Three countries will shape the future of European defence policy, irrespective of institutional focus: France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Much of the current conversation, however, focuses on two legs of this triangle: the bilateral defence relationships between France and Germany and between the United Kingdom and France. The former is especially important for the political future of the European project, whereas the latter focuses on capability development, military operations, and nuclear collaboration. These two bilateral partnerships are indeed significant and supplement engagement with countries across the European Union and NATO. However, there is also a third, often overlooked, leg of the triangle: the bilateral defence relationship between Germany and the United Kingdom.
Initially it might seem counterproductive, or even contradictory, to promote deeper cooperation between two countries with diverging perspectives on strategic culture and European integration. Yet it is exactly because of these differences that Berlin and London should strengthen their relationship. At a time of change across the Atlantic and within Europe, especially with the ongoing Brexit negotiations, it is essential that Germany and the United Kingdom prevent divergences from growing. Without agreement between Germany and the United Kingdom, it will be increasingly difficult not only to engage smaller countries, within both the European Union and NATO, but also to cooperate with France in a common approach at a trilateral level. Strengthening the UK-German bilateral defence relationship would bolster the other two legs of the triangle, enabling Berlin, London, and Paris to develop greater strategic and operational convergence.
The Bilateral Relationship
There are initial signs that British and German officials are taking steps to engage more closely. In September 2018, for example, the United Kingdom reversed its earlier decision to withdraw all forces from Germany by 2020. Instead, Germany will continue to host approximately 185 troops and 60 defence staff from the United Kingdom. Likewise, in October 2018, then-Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson and Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen signed a Joint Vision Statement. Although light on details, it deepens bilateral defence cooperation across the services, highlights cyber as a particular area for collaboration, and provides a framework for new initiatives.
It is here that Brexit enters the equation. In theory, the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union should not have an impact outside of the immediate EU context. Neither political tensions from the negotiations nor impressions that closer ties with one member state could circumvent the European Union should harm cooperation – the United Kingdom and EU member states should insulate bilateral defence relationships and NATO from the Brexit negotiations. Yet, in practice, the rollout of the Joint Vision Statement should signal to both Germany and the United Kingdom that doing so will be increasingly difficult.
British and German officials finalised the Joint Vision Statement in 2016, but the result of the United Kingdom’s referendum forced ministers to delay the signing. Berlin, and more specifically, the German Foreign Office, was concerned that publishing a bilateral document with the United Kingdom could undermine the common position of the European Union in the forthcoming negotiations. For German officials, it would be essential that the Commission, not individual member states, negotiate with the United Kingdom in order to demonstrate unity among the remaining 27. As a result, Germany delayed the signing, according to one official, until it could secure greater “clarity” from the Brexit process. Germany achieved its necessary assurances in March 2018 and, with the German Foreign Office’s “green light” the following month, decided to organise a ministerial around the time of the July 2018 NATO Summit. Again the signing was delayed, though this time due to scheduling. Approximately two years following the document’s completion, ministers signed the Statement in October 2018.
Going forward, Germany and the United Kingdom should be mindful of this experience. By linking Brexit discussions to the bilateral defence relationship, Berlin, in particular, and London, by association, risk the politics of the negotiations influencing ongoing military cooperation. Instead, to demonstrate that Brexit should and will not affect this area, Germany and the United Kingdom, in joint formats like the Ministerial Dialogue on Equipment and Capability Cooperation, should be willing to discuss initiatives outside of the immediate bilateral scope. This particular dialogue could also help to foster greater convergences between British and German officials, should London join one of two (or both) Franco-German projects: the Main Ground Combat System and, perhaps a greater challenge, the Future Combat Air System.
Likewise, should these projects develop within the wider EU framework, the bilateral dialogue could help London and Berlin manage expectations regarding third country participation in the European Defence Fund. For Germany, such a discussion would be a matter for the European Union. Yet the UK-German bilateral relationship should, to every extent possible, serve as a complementary forum to lessen divergence on the key issues in European defence. Ensuring that not only the United Kingdom’s defence policy, but that its industrial programmes do not diverge too greatly from those of Germany (as well as France and the European Union more broadly), will be essential to keep the United Kingdom actively involved in European defence post-Brexit.
This partnership may not garner the level of attention enjoyed by the bilateral defence relationships between France and Germany or between the United Kingdom and France, but its success will have an impact on the ability of all three countries to shape the future of European defence.
The opinions articulated above also do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address pressing foreign, defence, and security challenge.