Great Britain’s Options After Departing the European Union

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Steve Maguire has a strong interest in strategic deterrence and British defence and security policy.  He can be found Twitter @SRDMaguire, has published in the Small Wars Journal, and is a regular contributor to the British military blog, The Wavell Room. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


National Security Situation:  Great Britain will leave the European Union in March 2019 ending decades of political and economic integration.  This has left Britain at a strategic crossroads and the country must decide how and where to commit its military and security prowess to best achieve national objectives.

Date Originally Written:  October, 20, 2018.

Date Originally Published:  November 26, 2018.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author believes that Britain is international by design but must better concentrate its assets in support of more targeted economic goals. 

Background:  Britain is a nuclear power, a major North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally, head of a Commonwealth of Nations, and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council with a strong history of global engagement.  Much of this prestige has been tied into Britain’s membership of the European Union and the defence of Europe is currently seen as a critical national security interest.  In September 2017 Prime Minister Theresa May re-iterated that Britain remained ‘unconditionally committed’ to the defence of the continent.  From a traditional view-point this makes sense; the European Union is Britain’s largest export market and Britain has grown international influence through membership.

Significance:  There is a difference between physical ‘Europe’ and the political institution known as the ‘European Union’ but the political institution dominates the European contingent and is a major political actor in its own right.  British policy makers must consider if remaining unconditionally committed to Europe is the right strategy to prosper in an increasingly competitive global environment and whether it is key to Britain’s future.  To continue a relationship with Europe means Britain is likely to become a second-tier European country outside of European political mechanisms.  Britain could choose, instead, to focus its resources on an Extra-European foreign policy and exploit the benefits of its diplomatic reach.   

Option #1:  Britain maintains a focus on and aligns economically with Europe.

Risk:  Britain would be committed to the defence of Europe but treated as a second-rate member with limited power or influence and unable to reap meaningful benefits.  Analysing the impact of leaving the European Union, a former head of the British Intelligence Service commented that ‘Britain on its own will count for little’ highlighting the impact.  Britain also plans to leave the single market and customs union that binds Europe together denuding many of the wider economic benefits it previously enjoyed.  As Europe develops its own independent defence policy, it is also likely that Europe’s appetite for engagement with NATO begins to weaken reducing Britain’s role in the Alliance.  Without being a member of the European Union, Britain can only hope to be ‘plugged in’ to the political structure and influence policy through limited consultation.  If Britain chooses this option it will have to accept a significantly reduced role as a European power.

Gain:  Many threats to Britain, notably Russia, are mitigated through common European defence and security positions.  By remaining ‘unconditionally’ committed to the defence of Europe, Britain will buy good will and co-operation.  Recent initiatives have seen Britain reaching out with bi-lateral defence deals and these can be exploited to maintain British influence and shape the continent towards British goals.  Further development of bespoke forces through NATO, such as the Joint Expeditionary Force of Northern European countries, would allow Britain to continue leveraging European power outside of the political control of the European Union. 

Option #2:  Britain chooses an Extra-European focus which would concentrate on building relationships with the rest of the world at the expense of Europe.

Risk:  Russia has been described as the ‘most complex security challenge’ to Britain.  If Britain chooses to focus its resources outside of Europe then it could dilute the rewards of a common approach towards Russia.  Britain is also a significant member of NATO and the organisation is the foundation of British security.  Option #2 is likely to undermine British influence and prestige in the Alliance.  Whilst Britain is well placed to renew its global standing, it is likely to have a negative impact on the wider balance of power.  China has recently criticised British foreign policy in the Far-East as provocative and China may choose to undermine British operations elsewhere.  Similarly, Britain will become a direct competitor to its previous partners in the European Union as it seeks to exploit new trading relationships.  If Britain wished to diverge from European positions significantly it could even become the target of additional European tariffs, or worse, sanctions targeting its independent foreign policy. 

Gain:  A recent geopolitical capability audit rated Britain as the world’s second most capable power but questioned if Britain had the right strategy to be a leader of nations.  Defence assets and foreign policy would need to be more concentrated to achieve Britain’s goals if Britain is to build global relationships with meaningful benefits as part of Option #2.  The ‘Global Britain’ strategy is being developed and Britain has been successful when concentrating on Extra-European projects.  For example, in June 2018 a Royal Navy visit to Australia resulted in a major defence contract and ensured interoperability of defence assets.  There is potential for significant projects with countries such as Japan.  More will follow creating new markets and trading alliances better suited to British needs.  Extra-European markets are expanding at a rapid rate and Britain can only fully exploit hem if Option #2 is resourced and not restricted by a major focus on Europe.   

Europe has also not shared Britain’s willingness to directly tackle security threats or conduct military interventions at scale.  Freed from a focus on Europe, Britain would be better enabled to resource other alliances and mitigate threats with a more global strategy without the political processes required to generate common, and therefore diluted, European positions.

Other Comments:  None. 

Recommendation:  None.


This article appeared originally at Divergent Options.

Endnotes:

[1] James, W. (2018). Britain Unconditionally Committed to Maintaining European Security. Reuters. [online] Available at: https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-britain-eu-defence-security/britain-unconditionally-committed-to-maintaining-european-security-official-document-idUKKCN1BN1DL [Accessed 16 Oct. 2018].

[2] Ward, M. and Webb, D. (2018). Statistics on UK-EU Trade. U.K. Research Briefing. [online] Available at: https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/CBP-7851 [Accessed 17 Oct. 2018].

[3] Sawers, J. (2018). Britain on its own will count for little on the world stage. Financial Times. [online] Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/1e11c6a0-54fe-11e7-80b6-9bfa4c1f83d2 [Accessed 17 Oct. 2018].

[4] Bond, I. (2018). Plugging in the British: EU Foreign Policy. Centre for European Reform. [online] Available at: https://cer.eu/publications/archive/policy-brief/2018/plugging-british-eu-foreign-policy [Accessed 16 Oct. 2018].

[5] British Government (2018). UK-Poland Intergovernmental Consultations, 21 December 2017: Joint Communiqué. [online] GOV.UK. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/uk-poland-intergovernmental-consultations-21-december-2017-joint-communique [Accessed 16 Oct. 2018].

[6] Carter, N. (2018). Dynamic Security Threats and the British Army. RUSI. [online] Available at: https://rusi.org/event/dynamic-security-threats-and-british-army [Accessed 17 Oct. 2018].

[7] Hayton, B. (2018). Britain Is Right to Stand Up to China Over Freedom of Navigation. Chatham House. [online] Available at: https://www.chathamhouse.org/expert/comment/britain-right-stand-china-over-freedom-navigation [Accessed 16 Oct. 2018].

[8] Rodgers, J. (2018). [online] Towards ‘Global Britain’. Henry Jackson Society. [online] Available at: https://henryjacksonsociety.org/publications/towards-global-britain-challenging-the-new-narratives-of-national-decline/ [Accessed 17 Oct. 2018].

[9] British Government (2018). Global Britain: delivering on our international ambition. [online] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/global-britain-delivering-on-our-international-ambition [Accessed 18 Oct. 2018].

[10] BBC News, (2018). BAE wins huge Australian warship contract. [online] Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-44649959 [Accessed 16 Oct. 2018].

[11] Grevett, J. (2018). Japan indicates possible Tempest collaboration with UK | Jane’s 360. [online] Available at: https://www.janes.com/article/82008/japan-indicates-possible-tempest-collaboration-with-uk [Accessed 18 Oct. 2018].



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