Written by Lt Gen Jonathon Riley



[Ed: Readers have linked to this article which was published in ‘Briefings for Britain’ We believe it is so important that we republish it here in two parts, with the kind permission of ‘Briefings for Britain’.]


Debate concerning our future relations with the EU has concentrated overwhelmingly on trade. But there are vital defence elements too in the Political Declaration which it is dangerous to overlook, for they risk being seriously damaging to UK interests. Yet commentators and even ministers seem to know little about them

I was recently asked for my thoughts on the current state of Brexit.

This is a 10-point assessment of the defence section of the negotiations, following research by the Veterans for Britain team which involved reviewing the EU defence policy:

Defence is actually in the negotiation texts

Most people think defence is not part of the EU negotiations, but it is very much in the frame due to several lines in the Political Declaration, the text which guides the talks over the future relationship. These lines contain a proposal for the UK to remain under the EU’s defence bodies (and even to join a new one to which we did not belong as an EU member). The main problem is that these lines are rarely mentioned and few people in the UK truly understand the EU’s defence bodies.

Recent EU developments make the texts more of a problem

Since these EU defence bodies have recently begun to grow in terms of political power and financial scale, a legally-binding commitment to stay under them would naturally have significant consequences for UK defence autonomy. The relevant lines of the Political Declaration were produced during Theresa May’s premiership *). The reason the Political Declaration is relevant is that it is the EU’s route map for the negotiations as agreed by the UK and outlines the EU’s intentions if there is to be a deal.

Why have we not heard more about this?

A common response among people who hear about this problem for the first time is to ask why something so significant as the UK’s future defence decision-making autonomy could be at stake – and yet is so rarely mentioned. This is a question which bothers those who follow the subject too. There are many reasons and they include, among others: the rapid pace of internal EU political agreements on defence since 2016; the failure of researchers to keep pace; the consequent failure of politicians and observers to follow the subject; and the belief that it would not affect the UK because we have left the EU. People also assume that anything concerning defence in the negotiations would see the UK in a controlling position, given the UK’s status as a military power. However, this viewpoint is outdated as it ignores the development of the EU’s political structures for defence on which any defence negotiations would be based. The EU would have any discussion about these structures on its own terms or not at all.

The EU’s preferred defence tie-in for the UK has unstated consequences

Indeed, an observer who had not followed EU political agreements on defence would not know the legal consequences of each of the defence bodies in the Political Declaration and therefore would not flag their inclusion as a point of concern. After all, the text does not contain words of warning. It does not contain an overview of new centralised decision-making across a new decision-making network and layers of influence over policy and planning. It does not explain consequences for defence autonomy arising from those new factors. The documents and agreements underpinning the EU’s expanded defence architecture weigh in at more than a quarter of a million words, but there is not so much as a web link to this material. Instead, to the untrained eye, they appear as mere headings on a page.

More selective language points to concealment

The defence section of the Political Declaration contains a further example of selective language. The section names only three EU defence bodies, which is itself a nonsense. These three are in fact inextricable from the wider legal context of the EU’s defence architecture, a point confirmed by personnel from the EU side and from Whitehall. There are more than twenty structures, policies and rules which are tied to the three which are named and it is obligatory for participating states to adhere. This would have been understood by those compiling the text, therefore the omission of the wider links can be regarded as an act of concealment.

Johnson Government has made positive noises

Boris Johnson’s Government, to its credit, has responded to warnings from campaigners about this political quicksand. Although very few ministers can list the EU defence bodies in the Political Declaration (and fewer still know the EU structures and policies to which they link) several people in Boris Johnson’s team know what is going on and have taken action. They ensured that the new version of the Political Declaration would not produce an immediate attachment to EU defence in the style of the version proposed by Theresa May’s Government. Instead, it now says the UK will ‘consider’ participating (link).

However, this new approach brings an obvious risk of producing the same outcome. Not least because ministers who are still unaware of the detail of EU defence are inclined to ask for advice from the wrong people, namely the small group of Government officials who were involved in designing UK involvement in EU defence under May and were selected for that purpose. Alternatively, ministers might ask defence industries which have received advice about the EU defence architecture from the very same pool of Government officials. Those officials have in fact been proactive in harvesting industry opinion on the basis of advice they have provided. The Government’s paper, ‘The UK’s approach to negotiations with the European Union’ published on 27 February 2020 did not make any reference to defence, leading people to believe that the promise to ‘consider’ joining EU defence programmes and structures had been dropped. However, it was in fact present in the broad category of ‘EU programmes’. It said:

The UK is ready to consider standard third country participation in certain Union programmes where it is in the UK’s and the EU’s interest that we do so.

This was confirmed by an April 2020 letter from a team in the Foreign Office which has steered UK participation in EU defence, the Euro-Atlantic Security Policy Unit (EASP unit). It expanded on the language by saying:

Lastly, the EU Commission has proposed to create a new security and defence budget for the next Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), which will last from 2021 to 2027 inclusive. The UK is ready to consider standard third country participation in certain EU programmes where it is in the UK’s interest that we do so. These programmes must represent a real benefit to British people and industry and any agreements relating to programmes should contain fair terms for UK participation. This should include fair treatment of participants, a fair and appropriate financial contribution, provisions allowing for sound financial management by both parties, and appropriate governance and consultation.

Got that? The UK is ready to consider this deep and detailed involvement, even though ministers and MPs seem to not know the first thing about it. It is at least true to say that the EASP unit is ready to consider involvement. So ready in fact that they have been the sole team writing defensive reassurances for ministers since 2016 saying that EU defence is nothing to worry about.

{Continued with Part Two tomorrow]


~ *** ~

*) Political Declaration, p19 Article 102: ‘the Parties agree to consider the following to the extent possible under the conditions of Union law’.


~ *** ~

[Lieutenant-General Jonathon Riley was deputy commander of the NATO-led ISAF force in Afghanistan.  He also commanded British forces in Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Iraq.  He is a military historian and visiting lecturer at Birmingham University and King’s College London, Department of War Studies, and an author and lecturer on Military and Defence Security around the globe.]  





Print Friendly, PDF & Email