Europe’s Defence Industry, Post-Brexit

Article by Angelos Kaskanis and interviews by Gwentoline Tarcy for Tactics Institute


Since the beginning of 2020 French President Emmanuel Macron[1] has made the case for a more coordinated European Union defence strategy. France, the bloc’s only post-Brexit nuclear power, with a world-class defence industry, and the ability to project power worldwide would hold a central role.

Nationalising Europe or Europeanising France

Within the EU, there is significant consensus over the need to imbue the Union with a more significant role in international relations. Europe’s claim to being an internationally significant actor would be more credible if it was to consolidate its defence industry and military capability. But the practicalities of this objective are complicated.

First of all, the integration of the European defence industry requires Member States to share control over the last nationalised industry in Europe, linked to national security but also technological capability and tens of thousands of jobs.

Secondly, it is unclear whether European capacity is to be “nationalised” – i.e. whether Europe becomes in effect an defence Alliance led by national champions – or national capability is Europeanised under a collective defence umbrella.

The answer to this question is not straightforward and is complicated by the different ways EU member states relate to NATO, the collective security framework dominant in Europe for seventy years. The question at hand has special significance for the UK, which is part of the Euro-Atlantic framework but no longer part of the EU.

Procurement and weapons manufacturing

For the moment, the EU appears to be focusing on developing military capability that does not exist on a national level in Europe.

The European Commission has proposed the multiplication of the EU’s defence budget, focusing on Research and Development. The idea is to pull together national capabilities to develop world class weapons systems able to compete with Russia and China.

The question in that respect is whether these would also compete with those of Euro-Atlantic partners as well. The UK remains part of several defence industry value chains and that is likely to remain the case. But Britain is no longer likely to take part in the development of strategic defence systems ranging from satellites to armour vehicles and fighter jets.   

What is “European” about weapons manufacturing?

The new European Commission is eager to consolidate a European Defence Policy and build regulatory control over the defence industry.

Politically, that is significant because it ensures that European defence industries do not pursue a trajectory that undermines collective defence or contradicts major security objectives. For instance, a merger between major defence industries in Europe with Chinese or Russian manufacturers would be a major challenge.

But there are foreign policy priorities that will be fiercely contested if Europe moves towards the consolidation of a European Defence identity.

For instance, there have been major disagreements between the French and British on one side, governments that approve weapons exports to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and others (Germany, Austria, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands) that want to prevent the diversion of such exports to Yemen and Libya.[2] Within “pan-European” consortia, there was friction stemming from conflicting export licensing policies.


The French Debate

Aiming to develop a deeper understanding of the role of France in Europe’s post-Brexit security environment, Tactics Institute interviewed two high-profile national security experts, namely Brigadier-General François Chauvancy (retired) and Professor of International Politics of the Catholic University of Lille, Emmanuel Meneut.


Brigadier General François Chauvancy


TACTICS INSTITUTE: France is currently the only EU nuclear power. Will France continue to invest in this capability or diversify resources to prioritise missiles, space technology and artificial intelligence?

François Chauvancy (FC). For France, giving up on nuclear power is unthinkable. The 80-year long cumulative cost of the program cannot be wasted. Today, there is still a strong case for a nuclear deterrent as dangerous countries may acquire nuclear capability. Having the deterrent is a kind of a life insurance policy that for France costs 10% of its defence budget. The French defence budget is 5 billion per year. This amount allows France to get dual-use equipment. In fact, nuclear capability benefits research and development for conventional capability as well. So, for example, developing a specific type of plane has both nuclear and conventional force significance.

TACTICS INSTITUTE: France and the UK used to be the two space hubs in the EU. Is France going to replace the UK with other partners or do you see “business as usual” after Brexit?

FC: There’s not a French space but an European Union space. That is not the same thing. In Europe, we have European Space Agency.

Let’s keep in mind that France pioneered the idea of a European space program. Within the framework of European space cooperation, France offers the Guyanese “Kourou” base as a cost-effective satellite launchpad. That is a key part of our contribution to EU capacity. Overall, countries play a different role in the European Space Program, depending on their financial contribution. Germany has only recently surpassed France in financial contributions

Great Britain is another subject. The UK has been a member of the European Space Agency. My recollection is that the engagement of the British government in the Galileo satellite system is now problematic. Initially, the UK resisted the launch of the project but today there seems to be an appetite to engage. The problem is that as a non-EU member state, the UK cannot share certain in the data encryption system for security reasons. Without full participation, the UK is unwilling to engage. Therefore, the UK will be looking for an alternative.

