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BREXIT: Strategic Consequences – A View from France

Pierre Razoux
Commentary, 13 July 2016
International Security Studies, NATO, Germany, European Union, Brexit, France, UK, Global Security Issues, UK Defence, Europe
The likelihood of a second referendum designed to reverse the first referendum’s decision (as in the Republic of Ireland in 2009) remains very low in the UK, so the Brexit verdict seems irreversible. It also appears certain that the new prime minister, Theresa May, will eventually trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, likely in September or October.

These are the possible consequences for France and for Europe:

Greater Risk of Division Within the EU

It is probable that those who wish to ‘punish’ the UK, and push the country out of the EU as soon as possible, will clash with those who wish to reconcile. Several European capitals are likely to clash over control of the financial flows from the City.

The EU Will Be Forced to ‘Reinvent Itself’ to Survive

This is undoubtedly the only positive outcome of Brexit: the political jolt that it has created will force European leaders to draw lessons from it in order to envisage the EU differently, most likely in a more pragmatic manner (perhaps by opting for a ‘multispeed’ Europe) that is less idealistic. Schumpeter’s Europe (based on the principle of creative destruction and innovation) is replacing that of Jean Monnet. Without thorough reform, it is likely that Brexit will set a precedent. In this regard, it would almost certainly be wiser not to keep ‘lukewarm’ states in Europe if they are tempted to follow the UK; as such, European construction can be strengthened with those who remain.

Increased Risks of Fracturing in Europe

Although it is in no way certain, we cannot ignore that Scotland’s independence would have significant consequences for UK defence. Brexit also destabilises the fragile peace that reigns in Northern Ireland. And on another level, it is likely that the UK will encounter problems with Gibraltar. While it was a member of the EU, Brussels remained neutral, refusing to take sides with London or Madrid. Now that the UK is no longer in the EU, it is likely that Brussels – like most European capitals – will grant full support to Spain.

In five years’ time, or perhaps before, the UK could be reduced to England and Wales, bringing an end to three centuries of unity. It would lose 8.5 million inhabitants (13% of the UK population), £220 billion in annual revenue (10% of the UK’s GDP) and 38% of its territory. Even if today it does not seem likely, this scenario must be taken into consideration, given the gravity of its potential implications.

The possibility of Scottish independence will only serve to encourage centrifugal forces in Europe (starting with Catalonia), all the better for those who rejoice in a weakened EU.

NATO, a Safe Haven for the Short and Medium Term

If the UK can no longer play in the EU’s yard, it may be tempted to torpedo the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and convince its former partners of the emptiness of this tool. The message would be simple: without the UK, the CSDP loses an essential actor that the active presence of France – which would become its only major actor, and therefore the only one capable of providing a form of reassurance while being able to act across the military spectrum – could not offset. By returning its focus to NATO, the UK will further push its ambitions and its agenda. The era of polite negotiations on the awarding of key positions (both civilian and military) will end. London will fight tooth and nail for every important position, while toughening the line on certain affairs of high political value. This new line will provide Germany and France with the opportunity to co-operate further within the Union.

Franco–British Defence Co-operation

The Lancaster House bilateral treaties, signed on 2 November 2010 and comprised of two agreements on Franco–British defence co-operation, have the immense advantage of being secured by a nuclear co-operation agreement, thereby precluding the participation of other partners. Whether it stays in or leaves the EU, the UK remains for the foreseeable future France’s most credible and reliable partner in the realm of defence on the European continent. The two countries share similar interests, which Brexit cannot affect – a global vision, a permanent seat on the Security Council, nuclear-weapon status, several overseas territories to protect, and largely similar geostrategic interests.

On the industrial level, the UK and France are committed to important projects currently under development (light anti-ship missiles, the future combat air system/FCAS), which remain strictly bilateral. This is why it is crucial that France continues to treat the UK with respect, in a calm and composed manner, without any notion of ‘punishment’ that others may be tempted to impose. A new Franco–British treaty attached to the previous treaty (or even a simple amendment) that sanctifies, for example, the FCAS and initiates one or two other federating projects, would enable France to stand resolutely at the heart of the European ‘defence’ network. Similarly, France would only gain from assuming the role of natural intermediary between the UK and the EU.

