WASHINGTON — At the beginning of 2016, everything seemed so simple for the West.

NATO saw renewed interest from member states; the European Union was discussing new levels of defense cooperation; and the United States was moving toward increasing its European commitments — all in response to what the alliance perceived as a resurgent Russian threat along the eastern flank.

But by the close of that year, Europe’s slow return to great power competition was thrown into chaos.

In the U.K., a referendum called by then-Prime Minister David Cameron delivered a shocking upset when the country voted to leave the European Union; the country is now on its third prime minister since the June 23 vote. And in November, Donald Trump, a confirmed Euroskeptic whose foreign policy trademark was brow-beating European allies for decades of declining defense spending, was elected president.

Now, on the eve of Brexit and with Trump’s reelection a real possibility, the future of European collective security is anyone’s guess. Will NATO maintain its relevance, or will hard feelings drive a wedge in the alliance? If a new framework for European security is forged, will it exist under an EU without Britain, and will the the former member have any say in the framework’s direction?

On the maritime front, if existing frameworks come under pressure, Brexit means Europe could stand lose some protection provided by the region’s most capable navy. And while the position of Britain’s government has been that its commitment to European security remains unchanged, what form that takes is unclear.

“What this raises is the question of the European Union versus NATO,” said Jerry Hendrix, an analyst with the Virginia-based Telemus Group. “And what is the difference of commitment to those two entities? Everyone says that they are firmly committed to NATO, but Brexit has raised a question about the future of Europe as a political entity.

“Everyone has relaxed on the idea that they are all together politically, which had contributed to the decline of spending on military forces," Hendrix added. "And for years, Britain has been the preeminent naval power, but maybe Brexit forces France and Italy and Norway to step up their own naval spending?

“We’ve entered a period of questions about Europe’s future."

Brexit, which new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has promised will be delivered “do or die” on Oct. 31, threatens to upend what has been an expanding role by the EU in security matters, something that has been a growing part of the organization’s mission in recent years.

“The interesting dynamic in European foreign policy is the introduction of the EU into it,” said Bryan Clark, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. “It was never one of the original objectives of the EU common market; it [the original objective] was economic in nature. The foreign policy element has really emerged in the past five to 10 years as the EU’s expansion has become a tool of foreign policy, especially for countries in Eastern Europe, such as Ukraine.”

Questions about post-Brexit European security have no easy answers. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Questions about post-Brexit European security have no easy answers. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

As the EU became more of an instrument of foreign policy than an economic approach, it undertook more military-style operations, such as a counter-piracy missions off the coast of Somalia and a refugee rescue-and-support mission off the coast of Italy. Those operations have drawn in countries, such as Sweden and Finland, that were hesitant to participate in NATO operations so as not to antagonize Russia.

“The EU gives countries this kind of fig leaf that they are participating in a military operation without being openly hostile to Russia, and to some degree Belarus as well,” Clark said. “And these operations show this kind of expanding role of the EU.

“Especially if you are a NATO country, the EU gives you a chance to do security operations that’s not tied to a war-fighting framework that a lot of people feel like is a holdover from the Cold War.”

And while those kinds of low-end missions can continue without Britain, when it comes to the higher-end war-fighting missions, there may be complications.

Frameworks

In the U.K., there’s now talk of a “Global Britain,” a term that not so subtly harkens back to a time when the Kingdom was the preeminent global power. But those grand strategic ambitions may not sync with available funding, and it leaves unanswered questions about how the country will work with its neighbors after Brexit.

In recent years, the EU took steps to deepen security partnerships through both joint missions and the development of common security goals under a framework known as the Permanent Structured Cooperation initiative, or PESCO. But how the U.K. will fit into those schemes is unclear, according to a recent paper from the The Dahrendorf Forum, a policy shop based in Germany and London.

“On the one hand, these developments potentially increase the cost to the U.K. of participating in EU structures and the risk to the EU that British involvement will scupper new initiatives. On the other hand, these projects may be made credible only through British participation and the involvement of the sizable U.K. defence industry,” the paper said.

The future of European defense and foreign policy integration has generated suggestions such as a European army or common aircraft carrier to defend shared interests. But such grand ambitions come at a time when basic readiness has been a problem for most European militaries.

“The ‘European aircraft carrier’ is such a ridiculous and meaningless proposal (don’t get me wrong, I can imagine some French politicians having the same ‘idea’) that it does not even deserve a rebuke,” Bruno Tertrais, deputy director at the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research, wrote in an email to Defense News in March.

But that such proposals exist in the first place highlights the glaring questions about the existing NATO framework and its viability after Brexit.

“I think the question for Britons is: Will it have an impact on NATO operations?” said Clark, the CSBA analyst. “Will other NATO allies be reluctant to participate in exercises led by the U.K. and the Americans in a significant way? There is going to be friction there. Neither of those countries will be in the EU, they won’t be viewed as economic partners in the same way.”

