A Few Defence and Security Thoughts on BREXIT


Like much of the BREXIT debate, defence and security has been characterised by NATO strength buffoonery, blatant nonsense and predictions based on either the most optimistic or most pessimistic scenarios.

Listen to much of the debate and one could be forgiven for thinking that a BREXIT would be immediately followed by terrorist attacks at every village bus stop, a Russian invasion through the Baltic’s and one or two plagues of zombies for good measure.

Some of the pro leave camp would have us believe that problems of pan-national terrorism, threats from Russia and organised crime would evaporate with a magical wave of the ‘strong borders’ wand.

Clearly, both extremes are nonsense, and to be honest, it is concerning that the British public are being bombarded with opinions masquerading as fact and predictions portrayed as certainty.

Each side have deployed their experts, and naturally, as is always the case with experts, they contradict each other. The debate then proceeds to a battle of credibility, the person voicing the message becoming more important than message itself.

The nation deserves better than ‘my dad is bigger than your dad’

In a world of increasing uncertainty is a phrase you will be bombarded with over the course of the campaign but what does this actually mean, does anyone know, or is it simply another means of sowing doubt and fear?

I suspect the latter.

Again, we need more than vague and meaningless repeatable sound-bites.

It is historically illiterate to suggest the EU has maintained European peace for fifty years; that would be nuclear weapons, the USA, NATO and defence budgets at triple or quadruple what they are today.

Oh, and strong arming a 92 year old Normandy Veteran into signing a pro EU letter is not a good look.

This is a look at the issues, merely one opinion in a sea of opinions, I claim no monopoly on facts or credibility.

Aspirations, Realities and an Acid Test

The aspiration for the EU to have its own defence capability is aligned with its desire for closer political union, the two are joined at the hip; it is obvious when you think of it.

Since 1998, various initiatives and treaties have slowly increased the role of the European Union in defence matters for its member states, culminating in the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP)

It creates a framework for the military and defence aspects of EU policy. Created when the Treaty of Lisbon was signed in 2009, the CSDP replaces and enlarges the former European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP). The aim of the policy is the establishment of a common European defence capability.

It might also be worth mentioning that the UK had a significant role in creating CSDP, no wonder our European partners scratch their heads at our attitude sometimes!

EU defence organisations and deployments…

EU defence organisations include the European Defence Agency (EDA), Organisation for Joint Armament Cooperation (OCCAR), European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS) and Eurocorps  Various committees and staff groupings also exist, as does the European Satellite Centre and the EU Intelligence & Situation Centre (EU INTCEN). On a more security than defence basis, EUROPOL is the EU’s law enforcement agency.

Eurocorps has its roots in a 1992 agreement between France and Germany. The ‘Framework Nations’ are Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Poland and Spain with ‘Associated States’ being Greece, Italy and Turkey, yes, Turkey. It comprises approximately 1,000 personnel and is deployed on the orders of the Common Committee, it is certified as a High Readiness Force for NATO. EUROCORPS is a headquarters function for the Franco-German Brigade and additional contributions from the framework nations.

Since 2003, the EU has engaged in approximately 30 overseas defence operations. What has characterised these is their relatively low risk, limited mandate and narrowly defined objectives; ceasefire monitoring, training and border assistance etc.

A good example is EUFOR Althea that took over from NATO SFOR in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2004, it is still active and doing good work.

At an operational level, EU deployments have had limited success, in absolute alignment with their limited objectives, resources and approach to risk as defined by the Lisbon Treaty. But militarily, EU missions are unlikely to coerce, threaten or deter anyone armed with anything more scary than a sharpened mango.

The UK has generally avoided participation in these missions, tending to be deployed on other more demanding operations, but it does support one or two.

EUNAVFOR Somalia (Operation Atalanta), the current counter piracy mission off the Horn of Africa is commanded from the Northwood HQ complex in the UK. Those that think this is the UK being enthusiastic about EU defence are missing the point that in the EU, only the UK has the experience and infrastructure to command a multi-national out of area maritime operation. Northwood is not the home of NATO Allied Maritime Command because it has a nice bicycle track.

