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Robertson on security: “Britain is shooting itself in the foot”

Brexit, and a careless attitude towards British influence in NATO, will consign the country to the margins and weaken the cornerstone of our defence, argues GEORGE ROBERTSON, the former NATO Secretary General

The government claims that NATO will remain the cornerstone of Britain’s defence and that fact will not be affected by Brexit. As with so much concerned with our withdrawal from the EU this is based on hope rather than reality. And, as one General recently reminded me, ‘Hope is not a good basis for a military plan’.

Only a few months ago, with British ministers involved, NATO embarked on a radical new tightening of the NATO/EU relationship. This went beyond the cooperation already in place and envisaged more operational and planning co-ordination.

It makes sense. With an unpredictable inhabitant in the White House mouthing noises about Europe not pulling its weight and NATO being/not being obsolete, Europe better get its act together.

There are real threats and challenges to European safety and security out there and if Washington can no longer be relied on, then Europe better look to its own protection. That’s why better NATO/EU ties make good common sense.

Part of that burgeoning NATO/EU link-up is the designation of the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe as the commander of any NATO/EU operation. That too makes sense because any such operation will involve crucial capabilities and assets based in NATO’s strategic Headquarters SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe) at Mons in Belgium.

Since the beginning of NATO the holder of its Supreme Commander (SACEUR) post has been American, at top General or Admiral level, and the Deputy SACEUR, a Briton at the same high level. The first SACEUR was General, and later president, Eisenhower and the first DSACEUR was General ‘Monty’ Montgomery. Powerful people.

But with the UK leaving the EU, the post of DSACEUR is under siege. Many among the 28 nations of NATO are asking how the DSACEUR role can possibly be held by a nation not actually inside the European Union.

After all, the UK will not be in the European Council of Ministers when the decision is taken to mount an operation. It might be in the room when the planning is done but only as an outsider invited in, and will not be in the room at all when it comes to ending a mission and dealing with its aftermath. That’s what Brexit means in practice.

The optimists proclaim that there are procedures in place to allow Turkey to take part in NATO/EU operations although it is not in the EU. But Britain is certainly not Turkey and nominal membership of subsidiary meetings is no substitute for being part of the main board. We should remember that Britain and France alone account for 50% of NATO European spending and an even bigger percentage of its actual military capability.

So, Britain’s hold on the vital and influential NATO job of DSACEUR hangs, as we Scots say, on a shoogly peg. We will have an uphill task to keep it. But what is the response of out Brexit-obsessed government doing about that? You may well ask.

The answer is – undermining its own case.

The UK’s current, and excellent, Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach has just been appointed, after strong British lobbying, as chairman of the NATO Military Committee. This is a little-noticed post, chairing a committee made up of delegates of all the 28 Chiefs of Defence.

But here’s the rub. It is, unlike the DSACEUR post, a rotating one. Its term of office is four years. After that Sir Stuart has to hand over to another Chief.

For those other countries who covet the powerful and pivotal post of DSACEUR and who were already making the case for an EU holder, this appointment is a gift. They can ask the legitimate question; why should the UK hold on to DSACEUR when it is out of the EU and hold the NATO Military Committee chairmanship at the same time? There might be an answer, of course, but will it be nearly enough?

We have held the DSACEUR post for good reason since 1951. Our country has by far the broadest military strength and deploying capability. Our links with the US are deep and longstanding. Our senior place in NATO’s military structures has been consistent since the beginning. But our government – for reasons obscure and naïve – have, in claiming the chairman’s seat, now opened up a real vulnerability.

Just remember this. If we lose out on DSACEUR on the logic of the NATO/EU commander being from an EU state then, after Sir Stuart Peach’s term our country will have neither the DSACEUR post nor the Military Committee chair. So much for NATO remaining the cornerstone of Britain’s defences. I was NATO’s tenth Secretary General and third Briton to hold this politically-significant post. My predecessors were General Lord Ismay, NATO’s first chief and Lord Carrington in the 1980s.

We all knew how important Britain is to NATO and how essential NATO is to Britain. In between Secretaries General, and with only a brief interlude, a British Deputy SACEUR had ensured that British influence is at the heart of the Alliance. From Monty to General Everard today our country has been at the top table in the Supreme Headquarters.

It has taken Brexit and a careless, needless attitude to continuing British influence in NATO to produce a formula which will consign Britain to the margins. That is a sad and indefensible indictment of those who presently run our nation’s defences.

Lord Robertson of Port Ellen was Secretary General of NATO from 1999-2003 and UK Secretary of State for Defence from 1997-99. He was Chief Opposition Spokesman on Europe for ten years and named Joint Parliamentarian of the Year in 1992 for his role in the Maastricht Treaty ratification

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