Print This Post
21 July 2016, Gateway House

Brexit, NATO, EU: emerging dichotomies

In the aftermath of Brexit, the recently concluded NATO Summit highlighted the emerging asymmetry between NATO and the EU on their respective policy positions towards Russia. Has the expansion of NATO and the EU to absorb Eastern Europe, and the consequent large migration flows, been responsible for the visible cracks within the Europe?

Director, Gateway House

post image

Two events, whose timing may have been coincidental, highlight the complex challenges confronting the west. The first was Brexit – whereby, after 43 years, the UK decided to leave the EU on 23 June via a nationwide referendum. The second was the biennial NATO summit in Warsaw that concluded on 9 July and focused on the perceived security threat from Russia.

The UK, along with the U.S., was one of the staunchest votaries of NATO’s eastward expansion. In an irony of history, the haste to expand NATO to the borders of Russia and absorb the less developed East European economies into the EU resulted in large migration flows to the UK, which became the most important reason why a majority in the UK voted to leave the EU. It combined with shrinking employment opportunities in decaying old industries made obsolete by technological advancements, outsourcing of manufacturing and services propelled by globalization, and rising income inequalities as a consequence of the hyper financialisation of the UK economy. Economic insecurities were exploited by pro-Brexit campaigners with slogans such as “let’s take back control” and “vote leave to take control”, thereby transferring the blame for the distress on the EU.

The UK’s decision to leave evoked bitter reactions from the EU, with Jean Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, stating that “Britain’s severance from the EU will not be an amicable divorce”[1].

The British exit calls into question the symmetry of views and actions between the EU and NATO since the membership of both organizations mostly overlaps, with some exceptions. The U.S., Canada, Norway, and Turkey among others are members of NATO but not the EU while Sweden, Finland, Ireland, and Austria are members of the EU but not NATO. However, the two organizations had aligned policy towards Russia with NATO military actions matched by EU economic sanctions. The UK had been active in persuading European countries such as Germany, which are dependent on Russian gas supplies, to go along with the US’ more hard-line stance on Russia. This coordination will be harder to maintain after Brexit despite the security decisions taken at the recent NATO summit to resist perceived Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine and annexation of the Crimea.

NATO also announced three measures that will further deteriorate the West’s relations with Russia – the deployment of four military battalions in Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, on a rotational basis; the operationalisation of NATO’s ballistic missile system stationed in Poland; and the strengthening of collective cyber defences[2]. But fearing a mutually ruinous stalemate, both NATO and Russia are making efforts to disallow the hostilities from reaching a tipping point. This was highlighted in the scheduling of the Russia-NATO Council meeting shortly after the Warsaw summit, which Moscow perceived with more than a hint of suspicion. Vladimir Yevseyev, a Russian military expert stated “They say they want peace but are preparing for war”[3]. The meeting, as expected, left differences unabridged.

Efforts to mask concerns about Brexit’s adverse impact on collective security were evident at the summit. While NATO, spearheaded by the UK and US, called for extending a hard-line position on Russia citing security concerns, the portrayal of consensus was deflated by French President Hollande who remarked that “NATO has no role at all to be saying what Europe’s relations with Russia should be”[4]. He went on to add that “for France, Russia is not an adversary, not a threat”[5]. This comes after the German Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, criticized a major NATO military exercise in Poland last month for provoking Moscow calling it “saber-rattling”[6]. The U.S. itself is now coordinating armed action with Russia against ISIS in Syria.

It highlights the impending uncertainties in western policy as countries like Germany that are dependent on gas imports from Russia, and France which is a major exporter of arms to Russia, absorb the consequences of Brexit.

The discord between the EU and NATO has its roots in the expansion of both organisations in Eastern Europe. The relaxation of membership terms by both NATO and the EU to include economically weaker Eastern Europe slowed down European economic integration and reduced the possibility of cordial relations with Russia[7].

The initial outcome of EU membership was rapid economic growth with Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, and Slovenia even qualifying to join the Eurozone. However, the economic stagnation that followed the 2008 global financial crisis and the 2009 European debt crisis ignited political volatility and anti-EU feelings in some of these Eastern European countries. In 2015, Hungary struggled to deal with the onrush of refugees from war torn countries like Syria and locked horns with the EU on refugee policy. Similar unease was felt in the Czech Republic and Slovakia despite the limited number of refugees having transited through these countries.

But EU membership promises freedom of movement of capital, goods, services, and also persons within the single market of the EU[8]. The mass anticipated migrations from the new EU members to the old member states were originally sought to be regulated by some transitional restrictions being put in place within Europe to space out the inflows.

