Britain’s exit from the European Union (EU) risks undermining Europe’s new defense strategy, days before NATO and EU governments sign a landmark pact to confront a range of threats from Russia to the Mediterranean, officials say.
The European Union and the United States plan to use two separate EU and NATO summits in the coming days to push reforms of the West’s two main security pillars, aimed at reducing Europe’s reliance on Washington in its own neighborhood.
“Things are going to be a lot harder,” said a senior Western defense official involved in EU-NATO cooperation. “NATO planned on linking itself up to a stronger European Union, not being the default option for a weakened, divided bloc.”
In the wake of a more aggressive Russia, a migrant crisis and failing states on its borders, the European Union needs to “act autonomously if and when necessary”, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini will tell EU leaders on Tuesday as she unveils a five-year global strategy plan seen by Reuters.
That symbolic step, which urges governments to coordinate defense spending, has strong support from Germany and France. But it could look hollow without Britain, which has the largest military budget in the EU, diplomats say.
One of five EU countries with the resources to command an overseas military mission for the bloc, Britain has been a big contributor to EU-led operations, paying about 15 percent of the costs and providing assets.
Britain also leads the EU’s counter-piracy “Operation Atalanta” mission off the Horn of Africa, has ships patrolling the Mediterranean and is committed to providing troops for EU battle groups, although they have never been deployed.
Mogherini’s proposals to EU leaders will include a call for EU-led missions to work with a new EU border guard to control migrant flows. That could be harder without British ships.
“What Britain does matters,” said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. “Britain is the biggest security provider in Europe.”
But fearing plans for an EU army, Britain has resisted closer European defense cooperation.
British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told Reuters this month: “Nobody wants to see their troops controlled from Brussels.”
Some hope that, without London blocking EU plans, France and Germany could lead what Berlin calls a “common defense union” to develop and share assets.
France has pushed the idea of an EU military headquarters, independent of NATO, to run missions.