Brexit and the Future of U.S.–U.K. Military Cooperation

Original Article

If the British vote down the Brexit referendum later next week and choose to remain in the European Union, the results will be unfortunate for the United States in many ways. Britain’s continuing membership in the EU threatens not only America’s economic interests, but also its strategic and military interests. If the architects of the European Union realize their ambitions, it will be impossible for the United States and the United Kingdom to maintain a significant bilateral military and strategic partnership for a simple reason: The United Kingdom will increasingly cease to function as a sovereign state capable of determining its own foreign and defense policy. Instead, it will have to subordinate its own interests to the dictates of a common European foreign and defense policy issuing from Brussels.

The legal (and illegal) precedent for such a shift has been accreting by degrees for some time. After the Single European Act in 1986 and the Maastricht Treaty on European Union in 1992, the nature of the “European project,” originally just an economic partnership, began to change. Subsequent treaties — Amsterdam (1999), Nice (2001), and Lisbon (2009) — moved the project more obviously and explicitly toward full political integration. Integral to this objective has been the establishment of a Common Foreign and Security Policy, operating separately from NATO and beyond the control of Europe’s individual nation-states.

The Amsterdam treaty, signed by all European Union member states, included articles envisioning a continent-wide foreign policy. It also established for the first time an EU foreign minister. The failed European Constitution of 2004 included provisions under which the individual members’ defense and foreign policies — the last remaining areas of national sovereignty allowed by previous EU treaties — would have been completely eliminated. The constitution expanded the role of the European foreign minister, giving the occupant of that office the power to set a continent-wide foreign policy. It would have legitimated and expanded the European Defence Agency, which had already begun to operate under a centralized command structure apart from NATO. Thus it jettisoned the last vestiges of intergovernmental cooperation and “shared sovereignty” in favor of a fully sovereign European super-state.

Though French and Dutch voters rejected the constitution in the summer of 2005, the unelected architects of “ever closer union” have used other means to implement its key provisions. In particular, almost the whole of the defeated European Constitution was enacted in the Lisbon treaty in 2009 after the EU Council of Ministers agreed to the treaty without consulting their voters. Indeed, over 90 percent of the wording in the treaty is the same as that in the failed constitution. The only changes made were cosmetic, notably omitting the references to the EU flag and anthem because these were already part of established EU law. Even before the Lisbon treaty, the European Commission and the Council of Ministers had begun using the “spirit” of those earlier treaties to establish covertly and piecemeal much of what they could not get Dutch and French voters to approve.

For example, lacking any effective political opposition to their plans, the European Commission and Council established the Charter of Fundamental Rights — a massive, 54-article manifesto of progressive social policy to be administered by the European Court of Justice. The charter had no legal basis in any existing treaty. Yet once it was approved as part of the Lisbon treaty, only the United Kingdom and Poland were able to negotiate exemptions that have prevented — for the time being — the European Court of Justice from using the charter to supersede British and Polish law.

In a similar way, after the signing of the Amsterdam treaty in 1997, European leaders began working to create a common European defense policy separate from NATO. At a meeting in 1998 at St.-Malo, France, U.K. prime minister Tony Blair agreed with French prime minister Jacques Chirac to contribute to an emerging “European Defence Identity.” At a meeting in Helsinki in 1999, the European Council agreed to set up a European Rapid Reaction Force, a 60,000-strong European army with its own central command structure. In 2005, the European Council set up a European Defence Agency, again operating independently from NATO, to oversee the procurement of military hardware and the harmonization of military technology, including battlefield management and intelligence systems.

The Lisbon treaty of 2009 then established a permanent president of the European Council and diplomatic embassies representing the EU in countries around the world. It also expanded the role of the European foreign minister to advance precisely the kind of integrated EU foreign and defense policy that the rejected constitution had proposed. As part of that Common Foreign and Security Policy, Britain and France are now bound to follow a common position agreed upon with their EU partners in all votes on the UN Security Council. The Lisbon treaty also gave the new EU foreign minister, Federina Mogherini, the rather grand title of High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and explicitly authorized the High Representative to coordinate a “common foreign and security policy.” Thus, what actual voters rejected as part of the proposed constitution has been gradually adopted as official EU foreign and defense policy, either de facto or de jure, in the latter case as the result of intergovernmental treaty.

Such a common EU foreign and defense policy clearly complicates the functioning of NATO and any future U.S.–U.K. joint military operations. For this reason, it also clearly damages U.S. national interests.

Since 1917, even before the special relationship was formalized, the United States and Britain have collaborated to prevail in two world wars, two Gulf wars, and the Cold War. During the 1980s, the mutual support provided by this alliance proved essential to the success of unilateral British and American military actions against Argentina and Libya, both of which actions were opposed by other European allies. During the 1980s, the decisive decade of the Cold War, the removal of Soviet SS-20 missiles from Europe and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan occurred as a result of Anglo-American initiatives that were either resisted or ignored on the continent. And since 9/11, Britain has stood beside the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan as its most trusted and reliable ally in the war on terror.