Industrial cooperation

One of the areas where the EU is trying to expand its role in defense is the European Defence Fund, which seeks to pool money from members nations to fund defense research and the development of high-end capabilities. But without Britain’s industrial base, it could be difficult to make such projects viable.

“The EU has set forth some quite ambitious objectives in terms of industrial cooperation, defense research and so on, and the U.K. in practice will find it difficult to have a role there, and it will be a problem for both the U.K. and the EU," said Malcolm Chalmers, the deputy director general of the Royal United Services Institute in London.

“It’s hard for European counties to get the economies of scale they need to produce efficiently. And the U.K. is one of the largest markets for defense equipment along with France in Europe," he added. "So having the U.K. out, that’s going to be hard. So I think part of what might happen is that companies may simply not take part in the European Defence Fund in order to maintain cooperation with the U.K. in some cases.”

Another potential consequence of Brexit involves the development of a future combat air system. The U.K. as well as France and Germany are developing their own next-generation fighter jets. But without the U.K. in the market, both efforts could face headwinds.

“Both of those programs will find it difficult to get to the necessary economies of scale,” Chalmers said. “The U.K. is talking about cooperation with a whole range of countries outside of Europe — Australia, Japan — but the most obvious partners for the U.K. are its European neighbors. Without France or Germany as a partner, that’s going to make it harder, but that’s also the case for the European effort. So in that and a number of other areas, Brexit will complicate opportunities for cooperation across Europe.”

NATO on the rocks?

Without Britain’s highly capable military, it’s unclear if a European force would have much credibility as a deterrent.

“The Royal Navy is designed as really a smaller version of the American Navy,” Clark said. “It can kind of plug in and do more or less all the things the U.S. Navy can do on a smaller scale. They’ve often thought of this as ‘east of Suez’ — they could help with something the U.S. Navy doesn’t have the capacity to extend its reach to. But the other European navies don’t have that force structure. They’re really not designed for full-spectrum military operations at the level of capability of the Americans, and in theory the Brits.”

France, with its aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle and associated air wing, comes closest, Clark said. But even with the carrier, France doesn’t have the same capabilities for a full spectrum of operations as Britain.

“The other European navies have bought into the NATO strategic concept of specialization: They contribute their specialized capabilities that they are really good in and probably better than anyone else in Europe,” Clark said. “Sweden and Finland focus on amphibious operations, Norway is really good at C4ISR stuff and surface warfare, and the other forces focus on maritime security or anti-submarine warfare.

“Outside of France you really start to get to a tailored set of capabilities that are supposed to work together as part of a NATO or EU mission. They are not designed to go execute something on their own, other than maybe coastal security.”

Ideally, allies would maintain their commitment to NATO and everything would go on as normal, but that’s not the most likely scenario, Clark said.

French Rafale fighter jets are parked on the flight deck of the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle during a media tour at Changi Naval Base in Singapore on May 28, 2019. (Roslan Rahman/AFP via Getty Images)
French Rafale fighter jets are parked on the flight deck of the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle during a media tour at Changi Naval Base in Singapore on May 28, 2019. (Roslan Rahman/AFP via Getty Images)

“All the major powers in Europe are part of NATO still. So in theory, NATO would continue as before without any kind of abatement,” he said. “As the U.K. comes out of this extended recapitalization of the Royal Navy, they are going to be the newest force with the best stuff in all of Europe. And the question then will be are they going to be treated as a full partner in all European security operations, and I’m thinking they maybe won’t be.”

That may leave the U.K. in a position where it will want to forge even closer ties with the U.S. — a likely scenario, according to Hendrix, the Telemus analyst.

“One prediction I will make is that the United Kingdom is going to reach out to the United States to strengthen economic and military ties going forward,” Hendrix said. “If there is a hard Brexit [where Britain leaves the EU without a trade deal] and a lot of hurt feelings between the U.K. and Europe, you’ll see the U.K. pivot to Trump, and I think Trump will welcome them. I think he views the EU with skepticism, so I think there will be a move to strengthen economic, military and intelligence ties.”

In the meantime, countries on the continent will have to grapple with what Brexit means for the idea of a collective foreign policy, said Chalmers, the RUSI analyst.

“The EU as an institution is looking for EU strategic autonomy rather than European strategic autonomy, and those two things will be different from each other in a way they haven’t been when the U.K. was a member of the EU,” Chalmers said. “For most Europeans, Europe and the EU have been synonymous. Now, one of the major European powers will be outside that structure. We haven’t yet worked out what that will be. The U.K. could maintain a very close, special relationship with the EU; or we could see a more profound break where the U.K. sets its foreign policy against the EU. I don’t think that’s very likely, but we can’t rule anything out.”