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The whole question of the UK leaving the increasingly tightly integrated European project raises some interesting military/political issues – and not just detailed questions of who commands whom in wartime.

Roman generals whose armies won great victories would parade though Rome in triumph. Their victory was regarded as evidence of their being in great favour with the gods – Jupiter in particular, and so they were regarded as being in some way divine in themselves. But in order to keep them steady, as they entered the city in ornate ceremonial chariots, they were accompanied by a slave who held a golden crown over their heads, but who also repeatedly whispered in their ear: “Remember you are mortal”.

In the modern world, the parallels with the Roman custom operate both ways. Typically (in modern democracies), the military will advise on the viability (or otherwise) of a course of action being determined by politicians, or their nominated ministers (such as those attached to the Foreign Office), whilst the converse is also true: politicians will instruct the military about the overall course of action they are to take, including any limitations they wish to impose. Both are able to warn the other that “they are mortal” – but the military are always subordinate to the politicians.

In a country such as the UK, military operations are treated as an extension of our national political strategy, and brought into action only at the behest of the Government or Parliament. Most long-term military-planning is carried out within the context of the UK’s foreign policy plans, with military expertise being used to advise on the viability of those plans wherever there might be a military consequence of some course of action being proposed or adopted.

So what does this have to do with Europe ? The answer is that the UK’s Armed Forces have for some time now been working within rather separate European and NATO arrangements to augment the defence of Eastern Europe against a potential expansion of Russian interests beyond the Crimea and Ukraine. Deployments in the Baltic and Poland are tacit recognition that events further east could spill over into what we now regard as the EU and/or NATO’s area of interest.

And this is the problem: how do we know where NATO and European strategic aims start or finish? Is it now possible to separate in any meaningful way the interests of the military defence alliance and that of European security? As the US has made increasingly clear, they regard the failure of  a number of nations to meet the target of spending 2% on defence (as agreed at the Wales Conference), as being a particularly European problem. In other regions the strategic partners of the US are currently paying well above this rate (Saudi Arabia’s defence budget is over 8%; South Korea’s is 2.6% and rising by almost 10% this year).  

In the British case the question is even more complex. Are they sending troops to Poland or the Baltic as an expression of solidarity with their European political partners, or as a commitment to the NATO alliance? In the event that we eventually leave the EU, does that remove any further need for military cooperation with Europe? Can we/should we simply remove our troops unless deployed as part of a specific NATO exercise or operation?

It is clear that, behind the scenes, senior military officers in the UK view Brexit with concern. Up to now the differentiation between NATO and Europe defence has been conveniently vague, with arguments about precisely who is telling our troops what to do left to some rather obscure debates in the corridors of power. The main thing is that we have been providing high-quality troops as well as command and control elements f or which the UK is well regarded. The distinctions between the respective roles of our forces in Eastern Europe as opposed to Scandinavia on NATO’s northern flank are largely irrelevant – aside from the actual tactical considerations on the ground.

This might have to change as the UK leaves the EU. The ability of British Forces to travel to, or within, Europe might be curtailed, and the implications of detailed matters such as damage caused by British armoured vehicles or accidents could raise all sorts of problems.  At another level, a cross-border incursion by a drone or other vehicle might be highly problematic: was it done by a “European” equipment, or would the Europeans throw the Brits under the bus and blame us for acting independently in some way? Would Mr Putin, for example, view any such actions as being the responsibility or Europe, NATO or just Britain on its own? (The latter being most unlikely in reality.)

What pressure are the Military in this country applying to the politicians to stay in the EU? What are they saying to their masters in Westminster about the effects of leaving upon our ability to work with our European allies in NATO? Should they merely sit by and watch proceedings with a calm detachment and then try to pick up the threads again after the dust has settled?

It is possible that the ace up the sleeves of our Armed Forces will be NATO at the end of the day. Military exercises planned and executed under the auspices of some current notional European defence integration plan (do not use the words “European Army”!), will magically come under the control of NATO.  It is possible that European troop exercises will be carried out in conjunction with their NATO partners – as indeed they are today with the US.

This European/NATO model might be the main reason that we have heard very little in the press about such matters, for the senior command elements in the UK and Europe might have already come to an agreement about the way forward – about which the less said the better. It might be that this is a case of realpolitik trumping any national considerations, for Britain would never truly be immune to an attack on its close neighbours on mainland Europe.

However, it might also leave some in Westminster wondering how much lee-way they can afford to give to the four-stars before they start to lose overall control of the situation and have then to provide each senior officer with a metaphorical whisperer reminding them of who is in charge.  

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