Sustaining Britain's Role in NATO After Brexit


Aug 4, 2016

The Royal Navy destroyer HMS Diamond alongside the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower conducting maritime security operations and support missions for Operation Enduring Freedom, November 4, 2012

The Royal Navy destroyer HMS Diamond alongside the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower conducting maritime security, November 4, 2012

Photo by MC3 Ryan D. McLearnon/U.S. Navy

This commentary originally appeared on The National Interest on August 3, 2016.

Britain is entering a period of increased uncertainty and political change which could have far reaching implications for its relations with Europe and ultimately the Atlantic Alliance. The Brexit referendum calling for the UK to leave the EU unleashed one of the most chaotic and serious political crises in the postwar period in Britain.

Fortunately, the Tory Party's rapid selection of former Home Secretary Theresa May to replace David Cameron as prime minister has enhanced the prospects that the divorce from the EU can be managed in a mutually productive fashion. A tough negotiator, Prime Minister May has a reputation as a moderate and a pragmatist more interested in achieving concrete results rather than political grandstanding. In the weeks since assuming the post of prime minister she has moved swiftly and decisively to assemble a new cabinet and put her stamp on foreign policy.

Reducing immigration will be at the top of her list of priorities in the withdrawal negotiations. However, May has yet to fully clarify where she stands on the issue of restricting freedom of movement of European citizens across national borders — a fundamental EU principle — while maintaining a degree of access to the single European market. She has said limits on movement would be obtained as part of future negotiations with the EU. This is likely to be one of the most difficult and contentious issues. The EU officials have warned British leaders that they cannot expect to have all of the economic benefits of membership without sharing some of the risks of immigration.

The new government's defense policy has been marked by continuity. It reaffirmed the Cameron government's commitment to building a follow on to the Vanguard submarine fleet armed with Trident II missiles — the core of the UK independent nuclear deterrent.

It also reaffirmed its support for the Cameron government's decision to forward deploy a British Army battalion battle group to Estonia as part of a larger NATO deterrence and reassurance package announced during the Warsaw Summit in July 8–9....

The remainder of this commentary is available on

F. Stephen Larrabee holds the Distinguished Chair Emeritus in European Security at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and was a member on the National Security Council staff in the Carter Administration. Peter A. Wilson is an adjunct senior defense analyst at RAND and professor at the Security Studies Program, Georgetown University.

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