Security and Defence

A recent hot topic of the EU referendum debate is security and defence. There has been talk of an EU army, and concerns about how secure the UK is inside and would be outside the EU have been raised. In this post I address the questions of the EU’s role in security and defence, the prospect of an EU army, and how security in the UK might be affected by a vote to leave the EU.

What role does the EU play in security and defence in the UK?

The EU has a Common Foreign and Security Policy, but, along with Justice and Home Affairs, as I have already discussed, this is a policy area in early stages of development and power is retained by member states. Unlike other areas of EU policy which use the Ordinary Legislative Procedure to make decisions, the European Commission is not able to propose any laws in the area of foreign or security policy and almost all decisions must be made unanimously by the Council of Ministers (made up of the foreign secretaries of each EU member state) rather than just with a majority. This means that each member state has a veto over any potential decision.

The UK also has a law, the European Union Act 2011, which says that there has to be an Act of Parliament in the UK and a referendum in agreement with any proposal related to security and defence before the UK’s representative in the Council of Ministers can agree to it, so the people would have a clear say in any decisions made in this area.

As of the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, there is a High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy in the EU, who is also a vice president of the EU Commission. The High Representative is appointed by a vote of the European Council (the heads of government of the 28 EU member states), with the agreement of the President of the Commission, for a five year term. The role of the High Representative includes:

  • coordinating the EU’s foreign policy tools, which include assisting development, delivering humanitarian aid, responding to crisis and facilitating trade;
  • building consensus between the foreign ministers of the EU member states on their foreign policy and security priorities;
  • representing the EU in international organisations such as the UN,
  • and being in charge of the European Defence Agency.

A European Defence Agency? Is the EU creating an army?

The EU at present does not have its own army. There is some cooperation between the military forces in different member states, who can work together under the banner of the EU. The EU Treaty contains the provision for “the progressive framing of a common defence policy that might lead to a common defence”. So there is scope for the EU to move towards a unified military force, and recently several EU politicians have expressed their desire for additional progress in this area. After the referendum, the EU will be unveiling a global strategy, devised by the High Representative, that is likely to involve an action plan for deeper collaboration on security and defence matters between the member states, but we don’t yet know what the details of this will be. Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, has also called for more “integrated defence capabilities”.

However any move in this direction would need to have the agreement of all EU member states, as mentioned above. Plus, from the UK’s perspective, it would have to be agreed to by the Parliament and the people in a referendum. So far the UK Government has said it will not agree to creating an EU army.

The European Defence Agency (EDA) is a part of the European Council. It coordinates cooperation between defence forces in the EU member states (except Denmark, which opted out of this agency). Examples of projects where the defence forces of the EU member states have worked together include those regarding air-to-air refuelling of aircraft, coordination of medical support to military forces, and in the detection, resolution and prevention of improvised explosive devices (IEDs, or bombs). The EDA is a purely intergovernmental organisation supporting cooperation between member states and has no powers of its own.

The EU also has an External Action Service (EEAS). This is a diplomatic service that promotes the EU’s founding principles (democracy, the rule of law, protection of human rights, respect for human dignity, equality and solidarity, and respect for international law) in countries outside of the EU (these have significant overlap with the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, as I discussed in my earlier post). For example, it leads missions to observe elections in countries developing their democratic standards, to promote peace and prevent conflict, and to deliver humanitarian aid. One of the EEAS’s ongoing missions is taking place in the Mediterranean Sea, aiming at preventing the loss of life and tackling the causes of the ongoing human trafficking. The military personnel involved in the EEAS’s missions are not employed by the EU but come from the member states’ existing military forces and wear an EU badge with their existing national military uniforms.

Would the UK be more or less secure outside of the EU?

One of the reasons the EU was created in the first place was with the intention of promoting peace throughout Europe. It is true to say that since it was created we have had the longest period of peace between its member states for centuries, and no EU member states have engaged in conflict.

The free movement of people throughout the EU, as discussed in my earlier blog about immigration, has raised concerns that terrorists can take advantage of easy access to different EU countries and can use refugee routes to enter. It remains the case that the UK retains controls at its borders as it is not part of the Schengen Agreement, and checks the identity of all individuals entering the UK. Access to the Schengen Information System, the European Criminal Records System, and the European Arrest Warrant (EAW), whereby the governments of the EU member states that have signed up share information about individuals within the area for the purpose of law enforcement, means that the government is aware of anyone with a history of terrorist activity attempting to enter the country. In 2004 the EU also asserted that the free movement of people is not an unqualified right granted to individuals and in cases where public security or public health are at risk the free movement can be restricted. This means that the UK government has the ability to deny entry to the UK to serious offenders, though simply having a previous conviction is not grounds alone for a restriction of access. Former UK immigration minister Damian Green has stated that since 2010 over 6,000 individuals from the EU have been denied entry to the UK on these grounds.

Outside of the EU the UK would lose access to some of the agreements and systems mentioned above, but would be free to make arrangements to cooperate on a similar basis with any countries it wishes. For example the UK has an agreement with the US to collaborate on border security issues. It is also important to note on the issue of terrorism that much of the terrorism that has taken place throughout Europe in recent years has been carried out by European citizens and nationals of the targeted countries, including the 7/7 bombings in London (it is interesting to note that one of the failed 21/7 London bombers was extradited from Italy to London in under two months due to the EAW, which can be contrasted with the 10 years it took to extradite an individual involved in the 1995 Paris Metro bombing from Britain to France, before the EAW was introduced) and the November 2015 Paris attacks. The issue of home-grown terrorism is one being prioritised by the current UK government, and whether the UK stays in or leaves the EU will not affect the government’s actions in this area.

The UK is an individual member of NATO, the organisation that guarantees to defend any of its members in the case they are attacked. Other members of NATO include many EU member states, along with others such as the US and Turkey. The UK’s membership of and commitment to NATO will not change dependent on the outcome of the EU referendum.



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