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Britain’s furtive EU defence integration

Bruce Oliver Newsome
August 17, 2018

Bruce Newsome argues that both the EU and the May administration are failing to disclose the true extent of our ongoing defence integration with the European Union. This failure of disclosure triggers a failure of accountability.  

Chances are that you remain unaware that Theresa May's government is still engaged in EU defence integration, despite the vote for Brexit in June 2016.

The EU's "common security and defence policy" has been around for years. Most members committed to implement it in 2017 under the unambiguous title of "Permanent European Structure Cooperation" (PESCO). Britain formally rescinded its commitment to the whole, but signed up to many parts. Britain is even committed to a European rapid-reaction force (the "European Intervention Initiative"), nominally outside of the EU, but inevitably destined to serve the EU.

Are you outraged? You should be, if only for the blackout on these policies, even if you agree with them.

At the EU Council meeting in November 2017, 23 member-states agreed to implement PESCO. A few days later, at the EU's annual congress on its common security and defence policy (misleadingly termed the "Berlin Security Conference"), the EU's chief negotiator on Brexit (Michael Barnier) gave a prepared speech on his expectations of Britain in PESCO. The British media ignored it on the day, except Veterans for Britain, from whom a few other fringe outlets picked it up.

Barnier started by stating that Brexit has stoked the EU's commitment to "a Defence and Security Union" and "autonomous and united European defence" by 2025. He wants Britain affiliated with the European Defence Agency (because Britain would take a hefty share of the costs) and to remain a voluntary contributor to EU military operations (for the same reason), without being a full member, without the same rights to draw on the European Defence Fund, without rights to military command, without even rights to vote on policies.

Given that Britain already has an advanced defence industrial base and privileges in other international defence cooperation regimes, not least in NATO, why on earth is the British government committed to the European Defence Agency and other parts of PESCO, with the same costs but fewer rights? As Barnier said in the same speech, "Theresa May has assured the member states several times that the UK is committed unconditionally to maintaining European security."

Inevitably, a European military capability is at least redundant if not competitive with NATO, although the EU pretends that it is complementary ("a European Headquarters…would never compete with NATO," as Barnier put it in November). Yet there can be no other reason for an "autonomous and united European defence" than to duplicate NATO without North Americans.

You might think that it doesn't matter whether the EU or NATO delivers the same capabilities, but while NATO is an alliance of sovereign states, the EU is supra-national. While NATO members can opt out of collective decisions, EU members cannot. When NATO launches an operation, its members voluntarily contribute, but the EU wants members to allocate capabilities that the EU will direct without the veto of member states. PESCO – like all EU integration – is legally binding.

Why are officials, journalists, and analysts ignoring UK-EU defence integration? The most cynical explanation is that they are deceptive Remainers, hanging on to the EU while pretending to fulfil the majority will for Brexit.

The practical explanation is that they don't know what they're talking about. We live in what others have called a "bluffocracy." Politicians and journalists specialize in getting our attention, not in learning their responsibilities. Theresa May spent more than six years as Home Secretary, two as Prime Minister, without learning enough about security to give up the American TV series "NCIS."

Most of our defence officials, journalists, and commentators have no relevant qualifications or experience, other than perhaps left-wing, pseudo-scientific fields, known in Britain as "War Studies" or "Peace Studies," which at best are military history with analytical pretensions.

Some are corrupted by EU money too. The Bruges Group (a think-tank on the EU, founded by Margaret Thatcher) has revealed that the EU funds most of Britain's defence think-tanks, sometimes as the largest donor, even though the EU has its own "Common Foreign & Security Policy" think-tank. The author points out that if we are concerned about Russian funding, why aren't we concerned about EU funding?

The author (Dr. Lee Rotherham – formerly a director in Vote Leave, now director of a think-tank on Brexit, called The Red Cell) also asks why Veterans for Britain is still the leading reporter of PESCO, despite Britain having more defence think-tanks than most member states?

The oldest amongst them is the Royal United Services Institute, which by name and location in Whitehall smacks of a government think-tank. Unfortunately, its leading funder is the EU. For the 2016-2017 financial year, at least £1 million of its £6.6 million budget came from the European Commission.

This would be less suspicious if RUSI was reporting PESCO. I did a search of RUSI's website to find only three pages mentioning PESCO (bear in mind that RUSI produces several comments or publications every week). One of the three pages was an invitation to a lecture in March, another was a comment on NATO in May, and only one was focused on PESCO – in fewer words than this article.

Members and users of RUSI have complained to Rotherham (page 28) that RUSI is organizing events for pro-EU officials, selecting pro-EU speakers, and cooperating with other pro-EU think-tanks, but not engaging with the specifics of European defence integration.

Three attendees told Rotherham "that the Institute does not have a deep grasp of the subject matter." I do not know Rotherham; he did not ask; but I would fourth these concerns. Back in September 2017 I drew attention to its quick report on Korean tensions, which concluded that war is a "real possibility." That phrase was the widely reported headline, but that phrase is practically meaningless. A "real possibility" is any probability other than zero. An asteroid falling on your head is a real possibility. Was this report the product of an unfortunate intern? No, it was authored by the Deputy Director-General.

Now consider that same author's flashy forecast in January 2018 of the upcoming year for Brexit: he began by declaring that "anything is possible." Such statements betray a lay understanding of risk. If you don't understand risk, then you have no business commentating on defence and security. (That brief video is worth watching to see a self-inflated expert spinning around what could happen without committing to anything.)

In the following month, the same author produced a "briefing paper" on "Brexit and European Security," which worries that an end to the free movement of people and regulatory alignment "could" threaten Britain's defence industry, but does not admit the opportunities outside the EU. It goes on to worry that a decline in EU trade would push Britain into economic decline, nationalism, and Northern Irish political stability. Most of the time, the paper seems more concerned with the impact on the EU. Rotherham finds the briefing paper "baffling" and "absurd"; I find it amateurish yet pretentious, imprecise yet maddeningly long-winded, indecisive except in its biases. It contains no mention of PESCO.

Britain needs fair reporting of its continued entanglement in European defence integration, by experts with scientific qualifications and without EU funding. As a reader, you can demand it.

Bruce Oliver Newsome, Ph.D. is a lecturer in International Relations at the University of San Diego
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