Sunday, 12th January 2020

The Government has stated the UK’s unequivocal commitment to European defence and security, which will continue after we leave the EU.”

So wrote Pauline Latham MP in the latest response to a constituent on the issue of UK involvement in European Defence Union.

That seems a fairly unambiguous statement. It is one which reflects similar statements from Theresa May while she was Prime Minister, and Boris Johnson since he took over in that role. Latham, then, is merely expressing government policy.

Yet this position, stated and restated many times over the last three years, does not appear to fit with other statements on the issue.

Responses to constituents, whether directly from MPs, or as a forwarded letter from the junior defence minister of the day, have carried a consistent tune:

  • The UK military will continue to remain under the sovereign control of the Houses of Parliament and Her Majesty the Queen
  • The Government remains firmly opposed to concepts that remove or undermine the sovereignty of nations over their armed forces
  • Several member states, including the UK, have made it clear they do not support any idea of an ‘EU Army’; there is no plan to establish one
  • NATO, NATO, NATO, which has at times been described as ‘the cornerstone of our defence’, and at others as ‘the cornerstone of European defence’
  • Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) is a great idea, and if the UK takes part it will be as a ‘third country’ exercising its right to ‘opt in’

These statements do not seem to offer ‘unequivocal commitment’.

A number of questions come immediately to mind: what is the UK government position, clearly stated, on involvement in European Defence Union? Will the UK government opt in to EU Defence Union structures and institutions? Who would decide when and how UK military assets are deployed if government decides to opt in?

The answer to these questions has never been more important as the government begins its negotiation on the UK's future relationship with the EU.

The Smoking Gun

It has been the position of the UK Column for the last several years, that all the evidence points to the EU envisioning what David Ellis describes as “single point command and control”.

In other words, EU military operations would be commanded at the EU level. Member states would be required to give up sovereign command of their national military forces to take part in EU operations.

This is probably the single most difficult issue to get traction on with a hugely sceptical public, and particularly with serving and retired senior military. There is a distinct unwillingness to disbelieve the position expressed by MPs and ministers as discussed above.

Even the comments made by Ursula von der Leyen during her job interview for the position of President of the European Commission were not enough to overcome that scepticism.

But the smoking gun has come in the form of an EU document, published last April, and sent to us this week.

Autonomous Capacity to Launch Military Operations

The document, entitled ‘EU Concept for Military Command and Control’, is unequivocal:

The EU has established an autonomous capacity to take decisions to launch and conduct EU-led military operations and missions within the range of the tasks defined in the Treaty on European Union (TEU-ref. A).

This alone should require pause for thought. No UK MP, minister or Prime Minister has ever admitted this.

It is true that following Brexit, the UK will no longer be bound by the Treaty on the European Union. But there will be a whole new batch of treaties between UK and EU as a result of negotiations on the ‘future relationship’ which will bind the UK into … what?

There will be no ‘EU Army’

As we highlight above, the UK government's clearly stated position is that there will be no ‘EU Army’, i.e. no standing army. This seems to be an accurate statement as far as it goes: there is no need for the EU to have its own standing army while member states have theirs.

The ‘EU Concept for Military Command and Control’, however, states that although the EU does not have a “standing military Command and Control (C2) structure, for military executive operations”, it does already have a standing military Command and Control structure for non-executive operations which "should have the ability to plan and conduct one executive military CSDP operation ... limited to EU Battlegroup size".

The implications of this should be clear, and call into question claims from the UK government that UK troops would never be subject to anything other than sovereign military command.

The ‘EU Concept for Military Command and Control’ sets out the EU Military chain of command, from an ‘EU Operation Commander’ and ‘EU Operation Headquarters’ at the top to ‘EU Mission Force Commander’ and HQ at the bottom, with several levels in between.

Transfer of Authority

But it is section 10(e) which should bring the greatest concern.

TOA [Transfer of Authority] of force elements from the national authorities to the OpCdr / Dir MPCC and from the OpCdr / Dir MPCC downwards is a key aspect of all operations/missions.

So for any nation committing forces to EU ‘defence’ missions, a “key aspect” of that commitment is that they transfer command and control over those forces to the EU.

How can the UK government possibly square this with their stated position that “UK military will continue to remain under the sovereign control of the Houses of Parliament and Her Majesty the Queen”?

Has the UK government simply lied?

No Need to Worry

There’s no need to worry, though. The EU document states, “the [European] Council has the overall responsibility for the conduct of EU-led military CSDP operations and missions, including the decision to take action …

So any decision for the EU to take action will ultimately lie with the heads of state or government of member states.

That’s the heads of state or government of the EU27. The UK, as a ‘third country’ participant, would have no say.

But we don’t need to worry here either.

Article 104 of the Theresa May Brexit deal would have tied the UK into all of this through the mechanism of the so-called Backstop.

Boris Johnson’s Political Declaration on the Future Relationship replaces the old Article 104 with Article 102, which states that “the Parties agree to consider the following to the extent possible under the conditions of Union law”, and lists involvement in the European Defence Agency, European Defence Fund and PESCO.

The key word is “consider”. It is, in other words, an opt-in.

That’s alright then.

Unequivocal Commitment

Or is it? There remains a complete refusal by the Boris Johnson regime to make any kind of definitive statement that the UK will not opt-in.

Remember Pauline Latham MP’s statement: “The Government has stated the UK’s unequivocal commitment to European defence and security, which will continue after we leave the EU.”

There is a clear intent to opt in, in both what the government says and what it doesn't say. By opting in, the UK will be subject to EU single point Command and Control, and at that point, the UK will lose sovereign control over its military assets.

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