Leading article

Why Nato is more important than the EU for Britain

14 May 2016

9:00 AM

14 May 2016

9:00 AM

The Leave campaign was right to pour scorn on David Cameron’s warning this week that Brexit could threaten Europe’s military stability and lead to war. Boris Johnson mocks the Prime Minister about his prophecy on page 14. If Cameron really believed that Britain leaving the EU could lead to war in Europe, why on earth did he risk having a referendum at all? Why was he suggesting until a few weeks before his negotiations with EU leaders that he would consider voting for Brexit if he didn’t get his way?

It’s easy to tease the increasingly shrill alarmism of the Remain campaign. But it is harder to say how exactly leaving the EU would make things better. It’s quite true that the EU has never had much of a role in international security, but the fallout from David Cameron’s speech does demonstrate a gap in the referendum debate.

A vast amount of time has been committed to discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the EU, but we are failing to talk about Nato. While it has broadened its membership greatly over the past two decades, its commitment to enforcing Article Five of its constitution — ‘an armed attack against one or more [of its members] in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all’ — has begun to look increasingly feeble. Europe would be a safer place (and Vladimir Putin would be less emboldened) had Nato’s eastwards expansion been conducted with the same vigour as that of the EU.

The EU has been firm in its commitment to protect its newer former Soviet Bloc members. Though it mishandled its relationship with Ukraine (with appalling consequences), the EU has done far better by Poland, the Czech Republic and other Eastern European states — who cherish EU membership as a bulwark against Russian expansionism. The EU has successfully pulled these countries into the orbit of the West. In the space of a generation, Czechs and Poles who once fled to the West as refugees from the Soviets can now return to their homelands as European citizens with passports as valid in Prague as they are in Portsmouth. It’s hard to deny the EU’s role in winning the peace after the Cold War.


Nato’s eastwards expansion, by contrast, has been largely symbolic. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined in 1999, followed by most of the rest of Eastern Europe in 2004, yet there is still little Nato presence in any of those countries. The allied bases which formed Nato’s infrastructure in Western Europe during the first half–century of its existence have in no way been replicated in Eastern Europe.

The end of the Cold War was inevitably going to bring about the scaling-back of US military deployment in Western Europe and the British presence in Germany. But the folly of failing to match Nato’s rhetoric with real forces was exposed two years ago when Putin’s army rolled into the Crimea. At the same time, Russian planes began testing Nato by conducting military exercises in the airspace of its members.

Last year General Petr Pavel, the Czech chairman of Nato’s Military Committee, warned that Russia could, if it wished, conquer the Baltic states in just two days with little resistance. Since then, the US has announced that it will introduce more of a military presence in Eastern Europe, with 250 tanks and 4,200 troops deployed across countries bordering Russia. But it has rejected the case for having permanent bases there.

This reluctance is inconsistent with Nato’s promise to defend an attack on one country as an attack on all of its members. This is partly out of respect for the Founding Act signed between Nato and Russia in 1997 in which the former agreed not to station substantial permanent combat forces close to the Russian border. But, permanent forces or not, there has to be a robust response to Putin’s bluster. Last March 33,000 Russian troops staged an exercise that involved a mock seizure of the Baltic — not just the Baltic states but occupying Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark as well.

Nato’s eastwards expansion remains an extremely sore point in Russia, with former President Gorbachev, among others, claiming that the West had reneged on a promise not to extend Nato’s boundaries beyond East Germany. Yet there never was a formal agreement, and it is highly questionable that there was ever an informal one either. What Putin finds hard to accept is that countries made a free choice to leave the Warsaw Pact and join Nato. That remains the difference between Russia and the West, as it was in the Cold War: Western alliances are built on freedom.

In a little over a month’s time, British voters will make their own decision about whether they wish to continue as a member of the European Union or to engage in a looser, tailor-made trading relationship with the rest of Europe. To listen to politicians on both sides, it is as if Britain’s prosperity and liberty hinges on the answer to this question. It doesn’t. Prosperity would be ensured by lower taxes and regulatory restraint: all matters unrelated to EU membership. Security would come from investing in our military and confronting threats when they arise.

The Prime Minister is right to say that we ought never to take peace for granted. This is why it is so unwise of him to have cut military spending to the bone and to obsess about the EU rather than focus on Nato. As in the Cold War, the risks to the West will be minimised by showing resolve. That is Nato’s role, and it is one to which every member of that organisation needs to be committed.

It is a crucial debate, but one in which the EU is little more than a bystander.

