Brexit: What now for Europe?

  • By defencematters

What might be the nature of the UK – EU relationship in a post-Brexit context?

Octavian Manea

Brexit is the geopolitical black swan of the summer. Its ripple effects could go well beyond affecting the EU and spread to the whole coherence of the West. So what should be expected from a UK that is outside the institutionalized Europe?

In the first part of a two part interview Luis Simón, Research Professor at the Institute for European Studies (Vrije Universiteit Brussel) and Director of the Brussels office of the Royal Elcano Institute talks about post-Brexit implications.


In what direction do you see a post-Brexit Europe going? A core feature of post WWII British grand strategy used to be its role as a pivot of the West, as a linkage between the US and Europe. Will Brexit shatter this role?

I would agree that Britain is the one European country that is closest to the US strategically. And this is a point that is often treated frivolously by some pundits, who seem to believe that the US can just ‘swap’ best friends in Europe if/when the political climate changes. The foundations of the US-UK special relationship are structural. They transcend Brexit or, for that matter, the proclivities of the US President of the day. They are grounded in history, culture, and geopolitics. I personally think the special US-UK connection has much to do with seapower, with the fact that those two countries share a ‘maritime DNA’. I would say that their seapower condition has largely shaped their geopolitical understanding of Europe, and informed their strategic approach towards the old continent.

According to Sir Julian Corbett, the historical experience of the British Empire demonstrates that seapowers must adopt a forward diplomatic and strategic posture in continental theatres to make sure no landpower becomes hegemonic and attains the means to challenge their maritime and global supremacy. This principle has governed Britain’s geostrategic approach towards Europe, having led Britain time and again to support the weak against the strong, with a view to ensure the preservation of a regional balance of power, i.e. one that would keep potential hegemons in check and thus help safeguard Britain’s maritime and global supremacy. It is called forward defence.

Ever since the end of the Second World War, America’s geostrategy in Europe has followed Britain’s old playbook. NATO is the embodiment of that. In fact, during the postwar years, Britain played a key role in helping overcome US isolationism, entrenching US power in Europe, and setting the foundations for NATO. In many ways, Britain was critical to America’s ‘socialization’ as a European power. When it comes to Europe, Britain and the US are very much on the same page. They both want to put their maritime potential at the service of a regional balance of power and, conversely, they see the preservation of a balance of power on the continent as the best way to protect their maritime supremacy. To go back to your question, I would say that a Britain that is both strong and engaged in Europe is most certainly in America’s national interest, not least as it helps minimize Washington’s strategic burden in Europe. This is perhaps particularly prescient as the US seeks to rebalance its strategic attention towards the Asia-Pacific.

However, saying that Brexit signals a decoupling between Europe and America might be pushing things a bit too far. I would contest that proposition on three main counts.

Firstly, ‘Brexit’ has not happened yet: the if, when and how are still unclear. As the cliché goes, the devil lies in the detail. I think the sort of question we should be thinking about is ‘what might be the nature of the UK-EU relationship in a post-Brexit context?’ Because the truth is that Britain already has ‘one foot in and one foot out’ of the EU today, insofar as it doesn’t take part in some of the EU’s flagship projects, like the Euro or Schengen. If and when Britain leaves, the challenge will be to turn that ‘one foot in/one foot out’ situation into a ‘one foot out/one foot in’ policy. In other words, I think Britain should aim to opt-in on many of the EU’s initiatives, including not just the single market but also foreign policy, defence, energy, and so on. I think Britain should aim for a ‘Norway plus’ model.

Secondly, we should be careful about using the ‘EU’ and ‘Europe’ interchangeably. Brexit notwithstanding, Britain is likely to remain very much engaged in Europe. One aspect of that engagement might be a more or less privileged relationship with the EU – and the jury is still out on that one. But there is life beyond the EU. NATO and bilateral relations have been and will continue to be key vehicles of British engagement in Europe. Britain is a key referent in NATO, and it also enjoys very deep strategic, diplomatic and economic ties with multiple European countries, including France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, the Baltics, and a long list of others. I wouldn’t be surprised if London were to double down on NATO and bilaterals, not least as a way to compensate for a possible ‘Brexit’.

Last but not least, Britain is not America’s only entry point in Europe: Washington’s strategic European network runs wide and deep. Many people are talking these days about the emerging special relationship between the US and France, which seems to be working particularly well in areas such as intelligence or operations (especially in Africa). Others see Germany as America’s key partner in Europe. And if you talk to the Spanish and Italians, they will tell you about the importance of their military bases for the US, whether in Rota, Moron, Naples or Sigonella. Not to speak of countries like the Netherlands or Belgium (as well as Italy and Germany), who host US nuclear weapons on their soil. And how about the Poles, the Baltics, the Romanians or the Bulgarians. It’s not just that every European country thinks it has a special relationship with the US: what is remarkable is that every European country can actually back up that claim.

And beyond bilateral relations, I would highlight the importance of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which can lead to a reinvigoration of America’s presence in Europe, and promises to ‘reset’ the transatlantic relationship at a time when such a reset is badly needed. I would expect ‘Brexit’ to lead both Washington and London to redouble their efforts to bring TTIP to a successful end.


Will Brexit provide a new opportunity for building a new layer of a truly European Community of Defence around the EU’s Article 5 collective defence clause?

The notion that ‘British recalcitrance’ is responsible for the misfortunes of ‘European defence’ is quite popular in some quarters. Indeed, some may well think that ‘Brexit’ removes the main obstacle to the development of a Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), and finally clears the path for a truly strategic EU to emerge. I would not be the house on that proposition.

For one thing, Britain is the most capable military power in the EU, and has played a key part in trying to fight the sort of ‘military-averse’ culture that pervades much of Europe. Many Europeans see an EU defence policy as an excuse to reduce their military spending. This is something London has warned against time and again. Over the years, Britain has been one of the leading advocates of greater military spending in Europe, and of investing in modern capabilities, having partnered with France to that effect (including in the CSDP framework). It is true that Britain and France have had their fair share of disagreements in the past, especially on questions related to the EU’s level of ‘strategic autonomy’ vis-à-vis NATO and the US.

However, I think this has changed in recent years, especially after France’s return to the Alliance’s integrated military structure in 2009, and its interest in strengthening its bilateral strategic ties with Britain and the US. In fact, I would say that France’s ‘Atlanticist shift’ may be partly explained by its realization that most European countries (Germany included) seem to be attracted by the notion of the EU as a ‘civilian power’. Today, I would say more and more people in France realize that their old idea of a militarily capable, extrovert and autonomous EU might be a rather tall order. This dovetails with an important point, namely that whereas France, Germany and other countries may agree on the need for a stronger Europe in foreign and security policy, they do not necessarily agree on the question of what kind of Europe they want. Think about the Libya or Syria crises, where France has been much closer to the UK and US than to Germany or many other European countries.

To complicate things further, Russian revisionism in Eastern Europe is prompting many in Germany to think harder about defence and deterrence in an eastern flank context – and leading them to argue for German re-engagement within NATO. Indeed, Germany is critical to any credible NATO strategy aimed at restoring (conventional) deterrence in Eastern Europe. And this is a process that Britain is very much interested in. So I would actually not be surprised if we were to see Britain and Germany more and more working together in a NATO context, while Britain continues to cooperate with France bilaterally in out of area operations, especially bilaterally. It is not quite clear to me where that leaves the EU’s CSDP.


Click Here for the second part of the interview with Luis Simon