Will Brexit unravel the European Union’s Common Foreign and Security Policy?

September 12, 2016

Individual decisions can have major consequences.

Some see Brexit as the United Kingdom seeking to redefine its integration with Europe. Some see economic opportunity. Others have argued that the Brexit vote is a triumph of the demos over the elites, or of national sovereignty over globalization. Worst case, this singular decision could lead to a series of mutually reinforcing, negative consequences resulting in the unraveling of the entire union and the spread of instability across the continent.

The Brexit decision is already having significant economic consequences for both the United Kingdom and the European Union. However, analysts everywhere are transfixed by the economic impact at the expense of an equally important and likely outcome: Brexit will degrade the European Union’s capability under its Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). This would put a greater burden on an already over-stretched United States and NATO at a time when some are questioning the continuing value of the alliance.

The whole issue of Brexit began with a proposal in 2013 to hold a referendum to solidify domestic political support. Prime Minister David Cameron committed to the vote to appease the base of the Conservative Party and slow the rise of the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), a nationalist, euro-sceptic fringe party. While most of their issues dealt with economic and social issues, there was also mistrust of the CFSP, including an alleged conspiracy to create a European Army. That said, the referendum seemed like a safe decision at the time. The economy was finally gaining momentum after the financial crisis in 2007. That same year, the European Union admitted Croatia bringing the dream of “a Europe that is free, whole, and at peace” one step closer to fruition.

Things changed in 2014. The Scottish referendum threatened to tear asunder the United Kingdom and the E.U. parliamentary elections in 2014 saw Eurosceptic party members elevated in most E.U. countries. That same year, the Russians intervened in the Ukraine and seized the Crimea in response to efforts by Ukraine to integrate more closely with the European Union. The U.K. Independence Party blamed much of the crisis on the expansionist CFSP.

The next year rocked the European continent with the Russian intervention into Syria, the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels, and the massive influx of migrants. Some in Britain saw the European Union as an obstacle in addressing issues such as terrorism. The European Union tried to address British grievances by making concessions to the United Kingdom in 2016, but it was too little, too late.

What does the Brexit mean for the European Union’s collective instruments of power under its CFSP?

The Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) allows member states to coordinate foreign policy and leverage a unique whole of government approach that is greater than the sum of its parts. Born out of the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, the CFSP is one area where E.U. member states retain sovereignty. Collective decisions on E.U. security and foreign policy are made by consensus within the European Council. The CFSP is implemented by a High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, similar to the U.S. Secretary of State. She coordinates within and outside of the European Union to implement the Council’s decisions. The European External Action Service (EEAS) works for her. The EEAS has significant diplomatic capability with 139 delegations and offices around the world. As an example, the European Union has been a major diplomatic player in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program and in implementing sanctions against Syria and Russia.

The European Union executes its CFSP security role through the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP, formerly known as the European Security and Defence Program). The European Union has historically focused CSDP operations on the Petersburg Tasks: humanitarian, peacekeeping and peacemaking missions. Since 2003, the European Union has undertaken some 30 civilian and military missions, mostly in Africa and Europe, under the auspices of the CSDP.

The Brexit might make decision-making under CFSP easier, particularly since the United Kingdom tended to favor NATO over E.U. action. Brexit also clears some of the objections to greater use of common funding in support of CFSP missions. However, the European Union will certainly lose some of its diplomatic, intelligence, economic, and military capability without the United Kingdom.


One of the strengths of the CFSP has been its diplomatic capacity. A united, E.U. voice gives the European Union greater influence in international affairs. A European Union shorn of the United Kingdom will carry far less diplomatic weight. The United Kingdom is one of two European members of the United Nations Security Council, one of three members of the G-7 and with France, Germany, and Italy have a de facto veto in the International Monetary Fund. The Brexit could also disrupt U.S. influence in the European Union. Some even discuss the potential collapse of the global liberal order, of which the European Union was the poster child. Finally, the Brexit casts doubt over the feasibility of the newly released European Security Strategy.


Brexit will also have an impact on the European Union’s intelligence capabilities. It will lose significant capability in the war against terrorism. Intelligence sharing in the European Union was already cumbersome, as the recent terror attacks in Brussels highlighted. Yet the prospect of greater intelligence sharing in Europe, with or without the United Kingdom was never good. Nations have always been reluctant to share intelligence. Brexit will place yet another strain on an already under-resourced capability. Without adequate intelligence, it will be difficult for the European Union to craft and execute a coherent foreign and security policy.


