Defence is not a competence of the EU, but its member states do work together on a number of defence-related issues, including research on defence technologies and joint military deployments. The UK’s involvement in these programmes will be affected by its decision to leave the EU. It also has important bilateral arrangements with individual member states, including France and Poland.
NATO remains the overarching structure for European (and wider) defence cooperation.
The UK participates in EU security and defence initiatives through the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). The CSDP – previously known as the European Security and Defence Policy – was set up by the UK and France following the St Malo Summit of 1998 in response to the perceived failure of the EU to address the challenges of the Balkan Wars. It was designed to allow EU member states to combine their security and defence efforts should the need arise.
Under the CSDP, EU member states pool funding and resources to achieve agreed common goals, including:
- humanitarian and rescue missions
- conflict prevention and peacekeeping
- joint disarmament operations
- military advice and assistance
- crisis management
- post-conflict stabilisation.
The European Defence Agency plays an important role within the CSDP. It coordinates defence planning and assists EU member state governments with weapons development.
The majority of the initiatives carried out through the CSDP are civilian, as opposed to military missions, meaning they use non-military personnel and/or tools.
EU missions have included:
- European Union Force Althea, supporting the implementation of the Dayton Agreement in Bosnia Herzegovina
- European Union Naval Force Atalanta, to combat piracy off the Horn of Africa
- Operation Sophia, which identifies and disposes of vessels used for people trafficking in the Mediterranean.
Involvement is not mandatory. Member states choose which operations they wish to be involved in, and national troops cannot be deployed without the member state’s agreement.
The UK provides significant financial support to EU security activities through its contribution to the EU budget, approximately 16% of which is financed by the UK. In 2018 the EU spent around €328 million on its Common Foreign and Security Policy, which provides the funding for civilian CSDP missions.
It also provides personnel, expertise and equipment for EU missions, most notably maritime support to combat piracy off the horn of Africa and to prevent people smuggling in the Mediterranean. The Ministry of Defence’s Permanent Joint Headquarters are the operational headquarters for some EU missions, including Operation Atalanta.
Despite the UK’s military power, it is not the biggest contributor to EU defence missions. UK engagement in CSDP missions has been relatively modest in comparison to its defence capabilities – the House of Lords EU Committee found that the UK has contributed just 2.3% of total member state personnel contributions across all CSDP missions. The cost of providing personnel falls to the member state, rather than being supported by the EU budget.
The UK is arguably the EU’s strongest defence power. It is one of only two member states possessing ‘full-spectrum’ military capabilities (including a nuclear deterrent), and is one of only six member states meeting the NATO target of spending 2% of gross domestic product on defence.
The UK also holds a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and has the largest military budget within the EU.
Since the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016, other EU member states and EU institutions have taken steps to strengthen their military cooperation. There are a number of components to this, including:
- A European Defence Fund, which will fund research and development to support European defence companies.
- The Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD), which the EU says will "deepen defence cooperation and…coherence of spending plans".
While it is still a member state, the UK will participate in these initiatives. The EU has also established Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), which aims to "to jointly develop defence capabilities and make them available for EU military operations". The UK, along with Denmark and Malta, has chosen not to participate in PESCO.
The EU also cooperates on wider security matters, including policing and criminal justice. It is also building a global satellite navigation system, known as Galileo, which provides services to individuals, businesses and public bodies, including on a secure platform used by policing and military authorities. The UK has contributed funding and expertise to the Galileo systems, and hosts key Galileo infrastructure on its south Atlantic territories
The power to develop and implement security and defence policy lies with member states, not the EU.
When decisions are made at EU level – on whether or not to deploy troops, for example – they require unanimity among member state representatives. Any member state can veto a decision. It has always been the choice of the UK Government whether or not to deploy British troops. Brexit will not change that in any way.
In the Chequers white paper, the UK Government proposed “a tailored partnership with the EU” on foreign policy, defence and development. This would see continued military collaboration between the UK and EU member states, on a case-by-case basis to maintain UK and EU sovereignty, as well as close working on military research and development, including through the European Defence Agency and the European Defence Fund.
More recently, the Political Declaration accompanying the proposed Withdrawal Agreement expresses the intention of the UK and the EU to “establish a broad, comprehensive and balanced security partnership” including “ambitious, close and lasting cooperation on external action”.
In January 2018 the European Commission set out its considerations for the future relationship with the UK on defence and security. It noted that it is in the EU’s interest to continue cooperation in these areas. However, the Commission also noted that the UK cannot continue to host EU military operational headquarters (Operation Atalanta is currently run out of the UK) or remain in command of EU operations.
The Government’s white paper suggests that the UK wishes to continue to participate in some CSDP missions as a third party. Twenty-five non-EU states have participated in CSDP operations. The CSDP also operates more formal ‘framework participation agreements’ with a number of non-EU countries, including Norway, Iceland and the US.
The Government is proposing a deeper level of cooperation than these agreements, which would allow the UK to participate in both the detailed operational planning for CSDP missions as well as the development of each mission’s mandate, the legal basis upon which action is taken.
The Government also wants the UK to continue to work with EU partners on developing defence technologies through the exchange of expertise and participation in the European Defence Fund. It also seeks to cooperate with the EU on wider security issues including external migration.
The UK has proposed that this cooperation would be based on “a combination of formal agreements enabling coordination on a case-by-case basis”, rather than one single formal treaty. This would be underpinned by regular consultation and coordination across all aspects of the UK-EU foreign policy relationship. The EU’s paper proposed a “specific dialogue and consultation mechanism” with the UK.
The Political Declaration states that “the future relationship should provide for appropriate dialogue, consultation, coordination, exchange of information and cooperation mechanisms”. It envisages the UK participating in CSDP missions and operations on a “case-by-case basis” through a “Framework Participation Agreement”, and collaborating in projects of the European Defence Agency through an “Administrative Arrangement”.
If the UK ceases to cooperate through CSDP mechanisms, there are other ways in which it can contribute to and influence security and defence measures in Europe and beyond. These include NATO, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and bilateral agreements with member states. Brexit will not directly affect the UK’s membership of or role in NATO, which the Government says “will remain the cornerstone of European defence and security".
Several experts have argued that Brexit would not reduce the UK’s military power or position. The former head of the British army, General Sir Mike Jackson, says that the impact from departing the EU “is more of a policing and judicial matter rather than a military matter. The [UK’s] military dimension is provided by NATO”.
The House of Commons Library argues that existing research suggests that “the impact of Brexit on the UK’s military is arguably minimal in the near term. In the longer term, however, the UK’s ability to influence or shape the CSDP agenda going forward will be significantly curtailed”.
The bigger impact will be on the UK’s defence industry: if the UK is outside the EU, and outside the EU Single Market, UK companies will find it much harder to participate in European defence projects, and to access European funds.
The EU may also exclude the UK from other projects with a security dimension. The UK had originally made proposals to allow its continued participation in the Galileo satellite system as part of the wider security relationship. However, EU has made clear that the UK will not be able to participate in the military element of the project.
In December 2018 the Government confirmed that the UK was no longer seeking access to the secure aspects of Galileo, and that the UK would instead be building its own Global Navigation Satellite System.