Can UK Defence Avoid a Brexit Car Crash?

By Philip Butterworth-Hayes

Time, they say, slows down the few seconds before a car crash.

For close observers of the UK’s disentanglement from the European Union’s (EU) defence and security institutions, time has started to decelerate over the last few weeks.

First came the reports of the Commission’s decision that the UK would no longer be welcome as a partner in the Galileo global satellite navigation system (GNSS) programme post Brexit.

Then a story appeared in the Financial Timessaying that Europol will restrict sharing security data with the UK after we leave the EU.

These are early days and everything could change but there are growing concerns among a few cognoscenti in the Ministry of Defence that these are more than just opening negotiating positions.

Government ministers argue that because the UK is such a relatively large player in the European defence and security firmament it will have a strong hand to play in negotiating its future participation in EU defence programmes post-Brexit. But for many in Europe, this is a rather arrogant position.

The UK’s exit from the Galileo programme would be a huge blow to the UK’s security capabilities and the alternatives – developing a UK-only GNSS or working out some deal with the USA – would be infinitely less preferable to remaining within a programme in which the UK has invested so much time and money.

The UK has led the work to develop an encrypted government communications service and UK industry – Surrey Satellite Technology – has built the payload for the satellites.

But the Galileo programme is not owned by one of those expansive, touch-feely all-partners-welcome EU institutions but by the European Commission itself.

And the Commission is now focused on developing European defence and security capabilities in-house, rather than doing deals with third parties like the UK. And as for protecting the UK’s space industry vital and growing expertise, well, Surrey Satellite Technology is majority owned by Airbus Defence and Space, so it is essentially a tiny UK offshoot of continental Europe’s largest player in its military/industrial complex.

But an equally major blow – though less obvious – would be the country’s exit from the European Defence Agency (EDA).

The EDA does a multitude of small but very important things which would leave the UK’s security capabilities depleted. These include presenting a single European negotiating position in talks to safeguard government access to strategically vital satellite frequencies, working towards a common set EU military airworthiness requirements and helping small companies gain access to European Commission funds for long-term research into security technologies.

None of these are major strategic concerns in themselves but together they count for a lot.

The UK government wants to retain links with the EDA post-Brexit and is currently working out its negotiating position.

“We are keen to continue involvement.

“I was in Munich listening to the Prime Minister’s speech when said clearly that she wanted the UK to maintain access to both the EDA and the European Defence Fund. Exactly what form that will take we will negotiate over the next six months,” according to Mark Lancaster, Minister of State for the Armed Forces, at a recent Commons committee hearing on defence implications of Brexit.

The EDA was formed to fill crucial gaps in the defence capabilities of EU member states by pooling and sharing expertise and assets among EU armed forces.

Without the UK, the EU will be able to move further and faster towards pooling and sharing defence capabilities in a way which will make Brexiteers say “I told you so”.

But further integration of defence capabilities among continental European states will also limit UK industry’s access to a vital and growing EU security and defence market and potentially reduce the capabilities of the UK armed forces, especially in areas such as satellite communications.

The EDA’s second major raison d’etreis to link member states’ requirements to increase their defence and security capabilities with the work and budgets of other EU institutions, such as the Commission (whose remit does not extend to defence but does cover security), the European Network and Information Security Agency (ENISA) and the European External Action Service, among others.

The main security threat to the UK and its neighbours has morphed over the last few decades from the prospect of a thousand Russian tanks pouring across the North German plain to more subtle cyber assaults which require new coordinated inter-governmental measures, which the UK will now have to re-negotiate.

These institutional relationships are intricate and delicate and have taken years to mature; for the UK the timing could not be worse.

Belatedly the UK government now wants to strengthen its defence ties with EU agencies. The Ministry of Defence is participating in a trial of the EU’s Coordinated Annual Review of Defence (CARD) which seeks to coordinate defence budgets across the continent.

Government ministers say they want to contribute to the €4.5 billion European Defence Fund as well as find some kind of role in the Permanent Structural Cooperation (PESCO) military integration project, launched last December by 25 EU governments.

This, the government hopes, will provide enough of an incentive to convince the EU to keep the UK integrated in defence and security institutions such as the EDA after Brexit

A car crash can still be averted – but if it does happen the victims will be almost all on this side of the channel.

Philip Butterworth-Hayes is an aerospace and defence writer.

Formerly editor of Interavia Aerospace Review, Jane’s Defence Industries and European Defence Matters, the journal of the European Defence Agency, Philip began his professional career as a journalist based in Khartoum.

He has written extensively on defence, security and aviation matters for the BBC and other broadcasters.

He has been Director of Communications and Strategy at the Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation in Amsterdam and is currently the editor of Skyway, the journal of EUROCONTROL.

He also publishes a web-based news and market analysis hub for the counter-UAS and UAS traffic management industries.