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Major General Julian Thompson: We’ve stumbled into a EU defence trap, despite Brexit


In the heady days after the Brexit vote, those who had cast their ballot in favour of leaving the EU might have been forgiven for believing that the decision was made. Alea iacta est, as Caesar said when crossing the Rubicon. The die is cast. As it turns out, in modern military matters, such issues have proved to be far from certain.

It has taken some time for Whitehall to settle with clarity on what Brexit means in a number of areas. Only now are mandarins finally absorbing that it is necessary to leave the Single Market and the Customs Union. But I rather fear that there is another union where the nettle has not been grasped, because the EU also has a Defence Union.

At present it is rather skeletal. But it is very real; and the principle behind a skeleton is that you hang things off it. In EU terms, that is done as part of a slow and steady process. Paradoxically, if anything, Defence Union has accelerated after Brexit. In part, but only in part, that can be put down to the kneejerk response by the EU to push down on the accelerator in times of crisis. That’s how mothballed Justice and Home Affairs policy suddenly re-emerged as core EU treaty material after 9/11 and ‘something had to be done’ by EU mandarins.

The problem is that what is being signed up to is bad policy from the EU. What is so surprising is that the UK is going along with much of it. It is difficult from the outside to understand why. Perhaps policy confusion; a peculiar unwillingness to veto bad ideas by a leaving country; poor management and other reasons may have contributed. One also suspects that it is because Whitehall has not quite grasped the detail of what it has been signing up to. The key agreements have been signed off at EU Council level, probably by badly-briefed ministers. The result has been unseen by the UK Parliament. I suppose no change there, then, with how EU things are run.

The problem is, though, that it means handing control to joint EU committees governing growing areas of collective military finance, assets, strategy and policy. UK officials have ‘sold’ the agreements across government by touting highly questionable cost savings. They have even claimed advantages for UK industry, whereas in fact it would lose its umbilical link with government procurement as the EU has introduced yet more of its ‘cheapest-wins’, EU-wide tendering directives into defence. This might make market sense, but the policy is not market-driven; it is intended to generate a revolution in national defence capability, largely by ending it.

However civil servants’ advice on the matter is being swallowed wholesale. Their recommendations have travelled unchallenged across government and even now appear in the defence negotiating paper published last month by the Department for Exiting the EU. Make no mistake, these are agreements that the UK is already in – the right to decide whether to join them was removed. They include every area of defence policy-making from intelligence to finance, military command, shipbuilding and even the commissioning of new satellite technology. This is a widening post-Brexit trap.

So it falls to ordinary people to campaign, to raise awareness among MPs and to secure the UK’s right to leave these agreements so that the country may retain our democratic control over HM Armed Forces. It would be a peculiar victory if we obtain our freedom from the EU at the same moment as we have surrendered our ability to defend it.

Veterans for Britain are running two events in Manchester tomorrow (Monday October 2) discussing these issues – details are here.

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Major General Julian Thompson
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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