The UK did not impose restrictions on free movement of workers and subsequently received large numbers from Eastern Europe. According to the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates for 2015, there are 3.3 million EU citizens in the UK[9]. In order to appreciate the enormity of the scale of migration from Eastern Europe, it is essential to highlight that there are roughly equal number of migrants in the UK from old EU member states, South Asia, and new EU member states- between 1.6-1.7 million each[10]. However, the UK has been part of the EU along with the other 15 old member states for 43 years, South Asia has been part of the British Commonwealth for nearly 70 years, but East Europe has only been part of the EU single market for about 10 years.

It has therefore become critical to examine the extent to which the race to expand NATO to the Russian borders, followed by the induction of these East European states into the EU, has led to the cracks that are widening in Europe today. The inability of the developed west European economies to generate enough employment to cope with immigration from Eastern Europe has led to the upsurge of right-wing politics and hyper nationalism in Europe. With Scotland demanding another referendum for independence, and the ambiguity over Northern Ireland’s future, this could become a trigger point for the disintegration of the UK itself. The discontent has spread to the Continent, where increasingly popular right-wing parties in France and Netherlands call for similar referendums in the near future.

In response to this threat posed by the potential further fragmentation of the EU, the organization could respond by either loosening existing structures or further tightening them in the name of preserving European integration. However the signals are clear for a closer NATO-EU correspondence. The recently-concluded NATO summit called for tighter ties between NATO and the EU, in addition to the latest EU foreign policy document  proposing the same[11]. NATO’s single-minded antipathy against Russia will make it even more difficult for Europe to collectively combat the challenges posed by terrorism, particularly from organizations like IS and formulate a strategy to cope with the refugee inflows from the countries in turmoil.

But Brexit will show that the U.S.-UK agenda will dominate decision-making in NATO, but no longer in the EU. Clearly, a dichotomy between the objectives of NATO and the EU will emerge sooner rather than later.

Neelam Deo is Co-founder and Director, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations; She has been the Indian Ambassador to Denmark and Ivory Coast; and former Consul General in New York.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

For interview requests with the author, or for permission to republish, please contact

© Copyright 2016 Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized copying or reproduction is strictly prohibited.


[1] Cooper, Charlie, ‘Brexit will not be ‘an amicable divorce’, The Independent, 25 June, 2016,<>

[2] North Atlantic Treaty Organization, ‘NATO Summit Warsaw’, 9 July, 2016, <>

[3] Litovkin, Nikolai, ‘NATO moving its troops closer to Russia but wants dialogue with Moscow’, Russia Beyond The Headlines, 12 July, 2016, <>

[4] Bhadrakumar, M.K., ‘Why Hollande Spoke Up’, Russia Insider, 12 July, 2016, <>

[5] Ibid

[6] Nienaber, Michael, ‘German minister warns NATO of ‘saber-rattling’ against Russia’, Reuters, 18 June, 2016, <>

[7] The Warsaw Pact, which was a collective defense treaty led by the Soviet Union, was formulated in 1955 with the fundamental objective of countering NATO, which was created in 1949 to draw the US into the defense of Europe against the Soviet Union. Popular political discontent and economic mismanagement among Warsaw Pact member states led to the dismemberment of the organization. Between 1989 and 1991, Communist governments were deposed by popular uprisings in Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania. These upheavals culminated in the collapse of the Soviet Union itself in 1991.

Instead of dissolving NATO, the west took advantage of the resultant chaos and expanded its security and economic union in the Eastern Bloc. The new anti-communist regimes of the former Eastern Bloc states were keen to join the EU in order to avail the economic benefits that came with membership. However, the expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders was top priority for the west, led by the U.S. This played out in the form of a quid pro quo where Eastern Bloc states would first be inducted into NATO upon meeting the military criteria under NATO’s Membership Action Plan (MAP), and subsequently be offered membership of the EU on meeting (harder to achieve) democratic, human rights, and economic market benchmarks set out in the Copenhagen criteria. Poland, Hungary, and Czech Republic were inducted into NATO in 1999 but were accepted into the EU five years later in 2004. Most of the Baltic states were granted NATO and EU membership in the same year – 2004, while Romania and Bulgaria were inducted into NATO in 2004 but accepted into the EU only in 2007 after much tweaking of membership criteria.

[8] In addition to guaranteeing freedom of movement of capital, goods, and services within the single market of the EU, freedom of movement of persons is also promised. Broadly defined, this freedom enables citizens of one member state to travel, reside, and work in another member state. Crucially workers are entitled to employment under the same conditions as nationals of that state and benefit from the same social and tax advantages. However, due to concerns of mass migration from the new EU members to the old member states, some transitional restrictions were put in place to space out the anticipated inflow. These restrictions varied in terms of degree and length of restriction. Germany, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Spain, Portugal, and Denmark placed different variants of restrictions, the last of which ended in 2011.

[9] Office for National Statistics, UK Statistics Authority, ‘Labour Market Statistics’, 18 May, 2016,


[10] Ibid

[11] North Atlantic Treaty Organization, ‘Mogherini heralds closer EU-NATO cooperation’, 9 July, 2016,