Bridging the channel

Think tank: Centre for European Reform

Author(s): Sophia Besch

October 15, 2021

This report from UK think tank the Centre for European Reform looks at how Europeans and the UK can work together on defence capability development.

Since Brexit, the UK has been reluctant to engage with the EU in defence industrial co-operation. Aside from being disappointed with the EU’s offer to third countries, UK policy-makers and defence industry representatives are sceptical of the benefits of working with the EU on capability development. In this Centre for European Reform policy brief, ‘Bridging the Channel: How Europe and the UK can work together on defence capability development’, kindly supported by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, Sophia Besch, senior research fellow at the CER, argues that the absence of a formal EU-UK defence industrial agreement need not mean co-operation must stall. She considers the ways in which the UK and its European partner countries could work together outside the EU after Brexit.

The Commission does not yet have much influence over the European arms market, and bilateral and multilateral defence industrial co-operation continues to take place largely outside EU structures. In the light of their considerable capability shortfalls, Europeans cannot afford to be ideological about the form that defence industrial co-operation takes. Keeping Britain closely aligned is beneficial to both sides. Several European member-states are already looking to strengthen their bilateral ties with the UK. London may also want to invest in reviving and improving co-operation in multilateral forums outside the EU. In doing so, it should strive for maximum co-ordination with the EU’s initiatives, advocating specifically for close alignment between EU and NATO efforts.

The combination of Brexit (which means the UK is no longer at the EU table) and new Brussels-led defence initiatives (which mean that there is funding in place to incentivise co-operation inside the EU) add a layer of difficulty and increase uncertainty. Intensifying defence industrial co-operation outside the EU’s structures is not without risk for both sides. Intergovernmental arrangements could circumvent EU planning procedures and make it harder to coherently fill European capability gaps. And the EU’s defence initiatives could eventually lead to a restructuring of the European defence market and effectively exclude outsiders.