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 co-operation.
The UK participates in EU security and defence initiatives through the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). The CSDP 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 majority of the initiatives carried out through 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 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 no national troops can 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 the 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 for 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 one of only three member states meeting the NATO target of spending 2% of gross domestic product on defence. It 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, the other EU member states and EU institutions have taken steps to strengthen their military co-operation. 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 co-operates 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.
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 co-operation 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.
Since the UK Government’swhite paper was published, however, reports on the negotiations suggest that military co-operation has been an area of common ground between the UK and the EU.
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 co-operation 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. The UK also seeks to co-operate with the EU on wider security issues including external migration and the Galileo satellite programme, and the secure ‘Public Regulated Service’ (PRS) designed for, among other uses, military platforms.
The UK has proposed that this co-operation 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 co-ordination across all aspects of the UK-EU foreign policy relationship. The EU’s paper proposed a “specific dialogue and consultation mechanism” with the UK.
If the UK ceases to co-operate 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 EU may also exclude the UK from other projects with a security dimension. For example, the EU has already said that UK contractors will not be able to participate in the military element of the Galileo satellite system.
The UK has made proposals to allow its continued participation in the project as part of the wider security relationship, but has also suggested that it may seek to build its own global satellite system if it cannot secure ongoing access to Galileo. The EU is reported to be considering offering the UK a special deal on access to the encrypted signal, but is still unwilling to allow UK companies to bid for contracts to build the system.