Buying stuff for defence…

The MoD must comply with EU regulations for purchasing equipment and supplies, namely the EU Defence and Security Public Contract Regulations (DSPCR) 2011 that is the enabling UK legislation for the EU Defence and Security Directive (2009/81/EC)

In the reasons why section, it states;

The European Commission (“the Commission”) believes the current EU “Classic” Directives do not always permit effective defence and sensitive security procurement. It believes as a consequence that some EU Member States exempt procurements from these Directives to avoid burdensome rules or for economic reasons rather than to protect national security interests.

The Treaty for the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) made exceptions for national security procurement exemptions under Article 346. This allowed pretty much anything purchased by national defence ministries to be exempted and national defence industries protected from competition, France buying French aircraft and Germany buying German tanks etc.

The DSPCR attempts to change this and allows non EU regulation procurement only for ‘truly exceptional cases’, nuclear warheads for example. It sets out procedures and thresholds for defence and security procurement with the intent of opening up the EU wide defence market. EU purchasing regulations often get a rough ride but this attempts to open up one of the last remaining closed markets and one look at equipment inventories of France, Germany, Italy and Spain and it becomes immediately obvious why.

The UK is a significant defence exporter, about 20% of the global market, but only a very small amount of this is to the EU. Of the big three, France has the highest percentage of domestic sales, i.e. French guns for French soldiers, at 77%, for the UK, it is 58% and Germany 57%. The UK also accounts for the largest share of EU defence turnover, 31%, compared to the next two, France at 26% and Germany at 17%.

OCCAR is an EU organisation for the through life management of defence projects but only Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK are so called ‘member states’. In addition to the member states, ‘participating states’ participate in programmes on equal terms; these being Finland, Turkey, Luxembourg, Sweden, Poland and the Netherlands. Programmes managed by OCCAR relevant to the UK equipment programme include the A400M, UK/FRA Maritime Mine Countermeasures and FSF-PAAMS (systems for the Type 45 destroyers).

For more demanding operations, European nations have relied on NATO or bilateral arrangements outside EU treaties.

France and the UK have traditionally aligned their defence and security outlook but the 2015 SDSR described a far greater ambition than the French equivalent. For France to maintain parity with the UK, she will have to spend more, an unlikely prospect. That said, UK French bilateral defence and security co-operation is the highest it has been for a long time. The original Lancaster House agreement has been implemented with some vigour by both nations and the latest agreement a few days ago adds to it. Joint investments in maritime mine countermeasures, complex weapons and unmanned aircraft systems have been supplemented by lower profile but equally significant cooperation on nuclear and materials technology. The UK has been a stalwart ally of the French, supporting them in Mali and others locations. The French have extremely professional forces and excellent defence industrial and research capabilities. It is irritating in the extreme to see anti French xenophobia mixed up with the EU debate.

Watchkeeper aside, which I think did have an element of political influence in the decision making, it is hard to see any downsides of such bilateral arrangements.

Instead of waiting for the EU to deliver more defence capability, Finland and Sweden are looking at bilateral defence arrangements for improving their collective defence. Neither are NATO members but they are both EU nation states.

Despite the existence of EU treaties and an overall desire for greater EU defence capabilities, it is NATO that continues to provide the principle means of territorial defence and out of area power projection for European states.

In the security and policing domain, integration is much stronger than in defence.

The European Defence Warrant, EUROPOL and information sharing and alerting systems like the Schengen Information System II (which has been recently adopted by the UK) are good examples of successful policing and security integration.

The European Arrest Warrant (EAW) is an administrative means by which individuals can be extradited.

It is somewhat amusing that the EAW is now held up by the government as the best thing since sliced bread given its historic lack of enthusiasm for it, despite, as with the CSDP, having some element of British design.

