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Brexit is not a retreat into isolationism – survey suggests public remains committed to global security role

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Britain’s vote to leave the European Union has been taken by some as a signal that the British public want to retreat from having a global role. But a survey of their views on NATO and shared European defence suggests otherwise.

Defence poses both an opportunity and a challenge for Britain in terms of relations with Europe. As one of the few NATO nations that currently meets its commitment to spend more than 2% of its GDP on defence (the others are the US, Greece and Estonia), the UK is well positioned to project strength.

But Brexit has the UK expressing a desire to be less encumbered by Europe at a time when defence integration is high on the agenda in Brussels. Since the Brexit vote, the European Union approved a pact between 25 EU governments to fund, develop and deploy armed forces together. This is known as the European Union approved Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO).

After Brexit, the UK needs to decide how to work with its continental neighbours. They will be divorcees in the Brexit saga, but they are also Britain’s allies in NATO.

NATO first

To examine how Britons feel about security and defence in a post-Brexit world, we conducted a survey via YouGov in December 2018 with a series of questions on defence policy. Responses to questions concerning relations with NATO indicate clearly that Brexit is not a retreat into isolationism. Only 4% of our sample agreed with withdrawing from NATO. Moreover, 62% agreed that leaving would “seriously threaten the United Kingdom’s security”.

As far as supporting NATO’s newer members, more than 45% agreed and only 10% disagreed that “UK armed forces should participate in NATO exercises in Eastern Europe” (the remaining respondents were neutral or unsure). Importantly, there is slightly more support for NATO than when we last asked these questions in 2014.

Not surprisingly, Britons are more uncomfortable with the need for deeper European defence integration outside of NATO. Only 15% of the sample agreed that “Europe will not be fully secure until a true European army is formed”. Support increases slightly if adversaries are mentioned: 23% of the sample agrees with the statement: “A European Army is necessary to fully protect Britain against threats posed by China and Russia.”

On the surface, it appears that PESCO is just the type of shift towards an “ever closer union” that a majority of UK voters said they wanted to leave behind in the 2016 referendum. Low support likely reflects the UK’s rejection of the European project. Still, there is only a modest correlation between voting Leave in the referendum and feeling negatively towards PESCO.

The logic here is that while Leave voters are distrustful of European governance and free movement, those with defined foreign policy viewpoints are mainly hawkish. They are willing to see Britain’s military get involved to solve world conflict and they are sceptical of dovish approaches, such as expanding foreign aid to secure peace. Although those falling into the isolationist camp are also overwhelmingly supportive of Brexit, this group is small in comparison to the hawks.

In short, Brexiteers prefer overwhelmingly for the UK to project power via its role in NATO, but the desire to see the continent secure may counterbalance concerns about an “ever closer union” in the realm of foreign affairs. If the mission is right and involvement does not mean permanently tethering the British military to the EU, Eurosceptic public opinion should not pose a barrier to British involvement, nor should it portend a retreat from Britain’s historical internationalist role.

This suggests that the British public won’t oppose involvement in European defence initiatives if the goals suit Britain’s needs. The EU and Britain face common threats from an emboldened Russia, a growing China, and the consequences of failed African and Middle Eastern states. In this environment, a relative UK public consensus that Britain’s military power should be maintained or increased should work in favour of EU-British defence cooperation because foreign policy goals are shared. But if the objectives and aims of the EU and Britain were to diverge post-Brexit, support for cooperation could decline among the Eurosceptic hawks.

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