Clearly, these joint military efforts have been based upon an alignment of strategic interests and a similar political and legal culture, worldview, and values. But they have also required effective intelligence sharing and close practical battlefield cooperation, made possible by the harmonization of military hardware and technology — a harmonization that the architects of the EU’s common defense policy now want to require of all European member states — to the exclusion of the United States and other NATO allies.

The need for harmonized battlefield intelligence and weapons systems is now progressing on two mutually exclusive tracks that are already forcing the British to choose. Within two years of Blair’s agreement with Chirac at St.-Malo, the British had to withdraw from two key U.S.–U.K. joint defense projects, the Future Scout and Cavalry System (FSCS) and the Tactical Reconnaissance Armoured Combat Requirement (TRACER). Instead, the British Ministry of Defence began planning its Future Rapid Effects System (FRES), then considered a new generation of European-made, satellite-coordinated vehicles and battlefield weapons, as part of its contribution to what was then called the European Rapid Reaction Force (ERRF). These weapons systems were specifically designed to function independently of U.S. satellite systems, such as GPS, and to rely instead on EU Galileo satellites for global positioning. The Future Rapid Effects System was later quietly abandoned as grossly expensive and technically unworkable. Nevertheless, as other, similar EU technological conversions proceed, they will likely restrict future U.S.–U.K. battlefield coordination, because the incompatibility of electronic systems could well threaten such cooperation. Indeed, competing satellite systems alone could cause problems, since unless the two systems are effectively coordinated they could identify each other’s units as potential enemies.

Since 2005 the EU has repeatedly failed to meet the military goals it set for itself. But there is another aspect of this. The Helsinki agreement that established a European Rapid Reaction Force clearly complicated the functioning of the NATO alliance. Indeed, how this force was to have interacted with NATO forces was not elucidated in any detail. Nor was it determined when, where, and under what circumstances this force would have been deployed. Presumably it would have responded only to the directives of the EU foreign minister, since it was envisioned as a significant fighting force operating independently of the command structure of NATO and any individual European national government. In theory, at least, it could have been deployed to fight against any of the European nation states, and, therefore, against the entire NATO alliance.

Mercifully, perhaps, since 2005 the EU has repeatedly failed to meet the goals it set for itself in the development of this force, largely because member states have failed to meet their required contributions of men, money, and materiel. Consequently, a more modest concept has been advanced in which the EU would oversee a number of smaller “battlegroups” of 2,000 men. For now, EU defense officials envision deploying these groups only for short-term humanitarian missions — ones that would not conflict with potential NATO missions. Even so, these battlegroups, with their lesser military capability, still detract from the function and effectiveness of NATO because they drain resources from NATO at a time when only Britain among our European allies is spending 2 percent of GDP on defense, as required by membership in NATO. Moreover, as a consequence of the Helsinki agreement, the UK committed to building two large technologically inferior diesel-powered (rather than nuclear-powered) aircraft carriers as part of their agreed contribution to this European force. Unfortunately, the Spanish and the Italians have failed to meet their obligations to supply the other escort ships and anti-submarine weaponry necessary to protect these carriers and to make them operational, thus rendering militarily worthless an enormous British investment in an EU rapid reaction naval force.

In any case, EU leaders now assume that the Lisbon treaty (and its provision for a Common Foreign and Security Policy) has established a legal basis for the creation of a European Union army. The push for “ever greater union” will thus inevitably entail a push for greater, and more tightly integrated, European Union military capability and foreign policy. Consequently, Britain’s full participation in the EU will inevitably restrict its ability to participate in bilateral military actions of which the EU disapproves. Yet the most important and beneficial military actions of the last century have involved precisely Anglo–American cooperation, either against continental foes or over the objections of European allies. For this reason, all who care about the special relationship and its role in maintaining freedom should hope for a yes vote on Brexit.

Stephen C. Meyer

Director, Center for Science and Culture
Dr. Stephen C. Meyer received his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in the philosophy of science. A former geophysicist and college professor, he now directs the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle. He is author of the New York Times-bestseller Darwin’s Doubt (2013) as well as the book Signature in the Cell (2009) and Return of the God Hypothesis (2021). In 2004, Meyer ignited a firestorm of media and scientific controversy when a biology journal at the Smithsonian Institution published his peer-reviewed scientific article advancing intelligent design. Meyer has been featured on national television and radio programs, including The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, CBS's Sunday Morning, NBC's Nightly News, ABC's World News, Good Morning America, Nightline, FOX News Live, and the Tavis Smiley show on PBS. He has also been featured in two New York Times front-page stories and has garnered attention in other top-national media.