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MEP Tannock on Need for New Western European Union

7 min read
Photo credit: Shutterstock / SGM
Dr. Charles Tannock MEP discussed the implications of Brexit for the European defense cooperation during an event in GMF’s Brussels office on November 21, 2017.

Dr. Charles Tannock MEP discussed the implications of Brexit for the European defense cooperation during an event in GMF’s Brussels office on November 21, 2017. His recent report, prepared with Brexit Analytics, underlines the impact of Brexit for the U.K. defense industry as well as for the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), and suggests a revival of the Western European Union as a tool to ensure that defense cooperation in Europe between EU members and non-members, including the U.K., continues. GMF Senior Fellow Bruno Lété asked him to explain some elements of the proposal.

Q: You have a bold idea for Britain cooperating with the European Union on the field of defense after Brexit. Can you tell us about your proposal for a new Western European Union cooperation?

MEP Tannock: Clearly, there is going to be a big problem for Britain after Brexit where there will be a gap in the market for remaining close and connected on security and defense matters with our EU 27 partners. Of course, we have NATO which Britain will still remain a member of, but within NATO the independent European pillar has problems, particularly to do with Turkey versus Cyprus, with the way Berlin Plus operates, and to do with the fact that, of course, there are neutral countries not in NATO but in the European Union like Sweden, which are major military powers. There is of course the EU Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and now its related PESCO, which is the permanent structure cooperation agreement, signed only a week or so ago. These will operate detached from Britain’s after Brexit.

Now, of course it is possible that Britain could be a third country with some kind of PESCO Plus relationship. But for a major military power like Britain, which is the strongest in Europe alongside France, I think Britain deserves to be also at the table shaping defense policy. I worry about the fact that, by leaving the European Union, we could be isolated and go in a different direction of travel, so I want to keep Britain as close as possible, both in economic terms but also in security and defense terms to the EU — and by reinventing an old concept which predates the European Union, going back to the treaty of Brussels is 1948, and has nothing to do with the Treaty of Rome, as it were. By reinventing this as a new concept which already existed before, in which we are full members, with all the PESCO countries plus possibly in addition associate membership for countries that would like to join NATO but cannot, like Ukraine and Georgia, and possibly with a relationship with a major military partner in the Middle East, like Israel. They are all democracies, we all have our shared common values, and there will be occasions when NATO does not want to get involved. PESCO still needs to have Britain formally involved, but we will only wish to be closely involved if we are also able to shape by contributing to the policy and the priorities. Therefore, a small organization and a modest budget, which existed until 2011, called the Western European Union (WEU), with only 65 staff, might be a way of addressing the Brexit process and keeping Britain closely connected formally in a European defense alliance.

Q: Could you explain how your idea would be good for the European Union and especially what would be the security or economic incentives for the EU to step into this?

MEP Tannock: This is important at a time when defense budgets are under pressure everywhere, in which states are not generally spending the 2 percent recommended level of their GDP on their defense budgets. By keeping the United Kingdom within the market, the single market, of defense procurements, by Britain still contributing to the European defense fund — which is this EU proposed new fund to help facilitate research and development of military hardware — it would enable Britain and its large defense industry to stay fully engaged with the European Union single market. Already of course, there are EU single market opt-outs for defense industries, but the whole purpose of the Lisbon treaty and the European Defence Agency was to try and integrate into some kind of single market for defense procurement. By Brexit happening, unless we have some  formal structure which enables this to happen, the danger is that any progress gets reversed and then there would be high tariffs, high protectionism for the defence industries, France protecting itself against British competition, and so on. It makes defense material more expensive and makes interoperability more of a problem. It undermines the whole issue of getting value added. I am hoping again that being part of this new WEU is also a way in which Britain can be fully participating in defense markets, and particularly in defense procurement.

Therefore, now we have 20 to 23 countries — hopefully rising to 25 EU countries out of 27 being in PESCO — this new WEU would be an interface between PESCO, the U.K., and some other countries, which are neither in the European Union nor in NATO. It is just an idea which needs to be looked at more formally because I fear in future NATO itself cannot automatically be taken for granted, particularly given the views being expressed by President Trump about NATO. Some people from the far left in Britain are very anti-NATO, so if they come into a future Labour government this will be a problem added to the problems of Turkey and its recent more authoritarian moves. NATO is not quite as cohesive and stable as it has been in the past. So having a slightly more varied toolkit, with other options where we can engage in different structures, but Britain is given the respect it deserves, is important in my view. Also as a pro European, I was a strong Remainer who regrets Brexit, very deeply, having Britain formally tied in to an institutional relationships with all the EU member states through PESCO, means that perhaps in the future if Brexit does not prove to be the success, promised by the Brexiteers, it would be easier to re-enter in to the European Union because we have had such close relations on the military, security, and defense side.

Q: Given the realities of Brexit, do you think the idea of a new Western European Union could sell at home, could sell in London?

MEP Tannock: I think it is easier to probably sell it at home than it is on the continent. It is clearly people, such as those representing the French government, who are not seemingly particularly welcoming to anything which keeps Britain more plugged into the PESCO structures, beyond that of the PESCO Plus. I do not get the feeling it is an easy sell here on the continent sadly, because they feel very much that Britain is leaving the club with a slap on the face to the EU 27. We have, in their mind, chosen to leave the club; therefore, we have to pay a price but not only in terms of economic, but also sadly in terms of security and defense. I would have hoped that security and defense would be treated differently, but we certainly get the impression that a new WEU is not particularly welcome by certain members of the European Union, in particular the large ones, with big military and defense budgets and industry like the French. But they need to be convinced of the advantages, and that is part of the challenge that we have in the United Kingdom because the Western European Union pre-dates the European Union, so historically it has nothing to do with the European Union, but then bizarrely it got folded in to the CSDP structures in 2009 and finally dissolving itself in 2011. You can clearly make the case that this is not the European Union, as this is something separate. It is purely about defense, and it is purely intergovernmental. It has the advantage of a parliamentary assembly to provide democratic scrutiny, which means that U.K. members of parliament can feel engaged in the defense policies of the continent of Europe. I think even the most Eurosceptic members of the U.K. parliament accept that Britain geographically is in Europe, it is very close to all the same threats that will be faced by its European partners in future, be they migration flows, be they climate change problems that are going to destabilize our neighbouring countries in Africa, be they the issue of international terrorism, we have all these things in common, and we also have a rising and expansionist Russia to the Eastern neighborhood. For these problems really, NATO is clearly absolutely essential, but there are scenarios where NATO cannot address the problems particularly easily. There will be times when Europeans want to do something, which does not involve the NATO structures, and this concept gives you an additional tool, which could be mobilized to keep Britain engaged formally in a more structured fashion.