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The European security order is changing: how does the UK fit in?

Gesine Weber / Jun 2022

Photo:Shutterstock

 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine constitutes, in the word of EU leaders, a “tectonic shift in European history” — and so does it for the European security order. Over the last few months, Sweden and Finland have applied for NATO membership; this decision was out of sight over years because of the neutral posture of both countries between NATO and Russia, and low public support for NATO membership. In addition, a referendum in Denmark has given green light for the country to join the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy, in which Denmark has not participated since it negotiated a so-called opt-out almost thirty years ago.

These evolutions have direct implications for the institutional landscape organising European security. Once Sweden and Finland have become NATO members, only four out of the 27 EU member states will not also be NATO members, namely Austria, Cyprus, Ireland, and Malta. Likewise, the CSDP has gained coherence with Denmark seeking to join it. Thanks to this almost full overlap of membership of European states within NATO and the EU, the institutional landscape of European security looks much more coherent now than just half a year ago.

Shifts with a major impact on institutions

These new developments have wide-ranging implications for the cooperation of the two institutions. Most importantly, they can lead to a much-needed clarification regarding the division of labour between NATO and the EU. The main reason for Sweden and Finland joining NATO is, to put it bluntly, that they seek life insurance against Russia — a guarantee that only NATO, thanks to US capabilities, can provide. While the EU itself also has a so-called solidarity clause, it leaves much room for interpretation, and EU capabilities do simply not provide the same dissuasive effect as US capabilities. NATO hence navigates back to its core tasks, namely collective defence, crisis management, and cooperative security. At the same time, the EU’s Strategic Compass, adopted in March 2022, shows that the bloc is equally levelling up in security in defence, for instance through the creation of a Rapid Deployment Force, significant investments in defence, and new approaches to hybrid threats and crisis management. While an EU-NATO declaration is yet to be presented, one could perfectly imagine a model where NATO remains the key institution for territorial defence and deterrence, whereas the EU evolves as a regional security provider. Furthermore, joint capability development under the umbrella of the EU would in fact increase defence budgets across members, and thereby also bring them closer to the objective agreed upon by NATO members, namely defence spending of at least two percent of the GDP.

Fitting the UK into the picture

From a European perspective, this solution seems salient, given that the closer cooperation among Europeans would most likely strengthen the European pillar in NATO, and thereby fulfil the US’ demands that Europeans must do more in the alliance. Nevertheless, such a neat division of labour among the EU and NATO would constitute a key challenge for the UK. In the Integrated Review, its strategic guiding document published in 2021, the UK formulates the aspiration to be “the leading European Ally in NATO”. Undoubtedly, the UK has, thanks to its commitment to the alliance and its military capacities, fulfilled this role over years. The changing institutional setup, and particularly a stronger role of the EU, in the context of post-Brexit Europe might however render this more complicated: there is currently neither an agreement on EU-UK cooperation on security and defence matters nor the appetite to do so. While cooperation behind the scenes, particularly on the bilateral level or small groupings, has continued and been reinforced over the last months, a formalisation of this cooperation, for example on joint capability development, seems more than unlikely.

The UK hence faces a dilemma in terms of security and defence policy: either taking a U-turn in terms of its approach to post-Brexit Europe, or taking the risk that “Global Britain”, as the UK formulated its position in the Integrated Review, turns into “Britain isolated” in the European security order. None of them is desirable for London, but the recent cohesion among EU member states and the strong involvement of EU institutions in the process following the EU’s Strategic Compass shows that the EU might be serious about maintaining the momentum of security and defence cooperation. To avoid isolation, a promising option for the UK could be providing leadership or seeking an active role in European informal groupings, such as the Joint Expeditionary Force, or joining the EU’s military mobility projects, like Norway, Canada, and the US have. Lastly, re-prioritising bilateral relationships with EU member states, particularly France, as both countries have similar approaches to and priorities for international security, seems crucial for ensuring the UK’s long-term integration in European security. The reason for this integration is obvious: you cannot change geography, and the tectonic shifts in European security have showcased how much it matters.

 

Gesine Weber

Gesine Weber

June 2022

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