26 Jul 2016

The Implications of Brexit for the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy

Giovanni Faleg


The UK’s withdrawal from the EU is a defining moment for the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), since the country was a prime mover and is one of the main shareholders in this policy area. That said, Brexit is likely to have more impact on the politics and governance of the CSDP than on its actual operations and cooperation on armaments. For this reason, and to secure the best outcome from withdrawal negotiations, EU member states should agree on a dual-track political process to i) provide the CSDP with a new governance model, namely through the emergence of a new ‘core’ and ii) devise a partnership framework to keep the UK involved in future CSDP activities as a third party. 

The UK’s longstanding frustration with the CSDP

The CSDP was launched following the Saint-Malo Declaration signed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacque Chirac, in December 1998. Due to the size of its armed forces, defence industry and experience in high-intensity warfare, the UK has without doubt played a leading political role in setting up the CSDP. While maintaining a clear opposition to certain “red lines”, namely the non-duplication of NATO’s operational planning and command structures,[1] the UK has invested considerable political capital and resources in the development of an autonomous EU military capability, notably by actively supporting the creation of the European Defence Agency in 2004. The British contribution to CSDP operations was particularly significant during early EU military deployments, such as in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (Operation Concordia); Bosnia and Herzegovina (EUFOR Althea); and later, during the EU’s counter-piracy and maritime operations off the Horn of Africa (EUNAVFOR Atalanta), for which the UK still provides the Operational HQ at Northwood.

Nevertheless, the UK had started to walk away from the CSDP and cut back its contribution to EU deployments long before the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. It now ranks only fifth among the contributors to CSDP military operations, after France, Italy, Germany and Spain, and seventh for civilian missions, after Germany, Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, France and Finland. In total, the UK deploys 4.19% of the total personnel provided by EU member states.[2] Among the factors that caused a change of attitude on the part of the UK were the fall of the ‘New Labour’ government and the formation of David Cameron’s coalition cabinet in 2010, coupled with growing frustration about the impact of small-scale CSDP operations on the ground. These factors led to a gradual UK withdrawal from the CSDP (with the exception of operations off the Horn of Africa), to a determined return to NATO and to bilateral partnerships, namely the 2010 Lancaster House Treaties with France, which were reaffirmed in November 2015. As a result, the UK never fully committed to its 1998 Saint-Malo pledge; for instance, it withheld the necessary budget to allow the European Defence Agency to operate, and opposed moves towards military integration through Permanent Structured Cooperation. For these reasons, the UK has in fact been the ‘elephant in the room’ of the CSDP. The way in which that ‘elephant’ will actually leave the room following the invocation of Article 50 TEU will be far from straightforward and entail a different set of implications for the CSDP.

What Brexit means for the CSDP

First and foremost, Brexit means that the CSDP will lose one of its majority shareholders, and a veto player. The UK and France alone make up more than 40% of public defence investments in the EU. The UK's military expenditure amounts to 2% of GDP, making it one of the five EU member states spending 2% or more on public defence, after Greece (2.6%), Poland (2.2%), France (2.1%), and equal to Estonia (2%).[3] Because the CSDP was born out of a Franco-British initiative, the first implication of Brexit will be a political one, as it entails a reconsideration of the CSDP’s governance model – more specifically, of the core of EU member states driving this policy area forward. A number of states (Germany, Italy, Finland, and Sweden) have contributed to the CSDP to varying degrees. The question is: What could replace the Franco-British engine at the core of EU security and defence integration? A new Franco-German engine would appear to be the safest bet, and a more proactive German leadership in foreign and security matters has been championed by several policy and decision-makers in Berlin. Germany is evolving from being a civilian power to take on greater responsibilities in international security, including participation in military operations, as set out in the new White Paper on German Security Policy released on 13 July 2016.[4] This paradigm shift could benefit from burden and risk sharing with EU partners, especially considering limitations and domestic opposition to the use of force. For these reasons, Germany is gradually moving from reticence to engagement in CSDP integration. While other ‘cores’ are possible – including, for instance, Italy, the other big player in European defence – only a close cooperation between France and Germany would provide sufficient political weight to lead integrative steps. In the absence of British vetoes, the CSDP’s governance dynamics may actually work more smoothly. There is also likely to be less opposition to the establishment of permanent structured cooperation, or to the setting-up of EU military headquarters.

The operational implications of Brexit should also be eased by the fact that the UK’s contribution to CSDP has been rather limited in terms of personnel, and in future British armed forces and civilian personnel could still be included in selected CSDP operations as a third party contribution. Furthermore, the EU has traditionally avoided engagement in expeditionary and high-intensity warfare, in which UK capabilities and know-how might have been decisive. If such operations are to take place in the future, past practices (such as Operation Serval and Operation Barkhane in Mali) suggest that France may take a leading role in generating forces with other willing and able countries.

