As we all know by now, a slim majority of the British population voted in June to leave the European Union. What has passed many people by is that this referendum was ‘advisory’, in other words it is not legally binding so whether Brexit actually occurs or not only time will tell. But so far there has been a public consensus that were Britain to leave the European Union it would have little effect on defence “because defence agreements are bilateral,” is what we usually hear. But that is forgetting that even bilateral defence agreements rely on the free movement of goods, people and finance.
So it was very interesting to hear French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian go out on a limb a couple of days ago (20 July) in a speech at the Washington D.C.-based Brookings Institution and warn that Brexit could have an effect on defence.
After stressing that “as defence minister it is not my place to remark on the will of the British people, to comment on internal political decisions or to conjcture about the diplomatic mechanisms that should be set up”, he nevertheless insisted that he could not “be uninterested in the geostrategic impacts of this major decision on our broad strategic balance and on the future of Europe.”
Le Drian highlighted three of his major concerns.
The first is to avoid a “strategic withdrawal of the United Kingdom” absorbed as it may be by the exit negotiations. “We think that it is not in the interest of the British, with whom we have deep relations in the defence field, to turn their back on Europe or the world.” A comment that Le Drian has already published in British newspapers.
The second is to “avoid the dis-union of Europeans within the European Union, because this will necessarily have a negative impact on the cohesion and unity of NATO” [22 countries are currently members of both organisations; Austria, Cyprus, Finland, Ireland, Malta and Sweden are members of the EU but not of NATO].
And the third, which he termed “a subject of strong personal preoccupation”, is to “avoid Europe losing its place as a major security actor, which is complementary to US power. Apart from the obvious budgetary aspect, the withdrawal from the EU of the only other nuclear and expeditionary force could strengthen the position of certain European countries that have little wish to see Europeans take charge of their own security.”
But he said he was nevertheless confident “because we still see signs of a British desire to work with the rest of Europe and to maintain a strong presence on the international scene.” He said that on a bilateral basis “France will continue to upkeep a very rich defence relationship with the United Kingdom” and said this should “weigh against any temptation [of the UK] to strategically withdraw.”