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Bridging the Channel: How Europeans and the UK can work together on defence capability development

by Sophia Besch

This paper is the second of a three paper CER-KAS project, ‘Bridging the Channel’ published by Centre for Centre for European Reform and the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung. The aim is to assess how EU states and the UK can continue to work together in foreign and security policy after Brexit. The first paper focused on diplomatic co-operation, this paper deals with defence industrial co-operation and the last one will focus on the nuclear dimension.

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  • In the years since the Brexit referendum, the UK has not shown much interest in working with the EU on defence capability development. London is unhappy with the terms and conditions that the EU offers third countries that want to participate in the Union’s defence industrial programmes, and UK officials are sceptical that the EU will become a significant defence actor.


  • At the same time, London wants to continue to work with individual European partners to develop arms jointly. The UK cannot afford to produce a complete range of weapon systems domestically and, as the smaller partner in co-operation projects with the United States, it risks losing out. EU member-states also want to continue working individually with the UK, which has more money and stronger defence firms than most other European states.


  • Post-Brexit, defence industrial co-operation between the UK and its European neighbours does not need to stall. The EU, or rather the European Commission, is new to the defence market and inter-governmental co-operation outside the Union has long been the default for European states wanting to jointly develop defence capabilities. London and several EU member-states are already looking to strengthen their bilateral defence industrial relationships.


  • Before the EU entered the scene, European arms co-operation sometimes took place in other multilateral fora. These often failed to incentivise and efficiently manage co-operation. The UK may want to invest in reviving and improving them, but in doing so, it should strive for maximum co-ordination with the EU’s initiatives, advocating specifically for close alignment between EU and NATO efforts. Despite Britain’s ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific, it should not neglect its role as a reliable and trustworthy partner in Europe.


  • Keeping the UK and EU member-states closely aligned through inter-governmental co-operation agreements is a good idea. There is a risk, however, that these arrangements will circumvent EU planning procedures and make it harder to fill European capability gaps coherently. For Britain, in turn, the EU’s defence initiatives could lead to a restructuring of the European defence market and effectively exclude outsiders. To avoid these dangers, the UK and the EU governments should identify potential defence industrial co-operation projects early, and consider the broader European picture of capability shortfalls.


  • In the years to come, if the EU’s defence initiatives prove successful, London may become more interested in working with the Union. The UK should follow the example of the US, which is currently seeking close institutional links to the EU’s projects. In turn, the EU should be open to changing its third country access agreements if they prove too exclusive. Both sides should invest in a relationship of mutual trust, to open up space for defence industrial co-operation, inside and outside the EU.

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