Brexit stirs NATO and EU to rethink their militaries

Britain's pending departure from the European Union will take away one of the bloc's biggest military powers. That could force the EU to create its own force, or spur a greater cooperation between the EU and NATO, which is holding a summit this weekend.

Markus Schreiber/AP
US President Barack Obama speaks to British Prime Minister David Cameron before the first working session of the North Atlantic Council at the NATO summit in Warsaw on Friday.

Leaders have long warned that Britain’s exit from the European Union will throw geopolitics wildly off kilter. Now the West is facing its first test at the NATO Summit in Warsaw today.

Dubbed the most important of its kind since 1989, the summit is a carefully crafted show of Western cohesion in a troubled time. But if and when Brexit starts to take shape, a new balance of power will have to be found, with implications for the EU, the various alliances to which member states belong, and the biggest crises they face, like dealing with Russia.

Britain could conceivably pump more into NATO in a post-Brexit world as it seeks to maintain a global footprint. Its absence from the EU table could also accelerate defense integration for the remaining 27 EU members – but at a cost to budget, capability, reputation, and continuity. Ultimately it might mean that the US is forced to continue to shoulder the military burden that it has long asked the EU to take on.

The EU and NATO signed a cooperation agreement on Friday on the sidelines of the summit, to bolster “Euro-Atlantic” security. European Council President Donald Tusk said the pact would bring together the military alliance and political and economic bloc, two entities that seem "on different planets,” despite both being based in Brussels. But it is Britain that has acted as the main bridge to the "Euro-Atlantic" partnership. Without it, a gap could appear quickly on Europe’s response to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Shashank Joshi, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in Britain, says that NATO and the EU have reinforced one another in recent years, especially after Russia's annexation of Crimea. NATO is responding by sending four, 1,000-strong battalions – including British troops – to the three Baltic states and Poland on a permanently rotating basis. But it is at the EU level that the diplomacy has taken form: from economic sanctions imposed on Russia to mustering political will to keep them in place.

“The use of military deterrence is insufficient for tackling a big, slow-moving problem like Russia,” says Mr. Joshi. “With the UK out of the EU, the problem is there is a disconnect between the two.”

To integrate or not to integrate

This comes as the EU has been seeking to take a larger role in defense matters. Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy head, presented a much-awaited global strategy plan, just days after “Brexit,” that calls for EU integration on defense to gird its foreign policy aims.

The French and Germans have long backed deepening integration, from an operational headquarters for EU military missions to an increase in the budget for the European Defense Agency. Britain has blocked both, seeing a headquarters as a duplication of NATO and a stronger budget as a first step towards an “EU army.”

Sven Biscop, head of the Europe in the World program at the Egmont – Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels, says with Britain gone, the remaining members, or a core group, could pool and share resources or create single capabilities among various members’ forces, which would ultimately lessen the EU’s dependence on the US.

“If we want to become more capable as Europeans, we need to integrate our forces,” he says.

This could bring more relevance to the EU, which has sought a diplomatic voice on everything from the nuclear deal with Iran to peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, but lacked the hard power to back it up. “We need it to underpin our foreign policy to make it more credible,” Mr. Biscop says.

However, many say the goal – which faces skepticism beyond just British reluctance – is even harder without the military prowess, international outlook, and reputation of Britain. Britain is the only other EU member, apart from France, with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and with nuclear capability. And it's one of just a handful of EU countries that spends the targeted 2 percent of GDP on its military.

Joshi says an EU that is more deeply integrated could be effective on anti-piracy or training missions, but its ability to carry out high-intensity operations requiring cutting-edge intelligence would be greatly hampered. “If you push ahead without the UK too much you have an integrated capability but a weaker capability,” he says.

And despite various calls for “more” Europe and “more NATO” at the summit today, which lasts through tomorrow, the public mood across the West has turned inward. Plans for more integration on defense especially could cause a backlash among those decrying a loss of sovereignty.

'Bad news for NATO'

British Prime Minister David Cameron, arriving at the summit Friday, said that “Britain may be leaving the EU but we are not turning our back on Europe and we're not turning our back on European defense and security." 

Vivien Pertusot, head of the Brussels office for the French Institute of International Relations, says Britain could bolster its role in NATO. “It doesn’t want to send the signal that it is pulling out of the world,” he says.

Yet that might not be possible if it’s bogged down by politics, including the potential breakup of the United Kingdom, or preoccupied by the massive diplomatic effort to renegotiate its relationship with EU members.

One of NATO’s former secretary generals, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, said recently that “Brexit is bad news for NATO.”

And that’s not the only bad news. The presumed Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, has cast doubts about whether NATO best serves US interests.

While the US has turned again toward Europe and its pressing security crises, Washington still wants Europe to spend more. Members have done so since Crimea, but have much further to go.

Brexit makes it more likely that the US will have to accept its role as security provider within the framework of NATO, and will be less interested in the EU’s autonomous defense objectives, called the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP).

“Brexit will increase the importance of NATO in the same way it decreases the CSDP of the EU,” says Markus Kaim, a defense expert at the independent, government-funded German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. “The US and the Obama administration is very desperately looking for the EU to share some of the burden of international responsibility,” he says, “but it’s particularly interested in a capable partner.”

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