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’. You can read Part One here]


UK political advice on the subject is back in the wrong hands

The fact remains that no salaried official on the Brexit side of the argument has the sole task of understanding the EU defence architecture, despite its size and political significance for the current government. Therefore, the current process in which the Government ‘considers’ attachment is back in the hands of the officials who engineered May’s intended commitment.

The role of ‘freelancing’ UK officials cannot be underestimated

A small group of officials who possess the most knowledge of the EU defence architecture have provided their views on the subject at various times. Their views can be found within publicly-available information, often in the form of speeches at think tanks or Parliamentary hearings. Their contributions present an entirely complimentary view of the EU defence architecture and puts forward a case for UK involvement. At no point do they urge caution about the risks to UK autonomy from collective EU decision-making formats, neither do they give reference to these risks. It is noteworthy that several of these officials have either had second jobs or previous jobs in the EU’s institutions.

Their role in the UK’s involvement in the EU defence architecture is extensive, has taken place over several years and deserves an analysis of its own. Their role is essential for anyone attempting to understand MPs’ low awareness and ministers’ questionable decision-making in this topic. Bringing the UK to the brink of being perpetually under EU defence decision-making is a vast and complicated task. It is difficult to see how it could have been conceived and carried out without a controlling influence from the officials who actually understood the subject rather than the ministers who did not.

Drawing a line in the sand

The Johnson Government must be encouraged to maintain its line and avoid moving back towards an attachment to the defence policy of the EU institutions as proposed during Theresa May’s premiership. It is unrealistic to expect non-Government MPs to help in this endeavour because inadequate or incorrect briefings have made them part of the problem. The key to preventing slippage is the supply of information to key decision-makers and the public about the EU defence architecture and the three components of it named in the Political Declaration.

The EU wants the UK to remain attached to its defence policy architecture and the period of risk extends for the duration of the Implementation Period (also known as transition period). During this time, the UK remains within the bulk of the legal commitments associated with the EU defence architecture (including the commitments to EU foreign, security and defence policy found in Title V of the EU treaties). This provides the EU (and those keen on UK attachment to EU defence) with a regulatory ‘bridge’ allowing the EU to describe attachment as mere continuity. After 31 December 2020, UK adherence to the EU defence architecture must be constructed from a blank canvas and new laws implemented for the purpose, thus guaranteeing considerable inertia or opposition, something the EU wants to avoid.

What ministers need to know

Several points must be made clear to those supporting the UK side of the future partnership talks:

  • Any amount of structured UK involvement in the EU defence architecture, including its defence industrial bodies, brings an obligation to follow EU defence policy. This is made clear by the EU’s statements and rules and confirmed by EU officials and UK officials. It is also illustrated by the networked structure of the EU’s new defence architecture. Less well-informed UK officials have once mistakenly suggested that obligations may be reduced through negotiation.
  • The EU is not offering ad hoc involvement in EU defence bodies, it is offering attachment on the same basis and with the same expectations as member states. This means full compliance with the EU as described in the defence parts of the EU treaties, directives and EU Council agreements.
  • UK attachment to EU defence industrial bodies is not an advantage to UK industry but rather an impediment because of the rules, benchmarks and strategies the EU imposes. These bodies and their associated rules work to remove UK industry’s advantage in respect to the UK Government defence equipment budget (the largest in Europe), in order to create a ‘domestic’ EU-wide defence procurement market. Under this arrangement, purchasing authorities (e.g. the UK Ministry of Defence) must pursue an EU definition of ‘best value’ which is not allowed to include national taxpayer best value or national interest. Therefore, the national advantages derived from retaining a contract domestically (such as preserving jobs, investment or essential skills) cannot be a decisive factor in awarding the contract. It is through this EU mechanism that the UK has seen many of its large defence contracts lost to overseas (including non-EU) shipbuilders, manufacturers and suppliers. British industry would continue to lose opportunities in this way if it is compelled to stay in EU mechanisms by the three defence bodies named in the Political Declaration. In fact the situation would become worse as the industrial rules and strategies of the EU defence architecture are growing in scope and power. It is important to mention this subject because ministers’ understanding of the defence industry dimension could ultimately be decisive in whether the UK participates in the whole EU defence architecture.

The End

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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.  


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