Aside from the risks to national security, the PM's low spending risks inciting hostility from the Europe he needs to keep on side
Today Ashton Carter, the US defence secretary, has become the latest US official to warn that the UK’s low defence budget could weaken its relationship with NATO and the US.
“Britain has always had an independent ability to express itself and basically punch above its weight.
“I’d hate to see that go away because I think it’s a great loss to the world when a country of that much history and standing… takes actions which seem to indicate disengagement.
“We need an engaged United Kingdom.”
The hypocrisy of David Cameron’s government when it comes to defence is concerning. Ahead of the NATO summit in Newport last year, the prime minister wrote a joint article for The Times with Barack Obama in which he urged other member states to spend more:
“Britain and America are two of only four NATO members to meet the target of spending 2 per cent of our GDP on defence and other states must urgently step up their efforts to meet this too.
“This would send a powerful message to those that threaten us that our collective resolve is as strong as ever.”
Speaking at the summit, Cameron said:
“Here in Britain we have the second largest defence budget in NATO; we have the biggest in the whole of the European Union.”
But not for long. At that summit, member states pledged to increase their spending to meet NATO’s 2 per cent target, and this year a report by the Stockholm International Peace Institute showed how other EU countries have increased their spend.
In April, France announced an increase of €3.8bn between 2016 and 2019; in March, Germany announced an extra €8bn in the same period.
Poland has committed to spending + €33.6bn until 2022, and 2 per cent of GDP per annum from 2022 onwards; a larger commitment fuelled by an historic fear of Russia.
For his part, Vladimir Putin has said he will increase arms procurement by 60 per cent in 2015.
Meanwhile, the UK has failed to commit to the 2 per cent target beyond 2016. This is difficult to square with David Cameron’s tough rhetoric on Russia:
“What we need to do now is to deliver the strongest possible message to Putin and to Russia that what has happened is unacceptable, that the ceasefires need to hold and if they don’t there will be more consequences, more sanctions, more measures.
“The truth here is that we have to be clear that we’re prepared to do this for the long term and that Russia should not make the mistake of thinking in any way that America, Britain, France or Germany will be divided or will be weak. We won’t. We’ll be staunch, we’ll be strong, we’ll be resolute and in the end, we’ll prevail.”
But what Cameron’s spending plans indicate is that he is relying on other member states to implement these ‘consequences’. Speaking purely in terms of solidarity the failure to commit is damaging, especially as the UK begins to sow the seeds of EU reformation.
This apparent shift of responsibility toward the rest of Europe, who Cameron urges to spend more, looks hypocritical. It risks isolating the UK and making Europe hostile to the changes Cameron is so confident he can procure.
Elizabeth Quintana and Dr Henrik Heidenkam, research fellows at the Royal United Services Institute, put it like this:
“Even a small increase in the UK’s defence spending along with commitments to specific capabilities (such as Scout AFV, ISR, Maritime Patrol Aircraft and the UK’s carrier strike package (both in terms of aircraft and Royal Navy personnel)) would add to the broader European message that defence – and more importantly collective defence – is being taken increasingly seriously across the continent.”
For as long as Cameron claims to support the same defence strategies as the rest of Europe – claims even to lead them – he must match his words with investment.
As it is, he is gradually creating an image of a Britain that doesn’t have to play by the same rules as the rest of the EU. This could lead to his ‘reforms’ being rejected, and a referendum with potentially disastrous consequences for the UK’s future.
Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on TwitterLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.