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Julian Thompson: Defence officials risk tying our rope to the EU’s sinking ship

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In Brussels this week, European ‘leaders’ signed a pact to deepen European integration on Defence and Security. Britain will not sign up, but has pledged support for European defence from afar. As Boris Johnson arrived in Brussels he compared Britain to a ‘flying buttress’ that would support the EU’s ‘cathedral’ of military infrastructure. What does he mean?

But before we begin, we invite Conservative Woman readers to join Veterans for Britain in declaring a war on EU abbreviations (DWEUA). Read on and you will see why.

The EU is in the process of speeding up defence integration. Officials in the Ministry of Defence (MoD) have been even more opaque than Boris Johnson when it comes to indicating categorically that the UK intends to stand outside the common EU defence structure and budget. This generates strategic risk as well as expectations that the UK will participate to the level of other European Economic Area member countries. This covers all defence matters, but of immediate concern are procurement and common funding. In essence, the UK is currently signing up to the establishment of new common structures, budgets and decision-making which carry implied or explicit legacy commitments. At the very least these will make the task of Brexit negotiators more complicated because they will subsequently have to explain that they will not adhere to these commitments.

Since November 2016, the EU has launched a number of ambitious projects. These include the European Defence Fund (EDF), the European Defence Research Programme (EDRP), and the European Defence Industrial Programme (EDIP). The Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) paper, prepared with MoD guidance, alludes to the prospect of participating in these projects and the European Defence Agency (EDA) on terms closer than a ‘third country’ – in the jargon, as a ‘second country’. The only existing model for this is Norway, which is required to be deeply compliant with EU rules.

The problem with continuing participation in the above EU projects is that the EU is using them as a means of ‘expanding EU sovereignty across defence’, to quote Mr Juncker. The EDIP is being used as an instrument to extend the EU Commission’s Single Market powers over industries held to be vital for national independence, such as the UK shipbuilding industry. So, for example, if the UK wishes to build a warship, the project has to be put out to competitive tender round all EU nations. (As an aside, does the SNP realise this?)



The UK has participated after agreement in no fewer than five separate EU Council meetings since our vote to leave the EU in June 2016. This year the UK has entered preparatory arrangements, for example in defence research, where projects involving the UK are designed to continue beyond our exit from the EU in March 2019. In March this year, UK ministers approved plans for a Military Planning and Conduct Capability (MPCC). The UK Government succeeded in having the title changed from ‘headquarters’ to ‘capability’, but this is just semantics; it has the same function. At the same meeting the UK approved the EU’s Concept Note for Operational Planning and Conduct Capabilities for Common Security and Defence Policy operations.

Civil servants involved in discussions with the EU on defence and security issues should be instructed that after leaving the EU, the UK will not participate as a member in common EU defence structures, or support common budgets. Civil servants should not sign us up to agreements that look harmless at first sight but are actually driven by Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and thus entrapping us in something that we have so far avoided joining. Instead, we should seek to operate as allies and associates on a case-by-case basis, but with primacy set on NATO frameworks. An excellent example is provided by the Memorandum of Understanding agreed by the UK and Netherlands governments in the early 1970s covering cooperation between the Royal Marines and the Royal Netherlands Marine Corps on NATO operations.

Rather than being a ‘flying buttress’, normally built to support a building that is falling down, the UK is at risk of being on a long rope attached to a sinking ship. This is the work of officials in the MoD and Foreign Office, none of which has been put to the scrutiny of Parliament; to use military terminology, sneaking it through under the radar of our government.

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Major General Julian Thompson
Major General Julian Thompson served for 34 years in the Royal Marines and is a Visiting Professor at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London

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