Brexit might actually be an opportunity in disguise for Brussels; without the constant British impediment, proponents of the European Union’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) could actually start building a truly European security structure that is willing and able to intervene in crises and make peace.
By Ulas Doga Eralp*
The Brexit vote took a lot of strategic experts by surprise. Hardly anyone, including the Leave campaign itself, expected a majority of British voters would actually want out. The economic and social implications will be seen in the coming months. More strikingly though, the UK’s departure from the EU will significantly transform the European Union’s footprint in security and peace frameworks. It is imperative to consider how the European Union’s Common Security and Defence Policy structures be impacted and whether the Brexit process would culminate in a more robust defence and security framework for the EU.
A soft power with hard aspirations
Since the 1998 St. Malo Declaration between France and Britain during the Kosovo crisis, the EU has been looking for ways to leverage its so-called “soft power” into a meaningful footprint in conflict intervention. The UK was seen as the key player in the Berlin+ Agreement that allowed for the EU to make use of NATO assets in emergency situations. Over the last 18 years, the EU’s CSDP has failed to bear any fruits to solidify the aspirations of the nineties. NATO’s debacle in Afghanistan and later in Libya proved two things. First, the CSDP never materialized in terms of hard military power. Second, there was never a shared will among EU members to turn CSDP into a standing European Army.
The CSDP remained more an idea than an act. The gradual emergence of a military-police-civilian Euro-bureaucracy has led to a number of rule of law missions in fragile and post-conflict territories, with a heavy concentration on providing trainings to local law enforcement officials. Missions in places such as South Sudan, Somalia, Georgia and the Sahel region are indeed instrumental in capacity building at the local level, but lack teeth in terms of building and supporting defence and deterrence. Many EU countries, primarily France until recently, chose to put the blame on the UK for the lack of development. UK always defended the primacy of NATO over the EU’s CSDP; the Libya areal bombardment further demonstrated that French and British jets were not enough to turn the tables around without US military support. As a result, the division of labor in combat missions between NATO and the EU has continued evolving on an ad-hoc basis. European countries preferred to rely heavily on existing NATO assets rather than fully developing the rapid reaction force concept.
Second, whatever was left of the earlier aspirations of developing a standing European Army eroded with the Eurozone crisis. When you consider that the UK and France’s military spending make up 50% of the overall EU spending on military and deterrence capabilities, the UK’s exit from the EU is a blow to building-up an EU military. No wonder US President, Barack Obama, campaigned heavily against Brexit; Washington’s changing pivot to Trans-Pacific envisions a militarily self-reliant European where NATO plays more of a supportive role. However, when the push comes to shove, Baltic countries along with Poland who feel the re-emergence of the Russian firepower, prefer to rely on the proven NATO assets than fictitious EU CSDP tools. Furthermore countries such as Italy, Spain, Holland and even Germany would not be willing to divert their attention from dealing with the economic crisis to increasing military spending for a European Army.
Nevertheless, even amid the never-ending economic stagnation, the political uncertainties unearthed by the refugee crisis and now Brexit, the EU has to make a decision. Brexit might actually be an opportunity in disguise for Brussels; without the constant British impediment, proponents of the CSDP could actually start building a truly European security structure that is willing and able to intervene in crises and make peace. European leaders somehow need to find a way to sell the idea to their constituencies. If that’s not really a possibility, maybe it’s time to give up on the idea altogether.
*Dr. Ulas Doga Eralp is a scholar and practitioner of international conflict, human rights, development and democratization. He has a PhD from the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution from George Mason University, and currently works as a Professorial Lecturer at the International Peace and Conflict Resolution Program of the School of International Service (SIS) at American University in Washington, DC.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.