Britain should be taking back control of its defence, not surrendering it to Brussels

Article published in The Daily Telegraph,  13 September 2017. © Richard Kemp

Nelson will be spinning on his column. Under plans the government has been working on for months, if we want to build another naval warship in the future we will have to go cap in hand to Brussels.

When it comes to defence, it is becoming clear that Brexit does not mean Brexit. Judging by a paper released yesterday by the Department for Exiting the EU, which calls for a defence relationship with Brussels ‘closer than any third country’, the government intends to surrender control of UK defence to the EU.

British voters have always been more opposed to this than any other issue. Polls have consistently shown that even among the minority of voters who wanted to remain in the EU, large numbers rejected the idea of an EU army.

The architects of Project Fear, in their desperation to persuade us to vote Remain, assured us no such thing would ever happen. But the British people have been betrayed from all sides. Lied to by the Remain camp, they are now being sold out by the politicians that are supposed to be leading us out of the EU.

Much of this has been done behind all of our backs — including MPs and government ministers. British officials in Whitehall and Brussels have been quietly conspiring with their EU counterparts to draw us further and further into an EU defence union.

Since November last year, five months after we voted to leave the EU, Britain has fully signed up to five separate EU Council agreements which frame a defence union. Although the process has involved UK defence ministers, foreign ministers and the prime minister, the general election as well as intense focus on other Brexit issues no doubt allowed the usual smoke and mirrors to be deployed with even greater guile than usual. Having worked for several years in Whitehall I know well the machinations of the Sir Humphreys on both sides of the Channel.

Only last Thursday in Estonia the UK was involved in a meeting to consider the final component of the defence union, known as ‘Permanent Structured Cooperation’ or PESCO — an EU army in all but name — and indicated their full agreement. A binding EU Council meeting of defence ministers in October will commit the EU to launching PESCO before the end of the year with Britain enmeshed in it.

What does all this mean? We will be contributing to the European Defence Fund, the first EU central defence budget, launched this year, which will include the purchase of military assets of all kinds. Increasing amounts of our defence spending will be channeled through this fund, which will be controlled not by our Ministry of Defence but by the EU and its defence policy. The EU has even admitted the fund will be used as incentive cash to steer compliance with EU policy.

There will be joint procurement and ownership of defence assets, including ships, aircraft, drones, space vehicles, satellites and ‘beyond state-of-the-art systems’. Government defence contracts will be subject to EU-wide tender. Hitherto UK shipyards and defence firms have relied on a national security exemption whereby the government can restrict contracts to UK suppliers — which the EU is now putting a stop to. The National Shipbuilding Strategy commits to building only frigates, destroyers and submarines in the UK — all other vessels must be open to international tender. Even parts of the Navy’s new Type 26 Frigate will be built in compliance with EU rules.

Use of these assets will be governed by joint EU policy. The EU will establish defence research centres, training schools and common training programmes. It will provide strategic direction, decision-making and command and intelligence centres.

Commenting on the newly published paper, defence secretary Sir Michael Fallon said: ‘At a time of increased threats and international instability the UK remains unwavering in its commitment to uphold European security… As we leave the EU, the UK and our European allies will ensure a close partnership that meets these shared challenges head-on.’

Of course this is vital for our country. But Britain is the most potent military power in Europe. We do not need to submit our forces to EU control in order to ensure cooperation. In defence, as in all aspects of security and intelligence, the EU needs us more than we need them.

In fact this move towards an EU defence union is precisely the wrong thing to be doing. The right thing would be to focus on our role as a sovereign member of NATO, and to channel our efforts into developing that vital alliance. The threat we face is not exclusively Europe-centric. It is global. It involves Islamic terrorism around the world, an increasingly aggressive and imperialist Iran and a rampant North Korea.

Engaging NATO more closely in these challenges and expanding its membership to cope with them more effectively is the answer, not an EU whose leaders demand primacy in defence and pursue a policy intended to undermine the alliance.

The EU’s plans are driven partly by Germany and France’s long-standing resentment of American dominance, intensified by the arrival on the scene of President Trump. They are likely to achieve their goal of undercutting the US role in Europe’s defence. But this will be catastrophic for the continent and for the world, because however well resourced the EU defence union and however many flags, generals and air conditioned headquarters it has, it will be toothless, vacillating and incapable of any serious military action without an American comfort blanket.

Speaking recently to members of President Trump’s inner circle, it was obvious that despite toning-down of criticism of NATO there remains deep-seated scepticism about the alliance, especially the willingness of its European members to pull their weight.

Not only will the EU defence union reinforce the administration’s concerns, but Britain’s commitment to an alliance ‘closer than any third country’ will damage our special relationship with the United States. Historically we have been America’s most reliable international partner but this will be constrained by the intended allegiance to the EU. The relationship with the US cuts both ways. Their influence, intelligence and military action have saved many British lives and helped protect and build our vital national interests around the world.

This ploy is no doubt intended as a bargaining hand in the Brexit battle over higher economic stakes. But the reality is, our government plans to hand the full deck of cards to Brussels and the consequences will be far-reaching and disastrous.