But Brexit could make budding entente a lot less cordiale.
As Britain prepares to withdraw from the European Union, it is cultivating closer military ties with the Continent.
The one thing that could scupper these efforts is what’s motivating them: Brexit. If talks on Britain’s departure from the EU descend into acrimony, or no final deal is reached, it will be hard for either side to get closer on the military front.
For now, Britain is pushing ahead on security, even as Brexit negotiators struggle to make progress. In keeping with Prime Minister Theresa May’s mantra that Britain is leaving the EU but not Europe, the U.K. is sending strong signals it remains committed to the defense of the Continent. Britain’s chief of the defense staff was recently elected as the head of NATO’s military committee. British Cabinet ministers have floated the idea of David Cameron taking over as the Atlantic alliance’s secretary-general.
Britain is also working to boost bilateral defense cooperation with Continental allies — above all France, Europe’s other military heavyweight. At a Franco-British summit in January intended to be higher in ambition and wider in scope than previous such events, officials will discuss how to turn the Combined Joint Expeditionary Force the two countries have established over the past few years into a major battle-ready unit.
Having long been cool on common EU defense initiatives, which they saw as undermining NATO, British officials have warmed to the idea. They say they want a special military relationship with the bloc after Brexit. That could enable the U.K. to keep taking part in EU military missions, as long as it was involved in operational planning. Multiple EU nations are also pushing to find ways to keep London as involved as possible in the bloc’s military endeavors, although some EU officials say Britain could not be involved in military decision-making as a non-member.
“Britain’s commitment to European defense is not just in the interests of the EU but also of the U.K.” — Tom Tugendhat, Conservative chairman of the U.K. Foreign Affairs Select Committee
For European allies, Britain has a lot to offer in military terms. It is the only European power to extend its nuclear umbrella over other NATO members. It has troops in the Baltics as part of NATO efforts to deter Russian aggression. It leads the EU’s Atalanta counter-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia and plays a significant part in Operation Sophia, which aims to counter migrant trafficking in the Mediterranean Sea.
There would also be benefits for London in a new special military relationship with the EU. Brussels is ramping up plans for joint spending on defense procurement and British companies would like a slice of that pie.
EU officials are waiting to see how the Brexit process plays out. If cross-Channel relations sour, there will be little appetite in Brussels or major capitals for developing a new defense partnership with the U.K., despite its military clout. The feeling is much the same on the British side.
“Politically, in these circumstances, it will be much more difficult for us on security and defense cooperation with the EU — it does risk being infected,” one U.K. defense official said.
Though Donald Trump is hard to predict, Britain’s closest defense and security partner will almost certainly remain the United States, U.K. officials say. The “five-eyes” intelligence-sharing network between the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand is unparalleled in its depth. British ministers also hope a post-Brexit U.S.-U.K. free trade deal could further open the United States’ defense market to British firms like BAE Systems.
But Britain’s also pushing to retain influence in Europe as it pulls out of the EU — and building defense ties is central to that effort, particularly with France.
“Britain’s commitment to European defense is not just in the interests of the EU but also of the U.K.,” said Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in the House of Commons and a former British Army officer.
Source: Tom Mctague and Nicholas Vinocur