Brexit, Trump and a new opportunity
by Ben Whitlock (December 2, 2016)
For Europe this represents a problem, but it can also be an opportunity – the prospect of NATO without the US makes the organisation effectively irrelevant and puts European security for the first time since the Second World War into question.
Within days of the US election result we began to see calls for the creation of a ‘European Army’ to replace the role the US had previously played in European security. However, such notions remain at best idealistic and at worse utopian. Germany is likely to resist any attempt to militarize the Union as it has in the past, the French are unlikely to want to restrict their freedom of movement in terms of foreign policy by being a member of a European Army, while having spent the better part of a decade with low economic growth European governments are unlikely to want to undertake the massive increase in military spending that would be needed to fund a functioning Army and finally militarizing the Union would require several member states to give up long held and ideologically important pacifistic principles that have become key to national identity. This is to say nothing of that fact that in all member states populations are growing sceptical of the EU’s abilities to solve their problems and have so far resisted any attempts to transfer responsibility for defence from the nation state to the EU.
To complicate matters, Britain, the traditional leader in military matters, has voted to leave the EU. As Britain leaves the Union the EU, and its members, are going to have to face the fact that without British involvement EU military and defence policy is something of a paper tiger. Britain after all accounts for 25% of all military spending, hardware and deployable troops. But this is where Donald Trump presents an opportunity: having lost its major ally and desperate to prove that the Brexit vote is not a sign of abandoning its international role, Britain is in search of a new role.
The British government has already signalled that it wants to continue working with European partners in areas of counter terrorism, cross boarder policing and sanctions on Iran and Russia. An idea that appears to be reciprocated in European capitals. Having long been the number 2 in NATO it would be only natural for the UK to fill the hole left by the US. Whether this is within a USless NATO or a purely European mutual defence alliance is something we must wait and see.
But one thing is clear, a UK-EU military relationship would be in the interests of both parties and would allow for the creation for a new forum for UK-EU relations. Such an organisation would allow for the UK to continue to be part of the European project by taking the lead in the an area that it is perhaps most comfortable working with international partners, and would allow the EU to benefit from the UK considerable military and diplomatic assets (UN Security Council membership, military hardware, experienced military leadership and its nuclear umbrella etc.). It is also worth noting that continued British leadership would be welcomed by several member states, who otherwise fear French domination of EU military policy as the next largest military power in the EU. Such an organisation could be created outside the formal EU institutional structures in the same way that Schengen was. This would allow those EU members (and non-members) to opt in to military cooperation just as Schengen did with free movement of people.
It is likely that all members would need to increase their military spending, but through coordination within a European Alliance they need not duplicate each other needlessly. Such an alliance would continue to preserve security in Europe, while providing a way forward for UK-EU relations. Brexit and Trump weren’t planed for, but together they present an opportunity to reinvigorate the European project in an area that has been neglected. The opportunity is there, Europe just need to grab it.
Ben Whitlock is Junior Policy Analyst at Bridging Europe
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