I am not an expert on the European Union, and my mid-career move to thinking about multilateral military operations did not spawn a new interest in the EU. I am too much of a skeptic about the EU’s ability to do common defence policy. But I have been studying NATO for nearly a decade now, so what are the implications of Brexit for NATO? Um, damned if I know. Ok, perhaps I have a few clues.
First, there are no direct implications since NATO and the EU are entirely separate entities despite efforts by some (France) to have the latter supplant the former. The UK was a major member of NATO before it joined the EU and remained such after joining. I don’t think there are much in the way of discernable behaviors that changed due to that move to inside the EU, although the EU may have lost one major obstacle to defence cooperation (the UK was always worried about expanding the EU’s defence stuff at the expense of NATO). However, as one expert noted:
Second, the indirect implications could be many, but until we see how Brexit actually is implemented, we really cannot speculate too much. So, of course, here are some speculations:
- The most immediate impact of Brexit is on the UK economy–the pound lost a heap of value, companies may flee, and growth outlooks are now poor. This means that the UK, which already cut defence deeply and almost randomly in response to the 2008 crisis, will have less money to spend on alliance efforts. This will not stop the UK from being a framework nation (leader of one of the four 1k units of troops) in the persistent basing in the Baltics to be announced at the Warsaw Summit (who will be UK rep in less than two weeks?). This is no wartime deployment of brigades to countries with little infrastructure, so it will cost but not so much that the UK will back out. Indeed, this will be an opportunity to show the world that the UK is still a significant player with a stiff upper lip and all that.
- The most significant impact down the road is also more uncertain: that if Scotland were to secede from the UK due to Brexit, then the UK and NATO would lose the bases in Scotland. The Scottish National Party dropped much of its hostility to NATO as it sought to make independence more attractive two years ago, but what happens before and after a referendum are, as we are learning anew this week, two different things. That the Scots have indicated that they don’t want nuclear weapons in “their” bases is problematic, as this means the English (or UK minus Scotland) subs would have to find a new home, not to mention the US ships that often call Scotland home.
There is probably more, but that is all I have for now. What am I missing?
Stephen Saideman is a Fellow and the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, and the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs