How Brexit transforms European defense

Redcoats forming up in a square symbolizes the danger Brexit poses for Atlanticism in NATO
Brexit could be Atlanticism’s last stand among European members of NATO (source: dpa)

The United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union does not take it out of NATO. But its rejection of Europe’s transnational system of rules and institutions will change the rules of the game within the alliance.

It is as if a bridge player had stopped in the middle of a rubber, collected all the cards and re-dealt them as poker hands. NATO will never be the same.

As it has evolved in recent decades, the North Atlantic alliance has increasingly become a framework for coalitions of the willing. The predefined plans and roles that defined NATO during the Cold War have been replaced by ad hoc coalitions, made easier by common standards and command structures.

Even the June 14 decision by NATO defense ministers to deploy four battalions to the Baltic countries and Poland was in reality a coalition of the willing; United States Defense Secretary Ash Carter was reportedly enraged by how few allies volunteered for the job.

Brexit underlines this reality, but in itself adds nothing new. The UK will remain one of the key coalition builders in the alliance; indeed, one can expect that the new British government will go out of its way to make amends in the aftermath of Brexit. However, its ability to contribute to such coalitions may be limited by the aftershocks of departure, including a possible vote by Scotland to leave and serious cuts in the UK budget (including defense).

Berlin bound

Brexit’s key result is to cement Germany’s dominance in the EU. Washington will act accordingly, turning to Berlin in the hope that it can guarantee stability on the continent. President Barack Obama is already relying heavily on Chancellor Angela Merkel to deal with Vladimir Putin, relegating Britain and France to supporting roles.

In leaving the EU, the UK will also be leaving the sanctions regime against Russia. At a time when London’s City is bracing for a likely exodus of financial institutions, companies and capital, the British government will have strong incentives to take a softer line on sanctions. The Kremlin will waste no time in taking advantage of this.

Together with other “Atlanticists,” the UK has long tried to prevent the creation of a bloc within NATO to coordinate European views prior to meeting the Canadians and the Americans. By voting leave, the British have created such an EU bloc by default. This opens the possibility of “jump-starting a new era of defense,” in the words of former EU Commissioner Michel Barnier.

By voting leave, the British created an EU bloc in NATO


Mr. Barnier is now a special advisor to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who has called for a European army and identifies defense as an area where the EU can rekindle integration. In the June 2015 report cited above, Mr. Barnier identified “NATO-first reflexes” as a main impediment to reducing duplication and improving the capabilities of European militaries. Even the U.S., “strategically pivoting to Asia, is now pushing for defense integration in Europe,” he noted.

While the UK is far from alone in its “NATO-first” reflexes, it is the alliance’s only European member with enough muscle to block a Franco-German push to meld European militaries outside a NATO framework.

Now that Britain is out of the picture, Mr. Barnier’s proposals will be studied carefully in Brussels. Military integration will suit the gravity of the new political situation, without forcing the EU to admit that the British electorate was right by launching similar initiatives on social and economic issues.

In a final irony, the same political logic applies in London. A new post-Brexit government may be more inclined to support EU defense integration, if not Mr. Juncker’s push for a European army. In the midst of sensitive negotiations on the Brexit settlement, the British will be anxious to prove to their EU partners, and perhaps more importantly to the Americans, that they still have a constructive role to play in Europe.

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