It basically seeks to speed up already the processes but only applies to certain offences. One of the problems often assigned to EAW is that it has become clogged with minor offences and there have been a number of miscarriages. Statistics from the National Crime Agency show the UK issued 1,196 EAW’s between 2010 and 2014, terrorism accounting for 1% of them. Again for terrorism offences, arrest’s resulting were 0.3% of the total number of arrests.

In short, in five years we issued 6 EAW’s for terrorism and 2 resulted in arrests.

Going the other way, about 30% of EAW’s issued as ‘wanted from the UK’ were for fraud and theft, terrorism was 1.1%, or 404 in total. Successful arrests in the UK for terrorism related EAW’s from outside the UK numbered 12, or 0.2% of the total number.

An arrest is not a surrender, in total, about 25% of EAW’s result in a surrender of suspect to the requesting authority.

Following the Paris terrorist attacks, France invoked Article 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty.

An acid test…

What followed was illustrative of the realities of EU defence, instead of tooling up, breaking out the desert camouflage and getting stuck in, the European Union indulged in a collective and well organised bout of looking at their shoes.

Whilst Ireland was proclaiming the invocation would not affect its neutrality status (as indeed it does not), the German Defence Minister (Ursula von der Leyen) for was busy making it clear that it was only;

A basis for consultation

This is interesting because the very same minister said

A European army is the future

As is well recorded, the UK took already heavily committed forces and extended operations to Syria and additional deployments in the Gulf. Germany committed a 6 practically obsolete Tornado Reconnaissance aircraft that do not conduct offensive operations and a Frigate, whilst sending more trainers to Mali and Kurdistan. Belgium provided a frigate to support the Charles de Gaulle, Sweden helped with logistics and some of the smaller nations sent a handful of personnel to help.

All were conducted on a bilateral basis, not through the EU’s institutions, again, as per Article 42.

Compared to the rhetoric and virtue signalling in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, and absolutely without impugning the service personnel involved, the reality was rather underwhelming.

When push came to shove, the UK and France stepped up, Germany did the least possible and almost everyone else stood on the side-lines with a note from their mums.


Acid Test Result D-

Even Jean Claude Juncker ruefully concluded;

We don’t seem to be taken entirely seriously

After each failure of EU policy though, the answer always seems to be more EU, why waste a good crisis after all?

Most recently, the European Parliament approved a multi-party resolution on Article 42 that called for;

18. Considers the activation of the mutual assistance clause a unique opportunity to establish the grounds for a strong and sustainable European Defence Union; is of the opinion that only with an autonomous security and defence capability will the EU be equipped and ready to face the overwhelming internal and external security threats and challenges;

Despite the actual limited success of the French Article 42 invocation, the European Parliament considers it an opportunity to establish a European Defence Union, i.e. more EU defence integration.

The European Institute for Security Studies published the Report of the Group of Personalities on the Preparatory Action for CSDP-related research. The research theme was defence research, it argued that national interest in maintaining national capabilities and declining budgets can only be countered by a strategic pan-European approach. All sounds sensible, except what it actually means is replacing national interest with European interest, to be decided by?

Prior to this, the Centre for European Policy Studies released another study, More Union in European Defence.

The European Council should define a roadmap with practical and realistic steps to move, by stages, from the blueprint to the launch of the European Defence Union.

The European People’s Party released a paper stating that;

We are going to move towards an EU army much faster than people believe.

The paper concluded that such an EU should be able to conduct high-intensity combat operations and provide for territorial defence, a clear challenge to NATO.

One literally cannot move for calls for greater European Union defence integration.

Likewise in the security and intelligence domain.

Although current plans for EU INTCEM are to improve interoperability between it and EUROPOL, there have been several calls for expanding it beyond its limited mandate and 60 or 70 staff.

Italy’s prime minister said last month;

We have the common currency and we must also have a common security and intelligence system. Europe must be united against terrorism

At the height of the Snowden affair, several commissioners called for a European intelligence agency to counter the NSA. These were repeated later during allegations of NSA spying on the German government and Germany spying on the French government.

