Brexit and defence: Time to dust off the ‘letter of intent’?

In the absence of a comprehensive framework for post-Brexit defence cooperation between the UK and EU 27, the forgotten Letter of Intent agreement could provide a useful stop-gap.

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Normally, divorcing couples would do well to preserve some sort of cooperative relationship after the split. Occasionally, they manage to do so. Both Britain and the remaining 27 EU member states will benefit the closer they can stay on foreign and defence policy issues. The cryptically-entitled Letter of Intent (or LoI: a cooperation agreement from the 1990s between Europe’s six main arms-producing nations – France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and the UK) could be a useful vehicle in the area of defence.

Of course, the Leave campaign urged British voters to avoid getting press-ganged into a “European army”. The old lies are often the best ones; and, after all, this fantasy had worked well in getting the Irish to reject the Lisbon Treaty in 2008. But with the Leavers’ central purpose now achieved, facts may again be readmitted to the debate; and the fact is that EU defence cooperation has always been, and will continue to be, something undertaken on an entirely voluntary basis by each member state to the extent it chooses, as a sovereign nation. (Not one of them, of course, wants a European army.) To the extent that Brussels institutions have any role to play, it is ancillary – the Commission to chip in money for defence research, the European Defence Agency to provide analysis, ideas, and secretariat support. The individual member states call the shots.

So no “Leave” principle will be compromised by continuing defence cooperation with European partners after Brexit. And anyone wanting a good account of why sticking with it is profoundly in our British national interest need look no further than David Cameron’s British Museum speech during the campaign (you know, the “Third World War” speech – never mind that he never said that or anything like it; it wasn’t that sort of campaign, was it?).

But what about those continentals? They should be desperate to continue to benefit from the superior military weight and wisdom of the world’s fifth largest economy (ok, now sixth – but GDP can go up as well as down). Some of them may be malicious enough to suggest that even in the European Union we have been more obstructive than constructive in the defence field; others may even assert that Out must mean Out, to discourage other potential defectors. But surely wiser counsels will prevail – mature democracies don’t, after all, go around cutting off their noses to spite their faces…

So whether the politics will actually permit mutually-beneficial defence cooperation to continue remains to be seen. But if common sense and forbearance do reassert themselves, some sort of privileged partnership between the UK and EU looks like a reasonable goal – the sort of thing NATO has with friendly “neutrals” such as Sweden and Finland. The snag is, how could the EU offer that to the UK without also offering it to Norway (no problem), Turkey (big problem), and even Ukraine? How to define it, and to embody it, as would be necessary, in treaty change? And what priority to give such matters as against, for example, untangling the economic and migration aspects of separation? My own guess is that we will get there – to a privileged defence and foreign policy partnership – but not for many years.

In the meanwhile, dusting off the LoI (Letter of Intent: Restructuring the European Defence Industry) might help. “The Letter of Intent (LoI) Framework Agreement (FA) Treaty was signed on 27 July 2000 by the defence ministers of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden and the UK. It aimed to create the political and legal framework necessary to facilitate industrial restructuring in order to promote a more competitive and robust European Defence Technological and Industrial Base (EDTIB) in the global defence market.”

It all sounds a bit technical – as does the part of the group’s remit which talks about “the harmonisation of military requirements”. In fact, what it reflected was an ambition to bring about a major convergence of both the demand and supply sides of the defence business in Europe – closer cooperation, in practice, on all aspects of defence apart from actual operations.

As this British government guidance document goes on to explain, the creation of the European Defence Agency (EDA) effectively overtook the LoI forum. (As the founding Chief Executive of the EDA, I was naturally keen that that should happen: both because the club of six, lacking a permanent secretariat or ministerial oversight, was ineffective; and because the EDA concept was of a big tent. The idea was that small-group collaborations could be incubated and supported, but all should be aware of what was going on, and able to propose themselves to join specific projects if they had something to bring to the party.) But the agreement remains in place, and therefore is available as a legal frame for continued cooperation until some wider relationship between Britain and the EU on defence and security issues is sorted out.

If the present chief executive of the EDA were to read this far, he might well tear his hair out. What would this mean other than evisceration of the Agency, with the five other biggest European defence players in effect following Britain out of proper European defence cooperation? Of course, that would be intolerable – but could I think be avoided by agreeing a new set of ground-rules for how the Agency and the LoI group work together. The other five should continue as leading Agency participants, meeting qua LoI only when there was virtue in involving the Brits. And the LoI group should use the Agency as their secretariat, so that their activity is fully visible to other agency members – and is periodically reported to the Agency’s ministerial steering board (which might invite the British defence minister to sit in on such occasions).

There may be insuperable legal objections to this wheeze. But I float it because I am pretty confident that a mutually-beneficial EDA/LoI deal would be a lot easier and a lot quicker to strike than defining Britain’s entire post-Brexit relationship to the EU in defence matters.

Provided, that is, that at least a degree of sincere readiness to cooperate survives the divorce. I would remind our soon-to-be-erstwhile European partners that young British people are not to blame for the referendum outcome – they voted overwhelmingly to Remain. In the defence area as in others, let us salvage what we can from the split – if only “for the sake of the children”.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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