Rethinking European Security: Strategic Implications of Brexit and Trump’s Victory

Stefan Fröhlich

University of Erlangen-Nürnberg

Stefan Fröhlich is a Professor for International Politics at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg.

The future European security architecture will be decided on two questions:

  1. Will the EU and the UK choose the path of a hard line to demonstrate EU unity on the one hand and British strength on the other, or will they follow a pragmatic approach to protect and perpetuate important security relations?
  2. What impact will President-elect Trump have on the British defense establishment in particular and British foreign and security policy in general?

Both the UK and U.S. votes have indeed proved that the unthinkable can happen and regardless of how things will evolve over the next months, the uncertainties created by them will have consequences of their own that could easily have a lasting impact on the liberal international order that has shaped global politics over the last sixty years. Even at the risk of looking into a crystal ball at this moment, what are the likely consequences for transatlantic relations and how legitimate are fears of a major historic recalibration between both sides?

Let’s first look at the major geo-economic and geo-political repercussions of Brexit for both the EU and the UK. There is no doubt that the geo-economic consequences in the medium and longer-term perspective will be huge, particularly for the UK. London’s calls for a complete restoration of British sovereignty over UK policies and actions, which go hand in hand with the promise of a brighter future for Britain, seem hard to foresee if one looks at the facts. Particularly if London follows the option of a hard Brexit—which means the only choice left will be a free trade deal or an Association Agreement with the EU—Britain would be put in a much less favorable trade position than it has today regarding the country’s access to the EU common market. In fact, the expected incentives of a weaker currency in terms of increased export competitiveness do not compensate for the losses in terms of GDP growth in the medium run—even if the UK today mostly exports services (and that mostly to non-EU markets) and even if the internal market for goods today is far less significant for the UK than it is for other countries (about 5 percent of GDP, compared to 7 percent for Britain’s non-EU exports). After all, the EU’s almost 50 percent share of the UK’s total exports and imports still is significant.

What the UK has to worry about, however, is financial services, which today is about one-third of the UK’s total services exports and two-thirds of the overall services surplus that the country needs to pay for its deficits on goods—and this success is a result, at least in part, of the UK’s EU membership. Equally worrisome is that Brexit would make the UK´s future trade negotiations with third country partners more difficult as Brexit will certainly diminish the UK’s diplomatic stature in terms of hard and soft power.

That said, one major concern regarding the possible impact on the future European security architecture comes from the prospects of a hard Brexit in terms of an indirect Brexit-induced economic decline of the UK which will have an impact on British power and influence overseas; it is very likely that the UK will be preoccupied with the fallout of the Brexit and that its international presence will suffer from a more inward-looking UK. The country has already cut its defense budgets over the past years and it is likely to use the internal review of how to implement the findings of the Report of the Iraq Inquiry (“Chilcot Report”) as an opportunity to draw lessons on how to handle an overbearing U.S. administration determined to get its own way. This will have an impact on future British engagement abroad, and fighting alongside the U.S. over the next four years will certainly be less frequent anyway. This, in turn, could make London review its still significant reliance on U.S. conventional capabilities, including new combat and maritime patrol aircraft, attack helicopters, and missiles.

Whether it also will have an impact on the UK’s traditional skepticism toward EU defense cooperation has to be seen, but here the consequences of Brexit have to be put in perspective anyway. After all, there are major concerns regarding the impact on future bilateral initiatives and arrangements and likely institutional impacts of Brexit affecting NATO and the EU.

In case of the former, practical collaboration is taking place outside the EU’s institutional structures and thus shouldn’t be effected by Brexit immediately. The Combined Joint Expeditionary Force, the MBDA project to integrate their missile industries, or the common drone project, all part of the Lancaster House Treaties between France and the UK, have had a positive impact on practical cooperation in case of the interventions in Mali and Libya that both sides seem to want to maintain. Similarly, German-UK initiatives toward rapid deployment, both countries’ leading responsibility for NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), and their increasing exchanges on strategic communications, capabilities, and cybersecurity are indicating that the same pragmatic approach to possible future cooperation goes also for their bilateral security relations and that both sides seem to recommend that they continue on this path and make use of the complementarities between both the France-UK military alliance and the increasing German-UK cooperation. It is therefore very likely that the UK will not only try to deepen its bilateral defense cooperation, especially with France and Germany, but also see a shared interest with its European allies in creating a more credible institutional back-up by even relaxing its veto on the proposal for an EU operational headquarters—which will no longer be usable once Brexit takes effect.

