After a spiky past of EU-UK military cooperation, what could Brexit change?

By Nicolai Santaniello

As far as the EU and UK go back there have been controversies in various fields of policy. The UK was primarily understood to have originally wanted to join the EU for economic reasons, and it was facts such as these that pushed France to vetoing Britain’s accession to twice. The UK and the EU had their disagreements on a number of issues after their entry such as budget allocation and certain aspects of monetary policy [1], and there was a general feeling that the UK was not as conceding as other European nations to the loosening of their sovereignty [2]. This could be especially noticeable when they didn’t sign the Schengen Treaty, or adopt the Euro currency gaining an exemption, together with Denmark, at the Maastricht treaty. However one thing which had divided the UK and Europe since even before they joined the EU was defense policy – something which could also be a key issue post Brexit.

The European Defense Community was one of the first projects for European common defense coordination projected after the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949. The plan was sponsored strongly by the French, even though in the end it was rejected in their National Assembly in 1954. The British however had not been supportive of the project until intimidated by the US, and even then they were far from aligned with the ideas of the EDC [3].

The UK had been supportive of the creation of the Western European Union in 1948, which created a defense pact amongst UK, France, and the Benelux countries. However the organization was mostly dormant and mostly coordinated with NATO, with the UK never really openly supporting EU autonomous military capabilities. Things however did seem to change in 1998 when the UK signed the Saint-Malo declaration with France, promoting EU defense coordination and autonomous military forces.

Recently however growing Euro-skepticism, and in 2016 the vote to exit the EU on behalf of the UK, have led to two important developments. First the UK is again distancing itself quite decisively from ideas of more integrated EU military cooperation, speaking against ideas such as the French sponsored EU army proposal – which would be the second biggest army in the world. Secondly the UK will want to participate in some kind of European military cooperation, probably promoting ever more cooperation with NATO [4].

With the exit of the UK the EU could really take another more federalist approach to their military cooperation, even though this can be increasingly hard in the current context. On the one hand with Trump as US President and his controversial statements on NATO collective defense the EU member states should be looking for a concrete solution to their defense problems which could be found in some kind of federalist military cooperation. However the nationalist wave which is spreading across Europe is seeing popularity amongst beliefs of less federalist powers and more sovereignty with nation states. With Brexit the EU could find a way to get past many of its past obstacles to closer military integration, but there could be new problems right when the old one end.


Sources used in this article:

  1. William Wilson, “Love ’em or Hate ’em – Britain’s Rocky Relationship with the EU,” BBC News, last modified April 1, 2014
  2. Robert Skidelsky, “The UK Was Never Truly Part of the European Union,” Financial News – Setting the Agenda for the City, last modified July 17, 2018
  3. Ari Turker, “The European Defence Community,” SAM | Center for Strategic Research, accessed April 11, 2019, http://sam.gov.tr/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/6.-TurkerAri.pdf
  4. Jacopo Barigazzi, “Britain Digs in Against ‘EU Army’,” POLITICO, last modified September 28, 2016
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