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The President of the European Court of Justice, Koen Lenaerts, spoke for many in the aftermath of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. He said that he was completely in the dark on whether, when and under which conditions Brexit would happen, concluding ‘it’s all pretty speculative’. The question – Remain or Leave – was binary and offered no additional guidance. Now, the British government has to implement the people’s choice.

It will do so under the leadership of a new Prime Minister, Theresa May. She is investing her time in developing ties with European leaders despite her government’s rhetoric of global engagement. The EU, meanwhile, has produced a global strategy document asserting that the idea of the Union as an exclusively civilian power doesn’t reflect the evolving reality, in which soft and hard power go hand-in-hand. We’re perhaps at an inflection point where all actors are reassessing recent orthodoxy.

To some in London, the idea of focusing attention exclusively on NATO might seem an attractive simplification. But it’s likely that things will become more complicated. The range of inter-related issues now bundled under the heading of defence and security has become so broad that dealing with them in any single institutional framework, whether it be the EU or NATO, is impossible. A constructive dialogue for understanding key questions, and better synergy in implementing policies and conducting operations, has been a shared goal within the transatlantic community since the EU was created.

Broadly speaking, that community has held together reasonably well, but there have recently been some spectacular failures of solidarity over important questions. And there’s unease over future unity, as problems become more complex and actors more diverse. Even the largest powers no longer act alone, and it can’t be a good thing for a country with significant resources to disengage from discussion and action. There is a risk that fragmentation and disunity will lead to paralysis.

Former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright perhaps provided the recipe for the future with her “3D” speech: avoid transatlantic decoupling, avoid duplication of effort on problems, and don’t discriminate against any country that wants to make a constructive contribution on the grounds of institutional affiliation. That formula is already being applied to a degree – for example, when the EU or non-allies such as Finland and Sweden participate in key meetings convened by NATO – and could be extended to facilitate the participation of the UK and other countries in EU meetings.

“Choosing a British official as Commissioner for the Security Union is an indication that the EU and the UK want to preserve their close association and cooperation in areas like counter-terrorism”

Issues that are a high priority for both the EU and the UK, for which the EU either already has legislation or is likely to legislate in ways that affect the UK directly (for example, through laws with budget implications), should be the main focus for attention at the moment. For internal security, this approach seems to be favoured. The decision that a British official, Sir Julian King, should become the Commissioner for the Security Union is an indication that the EU and the UK want to preserve their close association and cooperation in areas like counter-terrorism, fighting violent crime and combating transnational organised crime, including cybercrime.

It may also be possible to identify issues on which it’s important for the UK and the EU to continue seeking a common approach, but which don’t require new procedures to preserve cooperation. Opening meetings that discuss and decide the broad approach on vital issues would be a minimum expectation. Even if decisions lead to either legislation or budgetary commitments, participation without voting or veto rights might be justifiable and fairly easy to organise. But the informal meetings of the “27” suggest that this approach isn’t preferred at the moment.

Then there is the cluster of issues where the UK has questioned the need for initiatives that others think would be useful. Without the 1998 settlement between Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac, there would probably be no Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) at all, as the UK agreed not to block all EU initiatives in the military sphere and France agreed to become a constructive partner in NATO. Nonetheless, the speed and trajectory of the CSDP has been influenced by a residual British caution over the role of the EU as a military actor.

Implementing development assistance, the security implications of climate change, energy security, advanced research and technology investment, and the mass movement of people though irregular migration or displacement in conflict are all areas where specialist advice might be valuable to parts of the EU that have no internal military expertise. But the UK’s reluctance was one factor blocking initiatives to strengthen the EU’s military staff, or develop pathways by which military advice could be accessed more easily across EU institutions. In this respect, Brexit might bring about a useful change.

IMAGE CREDIT: CC / FLICKR – European Parliament