Uncertain Sustainability of the UK Defence Budget

If the UK were to reduce its defence effort for any reason – and Scottish independence and a closer relationship with the US would be two valid ones – it is possible that it would come to the decision that its nuclear deterrence programme is too costly, especially as popular support for the programme remains extremely mixed.

If the UK lost Scotland and Northern Ireland, it is unlikely that the country could maintain its defence effort in absolute terms. In equivalent GDP percentage, the defence budget would lose between 8% and 10%. The UK government should therefore adopt a new Strategic Defence Review, which would enable it to withdraw certain capabilities; the UK does not hesitate to make radical decisions, as it has shown in previous Strategic Defence Reviews. The rise in power of the Royal Navy, particularly with the commissioning of the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier planned for 2020, may be slowed down and offset by the sale of efficient ships, such as the HMS Ocean. The procurement programme for F-35 stealth fighters could be reduced.

France will remain the only nuclear-weapon state in the EU that is obliged to explain to its taxpayers, as well as its neighbours, why it must maintain the nuclear deterrence tool when the UK has abandoned it and the Germans refuse to acquire it.

Reduction of the UK Nuclear Deterrent

Initially, the UK would abandon the notion of permanence at sea of its SSBN submarines (which requires them to have four) so that they could gradually dispense with one and then two submarines in order to save costs. If the UK’s posture is no longer credible, it would then place itself fully under the US nuclear umbrella, while waiting on a technological or geopolitical game-changer. As a pragmatic nation, the UK will always ensure that some knowledge is maintained in the field of nuclear weapons so that power can be rebuilt, should any event call for it. Maintaining this skill would herald a possible rapprochement with France, because of the nuclear dimension of the Lancaster House treaty.

France’s Membership of the UN Security Council

France will be the sole EU member of the ‘Permanent Five’ (P5) members of the UN Security Council will strengthen France’s position, although it also risks exposing France to continuous requests that its UN seat should become that representing the EU.

Relations With the US

Brexit provoked mixed reactions in the US. On the one hand, the result suggests an opportunity for closer relations between the UK and the US, as well as the strengthening of NATO’s hold in Europe. On the other, the US has lost its Trojan horse in the EU for promoting its economic and geopolitical interests. US policy-makers understand that the negotiation of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between Europe and the US will be far more difficult; they also realise that Germany emerges stronger from Brexit.

To counterbalance possible losses in capabilities, the UK may be tempted to further strengthen its co-operation with the US, even if it is uncertain of their geopolitical and societal development. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is unlikely to be of reassurance to London, especially with regard to the long-term evolution of the ‘special relationship’. For this reason, the UK will most likely try to strengthen ties with the three other partners of the ‘Five Eyes’ club (Canada, Australia and New Zealand), as well as France, with whom they co-signed the Lancaster House treaty.

France’s Relationship With Germany

France, the EU’s number one military power, must now handle a complex and sensitive face-to-face relationship with Germany. The UK’s exit from the EU, and its eventual downgrading, will place France in a delicate position with regard to Germany. The political context is far from that of the 1960s. Germany is economically powerful, and knows it. France can no longer rely on the UK to balance this complex relationship. Those who today celebrate the planned exit of the UK may be the first tomorrow to condemn the geopolitical ambitions of an uninhibited Germany.

New Alliances and Divisions

A widening gap is likely between the US, Canada and the UK on one side and Europe on the other, for the greater benefit of Russia and Germany. Russia might see this as US indifference, encouraging it to take a more assertive stance in Europe and/or the Middle East. Germany may be tempted to negotiate with Russia and Turkey to stabilise its central role in Europe, while securing its new area of economic co-prosperity. France, like its closest European partners, would then be faced with the threat of dual marginalisation, making it difficult to assert its position in either of the two new blocs.


Dr Pierre Razoux is Research Director at the Institut de Recherche Stratégique de l‘École Militaire (IRSEM). The views expressed here are the author's own, and should in no way be regarded as representative of IRSEM or of the Ministry of Defence of the French Republic.

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