15 November 2016

Trump’s victory in the US elections has understandably focussed people’s minds on its potential implications for global trade, US-UK relations and the US’ future commitment to the role of NATO in guaranteeing European security.

Trump victory likely to focus minds on UK contribution to NATO and European security

On the Brexit front, there are many forces at work. On the one hand, Trump’s victory could be helpful for the UK in the sense that the EU may be more concerned about US disengagement from Europe on security and foreign policy matters and therefore turn to the UK for a closer partnership on these issues. On the other, the US election result will certainly fuel the concern of incumbent leaders about the prospect of having their own difficult domestic elections and could therefore prompt a lack of intellectual flexibility with regards to approaching Brexit.

Meanwhile, a US President avowedly committed to helping Brexit Britain succeed economically could also give the UK more options – although how this squares with the President-elect’s more protectionist tendencies remains to be seen. However, Theresa May will also need to delicately balance any moves towards closer UK-US trade relations and their sequencing with the EU negotiations. Some officials in European capitals are convinced that the reason why the EU-Canada trade deal was so politically difficult for some EU states was that it was seen as a ‘Trojan horse’ for the proposed US-EU trade deal (TTIP) and US-style lassez-faire standards and regulations.

Which of these elements comes to the fore could depend hugely on what positive offer the UK can put to other EU member states not only on trade but also on future foreign and security policy cooperation. Given that the UK is the only G20 nation to meet both the NATO commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence and 0.7% of GDP on development aid, it certainly has the tools to do this. But creative thought is required about how the UK might use these assets to give meaning to Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s statement that leaving the EU “does not mean in any sense, leaving Europe.”

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Moves towards ‘two-speed’ EU defence risks fragmenting European and NATO efforts

The importance of the foreign and security dimension of the future UK-EU relationship has also been underlined by recent moves in Brussels. EU foreign affairs and defence ministers yesterday held a joint session on a proposed “implementation plan on security and defence”, presented by EU foreign affairs chief (the High Representative) Federica Mogherini.

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In the wake of Brexit, Germany, France, Italy and Spain have argued in a joint letter that the EU should be able to respond to external crises without relying excessively on the US. Part of the plan to enhance the EU’s abilities under its Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) – which include improving mission planning capabilities and making it easier to deploy joint Battlegroups – is an agreement to explore the potential for a ‘two-speed’ approach to defence cooperation and integration. This would be under so-called ‘Permanent Structured Cooperation’ (PESCO), which enables a core group of EU countries to cooperate more closely on defence and military issues where they can agree amongst themselves. While no firm proposals for a vanguard of EU nations to move forward on defence have yet been agreed, the fact they are being considered is significant.

As a recent bulletin published by the Polish Institute of International Affairs, which has traditionally had close ties to the Polish Foreign Affairs Ministry, notes:

It is very likely that the EU will not agree on comprehensive reform of CSDP anytime soon. A group of Member States may use this as a pretext to establish a European ‘defence core.’ If that happens, a new structure of deepened integration would appear in the EU. Even if it has limited practical results, this structure’s political significance would be high. It would raise questions concerning its links with the UK after Brexit, the compatibility of perceptions of the Russian threat, and, probably more importantly, the effects on NATO and transatlantic links—although the US expects Europe to add more defence capabilities, it is also suspicious of any attempt to remove the primacy of NATO as the pillar of Europe’s security.

Attending yesterday’s Brussels meeting and in remarks that very much reflect the thinking outlined above, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told the media that, “Instead of planning expensive new headquarters or dreaming of a European army, what Europe needs to do now is to spend more on its own defence. That is the best possible approach to the Trump presidency.”

It is clear that many EU states – the more Atlanticist and those on the front line with Russia – would be open to the argument that a positive UK commitment to continue making a contribution to European security, as long as this complements NATO and helps improve operational capabilities, is the best hope of averting a dangerous chasm growing between an EU ‘defence core’ and the US.

Now is the time for the UK to forge a constructive plan with these countries that would enable the EU to step back from potentially going down a rabbit-hole in the pursuit of what is likely to be an illusory show of power in the face of Brexit and Trump, which could do serious long-term damage to the alliances that underpin European security.