Vision for global Britain role dimmed by Brexit fears
Muscular foreign policy in doubt after cuts, economic uncertainty and bitter break-up with EU
In the heady aftermath of the 2016 Brexit vote, Prime Minister Theresa May laid out her vision of Global Britain in which the country’s military forces would play a full part in promoting peace and prosperity around the world.
A mature and co-operative relationship with the European Union would give the country the self-confidence and freedom to look beyond Europe to “protect our national interests, our national security, and the security of our allies”, she told her party’s annual conference.
That optimistic vision has since clashed with the harsh reality of negotiations with Brussels and rebelliousness within her party that has doomed Mrs May’s Brexit plan.
Far from a “mature, co-operative” relationship with the EU, Britain is shifting towards the prospect of a bitter break-up with major ramifications for future security co-operation, according to analysts.
“It is in nobody’s interest to walk away from security co-operation and yet that may be the outcome of a no-deal and acrimonious Brexit,” said Dr Bastian Giegerich, the director of defence and military analysis for the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
The UK has already been frozen out of the European Galileo satellite system that will supply data to militaries for missile targeting and other operations. Britain invested £1.2 billion (Dh5.82bn) in the project.
Galileo is only one area where the stakes are high for Britain, which claims that it will remain a major player in global affairs with the world’s fifth-largest defence budget.
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson last month argued for a more active presence for the British military, including a greater role in the Gulf region. From this spring, the UK will have six naval vessels permanently based in the Gulf, using its bases and facilities in the area, including in the UAE.
It’s not even a pipe dream, it’s completely barking. This nation does not have a global presence any more and it’s not likely to have one. It doesn’t have enough money.
Charles Heyman, defence analyst
He said that the first operational mission for the UK’s newest aircraft carrier in 2021 would include the Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Pacific region, “making Global Britain a reality”.
But China responded to what it perceived as a threat to its territorial claims in the South China Sea by cancelling post-Brexit trade talks with Chancellor Philip Hammond.
Mr Williamson’s speech sparked a thinly-veiled rebuke from Mr Hammond. “It’s a complex relationship and it hasn’t been made simpler by Chinese concerns about Royal Navy deployments in the South China Sea,” he told the BBC.
Opposition and military figures also doubt whether the grand global strategy would be feasible after eight years of cuts to military budgets.
“It’s not even a pipe dream, it’s completely barking,” said defence analyst Charles Heyman.
“This nation does not have a global presence any more and it’s not likely to have one. It doesn’t have enough money.”
The parliamentary spending watchdog reported last month that the Ministry of Defence had a funding black hole of at least £7bn in its 10-year, £180bn plan to equip the armed forces.
Lord Dannatt, a former head of the Army, told the BBC that a lot of defence assets had been “slashed and burnt” in major cuts after a review in 2010. “Two per cent of GDP is the lowest we’ve ever spent on our defence since the Second World War, and it’s bought us the smallest army, navy and air force we’ve ever had,” he said.
The UK’s future economic prospects and the possibility of severing tariff-free trading links with Europe in the event of a no-deal Brexit would have further major implications for the British defence industry, analysts said.
Britain is one of the world’s largest exporters of arms but it relies on pan-European suppliers for major projects.
It has sought to collaborate for more than 50 years on major defence projects and relies on long-term relationships that are not easily broken, said Dr Michael Pryce, a lecturer in defence acquisition at Cranfield University in the UK.
“Rapid change is unlikely to result from Brexit, at least for the large programmes like combat aircraft,” he said.
Wings for airliners from Airbus are made in Wales, prompting a senior executive to quip that, without the input of the UK, the European aeronautics company would be more likely to make buses, according to a report on defence and Brexit by Rand Europe.
The tightly woven nature of defence contracts was further highlighted this month when UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned of the impact of a German ban on selling arms to Saudi Arabia.
Last year, Germany
stopped an export licence for air-to-air missiles that was to be used to fulfil a proposed £10bn deal to provide Riyadh with 48 Eurofighter Typhoon jets.
“Arms sales will still go on, but the European projects will almost certainly shudder to a halt,” Mr Heyman said.
Dr Giegerich said that a no-deal Brexit could also lock the UK out of European research funding and hamper its ability to attract the best talent, triggering a skills shift to continental Europe.
The EU – which is planning to introduce a more muscular joint defence strategy – has agreed a new defence pact and the bloc’s budget will fund defence research for the first time from 2021.
Updated: March 4, 2019 08:58 PM