Written by Wyn Rees.
Political and economic questions have rightly taken centre stage in the debate leading up to a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU). Yet the debate has thus far largely overlooked the implications of a British withdrawal from the EU on transatlantic security relations. This is an important issue that concerns Britain’s place in the world, its special security relationship with the US and its ability to work with other European countries. Three particular arguments need to be considered.
First, British policymakers have long appreciated that being a leading military power in Europe has accorded the UK extra influence in Washington. Although the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) has remained modest in terms of its scale and operations, it has nevertheless offered a welcome military contribution to tasks that do not have to be carried out by the US. A Brexit from the EU would terminate the UK’s involvement in the CSDP and remove a voice, friendly to US interests, from its decision-making. The inability to influence CSDP, through its relationship with the UK, would be a significant loss to a US President.
Second, leaving the EU would not increase the value of the ‘Special Relationship’ to the US. The UK would be unlikely to increase its defence spending and would continue to lack the power independently to partner the US in all circumstances. The cuts inflicted in the Strategic Defence and Security Review of 2010 illustrate that Britain military power is stretched. Therefore a Brexit would not make the UK more valuable to the US, but would diminish its influence in Washington because its potential to lead European defence capabilities would disappear. The UK would bring less to the table in its dealings with the US and would weaken some of the structural underpinnings of the Special Relationship.
Third, the UK has traditionally played an important role in encouraging Europe to engage with America’s agenda of global security issues. A former US ambassador to the UK, Raymond Seitz, noted that Britain’s ‘outward-looking perspective’ had assisted America in cooperating with Europe. The ability of the UK to mediate between American and European priorities towards issues such as nuclear non-proliferation and terrorism has been appreciated on both sides of the Atlantic. It required the UK to play a leading role in convincing Washington that European views, sometimes of a critical nature, were legitimate in areas of traditional American dominance, such as the Middle East. On occasion, this mediation role between the two sides of the Atlantic resulted in failure, as in the case of Prime Minister Tony Blair and the 2003 War against Iraq. In that circumstance Blair decided to follow the US and turned his back on France and Germany.
Britain’s departure from the EU would remove one of the foremost supporters of America’s global security role. It would leave France as the only remaining member of the Union with a global perspective and matching capabilities. The result would be a more insular EU, preoccupied with its own internal development and less minded to look beyond its frontiers. A Brexit would leave the US less well informed about European views on global problems and less likely to receive European assistance. This would exacerbate a post-Cold war trend for transatlantic views on security to diverge and the relationship to be at risk of atrophying.
The prospect of a Brexit comes at a difficult time in US-European relations. The Obama administration announced in 2011 a ‘pivot’ of US policy and resources towards the Asia-Pacific theatre and away from Europe. Yet in in the last two years a resurgent Russia has helped to foment a crisis in Ukraine and has flexed its muscles in Syria. Such events as these have increased attention on transatlantic relations and heightened the sense of insecurity. A UK exit from the EU would shake it to its core and could even cause the organisation to collapse. In sum, a Brexit could inflict a body-blow to transatlantic relations.