Few will recall the loss of HMS Birkenhead in 1852 on the 26th of February and with it what became known as the ‘Birkenhead drill’. The senior British officer on the vessel, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Seaton, with all aboard facing certain death if panic broke out, ordered his soldiers on the sinking ship to stand fast; they did. Their attention to orders, steadfast and selfless action saved the lives of a great many. This stoic regard for the old military ideals of duty, service, sacrifice so impressed the Kaiser that in its aftermath he issued an ‘Order of the Day’ to be read by the Prussian troops asking them to be as brave as the men on the Birkenhead.
The decision over 150 years later on the 23rd of June 2016 by Great Britain to leave The European Union (EU) is for the British Armed Forces just another ‘Birkenhead’ moment and calls for those in uniform to stand fast as they have for over 300 hundred years. Their sworn allegiance is to the Crown, their accountability to Parliament while their personal rights are attended to through the ballet box. Thereafter, providing the request that is placed upon them is legal, they attend to their duty, which is to continue to defend steadfastly the realm against all enemies. So as it affects the Armed Forces, impending BREXIT has changed little.
In Europe, the EU has at best a marginal mandate on defence issues. Article 42 of the Treaty on European Union remains politically gridlocked while the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) lacks the collective will of its participants. As a result, European military deeds under the EU simply do not match its political rhetoric; what it wants and what it does are very different. Hard decisions are predominately based on the national interests of its members while EU collective responsibilities are captured in statements of outrage or through softer non-military actions including sanctions. As a result, the UK Armed Forces relationship with Europe is set through a series of direct bi-lateral and broader EU collective arrangements. I suspect many of these bi-lateral deals involving Intelligence, Special Forces and Counter-Terrorism amongst others will remain in place irrespective of our negotiating position. The more conventional National military forces have never fitted well into the European force structures. These organizations have always been much more diverse and significantly less assured than NATO. They include multiple differing defence and security standing arrangements such as Finabel, the European Corps, the Gendarmerie Force, the European Air Transport, the Air Group, the Maritime Force, the Movement Coordination Centre and the European Organization for joint Armament Cooperation and while France and Spain are members of all these standing forces, Bulgaria is a member of none and Greece only one of these defence initiatives. This collection of Defence and Security organizations are not hard wired and while these European Defence forces have theoretically some 1.4 Million personnel and a total budget of nearly 2,000 Billion Euro’s, the majority are very much structured and organized for National and individual security needs. Thomas Hobbes in the Leviathan (1651) wrote ‘The bonds of words are too weak to bridle men’s ambition, avarice, anger, and other passions, without the fear of some coercive power’ and here is the European rub. For without a binding clause or cast iron commitment, choice allows nations to opt out or to endlessly prevaricate on difficult issues. Unless they are faced with a clear and unequivocal present danger to them, their way of life or their prosperity they are unlikely to act decisively. Standing arrangements for integration, interoperability and intelligence sharing will continue but the best that Europe offers is not nor ever likely to be the match of NATO.
For collective and meaningful defence our strategic alliance firmly rests with NATO, an alliance bound in place on the 4th April 1949 in the Washington Treaty. That treaty set out the very specific responsibility to its signatories to challenge and check armed aggression in Europe and North America. NATO’s military response was firmly tethered to its member states. This alliance remains the bedrock to ensure peace in Europe and is unchanged by BREXIT. It is worth labouring the point here for NATO’s journey to becoming the effective collective and credible defence of Europe took over 60 years and two World Wars. The road to Article 5, NATO’s sword of Damocles, had been omitted from previous global policing best efforts such as the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the League of Nations. The IPU established in 1889 from the great European parliamentarians set out with the worthy intention of bringing the rational voice of reason to restrain the use of force, but for all its intellectual power was found wanting in 1914 in its failure to arrest Europe’s rapid slide to WWI. It was the missing muscle, recognised in Article 10 of an early draft of the League of Nations without which the well-meaning and best efforts of the founding 42, eventually 58 signatories, failed to curb Germany’s growing military power and influence in the 1920’s and 1930’s. This blinded Europe to the rapidly approaching Second World War. The upshot of two near catastrophic World Wars was the harsh realisation that good intentions, principles and heartfelt desire alone cannot and would not save the world from political and military recklessness. Reluctant before the 1940’s to challenge open aggression, Germany’s assault on Europe for the second time forced the international community to quite literally bite the bullet and create a military force underpinned by an uncompromising legal and political framework fit for a resolute, meaningful and collective European defence.
NATO was underpinned by a fierce and equally comprehensive collective political will, which set out to bring order and curb the possibility of an International conflict in Europe. Led by the United States, NATO was prepared to embrace and to underwrite the Melian Dialogue and provide guaranteed protection to those threatened weaker European nations bordering The Soviet Union. The response by all, under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, to armed intervention by the USSR would be pre-determined and decisive. Furthermore, this response was at that time without limits, including the use of nuclear weapons. NATO’s charter remains unchanged and its obligations to Article 5 resolute; that an attack on one member state is deemed an attack on all. To test that today would be an act of recklessness.
Beyond the borders of Europe, Great Britain’s Armed Forces will continue to operate as we have in the past; independently, bi-laterally and where we are committed as coalition partners. Our Prime Minister, The Right Honorable Theresa May, who will oversee the negotiations of our new relationship with Europe, made it very clear that under her leadership Great Britain will continue to be a world power. So our place with Europe and Brexit must be set within that global context.
As a standing member of the UN Security Council, the G8, G20 and so many other world institutions our Armed Forces will play their part in the wider defence and security challenges. And those challenges are changing, morphing into new and dynamic threats, which will necessitate equally new and dynamic technologies, alliances, interdepartmental initiatives and operating methods. Our enemies seek to avoid our known capabilities while undermining our will by operating below our recognised tolerance levels. The EU will by nature of 27 differing positions take time to consider responses and with that, present an inability to adapt. Migration, cyber, terrorism, social disorder, economic disruption, propaganda, criminal organizations, the use of Proxy forces and militias are the modern day weapons of first use. These wide spread emergent 21st century threats demand a range of legal, legislative, social, political, diplomatic, economic and military rapid responses to retain the advantage. Out of Europe we can act when necessary, quickly and decisively.
Great Britain, by standing up for those old fashioned ideals of respect for others, guided by our deep rooted values and long standing sense of decency, will continue to be prepared and ready to protect weaker states, the oppressed and those wronged. We have by dint of history a respectable understanding and measure of other cultures, which will continue to allow Britain to recognize and accommodate differences, often acting as a bridge of understanding between nations to improve a measured response. In this her Armed Forces have a significant role to play, be that in the United Kingdom across our own Departments of State or overseas as contributing partners in the fights against Global State and non-State actors. Old and new friends will be both partners and competitors but those who would harm us or seek to disrupt or destroy our way of life should be in no doubt that the sons and daughters of George Orwell will continue to sleep peacefully in their beds as our Armed Forces defend this realm.
So BREXIT will in many sectors significantly change the British landscape but on Defence and for her Armed Forces, I predict the impact will be less than many predicted.