The UK has GCHQ, the Security Services and direct access to Five Eyes intelligence, the EU does not, this irks many of our European allies

The roots of the current migrant crisis are numerous and complicated but Germany’s open door encouragement and a generally chaotic EU response has exacerbated an unprecedented crisis that is no doubt being exploited by those that want to do us all harm. It is hard to see how the EU’s handling of the migrant crisis has enhanced any member states security, the women of many member states may well also agree with the sentiment.

EU defence can be a strange subject to observe, EU member states at a national level seem to have much less interest and commitment to it than the EU itself, but the aspiration for more is absolutely crystal clear.

It is crystal clear because it is the logical conclusion of a stated and established desire for closer political union.

The road might be long and windy but there is no other.

Despite limited actual EU defence integration today, it has increased by small steps year on year and the clarion calls for more are there, clear and getting louder.

All this leads us to a point of decision, does the UK wish to remain in the EU, or not.

EU Defence and a UK In or Out

What would a BREXIT or remain look like in defence and security terms?


Beyond vague notions of being safe, the in camp has not articulated what the future might look in a post-decision EU.

At an operational level, I think there would be little change in the short to medium term.

Even in political terms, there is likely to be a pause in defence integration; NATO is stepping up for the Baltic’s, defence budgets are seeing modest increases, bilateral arrangement are ticking along nicely and there are bigger issues like the Euro and migrant crisis to address.

Over the longer term though I have no doubt whatsoever that increasing political and defence integration will be on the agenda and we will have to make up our minds what we intend to do about it.

We will have three options;

ONE; continue in our traditional role of pubic hair in the salad, the grumpy obstreperous one that continues to veto and resist the ever louder calls for greater federalism and defence integration. This is what is often called playing a leadership role within a reformed EU, or more patronisingly, saving the EU from itself.

TWO; step aside and let the EU continue with its goal of greater defence and political integration whilst trying to stay within it. Am not an expert on EU and treaty law but Denmark has an opt-out of the CSDP and perhaps the government could also do likewise, even though the Dutch seem intent on opting out of their opt-out.

THREE; jump in with both feet and make sure we can at least have some influence on the inevitable end state of more EU defence integration.

For Option One and Two, any negotiating position we take will be conducted from a position of weakness, we would have recently voted to stay in after all.

Would our new best friends thank us for carrying on the blocking role or opting out? Like me moaning about being dragged to the barbers when I was a child, there is only so long it will be tolerated! If we continue our resistance to increasing defence integration against the will of the majority, they will simply manoeuvre around us, the majority will always win, one way or the other.

Trying to negotiate an opt-out would also be difficult in the context of recently voting to remain. I really don’t know whether this is a viable option in the long term but the UK would likely become increasingly sidelined and yet still constrained.

Both options are fraught with difficulties and the creeping defence integration will undermine NATO.

The final option would be to stop being the reluctant child at the barbers and become an enthusiastic and active advocate of greater EU defence integration, rip the plaster off and get on with it.

Spiegel recognised this with an article called ‘Britain Could Lead on European Defense

It could indeed, much of European and NATO defence initiatives and capabilities come from the UK, recent airworthiness and helicopter training projects are using the UK’s already mature capabilities as a template.

Taken together, the nation states of the EU have two nuclear powers, a huge industrial capacity, cutting-edge research, and more than enough military capability to deter Russia or any other likely aggressor.

But there is the rub, you cannot take them together.

The European Union in defence terms is weaker than the sum of its parts because of that inconvenient thing called national sovereignty. This could be seen as the same as NATO, but the difference is NATO had a very clear enemy threat, decades of experience and the stiffening resolve provided by Uncle Sam. Russia may well be getting more aggressive and capable, but it is a very long way from the USSR.

