The fact of the Brexit vote, as well as the decision of the UK Government to finally implement it, has generated a geopolitical event of immense consequence.
For the continent of Europe, it breaks the design monopoly that the EU institutionally held over how the format of cooperation would develop. Previously, there used to be three competing models. The COMECON one, which thankfully broke with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Free Trade-only (EFTA) one was almost fatally fractured by Ted Heath’s Government taking the UK into the EEC (and two other EFTA states trailing in its immediate wake). However, the Brexit idea of being physically “in Europe without being run by it” finally delivers on the pledge made by William Hague, even if he didn’t turn out to be the cheerleader of the rational prerequisites to make that happen.
For the UK, Brexit generates not so much a window but a patio door of opportunities. Not the least of these is a break with the EU’s ever-closer union, which London was only ever placed to act as a slow brake on. Being on the losing side of a tug of war was not a viable long-term strategic option, even in areas such as defence, where the ground had been stubbornly fought but where the mud under foot had become increasingly slippery. The fact that the treaties themselves expressly stated a potential end state of a Defence Union was not lost on senior Defence professionals who united during the referendum to form Veterans for Britain. The accelerated EU ambition since then is merely evidence of a previously denied and still under-appreciated trend.
So, what lies in store for the UK in this field now? Firstly, Brexit means the UK is able to avoid the pitfalls of centralised EU procurement, intended to ‘rationalise’ defence industries in the name of competitiveness but coming at the cost of national capabilities – a perfect end state of course if you are a federalist. The UK can still state its intention to cooperate with the EU on projects on an ad hoc basis, shifting away from the European Defence Agency (increasingly looking like the EU’s Ministry of Defence) and focusing on procurement cooperation via the far more intergovernmental OCCAR. This also reduces the risk of (literally) compromising future kit by farming construction out through political barter rather than construction prowess and generating products that are less tailored to any given nation’s specific tactical needs.
Stepping away from the European Commission’s very particular ambitions cannot have come at a timelier moment. The UK is able to shift its weight into supporting the critical alliance of NATO. Removing one of the stool legs from EU defence ambitions provides an overdue jolt for a number of EU NATO states – some were already alert to the problems and the stakes, but the absence of the UK from EU defence structures means that the European Council will have to spend more time trying to consciously factor in NATO rather than grandstanding and trying to feebly supplant it. A good starting point for the UK would be to demonstrate intent by gradually increasing GDP share in defence spending up to 3%, while completely overhauling the damaging and myopic way the MoD itself mismanages its procurement budget.
At the same time, London is well placed to reassure Washington of the value it places in its unique security relationships. The UK is the only European state that is party to the Five Eyes arrangements. EU ambitions over developing its own, inevitably flawed, intelligence structures are equivalent to a paddling pool doomed to be either unimpressively shallow or leaky, and quite possibly both. The UK government’s peculiar policy towards Huawei and 5G access – perhaps a legacy from earlier Whitehall bad decision making – will not have endeared the UK to Capitol Hill. But at least an independent UK government can still correct this.
More widely, fresh and inventive minds should be brought into government to rethink the nature of the AUSCANZUK relationship, and more broadly the Commonwealth realms. Despite a half century of decolonisation zeitgeist, many countries feel so spiritually and politically close to the UK that they retain a Personal Union with a common head of state. That friendship should be far better recognised and acknowledged in the UK, not just in security matters but more broadly, such as over residency rights and work visa points. CANZUK International has been doing some good work here and deserves official support.
Meanwhile, the EU will go on doing its own thing. The UK will have its work cut out, not least in prepping to police its freshly restored territorial waters with sufficient assets and aplomb to deter saltwater lawbreakers from the outset. But at least the necessary break has been made. Like any federal construct, the EU expands most quickly at times of crisis. We saw it with Maastricht after the Berlin Wall fell; we saw it after 9/11 with rejected Justice and Home Affairs powers dusted off; and we saw it with the Eurozone bailouts. Given what is on the horizon, EU integration will again surge ahead over the next couple of years. The only change is, this time, the UK won’t be dragged along with a foot stuck in the stirrup.