Food for Thought: "There is more at stake in Brexit than just trade"

In the area of defense cooperation, even after Brexit, "the EU has everything to gain and nothing to lose from continuing constructive engagement and cooperation with the UK, a permanent member of the UN Security Council," write MSC Chairman Wolfgang Ischinger and Stefano Stefanini, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.

A helicopter of the British Royal Navy during an exercise (Wikimedia Commons)

This week the European Council will authorize Brexit negotiations to move from divorce settlement to forging the new relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom. The clock is ticking. Brussels and London have barely a year left to lay the foundations of their future partnership. Failure to do so would have disastrous strategic consequences for European prosperity and security.

There are areas, such as the Single Market, that do not lend themselves to cherry picking.  The new relationship across the Channel will have to be consistent with the British choice to be in or out of it. The sphere of foreign policy and defence, including homeland and cyber security, will need to rely on strong and continuing EU-UK cooperation irrespective of Brexit. Trade can be transactional; security is not.

For both sides of the Channel a simple reality check will make it obvious. Between 25 and 30% of overall EU military capabilities fly the Union Jack: it is too little for the UK to stand alone; it is too much for the EU to do without it. In times of shifting geopolitics, growing and multiple threats, and budget constraints, London should not delude itself and Brussels should not be in denial. European security of course will continue relying on NATO, with the UK's full participation, but there are and there will be operations carried out by European forces only, for instance in Africa or in the Mediterranean. London is hinting at supporting a credible European defence structure and capabilities, as long as they do not amount to "vanity fair". In exchange we believe that the UK should get a comprehensive and generous offer from the EU to be associated with it, including access to the European Defence Fund and to the EU Defence Industrial Development Programme.

In no way do we underestimate the importance of upcoming trade negotiations. The EU and the UK are economically and financially interlinked. Disrupting supply chains, data flows and seamless commercial networks would only cause unjustified pain and hold back growth and jobs at a time of tenuous recovery. Confronted with sharper international competition and rising protectionist winds, Europe cannot afford a time out. The rest of the world will not wait. London and Brussels must get the trade negotiations right, stay clear from "who is winning" narratives and give themselves a generous transition period to minimize the inevitable bumps on the road.

On foreign policy and defence there is a strong rationale to keep a British place at the European table. London will certainly welcome it. It is up to the EU to think outside the box and come up with innovative solutions. They do not have to be institutional. What matters is to make them work: the EU has everything to gain and nothing to lose from continuing constructive engagement and cooperation with the UK, a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

Europe faces unprecedented challenges in international affairs. It has to deal with a resurgent Russian military posture to the East, with instability and asymmetric threats in the Mediterranean, with economic competition from China and other emerging powers, with immigration pressures stemming from demography and climate change in Africa and elsewhere. In less than one year, the new American administration has made three major decisions that are clearly at odds with European mainstream foreign policy: withdrawing from the Paris climate accord; decertifying the Iranian nuclear agreement (JCPOA); moving the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. On all of these issues London and the EU have found themselves squarely on the same side. The EU would benefit from enduring reinforcement from British diplomatic expertise.

In the current state of world disorder and European insecurity, the UK and the EU need each other more than in the past. Brexit must not allow a security cleavage across the Channel. On either side, Europeans will have common foreign policy interests and face identical security challenges; better to work together as closely as possible.



Wolfgang Ischinger is the Chairman of the Munich Security Conference; Stefano Stefanini is a nonresident Senior Fellow at Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security of the Atlantic Council and was formerly diplomatic Advisor to the Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.

13 December 2017, by Wolfgang Ischinger / Stefano Stefanini