In sum, France doesn’t want to disrupt its military partnership with Great Britain. In both countries, the Franco-British Alliance is integrated in their respective National Defence reviews. The issue at hand is that Galileo is part of a European framework of defence cooperation in which Britain, following Brexit, cannot be involved and does not want to be involved. Of course, Great Britain remains has a historical role in European collective security but views itself as part of a Euro-Atlantic (NATO) rather than European framework.

Brexit clarified the political situation but complicated the strategic environment. For the British government, loss of access to the Galileo system is imperative for military missions and for its nuclear deterrent. This capability was costly to develop – approximately 12 billion euros – and the UK does not seem to have this kind of financial resources

Today, Britain is looking for alternative solution in trying to develop its own system, probably more cost-effectively. What appears likely is that the UK defence industry will have to partner with the French to create a British satellite constellation, building an independent space program.


TACTICS INSTITUTE: In view of the EU multi-annual budget, the EU has been debating an increase in common defence expenditure to the tune of 500%. Is there going a national competition for the contracts or the consolidation of a European consortium?

FC: At the moment, the sole dedicated EU defence investment instrument is the Defence Investment Fund announced two years ago to the tune of 14 billion euros. In October/November 2020, Thierry Breton tried to bolster this budget that was instead subdued to 7 billion euros. So where are the 500%?

In terms of Defence, France spends 35 billion euros, compared with 7 billion euros in negligible EU funding. The British commitment is comparable to the French. In fact, it should be recalled that there was technocratic resistance in Brussels to the military component of Galileo, which France championed.

But there is not much of European Defence Policy in terms of weapons manufacturing, where multinational companies take the lead. Of course, there is state control over this industry, because “whoever controls what is manufactured, controls they equipment of the national forces.” That is the bottom line of sovereignty.

American systems can be sold giving a foreign government that power to sell or deny ammunition to a country. As soon as you have an American component in European arms manufacturing, there is outside control over its exploitation. This happened with the Rafale years ago.

Professor Emmanuel Meneut



TACTICS INSTITUTE: Given the two-way political controversy can the EU cooperate with China in the military sector?

Emmanuel Meneut (EM). This option would be a destabilising strategic move. If the EU starts a cooperation with China, or Russia, in the field of weapons systems; it will trigger a retaliatory response from the US, similar to the US response to Turkey’s shift. The US forbids the sale of the F35 fighter jets to Turkey because this will mean that the S400 Russian missile system will be familiarised with the system. Such a move would be a shift in the balance of power during the transition phase of the international community from a unipolar structure (the US hegemony) towards a bipolar one. It would decrease the reputation of the EU as a responsible stakeholder in the international system and, in any event, it would require a strong political will and consensus among 27 heads of state, which is unlikely.

TACTICS INSTITUTE: Was the “New START” Treaty a mistake of the Obama Administration? Do you believe it allowed several other countries to benefit as President Trump stated?

EM. One of the arguments in favour of the New Start Treaty, as for all nuclear arms control treaties, is that they decrease the cost of the nuclear deterrent without upsetting the balance of power between great powers.

Actually, the large spectrum of threats introduces a new constraint on the utility of nuclear power. It simply focuses on the deterrence of the use of conventional warfare between nuclear powers. When President Putin took over Crimea, he reminded his US counterparts that Russia was a nuclear power in order to deter an American conventional military response.

However, the balance of threats is shifting toward the digitalization of civil society and its civilian infrastructure that introduces new strategic opportunities to coerce the political will of adversaries. Even nuclear powers may be delegitimized by the use of cyber weapons as illustrated by the recent request of the Pentagon to formulate scenarios of a nuclear response to large scale cyber-attacks. Of course, without mass casualties as a result of a cyber-attack, Washington could not justify the use of nuclear weapons.

In fact, the nuclear capability is becoming less relevant and the challenge to weapons systems stems from breakthrough in digital technologies.

TACTICS INSTITUTE: Do you believe that the EU is able to develop a common arms foreign policy, given the diversity of national arms export policies?

EM. This question is relevant at the economic level, in order to decrease the cost burden of the arms programs. Diverse export policies highlight the lack of an EU political will to support efficient arms programs useful both to civilian and military sectors. The foremost challenge is political, as the history of the Cold War remind us.


[1] Al Jazeera Staff (2020). Macron: Europeans cannot remain spectators in new arms race [Online] Al Jazeera. Available at: [Accessed 19 Nov. 2020].

[2] International Federation for Human Rights (2020). A call for the establishment of parliamentary control over French arms sales [Online] FIDH Press Release. Available at: [Accessed 19 Nov. 2020]

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