Will Brexit Change the European Union?

August 2, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Europe Tags: EuropeEuropean UnionBrexitPoliticsEconomy

Will Brexit Change the European Union?

An Atlantic Council of some sort might need to be created, involving the United States, the UK, and the EU, for discussion of political, foreign policy, economic, and regulatory matters that are outside the scope of NATO.


But even before Brexit, EU security policy, given substance by the creation of the European Defense Agency and direction by Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) among member states and the External Action Service, also had a strong bilateral component. In 2010, in the context of the recent French integration into the NATO military command structure, the UK and France signed the Lancaster House Treaties. These treaties committed both sides to deep and pragmatic collaboration in their nuclear and defense systems, special forces operations, counterterrorism, and foreign policy. The commitments are unaffected by Brexit; Britain and France intend to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of the Lancaster House Treaties in November 2020.

The loss of the UK as a member will affect the credibility of the EU itself as a security actor. The UK has one-half of the EU’s nuclear submarines, heavy drones, and transport aircraft; more than one-third of its electronic intelligence aircraft; more than one-quarter of its heavy transport helicopters; and around one-fifth of its frigates. In an op-ed published March 4, 2019, prior to a pivotal European Council meeting on Brexit, Macron proposed the creation of a “European Security Council” that would include the UK. The idea, which hasn’t received much support, expresses the French concept of concentric European security circles with France at the center.


Alternatively, and more likely, France and Germany may seek to continue to work with the UK in the EU3 (UK, France, and Germany) format, which they collectively used to negotiate the Iran nuclear agreement (though in that case supported by the EU’s External Action Service and High Representative).

On security policy more broadly, the loss of the UK will be felt, in some ways more acutely. The highly effective Executive Director of Europol Rob Wainwright (who served for nine years), did much to establish the Europol as a security pillar and build good habits of cooperation against cybercrime, organized crime, and terrorism. Several experts also lamented the loss of access to UK intelligence resources that are important to sanctions designations.

Doing Business

When the UK joined the EU in 1973, the organizational characteristics of the EC and its working practices were very much in the French tradition. The French socialist and legendary first Secretary-General of the EC, Emile Noël (who remained in that role for nearly thirty years, from 1958 to 1987), put in place the working methods, the working language (French), and the organizational template for the commission services. Noël’s intention was to establish and nurture a European civil service of fonctionaires that would take a European view and see itself as the vanguard of the European construction—le système Communautaire—envisaged by Jean Monnet.

But on their arrival in 1973, the British brought a different, more pragmatic problem-solving style to the Commission. British civil servants seconded to Brussels from Whitehall insisted on better-quality Commission proposals with impact assessments conducted earlier and more comprehensively. Slowly, but with increasing momentum following the enlargements of 1994 (European Free Trade Association members Sweden, Finland, and Austria) and the 2000s (Central and Eastern Europe, the Baltics, Romania, Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Malta), English superseded French as the working language in the Commission, and UK regulatory pragmatism overcame vanguardism. The UK’s David Williamson (Lord Williamson of Horton), succeeded Noël in 1987 and served as secretary-general for ten years, in part under Commission President Jacques Delors, with such accomplishments as the completion of the Single Market and the decision in the Maastricht Treaty to establish the common currency. Senior British Treasury Official (and former staffer to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher) Sir Nigel Wicks was chairman of the EU’s Monetary Committee for five critical years in the runup to the launch of the euro.

Yet British influence in the European institutions has been eroding for some time. For more than fifteen years, salaries in EU institutions have not been competitive with those in Whitehall and the City of London, and in the past five years, Euroscepticism at home has been so strong that Whitehall stars have not seen much future in making a career in the EU.

Brussels insiders expect there to be some slippage within the EU from key Whitehall practices (impact assessment, cross-service cooperation, stakeholder consultation, etc.) but only over time. Most experts I consulted felt that English would remain the working language within the European institutions as the most comfortable option among northern, southern, and eastern member states. As one official put it, without the British, it would be easier to “speak bad English” in EU meetings, and, more comfortable with fewer native speakers at the table (aside from the Irish), European officials may be able to dispense with interpreters in the working meetings in which decisions get made.