Even so, the EU certainly has the potential to replace NATO for European defence, there is no law that says alliances have to remain forever. A single EU force under a unified EU command would be a formidable and effective opponent, make no mistake about that.

In the meantime, this would create uncertainty, confusion, duplication and resource waste that will be exploited by enemies, but the end state would be a single, strong EU defence force capable of fulfilling EU defence needs.

But for it to realise it potential, all of the European nations would have to abandon their sovereignty, it is as simple as that.

So Option 3 is a viable option for the UK and others if they swallow historical pride, abandon any notion of being sovereign nations and get on with developing a fully integrated EU defence capability that replaces NATO as the ultimate arbiter of European territorial defence whilst providing a range of capabilities for power projection.

Any takers for this?

No, didn’t think so, back to Option 1 or 2 then.


Beyond vague notions of being safe, the BREXIT camp has not articulated what the future might look in a post decision EU.

At an operational level, I think there would be little change in the short to medium term.

Despite the relatively modest defence integration and range of bilateral non EU arrangements in place, disentanglement will take time but many things will simply carry on.

The French Senator, Daniel Reiner, and member of the Senate Defence Commission summed it up quite well;

I do not all buy the argument that if they leave Europe then we lose a defence partner. We do not lose a defence partner: things will simply not happen in the framework that we had imagined and that we’re having trouble building with them anyway

The A400M will continue to be managed by OCCAR, as it does for Turkey.

The UK/NL amphibious force and the UK/FRA reaction force will continue as now.

The Royal Marines will still train in Norway, Dassault and BAE will still develop FCAS and the Royal Air Force will still work with Eurofighter Jagdflugzeug GmbH for the Typhoon.

Policing and intelligence sharing may be more problematical purely because the degree of integration is greater and challenges posed by porous physical and logical borders in a digital and highly mobile age, but the issues are not insurmountable.

The Paris attacks were committed by 7 European citizens and 2 Iraqi’s, Anders Breivik killed more people than the 7/7 London bombers and the Charlie Hebdo attackers were both French. It is foolish to think that closing borders and pulling up the drawbridge (as some of the more strident BREXIT advocates suggest) can keep the people of the UK safe from terrorism.

For that, we need effective and diligent intelligence work, an eye on the bigger picture and good cooperation across multiple nation states.

Exactly as we do with other nations.

Let us not kid ourselves that an exit would be immediate or believe the scare stories that our European neighbours, partners and allies would ostracise the UK and cease cooperation immediately.

This suggestion simply has ZERO credibility, for a very simple reason.

If an attack was mounted whose success was because of such pettiness, it would not be the BREXIT advocates that would suffer, it would be the respective national political parties and politicians that allowed such a situation to perpetuate. An attack in the UK attributed to French security cooperation intransigence would have Hollande style ‘consequences’, for France that is, or anyone else that put EU politics ahead of British citizens  security.

Politicians across Europe are not stupid, they know this full well.

This also ignores the dedication and hard yards being done every day by various European intelligence and policing services to keep us safe and the relationships we have with other nations.

After a BREXIT, security and intelligence sharing will simply find another form because it is in everyone’s best interest to do so.

EUROPOL would continue to operate with the UK, as it does on an operational level with 15 other non-EU organisations including the USA, Interpol, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland. We would of course lose influence with EUROPOL but given that most of Europe now models its anti-terrorist approach on the UK’s CONTEST strategy, not because we are in the EU, but because it is the best way to do it, this might actually be less than we think.

This is a key point, the UK’s influence at an operational level is not because we are in the EU, it is because we know what we are doing, this would continue, again, because it is in everyone’s self-interest to do so.

The UK is consistently ranked highly in global soft power indices.

Given that the UK is the only nation with a legally mandated 0.7% of GDI on Overseas Development Aid and a range of other soft power levers, it seems unlikely that this will be diminished by BREXIT. Given that the UK contributes in excess of 15% of the EU’s ODA budget, a budget over which there is very little accountability and even less UK control, that £1 billion, approximately, would be available for spending by DFiD, which despite people moaning, is much more accountable and transparent.

