Britain, Brexit and NATO 2030

By David Richards and Julian Lindley-French

“In absolute terms, the United Kingdom spent by far the most on defence (EUR 47 billion in 2016). This represents around a quarter (23.7%) of the total EU expenditure on defence (i.e. around EUR 200 billion in 2016)”.

Defence: Member-States’ Spending, European Parliament, May 2018

What could a toxic Brexit mean for NATO? One of the essential messages of the NATO Reflection Group’s (NRG) NATO 2030: United for a New Era, which has just been delivered to Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, is that there can be no transatlantic solidarity without European solidarity.  However, what is the point of European solidarity without Britain? It would be naïve in the extreme to believe the current tensions over a trade deal between the EU and Britain will not leak into other areas of policy. This could include London’s commitment to the defence of those countries perceived to be punishing the British for Brexit. 

First, Britain matters. In November, Boris Johnson announced that Britain will increase its defence expenditure by some 10% over the coming four years.  By 2024 Britain will spend some 2.12% of a $3 trillion (€3.3 trillion) economy on defence with a large part of the planned £16.5bn ($21.7bn, €17.9bn) increase spent on modernising its force posture. This compares with an average of 1.55% GDP on defence across the rest of NATO Europe.  In 2018 Britain already represented almost 25% of the entire defence investment made across the EU.  Britain’s relative defence weight has already increased with its departure from the EU and will increase further over the next four years as the British defence budget grows from the current £41.5bn ($55.7bn, €45.1bn) in 2020 to £51.7bn ($68.1bn, €56.2bn) by 2024. With Britain gone the EU 27 now spend some £160bn ($210bn, €173.7bn) which is a significant amount. However, in spite of efforts to get more ‘bang’ out of each euro-buck spent, the EU remains a woefully inefficient defence spender because of the way many of its member-states ‘invest’ in defence.  Consequently, Britain’s relative importance to the defence of Europe will increase over the coming years, the more so if the costs of the COVID-19 crisis see already constrained Continental European defence expenditure cut further. 

Second, the US must reaffirm the importance of Britain in NATO. To paraphrase Dean Acheson, Britain has lost a Union but has yet to find a role.  The Biden Administration will need Britain to be fully committed to NATO and the defence of Europe if it is to ease the burdens on the US for the defence of Europe. Therefore, the Biden administration should move quickly to co-opt Britain in the drafting of a new NATO Strategic Concept.  A new Strategic Concept would not only put Brexit in its proper strategic context, but also enable post-Brexit Britain to play a leading role in better preparing the Alliance to meet twenty-first century challenges. 

Third, Brexit could accelerate the decoupling of NATO. The US-UK Special Relationship remains the defence and intelligence foundation of the Alliance. However, the US-German strategic partnership is fast becoming the Alliance’s essential political relationship, even if Berlin like the EU still clings to the false belief it can generate geopolitical weight without concomitant hard power.  Under the guise of strategic autonomy there are also those on the Continent, most notably the French, who seemingly cling to the idea of an alternative European defence.  The consequence? Over time the Americans and British could quietly decouple from the land defence of Europe. Thankfully, Berlin is alive to the danger and has reaffirmed its commitment to Atlanticism. In a speech last month German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was clear: “The idea of strategic autonomy for Europe goes too far if it is taken to mean that we could guarantee security, stability and prosperity in Europe without NATO and without the US. That is an illusion”.  Far from fearing a closer Berlin-Washington relationship London should do all in its still considerable power to foster it. At the same time, Berlin must also recognise the importance of Britain. 

Fourth, France must decide if it is Britain’s friend or not friend.  The hard-line position Paris has adopted over Brexit threatens to cripple the ever-fractious but vital Franco-British strategic partnership. Unfortunately, NATO 2030 will only ever be realised if US and European forces can work together in the most extreme of crises. Only the British and the French enjoy the strategic culture and understanding of force upon force on which any such ‘interoperability’ will depend. This is because the Franco-British defence pact is the hard, advanced military core of NATO’s European pillar. In November 2010, Europe’s two nuclear powers signed the Lancaster House Treaty which committed London and Paris to closer security and defence co-operation.  In the wake of Brexit the treaty should ideally be updated and expanded to include Berlin, Madrid, Rome and Warsaw. Other Europeans may object, but past experience suggests it is only when Europe’s larger states agree that Europe’s defence is strengthened, and NATO with it.  However, any such progress will only be possible if France stops seeking to punish Britain for Brexit. 

Implicit in NATO 2030 is a new defence ‘architecture’ for a new NATO that transforms Europe’s defence across a complex landscape of danger which could see the Alliance facing multiple high-level threats simultaneously.  For the balance to be struck between strategy, affordability, capability and shared risk and cost implicit in the NRG’s NATO 2030report a new European force will be needed.  This NATO European Future Force will need to be sufficiently capable to act as a European First Responder in any crisis scenario, particularly so if the Americans are busy elsewhere in the world. It would need to be demonstrably capable of both deterring aggression from NATO’s east and supporting front-line Allied nations to NATO’s south.  Consequently, thus this super-coalition of NATO Europeans would need to demonstrably operate to effect across air, sea, land, cyber, space, information and knowledge. Without a Britain fully committed to the defence of Europe any such force would simply be yet another European defence pipe-dream, and NATO 2030 with it. 

Britain led the creation of NATO in 1949, it must now help lead the way to NATO 2030. However, Britain, Brexit and NATO are inseparable and must be seen as such.  Deal or no deal years of Brexit political turbulence lie ahead and it will affect the Alliance. Therefore, whatever happens in the coming weeks this a moment for cool heads in Britain and amongst fellow Europeans.  In the dangerous world of which Europe is a part Brexit is a strategic sideshow. For the sake of NATO and the future defence of Europe it is time that Allies and Partners remember precisely that.  

David Richards and Julian Lindley-French

General The Lord Richards of Herstmonceux is the former Chief of the Defence Staff of the United Kingdom. Professor Julian Lindley-French is Chair of The Alphen Group of strategy and defence experts and author of the forthcoming Oxford book, “Future War and the Defence of Europe”.