Qioptiq logo Raytheon

Collateral Damage of BREXIT By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

euflgThe parting shot from my last commentary piece on Friday was to suggest that as we are forced to both listen and read a seemingly endless stream of differing views and arguments for and against our retaining EU membership the only thing that is certain [in the EU membership referendum debate] is that it is uncertainty is what prevails in the minds of most voters.

As I said last week, it seems to me that the majority of the electorate have little idea how they should vote because neither of the two competing arguments being elaborated by the ‘stay-in’ or ‘leave’ camps has yet to provide a sufficient level of clarity that would allow for proper decision, whatever that is, to be made by voters.

I ended by saying that ‘I fear the worst’ and that whichever way the vote goes in June will most likely be the ‘wrong decision’ made for maybe the ‘wrong reasons’ by an electorate that has, in my personal recollection, never before in history been faced with such a difficult and important decision to make and yet was so unfit for purpose to so do because they were not in possession of sufficient ‘facts’ from either side in this debate.

Here I will choose to stay out of the economic, trade, migration and various political arguments and disagreements in order to concentrate almost entirely of how a potential vote to leave the EU might impact on defence, national security and future UK influence.

I will start by reminding that in an interview with the Guardian three years ago Thomas de Maiziere, then Federal Minister of Defence in Germany and who is today the Federal Minister of the Interior, told his interviewer that British Prime Minister David Cameron “did not appear to have recognised the serious consequences for Britain, Europe and NATO that would potentially flow from our [the UK] deciding to leave the European Union. Two years on from when that interview was conducted I beg to differ believing that the Prime Minister well knows the potential consequences of Britain leaving the EU in all its many forms.

Herr de Maiziere insisted the defence implications for Britain, Europe and NATO would be profound and that it would “weaken NATO, weaken the British influence within NATO” and “that from a military point of view the disadvantages for Great Britain would be bigger than the advantages”. I completely agree.

How nice it would be if we were able to vote on parts of the EU debate rather than being forced to vote on the whole. If that was so then on some aspects such as defence, security and influence I would have no hesitation in supporting the stay-in the EU argument. In defence and security I would do this not just because of the seemingly selfish argument of thinking only of what is in the best interests of UK but also because of what is best for our allies in the rest of Europe as well.

Yes, I know full well that it is NATO that has provided the strength of purpose and the surety that has maintained peace in Europe since the end of hostilities in 1945 and all the way through the ‘Cold War’ period. But while that is a fact that can hardly be disputed it is equally true to say that it is the European Union and its predecessor’s organisation that has maintained the necessary political harmony that continues to be a prerequisite for stability in Europe.

A little history might help here. It was Winston Churchill who in 1946 delivered the famous speech, at the University of Zurich, in which he advocated a ‘United States of Europe’, urging Europeans to turn their backs on the horrors of the past and look to the future. He declared that Europe could not afford to drag forward the hatred and revenge which sprung from the injuries of the past, and that the first step to recreate the ‘European family’ of justice, mercy and freedom was “to build a kind of United States of Europe. In this way only will hundreds of millions of toilers be able to regain the simple joys and hopes which make life worth living”.

Yes, I know full well that Churchill probably never envisaged that quite so much national sovereignty would be handed over to Brussels or that eventually, there might be 28 member states of what we now call the European Union as opposed to the handful envisaged by the founding fathers. He would have been against loss of sovereignty and most probably horrified at the thought of the idea of creating a political union just as he would also have been about the creation of a single currency.

For all that it was Winston Churchill along with Jean Monnet and the founders of the Common Market that advocated European integration in some form in the sincere hope of preventing the atrocities from two world wars ever happening again had great foresight. It was after all Winston Churchill who called for the creation of a Council of Europe as a first step and in 1948, at The Hague, spoke in front of 800 delegates from the many European countries that met and with him being honorary president at what was called the Grand Congress of Europe. The result of this work was to the creation of the Council of Europe itself and on 5 May 1949 the first meeting of this was attended by Churchill himself.


Winston Churchill’s call to action can be seen as propelling the further integration that was agreed upon during the Messina Conference in 1955 and that led to the Treaty of Rome two years later. Interestingly and although the notion has and continues to be abhorrent to us today, it was also Winston Churchill who was the first politicians to moot the idea of a ‘European army’ designed to protect the continent and provide European diplomacy with some muscle. I think that most in these islands of ours today agree that NATO is the best instrument for the defence of Europe and that the idea of a European Army lacks credibility. Furthermore, it was Churchill who in 1949 championed the idea of the European Court of Human Rights and which was eventually created in 1959 although I doubt that he envisaged this ever having greater powers than our own parliament of sovereign state.


