Will Brexit bring down NATO?

Will Brexit bring down NATO?

As the NATO Summit in Warsaw approaches, speculation of Brexit contagion abounds.

Reports of NATO’s demise are greatly exaggerated.

In all the Brexit backlash, with suppositions of celebration in the Kremlin, it seems that many have conflated the European Union’s fate with the world’s largest military alliance, perhaps forgetting that the horse came before the cart.

Not as dire as predicted

Before the referendum, the US was actively encouraging this view, delivering dire warnings about a weakened NATO facing Russia in a post-Brexit world. But these were campaign words. No doubt the UK’s decision to leave was a severe body blow to the EU and to the European project generally – which in the long-term will have consequences for NATO. But in terms of raw military power, the Alliance’s strength relative to Russia remains unchanged. In the medium-term, its position may grow even stronger as UK assets earmarked for EU security projects are redirected to NATO.

In a practical sense, the UK’s departure from the bloc is probably the least helpful to Russia. Of all the EU member states, Washington’s stalwart ally is the most unlikely to look eastward. An exit by Hungary, or even Austria, would come with a much greater risk of those nations turning away from Brussels and Berlin, and towards Moscow. Despite the Little England, isolationism talk, Pew polling last year found that the UK was, in fact, the most likely of the Big Four (UK, France, Germany, Italy) to support using military force to defend a NATO ally in the event of a Russian attack. This was in stark comparison to other three, where more than half the populations were against such support.

Common Security and Defense Policy to become less important

If anything, the UK will try to offset its EU losses with transatlantic gains. Already there’s talk of a bilateral US-UK trade agreement, or even the UK joining NAFTA. Undoubtedly, the EU as an institution is weakened, and the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) may be irreparably relegated to the back burner. However, European security will be unaffected as long as the NATO alliance is intact.

Unfortunately, CSDP has been plagued by its inability to confront major power problems from the beginning. The neutrality of some members has always put its military role – as anything other than a UN enforcer – into question. Given that the UK has the largest military budget in Europe, common sense dictates that NATO will now be the final word in European defense. For CSDP to make up the ground lost by Brexit would require large-scale defense investment by France and Germany, and they are unlikely to make that commitment as NATO provides a cheaper option.

The US has lost a strong advocate within the EU. However, the close relationship between Berlin and Washington during the Obama administration indicates that a backup plan has always been in the works, and will perhaps culminate in Germany’s long-wished-for admission to the Five Eyes intelligence sharing partnership.

No surprises should be expected in Warsaw this weekend. NATO’s message will be one of solidarity and stability, to project a steady bulwark despite EU strife.

Categories: Europe, Security

About Author

Edward Wrong

Edward Wrong is Geopolitical Analyst specializing in transatlantic affairs who has held positions at NATO, the OSCE, and the EU Delegation to the United States. He has an MA in International Relations and International Economics from Johns Hopkins University's Nitze School of Advanced International Studies as well as an MA in Public Policy and Law from Trinity College. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization.