One of the early claims in the referendum campaign, even before the campaign started in earnest, is that Britain is “safer IN”. Let’s have a look at these claims.
There are three aspects to the claim. The first of these is militarily, the second is in terrorism, the third crime. The focus of this piece is on the military security between nations, a follow ups will consider terrorism and crime.
In attempting to assess the principle threats to Britain, it is worth taking a brief look back at history.
One of the main arguments about security has been made for decades, that we have averted wars in Europe since 1945. Indeed, one of the aims of the founding members of the EU was to link economies to an extent which made countries interdependent.
Both world wars had their origins in Europe, even though for the second, Japan and China had been in conflict since 1937. War in Europe came from German expansion into neighbouring countries, starting with Poland in 1939, with fluctuating alliances.
In 1941, the war extended, Germany invading the Soviet Union and with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. The conflict became global. The allied victory came in 1945. Settlement in Europe meant division, the East being controlled by the Soviet Union. Until 1989, the Communist ideology was seen as perhaps the biggest threat to peace in Europe.
After 1945, a range of international treaties and groupings evolved. Immediately, the League of Nations was established, now the United Nations. NATO followed in 1949 with the Warsaw Pact established in 1955, its demise coming from 1989 to 1991 as countries on the periphery of the eastern bloc sought freedom. The Soviet Union also disbanded in the same year.
It is true that there has been no military conflict between members of the European Union since 1945, despite there being other conflicts on the continent of Europe. Whether relative peace can be attributed to the existence of the European Union is open to debate. The UN, balanced alliances of NATO and the Warsaw Pact countries may have been a factor.
It is also true to say that there have not been conflicts between members of NATO.
The European Union had been involved in a variety of operations in different parts of the world, in fact 30 since 2002. These have inevitably included a British presence. In Europe these have included the former Yugoslavia, monitoring missions which included Gaza and policing missions.
There have been no large scale operations, however, some have been linked to trade protection, such as piracy off Somalia. Perhaps the most significant operation was EUFOR in Libya in 2011, largely an airborne campaign.
So where are the threats?
Led by Cameron, the IN crowd would have us believe that Putin would be the happiest if Britain voted for OUT. Does that mean that Russia are a threat to either Britain or the European Union?
For a moment, let us assume that Putin might consider an attack on the United Kingdom. What would he face?
Britain is ranked 5th -6th globally amongst military powers depending on criteria, more or less alongside France, behind USA, Russia, China and India. The above, as well as North Korea and Pakistan have declared possession of nuclear weapons. Retaliation could be apocalyptic.
It is true that Russia’s volume of military assets is far greater than those of Britain. However, as members of NATO, an attack on one country would be seen as an attack on all. A declaration of war would trigger a combined response, not least from USA military assets within Europe.
During the Syrian crisis, a Russian aircraft was shot down, allegedly encroaching Turkish air space. Turkey are also members of NATO. The lack if a military response from Russia might be seen as a clue to Russian intentions and sensibilities. It is barely conceivable that Putin would take on NATO in the European Union area.
Certainly, Russia has flexed its military muscle in the annexation of Crimea. Ukraine is not a member of NATO. The European Union response has been limited to trade sanctions.
Whilst Putin may be presented as some sort of pantomime villain by Cameron’s cronies, it is worth reflecting for a moment why Russian forces have been deployed in Syria, or from another perspective, why they have been deployed against ISIL.
Initially at least, the campaign declared in support of efforts to counter terrorism. Later, a Russian passenger aircraft was shot down over Sinai with ISIL claiming responsibility. The campaign intensified.
It seems fair to say that Russian, and indeed USA approaches differ to Britain’s view on “collateral damage”. There is certainly a case to challenge other superpowers’ less discriminate activity. Both Russia and America have bombed hospitals in war zones. It is hard to argue that Putin has destabilised the Arab world any more than Bush, Blair, Obama and Cameron.
Of course, British forces have been deployed in conflict zones, during this century. The first of those was in Sierra Leone without external support. The next was Afghanistan, led by USA as a NATO campaign with EU support coming from France, Germany, Poland, Italy, Romania, Denmark and Spain, by no means all 28 nations.