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Show comments
  • The Laughing Cavalier

    Cameron has sold the armed forces down the river, the Royal Navy especially. Now he wants to merge them into an EU force to save even more money.

    • John Carins

      Moreover, successive governments have allowed the destruction of our indigenous Arms’ manufacturers. Great swathes of capability has been sold or merged with German, French and Italian companies. This is all part of the great EU plan first takeover the ability of countries to manufacture arms and equipment and then create an EU Army, Navy and Air Force. It is as plain as the nose on anyone’s face.

    • Atticus

      This has bene the plan since the mid-nineties. Our aircraft carriers did not have supporting vessels to protect them because by now the plan was for them to be part of an EU force. The Italians were due to make the supporting vessels, and it was all agreed by John Major and continued by Blair.

      How very worrying it all is.

    • Pip

      The odour of Treason is so powerful as to be nauseating.

  • John Carins

    President Trump will ensure that NATO is reformed. Cameron and the rest of the EU are on a path to emasculate it.

    • Pip

      I would suggest there is more chance of Cameron being emasculated than there is of the UK merging into an EU Military and Federal State.

  • Pretty_Polly

    It’s ridiculous that Turkey is in NATO, which twerp allowed that?

    • Pip

      The same immoral greedy psychopathic crooks who rule the World.

    • Father Todd Unctious

      NATO is about containing a distrusted Russia. The EU offers a benign power and hope for all. That is why so many flock here. The EU will be the great power of the 21st century. Conquering the world with wealth, morality and happiness.

      • Pretty_Polly

        Winding up Russia looks more likely on occasions.

        As to the crooked EU, it may be a draw for many millions but there is no reason to believe the majority of the public wants those millions to come. In fact it is most unlikely that they do.

      • SunnyD

        more like ‘killing them with kindness’

      • Tamerlane

        Tell that to the Bosnians they failed to protect.

        • Father Todd Unctious

          I thought you didn’t like Muslims you narrow minded kippers.

          • Tamerlane

            You wrote, ‘I thought you didn’t like Muslims you narrow minded kipper. Plus you have a unusual obsession with our dishonest Russian neighbours.’

            Yes, that’ll console the poor victims’ families – you must be really proud of yourself.

    • Dougie

      It’s a very good idea to have Turkey in NATO. It provides a buffer of fiercely nationalistic, tough fighters between Russia and south-eastern Europe. Doesn’t mean we want them in the EU though.

      • davidblameron

        Who is in the EU won’t bother Britain soon.

    • Jacobi

      Turkey is part of the new enemy which we all now, Europe, the EU and including The Russian Federation, must face up to.

    • davidblameron

      It bordered the former USSR, the USA wanted it’s territory to place missiles on.

  • victor67

    Nato has had an identity crisis and has been trying to justify its existence since the end of the cold war.
    In reality it is little more than a proxy for the American,French and British military Industrial complex and their rapacious desire for profit.
    Therefore threats real or imagined are hyped and inflated and in the case of Iraq wars started.

    • Zanderz

      NATO = America, they’ve both had (are having) a significant identity crisis. The only sensible thing they’ve done is NOT expand into Eastern Europe.

      The other issue is the EU are trying to usurp NATO in Europe.

    • Father Todd Unctious

      Plus somehow it is okay for Turkey to be a member.

      • SunnyD

        something we agree on!

    • Dougie

      Your argument would be more convincing if NATO countries were actually spending on defence. Unfortunately, only the USA and UK are meeting the 2% of GDP target and, in our case, only by counting pensions as defence spending.

  • Jacobi

    We must talk about NATO, quite apart from the any discussions on the EU.

    As formed, NATO has long out-lived its usefulness and is no longer relevant. The Cold War is over. The Soviet Union no longer exists. The Russian Federation is not a threat to Western Europe or to the EU. Russian actions in the Ukraine, which is not part of Europe or of the EU, is no worse than, and probably more justified than, the USA intervention in Ukraine.

    Yes, we need a security organisation that encompasses Europe and the EU, but the Russian Federation must be part of that. Now if the USA government, not to mention its enormous arms industry backers have a problem with that, which no doubt they will, then that is unfortunate but perfectly understandable since hey have a vested interest in reviving the Cold War.

    By the way, after some reflection, I am for staying in the EU, for the Wellington approach, go in there and sort the buggers out!

  • Disqus Bolloqus

    The fact that NATO is more important for Britain’s security than the EU, is not a reason to leave the EU.

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