Brexit: Quo Vadis The European Deterrent? – Analysis


By Marie Pavageau*

Despite the fact that the majority of London and Scotland wanted to remain in the European Union (EU), Brexit is now a fait accompli. Perhaps one of the most important long-term consequences of this will be the impact of Brexit on European security and defence. Specifically, what does this mean for the dynamics of the NATO-EU overlap and what does it hold in store for the two nuclear deterrents – the British Trident replacement and the French Force De Frappe – both of which have been described in recent times as anachronistic?

As early as 1963, when Britain applied to the European Economic Community, then French President Charles de Gaulle described Britain as an American Trojan horse in Europe. Agreements such as Franco-British nuclear cooperation (2010 Lancaster Treaties) and bilateral ones are likely to survive Brexit, even if having the UK out will probably mean a new direction for the EU. Furthermore, being the only nuclear power in Europe will probably mean a French leadership in terms of defence in Europe. Generally speaking, the Brexit will result in a split between two visions for Europe and by extension two different orientations on its foreign policy: an Anglo-Saxon camp predominantly anti-Russian, and a more-tempered camp led by France and Germany on the Russian problem.

Anglo-Saxon Camp: Reinforcing NATO

As a way to compensate for lost clout and its place in the defence of Europe, is it highly probable that the UK will try to get closer to the US by reinvesting in NATO. Effectively intensifying their presence and commitment to NATO instead of the EU will be the obvious path for the UK to ensure the preservation of its geopolitical interests and agenda in the region. This surge in commitment will in all likelihood produce a stronger NATO and will reinforce the Anglo-Saxon influence in the Atlantic Alliance. Why? The maths is simple. By leaving the EU, the UK would presumably have more money to spend in the alliance, more manpower and most importantly more motivation to do so.

The real problem though comes about because of renewed demands for Scottish independence in the wake of Brexit. What does this mean for the British deterrent? Bruno Tertrais, a French nuclear expert, offers three options in the case of Scottish independence: the most credible according to him would be moving the submarines bases to bases in elsewhere in the UK; negotiating the creation of an enclave in Scotland but probably against the will of the locals; or moving the submarines to a foreign ally, for example to the US or even to France. Regardless of the option chosen, the result would be extremely costly for the UK in having to reinvest heavily in new support infrastructure.

A French leadership in the Defence of Europe

On the other side though France becomes a virtual paramount power within the EU. With a highly effective power projection force and considerable overseas engagement, the French force de frappe will in effect be the only organic EU nuclear shield. The question then is how does this reconcile with previous French statements that support France’s traditional policy of strategic autonomy? France for example is on record stating that the French UNSC veto will never become an EU UNSC veto. Similarly, the French nuclear doctrine focuses almost exclusively on the protection of French interests, not EU or allied interests. However now France has no peer in the EU – be it conventional or nuclear. This may in itself force a leadership role on to France however reluctant the country may be to assume that role, in much the same way as Germany has been entrusted with the economic leadership of the EU by the better performing northern states.

The Russia Question

What will determine the future path and possibly divergence of EU defence and NATO defence will be their responses to Russia. It is commonly said that the nuclear force is the UK’s and France’s “insurance policy” against potential aggressors – the only candidate at present being Russia. Brexit essentially re-shapes Europe’s relations with Russia since the EU will be losing one of its biggest anti-Russian voices, the UK. For that reason, Brexit will decisively alter Europe’s relations with Russia. While both arsenals are aimed primarily at Russia, the French tend to view Russia more as partner. NATO on the other hand will see a decisive shift in more hawkish voices on Russia being strengthened. This is largely due to the fact that the only countries that spend over 2 per cent of their GDP on defence as required by NATO are the countries that border and have the most to fear from Russia, in addition to the UK and US.

Consequently, it is safe to assume that the biggest impact of Brexit in security terms will be the divergence within Europe itself of an anti-Russia bloc focusing its energies on NATO and a more tempered bloc that may for the first time be able to lay the seeds of European defence.

* Marie Pavageau
Research Inter, NSP, IPCS


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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