi challenged by a referendum in November and elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany next year the time has not come yet for compromises on either austerity policy nor efforts for more solidarity among members of the zone.

Logically, the key message was to address what EU citizens expect most from the Union in today’s context: to protect them better. To protect them by bringing illegal immigration under control, to protect them against terrorist attacks and, yes, to protect them from external threats, by reinforcing cooperation in defense. This is the meaning of the ‘roadmap’ adopted in Bratislava: ‘Never allow return to uncontrolled flows’ of illegal migrants, ‘full control of the external borders’, intensified cooperation and information-exchange among security services’, ‘strengthening EU cooperation on external security and defense’.

The roadmap is rather precise on the work to be done in the field of ‘Internal Security’, less so on ‘External Security and Defense’, for which decisions were pushed back to the December European Council. The agreed text is deliberately vague to accommodate the reservations of the remaining EU ‘neutral’ countries – mainly Ireland. The roadmap is also keen not to scare the other Brussels’ organization in this field, in adding that the Joint Declaration concluded with NATO in June should start to be implemented ‘immediately’. But it is clear that what is envisaged goes far beyond what could have been agreed if the UK had remained a member.

The regained interest for European defense did not emerge because of the Brexit vote. After ten years of stagnation, a major effort had been made in 2013 to reinforce EU military capabilities, whose shortcomings had been tragically exposed in the Libya war of 2012. The European Council in December 2013 adopted a comprehensive CSDP agenda: the leaders asked among others for development of EU capabilities in the field of remotely piloted aircraft systems (drones), air to air refueling capacity, satellite communication and cyber security.

These conclusions were made ‘credible’ by an important evolution in the approach to common defense by the biggest but traditionally ‘pacifist’ EU member, Germany. With the blessing of Angela Merkel, her Defense Minister and close ally Ursula von der Leyen had, since 2013, gradually been developing a more substantive and aggressive German defense policy. When she presented the German White Paper on Defense in July this year, Ursula von der Leyen introduced it by saying: ‘Germany is now ready to lead’.

The ‘Global Strategy document’ published in June by High Representative Federica Mogherini is the first serious attempt to update the ‘EU strategic concept’ brilliantly drafted by Javier Solana in 2003, at the time when EU members were significantly divided by the Iraq war (see here). It contains, in a deliberately careful presentation, the various military tasks CSDP should plan in the current geopolitical context:

  • To help protect the European way of life at home’: fight against terrorism, cyber and energy security, external border management, etc.;
  • ‘to contribute to the resilience of states and societies to the East stretching to Central Asia and South down to Central Africa’ – in other words, an extended ‘neighborhood’ security policy;
  • ‘To help maintain sustainable access to the global commons’, with a focus on Asia and maritime security;
  • ‘To assist further and complement UN peacekeeping’, a classic EU priority field of action.In a speech at the annual meeting of EU Ambassadors in September, Federica Mogherini openly appealed for the EU to reach ‘strategic autonomy’ (from the United States) and create an EU ‘structure for civil military planning’ (in other words, the famous EU headquarters vetoed until now by the UK).

Jean Claude Juncker, the President of the EU Commission, also mentioned Defense Policy in his so called ‘State of the Union address’, two days before the Bratislava summit. He suggested the establishment of a European Defense Fund to ‘turbo boost research and innovation’ in the defense field. The Commission also plans to include 500 Million Euros in the next research program (2020-2027) for defense research.

This new atmosphere – and the Bratislava format of 27 – also encouraged the French and the Germans in preparation for the summit, to present joint proposals which will now be discussed openly in advance of the December European Council: in addition to the creation of a joint civil and military headquarters in Brussels, they ask for operationalization of the ‘battle groups’ (which until now were merely virtual) and the ‘permanent structured cooperation’ – a way for some member states to combine their capabilities and even integrate their forces without the need to involve all EU members. All this can be achieved with no Treaty change, given that these concepts were already in the Lisbon treaty but have never been applied, for the reasons outlined above.

What will happen in the months to come? The UK is still a member state and at the time of the December European Council will probably not even have triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Michael Fallon, the British Defense Minister, was asked by The Times of London, the day after Bratislava, about his reaction to these attempts to create a “European army’. He gave the archetypal UK answer: that ‘this is not going to happen’, and that he was concerned about ‘unnecessarily duplicating what we already have in NATO’. He went so far as to say that ‘we are full members of the EU and we will go on resisting any attempt to set up a rival to NATO’.  

It would be sad and immensely counter-productive if the efforts of the EU 27 to boost European defense were opposed formally by the UK in the next months, at a time when the maximum possible goodwill should be developed on both sides to allow Brexit negotiations to begin in a positive atmosphere. Instead of fighting ideas which they are the only ones to oppose, those in charge of defense policy in the UK should concentrate on the new relationship they will need to establish with the EU and its main members in the defense field. It is in the interest of both sides to have the UK continue to participate in research on EU defense projects and contribute to the new ‘fund’ announced by Jean-Claude Juncker. Even the European Defense Agency might establish a better relationship with the UK outside than within the EU.

Even if no formal negotiation on Brexit can be begun before Article 50 is triggered, it might be useful for experts to start thinking of how to reconstitute a European defense on a new basis, with the aim of transcending the old quarrels about duplication with NATO, at a time when this argument is no longer used by the United States itself. The joint EU-NATO declaration is clear on this point, and should be the new basis on which current threats from the East and the South are addressed.