As the US Secretary for Defence Mark Esper met with his opposite number here in London, Ben Wallace, last week on the steps of Horse Guards, the two nations reflected upon the central role each has played in the continued defence of Europe over the past century.
This opinion piece was submitted to us by Rob Clark (@RobertClark87), a Postgrad Researcher and British Army veteran and is not necessarily the opinion of the UK Defence Journal. Our aim is to promote discussion in defence and we do this by presenting opinions.
This year marks two significant anniversaries which serve to highlight this contribution which the US and the UK make; the 75th Anniversary of Operation Overlord, the allied invasion and subsequent liberation of occupied Europe; and the 70th Anniversary of the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), which has maintained peace and prosperity on the continent ever since.
Britain’s place at the forefront of NATO has been the cornerstone of the country’s defence interests for the last 70 years, directing international defence engagement and cooperation with allies; none more important than with the US. The strategic partnership which Britain shares with the US cannot be overstated, and must be sustained going forward as the UK is set to leave the EU.
However, whilst Parliament and the government continue to tussle over setting the timeline for this to happen, in addition to a ‘no-deal’ scenario now seeming remote, it is worth noting that the current withdrawal agreement, as it is set by the previous government, contains numerous provisions which are highly detrimental to UK defence and security interests.
Under Clause 104 of the Political Declaration of Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, under Article 184, Britain is locked into various EU structures created in order to establish control of Europe’s defence by the EU Commission – these include the European Defence Fund (EDF), the European Defence Agency (EDA) and the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) mechanism.
That the UK financed the PESCO initiative known as Galileo, the satellite navigation system, by approximately 15% (irrecoverable costs, as stated by Brussels), highlights how in fact the reality of Clause 104 is to serve the needs of Brussels, not London, in a one-sided defence relationship.
As it turns out, incidentally, the Galileo system has seen repeated set-backs, and is now relying upon the US’ GPS system; which ironically Galileo was designed to avoid such a dependence upon. Instead, the UK is turning to a potential alliance with its ‘Five Eyes’ partners; a foreign policy decision which increasingly sets the tone for the UK’s Global Britain approach post-Brexit.
In addition to PESCO, a parochial system which will bind UK defence to Brussels even after leaving the EU, the EDF further detriments the UK’s ability to hold sovereign power over its own defence and security policies.
The EDF is the central pillar of the EU’s structures for defence. With a budget of 13 billion euros, it works by leveraging nations’ resources through policy compliance – members having to agree to abide by the EU’s rules – in addition to making grants to encourage sovereign nations to make changes to their defence budgets which further align them to the EU Commission.
This is evidenced by the degree of control which the Commission has superseding sovereign member states; the Coordination Board, in charge of setting both defence research and defence industrial development programmes, is appointed by the EU, which in turn appoints independent experts not published by Brussels.
This lack of transparency and accountability in the EDF is far-reaching. In April this year, MEPs voted with over a 100 majority to relinquish European Parliamentary oversight to the Commission for control of the EDF’s budget. Reinhard Bütikofer MEP, defence spokesperson and shadow rapporteur for the Greens/EFA group stated that “It is scandalous that the European Parliament has refused to supervise this expenditure”.
With PESCO initiatives seeking to serve only the EU and not the UK going forwards, and the EDF being wholly unaccountable to sovereign European member states, potentially duplicating defence projects and threatening NATO objectives, the UK is bound to these projects through EU law, as worded in Clause 104 of the Political Declaration. Stating that “the parties agree to enable to the extent possible under the conditions of Union law”. Thereby, EU law supersedes UK sovereignty in being able to determine its own defence and security policies.
This situation is entirely unacceptable, and is a product of the disastrous previous government under Theresa May and her negotiating team. Having failed to play the UK’s strengths in defence early on in the negotiating process, the previous government allowed London to become subservient to Brussels.
Fortunately for the UK, this situation is beginning to be reversed. Despite the lateness of the hour, last week Boris Johnson’s EU envoy David Frost met in Brussels with Commission negotiators, seeking a looser level of defence cooperation than is currently on offer under the withdrawal agreement.
Although this firmer position is on the right tracks, it still lacks a robust message, which those in Brussels have failed to properly grasp. Whilst the government are now insisting, finally, that “any future deal must contain structures that will maintain British sovereign control over how its defence assets are used”, some in Europe are mistaking this for a form of leverage to be used in the wider negotiating process.
Philippe Lamberts MEP who sits on the European Parliament’s Brexit steering group, said Johnson was “mistaken if he believed the UK could use its military strength to blackmail the EU”. The issue is not one of using the UK’s defence capabilities, Europe’s most powerful, as a bargaining chip in negotiations – the time for that has been and gone – the issue is making it plain for Brussels that the current defence structures in place, specifically Clause 104 of the Political Declaration, undermine UK sovereignty and are deeply detrimental to British national interests. There is no bargaining or leverage on this issue.
Going forwards, the Prime Minister and his EU envoy David Frost must make this message plainly and clearly to those in Brussels who still see UK defence as entwined with the unaccountable and bureaucratic EU defence infrastructure, and be left in no doubt whatsoever that it is NATO and the strategic partnership with the US which the UK should continue to champion, not the defence policies of an unelectable trading bloc of which the UK is soon-to-be no longer a member of.