New Geopolitics of European Defence in Light of Brexit
Currently, the majority of responsibility for European defence is headed by two separate institutions; NATO and the EU. Britain has always been and for the meantime, currently still is, one of the leading contributors of defence spending for both of these groups, we are the guarantors of approximately one-quarter of European defence capabilities.
The decision of Britain to leave the EU has thus led to a possible shift in the dynamics of European defence. This decision has been especially important given that in recent years there has been an intensification of geopolitical narratives and of aggressive policies on the continent; most notably Russian movements into Crimea and violent protests in major cities throughout all corners of Europe.
Britain has been a net contributor to the defence of Europe through our membership in the EU, this is something which will need to be considered seriously by EU officials upon our withdrawal but should also be seen as an opportunity for the British government to assume a stronger role in NATO and to lobby other member states to increase their funding in the project. The upshot of this is that ultimately, Britain will need to move its funds and efforts in defence form EU to NATO and take a lead in the maintenance of Atlantic order.
Britain’s role within NATO could also become more important given the repeated threats by President Trump to remove the US from the treaty, although discourse of this nature has gone quiet in more recent times. Trump has repeatedly complained that other NATO members regularly fall short of their funding targets and that this is unacceptable to the USA.
Such cost-cutting has been done by countries such as France and Germany due to the security they feel is provided by Britain and the USA; by relying on these two countries, other European nations have been able to pour money that should have gone into defence into their industries for better economic growth. This is something that will have to end as it comes under fire from Trump and as Britain will no longer be contributing directly to EU defence. These lines of argument from Trump are thinly veiled threats that EU nations must do more to defend Europe if they wish to keep the USA as cooperating allies.
There are several key British concerns when it comes to defence post-Brexit. One of the current issues Britain faces is that our already ambitious defence spending forecasts might well become unattainable. With the fall in the value of sterling that we have seen since the vote and especially given the sporadic jumps around the time of key Brexit votes in Parliament, defence firms are suffering from a lack of confidence.
However, it is important to note that our defence firms set to lose a lot less than many other British sectors given that only 4% of our defence trading is done with the EU. This means that with a bit of government funding, confidence could be restored in the industry, and that the defence sector could be a crucial avenue of economic growth in the future.
Another key problem with Brexit that is often highlighted is the loss of generous EU funding for research and innovation. Britain has received £8 billion of EU funding since 2007. A loss of this magnitude will not only hit the defence sector hard, but also other vital industries such as education or health.
A somewhat subdued issue at the moment but one that is likely to rear its head from time to time is that of Scottish independence. Scottish voters on the whole voted remain during the Brexit referendum and so there is plenty of support for a second independence referendum which would possibly pave the way for them t remain EU member states. The connotations for British defence if this were the case are huge; the British nuclear programme is based almost entirely in Scotland. Having to relocate this force, or losing it altogether, would be a huge loss for British defence and would reduce the confidence of close allies such as America in our ability to protect the Atlantic.
Ultimately, the unprecedented decision by Britain to withdraw from the EU will require unprecedented solutions when it comes to Atlantic and European defence. Britain will have to work hard to prioritise NATO and keep America onside whilst the EU will have to increase their defence spending and keep Britain in the loop if they want to make the most of their neighbours. It will be important for all sides to cooperate post-Brexit and for each nation to shoulder its fair share of the burden of security.
By Tom Birdseye
DISCLAIMER: THE VIEWS EXPRESSED IN THIS ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR ONLY AND DO NOT REPRESENT THE VIEWS OR OPINIONS OF COMPASS MAGAZINE AS A WHOLE OR THE UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE DEPARTMENT OF GEOGRAPHY.