Brexit: Boosting Greater Defense Integration in Europe?

Photo Credit: French Ministry of Defense

By: Paul Kumst, Columnist

On June 23, 2016, the people of the United Kingdom called upon their leaders to leave the European Union. This historic vote stunned the international community and fellow European countries in particular due to its significant implications for EU security. Yet, while Britain’s exit poses a number of challenges—including a 24% reduction in total EU defense spending, a future lack of specific operational capabilities, and the loss of an additional seat on the United Nations Security Council—it may also present a unique opportunity to revive processes towards deeper EU defense integration.[i]

The idea for greater defense integration in Europe is almost as old as the European Union itself. Originally aimed at building confidence among the European neighbors by mutually interlocking their capabilities, notions for integration have taken a number of forms—from sharing comparable levels of defense spending and pursuing joint military operations, to establishing an EU army. Recently, some countries, including Germany and France, renewed calls for a “Shengen of Defense” aimed at strengthening defense ties between EU Member States, particularly in response to Russian aggression and ongoing conflicts in the Middle East.[ii] Currently, as outlined in the Headline Goal (HG) 2010, the EU maintains its own military units in the form of two battalion-sized Battlegroups.[iii] Embedded in the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP), the HG 2010 requires its members, with the exception of Denmark and Malta, to share responsibilities for planning and maintaining these units. Indeed, every six months, a different framework-nation takes the lead, providing the operational head quarter and the greatest share of a Battlegroup’s “force package.”[iv] While the CSDP generally enjoys broad support from EU Member States—even the UK pushed for greater burden sharing—calls for an official European army remain highly controversial and are often seen as an extreme view of deeper defense integration.

Despite reservations towards an EU army, a number of countries have expressed support for boosting EU security cooperation and bolstering defense ties. Countries like Germany, France, Poland, and Italy have repeatedly stated their commitments to greater defense integration and are pursuing effectively army-like structures, like the Dutch-German sharing of a “Joint Support Ship”, to support these endeavors.[v] Additionally, the Evolution of a European self-understanding was highlighted after the November 2015 terror attacks in Paris when France, for the first time, invoked Article 42 of the Lisbon Treaty—rather than NATO’s Article 5—calling specifically for the support of fellow Europeans.[vi]

Moreover, many countries, facing financial constraints, have called for improving efficiencies in defense spending. While total European defense spending was estimated to be around $225 billion in 2015, observers note that much of this spending is wasted on duplicative projects and systems.[vii] To move past such duplications and get more “bang for their buck,” EU Member States will need to better align their strategic doctrines and operational capacities. For this purpose, France and Germany remarkably suggested to move towards a two-speed defense integration, allowing like-minded countries to establish examples of best practices.[viii] These and other related initiatives are aimed at improving defense coordination and supporting an EU that needs to be capable of defending its citizens in “times of existential crisis.”[ix]

For years however, the UK served as a primary roadblock for such efforts, with key British leaders repeatedly expressing their disapproval. Former Prime Minister David Cameron, for example, once stated “it isn’t right for the EU to have capabilities, armies, air forces and all the rest of it.”[x] The United Kingdom’s opposition stemmed in part from concerns about sovereignty and a potential loss in command over its troops, in addition to concerns about duplicating pre-existing NATO structures.[xi] Indeed, UK officials have repeatedly stated that it is “crystal clear that defence is a national, not an EU, responsibility and […] that there is no prospect of a European Army”.[xii] The issue was extensively discussed during the Brexit campaign, with the UK maintaining the belief that defense is too important to be left to Brussels bureaucracy. As recently as the end of September, shortly after the latest German-Franco forays into this matter, British Defense Minister Michael Fallon stated that everything “that looks and sounds” like a European army will be opposed. [xiii] London may not be able to exercise a maximum of control over future deliberations, but the new British cabinet appears to be committed to include them in any upcoming negations.

While the Brexit vote renewed debates about further defense integration in the EU—including ideas for establishing a EU army—the framing of the issue is in flux and future discussions might ultimately determine its success. Given the latest British protest, Germany´s Minister of Defense, Ursula von der Leyen, quickly reassured Member States that current proposals are not truly “about a European army”.[xiv] As long as future European defense cooperation comes without this notion, even the NATO Secretary-General welcomes it. The key challenges moving forward will be for EU countries to decide how this chapter of integration should be elaborated and where they should draw the lines for coordination so as not to duplicate pre-existing efforts and initiatives. Even though a EU army may not be “something that is going to happen any time soon”, the 27 remaining Member States currently have an opportunity to strengthen defense ties, improve existing institutions, and increase security coordination and cooperation to enable greater European security in the face of multifaceted threats.[xv]

[i] Joel Hillison, “Will Brexit Unravel The European Union´s Common Foreign and Security Policy?” War on the Rocks, September 12, 2016,

[ii] Andrius Sytas, “German minister, in Lithuania, backs European ‘defense union’,” Reuters, September 8 2016,

[iii] European Union External Action, “Shaping of a Common Security and Defence Policy – Military Headline Goals”, Last modified August 7, 2016,

[iv] Claudia Major and Christian Mölling, “EU Battlegroups: What Contribution to European Defence?” SWP, June 2011,

[v] “Germany strengthens military cooperation with the Netherlands,” Deutsche Welle, February 4, 2016,

[vi] Ian Traynor, “France invokes EU’s article 42.7, but what does it mean?” The Guardian, November 17, 2015,

[vii] Daniel Keohane, “EU Defense, Where Political Opportunity Meets Strategic Necessity,” Carnegie Europe, September 15, 2016,

[viii] Andrew Rettman, “France and Germany propose EU ‘defence union’,” euobserver, September 12, 2016,

[ix] European Union, “EU Global Strategy,” Last modified September 30, 2016,

[x] Andrew Sparrow, “Jean-Claude Juncker calls for EU army,” The Guardian, March 8, 2015,

[xi] Luke Coffey, “EU Defense Integration: Undermining NATO, Transatlantic Relations, and Europe´s Security,” Heritage Foundation, June 6, 2013,

[xii] Andrew Sparrow, “Jean-Claude Juncker calls for EU army,” The Guardian, March 8, 2015,

[xiii] Robin Emmott and Sabine Siebold, “Britain´s fear of a European army muddles EU defence plan,” Reuters, September 27, 2016,

[xiv] Lorne Cook, “EU presses ahead with military plans, UK opposes any EU army, ” The Washington Post, September 27, 2016,

[xv] Federica Mogherini, “Federica Mogherini remarks at press point following first day at Gymnich meeting,” September 2, 2016,

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