Balance of Power

The UK was only a single member state, but as a large and, until recent years, active member state, it played an important role with Germany and France at the center of EU policymaking. On economic issues, the UK often joined with Germany. On foreign policy issues, it usually sided with the French. Some compare that it a three-legged stool: the British gave stability and pragmatism to French-German compromises.

Without Britain as a member, insiders expect a series of knock-on effects. One view is that Germany’s weight will increase, but its influence may diminish. This would be because although Germany’s relative voting weight will increase with the UK’s departure, it would also take fewer votes to assemble a blocking minority against an initiative. Another effect may be that while Franco-German cooperation is more necessary, it may be more difficult to achieve without the UK as a safety valve and balancing influence. The loss of the British voice and weight also particularly affects the already diminished negotiating power and influence of the countries that do not use the euro.

The Netherlands, which often followed the UK’s lead on budget, economic, and regulatory issues, is making a bid to organize what is sometimes called the new Hanseatic League of northern countries. The so-called “new Hanseatic League” of Austria, Finland, and the Baltic states will focus initially on budget issues (and oppose full EU faith and credit borrowing in particular). Most recently, the Netherlands was a core member of the Frugal Four (later “Five” with the addition of Finland) objecting to allocating EU funding on a grant basis to southern member states to help with coronavirus–related economic hardship. (As noted earlier, the Frugal Five compromised July 20—after a five-day summit—to grant funding to flow to member states, but only €390 billion, rather than the €500 billion originally proposed by France and Germany.

The Visegrad countries (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia) cooperate on several EU issues, but there are significant differences between Poland and Hungary, especially in foreign policy toward Russia. Because Poland is deeply suspicious of France, with Brexit both the Visegrad grouping and the Baltics are expected to gravitate to Berlin. In response, even more than before, the French are taking up the interests of the southern countries, particularly Italy and Spain.

One thing that is not expected is that Italy would replace the UK in balancing the German-French axis. Italian politics are too unstable at home, and insiders suggest Italy’s working style in Brussels (unprepared, inconsistent attendance records) does not allow Italy to pull its weight in EU councils, let alone overachieve. Nevertheless, the prospect of Italian Euroscepticism and economic crisis as a consequence of the coronavirus is a risk to the EU as a whole.

Implications for Transatlantic Relations

Unfortunately for the global community, the final departure of the UK from the EU comes during a grave international health crisis and knock-on economic freefall. In coping with the crisis, the EU may come to miss the UK’s pragmatism and its economic resources (on the other side of the Channel, the UK is struggling to manage the demands of the crisis on its own).

The EU’s commitment to multilateralism and trade liberalization may be hard to advance in a world characterized at present by nationalism and “decoupling” of cross-national supply chains. The difficulty that the EU experienced in getting key Group of 20 members—such as the United States, Russia, and China—to participate in a pledging conference to support the search for a coronavirus vaccine is indicative of the challenge.

Observers have said that for the EU to effectively formulate and carry out effective economic, political and security strategies without the UK as a member of its inner core, the French will need to learn to consult more widely among EU countries before broaching new grandes projets, and the Germans will need to be less obviously complacent. Both countries will also need to navigate political transitions in the coming years. If polls are indicative, then Emmanuel Macron faces a sharp decline in his new party’s political stature, and long-serving Chancellor Angela Merkel has announced that this will be her last term in office.

Americans and Europeans alike (and especially the British) believe that over the decades since the UK became a member, the UK helped build and sustain the U.S.-EU transatlantic relationship. The British explained EU perspectives in Washington and occasionally advocated in Washington for unpopular European views. The UK stood with its European partners in storied disputes over the Siberian Pipeline, banana trade, and Airbus subsidies. In Brussels, Britain often advocated for perspectives it shared with Washington, especially on foreign policy challenges, and, as a member of the Five Eyes, provided intelligence justifications for more-robust EU sanctions and counterterrorism activities.