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Brexit and security-defence: the more painful issues now emerge


BRUSSELS – Trade, border and citizen rights’ issues have dominated the EU’s Brexit talks with London for the past year. And as Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator has recently noted, most of the Brexit dossier today is “75 percent green” and thus good to go (provided the circus which is now 10 Downing Street manages to get its act together enough to vote on the deal’s elements).

The remaining 25 percent “red” portion of the dossier, however, contains a couple of highly sensitive topics that await resolution. One is the Ireland-North Ireland border and the other, more strategic issue is the matter of Europe’s future security and defence relations with the UK.

Defence was pushed to the back of the shelf by the more urgent need to tackle the complexities of future EU-UK trade, but also because London soon let it be known after its Brexit referendum in June 2016 that it envisioned a close defence and security relationship with the EU. The two sides thus concentrated on Brexit’s thornier economic issues.

But it is now increasingly evident that security carries its thorns as well – with the sharper of them lying in defence industrial and economic realms.

This came into clear focus during a panel discussion on 14 May here organised by the union’s official think-tank, the EU Institute for Security Studies featuring Barnier and Federica Mogherini, the EU’s top security and defence policy chief.

Both expounded on the need for close cooperation with London on defence and security matters, but both also slapped down any UK illusions about going it alone on security or about getting any undue access or influence over the EU’s evolving defence market and capabilities.

“Splendid isolation is not an option for the UK: you can try, but it is doubtful the rest of the world would let you,” said Mogherini.

According to Mogherini, future EU-UK defence cooperation will be based on the “strongest possible channels of communication”, the UK’s operational participation in EU-led security and defence missions, and links to the European Defence Agency’s research efforts and “selected” PESCO (permanent structured cooperation in defence) projects.

But she also warned that these forms of cooperation would be with the UK as a distinct non-EU member.

“Our security is connected and I have little doubt that our future is one of close cooperation – strong and strategic – but it will be with the UK as a third country. The EU does not offer observer status [within the Council of Ministers]. You can have strong consultation procedures, but decision-making and debate is for members only. Half-membership is not possible in any way.”

That future outsider status was hammered home by Barnier, particularly regarding the EU’s large industrial programmes in defence and security such as Galileo, the EU’s multi-billion euro system of earth observation satellites in which large UK aerospace and defence companies are major players – until after Brexit.

“The UK must assume all the consequences of its decision. It decided to leave 750 international agreements on the day of Brexit, and that includes Galileo,” declared Barnier. “Yes, we need to put Galileo and UK on a new basis but we also have to protect the EU and maintain its autonomy. Third-countries and their companies cannot participate in the manufacture of sensitive equipment for it. The UK knew that when it decided to leave the union.”


Establishing stronger links with European Defence Agency, as London desires, should pose few problems. Outsiders Norway and Switzerland have close “association” agreements with the agency that allows them to fully participate in – but not shape – its research projects. Indeed, Oslo is present in more projects than many of the EDA’s own members. Enabling UK to do the same should be easy enough. The irony of doing so will not be lost on anyone, however, given that the UK spurned most EDA research projects prior to Brexit and, worse, was the sole EU country to block any increase in the agency’s budgets for six years until finally relenting after Brexit’s outcome became clear.

Things will get more complicated, though, for UK participation in security-sensitive programmes such as Galileo or within PESCO. Sharing Galileo’s classified data-streams for public-sector users will require a binding legal arrangement with London, for instance.

As for UK companies’ participation in PESCO projects, this will be the most complicated of all because those projects will be bound by the EU’s financial, legal and, most important, competition rules governing procurement, commercialisation, intellectual property protection and so on. It is hard to imagine other EU countries within a given PESCO project accepting the participation of non-EU UK companies unless the latter strictly adhere to the same rules. That is one of the major defence challenges ahead for the remainder of the Brexit talks – and an economic-ideological quandary for London.

Brussels is in the stronger negotiating position but it should not press its advantage too brutally in this area: both sides need each other to protect their region of the world against an increasingly hostile environment. ##


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