29 Jun 2016
Brexit is a big hit to defence and security
Most of the reaction over Brexit has been on the economic and political fallout of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. That’s hardly surprising. The British have just voted themselves into recession. Those joining the unemployment lines can hum Land of Hope and Glory to keep their spirits up.
But by far the worst impact of Brexit will come as a result of Britain’s shrinking international defence and security role. Too few countries around the world are prepared to put their soldiers into harm’s way to defend the global good. Australia will feel the loss because Britain was one of our closest allies, sharing values and a willingness to support action against common enemies.
Brexit will shrink the UK’s defence and intelligence services and make London less effective on the international stage. How? Whether in Australia or in the UK, governments in political and economic crises tend to take their eyes off the defence game.
A Britain in recession is highly unlikely to meet its defence spending promises and will have to rethink its defence strategy.
Britain will have to disentangle its military forces from EU-led military operations, including counter-piracy missions off Somalia, police training in Afghanistan, support to Ukraine after Russian aggression and counter-terrorism in North Africa.
Britain has been a key part of European intelligence agencies’ work in the fight against Islamic extremism. It’s vital that co-operation continues regardless of Brexit. The extremists will only benefit if intelligence ties are cut, but those too will have to be renegotiated if Britain really exits.
Britain remains in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, Europe’s key defence shield against an aggressive Russia. But Westminster will be consumed over the next two years with its own political infighting as it tries to unpick relations with Europe.
NATO effectiveness will take a hit when the Russian threat to Europe from the east and the refugee crisis from the south are reaching crisis levels.
Meanwhile, Scotland, which voted to remain inside the EU, will push for a second referendum for independence from the UK. Because of the very different views between England and Scotland on Europe, the Scots will vote for independence this time. Before the previous independence referendum in September 2014, the Scottish National Party — the party in power in Edinburgh — calculated the cost of splitting the British armed forces into separate English and Scots forces.
The SNP claimed that Scottish defence spending would amount to 2.5 billion pounds for a military of 15,000 regulars and 5000 reserves. The Scots argue this money should be transferred from London to them (it’s taken from them in tax, after all) with a proportion of regiments, aircraft and ships.
This figure is well above what London will willingly transfer to an independent Scottish military, so there will be haggling over the amount, followed by the substantial weakening of the current British armed forces.
Even worse, the SNP has a strongly anti-nuclear bent and said before the 2014 referendum that the British submarine base with its Trident nuclear missiles would be closed at Faslane, 40km from Glasgow. London would have to spend billions on a new nuclear submarine port.
So British defence capability separate from the EU will be smaller and less capable, with a major question mark over the viability of its nuclear deterrent.
London will have less interest and capacity to keep up with old commitments, like the Five Power Defence Arrangements linking Australia, the UK, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia.
FPDA is not just a relic from the past. In fact it’s more important today than in previous years because of increasing strategic tensions in the South China Sea.
Australia will have to rethink our priorities for defence engagement with Europe. With the future submarine design deal going to France, we need to build closer defence, navy and industry relations with Paris. Australia has also recently decided to strengthen relations with Germany, including on defence, intelligence and counter-terrorism.
Our defence co-operation with Britain will continue, but must pass a value-for-money test, beyond just propping up comfortable and historical connections.
Who wins from Britain’s exit from Europe? Russia, which, to Vladimir Putin’s delight, now faces a weaker NATO. China wins, because Britain’s voice on the UN Security Council will be weaker.
Donald Trump wins because he can (and is) telling the US people it’s okay to poke the establishment in the eye. So Brexit helps Trump get closer to the White House.
Brexit is a disaster for countries like Australia that get value from co-operating with strong, like-minded democracies.
Brexit was a turning point, but the turn was for the worse and will produce dire defence and security results as the full implications unfold.
Peter Jennings is the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute
Published: Herald Sun. 28 June 2016