As Brexit approaches, Australia and Germany should deepen defence and security ties

If the past two years haven’t already, the past two weeks have certainly shown that Brexit will be a complicated affair with the power to reshape European politics. The UK’s departure from the European Union next year will also affect countries beyond Europe, particularly those with special connections to Britain, such as Australia.

Because of its historical and cultural ties with London, Canberra has usually approached the EU through the UK. With the UK’s departure from the EU, Australia will need to reach out to other European friends if it’s to remain plugged into European policies beyond the free trade agreement that it’s currently negotiating with the EU. In a changing world, with shifting US priorities and increasing global security challenges, closer collaboration between like-minded countries will be vital to maintaining the international rules-based order and tackling challenges together.

Australia’s 2017 foreign policy white paper called for strengthening bilateral partnerships in Europe, naming Germany as one of the substantial players for Australia. However, that mention wasn’t followed by any detail or a strategy for advancing the relationship. In my special report for ASPI, Remaining plugged into European defence and security after Brexit: Australia and Germany, released today, I explore the opportunities for and limits of deepening defence and security ties between the two nations.

After the UK, Germany is Australia’s most important European trading partner. Cultural and socioeconomic bonds between Berlin and Canberra are strong and the Australian government is aware of Germany’s leverage across the whole of Europe.

Germany and Australia can look back at decades of fruitful partnership in several areas, particularly through cooperation within the UN, NATO and other international forums such as the G20. In recent years, Canberra and Berlin have demonstrated that they value each other as close friends by holding 2+2 ministerial meetings and establishing Track 1.5 dialogues, as well as the Australia–Germany Advisory Group, with the intention of developing better strategic cooperation.

Each has the potential to serve as a gateway to the other’s region—Germany as Australia’s gateway to a no-UK EU, and Australia as a gateway to more Indo-Pacific engagement by Germany and other European countries.

Germany and Australia share a mutual commitment to facing security challenges, which provides the necessary means for deepening cooperation in areas such as cybersecurity, space security, intelligence and information sharing, as well as for strengthening military ties and defence industry partnerships. There’s already been greater cooperation in some fields—for example, in regular consultations and exchanges between the Five Eyes countries and partners such as Germany and Japan.

The report explores areas in which cooperation already exists but could be advanced and highlights opportunities. It also takes into account the limits of cooperation in an environment of competing priorities and resource constraints. Three focus areas were analysed with concrete examples and suggestions: security and defence policy cooperation, military and defence cooperation, and defence industry cooperation.

Security and defence policy cooperation could be enhanced through interagency exchanges that enable both sides to share ideas for countering terrorism and violent extremism, protecting critical infrastructure and responding to growing cyber challenges. The circumstances in both countries also offer considerable potential to advance opportunities for engagement on space security. Using its limited diplomatic resources more efficiently would provide an opportunity for Australia to extend its expertise across Europe. Both countries have unique experiences with challengers of international security like Russia and China, so exchanging lessons learned would be valuable to both Australia and Germany.

Deeper relations between defence institutions in Germany and Australia should be explored, using exchanges and visits to contribute to regular dialogues. Equally important are closer people-to-people contacts within our militaries, which could be fostered through regular officer exchanges to create mutual understanding of strategic thinking and culture and by mutual participation in military exercises.

While resources are limited, sending small contingents to participate in exercises would allow us to advance interoperability that could then be relied on in joint missions and operations. Burden sharing is regularly discussed among transatlantic and European partners, but there are also opportunities in this area for partners such as Germany and Australia, particularly at the UN level.

Cooperation and joint project developments are also a great opportunity for our defence industries. While German defence companies are well established in the Australian market, better connectedness with the no-UK EU would open new opportunities for Australian companies.

Non-EU members can in some areas participate in EU-based defence missions and defence industry projects. Participation in joint ventures by delivering partial systems and niche capabilities represents a great chance for Australian companies. Likewise, German industry can explore the Indo-Pacific region by having a representation in the region through Rheinmetall’s Centre of Excellence in Queensland, for example, or possibly by jointly driving exports into Australia’s backyard.

Last year, during his first visit to Australia, German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier reiterated that our relations are good and that they can become better. Well, they need to, especially in a changing world and a changing Europe.