Editor’s Note: Nic Robertson is CNN’s international diplomatic editor. The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author.
This week, Brexit got real.
The parochial echo chamber of British politics has been punctured.
Into that noise will enter 27 European nations, each with its own red lines for upcoming negotiations.
Britain’s proposals for divorce will be picked apart. Anyone who thinks that Europe will not act in its own economic interests is kidding themselves.
The EU – which grew out of the Second World War as a way of ending Europe’s cyclical history of internal conflict – will cut its ties with Britain as cleanly and simply as it can.
Britain will be set free to its solitary island existence. But Europe still has its eye on the future – and many in Europe know that Britain is too good a catch to lose forever.
The word “security” appeared 11 times in British Prime Minister Theresa May’s six-page Article 50 letter, spelling out the importance of Britain forging “the closest possible security co-operation” with the EU.
Since she took over as PM last summer, May has been shoring up UK trade in advance of the breakup – and a large part of her focus for future trade deals has been in the defense and security sector.
At the Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in Bahrain late last year, May promised, “We will invest in hard power, with over £3 billion of defense spending in the region over the next decade, spending more on defense in the Gulf than in any other region of the world.”
In January, as she became the first world leader to meet US President Donald Trump in person, she said, “The UK-US defense relationship is the broadest, deepest and most advanced of any two countries, sharing military hardware and expertise. And I think the President and I are ambitious to build on this relationship in order to grow our respective economies.”
Two days later in Turkey, a similar message: May signed a $125 million deal under which the UK will help Turkey develop its next generation of fighter aircraft.
Beyond doubt, May sees Britain’s military and security prowess as a vital strategic asset in the face of the uncertainties caused by Brexit.
That should perhaps come as little surprise: As she draws the UK to the periphery of the continent, she won’t want its place in the world as a military powerhouse compromised.
Less than 10 days before triggering Article 50, the Financial Times reported that the UK was close to signing a defense pact with Germany.
May has stated many times that Britain is leaving the EU but not turning its back on Europe.
This belies a tectonic shift in global politics that has taken place since last summer. There is now a lot more at stake for Britain’s defense industry than might have been imagined when the UK voted to leave.
Donald Trump has taken office. His attitude toward Europe, its unity and its defense, has been significantly different to that of his predecessors – not to mention chaotic in his communication of it.
Despite saying he supports NATO, he is straining his allies’ patience by demanding they start spending 2% of GDP on defense immediately, as agreed at the NATO summit in 2014 in Wales.
His unsettling tone isn’t sitting well with Europeans. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel – the most powerful European leader – met with him two weeks ago, she reminded him that NATO allies agreed to boost spending by 2024, not the end of this year.
She said Germany – and others in Europe – need more time to figure out how best to accelerate their military spending. She made clear that she is not working to Trump’s timetable.
The Brexit negotiations are coming at a time when many EU members feel particularly threatened by Trump. A resounding conclusion at a recent summit in Malta is that Europe needs to look to itself, not across the Atlantic, to uphold the values of the free market and liberal democracy that it cherishes.
Under Trump’s pressure to come up with more cash for NATO, EU leaders discussed the value of creating a common procurement and production policy in Europe.
This came hard on the heels of EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini’s proposal for the creation of a European defense fund as part of a broader plan for European cooperation on military spending and research. Britain was opposed to this, but the metrics may add up for the other Europeans.
One recent survey of Europe’s multiple defense industries revealed that where America has just one tank manufacturer, Europe operates 19, and where the United States operates just one type of fighter jet, Europe has three.
The writing is on the wall. Whether it’s paying up fast to keep Trump happy or creating a tighter EU defense policy, the EU has to revolutionize its military-industrial complex.
So when Theresa May binds herself to Germany with a military pact, she is calculating that this keeps the door open for a slice of what ultimately may become a re-tooled European defense sector.
Where once intertwined economies underpinned Europe’s stability, staving off the chance of internal conflict, a new type of European union might soon emerge.
Is the future of European unity one where not just business, but integrated and interdependent security cooperation mitigates against a repeat of the continent’s dark history?
Is Europe’s tomorrow one where we all make each other’s guns, bullets, bombs, tanks and fighter jets? Where another intra-European war could not get off the ground without each other’s help? You might call it a mutually-implausible conflict.
It may not be the ideal union for some, but it is safer than no union at all.