One of the myriad reasons for the United Kingdom deciding to leave the European Union was concern over its democracy and transparency in decision-making.
LONDON: When the UK joined the European Union’s predecessor in 1973, it did so primarily for trade purposes. The UK wanted to be part of this rapidly growing market on its doorstep and saw close economic cooperation with its neighbours as the future. But, from the early days there were signs that the other nations had greater ambitions for the group, which eventually set up its own court system, parliament and currency. Of course, the UK became increasingly uneasy with this direction and will now be leaving the European Union in March, following the result of a referendum in 2016.
Over the past decade, there were increasing reports in the UK media that the EU was planning to create its own military forces. These were rapidly dismissed by political leaders, including the UK’s deputy prime minister, who called it “a dangerous fantasy”, whilst others suggested the stories were being created by Eurosceptics wishing to scare the public. During the 2016 EU referendum campaign, the Remain side again dismissed such stories as “nothing more than fantasy”. At the same time, the EU was slowly and incrementally passing different pieces of legislation, enabling at first “increased defence cooperation”, then collaborative research, rapid reaction forces and joint procurement.
Then, in September this year, the true ambition was brought out into the open when the French President, Emmanuel Macron, called for an EU defence force by 2020 that would give the bloc “autonomous capacity for action”. This was backed up by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, calling shortly after for “a real, true European army”.
These plans were met with a cold shoulder in London, being branded as “crazy and dangerous” by UK Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson: “You can absolutely rest assured that Britain will never become part of a European army on my watch.” The previous Defence Secretary had also said for three years “We’re going to continue to oppose any idea of an EU army, or an EU army headquarters”. So, why such hostility from the British towards an organisation that would seek to provide common defence of the European continent?
Quite simply, because one already exists and its name is NATO. Set up in the aftermath of World War II, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has primarily functioned as a counterbalance to the Warsaw Pact and military might of the Soviet Union for much of the past 70 years. Its 29 member countries are asked to spend 2% of their GDPs on their defence. The key thing to understand about NATO is that it is an alliance—that is to say, each country maintains its own armed forces, under the command of their respective governments, with their own priorities. Those armed forces exercise together, building up understanding of each other’s working practices and systems, so that in the event of one of the member states being attacked, the others know how they would work together to respond.
The UK has always been very comfortable with this setup. It means that British troops, who usually operate under the command of senior UK military officers, can operate jointly alongside troops from other NATO countries, under the command of a mutually-agreed senior military leader from one of those countries, but only after a unanimous vote in favour of a military operation by the NATO Council. This is a well-understood and well-tested system, which gives enhanced protection to countries with relatively small geographies and populations, like the UK.
Contrast this with the EU’s plan for its own defence force, which would consist of personnel from each member state, serving in a centralised force, under the command of the European Commission. One of the myriad reasons for the UK deciding to leave the European Union was concern over its democracy and transparency in decision-making. There has always existed significant concern that under an EU army, British troops could end up being deployed on operations with which the UK government did not agree. Whilst the UK currently has a vote and a say in the EU decision-making process, history has shown us that the UK has rarely, if ever, been able to veto a decision when other key member states are committed to making it happen.
As the EU now ploughs on with its plans to stand up a fully-fledged EU army, there is significant concern in both London and Washington over how this force may ultimately undermine NATO’s effectiveness. Serious questions arise over what would happen if Russia were to take military action against one of the small, former-Soviet countries on its western border—members of both NATO and the EU. Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania have watched Russia’s invasions of Ukraine, Crimea and Georgia in recent years with great trepidation, but take comfort from the knowledge that under the NATO umbrella, they have the protection of countries like the UK and US.
The creation of an EU army introduces the likelihood of funds and capabilities being diverted from NATO, in addition to confused or even competing chains of command. The most telling response to these plans has come from Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, calling the idea of an EU army “a positive development”. Putin is of course a master of destabilisation and sees this project as an easy way to undermine the common defence strategy of NATO, which has proven such an interminable challenge to his European ambitions.
In a tumultuous world, with a Russian government happy to subvert and deconstruct the international rules-based order, a stable and democratic approach to common defence is needed more than ever. That’s why the UK will continue, now from outside the EU, to oppose the bloc’s plans for its own military and continue its commitment to the existing and well-functioning alliance that is NATO.
Lewis Feilder, @lewisfeilder, is a candidate for the UK Conservative Party and works as a defence and national security consultant in London. He studied in the United States and has worked on defence strategy, procurement and efficiency programmes across the United Kingdom.