European Defence Ties Post-Brexit: the UK’s Development of a Strategic Presence and Cooperation in Europe

European Defence Ties Post-Brexit: the UK’s Development of a Strategic Presence and Cooperation in Europe

The latest stretch of the Brexit negotiations in Brussels, taking place last week, have concluded. Concentration continued to be placed on the rights of EU citizens in the U.K., and U.K. citizens in the EU, as well as the development of a framework for addressing the avoidance of a hard border, between Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland.

Although not a topic that was addressed during these negotiations, the future of the defence ties between the EU, and the U.K., is a pertinent issue. Likely, as with many other issues, this will only be truly and concretely dealt with, once the U.K. has officially withdrawn from the EU.

However, the recent joint declaration between Germany and the U.K., highlighted the importance of deepening of “bilateral defense ties”:

“The pact includes greater cooperation on aircrew training – both nations operate the Eurofighter, Typhoon and Tornado warplanes – and common plans to expand amphibious bridge-laying capabilities, according to von der Leyen.” (Defense News, 2018).

This follows the ongoing development of the European Intervention Initiative (EI2), proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron in September 2017. This initiative will be separate from existing NATO and EU defence and security structures, serving as an additional component.

On the 25th of June 2018 “nine Member States including France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Spain launched the “European Intervention Initiative” with a view to creating a common strategic culture among its members. By sharing future-oriented strategic work, EI2 aims to promote planning behaviours, operational feedback and joint deployments with our operating partners.” (France Diplomatie, 2018)

This demonstrates clearly how there are already a multitude of ongoing discussions, and developments, concerning post-Brexit defence ties. According to German Defence Minister, Ursula von der Leyen, the U.K. should continue to be an active member of the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), even when it is no longer a member of the EU, and will instead likely have third country status. PESCO has been seen as a vital part of the EU’s response to Russia’s resurgence and the threats posed by this. Julian King, Head of the EU’s Security Unit, pointed to PESCO, and the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence, as key initiatives for European defence and security (Defense News, 2018).

In the past, the U.K.’s former Military Chief expressed reservations concerning planned defence ties, between the U.K. and the EU (2017, Gutteridge). Yet, with rising security concerns towards Russia, it seems there is now a widespread wish to continue the planned strengthening of defence ties, ensuring this issue will remain a priority even after Brexit. This was shown when the British Defence Chief, Sir General Nick Carter, more recently called for a strengthening of military ties with France (2018, Gamp).

A British and Estonian soldier during Exercise Joint Warrior on Salisbury Plain. Source: Crown copyright.

The Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF), the U.K-led expeditionary force, is another clear signal of the ongoing move towards enhancing, and reinforcing defence ties between Europe, and the U.K. The group currently contains nine partners, from across Europe: Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the U.K. Even if the U.K. has long been involved in the JEF, this was made even more clear when it joined the “Joint Warrior” exercise in Spring of this year, followed by the signature of the JEF agreement on the 28th of June 2018 (, 2018).

More than a multilateral cooperation framework, this position grants the British forces a new role. As one of the three vital European military forces, the U.K. is now a key actor in Northern European security. This has come at a time of increasing diplomatic and political tensions with the Russian Federation, along with other diverse issues and threats faced by Europe.

As stated by the British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson:

“Nations are judged by the friends they keep. [The JEF exercise] sends a clear message to our allies and adversaries alike – our nations have what it takes to keep our people safe and secure in an uncertain world. From counter-terrorism and anti-smuggling to information warfare, we are stronger by sharing expertise and developing joint tactics across air, land, sea and cyber”.” (Reynolds, 2018).

Signing of the U.K. Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) cooperation agreement on Thursday. 28 June, 2018. Source: Ministry of Defence (,2018)

Simultaneously to this development of closer ties through multilateral cooperation, the U.K. has also placed an emphasis on developing strategic bilateral relations. For instance, its increased relations with the Baltic States, as well as with other countries such as Poland. Poland and the U.K., at the end of 2017 signed “a new bilateral security and defense treaty, which (British Prime Minister) May described as a “powerful symbol of our continued close cooperation” and which would “serve as a catalyst” to strengthen the U.K.’s relationship with Poland” (Dickson.A, Politico).

In light of these events, even if the U.K. leaves the European Union, its ties with European security and defence policy will stay strong. British involvement in strategic relations echoes the fact that the country has to find a new position in “the group of non-EU NATO Allies, which harbours close friends like the US, Canada and Norway, but also troublesome Turkey” (Cligendael, 2017). This new position will likely place more importance, on non-EU forms of cooperation, such as NATO or the “Five Eyes” Group (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK, US) and ad hoc coalitions. Yet, it is also clear the U.K., will not abandon its vital position within the European defence and security framework.  

Written by Emma Marty and Maria Antonia Reis Teixeira da Costa, on behalf of the Finabel Permanent Secretariat.

Photo credits: Jane’s 360 &


  1. (2018), Defense News, “UK, German defense chiefs push for EU-level ties even after Brexit” (Accessed 15th October 2018 ).
  2. (2018), Defense News, “Top EU security chief emphasizes ‘shared self-interest’ in defense cooperation after Brexit”. (Accessed 15th October 2018 ).
  3. (2017), Gutteridge, N., “’Walking into an ambush’ Ex military chief warns Brexit defence plan ties UK to an EU army”, Express. (Accessed 15th October 2018 ).
  4. (2018), Gamp, J., “Britain’s defence chief orders STRONGER military ties with FRENCH as Russia threat deepens”, Express. (Accessed 15th October 2018 ).
  5. (2018),, “Estonia among nine countries to sign Uk joint the Joint Expeditionary Force agreement”, (Accessed 15th October 2018) ).
  6. (2018), Reynolds, D., “Exercise marks final validation of Joint Expeditionary Force”, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly,, (Accessed 15th October 2018)
  7. (2017), Bakker, A., Drent, M. & Zandee, D., “European Defence: how to engage the UK after Brexit?”, Cligendael Report,(Accessed 15th October 2018
  8. (2018), France Diplomatie, “Progress in European projects: One year after President Macron’s Initiative for Europe speech (26 September 2018)”, (Accessed 19th October 2018 ).
  9. (2017), Dickson, A., “‘Madame Brexit’ pushes stronger ties with Poland, Theresa May and Mateusz Morawiecki sign security and defense treaty”, Politico, (Accessed 15th October 2018

Leave a Reply