What gives the European Union its greatest leverage in foreign policy is its economic heft. With the United Kingdom, the European Union is an economic powerhouse, representing over 22 percent of global GDP. The United Kingdom represents about 10-11 percent of the European Union’s economy. In addition, the European Union is the world’s largest trading partner and the largest source of foreign direct investment, much of it with the United States. Without Britain, the European Union is still important, but not on par with countries like the United States.

While the Brexit will certainly weaken the European Union’s collective economic heft, it will have a greater impact on the United Kingdom. It is likely that the United Kingdom will be increasingly dependent upon the European Union, whose population of 440 million and $15 trillion economy would dwarf the U.K.’s population of 64 million and $1.8 trillion economy. In addition, to gain access to the common market, the United Kingdom might have to accept all the economic downsides to the Union, without a vote in the rules, similar to Norway’s arrangement. If Scotland passes a second independence referendum and leaves the United Kingdom to stay in the European Union, then the costs will rise even further.


Perhaps the greatest impact of the Brexit on CFSP is on military instruments of power. Certainly, the Brexit will have a big impact on the European Union’s already limited military capability. The United Kingdom is the fifth largest defense budget in the world at $56.2 billion, after Russia and before India and France. The United Kingdom is also one of only two nuclear European nations. Britain is also a key contributor to E.U.-led operations, “paying about 15 percent of the costs and providing assets.” Britain’s exit will also have an impact on the European Union’s already limited military capability. According to data published in Military Balance 2016, the United Kingdom makes up about 24 percent of the European Union’s military spending and about 7 percent of its active military strength. It also provides between 50 to 60 percent of the European Union’s tanker, electronic signals, airborne early warning, and heavy transport capability. These are the very capabilities the European Union needs to act without NATO or U.S. support.

Unfortunately, the Brexit will place more of the security burden back on the United States, just when it is trying to increase NATO’s Article 5 capabilities to assure NATO’s eastern allies and deter further Russian aggression.

The Way Forward

In light of the Brexit, the European Union will have to reassess the recently revised European Security Strategy, now that the United Kingdom will no longer be a member. The European Union should also seek to reinvigorate its pooling and sharing arrangements to get more capability from fewer resources.  At this year’s Warsaw Summit, NATO and the European Union signed a joint declaration pledging greater cooperation. This was another useful step.

Individual European members will also have to increase bi-lateral cooperation with each other. This may appear to weaken E.U. organizational strength, but the resulting increased coordination and cooperation between member states will likely help the whole in the long run. The two engines of E.U. integration, France and Germany, should lead this effort by increasing cooperation across all instruments of power. Germany’s new white book demonstrates that it is seeking to play a more active security role in both the European Union and NATO.

The United States has a role to play as well. Americans need to continue to reinvigorate the NATO alliance, while helping France and Germany create a coherent strategic vision for a European Union without the United Kingdom. The NATO Warsaw Summit was an appropriate venue to begin this effort. By demonstrating its commitment to Europe, Washington can buttress the stability and security in Europe while the European Union finds its footing. The United States should also promote even greater NATO and E.U. cooperation to deter further Russian aggression. While politically difficult in an election year, Washington should continue to further U.S.-E.U. economic integration and promote greater economic growth either in the context of the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), or through a less ambitious agreement.  Finally, the United States should promote greater cooperation with both France and Germany.

The Brexit vote, while expressing valid popular discontent, has certainly weakened Europe at a time when it is facing increasing internal and external pressures. The real winner is Russia. According to a recent Newsweek article, the Kremlin believes that “Russia benefits every time the Western establishment is embarrassed.”  The real loser is the CFSP.

It is ironic that the Common Foreign and Security Policy first gained traction at the Franco-British Summit in St. Malo, France in 1998. Now, Brexit could unseat the momentum of further integration and cooperation in Europe. While the security costs of Brexit are significant, they do not have to lead to the unraveling of the CFSP, or the larger European project.


Dr. Joel R. Hillison is a Faculty Instructor at the U.S. Army War College and Adjunct Professor at Gettysburg College specializing in European issues and international political economy.  His book, Stepping Up: Burden Sharing by NATO’s Newest Members, was published by the Strategic Studies Institute in November 2014. His opinions and views do not represent those of the U.S. Army War College, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.

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