Churchill did not always get it right but in providing the inspiration to the people of Europe and with this having been the binding factor in the allied fight against Nazism and Fascism, it was hardly surprising that the man we owe so much too should have also been the driving force behind European integration and, during the last ten years of his political influence between 1945 to 1955, was an active fighter for its cause. Founding

The UK currently enjoys considerable influence in the EU just as it does through many parts of the rest of the world. We are no longer a world power but we are respected for what we do and we remain the fifth or sixth largest economy in the world. Our global sphere of influence would in my view be diminished if the UK electorate voted to leave the EU no matter how strong our international presence remained. There are of course increasing risks to the UK’s influence even if we decide to stay inside the EU.


So how does all this relate to the issue we face today in having to soon decide how to vote and where does defence and national security fit into this particular perspective? All threats made by a would-be enemy such as Russia, ISIL, state or non-state actors, terrorists or whoever and that are made against any NATO member state is enshrined in Article 5 of the NATO Charter as being that an attack against one ally is to be considered an attack against all NATO member states. Most, although not yet all, members of the EU are also members of NATO and collective defence argument that is enshrined in Article 5 of the NATO Charter is tightly taken for granted by them. But if the UK as the single largest contributor to NATO finds itself being outside of the EU one day then I fear that our power and influence within NATO and across many parts of the world will also suffer.


NATO’s job is to provide the ability to counter threats made against all of its members and to provide the necessary level of deterrence that ensures a would-be enemy knows that NATO will act if one of its members is threatened. Moreover, it could also be said that NATO’s job is to provide military certainty whereas it is part of the EU’s job to provide a level of security to society and the system of democracy that we choose. I certainly believe that our security and our ability to play the important role that we have in diplomacy and in future international negotiation will be negatively impacted if we find ourselves outside of the EU. Yes, I know that the views expressed by the US, China and others at the G-20 Summit over this weekend showing real concern about the negative impact of Britain outside of the EU were most probably politically inspired but for all that a Britain outside the EU would, as Lord Bramall said last week, would affect the whole balance of power and equilibrium in the Western World.


NATO is of course there to be the pinnacle of western defence and so it will be but a Britain that lacks global influence and that prefers to be outside of the EU will leave us at the mercy of collective decisions of others that can and undoubtedly will impact on our own national security. I am not keen on quoting the PM in this debate but on this one aspect I will when he says that “the challenges of global aggression and international terrorism are global and transnational and Britain cannot afford to be alone”. The other side of the argument of course is what would be the impact be of an EU without Britain as a member – smaller and very much weaker – again, playing into the hands of just what Mr. Putin would love to see. I for one would bet that if he was allowed a vote in the UK referendum that Vladimir Putin would be in absolute favour of Britain leaving the EU.


The British Prime Minister’s view is that in a world where Russia is invading Ukraine and threatening other former Soviet and now sovereign Eastern European states and where a rogue nation such as North Korea is openly testing offensive ballistic and nuclear weapons we need to stand together as one to face such aggression. I agree and while the rub of the more open argument in the defence related sphere relates to influence, policing and judicial arguments there is a military aspect as well. For instance, the UK military not only conducts mission training with many of its European NATO allies they share and collaborate in the formation of ideas and in designing and manufacturing defence capability. Why on earth would they wish to collaborate with a Britain outside of the EU in quite the same way? Why would the French and the British wish to continue collaborating under the auspices of the Lancaster House treaty signed in 2010 and that so far has led to the launch of a European unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) involving French and British Governments and BAE Systems and Dassault and that is supposed to be the harbinger of even greater defence cooperation? Would projects like this continue and if not would the UK government be prepared to support and fund lone development of large military air capability projects on our own? I fancy the answer to both questions posed is ‘NONE’. Could I imagine for one moment that a UK designed and built ‘fifth generation’ combat jet would ever emerge from Britain alone or that, being outside of the EU, that France or Germany would wish to have Britain as a partner? No I cannot.


And what about future military cooperation between Britain and its EU allies? Yes, there is no reason to suspect that under the auspices of NATO large military exercises between member states won’t continue going on but will the level of trust be the same? I doubt it.


