Monthly Mind June 2016: "Brexit and European Security"

What would Brexit mean for European security? "Brexit would unleash a trifecta of political forces – souverainisme, federalism and separatism – which separately or in combination would have far-reaching consequences for Britain’s security and defense choices," argues François Heisbourg in our latest "Monthly Mind" column.

British Prime Minister David Cameron attending the 47th Munich Security Conference in 2011 (Photo: MSC/Mörk).

By François Heisbourg


In the narrowest of terms, European security and defense are areas in which a British exit from the European Union would have comparatively little effect. Despite the launching in 1998 by France and the United Kingdom of what soon became a European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP, subsequently the Common Security and Defence Policy or CSDP), Britain ceased to invest politically or militarily in the ESDP in any substantial manner from the Iraq crisis of 2002–03 onwards. Nor has the ESDP/CSDP developed beyond a number of generally successful but quite limited operations.

The UK has pointedly disassociated itself from any broader European dimension, focusing instead on the strong bilateral relationship built with France in the field of conventional and nuclear defense since the signing of the Lancaster House treaties in 2010. Unlike the single market or other areas in which sovereignty is shared with the European institutions, defense and security are not caught in a complex web of intertwined national and supranational competences.

Furthermore, NATO remains Britain's multilateral defense forum of choice, something that Brexit need not change. There is also no reason to assume that the most practical and sensitive aspects of the special relationship between the US and the UK in the field of special intelligence, nuclear cooperation and cutting-edge technology would be compromised by Brexit. Finally, Britain's deep commonality of interest and ambition with France, as a nuclear power and as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, would ensure that the former would not become irrelevant to Europe.

Here ends the easy part.

Brexit would unleash a trifecta of political forces – souverainisme, federalism and separatism – which separately or in combination would have far-reaching consequences for a post-Brexit Britain's security and defense choices.

Souverainisme, or the return of nation-state patriotism, more often than not in combination with xenophobia, protectionism and populism, is currently the most obviously emergent of these forces across Europe. This trend would be further strengthened within a post-Brexit EU, both by the encouragement given to such forces by the British 'example' and by the short-term economic effects of a Brexit on European societies: Brexit would reduce the paltry growth projections further, as value chains between the UK and the continent would be disrupted while adapting to the new dispensation. To the economic dimension one must add the political strains of the refugee crisis as cross-Mediterranean flows pick up during the summer; the chilling effect of the terror threat; and the negative economic effects of de facto border controls within the Schengen area itself.

Souverainisme on its own is not likely to cause the EU to fragment – force of habit, as well as the inextricable bonds established over the decades between European, national and subnational levels of government, make for a strong glue. The risk is nonetheless there, with Brexit playing an instrumental role in bringing a number of EU countries to the tipping point.

But were fragmentation to take place, for instance in the form of a newly elected President Le Pen putting her demands to Brussels David Cameron-style and then doing a 'Frexit,' the security implications for Europe would be of the first order, with NATO itself coming under fire.

Such an unravelling could be construed as a European return to the global norm. However, several features would make a reappearance of an Europe des nations more challenging than a similar arrangement in, for instance, East Asia or Latin America. Not only would Europe and Britain be facing Russia, a revisionist regional hegemon somewhat similar to a preponderant China in East Asia, but they would also have to deal with the violent threats and demographic challenges from its Middle Eastern front yard, while operating on the basis of renewed doubts about Germany, a country 'too big for Europe, but too small for the world,' as Henry Kissinger is supposed to have said.* From a British standpoint, this would clearly be an even less happy situation than the current dispensation.

Federalism is the polar opposite of souverainisme. There is a school of thought which believes that a Brexit would produce an enfin seuls ('alone together at last, my dear') sense of relief. One should expect France and Germany to lead an initiative within days of a British 'leave' vote towards an ever-closer Union, as well as a strengthened eurozone. This might be buttressed by a willingness among some of the non-euro countries, notably Poland, to start moving towards the euro for fear of being relegated to a political twilight zone: until now, they were part of a rather weightier group that included the United Kingdom. In the short run, however, a Franco-German initiative can only be aspirational. A weak French president, a fractured left, a divided right and a strong National Front do not make for a saleable federalist platform in France, to put it mildly. Keeping out refugees, fighting terrorism and tackling unemployment will be higher on the agenda before the presidential elections in spring 2017. And nothing much can happen until Germans go to the polls a few months later.

