Geo-Political Options for the European Union after Exit of the UK

_ David Lane,  Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences (UK) and Emeritus Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge University. London, 9 January 2019.

On 29 March 2019 the United Kingdom will leave the European Union diminishing the number of its ‘member states’ to 27. While the UK’s future relationship with the EU remains unresolved, even greater uncertainty faces the Union. Pundits and academics alike agonize over whether the UK’s absence will remove one barrier to greater harmonization between the member states; that is, to a strengthening of the federal nature of the Union. Others contend that its exit is yet another step in the unraveling of the Union consequent on the energizing of Eurosceptic movements to secure greater sovereignty for the member states. Without a doubt, the current pattern of political and economic differentiation between the member states has been dealt a heavy blow by the British vote to exit. The question is also raised as to whether the European Union will be able to forge a sustainable pattern of agreements with outside states, particularly the UK.

One outcome is clear: the previous balance of powers at the top of the EU shaped by its strongest economic and political pillars – Germany, France and the UK – will be replaced by the bilateral power of France and Germany. One scenario for the EU would be to minimize the security costs of the UK’s exit by maintaining strong political links with the UK – to cultivate a ‘special relationship’, akin to that the UK believes it shares currently with the USA.

Both sides claim that maintaining security interests are crucial and beneficial, especially given a possible shift of American military support away from Europe to Asia and the Pacific region. Currently, the UK provides for the EU a powerful array of military hardware including nuclear defence capacity equaled only by France; it also enjoys a status as a broker in many international networks, including a seat in the Security Council of the United Nations. Politically, the UK’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (2015) notes many areas of mutual interest with the EU: threats from terrorism, cyber attacks, migration and the common cause to promote stability and human rights.
These considerations however might well lead to a strengthening of an emergent European power. The UK has a high stake in maintaining US influence in NATO, which binds the central European states into the Atlantic Alliance. The UK nuclear deterrent is also strongly dependent on the USA. The exit of the UK will weaken the American conduit of influence within the EU. This may be welcomed by an emerging alliance of France and Germany. The absence of a British veto power over the European Union’s economic (particularly financial) and strategic affairs would be welcomed by many groups in the EU. And, if its predictions of a weakened UK outside the European Union prove to be accurate, then the UK’s economic contribution to the EU’s economic security would be even less of a loss.

Leadership of France and Germany

To promote harmonization in the post-Brexit European Union, under the leadership of France and Germany, the Union might well develop a more independent and deeper defence and foreign policy. Currently, NATO has responsibility for international security threats and policy, while the EU deals with lower level crises, such as cyber crime, intra state terrorism and breaches of human rights. Institutions are already in place which could be broadened to take over some of NATO policy management. Under the leadership of Angela Merkel, Germany is beginning to move from a ‘civilian’ power to a military one. In the White Paper 2016: On German Security and Policy and the Future of the Bundeswehr (Federal Government 2016, available online), Angela Merkel points out that in the ‘changed security situation [in Europe] , the task of the Federal Government is to redefine our country’s security and policy interests, priorities and objectives and to develop its toolbox [sic] responsibility’ (p.6).

While the German White Paper emphasises the importance of NATO, it is discussed in the context of the European Union and Germany’s own interests. ‘We actively strive to strike a balance between conflicting interests and are prepared to assume responsibility and lead in order to make joint action possible. Priority is given to the continuous adaptation to the changing security environment, the close interlinking and progressive integration of European armed forces, the strengthening of NATO’s European pillar and coherent interaction between NATO and the EU’ (p.49). Clearly, NATO is far too powerful a political and military force to be seriously weakened by the consequences of Brexit. Its leadership has successfully maneuvered its way from the end of the Cold War to the conditions of a Cold Peace. In doing so, it has extended its influence and increased in numbers. The EU, however, may well become more assertive of its interests in the European sphere of NATO’s operations. It might insist, for example, in control of the placement of NATO missile systems in the territory of the EU.

It might not be by chance that a number of significant advances have taken place since the UK voted to leave the European Union. These include the setting up in 2017 of: The Military Headquarters, the process of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), and the European Defence Fund. These are developments strengthening the formation of a separate European defence structure. Friction between the Trump administration and European leaders, such as Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, might well exacerbate divisions between the future EU, led by Germany and France, and NATO. The exclusion of the UK will be to the advantage of France in a leadership challenge and would facilitate greater harmonization of interests in the European Union. In international affairs, its federal powers will strengthen while those of the member states will weaken. Concurrently, as the EU’s prime military power, France will become a reference point of the EU to the USA – again marginalizing Britain’s influence in Europe.

Weakening of Atlanticist Bloc

One imponderable variable is the role of the more Atlanticist powers that will remain in the European Union, particularly Poland and the Baltic states. With Britain out of the EU, Atlanticist views will be voiced by Poland. While Poland and Hungary have significant Eurosceptic politically populist movements, it is unlikely that they will be able to peel away from the European Union. They simply have nowhere to go and lack the economic and political infrastructure to leave. Without the backing of the UK, their influence is likely to wane.

The UK, in pursuing its promised ‘Global Britain’ policy, would be able to collaborate with EU security projects such as Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) which operates through treaties between member states of the EU. In this case however Britain would find itself in the position of a policy taker, rather than a policy maker. It appears inevitable that the UK will gravitate much more into the American sphere of international influence with a diminished role in Europe. Its internecine conflict with the EU over the conditions of exit will make collaboration on defence and security more difficult – at least in the short run.

A consequence of Brexit might well be the recalibration of interests within NATO and, over the longer term, the rise of a European military arm with Germany playing an influential role. The implication here is that European policy towards Russia, when freed of US influence, may become normalized. With the UK out of Europe its Atlanticist veto will disappear and the EU, led by Germany and France, might move towards greater harmonization between the member states of the EU. From this point of view, the exit of the UK from Europe will strengthen its federal political structure rather than weakening it.


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