Finally, there could be major consequences for the creation of an EU defence market. Unless satisfactory solutions are found to keep the UK as a player in the industrial policy of the single market, a key national defence industry would be out of the game. This may complicate the defence integration process, because considerable effort would be put into negotiating some form of association agreement to keep the UK’s industrial defence base as closely linked as possible to the continent. That said, the 27 may decide to strengthen their cooperation in order to consolidate a continental defence market, which would probably prompt UK decision-makers to opt in to prevent a loss of competitiveness and to avoid barriers to transfers and procurement.

The future relationship between Britain and the CSDP: a dual-track process

Against this backdrop, a successful Brexit negotiation calls for a dual-track political process to ‘keep the EU up and the UK in’. This process involves i) the revision of the CSDP’s governance model and ii) a new partnership between the CSDP and the UK as a third party.

Track 1:

Regarding the new EU governance arrangement, deeper EU defence integration is needed now more than ever to prevent further fragmentation and ensure the best deal in the Brexit negotiations. Progress can be made in those areas considered as ’no-go’ by the UK, such as the creation of autonomous EU military headquarters. The 27 EU member states should step up their cooperation and lay the foundations of a European Defence Union (EDU)[5] to develop better and more coherent defence structures and capabilities. For this to happen, a new core of member states willing and able to push integration forward should emerge and assume the leadership in structuring cooperation. Taking advantage of the momentum generated by the new European Global Strategy, and as suggested by a 2016 European Parliament report,[6] a White Paper on European Defence should help to build the case for a credible European Defence Union and operationalise processes, frameworks and institutional reforms by setting incentives for EU member states to cooperate.

Track 2:

A stable United Kingdom is a fundamental part of Europe’s security architecture, even if it leaves the EU. Whatever the legal agreement, the UK should be able to contribute to CSDP operations or access the defence market across the Channel as a third party, even if it does not participate in decision-making in Brussels. An economically weak or politically fragmented UK would be a major security concern for both the European Union and the United States. Brexit should be seen as an opportunity to improve the Framework Participation Agreement (FPA) between the EU and key external contributors to the CSDP’s missions and operations, which is a means to bolster the legitimacy of the EU’s international security role. The same logic should apply to the defence industry, for instance by revamping the ‘Letter of Intent (LoI) Framework Agreement (FA) Treaty’ signed on 27 July 2000 by the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden, to set ground rules for this group to act as a cooperative forum in close coordination with the European Defence Agency.[7] Privileged forms of cooperation with the UK should therefore be on the negotiating table.

Giovanni Faleg is Associate Researcher at CEPS and Consultant to the World Bank Group.


[1] In line with the ‘three ds’, the other two being: no discrimination against non-EU NATO members and no decoupling of European and North American security.

[2] “Working in European Union Common Security and Defence Missions” (2014), UK Government, Stabilisation Unit, Deployee Guide, October 2014, p. 15; G. Faleg (2013) “United Kingdom: The Elephant in the Room”, in F. Santopinto and M. Price (eds) National Visions of EU Defence Policy: Common Denominators and Misunderstandings, COST-CEPS-GRIP, Brussels, p. 132.

[3] SIPRI Military Expenditure Database, 2015: (https://www.sipri.org/databases/milex)

[4] The English version of the White Paper can be downloaded from the website of Germany’s Federal Ministry of Defence: (https://www.bmvg.de/portal/a/bmvg/en/ ).

[5]  “More Union in European Defence (2015) Report of a CEPS Task Force chaired by Javier Solana: (https://www.ceps.eu/system/files/TFonEuropeanDefence.pdf)

[6] “On the way towards a European Defence Union – A White Book as a first step (2016) European Parliament, DG for External Policies, Committee on Foreign Affairs and Sub-Committee on Security and Defence, April (http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2016/535011/EXPO_STU(2016)535011_EN.pdf) 

[7] As suggested by Nick Witney in a recent ECFR Commentary. See N. Witney (2016) “Brexit and defence: Time to dust off the ’letter of intent’?” ECFR Commentary, July 14  (http://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_brexit_and_defence_time_to_dust_off_the_letter_of_intent7075).

CEPS Commentaries offer concise, policy-oriented insights into topical issues in European affairs. The views expressed are attributable only to the author in a personal capacity and not to any institution with which he is associated.

Available for free downloading from the CEPS website (www.ceps.eu)

© CEPS 2016