20 June 2024

Labour’s plans for defence threaten our sovereignty

By Radomir Tylecote & Alexander Baker

The Conservatives and Labour have made defence and national security core planks of their election campaigns. The Prime Minister and Keir Starmer have told the public that we are all living in a more dangerous and volatile world – with war in Europe, crises in the Middle East and an epoch-defining challenge in Asia. 

An incoming government will also have to deal with the fact that our greatest ally, the United States, wants its British and European partners to take on greater responsibility for European security so that it may dedicate more resources to competition with China. Our international situation requires bold thinking and honesty with the public, which is why we at the Legatum Institute have called for an election debate between the Foreign Secretary and his Opposition counterpart.   

Amid this uncertainty, there have been discussions on greater UK cooperation with the European Union in the realm of defence, to collectively strengthen European security. This is most apparent in Labour’s plans for a UK-EU security pact, which Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy has described as ‘fundamental’. 

However, the security of Britain and the European continent, and the development of EU security architecture, are two distinct and potentially competing ambitions. 

In our new report, Breaking Ranks, we trace both the development of European defence integration and the EU’s long-term plans to create a ‘Defence Union’ by concentrating defence and foreign policy making in Brussels and using protectionist policies to create a defence industrial base. 

Central to the EU’s defence plans is achieving ‘strategic autonomy’ – the capacity to act independently of third parties. Furthering this goal is embedded into EU security and defence initiatives such as Permanent Structured Cooperation, which provides a platform for defence integration, and the European Defence Fund (EDF), which provides favourable rates of finance for projects that support EU aims. 

This development is not in Britain’s national interest. An emergent EU defence union risks undermining Nato and brings distraction and duplication at a time when European security is being openly challenged by authoritarians like Putin. An EU drive for strategic autonomy will create a challenger structure that could weaken the collective security that Nato provides.  

The EU also uses protectionist policies to advance defence integration that explicitly disadvantage third-party countries such as Britain. The EDF imposes restrictions on third-party defence companies by limiting their ability to control their intellectual property when working on projects in the EU, while prioritising projects that advance the autonomy of the EU’s defence industrial base. Meanwhile, the EU’s defence framework comes with binding commitments for member states, requiring them to work towards defence integration and increase strategic autonomy. 

Such commitments are an explicit part of Brussels’ drive to take control of foreign and defence policy from sovereign member states. The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, has long advocated for the EU to be able to make foreign policy decisions without unanimous approval from all member states. This year, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called for the creation of an EU Defence Commissioner if she is re-elected, something that looks likely after the European elections.

Additional proposals in the EU’s Defence Industrial Strategy include giving Brussels powers to impel companies to share commercially sensitive information, or even force EU companies to produce defence equipment instead. Such measures damage competitiveness and innovation across British and European defence industries, thereby harming both our prosperity and collective defence. A security pact would entrench EU industrial policies at the expense of the UK’s defence industry. 

The British public understood the danger that the EU posed to national sovereignty, which is why they voted for Brexit. By signing up to EU defence initiatives, the UK risks, at best, wasting scarce time and energy on initiatives that increase Brussels’ political control over defence, and at worst, undermining our collective security while signing up to a foreign and defence policy over which we have no input. 

Worse still would be to bargain with our defence capabilities, by agreeing to a security deal in the hope that such an act of goodwill may aide negotiations in other areas of the UK-EU relationship, such as trade or immigration. 

While the UK should welcome greater investment in defence from European states, it should not participate in security pacts that subordinate the country’s needs to EU directives or require British forces to serve under EU command. Rather, it should leverage its outsized position in the European security space to convince allies to drop onerous EU requirements for defence procurement and prioritise Nato-led defence industrial programmes such as the alliance’s Defence Production Action Plan. 

The UK faces a challenging international situation, but the greatest risks lie in compromising our own security and sovereignty. Propping up a parallel defence structure in Europe is not in Britain’s interest.   

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Dr Radomir Tylecote is Managing Director at the Legatum Institute and Alexander Baker is Research Associate at the Legatum Institute.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.