Following the recent UK election, Britain seems poised for a referendum on EU membership as early as 2016. This will have long-term implications for the defence and security landscape at a time of exceptional instability. This is an opportune moment to reflect upon and consider Britain’s relationship with its continental European partners and government priorities moving forward.
During the recent UK general election campaign, Conservative leader David Cameron promised to hold a referendum on EU membership if re-elected as Prime Minister. Following Cameron’s surprise victory at the polls, the country now seems poised for a vote on the issue as early as 2016.[i] Leaders in the financial sector have expressed concern that such a referendum will pose a significant threat to Britain’s economic stability. Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney recently echoed these sentiments when he called for a ‘speedy resolution of the European question.’[ii] Brexit also poses equally great challenges for defence and security.
The United Kingdom has long had a complicated and problematic relationship with continental Europe. Over the centuries, Britain has relied on its position as an island nation in order to remain aloof from unnecessary continental entanglements and alliances. As a global superpower, the UK was able to draw upon its colonial possessions to help bolster its defences. During WWI and WWII, manpower and resources from the Dominion countries and colonies helped Britain to punch well above its weight. With the decline of empire, the UK has fostered strong political and military ties to the United States. However, Britain has never been able to remain wholly detached from its European neighbours nor can it afford to do so now.
The British Armed Forces are the smallest that they have been since the mid nineteenth century.[iii] The defence budget has also been subject to severe cuts. In light of the recent Conservative landslide, Professor Malcolm Chalmers of the Royal United Services Institute has predicted that the, ‘Ministry of Defence (MoD) might get a real terms increase in its total budget of up to 1 per cent per year over the next Spending Review period.’[iv] Be that as it may, defence spending is still set to drop below 2% of GDP over the next few years.[v] Britain’s failure to meet its NATO commitment has strained relations with the United States. Earlier this year, US Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno expressed, ‘his concerns about the impact of UK defence cuts on the level of UK-US military cooperation.’[vi] In an interview with BBC Radio 4 in early 2014, ex-US defence secretary Robert Gates similarly commented that, ‘With the fairly substantial reductions in defence spending in Britain, what we’re finding is that it [the UK] won’t have full spectrum capabilities and the ability to be a full partner as they have been in the past.’[vii] These developments come at a time of exceptional instability, both within Europe and globally.
Since Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, the stability of Eastern Europe has come into question. The authors of SDSR 2010 did not predict that state on state conflict would pose a major threat to European security in the foreseeable future.[viii] However, British authorities have been forced to rethink these conclusions in light of Russia’s actions. In a recent report, the members of the House of Commons Defence Committee argued that, ‘For the first time, since the Second World War, a technologically advanced European power has expanded its own territory by force, rejecting international borders.’[ix] As spending declines elsewhere, the Russian government is also committed to investing heavily in the military with a projected defence budget of close to 100 billion dollars in 2016.[x] Fearing for their own security, the Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia) have appealed to NATO for the deployment of a permanent contingent of troops to be based in the region.[xi] These demands come at a time when the UK already faces significant security threats such as foreign and domestic terrorism.
Moving forward, it seems more than likely the UK will become increasingly reliant upon a network of strong political and defensive relationships. Many of these alliances will include key European countries like France and Germany. In Rethinking defence to meet new threats, the House of Commons Defence Committee concluded that while, ‘the UK must build on its strong alliance with the United States,’ it is crucial that, ‘European NATO allies are operating at maximum effectiveness.’[xii] Consequently, many commentators have expressed anxiety about a possible British exit from the EU. On the eve of the British election, author and journalist Alex Preston contemplated such an eventuality. He speculated that Brexit could undermine existing intelligence sharing relationships between Britain and its European partners.[xiii] On the other hand, Eurosceptics have argued that leaving the EU would allow the UK to function more effectively and independently both financially and in terms of defence.[xiv]
The British political establishment and the wider public need to think carefully about the UK’s place in the world and how to redefine and re-establish an effective working relationship with Europe. With the growth of nationalistic feeling in both Scotland and England, this will undoubtedly be challenging.[xv] However, decisions regarding Europe are long overdue. For better or worse, there is no doubt that a UK referendum on the EU will have a lasting impact on both the European and global defence landscape.
[i] ‘Philip Hammond seeks fast settlement on EU,’ Telegraph (14 May 2015), http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/eureferendum/11607163/Philip-Hammond-No-treaty-change-needed-for-EU-reform.html
[iii] Tom Rutherford, ‘Defence personnel statistics,’ Social and General Statistics (26 Sept 2014).
[iv] Malcolm Chalmers, ‘Defence and the Election Outcome,’ RUSI Analysis (12 May 2015),
[v] House of Commons Defence Committee, Rethinking defence to meet new threats (London: Stationery Office, 24 Mar 2015), pp. 12-13.
[vi] Ibid., p. 18.
[viii] House of Commons Defence Committee, Rethinking defence, p. 3.
[ix] Ibid., p. 13.
[xi] Daniel McLaughlin, ‘Russia decries Baltic states’ plea for NATO brigade,’ Irish Times (14 May 2015), http://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/europe/russia-decries-baltic-states-plea-for-nato-brigade-1.2212944.
[xii] House of Commons Defence Committee, Rethinking defence, p. 3.
[xiii] Alex Preston, ‘What would happen if Britain left the EU?’ Guardian (19 Apr 2015), http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/apr/19/what-would-happen-if-britain-left-the-eu-consequences-of-exit
[xv] Malcolm Chalmers, ‘Defence and the Election Outcome.’