Make no mistake: Brexit will damage our security. It will weaken the UK more, but it will weaken the EU too, writes Matthieu Borsboom.
Matthieu Borsboom is a senior adviser for defence and security at BCW Brussels. As Vice Admiral of the Royal Netherlands Navy, he was the country’s highest-ranking naval office until 2016.
Parliament’s historic vote against Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plans now leaves a huge question mark hanging over how – or even if – Britain will leave the EU. But whatever happens, we have to prepare for it.
This challenge puts a special responsibility on those of us in the European defence sector: we risk seeing Britain split from its European allies in NATO, and our combined defences weakened. So we have to do whatever we can to prevent Brexit from tearing us apart and leaving us vulnerable to the threats of the modern world.
There are many reasons for the rest of Europe to regret Brexit. When it comes to European defence, the United Kingdom has been a major player: along with France, it has been the leading military power in Europe. The UK has been a mainstay in NATO, a pioneer in EU missions, and a key force in defence research and procurement. Brexit takes Britain out of the world’s most integrated political alliance and heralds great uncertainty.
Yes, the British have often been a brake on EU defence projects. But they have always kept their pledge on Europe’s security. And while the EU does not dabble much in defence issues, Brexit nonetheless has major implications across the security space for both the EU and the UK. From a long list, these include:
- Research and innovation: Britain benefits from hefty EU research funding, claiming a fifth of all EU grants since 2007, worth €8 billion. Now it risks losing access to this. Additionally, UK companies will have limited access to the €500 million per year European Defence Fund initiative supporting investment in R&D in cutting-edge military equipment and technologies.
- Defence spending: The value of sterling has already fallen, affecting British orders for systems like the Apache attack helicopters, which are paid for in US dollars. The economy is also slowing, partly due to Brexit itself.
- Joint projects: the UK has partnered on projects like the European combat aircraft, the Airbus A400M airlifter and the Meteor missile.
- EU missions: the UK has led various CSDP missions, including Operation Atalanta, the high-profile anti-piracy naval mission off the Horn of Africa – but Atalanta’s operational HQ will now move to Spain.
- The European Defence Agency (EDA): it remains unclear if the UK will leave the EDA altogether or seek associate status without any voting rights, like Norway, Serbia and Ukraine.
- Foreign policy: the UK has been a forceful in pushing strong foreign policies like sanctions, notably against Russia after its meddling in Ukraine. But Brexit is likely to weaken the EU’s resolve.
- Relations with the US: the US is losing confidence in Britain’s ability to rally allies, and the Trump administration has warned that unless the British invests more in defence, they might one day no longer be “the US partner of choice”.
- Relations with NATO: experts at the UK’s Royal United Services Institute have already warned that, thanks to Brexit, the UK could now lose the prestigious position of NATO deputy supreme allied commander in Europe, a post it has held since 1951.
- Security cooperation: beyond defence policy, the UK’s departure will complicate joint action on transnational issues like terrorism, organised crime and cybersecurity, the work of Europol, and the European Arrest Warrant.
This range of defence and security issues shows how broad the connections are, and how complicated Brexit will be. Make no mistake: Brexit will damage our security. It will weaken the UK more, but it will weaken the EU too.
Our mission now is to ensure that whatever the institutional arrangements, the UK remains anchored to the EU’s security. From a practical perspective, both the EU and Britain should work to keep the UK close: the two sides have a mutual interest in strong defence and security relations. The EU would benefit from the UK’s resources and expertise, and the UK would want the broader support of the EU. We have to find ways to mitigate the formal break-up so that links between the EU and the UK are forged across the security environment.
It becomes complicated in formal settings, where most decisions are taken. But workarounds could be found through informal and ad hoc arrangements.
Some of them could be bilateral. We can and should expect the UK and Netherlands will continue their existing close collaboration. This UK-Dutch collaboration is outside the EU and NATO structures, and includes officer swaps: Dutch drill sergeants currently train Royal Marines, and vice versa.
Other examples of cooperation include a submarine commanders qualification course, the UK-Netherlands amphibious force, and the Royal Navy’s Flag Officer Sea Training.
There is a personal element for me as the UK was my first port of call when I started as an officer in the Royal Dutch Navy in the 1970s. Having worked closely with the Royal Navy over all these years, I can testify to the value of the human component that makes these collaborations worthwhile.
I can also point to values and historic bonds. In the Netherlands, we remain eternally grateful to the British for their role in freeing us from the Nazi occupation during the Second World War. This year we will show our gratitude with a series of events celebrating the 75th anniversary of the liberation.
As for Brexit, it will be messy. But we now have to develop new arrangements. We cannot lose time mourning Britain’s departure. We need practical solutions because our security depends on it.