The flags of Britain and Germany. Obviously. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

December 9, 2020   7 mins

With Britain and the European Union still locked in last-minute haggling over fish in particular, and the nature of our future relationship in general, it may seem an inopportune moment to ponder our future strategic ties with the continental bloc. Whatever the merits of the decision to leave — and it was surely a finely-balanced argument either way — a good proportion of the rhetorical arguments deployed against remaining within the union highlighted the bloc’s trend towards consolidation of military and strategic power. 

The hated, notional “EU Army” of Brexiteer campaign literature, much mocked by Remainers, now appears closer to fruition than it did during the referendum debate — at least if we take the ongoing debates over European military autonomy seriously. 

Partly as a result of Brexit itself, and partly due to the withering of US power and attention on Europe’s frontiers, and the consequent opportunistic rushing of rival powers to fill the empty space, a sense of the European Union as a coherent strategic actor is coming into being. One willing and capable of defending its own interests in a hostile world.

Distracted though we are by our various internal crises, the nature of Britain’s strategic relationship with this aspiring power bloc on our doorstep ought therefore to be discussed more seriously than it currently is.

Most of the debate so far on Europe’s defence has circled around Macron’s attention-grabbing and controversial statements on the “brain death” of Nato, and the question of how far European autonomy can be interpreted as a breach with the United States. But a more measured and perhaps more useful insight into European strategic thinking can be obtained by analysis of last week’s blog post by the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell Fontelles. 

Outlining the stakes with remarkable clarity, Borrell observes that “the next two decades are going to be crucial because China will use them to become the first global power”, a noteworthy statement in itself. China’s rise to global dominance, and its corollary, America’s relative decline, are presented as faits accomplis — there is no notion of challenging China’s ascent, as there is in the drive towards great power competition guiding American policy (and thus, we can assume, Britain’s). 

Europe will need to develop the euro as a global currency, he asserts, to avoid “secondary sanctions”, indicating that the trading relationship with China will continue despite expected American pressure. Europe’s strategic task will be to safeguard its position in a new and more competitive global environment, where “if we do not act together now, we will become irrelevant”, and where strategic autonomy is simply “a process of political survival”.

Borrell’s intervention in the debate can be read as an expression of support for Macron in France’s ongoing and rancorous debate with Germany’s Atlanticist foreign policy establishment. Smoothing the troubled waters by assuring Macron’s critics that no-one is calling for leaving the Nato defence umbrella, Borrell nevertheless emphasises that, as a consequence of America’s strategic shift towards the Pacific, the US is more or less inactive on Europe’s troubled peripheries of the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa.  There is no choice but for European nations to take their security into their own hands: “the exclusive reference to NATO is no longer enough.” 

As Borrell notes, “Europe is today confronted on its periphery with a certain number of conflicts or tensions in the Sahel, in Libya and in the Eastern Mediterranean. In these three cases Europe must act even more, and alone, because these problems do not primarily concern the United States.” Indeed, the Eastern Mediterranean crisis within Nato shows that the Atlantic alliance has already been superseded as the dominant security provider for France, Greece and Cyprus, busy constructing a web of alliances with friendly Middle Eastern states instead.

Like the Holy Roman Empire in its dotage, there is no point in these countries formally leaving Nato: it has simply become irrelevant to their most pressing security concerns, and if this trend continues in Europe’s eastern waters, or spreads over the coming decades to the western or central Mediterranean, then we will already be living in a post-Nato continent, with all the risks and opportunities that implies.

Nevertheless, the fierce resistance of German foreign policy thinkers to any strides towards strategic autonomy acts as both a brake on European ambitions and an opportunity for the UK. At a stroke, Brexit deprived Europe of one of its two most powerful military actors, the only nation other than France capable of projecting force far beyond its immediate borders. As an excellent briefing from the German analyst Fabian Zuleeg in the Berlin Policy Journal last year underlined, “the UK has — together with France — been the only big power in the EU that has had a more strategic approach to external affairs and a more global strategic culture than that of other member states.” 

If a French-led European Union intends to establish itself as a strategic military actor on the world stage, then Britain possesses a uniquely attractive hand waiting to be played. Even in their much-denuded current form, our armed forces are a dramatic force multiplier for Europe. If we consider France’s bloody and not especially successful war in the Sahel as a model of a future European campaign, the initial French deployment to Mali in early 2013 relied on RAF C17 strategic airlift capacity to move armoured vehicles into theatre, and even now RAF helicopters are vital for French troops forced to avoid the country’s increasingly dangerous roads.

Only last week, 300 British troops deployed under the aegis of the UN to support what is fundamentally a French war fought for French interests: we are already France’s military partner of choice, and much more diplomatic capital could be made of this relationship than is currently the case.

