In April 2019, MS&T published online an article entitled The Brexit Impacts on UK-EU-NATO Training, which subsequently appeared in Issue 2/2019. At that time, Theresa May was the UK’s Prime Minister, and Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty (UK’s withdrawal from the European Union) had been triggered, leading to a planned departure date of 29th March 2019, subsequently delayed to 12th April. Since then, a lot of water has flowed under the Brexit bridge with the UK now due to leave the EU on 31st January 2020. The author of the original article, Dim Jones, brings us up to date:

Nine Turbulent Months

During the past nine months, several notable ‘Brexit events’ have taken place: the Withdrawal Agreement, and associated Political Declaration, negotiated with the EU by Theresa May’s government, failed to pass the House of Commons, despite three attempts; the departure date was consequently further delayed to 31st October; Theresa May was ultimately forced from office, to be replaced as Leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister by Boris Johnson; Boris Johnson negotiated a new Withdrawal Agreement with the EU which, although it passed the House of Commons, was stymied by delaying tactics from both opposition and allied parties and Conservative back-bench ‘remainer rebels’; the departure date was, once again, delayed to 31st January 2020; with the eventual support of the opposition parties, Boris Johnson called a General Election on 12th December, which was fought – not exclusively but significantly – on the Brexit issue, and which resulted in a resounding victory for the Conservatives, with an overall majority in the House of Commons of 80; and the revised Withdrawal Agreement passed through both Houses of Parliament in January 2020, paving the way for a final departure from the EU at 2300 GMT on 31st January.

What Has Been Agreed?

So, what does all this mean for UK Defence? The short answer, at this point, is very little. The Withdrawal Agreement provides for a ‘transition period’ during which the detail of the UK’s future relationship with the EU will be thrashed out; this is due to end on 31st December 2020. The current EU position is that this gives insufficient time to conclude negotiations; the UK Government’s position is that there will be no further extension and that, if an agreement has not been reached by 31st December, the UK will revert to World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules. The discussions will centre on trade policy but, in the inevitable give, take and compromise, several other areas will be up for negotiation: notably citizens’ rights, free movement of people, financial provision, and fishing rights, to name but a few. The main difference between the May and Johnson Withdrawal Agreements is the removal of the ‘Irish Backstop’, which would have tied the UK into a customs union and its regulatory alignment with the EU in the event of no agreed solution being found for the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic - although the ramifications of the alternative solution are as yet far from clear. At the end of the transition period, the UK will be no longer be in either the EU Single Market or its customs union.

The Defence Context

In terms of defence and security, the Withdrawal Agreement makes it clear that: “after Brexit, the UK will retain sovereignty over its defence policy and its armed forces. The UK will be leaving the EU's common security and defence structures, and our future relationship with those structures will be as a third country. The UK will pursue a distinctive, independent, and sovereign foreign and defence policy that meets British interests and promotes our values.” House of Commons Briefing Paper No 8676, dated 30th October 2019 and Entitled: “Brexit and UK Defence – An Explainer” further states that: “If the UK leaves with a deal, the revised Political Declaration published on 17 October 2019 will form the basis of negotiations for future cooperation. However, that Declaration has no legal basis and is, at present, a broad framework of aspirations. During the transition period, the EU’s provisions on Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) will continue to apply to the UK, unless an agreement on the future EU-UK relationship is reached and becomes applicable during that period. In the event of such an agreement, CFSP and CSDP treaty provisions… will cease to apply to the UK. If the UK leaves the EU with no deal, [it]… would lose access to CFSP and CSDP decision-making mechanisms used to co-ordinate joint responses to foreign policy challenges across all EU Member States. There are also questions around intelligence sharing among the EU member states, if there is no legal mechanism in place to share classified information. For the UK’s armed forces more specifically the impact could, arguably, be relatively limited. The most immediate implication is that the UK would no longer be able to participate in, or assume command responsibility for, any CSDP missions or the EU battlegroups. In terms of capability development, the UK would no longer be able to participate in the European Defence Agency (EDA), or any projects currently underway under the pilot scheme for the European Defence Fund.”

So What for Simulation, Training & Operations?

What does this mean in terms of operations and training opportunities? Deal or No Deal, the UK will remain a member of NATO, and it is worth remembering that 22 of the 28 EU Member States are also NATO allies (21 of 27 on 1st February). There will, therefore, be no reduction in NATO training opportunities, nor will there be a bar to mutually beneficial bilateral training agreements with any other nation. The UK has consistently declined to become involved in planning for any form of ‘EU Defence Force’, on the grounds that such a force would undermine NATO. Such a force has long been an aspiration of some members, notably France and Germany. However, since the majority of NATO/EU nations currently fail to satisfy the NATO-agreed defence expenditure target of 2% of GDP (in the case of Germany by a significant margin) it is difficult to see where the funds for an EU force would come from.

Finally, the House of Commons ‘Explainer’ observes that: “...the UK’s ability to project military power would remain largely unaffected at this [exit with no deal] time. ‘Hard’ power would continue to be the purview of NATO or ‘coalitions of the willing’; while any shortfalls in soft power projection could be compensated for through other multilateral or bilateral frameworks. Defence cooperation could continue through bilateral or multilateral arrangements. Intelligence sharing would also continue bilaterally or through the Five Eyes network. The impact of no longer being able to participate in the EDA or the pilot stages of the European Defence Fund is also debatable given that 90% of the UK’s defence industrial collaboration with other European countries is estimated to take place on a bilateral or multilateral basis. And in the longer term the UK could still seek to re-negotiate its participation in EU military operations and EU capability development programmes… via a series of third-party framework agreements. Such negotiations would be framed in much the same way as they would under any Brexit deal.”

In Summary

In sum then, 31st January 2020 marks a major political milestone. However, the fine detail of the UK’s future relationship with the EU has yet to be hammered out; there remains a lot of water to flow under the Brexit bridge still yet, although it seems unlikely at this point that defence and security will be a major bargaining chip. For those sufficiently interested in the detail, but insufficiently motivated to delve into the small print of the Withdrawal Agreement itself, the ‘Brexit Defence Explainer’ can be found at: https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/CBP-8676