Wednesday, 13 November 2019

75 years after the Liberation of Caen: Britain’s role in the defence of Europe

Today, 75 years ago, British and Canadian forces stood in control of the French city of Caen. The bloody operation to liberate the city, part of Operation Overlord – the military operation designed to push Nazi Germany out of France and the Low Countries – marked a turning point in the British, Canadian and American strategic relationship with mainland Europe. The result of two years of sustained military-industrial build-up and strategic planning, Operation Overlord was the beginning of a European ‘entanglement’ the Atlantic democracies would find it hard to disentangle themselves from.

Ever since, the United Kingdom (UK) has acted as a key pillar in the defence of Europe. Although it could have done little to prevent the Soviet take-over of much of Eastern Europe, Britain has done more than any other country to hold the line to the West. It was the British who paved the way for the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and contributed up to 50,000 soldiers and aircrew to West Germany during the Cold War, with a contingent still based there today.

It was the UK that spearheaded NATO’s ‘enlargement’ to Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s, as well as the move to put an end to Serbian expansion in Kosovo in 1999. More recently, it has been Britain that has both maintained the highest level of European defence spending in NATO and led with the establishment of the Enhanced Forward Presence to deter against possible Russian aggression against the alliance’s eastern flank. And most significantly of all, it has been the UK that has long vowed – unlike France – to use its nuclear arsenal “for the purposes of international defence of the Western Alliance in all circumstances.”

As Britain has sought to leave the EU (now by 31 October 2019), a fundamental debate has opened up – in London, Brussels and other European capitals – as to the future nature of defence relations between the UK and EU. Initially, the UK sought a new relationship where it would be able to throw its weight behind certain EU structures, agencies and operations, similarly as before. All the UK wanted in return was similar strategic and operational control, befitting its position as Europe’s leading defence and intelligence spender.

Whilst this hard-line EU position is legally legitimate, it nonetheless reveals a degree of historical insensitivity towards the sacrifices made by Britain in the pursuit of European peace, and raises pertinent questions concerning the wider impact on European security.

Unfortunately, the EU decided at an early stage that Britain could only be inside, or outside. There was no middle-way. Indeed, Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator, established the parameters at the Munich Security Conference in 2017 when he proclaimed that “the British chose to be on their own again”. He asserted that the UK would simply become “a third country when it comes to defence and security issues.” In time, Britain would be forced out of the EU’s Political and Security Committee, the Galileo Global Navigation Satellite System, the European Defence Agency and existing and future EU military operations, despite the fact that ejecting the UK would be detrimental to the EU’s own capability.

Whilst this hard-line EU position is legally legitimate, it nonetheless reveals a degree of historical insensitivity towards the sacrifices made by Britain in the pursuit of European peace, and raises pertinent questions concerning the wider impact on European security.

Elements of the European elite have even hardened their approach. In 2017, Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, openly questioned the UK (and US) role in the defence of Europe, whilst French President Emmanuel Macron recently advocated cutting British companies out of the bidding process for lucrative European defence contracts under the EU’s new (but modest) Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) initiative. Despite regular reassurances from the EU that the thirty-four various defence programmes constituting the initiative would not interfere with NATO’s established framework for safeguarding European defence, recent calls from the French President for more EU ‘autonomy’ and ‘sovereignty’ suggest otherwise. Both Germany and France appear keener to protect their defence-industrial base than uphold the defence of Europe.

It seems that the precedent is being set for the side-lining of non-EU European security guarantors. Last month, senior US officials also voiced concern over EU plans to restrict non-member involvement in European Defence Agency and PESCO projects, citing the detrimental impact to the alliance’s role safeguarding Europe’s security.

Despite its growing interests in the Indo-Pacific region, it would be erroneous for the UK to let European allies assume the leadership of the defence of Europe. Although some European states are heeding calls from the UK and US to increase their woeful defence budgets, they still lack the will to spend on their own defence. Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s Defence Minister, announced a 10% increase to the defence budget in 2019. However, Germany will still be drastically short of the target it committed to reaching in 2014, namely spending closer to 2% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defence by 2024.


The next UK Prime Minister needs to demonstrate stoic leadership on defence, particularly in the run up to the 2019 NATO Summit to celebrate the alliance’s 70th anniversary.

Moreover, one only has to consider the Royal Air Force’s continued loaning of three Chinook transport helicopters and accompanying support personnel to France’s combat operations in the Sahel – due to the poor levels of serviceability in French airframes –  to appreciate the broader utility the British Armed Forces play in upholding the security of Europeans beyond Europe. EU-member states are only too keen to utilise Britain’s superior capabilities when it suits their particular purpose.

The next UK Prime Minister needs to demonstrate stoic leadership on defence, particularly in the run up to the 2019 NATO Summit to celebrate the alliance’s 70th anniversary. The UK should show a renewed impetus for a NATO lead on European defence across all fronts, whether the northern (the Arctic), southern (Mediterranean and North African), and eastern vectors, in addition to cyber and space, as well as countering so-called ‘non-linear’ threats from strategic competitors like Russia. 

The next British leader also needs to heed mounting domestic pressure to raise British defence spending. Recent calls by Jeremey Hunt, the Foreign Secretary (and contender for the leadership of the Conservative Party), to increase British defence spending to as much as 3% of GDP demonstrates the wider political appetite to raise current spending levels, a sentiment echoed by Penny Mordaunt, the new Defence Secretary. Piling on more pressure on NATO allies in Western and Central Europe to meet their 2014 spending commitment is also increasingly important for NATO solidarity – indeed, the alliance’s very continuity and existence may depend on it.

Finally, the UK’s next Prime Minister should seek to stymie calls for further EU-led European defence integration, particularly if they attempt either to subvert NATO or exclude the UK and other non-EU European countries. Instead, the UK should thrust its weight behind a new NATO framework, which would maintain the linkage between strategic concepts and capability planning to allow for a more sustainable European defence. When considering the threats posed to Europe, particularly in the form of an unpredictable and aggressive Russia on the eastern and northern flanks – in Ukraine, in the Baltic and the Arctic – then having better integrated expeditionary European defence mechanisms allows the UK both space and capital to readjust to changing global geopolitical realities, particularly in the Indo-Pacific.

By responding to the changing geopolitical realities in Europe, the UK can continue to lead in the defence of Europe. The success of ‘Global Britain’ depends on an orderly, stable and secure European mainland. This requires a renewed security and defence role for NATO – not the EU with all of the bluster of new initiatives, yet little in the way of financial commitments from member states.


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