Risks arising from UK involvement in EU Defence Union

10 things to know – a briefing by ex-military officers and supporters of Veterans for Britain, February 2018


  1. MPs will be surprised to learn that the UK has been involved in shaping key EU Defence Union agreements that have been emerging since November 2016.
  2. Agreements took place during five EU Council meetings and bind participant states in military finance, command, intelligence and defence industrial planning. MPs and public were initially told that UK consent was given to avoid impeding the EU 27 while the UK was preparing to cease its involvement.
  3. Contrary to that initial explanation, ministers have since indicated they intend to make the UK’s role in the agreements permanent via the exit treaty. The Government’s published negotiation aims include a proposal to stay in the European Defence Fund and defence industrial programme, the core pillars of the agreements.
  4. This has the inevitable effect of conceding defence decision-making to the EU as the structures are governed by EU institutions. However, there are far deeper implications than the UK simply signing up to certain aspects – participation also carries a commitment to the complete landscape of EU rules, policies and structures in defence. The sole current 3rd country participant, Norway, has entered five separate agreements with the EU and European Defence Agency governing joint defence decision-making, policy adoption and financial contributions.
  5. As British MPs were incorrectly told that UK consent was given to avoid impeding the EU27, there was naturally a lack of Parliamentary scrutiny while the agreements were being made. Parliament is now catching up, but in February 2018 MPs are more than a year late in applying any scrutiny. Furthermore, awareness of their relevance to the UK is still very low among MPs, particularly over the implications for decision-making. The link between participation and transfer of powers is not mentioned in departmental communications or ministerial correspondence to MPs and committees.
  6. The defence agreements feature in phase 2 of UK-EU exit talks (Feb 2018), a timescale which does not now permit much opportunity for MPs to debate the agreements, nor the consequences of ministers’ proposal to stay in them. A transition deal brings a separate serious risk of deep entanglement in the financial, military structural and defence industrial components of the agreements before exit.
  7. Even as ministers approved the UK’s role in EU defence agreements, government departments were mobilising rapidly to participate. An outreach programme by MOD officials in summer 2017 invited defence companies to participate in trials of the European Defence Fund. The same officials were fully aware that companies were entering long-term deals where their rights and investments would only continue if the UK remained in the EU’s defence rules, policies and structures. Departmental activity to invite company participation appears to be pre-empting exit talks, forcing the hand of ministers, confounding public expectation and contradicting Government messages about departing from the EU’s regulation and policy.
  8. Government departments mobilised rapidly in another part of the EU Defence Union agreements: the UK is participating in a trial of the Coordinated Annual Review of Defence or CARD. This is a financial mechanism designed to coordinate defence budgets to bring about the structural integration of militaries. The trial began in Autumn 2017 and sees UK defence budget plans appraised by the European Commission to fit into an EU-wide structure that specialises national capacities. Ministers have now indicated that the UK might: remain in CARD, as well as EU Battlegroups (which place UK forces under EU Council policy control); and even contribute a ‘partial’ or ‘project’ role in the PESCO military integration project.
  9. A persistent element of concern has been the sight of serving diplomats and civil servants openly advocating continued UK adherence to EU proposals and projects, even in evidence to such Parliamentary committees as have latterly been able to review the most recent developments.
  10. If the UK Government were to keep these defence agreements by placing them in an exit treaty, it would mean a clear transfer of powers to the EU. The European Defence Fund and defence industrial programme are regulated and governed by the EU Commission, EU Council, EU Military Staff and European External Action Service, with input from the European Defence Agency (EDA). CARD is managed by an EDA-EU Commission delegation agreement.

The details underpinning these proposals are complex, but constitute a clear surrender of sovereign control and a net reduction in national capability. Affiliation with these defence agreements, with all the ambition for further integration that they entail, is inconsistent with a vote to leave the EU.