After Brexit: can Germany lead on European defence policy?

Angela Merkel with Vladimir Putin, François Hollande, and the Presidents of Ukraine and Belarus at the signing of the 2015 Minsk II Agreement

Over the last decade Germany has become Europe’s pivotal power. This development is mainly due to the country’s economic strength and political stability. Yet, faced with a rapidly changing security environment, allies want Berlin to take more of a lead on security. The United States in particular calls upon Berlin to play a bigger military role, and smaller European partners look to Germany for assistance and reassurance. Acknowledging these expectations, the current government has vowed to take more international responsibility and has contributed considerably to manage the multiple crises on Europe’s eastern and southern flank. At the same time, Germany remains a reluctant leader and prefers to be a framework nation for a group of partners. This approach is coined ‘leadership from the centre’ in Germany’s recent white paper on defence. A prominent German role in security and defence is not conceivable outside the framework of NATO and the EU, and to engage in military operations Germany wants France and Britain at its side.

This raises the question how Britain’s decision to leave the European Union will affect Germany’s international role and what implications it will have on cooperation on security and defence in Europe. Will Germany become even more dominant in the EU? Will it use Britain’s absence to push for closer EU military unity, even trying to fulfil its long-term vison of a European army? Or will Brexit mark the beginning of the end for the EU’s common security and defence policy and initiate a period dominated by bilateral relations and ad hoc coalitions?

German troops carry out training while the US army looks on, 2004

A first answer to these questions has to be that it’s too early to tell. It will probably take years before the EU and the UK can unwrap more than four decades of integration and even longer before they can agree on a new form of collaboration. Much is at stake, and negotiations risk being long and painful. In the meantime the world will not stand still. Presidential elections in the United States and France and federal elections in Germany may change the political landscape. New crises may emerge and force western leaders to rethink their strategic priorities. Germany might further increase its international engagement and take responsibility for strengthening European defence cooperation. But as populist parties manage to exploit public insecurity about migration and terrorism, the government might also become more cautious and preoccupied with national concerns, even more so if other European countries play the national card rather than working constructively for common positions.

Still, one could argue that even when (and if) Brexit eventually happens, the impact on the organization of European defence and on the power balance between the major players will be minimal. After all, Britain’s involvement in EU defence policies is limited and the existing system is characterized by a great deal of flexibility. European security is built around the twin pillars of NATO and the EU, complemented by multiple formats of bilateral and multilateral cooperation. With some goodwill on both sides, it should be possible to find ways to let the UK participate in EU-led operations and capability projects as a third country. Most European countries want to maintain close relations with Britain knowing very well that the EU’s military ability is greatly weakened without it. Germany, in particular, wishes to keep Britain involved as a partner for shared leadership and as a counterweight to France.

NATO defence ministers at the 2016 Warsaw Summit.

There can be no doubt, however, that Brexit will stimulate intra-EU efforts to revitalize defence cooperation. To be clear, this development is not leading in the direction of a European army. Calls for such a project lack credibility and are not well thought through. For historical reasons the vision of integrated defence forces remains important to German political elites, but decision makers in Berlin also know that pushing for more integration might reduce rather than strengthen cohesion among its partners. Consequently they support more flexible options. The new German white paper quietly drops the notion of a European army. supporting instead the concept of a European Defence Union as a way to group all cooperation in the framework of NATO and the EU together with bilateral and regional formats. Other plans envision the creation of a ‘Schengen of Defence’ as a way to facilitate joint capability development. Such plans may sound both overambitious and vague, but Britain and other outsiders should not underestimate Germany’s interest in reinforcing cohesion within the EU. In fact, Germany, France and other members have already decided to make defence an important part of the EU’s post-Brexit rejuvenation. Concrete proposals include regular meetings of a European Security Council, the establishment of operational headquarters for civil — military operations, and the option of permanent structured cooperation as a way for a core group of member states to move ahead. This week’s informal EU summit in Bratislava will be the first occasion for the remaining 27 to discuss different initiatives in the context of the new EU global strategy.

Even after Brexit both Germany and Britain will remain key players in European security and defence. Leaving the EU, however, places Britain outside of one of the key arenas in which decisions of importance to European security are made. It remains to be seen whether this loss can be compensated through a more active role in NATO and on the global stage. Germany, by contrast, will continue to shape European security policy from within all relevant organizations and will have access to the entire toolbox of civilian and military measures provided by the EU and NATO. This is likely to increase Berlin’s influence but will also continue to raise expectations towards its leadership.


Robin Allers is an Associate Professor at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies (IFS) in Oslo.

A more in-depth examination of the topic of German defence policy can be found in his recent article ‘The framework nation: can Germany lead on security?’, which was published in the September issue of International Affairs.

Click here to access the original article.

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