Brexit negotiations, thus far, have mostly focused on the triad of citizens’ rights, the Irish border and the divorce bill, but since September talks are underway concerning the future of the UK-EU defence and space relationship. This paper examines four of the most important institutions and cooperation agreements in defence and space, offering an assessment of their economic and political significance to the United Kingdom.
This paper finds that UK participation in the EU’s Common Security & Defence Policy (CSDP) is of low political and economic importance to the UK. Limited UK troop contributions in recent years, apart from the EU’s anti-piracy mission ATALANTA, are indicative of this low priority. Instead, post-Brexit military operations are more likely to align with NATO deployments rather than with CSDP missions. Joint UK-EU CSDP operations could, however, be feasible where the UK government’s national interests align with the EU27’s mission priorities.
Since the Brexit referendum, the EU has forged ahead in the field of collaborative European defence research and development (R&D) by launching a European Defence Fund (EDF). The UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) is equally aware of the need to support its defence industrial base, initiating a similar fund via its Defence Innovation Initiative. Post-Brexit, the UK government will be hard-pressed to justify politically contributions to such a new EU project. Hence, this suggests a preference for a national R&D programme under UK oversight.
In addition to the launch of the EDF, the EU is expected to strengthen the role of its defence agency which encourages defence procurement as well as pooling and sharing of defence equipment. However, since its inception, the EDA has at most been peripheral to UK procurement initiatives. Therefore, as the UK leaves the Union it is also expected to discontinue its European Defence Agency (EDA) membership. More likely, the UK will continue to strengthen its ongoing strategy to gain economies of scale for its industry through major export programmes to non-EU countries.
Finally, the UK is a major stakeholder in the European Space Agency (ESA) which itself is not an EU institution. However, the EU has commissioned and finances the agency’s two flagship programmes, the Galileo Satellite Navigation System and the Copernicus Earth Observation programme. Unlike the above EU programmes, Westminster and the UK space industry are cognisant of the high economic and political stakes here. Consequently, the ESA and its two satellite programmes are likely to feature prominently in the upcoming Brexit negotiations.
Overall, this paper’s findings suggest that the UK has relatively few political and economic ramifications from leaving the EU’s defence institutions in their current form. The exception to this would be the EU’s space programmes which support Britain’s aerospace technology sector. After Brexit, the UK-EU relationship might well be headed towards pragmatic and problem-centric cooperation in defence, based on ad-hoc coalitions to solve common issues. However, the sheer number of stakeholders and current political volatility in Westminster may affect the political-economic calculus, altering the outcome of future relationship talks.