So far, we have kept our close military relationship with France separate from Brexit negotiations— though whether this has worked to our advantage is doubtful. As Perry Anderson noted recently, the most obvious British card to play against the EU’s punitive Brexit negotiating tactics was a “warning that if pressed on this plane, the EU could suffer security — military and diplomatic — costs as well.”

Yet as he notes, “any such notion, above all, May and her ministers were voluble in disavowing,” and the opportunity to use this gambit has long since been lost. Nevertheless, the lure of Britain’s strategic muscle remains a powerful diplomatic tool waiting to be deployed, and our greatest asset, perhaps unexpectedly, is the fecklessness of Germany’s foreign policy establishment, still trapped in the conceptual safe space of the early 2000s and America’s unipolar moment. 

Merkel is, fundamentally, a relic of the age of Bush and Blair, and the think-tank establishment around her is similarly unwilling to face the unwelcome realities slowly dawning on the rest of Europe. While still loudly proclaiming its loyal Atlanticism and rejecting all talk of European autonomy, Germany is deeply invested in its trading relationship with China, all but ensuring a future crisis as this essential paradox plays out and the world is forced to choose between the two opposing blocs.

This situation is perhaps unlikely to long survive her retirement — there is an amusing irony to the fact that the neurotic Atlanticism of the German establishment is not shared by German voters, who are probably the most indifferent to America’s survival as global hegemon in all of Western Europe. As a recent poll showed, 82% of Germans would wish to remain neutral in a Cold War between America and China, and this indifference to the interests of Germany’s superpower sponsor can in itself be read as a certain popular will for autonomy. 

Yet until the desires of Germany’s voters are reflected by the policies of its government, any European effort towards an autonomous strategic vision will founder on German intransigence, leaving Britain looking more and more attractive as a strategic partner. In any case, the inherent difficulty of marshalling the varied and often opposing interests of the EU nations together in the service of a common goal, whether geopolitical or otherwise, will always counteract any attempt at unified foreign policy action, again enhancing our appeal.

Whether or not future strategic cooperation would be with a European Union in which France has become the  dominant diplomatic power, or simply bilaterally with France, can only be determined by the course of future events, by their nature impossible to foresee. Yet with our strategic utility already established, the greater question is whether such deepened cooperation with a Union we are leaving in such traumatic and contested circumstances is in our national interests. 

Until the delayed SDSR is released, we will not know for certain the strategic assumptions underlying future British policy. It is likely, and fortunate, that the British Government has finally lost its appetite for idealistic crusades in unstable or failing states in the Islamic world, yet the search for a new role brings with it new dangers as well as opportunities.

The options, fundamentally, are that we consider ourselves a European power, and focus on maintaining the continent’s security by sea in the North Atlantic and by land on NATO’s eastern frontier, or that we continue to maintain a tenuous status as a global power, which will in effect mean a predominantly naval effort stretching from the Persian Gulf to the western Pacific. Neither option would mean a breach with the Atlantic alliance; either option would be an attractive addition to Europe’s capabilities.

If the publication, last week, of the MoD’s guidance on Multi-Domain Integration can be read for clues on Britain’s future strategic orientation, then the statement that “Russia is our primary adversary and pacing threat” indicates the European continent and perhaps its near abroad will remain our area of strategic focus; yet the investment in naval rearmament, with the future status of our land forces remaining unclear, implies the opposite: a naval orientation centred on our two giant new carriers will naturally lead us eastward on the open seas, where the obvious future adversary will be a rising China.

The fundamental assumption driving European strategic thought, if Borrell’s blogpost is an accurate guide, is that the outcome of a contest between the United States and China in the Pacific will be China’s winning of hegemonic status. Perhaps this is wrong: perhaps China will blink first, or perhaps both superpowers will exhaust themselves in the struggle, leaving space for smaller powers, like India, or Russia or even Europe, to expand their reach as a result. What seems clear is that this historic future struggle, whose outcome is so uncertain, is not one the European Union has any interest in actively taking part in, and this is probably a sensible decision. 

Whatever the outcome of the future contest in the Pacific, the shift in American attention away from Europe and Middle East is most likely permanent, with the result that Europe will be forced to defend its territorial and political authority even on the edges of our own continent. Whatever our global aspirations, or memories, we are a European power and it is in Europe’s near abroad that our interests will primarily be threatened. 

Serious engagement with the European debate on grand strategy should therefore be a British priority: once the dust settles on our rancorous departure from the union, the fact will remain that, to defend our interests, we will still need them and they will still need us. Once we’re finished haggling over fish, it should be the Government’s priority to determine what a long-term, self-interested strategic relationship with our closest neighbours — distinct from, though not in opposition to NATO — would look like.

Europe’s strategic autonomy may end up less something to be consciously aimed for than a situation thrust upon the continent by events. We would be wise to carefully consider the full range of possibilities for Britain offered by the aspiring regional power bloc on our doorstep.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.