The Iraq war was again led by USA with EU involvement also including Poland and Denmark. The Libya campaign was largely a NATO led enforcement of a no-fly zone, naval blockade and civilian protection. The main EU participants were Britain, France, Denmark, Italy and Sweden.
The ongoing campaign, involving 9 EU states currently, is against ISIL. The terrorist battle in Europe will be the subject of a further piece. However, it is clear that the EU does not necessarily contribute unanimously to each military intervention. It is also clear that UN involvement tends to ensure that the risk of expansion is limited.
A partial explanation of different levels of contribution may be the resource allocated to defence. NATO’s recommendation is 2% of national income, a figure that is currently only matched by Britain and Estonia. France and Poland are not far behind with around 1.95% whilst of the other larger nations, Spain is less than 1%, Italy and Germany at 1.32% and 1.23% respectively.
At 22.7% of total defence expenditure (EDA 2012), Britain’s is the largest financial contribution. It is clear that Britain’s military power enhances the European Union. The bigger question for the referendum is how much does the EU strengthen Britain?
In practice, NATO forces undertake joint exercises. In conflicts undertaken, the more active participants obviously deploy more resource than the less active. If those activities are of benefit to EU members, it stands to reason that those who contribute less gain benefit at the expense of others. Put another way, Britain contributes more than she gains, other nations gain more than they invest.
There are other threats to British interests. We can take two simple but linked examples, the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar. The Falklands were invaded by Argentina in 1982. Argentina maintains their claim, supported by Spain.
In 2013 a European Parliament delegation visiting Argentina led by Spanish MEP Luis Yanez-Barnuevo Garcia declared that “British sovereignty over the Islands, as such, is not accepted”.
During a recent trip to Argentina, Spanish Foreign Secretary José Manuel García Margallo said: “Our two countries, Argentina and Spain, wish resolutely to put an end to the two colonial situations”. Interestingly, Spanish control of the North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla are not seen as equivalent.
Were there to be a further attack by Argentina on the Falklands, it is clear that support from EU countries would not be totally forthcoming. It is hard to see how that would change by either remaining or leaving the EU.
The situation could be further confused in the longer run. The prospect of the creation of an EU army has been floated before. Most recently, in 2015, EU Commission President, Jean Claude Juncker, said “a common army among the Europeans would convey to Russia that we are serious about defending the values of the European Union.”
Similarly, Tony Blair stated in January this year “I would argue that in the medium term, there will be a growing requirement for Europe to build defence capability.
Only this month, the Financial Times (not the express or Mail as Cameron’s cronies claim) reports on a white paper to be put forward by the German government which allegedly claims “It is therefore necessary that military capabilities are jointly planned, developed, managed, procured and deployed to raise the interoperability of Europe’s defence forces and to further improve Europe’s capacity to act”. According to the FT, proposals include plans to “create a joint civil-military headquarters for EU operations, a council of defence ministers, and better co-ordinate the production and sharing of military equipment”.
Credibility is given by comments last year from German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leye along with the Dutch 11th Airmobile Brigade and 43rd Mechanised Brigade coming under German command between now and 2019. Dutch and German submarine operations were integrated in 2013.
Clearly, if British armed forces were to be integrated in the long term under the umbrella of the European Union, Britain’s ability to protect those who have chosen to remain British might well be subject to compromise.
In other pieces on this site, the direction of “reform” has come into question. There are other threats from within the EU to stability and British interests. Unrest and protests have been seen in Mediterranean countries suffering from austerity measures. It is yet to be seen how far that unrest will spread.
The question is whether Britain really is “safer in”. In order to answer, we have to question what the real threats to Britain and British interests really are. We also have to question the direction of reform in the EU. Ultimately, we have to ask if we believe that Britain’s nuclear deterrent remains in British control or whether it will pass into the hands of a President from Luxemburg, Slovakia or indeed any other country.
The British government is asking us to decide for the first time since 1975. It is up to them to now give clear guidance on how British interests are safeguarded. Merely stating a subjective opinion is not enough.
Cameron and his cronies have from now until 23rd June to convince us.