No doubt that the recent NATO Summit in Warsaw was partly overshadowed by the uncertainty of the historic Brexit vote. During the week in the lead up to the Summit the political discourse landmark transatlantic arena was much more focused on what a Brexit would mean for Europe than on NATO’s future. Nevertheless the Summit delivered important if not milestone results for NATO.
The decisions for a new persistent rotational presence of Western European and American military units in Poland and the Baltics is a major achievement for Eastern European members threatened by a re-emergent Russia. Although the size and capabilities of the deployed forces, altogether about 4000 troops, are largely symbolic in light of Russia’s overwhelming military advantage in the region, however, the persistent presence of other NATO troops in the region obviously has a significant political value in terms of demonstrating Alliance solidarity. As for the grounding of the decision, it is telling that Germany, long known to be the most reluctant member to take any military steps which might antagonize relationship with Russia, felt obliged to be one of the framework nations of the units first to be deployed in the East. Nevertheless, keeping NATO’s relations with Russia on dual tracks, adding the possibility of dialogue next to deterrence is essential for European security. The first NATO-Russia Council meeting held just days after the Summit was an important first step in this direction.
The decisions pointing to greater NATO involvement in tackling soft security challenges, including terrorism and illegal migration - stemming from the Southern flank are also significant. The relevant activities and missions, especially NATO’s maritime mission in the Aegean Sea in tackling human trafficking could be highly visible examples of the value of NATO towards the citizens of the member states, who are increasingly concerned of the security threats related to uncontrolled migration and terrorist networks with ties to the Middle East. Of course close partnership with the EU in this as well as in other security domains are critical. One can hope that the new arrangements signed between the two Brussels based organizations will prove to bring valuable practical benefits for the member states, and long standing political obstacles will not shallow out the agreement.
Nevertheless, the possible effects of Brexit looms over all the above mentioned issues. As the UK is set to lose its place in the EU’s CSDP, there will be high ambitions in London to remain a leading actor in the European security arena through NATO. Hence we can expect robust commitments towards Allied operations in and outside of Europe, including streaming UK capacities towards NATO previously tied down in CSDP activities. NATO will remain the most important organization through which the UK will be able to institutionally influence political and strategic developments in Europe. One must note that the Brexit did not alter the age old British strategic objective of fostering a balance of power in continental Europe, that is restraining Germany’s power. However, the possible negative economic effects of the Brexit will likely not evade London’s defense budget, which will obviously put a restraint the UK’s ability to invest robustly in defense. Furthermore, the possible brake up of the UK if Scotland or Northern Ireland succeeds would be a significant blow to Britain’s status as a considerable European power.
Brexit has created new conditions for the EU and its common security and defense policy. With the UK leaving the EU CSDP has lost its most potent military power. As a result CSDP will likely focus even more on low end crisis management operations, not as if during the past ten years there would have been robust EU military missions. But the UK’s departure will further weaken Europe’s potential to be a global actor, whether we speak of actual military capabilities or strategic ambitions. With France alone in the EU with a global strategic outlook but with increasing economic and social challenges, Germany’s influence will grow on the future shape of CSDP as well. This would probably mean a more risk averse approach towards possible crisis management operations and a softer approach towards Russia by the EU. Nevertheless, the chances of greater integration within European security and defense have also grown with the UK exit. However, deeper security and defense cooperation are closely tied with the question of the whole future direction of the European Union, which is rather uncertain at the moment.
A sudden disorderly disintegration of the EU could be fatal for NATO as well. The total loss of solidarity and the will to compromise between EU member states would surely spill over on to the security and defense realm. However, this does not mean that further integration is the only viable path, as the democratic will of the vast majority of European citizens cannot be overlooked. It’s not the question of more or less integration as some European leaders have already suggested but where and how – and even more importantly, with what kind of policy objectives. NATO will only have a strong and capable CSDP by its side if the EU has the firm support of its citizens.