This leads to the latter aspect, the one where the election of Trump plays in: There is indeed uncertainty whether the EU can deliver military effect in the absence of UK military capabilities. One can argue that, historically, the UK has not contributed significantly to EU missions, not to mention its unwillingness to act on European defense policy issues anyway (NATO first). Nevertheless, the country, together with France, so far is the only country that has the capacity and the willingness to maintain a current and credible defense policy in Europe based on its nuclear power status and permanent seat in the UN Security Council. And there is no doubt that Europe, led by a reinvigorated Franco-German axis, cannot replace the loss of the UK, not to mention U.S. capabilities. At this pivotal moment it is still dependent on a predictable and stable U.S. military presence and commitment—at least to keep NATO alive and help manage relations with Russia. Does that mean that one has to give up on Europe?

No, but the strategic debate that Trump and Brexit have already triggered more than ever before in the history of the European integration process needs to lead to concrete proposals for a permanent and more efficient EU military force. Apart from deepening defense cooperation on flexible basis in the way described above, Europe’s strategy needs to be based on three elements:

  1. Europe has to pay more for defense. This means that Europe as a whole needs to spend a lot more on defense and particularly Germany—not every EU and NATO member state—must follow Merkel’s commitment to expand defense spending significantly and move toward the NATO target of 2 percent of GDP (1.5 on average is a realistic target). And it means that Europe makes the leap from defense cooperation to integration, that is makes defense planning as if it had a single force to which each contributes national combat units, anchored in multinational corps structures with multinational command, logistics, maintenance, and training. This would allow member states to do away with all redundant structures and units and at the same time free up budgetary means to invest in the strategic enablers which until now the U.S. has to provide for nearly every European operation.
  2. Franco-German relations need to become even more indicative of the trajectory that European partners will choose. The center of gravity may be shifting to Berlin in these days, but Germany cannot do without French partnership. That is why Berlin should listen carefully to Paris pushing for defense spending to be taken out of deficit calculations and a European defense fund that would allow European partners to pool investments. At this pivotal moment for Europe both countries remain the crucial partners and main drivers for future European defense, including the idea of a European military headquarters.
  3. Even the nuclear dimension, as the most radical and least credible proposal, has to be put in perspective. Though a European nuclear deterrent seems rather to be a myth, one should not rule it out that France after the Brexit at one stage might consider a formal proposal seriously—if Germany were willing to pay its price. More promising, however, would be to do everything possible to at least keep the UK involved on any plans for a European nuclear deterrence.

The strengthening of all these elements serves two goals for Europeans: to convince the U.S. to maintain NATO by stepping up their own contribution to collective defense, and to project power in their own broad neighborhood, where the Obama administration already made it clear that the U.S. wants a new burden sharing. If the U.S. breaks away under Trump, Europe needs to have a plan for its own defense.

To conclude: In a global cost-benefit analysis of the effects of Brexit for the UK and Europe, it is unlikely that the disappearance of the British veto and unwillingness to act within the European defense framework is enough to compensate for the loss of the British military force within the EU. Europeans have to find creative ways to work and to further current ad hoc arrangements. Apart from that, Europeans can only hope that Trump won’t be serious about what he said during the campaign as this would have major consequences regarding the U.S.’ role and classical self-conception as the global superpower—China and Russia would appreciate seeing the U.S. giving up on that and filling up the power vacuums left by a further U.S. retrench. Fortunately, one has to have doubts whether this would find the support by a majority in Congress and even among Republicans.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.