Forget global Britain, focus defence on Europe

By Edward Lucas

[First published in The London Times]

Grandstanding in the Indo-Pacific is largely futile and distracts from more pressing issues at home

Which is less realistic, the idea that Brexit is a success or that Britain is a global military power? Last week, as leaks suggested a deal on the Northern Ireland protocol could unblock our relations with Brussels, we trumpeted the dispatch of a token force of tanks to Ukraine. In truth, Brexit is a disaster and our defence is a shambles. Accepting reality could solve both.

Start with Brexit, which has hurt trade, investment and productivity: £40 billion a year in lost tax revenue, a 4 per cent hit to GDP and 6 per cent added to food prices. The benefits are illusory, trivial or distant.
The public realise this. A recent YouGov poll showed that 56 per cent regretted Brexit, with 32 per cent still supporting it. As a parliamentary candidate in central London, I find once-fervent Leavers complaining about the costs, hassle, uncertainty and delay that now blight their personal and professional lives. The most recent example is the cancellation of this summer’s landmark, and lucrative, Masterpiece art fair because of red tape that now hobbles the cross-border movement of artworks and antiques.

Yet any whiff of pragmatism on Europe inflames Conservative hardliners and stokes the Faragist fires on the party’s right flank. Rishi Sunak terms Brexit a “tremendous success”. A trial balloon late last year about a Swiss-style free trade deal with the EU was hauled down as quickly as it was floated. Similarly, Sir Keir Starmer, fixated on winning back the Leave-voting “red wall” seats for Labour, will talk only about making Brexit work, not rethinking it.

To counter this defeatism and timidity, my Lib Dem colleague, the ex-MEP Andrew Duff, and I have outlined a plan to rebuild our relationship with the EU. It centres on a customs union, a free trade deal, new co-operation with regulatory and law-enforcement authorities, and close political ties. We will be negotiating from the bottom of the hole we have dug for ourselves.

But we have, at least potentially, one thing Europe badly needs: military, security and intelligence clout. The past year has exposed the continent’s pitiful, overwhelming dependence on the United States, which has shouldered by far the greatest share of military and financial support for Ukraine. Europe on paper is bigger and richer, but in practice is slow and stingy. That cannot last, especially as the US will be increasingly busy with China in coming years. Someone else must do more. But who? Germany, Europe’s biggest and richest country, disqualifies itself with its dithering. France has serious military capabilities but also lacks credibility, especially in the eastern half of Europe. Other countries are too small or too poor. To become the linchpin of the continent’s security is a huge opportunity, and bargaining chip, for Britain.
But first we must dump another giant illusion, exemplified by Boris Johnson’s grandstanding phrase “Global Britain”. What the government calls the “Indo-Pacific tilt” features defence deals with Australia (on nuclear submarines) and (last week) with Japan. Sharing expertise and training is fine. So is a symbolic Indo-Pacific presence from all western allies. But in terms of real clout, countries like Britain make a marginal difference in these faraway seas and regions. The decisive military and diplomatic effort in building a coalition to constrain China can come only from the United States.

The gallivanting distracts us from more pressing issues at home. We are way behind fast-arming countries such as Poland, which is buying 980 modern battle tanks from South Korea, while we are cutting our elderly Challengers from 227 to 148. The 12 we are sending to Ukraine are an alarmingly large share of the useable fleet, yet too few to make a real difference. Our army, barnacled with Ruritanian traditions that are ideal for state funerals and the forthcoming coronation, is ill-placed to defend us or our allies against a serious “peer” adversary such as Russia. Across all of our defence, we need more stocks of ammunition and spare parts, and the logistics to get them where they are needed. All this can sound dull. Yet without it our exciting warplanes, tanks and ships are just for show.

Over-ambitious thinking and complacency are a lethal combination. Our £55 billion defence budget is staggeringly badly spent. The prime example of this is our floating white elephants: the two aircraft carriers, one broken, both vulnerable, neither relevant to our most pressing defence needs.
Some of our woes, such as the procurement quagmire and the army’s recruitment problems, are too public to hide. Others, such as nuclear submarine availability, are still more worrying, but rightly secret. Yet allies and foes alike know the real picture: a country with hollowed-out armed forces that tries to do too much with too little, and ends up doing it all badly. This impresses nobody.

Instead, we should focus. Our efforts with the British-led, ten-country Joint Expeditionary Force are already making an impact in northern Europe. Nato needs a new Northern Command: we should host it here. Our overriding aim should be to plug the gaps in Europe, not to stretch our spending across every need.

Rethinking defence and deterrence will be painful, after three decades of ducking hard decisions. But focusing on Europe would increase our own security, please the US and repair ties with our key neighbours. That should be worth a few slices of humble pie.