EU-UK defence cooperation could be difficult

Under the “lead-nation” rotation plan for the EU battlegroups, it will be Britain’s turn to provide the bulk of the troops from July 2019 – i.e. just a few months after it definitely leaves the bloc. While a defence cooperation agreement could be reached by this time, it is highly unlikely that Britain will be allowed to take over the leadership of the EU battlegroups.


nder current EU battlegroups status, only Member States and those preparing to become Member States can participate in EU battlegroups, let alone take the lead. Moreover, under the impetus of the Macron-Merkel couple, Member States have taken advantage of Brexit to strengthen defence and security ties, giving a renewed purpose to EU defence structures and a renewed vision of unity to the EU27. Giving the lead to the UK would be highly contradictory. It would mean losing defence autonomy and weakening the original purpose of the EU battlegroups, at a time when the EU27 are actually considering for the first time setting up military headquarters to facilitate their deployment.

EU and UK high-ranking officials are already making a stand on this sensitive matter. High Representative Federica Mogherini gave clear indication that if the UK is allowed to still take part in EU military missions, it will not be allowed to enjoy the same status or to take part in the decisions. Others argue that allowing the UK to remain a close ally in defence and security would be in the EU’s best interest. Indeed, as a major military player, Britain could provide unmatched military equipment and expertise. However, according to a defense expert in the German parliament, such an arrangement would send a strong signal that the EU and the UK would continue to work together closely on defense after Brexit and could serve as a model for future defence cooperation with non-EU countries such as Tunisia, Israel or Turkey. These repercussions are not to be taken lightly.

Whatever decision is taken on the EU battlegroups, it will set the course of the future Europe of Defence. UK plays a significant – if not indispensable – role in other EU military missions already underway as part of the Common Security and Defense Policy, that will have to be reviewed due to Brexit: the UK currently leads the EU’s Atlanta counter-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia, commanding the operation from a base at Northwood, on the northern outskirts of London. It also plays a crucial part in Operation Sophia, which aims to counter migrant trafficking in the Mediterranean Sea and is under the command of the Italian military. And while the UK committed to stay involved in European peace security after Brexit, it is highly unlikely that the country will be willing to continue to take part in EU military missions in the future if it cannot secure more involvement in decision-making and control of missions than is normally offered to third countries

Although the exact nature of the EU-UK defence cooperation and commitments post-2019 are to be determined in the second phase of negotiations, it seems that the two parties are already playing chess to secure a strategic position.

Photo credit : © Fotolia_Pixelbliss – Purchased rights / Neosema dans le cadre de la création

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