The Impact of Brexit on European and NATO Defense: Key Considerations


2017-08-25 By Robbin Laird

There seems to be a growing and vast literature on Brexit: pro and con, and increasingly framing the negotiations and the way ahead.

And this could prove to be longer than many people believe.

Article 50, the exit clause, in the European treaty, allows for continued negotiations after the initial two year period.

And given the speed of the Brussels bureaucracy this is probably already a fast track.

A clear impact of Brexit is focusing a considerable degree of attention on negotiations with the framework already established by the European Union and sorting out how a Brexit Britain meshes with this framework.

But lost in all of this is the broader strategic context.

Leaving aside the obvious point, that the relationship of Britain (and the internal dynamics within Britain to the EU, which is not the same thing) to continental Europe is clearly in play once again.

There is a very long history of British relationships with the continent; the EU settlement provided the latest approach to that relationship; now Brexit opens the fundamental question of the broader strategic realtiionship to the continent.

And no question is more important in this regard than defense. 

The Russian challenge is clear and significant.  Northern Europe is clearly focused on sorting through ways to defend their nations dealing with the threat from Russia, including the soft underbelly of the Baltics.

The recent Chinese-Russian naval exercise in the Baltic Sea is yet the latest reminder of the reach Russia wishes to have in determining the fate and future of Northern Europe.

For the UK, a major focus of their defense modernization approach focuses on this part of Europe. 

Assuming that Brexit exit costs are manageable, the significant infrastructure rebuild in the UK clearly supports a Northern European revamp of defense capabilities. Notably, the coming of the P-8, the Queen Elizabeth carriers and the F-35 are all part of this effort.

The heart of credible European defense has been the UK-French relationship.

But what will this relationship look like concretely a decade from now?

And underlying all of this is the unanswered question of the industrial basis for European defense.

UK firms and their relationships on the continent have been an essential part of shaping a modern defense industrial capability.

What will be the fate of these relationships?

What will Thales look like after Brexit?

What will Airbus, including both the commercial and defense side, look like after Brexit?

Obviously, a key issue is how the working relationships within the continent and both a procurement or customer side as well as a development and production side look like moving ahead post-Brexit.

And the Russian challenge is not going away while Brussels and London negotiate.