It is possible that some form of deeper integration, including a new Treaty of European Union, could emerge from 2018 onwards, with the election of a Europhile such as Alain Juppé in France and a re-elected Angela Merkel leading the government in Germany. This new European Union would likely be built around the euro, and be less liberal in terms of economic doctrine than the current EU. Its political and strategic culture would also be distinctly German, as is already the case in the eurozone. In security terms, this would make for an inward-looking body, with the force-dimensioning task of defending its outer borders. The new EU would not be undermining NATO, even if, in the long run, an economically weak Europe would hardly alleviate the ongoing burden-sharing debate with the United States.

From the British viewpoint, there is no massive downside here compared to the ongoing situation. There would be a penalty nonetheless, as a reasonably coherent new EU would leave a post-Brexit Britain with less diplomatic and strategic throw-weight in Europe than it has today.

For its part, France, would be placed in an even more demanding and pivotal position in terms of defense policy. London and Paris would have every incentive to exploit to the full the potential of the Lancaster House treaties, working together to remain nuclear powers and to continue to project military power and diplomatic influence in keeping with their cherished status as permanent members of the UN Security Council. This would also be Britain's security link to the new EU. Meanwhile, France would experience all the advantages (and burdens) of being the EU's only full-spectrum player on the global scene. It would sustain its special security relationship with Germany, as well as its more recent and quite promising cooperation with Poland, while also supporting developments within the CSDP.

The probability of realizing this semi-benign scenario of a federalizing new EU remains low, however, not just because of the current wave of populism sweeping Europe, but also in light of the recent historical record: the constitutional treaty was rejected in 2005 not by a europhobic Britain but by referendums in two of the six original participants in the European integration process (France and the Netherlands).

A third force likely to be unleashed by a Brexit is that of separatism – both inside and outside the UK. Comparatively benign scenarios would be threatened by the holding of a parliamentary vote on the follow-on to Britain's missile-launching submarines shortly after the referendum on EU membership, as is currently planned. Thrusting the nuclear-modernization issue into the limelight only weeks after a 'leave' outcome would further inflame an independence debate already reopened because of a Brexit: The Scottish National Party, which holds 56 out of 59 parliamentary seats in Scotland, is hostile to the continued basing of Britain's strategic nuclear force in Faslane, Scotland.

In this scenario, a new referendum is held on independence in a pro-European Scotland. The Scots vote for secession and seek to join the new EU, which could hardly refuse. A deal is struck between London and Edinburgh on the use of erstwhile UK military facilities in Scotland for a period that allows for the building of a new base, presumably in English waters. The corresponding uncertainties, plus the need to adapt the Westminster institutions to the contours of a post-Scotland UK, could have a substantial impact on the overall decision-making on nuclear modernization. A diminished post-Scotland UK would have a shared interest with France in attempting to preserve England's nuclear status and its membership of the Security Council as the successor state of today's United Kingdom. A rump-UK would presumably wish to avoid compromising from the start its putative status as a global non-European player, whereas France would be deeply worried by the implicit threat to its seat on the Security Council, and by the isolation of being the only nuclear power in a strategically 'herbivorous' Europe.

To summarize, a British exit from the European Union would lead to a divorce between London and the European institutions, but it would certainly not remove Britain from Europe's troubles. Indeed, these difficulties will become even more challenging following a British exit. They will impose themselves uninvited onto a post-Brexit Britain’s agenda, because Britain is where it is: off the coast of Europe. For a medium-sized, post-imperial power, there is no escaping the fact that geography is destiny. 

François Heisbourg is Special Adviser to the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy and Chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. A longer version of this piece was published in the current issue of "Survival" (Volume 58, Issue 3, 2016).

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*The phrase is generally attributed to Henry Kissinger, but its exact provenance has proven difficult to trace. Kissinger was, however, taped stating to Zhou Enlai on 11 November 1973 that it 'is very dangerous to underestimate Germany's shortsightedness.' See 'Memorandum of Conversation: Beijing, November 11, 1973, 3:15–7:00 p.m.', US Department of State Office of the Historian, Foreign Relations of the United States 1969–1976, Volume XVIII, China, 1973–1976, Document 56, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1969-76v18/d56.

21 June 2016, by François Heisbourg

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