UK soft power would continue to be held in high regard whether we are in our out.

The remain camp like to point out that without the UK, the EU, NATO and Europe would be weakened, Putin would be doing cartwheels, we would have to remilitarize the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and it would trigger another Scottish independence vote.

Again, they never see the positives, with the UK gone, Europe could pursue defence integration at its own pace without be retarded by the surly UK, the UK would still be part of a wider European economy and if Scotland wants to leave the UK, that would be the will of the Scottish people and who are we to try and stop them or complain about it.

Democracy is the foundation of security.

The real impact on defence of a Brexit would be an economic one, and an adverse economic impact would inevitably generate an adverse defence impact, there is no getting away from this. The argument is not about whether it would or would not, clearly, market shock will create an adverse impact, but will this impact be sustained and severe?

Alongside, constitutional uncertainty will likely be increased.


There seems to be a complete lack of perspective in much of the debate.

The European arrest Warrant is a good example, it keeps us safe from terrorism or so some say, and yet all it is, is a procedure designed to make it simpler and cheaper to extradite people. Looking at the numbers it is hardly used every other day for terrorism offences. We manage extradition with other nations and so the suggestion that some arrangement with an EU without the UK would be somehow impossible is patently ridiculous. Supporters often cite the case of Hussein Osman, extradited back to the UK under an EAW after the failed 21st of July 2005 bombings in London. After security services tracked him to Italy, an EAW was issued and he was arrested the same day. Four weeks later, he was extradited back to the UK. Extradition was quicker than might be, but it was still four weeks after the issue and two months after the act. If you think that keeps us safe, if you think the EAW is sufficient reason to stay, fair enough, but I think it is just better admin.

It was effective multilateral cooperation between the UK, Italy and others that caught him, the EAW just meant he had his day in court sooner than would possibly have been the case if he had fled somewhere else. Good, yes of course, protecting us from terrorism, mmmm, a stretch I think.

It is things like this that perfectly illustrate the artificial fear and hyperbole surrounding the arguments, the presumption that we are all so thick that alternatives cannot be designed and that people and agency’s will simply cease to cooperate.

And yet to dismiss the value of the EAW is equally ridiculous, of course it has value

An inability to recognise that things are complicated and not everything EU is bad is one of the great flaws of much of the BREXIT campaign, there are many political, economic and defence advantages of EU membership. The EU does have strategic clout, if not yet military clout, but given the UK is the world’s fifth-largest economy, is ranked number 1 in the soft power index, has a global trading outlook, member of the Commonwealth, a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and is a founding member of NATO, so do we.

Proponents point to sanctions against Russia as a success, not sure I would like to see their definition of failure. But against Iran, one cannot deny they have had some influence but it would be foolish to believe they have been fundamental or instrumental to change, and again, the UK would be free to join that sanction regime or not.

From a short to medium term operational defence and security perspective, I actually think the impact of BREXIT would be minimal either way. The advantages and disadvantages of EU membership, at least from this writers view of the defence and security landscape, seem to be hugely exaggerated by both sides of the debate.

NATO would remain, bilateral cooperation would continue and develop in other ways, defence spending will go up and down depending on threats and mechanisms for intelligence sharing explored, developed and implemented.

There are risks and opportunities on either side, but short term doom and gloom or the wide open uplands, in defence and security, you are looking in the wrong place. The short to medium term problem will be economic and political, defence is one part of that but I don’t think defence should be the deciding factor in anyone’s decision making.

At moment, more EU defence generally means more HQ’s, marching bands and flags, but after a remain vote and a period for dealing with the migrant crisis, calls for actual, real and tangible integration will get louder and louder. For me at least, this is the question we should be dealing with, will the UK be able to resist ever more strident calls for greater political, and by logical extension, defence, integration.

Everything else is a minor detail.




Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments