For European security Great Britain is needed

The question is clear: would it be possible, to keep, despite the British divorce from the EU, a close EU-Great Britain relationship in the field of security and defense? I believe the answer is equally simple: a closer cooperation is needed, due to London’s military, technological, industrial and intelligence capacities

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For European security Great Britain is needed

Marta Dassù, Senior Director European Affairs, The Aspen Institute; Editor-in-Chief, Aspenia; ECFR Council Member

The question is clear: would it be possible, to keep, despite the British divorce from the EU, a close EU-Great Britain relationship in the field of security and defense? I believe the answer is equally simple: a closer cooperation is needed, due to London’s military, technological, industrial and intelligence capacities.

Should the EU not be constantly tempted to shoot itself in the foot, it would tell it out loud: without Great Britain, the EU security and defense mechanisms seem undoubtedly weaker. Speaking today at the Munich Conference on defense, an already exhausted Theresa May, after the first phase of negotiations with the EU (about terms and costs of the exit), will try to suggest to European colleagues that a special partnership on security and defense is necessary, as both the EU and Great Britain highly need it.

This premise does not necessitate further explanations: about 25-30% of EU military capacities depends on Great Britain, which, with France, is the only European nuclear power of the Old Continent; and the only one government, still with Paris, to allocate a relevant percentage of its own military expenditure to Research and Development activities.

Brexit is causing serious problems to both British economy and defense; however, the United Kingdom is one of the two truly European military powers and an essential component of its technological and industrial base. In addition, Great Britain, in an era in which it is no longer possible to separate internal and external defense, ranks in the top three countries providing intelligence information to Europol, and making use of it.

The latter aspect also helps explaining the inverse equation: London itself recognizes that drawing a clear line between its own fate and the Old Continent’s one is not an easy task. Yet, the simple part ends here. Drawbacks are just around the corner. Until now, the EU has rightly decided, I believe, to refrain from concluding any “special” deals with London. This because granting London preferential terms, especially in relation to its entry in the single market, would have generated a “contagion” effect, encouraging other countries to move along the same logic.

However, trade and security are not exactly the same thing: as a new Report by the European Council on Foreign Relations underlines, if trade agreements are trans-active, security has an existential dimension. Due to the important role played by London in the field of EU security and the political and historical relationship between Great Britain and Europe, a “unique” strategic partnership – deeper than those established between the EU and Third Countries – is, in this case, legitimate and justifiable. Still, we must be cautious. Adopting such an approach requires mutual trust: London must avoid the (instrumental) temptation to use security as a card to play to achieve other objectives, during the negotiation process; the European Union should avoid  any (punitive) reactions towards a country which has always slowed down the common European defense mechanism.

Decisions are very delicate to take: how to include London in foreign policy and security decisions without letting Great Britain to interfere with  EU autonomy; London’s attitude of London towards the European Defense Agency; the relationship with PESCO (the permanent structured cooperation, paradoxically too broad to be credible); the role of Great Britain in European military missions. And Europol, in which the exchange of information in the field of intelligence – vital for European security – requires an agreement on the role of the EU Court of Justice.

Finally, the access of British firms to the new Fund for Defence, oriented towards a “European preference”. It won’t be easy; but the stakes are too high to not to sign pragmatic and innovative agreements. For Italy, which is in the middle of its electoral campaign, the echo of Munich’s Conference on security seems quite far away

It concerns us closely indeed. If the agreement between the EU and Great Britain won’t become concrete, the already strong tendency towards bilateral agreements between Paris and London will increase. Germany, which is shaking off the reluctance towards military power, will try to recover ground, partly with Macron’s help. On the background, there has been an increase in European military spending (+3,6% in 2017) and consequently of the risks for our security, both on the Eastern and the Mediterranean front.

While NATO, given up on with Trump who has instead confirmed the American military commitments in Europe – exists and resists; although asking for additional efforts to the Old Continent. The European common defence will make sense only if it will make better use of the Old Continent’s military and industrial resources, by integrating them. It is clear that the world around us is moving quickly, too much to get distracted.

The one country that has an interest in an agreement on security between the EU and Great Britain as a limit to bilateral arrangements, that usually penalize us, and as an essential component of a well-functioning European security, is Italy.

The Italian version of this article was firstly published on La Stampa on 17th February 2018