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The Brexit effect on European defence

On 25 April 2017, British, German and Norwegian officials and experts discussed Britain’s future role in the Euro-Atlantic security architecture and Brexit’s impact on European defence capabilities and cooperation.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​The seminar was organised by the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies' research programme Security and Defence in Northern Europe (SNE)​ in cooperation with the Norwegian ministries of defence and foreign affairs.


The seminar opened with remarks by State Secretary Øystein Bø from the Norwegian Ministry of Defence and Ambassador Sarah Gillett from the British Embassy in Oslo.

State Secretary
Øystein emphasised the potential implications of Brexit for third countries like Norway.  Due to its close relationship with both the EU and the UK, Norway is following negotiations more closely than as a mere observer.  Concerned with maintaining strategic windows both across the Atlantic and in Europe, European or transatlantic dividing lines would run against Norway's vital interest. For the upcoming negotiations Norway is hoping that pragmatism prevails over prestige.

Sarah Gillett underlined her country's interest in an open debate on the implications of Brexit but she also explained that because of the General Election on 7. June 2017, British civil servants are restricted with regard to participation on debates on current political issues and processes. The ambassador nevertheless confirmed that leaving the EU does not mean that Britain will leave Europe: The country will remain one of the major players in European security and defence.

Brexit and British priorities for institutional and regional defence cooperation

The first panel session addressed the question of Britain's priorities for institutional and regional defence cooperation, and the UK's "new" role in the world.

According to Ian Bond, Director of Foreign Policy at the Centre for European Reform (CER), Brexit presents the UK with choices in two separate but related categories: on the one hand, what country does the UK want to be, and on the other, practical choices i.e. what UK can do. He wondered if Prime Minister May's more internationalist and active security stance has support in parliament.

Kim Traavik
, former Norwegian Ambassador to NATO and the UK warned that in the event of an economic downturn, isolationist tendencies in Britain could be reinforced. Defence procurement projects would also be affected.​

Providing a more optimistic perspective,
Håkon Lunde Saxi, senior fellow at IFS, maintained that implications of Brexit for "hard" or "military" security are likely to be limited. The British government has declared its intention to stay involved in European defence, and with the latest defence review the UK has raised its level of ambition as a player in European and international security policy. With regard to Britain's future influence in European defence, the panellists evoked different options: playing a bigger role in NATO, developing bilateral relationships with France and Germany, beefing up informal mechanisms and strengthening regional and sub-regional formats.  However, the loss of a formal place at the table in Brussels will matter. 

The EU response to Brexit and implications for the future of the CSDP

The second panel took a closer look at The EU's response to Brexit and implications for the future of the CSD​​P.

Anna Maria Kellner
, advisor for European foreign and security policy at the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Berlin, presented findings from a new book in which decision-makers from EU member states were asked about their attitude towards closer defence cooperation. Some countries regard Brexit as an opportunity to deepen cooperation while others stress uncertainty and a third group is largely indifferent. The UK's stance on security and defence cooperation has served to engage the EU and European countries in soul searching about the way ahead. Even when there is consensus on the surface, there is a lot of disagreement when it comes to details of specific initiatives. Few are worried that Brexit will put European security and defence at risk or that the UK will be less involved in the continent's affairs. Brexit might, however, affect international relations more generally. The idea that closer cooperation is beneficial to everyone and amplifies influence is no longer uncontested.

Benjamin Kienzle
, lecturer at King's College London, pointed to a broad consensus among experts on the security and defence implications of Brexit. Most believe that the impact will be limited, but with the events of 2016 in mind, they also acknowledge that nothing could be ruled out. Given possible long-term consequences, researchers should start looking at Brexit as part of broader, more fundamental processes and analyse the logic of integration and cooperation a well as the nature of EU compromises.​

Director General
Niels Engelschiøn, Department for European Affairs, Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, provided some non-member perspectives. Norway is interested in a strong CSDP and supports initiatives for closer cooperation as long as they do not lead to duplication of efforts. Norway also supports close relations between the EU and the UK after Brexit.  Should Britain manage to obtain any special deals in the area of defence and security (including more formalised arrangements), this would be interesting for Norway as well. 

New momentum for defence cooperation in bilateral formats and small groups?

The topic for the third session was whether Brexit can spark a new momentum for defence cooperation in bilateral formats and small groups.

James Black
, analyst at RAND Europe, shared the analysis that Brexit will lead to more cooperation in various bilateral and minilateral formats inside the frameworks of the EU and NATO. Such a development brings opportunities in the form of more flexibility but also includes risks. There is a need for tangible results, and for each new format one has to ask about its added value. The so called Lancaster House treaty of 2010, a bilateral defence agreement between France and Britain, was mentioned as format that might gain in importance. But France and Britain have to face tough questions – engaging in many different formats and keeping them relevant demands a lot of attention and resources. As the remaining major defence power inside the EU (i.e. one with nuclear weapons and an expeditionary ambition) France would have to engage its partners in a meaningful division of labour and costs.

Janne Haaland Matlary, University of Oslo and Norwegian Defence University College, insisted that security and defence is not mainly a question of formats but of capabilities, political willingness, and strategic culture. She voiced the view the EU has never lived up to its ambition as a defence actor and that it will become further amputated by Britain leaving. In the Euro-Atlantic security architecture only NATO has the potential to deter and – to some degree – coerce. The main responsibility, however, lies with the nations. Only they have the capabilities and has to be politically willing to establish credible collective defence.

According to
Svein Efjestad, policy director at the Norwegian Ministry of Defence, Norway welcomed Britain's initiative to establish a Northern Group back in 2010 as a sign of their renewed interest in collective defence and involvement in northern Europe. He noted that increased cooperation in smaller formats could potentially weaken NATO. One way to handle a more flexible security landscape would be to formulate policy together but to leave the implementation to tailor-made formats and coalitions. Efjestad expressed hope that Brexit negotiations will lead to a better agreement for the involvement of third countries into EU decision making on security and defence. Third countries like Norway were in general willing to contribute to EU-led operations but had to be given a bigger say in the decision-making process and in the command structure. Future British participation would truly depend on this.


Concluding the seminar, Robin Allers, Head of the SNE programme at the Institute for Defence Studies, highlighted four themes that had shaped debates throughout the day:

  • Since Brexit negotiations have barely started and play out in a complex political landscape, discussions about their impact on security and defence are characterised by uncertainty. There are, however, concrete problems to be solved – from access to EU funded defence capability development to third-country participation in EU-led operations.
  • There seems to be a general consensus that Brexit will have a limited impact on security and defence cooperation.  But experts also agree that progress on rather uncontroversial defence issues is dependent on developments in other sectors and could become subject to side-tactics or a deterioration of the general political climate in the negotiations.
  • Even if Brexit in the field of "hard" i.e. military security turns out to be unproblematic, CSDP is only one part of the European Union's broad portfolio as an international actor. In areas such as diplomacy, foreign aid as well as with regard to border control, counterterrorism, the EU's role is much more important and Britain's interest in maintaining a close relationship is considerably higher.
  • The debate on the implications of Brexit on security and defence is mainly about the Euro-Atlantic security architecture.  But European security cannot be discussed without considering the implications of Britain's (and the EU's) ambition to be a global player.
  • In Europe, the impact of Brexit will not be limited to the UK's relationship with the EU but will have an impact on the comprehensive web of security and defence relationships within and outside the framework of NATO and the EU.


Publisert 25. april 2017 15:00.. Sist oppdatert 15. august 2017 12:45.