Most of all though it is the potential loss of influence that worries me most about a Britain outside of the EU. Undoubtedly the UK would lose influence in terms of international diplomacy and on bodies such as the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) where collaboration by EU states helped the UK Government to influence international negotiations. The UK may also find its diplomatic hand is also reduced as the collective body of EU member states determines to play a larger hand on the world stage. While the UK would of course remain a significant military partner for the US, it may be less able to leverage this to pursue broader international objectives and when it comes to both soft and hard power and defence diplomacy it could well find itself as no longer being the European partner of choice on NATO related matters.

Acting outside of the EU may also require that the UK could need to increase its aid budget even further. And if the UK no longer co-ordinated policy with that of EU members states it could find itself losing access to these shared tools. However, one must accept that a great many UK defence and military based actions are generally taken in conjunction with the US Government as a first choice rather than those of EU member states.

What about the other way round, would the EU lose much by BREXIT? Without the UK’s still large scale defence capacity and capability together with its vast  foreign policy experience in the region it is probably true to suggest that the EU’s voice in the Middle East would be reduced. No bad thing I hear you say but be careful what you wish for. Of course, it can also be argued that due to the strength of relationship built up over two generations Brexit would make little difference to what the UK is able to do in the region in terms of providing capability and support. In any event, with the US remaining the dominant western power in the region the UK will be more than able to continue co-ordinate its Middle East policies with those of the US and which it has done very successfully for many years past.

In terms of military power and projection, a UK withdrawal from the EU would more likely place the EU at a greater disadvantage in that they have far fewer assets and capabilities at their disposal, particularly certain strategic assets such as tactical airlift and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets.

The bottom lie of Brexit is probably that the UK’s ability to project military power, both hard and soft power, would be largely unaffected and that if there were to be military shortfalls these could be compensated through new bilateral arrangements being made. But absolutely nothing can be certain. Ensuring the success of Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) operations remains in the UK’s interests of course but outside the EU the UK could be side-lined in terms of its participation being pushed to being that of merely a third party state.

I started with comments from former German Federal Minister of Defence Thomas de Maiziere and I will also finish this commentary with remarks made by him. In making the earlier comments De Maizière said that he knew he was intervening in a domestic debate, but argued that it was far too important to stand to one side, particularly with the potential military consequences for the UK’s standing in the world. He said Britain leaving the EU would be “a great disappointment to us” but that it would also damage the country’s own international standing. “I am not talking about economic issues or social issues, or whether you drive on the left or the right side of the road, I am talking about security. I am talking about British influence beyond its own borders. I think it is part of the British tradition that Britain has to play a role in the world. Outside the EU it would not lose a role, but it would reduce their own influence and this cannot be in the interests of Great Britain.

I have to say that I completely agree with sentiments made by Herr De Maiziere and particularly when he says that “we in Germany would lose a strong partner for a pro-Atlantic co-operation with America and a pragmatic British way to deal with security issues.” He could have added our long success in international diplomacy, the importance and value that EU governments place on our military and those that lead it, on how we train our armed forces, on our unique capability and our complete understanding of security issues and threats.

The other side of the coin is what we potentially lose from seeking to be more politically independent of our military allies, the potential for reduced trust, reduced influence and ability to lead, increased dependence on the US, the potential to be isolated from issues that involve the EU and our voice being silenced, a possible unwillingness of EU member states to partner with us in future defence capability research, development cooperation and partnership and our voice in NATO being potentially weakened. All of this before we even begin to think about the potential impacts on our economy of being outside the EU.

Thomas de Maiziere said that Britain leaving the EU “would weaken NATO and that it would weaken the British influence within NATO”. I have to say that I fear he is right and I would regret that he is. He said that “I think from a military point of view the disadvantages for Great Britain would be bigger than the advantages” adding that these issues are far too important to remain silent on, because of the [potential] implications they might have on the region’s future stability.

These are certainly not issues that can be buried under the carpet as they are all about security in an increasingly dangerous and unstable world.

Of course I understand all that is wrong about the EU as a whole and I share many of the same views espoused by those that wish to see more policy decisions and sovereignty returned from Brussels to Westminster. I have always been against political union and although I would have wished the single currency to work in the interest of those that signed up to it I have never believed that it was in the greater interests of the majority of EU member states. But when we talk about security in Europe we must remember the lessons of the past and that security in Europe works best when it is collective security as opposed to being done in isolation.

Thomas de Maiziere was making a strong point about British influence being potentially lost beyond its own borders. Outside the EU he said while “it would not lose a role but it would see reduced influence”. That he said “cannot be in the interests of Great Britain”. On that much I absolutely agree.

(Commentary will return of March 2nd)

CHW (London – 29th February 2016)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS


Tel: 07710-779785

Back to article list