What does leaving the EU mean for defence?

Published: 7th Jul 2016

This briefing is largely based on the briefing by the House of Commons Library ‘EU referendum: impact of an EU exit in key UK policy areas’. The opinions and judgements it contains are theirs. We expect to review and add to these articles periodically as events develop.

Different UK governments have been supportive of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy, but cautious in their approach to greater European defence integration.

The UK has regarded EU policy as entirely complementary to NATO and essential for strengthening European military capabilities within that alliance. But it has not accepted that the EU should set up an independent military force outside NATO.

The impact of withdrawing from the EU on the UK’s military will arguably be minimal.

The UK is one of the largest and most advanced military powers in the EU. It is one of only five EU countries capable of deploying an operational HQ, and therefore of taking command of a mission. The UK has contributed to or led joint EU ‘battlegroups’ four times since 2004. UK withdrawal from the EU is likely to place the EU at a disadvantage, as it will have fewer resources  and capabilities at its disposal.

The UK’s ability to project military power will be largely unaffected. Any military changes could be compensated for by reaching individual agreements with countries such as France. The UK could also choose to continue its participation in EU security and defence operations as a non-member.

The UK has always aimed to develop the operational capability of other European countries so as to strengthen both the EU and NATO. That is unlikely to change once the UK leaves the EU, as capabilities development remains central to NATO’s policy. The UK is also involved in an increasing number of capability development initiatives with individual European nations, such as France.

Although the UK could not take part in the European Defence Agency once it has left the EU, it could still take part in certain EDA projects. Norway and Switzerland have both done this.

There have been two important EU defence directives in recent years, one on buying military equipment and one on transferring military goods and services around the EU. The UK could negotiate to keep these directives when it leaves the EU.

If the UK chose not to follow the directives, it may not have much impact on the UK’s general procurement approach as it already seeks to have open and fair competition in its procurement and can exempt a lot of this activity from the EU rules. Any changes would focus more on the specific rules that the UK would no longer have to follow, such as putting contracts out to tender across the EU.

The most significant defence impact of the UK leaving the EU will be the very limited ability that the UK would then have to influence or shape the Common Security and Defence Policy in future.

Analysts agree that over the last seven years the EU’s defence policy has lost much of its momentum. There has been progress in civilian crisis management, training, humanitarian aid and regulation of the defence market, but very little progress has been made in developing EU ‘hard power’. There is no agreed EU approach to foreign policy crises or the Common Security and Defence Policy over the long term.

It has been suggested that, without the UK’s support, the strategic ambition of a “common European defence” could falter. But it has also been argued that, as the UK has been the main source of opposition to integrationist proposals, leaving could be an opportunity for other countries to further the EU defence project.

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